Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Happy New Year

May this New Year 5772 be a year where people become smarter, common sense reigns, people renounce violence, we edge closer to social justice, war ends, evil bankers are prosecuted, the middle class thrives, poverty shrinks, government works, the rich are taxed, our politicians lose the stupid and craven gene, corporations stop being people, all the nasties in the Supreme Court magically retire while all the liberals stay, drugs are legalized, the mayhem in the Middle East is finally put to rest, hatred calls it a day, Republicans implode, Obama grows a pair, reality shows collapse, global warming chills, people find jobs, capital punishment is barred in the US, street fairs are banned, and I get a date with Michael Fassbender.
Not asking for much, are we? 

Eat a lot of apples and honey just in case. It can't hurt.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Petra's Diary

Busy, busy, busy.

Occupy Wall St.

I am not participating in the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations because I don't like crowds and cheesy slogans. But they have provided me with an opportunity to express my revulsion with the New York Police Department's crowd control tactics, which are excessive and totally unnecessary, as these protesters are generally a model of good behavior. No one is throwing molotov cocktails, rocks or creating mayhem, but for the NYPD, spilling off the sidewalks is the only pretext it needs to overpower the protesters by netting them into pens, which is quite humiliating, confining them to the sidewalks, which is immensely frustrating, arresting people for resisting arrest, and even spraying them with mace, which is ridiculous. It's almost as if the police is egging on the protesters into getting violent.
Last I heard, the nature and purpose of a demonstration is precisely for people to spill out into the streets. What the hell is the purpose of hundreds of people coming together if they are going to be relegated to the sidewalks? It's a protest, not shopping day after Thanksgiving.
Before I knew any better, I participated in a couple of the protests against the Iraq war and in the first one, the NYPD prevented the swelling crowds from reaching the meeting point, did not allow the demonstrators to march and congregate in front of the UN and used mounted police to disperse the crowd, which was mostly comprised of perfectly peaceful students, families with children, old pinko hippies, and the occasional Trotskyite.
Even their crowd control on innocuous parades like the Halloween or the Gay Pride parade is reminiscent of a police state.
These current protests are disheartening because they seem to have no impact. The media barely covers them, people like me and many others can't be bothered to attend, and nobody understands the message they are sending, since it tends to be diluted by cute slogans and obnoxious chants but no discernible focus, like "tax the rich".
In the end it's a lot of progressive young people plus the old pinko hippies and the occassional Trotskyite, taking the mantle for a battered middle class and the jobless who should be out in force, but perhaps are too busy making ends meet and looking for employment. If there was someone charismatic and righteous at the helm, like a Martin Luther King, who could galvanize people to mobilize, it would be a different story.
This video sadly sums up the reality of the situation.

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Response To Reed Hastings of Netflix

He wrote me a letter, so I wrote him back:

Hi Reed!
I was one of those customers who did not care about the increase. I thought it was understandable. Having both streaming and delivery for the same price was too good to be true. 
You may have made mistakes in the way you communicated the increase to your consumers, but that is nothing compared to the branding and marketing mistake you are making now.
I'm sure you will find that your letter, far from appeasing your customer base, is going to have the opposite effect. 
The name Netflix is such a powerful, unique brand that it has become a verb. But besides misadventures in marketing, which customers care absolutely nothing for, (all we want is quality, convenience and value), why would your customers who would like to enjoy both services want have to deal with two separate sites, under two different names? The refusal to integrate both services under the Netflix brand is incomprehensible to us run of the mill humans; only marketing mutants can understand such absurd decisions. Why would we want to have two separate charges in our monthly credit card bill?  As if people don't have enough saturation on the internet already. Why not leave both under the Netflix name and figure out a way to bill customers without inconveniencing us? Nobody needs yet another brand in this world.
I was one of the first users of Netflix and I evangelized about it to anyone who would listen. It pains me to deal with these issues after so many years of being a very happy customer. 


The Grande Enchilada.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pobre México...

Poor Mexico: so far from God, so close to the United States.
Porfirio Díaz.

If he only knew how prescient his words would become...
Today is Mexico's birthday and the country is in a drug violence-infested funk. I heard that people were trying to organize a boycott of the traditional festivities at the Zócalo, as if Mexicans are going to obey an injunction not to party. It's a meaningful gesture, but I doubt it's going to work. The people who go to the Zócalo tend to be the ones with less reason to celebrate. It's not Carlos Slim and his family, it's the eternally penurious working-class Mexican who is super proud of his country even if it keeps him forever relegated to the dumps.
Believe me, today I'd like to say Viva Mexico! as much as anybody. But it rings bitter and hollow when my sister tells me that a corpse appeared hanging from a bridge in her neighborhood and two more have been found in the trés chic Santa Fe business district; meaning, nothing is sacred any more.
It really hurts to hear about decapitated heads bobbing about in the sandy beaches of Acapulco. Or of the horrifying arson in a casino in Monterrey. This kind of histrionic, revolting violence is gross and depraved and I wonder about Mexican children and their fragile little psyches. How do parents deal with this, I don't know.
I remember the time when we Mexicans used to look at Colombia and feel superior to it. We were convinced no such thing would ever happen to our country and it was okay with us if our drug dealers just wanted to do business outside our borders. They were not that interested in the local market, or so we thought. Oh, well.
Mexico has much to be proud of, but what it has to be ashamed of ends up strangling all the progress, the achievements, the painfully slow road to prosperity. It makes us look like a backwater, instead of the phenomenal country we are.
We can blame the gringos all we want about their insatiable appetite for drugs, their hypocritical puritanism, and their firearms export business, but it is Mexico who does not have a legal and judicial system that belongs in the modern era. Corruption is the oil that greases the wheels of society, and as long as these two things remain, we cannot expect the war against drugs to be won. I'm sure I am not the only one who thinks this war would be better waged non-violently instead of in a who is más macho contest. The way to cripple the cartels is cybernetic: by freezing assets, hacking internet accounts, disrupting communications, using intelligence and arresting everybody and their mother, including those in the high reaches of power who are abetting the cartels (that will be the day). Because Mexican jails and the legal system are not to be trusted, I propose that every drug dealer arrested, from the biggest capo to the pettiest ones, be extradited to be tried, sentenced and put away in the US. I don't believe in capital punishment, but for these savages I think it is warranted. Send them all to Rick Perry in Texas. And let the U.S. foot the bill.
Mexico should eventually get fed up of fighting this costly proxy war for the United States, and what do we get in return? Ni las gracias. Not even a thank you note. Compared to the billions of dollars other countries get, Pakistan for instance, who seems to spend it all in aiding and abetting Islamic fundamentalists, Mexico, the next door neighbor, gets bubkes from the US. This is a stupid policy, and it's Mexico that is paying for it with flowing rivers of blood.
So this Mexican Independence Day I hope that the violence abates, that laws are reformed, and that the country heals.

And by the way, while we are at it, let's scuttle stupid Cinco de Mayo in the US, an American marketing ploy, which to add insult to injury is not even the right Mexican holiday, and from now on celebrate September 15 as the real Mexican fiesta.

(¡Viva México!)

Monday, September 12, 2011

Más Respeto, Por Favor.

The new, astonishing figures for the Hispanic population in the US:

I find this very interesting. There are almost 32 million Mexicans in the US. The next large group is Puerto Ricans, with almost 5 million people, and the next, Cubans, with almost 2 million.  Although Mexicans are six times as many as the next big group, for some reason they seem to be under served and under represented.  Other groups, like the Cubans in Miami, make much more noise and seem to have far more political clout, even though they are actually less relevant. Here in the East Coast, Mexicans are almost invisible. We see them cooking and delivering our food, but otherwise, they don't make a political racket. They barely have political representation. My guess is that recent arrivals come from poverty and are severely undereducated. They are concerned about surviving, sending money to their families, and they are not used to having a political voice. They have been abandoned by their own government at home and they are not about to trust the one here. I hope that with new generations of Mexican kids born in America this will change. I'm hoping that they will integrate better and get to be Supreme Court judges, mayors, presidents of this country. They need to get out of the ghetto. And for this, they all need to learn English.
When I arrived in New York in 1992, the Hispanic advertising business in the East Coast was run by people from Cuban or Puerto Rican origin. There were a only a handful of Mexicans working in this industry and being Mexican turned out to be a huge asset for my career. I always resented, and still do, that every time I wrote copy, someone would ask if a person who wasn't Mexican would understand it. Not that I was writing Mexican slang, but once in a while, a legitimate Spanish word that was perfectly commonplace in Mexico would jump out at people. Some thought that Mexicans were too uneducated to understand perfectly commonplace words (there was a lot of ignorant prejudice from some quarters and there still is. Some people like to feel superior to Mexicans, because of race, economic status and education levels). In my mind, I was writing for the majority even then, and the majority rules. I still feel the same way. If the communication is national, it should speak to the majority. If it is regional; that is, if it's only going to air in Miami, then do it in Cuban and let the minority get used to it. Native speakers, whatever their country of origin, are deeply sensitive to regional accents. So in Miami they are used to Cuban, as in the Southwest and California they are used to Mexican, and here in the East Coast, to the Spanish spoken in the Caribbean islands. I believe that there is a neutral Spanish accent that is perfectly fine, and this is the neutral Mexican accent, which pronounces all the consonants, and which, without the melody, is as neutral as the Colombian accent from Bogotá, without the singsong. And whoever doesn't like this, should take a look at the numbers above and zip it. 
One of the problems I have with the "Hispanic" market, is that because we strive to include everybody, the Spanish language that we use in mass communications has become impoverished. It is hard to write ads with humor, not because it is impossible, but because someone will always question whether the others will understand it. Advertising and marketing categorize people into targets until it dehumanizes them, as if people from different national origins are inscrutable aliens from a different galaxy that have no connection either to one another or to the rest of humanity. This results in people looking at every word in a sentence as if it was devoid of context. As if the way we speak is by understanding every single word in a sentence separately, without connection to what precedes it or what follows. In short, common sense leaves the building.
Let me give an example: popular idioms and expressions enrich communication. They are part of our culture. So if I want to use an expression like "sale más caro el caldo que las albóndigas", "the broth ends up costing more than the meatballs", which means something similar to "pound wise and penny foolish", everybody understands the gist of it, but it will have to go through a gauntlet of people who will admit they understand it, and even like it, but they are afraid that someone from the Dominican Republic might not. You can rest assured that it will never go on air. This is, among other reasons, why you can barely find good commercials in Spanish in the US.
The Spanish now used in mass communications in the US is for the most part an insipid, generic language that has no personality, no bite, no irony. Often times, it is sloppy and grammatically incorrect, or it is a lazy, literal translation of English idioms. As I was trapped in Cancún by hurricane Irene, I was watching the coverage on CNN en Español. I was appalled at the poverty of the Spanish of the newscasters and reporters. They sounded like nothing recognizable because for the most part they were speaking in some sort of awkward, literal Spanish translation of English; whenever they didn't know a word in Spanish, which was very often, they just said it in English. I cannot understand how a network with the resources of CNN can't hire good journalists, reporters and anchors who are native speakers of Spanish, and are fully bilingual and know the structural differences between the two languages. They can't be that hard to find.
The problem is bigger than advertising. Since this is not a Hispanic country, we don't have a solid literary and verbal culture. Our Spanish is poor. Children at school do not learn poems, songs, expressions, games, and literature in Spanish. We don't have good Hispanic-American literary writers who write in Spanish. We barely have a handful of good Hispanic-American writers who write in English. Our TV channels are a disgrace in terms of content. There is no cultural content. Newspapers and magazines leave much to be desired. And advertising, which in its best form should contribute to pop culture, is for the most part lame, artificial, generic and it belongs to no one. By trying to include everyone, it really speaks to no one.
So I have two points to make:
1. Our Spanish sucks, and we should do something to improve it. Making it generic makes it poorer.
2. Because there are almost six times as many Mexicans as any other Latins in this country, Mexican-influenced Spanish should be the language used to speak to the majority of Hispanics in the US.*

*By the way, if there was a Spanish-speaking majority from another country, I would stand by this, as much as it may pain me. It's only fair.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Aftermath of Disaster

This was published in Spanish by Reforma exactly one year after the attacks.
After the initial shock, apparently I went back to my normal, ornery self:
Tuesday, September 11. Night.
South of 14th Street, the island is cordoned off. Nobody can go below 14th Street unless they show proof of residence in the area or are joining the rescue mission. Phones don’t work very well. I have less trouble calling my family in Mexico than making a local call. I feel relatively quiet, but I know my emotional distance comes from some automatic defense mechanism and not from my own volition.
The silence on the street is total, except for the sound of police sirens, helicopters and fire trucks, which is rather sparse given the magnitude of the disaster. I get international calls from some concerned friends. They know I live nearby. I watch TV and have internet on at the same time. On TV they regurgitate the horrible images of the explosions and collapses over and over, ad nauseam.
I have never heard such silence in my block, a spot full of usually crowded bars. A city in which people go out to eat, to drink, to dance seven days a week, has been completely silenced. A permanent hum scares sleep away. I don’t understand where it comes from. I open the windows to better listen to it. The smell of burnt rubber invades my apartment. I realize that what I’m hearing is the labored breathing of the buildings. 
Wednesday, September 12.
Today it smells worse. Giuliani has said that we should stay at home and we obey him. Giuliani, resented by many in this liberal city because of his abrasive personality and his puritanical and paternalist tendencies, behaves compassionately, intelligently and prudently, and he inspires trust. I have been cooped up at home all day. The phone rings every 15 minutes. Friends from all over the world call to comfort themselves that we are fine. Their calls make more bearable the loneliness and terror that have settled in the pit of my stomach. My intuition is that they are just as scared of the new world disorder that threatens to engulf us all. The calls are of mutual support. My friend Delia writes that her young daughter dreams at night of people jumping out of windows.
Between the acrid ashes and the media coverage, I’m disgusted. I decide to go outside and sniff around. Kids play under the cloud of dust and ash, followed closely by their parents. Some bars, restaurants and cafes are open. I see clusters of people standing on the corners that look south. I don’t understand what they are looking at. People wander around aimlessly from one corner to the next, shooting pictures and videos.
In this town of screamers, few people talk. At the corner of Houston and Sixth Ave, next to the fire station, a crowd gathers. People cheer every time rescuers or ash-covered firefighters go by. A young woman scrutinizes a lamppost and I decide she is crazy until I focus my eyes on the post and see the flyers with the pictures and names of the missing and the desperate messages imploring for news of their whereabouts.
I cry because these bastards have paralyzed my unstoppable city. But not completely. On the opposite corner, two Italian restaurants have opened their doors and the beautiful people eat pasta and drink wine au plein air, air rife with traces of asbestos, pulverized concrete and what in my view have got to be the human ashes of at least five thousand souls. However, I’m not surprised. I always knew that New Yorkers would never relinquish their inalienable right to go out for dinner, regardless of whatever catastrophe the future may bring. With this logic, I tell my husband, who is safe and sound in Panama, that this is the best week to make reservations at the hottest New York restaurants. But who has the appetite?
Since there is no traffic south of 14thSt., some people make their dreams come true and glide through the empty streets on their rollerblades and bicycles.
Something never before seen: people look you in the eye as they pass you by. Men see me walking alone and look like they are ready to comfort me (and look like they are ready to be comforted back). The way things are, it seems that this week all the single girls may find a beau.
A guy gives me a small comic book. The doodles are very modern, but the content turns out to be an exhortation to return to the lap of our lord Jesus Christ, sponsored by one of those sects there’s no shortage of in this country, of loony evangelicals who are way too eager for the end of the world. Of course, they could not take long to materialize. How did they get to New York is beyond me, Greenwich Village even more so. Or were they already here?
At night there is thunder and lightning and military planes zoom by. I’m not scared. I have the air conditioner on to avoid hearing the silence. 
Thursday, September 13. 
North of 14th Street, Manhattan seems perfectly normal, except taxis refrain from honking their insane horns. In the advertising agency I work at, I learn that one of our colleagues has lost his niece. My eyes tear up with indignation constantly.
Some of our clients have asked us to take a look at our commercials currently on air to make sure they don’t say things like “ A delicious explosion of flavor” or “A bomb of refreshment”. We make jokes in bad taste: “The Osama of sodas”, “A Jihad of nutrition for your family”.
Bush has declared that we all should go out at noon and pray at the worship place of our choice, which seems to me the stupidest idea that can occur to the president of a country in crisis, in a city which may still harbor extremists strapped with explosives. Besides, as an agnostic, I feel frankly discriminated against. In fact, I feel very alone in my distaste for these government-sponsored paroxisms of spirituality.
To judge from the tone that the media here have adopted, from now on we will be exposed to an indiscriminate barrage of sentimentalism and cheap patriotism. I have already started getting despicable chain letters with feelings of unity, prayer and revenge. The news are no longer news. They are lachrymose testimonies of the poor people who are desperately looking for their dead ones. I wonder what they are saying in the Middle East. What does Saddam think, for instance, what has Muammar declared, what’s the story in Kabul. If I watch the local news, I’m never going to find out. Here they are showing a paramedic that found a doll amid the rubble (there’s always one) and he intends to erect a monument with it if no one claims it.
The cloud of acrid dust has spread beyond 14th street. I search for mouth masks at the drugstores. They are all out.
Bush, who since the incident, has the mien of a kid lost in the supermarket, uses an inflammatory and reductive rhetoric that seems taken straight out of a Hollywood action flick. We’re gonna smoke them, he says, Wanted, dead or alive. I haven’t the slightest doubt that this helps incite the incidents of harassment against members of the Arab-American community, and what is worse, against anybody who wears a beard and/or a turban. An idiot screams at the owner of a falafel joint nearby, “you make money here, but this is my country”, followed by a string of invective. Even though there are four Arabs and one aggressor, they remain silent. Standing half a block away, I can feel their fear. I don’t dare intervene.
Between testimonies, I read in the CNN news ticker the following item: an Islamic extremist in a German jail called the American authorities and warned them that there would be an attack on the WTC. Nobody talks about that. Nobody talks about the fact that Osama was trained by the CIA and that the Taliban is the result of American intervention in Afghan affairs. Nobody mentions these details, except some liberal friends that send me emails with such information. But, like Seamus Milne of The Guardian said, Americans react as if this instance of terror is a sheer impulse of evil that came out of nowhere, random and incomprehensible. They can't conceive that they may have done something to provoke it. They don’t know how much and why they are hated. It’s true. Information exists in this country and it is available to anybody, but few are interested. In general, the lack of American curiosity about the world is alarming.
 Union Square has become a spontaneous meeting ground to write thoughts, leave votive candles, hang pictures, play the congas. A group of young people sing and dance Give Peace A Chance, a song I’ve always found intolerably kitschy. A vigil has been organized at 7 pm. People are asked to light a candle in memory of the victims. A big crowd has gathered. A couple appears dressed as the Twin Towers. They are on stilts, dressed in black velvet leggings covered with shards of mirrors. They dance among the people, who are taking pictures. Why do these expressions of solidarity disgust me so much? Because they are vulgar, childish and innocent. Everything becomes a circus. I go to a movie and spend the entire screening thinking that an extremist is going to blow us all to pieces. 
Friday, September 14.
A regular day. North of 14th St. it looks like nothing ever happened. Taxis blare and create jams, people eat in restaurants.  New York, as usual.  
Saturday, September 15.
A friend who was upstate at the time of the catastrophe wants me to go with him to Canal St., which is now the border of the city. He wants to see something concrete. The only concrete thing to see are hordes of people with little American flags and tourists. People are snapping up postcards with pictures of the towers. The only concrete thing there is to see is a smoking crater at the end of the city’s canyons.
We have lunch at a restaurant where we are treated as if we had descended straight from heaven. Every two minutes they ask us if the food is to our liking. In fact, it is excellent. It is the first decent meal I’ve had since Tuesday. I feel it has been prepared with an intense desire to forget everything and come back to our banal normalcy. It tastes like glory.
A group of friends and I go to the movies. We need to get out of this funk. We pick Barbet Schroeder's Our Lady of The Assassins, based on the book by Fernando Vallejo. The film is in Spanish, which is delicious. And it turns out to have plenty of resonance. It’s about a different kind of terror (drug violence in Colombia), but it is hilarious, blasphemous, violent, and we enjoy it. A lot of its dark humor escapes the small audience. One of us says that when you live with the social injustice that causes this kind of savagery, you have a much more refined sense of irony. A phrase in the film is burnished in my mind. I paraphrase: 
“But child, don't you know that the difference between thought and action is civilization?"
My friends go home but I don't want to go to sleep. I go back to Union Square. The candles and the congas are still there. There’s a group of pale bearded guys and skeletal women with long skirts that sing songs only they know. Another sect. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of lit votive candles, bouquets of flowers, poems, exhortations for moderation, prudence and sanity. The catch phrase of the day is "An eye for an eye and we all go blind". People, respectful, are silent.
I find a Mexican flag. Someone has written on it 500 mexican ilegals (sic) unnamed. I find it an exaggerated number, but I don't doubt it. They are the kitchen helpers, the pizza delivery guys, the bathroom cleaners. I have not seen photocopies of their portraits, nor their names, or faces or teary relatives on TV. 
I can’t say I’m praying for them and their families, but my mind finally becomes silent.

In the Apocalyptic City

I wrote this text in Spanish on September 11, 2001. It was published in Reforma on September of that year.

I have lived, for almost 10 years, about 20 blocks north of the Twin Towers. If you take my street and walk south, you arrive directly at their doors. Today, Tuesday, September 11, a splendid day, I left my house at 8:35 am, earlier than usual. I walked, as I do every day, on the east side of Washington Square Park. Suddenly, something made me look up. I saw the belly of a plane flying among the buildings, right above me. I was alarmed at how low it was flying. It was a commercial passenger airplane. I could clearly see the details on the fuselage. I feared it was going to crash against the thirty-story building I live in. It seemed to be heading straight towards it. I saw it tilt and correct course and I thought it probably had a mechanical failure and it would never make it to La Guardia or Newark, the nearest airports. 
I had a feeling something was very wrong.

I felt like making sure nothing had happened to my building, so I turned around and started walking towards it. To judge from the oblivious people on the street, I decided I was paranoid. No more than two minutes later, I heard a loud metallic noise. My heart skipped a beat when I saw people looking up and south. I approached the growing crowd and saw that the plane had caved a giant hole in the upper floors of one of the towers. People on the street were talking frantically on cell phones and on public phones and we were all asking each other what had happened, who had seen it happen. I decided to go home, because the Polish lady who cleans my house speaks almost no English, and I wanted to make sure she was fine. She hadn’t even noticed.
I decided to walk back to work. As all of us on the street gaped in amazement at the burning tower, an enormous ball of fire bloomed and exploded on the side of the second tower. At first we thought it had been caused by the fire on the first tower. Someone, with a cell phone on one hand and a Walkman radio on the other, said it was a second plane that crashed against the second tower. Up until then I assumed it had all been an accident, but now the possibility that it had been a terrorist act made me nauseous. I felt terror.

I don’t know why I went to my office. Perhaps to get as far as I could from there. People were clustering on the streets that had a view towards the World Trade Center. There were no screams nor panic, just incredulity, anxiety and a certain citizen solidarity. Some people turned on their car radios at full volume so we could all hear the news. People who probably don’t look at each other at the subway: office workers, homeless people, Blacks, whites, were sharing rumors and impressions. It was like being in a Godzilla or Hollywood disaster movie, with particularly spectacular special effects.

I stopped to greet my friendly Bangladeshi fruit vendor. He reminds me of the market vendors in Mexico because he always gives me a piece of fruit to taste. He told me he had seen the plane crash against the tower with his own eyes. He was devastated next to his fruit cart.
At the office, many of my colleagues were at the cubicle next to mine, which had a view of the conflagration. Everyone was somber and scared, although someone joked that “they” had made a mistake, the attack should have been meant for our building. Rumors were flying: a fire in the Pentagon, other hijacked planes, people are jumping out the windows of the towers. Then I heard my colleagues scream, and in a matter of seconds, only one tower was standing. Thick clouds of gray ash rose with a magnitude similar only to scenes of bombardments at war. To see only one Twin Tower in the New York skyline is almost like seeing someone lose a limb in front of you. An amputated city. More radio reports: closed airports, closed subways, closed bridges; the island, incommunicado. My stomach ached. From the bathroom I heard people running. When I came out, there were no more Twin Towers. Only a giant crater, from which rose monstrous clouds of ash and thick black smoke.
The accuracy of the destruction and its sadistic progression were unreal. Like people don’t tire of repeating, it was a situation comparable, at least visually, to the moronic, improbable things that happen in action movies. My friends conjectured even worse scenarios: panic on the streets, bombs in the tunnels that connect the island, biological warfare. But the great majority tried to articulate their shock and find a coherent motivation to explain an evil of such magnitude.
 We were sent home. Most people who work in Manhattan, come from outside the island: Brooklyn, or Queens, or New Jersey. Many were stranded in their offices or on the streets. Others crossed some of the bridges that were open only for pedestrians. From Brooklyn, my boss told me that his neighborhood was covered in ash and scraps of printing paper.
Walking back home, I had never seen so many people on the streets of New York. From the tip of the island masses of people advanced north. I was struck by the silence. By the absence of cars. The absence of horns, engines, the daily insults that make this one of the world’s noisiest cities. I went by an ATM and I was the only one there. The machines worked and they were loaded with money. I was comforted by the citizens’ absolute lack of hysteria. Supermarkets and delis were full of people, but they were calmly buying their lunch or groceries. I stopped by my Bangladeshi pal. People were buying fruit from him. I bought figs, strawberries and bananas. He gave me a discount and a free plum. The only thing he said to me was: “War”.
I refused to participate in the massive consumption of groceries, until a friend insisted I should at least buy bottled water, cans of food and candles. At the supermarket there was no bottled water or powdered milk left, but there was plenty of everything else. People whispered, as if we were ashamed of being alive and shopping. A guy used the opportunity to buy four tubs of ice cream. I also thought that the apocalypse is a good pretext to stuff yourself on potato chips, which is what I felt like doing, although I restrained myself and only bought water, basic staples and a ridiculous packet of instant ramen.
It’s now 6 pm, and the streets belong to the pedestrians and to the trucks and cranes at the ready to clean up the extensive wreckage. Some people use the unheard of circumstances to live their fantasy: they glide on their rollerblades or bicycles on the empty streets. Others take pictures and videos for posterity. Below my apartment, kids play ball just like in any other Summer afternoon, and the coffee shop in the corner is open. Some minutes ago, people on the corner watched one more building of the WTC complex collapse. 
Like Mayor Giuliani’s, the common sense of New Yorkers greatly moved me. This is the capital of the world. Not because it hosts Wall Street or because it concentrates some of the most important multinational corporations, but because of the people who live and work here. We come from every corner of the globe, we speak every language, we come in every color and have every religious belief. This magnificent city has adopted us all. To attack New York is not to attack the United States, it is to attack the entire world.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Mexican Shakedown

I've been living for almost 20 years in the US, so my innate skills at detecting corrupt Mexican bullshit tend to lie dormant way under the surface, because I don't need them here. However, when the occasion arises, I have no choice but to retrieve them from a remote and cobwebbed recess of my brain and dust them off as best I can. I am sad to report that said skills are currently rather rusty, which is why I had to part with $50 USD as we alit in Cancún's airport for a week of fun in the sun with my dog Petra. We had all her papers, but there was a little glitch and it is in those little glitches, where the seasoned bureaucrats can rear their ugly, yet unfailingly polite heads. The politeness is a major improvement. At least nowadays you get shaken down with graciousness. In the olden days, the humiliation was double. You were ripped off and treated like shit. Now you are ripped off and treated like a dignitary. I guess these are the great results the government boasts about in their fight against bureaucratic corruption. They call it, in a brilliantly cynical euphemism, "administrative transparency". But more about the opacity of the Mexican way with words, let alone the law, later.
In this case, we were partially to blame. Had our papers been 100% pristine, the custom agents would not have seized the opportunity. We had one document that was not signed and sealed by the veterinarian that is authorized by the USDA, because she was on vacation. But the other vet provided a second certificate, just in case. I could have understood if they demanded the seal by the USDA-approved doctor or else. But that was not the reason why Petra was detained at the airport. The other document was to blame, because of how it was written. I had taken it upon myself to faithfully translate it into Spanish (knowing a translation would be requested). But according to our gracious hostess, the language was "vague". Although the document stated that the dog was currently free of infections, fleas etc, it did not unequivocally state that she had been treated for such. I found it so rich that a Mexican complained of ambiguity in the language, I thought I was going to get a crise de foie.
What followed was the richly absurd, Twilight Zone-grade pantomime that always happens in Mexican bureaucratic shakedowns. We parsed the text like Talmudic scholars, to no avail. In Mexico, the law, as august as it is invoked when it is convenient for those on the other side of the desk, is amazingly limber and can be stretched in the interest of a happy ending for everyone involved. It only needs a little grease, which nowadays, thanks to "administrative transparency", needs to be coaxed with utmost delicacy, like a gourmand gingerly prying the tasty meat of an escargot from its conch. This is the law: A vet needs to come to the airport, examine the dog and certify she is healthy. This of course, could take six hours. But the always helpful Mexican bureaucrat intimates discreetly, through verbal pyrotechnics so Churrigueresque, it makes you think you lost your head at the luggage carrousel, that there is a vet that charges about $80 USD and can be there in 15 minutes and one that charges $50 and can be there within an hour. They insist that they are NOT ALLOWED BY LAW to recommend us to use this guy, and they provide us with the yellow pages in case we want to search for our own. We say that we are not paying $80 even if Dr. Doolittle himself shows up. So we settle for the $50 vet. Sure enough, the doctor arrives within the hour, a flaming queen with a bad rug (is there any other kind of rug in Mexico?) carrying a little kit that makes him look official. He has already filled out the health certificate, sight unseen. He does not even look at the dog (mind you, Petra, who has the entire bureaucratic corps at the airport at her feet, is a looker). He gives us the paper and we give him the cash. It takes less than a minute. He never opens the kit.
The Magnificent Arepa, no stranger to Latin American carnivals of corruption, looks like she's tripping in Wonderland. Apparently, Venezuelan officials tend to be much more direct. She wonders what happened to my famed (and absent) temper, to my fabled righteous indignation. It's a split-second decision, I think. I realize how rusty I am and how not au courant with the current ways of the mordida. My instinct is to play innocent and be polite, because if you get uppity they can really fuck you over, and Petra spends a week in the airport or we spend far more than $50. 
I don't want to downright offer money because I refuse to participate in corruption (ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, the sheer naiveté). On the other hand, I'm not going to spend all day searching for a Cancún vet. Luckily for us, the Mexican bureaucrat is always there to help.
After the vet takes his hard earned cash, he says "Welcome", I kid you not, "to Mexico."