The Trucker As Tourist
April 6, 2005
First off, an embarrassing correction: In the article of January 12th, this year, I erroneously attributed a fabulous work to the wrong author. It’s The Birth of Plenty and the writer is William Bernstein. It’s not Goldstein: Bernstein. I have friends whose names include “stein,” including Andy Stein, and I’m hoping they will nail me with some real zingers to lighten my humiliation about this. It is exactly this sort of mistake that drives me crazy when it happens in the so-called mainstream media some essential detail that messes up the whole story, a detail that would have been so easy to check. No use giving examples, but it does go to the old First Lesson Of The Small Town: “Don’t ever start thinking you’re hot stuff, because you’re not. You’re just like everyone else.”
So please do me a favor and buy William Bernstein’s critically acclaimed and most entertaining book. You will find that you have actually done yourself a favor.
Anyway. After the Mayo Clinic trip I went on a Mexico trip, to visit the international daughter mentioned in the last report. A colonoscopy without sedation is a cheerful lark compared to getting up at 4:15 AM and flying two legs to Mexico City by way of Detroit, catching a southbound van to a car rental in Cuernavaca and from there driving to the middle of a sixteenth-century single-lane cobblestone town on a high ridge in central Morelos. That statement is not necessarily a fact, but it is the unpainted opinion of a person who has traveled for a living for the last 25 years. There were four of us in the party, and in the interest of full disclosure I’ll have to admit the other three stood it in better humor than did your truck driver.
But she had found us a big well-shaded rental house and it had a pool, a big cool pool, and there was tequila and there were three grandchildren, and the knee-cramped narrow-seat claustrophobic droning of the flights and the long treks through the airports were all washed quickly away. (And it was made better yet on the return, when we heard we had straddled a winter storm. It had canceled flights and sent travelers to motels in a vast Midwestern misery of lost vacation time and missing luggage. And we had missed the whole thing.)
Whilst our fellow citizens suffered in snarled Chicago and St Louis, we were walking the ancient stones of the colorful town marketplace. The sun was out, the air fresh and dry, the food agreeable. The highlight of the week was a drive to the ancient silver town of Taxco, a stone and tile labyrinth built in the 1500s on a steep mountainside between Mexico City and Acapulco, in the aptly-named state of Guerrero. It is an extremely steep, a truly steep, mountain. Ski jump steep. It’s crowned with a most amazing Mexican baroque cathedral, the dome and towers of which look like intricate Chinese carvings, more detail than your eyes can absorb, and these are only hints of what you find inside. Behind the sacristy and on the side transepts are three titanic deep-sculpted fantasies; towering altars of golden sculpture, like infinitely complex dreams. You stand there in the high-vaulted nave, awestruck by the legions of cherubs and angels and saints, and in the quiet you can hear the flopping sound of jaws dropping on chests as others file in. Not being much of a religious person, I still found the place overwhelming; if I were a true believer I might have fainted on the spot.
It is the Cathedral of Santa Prisca, named after a 13-year-old girl who was martyred by the Romans about 270 AD; legend has it they turned a lion loose to tear her apart for the jolly amphitheater crowd and that the beast came out growling and then lay down and licked her feet, infuriating whomever was in power at the time. Instead of blaming the lion he ordered her taken down to the prison and beheaded. She was buried in the Roman Catacomb of Priscilla.
We walked the town for hours, seldom on a straight street and rarely on the level. Irritating tourists, we were, trying on this and that and not buying all that much. But we made up for it with a big dinner back up on the hill near the cathedral.
Driving in Mexico is different. Even the four-lane tollway has commercial stands set up on the shoulders. Traffic blasts by the burros standing there, tethered and unconcerned; customers pull up to the vendors’ stands on the continuous slowdown lanes and buy mangos and avocados and straw hats. In Mexico City the traffic light is a marketing opportunity, people walking between the lanes selling slush cones and bottled soda pop; once up to speed, these spaces between the cars become motorcycle lanes for machines with narrower handlebars than the riders’ butts. Not the place I’d ride my motorcycle.
I liked the road signs, especially on direct translation: “DIMINISH YOUR VELOCITY,” and “CONSERVE YOUR RIGHT.” “CURVES DANGEROUS.”
We had a few of the usual tourist crises: lost passports, cash shortages on Sunday, a dinged hubcap right at the rental place; things that seem like misery at the time and end up being funny stories later. But to me, seven days is too long for a vacation. I talked to a German guy in the town there and he asked me why I didn’t live there six months of the year and I said I had to go back to make money. “Money,” he said with that disdain only a German can really muster, “Why do you always think only of money?” I found out later he has a lot of it, himself.
The truth is that I’d come back anyway. It’s great to see the family, but the town I get mexxed out in a few days. When I get back to the USA I take a deep breath and enjoy the smooth roads, sailing effortlessly along in cloudlike comfort. I like the fact that the cell phone works, the regular phone works, the computer can get online, the plumbing works, you can drink the tap water, the roof doesn’t leak and people speak my same language. I like the fact we don’t all live behind high stone walls with locked gates. It pleases me that if someone burns up an old pickup here it doesn’t sit against the wall on a narrow street impeding traffic and gathering throwaway bottles for months, like the one on my daughter’s street. And if I had an urge to bribe someone here I wouldn’t know anyone who’d take it.
And the silence; we’re not constantly bombarded with frenetic disco-like rhythms here. We went out to a walled and gated nightclub in the countryside and it was great fun learning to salsa dance, but it’s not a sound an older guy can take all day long. The nights there, every night and all night, it’s dogs barking and roosters crowing and a person can tune that out after the first day. And the early-morning and late-night booming of heavy-duty fireworks around the frequent holidays is also a somehow tolerable exuberance. But the endless daytime Latino groove downtown is harder to ignore. I’m walking around thinking Give me a freakin’ break.
I get back home and put on some cleansing blues. Let that electric guitar drive away those persistent gangs of drums and bongos, cowbells and marimbas, scritches and screeks and rub-a-dub-dubs, whatever they are. Facing up to it, I’m just an ugly American. A trucker glad to be home. Unapologetic about liking this place and this society. Proud of it. Utterly sanguine with the fact that some Frenchman might disapprove of my provincialism.
Last Saturday night we went out to see my old band. They did the classics, “Crazy ‘Bout a Mercury” and “Nadine” and “Sweet Home Chicago” (a tune wherein Mojo Buford used to get the math wrong “Four and three is six six and two is nine gimme some of yours and I’ll give you all of mine ”) and it was a good time.
It was the same night daylight savings time came on and in the morning my cell phone had changed over, reminding me of when we used to have one of the first of its kind in the truck, a full-sized monster with a battery case the size of a military field radio. I thought at the time that the number must ring all over the entire country at once, or else how could it ring at all? It was years before I had my own personal one with the time on it and when it changed at a crossing into another time zone the revelation hit me like a thunderbolt: “This little sucker knows where it is!”
Seems obvious now, like how could it be otherwise, but at the time I was flabbergasted. To be in repeated states of flabbergast has been a foremost privilege of living through this recent age, the epoch from steam power into pixel power. I wondered how many stayed out that night and at 2:00 AM were watching to see their cell phone jump immediately to 3:00 AM. Did it go first to 2:00 and then switch, or did it go directly from 1:59 to 3:00? Anybody see it? Anybody have a party to celebrate it? Amazing, that 280 million people can all change their time together and not think that much about it. Piece of cake, these days.