Self-Portrait in a Bathtub, New York City

Many thanks to Sylvia and John Gardner who kindly lent me their apartment so I could spend some extra time in New York City.


The Lessons of Mr. Wu

I'm in NYC for a few days between the sales conference for Cinco Puntos (Consortium Book Sales and Distribution is our distributor) and the Book Expo next week. I'm trying to get some writing done, putting together a poetry manuscript, looking through old journals, writing whatever I want. And every day for a few hours I get to wander the streets. This is something from my journal.

Monday around 2pm I was deep in the hubbub of New York City, leaving Times Square on the “R” Train going south. I like the "R" Train. It's not so crowded, the cars are newer. A couple of young people were smooching a couple of seats down. In her excitement the girl dropped her can of Coca-Cola, the boy tried to grab it, but he was too late. A puddle of the dark sparkling sugary stuff spilled out onto the floor. The girl giggled. The boy apologized, he picked up the can before it was completely empty but what else could he do? She snuggled her head into a comfortable place on his shoulder and hugged him around the waist so he went back to the more important business of fondling her. A black woman, old like me, hurrumphed at their activity. The train started off and the puddle began to flow, becoming a long tiny river reaching inch by inch back toward where it came from. Like it had its own intelligence, like it had something to say to me--the Tao of Coca-Cola. I watched it slither toward the end of the train. It never came to a logical or physiological conclusion. The train screeched to a halt at 34th Street and the river reversed, understanding the laws of its existence, and snaked back the other way, its integrity intact. Once more a tiny crest of the Tao flowed past my feet. The woman looked at me and pursed her lips. She too was a student of the little rivulet. Weird, huh? 23rd Street. The Coca-Cola repeated its performance, but this time half-heartedly. I suppose this is entropy. I’m always trying to figure out what that word means. Although I can feel it in my bones.The girl and boy got off at 14th to play kissy-face in Union Square. That was my wish for them. The black woman watched them go, gave me a big smile and rose majestically for her exit at the 8th Street Station. A few others came and went, but nobody stepped on the river of Coca-Cola. It would have been a foolish and unlucky act. Bad mojo. I got off on Canal Street. I had business with a Mr. Wu.

When the weather is good he sets up his card table on the south side of Canal near Mott in the swirling humanity at the edge of Chinatown. His business he calls “Grass Arts.” He cuts small thin strips of bamboo and thick grasses, he dyes the strips various colors and then he braids them into exquisite little animals. Like palm crosses the church ladies make to celebrate the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, but these animals are lovely and very delicate. Real craftsmanship. I bought a mouse and two swallows, gifts for grandchildren and friends. $20 bucks I gave to Mr. Wu. Happy for my success I took the slow way home. I’m on vacation and I get to enjoy the bustle and chaos that is New York City. After walking around through Columbus Park, I took the #6 to Grand Central Terminal and walked to Bryant Park. I clutched my bag of Grass Arts. I didn’t want to lose it. I sat in the green grass under the library and read my book. And then after a while I hopped the #104 bus, still clutching my paper sack and my purse.

Oh, it was a beautiful springtime ride up Broadway toward my borrowed home on the West Side. People came and went. I got a place near the window and went back to my reading. The book is Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Malantes. It's gotten great press, I was given a galley (one of the bennies of being a publisher) and so I brought it along. The book has swallowed me up. The first half of the book is about a platoon of soldiers (boys really, 18 and 19 years old, some as old as 23) struggling through the gunk of the jungle in the rain and mud, little or no support from their command. Their clothes are rotting off, pus is oozing from all their sores, their feet are swollen with jungle rot. They are fighting and suffering and dying, their commanders and the chain of command lost in their own mechanical psyches of ambition and fear and delusion. I was one of the young men who dodged that war. For good reasons too--I never wanted to go to Vietnam, I didn’t know anything about Vietnam, I didn’t believe anything that was told to me, and I was afraid. But I have friends who did go. Now all these years later I am sure that violence answers absolutely no question of politics, nationality, ethnicity or whatever reason the power brokers use to stir up their pot of madness,. But how do I know this really? It remains an abstract idea. So I study violence like a man who has misplaced something in his house. Something that I need to find and understand. Sure, this is crazy, but it’s who I am and it's what I do. I'm an old man now. At 107th I got off the bus. I was hungry and somehow sad. The sorrow inside the book was sinking into me. I went home and ate.

This morning I got ready to send one of Mr. Wu’s little birds to my granddaughter Birdie. The pink one. Birdie loves pink. But the sack of Grass Arts, I realized after searching frantically around the apartment, is still on the #104 bus. The bus went into Harlem, my sack of Mr. Wu’s gifts like a piece of flotsam in that puddle of Coca Cola, moving along to wherever it goes. I hope somebody found them and passed the beautiful little animals to their children or grandchildren. Or maybe an old man found the sack and he needed the money so he sold them to somebody on the street. I hope so anyway. I hope those little creatures of grass found a good home for a while.

Tomorrow I will go back to see Mr. Wu.



Everyday I pray for the people of Juárez. Literally, I pray. I light a stick of incense and pray for peace, good health and spiritual well-being for the people of Juárez. If you pay attention to the news, you know my praying does nothing, but it keeps the city and its people in my mind and heart. Like most everybody else I’m overwhelmed by the bloodshed. I don’t go over there much anymore and I don’t write much here on my blog about the city. Other people do the writing much better that I ever could. Especially the journalist Charles Bowden. I emphatically suggest you read his new book Murder City:  Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields (Nation Books). Juárez has become his tar baby. He’s slapped it across the head a couple of times (see Note 1) and each time his fist gets stuck deeper in the goo. The bloody mess of flesh and bones. And the River Styx washes away the names of the dead. Violence, Bowden shows us, doesn’t work, no matter its scale. The citizens of Juárez must repeat this truth everyday of their lives, but the sicarios, the killers, they aren’t listening. Nor would they care if they were listening. As I write this well over five thousand people have been killed since the bloody reign terror began in 2008, over 800 have been killed in 2010 alone, and the homicides in April have been approximated at 205--more than double the number of 90 registered in April 2009 and four times the number of 55 cases in the same period in 2008. The month of May is keeping pace (Note 2). A few weeks ago, on just one day the killers found 22 more souls to dispatch to the other side. The governments and the mainstream media want to ascribe causes to the carnage. They are either liars, or they still believe in solutions. They certainly don’t look deeply into their mirrors. But the violence in Juárez is proving to be more like a viral epidemic, like AIDS or the Black Plague, except the host body is culture and government. There is no cure, no silver bullet. Its beginning is hypothesis, its end will not be found in the blather of politicians and talking heads, and certainly not by more violence--whether sanctioned by the government or not.

Murder City documents the year 2008, the year that the murdering began. It coincides, of course, with Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s infamous and duplicitous declaration of war against the cartels. Bowden, like Alice, does decide to walk into the mirror and see what awaits him. More than ever now, he becomes a subject of his writing as he wanders the streets of death with his list of names and places, trying to catch hold of some sort of understanding. Some theory to serve as anchor in the flood. Factual school-learned journalism doesn’t work. Statistics, names of the dead and descriptions of murder scenes don’t carve real substance into the readers’ heart. They don’t or won’t listen sincerely, the statistics become mottos for cocktail parties and e-chatter, the kind of abstractions that remain arms-length from the human heart. But Bowden wants his reader to feel the terror and inhuman evil of the epidemic. It’s the conundrum, although contrary, that a religious mystic confronts—how do you explain the experience of God to somebody who hasn’t experienced God? Bowden is pointing his finger at the blackest of moons. He finds us real live people to create a four-headed Virgil to guide him through this 21st Century inferno, these peculiar buoys that float up almost unbidden in the muck to direct him toward the deepest ring of hell:

Miss Sinaloa: a beauty queen from the state of Sinaloa. Her story begins as the archetypical story of the beautiful Mexican woman, but because of the glories of her body, she becomes trapped in the web of the narcotraficantes. She goes to a party in Juárez to have a good time, she's fed drugs and booze, she’s raped and sodomized for three days and then she finally re-surfaces at the “crazy place” where El Pastor looks after her. She becomes Bowden’s imaginary, but very real, companion in the City of Juárez. She’s a vision of lost beauty, she whispers truths in his ear and she understands the needs of the human heart and body.
El Pastor: the rehabilitated drug addict who went out into the desert and finds Christ (Note 3). On his return he builds “the crazy place” from the rubble of Juárez and there he houses and cares for the lost souls of the city, the lepers and untouchables of Juárez, people like Miss Sinaloa. He teaches Bowden about compassion and the meaning of love. He is no romantic. He is afraid. He knows he might die. In fact, as I write this, he might already be dead.
El Sicario, the hired killer: as far as I know, this is the first extended recorded interview with a Mexican narcotraficante since Terrence Poppa interviewed Pablo Acosta and documented it in Drug Lord. It’s a frightening interview. Not only the interview itself, but the details of finally getting in touch with this man who, because he has felt the presence of God, wants somehow to find a little bit of peace. Like with El Pastor, the discovery of God has found him some relief but the residue of his many murders still armors his body and mind.
El Reportero: Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, a reporter from Ascensión, Chihuahua (Note 4). He fled with his son to the U.S because the Mexican army was looking for him. They wanted to kill him. In 2005 he had reported about a specific incident of an Army patrol walking into a hotel where migrants stayed before their journey north in search of work. Migrants carry money and valuables, their tickets through their illegal passage. The Army knew this, and they robbed each and every one of them. Now the Army had threatened to kill Emilio. He fled for the border. He hoped he would get asylum, but what he got was a jail cell and a seven month separation from his son. Listen to what Emilio teaches Bowden:
It is possible to see his imprisonment as simply the normal by-product of bureaucratic blindness and indifference. But I don’t think that is true. No Mexican reporter has ever been given political asylum, because if the U.S. government honestly faced facts, it would have to admit that Mexico is not a society that respects human rights. Just as the United Stataes would be hard pressed, if it faced facts, to explain to its own citizens how it can justify giving the Mexican army $1.4 billion under Plan Merida, a piece of black humor that is supposed to fight a way on drugs. But then, the American press is the chorus in this comedy since it continues to report that the Mexican army is in a war to the death with the drug cartels. There are two errors in these accounts. One is simple: The war in Mexico is for drugs and the enormous money to be made by supplying American habits, a torrent of cash that the army, the police, the government, and the cartels all lust for. Second, the Mexican army is a government-financed criminal organization, a fact most Mexicans learn as children (page 202).
And Bowden plays himself, a reporter, a character like Dante who is really no longer Charles Bowden, but the character who he must stand up in his place. As a poet, I find Bowden’s personal improvisations riffing off the confrontations and conversations with these four persons the most interesting writing in the book. Sure, Murder City is full of facts and first-person accounts and description, but he employs the methods of novelists and storytellers, and, even more radical, of poets to tell the fractured stories of Juárez.

The only other writer to come close to Bowden’s writing about Juárez is Roberto Bolaño. The great novelist, like Bowden, came to see the city of Juárez as emblematic of our new world. Of course, Bolaño doesn’t write about Juárez. He writes instead about the city Santa Teresa that he invents from the cloth of his imagination in “The Part about the Crimes” in his epic 2666: A Novel. In fact, Bolaño wrote from Spain as his own life was running to its conclusion. He used as source material El Huesos en el Desierto by Sergio Gonzalez Rodriguez, as well as a long correspondence with Gonzalez, who appears in a fictional role in 2666. I’m pretty certain that Bowden used El Huesos also (Note 5). Bowden and Bolaño tell all this much better than I, so I’m going to shut up soon. I do want to emphasize to you to read Murder City. When you’re done, read 2666. These are not only important texts for now, but for the years to come, even those years when the killing fields move from Juárez to the next place. They will still be the same killing fields. The same ignorant federal laws of prohibition and the human greed which capitalizes (as in “Capitalism”) on those laws will still be feeding the global killing fields. I wish I could say differently, but I can’t. These killing fields are one of the by-products of the Age of Globalization—our brave new world, a world of centralized corporatization and governmental regulation that segregates us further and further from a real understanding of ourselves and our planet.

I will continue to light my stick of incense for the people of La Ciudad Juárez. And for us all.

Note 1. Juarez: A Laboratory of the Future and Down by the River: Drugs, Money, Murder, and Family.
Note 2. I get my figures from the Frontera List Serve. Molly Molloy at the New Mexico State Library monitors newspapers on both sides of the border and daily tabulates the ever-growing figures. I also recommend following Frontera del Sur, which also originates at NMSU through the Center for Latin American and Border Studies, especially the work of Kent Patterson. Thanks to all you guys. You do important work.
Note 3. People who write or talk about Bowden and his work rarely mention his ability to let others do their own talking. Both the Pastor and the sicario have had experiences of God. Those experiences are the foundations of their conversations with him. Bowden, on the other hand, is a big gregarious and hard-headed intellectual who did his apprenticeship with the likes of Ed Abbey deep in the outback, and he carries around a large backpack full of doubt like the rest of us in the intellectual community who read his books. Yet, he reports faithfully on these two men’s experiences of God without remark. And he likewise gives the late Esther Chavez Cano, an atheist, full voice in his description of her. Indeed, I think his writing on Chavez Cano is truly the greatest eulogy to this great lady that I have read  Bowden understood her like he understood Miss Sinaloa and El Pastor and El Sicario and El Reportero. I applaud him. I applaud them all. And I might add, it’s almost impossible to write about Mexico without letting its peculiar and very complex spirituality seep into your writing.   
Note 4. To read about Emilio in particular, you can read Bowden’s article online in Mother Jones:We Bring Fear: A Reporter Flees the Biggest Cartel of all, the Mexican Army.”
Note 5. Maybe I’m wrong but I bet $10 that the woman Heidi Slauquet (page 31, Murder City) is the same party-hostess for the rich and famous who turns pimp for the narco-traficantes that Bolaño describes. She eventually ends up one more dead body on a road leaving Juarez.