“I feel like doing something crazy today.” Jack is slouched so far down in his seat that he’s just about laying down, with his knees pressed up against the velour seatback in front of him and his chin pushed into his chest.
We’d caught a bus to Mexico City, El D.F., El Distrito Federal. “Dos por el de-efe,” I’d mumbled to the ticket vendor, a Faro, the unfiltered rice-paper cigarette that the locals smoked, between my lips while I counted out the pesos. I had my black imitation Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses on even though the sun hadn’t risen above the ridgeline yet. My black leather jacket, which I had picked up at the leather market in León, dangled from a finger under the counter.
“Yeah.” He looked out of the window as he scooted himself up in the seat.
“Crazy as in what?” The uprising sun stained the sky pomegranate. The smell of diesel mixed with the morning air hissing in from the cracked window. To this day, the smell of diesel always makes me think of Mexico. We were riding on the cheapest bus line, La Flecha Amarilla, and the words Mejor muerte que tarde were stenciled in a baroque cursive down the side of the old bus: better dead than late. The bus had already lived another life in the U.S. somewhere, and with a new paint job and some engine modifications had been given a new life here. The buses were almost always late, and if you tried to ask a clerk at the station when it was going to leave, he would raise his hand, bring the tip of his thumb and index finger together as if pinching a pocket of air, and answer, “un rato,” a bit.
I’d met Jack through a German girl in my Spanish class at La Universidad de Guanajuato, where I was on a yearlong exchange from UC Santa Cruz. Nadja had heard I played guitar and since Jack played trumpet, she thought we should meet. She’d invited me over to her place the next night and told me to bring my guitar.
When I arrived at Nadja’s boxy apartment on Callejón de Guadalupe, a narrow cobblestone pedestrian alleyway that trickled up the crowded hillside behind the university, Jack had his mirrored ski shades on – the ones from the seventies with the red, white, and green striped frames – and an un-tucked wrinkled dress shirt with the top three buttons unbuttoned. “What’s up?” was all he said before he lifted the shiny mouthpiece of his silver trumpet and started playing a meandering solo over Besame Mucho. I was entranced by his cool nonchalance, his informality. I had wanted to learn to play jazz, and he was a jazz musician from New York. It turned out he had grown up on a tree-lined suburban street in Long Island and his parents were both psychiatrists.
After Jack soloed over my chord progression for a while, he announced, “Let’s get out of here,” and we walked down the illuminated alleyway and through Plaza de la Paz to find a bar in El Centro. The town of Guanajuato sits at the bottom of a steep basin of granite, its colorful houses stacked upon on another like a child’s blocks. We ended up at Las Damas de las Camelias, a second-story dive in a crumbling colonial building, its soaring walls covered by giant bulls painted in dripping red and sprawling mosaics of broken mirror and glass. He’d been seeing Nadja a month earlier in Iowa City, where they’d both taken the summer writing workshop, and she had invited him down, saying he would love it in Guanajuato. He figured they would still be together when he got down there, but was surprised to discover that she was living with someone new, an Octavio from Irapuato, and offered Jack the hammock strung up in the tiny living room, where he’d spent the first night listening to Octavio fuck Nadja in the next room. He was pissed. He was planning on taking off, but I convinced him to stay with me for a little while.
“We could start a band,” I offered as I tipped the last of my mezcal down my throat. I shared a small L-shaped room on the third floor of a dilapidated building with two students from Pénjamo, a pueblo about an hour out of town, who’d leave every weekend to stay with their families. José worked after school and only came in to sleep on his mat on the floor. Pepe was around more and liked to go out dancing at the Guanajuato Grill on Thursday nights with Ámparo, another student who lived downstairs.
While I was in class, Jack would hang out at a café called Truco 7, wearing beat-up wingtips with no socks and carrying his trumpet in a worn snakeskin case. He wore his mirrored ski glasses, and usually thumbed through a paperback of Dostoyevsky, Paul Bowles, or Graham Greene. Within a month he had started a band with a contrabassist and a percussionist from the orchestra, who would meet at Truco 7 before their Thursday-night concerts, and they invited me to play guitar. I borrowed an electric guitar from Juan, the bassist, and found a pair of mirrored Wayfarer sunglasses at a stall at the Mercado.
We continued down Carretera 570 past San Miguel de Allende and out of the state of Guanajuato. The potholes disappeared at the state line and the Flecha Amarilla accelerated loudly, drinking the smooth asphalt. The bass-heavy banda thumped and blared and wailed from the front of the bus, and the driver howled along with the sugary lyrics as he steered with his left hand and tossed and caught a crescent wrench with his right in front of his shrine to Jesuscristo nuestro Salvador, whose pale wrists dripped bright red blood as he hung like an Acapulco cliff jumper over the trembling gearshift.
As the bus motored down the carretera, Jack flipped through the pages of his novel, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, chewing on the end of his blue and white Bic, chuckling from time to time, stretching his back and yawning. I’d been sitting motionless, my eyes watching the landscape streak before me: pulsating rows of corn; rickety trailers carrying bales of hay, refrigerators, car parts; two kids propped on a rusty bicycle, one on the handle bars and another straddling the back wheel, his feet somehow balancing on the axel bolts. At one point the bus passed through what appeared to be miles and miles of garbage, an ocean of plastic and refuse and glass and metal, hunched figures sifting through the debris. Slowly and incessantly they seemed to work, trying to survive.
I’d retreated into myself, my brain and eyes becoming organs of pure observation, detached from the hand-to-mouth world outside yet immersed in it. Who was I in this world? Ever since I’d moved back to California, where I was born, from Virginia after high school, I’d been on my own. My parents had moved us around all throughout my childhood—from San Francisco, California to New Haven, Connecticut; all the way to Strasberg, France for a year when I was in third grade, and to Richmond, Virginia. By the time I left Virginia to go to college in California after being accepted into U.C. Santa Cruz, I had no idea where I belonged. I felt twice, thrice removed from what had begun to feel like reality in Connecticut after moving back from France.
I’d inhabit the personas of others, moving from one to the other like trying on clothes in a dressing room. Sometimes I’d act like one of my schoolmates, moving through the day and asking myself, what would so-and-so say? What would he do in this situation? Sometimes I’d become a character from a movie. After watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which I checked out of the UCSC library, I became Jimmy Stewart for a while, minus the voice, keeping my back straight when I strolled the streets, and answering people with the calm detachment of a private investigator. I liked to watch him walk the streets of San Francisco, my birthplace, his sports coat hanging smoothly from his shoulders. He seemed sure of every step, solid somehow, at home wherever he was, never rushed, like he carried his home with him.
Why had I come to Mexico? What had drawn me here? What pulled me? I couldn’t pinpoint any actual causes of my movement, just the vague yearning pushing me to leave, go somewhere, anywhere but the mundane day-to-day of college life, away from the rich hippies on campus talking about the world in the third person, totally removed from it. I wanted to throw myself into the world somehow.
In Guanajuato, going to class with my fellow gringos every morning, I was in a new world but still separate from it at the same time. Until I met Jack, most of my bus trips in Mexico had been solo endeavors. I felt part private eye, part ghost, riding the Flecha Amarilla through the night. When someone sitting next to me struck up a conversation with me, I’d make up names, personas, try out new voices. By the time I retuned to the States after this year abroad, I’d have figured out who I was, where I fit into this world.
For some reason Jack, like Stewart, seemed more connected to the world around him, or perhaps just more comfortable with being so out of place. At least he seemed sure of the moves he made. Something about his air of abandonment attracted me, the way he would just say “later” when we’d finished talking and we’d head in opposite directions, the way he’d announced, “Let’s go to Mexico City.”
Jack was snoring by the time we arrived in Mexico City. From the Tasqueña bus station in D.F., we crossed a pedestrian footbridge and descended into a lake of blue polyethylene tarps sheltering a makeshift marketplace, and then down into the metro station. We were heading to Coyoacán, where we had decided to visit the Frida Kahlo Museum, or La Casa Azul, as we had learned to call it from Juan at Truco 7.
We were lowered into the metro station on the surprisingly long escalator in an unbroken line of commuters, while more ascended beside us, pulsating like the rows of corns in slow motion, circulating like blood through veins. We found Coyoacán station on the map. The surprisingly new orange train pulled up silently, and we boarded. We had to transfer twice: first, eight stops on the 2 train to Chabacano, and then two stops on the 9 train at Centro Medico. Then we we’d ride the 3 for five stops to Coyoacán. The first train was packed and we stood almost body-to-body while we hung from nylon straps. I could smell the Faro on his breath. “We should go to Trotsky’s house, man,” Jack said after a few stops on the 2 train. “Rivera brought Trotsky out to Mexico when they were trying to kill him in the Soviet Union. His ideas were too heavy for the Russians. Stalin wanted to kill him. It’s right around the corner from La Casa Azul.”
“Sure, man,” I replied, trying to match his nonchalant spontaneity, my sunglasses still on.
“They got him with an axe, man, a fucking ice axe.” Jack wore his lazy grin, a softened version of his chismoso grin, his veiled-gossip grin.
“Wow, brutal. I guess that’s what happens to people who stand up for the poor.” Jack’s smile grew, as if aware of some irony. I felt a nauseating guilt welling up inside me, the guilt of privilege, of having grown up provided for. The only way to redeem myself would be to die fighting for the poor. But first I need to become poor in order to understand what it feels like to be poor.
“They say he didn’t die immediately. First, he spit on the guy that axed him.” Jack took off his sunglasses and wiped sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. His grin was growing, his eyes shining with excitement.
The train slowed to a stop at Chabacano and we inched out onto the crowded platform. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder with people who looked like they were returning to office jobs, clutching briefcases and newspapers to their chests. And like everywhere in Mexico, there were people selling things, squeezing impossibly between the overheated bodies on the platform and chanting their wares. Chicles, chicles, chicles! Tostadas, tostadas! Pistolas de agua!
We caught the 9 train for two stops and then the 3 train heading south. “Let’s check out Trotsky’s place first, man. Then we can check out the blue house.” This train had free seats and we poured ourselves into their curved plastic shapes. Jack was still smirking behind his mirrored ski glasses.
At the next stop, Etiopia, two barefoot teenagers in ripped pants and stained t-shits got on. As the doors were closing, they stepped into the open area right in front of Jack and I and proceeded to deliver a speech to us and the other passengers. “Damas y caballeros. Somos callejeros,” they started. Ladies and gentlemen. We’re street people. “Somos los de abajo, los que no valen nada en los ojos de los demás!” We are from the bottom, those who are worth nothing in the eyes of others! “Aquí tenemos una bolsita de vidrio.” Here we have a bag of glass. The speaker holds up what looks like a stained piece of a cotton t-shirt, tied up in a small bundle. “Hoy vamos a rodar en el cristal, en un acto de automutilación. Esperamos que disfrute de nuestro desempeño!” Today we are going to roll in the glass, in an act of self-mutilation. We hope you enjoy our performance!
The boys pulled off their t-shirts routinely, revealing scored backs with puffy pink patches, scars on top of scars. The one who had given the speech untied the knot that held together the bundle and poured the glass onto the train’s floor: shards of all colors, some large pieces sticking up like knives and others worn down to a piercing sand. After making two piles, the two proceeded to lie down on the glass, the larger pieces crunching beneath their weight. They groaned softly in unison as they rolled from side to side.
Jack’s grin had vanished by the time we stepped off the train in Coyoacán. I followed him into the bright street, and we walked in silence down Avenida Coyoacán, turning down Río Churubusco and walking until we were standing before a red windowless wall with faded gold letters above a double glass door spelling out: Museo Casa De Leon Trotsky. Two stern guards in black uniforms flanked the door. Each hovered a finger over the trigger of a stubby machine gun. The lobby seemed like a dark and cool cave as we stepped in from the glaring street. Paying the entrance fee was a three-word transaction, and we followed the sign into a large courtyard garden. Trotsky’s tombstone rose among young palms. Two crisp hedges lined the path that approached it. A hammer and sickle was etched into the stone above the name: Leon Trotsky.
A square fortress surrounded the tiny house and empty courtyard. Four towers marked the corners. Ivy hung form the walls, which I would later read had been erected after the first time assassins had overpowered his guards and sprayed bullets into the house. We followed the path into Trotsky’s living quarters, ducking under a low vault door a foot thick, literally like one you’d see in a bank with the metal steering wheel on it, into a cramped kitchen. Wooden chairs with woven twine seats surrounded a simple wooden kitchen table. A map of Mexico was tacked to the wall. Books and coffee cups and papers covered the kitchen table in a haphazard scatter that made it look like we were entering moments after the axe had shattered his skull.
Through a small door we could see the torsos of a few visitors, unmistakably American, and hear the voice of a guide talking in English in Trotsky’s bedroom. “Starting in 1921, Trotsky sought to join revolutionaries of various movements in a Frente Unido, or United Front, especially to fight against fascismo, or fascism, in Germany and Spain.” Jack looked around the kitchen, first at the items on the table, and then at the sink, the stove. He walked over to a coat closet just off the kitchen. The closet was illuminated by floor lights and blocked off by a red velvet rope that hung between two brass posts. The guide’s low voice filled the cavernous house. “And in the spirit of Revolución Permanente, Permanent Revolution, Trotsky continued to criticize Stalin in his writings while in Coyoacán.” My eyes moved from the mahogany window frames to the old black typewriter. “Ramón Mercader had become Trotsky’s secretary’s lover, thus gaining entrance to his fortress house. One day when Trotsky was looking over something Mercader had written, Mercader snuck up behind him and brought the axe down upon his—“
“Here!” Jack shoved a bundle of brown tweed at me and headed for the courtyard. At that very moment the guide’s voice seemed to rise a bit. “It is said that—“ My mind locked up on the idea that I was stealing a national treasure, but it seemed safer to proceed after Jack than try to return it and risk being scene by the tour. I shoved the bundle under my leather jacket, which had been dangling from the fingertips of my right hand, trying to wrap the tweed completely, and marched out of the kitchen into the courtyard, just in time to see Jack heading into the lobby. Checking to see if any tweed was spilling out of the leather, I perused him, past the mousy clerk and the thug guards, and onto the street. Jack and I walked a block without talking.
Just as we’d crossed the first intersection, I spun around to see if we were being followed, and then glared at Jack. “What the fuck!”
“You just shoved this at me and took off! The guide was about to walk in! Luckily I was able to wrap it in my jacket and make it out! Those guards had fucking machine guns!” I unwrapped the bundle, dropping the leather jacket to the sidewalk, unveiling the brown tweed sports coat. I let it hang from two fingers on my left hand as I used my right to inspect the garment, first its outside—faint traces of black and gold thread woven through a rich brown—and then its interior—two inside breast pockets and a small third pocket below the left interior pocket. The interior pockets bore no tags, no brand, no identifying origins. It belonged to no company, no nation. It was of the world.
“I didn’t have a jacket to hide it in, so I gave it to you.” Jack’s impish smirk had returned, and in the lenses of his mirrored ski glasses, my own livid face glared back at me.
“But why the fuck did you take it?”
“Henry. It’s Trotsky’s jacket, man. He wore it, probably wrote his books in it!” He looked down at his faded wingtips on the stone sidewalk, his brow furrowed. “He would have wanted us to have it, man! Henry. Mexico doesn’t appreciate Trotsky. They’re just selling fucking tickets to his house to make money. Trotsky believed in the people, man, all the people. Permanent revolution, Henry.” I couldn’t tell if he was joking. The jacket turned on my index finger as I admired the slit at the base of its back. This jacket will fit my jazz-musician-Jimmy-Stewart persona nicely, I admitted to myself as I slid my left arm into the silky golden sleeve.
“It looks good on you, man.” I rolled my shoulders. “We can do more good with it outside in the world than if it was stuck in that museum.”
We started to walk down Río Churubusco towards Avenida Coyoacán. The jacket’s shape kept my shoulders straight like Stewart’s, and I lifted my Wayfarers to my eyes as we strolled. Permanent revolution. I’d work on a level that might not be apparent to people right off the bat. I’d be a private eye for the poor. I’d infiltrate the system with my jazz-musician-Jimmy-Stewart cool, and overturn the system. “It feels good.”
I wore the jacket in the Casa Azul, staring into Frida’s hard eyes in each of her self-portraits, and then took it off to let Jack try it out. We rode the metro to the Zona Rosa in the afternoon, and strolled around the Zócalo, so immense I could picture a million campesinos gathering in huaraches in front of the presidential palace, demanding equality. Aztec drums thundered beneath the leaning cathedral, the feathers on dancers’ headpieces circling wildly like monarch butterflies above the still heads of the spectators. I thought about how the Spanish had destroyed the Aztec temples and built the church with the pillaged stones, how they has propped the cathedral upon the dried lakebed of Texcoco on tree trunks. And now the Aztecs were drumming the cathedral down. And just over a month ago I’d seen Colosio speak here, soaked in his words of hope for Mexico’s future, mere months before two bullets would enter his head in Lomas Taurinas. “The Mexican Revolution,” he’d said, “humanist and social, demands and demands us.”
We sat in the very back of the bus on the way back to Guanajuato that night, exhausted from the day and drunk from burning swigs of Don Pedro. The jacket was hanging from the back of Jack’s seat, practically wedged between the back seat and the wall. The warm air covered us like a wet sheet as we dozed off after midnight.
At some point I awoke to the smell of diesel and the snarl of the huge engine downshifting. My hand groped for the tweed jacket but was met instead by the sticky vinyl of the seat’s back. I shot up to find the jacket gone.
“Jack! Wake up, man! Where’s the jacket?”
“What? Uh, I don’t know, man. Where was it?” Jack sat up blinking.
“It was hanging off the back of your seat!”
“Did someone steal it?”
“Could it have fallen out of the window?” There was nothing between us and the huge night howling into the open window. I was just getting over the guilt of having stolen it, having made multiple pacts to use it for the good, dedicating my life to fighting for the poor, the underdog. The jacket would be my secret force. I sat up straight, looking out over the seats of dozing travelers.
Maybe someone will pick it up on the side of the road and warm himself, I thought to myself as the warm dusk air blew into my face. Maybe this was a sign. I didn’t need anything. Without possessions I could be myself, not dressed up, not a fictional character. I grabbed my backpack from the floor and opened it up. I didn’t need any of this shit—except the wad of pesos, the passport, the traveler’s checks, the credit card my dad had given me, for “emergencies,” in the side pocket. I grabbed two cassette tapes and threw them out the window, Led Zeppelin II and Axis: Bold as Love.
“What the fuck, man!” Jack sat up and grabbed my arm. I wrestled it from his grip, snatched more and threw them over his head, careful not to throw out my diary, or my water. I tossed out my Sony Walkman, the wires from the headphones writhing in the air. One of the tapes fell onto Jack’s lap, and he grasped it, his eyes shining. The first light was sparkling on the horizon. The bus jerked left into a long veer. I leaned in against the pull.
Steven Mayers is a writer, oral historian, and professor at the City College of San Francisco. His work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, Versal, Travesías, Gatopardo, and Powerlines. He is co-editor of Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, a collection of oral histories published by Haymarket Books in the spring of 2019 as part of the Voice of Witness book series on human rights. Solito, Solita was shortlisted for the Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in America and was picked by Remezcla as #1 in their Best Latino and Latin American History Books of 2019.