This is a Holiday Special bumper edition of Headpress. Part one is devoted to the contemporary Grand Guignol, and the second part the landscape of the counterculture by way of some of its books and publishers.
When the Comics Magazine Association of America established the Comics Code in 1954, not only was salacious, suggestive, violent and horrific content banished from comic books but an entire industry was decimated.
In April 2011, the Business Design Centre in London was host to the first Kapow! comic con, a two-day event organised by sisters Lucy and Sarah Unwin. The intention was to bring the US comic convention experience to the UK.
Author and Headpress cofounder David Kerekes was asked to contribute to Detour, an international series of exhibitions organised by Moleskine, the Italian manufacturer of the splendid and expensive range of notebooks.
The mountaintop church of Montevergine, Avellino, Italy.
A group of ladies singing first outside the church and then inside. An amazing sound! (The mix comprises both recordings bounced down together.) Field recording by David Kerekes, 29 August 2009.
Mezzogiorno: Life. Death. Southern Italy by David Kerekes is a work of biography, autobiography, fable and fact, spanning three generations of southern Italian family life. Set amidst a landscape of peasant riots, vicious landlords, religious festival, feuds, the collapse of the Fascist party, and the tarantella — a world lost to the changing face of the twenty-first century. More about this item»
“Esto es un lugar muy peligroso,” says our driver,self appointed minister for tourism, as he pulls his cab away from the Terminal del Norte bus station, making a left toward Mexico City, or irrevocable change as I like to call it, the flat city, the largest land mass of people of any one city in the world city. “This is a very dangerous place,” he adds redundantly.
It is nighttime. Black and white time, with hues of grey. The three hour bus journey from Veracruz had been plagued by homosexuals contemplating the ring tones of their mobile phones, and a strange, disjointed conversation between the three of us concerning female anatomy and whether one should focus on the camel toe in public.
CALEB: “It’s a wonderful invention.”
ME: “What’s that? The television?”
CALEB: “No, the laughing Danny.”
BEN: “He had a machine in the back of his house that would rattle loudly in the middle of the night.”
ME: “Is it camel toe or camel foot?”
BEN: “It’s a dehumidifier.”
And so on, to the accompaniment of polyphonic bursts of the Village People performing YMCA.
Our introduction to Mexico City is a commentary from the taxi driver on life having no value, as well as good advice on all the “places to go for a murder and a mugging.” Life has no value, life has no value, he repeats in the mannered way a lunatic will attempt to qualify his sanity. Life has no value life has no value but our purpose is to reach the Hotel del Angel in the busy social area of the city known as Zona Rosa, the “pink zone,” pink representing gayness of the safe kind and the colour of many of its buildings. This is our destination, but our driver instead takes us ten blocks north of the Zocalo to a dead land known as Tepito.
If La Santa Muerte had a holy land, Tepito would be its bruised and bloody shame. Ben, who has visited seventy two countries, has never seen anything like it. Not even in Rio de Janeiro, he says.
This puts Ben in mind of Rio de Janeiro and the curiously agitated cop who stopped him there two years earlier for a routine search, a strange affair that comprised nothing more than Ben having to take off his shoes and socks and place his feet in the lap of the noble officer for a ten minute shakedown of the toes.
“He was clearly getting his jollies,” Ben recalls of the cop with a big 10-4.
But Tepito is not jolly, it is a wasteland exhibiting the kipple of a burned out planet with bleak streets that converge for an 8PM curfew on the vecinclades, the temporary shelters that spilled over and became permanent homes with rent fixed at one cent a month. The economy of Tepito has grown and collapsed with black market trade, a seismic shift that has had a more devastating impact on the cultural landscape than the earthquake that tore through it two decades ago.
Economy now of course is drugs and some of the vecinclades are replaced with apartment blocks whose rotten cramped dwellings with paper thin walls breed psychotic neighbours with howling dogs. The authority in Mexico City conveniently ignores Tepito, as it ignores the trash that is piled knee high beneath the extinguished street lamps. The only illumination is the timorous beam of our dipped headlamps as they bore a lonesome path.
Ten murders a day in Tepito and a police force not willing to respond to a single one of them, not since the riots in November 2000 when the police where forced out of the neighbourhood by a mob refusing to let them haul away the stolen electrical goods and handguns that had been confiscated that morning.
And then — el conductor del taxi está loco — the driver stops the car.
He cab driver sweeps his hands as if to signal that we have arrived and have to get out. This isn’t what we expected of Zona Rosa, the safe, predominantly gay inner sanctum of Mexico City where our hotel is located. We don’t believe that this is Zona Rosa at all. In fact we know it isn’t but get out anyway when the driver produces a gun, surveying the scene with its black barrel.
My only desire is to see lucha libre, a Mexican wrestling match, you cunt. How do you say “you cunt?”
There is no protest song, no choice but to give it up, to leave the horses and continue the climb on foot. Making no sudden moves the three of us are out of the old Chrysler Le Baron and out on the streets of dread, where not a true soul can be seen but maleficent threat hangs in the air, a fetid fog. In 1945 this barrio was marked as one of the worst places to live in Mexico, and if there has been any improvement since we are going to have to get on our knees and claw beneath the shit with our fingers to find it.
“Have a good life, my friend,” says Cal as the cab pulls away with our 700 pesos tip. Quick-draw McGraw is travelling so slowly through the rubbish it would be easy to wade through it and reach the vehicle and question him about Tepito and whether it has seen change for the better over the years. Perhaps even indulge in a little chaos and violence, if we were foolish and so inclined.
The first rule of travel is to travel with purpose in one’s stride. Striding with purpose is how we had travelled through the Terminal del Norte bus station, a bleak place but not as bleak as Tepito, arriving purposefully at the glass front of the desk that dealt with the sitios taxis, the legitimate taxis.
The desk was empty and remained empty, causing a queue of people requiring transportation to form that signalled to the wolves on the periphery that fresh tourist meat was about. We wanted not to be around when any strays from the pack got gobbled up and so sought an alternative route.
Andres at the Bartola in Veracruz had warned us to be careful in Mexico City and the Internet said always take the right kind of cab. The tail lights disappearing into the night ahead of us this minute belong to one of the wrong cabs, a Chrysler Le Baron with beat up paint work that we skipped the queue at Terminal del Norte to find outside on the street.
I am wishing I had a leather-coated mind when considering safety in numbers is merely an illusion. This isn’t happening. Where the night breathes the precise sound one would expect of a Third World sprawl that spans one hundred and twenty blocks, up and down the streets only debris. Above us a terrible sky this isn’t happening.
“Well, I’m safe,” I suddenly decide of our predicament. “I have the heart of Santa Muerte on my chest.”
Sure enough that heart is now also bleeding, having been cut into my flesh only this morning. Itching and bitching, too, Luis and Andersson. Itching like a bitch.
We begin to walk with purpose towards the first exit we can find, luggage on our shoulders, the Tepito death rattle vibrating in our souls. Only true delinquents accept a life here, everyone has a gun and anyone who doesn’t have a gun performs their hold ups with a rabid pit bull on a short leash. Cal is a betting man: he wagers that we don’t make it out alive, but he is proven wrong and we do make it and Cal loses the wager, what comes next in Tepito is the strangest sight we will ever see.
Through streets that police and even whores will not tread, in and out of shadow a young woman sweeps lightly towards us holding a baby to her chest. She has been transposed through this time from another, of this we are certain. She moves in a flowered blouse unaware that she has faded from her beautiful place and arrived in this one.
Our paths touch fleetingly.
“¿Está bien usted, el fallo?” asks Ben. “Are you okay, Miss?”
“Un pequeño animal que encoge sus hombros muy muy lejos un más grande uno uno uno,” she says without stopping, not smiling and not sad and not making sense, simply moving toward the dangerous epicentre of the dangerous city from whence we came.
“A small animal shrinking its shoulders very far away a larger one one one.”
From nowhere to nothing, alone with the infant she clutches tightly she is gone in a moment, into the maze of tragic housing, her words trailing behind her. In search of meaning, in search of space, in search of place, who knows? If we could stop her and tell her to go back we would. Not unlike Elvis down at the end of Lonely Street however, it is too late for that. Not that way, Miss. That way is only heartbreak and misery, keep away from it. Come with us.
And when we make it to the other side of Tepito we are alive, find the exit and beyond that is Zona Rosa and the Hotel del Angel.
Nothing can hurt us now. Nothing can hurt us anymore.
And so begins our ascension.
At 4:54AM Cal paints a picture of the events surrounding his balls, but first the staff in the hotels of hate and lucha libre.
A passport is not a requirement when checking into a hotel in Mexico, so if one ever commits a murder, Mexico is the logical place to run to and hide. We contemplate friends that may benefit from brutality back home and then dismiss the idea on the realisation that nobody running the hotels in Mexico likes us very much, and would gladly give us up to the police. In Mexico City the people running the hotels detest us with a passion. Here in the flat city, we aren’t able to leave our room without the electronic key code being changed to prevent our re-entry, which more often than not results in harsh words and gestures. It happens so often during our two days at Hotel del Angel that we are forced to arraign the receptionist at every available opportunity. It really isn’t worth our time to take the elevator to the second floor to check the state of the door to our room because the door to our room will be locked. The night watch receptionist, so stoned he literally doesn’t know what day it is and cannot remember how to find out, suffers the worse of our indignation when we return from the VIP gentleman’s club early one Saturday morning.
“By Cal’s crushed balls, you’ve changed the lock again!” we yell at him the instant he buzzes us through the entrance.
We flip the plastic credit card size key onto the desk with a flourish that suggests we come from Tepito but we do not belong there. A bounce takes the key into the air and as it descends so collapses the rapport we have been systematically destroying with the Hotel del Angel. The receptionist goes insane and curses blind that we should have died in that taxi and furthermore our mothers enjoy sexual pleasures from rabbi dogs, a hostility symptomatic of the hostility we encounter from Mexican hoteliers in general, hating us not because of who we are but who we are not. We are not you, we appear to be saying to them, we gringos are the opposite of your hard working selves with the money to prove it and you would like to be us.
We are gringos, if a little less gringo than the American gringos, who belong to a genus as removed from us as it is from Mexicans, but we are gringos all the same.
We decide to celebrate this new understanding with cigars from Cuba.
Down a road that takes us in the vague direction of Arena Coliseo where lucha libre — the wrestling — can be found on any given Sunday we come across a man with Cuban cigars. In a bright yellow “athletica” t-shirt but looking like the one least likely to succeed he pulls back his lips for a grin of big gums when Cal shows an interest in his wares. Ben wades in immediately, able to smell blood, and starts to haggle over the established price of five cigars for US$30. Ben will haggle over the wind and the rain and anything because he hates to feel as though he is being ripped off, which he claims is what everyone is about when it comes to money, his or ours. He can’t help himself, something to do with three years in law school and a voracious appetite for fat sex. Snatching pennies from the smashed souls of paupers is a disposition of the inhuman, we tell him. But still it gives us pleasure to watch Ben at work, so effortlessly does he do the snatching.
The haggling has been going on for fifteen minutes.
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Hangover. Hangover. My head hurt.”
BEN: “Really? That’s why it’d be better if we gave you twelve dollars; that way you could go home and buy a cure for your hangover.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you. I no want to rip you.”
BEN: “You do! That’s your main aim!”
MR CALEB: “We’re Puma fans as well. We’re Puma fans.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “I tol’ you, I tol’ you—“
BEN: “If you sell us this for twelve dollars the Pumas will win on Saturday.”
CIGAR SALESMAN: “Let’s make a deal: twenty three.”
BEN: “Twenty three? Twenty three! Is that how you treat all your friends?”
And so it goes until the cigar man with gums wants no more a part of it and gives to
Cal a box of five Cuban cigars in exchange for a quart of tequila and a ten dollar bill.
Six girls we later meet in a club called Cortesia tell us they cannot understand why we should want to go to see lucha libre. To them lucha libre is something of an embarrassment and they cannot understand. Big men in face masks throwing one another around is a thing of a generation past, it is old Mexico from which they are distanced, being modern people with internet access. Lucha libre has yet to reach a state where it stops being what it is and becomes what it is to understand irony.
Inside the Arena Coliseo it is a capacity crowd and the excitement is mounting. We have good seats, we have good seats four rows from the front in the stalls, next to a young mother with a three month old infant on the one side of us and on the other side a girl of eighteen, but probably twelve, about whom I should say no more advises Ben.
Given the cheers, rattles and air horns all around, it is a relief that the delicate ears of the infant are protected by delicate infant ear plugs, which we would have noticed sooner had we not been held up by police.
The police found us easily in the market square, three gringos bothering fish selling tradesmen for directions to the Arena Coliseo, and they made a great pantomime of checking our papers, as if to show to the world that everything in Mexico City was under control now that they were checking our papers.
“Nobody laugh. Or run,” Ben whispered as the police signalled stop with a leisurely left hand and beckoned us over.
He meant it. These cops were young and moved effortlessly through people that feared and hated them, their mirror shades representative of the worse kind of hate filled eyes.
They carried enough weaponry to immobilise a tank in a military coup and it did not bring us joy to have our passports looked upon as if guilt was waiting to be found therein.
Your papers are in order, the cops said with a simple nod of the head. Now go.
The centre of town in Mexico City doesn’t serve the visitor much beyond a litany of woes around the next corner. There is no Louvre, no Pantheon, no changing of the guard, the landmarks of famous cities around the world, only fish stalls with a police force marching through them primed ready to split a skull or two.
And around the next corner is the Calle de Peru, where stands the Arena Coliseo. It is not a proud street, it was probably once a functional street but nowadays it isn’t even that, and the only traffic through it is the traffic of a wrestling day.
We find a place to eat on Calle de Peru, a cantina built around a big iron simmering pot containing mole (pronounced moh-lay; a type of sauce not the cuddly myopic), with an entrance that is a crude hole knocked into the wall that faces the street. Overhead the hole is a crucifix that has undergone many repairs, with Polyfilla enough to kill a man should the crucifix fall.
Inside the cantina are eight tables, and at the far end a kitchen where three generations of woman prepare rice and beans. The women look up when we enter but the diners do not. The diners are wary of us and even stop talking amongst themselves so that they may concentrate better on their food and ignore us altogether. The only acknowledgement of our presence comes from a young man with a vicious swollen eye, who draws his woman closer to him, as if to say “she’s mine” and thus prevent her flight in the company of strangers. He wears dirty white clothes to the woman’s black, which serve to accentuate his manhood once his legs part for our benefit and the slouch into machismo gets underway. A dirty manhood is not what we want when we eat but because there are no other places to eat on the Calle de Peru, we have little choice but suffer the indignity and fear of prolonged periods in Mexican toilets.
There is no menu to speak of. The man tending the “tables” brings to us three helpings of mole, followed by rice and beans. We don’t have any choice. The water in a colourful plastic pitcher we avoid.
“No somos gringos Americanos,” we feel obligated to tell the man waiting “tables.” “We are not American gringos.”
Through the hole in the wall beyond the crucifix a community is building on the street in anticipation of the wrestling. Families make their way to the Coliseo box office, bypassing the scalpers that claim to have bought up all the tickets, to a window covered by a steel grille. Here, cash and tickets are exchanged through a slot not big enough for anything larger to pass.
The seats in the Arena Coliseo are hard pressed plastic, but not as hard as the Mexico City cops that won’t go to Tepito. Unlike us. And our hard asses.
CONSEJO MUNDIAL CMLL DE LUCHA LIBRE, reads the sign over the arena.
Stored in buckets of ice and brought to one’s seat by fellows wearing white lab coats, cerveza poured from a bottle into a paper cup costs 2 pesos. Water costs 1.50 a cup, which would explain why nobody at the wrestling is drinking the water except for Caleb, who is beginning to feel a little weird after three solid days of alcohol without sleep and a jet lag that he says is “catching up.” He denies the Valium is anything to do with it. Vehemently.
“Don’t fall asleep here,” I tell Cal, whose jetlag he hopes is hidden behind his sunglasses. “You’ll get us lynched.”
The canvas ring holds court even when empty and a packed house bay, yell and stamp their feet in its direction. The house is here to witness Ultimo Guerrero, Black Warrior, Hombre Sin Nombre, Alex Koslov, Sangre Azteca and all the other mighty warriors pound a head or two in the afternoon. But most of all they are here to witness Místico. Up in the cheaper seats a wire mesh protects heads below from the detritus hurled at it, mainly body parts and spicy potato wedges from the street vendors, who smell heavily of sweat and carbolic soap, as corrupting on the nostrils as sulphur.
The Sunday match starts early at the Coliseo, a more intimate and informal arena than the Mexico arena, which is across town near to the Balderas metro. We buy mascara — masks — and other wrestling paraphernalia in anticipation of the afternoon’s entertainment.
The woman’s name is Karen Gonzalez Cruz and the man hanging onto her with a vicious swollen eye is American Mike.
American Mike cannot speak much Spanish and so the two of them communicate through impassioned glances that are as sickening a display as Mike’s manhood. Thus we exit the cantina for a street suddenly much more inviting than when we left it, leaving with Mike an offer that the lovers should come and party in our hotel room.
American Mike says by way of a reply: “You’ve got to deal with all the problems.”
“I’ll think about what that means in the next life,” Cal fires back.
It’s a bad sound going down but we have got American Mike all wrong, and what we perceive as balls is actually a cry for help, as we shall find out soon enough.
This is a particularly good day for the fans and families who suspend all disbelief and worship each Sunday at temple lucha libre. The formidable Místico is headlining, the people’s champion.
Místico was born and raised in Tepito, like Luis “Kid Azteca” Villanueva, José “Huitlacoche” Medel and a generation of tough fighters before him. He started his career at age fifteen, wrestling under the name of Astro Boy and winning. From underdog to the largest drawing wrestler in the world and the biggest star of all of Mexico, Astro Boy turned to religion and changed his name to Místico and wrestles this very day in Arena Coliseo with a new jewel to his crown: Best Flying Wrestler of 2006.
When they say “flying” they do mean flying and not jumping. Místico’s aerial based offence is something to behold, a lesson in what happens to a man weighing 167lbs when he leaves the force of gravity under a silver face mask.
A Top-Rope Rocker Dropper.
Bout after bout, down the aisle come the tag teams to the sing-song announcer whose shoulders are arched beneath a garish tweed jacket, and who says formidable at every opportunity. Everything is “formidable” in lucha libre.
The fighters bounce down the aisle in order to throw themselves majestically into the ring. These leaps into the ring are almost as spectacular as the flips out again when Místico or Heavy Metal or La Mascara take the upper hand with a plancha move, a flying cross body press, and send one of their opponents clear out across the ropes. These fuckers are fucking big and spectators scatter ring side when projectiles the size of a small village hurtle their way and smash apart seats upon impact.
Occasionally the grappling continues outside the ring, which is technically illegal and gets the audience even more fired up than they already are. Little wonder that sometimes the fighters sustain genuine injury, and some of them, covered in blood and shame, are left no option but to quit and hobble unceremoniously out of the stadium. When a wrestler leaves this way there is no cheer or applause, no show of appreciation from the crowd. It is as if the wrestler was never really there in the first place, because injuries are for mortals. These fuckers are balletic pugilistic pantomime artists, far greater and more colourful than life beyond the Coliseo, and they are duty bound to carry on their big hulking shoulders the ideation of a thousand people or more. When they fail we mortals must die a little.
The female tag team don’t have anywhere near the same hulk to their shoulders, and as a consequence command less respect than the male wrestlers. When the female wrestlers arrive it is to a chorus of “putan!” from the women in the audience. “Prostitute!”
Dark Angel is the favourite putan. She fights alongside Lady Apache and Princesa Blanca, locking necks between powerful legs and making Princesa Sujei or Hiroka or Rosa Negra slam a hand into the canvas in defeat.
For the “formidable” final bout, which stars Místico — everyone’s favourite — a dwarf wrestler dressed in a monkey suit and a blue afro wig beneath gladiatorial armour joins in purely to be gently hurled around the ring and generate lots of laughs. It’s an unbelievable sight, not dissimilar a sight to that of Maximo, who generated uproarious laughter in an earlier bout when he minced about the ring in a very short tunic in a farcical caricature of camp. When I nudge Cal awake and he sees the monkey he knows he’s dreaming.
Whenever Místico raises a fist or lands a pile driving blow, some of the women in the audience cannot contain themselves. The woman in the front row blocks the view of men suddenly timorous in the company of other people’s glances when she jumps out of her seat with great excitement and hollers, “MÍSTICO!” Which goes on up until the moment Místico loses and everybody in the arena turns to one of the several exits and leaves: The grown ups with their children, the children with their friends and their photographs signed by Dark Angel and the other wrestlers for a few cents. Místico loses. There is no discussion of events, no match analysis, no sound at all but the mental echo of what is, I suppose, a cold hard slap to the face of this week’s dreams.
The beer vendor that owes me 10 pesos from an hour ago dutifully returns my change and then it’s out through the turnstile, where a battered bus takes away everyone not leaving the Calle de Peru on foot.
We decide to crush the anguish of Místico’s defeat with Cal’s new cigars and alcohol. Because of a fruitless stroll through Zona Rosa, however, a predominantly gay area of Mexico City that offers no bars we want to visit, packed only with people we do not want to meet, despondency falls like a rain to make us feel even worse. To accompany our despondency is a tout on every corner peddling the promise of “the best club in Mexico.” “El major club en Mejico.” I tell one tout to dejame en paz! and push him to a wall when he grabs my arm and attempts to draw me to a red door. He slides quickly away, troubled by my reaction. As indeed I am myself.
Nothing can hurt us now. Rise.
We haven’t gone far down the road when a man who I shall call Knuckles starts to cough and follows us around like a lost puppy dog until there is nothing left for it but the VIP gentleman’s club he tirelessly recommends. The nature of the club involves the presence of beautiful ladies, but that’s about the only constant in a description he shapes like putty to better take our fancy. If we don’t like it, he says, we can leave. Which, of course, is rubbish.
Naturally, the VIP gentleman’s club isn’t at all as he described but exactly what we expected. That is, a place of men of good standing beaming like juveniles in the company of young ladies. It has all the sex appeal of an executive luncheon, where the thrill of flesh for top price drinks is the trade, and people wearing nail polish and neckties have replaced the grease stained plebs of the factory floor.
Our eyes are still adjusting to the gloom of blue strip lighting in the stairway by the time Knuckles has whisked us upstairs into the club. Here the guides of the inner circle take over and lead us to the tables. To the tables. What we see as we approach the tables, when our eyes catch up and the room unfolds, are a pole dancer whose enthusiasm has yet to arrive and white feathers and bare midriffs. We are almost ensconced at the tables, the tables that breed idiot men with gold charge cards in female company, when we come to our senses and snap free of the silk cogs of well oiled motion to take our leave. This isn’t for us. What we want are Místico and Dark Angel victorious.
The ranks of the inner circle are alerted to our premature departure in an instant and tighten around us like a noose to thwart our passage down the blue strip stairway. Men in suits and ladies without many clothes are an obstacle to our exit, and fire at us telekinetic mind bolts warning that money in the VIP can but travel one way, and that way is not out. Not out, not now. Get yourselves back to the tables, they are saying, or the beautiful woman shall become the bad woman, mala mujer, and you shall feel her wrath.
But the circle doesn’t anticipate such resistance, such brute determination and sheer velocity, and the ranks crumble beneath our unwavering flight out.
“Get out of our way, man,” our battle cry. “We really mean it!”
Our exit from the club is unceremonious: We tumble from it onto the pink streets of the Zona Rosa in a heap. But some kind of dignity remains intact and with that we are happy.
“Beautiful,” says one guy in English. “Hermoso,” he translates for the Spanish fluff on his arm. I don’t know what exactly might be beautiful, whether it’s me or the streets or the state in which we arrive on the streets but I thank him all the same, and he smiles jubilantly before pointing us in the direction of Cortesia, a place we can go for a drink and where the missing things start for Caleb.
From the deep void beyond our galaxy down the road we travel, past La Cantina de los Remedios, where no waiter cracks a smile and a sign on the wall advises parents not to let their children play with their guns. Wherever music is played people will dance in Mexico, and music plays and people dance at La Cantina de los Remedios, next to their table as they wait between courses. Further on we encounter for the first time Professor Soledad, an elderly black dude in a flat cap dressed for a Dalston winter trying to get himself arrested by a dozen armed police officers. The cops are perplexed by his English demand, “Arrest me now! Arrest me now!” But when they move in I am compelled to try and help him out. So I take hold of Professor Soledad’s arm and tell him our bus is coming, which is an anagram for stop digging for yourself a hole because you got moved on for pissing in the street. The cops brush me away with the flip of a back hand, the way one might throw a fly from a sugar bowl. That’s all the warning I need from mean cops and I walk away, knowing instinctively that our path will cross again the Professor.
From the deep void beyond our galaxy down the road is a house that has been converted into a club called Cortesia, where upstairs a DJ plays drum and bass, and downstairs another DJ plays the most unrelenting techno imaginable, as far removed from drum and bass as can be. Drum and bass is music that appeals to mathematicians and computer programmers, who admire the engineering of low frequency bass response that doesn’t distort the sound around it, whilst analysing it in binary. I have a broken conversation about this with hairdressers, who go on to regard my name with interest and recount to me the story of a musical group also named Kerekes that had a hit with a song they sang in Polish.
“Any funny stories about Selah?” Caleb Selah asks the hairdressers before hitting the dance floor with a slurred stagger.
Because I don’t much like the music they play in the Cortesia I spend the evening up and down the stairs with a succession of large whiskeys, until I find my spot in a corner. It’s a short lived reverie, shattered when Caleb crashes into the room clutching his balls and searching for space.
He ploughs through a group of people seated on the floor and howls: “Jesus Christ! I need to lie down! I need to lie down!”
Cal’s howling is ineffective against the pounding music, and so — a curious sight — he flails his arms in a tight circle that drives everyone back several paces and falls to the floor in the space this provides.
“Some bird just crushed my nuts!”
“Why’d she do that?” I ask.
“I’ve got no fucking idea!”
As Cal paints a picture of the events surrounding the cruel and harsh treatment of his balls, I recall the curiously tall hairdresser he speaks of, the one with the long fingers and a predilection for gay guys on the dance floor. Maybe therein lies the explanation, I say to Cal, who will have none of it. Maybe it was a gay thing, or a straight thing, or maybe twisting a stranger’s balls till his eyes bleed is a form of courtship in these parts. The very thought of those long fingers makes me uncomfortable. They may find us yet, even here in the corner.
Later Cal discovers that his phone is missing, so maybe his balls were nothing but a distraction for hairdressing pickpockets. Two sore balls and no phone.
The following day, American Mike turns up at the Hotel del Angel in clean clothes and black eye. But he is alone, and not much of a party comes out of it.
American Mike is one of a group of young architects from around the world visiting Mexico City, and not American at all but Polish. Now he is jittery because he is in love and hoping to arrange a romantic candlelit evening with Karen Gonzalez Cruz, the girl who is beautiful, perfect, and sends him crazy with desire, whom he fears may fly away. He needs our help because American Mike is in love and knows only one inappropriate Spanish phrase and so cannot produce a sentence to arrange much of anything at all.
“Did this woman crush your balls by any chance?” I ask. But Mike looks more deflated than amused by my very humorous comment.
We agree to help him out. Mike dictates the conversation he would like to have with Karen and Ben translates it for him, writing down the Spanish words phonetically on Hotel del Angel headed notepaper. As long as Karen on the end of the phone line doesn’t stray from the projected script and answers simply “yes” to each of his questions and nothing more, then paradise for Mike should arrive tomorrow evening in a meal and a thong.
The script reads as follows:
O-LA / hello
SOI MIKE / its mike
K TAL? / how r u
KOMO TU SEE-ENTES OI? / how ru today?
MAY GUS-TA-REE-A MUCHO ENCONTRAR TAY I-AIR? / i really enjoyed meeting you yesterday
E-REZ MOI SIMPA-TI-KO? / u are very nice
KERO VER TE! / i want to see u
KONYOCES EL RESTAURANTAY ‘LA CASA DE LA-SI-REN-SES’? / do you know the xx restaurant?
ES EN EL CENTRO HISTORICO / its in the historical centre
KERES VENIR AL RESTAURANTE CONMIGO ESTA NOCHE? / do u want to come to the restaurant with me tonight?
YO VOY YEVAR MI DICIONARIO! / i’ll bring my dictionary!
VAI SER MUY DIVERTIDO / it’ll be a lot of fun
YO KERO MUCHO VERTE OTRA VEZ / i really want to see you again
It takes most of the afternoon to sort it all out and when it’s sorted, with script in hand a shy and reserved Mike locks himself behind the door of the bathroom in our second floor room to make the call. He makes the call and she doesn’t pick up. But he keeps trying and finally he gets through and when he does Karen Gonzalez Cruz doesn’t understand one single syllable of any one word he utters. It’s a mess of a conversation and in no time Mike is hopelessly lost in a language he cannot understand. Set adrift on the terrible sea of lustful loins with not a port in sight, he says the word “goodbye” softly and hangs up.
A disillusioned architect is a terrible thing to behold, much worse than a sad plumber, and with the script torn to shreds at our feet I see new buildings all over Mexico falling down in years to come as a consequence of the visiting international architects and their one Latino loss.
The raging flame of personal tragedy, they say, sometimes forges men into something more than human. American Mike becomes simply a vegetable. The name of the girl is Karen Gonzalez Cruz, he blubbers like a baby. Her name is —
something is wrong and I don’t know what it is
A dog is protesting on the street. I believe the dog is rabid. Not guilty, barks the dog.
A man with yellow hair.
A man with a ball of yellow hair.
A man whose head is a ball of yellow hair hails the taxi. Kicks the dog.
It comes and he goes.
Ben likes to barter first thing in the morning, it helps invigorate him and sets up the day well for him, and taxi drivers are his favourite. So it is the very next day when we check out of the Hotel des Angel — hotel incommunicado — and into a full blown war over one peso between Ben on the one side and on the other José Manuel Guzman, cab driver, in possession of the most luxurious cab in the whole of Mexico. We like José Manuel Guzman and confound Ben, whose battle isn’t over, when we hire him to take us to the central bus station in Mexico City and the bus that will take us to Zona Arqueológica de Teotihuacan. José doesn’t much like to be referred to as a cab driver. “Servicios de Transportación Turistica y Ejecutiva” is what he provides, he tells us gravely.
He is very careful about his doors.
Had we met José sooner, our perception of Mexico City might have been very different. The levels of poverty and crime, according to José, are a gross exaggeration. Mexico City is a beautiful and safe city, he says, except for an area so small as to be almost insignificant. We wonder where this small insignificant area might be, given the poverty we see all around us, on streets that even the local people avoid like a putrid hole in the ground.
“The bad districts I can count on one hand,” he says when pressed on the point, a little embarrassed by his own admission. “Four years ago it was very different. Now you are safe to walk anywhere.”
We ride over an overpass and I wonder of the buildings below, the shacks made of wood beneath the squalid houses made of weak concrete, how many of them will contain people having a fist pushed into their face. José adds quickly that in Mexico City “there are nice ladies from all over the world.” In this I arrive at the answer to the flat city: A building with a nice lady is better than a building with a broken face or no building at all.
Time on this trip ebbs and flows in the heat. Above the space that occupies the sky is starting its transmission. It is God. And smog.
Exhaust fumes and the terrific heat have cooked up smog, something else for which Mexico City is famous, and it settles on the traffic like a thick broth. When the car stops at a set of lights, a miscreant whose eyes hold the ground wanders over and taps on José’s window. He wants to know whether José would like to make some money taking his fare a different route. That’s all we hear but I don’t suspect the different route would do us many favours.
José is rightly proud of his city, but prouder still of his fine car, whose doors and windows he keeps locked tighter than a virgin’s ass until it is absolutely necessary for them to be open.
A good man, José Manuel Guzman does us no ill and dismisses the guy whose eyes are on the ground. At the very least he has saved us the embarrassment of being robbed a second time in as many days.
We tip José well, giving him twice the money Ben had saved us with his haggling over the fare, as is now Caleb custom, and check our bags into left luggage. In the few minutes before boarding the bus that goes to Zona Arqueológica in Teotihuacán, I buy a pin that has the flag of Mexico made out of enamel and fasten it to a belt loop on my trousers, upon which I determine that my trousers are obscenely loose and liable to fall down. This eventuality I am pondering when Caleb and Ben call for me to get a move on, because we have a bus to catch for the City of the Gods.
Teotihuacán is in a valley some fifty kilometres northeast of Mexico City. Its archaeological zone holds what remains of Mexico’s biggest ancient city, dating back to the time of Christ, and perhaps the first great civilisation in central Mexico. Here can be found the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world, and the residuum of Aztec gods, including Quetzalcóatl, which was the inspiration for Larry Cohen’s movie Q: The Winged Serpent.
Despite Larry Cohen and ancient greatness, the bus we take to Teotihuacán is stopped and searched by the police. Not that this is clear to us when the two cops climb on board and walk down the aisle to us at the seats at the back. The Federal Preventive Police in their blue uniform wait for something from us, saying not a word. We respond in kind, looking into the face of bewilderment and unease for two long minutes.
Outside my window a sign painted on a wall reads SUPER TORTAS HAMBURGUESAS, the relevance of which I ask myself. Maybe we dozed off a mile back because we seem to be missing a piece integral to the puzzle, the one with a clue about cops on the bus.
Ben says eventually, “Hola. ¿Cóma está?” which may be a greeting or Ben inviting them to suck my motherfucking dick. “Hello. How are you?”
The cops look at one another, summarising their relief with a shrug of the shoulders on discovering that our obstinacy is actually only ignorance and we are not from these parts. With this they turn to the rest of the bus and systematically begin to search the other male passengers. They don’t search any of the women on board and they don’t search us, just the other male passengers, who stand in turn without question with their arms outstretched.
The officers pat down all the men and finding nothing get off the bus.
We pay the Zona Arqueológica entrance money of 45 pesos each and I tie my shirt around my waist to conceal the fact my trousers are falling down. I contemplate a belt from one of the callejones, but the belts all have big buckles with the word “Teotihuacán” engraved upon them and I don’t want that. I join the others in buying a sombrero, however. We hand over a bundle of notes and some loose change. When Ben thwarts an attempt to short change us, the assistant says under her breath “el carbon no sabe contar,” which translates as “The fucker can count.”
Zona Arqueológica has hundreds of hawkers, badgering visitors with trinkets and souvenirs, but only one hawker has a big black onyx cock for sale.
“A souvenir for your mother-in-law,” he says as we pass him by. We physically restrain Ben from haggling.
In the heart of the ancient city, at the starting point on the roads that define the godly places, stands the magnificent Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest pyramid in the world. It is located on the Avenue of the Dead, between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela, the house of the supreme ruler, and is built on top of a cave located six metres beneath the earth that was considered by the Aztecans to be the birthplace of man. Some people argue that the cave is actually a tomb. It is not possible for visitors to go inside the cave or go inside the pyramid itself, but somewhere inside are the bones and remains of innumerable children, appropriate behaviour to the ancient ones when buried strategically.
Climbing the steep 248 steps of the Pyramid of the Sun, clutching my falling trousers and with a shirt around my waist, we stop regularly to take in the view, and for me to adjust myself and for Caleb to perform deep breathing exercises. He swears he will get fit again back in Britain. I swear that I should have bought that belt.
There is a better class of hawker at the pyramid, and the sound of panpipes rising from the base of the ruins is less atonal than the pipes at the entrance to the site, where the pipes are blown by hawkers not as comfortable with wind instruments as they are their pendants and black fake cocks.
A biting wind greets us when we reach the top, and against the wind are the sightseers who circle the summit and survey Teotihuacán for clues to a meaning. Here at the top are gringos and New Age hippies from the continent talking about Iraq and better tasting latte at Starbucks.
“They are on it, you bet,” says one American with great authority.
The city that once spanned 20km, with its great and noble founders forgotten to time, is observed now by a tribe of lost idiots. There is nothing else for it and so Caleb draws the mask that he bought at the wrestling from his red shoulder bag of drugs and places it over his head. An eerie calm falls over everyone when he throws his hands up into the air and yells at the top of his voice, “MÍSTICO!” For evidence, I snap a picture of him framed against the Pyramid of the Moon at the north end of the Avenue of the Dead.
On the top of the Pyramid of the Sun once stood a temple with an altar where human sacrifice took place. The temple was painted red for blood, red for the setting sun. Destroyed long ago by man and by nature, now in place of the altar is a silver key embedded in the stone, a physical point of reference over which I place my fingertip, and also a spatial point, because here is the vertex for the celestial sphere.
I place the finger of one hand upon the silver key and hold my other hand high, in the manner shown to me by a man from Colombia, who is on holiday. “You can feel energy,” he tells us. Here is my hand in the sky, my body a conductor down to ancient times, and a labyrinth of power and dead children. Here is space and here is place. The Pyramid of the Sun has existed since 100AD, which brings to it almost two thousand years of joy and bloodshed, wisdom and ignorance; men have lived and died by and beneath this stone, beneath its three million tons, packed into shape before the invention of the wheel. And beneath it all, some six metres below ground, is a tunnel that leads to the cave that birthed all the inhabitants of the earth.
Archaeologists found the cave in 1971. The ancient ones believed it to be the womb of the world, the origins of life. It had writing on its walls.
“What can you feel?” Ben asks from a distance, refusing to partake because he doesn’t believe in it.
“Nothing,” I say, my finger on the key, my hand in the air, disappointed that no stars explode, no sky turns black, no Jack Kirby crackle bursts out from the frame.
No Quetzalcóatl, the winged serpent. No Super Tortas Hamburguesas.
The focus of all energy brings to me nothing but the woeful song played by a woman on the slow bus back to Mexico City. One might assume that a woman in a white blouse would have the voice of an angel, especially in Mexico, where the mariachi was invented. Let me tell you this is not necessarily the case. It was horrible to endure.
Cal says to the man from Colombia as we start the mission back down the 248 steps: “Have a good life, my friend.”
“May he order His angels to protect you wherever you go,” the man says by way of a reply, the biting wind silencing the words so they sound like nothing at all on earth.
Recorded by David Kerekes in Galatina, Puglia, Italy. June 28, 2008. Ad hoc street musicians during the festa for Saints Peter and Paul. Very raw!
Mezzogiorno: Life. Death. Southern Italy by David Kerekes is a work of biography, autobiography, fable and fact, spanning three generations of southern Italian family life. Set amidst a landscape of peasant riots, vicious landlords, religious festival, feuds, the collapse of the Fascist party, and the tarantella — a world lost to the changing face of the twenty-first century. More about this item»
The Headpress Tarantella! youtube playlist. Folk music of the Italian south (and one or two numbers from outside of it). Listen and then buy the book Mezzogiorno. Life. Death. Southern Italy by David Kerekes here»
Mezzogiorno: Life. Death. Southern Italy by David Kerekes is a work of biography, fable, superstition, folklore and fact, spanning three generations of southern Italian family life. Set amidst a landscape of peasant riots, vicious landlords, religious festival, feuds, the collapse of the Fascist party, and the tarantella — a world lost to the changing face of the twenty-first century. More about this item»
Creeping Flesh The Horror Fantasy Film Book edited by David Kerekes. Telefantasy and horror cinema from around the world, with a distinctive retro sensibility. From the classic BBC ghost stories for Christmas to obscure and vilified movies, the discovery of “lost” films, and an appreciation of British exploitation.