On the edge of the Texas-Tamaulipas border, where the buzzards float overhead awaiting dehydrated Mexican seekers of the "American Dream" take their last step in the desert, I came to a deep ravine. I placed my back to the dark abyss and let myself fall backwards... into Mexico.
Almost 3 years after the creation of "Dead Man Walking; Alive in Mexico (June 2011) I realize that I am very alive...
Pico de Orizaba
Taken from Huatusco, Veracruz, the closest town to Margarita's family's ranch.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
The 3 Messengers Part II; The Leaving.
Not long after Joey left for Denver, August 15th, 2002, James invited me to live with him in Portland Oregon. I told him that I must complete my 7 years in New York City, that I would move out there at the end of the following January. Ever since Randi and I visited Kelly in Seattle after graduating from Hampshire College in May 1995, I had dreamed of moving to the Northwest. The strange thing was that, when New Yorkers met me for the first time, they often asked me if I was from the northwest, that I had a totally different energy from that of New York City. I would tell them that I grew up in New Jersey and they would reply that I didn't have a New Jersey but a Northwest energy. I remember a hippy friend of mine at the community college telling me that I really must go to the northwest, since it seemed that I didn't belong in New Jersey. That was in 1991.
At the time of James' invitation I was working at Dizzy's Kitchen, which actually began as a volunteer job. I was walking down 7th Avenue in Park Slope and saw Matt standing outside his business. Since we were slight friends, I stopped to talk with him and told him about my desire to open up an alternative catering business offering the service of cooking in the person's house whatever international theme they desired. Matt immediately said to me, "If I had it to do over again, I would never have entered the food industry. When you sell food, everyone becomes an expert and feels the right to criticize your recipes. My grandmother didn't make matzoh balls THIS way...! I recommend getting out before you get in." I appreciated his commentary. However, I wanted to find a way of exploring my #1 artform and passion, international cuisine. Matt suggested, if I had time, that I volunteer in one of his kitchens and see how I like it. Not only did I like it. I loved it. I arrived at Dizzy's before it opened and I left when the Mexicans came to clean the kitchen floors in the evening... Not long after entering, Matt called me down to his office and said that he was going to move one of the Mexicans to his restaurant and that he wanted me to take over with the sandwiches. He said that he couldn't pay me more than he paid the Mexican, $6/hr under the table and that he was relieved that I received Disability. One of the Mexican Poblanos with whom I worked said to me many times, "Cuidado con tús dedos" until I understood what he was saying, Be careful not to cut off your fingers... The Mexicans were experts with the knife and chopped with such speed and agility, seemingly with their eyes closed. I'm pretty good with a knife. But I couldn't imagine having the control and speed they had. When I started working with Margarita at Las Cañadas, I liked saying to her and the other women in the kitchen, "cuidado con tús dedos." Sadly, I never learned to have a conversation with my Poblano co-worker. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Spanish.
Not long after being offered the sandwich responsibility, I went to the barber shop on 8th Street in the Village for a $15 haircut. There are about 30 hair stylists from all over the world waiting for their boss to send someone their way. I had Uzbeki hair stylists, Irish hairstylists. But this time I had a Poblano Mexican hairstylist who gave me the popular Poblano "Mushroom" cut I was seeing in Spanish Harlem and in central Brooklyn... And now I saw myself with a Mexican Mushroom head in the mirror and asked myself, what's going on here?
At about the same time, I drew The Woman in the Sky with my head in the lap of the woman. I know it's me because I had the baseball cap turned backwards. For years Margarita has been telling me to put it on correctly, that I look like a Cholo gang member. But, I don't like having anything above my eyes, my vision being obstructed even if minimally. Plus, I felt that I had outgrown the baseball fan era of my life. The preoccupied man with his head in the woman's lap has a Mexican face, a great curved nose, not my seagull nose. That same week Estrella told me that I would leave the country in maximum 4 months.
In November I was on my second day drawing the face of a person in my mind, a drawing with much lighter colors, more pastels that showed much less anxiety coming from me, causing me much satisfaction, when the young man sitting next to me said, "Pardon me for interrupting. But I have a question to ask you." I was intrigued and I placed the drawing on my lap. So he asked, "Are you drawing someone you know or is that person from your head?" I replied that I use to draw people I saw in the parks, on the subway, in cafes. But the problem was that they always changed positions or they noticed I was drawing them, making the two of us uncomfortable. And he asked, "Are you sure you've never seen that person before?" And I said, "No. Why?" He continued, "Because I know that person...." I said, "What do you mean you know this person?" He replied, "She's the best friend of the wife of my brother Ross." Now this was a strange coincidence and I asked, "Where does she live?" And he said, "She lives here in Brooklyn but is from Turkey. My sister-in-law is Turkish. In fact, Bürcu frequents the Tea Lounge. Are you sure you haven't seen her?" And I said, "Truthfully, I have never seen her before." Before I returned to my drawing he said, "well, maybe you'll see her. In fact, I was waiting for her. But my girlfriend and I can't stay too long."
The stress of being seen drawing someone, whether I am discovered by that person or by other people, such as Johanna 4 years earlier, removed all desire to draw someone I saw in public spaces. Being able to invent people on canvas or paper was a liberty, and separated me from all the people sitting around me, where I was drawing. When I was in the hospital, Joey cheated on me with a former Turkish friend of mine who worked in the vegetable market on Kings Highway. He had been in the Turkish military and was tall, dark and in incredible shape. It wasn't the first nor would it be the last time. No matter how much we may have loved each other, we couldn't be together. Something else was in play and, in the process of playing itself out, people must appear and disappear suddenly. Maybe the cheating was just the wedge moving each person in their appropriate directions. You're an asshole, a jerk, a bastard, a cheater. But thank you so much for sending me off in a better direction than the one I had originally chosen...
I don't know how long I was re-immersed in my drawing when my neighbor stood up and left the cafe. However, a moment later he returned excited and said, "LOOK! This is my friend Bürcu I was telling you about!" He told Bürcu to sit down next to me, where he had sat and said, "Bürcu, does this drawing look familiar to you?" Bürcu looked at the drawing, grimaced and looked away. I asked "What?" And she said somberly "It's very sad." I exclaimed, "What do you mean it's sad? This is the first drawing I've drawn that absolutely is NOT sad!" The young man intervened asking, "But, Bürcu, does the person look familiar?" and she replied, "Yes. It's who was looking at me in the mirror last night when I was crying. What can I say?" At that moment, Bürcu's friend said with a satisfied smile on his face that he had to go and left Bürcu with me. We talked a very long while. Bürcu explained about her best friend from Turkey and that friend's husband Ross and that Ross's brother was in-love with the idea of marrying a Turkish woman too and had a crush on Bürcu. She told me that she was from the capital, Ankara, is an architect, that Ankara is boring unlike Istanbul, which is very internationally diverse and hopping with so many things to do. Bürcu had taught herself English through English rock, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, television programs and novels. She had never formally studied English in her life. She apologized for her bad English and I said that I was amazed at how well she spoke. Like me she was a Led Zeppelin fanatic and asked me if I had heard the disc of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page's reunion concert in Egypt. That would be one of the two discs to which I listened during the 3 day bus trip from New York City to Mexico City. The other disc was a going away present from my friend Jonathan; Joni Mitchel's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter.
I asked Bürcu why she was crying the other night. She explained that she had uterine cancer. Johanna, the impetus for Mónica finally leaving my apartment and returning to Puerto Rico 4 years earlier, had told me that she had breast cancer. She was originally from Egypt. Both were 28-years-old when we met. I had met Johanna while drawing a Colombian woman in the Barnes and Noble cafe on the same 7th Avenue in Park Slope. 28 is very young for becoming ill with Uterine and Breast cancers, no?
I asked Bürcu why she didn't have surgery to remove the cancer. She replied that that would cause a risk of her not being able to have children. I explained to her that I had my rectum removed 11 months earlier in order to live tomorrow and that it seemed that I wouldn't be able to have children. I was seeing this strange meeting as something much more important than just randomly bumping into her in the Tea Lounge. Then again, I had seen the meeting with Johanna as much more important 4 years earlier. Then again, it had been. Mónica finally left my apartment and returned to Puerto Rico.
I told Bürcu that I would leave for Portland, Oregon towards the end of January. She replied, "maybe you will stay. Maybe we will live together." She gave me her phone #, got up and left me sitting there burning and very concerned. I couldn't stay in New York City. I had been planning on leaving for 5 years. I wanted to live in a cosmopolitan city with better energy, more sunlight, closer to nature. Something was pushing me out of New York City and I really couldn't live there any longer.
One day I invited Bürcu and Jonathan to my apartment for dinner. I had prepared a Turkish Salad, a pan- Arabic Lentil-Lamb Stew invention and Tadziki (Arabic garlic yogurt with mint and cucumbers). We ate on the floor. The food was placed on my West Indian wrap-around-skirt I had bought at Drummer's Grove 4.5 years earlier. Jonathan entertained us with his conversation, since he is just so eloquent. Bürcu exclaimed that the food was wonderful and that they would love me in Istambul. She mentioned that we could open up a cafe and that she so badly wanted to open up a chocolateur, that she couldn't live without chocolate.
The truth is that Bürcu was a very difficult person to pin down. It was impossible for me to understand what were her true intensions. One second she seemed very interested in me and the following second she was inaccessible. I had a second "date" with her at the Tea Lounge. But, for some reason Milo and I were late returning from Coney Island and arrived a half hour late. She was gone. I so badly wanted Milo to meet Bürcu... It never happened. I saw her one last time. She invited me over for dinner at her apartment on Ocean Avenue. We listened to wonderful Turkish music, ate what I believe were Turkish appetizers (the problem is that I don't remember what was on the tray), drank Turkish coffee (she showed me how to read the left over coffee grinds from the over-turned cup and we smoked a lot of cigarettes. The last time I smoked was in Xalapa, June 2003. I vowed not to put myself further at risk and haven't succumbed, although I have been offered so many cigarettes here in Mexico.
The week of Thanksgiving, Matt suggested I move to the baking department, since they were having a work-load crises. I didn't want to leave the kitchen for the bakery, since I had absolutely no interest in pastries nor sweets. The only sweets I had prepared in my kitchen was Thai sticky rice with Coconut Milk and Mangos, a wonderful Jamaican pineapple cake I had first tried a few blocks from the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Botanic Gardens in Prospect Heights, a Lebanese baklava, which was to die for. I prepared a whole sheet of it. Supposedly Joey was going to help me eat it, but she was a ballerina... This was after the colostomy was closed. The nuts reaped havok below. But it was just too good! The Two Red Hot Chili Peppers Hostess Style Cupcake recipe would feed my imagination 2 years later when we went from baking rectangular banana breads, circular carrot cakes and bunt Apple and Pinapple-Coconut bunt cakes, to cupcakes, since the cupcake form functions better selling in the street to individuals than does baking whole cakes and breads we must cut and keep from falling apart during the transportation. At first we didn't fill the cupcakes. When Scott and Laura visited us in October 2004, the cupcakes were without fillings and lacked whole cream in their cake batter. In Xalapa I perfected the filling process. The Millikin and Fenniger cookbook requires the cutting of a cone out of the bottom of the cupcake and filling it with their white cream and then replacing the cone and placing the cupcakes in the refrigerator to chill. However, the cupcake often broke upon cutting out the cone or you couldn't truly put enough cream into the center and be able to replace the cone and have the cupcake sit straight without falling over or without the cone popping out leaking all the cream onto the tray.
I thought about that baking opportunity at Dizzy's Kitchen and told myself that it could help me become more well rounded. I would be baking cookies and muffins and other popular pastries. However, I truly detested working with so many carbohydrates. The day after Thanksgiving, I quit. I just walked out. I think it was more the issue that Matt didn't acknowledge my cooking skills, although he had asked me to write down many of the recipes I invented for the salad case, although it was clear that I had improved upon his father's Sicilian pizza and lasagna sauce recipe. I was the one preparing and baking his $200 lasagnas. And I don't even like lasagna. Even the chef told me that I had improved upon the recipes. When I left, I removed my recipes from his recipe folder. Why should he get the credit if he wasn't willing to give me credit? Granted, I was probably wrong about the whole situation. But, had I chosen the baking position, I must stay on the job more than 2 months and my disability insurance was coming to an end. There was no way I could renew my lease with the rent being raised to $750 per month on $6/hr.
That same week I had this horrible feeling that I couldn't live with James in Portland. It nagged the hell out of me. I wondered what it was about James that concerned me, causing me to change my mind. But, where would I go? Honestly I couldn't live in New York another year and Bürcu was playing games with me.
In October Michael invited me to participate in the Chamanism class he was teaching. It was the first course he had taught and needed people as students for his training. The class began with many people. However, the problem with New Yorkers is that everyone is very busy and dificult to pin down with a common schedule. In the end there were only two of us, Michael's friend Jim and me Ross. The most memorable evening was the last class held in the beginning of December, dedicated towards focussing upon our 6 senses. Michael had asked us to bring an object important to us. So, before he blindfolded us, we looked at the object the other person brought. I believe Jim brought something of Native American heritage, since his deceased grandmother was a Canadian Indian. I brought the drawing of Bürcu. Michael had us look at a burning candle wick for a few minutes and then asked us to explain what we saw. I saw a woman dancing. He then blindfolded us and put things in our mouth asking us what it was we tasted. He put things below our nostrils and asked us what we smelled. He put strange things in our hands and asked us what we felt. He made noises around our heads and asked us what we heard. Before unblindfolding us, he put something very strange in our hands, almost disgusting, and asked us to focus upon what came into our minds with the object that was in our hands. When he asked us what entered each of our minds, I said that I was thinking that Bürcu should return to Turkey, be with her family and have her surgery. I couldn't believe I was saying that. Jim had gotten really angry and said that he wanted to think about his Indian grandmother, but the only thing that entered his mind was my drawing. Michael gave Jim a second chance and Jim connected nicely with his deceased grandmother. Michael unblindfolded us and showed us the horrible thing that had been placed in our hands; A large dried turkey leg! I explained to Jim that the woman in the drawing is from Turkey and is the woman I mentioned who should return to her family there and have the surgery.
The following day, December 5th I was sitting on my bed looking through my favorite Mexican cookbook A Cook's Tour of Mexico with Nancy Zaslvsky. Bürcu had told me that her favorite cuisine was Mexican and had said that she wanted to cook with me. I was looking for recipes to cook with her. However, like my problem with living with James in Portland, every time I turned to another recipe, every minute that passed by, I felt an increasing tension. Then suddenly I screamed to myself, WHAT ARE YOU DOING ROSS TRYING TO TEACH YOURSELF MEXICAN CUISINE WHEN YOU CAN GO TO MEXICO AND LEARN THERE WORKING IN A KITCHEN?!!!
I shut the book and immediately called Michael. When he answered I said, "Michael, you will never believe it, but I've decided to move to Mexico. I'm leaving in January. I know it's absolutely crazy. Afterall I don't know anything about Mexico, nor do I know anyone there. But I'm going to do it." Michael responded, "Look, I'm leaving for Mexico in 3 days. I'm going to help my Chaman teacher with an event in Xalapa, Veracruz. I'll be there one month. We'll talk about this when I return in January. While away I'll think about where you should go that doesn't cost you much money." Two weeks later I received an excited email from Michael stating that he had found an ecological tourist ranch in Veracruz where I could probably volunteer in exchange for room and board..."
I tried calling Bürcu for two days following the Chamanism class. But she didn't answer her phone. When she finally picked up the receiver, I told her that I would leave for Mexico the following month. She was very distant with me and informed me that she had made the decision to return to Turkey on the 18th of December, Michael's birthday. Her mother had dreamed of Bürcu's deceased grandmother who told her that something bad was happening to Bürcu in the U.S., that if she stayed there, she would marry a white man named Jim. Her mother pleaded with her to return to Ankara. Bürcu decided to leave the country of her dreams and not marry an American man. Before leaving for Turkey, Bürcu called me and gave me her mother's address in Ankara just in case.
Before leaving the U.S. for Mexico I mailed Bürcu my cookbook, A Cook's Tour of Mexico with a long note written on the inside panel stating that she had been the inspiration for me leaving for Mexico.
It turns out that not long after I moved to Mexico, James re-connected with his ex-girlfriend, moved in with her, then moved with her to Philadelphia a year later where she studied Medicine, where my Uncle Henry had studied medicine and where my father did his Residency. They married and have their third child on the way.
Bürcu is married to a German man, lives in Germany and has a beautiful daughter.
That New Years Eve Michael's wife M'nique invited me to go with her to a Native American sweat lodge ceremony in Stoney Brook, Long Island. (My Uncle Henry did his undergraduate studies there at SUNY and the visiting Latin American history professor, Paul Gootenberg, whom I assisted a little with his history of Cocaine research at the Russell Sage Foundation in 1997 and who is married to a Mexican woman he had met in Mexico while researching, Lara, was and still is a tenured professor there. It was Paul who introduced me to Tequila, the first liquor that didn't make me sick, nor gave me a hang over. With Paul I learned that I could down 9 shots of tequila without grimacing... Little did I know that, 11 years later, I would be harrassed by Federal police officers just outside Tequila travelling from Colima to Tepic in February 2008. Last year Margarita and I passed through Tequila in search of a gift for my mother and Bruce when we drove the 5 hours from Tepic to Queretaro to pick them up from the airport for our 5 day visit in April 2010.
I invited Milo to go with us to Stoney Brook and we had a really wonderful experience together the three of us. There were 3 native Americans chanting with drums in the extremely hot interior of the small lodge. Many of us chanted along with them until one of the Native Americans said, "If you don't know the words, don't chant. The spirits become offended!" I quickly shut my mouth, focussed upon the drum beat, the steam becoming increasingly hot and the images appearing infront of my eyes, much like all the faces that appear in my drawings and paintings. The ceremony took 2 hours. There was a point in the ceremony when I put my mouth to the ground in the attempt at not burning my lungs with the hot water vapors. Some people couldn't handle the heat and walked out of the lodge. I forced myself to complete the experience and having had the opportunity again.
Milo and I returned to New York City with M'nique at dawn, went to Michael and M'nique's apartment in Alphabet City to sleep a few hours and then went to see the new Selma Hayek (Arabic-Mexican actress from Coatzalcoalcos, Veracruz) movie, Frida which was horribly disappointing with it's Hollywood glamourization of Frida Kahlo. From there we went to the Tea Lounge in Park Slope. Milo and M'nique engaged in a long conversation and I drew my last drawing I remember in the U.S.
I met Michael at J.F.K. international airport when he returned from Mexico. I sold all of my kitchen supplies and much of my art supplies. I gave Jonathan my art books and all the liquor I stored, most of it Mónica had left with me 4.5 years earlier when she returned to Puerto Rico. The rest of my belongings went to my mother's basement in New Jersey. I spent a week or so with my mother and Bruce and returned to New York City when they left for France. I spent my last week in the U.S. with Michael and M'nique. One day Michael and I went to Suffern, New York to visit the family of friends he had met living in a cabin on the beach, Paso Doña Juana, on the gulf coast of Veracruz. Lety's brother worked in a photo development and camera store and he developed Michael's Mexico photos, many of them he left with Lety's brother, since they were of Lety and her sister (at the moment I don't remember her name). We also met Lety's son Alfredo and her mother in Suffern, a town full of Veracruzanos, I would love to visit now, since I know much of their state and so many of their people, along with their Mexican Veracruzano Spanish language. When we returned to New York City, Michael showed me photos of all the people he had met in Mexico. He also showed me a photo of Margarita infront of Pico de Orizaba. He said, "when you arrive at Las Cañadas, you may work with Margarita in the kitchen or with Karla in the garden or maybe work with (who knows who) in cheese." You can also help Karla with her English, since she will be leaving for an agriculture course in southern California in March."
Margarita and Lucia photo taken by Michael December 2002
I looked at the photographs of both of the women and didn't feel anything. In fact, I was much more impressed by Pico de Orizaba than I was of Margarita, since I had no idea that there were volcanos in Mexico.
Michael, Margarita, Karla and Miguel
The day I left for Mexico, Michael was working at the Open Society Institute and Soros Foundations Network. M'nique gave me a gift for the road. She showed me a selection of hand-carved stone or shell pendents asking me to select one of them. The one that most called my attention was a beautiful quartz/stone fish. I said to M'nique, "I don't know why this one interests me so much. Afterall, I don't have any Pisces in my horoscope. I shrugged my shoulders and hung it on my neck.
During the 2.5 day busride from New York City to the Mexican border, changing busses and drivers every 8 or less hours, I listened to Plant, Page and Mitchel non stop thinking watching and thinking about the world I
was leaving behind. I tried reading Pablo Neruda and looking at my Spanish/English dictionary. But my mind was in other places. I was approaching my death. Or I was approaching my rebirth. I didn't sleep 3 days, a permanent dozing. I observed the changing faces on the bus and realized that I was the only constant within my world. I thought about what Michael and Jonathan said to me. I thought about how Milo didn't want to hug me goodbye after the going away party. I wondered if Bürcu and I would reconnect in the future, although I knew that the answer was no. I wasn't a wealthy world travel. I was playing my last crazycard. I had told my most wonderful friends that I would meet them in other people; that we were connected by a spiritual web and weren't truly separating. Truthfully, you need a ton of moral or spiritual strength to accept that reasoning upon leaving behind all of your old and new friends at the same time. Living in Mexico 8.5 years experiencing how difficult it is here for people to enjoyable conversations for conversation's sake, which makes it that much difficult for them to make friends, I've wondered which is more important; having beautiful friends, such as Michael, Jonathan and Milo, or persuing personal spiritual and intellectual enlightenment. For me, spiritual, intellectual, material and psychological growth was gained at a hell of a cost. I don't know what is worth more; that personal growth or friendship bonds. Now that I have achieved most of what I hadn't ever imagined accomplishing for myself, it's easy for me to say that I would trade back for those friendships I left behind. However, all those people left New York City too. Michael and M'nique returned to Sydney. Jonathan to Ohio. Milo floats between Florida, New York City and Boston. Everyone has a life that isn't that one we shared in New York City. If I returned to the Tea Lounge, if it's still there, I probably would cry wishing I would see Milo's big eyed face.
And maybe that's what I felt during those three days travelling towards south of The South; A giant NO. But not a rejection of the journey. But a rejection of myself. By removing myself from all that I knew, I was negating myself.
In order to gain, first I must lose. I must relinquish one thing for making space for what was to come. And that's why, with the total immersion within the Spanish language and the Mexican experience, I have lost access to many of my U.S. memories.