It Would Never Happen in America
Having argued over breakfast and breathed smoggy Mexican air in the
park, having made Olmec faces with wide eyes and disgusted lips for
amusement in the museum, having eaten a bland museum cafe lunch and
having once again discussed whether they should pick the ice out of
their drinks, having spoken to Mexican schoolchildren in ridiculous
Spanish and promised to find them American pen pals, having risked their
lives once again in a little VW taxi back to the hotel and having
refreshed themselves with one of those nice fruit drinks that would
probably give them diarrhea, having discussed, up in the room, his
new-found realization that there might be a dress code at the concert
and that he had neglected to pack a jacket, having discussed whether a
bolo tie and sweater would pass and finally having determined, through
more silly Spanish on the phone with a smirking security guard at the
theatre, that there was no dress code at all; having done all this and
yet still finding themselves on time, they emerged into the bright
sunshine of early evening to feed themselves and run off to their
seventy-dollar tickets bought on a whim that morning.
They knew where they were going to eat dinner, they knew where to get a
taxi to the concert, and they knew how much the taxi should cost, since
they'd already been ripped off once and had learned their lesson. They
were, he said, seasoned travellers.
"This is going to be great," he said as they sauntered to the next block
to find their restaurant. "Rostropovich playing Shostakovich. We'd never
get a chance like this in America."
"Didn't he come last year?" she asked.
"I think you had your chorus meeting," he said. "Or maybe I was
They smiled at each other happily. On vacation, their other life no
As they approached the restaurant, she didn't seem to believe what was
quite obvious to him from twenty paces.
"They're closed," he said as he stopped and she continued up to the
building. It was typically Mexican, probably friendly and inviting when
open, but now shuttered and gated like an angry child. She stood in
front of it for a moment before believing it.
"On a Saturday night?" she asked. He didn't bother to answer. "A
"Where else could we go?" he asked.
"Well, there are plenty of restaurants on this block," she suggested,
still unwilling to let go of the place that had been so highly
recommended by their guidebook. "They should have a sign up with their
"It looked like there were some good places on our street," he said.
"Maybe we should try back there."
She shrugged off her disappointment. They could go to another place; it
would still be an adventure.
"Just so they're quick," she said. "It's getting late."
They walked hand-in-hand back to their own street. "Maybe we should have
made reservations," she said.
"It's early here," he assured her. "Getting dinner at six here should be
no problem. It's not like we're walking into La Cuisine at seven with no
"And we would never do that," she teased.
"Of course not," he answered, looking around with an air of practiced
The restaurants on their block were: too French, too expensive, not
open, dirty-looking, and previously tested and rejected. They decided to
get a recommendation from the hotel staff, again in ridiculous Spanish
though they all spoke English ("we might as well practice while we're
here," she admonished him the first day when he'd tried English on a
shopkeeper). The woman behind the counter recommended some place she
didn't catch the name of, but he nodded knowingly and all she got was,
"to the right, three blocks, Calle Amberes." They set out again.
This time the pace was less leisurely, and though no pace in Mexico save
that of the cabbies could rightly be called frantic, it became closer to
that when they asked a passing gentleman and found that they'd gone
three blocks in the wrong direction.
"I'm sure she said to the right," she said.
"But did she mean, her right, or to the right going out of the hotel?"
"That's the question," she said. "People never give directions like that
in the States. They tell you where you're going rather than assuming
you'll divine it."
"Oh, Swami, oh tell me oh which way to go," he said, stopping in the
middle of the sidewalk and pressing his fingers to his temples. They
were still enough on time that she could laugh at his joke before they
They found the restaurant two blocks to the right of the hotel's front
door. They agreed they'd done a good job asking; it seemed nice and they
were seated quickly by a friendly waiter who gave them menus in Spanish
instead of condescending to ask if they'd like to see them in English.
With no time for appetizers, they settled on main dishes, he the
meatballs, she the fish. The waiter gave them one of those sideways
looks, but they didn't have time to discuss it.
"Now assuming we get our food in twenty minutes---"
"A big assumption," she broke in.
"We should be able to catch a cab and be over at the Palacio by eight."
He traced his finger on his watchface as if moving the glass-covered
"This is Mexico; they don't start on time, right?"
"Well....let's assume not."
"In America they always start on time."
"It's annoying," he agreed.
"They even start movies late here," she offered.
"They probably have commercials, too," he agreed.
They smiled at each other. They were on vacation, and nothing mattered.
She would not say anything about having missed the beginnings of movies
since she had started up with him. Had she ever walked into a movie late
before she met him? No, that would be like wearing tennis shoes to the
airport. One just didn't do it. But all that was elsewhere, she reminded
herself. Here they could reinvent themselves.
"I assume it was safe to order the fish," she said, making a short-lived
Olmec face for his amusement.
"Well, we can assume they won't fry fish in lard," he offered. He knew
what she meant by "safe." They had just escaped from lard-soaked Yucatan
dinners by flying up to the city.
"No, well, it doesn't seem likely that fish would be fried in pork," she
And they thought: Such a thing would never be done in America.
The food having come, having been accompanied by a look from the waiter
which seemed a cross between, "stupid tourists" and "I could have told
you that," the fish having been picked at, though it really was quite
good, the meatballs having been devoured and having been pronounced not
very spicy, having duly noted that their dishes did not come with
vegetables and that might be the source of the look, having not lamented
the lack of vegetables because "at this point we'll just have to stock
up on salads when we get back to the States," having let the waiter
smugly bend in to take their plates and having each silently conjured up
the taste of their favorite Mexican food in America; after all this she
answered "no" to the waiter's next question and her husband made big
Olmec eyes before apologizing, "My wife doesn't really speak much
She practiced her response long after the waiter had sauntered away for
the check, saying, "No, I didn't mean I liked the fish, actually I liked
the fish, you see, I thought you meant..." But compound verbs, not to
mention past tense, were beyond her and he rightly pointed out that it
was just too late.
"I covered for you," he said proudly.
"Thank you, dear," she said, less than sincerely.
The computerized verification system for the credit card took, of
course, much longer than it would in the States. Her fingers drummed on
the table as the waiter stood with the host hunched over the cash
register, waiting for the magic machine to give its approval. He checked
his watch, just in case time moved at a different rate in Mexico.
Approved, they thanked the waiter and he was nice enough to smile and
usher out the low-spending, easily-confused tourists. Again, the street
urged a late-afternoon saunter and they had to fight to keep a hurried
enough pace. Out on the larger road they found a VW cab with a meter,
which, having been ripped off once, they knew was the best kind. She sat
once again in what they'd dubbed the hot seat, where there was no
barrier to keep her from being tossed through the front windshield at
the next stop, and again she wished for the security of a seatbelt as he
put his arm around her shoulders protectively.
The taxi ride turned out less harrowing than they had hoped; hoped,
because it was the only way they thought they'd be there on time. In
fact, the taxi was stopped dead in traffic and the driver started to
amuse himself with some gossip over the crackly radio. Neither of them
could really understand the fuzzy transmissions that rasped into the
taxi, but it seemed from his end that another driver had been stopped by
the police and they were deciding exactly what to do about it. The
driver, whose codename on the radio was "Samurai," seemed little
interested in the fact that it was five minutes to eight and they had a
show to catch. Indeed, they hadn't bothered to tell him, having
discussed saying "step on it" to a Mexican cab driver and having come to
the conclusion that it was safer not to.
Miraculously, for the traffic seemed to start moving only to be caught
by another traffic light, they came within view of the Palacio at
precisely eight o'clock. But though, she reflected, in America that
would be the end of the ordeal, this was Mexico and one could never
The light leading to the left turn into the Palacio was allowing an
average of two cars per cycle to turn, and they were still eight cars
behind. The driver, having concluded his gossip and turned the crackling
radio down, tapped his fingers on the dash to a salsa beat that drifted
over from another car. Again they started; again they were caught by the
light. She wanted to make a comment about the joy of left turn lights
and well-managed traffic, but didnt think it would be appreciated. He
was shifting in his seat, and the driver caught a glance of them in the
"The Palacio is right there," he called back.
"Yes," they answered.
"You want me to let you out here?"
"Yes, oh, good," they answered, and she prepared to step out into the
The driver had another idea, and with a wrench he peeled out of the line
of cars waiting for the left turn and pulled a U onto the other side of
the street, in front of a square filled with nighttime vendors.
"Bueno," said the man, holding out a twenty-peso note. "Give me ten."
She opened the door and climbed out; he followed so that he could lean
in to get the change. The driver fiddled in his change box, in his
wallet, and said, "Un momento."
Again proving that cabbies were the fastest-moving creatures in all of
Mexico, he jumped out of the car and was halfway to the vendors before
the man could fumble in his pockets and she could open her money pouch
to see if they had change. No change, they despaired. The cabbie was
hopping from one vendor to another, exchanging quick words with
sleepy-eyed men who looked slow-motion next to his quick movements.
He was five booths away and she gave a glance over to the Palacio,
towering a mere one hundred feet---thirty meters, she corrected
herself---from where they stood. He said, "Maybe we should just let him
keep it," and they both imagined sitting on the red marble steps inside
the Palacio, hearing seventy dollars of music in quiet strains as they
waited to be let in the closed doors.
But just as he said it the cabbie was victorious and came running at
full speed back with a ten-peso bill waving triumphantly over his head.
The money changed hands, the cabbie said one of those quaint phrases in
Spanish that she couldn't help but translate into the literal, "May your
evenings be joyous," and they were off again.
There was, of course, no real crosswalk, and if there had been, the
honking cars would have been occupying it; something, he noted, that
wasn't allowed in America. They separated and wove around the cars,
which were now starting to move, and he stopped at the steps of the
Palacio. She caught up to him, he grabbed her arm, and they laughed as
they sprinted up the front steps, where unhurried Mexicans awaited their
late companions and it was obvious that no one expected the show to
start anywhere near on time.
But they were on vacation and none of this mattered and they giggled as
their tickets were taken. "What if we had forgotten them?" she asked.
"Oh, we would never do that," he replied with a twinkle in his eye, and
they found their seats occupied by a stubborn-faced pair of city
They had little time to consider the situation before the usher told the
seated couple, "You must have the wrong seats," and asked to see their
tickets. The man in the seat made a big show of searching each pocket,
of drawing his brows together and muttering in quick Spanish. More words
were exchanged, knowing smiles between usher and the brazen occupant of
her seat, and their seats were freed.
They turned out to be little fold-out chairs, with seats made of velvet
but only a slightly glorified version of what they sat on in their
kitchen at home. The previous occupant of her seat grinned at her as she
sat down and tried to balance herself so the seat wouldn't fold up and
dump her on the floor. She eased herself around so she could talk to her
husband, who had been seated in a similar seat attached to the end of
the row behind her.
"He doesn't seem to feel much guilt," she said, nodding back at the
previous occupants of their seats, who were making their way down the
aisle. "I guess these seats aren't so bad. When they said folding chairs
I pictured something different."
"They're great," he said with a grin. They were quite close to the
"It'd never be allowed in America, though," she reminded him, "people
sitting in the fire lane."
She turned back around and considered that since the seats popped back
into place when the occupant stood, maybe they really weren't such a
hazard. Why wouldn't it be allowed in America? she wondered.
Then she thought of the little VW cabs careening around corners, of the
dirty but enticing food sold on the sidewalk, of the children
everywhere, solemn-faced but happy, of the bacteria that gave tourists
diarrhea but caused no harm once a person got used to it, of the Coke
drank from old-fashioned green bottles and the cream that was thick and
yellow, of the coffee that smelled so heavenly that she tried it once
even though she never touched it at home, of getting tickets to
Rostropovich the morning of the concert and only paying for their
tardiness with the energy it took to keep herself balanced, of the
intensity of the music, and the sincerity of the applause, of
Rostropovich coming onstage and the roar of recognition that she
couldn't imagine being offered at home, of the kiss that the cellist
planted---three times---on the cheeks of the first violinist after
giving the sort of performance only an old man could give, of the
"bravo"s and cheers that flew spontaneously from the crowd into his arms
and the flowers that fell at his feet, of feeling so isolated and
obvious, with her pale white skin and fine hair, so self-conscious when
everyone spoke to her in English "of course," of the smog and cigarettes
that made the audience cough like an American audience in winter flu
season, which of course they didn't really have here, of the strangeness
and wonder of it all, and of the relief that she'd feel, airsickness and
all, to lift up above this sleeping and sauntering and laughing and
rushing city and fly toward her well-ordered life at home.
"Well, all in all, that was great," he pronounced as they left the
Palacio arm in arm.
"Very successful," she agreed.
"Back to our boring life," he said with relief.
"Yes," she sighed with happiness.
They wrapped their arms around each other, and stepped at a marching
American pace into the cooling night air.