Cornmeal laminating our tongues, we snake the streets aimlessly, but with a vague feeling for the Zócalo. It hides its skewed quadrilateral just out of sight, guarded by row after row of apartment, bank, food stall, market, stacks of carpeted speakers, their black and red wires massing for some kind of tangled revolution. On one street corner, a tight unit of white people. We hear their teenage English on the hot wind, too loud, oblivious. Various accents—East Coast, Midwestern, Southern… Their chaperone, a middle-aged woman with a Bostonian bent, bears the thick-necked, thick glasses, stiff perm of their church group leader. Her forehead is pursed, placid but purposeful. Clearly, she feels there are people here in need of saving.

One boy with oversized teeth and pimples on his ears spanks the ass of a willowy girl in black stretch pants. She turns, raven-haired and red-faced to him, as he high-fives another boy with a side-turned ball cap. In her look is patience, pity. She shakes her head and says, “Stop,” meaning, You’re lucky I don’t take your balls, buck-tooth. Another girl, hay-bale blonde, shows her something on her cell phone. A photograph. I’m guessing it’s of the man before us, rolling along the vaulted arcade across the street. Both girls giggle, then turn away from him, possibly ashamed, but too young to admit it. They cross the street, and we cross too, but we keep our distance. We don’t want to be too near these other Americans. As nucleus, as core, Mexico City is leagues ahead of Buffalo Grove, Illinois.

When we step before the arcade on the other side, the sky goes glassy as bath tile, and the beggars jockey for space and attention. This arched passageway seems shadowless, holds more light than the sky itself, sponging the sun. The man, the one who the girls likely photographed can’t be dated. He seems to have side-stepped definition-by-age in that way that people with missing limbs often do. When there’s less of the actual body, there’s less to determine age by. A lack of evidence. He is without arms or legs, perched on a palate of wood with crooked wheels and somehow propels himself along the arcade with his stomach muscles and the remains of his pelvis. The buck-toothed boy looks at him, then immediately turns away. He does no imitation, no virginal air-humping, and I am happy for this. The palate of wood is decorated with a few odd coins, almost enough, I hope, for one tamale. Happy…

Two women who look far too old to be the mothers of infants, parade with their babies, holding them out to the passers-by, imploring looks burned into their faces. They do this for a few minutes, then, as if their shifts are over, their faces melt into smiles as they approach each other, swap stories, regain a measure of youth. When this brief break is over, they age their faces again, sadden their eyes, lift the wriggling children, wrapped in pink scarves.

One of the church group boys spits to the stone and I know he means nothing by it; he’s used to spitting on sidewalks and lawns; to him, it’s habit, reflex, but the people here take notice, scowl as he passes, his in-process backbones poking from his jersey, a grounded bird, amputated wings. A man in a rickety wheelchair, the seat constructed from an onion sack, clasps his hands in prayer or deference as we pass. He is legless, but has flipper-like feet at the bottom of his torso, the toes fused, the nails haphazard like a handful of coins tossed into cement and left to dry where they stuck. He is smiling, graying stubble surrounding his mouth, a patron saint of manners. Hands still clasped, he nods to us and utters the most optimistic “buenos tardes.”

Bells are ringing in the distance, penetrating the city with some ancient music, Mexico City giving itself over to all reverberation and gong. Even the pollution seems to get along with the sky, agreeing to elicit this palest of blues, some estranged dropout cousin to some brighter ocean. A hunched old man in a torn navy windbreaker holds a shaking hand to us as if caught in the sound-wake of the bells. I think of my aunt with Parkinson’s, of everybody’s aunt with Parkinson’s, as his fingers dance and his torn windbreaker voice manages, “por un taquito, por un taquito.”

The entire world is this small rolled-up tortilla, deep-fried in bell-music and the grease of beautiful dirty sky. Of ancient excavations and cathedrals that had to see blood before they saw worship. But as if to rail against it, to assert some stubborn human force, surely destined to fail, but packed with electricity, so many men playing so many accordions, so many upturned hats not yet full of paper, violins and saxophones and guitars beating back the invisible bells, the stupid nervous double-dog-dared hands of all buck-toothed white boys with the most melodic of the world’s Fuck Yous, holding the fort so the captain can emerge from his sentries. And here he is: just a teenage boy himself, standing behind a pot-bellied beast of an instrument—wide as a park bench, the sickly premature offspring of piano and violin, and he’s cranking the shit out of it, eliciting the most pathetic circus music, one of miserable underfed elephants, their ivory dying and sloughing into the ring, just out of sight of the audience, deep into their popcorn, these elephants who the ringmaster loves, his only real friends… Drawn closer, we can see, printed on the front of the instrument in gold lettering, the words, Harmonichord and Berlin.

It’s the sort of instrument that should require at least two people to operate, to make this kind of sound, but the boy is doing it without sweating. How it got here from Germany… The pigeons are log-rolling overhead, preparing for back-flips over the chimneys and spires, rolling their throats like mantra. The flies are closer to us, circling our scalps as if runways, places to rest. To them, I whisper, “Medieval,” “Organistrum,” “conquest.” Louisa mutters something in her first-language about love and learning. I feel I am learning to do both, to open up, to ornament my vocabulary with Sí, Sí,, Sí, but it’ll take some time. We wipe our faces with our shirt sleeves. A small girl blows soap bubbles at us through a blue plastic wand. She wears no shoes. Walks the arcade stones in white cotton socks. Her mother, younger than we are, touches Louisa’s hand, says, in barely-accented English, “Don’t be sad.” In our chests, the elephants stand on their hind legs, perform their best trick. In this, what can do but age, look like our parents? I pull a handful of coins from my pants pocket, not sure yet what to do with them. I am learning, but it will take some time. So much to clap for.

 

That lucky old sun has been acting like a real pretentious son-of-a-bitch lately.

Always hiding behind the clouds, poking out every once in a while and giving the snow a few minutes of hell. But he doesn’t want to seem so obvious so he returns to his hiding place, waxing all mysterious and aloof-like, and there I am, standing on some stranger’s muddy front yard, feet soaked and pruned, hips and back throbbing with pain, digging in the pockets of my work pants for a map (which I’ve apparently dropped a mile back) and then my flashlight (which, damn it, I’ve also misplaced) and all I can do is glare at the sky, into that perfect white disk of light shining through the eerie flow of gray, and challenge him to come out and stay out.

And when begging for mercy obviously changes nothing I have only to belittle him. I say to him, “Straight to hell with you if you’re too good for earth!” After all, that lucky old sun, as the song goes, has nothing to do. Why not come on out and defrost my working conditions, my work pants, my goddamn soul, huh?

What I need—what we all need—to alleviate these winter blues is not light therapy, but direct action. You and I, we need to work on beating a good hard path out of our current slumps.

Some of my blues are of a regional variety, eloquently addressed by some guy named Greg Olear. Last June my wife and I uprooted from Illinois and moved to Kentucky. I’ve lived in Illinois for 28 years and now—all of a sudden—I am a Kentuckian. I’ve got the license plates; I drink the bourbon; I bask in the brilliance of John Wall.

But it’s still a little unsettling. I don’t talk like them (though I do love the way they talk); I don’t follow college basketball; and I’m intimidated by horses and Ashley Judd movies.

Even more unsettling is I don’t know how long I’ll be here in Kentucky. Could be another year. Could be another twenty-eight.

All the same, I recently turned 29 years old, which is the real reason I’m bitching. 29 has thus far been a kind of transition period for me. The year in which I should probably figure out some way to grow up just a little more.

The recent moping, the bitching, the self-hatred—these are the natural side effects of what I’ll call youth decay.

As I write this I am imagining more than a few readers (over 30, to be exact) rolling their eyes, cracking their arthritic knuckles, and saying something like, “You’re just a kid” or “Wait till you’re forty”. Well, I understand that perspective, and I willfully acknowledge how precocious and shortsighted complaining about 29 seems. But I don’t care; getting older sucks. I’ll put it plainly: I don’t want to grow up. Not ever, dude.

And what does that mean anyway, to “grow up”? Do the males of the species ever actually grow up?

Can we switch gears, talk some baseball? Major League baseball players statistically (well, sabermetrically) have a window of time wherein they perform at their peak level. This period of time is roughly four years, ranging from 29 to 34. After that, a player’s stock drops considerably. Unless he is preternaturally talented or completely juiced on steroids.

All the great ones defy sabermetrics. At 29 years old, Babe Ruth completed his fifth season with the New York Yankees, wrapping up the year with 200 hits, 46 home runs, and 121 RBIs. He batted a none-too-shabby .378. Ruth’s last year of formidable production occurred in 1932, at the age of 37, when he swatted 41 homers, drove in 137 runs, and batted .341. In the Babe’s subsequent three years—the final years of his career—Ruth’s numbers dropped considerably. The Babe just ran out of juice.

It gets me thinking: have I peaked? (Yes.) Is it all downhill from here? (Maybe.) Will I really be wearing Chuck Taylors and backwards trucker hats at 30, 35? (Of course you will, dumbass.)

Truth is, I really don’t know. And perhaps comparing my intellectual/emotional “career” to that of a professional baseball player’s statistical career is slightly unreasonable. But only slightly. Baseball is all about rules and repetition. Such is life.

29. That’s how old former Chicago Cub Sammy Sosa was when his juicy production blossomed. Sosa’s home run total in 1997, at 28 years old, was a paltry 36. The following year a 29-year-old Sosa belted 66 home runs. 29 was Sammy Sosa’s peak year, arguably the greatest year of his playing career, clean or not.

Allow me to revise my mantra: I need to take direct action toward happiness and I need to consider cheating as a short cut.

Cheating is really the only way to persuade friends and family that my youth decay is not as bad as it seems. How cool would it be if all it took was a simple drop of the drawers and a quick jab at the buttock with a needle? One shot to grant me the power to get away with wearing ironic T-shirts and unkempt hair well into my late thirties! Juice me up!

Are anti-depressants to the game of life what performance-enhancing drugs are to the game of baseball? Unfortunately, self-medication has never worked for me. Which is not to say I’m anti-drug, but I can’t help it; I love to suffer.

“Hi. My name is Justin Benton and I’m addicted to feeling bad.”

There’s no point in masking my bellicose malcontent. The moping, the bitching, the self-hatred, all of it works for me. Whereas getting loaded on fifth of Jack and creeper weed doesn’t really do the trick.

When I think about 29 I am always reminded of Prince Hamlet. Some undersexed academics with nothing better to do have suggested that Prince Hamlet may have been a teenage boy. But I prefer to think of him as a mercurial and whiny 29-year-old Manchild. The kind of guy who is supposed to act his age and step up to the plate, but is not entirely sure if he’s up for it. And, of course, Ham asked the greatest question of them all: what the hell’s the point?

Every hard-thinking, self-hating twenty-something has wondered if to-not-be is better than to-be. I’ve been there, pondered disappearing, suicide, whatever. Wondered—why me? But at some point you’ve just got to grow up and accept that you are here, you exist. So, now, what are you going to do about it?

Me, I’m going to stop pondering not-being and start thinking about what to be.




This is Rock ‘n’ Roll, but not rock ‘n’ roll music. This is some heroin addict losing a thumbnail on a G string, Al Green on his knees, Sleepy John Estes alone beneath a streetlight screaming, “Aaahh’m just a pris’ner!” into a Coors Light bottleneck. This is Mick Jagger finally castrated and Marianne Faithfull juggling his balls and a chainsaw. And this is accordion. Just accordion played by a Zapotec girl in a night alley that has no business being this orange.

You should know this: My wife is asleep in a Oaxaca motel named for the swallows who shit there, and I have what looks like blood on my hands; that the motel has no A/C, and a hot plate where we cooked our dinner, and the blood on my hands is just chioggia beet and not blood. This is nothing like the church group accordion that the upper middle class men played (in lederhosen) when I was a child at Strawberry Fest in Long Grove, Illinois, when polka was still as exotic as whiskey. This is accordion that virtuoso Guy Klucevsek can only swallow with an avant garde sleeping pill and a Transylvanian whore.

I am in Oaxaca City and I have to take a picture of this girl and her accordion, and the red cup that has only one peso in it, and the kids up the street destroying a piñata and eating its sweet organs, the simple pleasures of balloon and lightsticks occupying the children in the Zócalo before they take their shifts behind tarps, bearing clay burros, and yellow scarves, and wool carpets for sale to the tourists.

My wife and I are in Oaxaca trying to find our place in the world again, aged after a year of dealing with our sick parents. We force ourselves to shed hesitancy and over-protectiveness, and all manner of adult things behind food carts steaming with pigs’ heads, girls’ fingers dancing over keys that were never mother-of-pearl. My wife sleeps and I walk, stop for this girl—motherless, pearl-less—and it’s all I can do to pull out my camera.

I’m hungry. For dinner tonight: only two passion fruits and a cherimoya, a sautéed beet, the chile relleno with salsa roja my wife and I split at the Mercado Benito Juarez, passing so many stalls where intestines hang like ribbons. We’ve slept little, listened to so much music. But nothing like this. This tiny voice perched as if on a water-lily, driven by some failing engine—a horsefly with too-wet wings, food for some larger animal with a poisonous tongue. This asthmatic accordion scoring its attempts to fly, right itself; the instrument itself failing, played-out after one too many cigarettes—dirty and ugly and struggling and beautiful. There’s a reason why Tom Waits has a pathos Celine Dion never will. That reason is this girl’s accordion and its emphysema.

It’s all I can do to say, “Foto?” and I feel immediately blasphemous for doing so. You should know this: my wife is asleep and she cried before sleeping. Something to do with the bald old woman selling green maracas. Something to do with her knowing, in likely dream, that her husband is interrupting a nightsong.

She doesn’t stop playing, but nods, her little sister running out of frame, standing beside me hugging my leg and the flash explodes. Only a few months earlier, this street saw the local teachers’ strike lead to violent protests, riots, cars set aflame, rocks hurled, barking guns, military intervention. I wonder where she played then. Now, only the firing of my camera, her little sister hanging on my forearm, reaching to see the photo, her feet off the ground. I’m glad it’s blurry.

On the outskirts of town the streets turn to dirt, three-wheeler moto-taxis, stray dogs and squatter camps in the valley before the mountains. The buildings here spew their exposed steel cables like industrial squid, the cisterns slanted on the roofs, holding, for now, their collected water. I begin to wonder when dark becomes too dark; what the accordion player’s name is. Because I’ll never know, I give her the name I’ve always wanted to give a daughter. This is the word I will wake my wife with.

Returning to town, the bustle has become a chug. The push-carts of ice cream and mezcal and flan in plastic cups return home, their bells feebly ringing. At the cathedral-tops, bells more obese announce the crooked arrival of something holy: music or midnight.

She is gone, but something of her endures—something beyond music and the instrument that acts as intermediary, beyond buttons and bellows and small fingers that can only press. In this accordion is translation. A language that can stave off, just as it ignites. In it is all music—the stuff my wife snores, the shitty Laura Branigan cassettes my mom kept in her car when she was well enough to drive, when Branigan was alive and sexy and rife with the lovely strength required to belt-out crappy songs.

I head for Hotel Las Golondrinas, something of clove and orange peel in the air. Tomorrow, we are going to Santa Maria del Tule, to the church grounds there to see the Montezuma Cypress whose trunk has the greatest circumference of any tree in the world.

My wife is sleeping, so I am quiet when I enter the room. I take a long pull from the ass-pocket of mezcal on my nightstand; the ass-pocket we bought at a market on the grounds of a different church. I need a sink, and its cold water. In the bathroom, I wash the beet from my hands, wonder what the accordion girl will have for breakfast tomorrow. I’m pulling for bananas and cream. I have no idea where she sleeps tonight, or where—if—she wakes up. Because I know there will be a fence around the trunk of that giant tree, because I’ll never know, I knife her name into the bathroom door.