I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

Young men in purple bandannas stare at us, younger mothers with toddlers draped like minks over their necks glare while pumping their worn fists into the air. Who the fuck are we, indeed. In the stomping of countless feet, caught somewhere in the middle of this river of people, our hearts are clobbering our chests, hearts that have seen Chicago, and are now seeing this. An old man so clean-shaven his cheeks bear the sheen of a newborn puts his arms around us, we novelty gringos, and tries to shout something into our ears above the roars of the mob and the megaphones. He fails. His voice reaches us all creaky basement door, wordless and unoiled. His arm feels damp like snakeskin on my neck.

We can’t quite see beyond the crowd now, walled in by scarred bare shoulders and flailing bronze forearms. The sky flashes its body above us, indecent, pleading for beads. Behind us, a strange commotion, panic, defiance, and I pray no one has died. Louisa pulls her blonde hair into a ponytail with her right hand, holds it a moment as if a life-raft, then lets it go. The crowd behind us begins to part, fissured as if by a series of barges with flashing red lights, sirens calling like wounded crows. The police cars charge into the belly of the protest, and a family of twelve, each in straw hats of varying sizes rushes toward the curb to make room for them. Others, behind the squad cars, kick at the slow-going tires, spit onto the rear windshields.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

At set intervals, the cop cars discharge teams of officers in riot gear, machine guns raised in their hands. They begin to line the sidewalks, facing us, trapping us, their guns at us, black-gloved fingers on the triggers. Their heavy boots, jangling belts, underscore our chanting with some evil bass note, dissonant, threatening to kill the song.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“This is not good,” Louisa says.

She’s seen her share of death in South Africa, narrowly escaped two attempted carjackings, guns held to her head both times. The cops’ faces are hidden behind plastic facemasks, pulled down from their helmets. The sun, still above the rooftops, reflects from them. They are faceless, balls of light atop torsos. Their machine guns remain dormant but poised, and I feel nauseas. I burp a quiet breath of pig brain into the wet rear hairline of a middle-aged man in a denim button-down, his cardboard sign bowing forward in the stench, his hands wrapped tightly around the tree branch upon which it’s mounted. I can see the black hairs on his thumbs dance. Alive.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

Miraculously, the crowd ignores the police presence, the machine guns merely baleful par for the murderous course. Tonight, these people—protestors and police alike—will be sopping beans with corn tortilla, sipping bottled beer and fresh watermelon juice and life will go on. This is what I tell myself, but I have to be honest with Louisa.

“No,” I say, it is not.

“We should get out of this,” she says.

But how? The cops have boxed us in, human velvet ropes with bullets inside. This is terrible potential energy, and I try to take momentary refuge in a memory more benign—my junior high penchant for flinging rubber bands against the back of Amanda Berman’s head in Social Studies; the sweet joy of the band stretched back, held, ready, not yet released. Strange how these things amplify. Today, in the emancipation of this potential, we will be machine-gunned. I am not ready to be Amanda Berman, watch people fall like trees; hear shouts morph into screaming. There’s no one here to report these guys to the principal’s office, to call their mothers at work to tell on them, to punish them with a grounding, a ban on T.V. and chewing gum for a full week.

“I know,” I answer, but panic about the how.

The protest takes a right turn and we are obliged to turn with it, part of something larger now.

Defender la educación pública! No a la militarización!

“And I’ve got to take a shit,” Louisa says, and in an instant, all perspective seems to shift away from the probable danger, and toward the celebration of all human things. We are still alive in Mexico City, young, stupid, bidding some—albeit misguided and overzealous—goodbye to the shell-selves we became in Chicago. We are being filled up again, injected with lead. Yes: Public education should be defended without military-lead recompense. An old woman waves her colorful sign in our faces and, as she pulls it back, holds it over her head like some digesting pelican, whistles what sounds like the Beatles’ “Let it Be,” barely audible over the crowd’s incantations.

And when the broken-hearted people living in the world agree,

there will be an answer…

As she passes, disappears into the sea, I see, plastered to the stone of streetside building, the blue sign depicting our location. Avenida Cinco de Mayo. And up the street, perhaps a mere 50 feet away, the shabby black and white beacon: Hotel Rioja. The river has led us home.

Taking Louisa’s hand, slick with marching sweat, we jump the line, push through the protesters, fragments of hair-bun, orange shirt sleeve, bedsheet corner, sandal, hat brim, moustache, young breath, wrinkled hand, and make for the curbs, lined with the police, and the promised land of sidewalk beyond, now larded with onlookers.

Por favor, por favor, por favor, por favor, lo siento, lo siento, gracias, con permeso, por favor…

When we approach the police blockade, we don’t think, just move.

Hola, hola, por favor… Gringos coming through…muster your dumbest smile, wave, even… Hola, hola, gracias, por favor…

We push between two flashlight-faced officers, the ample butts of their machine guns tapping our triceps. They are heavy and cold, but we are through, into the realm of the sidewalk spectators, one of whom is Juan Pérez. He sees us, and waves both hands over his head. He is in the Rioja’s doorway, one of his cinderblock feet on the inside tile, the other on the sidewalk, split. Louisa and I rush to him. He is today, our grandfather. While Louisa runs into the sepulchral lobby for the stairwell and our tiny room, her steps resonant and yawning, I stand with the man watching the crowd pound past, on and on and on, all of the earth collected into this one street now, oozily deist, and, perhaps it’s only because we’re in front of a hotel, and because we’re leaving, but something invisible that once surrounded us, warm, but suffocating, lifts, evaporates, checks-out.

You don’t like “The Doors” as much as you think you do. Jim Morrison was outrageously gorgeous, I grant you. His nipples are about the most perfect things God ever created. You know that picture where he’s all Christ-like, arms outstretched, pleading to be strung up like the original man on the cross with his quintet of bursting wounds that Thursday (or Wednesday or Friday, however you do your crucifictional math) long ago? Yes, he’s a perfect specimen in many ways, but I’m fed up to the ears with people giving that ultimately maudlin and bloated old sot more credit than he deserves. That’s why we stole from him. That’s why. And we were drug addicts.

It’s different now, but back then, we’d have to jaunt over to France to get our tourist visas back in effect. These trips were often fraught with more rigmarole than art-gazing at the Louvre or posing as “The Thinker” in front of “The Thinker” or whatever it is people do in Paris. On our first train ride into the Gare du Nord, I was beset by an explosive gastro-intestinal ailment that saw my friend James and I running for what we thought was our lives down the train tracks leading out from the station into what looked like scorched earth. Where is Paris? What’s around it? If you ever discharge the contents of your bowels all over the wall of the completely foreign bathroom facilities at the Gare du Nord and have to run for your life, you’ll see what I mean. James and I sat at the train station for hours, as James was convinced that the train station was probably the best place to score hash. He had a preternatural ability to find drugs, so I trusted him. Furthermore, I couldn’t travel more than a few steps without running furiously to the WC.

“Number one or number two?” asked the large, black bathroom attendant. She had a nobility to her, even dressed as some kind of European translation of how an antebellum servant might have appeared.

“Number two,” I said sheepishly. The woman gave me a single sheet of single ply toilet paper and I entered the, faute de mieux, restroom. This restroom consisted of a vertical wall of porcelain, at the bottom of which was a small drain, giving one the idea that the French shit in impossibly small portions. I dropped my pants and tried to be quiet and discreet and French about the whole affair. Snake eyes. My bowels roared with a thunderclap and I soiled the entirety of the porcelain, managing to befoul the adjacent wall as well. Humiliating. I discarded the piece of toilet paper, hiked up my pants and walked gingerly back to where James was looking for an Algerian named Carlos who had promised to come back with a chunk of hashish.

“James, I just shit all over the place.”

“Like in the terminal? What are you saying?”

“No, I made it to the bathroom, but I exploded all over the wall.”

“Serves the French right. Where is this goddamned Algerian?”

“I didn’t wipe.”

“Solid. Don’t stand so close to me. Hey, that reminds me. What’s a Frenchman’s favorite expression?”

“I don’t know James.”

“C’mon guess.”

“I don’t know. I give up.”

“Exactly.” James laughed his laugh and I was marginally appalled at this half-assed joke. James stewed around as I sat nervously, fetidly.

“Hey look, dude. When you find Carlos the Algerian, I’ll be hovering around the bathroom, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. Whatever. I’ll find you.” I repeated my performance in two other bathrooms in the Gare du Nord. I went back to find James. He was gone. I had to go again. I went back to the scene of my original crime against decency and was asked again by the noble Frenchwoman, “Number one or number two?” I thought about how terrible it was that even in Europe, they stick the black people by the toilet. Have you ever seen a white bathroom attendant? I haven’t either. I ruminated on this for a moment, my liberal leanings seeping out like so much shit, I thought to give her a life-changing tip. I didn’t know what that was. I had little money. When does a tip become life-changing? You hear about it. Some waitress gets a $20,000 tip from some greasy old man and it’s off to the races, probably. Off to lose it all at the races. As I was barraged with this charge of magnanimity, a look of recognition came over the bathroom attendant’s face. Then a look of ferocity. Then this:

“Putain! Fucking American you shit all over the toilet and you don’t clean it. You shit all over like a fucking animal. You shit all over my house!” My house? That can’t be right. I felt terribly. I don’t know why I tried to speak back in French. Maybe let her know I wasn’t THE shitty, shitting American.

Mon Dieu manquez Je suis désolée, je ne sais pas comment les choses fonctionnent en France, je suis comme un idiot. Puis je vous aider à quelque chose? Tu dois croire que je ne voulais pas le faire. C’est mon estomac. Il n’y a rien de personnel à propos de cette merde. Je suis désolé!”

“Tuez-le!” she shouted, and began to run at me. Both stomach ailments and fear pulsing through me, I ran shittily away, toward a train platform that looked empty, followed by the bathroom attendant and a cadre of her fellows.

“James! James! James!” I ran screaming through the Gare du Nord. I made some distance from the angry bathroom attendant horde (to the French’s credit, all the other bathroom attendants chasing me were white, something that made me feel a little better in real-time and in retrospect). I jumped off of the platform and onto the track toward nothingness, toward away from Paris, away from the Gare du Nord. As he always did for me, James appeared by my side, running with me out into nothingness. No questions, no nothing. This time he ran with me, not away from me. He looked back to see what in the smash was happening and at the sight of a half-dozen antebellum servants shaking their fists and running toward us had divined what happened. He began to laugh and fell on the train tracks in paroxysms of joy. For, what greater joy is there than laughing at the laughable shortcomings and peccadilloes of your friends? Admit it. There is nothing more pleasing. Nothing more tender.

With Carlos the Algerian nowhere to be found, my pants soiled beyond recognition and a credit card, I insisted we take a taxi and find a hostel, somewhere we could regroup.

“We’re not taking any cocksucking taxi, T”

“I’ll pay for it, James. Come the hell on. I’m covered in shit.”

“Just walk it off, man.”

“Walk it off? I don’t have a sprained ankle, dickhead. I need a shower.”

“No taxis. I have an idea.”

“You’re going to dump me in the Seine? Man, I need soap!”

“No, I know where we can get some weed. Not hash, man. Trees!”

“Fuck trees, James. Can’t you smell me?”

“I don’t know. All of Paris smells like shit. People will just think you’re a dog, or stepped in dog shit. See? You just did.” I had.

“What’s the plan, dope fiend?”

“Where is that cemetery, the famous one?”

“Père Lachaise?”

“Is that where Jim Morrison is buried?”

“Yes.”

“Alright, peep this, playboy. I read in the guidebook that greasy hippies leave joints and acid and all sorts of shit on his grave. I know how you hate The Doors and I could care less.”

“Mother, I want to fuck you?”

“Don’t say that.”

“It’s from ‘The End.’”

“Anyway, how far away are we from it?”

“I have no idea.”

“We’re taking the bus.” James rifled through our guide book and discovered some bus route that would allegedly deposit us at the cemetery. By some stretch of fortune, we got on the bus and made our way to the famous resting place. James was kind enough to let me borrow his bottle of “Cool Water” cologne, which I sprayed all over my pants. I now smelled like Cool Water and shit, but it was better than nothing and the bus passengers didn’t seem to mind. But then, even in France, how do you confront somebody covered in feces? Some people in the world are just left alone.

We bought a site map at the entrance off the Boulevard de Menilmontant.

“Jesus, there’s some famous dead motherfuckers up in here.”

“Yep,” I added, a little tentative about robbing Jim Morrison’s post-mortem drug cache. We walked along the southeast side of the cemetery and found Morrison’s grave. It was covered in flowers, graffiti, torn pieces of paper with Morrison-esque poems written on them; some had actual song lyrics printed on them. And, as promised, there were, in front of his bust, at least a dozen joints and sundry other items of drug paraphernalia to ostensibly keep Jim loaded during the afterlife. There was also a full handle of Jack Daniel’s, which appealed to me. Who knew how long these joints had been there? When did it last rain? Whiskey you can count on. My interest was piqued. The problem was, along with all the dead rock stars’ booty were about a half-dozen worshipers, all lathered in patchouli and the requisite Guatemalan/Tibetan neo-hippie attire, sun dresses, he-sarongs, and of course, some prick with a didgeridoo, and a retinue of confused people singing the words to ‘The Crystal Ship’ along with the bizarre tempo produced by this horrible “instrument.” The didgeridoo is, in and of itself, perfectly fine, but when put into the hands of a young American on some kind of hallucinogen sporting those nauseating white person dreadlocks is unforgivably offensive. Non-aboriginal people who play the didgeridoo are fit for nothing more than violent extinction. Also, it’s hard to run with a didgeridoo.

James and I assessed the situation. “One, two, three, four….oh, come the hell on, T. It doesn’t matter how many of them there are. You grab the Jack Daniel’s because I know you’ve been eyeing it and I’ll scoop up all the joints and whatever other shit I can fit in my hands. Then we run north.”

“Why north?”

“That just seems like something people say before a heist. Besides, we don’t have a safe house or a, uh…”

“Home base,” I ventured.

“No, something more gangster, but fuck it. Are you ready?” James asked.

“Which way is north?”

“Aw, man. Just follow me.”

“What if we get split up?”

“T, you’re acting like a bitch right now. If we get split up, we’ll meet at the bottom of the Eiffel Tower, how’s that? How do you say Eiffel Tower in French?”

“Tour Eiffel.”

“Ok, then.” I knew James would be the first to make the dash toward the loot, so I tried to dart toward Morrison’s headstone first. James and I then crashed into each other violently, both of us falling on top of his grave.

“Hey, man…be peaceful!” shouted an American.

“Oye…tranquilo, colegas!” a Spaniard.

“Faites gaffe!” a Frenchwoman. Then an indecipherable squeal of admonitions, as James scooped up everything non-alcoholic and I, everything else. I got up first and ran to what I thought was north. I carried a 1.75 liter bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a few airline bottles of rum, brandy and maybe gin, which I dropped as I ran into Frederic Chopin. I wasn’t sure if I’d been followed, but by the time I reached Apollinaire, then turned toward Marcel Proust, I saw I was being chased only by a portly security guard. I guess he was on liquor patrol, but I wasn’t too worried because he looked as if he were flagging after I made a sharp right and hid next to a bush and Isadora Duncan. I figured James had been pursued by the druggies and that was okay. James was fast and agile. I imagined him driving toward the exit and toward the Tour Eiffel like Kobe Bryant driving through stoned defenders—a total mismatch. Of course, James was extremely tall—a drawback in France, and at Père Lachaise. I took a long draw from the bottle of Jack Daniel’s behind Oscar Wilde and rested for a brief moment, when I saw James playing fugitive pinball between Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein and Edith Piaf, his unmistakable big, reddish coif running back and forth in shortened bursts. I thought to advise him to run toward Molière, but in retrospect I think that may have just been the desire to be the first person to utter the phrase “Run toward Molière!” at least since the 17th century.

There had been too much violence during our stay in Spain, in Europe. I did not want James to punch a hippie and neither did I. Not to mention, there was at least one security gendarme hot on my trail. Who knows what would have happened had I shouted “Run toward Molière!” but I didn’t and instead I took my shitty pants off, rhino charged the group of hippies and whipped them with my crappy Levi’s, again and again. The young man with the didgeridoo (who was brandishing it like a primitive lightsaber) dropped it and it broke into pieces. I heard a whistle from behind us (there are always whistles going off in France) and looked at James. He, too, put his head down now that the most threatening weapon had broken (aside from my pants, which I spun around my head like a helicopter.

James and I finally made it out an entrance onto the Rue de Bagnolet. We were now both covered in filth, but at least I had abandoned my pants and now ran down the streets of Paris in sandals and boxers given to me by my mother that featured sumo wrestlers in various attack poses. We ran aimlessly, laughing, panting. We came across a Métro station, Alexandre Dumas. So many famous dead. We jumped on and headed back to what James insisted was west.

“This takes us to the Arc de Triomphe, if we take it to the end of the line” James said.

“Then let’s,” I said. I passed James the bottle of whiskey and he took a long draw.

“We have joints, too, but I’m not going to fuck with that on the Métro.” Sometimes you never know if things have gone colossally wrong, or right. We traveled along the 2 Line in grinning silence.

The cold air from the Métro air conditioning felt good on my naked legs.

We’ve been on the sidewalk for five minutes and have moved about fifty feet. Pedestrian traffic on this main thoroughfare near Mexico City’s Zócalo is at its rush hour peak. We turn around, as if searching for a way out, some secret exit ramp, some side alley that will carry us like the matron saint of shortcuts, to a breakfast table and a bosomy pair of steaming mugs. Instead, over the tight parade of purposeful people, we see fat-handed Juan Pérez, beaming his biggest smile of the day, leaning against the doorway of the Rioja, watching our backs.

He sees us turn and raises his arms over his head about to take flight, or, flight-lazy, command the sky and its tenants—sun, moon, stars, Venus—to come to him, drop themselves into his ample palms and drive us walkers to some eternal fiery last meal. He shakes his arms, shuddering in their dress shirt sleeves, and Louisa and I do the same, nearly getting trampled in the process. We right ourselves, face forward again, and immediately miss the sight of our new friend, some good luck charm in concierge clothing.

On a lark—Skylark, Crested Lark, Calandra Lark, whichever species croons the most extravagant coffee-song—Louisa and I push a group of teenagers aside, hip-check their outermost member, and turn left from Avenida Cinco de Mayo onto the slightly less crowded Calle de Monte de Piedad. We read in some guidebook that there’s a restaurant near here that, when available, serves huitlacoche omelets.

We became obsessed with huitlacoche in the first few months of our relationship, having supped on it in Chicago two nights after Louisa met my family for the first time. We stole away to Frontera Grill, just the two of us, Chicago’s famed authentic Mexican restaurant, and were lifted into orbit by the plateful of the oil-black huitlacoche crepes with rich poblano crema. Seeking it out with obsessed fever since then in Mexican groceries throughout Chicago, we could only find it canned—still delicious, but leagues away from the explosiveness of the fresh stuff.

Huitlacoche, revered by many, reviled by many more, is also know as corn smut, dirty, evil, guilty pleasure of the fields, temptress blight, husked pornography… It is a greasy black fungus that results from maize disease, routinely cursed and trashed in American farming, but greeted with biblical gratitude in the fields of Mexico. Linguistically, as seems typical in Mexico, the gravity of such gratitude is coupled with an affirming observational humor; huitlacoche directly translates from Nahuatl into English as raven shit. Louisa and I know it as the truffle of Mexico.

We knew this would happen—that we would come here and spend many an hour, most of them likely fruitless, crisscrossing the city in search of fresh huitlacoche, affirming something ourselves: that after a year trapped in Chicago beneath the wet cloak of mother-disease, each action damped by death—driving, watching television, eating—we still have the ability to revise our priorities, to again shove taste upward, and climb, even if over a mountain of bones, to reclaim it.

And climb we do with protesting stomachs, lean headaches whistling for café con leche, along the shopfronts of Calle de Monte de Piedad—doorless convenience stores peddling magazines, thin-wrappered candies, cans of beer, middle-aged women with suckling infants strapped diagonally to their flanks with green scarves selling woven change-purses and belt buckles on the sidewalks in front.

Soon, the crowd clots like blood, the entire city wounded it seems, and it’s up to us, we melee-ensconced foot travelers, to see, with our body heat alone, that it doesn’t turn septic.

“Why have we stopped moving?” Louisa asks, her voice thick with desperation, all sustenance seeming further and further away now, as supernatural demands are placed upon us walkers to do the sustaining.

I wipe the sweat from my forehead and swear I can hear the stamping of combat boots, a massive collection of angry chants. I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, and panicked; I wish Juan Pérez were here to explain, to smooth the edges of this human blanket and turn everything placid again. I wish the people we loved would never get sick.

The crowd pushes together and soon, we’re in the middle of a street protest, bulldozed forward and to the right. I reach for Louisa’s hand before we can get separated and wonder if those feeding infants can make it through this, still cling fast to the breast. She catches my thumb and uses it to scale my arm. The line of people leading the protest pushes through in the street, carrying signs painted onto bedsheets, words that I can not read. They shout into their megaphones, and the following mob repeats their credo in deafening unison. Banners are tossed into the air, along with bottles and water balloons.

All side streets pour into this one, everyone interrupting their day to see what’s happening. Pedestrians—single, couple, family—stop along the sidewalks and curbs to watch. A father hoists his daughter onto his shoulders so she can see the throng simultaneously hoisting their fists into the air as if striking some invisible overhead drum. People stop and take their breakfasts standing up against the shopfronts, arrested, a multitude of tacos, enchiladas, tamales, held aloft, stopped short on the way from hand to mouth. The tiny women on the street corners freeze in front of their hot comals, their fresh rounds of masa dough only half-pressed into tortillas.

The call-and-response continues in rhythm, some of the marchers bearing angry faces, some excited smiles. And in between such extremes, the breaking of glass, and popping of balloon rubber, urgency and innocence commingle and take Louisa and me into their embrace. Our hearts are boiling and our mouths are confused—Scream? Smile?

What they don’t do, is chew, sip, kiss. But they will again, and will again soon. Yes: this is a place of gravity, gratitude, affirmation, humor, and faith. Faith that food will again fill us, coffee will keep us from sleeping on our feet. We will live today to change our socks, ascend the Rioja stairwell, this time as if from the penetralia of the earth.

The marchers pass, the megaphone sparkling now two blocks away. Louisa and I look to each other and don’t say a word. Somewhere above, a big black bird must be releasing into this world its holy shit, carrying with it the essential nature of division and protest, and we know, we just know, bedsheet-less and without bullhorn, still far below all plummeting excrement, that we will find our elusive huitlacoche. Looking up, we do with our mouths the only thing we can. We open them.

I wasn’t sure how to categorise this little number – memoir or fiction? The people, places and background are all real enough, but I can state with certainty that the scene recounted here never happened and is therefore, technically, fiction.

 

Not long ago, on a frigid December morning in the heart of Korea, I was walking to work while in front of me an old woman pushed her cart. She looked indistinguishable from any other old Korean woman – wearing mismatched baggy floral garments, a visor in spite of the complete absence of any sunlight, a face mask to protect her from invisible germs that fly over from foreign countries, and a pair of dirty white gloves.

She was about ten paces ahead of me when it happened… All of a sudden she whipped down her baggy floral trousers and giant brown underpants and proceeded to squeeze out a massive shit on the frosty pavement, followed by a splattering, spraying, steaming puddle of piss.

I was utterly horrified, of course, and for the next two hours I taught my children upstairs in a classroom, the window of which overlooked the scene of the crime. That cabbagey behemoth stared up at me until someone was kind enough to step in it and carry it into obscurity on the bottom of their shoe.