StarTribune — Poor Circulation

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I wonder if somebody at the StarTribune newspaper has a grudge against me.  For the umptienth time since last fall the daily carrier skipped my delivery.

I phone it in.  I know the number by heart, it’s been the same since I was a paperboy.  Mostly I connect to the VRU — voice response unit, the automated system — but sometimes it forwards me to a live customer service rep.  The VRU accepts verbal responses to given questions, including phone number and house number.  I don’t trust the voice word recognition system.  It seemed prone to loops of misinterpretation, and don’t dare cough — I’m sorry, would you repeat that?  I prefer to key my information from the keypad — numbers pertaining to explicit answers like 1 – delivery problem, 2 – no paper.  1 – yes I would like them to send a paper.

When the VRU forwards me to a live customer service rep I wonder if the computer has flagged me as a frequent caller or if the VRU itself is just overloaded just then.  The lady whose voice transacts the VRU business sounds a bit disingenuous, and I might say a little poochy and a mote insincere, and after numerous calls and careful study a bit untrustworthy and unempathetic, so it’s okay with me to get forwarded to a real person to whom I verbalize the story.

The person always apologizes as he or she verifies my name and address.  You might think this is a perfect opportunity to rant and rave.  Maybe so.  I’ve been at the receiving end, I used to work at the circulation department of that very same newspaper and heard out the most vociferous complaints you could imagine and entertained the most uncivil language ever spoken.  I listened without interrupting, at least until they repeated themselves twice and it was time to recap the call and bring it to conclusion — redelivery or credit and a note to the DM (district manager) — and a thank you for their business if they didn’t hang up on me first.  Yes, in my time I was a customer care legend and when supervisors were busy, and sometimes when they weren’t, they would transfer hot calls to me and I would endure the customer rage and seek service satisfaction, acknowledge mistakes and propose improvement.  They called me HotKall Kelly.

When I call in these days and get referred to a real person it’s about six after six in the morning in my time zone, usually a Monday, and my mind needs a jump start, no newspaper and who knows where this person on the other end of the phone exists — used to be downtown Minneapolis, could be Iowa or South Dakota, I never ask — whose duty it is to report no paper at my address and to initiate a special delivery, maybe jot a note to the carrier with a cc to the DM and ask if there is anything else he or she could do.

When this issue of missed deliveries first emerged as a pattern last fall and I spoke to a live rep I asked if she noticed anything on the record about disruption on the route.  Was it an open route — no permanent carrier — a sub — substitute carrier — or a down route — something fishy going on like the carrier didn’t show up.  A guy who said he was the DM brought a replacement paper one day when I happened to be on the porch and he apologized for the bad service — I was getting missed days in a row at that time, and when it did come it was tossed casually on the lawn, not placed on the porch — and he explained it was an open route, looking for a regular carrier, and soon everything would be regular again.  That didn’t happen and I kept calling it in.  A special driver would bring a paper to my porch, usually by nine or nine thirty — thump.  And sometimes I would get a callback from someone at the paper asking if the special delivery arrived, and I could say yes, thank you — please fix my route.

When I call in and get routed to a live rep it’s always interesting to get somebody fresh working the phones.  They um a lot and stall while they type their keyboards, and when they get me and see on their screens the delivery history and its commentary I can almost see them look pleadingly at their monitoring supervisors and cringe, getting ready for the barrage of articulated recriminations to come.  And then I ask if it’s still an open route, and the person says no there’s a regular carrier.  I ask if my delivery code on my subscription is still Front Porch (code 9 I think) and the person confirms.  I ask they please remind the carrier to deliver here every day, on the porch, please cc the DM, send me a paper by special driver and thank you very much.  I’m thinking the stats speak for themselves.

Lately when the VRU kicks me to a live rep I don’t even bother feigning a mood of interest in the carrier’s well being.  By now I sense animosity and am willing to accept bygones if only I could count on delivery in some form, but nothing but the plain facts gets discussed with the phone rep.  It’s not his or her fault, it’s the carrier.  I laugh when I remember the olden days when we used to offer the carrier’s phone number so you could call the carrier directly and say, hey, where’s my paper?  Today it’s best to limit the service discussion to business professional terms and not even joke about any incendiary thoughts about the carrier’s motives.  Today revenge is not funny.

If there is comedy in any of this it is in the pattern of defiance and my reaction.  The daily carrier — Monday-Friday — the past eight months, despite my constant reports, keeps skipping my house two or three times a month, usually Mondays.  And when the paper does get delivered it can be found in the front yard or on the sidewalk, never ever on the front porch per the placement code on the customer profile which prints on the route list.

The weekend carrier, by contrast, Saturday and Sunday always puts the paper on the porch at the front door, and has been doing this for several years.  His name is Gonzalez I believe, from writing him tip checks in response to his Christmas fliers, and he drives an old Chevy Blazer with a bad muffler.  He used to have an assistant, a teenage girl, who used to zip out of the car and up the sidewalk to the porch and back like a cat.  He’s been working alone a few years now but every weekend he faithfully stops his Blazer, gets out and treads up steps to my sidewalk and wings the paper onto the porch.  He’s an older guy, maybe older than me.  When I’m up — the weekend delivery deadline is seven — I go out and meet him, say good morning, take the paper in the baggie from his hand, say thank you.

The daily carrier, M-F, barely seems to get out of the car and for all that has a rag arm, can’t seem to get the paper even close to the house.  Every day both carries enfold the paper within a promotional plastic bag, which keeps the paper dry against rain and snow.  Unless it lands in a puddle with the bag wide open in a rainstorm.  (The bags can be recycled at Cub Foods or used to pick up poop if you have a dog.)  I don’t know when the daily carrier swings by but it’s either way early or not at all.  Always too stealthy to wake me up.  I think maybe if I see this person in person I can get inside their head and figure out why they have so little regard for me receiving the paper.

I used to deliver the Minneapolis Star after school when I went to St Simon of Cyrene, sixth, seventh and eighth grade.  Picked my papers up at the shack at 64th and Lyndale.  My big tire bicycle had saddle baskets.  Big thick Wednesdays I might pull a wagon.  Or a sled.  Sometimes I just trudged with sling strap sacks crossed over my shoulders like bandoliers on a pack mule.  Every day.  The evening Star carriers had the extra privilege of delivering the Sunday Tribune.  The daily Tribune was a morning paper, Monday through Saturday delivery — the Tribune carriers got Sundays off.  Most Sundays my dad drove me on the route — neither one of us glad to be up at five a.m.

Rain, snow, thirty below zero Fahrenheit or a hundred degrees above and 80% relative humidity, I delivered the Star door to door nine blocks a day.  About 72 dailies and 80 Sundays.  I’m no martyr either.  I was making good moolah, enough to finance a cool wardrobe and a collection of 60’s rock records.  I read the product every day, free.  The tips were generous, at Christmas phenomenal.  All I had to do was pick up my papers at the shack and deliver them door to door nine blocks on a residential route two blocks from the shack.  Every day.  No matter what.

If I screwed up I could count on getting reamed by my DM, Mr Layton, who cruised his district in a green Ford LTD.  He dressed like Sid Hartman in a suit and tie and a beige trenchcoat.  He had white hair cut in a flatop and wore a gray green fedora so you usually could just see his shaved temples.  You saw him coming and you better be busy, not flirting with the girls who lived along the route.  I liked to be one of his choir boys or stay under his radar, so I did my route right and paid my bill on time every two weeks.

The DM who delivered my paper last November wore a North Face vest, jeans, flannel and a wool hat.  Haven’t seen or heard from him since.  Can’t describe his car.  Mine might be a highly unprofitable route, and I might be the only daily customer (left) on the block (the weekend route has a few subscribers among my neighbors, I can tell by the sounds of Mr Gonzalez’s Blazer.)  It would seem my M-F subscription is a write-off.

Lately when I call in about a missed paper, no matter what assurance I’m given the paper will be redelivered it does not come.  When I worked in circulation we would dispatch redeliveries to people we called Special Drivers who worked territories in their own cars who were equipped with radios to call in and get addresses for missed papers.  Today one would expect the Special Drivers would get their redelivery lists via smart phone.  Lately I’ve been encouraged by the paper to contact it on line at their dot com, so I have learned how to access my account to register my missed paper and request redelivery.  I do it on line more as a redundancy to the phone, and at first superstitiously because the first time I went online to report a missed paper and request redelivery the paper arrived within the hour, wow this must be the way to go — the redelivery is pledged by 11:30 a.m., same day.  Beyond that you can only get credit.  Sure.  So lately I’ve been logging in again later in the day to get the credit.  Tom Petty might say the Special Driver don’t come around here no more.

There’s a local monthly ragsheet comes out every month called Southside Pride.  Put out by a guy named Ed Felien, a lifelong Minneapolis southsider, one time alderman, who refers to himself as an unapologetic Maoist, the paper prints local ads, covers neighborhood events and runs stories critical of government, private business, law enforcement, education and all facets of the establishment, all presented in civil prose and an almost naive format.  Faithfully and without fail the carrier for Southside Pride puts the paper in front of my door on my front porch.  No wasteful plastic bag, just rolled up and bound by a (reusable) rubber band to keep it from blowing away, placed safely under the shelter of my porch against rain and snow.  Faithfully and without fail.

Monday – Friday with the StarTribune it’s always iffy when I get up around six and unlock the front door.  Most days it’s a relief to see an orange or yellow or green baggie out there somewhere.  When there isn’t I am now conditioned not to expect one at all that day.  Lately Mondays.  Someone could argue there’s rarely news on Monday mornings, no business news, usually just fluff from the weekend or things you already know, but I still would rather not miss a day — you never know.  Sometimes a decent essay shows up on the opinion page when least expected.  Or letter from a reader.  Monday is the day LK Hanson’s cartoons lampoon goons and buffoons.

Is this any way to treat a loyal reader?  I keep musing about writing directly to the publisher, Glen Taylor.  It’s an LOL moment too because it reflects the inaccessibility of the StarTribune’s circulation and distribution system by the subscriber.  On its webpage where it says Contact Us leads you to a street address you can mail them a letter and both a local and a long-distance toll free phone number — but no email.  No comments box.  No digital way to write a delivery complaint in your own words.  The home page may offer options to make editorial comments and newsroom feedback but for delivery issues everything is fundamentally obscure to access, and once clicked it defaults to Damaged Paper as the first option, as if offering the carrier an alibi will encourage the customer to think twice before calling the carrier a deadbeat.

When I used to collect from customers face to face and door to door every two weeks it cost $2.40 for seven day delivery for two weeks.  Today two weeks costs $17.62.  And now it’s prepaid, in 13 week increments.  We used to collect for delivery in arrears.  Prepaids were rare luxuries, though prepaids didn’t tip.

Everybody knows there are cheaper and more immediate and often customized sources to get news, and if the StarTribune collects news at all it is self-aware.  With a measure of conceit and a concession to old fashioned readers like me they put out an e-edition that mimics the hard copy I get at home, page for page.  Recent subscription policy says when we put the delivery on hold when we are away — a vacation stop — charges to the account continue, and in lieu of the paper paper they allow a daily and weekend view of the e-edition we can log into on wi-fi.  Otherwise a subscription to the e-edition alone is same as the print edition.  I pony up because the StarTribune’s version of the news is worthy.

My son on the other hand generally disagrees.  He says the StarTribune publishes dogwhistle stories, which means to him they deliberately hook a slant into their reporting which is meant to stir controversy from either side and bait debate.  So, I say, so what?  And nonetheless he keeps reading it in digital format, making him I guess an informed expert in what he’s saying.

I respect the reporters and writers and the integrity of the editorial staff.  I appreciate the content of stories appropriated from big sources such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, AP, Reuters, Bloomberg and the Economist.  They have not one but two high-end music critics, one for older fans and one for younger.  They got a smart sports department.  The arts and letters coverage aims at insight.  I think they check the facts, not check the facts at the door.

The word Star means point of light or top performer.  The word Tribune comes from a concept of being a representative of the populace, an advocate for the people.  Aptly named, the StarTribune excels (shines) at standing up for its community.  Some call it a liberal newspaper.  My son says it promotes dogwhistle content.  The way I see it, any newspaper reporting facts that authorities try to hide is a liberal press, and I agree with HL Mencken journalism should afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.  When everyone approves of every story then it’s a sign it isn’t being honest.

The owner and publisher, Glen Taylor, a long established local tycoon in the printing business and latter day owner of the NBA Timberwolves and defending WNBA champion Lynx, is said to be a Republican, but there is no discernible political party bias in the paper’s news, features or editorials, just an overt reaction to liberal bias by conservative compensation where due, a pledge to keep the debate fair.  And civil.  To think Taylor isn’t looking head-on down the road of print journalism and seeing the niche limitations fading away like AM radio sells his business acumen short.  The StarTribune newspaper of ink and paper will likely evolve itself out of existence, starting apparently with a service shortage on the east side of south Minneapolis.

The paper gave up its downtown real estate and storied presence in the physical corpus of the city and became another virtual concept with a logo and brand recognition renting office space in a skyscraper.  The times they are a changing, I get that, especially here in the old home town.  Since the Cowles family heirs cashed out their shares in Cowles Media there have been a bunch of guardian publishers like McClatchy who took the rap when the StarTribune kept downsizing to keep up with increasing costs and decreasing revenues in the newspaper business, stripping itself down, turning itself into the Strib.  Alas somebody had to take the fall of unpopularity without fouling against union contracts in place and stiffing readers and writers.  The ethical survival of the paper into the 21st century must have taken a strong measure of dedication to preserve its relevance in the age of video.  Enter now the digital age of devices, whereas yours truly prefers information on printed pages of paper I recycle.  Somebody still goes to the computerized trouble to budget and format over half a million daily copies.  One anticipates the Star Tribune isn’t going to fold any time soon.

I would prefer not to be driven away from subscribing.  I get up before dawn, even in June, the longest days, and I look forward to jump starting my mind reading the morning paper.  I worked my whole adult life after 26 to become a morning person just to retire and find myself slept enough at the first glimmer of civil twilight, the first birdsongs, to want to get up, brew coffee (if the auto timer hasn’t activated yet) and go to the front door, open it to the porch and look for the paper, read what’s going on.

It makes me sad after all the trouble the production staff went to produce and distribute a first rate, sophisticated daily metropolitan newspaper, my copy gets missed and nobody cares, nobody’s looking out for me, it’s just too bad.  They’re sorry.  They can credit me a little over a dollar per missed daily, extending the prepaid subscription another daily.  My ultimate recourse, of course, is to quit the paper.  Obviously nobody’s bonus is tied to keeping my subscription.

I might write a letter to Glen Taylor though.  It’s an old tactic I’ve seen before, hot calls demanding to speak to the publisher when it used to be Roger Parkinson.  Saw the same tactic when I worked for a bank and the outraged customers demanded to talk to the president, Jim Campbell.  Or if they merely wrote a letter to said big boss, it would get handed off to a vice president who might hand it off to me to solve and present to another vice president to manage and send the matter back to somebody to compose a letter under the boss’s name addressed to the complainant, which might be as much as would happen over the telephone except any real involvement with the big boss — unless the complainant used threats of bodily harm, and then it was time to invoke security procedures.  Today even the tiniest innuendo could evoke a visit from the FBI.

Instead I’ll just post this essay and hope no one retaliates by cutting off my circulation.

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BK

 

 

X Marks the Spot

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We live in a sketchy neighborhood.  Growing up, our daughter Michel used to call it the ghetto, but it isn’t, she was just being teenage urban dramatic.  Ghetto in America is synonymous with slums, and this is not a slum.  I have since learned that in Rome, the Ghetto, with a capital G, is one of the classiest old neighborhoods of the city along its bank of the Tiber.  In Prague, on the other hand, the ghetto not so classy an image, or in Warsaw.

What Michel meant was she was self-consciously aware of growing up in the inner city.  Though she literally accused me of risking her and our family’s lives by taking up residence here, our lives didn’t turn out too bad at all.  She and her brother Vincent both graduated South High, just a couple blocks from here.  I suppose for them it was one thing to attend one of the most prestigious urban public high schools but another thing to actually live in the hood where it’s located.  Our town was labeled Murderapolis then for its gangster homicides and it tainted us all.  A police officer was assassinated at a pizza shack not half a mile up Lake St.  I could not help but have serious misgivings about my surroundings in three decades and more at this homestead, and still Roxanne and I abide.

Ever on the cusp of gentrification, our neighborhood gets skipped by in the urban landscape for the more chic and toni parts of town, so old houses with solid bones like ours remain affordable on the local real estate market mixed with lower rents in line with a muti-housing market accustomed to being a low rent district on the Monopoly board.

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Corcoran Neighborhood, thank you Google

It’s not a high crime area.  It’s not immune to crime.  Statistics show public safety around here is pretty high.  We are not specimens, however much we are an organic community of leftovers, homebodies, meanderers and nobodies sharing space on a trapezoidal map called Corcoran.  Nobody moves here to be hip or find redemption, and certainly not to speculate in real estate.  There’s an invisibleness, anonymity to this location.  A comfort zone of neutrality.

When we meet people when we travel and they ask us where we live we say Minneapolis, and they then ask which suburb.  Roxanne and I seem to strike some people as suburban, and some of them guess, Plymouth, Richfield, Coon Rapids.  Some people can hardly believe people like us live within the inner city.  I’m not sure what that means or how it reflects on us or them.

Our house was built in 1913.  The deed says the lot is located in Griswold’s second addition to the city of Minneapolis.  Nobody seems to recall who Griswold was, no statue of Old Griz resembling Chevy Chase in the park, not a Holiday Road within the city limits.  Corcoran as a neighborhood unto itself was created in the 1970s around an elementary school that no longer exists that was named after an early immigrant settler to the territory who taught school and posted the mail in the 1850s.  There are about 87 neighborhoods with names and boundaries all over the city, all distinctly formed around local neighborhood organizations responsible for nongovernmental administration of resources to their community, like grants, referrals and other informational networks of do-gooders who put to use things like federal and state aid to cities.  There have been neighborhood organizations and councils and committees and block clubs in this city (like any city) since the first meetings along the falls of St Anthony, and I’m sure some neighborhoods pulled a lot of clout by the representation of their residents in city and county government.  Corcoran territory was once part of a greater neighborhood called Powderhorn, so named for the biggest inner city central park in east Minneapolis, itself named for the shape of its valley and its lake.  To the east further Corcoran borders Longfellow.  In the Great Society that existed in the 1970s it was considered crucial not to allow inner cities to decay, and so a neighborhood awareness was fostered at the city level to create formal organizations and territories of virtually the same size to try to stir some identity among the residents, a Model City approach to urban survival.  It was a very liberal approach to fending social problems, one of many that still works.  A result was the creation of Corcoran neighborhood out of twelve or so blocks of fringe Powderhorn, a portion of city Powderhorn doesn’t miss at all, the part that abuts East Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue.

An esteemed elder visitor from Wausau, Wisconsin said our house is a Sears house.  He recognized its floor plan and the style of its kit assembly.  By Sears house I think he meant Craftsman, sold and shipped by catalogue, assembled on site, but I have no proof of authenticity.  It’s probably a cheap knockoff of a Sears house — cheap as in inexpensive, done by budget, efficiently constructed — and don’t expect any claim from me to historical designation.  Originally the house was constructed for gas lighting — whoever designed and built the house in 1913 completely missed electricity.  Gas lamps and fixtures had to be retrofitted to knob and tube wiring almost right away.  No architect configured the kitchen to include an electric refrigerator.  We have rewired and redesigned the kitchen twice more.  That’s why I’m skeptical it was a real Craftsman house.  I think it was a bootleg job of obsolete outdated plans, executed quite well, that got this solid dwelling constructed on this corner lot in Griswold’s second addition.

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Roxanne and I acquired it in 1981 from the estate of the dad who passed away and left it to his only son, now orphaned, who grew up there.  His name was Ramon Muxter.  He was a fairly known photographer gone off to New York.  Credited as the inventor of the selfie, see his self portraits with Mae West and William Burroughs at the MIA, taken at arm’s length with his Leica.  I had no idea who the seller was until the night of the final walk through before closing, when we met Ramon, and I recognized him as the guy who did album covers for Dave Ray and Tony Glover and had things like the Mae West and William Burroughs selfies in the MIA collection.  Of course he joked he would have jacked the price even higher had he known he was selling to a fan.  He was cashing out to go back to New York and buy a loft.  The joke was on all of us in 1981 trying to do a house deal.  Roxanne and I wanted the place to establish our family.  At the time Michel was three and Vincent was on the way.  Ramon Muxter wanted quick cash.  The house didn’t qualify for a conventional thirty year mortgage.  Interest was about twenty percent anyway.  The real estate agent found an investor partnership to cash out Ramon and give us the house on a five year contract for deed at a mere 12%.

I remember when we first moved in, the two old guys who used to walk around the blocks together, Tony and Stanley, the Polish guy and the Russian, they thought we paid too much for the house.  They owned houses one street over from us and they were sure nobody would buy the Muxter house, it was way overpriced.

Tony and Stanley lived most of their adult lives in the neighborhood.  World War II refugees from behind the Iron Curtain, they worked their careers as machinists at the White truck plant or at the Minneapolis Moline factory, which were then located across the railroad yard bordering E Lake St and Hiawatha Avenue, both shut down since the early 1970s.  These two chums, they prided themselves in being old, long time retired pensioners.  They used to walk to work carrying lunch buckets.  Raised their families hereabouts.  They remembered the neighborhood before the new South High was built and when the block that is now the park was the site of Corcoran Elementary.

When we bought the house Roxanne and I were not new to the neighborhood.  We had lived in a fourplex apartment on Longfellow Ave near Cedar and Lake since before Michel was born, so we knew the neighborhood for what it was, working stiff families like Tony and Stanley.  We used to take 32nd St as a shortcut to or through Hiawatha Ave and go past this house, at a corner at a stop sign, and we used to admire it from the street.  A modest two story with an extruding set of bay windows facing south.  Open front porch.  Stucco siding.  A stained glass window set high on an extrusion similar to the bay windows.  Green yard.  Flowers and shrubs.  You could guess an older couple lived there — maybe we saw them, the Muxters putzing in the yard.  The house was set back from the street allowing a wide yard, and on the border of the yard and the sidewalk along the street stood four tall mature maple trees creating a shady arbor over the property, which in the fall lit up in gold.  I do not recall saying to myself or to Roxanne or even little Michel, wow, it would be worth raking every last leaf to live in that house with the beautiful maples.

I was turning 30.  Roxanne and I were together almost ten years.  We had a daughter age three.  Expected a second child in the spring — back then it was common not to know the gender.  Roxanne’s career as a research scientist took off.  I was a store manager for the Krayon Film Shops chain.  It seemed like we were making decent money, saving up for a down payment on a house.  With interest rates so high we knew we shouldn’t expect much house for our money.  We didn’t want to move to the suburbs, either.  Our apartment on Longfellow would not suffice for two kids, so we knew we would have to move either way, rent or buy.  At that stopsign on 32nd St we noticed a realtor’s for sale sign in the Muxters’ yard.

We called the realtor expecting nothing to come of it.  We expected the price too high, we would not qualify for a mortgage, somebody else already bought it.  The realtor arranged a walk through.  The interior woodwork charmed us.  It was cozy and homey.  It had a clawfoot bathtub.  Very reliable and fairly new gas boiler furnace — radiator heat.  Serviceable kitchen, especially since it was designed and built before the advent of refrigerators.  The plumbing would require upgrading to copper horizontal pipes.  The electrical wiring would have to be redone to meet current code.  And the entire upstairs — that second story as seen from the street — was entirely unfinished, just an open attic, an illusion — Ramon used to use it as a photo studio (a darkroom in the basement had been converted for the showing into a tool closet).  The realtor said she represented a motivated seller who needed to cash out his inheritance to get on with his life in New York.  She pitched us what seemed like a reasonable price, said she could get us financing through a contract for deed with some private investors, and offered to hook us up with the plumber and electrician to bring the dwelling up to code.

After walking around and getting the feel of the place Roxanne and I confided in whispers.  We loved the place.  We bought it.  Thirty six years later we’re still here.

We’ve put two roofs on it.  Painted, painted and repainted the trim.  Painted the stucco exterior.  Twice remodeled the kitchen.  Finished the upstairs into an open loft bedroom, studio, library, lounge and office.  Upgraded the bathroom.  Except paint, the fixes, upgrades and remodels were not done by us but by hired people with skills.  We like to think we’ve kept up the property, done diligent maintenance.  We have been careful not to do it harm.  Thus Roxanne and I plighted our troth to this house on a corner lot in Corcoran somewhere in Griswold’s second addition to Minneapolis and committed our lives to an urban dream to not allow cities to decay and rot.

It seemed reasonable to believe the neighborhoods relied on residents of civil citizens to sustain.  It made us sad when the younger families around the block put their houses up for sale in the 1980s when mortgage rates came back down, left the city, worried that the public schools weren’t good enough for their kids.  With no more Corcoran school, the kids in our neighborhood were offered choices to attend three or four elementary schools, none within remote walking distance, all in other neighborhoods.  The favorite one, Seward, had a waiting list to get in.  The others had reputations for overcrowding, rundown buildings, lazy teachers, low test score rankings, bad learning, crappy food and disruptive students.  One named Wilder, for Laura Ingalls, was nicknamed Wilder and Wilder Yet.  We tried to be nonjudgmental — Michel was accepted into Seward.  The bigger picture we were looking at was a trend in pessimism among the neighbors that the future of our city did not look bright, but more like blight.

The same young urbanists who welcomed us to the community when we first moved to the block gradually moved away.  This depleted our kids’ playmates, but at school the kids made new friends beyond the neighborhood.  Beyond their opinions of the city schools the neighbors who left cited reasons of safety.  They pointed to creeping blight in the residences and businesses in the blocks along Lake St.  The rental properties degenerated and with it their perceptions of the tenants.  They said they were tired of seeing the drug dealing and prostitution on their sidewalks.  Hearing loud arguments coming from the walkup apartments.  Gunfire.  They expressed no faith in city government, the county, the Met Council, the school board, the state or the feds to solve the problems, so they sold out as the real estate market rose and went to live in places where urban problems did not exist, at least in their minds.

And they were right, I guess — who am I to denounce somebody’s basic right to pursue happiness?  Their points were well taken.  We chose to stay behind because we were already happy.  What worried us most was the trend of moving out of the city looked like white flight, a very illiberal reaction to living among an increasing presence of minorities of color.  It’s been hard enough to deal with my own racism and white privilege my whole life but it was sadder to read into my ex-neighbors’ motives a tacit rejection of what decades later became commonly called diversity, and I sensed panic which I did not share.

Today we by no means are the only white people on the block but that’s not really the story of how diverse the neighborhood remains, it’s mostly about me not selling our place and moving to the country twenty years ago.  I am stubborn and barely flexible in my naive belief in humanity being able to get along.  We have a sweet place to live after all.  Nothing bad has befallen us here in this place I think of as the Buffalo House on Buffalo Acres.  Charmed life.  I report this as a testimonial.  I love this city.

Our house is located where we can access everywhere.  Backstreet direct routes to the St Paul campus for Roxanne’s commute to work, including bridges.  Parkway and lakes accessible in two directions.  The river road not far.  Freeway access nearby via Hiawatha Ave to get to the suburbs or get out of town.  I used to work downtown, twelve minutes away.  The biggest Sears store in America used to be located about fifteen blocks away on Lake St.  When I worked in St Paul I took the freeway or rode the Selby-Lake bus.  The international airport is about eight miles away down Hiawatha Avenue, aka state highway 55.  Only less than fifteen years ago a light rail train line was established between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America, through the airport.  They put a station called the Midtown station two blocks from here at an overpass above Lake St and I used to commute to work downtown on the light rail.  Before that I rode the Cedar Ave bus.  There is nowhere you can’t go from our house.  You can get to Europe on the light rail to the airport, where you would have to take a plane.

When we first moved to the neighborhood we found we really didn’t have to commute very far, we were already at least halfway there.

As I mentioned, the largest Sears store in America was just down the street, where we bought house paint, shopped for a color TV and got a scoop of Swedish Fish from the candy counter lady in the linen uniform.  Two blocks away from our house, across Lake St and technically not in Corcoran but in adjoining Phillips — named for a whiskey distiller — is the strip mall called Hi Lake, named for the intersection of Hiawatha Ave and E Lake St.  When we first moved to the area before Michel was born there was an SS Kresge at the Hi Lake — a dime store, as the older folks used to say.  There was also a JCPenney.  A Snyder’s Drug, then a local chain competitor to Walgreen’s.  The anchor tenant was a Red Owl grocery store.  Kresge’s vacated to a True Value Hardware store and the Red Owl called itself the Country Store.  The savings and loan where Roxanne and I banked and had our 30 year mortgage with a lucky sweet adjustable rate we got to pay off the balloon due on our contract for deed opened an office at Hi Lake next to the hardware store.  There was a hair salon, insurance office, liquor store and an ice cream shop called Winky’s.  And a stand alone Pizza Hut towards the center of the parking lot.  On the far corner a Burger King.  Across from Burger King on the Corcoran side of Lake St was a former drive-in from the 1950s called Porky’s, subsequently converted to a sit-down restaurant of comfort food called Aunt Nora’s.  Kittycorner from Burger King was the site of the old Furniture Barn, an old late night and matinee movie sponsor selling beds and sofas pitched by a guy named Mel Jass, and even before the Furniture Barn the building was the original factory making Burma Shave.  Down the block from Nora’s was a shady restaurant called the Mad Mexican — Michel bused tables there in junior high.  I learned years later that Ramon Muxter’s dad was a retired teamster and made extra cash washing dishes at Nora’s.  Back next to Hi Lake was a dangerous looking wedge of land sticking out along Hiawatha Avenue where there was an M & H gas station facing the liquor store — the gas pump island was so precarious it felt like you could get picked of by passing traffic while gassing your car.  Across Lake St at the Hiawatha intersection was a five story no-frills office building running a trade school for electronics, radio and TV called Brown Institute, which graduated half the AM radio deejays of my generation before it folded.

JCPenney was probably the first to pull out of Hi Lake.  The Country Store followed.  Snyder’s too.  The liquor store stayed vital, Winky’s ice cream shop not so much.  An auto parts store moved in.  True Value Hardware stayed.  The savings and loan got acquired by a bank and closed the Hi Lake office.  Pizza Hut closed.  A loan shark rental center came and went.  It wasn’t just Hi Lake, there were ghost town gaps in strip malls everywhere in the 1980s recession and its aftermath.  Even so, across Hiawatha Ave, outside of Corcoran again but alongside the border with Longfellow, at the former sites of Minneapolis Moline and some other long closed factories, Target built a store alongside a slim strip mall intending to be chic with a Radio Shack, a Sepia Photo shop, Hallmark Cards and a SuperValu grocery.  Later Cub built its own stand alone grocery store further off the parking lot towards old railroad land, and the SuperValu went away.  People scoffed and laughed at Target opening a store in the inner city, but it turned out to be the highest grossing store.  To some people Target proved the middle class was viable in the inner city.  Then Sears closed its one time largest store on Lake St.  It confirmed Lake St was dying, maybe dead already.  Yet a Rainbow grocery store opened a block from Cub.

Meanwhile the busy intersection of Lake and Hiawatha congested with traffic which we continued to avoid by taking backstreets.  Eventually a bunch of federal money came through to enable the state to finish a project started in the 1950s and abandoned in the 1960s after housing and land acquisition, to upgrade Hiawatha Ave, aka Hwy 55, to almost-freeway, boulevard status between the airport and downtown Minneapolis along the east border of Corcoran.  Hiawatha Ave runs a direct beeline trail between the original Fort Snelling, the territorial federal outpost, and the mill at St Anthony Falls on the Mississippi, the trail linking the army with flour in the early 19th Century.  The beeline cuts diagonally across the grid pattern of the streets and avenues created later as the city hilariously named Minneapolis (Water City) expanded south of St Anthony to Griswold’s second addition and beyond, taking in stride the slicing Hiawatha and also its parallel companion avenue named of course Minnehaha.

Somehow in the negotiations of what amenities to the upgrade of the Hiawatha corridor might provide in additional benefits to community well being, along with the light rail line to run along Hiawatha most of the way to the airport previously appropriated, it was approved to build a bridge over Lake St at Hiawatha to eliminate most of the intersecting traffic.  This bridge, along with the elevated transit station adjacent, formed a concrete boundary to the neighborhood as formidable and intimidating as a psychological Berlin Wall.  To this day its unintended consequence puts pedestrians under bridges of desolation in a no man’s land like walking across a giant empty swimming pool of cars, trucks and buses.

Aunt Nora’s closed somewhere along the way, although she had a second location on Calhoun Boulevard whenever we craved roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and a popover.  The Burger King mysteriously burned down.  The florist shop on Cedar and Lake closed.  So too the TV and appliance shop on the opposite corner, where Roxanne and I bought a Sanyo, our first color TV.  Along Lake St, across the Phillips border from Corcoran in the three blocks from the burned out Burger King and the boarded up Nora’s, the old Pioneer’s Cemetery and its lush green lawn in the summer, its gnarly oak trees in all seasons, evenly snowed in winter, smooth except the raised tombstones, the old graveyard looked more cheerful than the creepy storefronts.  Lake St looked grave.

Stanley our retiree neighbor got mugged one day walking to the hardware store.  Jumped by a couple of young punks who hit him in the head, knocked him down and took his wallet.  The aftermath of the 1980s recession left some communities slower to recover and so it seemed crime was the theme of economics.  Gang violence scared everybody.  A crack cocaine epidemic steeped the war on drugs.  The name Murderapolis fell upon the city.  Though much of the violent crime occurred on the north side, known as the black part of town, no part of the city was unaffected.  The gangster assassination of a street cop took place on the south side, near us.  Rumors and innuendoes insinuated gang takeovers of the inner city neighborhoods as residents fled violent neighborhoods for safer ones and somehow brought with them the conditions they sought to flee.  More blame was heaved on the public schools.  More outcry of inequity voiced the minorities for the unfairness of racial profiling.  Incarceration rates of young males kept increasing, blacks owning more equity there.  Wild youth menaced the streets.  Whites left the city for the suburbs with fear in their eyes the minorities would follow with their crack and criminal behaviors, loud music and slovenly ways, and so forth.  Seems all my life the world’s been on the verge of going to hell in a handbasket, the whole kit and kaboodle.  And yet somehow things tend to sort themselves out.  Stanley wore a bandage on his forehead for a few days while he walked the block.  Nobody ever caught the punks who rolled him, at least not for this particular crime.

The two most violent events on my block that I know of were murders.  One happened before our time, when an elder couple living in the house five doors down were killed in a burglary.  Turned out the renters in the house next door, six doors down, got caught with the victims’ TV set.  The other occurred in the street in front of a rundown duplex four doors down from us one summer night about three a.m. when a young woman deliberately ran her cheating boyfriend down with her car in front of his other girlfriend, and backed up and ran him over again.  Four doors down is far enough away for me to sleep through such commotion, even with the windows open for fresh air.  I learned about both reading the paper.  The neighbors filled in the details.

Time and again I suppose we had opportunities to bail.  Roxanne and I made good money, she as a research scientist at the U, I at whichever of the four or five different jobs I’ve held since we moved to Buffalo Acres, always employed, always dependable, good credit.  We could have sold and taken the equity to Greater Heights, so to speak.  After all, this place was supposed to be a starter house, just to get our foot in the real estate game.  We were expected to build a little equity, appreciation, sell it and move up in the world, every five years or so — another mortgage, more debt.  Instead we stayed, put money into maintenance and some renovation, kept up the payments and paid off the mortgage a little early.  We could sell today but where else would we go?

I think of that David Crosby song, Almost Cut My Hair, that goes, I feel like I owe it to someone.  Or like I owe someone an explanation.  It might seem to make more sense if I still had long hair, but I’ve been bald and rather corporate looking for a long time.  I’d like to say I had foresight, though I did see signs of hope in the Target store, the Hiawatha overpass at Lake St and the light rail station.  The old Brown Institute building became a charter school for Native American kids sponsored by the Anishinabi.  A second hand thrift store called Savers moved into the old Snyder’s space at Hi Lake.  Behind Hi Lake where there used to be a block of shabby housing called Happy Hollow where the Pioneer Cemetery bordered the ex-dump near Hiawatha Ave, somebody invested in building a kind of incubator center for start-up firms specializing in green technologies — the anchor tenant of this facility was a ReUse Center which was a warehouse showroom of old doors, cabinets and fixtures from old houses, and the rooftop had the first solar panel garden I ever saw in the city.  Yes, and further behind the ReUse Center and the former dump they converted an unused railroad corridor into a bicycle and pedestrian trail connecting to all the lakes and scenic parkways and featuring a bold suspension bridge across busy Hiawatha Ave named for Martin Sabo, a liberal congressman who garnered a lot of federal money for programs and transportation projects in our district.  There were signs all along that the inner city was not abandoned and forgotten, it was all a matter of how much fate would determine the outcomes and how much the wills of persons staked to gain something from raising the standard of living, raising consciousness, raising safety.

I remember when Tea Party people used to deride Barack Obama for being a community organizer and I think about all the community organizers I’ve met in the inner city and I can see why people like Michele Bachmann are afraid of them.  They usually have agendas to undermine racism, oppression and injustices taken for granted as rights and entitlements by so-called libertarians who prefer to control social engineering by persecution of poor people, much of whom nonwhite minorities.  These community organizers can be vociferous and devious in their methods and still ethically build bonds in their neighborhoods to keep basic communications going and to advocate for people who get screwed by The Man and don’t know what to do next.  Some organizers get into elected politics.  Others work out of nonprofits.  Volunteers.  They make good networkers.  They keep society honest when they bring light to dark elements and engage smart dialog among persons both affected and caused.

That there are people among us who practice public service, either professionally or as avocation, and that the good ones aren’t even preachy about it, always tells me somebody’s watching what’s going on, somebody will notice what is going right and what is going wrong, and like the arc of history ultimately bends towards justice, somebody plus somebody can make things happen, can lay groundwork for things to happen to not only stop society from going to rot but actually stimulate authentic and sustainable prosperity.  To the unsung civic leaders and concerned citizens, block clubbers and liaisons with planners and developers, much thanks for paying attention to the habitat of the city.

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The YWCA partnered with the school district, which already controlled or had first dibs on the former Brown Institute building at Lake and Hiawatha, to build a state of the art health club facility and gigantic fieldhouse for club use as well as physical education and sports for South High.  It meant razing a block of blighted housing and some iffy storefront businesses on Lake St, including the Mad Mexican and the vacant Aunt Nora’s.  The complex would take up the entire block from Lake St to South High and face the high school’s track and football field.

Across Lake St the burned down Burger King was replaced on the corner by a five story apartment/condo building above an Aldi’s grocery store.  The Hi Lake strip mall underwent a facelift.  The old stand alone Pizza Hut building was reconfigured for a new location for the liquor store, a taco and burrito shop and a Subway sandwich franchise.  The old JCPenney opened as a buffet restaurant, the Tippanyaki, serving consistently tasty varieties of dishes at a good price.  Then for some reason, under protest, the hardware store lost its lease and moved out — that didn’t look good.  Then the bank that succeeded the one that bought the savings and loan where we got our mortgage — who I went to work for eventually around the end of the last century — moved into the space that used to be the liquor store.  Little Caesar’s pizza moved in where Winky’s ice cream shop used to be.

A Bubbles Laundromat, a hip hop clothing store and a cellular phone shop have since moved into the space where the hardware store used to be, which so long ago was a Kresge’s.  In my mind I would prefer the shopping center would have transformed into a kind of European-style plaza like an all-seasons Christmas market, but realistically this is America, not Zurich, not the Zocalo of Mexico City.  This is Hi Lake and snobby taste for shops like Patina, Swarovski and Zara are inappropriate delusions here, available elsewhere, and respectable tenants like the current cast don’t make me nostalgic to bring back Kresge’s.  (Dime stores are now dollar stores, and there’s one of those at the other mall near Target.)  Commerce rebounded.

In a way I grew up around Lake St because my dad was a car salesman and in my childhood the car business in Minneapolis was located all up and down Lake St from East Lake St at the Marshall bridge to St Paul at the Mississippi all the way across town about eight miles to the end of West Lake, hardly a block without a dealership it seemed, lots of shiny cars parked in lots with signs and banners.  Dad worked at various dealers over the years and sometimes he took me to work on his days off so he could meet customers and close deals, and sometimes I would look around the office and the shop, but sometimes I liked to go outdoors through the car lot to the sidewalk and look around the busy street.  Seems like a lot going on.  In high school I took city buses linked to Lake St routes to get to St Bernard’s Academy, and I would transfer at Lake and Nicollet (that’s pronounced Nik-lit around here) where there was a fantastic record store where I’d fan through album covers between buses, but never bought anything because their prices were a dollar more than I could get records elsewhere.  Even after the car business moved to the suburbs there remained a lot going on, maybe some things shady, maybe not, but Lake St never scared me off, never bullied me off the sidewalk.

Lake St was my gateway to other races than the white whites I lived among growing up suburban.  Lake St was my crossroads mark, how I learned to navigate the city.  The Sears building twenty stories high was the most prominent high rise on the south side horizon outside of downtown, a skyline to itself, with a big green neon SEARS facing all four directions off its stone roof.  I could always tell where I was by proximity to the Sears.  Built in 1928, art deco, at one time it employed 2000 people, not just the department store on the lower levels but a vast catalog fulfillment center.  When the store closed in 1994 the building had floors and floors of wasted space, and not just the high tower with the neon sign.  The sign went dark for twelve years.

It lit up again as MIDTOWN, in red neon now, sign of the Midtown Global Market, an international bazaar of foods and merchandise in the place of the old department store.  A vortex of hospitals and several health clinics converged next door, a hotel chain took over and built up the upper floors to repurpose the place, and you wouldn’t know it was once a Sears if it weren’t cut in stone into the storefront over the old street level entrance.

More evidence of civic partnerships are these transformations.  The Midtown Global Market and the rising of the Midtown YWCA alongside the Midtown station of the light rail grouped these landmarks linked by Lake St and branded the area the Midtown Corridor.  Not necessarily hip and trendy it has a certain bluecollar bite to it.  Sounds inclusive, attractive to any and all of the types and kinds of various people coming to live in midtown neighborhoods.  The offspring of Model Cities and Great Society.

Some of the genius of the Global Market is the allure of collaboration and coexistence of many various cultures currently living in Minneapolis who have migrated here from other lands.  Lake St remains a crossroads gateway.  Minneapolis attracts migrants.  (And St Paul.)  Count the students from all over the world who attend our universities, who work in the tech sector, medicine or agriculture, there are those who choose to remain when they fulfill their degrees to work and have families and weave themselves into the community at large.  Then add the migrant laborers who pick crops and roof houses seasonally who stick around.  And then add the refugees, the ones who either come here or end up here escaping some form of death sentence in countries where they are persecuted and unprotected.  This is some of the makeup of the residential population, my once and future neighbors.

Vietnamese, Cambodian, Liberian, Hmong, Salvadorean, Ethiopian, Somali — these are some of the nationalities and ethnic peoples who have migrated into whole communities in Minneapolis and the surrounding metro the past two generations.  All here legally.  Refugee asylum seekers settling down and making a home, working, shopping and raising kids in a new place.  We encourage them to assimilate, and at the same time we respect their native cultures and even try to assimilate some of theirs into the mainstream, appropriation if you like, for the sake of overall diversity — music, literature, art, food.  They come to America to be free, and we take them in because America is the light of the world, a free country and good example on the planet of how to humanely treat persons displaced by political atrocity or natural disaster — that at least used to be the coda.

Before the Vietnamese in my lifetime it was Koreans.  Korean orphans.  Before that the World War II Europeans like Stanley and Tony.  People all escaping war to come to my town for a better life — a life.  The overall community welcomes them — pities them — makes room for them, lends them resources to integrate and networks them into the basic economy.  In my neighborhood the Brown Institute building on Lake St is now a public adult education school for learners of English as a non-primary language.  (In my retirement I am encouraged to volunteer there as a conversationalist but I don’t want to let anybody down.)  From my front porch I see the students park their cars and walk to class with briefcases and backpacks, like the South High kids only older and walking the other direction, inevitably a person of color, nonwhite.  The muslim women in their scarves and long skirts sometimes travel in pairs like the nuns when I was a kid, nuns who used to teach us about showing kindness to refugee victims of communism and famine.  Here, I thought, they can learn to be like us, victims of democracy and plenty.

There are five apartment buildings on our block, counting both sides of the street.  They are called two-and-a-half story walkups — two floors up and one floor down from street level, no elevator — and each building houses about six apartments (or as they say in the UK, flats) and each usually rents to a family with a mom and a kid or kids, some with husbands.  These apartments are located mainly the other half of the block and on the same side of the avenue, so from my own front porch at the corner I cannot observe what goes on except one colonial style walkup mid-block on the other side of the avenue.  And we’ve witnessed some loud and threatening behavior, domestic violence where we’ve called 9-1-1 to that building, but overall in all our years we haven’t witnessed an abundance of bad actions.  (Remember, I slept through the girlfriend boyfriend murder by car.)  Though three more walkups take up our side of the avenue, there are ten dwellings which are homeowner residences, one of which rents out as a triplex, and two others that are single family homes rented out and not owner occupied.  There are at least eight homeowner occupied houses across from us with two walkups on that side and a four-plex on our opposite corner.  In a culture that prizes home ownership the number of homeowners on our block would please an optimistic demographer looking for proof of life of a middle class after the last recession.

It’s the renter class who live in those walkups whose fate is uncertain under the current recovery.  When we first moved in, the walkups seemed more or less to have working class tenants.  One building had retirees.  Some polite Asians, possibly Hmong or Vietnamese.  People shopped at Red Owl, Snyder’s and JCPenney.  The end of the Kresge’s era.  As the 1980s recession lingered into the ’90s the tenants at the walkups turned over frequently, or maybe there were a lot more strange visitors coming around.  Nobody was shoveling the sidewalks in the winter.  In the summer the grass around the buildings died.  Burger King wrappers in the chain link fence and the ever present plastic bags that blew in like tumbleweeds from Utah.  Tenants punched out the screen windows, or maybe they just fell apart, useless to keep out flies, mosquitoes, bats.  Without screens or curtains, drapes or blinds the apartments revealed a thrust stage on the frail balconies portraying the naked drama of urban life being poor.  Their privacy concealed nothing.

On my block.  Where I looked the other way most of the time because my view faced a different direction, but I kept track.  When the retiree pensioners moved out of the walkup because it wasn’t nice anymore and the landlord was starting to rent to shady characters.  A trend of African American single mothers.  Some with boyfriends.  Tenants who didn’t get along with each other generated police calls.  There was an arson, a cocktail through the window into a basement apartment to supposedly shut somebody up.  Homeowners up the block and across the avenue pressed the city to get after the landlord to screen tenants, and while at it pressed city inspectors to check out the buildings.  To no one’s surprise the walkups started flunking code inspections.  The city threatened the landlord with prosecution of crimes committed by tenants on the premises such as crack cocaine transactions, which may or may not be constitutional, it wasn’t tested, but it got the landlord — one guy owned all five buildings — to pay attention enough to rental applications to screen for known badasses.  Or recent arrivals from Chicago with dubious credentials.  And agreed to do some cosmetic fixups and replace a stove or two.  For that he raised the rent a little, but not much, just enough to show how cheap rents were expected to be in this market and illustrate there was no real way to keep out the riff-raff.

How I idealized the flow of society I envisioned ways for poor people to make their way up so they could become not as poor, and then not poor at all.  What is it in scripture Jesus said, the poor are always with us, but cry and cry alone — no, that’s cynical.  This supposes an endless source of the poor, unless it’s the same poor all the time, and it doesn’t take any research genius to find sources of poor, if not in the USA then somewhere on the planet.  In my ideal they begin at the entry level of the economic scale and then rise as their skills and experience raise them up to where they emerge into the next economic level to replace those moving up into the next level of prosperity, and everybody has opportunity to keep learning and keep going to the next, and the next, as long as they have time.  I knew there were those who were born on third base and pretended to have hit a triple, but I saw through them and presumed others did too.  I knew there were others wrongly called losers whose faults were merely cosmetic.  If it were a perfect world Karl Marx could have been free to be a novelist.

Or a comedian.

So much for the path to the American dream running through my back yard.  It seemed sometimes I was a squatter on land undeserved, Griswold’s second addition — or edition — notwithstanding.  Our presence on this corner I’ve always thought of as caretakers of a small piece of civilization.  It passed to us from Raymond and Hazel Muxter through their son Ramon, and we will someday pass it on as well.  It’s only real estate, I tell myself.  And still I wonder if I deserve to live so well on the same block as poverty.  We are not rich, not even upper middle class in the big picture of home economics.  Yet, compared to our neighbors living in the two-and-a-half story walkups, we might be millionaires.  To someone living on this planet in a country where from our refugee neighbors fled we might be zillionaires.  The longest lasting sustaining effect we might have on the world we live is to show good example of what we mean.  If people like us, white, educated, modern, liberal baby boomers abandoned the city, why would succeeding generations choose to take our place?  If white society, as if banded together formally, abandoned the city there would be no white voices to answer, no white ears to listen, no white skin to feel the nerves of color enamorating our urban culture.  The city needs white skin in the game.

Not white supremacy, to be clear.

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I simply feel the need to justify my existence in the inner city, for anyone living who might suggest I don’t belong.  I stopped being hip and cool about 1978 when I became father to a daughter, and no matter how many tries at MTV and the worldwide web I never got it back.  I can’t feed off the legacy of Prince — who by the way established his headquarters in the suburbs.  Many of my contemporaries are outdoorsy types living Up North or down on the farm.  I’m not gay, though I am a happy guy.  Everybody has to live somewhere.  The Buffalo House is my townhome, my condo, only I am the homeowner association who provides the maintenance and nobody can tell me I can’t paint my garage orange.  The mortgage is paid off and in theory I’ll always have a place to live as long as I keep up the insurance, taxes and utilities.

The YWCA is two blocks away.  True to promise it’s a world class health club and sport center.  We became members as soon as they opened the doors.  Roxanne uses their fitness machines and takes cardio exercise classes.  Our membership is now covered by our Medicare part B — they call it Silver Sneakers, but I don’t like the idea of being sneaky.  There’s a big indoor oval track that rings the second level of the field house where I go to walk and trot laps in winter when long walks outdoors on the best groomed sidewalks can be treacherous from snow and ice and the air itself is brutally cold.  Walking in the field house I can listen to my iPod on my Skull Candy earbuds, something I would not usually do on the street just walking around the city, and look out the windows.

One side of the track looks at South High, the athletic field and bleacher grandstand.  There used to be boarding houses, a few half-blocks of them, off a half-street bordering the athletic field, and it was rumored these boarding houses were true bordellos.  At the commercial edge of these houses stood the old Furniture Barn, for a while an officina for a Hispanic insurance business, and across Lake St you could see the pikes and stone fence of the Pioneer’s Cemetery and the new Aldi’s with the apartment building over it where the Burger King burned down.

Most recently the half blocks of boarding houses along with Lake St commercial properties like the old Furniture Barn were razed and cleared.  The view from the field house track witnessed the demolition, done in mere days.  The sudden vacancy was stunning, like looking at a rival farm compared to the groomed grass on the other side of the South High fence.  A guy from the neighborhood tried to organize a movement to stop the demolition of the Furniture Barn building on historical grounds because it was the original Burma Shave factory, and he sat at the stoplight on the corner by the Y at a card table with posters and handing out fliers until the very last day.  The city will put up a historical plaque on the corner when reconstruction is done.

The school district acquired the land between Lake St and South High to build an adult continuing education center affiliated to the high school.  It will replace the facility being used at the old Brown Institute building on the other side of the Y.  From the windows on that side of the field house I watched the demolition and excavation of vacant pavement all around the Brown Institute, breaking ground to build a county service center across the street from the Y and next to the Midtown rail station, with apartments adjacent to the service center filling in the rest of the block towards my house.  The county service center and a small parking ramp off Lake St at virtually the corner of Lake and Hiawatha is phase one of the project.  It required an immense excavation and the driving of the pylons for the foundation clonked the neighborhood half the summer.  It has risen as a rather attractive building of a modern proto-european style.  It complements a so-called senior living apartment building erected the year before on the opposite side of Lake St on the triangle where the M & H gas station used to be, adjacent to the Hi Lake strip mall and against the Midtown station.  A lot of new multifamily housing going up in the city these days are designed in this style, which appears austere but elegant and can wear well over time.  The second phase will enclose the block around the service center with multifamily apartments.

The third phase will move the public adult education facilities out of the Brown Institute and into the new buildings on the old Furniture Barn blocks, the other side of the Y, upon completion later this year.  Then the Brown Institute will be torn down like a disassembled erector set, leaving a green gap between the county service center, the new apartments and the Midtown rail station.

Walking laps around the field house to the random shuffle of songs on the iPod and looking out the windows at bulldozers, cranes, lots of hard hats and green-glow yellow vests putting down concrete and putting up walls, then windows, then doorways, facades, life takes on the vista of time-lapse movies.  A song from Madonna, Like a Prayer comes on the iPod, not the original but the one recorded as performed in the Hope for Haiti Now TV benefit right after its last big earthquake in 2010.  In the song she misses a line, as if she’s all caught up amazed by the gospel chorus in the final buildup to the crescendo, a little mesmerized by her own song, she omits life is a mystery, goes straight to everyone must stand alone, I hear you call my name and it feels like home.  Why does this all seem so dissonant, I wonder as I round the bend of the track between windows, filling in the life is a mystery part in my mind, asking myself if I really like the changes happening to this part of the neighborhood or am I simply content that things are changing and so far nothing’s going wrong.

My favorite thing at the Y is the pool.  I love to swim, just cruise in the water, tread water, crawl, backstroke, float.  Slow lazy laps back and forth from the shallow to the deep end.  Taking in the echoes of the ambience of such a big room, watching the roof beams go by floating and cruising on my back.  This aquatic center has an olympic pool with lanes, a smaller recreational pool with fountains for kids, and a water slide which I usually partake when it is scheduled.  Roxanne and I bring our grandkids on our guest passes.  My favorite other thing about the pool at the Y is the greatest hot tub on the planet with the best jets ever.  Healing bubbling waters for the aches and pains the toil on this mortal coil inflicts day to day.  Yes.  Alleluia.

The two block walk from my house to the Y and back goes past the row of two story walkups.  Then and when I used to commute downtown to work from the Midtown station I would pass them every day, walking by.  I never thought of it as a gauntlet as much as a reality check.  The coexistence of low rent dwellers on the same block as median homeowners keep me aware of my own privileges and responsibilities to the civic social contract.  I don’t feel guilty for these disparities so much because I did not cause them — no action or decision of mine set in motion the lives of these people that they ended up living in two-and-a-half story walkups on my block — and my concern is what I might do about them now and in the future to alleviate these disparities, looking for that wisdom to know the difference.  I’m not a missionary kind, so I don’t knock on doors, say, how’s it going brother, no I tend to mind my own business.  Respect privacies.  I do look people in the eye.  I make eye contact in the street, on the sidewalk passing by.  In the summer people at the walkups tend to hang out in the front yard and open up their windows.  Not once have I ever been harassed or detained.  Sometimes lately they set up little yard sale flea markets on the grass in front of the apartments, but usually I don’t need the baby clothes, a wooden chair or mariachi CDs and cassettes.  Of anything I worry they might think I do not respect them or think I’m condescending when I say hola to the Hispanic ones.

Lately those buildings, the tenants and the landlords have been in the news from being in district court.  The tenants sued their landlord about eight years ago for unanswered complaints about mould, cockroaches, faulty plumbing, broken heating systems and just about anything you can imagine could go wrong in a low rent housing flat.  The same guy owned the five walkups on our block along with about fifteen other buildings on the east side of south Minneapolis, and he was just coming off litigation from not screening bad actors from being tenants.  He claimed he was doing the best he could to maintain all his buildings and it wasn’t fair that he who cared enough about his poor tenants to give them shelter at such little cost was singled out for just a couple of apartments just to make him look bad.  He counterpunched the tenants, saying some bad apples attracted cockroaches, they abused the plumbing, disrespected the property.  The city inspectors investigated the properties.  It dragged out in court but the landlord lost his rental license and had to sell the properties to somebody who would maintain them to code.

The new owner spruced up the curb appeal, put up new signs and made better arrangements for prompt snow shoveling and keeping the grass groomed and picking up litter.  Things inside the apartments kept breaking down, stoves and ovens, heaters, windows (in the back, away from the avenue, facing the alley) and nothing got fixed.  Water leaks.  Mould.  Fed up, the tenants took up legal action against the new landlord, this time with a bigtime downtown law firm working pro bono.  In discovery it was found the landlord defrauded the court with false documentation, and it was learned the new landlord didn’t even own the apartments anyway, legally, but the old landlord actually still held the deeds.  The court ordered a trustee to manage the buildings and collect the rents (so that rents may not illegally be withheld) while new ownership is sought for the buildings.  The second landlord, asserting on appeal he rightfully owns the buildings not the first landlord, claims to have sold them to a third party, but the city does not recognize the third landlord as having legally purchased the buildings.  None of them have rental licenses.  So far the tenants still occupy their flats, paying rent to the management trustee.  Thus far the city brokers the status quo.  The repairs are being made, I hear.

The future happiness of the tenants remains to be seen.  The management trustee is learning the actual costs of maintaining each building after finding out terms of the contract binding the buildings to the first landlord, the second landlord was given an operating budget which included capital maintenance, and any money the second landlord didn’t spend he was allowed to keep.  What everyone is learning is the real cost, the real price of affordable housing.

The landlords all say, if they upgraded all the cheezy housing to minimum standards they would have to charge market rate prices for rents, and that would price the poor out of the rental market.  If some developer came in, bought the five walkups on our block and gentrified them, the poor tenants would disappear, be gone.  But that’s not going to happen, says the city, which pledges to foster the creation of more affordable housing, not less, and also according to the developer of the senior apartments on the old triangle next to Hi Lake, same developer of Rail Line Flats along Hiawatha which were just built in the in-fill property the highway, the railway and the bikeway didn’t take, also the same developer of the soon-to-be apartments that will fill in the rest of the block facing the Y after phase three.  I met this developer at a cordial community meeting to present the grand reveal of the land-use plan for the long-lost asphalt corner of East Lake St and Hiawatha Ave surrounding the old Brown Institute, next to the Midtown station.  He told me his studies showed there was no hope for market rate housing — market rate anything — in this neighborhood, it was all affordable or nothing.  I am reconciled to know they won’t be building any luxury hotels on any land nearby, even if there might be a ready workforce of the servant class in the neighborhood.  To this I asked the developer whether this designation of affordable could be a way to brand the neighborhood’s destiny, and he got a little defensive and insisted nobody looking at all the demographics would see it otherwise.

So, amigos of the walkups, take heart, nobody wants to evict you.  Nobody’s going to swoop in and convert the properties into luxury condos and put you on the street, we’ve all been advised by an expert, the neighborhood isn’t all that cool.  This isn’t Uptown, or Linden Hills, not Lake of the Isles, not even Powderhorn, or Brackett, or even Seward.  This is not Loring Park, or Whittier.  You all can stay.

Perhaps after getting one’s legs steady at residence in one of those apartments one can afford to go deeper into the neighborhood and rent a house.  Or a duplex.  The city is trying to make fourplexes popular by rezoning almost all residential lots to allow fourplexes.  Whereas people might trend to seek detached single family houses to rent or to buy, the urban planners and developers promote higher density.  Okay then, one gets the sense the plan to increase the population habitat and wonders if it is in anticipation of a growing population to come or whether it’s to manufacture demand for high density housing to lure a bigger population to fill some kind of city need.  I am an urban person by persuasion but I am wary of high density living.  It will be a center of the American experiment, so to speak, to invite hundreds more people to live on the next block the next couple years.

Already I’m seeing some of the so-called seniors from the so-called senior apartments down at Hi Lake taking jaunts and hikes past our house and into the neighborhood.  Our sidewalks are inviting, aren’t they?  There is green space landscaping planned at the new apartments but the tenants might still care to walk just four blocks to Corcoran park.  Our lawns and trees make a pleasant landscape for strolling.  I have seen people with badges on lanyards around their necks out strolling the neighborhood during lunch hours, employees at the new county service center.  It pleases me to provide a welcoming environment for visitors and new residents.

It remains to be seen whether all the new construction projects will transform the neighborhood or belie its flaws.  I attended the ground-breaking ceremony for the county service center a couple of years ago.  Chairs were arranged around a speaker’s podium on the asphalt of the vast parking lot on the corner of the Brown Institute where local leaders spoke of revival and synergy.  Neighbors, onlookers and members of the media watched and mingled over coffee and cookies.  Authorities, dignitaries, the developer and folks affiliated behind the scenes of the project took turns putting on hard hats and yellow-green safety vests to pick up ceremonial golden shovels and get photographed shoveling spades of ceremonial sand.  Posing for these pictures they reminded me of those face cut-outs at tourist attractions.  A journalist struck up a conversation, asked who I was and where I lived and what I thought of the project.  I said it was a dynamic jump-start to a stagnant corner long starved for attention and life and it should add to the diversity of the neighborhood.  I could tell he was piqued at my insertion of the word diversity.  I sensed right away it was a mistake to invoke that buzzword, and the reporter may have sensed unintended sarcasm.  What do you mean by that? he asked.

I reflected a moment and said that the corner where we stood and the intersections around it were an ongoing scene of migration and transmigration and adding more people into the mix could vitalize the place.  I added I was not in favor of greater population density but recognized the realities of proportionate land use.  I found myself getting more vague as I chose my words so as not to trigger inference of race.  I wanted to express my wonder of what might be the result of the treatment these acres were undergoing.  I hesitated to predict a golden renaissance.  I did not address any fear that crosscurrents of cultural or ethnic friction could compress and become volatile where the population squeezed most dense.  I avoided sounding like a stereotypical white homeowner pondering the arrival of hundreds of renters of affordable housing presumed to be people of various, diverse shades of color.  I avoided sounding like an unstereotypical white homey pandering to my soon-to-be new brothers and sisters in the hood.  The journalist tired of my jive and moved on to interview the county commissioner.  My remarks did not merit mention in the next day’s paper.

The one important unifying element of the neighborhood I have not mentioned yet is the Midtown Farmer’s Market.  Every Saturday from May to November the asphalt corner at the foot of the Brown Institute turned into a village of canopies and tents, stalls and trailers, bushels and pecks, quarts and gallons, bins and sacks of fresh vegetables and fruits in season.  Corn, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, lettuce, onions, carrots all grown within a hundred miles.  Locally raised meats.  Honey.  Bakery goods.  Vendors selling jewelry and lotions.  Shirts and dresses.  Flower bouquets.  Food trucks making tacos, kabobs and omelets.  A music stage.  The farmers market packed the usually dead asphalt with humanity like having a global market one day a week.  After several years they expanded the days to Saturdays and Tuesday evenings in the summer.  Rain or shine we could get fresh groceries but on a nice day it was a nice place to hang out, see if we knew anybody.

The new county service center would displace the farmers market.  During construction on the corner across from the YWCA, the market was allotted a temporary piece of the parking lot used by the adult education program stashed behind the old Brown Institute and next to the rail station.  During the planning phases of the development neither the county, the school district nor the housing developer would make any promises on the fate of the farmers market, successful now in its 15th year.  They would say, when this farmers market got started you all knew all along the use of the empty asphalt across from the Y was temporary, and we can’t guaranty any space for it in the final project.  Somebody persisted — probably an Obama era community organizer — and all the parties gave an inch and designed permanent space for the farmers market.  The market could operate in the adult school’s parking lot during construction.  When the new adult education facility opened on Lake St, the other side of the Y, and after the old Brown Institute was torn down, the farmers market could occupy the green space left in the open footprint of the Brown Institute, at the center of the block between the county service center and the new apartments.  Fair enough.  This continuity is vital to the neighborhood’s identity.

The other day the city’s new mayor spoke at a rally-style news conference on the rooftop of the adjacent 135 unit apartment complex just built last year along Hiawatha Ave called the Rail Line Flats.  They call them workforce apartments.  It’s a nice building along the style I liken to modern multifamily housing I’ve seen in European cities with vertical linear frame patterns, horizontal rectangles arranged vertically, and earth tone multi-tone facades.  In the year it’s been occupied there’s been no noticeable changes in neighborhood activity, particularly in traffic patterns, which was surprising to me given the ingress and egress proximity to Hiawatha Ave.  The mayor, Jacob Frey, newly elected, young and energetic, handsome and genial, pitched his goal to spend $50 million toward affordable housing.  In addition to building more units on vacant lots and lending down payment assistance for home buyers his vision includes protection for renters, diligent building inspection and renters rights.  It’s a tight market, he says — vacancy rates are about 2%, where 5% is considered competitive, and home prices are up, demand high, inventory low.  The population of the city is rising for the first time since I was a baby.  As an elected leader the guy realizes the overall issue is urban livability for all.

I’m on board.  Minneapolis is a rich city.  Affordability got us this house in the first place when we were young, and if not poor, economically challenged.  We qualified for a grant to replace our roof the first year.  We didn’t always make such good money.  Looking back we bought this place on the cheap but it didn’t seem so cheap at the time, just way cheaper than a house on Lake Harriet, or Seward East.  It still is, according to Zillow.  If the mayor wants to use this neighborhood as an illustration of his goals, I welcome him.

A few years ago when he was vice president, Joe Biden came to Minneapolis to speak at a luncheon downtown.  On his way back to the airport on Hiawatha Ave he ordered his motorcade to take a turn into the neighborhood because he said he heard a lot of good things about South High and he wanted to see the place for himself.  The motorcade pulled up between the school and the athletic field where the football team was holding practice.  Joe Biden got out of his limo and approached the team, took off his jacket and tossed a round of Go Deep with the receivers.  I am told by somebody who knew somebody that on the way in and out of the neighborhood the motorcade passed by our corner and on the way back to Hiawatha Ave, as they paused at the stop sign the vice president gestured a thumbs up and said, “Nice house.”

It’s a nice neighborhood.  I cannot take all the credit.  It might be my fault if it falls apart, and I’ll take the blame.  Seriously, I’m happy we stayed.  We proved to ourselves we were right, there is no inherent evil living in the heart of the city.

Maybe the most pervasive influence in our part of town since we’ve moved here is Latino.  Why so many people from places so much closer to the equator would choose to migrate here, Terra Frio, the land of brutally cold winters, I don’t know.  A horrible cynic would cry out they must be illegal aliens all hiding out where nobody either expects to find them or nobody else would take them — sanctuary city and so forth — but there must be a deeper reason to settle in the Twin Cities.  I trust they’re legal, street legal at least, and when you look around you see they really aren’t aliens, they are quite at home.

A lot of Mexican heritage and also Ecuadorian, Columbian, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan and Salvadorean, Lake St the past generation has evolved into a corridor brightened by the colors of Latin America.  Panaderias.  Mercados.  Supermercados.  Tiendas.  Not just restaurants and taquerias but offices and trades took up business in the blight the car business left behind and lifted a depressed and down and out stretch of a gritty street and over time gave it new vitality, new reputation and new history.

Not only Latinos but more enterprising immigrant minorities are locating firms in the city, most noticeably east Africans these days.  In the 1970s it was Vietnamese, in the ’80s Hmong, through the years of migration the migrant tribes establish signature businesses and build identity around town.  Turning the old Sears into a global market serves the market and the marketeers as a prime venue for prosperity like the farmers market serves the growers and the eaters for good nutrition.  It’s a good idea to open avenues of prosperity and nutrition to all seekers of the American dream and to keep the doors open.

That last recession of 2008 proved a tipping point on our block.  That was about the time the tenants at the walkup apartments first stood up to their landlord about their living conditions.  A duplex went abandoned, condemned.  Across the street the lady got foreclosed and before she could be evicted she died from the illness that kept her from keeping up the mortgage.  Anybody who bought a house or recently remodeled with a second mortgage was under water, owed more than the house’s value.  Foreclosures and short sales became common.  Anybody who wanted to sell and move couldn’t get a good price or find qualified buyers.  It reminded me of when Roxanne and I first moved in.

Here we were just paying off our mortgage and sitting relatively sweet, fully employed at the peaks of our careers, empty nesters, grandparents, free to travel and take a winter vacation and lo and behold the rest of the economy caved in.  We didn’t get pay raises for a while, though we were already making good money.  We were in a position to help others, increased charity, but that’s not something to boast but a left hand not knowing what the right hand does kind of thing, if you know scripture.  Here we elected our first African American president, the master community organizer himself, a gentleman and a scholar, and what happens is the whole phony premise of economic valuation started to crash like the unseen hand of a Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme.  What a coincidence!

The following ten years proved the ultimate resilience of the neighborhood.  After a couple of winters of bleak stagnancy a young couple from Kansas City with little twin boys moved in across the street.  He is a techie working for a Fortune 500 firm.  Privately I refer to her as the Jamaican Lady for some reason because she could be Malcolm Gladwell’s sister.  Nice family.  Boys, Avery and Ivory, are getting lanky.  They just added a baby girl last year.

Next to their house on the far side, next to the colonial brick walkup is a curious narrow stucco house covered in ivy vines.  It was built identical to the place directly across the street, probably about 1910, both houses by members of the same family.  The one next door to the Jamaican Lady was kept in the family about a hundred years until the last one to inherit it decided to sell it and move away, only she waited until after the recent real estate bubble burst, had to put some money into a furnace and amenities to make it attractive to sell.  The buyer was a couple of teachers, a lesbian couple both named Sarah, who snapped it up because it was affordable and they liked the neighborhood, good location, and by the way they too had a baby girl born last year.

The other twin home across the street had been out of the family at least one generation, had been subdivided into an up-down duplex which fell into shabby disrepair and eventually became condemned.  By then it barely bore resemblance to the Sarahs’ twin across the street except for their identical stained glass windows.  At the point it got condemned it had been the object of two different guys who acquired it and tried to rehab it and left it abandoned.  Four years ago it was acquired before demolition by a local non-profit land trust who completely gutted it to the bones and reassembled it again as a single family dwelling with a fresh stucco exterior painted Bungle House Blue, then sold it to a young hipster couple, the Edens, Adam and Evelyn, he a county attorney and she a teacher of adult education, English as a non-primary language (at a different school district for now) and they too had a child last year, a boy.

The same land trust also bought the house across the street from us where that poor lady went bust and died.  They gutted it and reassembled it with a fresh exterior and sold it to the Kanes, Rob and Judy, both blind.  The Edens say they were interested in this house first before theirs but got aced out by the Kanes.  The Kanes had a baby boy almost two years ago.

The nicest house, the jewel of the block, is a three story Victorian mansion two doors down from us we still call the Washburn house, not for the current owner, or for the owner when we first moved here, or for the original builder, but for the ones who completely restored it fifteen years ago.  The previous owner for more than a generation was Betty Rodriguez, who raised eleven kids there.  Betty had a famous restaurant on the north side, Mexican of course.  She was from around the Rio Grande.  A tragic accident while in the hospital paralyzed her from the waist down and she ended up living in a wheel chair out of a makeshift porch off the dining room where she had access to the living room and kitchen.  Betty taught Roxanne how to make enchiladas.  She always had one of her kids’ families living with her in the upper two floors, sometimes more, all taking care of her.  Roxanne and I used to sort of be on call to help her if she slipped too low in her chair if Betty was home alone.  We were friends with a couple of Betty’s daughters and their kids played with ours.  The famous boxer Raphael Rodriguez was Betty’s son.

When Betty passed away the house was acquired by Jeff and Sarah Washburn, in their thirty-somethings with a son in elementary school.  Sarah was a teacher.  Jeff was the CEO of a housing trust that reconditioned rundown housing and helped finance buyers, albeit not the same housing trust that later benefited the Edens and the Kanes.  In their own time Jeff and Sarah renovated the Rodriguez house, made it gorgeous from the roof to the basement.  They said they were good at working together since they met in the Peace Corps in Honduras.  They fenced in the back yard, put in a porch, patio, hot tub.  Inside they put in a new kitchen, replaced broken woodwork, restored the porch and living area after Betty.  At possibly the penultimate peak of the housing bubble, the Washburns sold the place to another lesbian couple, Jennifer and Sarah, who were childless.  The Washburns moved across town where they found another old Victorian home to restore.

Shortly after the new owners put a new metal roof like the ones in Paris on the Washburn house the housing bubble burst and the new owners were under water from the getgo.  They struggled for a few more years and finally took a short sale to a hetro couple in their very late twenties, both family psychologists, she with a broader practice and he more focused on juvenile and adolescent.  Such a big lovely house, they started out renting to roomers; it must have been like living in an Airbnb.  Very recently they had their first baby, a girl.

Just adding these new neighbors among the old reliable ones already here reinforces my hopes and dreams of a respectable neighborhood, and now that they are having children invigorates me even more to believe we have a joint faith in the future.  We all know we’re living in a sketchy place and time.  My time will come to pass too soon.  I would like to leave this place in willing hands to nurture positive outcomes.

The journalist I talked with at the county groundbreaking ceremony asked me if I would recommend this neighborhood to my kids, and I said, of course but I don’t need to, they have their own minds.

Old neighbor Stanley the retired factory machinist ex-Russian eventually passed away but not from his wounds when he got mugged.  He died of natural causes, as did the Polish guy, his walking companion, Tony, who as they say preceded him in death.  After Tony passed, Stanley kept walking, alone is when he was vulnerable to his muggers but he kept on, accompanied more and more by his wife.  After Stanley passed she walked by herself until you come to think of it she was suddenly seen no more.  Somebody sold their houses.  Somebody moved in.

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Spring arrived late this year.  Our horrid winter lingered like pneumonia.  We got a blizzard of two and a half feet of snow the Ides of April.  The neighbors mobilized double time to help dig each other out.  Ice did not leave the local lakes until just May 5.  Now it’s all melted and gone out of mind.  The sun is high and daylight begins before six and lasts past eight.  Trees have green budleafs.  The apple trees are in bloom in pink and burgundy.  We dug the sludge out of the flower beds we left from procrastination in the fall, raking the maple leaves into the gardens for mulch to comfort the hibernating perenniels, now we take out the muck to expose the soil and the emerging crocuses.  Some of the tulips left from the Muxter years don’t bloom any more, just scraggly leaves, the bulbs too old, need replacement this fall for next spring.  The daffodils stand sentry for a few days while the peonies get ready, the phlox, and so on.  The lawn feels barefoot lush.  Lilacs are on the way.  Tomorrow mow the grass for the first time.

Contacted a local tree service and asked for an arborist to come over to give us advice and a bid on trimming our four tall maples.  He emailed me back with a quote to remove all four and pull and grind all the stumps.  I wrote back he misunderstood me, I wanted just to trim the dead branches and advice how to keep them healthy.  He called me on the phone and told me, they’re dying.

All those dead branches up near the top and the hollow boughs with bark falling off are signs that the trees are reaching the end of their life cycle.  The roots were dying and the trunks having trouble moving nutrients into the limbs and branches.  They are dying from within, he told me.  He said he could trim off the deadwood this year but next year we would look up and see more deadwood, and we would never keep up, eventually each tree would lose more and more life, and limbs, even hunks of trunk could fall.  He came to the house and met with Roxanne and me and had us look up into the trees from all angles.  They were mature all right, about five stories tall.  The arborist guessed forty to fifty years old.  By the looks of some of those upper branches and the condition of some patches of bark it is plain the four shady maples are doomed.

Roxanne and I haven’t decided whether to take out all four at the same time or the worst two now and keep the other two another couple years.  We arranged to wait to have the work done until January so we could enjoy the summer shade, the arbors of green and the eventual fall colors one last time.  One last raking.  It’s heartbreaking for us to imagine this homestead without those maples and their protective spans filtering the sun, green on blue like part of the sky itself.  I keep thinking I will miss the oxygen.

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BK

Ixtapa Zihuatanejo Guerrero, Mexico

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Have you heard?  The US State Department has issued a travel advisory against Mexico at the highest level of alert, on the same level as Syria and Somalia.  Places where you can get barrel bombed with gas chemicals by the government or face a suicide bomber at the hotel.  Mexico.  Que?

Roxanne and I go to Ixtapa every winter.  Eighteen years.  We started taking winter breaks when our kids were young, Hawaii, Cancun.  Once we tried South Padre Island.  Punta Cana.  When in my thirties I ran a little photo store for Krayon Film Shops in a shabby little shopping center in St Anthony Village which was owned by a guy named Juan Fulgencia Batista, former dictator of Cuba.  One customer was a professor at the U named Dr Mirocha, and one day he showed me his vacation pictures of a place on the ocean with a palm tree beach he called Ixtapa and said it was one of the three places in Mexico where the government designated certain tourist development zones, the other two being Cancun and Cabo.  Cancun was already highly developed, as I learned later first hand in the 1990s.  Connections to Cabo were iffy from Minneapolis then.  Hawaii was prohibitively expensive except when my brother Sean was stationed at Hickam, and it took forever to get there (this before we ever flew to Europe) so about twenty years after hearing Dr Mirocha at my film shop say to visit Ixtapa, Roxanne found a deal with MLT Vacations for a week, nonstop air and hotel.

Liked it so much we did it again the next year.  And the next.  At some point one week was not enough, nor ten days.  For a professional couple in our early 50s, almost empty-nesters, it was some kind of Springsteen’s Beautiful Reward to get away for two weeks every last week of January.  An entitlement we awarded ourselves each year for our hard work and dedication, and for enduring Minnesota winter.  It’s no exaggeration how wretchedly severe winter days can be on end in Minneapolis.  Our careers peaked, and with seniority came more PTO, and soon it required three weeks at the beach to work out all the stress of working the other 49 weeks of the year.  We’re retired now.  This year we were in Mexico a month.  What’s the allure?

The weather is predictably consistent.  Usually about 90 degrees F.  Sunny, partly sunny or partly cloudy.  Rarely overcast.  It has rained twice — a novelty.  Predictably good weather became a prime criterion for choosing our place to escape.  Weather, after all, is the reason we take a midwinter vacation.  Where we live, the cold is so harsh it sucks the life out of your bones.  We would rather not risk a precious week or two away from inebriating cold weather in favor of a warm beach to chance encounter rain storms and chilly seas.  Ixtapa in January, February always gives its weeks’ worth of paradise weather every year.

Located deep down Mexico’s Pacific coast, a thousand miles due south of Texas and about seven hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer, maybe three hundred miles south of Mexico City, Ixtapa is actually a few degrees south of Cancun in latitude, on the opposite coast.  It’s almost as far south as coastal Mexico gets before it touches Guatemala and curves north to Yucatan and the Caribbean.  Ixtapa practically faces south southwest to the Pacific, about a thousand miles free of the Baja California peninsula.  Better known resort destinations such as Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo are hundreds of miles west and north up the coast, and the major city Acapulco about two hundred miles east and south.  Much of Mexico’s west coast is rugged and rocky with a narrow stripe of seaside towns along the marinas and beaches bordering the Sierra Madre mountain range that forms the western spine of the country.  Ixtapa was created out of a coconut plantation and a mangrove estuary deliberately to lure and habitate tourists in the virtual middle of nowhere.

Nearby, about three miles around a couple of small mountains along the sea is the longtime old town of Zihuatanejo.  Famous as the eventual destination of Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption, the place functions as the municipal and commercial base of the region, which extends up and down the coast and into the foothills of the Sierra Madre.  I like to call it Downtown Mexico.  It is not a pretty town, but neither is it fake.  This is where most of the hospitality workers of Ixtapa live.  It is also a resort town unto itself with accommodations ranging from urban three story hotels above the tiendas and cantinas to traditional Spanish style hotels and condos on the cliffs above the lovely beaches on Zihuatanejo Bay.

I remember my first impressions of Zihuatanejo.  The highway to Ixtapa from the airport passes through Zihuatanejo on a main boulevard before it becomes a short superhighway through some canyons before becoming a boulevard again at the hotel zone that is Ixtapa.  We were on a tourist bus provided by MLT Vacations to take us from the airport to our hotels.  I had a window seat and a cerveza.  I was not surprised to see poverty, though I had witnessed worse in the Dominican Republic.  Zihuatanejo was definitely a working class city.  No evidence of glamor, not even an automobile showroom.  What impressed me the most was the rebar sticking up from the corners of the roofs of the concrete homes.  It told me the residents had hope and optimism, signifying that one day they planned to expand to a second story.

At the time of our first visit it was not long after we stopped referring to developing natures and cultures as Third World.  When you come at later adulthood from a white narcissistic point of view it taints you for life no matter how inclusively educated you think you are trying to be, so you try a little harder and behold you see basic fundamental things around you that translate without verbal words.  From the outset the people in the hospitality industry of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo have treated Roxanne and me as guests most welcome and sincere.  It helps to have good manners and to respect our hosts.  We took community education Spanish classes back home just so we could get along better on vacation if we made an effort to know how to pronounce verbs and order off a menu en espanol.  Now, instead of through an agency like MLT, we book our reservations directly and take a taxi from the airport to the hotel instead of the bus coach, but it’s the same boulevard through Downtown Mexico.  The good thing all these years later is the place has not caved or rotted from within.  They paint their concrete buildings bright colors.  The sidewalks are not trashy.  There’s a car showroom now.  It’s still not all that pretty but it’s still authentic.  And there’s still rebar sticking up.

It’s still both penance and purgatory to ride through Zihuatanejo on route to Ixtapa.  Ixtapa is the modern place in the rich world.  Ixtapa is the destination at the end of the superhighway around the mountains.  It’s where the high rise hotels and condos face the beach.  Where the low rise shops and restaurants sprawl the blocks and plazas aloof across the main boulevard of the hotel zone.  Where the golf course, nature estuary and eventually the yacht marina abide.  In the mix is a community of vacationers and hospitality workers in a homeobiotically entwined tango of leisure and service among strangers who may never see each other again and persons who may never travel far from their neighbors and families.  The inhabitants of the hotel rooms and condos along and near the beach are temporary citizens of a place where we live at best less than ten percent of the year and many will visit but once, and any attachment to the place is fleeting and narrow, lives focused on leisure by the sea with no visible means of support.  The permanent residents of Ixtapa — there is a residential district in a valley beyond the commercial plazas and cocinas and older back street hotels — and of greater Zihuatanejo, which includes little towns like Troncones and Playa Linda to the west and Playa Larga and Petatlan to the east and who knows what into the mountains to the north, number more than 150,000 now, all stuck here in the middle of nowhere along the beautiful blue Pacific, all working in some capacity and woven by some thread to the tourists.

We repeat customers make up a nice slice of the pastel.  Establishments respect this and thus a rather refined culture of service prevails everywhere in the region.  It’s not just the people at the Krystal hotel who get to know you after so many years, or maybe a restaurant proprietor who’s seen you before, but it seems every place you go the people behind the counter, the drivers, the servants all greet you with respect and friendly intent.  It’s a far far cry from the service indifference of Las Vegas.  At Ixtapa Zihuatanejo there is a sincere, authentic culture of gracious hospitality (even when service is slow) that seems to spring indigenously among everyone engaging the public in a way that can be refined through good hotel and restaurant training programs but otherwise cannot be taught to a degree this heartfelt.  Surely they’re doing it for the money but there’s more motivation and deeper meaning than tips, at least you hope so when you look into their eyes and see they care about what they do to make you feel welcome.

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And so Roxanne and I have made ourselves at home at this Krystal hotel all these years.  The room rates are affordable.  The accommodations are comfortable and secure.  Clean?  At home I don’t scrub the bathroom and change the bed linen every day.  As I said, we first came to the Krystal via MLT Vacations but after a while booked our own flights and directly reserved rooms with the hotel.  Our loyalty derives from the way they have always treated us, with nothing less than gracious hospitality.  It’s not just us.  Everybody gets it.  If anyone can get credit for setting the dorado standard for service in greater Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, the people of the Krystal hotel deserve appreciation.  When you check in and they say, “Bienvenidas, welcome home,” they really mean it.

And it helps the location is in the middle of the middle of Ixtapa.  On the boulevard it’s directly across from the gateway to the main plaza and the grid maze of commercial enterprises at a kind of crossroads towards the quieter part of town, the nature preserves, bike and pedestrian trails, stand alone convenience stores and restaurants, hotels off the beach and eventually the marina and its mall of sophistication.  The boulevard has no stoplights, and is busy, but lined on each side with lush pedestrian walkways with speed bumps and crosswalks along the hotel zone from the marina all the way to the mountain boundary where the boulevard rises into temporary superhighway to Zihuatanejo.  A walking trail along the mountain continues all the way into Downtown Mexico if you care to walk the four or five miles more.  Ixtapa on the boulevard is about four miles long.  The Krystal is almost exactly halfway.

On the middle of the beach.  The coastline of Mexico is made of soft sandy beaches enclosed by rugged cliffs and rocky shores.  Ixtapa faces the Pacific on a three mile crescent shaped strip of sand called Playa Palmar.  The sea rolls in from the wide bay, horizon barely obstructed by a few rocky islands, water blue as heaven, the surf rough and white, then playful and foamy.  And there on Playa Palmar the essence of the existence of Ixtapa plays itself as the theater of the playa.

At dawn the walkers and runners emerge.  Then surf bathers.  Soccer.  Frisbee.  Sand castles.  Little kids.  Boogie boarders.  The Girl From Ipanema.  Again.  Volleyball.  All day the beach is alive with people trekking back and forth along the shore, some stopping to play along the edge, others chasing the tide, others chased by the waves.  If you take the walk from the Krystal in either direction along Playa Palmar you will encounter humanity more or less stripped to the skin, all engaged in freedom and pursuit of happiness at a place where the sun touches the land along the sea.  What can be more human than leisure at the beach?  Nowhere else can one witness the comedy and drama of the human condition, the mundane turned square, the romance and fury of young couples and elders like us keeping up, the savvy and the confused, the brave and the reckless, the modest and the profane, the foreigners and the locals, all ages and the ageless, the funny looking and the pretty, everybody making tracks in the sand up and down the beach.  Then the sun goes down and everybody gradually leaves the sand and dresses for dinner.

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Roxanne and I like to occupy a palapa on the beach below our hotel.  A palapa is a thatched roof structure like a permanent palm leaf umbrella embedded on a pole like a tree trunk in the ground.  There are dozens of them in two rows along the sea wall at the Krystal on the beach.  Under a palapa we enjoy the view of the bay and the surf and the theater of the beach.  The palapas include a couple of lounge chairs like they have up on the capacious pool deck, and it’s a great place to read in the shade.  Many hotel guests contend for the poolside lounge chairs under umbrellas, especially ones facing the beach, but we prefer the sand of actually being on the beach along with the relative privacy of the palapa.  We camp at our palapa all day, trust our belongings per se to the tree branches and leave our towels and books on the lounge chairs when we go for walks, dips in the sea or swims in the pool, or lunch.  The palapa is home base.  For dibs on a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar four weeks of the year during the cruelest time of a Minnesota winter, we have plighted our troth the rest of our days on this earth.

For this we are informed by the US State Department we are risking our lives beyond the pale.  (Or should it be Beyond the Pale.)  To go to Zihuatanejo is to go over the Wall.  We take our lives in our own hands.  Our government dissumes liability.  We have been warned.

Perhaps somebody forgot to tell the Mexicans.

I’m kidding, of course.  Mexicans are well aware of the official American opinion of their society and culture, and it’s a high testament to their inherent graciousness and kindness that expressions of resentment usually go unseen.  Given the insults and provocations hurled and steeped at Mexicans by the president of the United States it’s a blessing to not be judged as a generalized example of that kind of American attitude.  Then again, why would someone with a hostile attitude about Mexico venture deep into the state of Guerrero anyway.  On the other hand, if we act as well mannered ambassadors with any kind of influence we might serve to show we know better about our cross border relations than our nominal leader and get benefit of the doubt and be treated as individuals rather than Americans.

In classic fuhrer fashion he campaigned, ranting, “They send us their …”  Plug in a favorite deplorable.  One has to ask, who is doing this sending?  Does he mean there is a bureau somewhere in the official government of Mexico that selects unsavory characters to be shipped to the United States?  What does he mean, “They send us …”?

Are these deplorables picked like fruits and vegetables and shipped here in crates?

In Mexico, on the other side of the Wall, it’s hard to perceive the impact felt by Mexicans when the subject of politics does not come up in conversation.  At least between the Mexicans and the anglos.  Between anglo tourists there has always been an undercurrent of regionalisms and party affiliations and so forth you will always find among white people on vacation.  We have been coming to Ixtapa since before 9/11, and since then have traced the nuances of liberal and conservative conversations overheard among the English speaking guests over the years, Bush years looking back on Clinton years, then Obama years, now the Trump years, always something in the wind.  Iraq.  Arab Spring.  Obamacare.  Terrorism.  Immigration.  You really rarely hear a conversation between an American and a Mexican about American foreign policy towards Latin America, though you might hear an earful from Canadians more and more who boldly assert they are more astute and better educated than Americans and can cut better trade deals with Mexico — even then you don’t hear a Mexican side of the equations.

I also don’t speak — or hear — Spanish that well.  If aware of Mexican subcurrents of political resentment I have to look deeper into the eyes of each person I encounter, and that’s a lot of eye contact, even among the anglos.  If the Mexicans are plotting against us behind our backs they hide it well.  After all, in their mercantile economy the North American cash buys a lot of good will.  Only the most cynical of forces would want to upend the cash flow of this community.

Not that it’s totally dependent on the tourists from the USA.  Far from it.  Canadians make up more and more of the visitors from the north and Americans fewer and fewer.  The biggest gain in the vacation market at the Krystal hotel the past ten years is in the number of Mexicans from the greater urban interior of the country.  Even so, Ixtapa Zihuatanejo likes North Americans and would do anything including suppressing information to express security to tourists from the north who come down there to spend money and have a good time.

We ask Alonso, a guy who works at the hotel we’ve come to know, is it safe down here?

He says if it were not inherently safe he would not live here.  He echoes the mantra of being aware of your surroundings, the heart of said discussions with concierges in Florence, London, Amsterdam, Prague.  Don’t go anyplace shady, he advised, or get involved with shady behavior.  Trust us.  We look out for you.  We would warn you.  This is as safe as your own home town.  He tells us the in-joke around town is to refer to their city as Syriajuatenajo.

Yes, he’s telling us what we want to hear.  We aren’t stupid — paletos maybe — and we know there are certain dangers associated with Mexico.  Primarily what comes to mind is the country’s reputation for violence created by the drug trade.  Gangs organize cartels which compete for market share, glory and political power.  Murder is the ultimate tactic.  They practice armed warfare and the police challenge them, and they fight back.  Law enforcement has a legacy of corruption.  The drug trade probably passes through Zihuatanejo by land and by sea, the highways linking the little ordinary towns together along the coast and into the hills and beyond to other states like Jalisco and Mexico City, and each little port of call on the Pacific from Acapulco to Ensenada.  Rumors say the state of Guerrero is a nexus on the trade route, and that would seem logistically logical, given its natural location on the map, the topography, the access to the sea.  As it is believable that trucks of oranges and avocados pass through Zihuatanejo, so do shipments of controlled substances.  No, I do not have first hand knowledge of such goings on, I am supposing and applying hypotheticals because after all I am a stranger in a strange land and my government has expressed a warning to be careful and I must weigh the risks.  I have no first hand experience with the drug trade of Mexico and for that I worry little about feeling its effect.  I have no interest in acquiring or selling product of that kind and thus do not anticipate crossing paths with cartel gangsters or police for that matter.

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Of deeper concern to me are political matters and socioeconomic dynamics in the community and region.  A few years ago a busload of student teachers from a college in the northern mountains of Guerrero disappeared on their way to Mexico City to attend a political rally.  The 43 student teachers are still missing, believed cremated at a mountain landfill.  Mass graves were uncovered, more bodies than just 43.  A gang cartel and leadership from the mayor of the town and his wife in collusion with at least 22 local police officers stand accused of participation in the mass murders.  The student teachers were interdicted from their trek to their political rally because they stirred up trouble for mobilizing demonstrations for radical causes challenging both the authority of the mayor and the power of the cartel.  I have no doubt nobody will get away with this, though the judiciary may move slowly in Mexico.  (Face it, certain civil rights murders in the American south have taken fifty years to come to justice.)  This case has pushed Mexico’s self awareness into inevitable confrontation with its vices and it’s gone too far to look away.  What I observe as a wave towards scrupulous rule of law may be nearsighted and obscured by what I don’t see.

I used to buy a daily newspaper from a guy named Victor who sold them up and down the beach.  He has a rich baritone voice — “English newspapers!”  You could hear him coming a dozen palapas away.  The paper was something like Mexico News, published in English Monday through Saturday from Mexico City.  Cost me 150 pesos a day — about 75 cents USD.  Rounded up a seemingly fair sample of stories from around the country.  Water and sanitation projects.  Education reform.  Business reports.  Government reform.  Anti corruption.  Appropriations for housing the poor.  Features about artists and music festivals.  Representation of women in government and the workforce.  Editorials demanding accountability and justice, transparency and lucidity.  I do a lot of reading on the beach at Playa Palmar, and it seemed right that I edify myself in what a Mexican daily said about itself, even if not in Spanish.  It was a clue to the clueless.  Of course it was of interest to read stories involving the United States, the Bush and Obama years, observing a neutral, objective tone of criticism and faint admiration of its neighbor and ally, and it was interesting reading coverage of world events from the Mexico City perspective, but I sought the domestic news pages to see how the country saw itself.  Its coverage of the 43 kidnapped student teachers, how they wouldn’t let it go, highlighted what I saw as an essentially moral culture coming of age at a typical crossroads of modern civilization, just like the rest of us.

Last year Victor stopped selling the paper.  Instead of hearing his rich voice hawking “English newspapers,” he was selling “Soccer t-shirts!”

So what happened to el diario? I asked.  “Periodicos don’t sell,” he said, subtly correcting me.  “It’s the internet.  Cell phones.”

There is noplace in Ixtapa or Zihuatanejo I would point to as a newstand.  Nothing like you might find at a transit kiosk in Rome, or a section at Walgreens, or a book shop on the concourse of an average airport.  The literacy rate for Mexico is over 94%, so something tells me such a shop exists somewhere, just out of sight or in plain sight — where else would all those people get all those revistas you see the Mexicans reading at the swimming pool deck.  I’m sure if I search enough or ask the right person I could find a daily paper in Spanish, so much for my laziness.  Instead I fall back on the E-edition of my hometown paper via the pitiful hotel wi-fi on Roxanne’s iPad.  In my way I fulfill Victor’s diagnosis.  Throw in the cable TV and there’s Fox and CNN International amid the sports, soaps, kid shows and movies en espanol, commercials in Spanish, but nothing readily available as local news.  Perhaps there is nothing new to know.  Maybe it’s none of my business what might grace the local police blotter or who this candidate might be you see up on the billboard over the boulevard.  I am, after all, a tourist, not expected to be concerned about the trivia of the day to day innings of the hundred thousand or so people who live there all year.  I am expected to keep my nose out of the details, just kick back and enjoy the sun and the sea, the food and drink, the hospitality and comfort — just pay the bill.  Pay la cuenta, por favor.

So long as I am safe to enjoy my leisure and freedom, what cause do I have to ponder the travails of the indigenese?  For one thing, were the social structure of my paradise to fall apart my favorite midwinter vacation would be ruined.  I suppose I could turn away and wave it off, go back to searching for somewhere else, Belize, Costa Rica, or just go back to hopping around looking for one-off deals.  But eighteen-odd years at Ixtapa has bonded me to the place like a townie.  It would not seem fair to extract such pleasure and good will without paying attention to the details of what accounts for the source of what satisfies our vacation.  For me, I seek a serenity and balance of harmonies under a palapa at the beach on Playa Palmar in front of the Krystal, a headquarters of the head.  Witness to the theater of la playa.  Watching the waves roll in endlessly and continual.  As reclusive as the long view of my endeavor, as private and shy my reflection, introspection and voyeuristic perspective, none of this would be satisfied if I did not look for a relationship with me and the inclusive world at large.  It’s in my utmost interest to feel safe here.

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A few years ago a local guide named Luis came to our palapa, as solicitors often do on Playa Palmar, to pitch his guided tour along the southeast coast by land, along the nine mile Playa Largo to a nature preserve.  When I said we would think about it and get back to him he complained as he handed me his card about the tourists who come down there only to sit around on their butts on the beach under palapas all day drinking alcohol when they should be out experiencing the surrounding geography.  Luis hurt my feelings that day, because I agreed with what he said about sedentary complacency and implied I might be wasting time doing nothing but drinking beer down at the beach.  Luis never knew how interested we were in exploring south to the nature preserve, especially since the excursion included lunch.

In truth Roxanne and I have ventured outside the hotel zone often.  The truth is there aren’t any bold attractions, no noted museums, no pyramids or temples, and very little archaeology.  Alligators.  Pelicans.  A zipline hike.  You can tour a tile factory up in the mountains, though be warned it gets way hot up there so bring extra water.  The big excursions solicitors offer have to do with the sea — mainly fishing.  Snorkeling at Ixtapa Island.  The Booze Cruise.  No sporting events (other than town basketball at the outdoor plaza court in downtown Zihuatanejo) and no arena concerts.  No monuments of Spanish colonial history.  There are bronze statues of Mexican commemoration of milestones of its history besides the 5th of May scattered here and there in the walkways of the old city — people and events admittedly obscure to us northerners unschooled in the details, like a Mexican in Minneapolis coming across a statue of Hubert Humphrey.

As it turned out we did not sign up for Luis’s tour.  We asked around, talked to people we have come to know of the hotel staff to assure ourselves he was legitimate.  In some ways we were still indoctrinated with mistrust — the MLT Vacations coordinators used to warn us never to engage excursion guides who approach you on the beach, implying they could be frauds who take your money and never show up, which we in turn suspected of being a ploy to keep all the excursion business confined to the MLT reps.  The people at the Krystal all said Luis was a stand up guy, and Jesus Calderon, a veteran waiter at the hotel who knew Luis since he was a kid, when his parents both worked at the hotel and he practically grew up at the Krystal.  Roxanne and I eagerly looked for Luis to come back.  Most vendors almost befriend you and get back to you if they see you are the least bit interested.  Luis never showed again.  Not last year.  Not this past year.  I should ask Jesus what happened to him.

So Roxanne and I have yet to take the nature preserve tour.  Or the Xihuacan excavation site.  Or the tile factory.  Or the zipline.  We have gone fishing.  The Booze Cruise, more formally known at the catamaran sunset cruise aboard the Picante, which is the name of the vessel graphically painted on the hull in the script of the signature of Pablo Picasso.  We have gone snorkeling and spent time at Ixtapa Island and its counterpart at Zihuatanejo Bay, Isla Las Gatas, which is not an island at all but a beach on a peninsula at the junction of the bay and the open sea.  We have ventured past Zihuatanejo down to Playa Larga, over the hills to Petatlan via Coacoyul, and beyond Ixtapa and Playa Linda to Troncones, a fair slice of territory confined to a small strip of coastline as middle of nowhere as you might find on this continent.

Some call it Going Off the Reservation, a derisive enough sounding term for leaving the confines of the resort to explore the indigenous countryside — no doubt coined by an American white guy, possibly a soldier — but aptly sums the perception you sense when one ventures outside a comfort zone protecting against invidious challenges.  I first heard the term used in Punta Cana, where the contrast between the resort zones and the surrounding countryside of the real Dominican Republic is stark.  I’ve heard it since in reference to Cancun, and even the Hawaiian Islands.  It’s an offhand, shorthand term used thoughtlessly without regard to its reference to American Indian reservations, and its irony is in assuming a certain utopian fortress of security within the hotel zone not found among the inhabitants of most of the rest of the real estate of the country not devoted to vacation.

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It’s ironic that people go someplace to be lazy and rich amid a populace who works so hard to keep up.  We go there to escape.  Our wicked winter drives us into exile.  We’ve picked a place along the sea where it is hot and sunny.  We used to go there to get away from work and the relentless daily pressures of the job, and now that we have achieved our senior distinction and have no professional stress we escape nothing of the usual mental and philosophical demands of life we would not face back home, except for the excruciatingly cold weather.  It’s iconic that North Americans like to escape winter.  At Ixtapa we have met people from all over the northern USA and all over Canada, everybody taking a break from the cold.  Everybody knows how to say muy frio when we describe home in January.  We must number in the thousands, descending upon the scene in waves, all these gringos coming and going, hanging out at the beach, sunning and swimming at the hotel pools, eating food, drinking, buying products and services, keeping the servants busy servicing them with hospitality day and night.  I wonder which is more mind boggling of the other, the affluence of the vacationers or the austerity of the locals.

It’s impossible to blend in and be as anonymous as we might like, even among the countless gringos on the beach.  At first it was easy to mind our own business and keep to ourselves just to enjoy privacy in exile.  I like to read on the beach.  And write.  Under the palapas of Playa Palmar I deciphered Walter Mosley, Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, John Sanford and Peter Heller for clues to the nature of good and its opposing forces.  Researched The Geography of Bliss, The Silk Roads and The Discovery of France in anticipation of European travel.  I got into essays by David Foster Wallace and Sven Birkerts.  I wrote in my journal, freeform and nasty as could be, and wrote letters to my grandkids in Switzerland.  This privacy on the beach for inner deliberation in no way clashed with the outer real world of being on a busy beach in Mexico because it all seemed to flow together like the surf, everybody else was in their own world too.

Once when I wasn’t even looking for it I had an epiphany.  While reading Changing the Subject, a book of essays by Sven Birkerts, a sort of follow up to his The Gutenberg Elegies which I read in to 1990s, both examinations of perceptions and attention in the internet age, I came upon the essay he titled “The Solieri Syndrome”, which is about envy.  He writes about his Beasley, his model figure of someone who always writes something just a little better but significantly better than you.  I realized right then my Beasley was Sven Birkerts.  When I was younger I blamed my literary obscurity on there being already a Garrison Keillor on this earth.  And a Leonard Cohen.  More recently my Beasley was David Foster Wallace.

Absorbing deep thoughts and revelations like these on the beach at Ixtapa seems as calm and reliable as the weather, and I can see why somebody like Luis might construe that all I care about is sitting — lounging, no less — inertly, sedentary on the beach all day.  They would be wrong to judge it unproductive.  Yet I do not recommend Ixtapa as a vacation destination to anybody looking for a lot of action.  They will be bored.  As I said, there are no monumental attractions.  Nothing like a Montreaux Jazz Festival.  No Spanish castles.  No Maya runestones.  No active volcanoes.  There’s a golf course around the estuary, but I hear if you golf you might want to get a tee time around sunrise or otherwise it’s going to be a sweltering round.  There is no other reason to come to Ixtapa than to relax.  There’s not much else to do.

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Roxanne and I like this.  There are vacations to ascend the Eiffel Tower and ramble around Pompeii and cavalcade through the Vatican Museum.  This is a vacation designed to allow for peaceful appreciation of withdrawal from any compulsion to accomplish anything other than pleasures of rest and relaxation.

We swim in the hotel pool.  The Krystal calls its swimming pool alberca (reservoir) rather than by the common word piscina.  It’s a large pool of blue tile, curvy shaped with a tiled island towards the middle of its shallower end, which is about four feet deep.  We like to swim in the deep end, which is through a short channel under a bridge from the main shallow end.  The deep end used to feature a waterfall for kids to jump off, but it was kind of lame and a few years ago it was replaced by a water slide designed like a pirate ship with a mean looking monkey pirate with a sword on the crow’s nest, and the kids seem to like that better.  We like the deep end because we can swim back and forth, there’s a tiny current from the jets on the side and the water slide, it’s less populated than the main shallower part of the pool, and the water is noticeably cooler and more refreshing on a hot day than the more crowded main pool.  We go for a swim several times a day, especially when the sky is cloudless and the sun is muy calor and the sand is mucho caliente.  The hotel uses a non-chlorine water filtration system so there’s no chemical feel or scent to the water.  The pool deck is always packed with sunbathers on lounge chairs all around the pool and sitting along the edges and people coming and going between the hotel lobby, the restaurants and the outdoor bars, and up and down the stairs to the beach and the palapas.  There is also a kiddie pool under the shade of palm trees.  Waiters hustle drinks around the deck — they used to bring food too, but new health regulations restrict food to the restaurants and the shaded cantina along the sea wall.  There are ample umbrellas and some palm trees around the edges of the deck.  Music pulsates from Bose speakers under the palms.  Activities like water volleyball, aerobics, bingo and even salsa lessons play out.  The pool is the agora of day life at the Krystal.  A lot of people spend all day around the pool the way we spend all day at the palapa on the sand.

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We walk the beach, join the theater of the playa.  Which way to go, left or right?  The Krystal is in the middle.

Playa Palmar is Ixtapa’s grand promenade.  Go left at the mark in the sand where the tide reaches nearest, where the beach is wet, and stroll into the flow of the tides of people all acting out the roles we portray.  Exposed to the world, costumed in the bare basics we all — todos — present ourselves as the projected characters of our inner hearts, translucent in the spotlight of the sun.  All at once.  The flabby and the firm, the glamorous and the ungainly, plain and the pretty, chubby and chinless, the suave and the severe, all types cross paths.  There are sun fiends with brazen skin like chocolate and fair fairies in scarves and hats like flower petals, and shades of cinnamon and caramel, and too often pink.  Wear sun screen.

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Little kids chase the ebb tide and the flow tide chases them back.  Soccer matches scroll between nets; balls go loose among lanes of pedestrians.  Guys and chicks go deep tossing american footballs.  Frisbees whiz and curl as people play catch.  There’s an Aerobie — like playing catch with the rings of Saturn.  Pitching horseshoes.  Bean Bags!  Bolo.  Volleyball.  Families digging holes, burying their dads, making castles and sculptures and hearts and flowers in the sand.  Clammers dig for clams.  The word for sand is arena en espanol, so maybe the beach is less a stage than an arena of continual performances where even the ones watching from palapas and decks of the condos and hotels or on a blanket of towels on the sand or simply standing in the way there are no bystanders.  Even the watchers participate.  Runners trot through.  Fast walkers pass the dawdlers.  Selfies.  Poseurs.  Casual accidental photobombs.  (Kids, please don’t throw sand.)  Young parents show their first babies the sea.  There’s romance and passion afoot, couples of all ages playing honeymoon.  Tattoos and ample cleavage.  Sportswear with mixed logos.  Ball caps galore — but none MAGA.  The word playera means t-shirt and there are t-shirts with all kinds of print graphics but nothing profane or very edgy.  The chaos that exists on the beachfront supersedes politics, and it is the great neutral zone.  Maybe a red maple leaf here or there but otherwise not much nationalism than a tricolor Mexican flag which you would expect, this being Mexico.  This speaks well for the gringos not to take their bumper sticker snark wars on vacation so long as thousands of them mingle each day on Playa Palmar.

From the Krystal to the left it’s at least a mile and a half to the end of the beach.  The beach is a crescent of a wide mouthed bay, almost four miles corner to corner, bounded by terraces of steep volcanic cliffs that cut the beach off where the sea meets rocks.  If you walk it end to end you can kick the rocks like you can kick the wall when you walk the whole of Galway Bay.  A ritual.  At the far end of the walk to the left, at the edge of a terraced cliffside is a mangrove creek that sometimes flows into the ocean through the river estuary.  When there is rain in the Sierra Madre the creek may flow open to the sea at the rocks and it is not prudent to wade across just to ceremonially kick the wall.  Other times the creekbed from the estuary goes dry at the mouth to the ocean and the tides groom it over with sand and embeds some of the volcanic rock, all until the flow from the mountains again connects with the tides to open a channel across the end of the beach.  Usually when it’s open it’s shallow and calm enough to wade across to lay a wet footprint upon a rock.

There are four hotels and at least four condominium complexes on this half of the beach, including the Krystal.  The hotels are mostly high rise like the Krystal, which is 11 stories.  One is a mix of high rise and low rise.  The condos are high rise and low rise.  The end property is a mix, a terraced series of condos up the cliffs above the beach called Pacifica, which has its own cable car across the mangrove creek and up the gorge to reach the upmost terrace of condos from the low rise array and give their guests sandy beach access on the beach side of the creek.  Years ago there was a lot of high pressure sales to buy a time share in Pacifica — the most annoying aspect of an Ixtapa vacation, invitations to a free breakfast and a tour of Pacifica — but these days not so much, it’s either saturated — always looks high occupancy — or more exclusive who they solicit.

The hotels all offer beach access as well as swimming pool amenities similar to the Krystal, each with their own style.  We checked them all out at one time or other and found no reason to turn away from the Krystal for any better accommodation or amenities.  People gravitate to hotels for personal reasons or have no such loyalties, either way the five or six hotels on the beach at Ixtapa will give you direct experience to Playa Palmar.  They are all of rather modern design, especially in contrast to hotels on the beaches of Zihuatanejo, having been built since 1980.  Many of the hotels of late only offer rooms as all inclusive of food and drink.  The Krystal offers all inclusive as an option, and Roxanne and I decline to partake, preferring instead to drink and dine a la cart.

What we would like would be to afford to rent a condo for a month, have a living room, kitchen and laundry of our own, but we don’t by ourselves have the means.  There’s a 14 story palatial hacienda between a couple of average hotels on the beach called the Bayview where we’d like to live.  Terraced like a wedding cake of black wrought iron balconies, its elegant presence makes it the top architectural attraction of Ixtapa.

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The Krystal is shaped like a wedge with its angle edge pointed due west towards the ocean.  Next door, of equal height there’s a condo high rise called the Amara.  They built it on the land of the old Krystal tennis courts and a backyard scenic overlook at the ocean where the palms parted and revealed a group of roman columns where they used to say mass and perform weddings.  The Amara was built over two years, one vertical half at a time.  We used to be able to watch the workers assemble the steel and concrete and hear the clang and clunk of construction.  Now it is a formidable, not ugly but austere white building of concrete and bluegreen glass balconies.  From our room at the Krystal the apartments at the Amara look sumptuous, maybe elegant like those at the Bayview where we have actually visited.  To the northwest from the Krystal, to the right along the beach beyond the other two hotels there are two more finished high rise condo buildings built since the Amara, within the last three years, and one currently under construction, half done.  They tend to build half the structure bottom to top and then complete the second half while the first half is occupied.  The white concrete architecture appears to grow plainer and more austere with every building, almost looking like elements from suburban office parks.  One could be a government building, no style at all.  When we walk by, going the other way from the Bayview, it’s hard to know who lives or stays at these newest places because there are rarely anyone to see on the pool deck or out front at the beach, not like the Pacifica, Bayview or Amara where there are large public crowds, palapas, sportive activities and swimmers in the surf, and in fact these new condos look rather lonely, maybe vacant or the habitats of very reclusive people.

Walk the beach to the right from the Krystal and the action on the playa resembles the rest of the shenanigans and hoopla going on from the Krystal to the Pacifica to the left and it blends with the human current, you might call it human traffic if it didn’t sound so exploitive to describe the flow of people on this three or four mile beach.  About halfway to the rocks that border the sea at the marina, almost a mile from the Krystal to the right and past the two hotels there is a stretch of beach at its widest in front of a low rise set of buildings before a stretch of desert where a fence line defines what belongs to the beach and what is otherwise barren, vacant land.  At this demarcation the flow remarkably diminishes.  This is where walkers and runners might turn around and go back to the other half of the crescent, or keep going in smaller numbers all the way to kick the rocks at the marina.

It is this barrens area where the three newest condo high rises went up.  It’s hard to not imagine what Playa Palmar might look like in fifty years, after Roxanne and I are gone, our footprints in the sand long confused and conflated and commingled with so many others and then washed away by the tides.  More high rises above the low rises maybe.  The first years we came there and walked the beach that direction we went that way because it was more secluded, less crowded, good for dawdling in the surf and contemplating the waves.  Along the desert stretch was a good vantage to scan the wide bay where there could be whales and pods of dolphins.  Of course you can see whales and dolphins from anywhere on Playa Palmar, even from a hotel pool deck.  But it’s more likely you will actually notice them along this stretch of beach, maybe the perspective of the rocky islands and the lay of the rest of the horizon, and stop to watch a while until these creatures come up for air and dance for the silly humans watching from shore.  Most of our sightings seem to occur when we are walking this stretch of beach.  The first year we came here in fact there was a steel beam skeleton frame of a would be high rise in progress which was wrapped in plastic like a transit car advertisement for the future with a big image of a blue whale on it, and years went by and the plastic began to unwrap, the weather peeled it away and the whale shredded in tatters in the wind.  Then one year they tore it down, dismantled the building.  It’s the site of the new uncompleted condo.  One hopes for success with these ventures enabling people to vacation when the beachfront of these properties look so sad and forlorn and empty.

At the far corner of the crescent bordering the marina there exists a cheery row of colorful low rise condos at the edge of the beach.  These are where we would really like to live even more than the Bayview.  Homey and hopeful they resemble townhomes more than condos, inviting and familial.  Adjacent to the marina, they are not as isolated from greater Ixtapa than appears from the beach that meets the rocks.  Another wet footprint on a rock.

The local surfers like to try their beginners luck on the waves at this lonely end of the bay.  It might be to surfing the equivalent of the bunny hill, where novices practice their stand-up techniques.  I say local because invariably these guys are young teenage mozos from around town hanging out with their surfboards after school, not tourists, not even from Mexico City.  More than the general population they ignore us, the northern tourists, and we stay out of each others way.  We do not shout or applaud their surfing moves and they don’t gawk at us for walking the beach like we’ve got nothing else to do.

The lonely stretch of beach in front of the new condos and the remaining deserted barrens makes a favorite place for kite fliers.  Adjacent to the condo property on the barrens is a causeway for public access.  The beach itself is public but the properties that border the beach block public access, so every so far, and all along the stretch of barrens between the condos and the hotels are common pathways from the boulevard to the beach, which is how the surfers, locals and other tourists staying at off-beach hotels get in.

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Rounding out the middle of the beach between the two hotels adjacent to the Krystal and the condos is a row of low rise buildings spaced among the public access venues.  One is bright pink concrete block and features a round tower, and it’s called Delfiniti, home of the dolphin aquarium where you can swim with the dolphins.  Next to that is a wide ranch looking wooden hacienda with a wide porch that used to be a Carlos and Charlies, a nightclub known for dance music, balloon hats, blue mescal and jello shots — like a Senor Frog’s.  During the day they offered skydiving experiences where you would end up landing on the beach.  Maybe ten years ago it closed as Carlos and Charlies.  Some say it was a tax dispute.  They still serve beer and tacos in the day time and run a couple of stands on the side selling lunches, souvenirs and beach toys, but it’s hard to say what goes on there at night — it must not be a nuisance to the community.  Carlos and Charlies used to hire party guys to parade up and down Playa Palmar in sombreros wearing a long sash sign advertising the place by name, sponsored by Corona and Tecate, touting Carlos and Charlie with a bull horn and somebody toting a throbbing boombox, but not lately.  If there exists a rowdy nightlife and party crowd at Ixtapa it does it on the sly, not obvious.  Roxanne and I aren’t interested in staying out and partying until 3 a.m. — okay, let’s say we are interested but don’t have the energy to stay out late and party — so we’re not the target market for such folderol.  One gets the sense of taste and decorum at Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, a downplay of obstreperous vice.  If one sees somebody behaving badly it’s generally just rude but not vulgar.  Maybe it’s the dominance of the elder crowd like me and Roxanne.  Maybe the young people know how to have a good time without being bad.  Maybe it’s a marketing approach to middle class families.  It just doesn’t feel like a place where all hell breaks loose at night.

Someplace it does, I’m sure.  You hang out with people who hear rumors.  It’s never clear who found the body or where exactly it was found floating in which shallow of which bay that one year, but it was not a tourist.  A few years ago somebody tossed a hand grenade into the Zihuatanejo police station.  Our friend Bob reminds us that everywhere in this world there are people up to no good in the middle of the night.  This past year there is the story of some guy getting shot to death — some say outside the new casino in Ixtapa but others say it occurred outside the strip club known as Kisses in Zihuatanejo — for complaining to a pimp about the quality of the prostitute and demanding back his money.  We have seen checkpoints set up on the highways by the federal police.  Some years ago we saw them in staggered pairs walking the beach of Playa Palmar, in uniform with body armor carrying machine guns, on patrol.  They ride on the boulevard once in a while in the backs of military grade trucks.  Sometimes they wear masks — one guesses so as not to be identified — like ski masks.  It’s unnerving to see such a military police presence.  At an off beach hotel where we sometimes go to eat there is a barracks of federal police who come to Ixtapa for training.  It’s naive of us to think there are no issues of law and order just because there is no crime news that gets into the tourist community, whether being managed that way by the hospitality industry or because it’s essentially none of our gringo business.  It would be cynical to assume crime is rampant.  You wonder whether beer delivery trucks are guarded by men toting rifles to deter theoretical beer thieves or in response to actual beer hijackings.

You hear about vacationers slipping and falling on a pool deck greased with sunscreen, and people breaking a leg or a shoulder getting tossed by the surf.  You don’t hear about tourists getting mugged.  You hear about tourists getting injured in vehicle accidents on the highway to Acapulco but you don’t hear stories about tourist victims of larceny.  True, maybe the guy who got plugged grousing about his puta was a tourist — would a local pay for sex?  Who would know?  Who wants to know?  What might scare off some tourists might attract another kind, and vice versa.

It pays to be sincere.  If you expect to fake it and never come back and never be seen again, just a one night stand taking all you can get, you will be treated just as well but they know you’re fake and won’t take you seriously, and laugh behind your back, sometimes curse.  The servants know you won’t come back.  They see a lot of strangers like you.  They treat you nicely so they don’t look bad in front of people who care.  If you keep coming back year after year you can expect to be remembered, so if you’re still faking it and aren’t feeling a cold draft of indifference you must somehow be acting sincere.

We are guests, after all.  Yes we pay, and some pay dearly for the vacations of our dreams, our escapes to warm weather and sunshine and worry free leisure.  We owe our host country respect as we consume their seemingly limitless hospitality.  We flatter ourselves silly to think we are entitled to gracious treatment because we’re tourists and they owe us a good time because without us they would descend into social chaos.  Mexicans know better.

What they truly think of us behind our backs is perpetually obscure.  The sincerity thing of course goes both ways.  Maybe since Mexicans have home turf advantage they can claim the higher road and benefit of doubt.  Some are just naturally born good smilers.

My favorite example of our interactive hospitality is the massage industry located at the fringe of the beach between the old Carlos and Charlies and the grassy barrens sequestering the high rise condos.  It started several years ago, under white tent canopies extended off Carlos and Charlies.  Always women, they wore white clinical jackets and waved at the beach walkers headed towards the marina, coming down to greet us at the water line offering a one hour massage for a hundred pesos or $10USD.  Some handed out business cards, rather elegant actually, some with names for their tents like Rosa’s.  Their english was not good but they offered full body and reflexology, guaranteed you like, one hour.  When they first came on the scene it seemed no different than any of the solicitations you get from vendors on the beach, and we took the business cards from Rosa and Sofia and #4 and looked them over, looked at their muscles and their hands and listened to their offers and looked them in their eyes and said maybe.  Tal vez.  Tal vez manana.  We kept walking and kicked the wall, watched surfers and runners go by, looked for whales in the bay and speculated when this Fonatur outfit might go back to work to finish off the steel frame of a would be high rise now wrapped in plastic with a mural of a whale on it, and why not try a massage one time before we skipped town.

It was a transformational experience.  We were hailed at the edge of the tide by a lady or two in white jackets, agreed on a price and followed them up a watered path straight to tent #2.  Young men and boys kept the sidewalk in the sand cool and moist to guarantee it was not a hot walk to the tents and to supply buckets of water to wash the feet of the customers at the door to the tent.  Inside there were about four massage tables, all laid out as sanitary as could be with clean cloths and towels.  You stashed your glasses and t-shirt and any belongings in a basket under your table.  You lay face down as instructed by mime, gesture and a few words.  There is a code of silence within the massage.  La masajista says but four things:  strong, light or medium?  Es okay?  Over.  Finis.  She might be nineteen years old, or thirty, or fifty.  The elders supervise the younger ones.  How young is young, one cannot tell and never asks.  Did they go to massage school?  It is obvious there is some kind of training academy out there, they are all uniformly precise and practice the same rituals.  Beginning with the back they work around the body, the neck, arms, legs, always back to the back.  They work their fingers into your tired and stressed out flesh and revitalize every nerve.  When they say to turn over they work all your limbs again.  You always get an honest hour.

The second year they doubled their rates and increased the tents and still hailed walkers on the beach, waving from their round picnic tables under umbrellas fronting the tents.  With a measure of guilt the scene reminded me of a scene from the movie McCabe and Mrs Miller, a wild west story where a woman establishes a brothel in a way station mining town, and a lone cowboy played by Keith Carradine rides out of the plains to the outskirts of this mountain town where a group of big white tents consisting of the brothel greets him emergent with women all waving and calling him to their spa.  My guilt is associating the “Sisters of Mercy” in the movie, if I recall the soundtrack, with the masajistas of Playa Palmar.

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There is nothing sexual to be gained from these massage parlors on the beach.  The ladies who work this trade act in the most modest and innocent and appropriate manner you might conceive of.  To enforce a code of appropriate conduct towards the masajistas, the guys who tote water and keep the paths wet provide a macho security presence, though one would not want to take on a gang of defensive masajistas if one of them yelled the spanish beachside version of Hey Rube, Mayday, if some customer got out of line.  It seems naive, but I’ve never so much as heard a rumor of someone getting fresh with a massage lady.  On Playa Palmar a massage is a massage, that’s all the happy ending there is.

Which is not to say I have not had my old man crushes.  As years went by, one by one the tents were replaced with wood frame cabanas.  There are about seven of them now, each supporting eight tables.  They are usually busy but still compete on the beach to fill vacancies.  Roxanne and I get one just about every other day, they are still that affordable.  Over time we find favorites, or maybe they find us.  We tip, so that’s an incentive to cultivate our return business.  They started taking appointments, writing us in their notebooks.

My first true crush was Janeth.  She was very dark and pretty.  She was a massagist with a very acute touch.  I cannot say of all my random visits I ever had a bad massage on Playa Palmar, because even the laziest or more tedious ones were good massages, there are some kind of standards to the trade there at the beach cabanas.  Yet we have found luck in being adopted by some of the most gifted massagists in the whole world whose talents, techniques and skills exceed those at the toniest spas and elitist clinics of my home town Twin Cities, and that’s a fact.  Janeth found exact places in my muscles to refine my nerves.  When I used to work in an office I developed a place in my neck and shoulder that seemed to absorb all my stress, and she found it and worked it free.  The years after I blew a tendon in my right arm she soothed it.  I would lie there face down, my eyes closed, listening to the ocean, the beach sounds, the latin pop music drifting from old Carlos and Charlies, the voices in spanish, and Janeth would work me over, head to toe.  Lying on my back I could look at her for a while, when my eyes weren’t covered by a cloth.  She had delicate ears.  Eyes deep and dark.  Black hair worn up off her neck.  A little scar on her chin.  Didn’t smile much.  Didn’t seem to care much about learning English.  An hour on the massage table offers a fortune of meditation, reflection and consideration.  The session would end with a little aromatherapy wiggled from her fingertips and the whispered word finis, like wake up and pay.  I would try to think up a clever phrase in spanish, like Soy un hombre nuevo to get her to smile.  I would schedule my visits around her day off.  She would see us coming and walk on down the path to meet us by the sea as if to make sure none of the other ladies would take us.

Then one year she wasn’t there any more, not in #4, not in #2.  I didn’t ask after her — our relationship was never informal, and I don’t think I ever addressed her except as usted and not tu.  It seemed none of my business to get publicly inquisitive about a certain pretty masajista, even in a grandfatherly way, when after all she didn’t share much about herself in the first place or care that I was from the land of muy frio.

Roxanne meanwhile found her own swami of the massage table in a lady named Anna, while I followed taking random first availables.  Until one day on the beach we were singled out by a tall and beautiful deaf mute and her elder interpreter, who led us up to #3 and escorted us into a level of massage I can only describe as celeste.  The elder masajista took Roxanne and turned out to be the mute’s mother, who also turned out to be an Anna with the other Anna’s massage mojo.

Thus I met Zuli because that’s what her mother said her name was and I can spell it because Zuli wrote it down.  Zuli wrote things down.  And she didn’t require spanish spoken because she could not hear.  She spoke with her eyes.  She almost had Frida Kahlo eyes.  She made vocal sounds for emphasis.  She read lips.  She gestured, sometimes forcefully.  She mimed.  She knew sign, but unfortunately I do not.

So for the primary question she made a muscle and touched it with her other hand to mean fuerte, strong, and I nodded and said por favor.  Zuli took it from there.  She had a gifted touch.  She found all the places within my muscles of my body that needed attention, and she soothed me and disassembled me and put me back together.  My infatuation began at her first caress and hers has ever been the benchmark of massage for me.  She is gifted.

One sign I do know is the hand from mouth that says thank you.  I tip.  She brings out her spiral notebook to sign us up for a future appointment.  We were going every three or four days then, about three or four times per vacation.  No it’s about an every two day ritual.  Over a few years Zuli ended up teamed with the original Anna, which suited Roxanne just fine, while Anna Zuli’s mom went on to supervise another cabana, but she comes by to say hola now and then.

Zuli has a free and open smile.  She does not seem to mind that I study her when my eyes are uncovered, and I sincerely try not to stare too much.  Truly she has beauty.  I do not want to make her uncomfortable with my eyes.  Especially now, in light of the Man Up doctrine, but all along it’s been a tango with decency to enjoy being wrung up and smoothed out by a beautiful and exotic younger woman.  The professional nature of the encounter being understood above all, an hour on the massage table under the spell of Zuli, or Janeth, affords infinite meanderings of the soul, the sound of the ocean, the spanish voices, the music drifting from the big building, and the clean realization I am living a dream in the hands of a beautiful younger woman, giftedly talented at the art of massage.  One hour of celeste.

Just this past winter on our first full day we walked to the massage cabanas looking for Zuli and the Annas.  Instead we met up with original Anna and her new partner Isabel.  In spanish-english and tummy mime we learn Zuli is on maternity leave, expecting her baby any day.  Wow.  Just the year before we learned Zuli was getting married — all the ladies were excited she got engaged — so it didn’t seem strange she might be having a baby, it just inconvenienced me from my favorite masajista.  But I didn’t pout.  Turned out Isabel knows all the right moves.  Too strong perhaps.  Had to scale back to medium with Isabel.  Another star from whatever massage academy they train their talent.  Hers is cabana #4, and they keep a spiral notebook.  They keep us apprised about Zuli.  We wonder if it will be born Valentine’s day and be named Valentina.  She has a baby girl.  Isabel shows us pictures on her smart phone.  She takes pictures of us to show Zuli.  The baby is named Yareli Yamilet.  I call her Doble Ygriega but nobody really laughs at my idiom.  Isabel shows pictures of her husband a kids.  One day she showed us something she bought that day, a doggie bed for her family dog.  Somehow she and Anna learned of Roxanne’s birthday and they presented her with a tie-died beach wrap shawl.  They get a kick out of Roxanne and me being married 45 years.

By far Isabel is the chummiest of all the masajistas we’ve known, though there’s no telling how communicative we could have been with Zuli if we knew sign or I had been more fluent in spanish with Janeth or any of the others.  Isabel is outgoing, tall, slim and muscular.  One would not be surprised to see her on the basketball court at the plaza in Zihuatanejo.  She has light, caramel skin tone and she bleaches her hair blondish.  She listens to headphones while she works.  She has bright eyes and smiles readily and makes eye contact with reassuring glances, though like everyone she places a cloth over the eyes when working you on your back — better the meditative state.  Like with Janeth I like to come up with something nice to say en espanol when I thank her and pay her.  In praise of her massage skill I suggested she go to school to be a doctor.

I tell you about the massage cabanas at great risk.  It is so far an undiscovered treasure — at least underhyped — and there’s a moral obligation to include information useful to any and all tourists to Playa Palmar even if attention might lead to spoiling the market.  Yet it serves to tell a metaphor of our ties to the Mexicans whose home we inhabit one twelfth or so of a year.

After year.  No end in sight.  Hope in twenty years we can still get on and off an airliner, ride a taxi.  Meanwhile we’ve insinuated our ghosts into the seasonal fabric of the community, which gives a lot to think about in 2018 when meditating on the massage table with Isabel working that stiff calf, or walking the beach towards the Bayview, or from a chaise under the palapa.  There’s a whole world going on and it doesn’t stop for vacation.  The Mexicans don’t just pack up and go home after the northern tourists go home, this is their home, we’re the foreigners it’s not the other way around.

Still, after eighteen odd years visiting the same old place we learned our way around and got comfortable navigating the towns.  The true allure is to lounge under a palapa at the Krystal on Playa Palmar, but it’s also fruitful to venture away from the resort territories to places and parts of town that function for the immediate community but are of generally little interest to vacationers.  We have walked the streets of Zihuatanejo, not just the bay-front promenade but the backstreets of shops and cantinas all the way to downtown where the main markets are, where the people who live there shop.  And eat.  The local mercado offers fresh food from the sea and the farms.  The main architectural feature of the downtown shops is the garage door that comes down after closing hours at night.  Otherwise when they are open the inventory explodes out the door.  There is the smell of good food.  There are cantinas on just about every other corner where you can get a good authentic hearty meal and beer, just look at all the locals who eat there.  Next to the harbor along the promenade are where the renown restaurants are, Daniel’s, Coconuts, Casa Elvira, Sirena Gorda and so on, and they all prepare and serve good comidas with gracious hospitality.

Roxanne and I have hiked into the high streets behind the beaches going beyond the plaza of the promenade, back beyond Hotel Irma and other landmarks along Playa Madera and Playa Ropa and the old glorious era before Ixtapa was invented, when Zihuatanejo was an exotic destination unto itself, a grand overview of the bay.  We have toured the old colonial headquarters that serves as a historical museum today.  We are comfortable taking the bus.  We know where the library is.  There’s a Sam’s Club, and a warehouse sized store similar to a Wal Mart called Aurerra Bodega on the edge of el centro on the boulevard to Ixtapa, a great place to shop for bakery goods.

At the furthest tip of Zihuatanejo Bay curls a peninsula they call Isla Las Gatas, island of the (female) cats.  It is not really an island but is isolated from the developed edges of the city by a rugged stretch along the southern part of the bay where there is no road and only a rocky trail it would take several hours to hike.  Everybody takes a water taxi to Las Gatas from the embarcadero at the pier where the promenade to the plaza begins.  Next to the navy base.  Be sure to bring peso coins to tip the mozos who vie to help you climb in and out of the water taxis, which are bench seat versions of the fiberglass panga boats that make up the fleet of small fishing vessels which stock the food supply or offer sport fishing excursions to us tourists.  The cruise to Las Gatas is a tranquil ride away from the action around the pier.  There are hundreds of boats in the huge bay, moored and actively navigating, sailboats to the west and south towards the hotels and old villas, new mansions.  The view of the bay on the water taxi or a fishing excursion is naturally the opposite of the view from the hills behind the hotels, restaurants and villas which look down to the sea.  From the water taxi you see the city rising into the hills crammed together at its crux like a mash of concrete and stones abiding in a craggy jungle, green almost in spite of its urban self.  The city tapers towards the beaches even as the buildings emerge more distinct, the higher rise old hotels, the villas in the emerging cliffs.  The jungle takes over gradually to the south and east bay, where most of the sailboats dwell, the rugged way to Las Gatas, and by this time the passengers are engaged exchanging origin stories and impressions.  The sea is usually calm across the bay but never flat.  The breeze feels fresh en route.

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Always remember to watch your head getting in and out of a water taxi.  At Las Gatas you disembark at a gateway to a strip of beach maybe a mile long lined with cantina after cantina with open air amenities, lounge chairs and long tables for picnic seating.  They offer lunch platters of seafood and cheap drinks overlooking the coral breakwaters at the beach overlooking the city far across the bay.  They offer snorkeling, but it’s really pretty sad, the coral is dead and the fishies not so bright.  Better to just bathe in the sandy spots and feel the gentle waves in the clean sea.  Every cantina vies with the others to get you to occupy their chairs and tables at their beach, so you can expect an enthusiastic welcome.  Whichever you choose, the hospitality will follow, and the food will be exquisite.  You can feel a little detached from the mainstream here, so much sea between the beach and the city across the bay, encircled by rocky clefts and a jungle that includes the sight of saguaro cactus growing from the craggy cliffs.

A counterpart to Las Gatas the other direction on the coast is Ixtapa Island, which really is an island.  You reach there again by water taxi, this time from Playa Linda, a beach town slightly northwest of Ixtapa.  The fishies are brighter and more lively for snorkelers at Ixtapa Island, and the coral more alive though sadly on the decline.  The waves can be rougher too since this island does not have the bay or breakwaters to soften the sea like Las Gatas.  Ixtapa Island is smaller area and features fewer cantinas but the hospitality is similar.  And like Las Gatas and Playa Palmar and just about everywhere you go, expect vendors to visit your beach chair to offer you something for sale, massage too.

Ocean cruise liners used to make excursions at Zihuatanejo.  The bay is too narrow to admit a cruise ship but they used to anchor outside the bay and transport guests to the embarcadero pier.  A few years ago the Mexican port authorities launched a plan to redevelop the Zihuatanejo pier and extend it from the embarcadero across the northwestern edge of the bay to the mouth of the bay across the channel from Las Gatas to allow oceanliners to dock.  The locals debated the matter and ultimately rejected the plan.  Making Zihuatanejo a regular port of call for Pacific ocean cruises would have meant tourist traffic of untold dimensions.  The resident interests in Zihuatanejo largely foresaw more harm than good from such a massive invasion of the tourist industry and ultimately vetoed the pier project.  As a result the ocean cruise lines stopped coming to Zihuatanejo altogether, which shows in the absence of encounters with cruise guests who used to take day trips to Las Gatas to soak up the sun and tell you where they were from.  The resulting loss of business may actually enhance the experience for the rest of us by deterring overcrowding.  I give credit to the citizens for preserving an organic character to their community.  Progress and change are inevitable.

Besides our explorations of Zihuatanejo the city, Roxanne and I, of our own curiosity and wonder, shadowed Luis the young guide’s invective of getting up off one’s butt and getting out and about to experience the local geosphere.  Beyond Las Gatas and Ixtapa Island, Playa Linda, we’ve ventured up and down the coast as far as Playa Larga to the southeast and Troncones to the northwest, maybe a stretch of a hundred miles.  The highways along this stretch of coast are excellent, but we don’t drive here like we don’t drive boats, we take a bus, taxi or employ a guide with wheels, or on some cases ride in somebody’s family car.  Or all of the above.  It’s they who know the roads and the streets.  The beach communities along this route border little neighborhoods of chicken and avocado ranchers, the coconut palms and homesteads of the townies of generations of rural existence.  There are highway stands selling sea salt.  Away from the sea, amid the hills that eventually rise up into the unforgiving Sierra Madre there are big towns linked together by good roads, such as Petatlan which really is a coastal town approached from a highway through the hills and features a church on a hill above a merchandising district selling home made jewelry.  The state capital of Guerrero is a town called Chilpancingo, some two hundred miles inland straight east of Zihuatanejo, about the same distance east along the coast as the big city, Acapulco.  We have been to neither and may never go, having limits to our curiosity.

It’s considered bad manners to gawk and spy on the indigenous communities who live in the hills and mountains.  We respect that.  It’s acknowledged there is poverty and subsistence living standards in Mexico and a significant number reside among the descendants of the Olmec, Toltec and Tarascan peoples who live around Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa in the hills.  To say they are a shy people is to only begin to understand how little they are interested in socializing with the world outside their own.  Their distrust of outsiders goes back to times with Spain.  They are especially sensitive to American missionaries.  They speak Nahuatl more than espanol.  Yet many charitable North Americans have built relationships and certain bonds of trust with these indian communities to get them to accept charity, books, architectural construction, clothing.  Several of the older retiree vacationers you might meet on the beach are volunteers to Zihuatanejo charities, and they will say the indians are most against meddlers, it’s hard to get invited to help them.

I learned a few years ago, in a chance conversation at dinner with someone we met through an introduction on a walk on the beach at Playa Palmar, Professor Mirocha, my long ago customer at the film shop, kept coming down there every year and got involved in a common group who collects shoes for kids.  Other tourists you meet say they collect sweaters.  They raise cash for charities at an annual event called Sail Fest in Zihuatanejo.  You learn there is a network of anglo expatriates and snowbirds actively volunteering in community service projects, so you find proof not all gringos go down there to raise holy hell, trash the place and go home with suntans.

So no, I cannot claim to have visited primitive villages.  Yet we have tried to get to know these people who make us their guests, get some idea who they are.  Care about them.  I would calculate we have lived at the Krystal hotel over a year of our lives, averaging over three weeks a year for eighteen years.  What are we crazy?  It’s proof of what Einstein said about doing something over and over, we expect the same result.

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At the palapa the theater unfolds, as if it were folded.  The vendors pass by selling whatever they sell.  Sunglasses — lentes!  Sock-air tee shirts!  Guys selling jewelry out of black valises.  Tattoos (henna).  The braid ladies.  Hector sells his wood carvings out of his big backpack with at least two things displayed in his hands; it took years of asking him questions about his methods for me to believe he rally carved them and was not just selling factory made wood carvings; we’ve bought two things, a two foot palm tree and a standing buffalo; he makes his stuff from ironwood, and they have a deep polished tone.  They shlepp back and forth, up and down the beach every day in the sand and would like nothing better than to be invited into the shade under a palapa to sell you a mobile of fishes brightly painted and made of coconut and filament and wood.  Jewelry.  The one I call La Senora del Ropa carries the inventory of an entire showroom of dresses, beach wraps and cover-ups for women, all on her back and looking like a walking garment district of a patchwork of parachutes; she’ll put the whole pile down to make a presentation, offers things to try on, spreads her dresses across the sand, picks your colors; she makes her sales, piles everything up tidy on her back once again and shlepps on down the beach.  The hat vendors — ball caps, straw sombreros, and the now ever-popular among latina women, fedora hats.  Then the guy who sells magazines — revistas! — carries them stacked on his head — the brother of Victor, who used to sell newspapers but now sells soccer t-shirts.  Guys offering fishing expeditions, excursions to Ixtapa Island — the guys the MLT Vacations concierge warned us about so they could exclusively book our charters.  Nick-nacks.  Not a lot of food — the hotels and health department might discourage it — but occasional home made juice popsicles, and the haughty Tamale Lady who carries the tamale of the day inventory in a red cooler.  Most everyone passes by twice, once coming and once going.

The guys who really look beat in the hot sun are the bands of musicians, invariably older guys dressed as cowboys in hats and boots, lugging their instruments — guitars, accordians, snare drum and cymbal, upright bass — shlepping up and down the beach looking to make some pesos catching a paid set under someone’s palapa and singing Ay yi yi yi…

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The most glorious beach vendor of all, and this includes even the masajistas, is a guy named Rafael, who bosses the operation who provides parachute rides towed over the bay attached to a rope pulled by a big inboard engine speedboat.  All up and down Playa Palmar there are at least two and sometimes as many as four such parachute sites being serviced by one or two boats lying just beyond the breakers off the beach, the tow rope as taut as can be arranged between the boat and the crew on land who kite up the parachutes rather than leave them lay on the sand, to keep the lines free and to attract business.  Each parachute is an advertisement of something, Corona beer, Hollandia ice cream, Bandito’s restaurant.  I like to watch Rafael hustle the chutes, the boats, the ropes and the paperwork, all while managing his crews and looking like he loves every day.  A lot of days he wears zinc oxide on his face so he looks purple.  He wears shades with colored frames and a faded ball cap.  I take a ride from him once a year.  He rents boogie boards on the side for $5 an hour USD and I get one of those once in a while when the surf is right.

The most righteous beach vendor of all is known as Benny.  He stalks the beach all day long, back and forth, in his crushed ball cap and Hawaiian shirts, khaki short pants and sandals, usually hanging out a few yards up from the water line talking to somebody or talking on his cellphone.  He’s a big man, somewhat portly, a profile not to be ignored on the beach.  We came to know him through a couple who befriended us at the Krystal in our earliest years who stay there every year the same time we do.  This couple have been coming to Ixtapa longer than we have and came to know Benny from contracting fishing excursions with him.  When he walks along in front of the Krystal he will usually come up to the palapa to say hi.  We have gone fishing on his boats.  He has provided guides for us to visit Petatlan and Troncones.  He’s good conversation even if it’s small talk and he gives the impression he would get you anything in the world if you just ask.  And pay cash — USD preferred.

Family man, entrepreneur, in his fifties now, Benny is the quintessential citizen of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  His success in life comes from a universal quality of honest hard work.  One looks up to and admires him as a solid guy.  Someone who trades fair.

Benny measures his business cycle by the hundred days between late December and early April.  When the amigos from the north spend their vacations.  After that it’s all Mexicans and it gets quieter, Mexican tourists don’t tend to go fishing, then the summer rainy season comes.  Nothing big happens in July, August.  Some of the restaurants close for a month.  Benny maintains his boats, books anything he can catch and prepares for the next 100 day season when he makes most of his money.  He likes to get paid in cash, USD American dollars preferred, and he issues written receipts.  Nothing fishy about Benny, not even his fishing business.

This is the tide of the vacation business of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  We reside oceanside at high tide, around the middle of the hundred days.  It’s hard to imagine what the place might be like when it’s lonely, though Roxanne and I comment that we enjoy it when the hotels are lull between peak occupancies.  Not that it’s ever been crazy busy but some days are more densely intense than others at the pool and on the beach.  It’s what resort hotels do, attract customers, and it is the Krystal’s credit to fill their rooms.

After 9/11 aviation travel changed, carriers changed air routes and customers became more nervous about flying outside the USA.  There was a steady drop of American tourists year over year the decade after.  The recession years didn’t seem to help build back the American guest contingent, though more Canadians seemed to take their places.  During those years the currency exchange rate made Mexico a great bargain vacation, which it still remains.  What has changed in eighteen years isn’t as evident by fewer caucasian binge vacationers among us, fewer fellow American winter break snowbirds, fewer honeymoons and fewer romantic escapes, and fewer family retreats from places in the USA.  Whoever doesn’t go there anymore who used to go there doesn’t tell the rest of us why they would rather not come back.  Newcomers from the USA seek assurances that all this gracious charm and hospitality is for real and maybe not a smooth cover up to get your money.  The anglos are restless.  The American president insults the country of Mexico and we whities hanging out at the beach on the far side of the border wall are placed in the awkward state of almost denial as we act as if the guy doesn’t exist and what he says we can unsay by our silence.

We who talk politics among ourselves seem to be of similar philosophies or we do not broach politics at all — part of the truce of vacation nations.  This was true for us nortes during the Bush years, Obama years and more true than ever now.  Even so, one does not want to mistakenly get into an argument with a stranger over Obamacare in the Krystal alberca.  At vacation nation we set aside our differences and abide by raw naked manners and the rules of leisure however possible.  You catch snatches of private conversations you think you hear on the beach or at restaurants outdoors, in the plaza, and you wonder if those people are those people.  And if they are, what are they doing in Mexico?  They are supposed to be America First so what’s their story?

None of our business.  That’s the privacy and anonymity we bring with us to the palapa where we escape into our existential mode among thousands at the beach.  Go for a walk.  Under the afternoon sun the sand in the middle of the beach between the palapas and the water line is roasting hot and we run barefoot to the water.  We walk left, towards the Bayview and Pacifica, into the crowds.  There’s a parachute rider taking off into the sky.  More girls from Ipanema.  The sand at waters edge is spongy.  We say hi to people we’ve met.  An artist named Jorge sets up a card table under an umbrella painting miniature seascapes on 3×5 cards with his fingers.  Down by the Pacifica the stream has broken through from the estuary to the sea.  We take a dip in the gentler waves at this end of the bay.  Walking back to the Krystal past a sand soccer match, a volleyball match and the launch place of the parachute and the jet skis for rent, watching the people, the walkers and the ones taking selfies, the sunbathers and waders in the sea, it impresses me how many of us are white.

The skins of the people on the beach are invariably brown from suntan, though there’s a significant preponderance of Mexicans in the mix.  What I observe is the scores of people easy to guess as non-latinos, white Americans, Canadians or European looking visitors, and I see very few Africans — this past winter I counted them, and I saw nine black people I determined were there on vacation and not residents or workers from Ixtapa like the Tamale Lady, who might be Cuban, or Raphael with his purple face.  Seven men and two women.  I see fewer Asians, usually none.  I hesitate to say even African American or Asian Americans because this is after all an international beach, they could be Canadian or Brazilian, or from Togo for all I know.  There is an elder white gentleman we seem to see every year who looks very European who turned out to be from Argentina, and I thought I heard a couple speaking Afrikaans at the pool, and there’s a widening group of voices speaking Quebecois French, but this place doesn’t seem to be a destination for people of color except Latinos.  And gringos.  There is no discernible reason black people or asians should shun Ixtapa or feel unwelcomed.  I report this with conviction.  It just is.

My perceived decline in American vacationers is based on personal observations, no scientific demographic data or investigative pursuit.  I told you from the outset I’ve got my biases and shortcomings and can’t claim any exclusivity for the truth just because I say so, or I say I saw something.  But I trust my eyes and ears.  It’s not a drastic decline, but the share of the vacation market is not rising with Americans, not even by attrition.  Maybe it’s gotten around, Ixtapa is square — not cool, not hip — and Zihuatanejo is too old school, old fashioned.  Among old time returnees the clientele more or less dies off.  Among the steady stream of vacationers our age bracket who come to Mexico to retire in some way, after a fashion, indulging in leisure and escaping their own version of north american winter as part of the entitlement of the american dream, our bourgeois decadence and clauses in the social contracts enabling us graying gringos to temporarily relocate our lives to a hotel in paradise, some give up along the way, some move on, some bored, divorced maybe, or illness.  They just don’t show up anymore.

Those who turn up every year reaffirm each others lives better than Christmas cards.  We have been befriended and become friends with friendly people with simpatico these several years, people we’ve shared dinners and fishing excursions, field trips and countless taxi rides and become confidants whom we met at the palapas next door.  Given my tendency to gossip, these friends would rather remain anonymous to this essay.

In general we represent a civil tribe of North Americans.  Our decline in numbers is replaced by anglo Canadians, and more and more french Canadians, so the makeup of the gringo tourist market doesn’t look non-American at a glance.  No more than the rest of the western world doesn’t look American in an after sort of fashion. The cast at teatro de la playa is recast every year with fewer Americans and more Canadians, all via the international airport where we are all required to present passports to enter Mexico.  The Canadians seem to get off scott free with their political innuendos because they can have opinions about Donald Trump either way and not express the least sympathy for those irresponsible enough to let him seize power.

Call us Minnesota nice.  In the land of Vacation Nation we tolerate satire and jolly folderol, as what else could be meant behind the commentary you hear from Canadians meant to be serious political advice and counsel, they must be joking.

Apart from turning every sports bar in Ixtapa — a bar with at least one flat screen TV — into hockey night, the Canadian influence in the vacation trade the past eighteen years is eclipsed by the emergence of participation by the middle class of Mexico.

This is the biggest change I have observed in the fifty six or so weeks I have lived at the Krystal hotel over eighteen years, the evolution of the Mexican middle class.

In the earlier years it seemed quaint to see a Mexican family or two, three generations or so congregated around pool umbrellas or under palapas together, or a latino honeymoon couple, or spouses with small children.  I took it as a sign the Mexican society and economy were doing good if Mexicans could afford to take vacations at the Krystal.  This condescending view of what I observed evolved years hence as more and more occupancy at the hotel were Mexicans, especially around the Constitution Day holiday three day weekend.  Cars parked — nice cars, late models — all over the available curb space with license plates from Jalisco, Michoacan, Puebla and Mexico City.  SUVs.  Minivans.  Young families.  Young couples.  Middle aged couples.  Multi generations.  I told myself what I was seeing were indicators of prosperity, and I approved.

It’s more than quaint now.  It’s a target market at the core of the Krystal hotel and all the hotels of Ixtapa.  They offer all-inclusive vacation packages to Mexican cities within a few hours transport on the Mexican highway system.  Airlines like Interjet fly in from Mexico City.  Chartered coach buses arrive at the hotel cul de sac.  Walking around the pool after a swim last winter I took a look around and said to myself, man there’s a lot of Mexicans in Mexico.

Sometimes more than half the hotel guests are Mexican.  They come and go in waves, three day spurts, mostly weekends.  It’s not only a sign of the Mexican standard of living in general, it signifies an authentication of the Mexican vacation experience, an organic emergence of Mexican identity.  For one thing it’s improved the playlists of the music played at the swimming pool with latino songs replacing tired classic rock — perhaps much to the chagrin of western Canadians, eh, but more Shakira for me.  And if you don’t like Mexicans then what are you doing in Mexico?

On the beach the kids favor soccer balls to frisbees.  There have always been Mexicans on the beach all the time mixing with the anglo travelers.  The beach is public and the people who live here are Mexicans.  Generally Mexicans who are not vendors or hotel employees keep to the stretches of beach in front of the old Carlos and Charlies and west beyond the massage cabanas, the grassy barrens and in front of the new condos, but they disperse evenly in front of the hotels and the Bayview all the way to the Pacifica where there is more public access along the estuary.  The beach is wide except at the crescent corners, and in between can accommodate a thick crowd of citizens of Vacation Nation without collisions.  We accidentally photobomb one another and end up in the background of somebody’s selfie.  A song of Bruce Springsteen comes into my head, the girls in their summer clothes pass me by, and I’m enjoying seeing the flow of people along the ocean talking in tongues and not being able to guess from the way they are dressed which Mexicans are on their day off and live in town and which ones are guests at the hotels.

Not even by their Leonard Cohen style fedoras.

And not by cell phones.  The biggest sign of prosperity the past decade in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is the proliferation of smart phones.  The entire culture jumped past land lines and CDs to pocket computers and Facebook in one generation and in a sense caught up sociologically with the entire world.  Seems like there’s a lot of them wearing braces on their teeth.

How this bodes organically to the prosperity of Mexico matters to me because I like Mexico and want them to succeed as a people.  It bothers me that the president of my country promulgates an attitude hostile to them, and I am grateful they don’t treat us with likewise contempt.  If America is to be taken seriously in this world it is a great leap to ask the world to disregard the folly rants of cryptic memes like covfefe and to seek assurance from well meaning ambassadors like me and Roxanne.

From a Mexican perspective we might look quaint, us well-meaning Americans taking vacations and spending our decadent leisure money acting retired and relaxed along the ocean.  Piquant.  If they feel sorry for us they don’t condescend because if we are unhappy with our lives then it is a rich person’s problem disconnected to day shifts and night shifts and free time.  We are not seen or judged by what we do the other 48 or so weeks of the year (unless we brag) and they just know us by how we behave on vacation.

If the Mexican vacationers resent us gringos, and I sense some of them do, they resist acting out.  The worst effect is akin to something I experienced in Deep South Mississippi years ago, from white people who caught you associating in public with black people, a look in the eye like they’re looking right through you like you aren’t there at all.  Most Mexicans keep away from grouping among the nortes, but some like to be bold and mix right in, spread the beach towels around on the sand amid the palapas and play MP3 music as loud as can get away with — fortunate when they have taste in good songs.  When the gringos are in the minority there is no seismic shift in social dynamics and no palpable segregation.  There is room for one and all.  There is no prototypical Mexican tourist, they could be software engineers, retailers, doctors, skilled mechanics, who knows what professionals in their personal lives, just like us, only their Spanish is better and for that they have a leg up with the servants.

I have learned from people I have come to know in the hospitality profession of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo who would as much like to remain anonymous as our gringo friends, there are kinds of Mexican tourists who come from the cities and treat the local servants rudely and with disrespect.  They are what we gringos might call yahoos.  In Ixtapa Zihuatanejo and Petatlan they call them chilangos.  It’s a demonym coined in Nahuatl to refer to outsiders.  Specifically to our friends in the service industry it pertains to feeling treated like dirt by Mexican tourists from the city who act abusively superior.

I saw it once, a young woman who loudly ordered drinks at her palapa who harassed Jesus who was then a beach waiter by calling after him, “Joven, joven…”  Until Jesus quietly and patiently and deliberately addressed her to the side of her lounge chair and humbled her as privately as he could, then brought her drinks.  I later was not surprised to learn the term joven amounts to calling him “boy”.  Jesus is nobody’s boy.

They say the chilangos don’t tip.  You don’t hear the word gracias among them.  That strikes me as too bad.  If the long game marketing plan includes expanding the domestic market to replace and outlast the shrinking Americans, one hopes the locals don’t take a hit to their dignity and to their take home pay from their own people.

We have witnessed rude tourist behavior somewhere before and it is mortifying when the offending yahoo turns out to be an Ugly American.  To my mind there is no excuse for bad manners.  All I can do is set an example of civil conduct and fair trade and hope the chilango trend is a passing phase of immaturity.

I would be sad if this paradise were to somehow fall apart.  I don’t believe in jinx and think I’m not superstitious when I recall that prophecy from that Eagles song, Call someplace paradise and kiss it good bye…  but there is risk of unintended changes initiated by efforts to keep things from going wrong.  Or even from being neutral, in an after sort of fashion, being careful not to get involved in things none of our business.

We see election posters and billboards but have no idea who these people are or what political views they represent.  We have no interest in influencing the vote, we’re just glad they have a government of laws and voting democracy.

We are glad to witness progress and upward mobility.  There is visible evidence of women participating in the hospitality workplace since the turn of this century.  Along with the smart phone the emergence of female economic participation is the biggest social change I have seen in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.  For a macho culture that’s a big deal.

Zihuatanejo comes from the Nahuatl word Cuitlatecapan, meaning Land of Women.  They called themselves Cuilatecs living in Cihuatlan.  If their history survives it must be carefully guarded, or deeply buried.  Maybe it was a matriarchal society.  It’s said Isla Las Gatas was named for so-called cat sharks (sharks without teeth) that supposedly swim the beach waters there, but that could be a myth, I’ve seen no such fish.  As myths go, the boulders of lava rock acting as a breakwater alongside the gray coral were supposedly lugged there by order of an ancient king who had them placed exactly there to provide beach privacy and calm waters for his wives to swim and bathe.  Could be the place was originally called Island of Pussycats.

Colonial Spain used the bay as a trade base with the Phillipines but never treasured the port as seriously strategic, abandoning it with little regret when it was time to go.  For a while there was a hardwood forest near the coast providing quality lumber for colonialist construction, and so the beach named Playa Madera means Wood Beach, where the lumber disembarked.  In a similar funny story of colonial times a shipping galleon got wrecked in foul weather on the rocks trying to get to the harbor, and its cargo of fine clothes from the orient spilled into the sea and washed ashore on the beach they call Playa Ropa, or Clothes Beach.

The resident population of Zihuatanejo city has risen from about 5,000 people in 1996 to about 70,000 today.  This is not a stagnant economy.  Kids born the first year we visited are turning eighteen.  What are they thinking?  A Zihuatan who looks at his or her life in this world must see themselves in some kind of context where the main business of the town depends on an international clientele.  Everybody near and far is touched by the hospitality trade.  The inner economy, education system, governance and social contracts obscured in plain sight of the sunglassed tourist are the shabby details of Downtown Mexico with the garage door architecture.  The hardware stores.  Furniture stores.  Elektra Appliances.  Ropa.  Zapatos.  Comidas.  Panaderias.  Bancomer.  Bus landmarks, nothing famous.  It’s a functioning city not a failed state.

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Here is where I worry about the dissonant messages my country sends the people of Mexico.  Roxanne and I and friends I can vouch for go there to indulge in innocent pursuit of happiness, and we bring with us the baggage of our own standards.  We are not there to enjoy slumming in the Third World.  The rhetoric coming from Washington DC deliberately incites distrust and hostility.  Paranoia.  If we are warned that our lives are in danger it seems sensible to wonder why and how, and question whether it’s true somebody might want to do us in.  From a Mexican point of view they must see us Americanos through a lens of close-up face slaps and slurs, and you worry about a tipping point where our credibility isn’t worth the tips.  Our elected president attacks the character of Mexicans and economic well being of Mexico and threatens to corrupt our winter vacations.

One can only speculate why Donald Trump has it in for Mexico.  Maybe it’s a grudge because he can’t get any property to build on, I don’t know, but there’s something there, as he might say.

The Snake.

He not only fails to see a strategic markup of prosperity to the country on our southern border, he seems to advocate for the opposite, sabotaging Mexico only makes sense if it actually gave benefit to America first, and it does not.  A prosperous and thriving Mexico offers least incentive to sneak into the United States for wealth.  Or for any reason.  If there are no good reasons to escape Mexico there are no reasons to seek asylum in the USA, problem solved, no need to erect a wall to bar people — illicit commerce won’t stop at a wall.  A wall tells Mexicans we don’t trust them as a race of people, we don’t value their work and don’t want them coming to visit or study.  Telling Mexicans they must help pay for such a wall is to command subservience and indignity, like calling the servant boy.  The whole issue of Mexican immigration in American politics is telling Mexicans they are unimportant and inferior and the wall is their symbolic dead end to North America.  A punishment for being brown.  An encasement to keep out the riffraff.  In Donald Trump’s America we are a gated community, a fortress.  Mexicans are invaders, and that makes us invaders too.  If Mexicans are unwelcome in America then one wonders how precarious is the hospitality to Americans in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

Last year two of my sisters joined us at the Krystal for a week and through Benny on the beach we hired a guide named Fernando to drive us up the coast to Troncones where Heather could horseback ride on the beach.  Fernando proved to be an exceptional guide not only bringing us to a quiet beach cantina, arranging Heather to get a horse and us to rent boogie boards to ride the triple surf.  We had a nice lunch.  Fernando negotiated the check.  He took us on a walk down the coastline to coves of swirling tidepools in the sand, coastal inlets within inlets of volcanic rock and perfect sand, where he pictured building a house facing the sea someday.

He was a talkative guy in his forties, spoke good english, who brought a book with him for during down time, which didn’t happen much with us that day.  Among his guiding lights imparted to us that day Fernando advised us to gargalas — gargle — every day with sea salt water to build natural immunity to the throat and sinuses.

He innocently flirted with my sisters, made a joke about catch and release.  He was married and had to remember to bring home the tamales that night for his wife because his wife was in charge of the Baby Jesus Tamale Night this year, and it was tomorrow.  Every year among extended family and friends there is a celebration dinner of tamales, with cake for dessert, and in the cake is baked a little Baby Jesus figurine.  Whoever gets the Baby Jesus in their slice of cake is supposed to provide tomales for the dinner the next year.  After our day trip he was supposed to pick up the tamales, so when he might flirt a little with Meaghan or Heather they would remind him to pick up the tamales.

At the beach he handed me a smooth black rock and told me to hold it in my palm.  Then clench the rock tight.  He said whenever I felt aggravation to channel my negative energy into the rock in my fist.  Then throw the rock into the sea.  Gone will be the source of aggravation.

Later he came up with two more stones from the beach.  They were they size and smoothness of the hot rocks the masajistas apply to your back.  He placed one in each of my hand and told me when I want something, desire something more than anything, like a house on the beach or something, squeeze the two stones and think of your desire.  Then place the stones in the sun to get hot.  One day your desire will come true.

He talked about his son, a young adult who lived in Guadalajara, and said it was more healthy for a seedling to grow away from the shadow of the big tree.

He told me he thought Donald Trump would be a good thing for my country.  I asked why he thought that and he offered a bet, $100 USD that I would be better off a year from then when we talked again.  I would not shake on the bet because I refused to bet against myself, but I wanted to know why he thought Donald Trump would possibly be good.  He was vague and cryptic and kept referring to his proposed bet.

Troncones is a tiny town that extends a long way up the beach in little beach haciendas occupied by vacationers and expatriates who prefer to get away from the crowds in the towns and like a more reclusive experience.  It appeals to me and Roxanne at a certain level, like actually living in a palapa, and we are told the rent of one of these places is affordable, but it seems too remote and far off for us, so dependent on urban conveniences like a variety of restaurants.

On the highway back to Ixtapa Fernando stopped at a roadside stand and makes us buy three ten pound sacks of crystaline sea salt, which cost ten pesos each, about a buck and a half.  He reminds us to gargalar daily, and we figure it’s a small nod to the local economy.

As he drives he tells a joke.  A priest and a taxi driver are killed in a car crash and when they get to heaven the archangel sends the taxi driver directly up to hang out with God and assigns the priest to desk duty in the office.  The priest argues, I am a priest and he is a taxi driver, why aren’t I up there with God?  The angel replied, the taxi driver got more people to pray.

Fernando dropped us at the Krystal and we tipped him.  We reminded him to pick up the tamales.  As soon as he was out of earshot and sometimes to this day my sisters sing about him, there was something in the air that night, the moon was bright, Fernando…  the song by Abba.  I instead tend to think of that song by Lady Gaga that goes, don’t call my name, Fernando… either way he’ll always be remembered fondly.

Our first day at the Krystal this year on our first walk we found Benny at the beach.  He looked pretty good, maybe a little trimmer.  A little more serious.  He told us that past November his stepson and captain of his big boat passed away, Vicente.  Some kind of blocked colon.  Went to the hospital and they couldn’t save him.  Left a wife and two young kids.  He was Benny’s stepson by virtue of Benny taking Vicente in as a boy, orphaned, and raising him as his son.  He was Benny’s captain.  Telling the story evoked deep sadness.  We embraced Benny, sorry for his loss.  We barely knew Vicente, having run into him at the pier and the one time we went fishing with a group on the big boat, so we commiserated with Benny, who said now he was looking after Vicente’s widow and children.  He thanked us for our sympathy and reminded us if we wanted go fishing, or just a boat ride to look for whales and dolphins, or take another day trip to Troncones he would set it up.

Then he told us that Fernando the guide passed away in December from stomach cancer.

That news really blew us away.  One of those things where you say he looked, he seemed so healthy.  I thought about his therapy for anger, a stone’s throw into the sea.  When we took our dip in the surf we gargled, like a toast.  To Fernando.  I thought about if I had taken his bet I would have owed him $100.  USD.

I am better off now than I was a year ago, statistically speaking, by any objective measure.  And a few subjectives too.  All in spite of Donald Trump.  And the good for America Fernando insinuated, I cannot still figure out what he meant and only hope he saw something good coming through America the next few years motivated by the presence of Trump, not necessarily by Trump’s decree.  One hopes for a better world.  One wonders if Fernando was prescient enough to see progressions of democracy beyond our frustrating times, aggravation hurled into the sea.  Our deepest wishes baking in the sun.

Benny has told us he learned English when he was young because he observed that anybody who was making money knew English.  Anabel de los Santos agrees.  She is one of the savant servants at the Krystal restaurants.  Maybe fifteen years ago she broke in as one of the beach waiters who hustle back and forth serving food and drink to the palapas, the first woman stationed on the beach in what had always been a crew of all guys like Jesus.  Jesus mentored her.  It’s hard shlepping drinks in the sand all day — hard enough serving food and drink on tile and hardwood floors, it takes legs to work the beach — and the palapa people can be demanding.  With a big moon faced smile she tutored my Spanish and ran our tab up in Negra Modelos by the ice bucket cubos for years, making conversation back and forth in Spanish and English, and she has become our best confidante in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

Even so, Anabel is both our best insight into the soul of Mexico and most worthy of privacy.  We are proud that she has befriended us, and thus protective of her confidence.  Beyond the call of duty, as it were, that is beyond her role at the hotel she has extended her life to us, welcomed us to her home, dined with us in town, shown us Playa Larga, brought us to her grandson’s birthday party one night at Coacoyul and introduced us to her family and friends with gracious hospitality that transcends vacation leisure time in a foreign country and makes us feel more than honored guests but trusted kin.  What I share in this essay respects Anabel so much as to reveal as much as one can her good examples without embarrassing her to the world.

She is now a senior waiter at the hotel restaurant, 3 to 11, the dinner shift.  The food at the Krystal is very very good and features a delicious buffet along with a standard menu.  With a trend towards all-inclusive price bundling the restaurants serve a captive clientele with an accent on service at the tables, and Anabel leads her team in etiquette and efficiency.  People ask for her tables by name.  She’s a pro.  Several women now work as waiters, bussers and chefs at the hotels and restaurants these days, from the early years we would come and everywhere the waiters were men except two part-timers who worked the pool deck, Gloria and Marta, and Anabel who worked the beach, and once upon a time Anabel was new.

She knew English.  She indulged and tutored my Spanish.  We learned she was a single mom with four kids.  One kid has special needs.  She is a grandma.  She gets one day off a week.  Lately, the last few years, she has a pareja, boyfriend Jose who speaks virtually no English but helps out around the house.  Today two of her sons, Ariel and Uriel, are young adults, the former entering the post-school workforce and the younger completing high school.  They’re a generation looking for something to do.  The daughter Suke has a toddler to raise in addition to completing vocational education.  The whole family raises Jorvy (pronounced Jorby) and everyone looks after big brother Brandon, who has severe cerebral palsy.

Anabel started working at the Krystal in the traditional women’s job of housekeeping, una camarista, cleaning rooms and making beds.  The Krystal offers English classes for its employees and Anabel took the lessons with the idea of becoming a waiter and making more money.  She hopes her kids learn more English so they can too.  Every generation hopes its children do better in this world than we do, it’s universal — look at us Americans, doing so well as it is — and we all look at Jorvy’s generation emerging and wonder what his future might unfold in this town.

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Ariel is a hipster skateboarder with an iPhone who likes Bob Dylan and works at the Krystal in the kitchen.  He says he wants to study mechanics and move to Jalisco, he has no interest in Mexico City.  He and I have become email pen pals and correspond a few times a year.  He and Roxanne are friends on Facebook.  He reminds me of past teenagers I have known who want to break free of their old home towns and live somewhere cooler.  Uriel is more obscure to me, the younger brother, handsome like Ariel, at school a lot, says he wants to study dance.

The daughter Suke is shy and virtually unknowable, speaks no English at all and lacks her mother’s tendency to tutor my Spanish since she has no English to fall back on to explain.  We hear she’s enrolled in a camarista academy.

At the Krystal the one called Gloria is also now a senior restaurant waiter, a counterpart to Jesus on the breakfast lunch shift — he says, Jesus and Gloria, we are the same.  The other woman who worked the pool deck, Marta, was last seen operating a kind of pop-up gift shop on the plaza near the basketball court in Zihuatanejo.

Recent years have seen a boom in young women serving as waiters and greeters at the restaurants.  Kids are coming of age and taking jobs in hospitality.  Women are concierges, managers and desk clerks, not just cleaners.  The jobs you do not see women doing are security guards and taxi drivers.  Bartenders and lifeguards.  Guides.

Jesus Calderon is the standout alpha male of the Krystal waiters.  He has been there longer than we have been coming to the Krystal.  We found his style severe and almost formal for a beach resort but he was precise and very efficient, and he too sometimes would tutor my Spanish and humor me.  He has critical eyes and projects a far awareness of space and surroundings.  We used to think he was giving us the stink eye, or at least the hairy eyeball, that he didn’t trust us for some reason, maybe even didn’t like us the first few years, he was just treating us well to be professional.  We got to know him a little when we engaged him in conversation, learned he has a little cattle ranch outside of town a few miles, eight cows, all dry for the winter, where he goes and rides his horses on his days off, a caballero, a vaquero.  At work he is a consummate professional and idealized leader.  He is the local union rep, and without prying into his personal business would guess his influence has shaped the workplace in a positive way for his coworkers and the industry as a whole.  I was out of earshot the time Jesus tactfully reprimanded the young woman who called him joven, and my Spanish is too poor to have understood his words word for word, but he must have said something elegantly persuasive, she instantly changed her manners.  He mentored Anabel.  In many ways Jesus embodies the soul of the Krystal and the hospitality of Ixtapa Zihuatanejo.

We keep doing the same thing over and over expecting the same result.  That’s the beauty of going there year after year, we don’t care if it gets different.  It’s like the sunset, it comes  around every day but we stick around to watch.  At its cloudless it always looks the same red ball and we still can’t look away.  When it’s cloudy it gets all pink and purple and unpredictable.  Then it gradually gets dark.

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That last walk of the day to symbolically kick the wall, the last dip in the sea and a gargle for Fernando, watching Raphael’s crew pack their parachutes, the speedboat guys pull in their ropes or make one last run pulling the big wiener across the bay where at least one of the five people riding it in lifejackets deliberately falls off so they have to stop, remount and start over and everybody gets a swim.  Fishermen come out to cast their nets.  Pelicans dive for food just beyond the breakers.  Clamdiggers try their best to unearth something from the mud with their hands as the tide ebbs away.  The guys who rent the jet skis load them up on their two wheel trailers to haul them to where they lock them up for the night.  The last volleyball match of the day whistles done.  The sun not so hot, the little kids make one last run into the edges of the waves.  It’s time to dig out the dad they buried up to his chin.  The lounge chairs get stacked at the Pacifica, arrayed in neat empty rows at the Bayview, and the canvas tent palapas at the Barcelo get unstruck, and the umbrellas collapse at the Sunscape Dorado.  The stragglers straggle.

The girl from Ipanema in her summer clothes poses for a picture holding the big red sun as a beach ball in her hands.

Maybe one last beer — or a water with a lime, we don’t drink as much beer as we used to.  Maybe one more dip in the pool — it’s still at least 82 degrees out there.  The sun dips below the brim of the palm leaves of the palapa.  We are suntanned in spite of all shady precautions, the suns rays bounce up off the sand and the sea and they get us anyway.  Down the line several palapas away a Mexican family has commissioned one of the itinerant Mexican cowboy bands to stop and play a set of songs, and from a distance they sound almost like a polka band without a tuba.

We stay for the sunset.  Maybe it’s a classic, or maybe it’s a bust, either way we celebrate another beautiful day.  The booze cruise catamaran called the Picante like the signature of Picasso sails by and we wave at them but nobody ever waves back, why would they be looking at us when there’s a sunset out there?  Sail on, get out of our way from looking at the sun descend next to the rock islands off the bay, islands so blond and stoic from the distance which up close are whitewashed with bird poop, which you learn on the booze cruise.

Maybe this sunset we witness the green flash.

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We pack up our towels and books and sandals and beach bag and t-shirt and hat and our litter and arrange our lounge chairs the way we found them and vacate the palapa for any twilight stragglers who come after us.  Stop at the towel bar to exchange for fresh ones for tomorrow.  Ride the elevator to our room to change clothes to go to dinner.

There are at least a dozen good restaurants or cantinas within walking distance of the Krystal in Ixtapa, maybe two dozen.  We have our favorites among the most popular and would like to try the obscure ones some time just to get out of our routine except our favorites treat us so well.  Even with the prevalence of hotels offering all-inclusive dining the competitive restaurant trade seems to be flourishing.

Sometimes we’ll go out with our palapa friends.  They like to dine in Zihuatanejo and make reservations through the concierge and we’ll take taxis to places we like in town.  At a place called Il Mare they serve Mediterranean style dinners at a tiered dining room of balconies at the top of the hill overlooking Playa Ropa, the entire city surrounding the bay lit up at night.  Our friends like to reserve a table on the beach at Daniels, right in town, for chicken or mahi mahi.  There’s a place called Coconuts where the ambience is dining in a central courtyard of a hacienda.  An out of the way place with excellent shrimp is called Letty’s, located behind the embarcadero by the fishing boat marina.  A place called Bandito’s specializes in molcojate, like a ratatouille served in an iron kettle.  And no one serves red snapper — huachinango a ajo — better than Casa Elvira.

In Ixtapa within walking distance of the Krystal and all grouped around the commercial blocks we like El Camaron Azul, the Blue Shrimp, for just about anything seafood on the menu.  Toscano’s and Emilio’s specialize in Italian food — Toscano has the best pizza and lasagna and Emilio the best ribs, a huge rack of which must be shared, and same with their salads.  Ruben’s makes malt shop hamburgers and fries and features New Zealand cheese.  The General’s is a sports bar offering fajitas, pizzas and pub fare.  A place called Deborah’s leans into perfection in every item on her menu.  For genuine Mexican dishes there are several places but Roxanne’s and my favorite is formally called Los Bigotes de Zapata, Zapata’s Mustache, but is better known as Martin’s, with mole sauce and green sauce so good on their enchiladas it’s worth getting one of each — and they serve a nice inexpensive breakfast too.  Away a little off to the side of the boulevard on the way to Playa Linda past Emilio’s is the Ixtapa Palace hotel, with its restaurant Tiburon serving red snapper in vera cruz sauce.  And the other way from the commercial district alone along the boulevard to the marina stands Soleiado, a boutique Mediterranean cuisine of wrought iron atmosphere where a French guy sings on the patio.  The marina restaurants are all right if more expensive and a little pretentious as if they conveyed a view like Il Mare from the top of Playa Ropa, though you can eyeball some high moneyed yachts.

All these places serve open air, some more sheltered than others.  Depending on tastes there are biker style bars, video bars, country and classic rock bars, all serving good pub fare.  There are places opening and closing every year Roxanne and I have not found yet, both in the commercial district of Ixtapa and in the heart of Zihuatanejo central, that are good places to eat no doubt, so we tell ourselves to keep looking for new places for dinner.

Soleiado serves the best Bolognese spaghetti sauce anywhere.  Wherever I travel if I’m uncertain what to eat off a menu where nothing seems to appeal to my appetite my default choice is spaghetti or linguini Bolognese.  I have sampled Bolognese sauce in Prague, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Interlachen, Zermatt, Venice, Madrid, Minneapolis of course and various other cities in the USA, and Ixtapa, and the Soleiado recipe is the best.  Not too bad is the sauce at Toscano, the place for pizza and lasagna.  Maybe second best I ever had was the one in Prague, or maybe I was just extraordinarily hungry.

Soleiado’s recipe was said to be the recipe of the aunt of one of the founders, Caroline.  She and her husband Francesco established the place in the late 1990s, named it after a word for sunshine.  Legend says she was a show dancer and he was a chef at Club Med up the coast a few miles towards Playa Linda.  She was from Montreal, he was from Paris.  They fell in love.  They conceived a dream, a fine dining restaurant in Ixtapa.  I also loved their pork tenderloin Nicoise.  The place was always full to capacity from six to nine.  Caroline was always there, greeting her guests at every table, never tiring to talk about their entrepreneurship, Francesco’s genius in the kitchen, their young daughter, or to listen to compliments about the food or the sunny decor.  Sometimes it seemed people vied for Caroline’s affections.  Francesco was always there too in the kitchen mainly in his white chef suit.  He was darkly handsome and wore his black hair in a long braid down his back.  He played smooth jazz on the hi-fi.

One terrible night Roxanne and I went there late after calling home to our daughter from a pay phone using a prepaid phone card, more than ten years ago.  We learned that night Michel our daughter might have ovarian cancer and we staggered to Soleiado to comfort ourselves with a nightcap of a couple of shots of Bailey’s and a slice of their famously delicious pecan pie.  Francesco saw me crying and came to our table to console me.  I was drunk and deeply sad, and I still recall how he embraced my shoulders and nearly wept himself.  I wrote him a letter to thank him for that and to tell him Michel did not have cancer after all but an operable condition from which she fully recovered.

In the years after that things changed at Soleiado.  Francesco and Caroline broke up.  First Francesco was said to have gone back to Montreal to chef at a restaurant to supplement their income due to a drop in business in Ixtapa due to the recession.  Then Caroline reported sending their teenage daughter to school in Montreal to be with relatives.  Then it was rumored Francesco took off for Paris.  Then the daughter’s health was reported to be precarious.  The next year Caroline herself had lost a lot of weight and didn’t look well.  Then she was gone.  A new guy, another Frenchman and an American henchman managed the place.  Little else changed.  The Frenchman bought the place, they say, and now he shmoozes the guests.  The cuisine remains boutique though the menu has changed somewhat.  They still make Bolognese according to Caroline’s aunt Marie, and still serve pecan pie.  They’ve brought on a singer of songs in French and installed a ten foot high Eiffel Tower that lights up with dazzle at night out front towards the boulevard.

I grieve in a way for Caroline and Francesco.  None of the old staff seems to know what happened to them.  Or they aren’t saying.  Theirs was a sunny dream realized and then it dissolved in a cloudy drizzle.  I wondered what it might have been like to be two relatively sophisticated parents of a teenage girl in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo, what social dilemmas they may have faced.  How would we have raised our kids if we lived there?

We don’t know.  It’s a different paradigm from what we’re used to I’m sure.  Did the daughter have friends she was torn away from?  Have they all found happiness again?  Maybe I’ve interpreted their story wrong, put the wrong spin on it.  It’s hard to believe credible people who find romance in paradise might lose it and naive to think it might all be part of somebody’s master plan to get in and get out.

Is this Casablanca 1942 deja vu?  Hardly.  Not Bladerunner either.  We come down here for vacation not to play social worker, not to be missionaries, not to ascribe to investigative journalism, and not to spy.  Not to judge.

Anabel’s daughter got knocked up at barely fifteen.  Anabel herself has four kids and I’m not privy to the circumstances of their fatherhood.  It’s all I need to know because what I perceive askance from my American cultural lens presents me with situations I’m not supposed to fix.  Like the prayer for serenity asks to accept things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference, serenity requires the bliss of curiosity to seek out the distinctions and divide what you find.  My upbringing says it’s some emblem of being poor Mexicans but my education tells me there’s more to the human condition than building walls will ever solve.  It may or may not be interesting to know that Anabel and all of her family and friends, Jesus or anyone like Benny or Fernando, of all the people we know down there, nobody wants to emigrate to the United States.

They don’t complain.  Yes, asides about bad tippers and chilangos, but not about life.  Deep in their dark eyes there may be signs of pain and sadness, and in the severe faces of those like Janeth the pensiveness of truth, but the people of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo don’t wear discontent on their sleeves.  They are serene.

It’s nice to go somewhere for a winter vacation where there’s no civic tension to distract from the perfect beach weather.  We don’t need the aggravation of the American state department telling the world Mexico is as dangerous as Syria.

One time on the beach a few years ago we encountered a squad of five or six soldiers in black battle dress with helmets and vests on patrol carrying machine guns.  It created a quiet stir among the palapa anglos.  It reminded Roxanne and me of routine patrols we saw on the plaza of St Michel in front of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, and under the Eiffel Tower, a sign of the times.  More theater of the playa.

We have friends, acquaintances and family who tell us straight up they would never go to Mexico because they believe it’s way too dangerous.  They worry about our safety and tell us to check in when we get back.  They decline our invitations to join us and prefer to winter within the American borders, places like Arizona and Florida, and of course Hawaii.  Most of them just don’t want to leave America at all.  It’s cool.  America has a lot to offer Americans.  Overall the rest of the world would like to have what America offers.  They would like to have it in their own world.  And meanwhile, fewer Americans come to Ixtapa Zihuatanejo because they are chicken.

Sometimes when we are out walking the boulevard on the main of Ixtapa between the beach hotels and condos and the commercial blocks we see a military truck go by with soldiers in the back like the ones on the beach.  Some of them wear ski masks like urban guerrillas, and it makes the look like the bad guys, but we suppose they don’t want to be identified for reasons to avoid retribution.  It makes for dinner conversation among us northern tourists, whether we should worry more about our safety, there might be something going on underneath we aren’t supposed to know about.  I’ll concede the visibility of armed federal troops might be intentional, to show we are being safely guarded.  We should feel protected.  A contingent of such troops regularly bunks at one of the backstreet off-beach hotels and conducts training from there, so it seems normal to see them on patrol on the boulevard in and out of Ixtapa.  On our field trips we’ve seen them set up check points on the open highway.  There’s nothing unusual here we would not expect to see.  We remind ourselves we are in Mexico, a land famed for banditos and corruption, so to counter that kind of reputation takes a lot of charm while addressing the actual crimes.  Our palapa friends and other senior vacationers we engage say they feel generally safe, and everybody draws their limits to where they might go and where they might avoid at what time of day or night — just as people do at home.

Night life in Ixtapa escapes me and Roxanne.  We don’t hang out and party all night long, so we can’t really say where people do that.  Our evenings end usually after dinner.  We are elders now, seniors, and a long day at the beach and a delicious meal with wine, beer or margaritas makes us sleepy.

There is a disco called Christine next door to the Krystal.  We went there one time to get a feel for the night life.  The sound system is fantasic.  We were there too early, around nine or ten, and the crowd was sparse.  Tired, we left before the party really got started, around midnight.  A lot of the local young people go there after work.  There is nightlife, but we’re just too old and tired to stay up all night.

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The commercial zone of Ixtapa is set up like a semi-grid of small strip mall installations around a plaza fountain which no longer runs water and a fenced off block of ruins of concrete from something nobody remembers used to be there that may have either burned down or collapsed from an earthquake but hasn’t ever been redeveloped.  Other than that block of fenced rubble the walk through the commercial district is blightless.  Not exactly a grid of streets and not a maze, the passways through this array of strip mall and plazas constitute contiguous clean well lighted places.  There are boutique shops for clothes, jewelry, shoes and ceramics.  Gelato.  Farmacias.  Grocery store almost big enough to be a supermarket.  On the far end beyond the little cantinas the flea market beckons.  Lots of good restaurants.

There were only two American restaurant chain brands operating in Ixtapa, Domino’s pizza and Subway sandwiches.  I swear there was once a KFC but nobody will back me up on that.  Now there is a new Starbuck’s at the hotel Krystal.  No Hard Rock Cafe.  No Applebee’s.

Otherwise the food trade is original and credibly local.  Toscano’s serves good Italian and is owned and run by old man Toscano who spends evenings drinking red wine at the bar and smoking cigarettes.  He has been known to get crabby with street performers who don’t ask special permission to entertain on his side of the plaza.  He is either too far in the bag by the time we arrive for dinner or just not chummy, but he’ll at least raise a glass to us if we catch his eye, and he has an eye for repeat customers.  The menu shows a drawn map of the city of Florence a few hundred years ago, still like it today.  Two years ago his son hung around the place.  A younger guy in Tommy Bahama maybe pushing fifty, he engaged us one evening to shmooze and introduce himself as the boss’s son who came up from Acapulco to help the old man and eventually take over the business.

The younger Toscano had plans.  Ixtapa had to liven up, jiven up, get a reputation as an all year spring break destination to attract the fun seeking young generation.  He said the place was too geriatric, like his dad.  He called Zihuatanejo’s rejection of the cruise liner pier the dumbest decision he ever heard.  The new casino was set to open any day, and he looked forward to it as a good sign.  The next year he was gone, sent packing back to Acapulco by his old man, who apparently didn’t like his ideas.

The casino did open, after we had gone home for the season.  Last year we walked through.  Lit up with glam LED lights and staffed by mannered models in casual tuxedos and pulsating with noises of gaming machines and dance pop, it reminded me of a tiny version of Mystic Lake back home.  Behind a glass door the blackjack tables were busiest and the only place one could smoke.  We walked through, checked it out and walked out without playing.  Purely a reconnaissance mission.  We don’t gamble — or game — and don’t get a thrill from slots.  I personally find casinos depressing places of angst and desperation, so I didn’t see anything positive coming from this new Ixtapa casino except the usual bump in local revenue and jobs.  It seemed reassuring the place wasn’t very crowded for its first full season.

This year it was closed.  More reassuring yet.  Orange fliers fastened on every door and exit — closed by order of the federal police.  Ask around and finally somebody says it’s because of too many robberies.  We walked by on our way to the hotel from dinner at the Ixtapa Palace and for some reason there were four black and white policia federale  SUVs parked empty in the casino parking lot like they were having a meeting inside.  Like there was an American doughnut shop nearby, Emilio’s bakery.  I thought about the stanzas of Townes Van Zandt, “All the federales say they could’ve had him any day, they just let him get away out of kindness I suppose.”

Though I say I’m not superstitious or believe in jinx, the casino seemed to be bad juju for Ixtapa, introduced a corrupt element to the community.  And though I say I’m liberal and tolerant of some types of sketchy behavior (like smoking) seen as harmless fun, I would rather not see gaming in Ixtapa to liven up and jiven up the atmosphere, or attract what they call in Minnesota some of that blue hair money.  (Elders don’t dye their hair silver blue anymore but the idiom lives on at Mystic Lake.)

It’s enough for us to choose a good sit down dinner.  The rival of Soleiado for elegance up the boulevard is Deborah’s, and Deborah is the successor of Caroline as the grand hostess.  Deborah exudes exactness in her entire operation.  Each dish has its own ultra quality.  Never a letdown or a mistake.  She walks among the guests asking if everything tasted all right and basks in all the compliments.  She’s been at this longer than we’ve been coming down, and now she is the premier restaurateur of Ixtapa.  We all think she’s Canadian because her menus of language are coded with the red maple leaf for English and not the stars and stripes, she looks anglo though her Spanish is clear and precise.  She has a haughty edge about her.  Suffers no fools.  Years ago seemed reluctant to shmooze as if she was too busy.  Used to have her place tucked back behind the commercial shops like Martin’s, barely a patio with an awning and a pergola.  It was called Mama Norma and Deborah’s then, after Deborah’s mentor and longtime proprietor known as Mama Norma, who schooled Deborah in her recipes.  Deborah carried on after Mama Norma passed away.  Her current iteration is the site of a place once called the Hacienda, another place that folded when the grand old lady who owned it retired, where Deborah now runs her flagship restaurant named for herself.

She is also know to own a small cantina on the boulevard strip called Chili Beans and is rumored to own a big piece of the Blue Shrimp.  And her old location has been renamed Mama Norma’s and opened under apparently new management with Italian cuisine — yes, the spaghetti Bolognese is good — and Deborah denies she owns it but there are signs she is behind the scenes, like the name Mama Norma’s.

In truth Deborah has kept up the standards of restaurant quality in Ixtapa at a good price these many years.  They say it was she who discovered the talents of a shy young chef named Lalo at the Blue Shrimp, where he composed his signature flambee shrimp, mushroom, cheese and liquor dish that originated as Lalo’s Shrimp and has since mutated everywhere in high quality knockoff form as Ixtapa Shrimp, seen prepared in flames at tables at all the fancy places.  Deborah has her own chef who specializes, a woman at that, and puts on a dramatic show while she mixes the ingredients and incites the flame.  Lalo was cute and shy, concentrated on the cooking, putting ingredients together as if he were experimenting, just now making it up, almost in awe of the flame he created.

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Roxanne and I and our palapa and beach friends followed Lalo from his Blue Shrimp days and found him with his own place operating a kitchen out back in a section of an old hotel deep into the old plaza with a patio setting of a few tables under umbrellas and an awning, which he called Lalo’s House.  He kept the tables occupied for a few years and taught some younger guys how to make the shrimp mushroom gravy with the three cheeses, just the right dash of English sauce (Worcerster sauce — no Mexican I’ve met tries to say it) and white wine and brandy.  Shy and still cute, Lalo reluctantly learned to shmooze like a restaurateur rock star when his fans would get the waiters to lure him out of the sheltered workshop of his kitchen to garner applause for their meals, and sometimes we could coax him out to either prepare our shrimp or supervise a protege.

More or less across the boulevard within view of the Krystal, on the second floor of the strip of buildings above a convenience store and a farmacia, used to be a place called the Lobster House.  A grand staircase led upstairs from the sidewalk and there was always a guy out front trying to get people to go up there for lobster but nobody seemed to trust him and looking up from the street it never looked like anybody ever ate their.  Roxanne is allergic to lobster so we never went up there once.

Then one year the Lobster House was renamed the House of Lalo.  We ascended the grand staircase and were seated at a table on a balcony looking at the jungle wildlife preserve behind the boulevard looking towards the hotel, and it was a serene juxtaposition.  He had a few guests.  I looked around and the place was rather elegant with leather and carved wood.  A Spanish ceiling.  He welcomed us with awkward pride, long since being shy with those of us who followed his career and his cuisine.  It was a one year trial, he told us.  We had a great dinner.  It looked as if the House of Lalo would take off.  It got a good review in TripAdvisor.  It was only due that Lalo have his own house.

The next year, last year, he was back on the patio at the back of the plaza cooking out of the kitchen at the old hotel.  The food was good but Lalo didn’t seem with it.  Barely going through the motions of hospitality.  He seemed depressed.  His staff said the old Lobster House was too much to manage, and they had trouble getting customers to go up the stairs — no elevator.  Then we learned Lalo’s best friend had died the summer before in a car accident on the highway to Acapulco.  We of course shared our condolences and he shrugged.

This year by the time Roxanne and I showed up Lalo’s patio was out of business.  Our friends said the week before they had gone to eat there, and it was open, but Lalo was nowhere to be seen, not even in the kitchen.  They asked about him and eventually one of the waiters took our friends to a room at the old hotel where Lalo was in bed looking dire.  Said he couldn’t get out of bed.  Had a set of crutches propped against the wall.  We learned later from the grapevine Lalo had diabetes and a drinking problem.  We heard he suffered depression as a result of a car crash while he was drinking and driving that killed a passenger.  Just two days before we left for home we learned through our friends who learned it from a waiter at Chili Beans Lalo died of heart failure.  The funeral was the next day, done before any of us knew, so we did not attend.

His flambee shrimp with three cheeses, mushrooms and gravy lives on, even as a version offered at the General’s sports bar, which they call the General’s Shrimp.

The General may be the most universally beloved proprietor in all of Ixtapa.  Named Genaro, he got his nickname from Frank, the proprietor of another popular bar and restaurant where Genaro worked as chief of staff and de facto manager.  His energetic command of the service staff, the kitchen and the bar got him nicknamed the General.  His affable personality and fluent English ushered customers in and the service attitudes he instilled in the waiters kept people coming back multiple times during their vacations, so Frank’s enjoyed overflow business in that era.

We first met Genaro when he worked for Frank’s.  Roxanne’s sister and her late husband used to go to Ixtapa too and stay at a place called Las Brisas, on a beach of its own around the cliffs from Pacifica, and one year our times in Mexico overlapped.  They invited us to go with another couple they knew on a field trip up the coast to Troncones to see what it was like, guided by a guy they met at Frank’s they referred to as Gordo, whose name turned out to be Genaro.

He’s round and pudgy with a close cropped haircut, chubby cheeks and it was understandable he might answer to Gordo, but from the outset of meeting him early that morning in the parking lot near Frank’s where we climbed inside his van, there was something smartly charismatic about him that promoted him past deserving the sort of nickname bullies bestow on buffoons.  So I agreed to call him General because that is what he likes to be called.

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It was our first trip to Troncones, and he showed us a great time.  Brought boogie boards for us to try the triple surf.  Made sure we had shelter and beer.  Brought us to a welcoming roadside cantina for lunch platters of seafood at a tiny nearby town.  Everywhere he entertained us he assured our trust and comfort.  I think he had a crush on Roxanne.  It was a memorable excursion because we all had fun, everything went right and we all got to see a piece of Mexico outside the resort zone.  We tipped big.

On our way back to Ixtapa we stopped at Genaro’s house in a little flat, dusty town up the road from Playa Linda, so he could shower and change clothes to go to work that night at Frank’s.  We met his young wife (don’t stare at her tits, he quipped) and two little daughters — none of whom spoke English, but it was okay.  I babbled Spanish.

On the ride back to Frank’s I rode shotgun and asked how he spoke English so well.  Cruising the narrow streets between the concrete houses like his with rebar optimistically pointed up on the roof corners and rusty corrugated steel roofs, chickens in the dusty yards, he pointed to a house behind and then to the road ahead and described how one day he kissed his mama good bye when he was a teenager and climbed aboard a truck with a bunch of other guys recruited from the area who rode all the way up to Colorado to work in a tortilla factory.  He lived five some years in the United States working in the restaurant business, eventually ending up in Wisconsin where he fell in love with the Green Bay Packers and sharp cheddar cheese.

Supposedly he was all legal, documented, but he eventually came home anyway and with some friends started up a restaurant in Zihuatanejo called Three Amigos.  It became successful but Genaro felt forced out as the fourth amigo, so he went around managing other restaurants until he got recruited by Frank to keep a tight handle on his operations while Frank experimented with running a ju jitsu dojo and a dirt bike rental and Frank’s wife opened a purse shop.  Frank basically hung out at his namesake bar to shmooze the customers while the General ran the show.

Soon after our trip to Troncones Frank and Genaro had a falling out.  Frank found out he was moonlighting as a tour guide and didn’t like Genaro making money on the side and not cutting him in on it.  Frank got a sketchy reputation in the community for rumors about stiffing his workers, gouging his patrons with an inflated exchange rate on payments in American cash, and for allegedly cheating the Sail Fest charity out of the proceeds of a benefit dance hall event held in his dojo.  The General has never contributed to these rumors and allegations.  Frank is an Italian-Canadian expatriate married to a Mexican, which is how he can own his business license, he told me — he has to put it in the name of his young son.  Hipsterly handsome with long hair worn up in a man bun long before it became a craze, he has his own following among bikers and would be renegades who are attracted to Frank’s shady reputation as a haven for wannabe misfits — that and constant two-for-one Dos Equis.  He and his lovely, vivacious wife have been seen having spats in the back room.  They are both said to have fits and tantrums at the staff in front of customers.  Yet the place has a loyal following of quasi-expatriates and ex-patriots.  Maybe it’s all talk.  And the food is not that great.  Asi asi.

Still, they fired Genaro, or maybe Genaro quit, he doesn’t say.  He turned up fronting the cantina called Chili Beans on the boulevard, where again he kept the chairs full and supervised a clean well lighted operation.

A few years of this and a couple of Canadian entrepreneurs approached him to be partners in his own bar.  They bought a failing restaurant at the edge of the plaza next to one side of the ruined square, fixed it up and renamed it The General’s.  It features sports jerseys, sweaters and posters and memorabilia from teams famous and obscure all over the ceilings and walls where there are no TV screens.  There are TV screens — gigantic, big and medium — everywhere — fed by satellite feeds from games played all over the world, but mostly North America.  Mostly the TVs show NHL hockey, almost always a Canadian team, or American college hockey.  Sometimes a college basketball game, usually the Big Ten, and occasionally the NBA, and once in a while soccer from Mexico or Europe.  On game days there is always NFL football, and sometimes the CFL.  For each NFL Super Bowl the General books reservations for a special deal on food and drinks and sells out every seat and table out onto the plaza.  On rare quiet nights when there are no games they play ESPN SportsCenter, Fox Sports and country pop music videos.

Part stand up comedian and part godfather, Genaro not only spreads personal charismatic charm to welcome his clientele he entertains them with gab and quips and outgoing acts to keep up with his guests while seriously conducting business with his staff in Spanish.  He’s on all the time, almost manic, and when I watch him I worry about his stamina, his blood pressure and his level of stress, but he always seems like he’s having fun.  I still think he has a crush on Roxanne.  His wife and kids show up sometimes, along with the grandmother who watches the kids while the mom puts in a shift minding the cash booth.  This past year she had a baby boy, their first son and Genaro fields congratulations and jokes that it won’t be long he’ll have the kid trained to sell Chiclets out front of Kisses, the strip show bar in the other town.

The General’s is always packed, though we always seem to get a table.  The food is good and they don’t pretend to be gourmet cuisine.  If not best at any given dish, their kitchen turns out good knockoffs of what is standard fare everywhere else, including spaghetti Bolognese.  The fajitas are very tasty.  The guacamole sublime.  Nachos fine.  Good pizza.  Mahi mahi can’t miss.  The taco salad is delicious but the meat is served warm.  They even serve poutines.  The food and drink is not the main attraction but it shouldn’t be underestimated.  The attraction here is all atmosphere and hospitality, a chance to root for a team (and watch TV commercials from back home) and party with vacation companions, sing along with some videos, brag a little, jest and get a selfie with the General.

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There is a sign painted on the wall of the building across the walkway from his restaurant patio that advertises his place as Husband Day Care.  His Canadian partners, a couple of ruggedly handsome middle aged anglos, don’t exactly look undercover in their interactions in the operation even though they are in common with the clientele if not the all Mexican staff.  The customers adore the General and clamor for a table or a seat at the bar.  The staff respect Genaro and follow his lead.  The partners try to participate behind the scenes to keep things flowing, minding the business not inconspicuous.  There is talk of taking on the empty shell of a nearby abandoned dance club and expanding the label.  Somebody’s getting satisfaction out of this business and we hope Genaro and his family get the beautiful reward.  Even if he is a Green Bay Packer fan.

I think the place only stays open until midnight, which is late enough by my standards but doesn’t qualify the General’s as an after hours hangout, forcing revelers to either go back to their hotels or go find someplace else to party on.  After dinner Roxanne and I might stroll amid the souvenir market around the newer plaza around the bandstand and stage, where sometimes an orchestra or some bands play and singers sing and dancers perform to Mexican music, people stop and gather to watch.  The plaza attracts a mix of tourists and locals enjoying the evening after work and after dinner and the tourists and locals who are Mexicans are hard to tell apart, like on the beach.

Local entertainment sometimes comes with dinner.  Some restaurants feature a singer during dining hours, and others from 8 till 10 or 9 to midnight.  The General has employed Jimi Mamou, a one man act with a keyboard, guitar and a percussion box who does old standards from the 1950s like Fats Domino.  Jimi himself is about 82 years old, comes from New Orleans, lean and chiseled handsome a little like Chuck Berry, who dresses on stage in a sleek silver gray suit, red tie, gray stetson and shiny cordovan red shoes.  He sets up his gear in the vacant corner lot in front of the General’s, they roll open part of the fence and put up some tables and chairs around a dance floor and anglo people our advanced age come out of the woodwork to dance to Jimi once a week, or catch him when he plays in Zihuatanejo at Daniel’s.  Also in Zihuatanejo there’s usually a duo or trio playing in the courtyard at Coconuts and a lounge singer named Michele with a digitally canned instrumental section accompanying her at Bandito’s.  The talent is generally very skilled.

At places which don’t offer live music with dinner, the open air nature of dining in Ixtapa opens up opportunities for street performers to set up close enough to get attention, play a short set and pass the hat, move on to the next cluster of restaurants.  Always a guy with a guitar and a pan flute doing “El Condor Pasa”.  One year there was a mariachi band in full regalia, and they were good, but I can see why they didn’t last, those hat tips don’t go very far among ten or twelve people.  There’s the weak voiced girl with acoustic guitar singing with determination about who knows what en espanol, loss and lessons learned, angst and beauty, guilt and recrimination — amor y despedir, I can’t translate fast enough to guess the words, it’s her forlorn but not hopeless mood night after night that sells her songs — I might give her ten pesos, or a dollar.  The cowboys who shlep the beach sometimes show up, sometimes solo.  I confess, sometimes I don’t want to dine anywhere that features a show, I’d prefer to dine with undistracted conversation, and sometimes consider the street entertainers as a necessary intrusion of local talent.  Interrupts my thoughts.  The ones who I feel most sorry are the fire dancer mom, the bong playing dad and the little daughter who performs rhythmic gymnastics with hoops and streamers to the drumbeats, so impeccably choreographed and so smelly of kerosene from the torches of the mom’s fire dance, so loud and pounding with oversized drama with the drum, and I cannot wait until the brief show ends and I can think straight.  Then along comes the pan flute guy.

The cool thing about this is you can shake your head no when approached with the hat and acknowledge disinterest in the performance or disregard for the intrusion, and the performers accept what they get and move on.

The one tolerated anomaly that exists is the prowling about of nocturnal little kids selling toys.  They spring from everywhere with baskets of bright colored little toy animals.  Little kids in bright clothes and good shoes and groomed hair peddling cute toys.  Table to table offering toys from their baskets.  They understand no and move on, they don’t seem to care or take it personally.  They come back later or another patrol of kids will come by soon.  In the old days they used to sell Chicklets gum, then brilliantly switched to small toys like turtles with bobbing heads, butterflies and ladybugs.  Now they offer a whole basket of different animals, and Roxanne likes to check what’s new even though our grandkids are aging out of cute trinket toys.  And I’m done with silly memorabilia, but it’s an interesting way to pass the time waiting for dinner, checking out the inventory of a basket offered by a nine year old kid.  Usually a girl.  They know the exact prices they can charge and know how to say no when offered less.  When they offer three for a certain price that’s when to take it.  In American money each little toy sells for a couple bucks, it’s not the money.  It’s where do these kids come from and who coordinates this Chicklets enterprise.

The kids are impeccably mannered and nicely dressed.  Not too charming or friendly, they keep the contact eye contact, almost professional beyond years.  They know no English and a little Spanish.  The sad ones are the ones hardly twelve or thirteen carrying infants.  We wonder if they were once infants of some young teen mama selling Chicklets, and now they offer toys.  Roxanne and I have asked who these kids are, where they come from and who organizes their sales force, and nobody really wants to tell.  Nobody wants to say.  Nobody wants to take credit or blame.  Or explain.  It’s supposed to be obvious.  They are the children of the poor, the fatherless, the orphans and the abandoned.  Somebody looks after them, and to finance the project they groom and train the kids to go to all the accessible restaurants in both towns and sell toys to the tourists.  It shouldn’t sound so sinister.

Still we look around for signs of adult supervision and whoever might be transporting or looking after these kids are invisible.  It’s as if they are all independent contractors on their own and you know it couldn’t be true, there are adults somewhere out there behind this.  They say the kids come down from a village in the hills, so where is the bus that brings them into town — both towns, we’ve seen some of the same kids working the tables in Zihuatanejo, and I’m sure they don’t walk there, tough little punks they might be.  A church charity, or an NGO social service, or maybe a criminal exploitation enterprise, a cartel of child labor in the cheap souvenir business, it serves a moral purpose in the community.  It employs a caste of the population who otherwise would be beggars and gives them the experience of socializing and transacting business with civil expertise.  They will grow up someday knowing how to negotiate agreements.

Some advise us it is better to give them food than to give money.  We have offered nachos and pizza and french fries.  Sometimes you see nice old gringos buying them cones of gelato.  I give peso coins to the littlest ones with their mamas on the grass along the boulevard to the hotel, not buying anything, just giving.  We are so rich by comparison.

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The Krystal provides nightly entertainment at the hotel.  Weekly on Fridays they hold a fiesta in the yard behind the hotel where the guest kids play soccer during the day, set out dozens of tables and arrange a buffet of Mexican foods and put on a show on a stage facing the yard.  We don’t attend the buffet every week, or every year, though it is delicious — it’s part of the all-inclusive for those guests and costs a nominal dinner price if attended a la carte.  We usually arrive back from dinner to our room in time to watch from our balcony the dance show in costumes and musical styles of several Mexican states performed to pre-recorded music.  A few nights a week they set the stage for performances of local theatricals in costume lip-synching and dancing, acting out popular songs — truly corny like high school pageants but charmingly piquant.  Mostly Spanish pop songs but one night they closed with YMCA, and the crowd on the lawn was all dancing it, and up on our balcony Roxanne were dancing it and I bumped her and knocked off her glasses, which landed six floors down on the roof of the restaurant.  The next day a guy climbed up to retrieve them for us.  And we tipped him.

And one night a week they put on karaoke in the hotel bar and that gets the Spanish language singers on stage and provokes sing-alongs when most of the audience is joining in the chorus.  One hates to gawk but some of the best night time entertainment ever has been some of the latino karaoke sessions at the Krystal.

The Krystal bar used to book a man and woman duo with guitar and keyboard with a click box percussion machine, and they sang passionate romantic duets.  Elvis songs like “Surrender” in Spanish.  This was more than fifteen years ago, but we wish they might bring them back someday, just for us.  Having Starbucks in the lobby checking wi-fi and digging the karaoke rocking from the bar, making wishes about bringing back something cool from the past, it’s night, time for bed, nothing need be done more to change the world this day, or to keep it whole.  Enjoying the mocha.

Roxanne texts the kids.  Shows me a ten second clip of Clara on the balance beam at a gym meet we missed.  Sometimes from the lobby the Krystal wi-fi is very good, but from the room it is usually very bad.  Such I’m told is a challenge of retrofitting buildings with technology.  It’s a rich world problem.  It will solve itself.  We remember we used to call home from pay phones using prepaid phone cards purchased at the farmacia.  We used internet cafes while they lasted, renting terminals by the quarter hour.  I can browse the e-edition of my local paper on an iPad while Roxanne peruses her iPhone, sipping her latte — and you your Emily Dickinson, and I my Robert Frost…”  It’s a dangling conversation all right, the borders of our lives.

We always used to wish we could fly the whole family down, Vincent and Amalie, Michel and Sid and the two sisters, Clara and Tess, but it doesn’t look likely.  Everybody seems to be pursuing careers and raising kids by school calendars, and their lives get busy at the same time Roxanne and I disappear from the earth, so to speak.  During those years Michel’s family lived in Switzerland it was absurd to think of them being able to consider flying to join us.  Truth be told Michel and Sid seem less than intrigued about visiting Ixtapa ever, even beyond the travel advisories, which they take seriously.  Our vacations don’t sound all that much fun, and I give them credit for living such stressless lives they don’t feel the need to simply surrender.  I can’t offer any of them anything more than a lazyass vacation at the beach in the tropics, and none of them wants that.  This is something special between Roxanne and me.

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Todos aman Roxanne.  Everyone loves Roxanne.  She listens to everybody’s stories.  She asks questions.  She makes factual observations.  She dispenses wise advice.  I cannot exaggerate how much credibility I’ve gained in this world by simply being her husband.

In Ixtapa the Mexicans pronounce her name in different ways, there’s no defined universal equivalent in Spanish (or Nahuatl).  It’s something like Rozanne, or Rosanna, they just can’t agree on what to do with the x.  Sometimes they choke it like the French.  Sometimes they say it like the German double-S, the SS letter in their alphabet that looks like the Budweiser BRossahn, or Rossahnna.  The letter A is always pronounced a soft a like ah (Canadians do this too) and some latinos roll their R sounds more than others, so it sounds like Rrossahn, Rrozahn, or Rrosahnah.  The O is always long O.  Jesus pronounces it Rrossahnnah.  Anabel just calls her Roxx, like with dos equis.

Our gringo norte friends are the only people on this earth who get away with calling her Roxy.  How they got a pass I’ll never know.  Maybe it’s because we’re so far away from home it doesn’t matter.  Maybe in Mexico she likes to have an alias.  She’s long accepted thinking and unthinking references to the enduring song by the Police, though she didn’t like it for years and years until I finally convinced her it was a love song.  But back home she never allows anyone to address her as Roxy, not even if favorably comparing her to Brian Ferry’s band — Slave to Love comes to mind.  Not even as a joke, and people respect that.  Down in Ixtapa she’s Roxy.  Ask Roxy.  Check with Roxy.  Foxy Roxy.  Roxy Lady.  Roxy and Buffy.  I’m Roxy’s husband.

The General calls her Roxy.

On Roxy’s birthday all our palapa friends conspire and collude with the Mexicans at the hotel to serve cake and drinks at two in the afternoon.  They get Armando the hotel manager to commission a chocolate cake from his favorite pasteleria in Zihuatanejo, and everyone who knows her gathers to sing and cheer.  Jesus clangs an empty steel ice bucket with a spoon chanting felicidades!  They used to come down to the palapa for a big surprise but sanitary practices no longer allow serving cake on the beach so we have to lure Roxanne up to the restaurant, which no longer surprises her.

Roxanne used to say she liked to go to Mexico for her birthday to escape the attention.  Back home a birthday in the dead of winter gives just cause for celebration among people starved for cheer since the Christmas lights dimmed.  Roxanne’s birthday rallied her family and friends one more time to kiss off the cold drudgery, the lapsed vitamin D, SAD days without sun, and to focus all that rebellious seasonal discontent towards their love of somebody they mutually respect, who happens to have a birthday in February.  My mother sponsored some lavish gigs.  By the time we centered her birthday around our winter vacations Roxanne was old enough to know how much she was loved and appreciated.  She was willing to leave the partying behind to others to go away and be anonymous for the sake of warm weather and the sea doing nothing.

So our winter escape was Roxanne’s birthday present to herself every year, from me too.  She chose Ixtapa as much as I did, as much as Ixtapa chose us.  If beach reading Nora Roberts under a palapa with a cold Modelo Negra makes her happy in February then I’m happy too.

Thinking about Fernando, the second guide to Troncones, the guy with rock zen philosophies who passed away, I recall telling him something I learned about succeeding in life, which I heard from my sister Meaghan’s current husband: Happy wife happy life.  It came up in the context of his having to pick up the tamales for the Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, but it seemed concisely appropriate at the time.  Happy wife happy life.

It made Roxanne happy — still makes her happy — to walk up to her calves into the tide on a warm sunny day on her birthday, anonymous under the sun, alive and well.  When our Krystal companeros eventually learned her birthday — and she managed to keep it to herself several years — the event took on significance like Constitution Day, Super Bowl and Baby Jesus in the Cake Day, like old times back home.  I didn’t tell, no I tried to keep her secret like a loyal and faithful spouse, but I was glad when they found out, word got around, she got the special attention she deserves.  She graciously gets it that people care about her and they show it.  She seamlessly builds relationships out of conversations.  Maybe it’s her trusting face.  You can tell at her birthday cake party every year this is protocol for wide and deep sentiments among everyone.  She is hard pressed to see why she means that much to everyone but she understands perhaps her role in weaving these friendships together and bonding with one another over time, almost decades.  I have met a bunch of interesting people because Roxanne is outgoing.

There’s another popular song added to Roxanne’s birthday soundtrack, something about cake by the ocean, whatever that means.  We’re probably too old to comprehend the metaphor.

I used to be considered outgoing, an extrovert.  I look back and see when I could have been more shy, way less outspoken.  Less wiseass beyond my years.  Less wrong.  Being older I’m tending to watch and wait before I act or speak up, at least evaluating if my first impressions and hunches are right.  And I cross reference Roxanne.  My best friend ever.  I think I’ve given in to laziness when it comes to being outgoing when Roxanne has afforded me the fortune of abiding relationships, I don’t seem to need to seek out and befriend new people on my own anymore.  In some ways if not for Roxanne I might keep up less with my own siblings or old friends I already have.

In Ixtapa who knows if I would have ever made gringo friends without Roxanne making chums at the palapas.  I might have remained spooky and anonymous minding my own business reading crime novels and essays about essays and haunting the beach wall to wall, stalking cleavage, people watching without eye contact, a swim in the surf, diving not into but underneath the breakers, drinking cervezas de barril and writing in my journal and barely emerged into any social contact with our fellow guests, except for introductions through Roxanne.  I am grateful.  Sometimes I am too shy for my own good, reaction to being inveterate too cool for school in my younger days, not shy enough.  It could be a gift of elder age or could be a curse to examine life critically enough to see where it all may conclude when the eventual meets the inevitable and infer a good outcome.  In a Minnesota nice way, without bragging too much, I’ve led a charmed life.

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One of our last days this year the wind was unusually high and I recognized my day to ride the parachute on the rope behind the speedboat.  I got a big pesos bill in my pocket and I hike up the beach to find Rafael’s squad only one hotel away.  For some weird reason they aren’t busy because we both agree in this kind of wind it’s the best day to fly.  I pay him with a peso bill with a portrait of Frida Kahlo on one face and Diego Rivera on the other, and as he gets me to step into the harness I tell him no cambio when he reaches for his wallet and he thanks me for the propina with a nod and a smile.  His crew fluffs up the multicolored chute and somebody gets the rope out of the sea, a big thick cable, and hooks it to my harness.  Rafael goes over the procedure to descent.  He waves the flag and blows the whistle I grasp the strap cable with the red ribbon and pull it to my chest, next to my heart.  He tosses the flag and blows the whistle again I let go.  The speedboat engine roars and he tells me to walk, so I walk a few steps towards the sea.

The sand goes away at the edge of the water line and I am uplifted and soaring above the sparkling blue sea.  Barefoot in the sky.  Lofted almost vertical above the speedboat, we guessed right, the best wind ever for this.  High above the rooftops of eleven story buildings I can see all the way up the Sierra Madres to the peaks, the jungles on the mountainsides, the valley of residential Ixtapa past the commercial core, the boulevard, the nature preserve, the estuary, the golf.  Below the beach seems incidental, everybody so small, the hotels and condos the same scale as from the beach except looking down instead of looking up.  I fix at the green space of the Ixtapa valley between the residential area and the foothills and think of who lives there, who will live there.  The mountains are brown but very pretty from this vantage and otherwise an unappreciated vista.  The marina’s array of yachts look surprisingly big even from the sky, surreptitious richness.  It seems I’m getting an extra long ride.  On the way back I scout for whales.  The beach is fascinating insofar as it looks from high above like it feels to be there, random patterns of people on the sand and in the waves.  To use the cliche they look like ants skips over the scale of how far it is away from the beach into the bay.  The breakers, white and curling, barely register more than a whisper of sound from such a height, moot and almost mute.  The boat engine is a low hum of reality.  The arc of the ride barely squared me with the water’s edge when Rafael waved his flag and blew his whistle.  I grabbed the cords with the red ribbon and pulled them to my heart.  Slowly I drifted to the beach and hovered.  He tossed the flag aside and blew the whistle again and I let go of the cords.  I hovered a few seconds and descended to earth and sand like an archangel to a smattering of applause.  Raphael’s crew stood by to catch me, as they always catch everybody, but they did not need to, my landing so smooth.  Thank you everybody, I said as I unharnessed.

Best ride ever.

That item checked off my checklist of impulse thrills, we indulge our homesickness and prepare to say adios.  Checkout day is near.  The plane reservation is cast in stone.  As the radio newscaster Paul Harvey might say, good day.  Our gringo friends go home eventually too.  Some of them still work and have work to do.  I prefer to look at Roxanne and me as being on perpetual vacation, it’s just whether we spend it at home.  It’s as gaudy a philosophy as the decadence of Tommy Bahama, living life as an everlasting weekend.  Maybe I wouldn’t feel so self conscious among Mexicans if I actually came to get away from aching labor and had to go home to resume the grind in a doggie-dog rat race.  No I’m just a glorified hobo mooching off entitlements and deferred gratification.  Runaway boomchild.

Time to pack up and go home to see the kids.  Real life, as Tess says.  We are too suntanned now to escape notice, even ridicule, from our friends and neighbors.  We look around our hotel room for every evidence of our stay and sort our belongings from what stays behind.  The last supper, last breakfast.  Last dip in the pool.  Last kick of the rock.  Last farewell to the sea.

All things must pass, so sang George Harrison, a Beatle who once lived in Hawaii.  One of our compadres we hang out with of the gringo persuasion says there are three elements to a vacation trip: anticipation, participation and reflection.  Over and over again Roxanne and I abandon our home — and by our state department’s account all good sense — to ease the pain of winter — and living in a biospheric environment constantly at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit is a numbing pain — to find comfort in southern Mexico.  Every year we come away with fond reflections.  We anticipate the next visit not so much to age us another year as to keep us young, or young as we can be at our advanced age.  And as long as it lasts, this recurring sojourn offers us kisses in the moonlight holding hands on the beach.  We prefer to prolong this romantic love story indefinitely.

As they say, tus labios al oido de dios.

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In the taxi on the way to the airport, at a red light on the boulevard passing through Zihuatanejo there’s a billboard that says, Podemos hacer una vida mejor — we can make a better life.  All the taxis have stick shifts.  Buses too.  You don’t see stick shifts in many American cars any more.  It’s facetious to compare a better life to automatic transmissions.  It isn’t obvious what a better life means.  Back home we debate driverless cars.  Mexico has good, solid boulevards and highways.  They are home of the world’s biggest concrete cement company, CEMEX.  With some cheap trade war Chinese steel  they could build their own wall to keep us Americans out if they desired.

I remember watching the Arab Spring on CNN and Fox on the boxy old TV in our room at the Krystal and thinking then, this is the last time I fall for democratic movements that end up rioting in the streets because it reminds me of America in the 1960s.  After watching Syria, and especially Iran, seeing popular unrest against undemocratic institutions deliver crushing undemocratic regimes again and again, it’s hard to take heart that these American ideals that mix freedom with law and justice are not crazy notions only Americans understand and practice but are universal truths pursued by humanity that will ultimately guide societies around the planet.  Eight years later Egypt transitioned through a phase of the Muslim Brotherhood and back to authoritarian military rule, and Iraq and Syria degenerated in and out of ISIL.  Nothing like the outcome of the American 1960s.

A freely-elected president Donald Trump.

In Mexico nobody seems to have overtly taken the bait seriously and retaliated to the president’s direct offenses and his innuendo.  We have our passports and exit visas ready.  The taxi brings us to the airport and I tip him well, as usual.

They call me Senor Teeps.

That’s my take of Sidney Poitier’s great line in the movie In the Heat of the Night.  Nobody actually calls me Senor Tips, or El Don Propina, or any sort of title like that, I just made it up for stories back home when I get into conversations about tipping the servants.  I have discovered tipping to reward good service gets good service and compensates the workforce for their work by reinforcing the value of their hospitality.

The name and the concept came to me the first year we were in Ixtapa.  We went to the grocery store for bottled water, rum and Coke.  I paid the cashier in American money, she tested it with a pen for counterfeiture, calculated the common exchange rate and made change in pesos.  A little kid, a boy about seven bagged our bottles and handed it to me, I said gracias and we went on our way.  The kid’s voice called after me, “Senor Tips, Senor Tips — Seenyour Teeps!”  I turned around and he was following me with his hand out.  Yes, of course I had neglected to tip the kid for bagging my groceries, so I fingered him some peso coins from my cambio and said, Vas a escuela.   He ran back into the store, our business was done.

Ever since I am conscious of the value of the tip in exchange for fine service.  Especially in Mexico.  The General — who got tipped royally for guiding us to Troncones — teases me that I tip too high, a kind of truth in jest, but I kid him back saying my goal is to blow up the local economy.  Even when it says on la cuenta the tip is included in the check (la propina es incluida) I put in a little extra when the service is right.  I use cash, and in fact try to pay all expenses except the hotel in cash pesos — some restaurants don’t take credit cards, but even the ones who do appreciate avoiding the hassles of interlink fees.  Cash pesos to the masajistas, or sometimes USD.  Benny takes USD.  At the hotel we charge our meals and incidentals to our room but make a point to tip the servants in cash, frequently in US dollars, ones and fives — they don’t mind at all, but they won’t take US coins.  A $1 bill per day to the camarista who cleans our room and makes our bed, often leaving us towels of origami with flower petals — with a $5er on check-out day.  The guy who reclaimed Roxanne’s reading glasses off the roof got $5.  One time a lifeguard, salvavida at the beach at the Pacifica got an unsolicited $20 for snorkeling around and finding my prescription sunglasses a week after a wave knocked them off me unawares on an ocean dip.  Taxi drivers get 20%.   When in doubt about the math I round up at restaurants.  Loose coins go to the children who sell toys.

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In truth, life for us in Ixtapa Zihuatanejo is a grand bargain.  One can go a little obsessive-compulsive over the peso to dollar conversion but the prices inevitably favor what one pays at home for a shrimp dinner.  To say the least.  No sense getting cheap with the people.

They earn every peso.

It’s not fair to let the president’s demonification of Mexico escalate beyond mollification and saving faces.  I feel sorry for feeling I have to apologize.  I regret the shame of my country being laughed at and pitied.  We are so rich and so charmed and yet our leader preaches we are deficient, victimized and so screwed.  A wall of isolation blocks us from seeing beyond borders, people who are not Americans, who are also not un-Americans or anti-Americans but actually like us for who we are but don’t really care to give up what they have and migrate to the USA.  They see the Estados Unidos doesn’t want them and in a way it’s our loss, of talent and work ethic and cultural contribution, even if there’s abundantly that within America too.  These are apparently not utopian times.  To declare America First and vow to Make America Great Again tells the world to go covfefe and at the same time gives other nations permission to go about it the same way.  Antiglobal social networks serve to unlink communications to the satisfaction of oligarchs and authoritarians, nationalists and separatists alike.

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The boundary line world today has no tolerance for Imagine-there’s-no-heaven dreamers who won’t recognize such implacable factors as sovereignty.  Wishing away borders won’t wash away migration across boundaries nation states compel themselves to defend against declared enemies, I get that.  Nation states tend to regulate who and what comes in or goes out of their lands.  I have sympathy for people who come to America to flee misery, as I am sad for the refugees of Europe escaping the civil wars.  I am proud of America and its goodness, its liberty and standard of living.  I can understand why somebody facing a horrible life and death would want to come here whether inflicted by war, genocide, gang violence, famine or terrorism, America offers a society where there is peace and a chance to start over with a life without fear.  Knowing what I know, if my life were screwed by the wretchedness the world can behold, I would love to come to America too.  And if that cannot happen, I would want America to come to me.  I would want my homeland to be peaceful, prosperous and free like America.

Like America is supposed to be, and it’s a country with an extensive written canon of what it says it’s supposed to be.  America was founded coincidental to a boom in printed written technology and the founders wrote down and published scads of words describing what they founded.  The first amendment to the national, federal constitution guarantees freedom to think, speak, write and publish.  We can debate for all time how and whether we have become or are becoming a more perfect union, as they predicted, or give it all up and let the future projection of our culture fall to the lowest common denominator, a denominator based on false calculation.

Countries like Mexico are poised in this world to pick up where America leaves off if we stop leading, or to keep up if we keep progressing, either way they have their own metrics and market research.  It isn’t Bumpkinland.  (No es Tierra Los Palurdos.)  They got the same software we do.

Imagine being there on the beach the day they named Playa Ropa.  Alleluia, the great storm is over.  The wind stopped howling.  The sky is clearing gray to celeste.  The sea is calmed back to normal surf.  And behold, floating gently to the beach are bales of cloth.  Untie them and find garments made of silk and linen of multiple colors, embroidered with exotic flower patterns, skirts and dresses and printed blouses.  Pantalones majestuososVestidos elegantes.  Blusas y camisas hermosas.  You and your family and friends and neighbors splay them across the beach and pick and choose favorites, and by nightfall there’s nothing left, not even a belt, like a good yard sale.  For the next generation Zihuatanejo is the fashion capital of New Spain.

A few of the last days at the palapa this year our neighbors consisted of a band of couples in their early thirties who turned out to be from Alberta.  When Victor came around with his baritone announcing Sockair T-shirts! the guys razzed him.  Got him to unstack his shirts and show them each team, all the colors, all while offering him patronizing lowball money for the shirts they might like.  Victor’s price was 200 pesos per shirt.  That’s a touch over $10 USD.  The guys offered $5 each, Canadian.  Victor didn’t want Canadian money and wouldn’t budge.  The guys sent him packing and said, don’t worry, in a day or so he’ll come down, he’ll get desperate for a sale.  The next day the same guys taunted him a little, and he paused at their palapa but didn’t bother to unstack the shirts.  They offered a hundred pesos per shirt and Victor kept walking.  Tomorrow, the guys said, he’ll come down.  They talked behind his back as if he was already beyond earshot — I could hear, and Victor was closer — or presuming he knew little English.

When Victor got to my lounge chair I asked him if he had any shirts with no advertisements for liquor or beer, preferably child sizes, for my grandkids.  A year ago I bought one for myself that said Bimbo across the chest, for a popular bakery goods company similar to what Hostess the Twinkie maker was in America — the Bimbo package logo features a cuddly teddy bear like the Snuggles bear for the American laundry softener — which I thought both cute and sinister at the time.  He dug into his backpack for child sizes and came up with a bright colored one of red and gold with a Barcelona signature and ads for a Turkish appliance company and a Japanese software firm — perfect for Tess.  For Clara we found a forest green straightforward shirt that simply said Mexico up front and Soy Mexico on the back.  400 pesos, cash, no haggling and no discount.

The next day the Canadian guys made their last day pitch to Victor, last chance, going home tomorrow, a hundred pesos a shirt.  How about three for two-fifty.  Okay, eighty a shirt.  Victor kept walking and as he shot me a glance that said gringos chilangos with his eyes I’m sure I heard his sotto voice gently say, Van a diablo.  One of the guys said, what does diablo mean?

At the ZIH airport the Mexican equivalent of the TSA agent detained me a moment in line to ask me questions about where I was going, where I had stayed in Ixtapa, the purpose of my visit to Mexico, whether I had packed my own bag or anyone else had access to it, or if I had left it alone at any time.  In perfect English.  It was the most I had ever been questioned at an airport outside Amsterdam.  Rather than consider it harassment I figured the guy had a quota of random queries as part of his job so I unhesitatingly gave him the answers, and he passed me through officiously.

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So there went another defiant vacation deep beyond the far side of the wall, and nothing bad happened to us.  Now the fuhrer is incensed about intelligence reports about a caravan of gate crashers from Central America coming our way through Mexico City and he’s threatening to tear up the NAFTA treaty to punish Mexico if they don’t stop the horde, like Mexico City is some kind of Constantinople and Dallas is Rome, or maybe the other way around.  Nothing in this world will make America great (again or even asi asi) by making Mexico a demonym and sabotaging its economy.  It’s like spreading Russian propaganda to influence votes.  It’s like spinning fake news for blackmail.  It’s the nth degree of kabibble.  If the president truly wanted to hold high level talks among world leaders about the issues that trouble the planet, he would organize summits around themes like the underlying causes of current population migration and get Mexico’s take on what’s driving asylum seekers and basic economic opportunists alike to pack up worldwide and cross borders en masse.

In my city, Minneapolis, it’s home to a bunch of immigrant populations dating way back to French explorer-traders, then the European homesteaders, laborers and servants backfilled a society of migrants from eastern America, in turn kids of immigrants, and waves of refugees of every moral world crisis, slavery, communist occupation, Nazism, terrorism, civil wars, insurrection, cartel gangsters on almost every continent up to present day.  Among them are latinos, many Mexicans, and I wonder why they chose to come so far up north to leave behind their lives so much closer to the equator.  They admit it’s a sacrifice, the muy frio, but they like Minnesota when it isn’t winter and don’t justify why they’re here against there, they just are.  It’s supposed to be obvious they think they are in a better place or they would not be here.  If there is a home to go back to they would go home if they wanted to, but they stay.  Life is good here.  Might as well call them Americans.

Their children will grow up to address the results of what we’ve done to assimilate the foreigners displaced by human tragedies.  Looking at each other as competent adults it becomes us to seriously examine and address the roots of these tragedies and own and atone for them before passing the age old human torch to these kids when they grow up, assimilated or not.

A true patriot and public servant of a president would see why it’s not a wall what’s needed but Windows.  It’s inhumane to hold DACA dreamers hostage to NAFTA and the national guard but that’s the hold he’s got over his red meat base.  A public service would be to turn these DACA people around to make them weird heroes and role models for accomplishments and publicize them for perseverence, even if requiring some kind of public restitution such as public service as a path to citizenship, an earned amnesty.  For all his show business conceits, Trump misses out where he could really influence culture through reality TV via public service promoting civic virtues instead of concealing vices, making real news instead of faking history.

He is not a good servant, and he should not be tipped.

But it is not his fault Roxanne and I returned home to punishment of eight more weeks of hard winter, back to back to back blizzards and ice cold winds into mid-April.  Punishment for four weeks in Mexico.  I would like to blame bad weather on the fuhrer but it’s not scientifically possible.  Not biopolitically feasible.  No need for another stupid conspiracy theory.  If it’s karma, then so be it, worth a trade of one month pleasure for two months pain.  It was just as bad while we were gone.  We do not deserve such maltreatment from nature.  Shoveling two feet of fresh snow again last week it seemed painfully clear this year we came home from Ixtapa too soon.  Mental note for the future.

If they’ll have us back.

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BK

Man Up

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Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Edouard Manet

The sex thing that’s going around right now gives me the willies.  As it should.  It’s gotten ugly and due to get uglier before someone seriously asserts sex is beautiful again.

Disclosure: you might want to hide this missive from the kids.  It might get raunchy.  I’ve written on race and firearms, and I promise to be as delicate and sensitive as can be.

Men — lots of men — famous men — powerful men — everyday men — all men are accused of sexual improprieties.  Sinister.  Egregious.  Insidious.  Preposterous.  Outrageous.  Loathsome.  Criminal.  The behavior exposed by public accusations this year defies description in a family newspaper and yet there it is, and there’s no way not to get the news down to the kids, the very girls and boys who need to learn and benefit from the adult world transformation of culture that is occurring right now.

Women are getting even.  Getting justice.

Expect male sex drive hearings in Congress.

The core pornography of our culture at last lays itself bare before the world in true modern reality show fashion.  The depraved decadence of the West on display, you might say, or perhaps the utter publicity of the whole thing exemplifies our great liberty and freedom.  Hugh Hefner is dead.  There is no one to defend the legacy of the Playboy Philosophy.

A feminist scholar named Andrea Dworkin defined western society as Rape Culture and she wasn’t wrong, as we have come to see.  Male animals pursue females.  It can get nasty.  Humans make rules — male humans — and taboos to regulate sexual behavior, and we break them.

What has come to light with accusations of media celebrities and politicians is how pathetic these guys really are.  Parading around naked.  Delusions of shared feelings.  Raging aging lust.  Photos of genitalia via cell phone.  Do these tactics of flirtation ever work?  Do these guys ever score?

Einstein’s insanity — doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result?  Or if we believe the President from his Access Hollywood tape, bold or extreme gestures really do yield sexual conquests.  This scandal literally reaches up into the crotch of the White House.

Cosby used drugs.  Weinstein glamour.  Lauer locked the door.  These, including Donald J Trump, are just four major examples of the tactics of these self-styled sly seducers.  You could almost stop there and make a profound case for revolution against sexism.  These bullies, like Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, deserve no cover for their sexual extortion.  In some ways it reminds me of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church turned upside down, where the bishops are the most glaring sinners.

And sin, as it were, trickles down to the common man like voodoo economics.  Note for the record that Original Sin as committed by Adam was not a sexual act of itself but a situation of sexism when he tried to blame Eve.

The mores and folkways of suppressing women all these millennia have gamed history in favor of men.  This is about to radically change.  Mark the year 2017.

A long time coming, the exposition of male sexual predations goes through the core of politics and heart of sociology to the very soul of male sexuality.  How men essentially perceive women.

We say we love them for their minds, and we do, but from the earliest carved Venus figurines there’s a basic fixation for tits and ass.

Clara, my eldest grandchild, barely ten, on a stroll with Grampa through a museum of art, asked me why all the artists were men and so may of the subjects were women, and so many of them naked.

I did not answer I don’t know.  It’s one thing for a grandpa to pretend to know everything and another to say you don’t know something you know full well.

Art history is so dominated by men there is no greater graphic evidence of mankind’s sexist ambitions.  From the cult of the madonna to Madonna the forms and likenesses of female human beauty attract the eyes of men, stir their souls and arouse sexual impulses.

We cannot blame the models.  The artists put these images before our eyes to evoke our pleasure.  Naked women beguile men.  The bare body is a sacred icon of human civilization because of the permissive visual boundaries of art.  Call her Venus and paint or sculpt her as a beautiful naked goddess.  You don’t see naked images of Joan of Arc, but France’s beloved icon Marianne is rendered with bare breasts.  The Statue of Liberty was originally drawn with bare boobs, an open gown.

I grew up in the Playboy era.  Learned to look down blouses and look up skirts from Hugh Hefner himself.  How to unlock a bra.  Whether a pinup penned by Vargas or glossy photo centerfold, there wasn’t one image in the magazine not gorgeous.  The term at the time was suggestive, and it was, it suggested hope someday to meet someone sort of like these women to be a girlfriend.

Pornography fosters sex fantasy and arouses desires and explains a lot of motivations behind bad acts in this world.  Under the First Amendment of the US Constitution we are free to view and publish obscenely erotic material.  We can think as we like.  We like to think the human body is a beautiful wonder and we look at others and admire them and feel no shame in showing or viewing others’ beauty.  We accept cleavage in everyday life, not just the cover of Cosmo.

A telling incident occurred two years ago at the Christmas market at Cologne, Germany when dozens of women were sexually assaulted by a rampage of marauding young men described as middle eastern migrants.  This wave of mass molestation ascribed allegedly to aliens suggests something about the way our culture is perceived and interpreted by outsiders:  Earth Girls Are Easy.

Wrong.  Not true.

Correcting such assumptions by our leaders in mass media and government serves notice to male thugs of all degree and class that women won’t be bullied for sex.  Women won’t be bullied.

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Revered Beatle John Lennon once quipped that women should be obscene and not heard.  Funny line.  They are heard now, and they are least obscene.  And it’s not funny.

In the state of Alabama, a place in the US famous for recalcitrant attitudes, the Republican candidate for the Senate election next week, Roy Moore, now 70, is accused of fondling teenage girls back when he was in his 30s, and one girl says she was 14 at the time.  He campaigns on, a champion against liberal values, with President Trump’s hearty endorsement.  One can almost hear Moore’s defenders say, the state of Alabama has a long, proud history of mature men hitting on teenage girls — the term Sugar Daddy originated in Alabama.

In the state of Minnesota, where I live, two male state legislators, one US Senator and a famed folksinger and storyteller have been fingered among public figures engaged in hypersexual inappropriate behavior.  The two legislators, one from each political party, resigned, each accused of pestering and propositioning female legislators, lobbyists and political staff at the capitol.

Senator Al Franken, then a comedian, stands accused of slimy lips and tongue-forcing a kiss upon his co-star when on a USO road show entertaining armed forces troops before he ran for public office, and most importantly staged a photo of himself lecherously grabbing at the same co-star’s beasts while she was sleeping.  Who took that picture anyway?  After that, Franken was accused of playing grabass at the state fair as a senator, then again back in his USO days for grabbing some tit from a soldier who, reflecting back, says she should’ve smacked him.  Then another woman accused him of trying to plant a wet smoochy on her when he was a radio personality.  He apologizes profusely.  The president denounced him.  When the White House press secretary was asked how the president could condemn Franken and endorse Moore — in light of his own behavior — Sarah Huckabee Sanders replied that the difference was Senator Franken admitted wrongdoing.  Giant of the Senate that he is, Franken will man up and resign for the good of mankind.

Clarence Thomas should resign from the US Supreme Court.

And the prairie home companion himself Garrison Keillor got canned from National Public Radio and the Washington Post for inappropriately touching a coworker backstage at the radio show.  Citing employee confidentiality, NPR hasn’t detailed the charges.  Keillor’s explanations emote a catharsis of awkward ambiguity, his specialty.  He might appreciate the irony of sleaziness showing up on my own block, minus the bonbons.

Franken, Keillor and I were raised more or less in the same community, the greater Twin Cities, and we have slightly less in common with the two randy legislators, who are younger and come from our rural outstate area.  We come from the same mores and folkways of our generation and social class and assimilated attitudes of our times and our place.  Minnesota is not immune from misogyny.  Nor is it quarantined.  It’s as good as any scene to incubate the discourse of what determines appropriate sexual behavior and the consequences of misbehavior.  In the workplace.  At the Christmas market.  In life.

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Gretchen Carlson

Also from Minnesota is a woman named Gretchen Carlson, a violinist and TV journalist, 1989 Miss America, and the one who exposed the sexual harassment of Roger Ailes and eventually of Bill O’Reilly at Fox News.  It’s unclear whether Fox represents the height of moral hypocrisy or merely mirrors itself in plain sight, like a snake who always was a snake.  Gretchen Carlson is a hero.  Admire her naked defiance.  Pun intended.

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Ilhan Omar

 

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Ayana Ife

Ilhan Omar is another name who comes to mind from Minnesota.  The first Somali-American elected to a state legislature, Omar represents a district of Minneapolis, though not my own.  In her 30s, she is a fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.  Recently she made news for calling out a Washington, DC taxi driver for treating her with racist and sexist disrespect.  I do not know her personally but have seen pictures of her.  She is an attractive woman who dresses chic.  She is Muslim, wears a head scarf and favors garments styled like those created by the runner up of season 16 of Project Runway, a fashion design reality show, name of Ayana Ife, a Muslim woman from Salt Lake City, Utah who says she wants to be a “designer for the modest market.”

No mention of Muslim women leaders is complete without Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Nobel Peace Prize winner who survived assassination for getting a basic education.

After Gretchen Carlson I have listed three other women of note who are also fancy dressers.  All four are attractive ladies.  Three are Muslim.  Carlson wears shining blond hair styled all lovely, simple and flowing.  Miss America 1989 employed her power, used her beauty and white privilege to smash open the offices of professional sexism working from within her network.

Omar, Ife and Malala wear lovely scarves over their hair.  These three, the legislator, the fashion designer and the Nobel laureate, come to their leadership roles from backgrounds different from Carlson, different from me.  What they offer is insight into the future of feminism and femininity.

I don’t pretend to know the Quran.  I am an infidel, or more deliberately a pagan, and don’t care to quibble about religions.  My impressions of Muslim women are drawn from observation not scholarly study.  Minnesota is home to the largest east African immigrant population in the United States, refugees, and many of them live in Omar’s constituency.  Muslim women tend to dress with a profound, sometimes severe emphasis on covering a woman’s body — modesty reasons.  Some of the reason behind this is aimed at me — at all men — to obscure temptation and to not arouse our sinful desires.

Back when I was a kid at St Simon of Cyrene parochial school the women and girls were required to wear hats, scarves or veils to attend mass.  I remember the school girls in rows of pews in their uniform beanies.  Hardly anybody understood why — didn’t God already see our hair?  What about boys — we had to take our hats off.  Somebody educated me that women traditionally took great pride in their hair — like Gretchen Carlson and countless girls I grew up with — my dad called it their crowning glory — and as an act of humility, not shame, women in church were required before God and among the faithful to cover their hair.  That and to imitate the Blessed Mother, who always wore a veil, like the nuns.

Modesty.  I’m told the rules have changed, the Church no longer requires head cover for women, although the Vatican tour dress code prohibits sleeveless blouses, deep necklines and bare thighs and one can purchase shawls and scarves from the ethnic vendors on the street outside the gates.

Migrants and refugees come to the free world and who can blame them for being bewildered by the unrepressed messages from the rich world and its media.  The fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil dispels its own myth.  We know what we know.  There is no excuse for wilding thugs grabbing cleavage on the fly at the plaza in Cologne, no way the victims were asking for it in their sexy attire.  Rape culture will fall apart as decadently as the Roman Empire.  The Third Reich.  On the streets, in the board rooms, in the home, women are taking charge and they will set the message.  They ask for equal respect.

This is happening now and it will have more far reaching effects than women driving cars in Saudi Arabia.

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Lucretia, 1666, Rembrandt van Rijn

On a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art this year with both my granddaughters, Tess now 10 and Clara pushing 13, we came upon the Rembrandt.  I got excited to show them this painting because it’s a Rembrandt, and it’s the finest Rembrandt painting in North America.  Problem arose immediately and there was no looking away.

The title and subject matter is Lucretia.  It is an anguished portrait of a noblewoman in her gown simultaneously pulling the bell cord to summon her servant with one hand and with the other pulled a dagger from her bloody gut as she commits suicide from the shame of being raped.

The girls frowned and read the didactic label.

Why is she killing herself, Granpa?  And what is rape?

Oh man.  These are questions their parents should answer but they weren’t there.  Not even grandma.

So I said, she was violated so killed herself from shame.

Violated?  What do you mean violated?

I mean she was sexually abused against her will and though it wasn’t her fault in those days the women felt so guilty she killed herself.

I didn’t elaborate the way I usually do.  Troubled and dissatisfied, their innocence spooked, they took a last look and moved along with me looking for a more cheerful image like olive trees.  (Or Jesus nailed to the cross.)

Like Salinger’s catcher in the rye I could spend all day trying to catch these kids before they fall into the clutches of perdition.  This is not a world of my own making but I have responsibility to shape what it means.  I can at least act like a good role model of a good role model.  In light of the suspicions of the day I am self-conscious of being eyeballed as a creepy old man at girls soccer matches and gymnastic meets.

Still there are those guys who think they are God’s Gift to Women.  We’ll let women judge who among us who truly qualify as guys who, to paraphrase an American jewelry advert, came from Jered — that’s perhaps, like, special.  Some playboys play by some kind of sexual golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  They project what they would like done, the woman to parade naked, lie across the bed in odalisque, invite them to shower, open her bathrobe and masturbate before their eyes, grope their genitalia, etc.  Women don’t do that stuff.  Not unless contractually obligated or coerced.  And forcing a woman to witness such behavior under the auspices of flirtation does not qualify as mutual consent.

Guys, women aren’t interested in your erotic dreams about them.  If they were they’d say, have you dreamed sex dreams about me?  Only then might it be permissible to confide.  But not at work.  Or school.

No one disputes, despite a kind of test tube evolution, survival of our species depends on us continuing to mate.  We are hard wired for sex.  Controlling how and where and when we express our attractions has ironically been assumed to been fallen to men, who invented things like chivalry and preach religions of chastity, and men of government who enact laws to protect women’s rights.  Only yes means yes, otherwise it’s a no.  To get to yes one would have to ask somehow.  To ask in some kind of non-inappropriate way.  A mad crush or thinking you’re in love won’t justify bad acts.  Hearts will break.  Perhaps there’s a smart phone app, a guide to encrypting and unencrypting situational behavior.  With dedicated emojis.

Flirting and dating will go on.  And mating.  Seduction.  Romance.  Even courtship.  Things that can go wrong.  A boy gets a reputation for fast hands.  Another is a smooth operator.  Too bad we’re not all as saintly as Mike Pence.  As handsome as John Hamm.  We should all marry our heart’s desire like Johnny Cash.

Time for us to man up.  It shouldn’t be that hard.  Some of us have been practicing a while.  Support the women in your life.  Don’t condescend about it either.  Admit if you don’t like women, you are better off being honest.  It’s time to man up because women will hold us accountable, will put us to the test.  Our word is bond.  The covenant should be ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

The future of what is sexy and who is sexist is being formed right now.  Boundaries are being set and eradicated at the same time.  Gender discrimination in society is virtually extinct among western civilization.  Sexual harassment is unthinkable.  The mind of the modern man has some creative catching up fast to do to keep up with the evolution of the modern woman.

 

BK

 

Family Baggage — Saga of the Suitcase

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I keep myself from meddling in my children’s lives.  They see a lot of me as it is without me exerting extra effort to influence their fates or poking my nose into their business.  This time I couldn’t refrain, although I asked permission first.

The Kysylyczyns, the family of my daughter Michel and her husband Sid with my grand daughters Clara and Tess, took advantage of a great air fare deal booked several months in advance on Icelandair to take an August vacation to Switzerland.  They lived in Swiss Canton Zug almost four years.  This was their first visit back to Switzerland since repatriating to Minneapolis two years ago.

Of course I was jealous.  I love Europe and past touring with the Kysylyczyns making family memories is among my fondest highlights of my life.  I would have been machtig cool to hike Rigi Kulm, swim at the Bade of Zugersee at Oberwil or gaze at the Matterhorn from Zermatt with the kids, but alas, it was not to be.  Primarily I was not invited, though nobody said I couldn’t go.  Rox and I essentially spent this year’s european budget remodeling our kitchen.  The Kysylyczyns had friends to see and to stay with.  Besides, we had all, just the month before, taken a brilliant family vacation to the American Southwest, so I had no reason to feel estranged.  This was not where I butted my nose.

They did invite me to drive them to and from the airport, MSP.  One the way they anticipated a good flight on Icelandair.  By all accounts they heard the airline offered splendid hospitality and a little more legroom and coach comfort as you can find on a transcontinental flight.  They would have to pay for food but that wasn’t different from Delta.  There would be a stop at Reykjavik, where they would disembark, go through Customs (get their passports stamped Iceland) and re-board to fly to Zurich, but this was as much as flying into Amsterdam, going through Customs and boarding a regional jet on to Zurich, only the stop in Iceland was like a halftime break almost midway to each destination.  For Michel, whose fear of air travel is surprisingly palpable for someone who has flown so much the airline amenities mean a lot.  There would be individual movie screens, though the selection of titles were limited.  She really liked the price, it made the whole excursion affordable, but she wouldn’t have chosen Icelandair if they didn’t have a customer friendly reputation.

Icelandair flies in and out of MSP at Terminal 2, once officially named the Humphrey terminal.  It is the smaller and most approachable of the two terminals here.  T2 — or Humphrey as some still call it — flies small airlines such as Southwest, Sun Country, Condor and Icelandair.  T1 — called Lindbergh — handles some boutique carriers but mainly big ones such as Delta, American, United and Air Canada.  Thus Terminal 1 Lindbergh is vastly busier, frequently jammed three lanes deep in cars vying to drop off and pick up, not to mention short and long term parking, and the car approach to T1 Lindbergh is all only freeway accessible.  T2 Humphrey, on the other hand, can be easily approached even at peak times by a back road between the airport and the national cemetery, and rarely are cars more than one lane deep at the drop off and pick up curb.

We dropped the Kysylyczyns and their baggage at Humphrey under the Icelandair canopy sign, all hugs and chocolate promises.  Roxanne and I nostalgically watched after them as they shouldered their carry on backpacks and everybody gripped a suitcase and glided through the automatic doors to the terminal like they were going downtown on a train.  At home Roxanne and I watched the planes in the sky from our front porch thinking, off they go.

They were gone ten days.  Facebook real-time post cards showed they were have a good time (when Michel and Sid could get wi-fi — deep in the Alps it was iffy or not worth the fee.  Everything is expensive in Switzerland, alas.)  Sentimentally I followed the weather page of the paper for conditions in Frankfurt and Geneva.

Their flight home was on time.  We estimated about a half hour to get through customs and baggage claim.  On the drive to pick them up we talked about Lindbergh and Humphrey, the terminals and their namesakes.  At the time there was a hotel construction project next to Lindbergh causing lane closures on the freeway and a severe backup of traffic into the terminal.  Glad we’re not going there, we agreed noting the smooth flow towards Humphrey.  Just for conversation we eventually mused about the dropping of the terminal names in favor of mere numbers, 1 and 2.  It was ostensibly done for the ease of strangers, of whom there must be many — 1 or 2 simpler to identify on freeway signs.  But like many things these days a political motive can be extrapolated behind the name changes:  a desire by illiberals to erase Hubert Humphrey’s name from local iconography, and a campaign to disassociate the airport from Charles Lindbergh, a vocal anti-Semite and Nazi sympathizer.  The nexus of these two causes resulted for the sake of simplicity in renaming the two terminals after the numbered euphemisms for urine and feces.  In that case, I offered, they numbered the terminals backward.  Lindbergh should be number 2.

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Pick up traffic was heavy even for Humphrey that afternoon but we readily found an opening at the curb and waited.  Roxanne texted Michel where we were.  Michel texted they were at the baggage carousel.  Moments passed.  Other cars came, picked up their people and left.  For a few moments we were parked in.  We dreaded the security cops would come and direct us to keep moving and we would be obliged to go around the return loop and position ourselves all over again.

Then Michel texted one of their suitcases was missing.  We held our turf and waited and got lucky against airport security.  In about twenty minutes the Kysylyczyns emerged to daylight.  Kiss-kiss, abrazos and hugs.  We stowed the luggage, one suitcase short.  Sid took the wheel — it was their car, after all, a big GMC Denali, six passengers plus luggage reminiscent of the VW Tauran we used to rent when we used to tour Europe together, big family car.  After about ten hours in the sky and a frustrating hour on the ground, Sid had an edge of determination like he needed to control something, so he drove.  I rode shotgun.  They were all tired and edgy and the ride provided a perfect moment to give in to their exhaustion and gush about what a great time they had but the moment was stolen by their consternation over the missing suitcase.  A beautiful catharsis spoiled.  Try as they might to answer Roxanne’s and my questions about impressions of their trip their thoughts were tainted with the question of how their suitcase got lost.

It was not a good night to all go to supper.  The girls were cranky and jetlagged.  Sid was expected to go to work the next day.  Michel needed to place her house in order before bedtime and come to grips with a bag of her possessions somewhere Out There maybe never to be found.  Even though she didn’t have to work the next day she faced a day of making phone calls.  We went straight to their house.

The suitcase contained all their clean clothes.  Michel’s makeup, their toothbrushes, their toiletries and four pairs of her jeans.  Tess had a couple of dear stuffed animals she called lovies.  Clara had a favorite pair of shoes, some shorts and blouses.  All their souvenirs and mementos.  Yet nobody cried.  Roxanne said this was a good example why you should always pack your toothbrushes in your carry on.  Michel worried that the bag got singled out because it got tagged Heavy Bag — it weighed two pounds overweight but was allowed to travel because the other bags weighed under the limit.

Roxanne suggested some other blurry faced passenger may have taken such a big black generic anonymous bag by mistake.  This mere observation set Michel into speculative agitation thinking some stranger had possession of their belongings, the invasion of privacy and susceptibility to theft.  It soothed her to figure most strangers who would make such a mistake would quickly rectify it, bring it back to the airport and turn it in to the lost and found, not loot it and dump it in the trash.

In any case, Michel resigned the issue to something unlikely to resolve itself overnight.  It would require phone calls the next day.  Back at Humphrey they filed a report with Sun Country Airlines, who handles baggage for Icelandair at MSP, and for the moment that’s all they could do.  Nobody, least Sid or the kids, was going to let this inconvenience spoil their vacation.  Already they looked back and it all seemed funny.  When we adjourned for the night everybody hoped it would all work itself out.

The next morning Central Daylight Time an international phone number to Icelandair went unanswered.  Michel said the number would ring and ring and then hang up.  This discouraged her and Sid, who said up to this point they were rather impressed with Icelandair customer service.

On the phone to Sun Country Airlines Michel found a sympathetic customer service rep named Nick, who counseled patience.  Another Icelandair flight from Zurich arrived every day at the same late afternoon hour at Humphrey terminal.  The suitcase could be on the next flight.  It wasn’t.

Next day, same thing, no suitcase.

It was part of the fabric of conversation now.  By the way, how’s the suitcase?  Sid and Michel speculated at what could have gone wrong.  Airline travel being such a closed system they reasoned there ought to exist a tracking system by barcode or some such to account for the whereabouts of every bag.  It was difficult for them to believe and seemed unreasonable nobody could track their suitcase in three, four, five, six days and counting.

We know this is a rich world problem.  There are societies where real persons go missing and are never found.

I’m not materialistic, dad, she said.  There’s stuff I’d rather have and not lose but it’s just stuff.  What gets me is nobody knows.  Nobody owns it.

The nobodies who knew where the suitcase went included this Nick guy at Sun Country, who Michel credited with always answering his phone but didn’t know anything.  Sid got a hold of a person at IGS, the ground services provider for Icelandair at Keflavik airport at Reykjavik, Iceland, who referred him to Keflavik Lost and Found, who referred him to Icelandair.  Michel and Sid filed a formal claim of loss online and entered into email correspondence among a network of aviation affiliated entities, and they received a claim number and apologies but no word where was the suitcase.

I remembered back at St Simon of Cyrene parochial school, 5th grade, Connie Hechter went to our teacher Sister Alsace Lorraine in tears one afternoon.  Connie alleged somebody stole her fountain pen from her desk during lunch recess.  It was a special fountain pen, I heard her tell the nun, a present from her grandma.  Sister Alsace Lorraine ordered everyone in the class to close their eyes and put their heads down on their desks for five minutes.  She said she would do the same.  During that time, whoever had the fountain pen was supposed to quietly tiptoe to Sister’s desk, return the pen anonymously and tiptoe back to his or her seat.  The rest of us were encouraged to spend the five minutes in prayer saying silent Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glory Bes.  An Act of Contrition if you could get through it without having to say it out loud.  In five minutes when we opened our eyes we would expect to see the fountain pen on Sister’s desk, no questions asked.

My question was whether you could trust Sister Alsace Lorraine not to peek.  I had no trouble keeping my own eyes closed, though I didn’t stifle my ears.  There were giggles and whispers and hushes and somebody stifled a weak fart sound almost too genuine to be a prank.  Sister raised her voice once to invoke quiet, remind us to pray and to give the guilty party two minute warning to repent.  She wore a Timex wristwatch so you could suppose she could check it with her head down, but some way I had the feeling she was watching us.  I tried to sense if she were circulating among us but I heard no sounds of the clack of her beads, detected no swish of the linen of her habit, so it seemed plausible she was not up and moving about hovering above us on patrol.  I thought I may have heard tiptoes, but not more than one or two, not enough to get to Sister’s desk.  A cough.  Another cough, call and response.  I think I wished I could take a nap.  The tiptoe sounds could have been faked.  The kid across the aisle from me had sniffles but I can’t think of his name.  Mike somebody…

Sister said it was Time’s Up.  Our eyes got used to the light.  Connie’s fountain pen was not on Sister’s desk.  It was not on Connie’s desk.  It was on the desk of a kid named Micmac Murphy, an obvious plot to frame him.  Sister didn’t fall for it for an instant and almost credited Murph for finding the pen as she presented it back to Connie and said, No more need be said of this, but we can be proud because we’re honest, which was a message for the rest of us who didn’t steal the pen or get into trouble on their own as much as Micmac Murphy.  We clapped applause.  Pride.

Personally I didn’t think it would work.  I hoped Connie got her pen back, out of justice, but I overestimated the thief’s willingness to take a chance to smuggle it out of the classroom.  I guess it was a nice pen.  And far as I know the amnesty deal was honored with no repercussions, and I don’t recall any rumors or people talking out of school who took Connie’s pen.  Far as I know there were no more fountain pens reported stolen in 5th grade that year.  I was glad nobody got slapped.  Seems we all went to disposable ballpoint pens by 6th grade.

I was optimistic the Kysylyczyns’ suitcase would just suddenly arrive at their front door, no explanation.  I also had a more sinister theory that the bag had been interdicted on purpose by Interpol or Homeland Security.  And not as a Heavy Bag per se.  Perhaps innocently, at first, a random baggage inspection, one in every so many many, seized and examined up close — routine, just happened to be the Kysylyczyns.  Or perhaps not so innocent, Sid and Michel were targeted for surveillance after all those years mysteriously undercover in Switzerland.  When Clara and Tess used to pretend to be Sky Kids maybe they weren’t really playing but acting out drama based on secret family baggage.  I never fully understood Sid’s job — I could see him as a secret agent.  That’s why I believed all that week the suitcase would simply arrive at their front steps.

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And then there’s my memory of the Swedish Fish and the Hokusai Wave watercolor.  My favorite non-chocolate candy is Swedish Fish, a fruity jelly chewy gumdrop cast in the shape of fish, scales and all.  In America they come in bright bold red, yellow, green and orange — lingonberry, lemon, lime, orange.  I buy them by the pound and hand them out, raised my kids on them and been dishing them to Clara and Tess since either had more than three teeth.  While in Switzerland the Kysylyczyns made friends with families who were Swedes and learned Swedish Fish were a real Swedish thing.  Visiting their friends in Sweden they discovered the candy there is more citrus and tart, and the colors of the flavors more translucent and pastel — in fact they call them pastelfiskar.  The American recipe is made by Cadbury, the Swedish recipe by Malaco.  After a visit to Gothenburg a few years ago Michel mailed me a package from Zug, Switzerland containing a rolled up watercolor on paper of whitecap waves on a blue ocean with Mt Fuji in the background painted by Clara after the iconic image by Hokusai.  In that package was a presumably generous share of Malaco Swedish Swedish Fish.

It can take a while for mail to travel between Switzerland and the United States.  It was meant to be a surprise.  In due time when I didn’t email Michel I received the package after about a month, she asked me on a Skype day if I’d received it and I had not.  It was disappointing but somehow easier to accept something getting lost in the mail than something like an airline losing a suitcase.  Then about a week later I received in the mail a manila envelope with Clara’s Hokusai watercolor in it, rolled up and rubber banded, intact if a little rumpled and wrinkled, no worse for wear.  The address on the envelope had been transcribed by another hand, and inside with the watercolor was the original mailing label wrtten out by Michel along with a fragment of the original package.  There were no Swedish Fish.

I told Michel when the suitcase eventually arrives to count the Swedish Fish.

At the end of the week there was a break in the case — the missing suitcase, that is — I never got that missing batch of Swedish Fish — maybe some customs agents thought it was a semi clever way to smuggle drugs, oh what a surprise — I complained to Cy my longtime mail carrier but all he could offer were condolences and sad acknowledgement he knew of postal workers abusing the mail.

Sid made contact with somebody of the lost and found ground services company servicing Icleandair at Reykjavik who said the suitcase had been located at the airport at Warsaw, Poland.

But of course.  Everyone Sid told the news said the same thing.  Of course it went to Poland, did not the luggage tag say Kysylyczyn — where else would it go?

Michel used to say that almost every time she went through customs at Amsterdam the agents would look at her passport and tease her about her name — Kysylyczyn?  Shouldn’t you be going to Poland, ha ha…

Sid accepted a vague assurance from his source at Reykjavik the suitcase was found at the Warsaw airport terminal and would be routed to Minneapolis, but nobody knew how or when.  That might be known after the week end.  Nobody seemed to know how it got to Warsaw.  Icelandair does not fly to Warsaw.

There go Michel’s jeans, I thought.  I let go of my pet spy scenario to allow for another fluke incident, although it opened my mind to possibilities of eastern European intrigue.  Could it have been on its way to Moscow, or Istanbul?  I always felt the Kysylyczyns innocent of western counterintelligence skulduggery and shenanigans — be it, we are all ambassadors when we travel — and now I wondered what sort of international mischief may be in play to divert this one of all bags to a place backwards from its intended route to a place which used to be known as behind the Iron Curtain, where the airline which lost the bag does not fly.  I imagined a plot.  Recalling a craze not long ago in eastern Europe, a craving for all things denim, I said to Michel, forget the Swedish Fish, kiss your jeans bye-bye.

Turned out Michel packed the Swedish Fish from her Swedish Swiss friends in a different suitcase.  We savored their tart sweetness while discussing our questions and our hoped-for answers while anticipating the bag’s arrival maybe Monday.

We celebrated Michel’s birthday — 39 years on this earth.

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Nothing Monday.  On Tuesday Sid contacted his source at Icelandair’s ground services provider IGS at Reykjavik and was advised to contact Icelandair directly because the bag was not in the hands of IGS and they had no more information than a notation in a computer case file that the bag had been located in Warsaw and might be forwarded to them in Reykjavik.  Or not.

Michel tried Nick at Sun Country at MSP and learned nothing.  She asked Nick to call somebody at Warsaw Chopin airport, but Nick said he had no authority to make international calls.  He advised her to file a claim with Icelandair for compensation.  It was as though he knew the suitcase was never coming back.  He advised replacing the missing items and expecting compensation.

She mentally inventoried what was in the missing bag.  Clothes.  The jeans — Michel always said she had to search hard to find jeans she fit just right, she had an eastern European figure descended from Czechs and German-Polish border people on her mother’s side — usually high-end shop jeans, more reason to expect the jeans were gone even if someday the bag turned up.  There was her make up, not that she applied much or needed to, it would still have to be replaced.  Toiletries, easy to replace at Target — they already had new toothbrushes.  The airline would settle by and by.  Tess’s stuffed animals would be mourned irreplaceable.  Sid valued his shaving kit bag, not for its contents — he was given to going bearded — but because it was a nice bag by Tumi presented to him by Delta airlines on a first class flight he took on business to Bangalore.  There were souvenirs and mementos from Switzerland, including a full tube of Thomy Mayonnaise a la Francais intended as a gift for me and Roxanne — Thomy is the eggiest most delicious mayonnaise on the planet and comes in a big tube like a family-sized toothpaste — when I learned it was among the missing I counted it gone with the jeans.

And all the Swiss chocolate.  Michel estimated enough pounds of quality chocolate bars to push the suitcase overweight enough to get tagged Heavy Bag.

No word that whole next week, no bag.  Sid and Michael fatigued at squeezing futile phone calls and emails during the business hours of their day jobs.  The girls mustered to go back to school the following week, the week before Labor Day.  Roxanne and I took an excursion to a cabin in the Boundary Waters with our son Vincent and daughter in law Amelie.  Everyone went about their normal way enjoying summer while it lasts.  The Kysyslyczyns planned to hit the State Fair.  I expected the suitcase would be resolved by the time we came home and reconnected.

If nothing else, I said on the phone to Michel before departing for the Boundary Waters where there would be no wi-fi or cell phone service, a big black Lada sedan will pull up to your house and a guy in a black suit will wheel your suitcase to your door and ring the doorbell.  I believe this belongs to you, I said in a dramatic Russian accent — Have a nice day — and with no explanation he’ll go back to the car and drive away.

Count your jeans.

Back from the glorious wilderness where you can see the Milky Way I learned the suitcase still had not arrived.  Frustrated as the week went by without word, Sid and Michel knuckled down and tried to contact anyone remotely connected with custody of the suitcase.  On a hunch inspired by IGS in Reykjavik, Sid contacted the lost and found office at Warsaw Chopin airport operated by a firm called Welcome Airport Services.  A person from the Arrival Services department told Sid the bag indeed had been in Warsaw but had been sent to MSP six days prior via Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  This person suggested the bag might still be in Toronto and to contact MSP lost and found.

The suitcase had not gone back to Icelandair at Flughafen Zurich airport the way it came but instead was put on a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw Chopin airport to Toronto Pearson International airport, where Air Canada was supposed to bring it to MSP.  Six days ago.

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A consensus developed between the Kysylyczyns and their new airlines cohorts that the bag may be stranded in Toronto, but no one could give Sid or Michel a straight answer.  Michel learned that United Airlines handled baggage for Air Canada at Terminal 1 MSP so she called United on a hunch the bag might be stuck unclaimed at Lindbergh when it should go to Icelandair at Humphrey.  United declined to acknowledge either its knowledge of existence of the suitcase or any affiliation with Air Canada.  Air Canada denied possession of the bag.  Sun Country declined to offer any further assistance because more than six days had elapsed since the disappearance of the bag and all inquiries hence should be directed to the primary carrier, Icelandair — plus, this Nick guy was unempowered to call Canada.  Everything seemed fishier and fishier.  Is this how it gets when they want you to give up?

Finally a travel consultant from Icelandair contacted Sid by email and confirmed the suitcase had been indeed found in Warsaw and for a week been in process of being sent to MSP.  She suggested the bag might be stuck in customs in Toronto because of rules not permitting a US bag to be sent through Canada.  She advised Sid — if he had not already done so — to file a claim for compensation, hinting the bag may never arrive.  Not giving up hope, Sid wondered whether there might be a kind of quarantine protocol being imposed, a wait time.  The Icelandair agent wrote she did not know but would be in touch as soon as she received additional information.

After three more days of hearing absolutely nothing, I asked Sid and Michel if they would mind if I took up their cause and inquired into the case myself.  Sure, have at it, they said, knock yourself out.

With the girls back to school and no need for us grandparents to look after them while mom and dad went to work, I had a little extra time on my hands.  All along the story fascinated me.  I felt rather honored and delighted to get actively involved.  Michel forwarded me copies of emails between her and Sid and various reps of the airlines and ground services firms they had corresponded with the past two weeks.  I read them and also asked Michel and Sid about their phone conversations to get myself up to speed.

I started with Icelandair, the airline ultimately responsible.  I wrote a letter — an email in letter format — addressed to the travel consultant who last contacted Sid, four days before.  Her name was Lydia with a Reykjavik e-letterhead.  I chose to go to her first because she was last contact and her emails showed she knew the most up to date information and might confirm the history, and also because she expressed a sincere desire to make things right for the Kysylyczyns.  She seemed to authentically take the whole thing seriously.

I presented myself as a journalist writing a story about the lost suitcase.  I did not disclose that I am Michel Kyslysczyn’s dad because I did not want to demean Michel and Sid’s own dogged efforts to get the bag as if Michel’s Daddy Rides to the Rescue.  Instead I credited the Kysylyczyns for my research and asked questions about what happened and how, what would happen next, and if in fact Icelandair was actively investigating the case.

I recited what I thought I knew.  I asked whether there was a security protocol that a bag of luggage must fly on the same flight as a ticketed passenger — seemed fair from recalling experience at Amsterdam Schiphol airport and listening to the public address system paging passengers absent from their flights and warning them if they failed to show up their luggage would be removed from the plane (I did not cite my Schiphol experience in my letter, only asked the protocol question).  I essayed to be friendly and respectful and even said the purpose of my story was not to impugn the reputation of Icelandair or anyone who took part in the mistake but to find the bag and see it happily returned to the Kysylyczyns.  I signed it Sincerely and gave my phone number.

The next day I received a phone call on my home land line.  It was an overseas call with that land line clarity phone companies used to brag you can hear a pin drop.

She spoke in a continental accent, asked for me and said her name was Asta from Icelandair calling from Reykjavik and we proceeded to hold an entertaining and pleasant conversation.

Asta did not bury the lede and said straight up the suitcase was located at that very moment at Newark Liberty Airport, EWR, in New Jersey, USA.  An Icelandair handling agent at Newark was going to hand-carry the bag directly to a FedEx station at the airport where it would be shipped directly to the Kysylyczyns at their home.  She promised there would be no more flights.

Except on a FedEx plane, I laughed at her joke.  Caught awkward she said, “I hadn’t thought of that.  Iceland is such a small country I think of FedEx packages going by lorry, but I suppose you are right, one last flight on FedEx to MSP and then to the Kyslysczyns.”  She unhaltingly pronounced their name.

She had yet to reach out to them with the news.  She estimated the bag would arrive the next day and said she would forward the FedEx tracking number as soon as it was available.

We agreed two weeks was a long time to fly a lost bag from Warsaw to Minneapolis.  I asked how it got to Poland if Icelandair doesn’t fly there.

Asta explained:  Both Icelandair and another Icelandic airline called WOW Air share the same baggage baggage handlers at Zurich airport and she theorized the suitcase was mistakenly loaded on a WOW Air flight to Warsaw.  Discovered in Warsaw, the recommended remediation was to put the bag on a WOW Air plane back to Zurich to be flown on Icelandair to Keflavik airport in Iceland and then on to Minneapolis St Paul.  Matter of factly she said, “This did not happen.”

Instead somebody decided to put it on a LOT Polish Airlines plane to MSP via Toronto, Canada.  This was a problematic course since LOT Polish Airlines does not itself fly into Minneapolis St Paul.  She said she believed Air Canada was supposed to fly the bag from Toronto to MSP.  How it arrived at Newark was unknown.  LOT does fly directly from Warsaw to Newark.  Air Canada flies there nonstop from Toronto.

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Asta could not account for where the suitcase languished the past ten days.  Asked more about Toronto and whether it had been hung up in Canadian customs she sounded more cautious, not sure the bag ever went to Toronto at all.  She seemed reticent to declare whether the Canadians had anything to do with it.

I didn’t press.  We shared some joy that the suitcase was virtually home.  I sincerely complemented her customer service skills and thanked her (and Lydia) for the response.  I said all I ever heard about Icelandair were good things, that my son and his wife had anice experience flying Icelandair, and apart from the suitcase Kyslysczyns reported positive things about the hospitality and comfort.  I said I and my wife hoped to fly Icelandair some day.  To visit Iceland.  I said I’ve always been fond of Iceland from a distance.

Why? she asked.

I did not name-drop my old friend Eleanor Arnason the science fiction author of Icelandic descent, or John McPhee who wrote about Iceland’s volcanoes.  I answered honestly I had the impression the people were happy and friendly and I was interested in volcanoes, hot springs, rugged scenery, the midnight sun and aurora borealis.  Yes, she said, we have all that and barely four hours of daylight in the winter.

And then I mentioned one of my great grandmothers was born in Iceland.

Yes?  When?  Where?  What was her name?

Embarrassed, I fumbled the answers and apologized for my ignorance of my own ancestry.

Asta said, Iceland is a very small country with population 350,000 people and you would be amazed how connected and historical known many Icelanders are.  She offered to look into the Iceland database for me if I would send her some clues.

She said she would call the Kyslysczyns next.  She said she would forward me the FedEx tracking number and an email recap of her research into the suitcase.  A few hours later she emailed me to say due to the lateness of the hour, almost midnight in Iceland, she would not be able to confirm the tracking number until tomorrow.  She concluded by saying all her handling agents had responded to her requests and she had reached Ms Kysylyczyn and informed her of the status of the suitcase, and reminded me to send information about my great grandmother so she could help me research my heritage.

I regret I did not disclose my family tie to Michel Kysylyczyn.  I owe Asta that courtesy.

Meantime, right after Asta’s phone call I did not call Michel right away.  Part of it was to allow Asta to break the good news.  And I hesitate to call Michel at work — she’s a clinical nurse.  But I called Roxanne, who was working that day, because I needed to tell somebody.  Roxanne then texted Michel — call dad.  When she called me she hadn’t heard yet from Asta, so I got to tell her the news.

As she later told Asta on the phone, No offense but I’ll believe it when I see it.  They had a nice laugh.

That was a Wednesday.  Thursday passed with no word, no suitcase, no guy in a black Russian sedan.  No FedEx tracking number.  No Asta, no vista.  We decided to give one more day.

Friday late morning Michel got a call from someone at Sun Country Airlines (not the Nick guy) at the Humphrey terminal who proudly announced they had found her lost luggage and would be sending it to her by FedEx that afternoon.  He confirmed her address and estimated delivery around 6:00, the dinner hour.  Michel said the guy made it sound like Sun Country wanted to get the final credit.

A little before six Michel texted Roxanne to say the suitcase arrived.  Crazy eyeball emoji.  Then a photo.  Not long later we talked on the phone.  It came in a FedEx van.  Intact.  No external scars.  No stickers, just some tags on strings.  The contents undisturbed and complete — jeans, chocolate and Thomy mayonnaise.  Stuffed lovies.  Shoes and shorts.  Swiss placemats and magnets.  Tumi shaving kit bag.  All there.  The way it was.

Only it smells like airplane, she said.  What do you mean, I asked.  Like the atmosphere inside the cabin when you first board a plane, she said — times ten.

So I composed a grateful email to Asta confirming my knowledge the Kysylyczyns received their bag.  I complimented the ultimate result and feinted a suspicion the final stage didn’t go as planned.  She replied she had her own confirmation the bag was delivered.  She offered again to help me research the origins of my great grandma and wished me a good weekend.  A short while later she followed with another email composed of copies of email exchanges and chains between herself and colleagues the past two days illustrating how things didn’t go as planned at Newark airport.

According to the emails the suitcase arrived at Newark Liberty Airport on an Air Canada flight.  Icelandair lost and found service at Newark was alerted but before anyone could intercept the bag it was handed over to Delta airlines for a quick flight directly to MSP.  Delta flies into Terminal 1 Lindbergh.  Delta needed to put it into the hands of Icelandair at Terminal 2 Humphrey.  Asta and her North American counterpart got somebody at Sun Country to mobilize somebody across the tarmacs between terminals to claim the bag from Delta.  Once secured, Sun Country put it on Fed Ex.

Not a word about Canada.  Only a reference to an Air Canada flight carrying the bag into Newark but no reference from where.  No mention of Toronto.

In Asta’s own words in one of the emails to the Baggage Coordinator at Sun Country corporate headquarters:

So this is quite a journey that the bag has been on.

If that suitcase could talk.

At Michel’s house I examined it.  I read the string tags: one from LOT Airlines with MSP as destination via Toronto, and it had inscriptions in Polish referring to Warsaw Chopin Airport; a tag from Air Canada in red saying RUSH and dated fifteen days before its eventual recovery and showing origination from Toronto Pearson International Airport with destination to Minneapolis St Paul; a tag, also red, designating the recent Delta flight from Newark to MSP; and of course the big plastic FedEx bill of transport.

Could we obtain readable fingerprints — run them through Interpol and CODIS.  Could I run the bar codes from the airline tags — maybe take them down to Cub foods and try them on the self checkout bar code reader, or at Target where they have those price check scanner guns.

My latest fantasy is the suitcase decided to take a vacation.  Maybe it met up with another suitcase and they ran off to Poland.  Maybe the suitcase (please don’t call me bag) made friends among other expat suitcases all those years in the basement storage at the apartment in Switzerland and they all held a reunion in Toronto.  Maybe the suitcase reflected upon itself, skin now rubbed and beaten shiny black and its seams shabby, the zipper teeth unsure of its gnarly smile, maybe a wheel going weak, the handle stiff and cranky, and seeing its useful life coming near its end decided to take one last fling and get lost for two weeks.  Who knows, maybe the suitcase went all kinds of places unrecorded, wasn’t stuck in Toronto at all.

If only that suitcase could talk.

The Kysylyczyns have a story to tell.  They are pleased with the outcome, needless to say.  What’s more, Michel, inspired by my correspondence with Asta, has piqued new interest in our family tree.

I am the one thinking too much about the suitcase.  Roxanne and I experienced lost luggage on one of our trips to visit the kids in Zug.  Our checked bags did not arrive with us at Flughafen Zurich.  Nobody’s did.  The luggage conveyor system at Shiphol Amsterdam where we made our connecting flight from Minneapolis broke down and the luggage was left behind in Amsterdam.  We filed a claim at the Zurich airport along with everyone else.  We gave Michel’s phone number.  Next day the bags showed up at the Kysylyczyns’ apartment via courier as promised in a phone call that day.  Zug is about thirty miles from the airport.  It was all Swiss efficient.  We never worried.  The lesson we learned was to bring toothbrushes and so forth in your carry on bags just in case.

The suitcase led me to learn some things about the aviation industry, such as the IATA (International Air Transport Association) codes which identify all airports in the world by three letters.  MSP is Minneapolis St Paul.  WAW is Warsaw Chopin.  YYZ is Toronto Pearson.  Keflavik in Iceland is KEF.  Amsterdam Shiphol is AMS, Zurich ZRH.  Newark Liberty Airport is EWR.  Sometimes the IATA codes make no intuitive sense.

A guy at the Oyster Card shop at London Heathrow Airport (LHR) noticed on my passport I was from Minneapolis and he said to me, Mary Says Please — his Heathrow mnemonic for MSP.  There’s an international airport language.

I learned the existence of more regional airlines of Europe like WOW Air, LOT Polish Airlines, and another Polish airline which flies in and out of Warsaw Chopin called WIZZ Air — no evidence WIZZ Air had any connection to the Kysylyczyn suitcase.

By my count seven different airlines and five sovereign nations participated in its journey, counting Canada although our neighbor seems to want to remain anonymous.  Countless people somehow collaborated to locate and transport a single misplaced suitcase to its true destination in this world.

One suitcase.  Lost and found.  In the time frame of the Suitcase Saga, and just since, the greater world has experienced planet-stunning events.  Hurricane Harvey basted Texas in a barbecue of putrid stew.  Irma blew away the illusion of the good life in Florida and leveled society in parts of the Caribbean.  An earthquake rubbled Juchitan, Mexico, a place so obscure nobody knows where it is relative to Cabo or Cancun.  There’s genocide in Myanmar on the border with Bangladesh.  North Korea toys with a hydrogen bomb and sends missiles over Japan like bottle rockets over the neighbor’s house across the street.  There’s an opioid crisis within the cultures of pain.  Dreamers of a thing called DACA face mass deportations to countries unknown and foreign.  Wild fires storm the forests.  A volcano called Katla rumbles beneath Iceland and fixes to blow its glacier into the sky.  That’s not all.  That’s just the past weeks.  That’s just some of the bold headlines.

And yet a bunch of people collaborated across five countries to rescue one American family’s vacation suitcase.

Nicely done.  Thank you all.  Including the Canadians who would rather not be recognized — talk about a network of secret agents.

At the top of this story is a picture representing Icelandair.  This is how it sees itself.  Take a good look at it and imagine which character represents Asta and which one Lydia — probably not the one in red.

Nex year Roxanne and I plan to visit Iceland.  Fly a deal on Icelandair.  See volcanoes.  Hot spring thermal baths.  Mountains.  Fjords.  Midnight sun, or maybe northern lights depending on the season.  Perhaps by then we’ll know the origin of Michel’s great-great grandma, but if not we’ll make one up.  It’s a small and friendly country, they say.

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BK

 

My Last Confession Was

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I am sorry for all my sins

for farting in the barroom from all those gins

for teasing my sisters with safety pins

for making fun of fat girls with double chins

for stealing lunch money from the charity bins

for watching european girls sunbathe in their skins

for stylizing opiates after Ho Chi Minhs

I’m so sorry for all my sins

for barfing in the barroom from all those gins

for using cuss words at the Minnesota Twins

for tipping outhouses just for grins

for leering after ladies with alabaster skins

for criticizing Jesus in the church of Original Spins

for harassing muslims for growing out their chins

for kicking crippled old ladies in the shins —

just for grins

I’m truly sorry for all my sins

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BK

Vinegaroon

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Tear up your red shirts

Dress yourselves in bogaine

Cartwheels in hoop skirts

Alejandro Romaine

Call the bunny fundamentalist taxi

Ride until the meter hits maxi

Get that double bubble out of your mouth

Looks so rude like your soul’s gone south

 

Whoa whoa Black Saturn

 

Seal off the stand pipes

Wash your hands in turpentine

Misread the bold types

Swishing in the Serpentine

Loot the funny pandemonium outrage

Suck the wind and blow a power outage

Stand up straight and put your shoulders back

Be so bad like they cut you slack

 

Ooh ooh Black Saturn

Whoa oh Black Saturn

 

One of these days you’ll get your degree

You’ll have an excuse to set yourself free

One of these nights you’ll get a job

Carve a wooden knob, pick corn on the cob

 

Ooh ooh

 

Sign all your pictures

Hide yourself in plain sight

Wear Stafford t-shirts

Affect a smiling overbite

Picture sunny lights painted on darkness

Choose bon mots to answer snarkness

There’s an eclipse due high in the sky

It’s the moon and the sun, you won’t fry

 

Oh oh Black Saturn

Woo hoo Black Saturn

Oh yeah Black Saturn

 

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BK