The Angle of the Angel of History

I

Herewith the promised dispatch from Paradise, where the storm of progress is blowing from no direction.

My girlfriend and I are here for a week courtesy of her mother, who rents a place with a friend for two months here in Puerto Vallarta, on the west coast of Mexico. It’s a spectacular high rise right on the beach. We’re on the 11th floor of Torre II, overlooking pools the size of school districts and the Pacific Ocean itself. The open kitchen and living room are way bigger than my apartment; they’re flooded with sunlight from dawn to dusk, glass all around. In the morning, it’s enchanting. In the afternoon, it becomes a bright furnace, so you have to don goggles—sunglasses—just to see each other.

The routine is pretty simple. I get up at 6:00 or 6:30, start whacking away at whatever I’m writing, my girlfriend gets up an hour or so later, and our hosts wake up around 10:00. I go back to the whacking, and the girlfriend starts real work—writing her new book, watch out. Around 3:00-4:00, we stop, maybe, and go for a walk on the beach or go to the grocery store, or whatever.   It’s all preparation for cocktail hour, which commences, as it always should, at 5:00.

We’re in motion, in a cab headed for Zona Romantica and the Malecon, by 6:30 or 7:00. All the streets except Ascension, the thoroughfare that connects Zona Norte to Vallarta Vieja, sort of, are something like cobblestone, so by the time you get to the restaurant, you fell like your bones have been shaken and your intestines stirred. James Bond would not approve. At any rate you’re disoriented, and wondering how these little Toyotas last more than a month on these jagged edges the locals call streets.

My writerly task here, on vacation, was to finish an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal—you read that right—on the current campus controversies over the inscription and erasure of history in the physical environment of the university itself. The piece was solicited by an editor there, who offered to pay me a lot more per word than the New York Times ever did (not that the Times is begging for my byline). I finished it yesterday and sent it off. I like it a lot, and so does my girlfriend—my old friend Mike, too, and, I’ll be damned, our hosts here in Puerto Vallarta as well, who read it this morning—but my guess is that the editor at the Journal won’t run it because, well, because I claim that these current controversies raise the question of capitalism.

Walter Benjamin is a key figure here—Thesis VII, “There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” (Not incidentally, our hosts seized on this phrase, what is it with Prior Walter?) The editor at the Journal asked me to contemplate Rockefeller, Carnegie, Stanford, Duke, among other robber barons, in terms of their legacies as founders of great universities. I think I pulled it off.

I concluded as follows, with Thesis IX in mind.  Yes, I’m quoting myself.

“If we can follow the examples of Marx and Emerson, we’ll find a way beyond the either/or choice that dictates we must choose between the past and the future, as if the present is the finder and the keeper of an immutable truth. We’ll be able to rewrite our history but not obliterate the past as it’s inscribed on buildings, preserved in archives, embodied in ritual celebrations, and written in the books. We’ll be able acknowledge the sins of our fathers—Carnegie, Duke, Stanford, Rockefeller, among others—without indulging the urge to erase our memory of them. We’ll know that capitalism is the pressing social issue of our time, and proceed accordingly.

“At any rate we’ll avoid the fate of Benjamin’s Angel of History, the devil himself. His face is turned always toward the past because the storm of progress blowing in from Paradise won’t let him close his wings. We will face both ways, and so we will learn that the wreckage of the past—the slaughter-bench of history, as Hegel called it—is not just a catastrophe to be forgotten in the name of the future. It’s the workbench we need to repair the present.”

If you want to quote me, that’s fine, but you might get sued by the Dow Jones Corporation, which, as you know, the Rupert runs and/or owns.

II

Last night the four of us duplicated the itinerary of Wednesday night, when my girlfriend and I were on our own—rather than head back to a fancy place where a great meal with two drinks will cost you $17.00, we decided to sample the stalls on the Malecon. So we started at Margaritagrill, where the signature drink comes in flagons, tankards, and fishbowls—small, medium, and large—anything but an elegant cocktail glass you might associate with a martini. Guacamole, too.

On that night, my girlfriend and I were fighting about some obscure reference she had made to Gary Oldham playing Sid Vicious—“George Smiley does ‘My Way’ on white and black stairs, what the fuck?” I said—when a beefy guy from around the corner of the curving bar says, “How’re you folks doin’?” I look at him and think Texas or Missouri from the accent, and I think, not now, you hulking mass of stupidity, I don’t want to know where you’re from and you don’t want to know where I’m from because that would be Mars as far as you’re concerned, but I’m polite, I’m from the Midwest, I say “Fine” and I turn back to the argument with my girlfriend, but as if on cue he says, “Where you from?”

I turn toward him, now I want to kill him, I—“New York,” my girlfriend, who is also from the Midwest, says, because she detects my murderous intent, and the Hulk says, “Ah, yeah, it’s cold up there, that’s why you’re wearing that scarf.” I look at him and think, he’d never know what hit him if the rim of my margarita glass landed suddenly and simultaneously on his forehead and chin (that’s how big the medium size is), he’d just fall backward and his wife would call the police and the bartenders would laugh. But then, there goes the vacation. So I nod and turn away, and my girlfriend grins and whispers, “He’s looking for a foursome.” I start laughing but then I think, Christ, he’s a three-way all by himself, where’s his benighted wife, that’s all he needs, I turn back and there she is, looking just as jolly and brainless as her husband, only cleaner.

The laughter silences the Hulk, so my girlfriend and I get to leave before I say something more stupid than what I’ve heard from him. I hate all tourists, but then I am one, and I know they’re the backbone of urban economies, New York included.

We walk down to the Malecon by a circuitous route, looking at menus, scenes, dives, and clothes along the way, hoping to find the right combination of funky and tasty. But we know we’ll have to wait until we get there, like kids in the back seat on their way to vacation. Just before we do arrive on the Malecon, I buy a great hat for 150 pesos over the objections of my girlfriend, who, rightly, says “You haven’t even bargained with her!” (Wait’ll you see it on me. I look like a genetically modified hybrid of gaucho and gandy dancer.)

On the Malecon, finally, we’re really hungry by now, the first thing we find to eat is marinated marlin grilled over charcoal, served on two-foot sticks. It’s chewy, sinewy, ketchupy, but somehow satisfying, at least to me. My girlfriend isn’t impressed, she’s still hungry. We press on to the stalls, where chorizo wrapped in little buns looks like pigs in a blanket, so I ask myself, who stole this from whom? Did the middle class WASPs corrupt a vernacular but noble tradition, or did the Mexicans decide that the tourists would recognize—and buy—a hot dog if it were appropriately bundled? All of the above is the correct answer, of course.

Then we eat some roasted corn, which reminds me of chewing beef jerky—a lot of work, but very little pleasure and no nutrition. My girlfriend is by now desperately hungry. What to do? Tacos! “Well, there’s that place under the bridge,” I say, referring to a hole in the wall beneath the last Malecon bridge over the second river on your way north. I don’t want to go back there, but what the hell, this is a vacation we’re on.

We order five tacos to go, 60 pesos (about $4), there’s no tables, so we walk further north to the Devil’s Bar, where Alan the proprietor lets us bring food into his establishment. Actually, “into” is the wrong word, because there’s no inside to this place. It’s a bar made in heaven: about 15 stools open to the—what?—elements, an old guy on the other side who might be naked (no shirt) nuzzling with a toothless old lady, a young man the size of a tractor drinking something red out of a half gallon Mason jar, a couple of drunken honeymooners, and me and my girlfriend.

The tacos are delicious, the Coronas—you buy one, you get two, that’s the rule—are cold, so I’m feeling pretty lucky. I turn to the tractor-size gentleman and say, “What is that you’re drinking?”

Now he could have responded to me as I did to the Hulk at Margaritagrill. But he was gracious, even generous. “It’s a cierre rojo, red sky, basically a Bloody Mary except with Pacifico instead of vodka or whatever, you know, all the spices and shit but not the liquor.” I think, this is a Red Eye, beer and tomato juice, that’s what I always drink on the plane! “Can I taste it,” I say with more enthusiasm than I meant to convey, and he says, “Sure.” We get a straw, I sample the drink, and, sure enough, we’re both right.  Everybody in the place, the naked guy included, is embarrassed. My girlfriend rolls her eyes, and I say, “What?”

I still haven’t told you about the Doctor Fish of Siam. Next door to the taco place. Where you put your feet in a tank of water swarming with tiny carp, and they feed on the detritus you have gathered over all your years, including anxiety. I quote from the advertisement they hand you as you decide to take the plunge or not. “With the delicate Doctor Fish certainly you can say goodbye to your old skin and hello to a new healthy layer.” On Thursday night I shed that old footskin, and the new healthy layer feels pretty good. Now I’m thinking total immersion might be the way to go.

 

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