Excelsior Cafe


THERE IS NO MEXICO. Mexico has ceased to exist. This did not happen overnight, but slowly. First the edges vanished. Obscurities crept in. One day it was gone altogether. I dont know quite what to say about this. For years I have been coming to Mexico to write my books. I have wandered all over this country, from Yucatan to Chihuahua, traveling by train, by bus, on my motorcycle, hitch-hiking, and even by canoe—down the Usumacinto River, for instance, along the border with Guatemala. I have slept in Mayan cities overgrown by jungle, and in dry streambeds in the northern deserts. I am familiar with many fleabag hotels and collapsing Colonial mansions. I cannot say I ever liked Mexico, exactly, but one does not have to like a place to have adventures there. Yet I woke up this morning—in the Mina Hotel, on Calle Mina, just off Boulevard Lopez Mateos—with the conviction that Mexico was gone. Something, at least, has vanished. Is it Mexico? Is it me?
   I write this in the Excelsior, a combination bookstore and café in Aguascalientes, a colonial city in central Mexico. I sit at the same round table as always, drinking the same black café americano out of the same brown cups. I stir in a little sugar—there’s an edge of bitterness to this coffee—and sip at it as I look around. When I first discovered this café, ten or twelve years ago, the customers were a patrician lot, gray-faced gentlemen in three-piece suits. I remember feeling a bit uncomfortable as I walked in, wearing a sports jacket over jeans, my hair always unruly and my beard—red then, white now—sprouting, it seemed to me, in all directions at once. I took a seat at this same table. A girl finally drifted over to take my order. She didnt look at me, hardly even seemed to hear what I said, then drifted back to her espresso machine. The girl is still here, or at least one just like her, the same thick black hair, and she drifts just as ethereally from table to machine, as though dreaming of other things. In those days she was the only female in the café, a granddaughterly figure in a room full of grave and mostly older faces. The gentlemen talked to each other in hushed tones, nodded as acquaintances appeared, and occasionally stood to give each other dignified abrazos. The espresso machine burbled, hissed, spat. Everyone ignored me. It was a good place to write.
   After a few years Desiderio Macias Silva occasionally joined me. Desiderio spoke five or six languages, including classical Greek, and wrote poems so ornate they reminded me of the baroque interior of the cathedral. We talked mostly of literature. Only once did I ask him what he thought of the changes becoming visible in his town. His sad eyes wandered around the room, watering a bit. He took the cigarette from his mouth, held it between tobacco-stained fingers, and then stubbed it out. The butt made a black smear against clear glass.
   “Ashes,” he said, pointing. He grinned impishly. “Como nosotros.”
   Like ourselves. We talked of other things. A week later he was dead. The city named a conference room after him, in one of the Casas de Cultura. I go there once in a while to look at the plaque. It’s a nice room. Occasionally people even use it.

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