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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Inside Out, Upside Down

Lincoln was worried about me. He would park his truck right next to mine.

"Are you all alone out here?"

I was annoyed at being bothered while having my tea and a crossword puzzle. Some guy. Still sipping, I locked the door and rolled the window up without moving my eyes from the page.

"Just wondered if you're OK," Lincoln would say as he backed his vehicle out.

It took weeks for me to realize that this man was the same one I saw in the evenings at the Yacht Club. The night security man was playful and friendly: he would say hello and shine his flashlight into my truck when he saw it parked at the public restroom nearby. Finally, one evening, he walked out to my truck with flashlight in hand. He waved it as he walked, perhaps, to give me fair warning of his arrival.

We struck up a simple conversation, and Lincoln, the night security man, invited me to tour the Yacht Club some evening. He would show me around.

I don't know why places like yacht clubs look the same everywhere, the way Sheraton Hotels do. One would expect, with a higher class of clientele, that there would be more, much more, more of an elusive something. But the truth is people with a class-consciousness are quite boring and really only want to be safe.

As a student in Mexico City years ago (many years ago when it was unpolluted), I would take a long weekend off with friends and travel to Acapulco. By bus. Later, we would jokingly talk about the "Mexican bus" because there was nothing like it: we rode with goats, chickens, screaming infants, and people hanging off the sides, which was stupefying when the bus was skirting the edge of a sheer cliff. Anyone in his right mind would have worn a parachute.

When we got to Acapulco, having little money, we would walk the narrow streets to find the cheapest place to stay. We found a hostel: a large, open room with ceiling fans to keep the air cool and single beds, like a barracks. We gave the bare accommodations no other thought, as we spent most of the day and evening out on the beach or visiting the beautiful restaurants, pools, and bars at the luxury hotels. La Princesa was the favorite. It is probably still exceptional.

But the years pass, and, by and large, if you have seen one resort hotel, you have seen them all. What struck me after a while was how much more fun and interesting a place was when you stopped looking for monuments and artwork and noticed how people lived, and where. Acapulco was a strip of huge hotels at the water's edge and, everywhere else, a lot of teeny-tiny, green, yellow, orange, and pink houses built very closely together, all a little shabby.

Not that I have anything against real luxury, but there seemed to be a growing sameness in the hotels across the world and a penchant for serving American food, badly. I always wondered who would want a hamburger in Acapulco; but, for the class-conscious who were not there for the native experience, there was perhaps too much to fear. Myself, I caught a few bugs and was all but carried off once by flying monkey-sized mosquitoes while camping in the mountains.

But back to the Yacht Club. Lincoln was a perfect tour guide, and he is always kind. He wanted to know if I might enjoy watching television in the empty bar on the nights he was on duty. I declined the offer since what I enjoy most is his company. Lincoln has worked at the Yacht club for almost forty years and earned trust enough to have the run of the place. We chat about the weather, why the parking lot is empty, or full, and a time he remembers when kids set fire to the palm trees, making them look like huge birthday candles.

We talked about the upcoming election and the excitement around Senator Obama. Lincoln was obviously proud, but restrained, perhaps for fear that the election might be lost. I had asked him several times if his name really was "Lincoln," since it seemed like too much of a coincidence that Illinois is my home State, and we had met in a watershed, historical election year. For those of you who are not from Illinois, Lincoln is God there. Illinoisans know we are Yankees from the time we can walk, that we won the War, and that probably even peanut butter would not exist if not for Abraham Lincoln.

My local Lincoln, while clearly a namesake, does not really get my zeal; but that does not trouble me. I am proud of my heritage and the solid sense of democracy I learned growing up in the Midwest. I am sure Lincoln knows, in the most intimate way, the distance between the ideal of America and the reality. I have shared with him my amazement, even though it seems naive, that one should need money to buy everything, that even sleep is not free where prohibited. And what a rarefied form of slavery it is to work and earn money, but not enough to keep a roof over one's head. Or, should one have that roof, one foregoes food, medicine, or gas.

One wonders what kind of people would create such a society, if the scheme is intentional, as in a conspiracy, or if mere ignorance is to blame. The poor are living inside out, and the rich are upside down, exalted, but without the virtue or excellence of high rank. Lucky for me, my friend, Lincoln, is a respecter of persons. He never minds my truck or my homelessness, and he teases me to no end about turning into a solid block of ice from all the cold showers.

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