I may have stayed out of the country just a tiny bit too long – I feel like I’ve landed in an alternate universe here in el norte. I think the cultural weirdometer is mostly due to this absurd political climate.
Maybe it’s just context, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s McMurphy futilely claiming sanity in the psychiatric hospital. From my bi-cultural perspective, I now see the weird sides of both Mexico and U.S. — my definition of craziness changes depending on where I am. But it’s a close race, I’ll tell you.
In Oaxaca, we have rampant graffiti and accordion-playing beggars and protesting teachers camped out in tents in the middle of downtown for months on end. Near my apartment in an otherwise fairly upscale neighborhood, there’s Hobotown — my name for the vacant lot where local street guys camp out with electricity robbed from over the wall somewhere and an open-fire kitchen. They put up a tree at Christmas and often have a dog tethered outside the curtained-off sala.
My favorite street musicians are Sam and Max, a classically trained gringo violinist who plays with a blind Mexican accordianist. I was extremely fond of the transvestite who used to play the violin in the organic market, his musical selection varying wildly according to his dress-gender. And then there are the clowns. Whole families of them sometimes. Riding buses, eating tacos on the streets, doing their schtick down in the zocalo where I am careful not to pass lest I end up being on the wrong end of the joke. I’ve never seen so many clowns in all my life.
Downtown Dallas has had for years a homeless encampment under the I-75 bridge. I say had because now that it’s October again, city officials wanted to beat the opening of the State Fair of Texas and get them moved out of sight. There were some pod-like mini-residences built on the south side of I-30, but apparently those haven’t been a success. There’s been talk of opening up one of the closed jails to house the homeless, but nixed by city government because that may be making life a little too comfortable for the permanent homeless. There are a fair amount of street corner panhandlers, mostly disabled veterans if you believe their signs.
Then there are random oddities: old, pudgy Elvis working the West End (but remarkably spot-on with the lip curl and the voice on “Don’t Be Cruel”) and a couple of transvestites sprawled on the curb outside the downtown library. Nearby tourists zoom around on rented Segways and I saw a dog riding in a motorized remote-control car; in Mexico those are reserved for human children.
Weirdness Winner: Tie between U.S. and Mexico (the driving dog gets a lot of points)
Renovation in Oaxaca takes place at a pace that you can measure at the speed of human work, plus a downward adjustment for just taking place in Mexico. Ladders go up before actual painting begins, and then you can see the paint go on one coat at a time. Stonemasons chipped at the old streets for weeks – maybe months — before they added bicycle lanes on Alcala and Garcia Vigil.
The set-in lane lights appeared so slowly that it was an amusing mental exercise trying to figure out their ultimate purpose and configuration. What’s the real purpose of the spongy rubber track inset into the pavement? It’s slippery when wet, so I don’t believe it was for guiding the blind with their canes as one person told me (OK, it was Jose; there is actual information and there’s The World According to José.)
Renovation goes at warp speed in Dallas. Buildings seem to disappear and appear like mushrooms after a rain, formerly empty lots from just a month ago sprouting cubical new apartments with no regard to neighborhood aesthetics (oh wait, that is like Mexico — no zoning!) Lowest Greenville, formerly a motley assortment of slightly scary pawn shops, tattoo parlors and seedy bars, is now so tragically hip that it sports a Trader Joes and faux-seedy bars like The Truck Yard, populated by urban hipsters.
I actually like The Truck Yard; it reminds me of joints I used to frequent in much younger years back before seedy was hip.
The signs on many of the lots where fast new construction is replacing old houses are mostly by a company called Modtown, which kind of says it all.
Weirdness Winner: U.S.
Hipsters are a new social category that didn’t exist when I was younger, back when Pluto was a planet and the USSR was a sovereign nation. Says Urban Dictionary: “Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter. Anti-hipster sentiment often comes from people who simply can’t keep up with social change and are envious of those who can.” Wasn’t that me just a few short decades ago? Of course I still envy those who can. And they’re all over Lowest Greenville on weekends, hanging out at the outdoor cafes Sunday mornings for $15 breakfasts with their tat sleeves and piercings. Or maybe I’m confusing them with another social class that is more radical than hipsters.
I guess Oaxaca has hipsters, but I don’t know any. Maybe Alberto, but who is actually cool and not faux-cool, from whom I take occasional Spanish conversation lessons and practice whole conversations in gestalt style for plumbers, angry waiters and even José. I have noticed a steep uptick in pedestrians risking life and limb in the streets of Oaxaca because they’re glued nose-down to their cell phones, just like in the U.S. Those are probably hipsters.
Weirdness Winner: U.S.
El Bronco: (From the New York Times, June 8, 2015) “A cussing rancher known as El Bronco, who made the first serious run for governor as an independent candidate in Mexico, trounced his competition in midterm elections, according to preliminary official results on Monday, in a race closely watched as a sign of voter frustration with entrenched, established parties often seen as ineffectual and corrupt.
The candidate, Jaime Rodríguez Calderón, running for governor of Nuevo León State, a business and industrial hub near the Texas border, received 49 percent of the vote. He defeated his closest rival, a candidate from the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, by 25 percentage points.
Mr. Rodríguez, the former mayor of a farming suburb of Monterrey, drew attention for his blunt, profane speeches; claims about taking on drug gangs; and a campaign that largely took off through social media, appealing particularly to the young. He cultivated a maverick persona, even riding a horse at some events. His platform was short on details on how he would govern, beyond promises that it would be different from the program of the PRI, which has long dominated politics there.”
Donald Trump: (From the New York Times 10-3-16) “Donald Trump is a thug. He’s a thug who talks gibberish, and lies, and cheats, and has issues, to put it mildly, with women. He’s lazy and limited and he has an attention span of a nanosecond.
He’s a ‘gene believer’ who thinks he has ‘great genes’ and considers the German blood, of which he is proud, ‘great stuff.’ Mexicans and Muslims, by contrast, don’t make the cut. He’s mocked and mimicked the handicapped and the pneumonia-induced malaise of Hillary Clinton. His intellectual interests would not fill a safe-deposit box at Trump Tower. There’s more ingenuity to his hairstyle than any of his rambling pronouncements.”
Weirdness Winner: U.S.: You just can’t out-trump Trump on the weirdness factor.
I do know that orders for Trump piñatas are brisk in the expat communities of Mexico. Politics aside, this guy could never travel to windy foreign places with that hair.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org