Monday, December 11, 2017

In the Navy: Part 1

I thought I’d written about this incident in my long-ago youth, here in my blog. I alluded to it once, apparently. But I never followed up.

I was a sophomore in high school in the late nineteen-seventies when my Spanish teachers decided to organize a class trip to Mexico over the Easter break. Señorita Wiggins was an energetic and pretty young woman in her late twenties who, with her pert little Afro, her suede vests and turtlenecks, and her procession of plaid bellbottoms with truly astonishing flares around the ankles, walked the halls of my inner-city high school like a glamorous, living version of Barbie’s black friend Christie.

Everyone adored Señorita Wiggins. She was sweet and funny and enthusiastic about teaching, and always willing to try something new to help her students appreciate the language she loved so much. Her classroom would be set up as a Spanish flea market one afternoon, a South American kitchen the next. All the girls in school wanted to dress like Señorita Wiggins—a not-unattainable dream, considering that most of her wardrobe appeared on the more mod pages of the Sears Wishbook. All the boys developed crushes over her sunny smile.

I’d graduated from Señorita Wiggins’ class, however, into the allegedly more advanced tutelage of Señora Brooke. The Señora was a woman so close to retirement that she’d more or less given up teaching at all. On Mondays she’d give us a weekly assignment of translating a couple of paragraphs from our textbook, due Fridays. The rest of the week we spent playing endless rounds of Monopoly: Edición en Español, or the Spanish-language version of the French card game Milles Bornes. We’d learned a lot of vocabulary under Señorita Wiggins; Señora Brooke was supposed to provide us with an in-depth education on verb tenses and idiom. But since she was too busy with her English-language romance magazines, and we students were all arguing over who got to build hotels on Paseo Tablado, none of us really learned to be able to say much of anything other than in the present tense.

Which is, of course, ideal for traveling in a foreign country.

The trip was originally supposed to be open to everyone in either section of the two teachers’ classes. Only a half-dozen kids ended up going, though. The small numbers had a lot to do with the economic makeup of my high school, which drew its students from most of Richmond’s large north side. It was the tradition back then for Richmond’s white parents to send their kids through the public school system until the ninth grade, when they’d be abruptly transferred to a private school so they wouldn’t be ‘held back’ by ‘rougher elements’—that is, the same black kids their own children had been attending school with for all the other eight grades. My parents thought that kind of thinking utter bullshit. When it came to extracurriculars like class trips, though, the simple fact was that few of the African-American families wanted to spare the five hundred dollars. Even my own parents were dubious. In the end, the school’s sole white boy ended up in the Richmond airport on Easter morning, suitcase in hand, accompanied by five kids from the freshman class. Señorita Wiggins was our only chaperone. Originally Señora Brooke had been slated to join us, but when it became apparent that the group was going to be super-small, she exercised her option not to give a shit and happily resigned her place.

The descent into Mexico City was the worst I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. I attribute a decades-long suspicion of air travel entirely to that one flight. As we flew over the country’s most mountainous regions, the plane would capriciously just drop in mid-air and leave our stomachs several hundred feet above while our heads were spinning down below. The plane would then tilt to one side, then the other, level out in order to lull us all into a sense of false security, and then suddenly just drop once again. The turbulence caused the Mexicans on the the flight loudly to rediscover their Catholic faith and the Padre nuestros and the Dios te salve Marias were flying as fast and as furiously as the clacking rosary beads. By the time we landed, most of the seat backs had fingernail gouges from the plane’s passengers gripping on for dear life. Our group was the last to disembark after the wild scramble for the open doors. Poor Señorita Wiggins’ milk-chocolate complexion had taken on a distinct tint of green, and we had to wait for her stomach to calm down before we dared leave.

Señorita Wiggins had never before attempted a class trip of any sort. She’d turned for help to a small company—a married couple, really—in Mexico City purporting to specialize in educational travel excursions. She’d handed over our money to them and in return, they were supposed to give us rooms in a luxury hotel and arrange tours for some of the most exotic and cultural sights of Mexico City. The couple met us outside the airport in a beat-up old Volkswagen van so beat-up and painted in so many motley colors that it made the Scooby-Doo gang’s Mystery Machine seem like an actual limousine in comparison. My recollections of the two tour guides are sketchy, since we ended up seeing remarkably little of them during the week. However, in the film version of my life, were I able to sit in on the casting sessions in a purely advisory role, I’d probably whisper to the director, Just pick out a pair of the shadiest-looking meth-heads you can find and I suspect I’d end up in the general ball park.

In their rickety old van, where we had to sit gingerly in the back and lift up our feet to avoid the giant hole in the floor, the pair drove us away from the airport and into the depths of the city. None of us, not even Señorita Wiggins, who had gone to school in Spain and prided herself on the pure Castilian accent she was passing onto her students, knew anything about the city’s geography. All we knew was that our luxury hotel was in the heart of the old city. And it seemed that to get to the heart of the old city, we had to start at the city’s rancid toenails and slowly work our way up. We inhaled fumes in that nasty van for what seemed like hours, visiting what definitely were the stinky crotch and dirty armpits of the city before finally pulling into a dark dead-end alleyway so narrow that cars entering it had to back out to exit. The van slowed to a stop. “Home, sweet home for a week!” caroled the female half of the couple, as we stumbled out. “Isn’t it authentic?”

Authentic was one word for it. Shithole was another, and probably the better. We’d seen some attractive photographs of the hotel’s exterior back home in our brochure; perhaps they’d been taken in the nineteen-thirties when the hotel had been built, and before the hulking slums existed that surrounded it now. What it was, in 1979, however, was a squalid, dirty stone turd festooned with candelabra sconces and peeling paint, lurking at the far end of a cul-de-sac that smelled like someone’s chamber pot. The hotel’s inside was vast and cavernous, black as Dracula’s castle and only half as comfortable. The scowling clerk of indeterminable gender who sat slumped at the front desk had a bald shrunken apple-head of a noggin covered with bulbous moles, each of which sported a long hair. He or she rubbed his or her nose, sniffed, and tossed some keys our way, working his or her tongue over a yellow set of dentures.

Our hosts had vanished, absconding with our hopes for a fun week, we discovered. Señorita Wiggins attempted to rally, though by this point she was looking grim and unwell. “We’ll get some sleep. Everything will be better mañana!” she assured us. She was so shaky from our flight that nobody protested when she went right to bed without dinner, though before retiring, she made us promise we would not under any circumstances leave the premises.

We kids were hungry, though. The shrunken apple-head doll at the front desk merely blinked slowly at us when we asked for a room service menu—and the hotel certainly didn’t have a restaurant. As the group’s de facto leader by virtue of my seniority, I made the executive decision that we would head down to the head of the alleyway and get something to eat at the Pizza Hut I’d noticed on our drive in. It was not a Pizza Hut, by the way. The restaurant’s name was Pizza Hut. It had a hand-painted sign proclaiming it was Pizza Hut. But any resemblance to the actual Pizza Hut chain ended there. Our Pizza Hut was basically an outdoor shed with picnic tables and a serious case of trademark infringement. But I was able to tell the proprietor in present-tense verbs and my lisping, pure Castilian accent that we liked to eat the pizzas of pepperoni, and that we drink the Coca-Colas, and by the end of the little adventure we had full bellies.

Now that it was definitely past dusk, our walk back was fraught with a little more peril. Our hotel’s alleyway was lined with strange men. Some leaned against the doorways, smoking cigarettes, looking tough and mean. Others sat on the stoops in their wife-beaters and blue jeans and work boots, arms propped on wide-spread legs, daring us to look their way. Still more moved in pairs in the shadows, where they murmured intimately to each other in low voices. The younger kids, I could tell, were freaked out. I kept on the alert as we crept our way back, aware of every eye watching me. And I, with my several years of sexual experience, knew something with certainty that the freshmen didn’t: our so-called tour guides had booked us into a crap hotel in the middle of a gay red-light district.

After the other kids went to their rooms, I stood by the door in the lobby and did what I always did back then with a new cruising site: I watched what was going on, so I could figure out the scene for myself. For an hour or more I stood there, half-hard in my jeans, watching men cruise each other in the alleyway. Some men I could see clearly; one would approach the other, lean in to say something soft and low in his ear. They might share a private laugh. One would nod, and follow. Back toward the mouth of the alley they’d wander, presumably to one of their apartments. So dark it was that some of the men I could see only by the tips of their cigarettes, but I would follow the trace of those little red ovals as they approached each other, danced, and flew away like fireflies with a common destination.

Señorita Wiggins was right that everything looked better the next day. We were still in a shitty hotel on a crap alleyway, but at least it was an alleyway made more bearable by daylight. Our tour hosts arrived in their ratty van at the appointed time to take us to the floating gardens of Xochimilco. It was supposed to be one of the highlights of the week—a leisurely and luxurious trip in a gondola decked with bowers of blooms along a scenic waterway.

I’m not sure if the week we were there was in the off-season or what, but like everything else up until that point, Xochimilco was a huge disappointment. The colorful gondolas were faded and of dubious sea-worthiness. The thickets of full flowers that were supposed to adorn the boats were a few dried-out vines and some sad plastic roses. The canal was murky and the water choppy; the landscape was mostly mud. The boat’s incessant lurching sent Señorita Wiggins’ insides into further turmoil. We had to cut short the outing so she could purge her poor stomach in the restroom. Seeing one of the most naturally-sunny people in the world so sick made us miserable in turn. It didn’t help when our tour guides left us to sit in a gift shop for over an hour before returning with our van to take us back. Our grand first-day outing was done in a few hours; we were back at the hotel by two with nothing else to do and nowhere to eat for the rest of the day.

I’d confessed to Señorita Wiggins early that morning that I’d taken the other kids to the putative Pizza Hut the night before, when she was discomposed. I felt like I had to give her some kind of consolation, because it was becoming rapidly apparent that this trip was going to be something of a bust. In my retelling I played up the adventure of it, and assured her that we’d used our Spanish-language skills to order our own food, and that we’d handled actual Mexican pesos like pros. Somehow, in her debilitated post-vomiting state, I managed to assure her that I was just the person to venture beyond the head of the alleyway and investigate what else there was to do in this neighborhood.

The alleyway wasn’t anywhere near as crowded in the daytime as it had been at night, but it was pretty apparent that my suspicions of the previous evening had been correct; we’d been more or less dumped in the Mexico City equivalent of the Castro. Groups of men I recognized as gay hung in small groups along the walls. They’d suspend their conversations as I walked by, and I was once again conscious of all their eyes on me. I turned my head and caught one man’s eye. “American?” he asked. Even though in my head I had visions of being mugged for my thick American wallet, I nodded out of reflex.

“American!” he said happily to the two men with him. They all must have been in their twenties or early thirties; all of them sported little mustaches and had crammed themselves into tight jeans and form-hugging shirts of a cheap and shiny material suitable more for discos than the streets. “American!” they all cried out. And then, bewilderingly, they sang in three different keys, “In the nah-vee! You can sell the seven seas!”

I escaped their chorus and made my way out to the main street. A few women were in sight, but most of the people occupying the scene were men. Gay men. Gay men with mustaches and shimmering disco shirts and tight jeans. Acres of gay men. I’d promised to get the lay of the land, but already my adolescent mind was making gay lemons into gay lemonade and wondering how efficiently I could get some Mexican dick.

Pretty efficiently, as it turned out.

“American?” I heard someone call.

I had to look around to find the source of the question. A group of gay men sat in folding lawn chairs in front of a farmacia. A transistor radio blared out disco music on a rickety table between them. “Soy Américano,” I stammered out.

One of the other men leapt up to his feet and extended his hand. I held out mine, and he grasped it, thumb hooked to thumb, in a homie handshake. “American? Village People?” he asked. “In the nah-vee?”

In the nah-vee!” all three of them began singing. One of them put his arm around my shoulders and encouraged me to dance along with him. “You can sell the seven seas! In the nah-vee! You can put your mine dat deese!”

To this day, I have never heard anyone with as much enthusiasm for the Village People, or for that particular song, as the Mexican people. As it turned out, everywhere we would end up going, people ended up spontaneously singing “In the Navy” to us. Not “YMCA,” which was the bigger hit back home. I guess it was just freakishly popular in Mexico City that season.

For a few moments I was a white teen beanpole gamely dancing along with a gaggle of amiable Mexican gay guys in the middle of the street, which is probably not exactly the cultural experience my parents had envisioned when I’d wheedled them into ponying up for this trip. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. “You know the Village People?” I heard a very deep voice say.

I turned. I was a tall kid for my age, but the speaker towered over me. Where all the other men of the calle sported little mustaches, this muchacho had a masterwork gracing his upper lip. It was the Freddie fucking Mercury of mustaches—thick, heavy, and exquisitely-groomed. His eyes were dark. His hair gleamed with pomade without looking oily. Like everyone else, he wore one of those disco shirts of shiny material. But this man wore it so much better than anyone else. The sleazy fabric clung to his muscles and outlined his protruding nipples. The first button he’d bothered to fasten was roughly in the area of his navel. Coils of coarse, dark chest hair burst from a V of flesh that pointed like a neon arrow to the enormous bulge in his tight, packed jeans. When he shifted his weight, I noticed he wore shiny cowboy boots with polished metal tips.

This was at the height of the so-called clone look. I was hard-wired to respond to such a flagrant display of masculinity, just like any animal confronted with a blatant mating ritual. My gut lurched. My heart started to pound. My hole somehow tightened and loosened simultaneously. “You know the Village People?” he repeated. “You are American?”

“I’m American,” I managed to rasp out. “But I don’t know the Village People.”

His dark eyes were kind, even though I realized from the way he was looking me up and down that his intentions were anything but pure. “Como se llama? What is your name?” he asked.

I told him, without hesitation, in very prim and proper Spanish. (My name is . . . is one of the first things you learn in a foreign language. You don’t throw away opportunities like that.) “What’s yours?” I asked.

“Toro,” he said.

“Toro,” I repeated, feeling my insides unglue. Bull.

“You are lost?” he asked. “In this place we don’t see many . . . American boys.” The other men in the vicinity shook their heads and laughed a little in agreement.

I explained that I was staying with other people from my school at the hotel down the street. I couldn’t help but notice his nose twitch at the mention of the hotel’s name.

He placed a heavy paw on my scrawny shoulder. “I think you will come with me,” he announced. “If you want.”

Did I want? Hoo boy. Did I ever.

I felt Toro slide his hand down. He planted his palm in the center of my spine with wordless insistence, and gently steered me away from the crowd. The remaining men let loose with a cry I recognized as we moved away—the non-verbal approbation frat boys make when one of their brothers makes a sexual score. The universal sound of males whooping at the virility of one of their own. I heard the slapping of high-fives and some chanting of “Toro! Toro!” as the Mexican man in the cowboy boots led me off to some unknown destination.

And then, over the dissonance of the transistor radio, a chorus of voices raised in lusty song. “In the nah-vee. . . !”

(to be continued)


  1. I love your stories. I live through them, since I can’t live them.

  2. I too, love your stories. Looking forward to part II.

  3. I lived in el DF in 1994 while working on a project with one of their big infotech companies. Fondly recall the copies of Del Otra Lada Magazine and making jokes with my straight male coworkers about “Quattro Epidermis.”

    The free fall aircraft decent seemed to be a standard feature of every landing at the “high and hot” airport surrounded by mountains. I must have lived through it 10 or 15 times in that years and it rarely got better.