Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Fading Iguana Memories

John Huston's "Night of the Iguana" turned sleepy Puerto Vallarta into a go-go tourist boom town. When he died nearly a quarter century later, they put this statue near the entrance to the municipal cultural center, not far from the Le Bistro bar and restaurant, a lush tropical riverside watering hole and night spot where Huston had eulogized Humphrey Bogart 30 years earlier.

But if any Hollywood ghost haunts Vallarta, it's Elizabeth Taylor, and she wasn't even in the movie, or any other filmed here as far as I know.

Liz was here when Iguana was shot, however, supposedly to make sure her new boyfriend Richard Burton, for whom she had just dumped Eddie Fisher, didn't strike any off-screen sparks with his co-star Ava Gardner.

The whole cast and crew were enchanted with Vallarta. After the wrap, Huston bought a house on an island near Mismaloya south of here, where much of the movie was made. Burton bought his new girlfriend a love nest in Vallarta on a hillside overlooking the spot where Huston's statue now sits. 

The house was known as Casa Kimberly. Boyfriends had the custom here of naming such places after their paramours, and Ms. Taylor tried hard to rechristen hers Casa Elizabeth. But the neighbors wouldn't have it, so the story goes, and Casa Kimberly it remained.

Liz and Dick visited their Mexico home many times for several years afterward. They hung out in local bars and restaurants, made friends, got drunk, had many of their famous fights and generally did everything expected of notorious celebrities with bad tempers and too much time on their hands.
In gratitude, admirers commissioned this statue depicting the couple in a moment of harmony and installed it at a restaurant called Fuente en la Puente, just down the hill from Casa Kimberly, about midway between the house and Huston's monument. Burton bought at least two other houses I know of in Vallarta. One was just across the street from Casa Kimberly and was really just a pool and cabana. They built a footbridge over the street between the two, and Burton is said to have retreated across it when things got too hot for him in the main house. The other house was just around the corner. Burton bought that one for Susan Hunt, whom he married when he and Liz went down for the last time.
Ms. Hunt eventually sold it to a woman named Janice Chatterton, who turned it into a gorgeous boutique hotel that never really traded on the Burton connection. Casa Kimberly, on the other hand, remained Elizabeth Taylor's house even after she sold it, furniture and all. It was run for years as a bed and breakfast, and for a few pesos you could also get a tour of the place.

But the house and its succeeding owners grew ever seedier. Casa Kimberly was finally foreclosed on a few years ago for back taxes, and Liz's faded and threadbare former possessions were piled ignominiously at the curb. New investors stripped the structure down to pads and pillars and began construction of a luxury inn, now interrupted thanks to lawsuits by well-heeled neighbors who want to preserve their views.

About all that's left of the house Liz and Dick proudly posed in for photos when they first moved in is the entrance and the bridge to Burton's old doghouse.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Another Child's Christmas in Wales

This is a woman named Jane Alabaster, reading some of her work at last Saturday's weekly meeting of the Puerto Vallarta Writers Group. She called her piece "The First Lights of Christmas," but it wasn't as twinkly as it sounds.

Ms. Alabaster makes her living as a doctor now in Mexico, but she was born in Swansea, Wales. Her dad was Welsh and her mother was German, and the family lived in a farmhouse just outside the city.

Her story was actually a memoir, a series of vignettes recalled from her childhood Christmases. She told us in the post-reading discussion that it was meant to be warm and life affirming, an ambitious goal, inasmuch as she chose to begin with an account of her sister's death by drowning in a river near their home during a long-ago holiday season when both girls were toddlers.

"I don't recall a Christmas afterward when my parents didn't weep," she wrote. The narrative never regained altitude, which does credit to the author's honesty.

Predictably, little Jane Alabaster took on herself the burden of making her parents as happy as two living daughters might have done. But melancholy was the subtext of most of her other Christmas recollections.

In one, she was to sing a solo in Welsh at her school Christmas pageant but unaccountably forgot all the words and had to make up phrases to keep the music going. Most of the audience were English speakers and thought she was wonderful, but her classmates knew she was singing nonsense, and she was humiliated.

In another, she recalled the pain of realizing that she and her family would never be fully accepted in their community because anti-German feeling left over from World War II remained strong in Swansea.

In another, she recorded her shock at the public spanking of a classmate who had misbehaved, an incident that clearly still appalled her. "Discipline at my school was strict," she wrote, "but it wasn't usually barbaric."

The "first lights of Christmas" made their appearance in the last tale of the series, but they didn't shine nearly bright enough to clear away the shadows.

Much of the writing was lovely, and a couple of group members rightly suggested that she might make longer stories out of individual segments. But I think she knew from the comments that she'd missed the mark she'd set for herself.

It's a trope of the season that being merry isn't as easy for everyone as it looks in the Christmas specials. Trying anyway and being brave about it is even harder. Writing about just how hard it can be, and then reading aloud to strangers what you've written, takes an extra measure of grit.

Feliz Navidad, Jane.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Physics Takes a Holiday

My family made a lot of cross-country trips when I was growing up, either to visit relatives or to move. When we came across roadside attractions -- rattlesnake farms, caged bears, crocodile pools etc. -- my brother and I longed to stop but knew it was hopeless.

My parents were generally fun to travel with, but they were pretty frugal and considered such diversions a waste of time and money. And since time was money, they figured they saved double by sailing past the lurid signs, usually with disparagement on their lips.

Particularly disfavored were the sites marked with huge question mark signs that promised a supernatural experience in which the laws of gravity would be bent or broken, and objects or even people might be larger or smaller than they appeared. "Gyp joints," said my mom, nobody's fool.

Now I'm a big boy and occasionally stop the car at such places, including the ones with sideways gravity. I'm never disappointed, maybe because mom taught me to expect so little.

But it's a special treat to have learned that in vacation destinations like Puerto Vallarta, the kinds of places I never got to as a kid, you often find people who are willing to dispense you your amazement up front and hope you'll be kind enough to pay afterward.

This rock stacker is a perfect example. The vast Bahia de Banderas (Bay of Flags) has coughed up millions of stones. The streets here are paved with them, and there were plenty left over.

This man's genius appears to be that he can see at least one axis of equilibrium running through each of them, and the exact spots on top and bottom where the stone can rest on a companion below or support one above.

His wife watches the tip box, into which I slid a 20 peso note before I took my pictures. We watched for a while, and it looked like hard work. There's no sleight of hand involved. But even if there were, the stacks would be eye-catching. Each one seems to have required a different set of skills, and they're as unique as snowflakes.

I think mom and dad were wrong not to let us have a look at a few of those ? places. Questioning laws of nature is good for our brains, even if most of us aren't Einstein and won't ever understand the fine print.

And anyone who thinks it's silly to believe there might be such a thing as sideways gravity is forgetting that the gravity that pulls straight down as we all take for granted was an unplumbed mystery to Einstein and, unless I missed a headline, remains so to this day.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


This is the first year we've gotten to Puerto Vallarta in time to catch the last few days of the annual December pilgrimages to the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe. We'll try to take in more of it next year, but even if I never see it again, I'll never forget it.

The banner above, roughly translated, says that "to make our pilgrimage is to show publicly and through the streets our love of God, Our Lord, and the Holy Virgin Mary. We make our pilgrimage with love, devotion and respect." Understatement if ever there was.

The church overlooks Puerto Vallarta's small municipal square. Throngs of the faithful from all over the region descend on it by the tens of thousands each December, so many that it takes 12 days and nights to give each group the chance to make its processional through the cordoned streets of downtown and under the banner to greet the object of their veneration.

The people don't come with their parish congregations as you might expect. They come with the people they spend their work days beside. The groups are the staffs of hotels, stores, rural communities and associations. They are waiters, cashiers, housekeepers, farmers, sales people and all manner of other ordinary folks.

Some are costumed and stage little pageants as they walk along. Others ride on floats or carry elaborate icons. But many come only as themselves in their everyday clothes. The group in this photo represent the Puerto Vallarta "ejido."

An ejido holds a grant to occupy and use government land originally expropriated from vast private holdings nearly a century ago during Mexico's revolution. Signs these people carried described them as a united community of farm workers. Their faces declared that they were modest, self-reliant and familiar with disappointment and hardship, practical people who nevertheless sacrificed a work day to help celebrate an occurrence nearly 500 years ago whose authenticity and meaning are far from clear.

You can read about it in Wikipedia like I did, but in a nutshell, Our Lady of Guadalupe was a vision of the Virgin Mary said to have appeared in 1531 to a converted Aztec with the adopted name of Juan Diego. When his archbishop demanded proof, Juan Diego returned to the snowy hillside near what is now Mexico City where he had the vision and returned with a bouquet of Castillian roses that had miraculously bloomed at the site. He had wrapped them in his tunic, which was found to have been imprinted with the Virgin's likeness.

The priests who partnered up with the conquistadores to save the souls, if not the bodies, of the people of New Spain were notorious for selling Christianity by cutting and pasting bits of gospel onto accepted indigenous story lines. The Juan Diego narrative supposedly bears traces of an Aztec legend or two.

The story and the tunic have been closely scrutinized for centuries, but the people in the streets here and all over Mexico couldn't care less. Juan Diego's vision became so deeply woven into the cultural and historical fabric of the country that Mexicans don't think about it; they feel it as part of themselves. In fact, the priests were almost certainly right when they foresaw that the vision would owe much of its power to its pre-Columbian roots.

We could feel that power ourselves before we'd read a word about what we were witnessing. Day and night, street fairs and concerts surrounded our neighborhood non-stop. Amplified music clamored from every direction -- hymns, salsa, oompa bands, military ensembles -- and every few minutes the church's enormous bells pealed over all. It was pretty overwhelming, and after more than 36 hours of pilgrimage by proxy, our nerves were frayed.

But when we ventured down to the church early Monday, there was a lull in the noise and then the campesinos of the ejido passed slowly by. Something about them brought a lump to both our throats, and we had to wipe our eyes.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Best Practices

On our last walk through Central Park before we blew town for the holidays, there wasn't much late autumn color left on the trees. This willow giving up the last of its 2011 glory was about the last of it, but it got me thinking about the park and how much it means to the city and also to a nation of people who are New Yorkers by visit, aspiration, adventurous past, proxy through a friend or family member, favorite movie or whatever.

Breathes there the New Yorker with soul so dead who never to himself has said, "Thank God for the Central Park Conservancy, because we remember what the park was like before the Conservancy came along."

Even a city bureaucracy fat with drones and political hacks could never kill a place as perfect as Central Park, but they laid it very low in the 1970s and 80s. When we moved here in 1988, the park was like nobility on hard times and bad habits. It was dirty, dysfunctional and dangerous. The landscapes were bedraggled, the fountains didn't work, public concessions and bathrooms were sparse at best, and graffiti announced everywhere that anything could happen here and nobody would care.

The other unmistakable message was that while public authorities may once have believed and invested in the importance of lovely open spaces that all city dwellers could enjoy, that was in a bygone era when public authorities thought big thoughts about the needs of ordinary city dwellers. In latter day New York, you were welcome to be a voter, an employee, a consumer and a sucker, but if you also wanted to be a human being, you could do it on your own time.

I don't know who first imagined that we all deserved better and envisioned the way to make that happen. I've made a New Year's resolution to look into it and also to send a check. Not only has the Convervancy returned the park to its former grandeur, they've demonstrated in scores of ways how a well-run enterprise can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

That they do it for the public good and not a private one is challenging and inspiring in too many ways to count.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Blowin' Smoke

The weather outside is frightful. Time for the nicotine addicted to brace themselves.

I always feel compassion for the forlorn clusters of coffee break smokers who huddle outside the entrances of commercial buildings, heedless as mailmen or hard core golfers of rain, sleet and snow, one arm wrapped tight around midriff and the other hand free to administer the soothing dosage.

Cigar smokers like me can't indulge ourselves for five minutes and then duck back inside. It takes nearly an hour to finish one of my robustos, and that would mean hypothermia if I tried to do it on the sidewalk. Ordinarily I smoke on our terrace at home and read, but that's over for the season.

Fortunately, there are two havens within walking distance of home, smoke shops that maintain lounge space for consumption of cigars purchased on the premises. Unfortunately, neither is entirely satisfactory.

The closest, a few blocks south of us on Lexington, is close to a JP Morgan Chase office. The smoking lounge is small, and most days it's packed with investment bankers. I'm sure they are nice people underneath it all, but what's on display as they puff their stogies is loud, opinionated, egocentric and self-assured. It's like being in a roomfull of talking dogs.

My other choice is a couple of blocks east on 2nd Avenue. The lounge there is a lot bigger, and it even includes a gaslight era barber's chair where for months I got my hair cut. It was cheaper than my previous hair place by enough to pay for my cigar, with the incredible bonus that I could smoke it while I was getting clipped! I asked once for a hot towel to be wrapped around my face with the cigar sticking out like in those old gangster cartoons, but it wasn't as much fun as it looked like.

Then the young woman who did the barbering went home to Michigan, and no replacement has been found. She claimed she actually enjoyed second-hand cigar smoke. There can't be many like her.

So I was thrown back into the general population. The rest of the lounge was a sort of sports bar, where etiquette called for buying at least one drink. The conversation all revolved around favored team performance, recent vacations, and drinking escapades. Not that any of those topics is so terrible, and smoking really is a sociable habit. I think even the coffee break types outside are enjoying themselves together, as pitiful and miserable as they look. But I've lost the knack and prefer my book.

Consequently, here's how my winter will play out, just like it does every year. I will go to Mexico for the holidays and have a cigar wherever and whenever I want in the Pacific breeze without bothering anyone. Then I will come back in January and see if I can stand smoking with the Masters of the Universe. It won't work, so I'll move back to the sports bar. That won't work either, and I'll begin thinking that maybe it's time to give up the habit like I know I should.

Then the weather will start to turn a bit warmer. At about the same time, the spring catalogue will arrive from J&R Cigars, because they know me so well. Cigars look so enticing in glossy four-color photographs.

You know the rest.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Pulaski Yacht Club

For people whose only glimpses of the city are passing through on the Cross Bronx Expressway, the outer boroughs look like a vast, impenetrable mass of masonry and asphalt, indifferent at best, predatory at worst, the kind of place where you pray never to make a wrong turn or flatten a tire. Think Bonfire of the Vanities. God knows how people live in such hard surroundings.

So when you actually move here, it's a slowly unfolding surprise to find out that many of the kinder and gentler aspects of life as the greater United States knows it can actually thrive all over NYC too, sometimes where you'd least expect to come across them.

I took the picture above last weekend from the Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek, which separates Queens from Brooklyn. Carefully moored along the Queens bank behind warehouses, weeds and barbed wire were this handful of neat little sloops. I wouldn't recommend swimming in that water, but otherwise this seems like a pretty good place to start a weekend sailing trip, minutes from the East River. Turn right for Long Island Sound or left for the harbor and the deep blue sea.

We lived for years in Riverdale in the northwest Bronx, not far from heavily wooded Van Cortlandt Park. I realized one day I was a 15 minute walk from a good city golf course, and even closer to a riding stable where you could rent a horse and trot quickly into forest so dense you could convince yourself you were on the Appalachian Trail. Personally, I don't golf or ride, but I'm just saying.

You can canoe the Bronx River, and I think I read somewhere you can even fly fish parts of it, with the added bonus that you might spot a rare orchid or a zebra, since the stream goes right by the zoo and the botanical gardens.

Thinking again about Riverdale, looking across the Hudson from our living room, the entire view was the New Jersey palisades, lofty stone cliffs, festooned with woods that were easily accessible across the George Washington Bridge. In the fall I never understood why New Yorkers drive five hours to Vermont or even take ship for Nova Scotia to look at leaves.

I had a sailboat in South Carolina and felt lucky, but it took me nearly an hour to drive to the lake where I kept it. If I had it now, I could keep it on Newtown Creek and get there on my bike in 15 minutes. All I'd need would be a pork chop for the Rottweiler that guards those warehouses.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Story of News

Like anybody who worked for AP at 50 Rockefeller Plaza during the 65-plus years our company lived there, I get a twinge every time I walk by the Noguchi bas relief that still graces the building's facade and presumably always will. We passed daily beneath it thinking it was ours. Or even more, that it was us.

But of course when we decamped in 2004 for better rent in Hudson Yards, we learned the ugly truth. It was a fixture of the building, added as an extravagant courtesy to a charter tenant. It was somebody else's property, and by the time we left, it had long since become part of a national landmark and couldn't have gone with us even if we'd wanted to buy it and the landlord had been willing to sell.

Bank of America now occupies our old space, using it to do the things big banks do nowadays, which presumably does not include investing in the struggling news industry. BA. How I loathe them, until I remember they are too big to fail and really even too big to hate.

When I look up at the icon created to pay homage to a free press, without irony as far as I know, in the style of Socialist Peoples Art, what I feel instead is a smaller sense of personal loss, very much like what I felt when I went home after college and found my old bedroom turned into guest quarters. But at least my parents weren't renting it out to strangers.

The same can't be said of The Story of News, which is now reduced entirely to an ornament at a prestige address.

If anybody doubts that AP's once proud standard now makes its separate way in the world as a commercial asset, he has only to walk caddycorner across Rockefeller Plaza to the Lego store, where you can see it -- maybe even buy it -- skillfully executed in bits of blow-molded plastic. Sic transit gloria mundi.