FATEFUL BIRTHDAYS

First Birthday in Mexico: November 1998

I was born November 21, 1941, sixteen days before “the day that shall live in infamy,” the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I had tried to warn them, but my baby cries went unheeded as the doctor and my parents diagnosed my frantic gasps as merely gas.

One day after my twenty-second birthday in 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Who could have predicted this fateful disaster or the way it robbed us of all our innocence? My graduation entry into the McMaster yearbook read, “from Kennedy’s undelivered Dallas address.”

And thirty-five years later, two days after my fifty-seventh birthday in 1998, I was to enter a small hospital in Guadalajara for an angioplasty. Thus, on my first birthday in retirement in Mexico, I was determined to celebrate my natal day and hold off a little longer that ultimate and fateful day.

Thus, I suggested to Jim and three other couples that we celebrate my birthday with dinner and a night on the town in Guadalajara. We all booked rooms at a small hotel just off the Avenue 16th of Septiembre in the heart of the historic old city near Nine Corners.

Four of us arrived early on Saturday afternoon and decided to tempt fate with lunch at the trendy new Santos Coyote. Anticipating a full dinner later, I ordered a simple chicken salad. The youngster of our group also wisely opted for an appetizer of mushrooms. But the other two more adventurous souls experimented with appetizers of a goat’s head and some mysterious beef dish. After the requisite Marguerites, our dishes arrived with a flourish covered in wicker baskets. The goat’s head was set dangerously near my place, with a mouth full of baby teeth grinning at me in death. As the two picked the tender meat from the goat’s face, a tennis ball sized brain fell from its head. “Delicious” the two ventured as they sampled the meat, but each carefully avoided the wrinkled “ball” lying at the edge of their platter.

Rather than rich chunks of beefsteak, their second dish turned out to be dark fried crunchy-looking innards, tastefully wrapped in bacon. After two bites from that plate, the waiter was summoned to re-interpret the Spanish menu. This was clearly not the “beef chunks” they expected, and it was quickly dispatched to the kitchen.

But despite the menu miscues, the newly renovated former home of the American Consulate was a delightful site for a celebratory lunch. We sat beneath large straw covered palapas hanging with colorful lanterns and surrounded by gardens and waterfalls. The waiters were attentive and handsome, and the ever-growing crowd for lunch was chic and sophisticated, sporting polo shirts and cell phones. And the soft late fall breezes blew softly across our faces. My salad with tasty chunks of chicken was surely no disaster. I had dodged ill fate again.

Back at Nine Corners, we scouted out the recently restored shops and night spots, finding a delightful old city hacienda for a pre-dinner drink. All six of us now gathered in the stable yard down a long elegant promenade. Just before we reached the white-canopied yard, a graceful stone stairway rose up to the second floor where an upper class Spanish-Mexican family had once lived in the last century. Like so many Guadalajara homes, only businesses, stables and kitchens occupied the first floor while the family lived safely and coolly above the street, their servants and the trades-people. Now the late Frank Sinatra crooned from the sound system over a courtyard of deserted tables canopied two floors above in white canvass. Did he really croon “I’ll do it my way,” as we sipped more Margaritas?

Then on to dinner at Pierrot’s, a fashionably comfortable old style restaurant with a classic decor and menu that would have been at home anywhere in the world. After birthday toasts the eight of us relaxed into an easy dinner of good conversation and fun. But beyond it all was the nagging fateful thought of Alast dinner@ from a inveterate worrier. Empty when we arrived at eight, the restaurant had filled by the time we departed at ten. Guadalajara society eats much later than we are used to in the U.S. or Canada. But our early party had yet another mission that evening. Next stop was a male drag and strip bar called Arizona on La Paz.

The Arizona was a rather sleazy bar set incongruously in the upscale Chapultapec area. We paid our 25 peso cover charge at the street and filed quickly down a long alley to the door at the back room. Someone slipped the host/hostess Beverly 100 pesos and we were ushered quickly to a ringside table. The disco music blared through huge black speakers hung precariously from the ceiling. By arriving an hour before the show, we were assured a table, but only a few others were occupied at that early hour. As we waited, conversation out of the question in the din, groups began to arrive.

As is the custom here, tables were encouraged to order a single bottle for all rather than separate drinks. We opted for wine and were handed a warm bottle of a mystery label screw-top bottle. Even over ice it was undrinkable.

The show began with a flourish of vamped music ninety minutes later. Down the stairs from the dressing rooms above, trouped two sequined heavily made up drags who bounced their way through a Donna Summers number before a delighted crowd of well-wishers. After their number on came the diva hostess who bantered back and forth with the audience, all in Spanish of course. But our lack of language did not prevent us from becoming the center of attraction rather quickly. The two of us who had birthdays that day were introduced amidst great fanfare. Earl made sure we remembered the evening with a photo of us on either side of the diva.

And then the first stripper arrived. He was small and dark and wore a sexy black suit and sunglasses. I had carefully avoided the front row when we were seated. Jim and Earl did not. And so they got to help this and the following strippers in removing their clothes and warming up the merchandise. Their bodies were dark and hairless and perfect. Each glistened with sweat as they danced furiously and rubbed their hands over every inch of their bodies. And members of the audience were encouraged to do the same, even over the dancers’ own members.

Yet I couldn’t enjoy the sleaze. It is one thing to watch safely at home on a video. Somehow the sight of older men fondling the young commercial bodies was more turn-off than a turn-on for me. The fact that my own friend was enjoying every minute of his assigned tasks made it even more uncomfortable.

Later, as one of the last drags did her routine, she grabbed a bottle of tequila from a guest’s table. First she up-ended the bottle and dribbled it down her own throat. Then she came at those seated at ringside. Earl refused her offer, but she kept on pouring when she got to Jim. He was forced to open his mouth or risk the entire shot going over his crisply ironed navy blue polo shirt.

Finally it was over, just short of 1:00 AM and the next show. I was on my feet immediately and lead our party quickly to the street. The much younger men smiled at us as we made our way through the crowd huddled in the aisles. The fresh clean air that greeted us slowly began to cleanse the stale smells of sweat, smoke, sour tequila and stale beer from my lungs.

Everyone else seemed to have had a marvelous time, why hadn’t I? Was it the last vestiges of my Puritanical Ontario up bringing? Was it a shade of green jealousy as Jim seemed to relish the touch of the young dancers? Or was it the thought that these scenes might be some of my last memories as my fate on the operating table loomed before me?

But this fateful birthday also passed. Only 42 hours later I was on the table at Del Carmen Hospital not too many blocks away from the Arizona. The tests indicated the need for the angioplasty and another 36 hours later the doctors were placing a stent in one of the arteries of my heart. The next day was American Thanksgiving and I was discharged to drive home and join more friends for a most thankful dinner.

Another fateful birthday had come and gone, but I was still here and preparing to enter the last year of the second millennium. Hopefully, this was just the first birthday of many in a new country where new adventures greet us every day.

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