To get to Woodstock South, fly to Mexico City and catch the next plane to Leon. The bus is cheaper and more comfortable, but the bus station is across town a half hour by taxi. Mexico City is huge, sprawled across the landscape like Los Angeles.
San Miguel de Allende was colonized by Woodstock artists long ago. There is a famous art school where Woodstockers have been teachers and students. A few years ago the flaneur flew down to the old colonial town to visit his friend, Stella Chasteen. Stella is a ceramic artist whose favorite artists are Bosch and Brueghel. She’s a Scot who studied with Lucian Freud at the Slade School in London.
The flaneur arrived, with his usual impeccable timing, on the Day of the Dead, a part of Halloween Mexicans take very seriously. That evening, before dinner with Woodstock artists Alan Siegel and Mamie Spiegel, the flaneur and his hostess walked down a narrow street in which each house displayed a window exhibit celebrating the artfulness of death. It was a view into the national psyche.
Perversely cheered by the skulls and coffins they’d viewed, the flaneur and Stella drank the excellent Mexican beer, Negro Modelo, and ate their bloody steaks with gusto.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation turned to the subject of the day. The flaneur told them of the strange and lonely death of Neal Cassidy, the Beat Generation figure Kerouac wrote about in On The Road as Dean Moriarty. He was found dead, of causes unknown, on the railroad tracks leading into San Miguel.
The next morning was hotter than usual in the mountains, so they drove to La Gruta, a swimming hole not far from the town. It is a natural grotto entered by water down a long dark tunnel, a birth canal, from which you emerge into the fierce Mexican sunlight, refreshed if not reborn. (It was also a spa, so he discounted the easy symbolism.)
The Jardin (pronounced har-DEEN), smaller than New York’s Washington Square Park, is the center of San Miguel. After lunch they claimed a park bench, and watched the town go by, from noisy balloon sellers to new mothers showing off their babies. The rowdy birds in the trees competed with the happy stridency of the mariachis and the rapid Spanish of those who promenaded past.
As the days passed and he settled into the slow rhythm of life in paradise, the flaneur took stock of himself and his new environment. He looked for what Mexico had to teach him and decided that the lesson presented by Mexico was astonishment…and time. Time was an illusion, it did not move, he saw. It remained the same, while we moved through our lives. In this sense, the Mexicans were Aztecs. This revelation was as astonishing as watching the sun rise. He turned it over in his mind, and found no way to escape its truth. Woodstockers who lived in San Miguel warned him that Mexico was a trip, and now he began to see what they meant. Here were people who barely had two pesos to rub together who seemed happy; people who were called lazy by racists, who worked harder than Americans. He watched the sweepers, and the linesof a poem came to him:
“At five in the morning,/in the garden
beneath/The blue jacaranda/Where the peacocks scream/And the fountain refreshes/The riotous flowers,/I sweep the blue shreds of dawn.”
The Jardin was always immaculate. One morning he was surprised to find an American newspaper left on his favorite bench. The bench gave him a complete view of the pink towers that rose above the neo-Gothic facade of Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel. Someday he would enter the church. For now the towers were all he needed to ascend to heaven. He picked up the newspaper and felt dizzy. It was March, 1997, and the news reported the suicidal departure from this dimension, possibly by UFO, of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult.
Why was everyone in such a hurry? Heaven would call soon enough. He thought of the calacas, the tiny skeleton figures like us getting married, playing the guitar — they were both funny and sad, bustling about, forgetting the skull beneath the skin. He watched a sweeper in the distance, and another stanza of his poem came unbidden: “I sweep the drowsy scorpions/ From the rumpled bed of morning/So the day is easy/And without apprehension.”
As he walked the streets of San Miguel, the flaneur recognized faces that had disappeared from Tinker Street. Some of them had just moved their crafts shops south to San Miguel, while others had built new houses in the hills. It was becoming an American outpost, with a distinctly Woodstock edge.
One morning Stella told him she wanted to destroy some of her ceramics. The flaneur saw no flaw in their beauty, but she was adamant. The flaneur proposed that she give them away. So that afternoon they sat on his bench in the Jardin and watched as people stopped to look at her discards, which he had placed across the street with a sign in Spanish: free. Most passed by without looking. It was several hours before they were all taken, a lesson in humility. Or was there a deeper lesson to be learned? Thinking about time standing still, and the Heaven’s Gate suicides, he knew that he knew nothing.
“I sweep the crumbs from the picnics / Of the poor, so they will not seek/Second helpings of what they cannot have.”
Staring up at the towers, it occurred to him that Woodstockers came to San Miguel for what they could not find at home: peace.
He finished his poem.
At five in the morning
No one is here to hold
The great bunches of balloons,
And the April rain has washed
Away the cantilena of the guitars
And the triumph of the bright horns.