Michael James : ‘El Lechero’ in San Miguel de Allende, 1962

‘El lechero’ in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, August 1962. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
El lechero‘ in San Miguel, 1962

We arrive early and watch people setting up and selling their produce and wares. There are a few vaqueros stumbling up a cobblestone street… I shoot an image of a lechero making his delivery rounds, a container of milk on his back.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | August 21, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

I’m riding in the back seat of a 1957 Plymouth, heading to Acapulco on a weekend adventure. Cliffs on the mountainside act as pages in the “People’s Book,” catching my attention. Giant messages say: “¡Capitalismo No! ¡Comunismo Si! ¡Viva Castro!” I heard in one of my anthropology classes about leftist guerillas controlling portions of Guerrero, the state we’re riding in.

The car belongs to the Delamarter twins out of Michigan, Larry and Lou. Also on the ride are Bob Marks and a guy named Zeke from Long Island. I credit these four with introducing me to the wilder side of new things I experienced in Mexico.

In Acapulco there’s drinking at a back-street cantina where a little pimp, speaking a few words in five languages, introduces a parade of women. There is a party on a docked sailboat, where the Jamaican captain is very rude to the women he’s invited.

On a more wholesome adventure, we head south of Acapulco to a non-tourist beach, for a great swim in the Pacific. Older women sit on an old boat. A campesino couple is walking the beach. An old man is asleep in a hammacca.

I see Afro-Mexican kids, reflecting the slave economy of earlier times. Years later I will learn the extent to which African slaves were brought to Mexico and Central and South America. And later I will also learn that Mexico abolished slavery in 1829, long before it was abolished in the USA.

Early Sunday morning in Acapulco, at dawn, I’m awakened from a short night’s sleep by the barking of dogs, followed by the earth rumbling and the building shaking. Whoa! It’s short and then it’s over: my first earthquake.

On yet another occasion with the same four fellows, plus another gringo and three Mexican theater types, I take a Saturday trip to San Miguel de Allende. An artists’ colony with a long-running expatriate presence, San Miguel is about 175 northwest of Mexico City. Once a battleground between the Dominican and Franciscan religious orders, there are churches everywhere.

We arrive early and watch people setting up and selling their produce and wares. There are a few vaqueros stumbling up a cobblestone street after an apparent night out. Lots of burros, little beasts of burden, are loaded with bundles on their backs. An old man pulls a small cart, watched by a group of laughing Mexican teenagers modernos. What a contrast. I shoot an image of a lechero making his delivery rounds, a container of milk on his back.

Other new friends I meet at the Mex-Ci-Co apartamentos include Jack and Donna Traylor, and Jim Darby, who years later would become a Chicago public school teacher. Jim, an ex-sailor, had ridden the smallest model Honda motorcycle all the way from Chicago. Part of the trip his brother was riding on back, getting out of town after being shot in the leg.

I would see Jim just once back in Chicago, but after then was never able to find him — that is, until I saw him in 2013 while watching public TV. Jim and his boyfriend were the focus of a story about how they are suing my pal David Orr, the Cook County Clerk, over the right to marry in Illinois. Wow. I ended up contacting him and having him on our Live from the Heartland radio show.

Jack Traylor was an Okie, his family part of the Grapes of Wrath migration that moved from Oklahoma to California in the late 1930’s. He and Donna were schoolteachers and graduate students. And Jack sang beautiful versions of Woody Guthrie songs. He has my favorite voice ever.

In the early 1960’s in San Jose, California, Jack taught Paul Kantner guitar riffs. Later in the 60’s he played with the Gateway Singers and toured the nation’s folk clubs. In the 70’s, his own group, Steele Wind, put out an album on Grunt. The Jefferson Airplane “stole” guitarist Craig Chaquico from Steel Wind. Jack wrote some tunes for Jefferson Airplane, and was the link that brought the Airplane to the Heartland Café 40-odd years later.

Jack and Donna have a VW camper. I ride around with them, and they are the closest thing to parental figures I have in Mexico. They look out for me. Once Jack throws me into the van and speeds off. We’d been drinking at the Tipico Mexico in Garibaldi Square, a place full of bars, mariachi bands, and putas.

A well-dressed young Mexican with a smile asks me — an inebriated, not-very-bilingual gringo¿Como se gusta tipico Mexico? How do I like typical Mexico? Thinking he means the bar we’ve been in, where solicitation for sex is constant, I say No me gusta, demasiado putas, “I don’t like, too many whores” — whereupon Jack immediately shoves me into the van; an embarrassing episode to this day.

Mexico City. Wow! What a place. Years later I would become friends with the late, great leftist writer John Ross, who was a regular contributor to The Rag Blog and whose El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption in Mexico City covers the city’s dynamic history from early on.

My activities in La Ciudad that summer of ’62 include eating out, drinking, lifting weights at a Mexican version of a Vic Tanny gym, going to museums, taking classes, reading, writing letters, shopping, and getting the Triumph repaired. And I discover Sanborns.

Sanborns was a lunch counter/soda fountain operation similar to Howard Johnsons in the States. I meet a waitress there, a pretty counter girl in a tan uniform, little hat, and white apron. Getting my courage up, I make a return visit and ask if she would like to go on a date, go see a movie. And she accepts.

So, wearing a sport jacket and driving the Delamarter boys’ 1957 Plymouth wagon, I venture into a maze of unpaved back streets, getting lost in el barrio. Eventually I find her family’s small adobe home, indistinct from hundreds of others. I go to the door and she greets me — with the information that her father won’t permit her to go on the date. She says she is sorry. So am I.

At a party one night at the apartment complex, I am sharing a joint: la mota, la marijauna. I remember seeing this far-out, amazing golden waterfall as I take a piss. In the morning I wake up sick. Really sick. Very sick.

Yellow jaundus, hepititis. I’ve got it. It’s got me. Over the course of the next few days, through one of my dad’s connections (who he had repeatedly asked me to contact) —  I end up in the American British Cowdray Hospital. I stay there for 19 days. A benefit is eating big, part of the comeback.

While I am recovering I read a book filled with oddities about Mexico, called A Mexican Medley for the Curious. I read Kerouac’s On the Road. In posession of a portable Olivetti typewriter and probably influenced by Jack’s adventures, I write of my little Mexican adventures. I reference politics, drinking, women, and drugs.

A Panamanian nurse who speaks English and has been very friendly asks if she can read it; I say sure. When she returns a few days later, she hands back my would-be manuscript and leaves without a word, never to return. What? First glimmer of lessons I continue to learn.

For the short remainder of the summer I live with the Delamarter brothers who have moved to a modern apartment off the Carretera Mexico Toluca north of Mexico City College. A general lives next door. We never see him, but we do see his wife — glamorous and modern, a bourgiois woman. Her two small boys come to play; other kids from the neighborhood come around too, checking out the gringos. The sexy neighbor wife has some Afghan hounds and, grinning, looks at us young fellows and asks, “You like my dogs?” Ay-yi-yi.

And then it’s time. Trecking north and back to school, I’m on the Triumph, following the gang of four in the Plymouth. We ride through San Luis Potosi, then the desert and Sautillo, and stop for the night in Monterrey. The next day we ride into dusk, heading to Nuevo Laredo during the night. Suddenly around a curve there are lights: a carnival, people enjoying a festive event. I shoot the picture. We move on, cross the border, and sleep in Laredo on the state side of the Rio Bravo, the Rio Grande.

In the morning we find a bike shop and I arrange to leave the Triumph to be shipped. Post-hepititis, I had been told not to ride the bike. But because Mexican law does not permit me to sell it; if I want to keep it I have to drive it out of the country, doctor’s advice or not.

Then we cross back into Mexico, into Neuevo Laredo for a last-time look around. We walk through the red-light disctrict at noon, observing an abundance of women on the stoops of small shacks, their hair up in curlers.

The gang of four leaves me off at my college girlfriend Lucia’s new family home in Morton, outside Chicago. Her dad and I compete to see who can eat the most jalapeño peppers. A day later I’m hitchiking to Connecticut, somehow via the New York Thruway. A band of Gypsies picks me up in a beater Cadillac convertible. They ask if I have money. “No… I wouldn’t be hitchiking if I had money.”

Late that night I am pretty miserable, sleep-deprived, sort of hallucinating while waiting for a ride near Batavia, New York. I make it home to Connecticut sometime the next day and sleep till the day after that.

It’s good to be home. I talk with my dad. He tells me of his job in a fish cannery in Alaska back in the 1920’s, and lets me know that he had smoked marijauna then. He does encourage me not to smoke it every day.

Against my wishes, Dad had been editing and compiling my letters into what he called “The Mexican Oddyessy of Senior Miguel Gaylord James,” then sending mimeographed copies to family and friends. Years later I am grateful to have that tamed-down version of my summer in Mexico.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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