The Procession of Black Hats
Travel Stories: Jonathan Levin hadn't lived up to his father's expectations. But when he moved to Mexico City, he was told something he thought he'd never hear.
06.13.08 | 12:52 PM ET
Every Friday, on the way home from work, I would watch the procession of black hats as they passed the taquerías on Avenida Presidente Masaryk. With their grade-school-aged sons in tow, the bearded men hurried through the blue-gray Mexico City afternoon, often cutting across traffic in an effort to arrive at synagogue before sundown. Judaism is a religion that defines men in terms of their fathers (for ceremonial purposes, my Hebrew name is Yonatan ben Avram Gershom: Jonathan, son of Avram Gershom), and I found it difficult to be among other Jews without thinking about my dad.
My father was a traveling salesman based in Philadelphia, and had for years been committed to shepherding me into a career more prestigious than his own. Perhaps law, perhaps finance. Instead, I had become a fledgling travel writer. After college, I had run off to Mexico, far from the man whose high expectations had left me feeling as though I didn’t have a say in my own future.
To my surprise, it was the familiar to which I had gravitated. I had moved into an apartment in Polanco, the Jewish section of Mexico City, where I taught business English to cover my expenses.
In fact, my new environment made me feel more Jewish, and more like my father’s son, than ever before. There were only some 40,000 Jews in Mexico City, but 90 percent of them attended Jewish day schools, and very few married outside of the Jewish community. I started going to synagogue, something I hadn’t done since I was a teenager, and found that although I prayed differently (I wasn’t accustomed to rolling my “r"s when I spoke Hebrew), congregants saw my dark, curly hair and knew I was one of them.
As for my father, he had only been close to religion during one period of his life—the year following his father’s death, during which he went to morning prayers almost every day to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish. He believed, above all, that a man ought to always love his father. During that time, I suspect he worried that he had not loved his own enough. It was a preoccupation the two of us shared.
One night, months after the move, he called me at my Mexico City apartment. I figured he was just checking in, as he did about once a week. But when I asked him how he was doing, he told me about the separation, the imminent divorce. What surprised me most was the voice coming through the receiver, not the news itself. (My mother was a patient woman who had worked as a flight attendant for 30 years and put up with thousands of unruly passengers. But neither her yoga classes nor her nightly glass of wine could have helped her withstand my father’s mood swings, which had become much less predictable in his 50s.) But that night, he sounded, for the first time in my experience, pathetic. He was not the same man who had always professed to know “what’s best.”
Over the next few weeks, he and I spent hours talking on the phone. Jewish-day-school kids in black velvet yarmulkes would pass me in the street, and I would immediately feel the impulse to call him, to ask what he had done that day. Had he gotten out of bed? Had he sold anything, or simply driven around town thinking? When I saw the procession of black hats, I felt guilty for being so far from him.
During our chats, he would focus on the person he had been before he married my mother, when he was a visual artist specializing in printmaking. He had earned a degree at the Tyler School of Art, in Philadelphia, and for years afterward had lived an artist’s life, crisscrossing America in a ‘57 Rambler. (On the door, he had painted a graphic of Zap Comix’s Mr. Natural, below it the words: “Keep on truckin’.”) But by the ‘80s, he had already begun to see those years as illusory. He stopped making art. Piece by piece, he left his existing oeuvre behind—in dumpsters behind apartment complexes, I imagined, and the basements of rented houses—replacing it all with family portraits and other symbols of middle-class life.
Asked why he had quit art, dad had many answers. Money was one. He would say that he wasn’t selfish enough to pursue it. That it was more important that he take care of his family. Another was aptitude. He peaked at mediocrity, he would say. And other times, asked the same exact question, he would simply respond, “I don’t know.” For the past two decades, he had been not an artist but a regional sales rep for an industrial tool manufacturer, working out of his car to supply Philadelphia’s body shops with clamps and brackets and the machines they would need to repair damaged automobiles.
But now the story of his life seemed less clear. What had once seemed like a narrative arc had become a series of hills and valleys.
He even started asking me about real estate in Mexico City. He was speaking like someone who’d just realized he could spend his time anyway he chose, in any corner of the world. The way I had been speaking since graduation.
One of my journalism mentors in college had told me, “If you go to the story, you’ll find work.” So I had moved to a country caught up in an important and polarizing presidential election. Anytime something newsworthy happened, I would call it to the attention of American newspaper and magazine editors. Bombings. Political rallies with crowds estimated at half a million people (a stark contrast to the anti-Iraq War protests I’d seen in the States, which usually looked more like small, casual gatherings.) I hoped that eventually one of those editors would give me the opportunity to write something meaningful in their pages, thereby helping me establish myself as a serious writer.
And at first, everything seemed to be playing out perfectly. For a short while, Mexico City became one of the most newsworthy places on the planet.
The conservative candidate won the popular vote by decimal points, and the leftists occupied Mexico City’s main throughway, Avenida Reforma, in protest of the results. Starting on the eve of the election, I put in some 48 straight hours of writing and reporting toward a story for the New Republic. When I finally went to sleep, I was so tired that I slept through all of the editor’s query emails, and I woke the next day to find that my piece had been dropped. Then Israel launched an offensive into Lebanon, and the American media lost interest in Mexico. I pitched dozens of other magazines, but by autumn, cries for a vote recount had faded—as I eventually learned, this was the normal course of things in Mexican politics. I, meanwhile, had failed to land a single byline. On top of everything else, I was running out of money, and my return to the United States, to better job prospects, was looking inevitable.
One October day, I told my father about Oaxaca, a town some 400 miles southwest of Mexico City, which had recently become embroiled in an old-fashioned uprising, with street gangs commandeering government buildings and calling for the ouster of the governor. I told him I was thinking of going to Oaxaca to gather material for a story, a last ditch effort to land a byline.
And, I said, this may be my only chance to see a revolution up close.
“I never did anything like that,” he said. “I guess you’ve outdone me now.”
At the time, the comment seemed a testament to how the man had changed—or recovered a part of himself—in the time since my mother had left him. Realistically speaking, it was more a testament to his fluctuating moods, which always colored his perception of the things I told him, and of me in general. “I guess you’ve outdone me now”—his comment didn’t signal a permanent change in the way he saw my goals as writer and traveler. But he had said it once, and that was something.
I arrived in Oaxaca on the tail end of the Days of the Dead and made it to the edge of town in time to watch riot police fire tear-gas cartridges into the crowd. Holding a vinegar-soaked rag over my nose and mouth (the vinegar helped neutralize the tear gas), I realized that Oaxaca City was a place where one ought to have been worried about his safety, not his family issues.
Fifty feet in front of me, masked rebels set buses aflame to keep police vehicles from crossing into their territory. Adolescents broke into convenience stores and rinsed their teary eyes with stolen bottles of cola, while I ran between crowds of people conducting interviews and taking photographs. Together, the crowd and I advanced upon the riot police. When a gas cartridge flew at us, we ran in the other direction. When the gas cleared, we advanced anew.
As a child in the politically apathetic ‘90s, I had credulously accepted my father’s stories about his participation in the great social movements of the ‘60s. As I stood in the streets of Oaxaca, I was mentally writing similar stories for my future children, so that they would idolize me as I had idolized my father, at least until worship gave way to simple human love.
Of course, there are no Jews, and certainly no synagogues, in Oaxaca. But it’s a sacred city by all accounts, filled with centuries-old cathedrals and cobblestoned streets stained with the blood of the Mexican Revolution.
Night fell around 7 that Friday, and the smoke from the protests began to clear from the skyline. I spent Shabbat alone in a hotel room thinking about what my father had told me during our last conversation: that I was doing something he never had. It was the greatest compliment I had ever received from him.
When I moved back to the States a few weeks later, I would find that our relationship had become something far different from what it had been on my departure. If not easier, certainly richer. My father would find the full strength of his voice again, and he would resume nagging me about finding a reliable career. I, meanwhile, would never publish the piece I had gone to Oaxaca to write, leaving me without proof that I knew what I was doing with my life, or at least my 20s.
That night in Oaxaca, I realized that my father might never fully condone my career choices. But he understood them, in the sense that he remembered a time when he made decisions without really knowing why. And in that city overrun by political extremists and opportunistic bandits, I slept like a boy in his childhood home—no, I slept better than I did back then.