The hotel receptionist in Downtown West lifted his unquestionably Mexican face from his computer screen, looked at my unquestionably Mexican face and welcomed me to the hotel in Mexican-English. My Mexican-English was a bit rusty because the last few times I’d visited the United States I hadn’t been to the Mexican part, that slice of the country that the maps go on saying belongs to the United States out of a lack of common sense and a political strategy based on the denial of everyday reality.
As I filled in the check-in form, I asked the receptionist, who it turned out was called Heriberto, or Herb in Mexican-English, to recommend me some restaurants nearby. He mentioned a Mexican place a couple of kilometres away – incredible Oaxacan food, he said – and somewhere selling tacos on the corner.
Once I was installed in my room, I started to think that the hotel corridor reminded me of something, most probably a film. But that always happens when I come to the United States: I can never escape the feeling that I’m living on a film set or a television show.
Then I checked my email and learned that something had gone wrong while I was flying the eleven hours from São Paulo to Los Angeles. I had come all the way here to write an article that now, due to dark misfortunes that occurred as I was busy tying my neck up in knots in the aeroplane, it looked like it would be impossible to write. To cheer myself up, I left the hotel, walked to the street corner under the devastating Californian sun and ate tacos al pastor until my sense of decency, which is pretty lax at the best of times, said enough was enough. –
It may still be possible to salvage the article – that is to say, I may not have come all the way here in vain. Everything depends on what happens over the next few hours (or days). Meanwhile, all I can do is wait.
Wait, and practise Mexican-English with Herb.
Wait, and eat tacos from the place on the corner.
Wait, and watch Korean soap operas subtitled in American-English.
My favourite is about a dashingly handsome extra-terrestrial called Do Min-joon, who falls in love with a very famous actress called Cheon Song-yi. But it turns out that Do Min-joon is only in love with Cheon Song-yi because she looks exactly like a woman he was in love with when he arrived on Earth four hundred years ago, and who died tragically to save his life. That is to say, it’s a love full of guilt and nostalgia, helped along by the minor detail that Cheon Song-yi is beyond the shadow of a doubt the most beautiful woman I have ever seen on television in my life. Well worth waiting four hundred years for. I, meanwhile, will wait until tomorrow to see the next episode.
I spent a while on the internet looking at photos of hotel corridors in American films. I was reassured to see that my hotel does not resemble the one in The Shining.
At midday, I walked to the Oaxacan restaurant. As well as the Californian sun, which after five hundred metres was practically obliterating me, I had to put up with stupefied looks from the motorists, who pointed at me in horror from inside their air conditioning capsules. I imagined a call to 911, translated in my head into Mexican-English: ‘Ders an emeryenci, a men guakin on olimpic bulevar.’
Then I had to navigate a maze of confusion, because I don’t understand Oaxacan-English very well. I was afraid they’d end up bringing me dishes I didn’t want so I asked the waiter if we could speak in Mexican-Spanish, but he told me he didn’t know how. As it happened, he didn’t speak Oaxacan-Mexican either, or American-English or Global-English. He only spoke Oaxacan-English. When he saw my disconcerted expression, which was also an indictment of the restaurant’s recruitment process, he felt the need to justify himself: ‘derarr a milion oahaquitas in elai,’ he said. It occurred to me that the Oaxacans, far from Oaxaca, had at last founded the perfect country: a Oaxaca that was only for Oaxacans. Fortunately, there was a menu with photos in it and I could order my food by pointing. I ate like a god, finishing off a magnificent plate of chicken with Oaxacan mole sauce. Back at my hotel, in a combination of sunstroke and indigestion I came upon the motto of the blossoming Oaxacan nation: ‘Democracy now, and mole for all.’
I started looking at photos of Cheon Song-yi, who in real life is called Jun Ji-hyun (also known as Gianna Jun), on the internet and ended up investigating how much a plane ticket from Los Angeles to Seoul would cost. The price was depressing, but I immediately set another strategy in motion: an urgent email to my agent, asking her to sort out a contract for one of my books to be translated into Korean as soon as possible.
In the evening, to finish digesting the mole, I went for a stroll to the subway station. I must have had a look of total urgency on my face, because people were offering me ‘aidis’ and social security numbers the whole time. I replied that I didn’t need them, that I already had a Mexican passport and that this was our land – although you did, admittedly, have to fight the Oaxaquitas tooth and nail for it.
No news about the article. I decided to give it until Friday morning.
I asked Herb about Korean restaurants in the area. He looked at me like I was about to commit an act of high treason against the motherland and declared that he couldn’t recommend me anything because, naturally, he hadn’t been to a single one. When midday came, I followed the dictates of caution and chose one that was less than a hundred metres walk from the hotel. I looked at the menu, which was written in Korean and Korean-English, two languages with which I am utterly unfamiliar. The only thing I even slightly recognised was the word ‘noodles’. I decided to have noodles with meat, but when I ordered them the waiter asked me in Global-English with a Korean accent whether I had ever tried noodles before. I hesitated for a second – I swear it was only a second – before telling him that yes, of course I had tried noodles before. He went on eyeing me suspiciously, as if I were lying to him. He flicked through the menu until he reached the final page, where there were two photos. He pointed at each one: ‘Mit or not mit.’ I tried insisting on noodles one final time, but it was impossible: on the road to the denial of noodles there was no turning back. I asked for the dish with meat and they brought me the vegetarian one.
That afternoon, my email inbox was lonelier than a pedestrian on the streets of Los Angeles. Writing the article that had brought me all the way here was starting to seem like the memory of a dream. I stretched out on the bed to watch the next episode of the Korean soap opera. And then, in the very same moment as Cheon Song-yi, who in real life is called Jun Ji-hyun (also known as Gianna Jun), smiled a smile that made my stomach tingle and shook out her long black hair, I heard a noise in the corridor and peered out of the window.
It was a man in a trench coat, carrying a box.
That’s when I realised: my hotel was identical to the one in Barton Fink!
I vaguely remembered the plot, and confirmed it on Wikipedia: a producer contracts a writer to work on a film script and lodges him in a hotel in Los Angeles, where all kinds of strange things happen and where, of course, he does not manage to write the script. The whole thing ends with some corpses and a head in a box.
I stuffed my things into my suitcase, clasped Herb in a brotherly embrace, raced to Olympic Boulevard and leapt into the first taxi I saw, shouting to be taken to the airport.
Which airline are you flying with? The taxi driver asked me in Honduran-English.
Korean Air, I said.
Photograph courtesy of Michael Cory