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Oaxaca Chocolate - Chapter One



I needed coffee, but first I stopped at the big, pink, two-story pastelería. The sugar dough smell woke me a little. Not as good as coffee, but a start.

     I walked in and took two big donuts—donas is what they call them down here—and got in line. Three girls in front dangling book bags dropped their money and giggled to each other, the same way schoolgirls do in the US. They took the bag of pastries from the clerk and giggled more going out the door.

     Next in line, two guys, not local—maybe from Mexico City—muscled, big spiky hair, smoking. They stood in front of me but were talking to each other, ignoring the clerk, so I cut ahead. I was hungry. They gave me the look so I dropped some coins and headed out, leaving them and their dagger-arm tattoos dripping blood. I made a fast exit.

     I was in a hurry and I needed some caffeine for dunking these babies, so I walked half a block over to my espresso joint, La Avenida, and got my seat, the heavy duty one, way in the back.

     A while ago I snapped a chair leg when I sat down and they said, “Roberto, nuestro amigo, you are much too big for our chairs, but too good a customer to lose.” A cook reinforced a chair with two steel rods and painted Santo Gordo in big blue letters on it. Everyone knew it was mine and to stay clear until I was finished for the morning. It was nice to be wanted even if they used that name that I tried to avoid.

     You probably understand the Gordo part. I’ll tell you about the Santo later.

     I was dunking away, turning my espresso into some kind of sweet mocha thing with the donut’s chocolate melting in the cup when it happened.

     My brain yelled earthquake when everything shook. The wall looked like it gave a little in the middle and the floor had a wave passing through the tile. I saw a flash too, but I didn’t reason anything out. I just threw myself down. Then the boom blew out the front window and cut up the American sitting by it, the one who had arrived in Mexico that morning. He started yelling.

     I crawled under the table with my eyes shut and bumped its legs and knocked everything over. The table wouldn’t do much good anyway if tons of rocks and cement came down in a quake, so having the thing lying sideways next to me was about as useful as having it over my head. I lay flat as my cup bounced a couple of times, splattering foam when it hit the floor.

     My donuts survived—a minor miracle. They dropped on my chest and I grabbed them. Then I just held on, like it says to do in earthquakes, but there was no more shaking. Just the one boom and then after a minute someone outside yelled, “It’s an explosion.”

      I looked over at the guy bleeding by the window while the barista wrapped a tablecloth around his arm trying to make a tourniquet out of the thing. It was turning red.

     Some gringos were on their knees under tables. The Mexicans had run out of the building knowing you are dead when a concrete roof falls on you. One tourist couple in the back sat wondering what happened, still holding their coffees.

     “A propane tank blew.” Two Americans had gone out and kept us informed. “Some guy was pumping gas into the bakery from his delivery truck, the kind with the big twenty-foot propane tank.”

 I figured I would go take a look, but stayed near the wall, not like the Mexican crowd forming in the center of the street.

     “Get out. If the truck goes, we’re dead.” One of the Americans had sized up the situation and did what anyone schooled with OSHA and US regulations would do. “It’s going to blow,” he yelled. My fellow safety-first Americans needed no more. They broke into a run, heading the other way.

     I should have gone too but I stayed in the street with the locals. I’d been in Mexico a long while and was picking up good Oaxacan attitudes toward life and death and everything in between.

Flames spiraled out widows and cracks in the bakery. It was my pastelería, my bakery, the big pink building, where I’d bought my donuts a few minutes before. I could have been as deep fried as my chocolate-covered babies, but something must have been watching out for me that morning.

     I had been looking in on Mexican churches awhile and I hoped the Virgin, the one everyone prayed to, watched out for me like she did for the Mexicans. Later on, I would find out I was still on my own. She had not yet decided about me. She knew I still had gringo dreams about getting everyone to arrive on time and making the traffic flow better. Dreams I should leave up north.

     The bakery was a mess. Stonework had fallen. Concrete beams cracked all the way from the roof two stories up, down to the street. Flames were on the roof too. The building was standing, but leaning a little. The explosion was not big enough to knock it down, but it was close and glass was everywhere.

     In the middle of the street, in front of the broken building, the propane gas truck looked normal, except its right front tire was burning away. Flames and smoke twisted out the wheel well, like during one of the really bad protests when trucks and buses were torched and the crowd threw rocks and the police used sticks to hit everyone and chase the street clear. Luckily, Oaxaca had been at peace for a while, ever since the old governor left, so we tried to forget that sort of thing.

     The driver had been pumping propane out of one of those big tank trucks. A hose wound from the back of the truck towards the bakery but ended abruptly in the street, chopped off, twisting, and jumping like some crazed fire-snake. Flames shot out its frayed end. Cell phones were already pulled out to take pictures. “What a video,” shouted a student from the local university standing with his friends in the street. “What a great hellish video.”

     It was hell. It looked like the devil spraying fire, like in the paintings that Catholics conjured up when they were really bad and had nightmares. I figured I would see this all again when my Mexican retirement ended and I could not make the grade for Saint Peter.

     I was thinking, maybe I should move back a little, too. God and his Virgin can only protect the crowd and me so much. I knew that from my Protestant physics.

     The man who drove the gas tank truck normally did nothing more dangerous than smoke a couple of cigarettes when he was pumping propane. But this time, he was holding on to the valve in back of the tank, shielded partly from the flames by a thousand kilos of pressurized gas ready to blow. He had wrapped his hands in rags to keep from burning them too much as he held the valve heated by the flames ten feet away. He turned it as quickly as he could. The loose hose slowed its wild jumping. The fire shooting out its end stopped. The valve was closed. The hose looked dead lying there after all that work dancing in the street.

     It was different in the bakery. Flames had gotten bigger and heat was hitting my face even here half a block away.

     Most firemen stood around in their long yellow coats and fire hats. I kept thinking that the government would want a picture in the newspapers the next day to reassure everyone, probably a big one in color.

     One fire truck was pumping water. Even more firemen came and pulled the hoses from the side of another fire truck. They drenched the propane truck. In thirty seconds its tire stopped burning. Sooty smoke came out making a nasty black fog, low on the street, smelling like an old tire skid.

    With this success, the firemen turned to the bakery. It was burning fast.

Buildings down here are stone or cement, so fires usually go out pretty quickly—no walls or roof to feed the fire, not like back in the States where we trust wood way too much. The bakery was not just cement, though. It had tables and counters and but worst was the oil for frying the donuts, and I was not even thinking about the propane gas tanks on the roof. This was a fight. Not simply a photo op for the firemen.

     People in the street talked as they watched. Everyone had something to say, but they all understood that the gas truck was filling the propane tanks in the bakery when something went wrong. Maybe the hose was old. Maybe a connection failed. No one knew. Most would say God willed it. No one knew it was deliberate, a crime. They never would, but I would find out soon.

      More fire trucks came.

I watched while they got everything under control. Smoke replaced flames. Firemen kept spraying the propane truck. The crowd moved towards it. Some even hid right behind the big tank so they would not feel the heat. This was Mexico and crowds did what they wanted.

     People have freedom here that you never find in the States. Crowds block roads. They parade in the streets, sometimes in protest and sometimes just following around the Virgin Mary—called María here in Mexico. Police only watch. Most of the time.

     Some younger men in the crowd walked right up with the firemen. God would watch out for them they figured. Not the police.

     I stayed back a little and saw my bakery was done, well done. Oily water poured down by the curb and ended up in a pool covering the sidewalk where I was standing. Probably the same oil that fried my donut was leaking into my shoes.

     The morning stayed confused. No traffic could get through. Police put yellow caution tape everywhere. No one walking paid much attention to it but cars sat and fumed when traffic cops stopped them. Buses figured out routes through other parts of the city. Most people walked. Car traffic was too slow to get anywhere. It was worse than the political blockades that happened every couple of days. This one had people coming to see what was going on, not simply trying to get around it.

     I stayed in the cafe for a while. I couldn’t think of a good reason to leave after things looked under control, so I ordered eggs, huevos rancheros, fried dead, as usual. I might stand next to a hot propane tank but took no chances with half-cooked eggs and their bacteria buddies.

One more espresso and I was pretty perked.

     I listened in on the next table watching a YouTube clip showing the fire. A couple of versions were already up. On Twitter everyone was guessing how many dead people blew up.

The internet had invaded Mexico along with us gringos. Oaxaca used to be my cut-off outpost away from the States back when I got here six years ago. Phone connections were slow; mail was impossible. Now Oaxaca was in the middle of the world, just like everywhere else. And news went around the world fast. I was sure someone in China or Berlin or even Chattanooga or some such God-forsaken place was sitting down and watching my bakery burn right then.

Mexican disasters always have a long fatality list. Gruesome pictures make the newspapers the next day— bodies, car wrecks, and bullet holes are the main fare in what they call the sección roja in the newspapers. With the internet you could see them right away, no waiting for the morning. Disasters were globalized, like everything else. Even me—I went global when I retired. I never thought I would live outside of the States.

     Everyone was saying it was a disaster miracle. “¡Es un milagro!” I heard it over and over. The owner of the bakery had run back in and warned everyone. The customers got out and away from the windows, the windows where I saw my donut tray a couple of hours back. Even the workers upstairs made it to the street and no one died. Not like when the fireworks factory blew up last Christmas north of Mexico City.

     There were burns, but nothing disfiguring. At least, where you could see them. That was the rumor. The gasman burned his hands shutting of the valve, but that was expected. Some people up to a block away were cut with glass, like the guy by my restaurant window. They’d been taken away in new fancy ambulances. Everyone lived. “¡Es un milagro!” Even I said it.

     Some local women were already putting flowers and candles in front of the blown up bakery to make a street altar. The miracle of the Virgin of the Bakery, they said. She watched out for pastry chefs and us donut eaters too. I wanted to leave a tray of fat big ones, not candles, for her. She gets hungry too, I bet.

     My eggs were long gone, but being retired left me a lot of time to sit and look. I did that in the mornings—I read the paper, watched people. But today the crowd, milling around, watching the bakery, got boring. Too many jammed the street. I could only see rear ends backed up to the frame where the window used to be. And then the cook brought out some plywood to cover it. It was time to head back to the apartment.

     I left the cafe and pushed through the crowd. The fire was out and the street was full. A local TV crew holding cameras and microphones interviewed people in the street. They were pushing closer to the walls of the bakery. Police were standing around.

     A Federal Police pickup went by and parked in the Zócalo, the main plaza in Oaxaca, across from the bakery. Cops dressed like soldiers stood in the back of the truck as usual, holding their rifles loosely, looking out through framework of metal pipes built over the pickup bed, a framework that looked made to carry two-by-fours or ladders or anything else, not the rifles and machine guns you could see, barrels poked out, not aimed anywhere in particular. Like usual. The soldiers just watched.

You never knew quite what was happening in Oaxaca. Anything could be political. Maybe the new governor was getting a donut when the bakery went off.

     But I was pretty sure nothing like that happened that day. If it had, companies of soldiers along with their little helicopter, not just one pickup-truckful, would be swarming along with God knows what else. The bakery was just one of those accidents, a broken hose, a big leak, a little spark. That’s what I thought then. Something God did when he was bored, but then changed his mind and saved everyone, your basic Catholic miracle.

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