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I met the painter Esteban Patiño by accident. He was loitering outside of the
Salon España, an ancient cantina in the Centro. It was Saturday afternoon, and
it felt like at least half of Mexico City’s 20 million people were sharing the
block with us, shopping and haggling and jostling, moving in and
around us, anonymous and blurred in the day-to-day koyaanisquatsi that is the
way of things here.

“You look lost,” he said.

“I’m just looking at the menu.”

We were speaking English. He told me he was from Medellin, but lived in
Atlanta — Grant Park, in fact, about eight blocks from my old house. Soon we were
inside, drinking beer, then tequila, then beer. He was visiting for a couple a
weeks, he said, and planning to hang out with his girlfriend, who was coming in
town soon from Chicago.

He had already run up a 500-peso bar tab, and he seemed to know everybody in the place. He introduced me to a few of his new Mexican friends. They shrugged their acknowledgement.

There was a soccer game going on a little television over his shoulder. Patiño
said he was bored with Atlanta. Lacked energy. He told me that he couldn’t stand Frida
Kahlo: “So you painted your spine to show you are in pain. Please.”

He said he liked it here — both Mexico City, and the cantina. He said he had been a bartender before, but he preferred this side. “The happy side,” he called it.

I told him he would be wise to watch himself in this town after dark. He shot
me a look that served to remind me that he was from Medellin. I didn’t
bring it up again.

He talked about John Henderson, the 27-year-old bartender in our Atlanta
neighborhood who was shot to death one late night in January 2009 by some kids in a gang called 30 Deep. We touched on the trouble in Mexico, but Patiño, if I remember right,
returned to the story of John Henderson and the idiots who killed him, and
settled into the thesis of how some idiots are just going to act like idiots.

He showed me the alphabet he had invented. He had had it tattooed on his forearm. He told me it appears in many of his paintings. He told me he was obsessed with the problem of language.

Then the old guy with the electric shock box walked in, and Patiño agreed to be
shocked a few times. The old guy would crank up his box, Patiño would drop the
crackling handles, wincing and hooting, and the old guy would smile dimly. He
charged Patiño 120 pesos for it.

You’ve got to try this, Patiño said. You really have to try it.

Photos: [RF]

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