#24 First Step

The first step on the way home is to sit down. By that I mean to understand. Which is to say look up at things, the way a child looks up at an adult. Open to the possibility that the adult is in possession of something the child needs to know. But unsure what that is, so the child satisfies rapacious curiosity with an endless string of questions. 

Thus the child sets an example of what it is to understand. To see from below. To avoid looking down on things lest they be consumed in shadow. The example is fair - but for adults altogether insufficient. Because there are things children haven’t the capacity to look at without being irrevocably traumatised. So adults must look elsewhere for examples of mature naivety that leads to understanding.

Tucked away through a set of old wooden doors, between two shops filled with knock-off antiques, on an unassuming street in the historic part of town, is a place called Gym Puebla. Its owned and run by a man formerly called Mr Puebla. These days its hard to understand a word he says. Each one rises on rusty wheels and pulleys from an iron belly, greased by meat and moonshine. In his chest they squeeze between walls of dried muscle and scrape against the back of his grunt-worn throat.

Gym Puebla is a ruin. Mr Puebla is an old king. Every morning - after working out - he rinses his face with tepid water and combs his hair with brylcreem. Then he stands for a while in a corner of the gym where a wooden frame houses an image of Mary seven feet from the ground. A lace curtain ensures she never learns that her neighbour is a scantly glad fitness model, nor sees any of the other pieces of motivational material on the white stone walls. Only a boxing ring, some barbells, a poster of Schwarzeneggar and Mr Puebla, who rattles mumbled incantations at her feet, and marks himself humbly in the sign of the cross.

Most days around 5pm another man visits the gym. His modest frame is athletic and woven with playful tension, belying the age his spectacles reveal. They call him the Little Clown - or at least Mr Puebla does - for he makes his way as a street performer, karaoke musician and occasional shoe shiner. He also gives instruction in Lucha Libre, which literally translated means free fight.

Each week in the town's arena, a company of heroes, underdogs, gladiators and villains don masks and backstories in pursuit of what they’re fighting for. Sometimes pride, sometimes revenge, sometimes love and sometimes honour. Always drama. The kind that pokes and prods at dormant pools of fettered emotion buried in the crowd. Exorcised and hurled in the direction of masked men and women, who by some calling have chosen this to be their art. They thrive on it and survive on it. Just like their fans.

My first Lucha training session with the Little Clown involved rolling around the perimeter of the ring, then to and from its centre in a formation called estrella, which means star. Suitably nauseous he proceeded to demonstrate for me and my friend a series of holds, trips and reversals. Each required one of us in turn to lead by subtle or exaggerated gesture, then to hand over the reigns and respond to the other’s desire. The result was a dance, the outcome irrelevant, success was measured in how.

Years ago I became obsessed with unmasking myself. I tried speaking for the voice most afraid in me, convinced by its pain that it was the most real. Or the voice most unafraid, convinced by its courage the same. I tried opening my heart, but I didn’t know how. And closing it, but that was a lonely road. I tried hiding my masks in locked drawers in dark rooms where no one could find them. But from the shadows they haunted me, and without them I had no control. So I gathered my masks together under the glow of a single flame. And I tended their cracks with oil and their coats with polish. I made sure I could see out their eyes and breathe freely through their mouths. Then I practiced them with others, as if the whole world was on my side.

At the end of the day, in the privacy of my own home, I sat down. By that I mean I understood. Which is to say I looked up. Naive, curious, full of questions. The way a child looks up at an adult. And I knew that answers were never sought in the first place. Only examples.

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)