A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


Two Jorges- A Card Shark, A Deaf Card Reader & Alsatian Food
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I first met Jorge Urréchaga in 1972. Both of us were teaching at a private high school for rich kids. Jorge was born in Cuba of Basque heritage and he and his family had moved to Mexico City during the Batista defeat by Fidel Castro. We had not spoken much at first. His English, while not perfect was precise and he taught English Literature. His Spanish was perfect and precise. We talked to each other in the formal usted. Instead of ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?) we said ¿Cómo está usted? which was stiffly formal. Until the last day we saw each other, when he came to Vancouver by bus from San Francisco in 1995 we used the usted. Just before Christmas on the first school year both Jorge and I (I am called Jorge Alejandro and Jorge always called me Jorge) had a boy from the Korean Embassy as a student. Jorge was given a bottle of Möet Chandon Champagne and I received a bottle of The Glenlivet Single Malt (the 18 year old one). We both eyed our bottles and without saying any words we exchanged them. The next morning a very terrible looking Jorge with deep bags told me, "No matter how much water I used to dilute that whiskey it was always strong! The colour was always dark." We became very good friends then.

By 1972 we were living in the outskirts of Mexico City in a neighbourhood called Arboledas. Jorge, who lived with his mother and younger sister (his father had died) would visit me in his souped up Ford Falcon. When I was in that car I was always terrified. He drove it as if he wanted to die. Jorge had a fine tenor voice and was a fan of opera. He would would stay late, even after Rosemary had gone up to bed. He would sing his favourite arias. Rosemary would have to close Ale's (our daughter was 4) room door. His favourite opera was Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier. I soon knew this opera very well. He also introduced me to Vivaldi's Gloria in D major. He brought the Vivaldi one day and convinced me to buy his Acoustic Research transistor amplifier and his Acoustic Research turntable. I would say that Jorge fine tuned my ears and taught me to appreciate music I was ignorant of.

One of the most interesting moments of our friendship happened one day when he called to tell me that we were going to see Andrea Chénier at Bellas Artes, the Mexico City opera house. A young Mexican tenor was singing the part. His name was Plácido Domingo. Because Domingo's mother sang in a review theatre, el Teatro Blanquita, Mexicans considered him a Mexican then and do so even now. We listened to the first act in a TV station technical van. Jorge had connections. We then went to a loading bay and Jorge knocked in a special way. The doors opened and we were whisked to an empty box. This was the media box which was always empty.

Jorge would call for other reasons. "Tell Rosemary that we are going to the horse races in the afternoon and we are dining in the evening." We would meet Jorge at the Hipódromo de las Américas. Jorge always chatted with a Jewish friend who owned a horse hair brush company. The would do this as the horsed paraded for the paddock inspection. It seems the man knew his horses. He knew his horses by the sheen of their coats. We would pass on most races and then Jorge would tell us to bet on a particular one. I was always cautious but we always won. With part of the money the three of us would then dine at our favourite restaurant, Sep's, which featured Alsatian food. I don't think I ever bought the Jewish horse hair expert know his horses and I suspected that Jorge knew a few of the jockey who probably threw races.

Another time Jorge called and said, "Tell your cousin Robby (he lived nearby) that we want to play some bridge." I told Jorge that Robby was an uncommonly good player. "Don't worry about it. If he asks just tell him we use the Schenken Convention." We of course won all night in spite of the fact that I have never been a good card player. I soon found out why Jorge won at bridge and at any other card game. No matter how perfect a set of cards was, within 15 minutes Jorge had every car memorized by the nicks or irregularities in the back. After 15 minutes our oponents could just as well have been playing with their cards facing the other way.

Jorge was into chess and he told me the history, play by play, of the world's most interesting players. He had a preference for a man called José Raúl Capablanca who happened to be a Cuban diplomat. From Jorge I found out all the ways chess masters cheated and how they bullied their oponents into making mistakes. I felt I knew both Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky intimately. But then I also knew all about Maria Callas and Alfredo di Stéfano.

But the most unnerving calls were the ones were Jorge asked, "Is your mother deaf?" My mother lived with us and she suffered Meniere's which made her very deaf and very dizzy on some days. When that happened Jorge would come and my mother would read his cards. My mother, according to Jorge, was extremly good at it when she was deaf.

A month before my mother died she read her own cards at a function at the Filipino Embassy. She was reading her cards in the presence of the Cultural Attaché who was also good at card reading. We called her "la bruja", the witch. Something happened (I was there) because there was a sudden silence. We all asked but neither my mother or the Attaché made any comments. After my mother died the Attaché called to tell me that my mother had dealt herself the Queen of Spades and she knew she was going to die.

My mother was very deaf the one last day that Jorge came to visit us. She read his cards and told him he would be flying to Europe soon with a friend who was not good for him and that an accident would happen.

Jorge went to Europe without telling me who his friend was. A couple of months later he called from Rome. "I have to return home now." On the spur of the moment I said, "Did you run over some old lady?" There was silence and Jorge asked, "How did you know? I have to leave town or I will be put in jail.She just stepped from the curb. There was nothing I could do."

Once Jorge returned I was walking in the Zona Rosa in Mexico City when I spotted him wearing a black leather jacket as he emerged from his Falcon with a young man (perhaps a boy). It was then that I realized that Jorge was gay and being gay in macho Mexico was not easy. I kept this to myself and I never asked.

Shortly before we came to Vancouver Jorge called me. We met at a cafe and he told me this story.

When I was in my teens I joined the Cuban Communist Party. It was the fashionable thing to do. I soon lost interest and gave it up. Recently I went to Houston for a nose operation. I had a blockage that prevented me from singing to my best potential. When I entered the US I was asked if I had ever been a member of the Communist party. I knew that if I was affirmative they would have prevented me from entering. So I told them no. The operation was successful and when I returned home my mother gave me a letter that had arrived from the US Government. I was banned for life for ever entering the US. When I returned from Rome after that accident my direct flight to Mexico City was diverted to Miami becaused of engine trouble. As soon as the plane landed two FBI agents met at my seat and took me to a room where they strip searched me and then put me on the first plane out which happened to be to Paris. I had many problems securing enough funds to fly back to Mexico City.

In 1995 Jorge called me, out of the blue. He was in Vancouver to visit a friend and he wanted to see me. I picked him up at the Greyhound Bus Station and he proceded to tell me that he was gay, that he was married to a man and that he lived in San Francisco. He told me had AIDS and that he was alive because of a potent cocktail that he took every day. He had dinner at home and with Rosemary we reminisced about the horse races and dining at Sep's. I looked at Jorge's gaunt and sad face and I knew I would never see him again. He gave me his phone number in San Francisco. By the time I remembered to call the line had been disconnected.

To me Jorge had a little of Byron in him. He was neither good nor bad. He was a complex mixture. He was a faithful friend who introduced me to opera. I respected him for never taking advantage of his talent for cards or for winning horse races to become very rich. He seemed to have in check that ambition all of us have for power and wealth. I think he was a bit of a hood. We all need to know a hood. It makes our life that much more interesting, that much more understandable.

If there was one tragedy in our friendship it is that I never thought to take his picture. The closest I ever got was this snap of our new arctic blue VW which according to Rosemary's (that's Rosemary in the back seat with Ale, an baby Hilary in the front) I took it near the Etchegaray post office were we kept a postal box. That's Jorge's back in the front.


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