The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Last Cokuccino

October 10, 2007
Las Cruces, New Mexico

In Washington, DC, where I live when I'm not on the road, the default question is "Red or blue?" In Napa County, near where I used to live, the question tends more toward "Red or white?" And in New Mexico, where I just completed a whirlwind Big Read tour, the question is always, always, "Red or green?" Either that or "Christmas," a fiery combination of the red and green chiles that, separately or together, spice up just about everything edible in the Land of Enchantment.

The trip began on a not very Christmas-like note, with me pulling off the freeway outside El Paso to return an audiobook of E.L. Doctorow's The March to a Cracker Barrel about 1,000 miles from the Illinois franchise I'd rented it from. That done, I could swear I recognized an intersection from my visit to El Paso in February for To Kill a Mockingbird. Sure enough, a minute later I was parked outside the Cactus Bookstore & Café, where I'd passed a delightful hour eight months ago sipping "Cokuccino" with proprietrix Ginny Fischer, her cheerful staff, and the crew of C-SPAN's BookTV bus.

This time, to quote Thomas Pynchon (again), things are not so amusing. The Cactus has posted a closing notice, unable at last to compete with the chains, the distractions, and the same accursed unreaderly shortsightedness we're all fighting against. Ginny's keeping abbreviated hours these days, looking for someplace else to apply her prodigious people and prose skills, but her staff brought me up to date on the dispiriting news. Bookseller Michelle Brown, on the far right hand side of the photo I snapped in happier times, said that there may be other bookstore options driving distance from the Cactus, but "I'll never set foot in them."

Hungry for some good news, I fetched up that evening in Las Cruces, N.M., for the kickoff to their read of Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. It was my first visit to a burg doing this particular book, and I was totally unprepared for the zeal with which Las Cruces was taking it up. A couple hundred students, their parents, and a few plain old readers filled, and I mean filled, a cavernous high school gym. The NEA's Reader's Guides fairly flew off tables at the door. The Ballet Folklorico de la Tierra del Encanto performed traditional Southwestern dances with a precision born of long practice, but also with such contagious excitement that you'd think they were doing it all for the first time. And before the main event, poet and filmmaker Jimmy Santiago Baca and I bestowed on the local media what the supremely capable local organizer Mardi Mahaffy charmingly called an "availability." As someone with a not exactly underdeveloped case of journotropism -- instinctive gravitation toward the nearest journalist -- my whole life is basically one long unrequited availability.

After Mr. Baca and I fungoed a few softball questions back and forth for a radio and a print reporter, everybody adjourned onto the hardwood for a short spiel from me and, from him, the keynote to end all keynotes. From the moment he walked onto the stage at the back of that gymnasium, Baca dandled and finessed the crowd the way Meadowlark Lemon used to juggle a basketball. In a subsequent piece for the El Paso Times, college teacher and poet John Pate described it better than I ever could:

"Taking time off his current movie-making schedule on October 5th to be keynote speaker for the NEA's Big Read (neabigread.org) in Las Cruces, Jimmy Santiago Baca celebrated Anaya's "Bless Me, Ultima" as the book that changed his life. (The Big Read is the National Endowment for the Arts' initiative to raise reading levels across all segments of society.) Having just undergone Lasik surgery, he likened the book to literary Lasik. Before the book, he saw the world as an amorphous blur. After the book, he was able to see things clearly for what they were...

"Baca's humble nature, coupled with his fierce allegiance to the authentic, makes him the writer's writer. Lending his celebrity to causes like the NEA's Big Read proves he is both a man of letters and a man of action. Reading is what saved Baca's life, by his own admission. It may well be what saves America's soul."

In other words, Baca put on a clinic for anybody who aspires not to bore the stuffing out of a crowd of teenagers. Near as I can tell, it all boils down to some quicksilver combination of spontaneity, surefire storytelling -- partly about how one day Anaya's book found him in an Arizona jail and helped put him on a path to the writing life -- and crack comic timing across two languages. I only wish I could send him to every Bless Me, Ultima city and town in the country. Judging by all the discounted editions of his books flying off the card tables after the free copies of Anaya ran out, he may wish I could, too.

All this was enough to send me back out into the starry New Mexico night with a clarity of purpose to rival the clarity overhead. In Las Cruces on Friday the question was "Re[a]d or unread?", and the answer, just for a night, seemed never in doubt?

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