...because he writes things like this, a crafty, scathing critique of pampered, over-educated hippies in his Guatemalan bar professing an ignorant and ahistorical cultural relativism regarding Guatemala's chicken buses. My friend, Mike, the Surly Bartender, was havin' none of it! He rants:
Pathetically and predictably, the hippies in the back [of the bus] took the opportunity to flaunt both their arrogance and their ignorance by shouting the oldies down, arguing, I guess, that driving like a fucking sociopath is part of the “cultural heritage of Guatemala.” The Hippies said that to ask the driver to slow down was “cultural imperialism” of the worst kind. How dare they! Fascists.
That sent the Surly Bartender over the top. This, in essence, is what I screamed at them:
Listen up, you hacky-sacked pack of jackasses! Hurling an ancient school bus from the United States down a poorly constructed highway at Mach II is not a manifestation of an ancient Mayan tradition. It is the logical and predictable consequence of the “free market” taken to its extreme.
In his essay, Mike goes on to historically, economically, and politically situate the notorious chicken buss phenomenon - the overcrowding, the insane speeding and whatnot. He clearly and incisively links decades of exploitative US foreign and economic policies in Central America, and the brightly colored buses that cheaply and aggressively move Guatemalans (and the occasional ignorant hippy) all over the country everyday. And later in his essay he notes:
The Chicken Bus system of Guatemala is as free and unfettered a market as one might find anywhere in the world. It is what the shills of corporate globalization champion. It is the tell-tale stain on the bed linens after a neo-con’s wet dream.
I love Mike's writing because he is really fucking smart - he makes the connections and communicates them in concise and sardonic language - his commentary is biting, heartbreaking, and bitter-sweetly entertaining all at once.
And I love Mike, the man, the Surly Bartender, - not just because he is smart and can write. I love him cause he gives a shit. He calls himself the Surly Bartender...but it is just a veneer, a laminate over a hardwood of idealism and hope. He gives a shit in the face of so many reasons not to. He harbors hope while knowing so much of what is so horrible to know.
He hails from New York City, but now lives in Guatemala, a country that is struggling with the unimaginable hangover of a 35+ year "civil war." A place where any past political stability rested on a cornerstone of exploitation and repression largely linked to US policies and intervention. He lives in a country where, with the help of western activists and forensic scientists, Mayan families in the jungles of the Peten are working to identify and reclaim the bodies of their dead relatives slaughtered and buried in mass graves. He lives in a country of endemic poverty, high crime, and inept and corrupt "civic institutions"....and these circumstances continue to be hugely informed by the practice and residue of unconscionable US policies.
Mike lives in Antigua, Guatemala....and there he drinks, he talks, and he writes. And I have sat across the bar from this man, talking for hours, drinking and smoking and discovering a common language...a common sensibility...and in the end, a common idealism and a seemingly unjustified hope.
In another essay, Mike laments the passing of one of his favorite writers, Kurt Vonnegut. His piece starts with him at the bar listening to a young couple fresh from the states ready to do good and change the world.
It is good that these kids are willing to dedicate their spirits to what is most certainly a losing game, because the only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones....[sic] My only hope is that they do so with the wisdom of men like Vonnegut whispering in their ears.
He sits and thinks cynical things and then shifts...channelling the wisdom of Vonnegut:
...be hopeless. Be completely, utterly hopeless. But make it a hopelessness of your own design.
Off the shelf hopelessness – the kind you get by watching too much television, or hanging out with pious assholes – is a poorly woven hair-shirt; it is a bed of nails. Instead, take Kurt’s implicit advice and look at this world, and your own frail body. Know that the world-wide and centuries long forces of greed, avarice, violence and injustice are beyond your abilities to remove or repair.
And then set to removing them and repairing them anyway.
We’re all in a sinking boat, but the stars look beautiful tonight. Bail.
Be what Kurt showed us we could be: positive nihilists.
This shit breaks my heart because I totally relate. The inherent and intellectually irreconcilable tension between reasons for hopelessness and hope...and god damn it, I remain hopeful. Even after liberating myself somewhat from the yoke of my early western education, the barrage of disinformation presented in a historical vacuum - the simplistic narratives with the neat and clean arc and resolution of half-hour sitcoms.
The other day I read Mike's latest essays in La Cuadra and thought to myself, "I went to Antigua and met a little slice of my conscious. His name is Mike Tallon." And when I put on a clean shirt, go to the city and eat something delicate and self-consciously prepared in some urbane restaurant...there's Mike, among others, sitting on my shoulder tap-tap-tapping on my conscious, "don't ever forget all that you've learned...and enjoy your dinner."
The first night I stumbled into the Surly Bartender's bar and started drinking in what would become a long, liquor-soaked evening of disclosure and waxing philosophical, I heard Mike say to someone, "It is amazing how water finds it's own level." I looked at him and asked what he was referring to...."you being here," was his response. I'd known Mike a couple of hours and yet I knew of what he spoke. When people meet thousands of miles from home and recognize in each other something that transcends the logical...how can I already love this man I have known for only a couple of hours? I stop myself. It doesn't matter, Mer. Don't let your analysis get in the way of truth. Be wise enough to just accept it. And so I did. I smiled and nodded. Indeed Mike.
Mike, keep hoping and writing buddy. Keep challenging us to do something hopeful in the face of hopelessness. Keep writing for me and the many others you continue to challenge, touch, and inspire. We'll all be the better for it.
The essays quoted above appear in La Cuadra and are titled:
On the Chicken Buss, by Michael Tallon
God Bless You Mr. Vonnegut, by Michael Tallon
Read them online:
To read the state departments perspective on crime in Guatemala visit: