Thursday, March 18, 2010

Observations from Casa El Tigre

Rockin' with Rack of Lamb at Seth's Chop House...

A few days ago, Seth announced he had to prepare rack of lamb for 40 people. He buys the lamb rough cut to save money, so Israel and I volunteered to help prepare the cuts of meat for broiling. We were each issued a sharp carving knife and shown how to separate blocks of fat from the ribs, sever the gristle between each individual rib and trim the remaining fat from the cylinder of meat at the base of the ribs (the meat that holds the "crown" of ribs together for presentation). Sounds simple enough, but there's an art to it. I now understand why rack of lamb is such an expensive and elaborate dish to serve. I wrestled with the job, but Israel took right to it. Israel picked up a facility with knives in his youth (and Lord, do I dare bring up that my ex-husband had a similar love of cutlery...), and occasionally regales me with knife pyrotechnics. It's all for show now, but knife play was a strategy for staying alive when he was younger. Which seems like a perfect segue into a brief summary of the life and times of Israel ...

Israel: A History of Violence

At first glance, you might mistake Israel for a gay man. He has the slight, narrow-shouldered, round-bellied physique of a kewpie doll, with delicate hands and longish fingernails. When sipping soup from a spoon, he crooks his pinkie finger. The other morning, he came out on the terrace with a meal he'd prepared for me, dressed only in a beach towel, a plate in one hand and his opposite arm tucked close to his body with his hand bent outward at the wrist, fingers curled as delicately as a ballerina's. "Dar-leeng," he says in a voice with the timbre of Peter Lorre's, "I feex you brake-fast," and sets down a platefull of quesadillas, avocado artfully sliced, and a mug of hot milk.

Israel has a face as malleable as playdough. He is by turns clown, playboy, sly fox, sad sack, imp. Gringa touristas love him. When he stands in the doorway of the restaurants he promotes, he says, "Well, ladies, hellloooooo," accompanied by an exagerrated sweep of the hand, seducing them with promises of free tequila shots or complimentary bananas flambe. He has large, soulful eyes with long lashes, and dimples. Women love to pinch his cheeks, and he's routinely offered plastic hotel keys by ladies with a "what-happens-in-Vallarta-stays-in-Vallarta" attitude. But he turns them down politely, saying, "Por favor, I am not that kind of man."

On the surface, Israel comes across as benign, lovable, childlike. But he has led a hardscrabble life. His mother was an Indian, his father, a French-born American serviceman who rotated back to the US before Israel was born. He grew up in the Dominican Republic under the violent dictator Trujillo. He remembers as a child hearing the screams of torture victims emanating from jungle interrogation centers.

Israel's mother eventually married and had children with another man. Being half-white and a source of shame for his mother, he was sent to live with his grandmother at the age of 10. Recently he told me stories about her cruel discipline, recounting how the woman hung him upside by his ankles and beat him with a belt if he forgot a letter when repeating his ABC's. One beating left him so bruised, he couldn't get out of bed for two weeks. Another time, the buckle sliced through his nipple, leaving it hanging from his chest. At other times, he was force-fed rice until he vomited.

Israel speaks of these childhood horrors without a trace of bitterness or anger. He is nothing if not resilient, resourceful. He learned early how to survive on the streets. His story is violent and dramatic and includes a fight with another boy who tried to rape his girlfriend. The boy drew a gun, but Israel threw a knife, killing the other boy. He spent six years in prison for the crime.

At 21, his father re-entered his life. A rich businessman, Clement Vivient wanted to make up for the many years he was absent from Israel's life. Israel accompanied his father to Paris and Chicago and helped himself to thousands of dollars his father kept in a safe in his office. Of course, Israel had fallen into a life on the fringes of the law by then, especially after his mother died at 35. He smuggled drugs in Columbia, briefly worked as a chef in the kitchen of a restaurant owned by a drug kingpin in Chicago. When he was summoned to act as a drug courier, Israel said "let me think about it." But he knew it would be a death sentence either way. "All the Dominicans who work for heem, they go home with the white cotton in the nose." He took the first flight back to the Dominican Republic.

Israel has a survivor's instinct for knowing when to get out of Dodge. "I am like a snake," he says. "Nobody ever catch me." He left the Dominican Republic in a hurry 25 years ago after impregnating the daughter of a dangerous politico. He barely escaped being assassinated for the offense, and came to Mexico with only the clothes on his back. When he first arrived in Mexico, he worked by turns as a hotel concierge, mattress salesman and Dance Club Gigolo -- paid to dance with women in the discos to keep them happy and buying those expensive umbrella drinks.

Well, all of this sounds quite ominous, I know, but Israel is now 53. Years ago, his conscience began to bother him about directing men to strip clubs and being a shill for pimps and drug dealers. He found God, and now studies his Bible, announcing "I am Israel. I am a soldier of God. I am no longer a bad boy." He proudly points to the pattern of hair on his chest which forms the outline of Jesus hanging on the cross. And yup, I see it, too.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that's an amazing life story. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. There should be a book about Israel's life. Perhaps you could get right on that!! I'd read it!