The taxi driver appeared to be 50 or 55, with cinnamon skin, whitening hair and the Clark Gable moustache still favored by many men of his generation. We’d been in traffic for ten minutes without exchanging a word, when suddenly he asked if I spoke English. I told him I did, figuring he would then want to know where I was from, what I thought of Mexico, and if preferred Obama or Hillary. But he surprised me, asking if I could translate the words to the song emanating from his CD player.
It was Barry White crooning “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything.” White is something of a hero here – you can find a pirated CD of his greatest hits at any market and most street stalls in the city. He isn’t Mexico City’s only American idol. The most popular oldies station programs the Beatles for two hours a day, and Creedence Clearwater Revival for an hour more. Other staples of the station are the more arcane “Xanadu” (one of Olvia Newton-John’s less fortunate numbers), and Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again Naturally,” a song that enjoyed a vogue in the U.S. for a matter of months in the early 1970s. Its whimpering, self-pitying lyrics appeal to the most sentimental and lachrymose side of the Mexican character.
Spontaneous interpretation is a talent I have never been able to capture, let alone master. Panic sets in: It’s hard to keep up. By the time I translated en tí he encontrado tantas cosas, Barry White had long finished murmuring the next couple of lines. So I tried to explain to the driver that White’s lyrics had never mattered so much as the Love Unlimited orchestrations, and that indeed part of the fun was just surfing along with his growly purr, particularly when he elongated the word “love” as if it had five or six syllables. He looked at me with a gravely mistrustful expression. All he wanted to know was the meaning of the song’s lyrics, and he found himself with an incomprehensible gringo in the passenger seat.