A Living Cloud: the Vagaries of Literary Fame

Luis Urrea takes book tour media to Tijuana dump.

The newsguys are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers at the Tijuana dump are.
  • The newsguys are also surprised at how courteous and friendly the trash-pickers at the Tijuana dump are.

We’re sitting in the greenroom at KMEX-TV, on the Paramount lot on Melrose. It’s actually a raunchy little lunchroom with a television atop the Coke machines showing Star Trek. Taping for a Mexican talk show is going to begin in about a half hour. The assembled young men eat bag suppers and chat in Spanish.

Visiting the Tijuana dump is no different from visiting a friend at work. It is, after all, a factory.

Visiting the Tijuana dump is no different from visiting a friend at work. It is, after all, a factory.

Suddenly, Mexico’s Official Bombshell, Olga Briskin, totters in on an absurdly tall pair of stiletto heels. Actually, in true Mexican Sex-Goddess fashion, everything about Olga is somewhat absurd: she is shoehorned into a white late-period Elvis jumpsuit, and she moves as if she were a barely contained explosion of buttocks and breasts. My partner, Victor, and I look at each other in disbelief. Olga maneuvers her Leatherette wiggle directly in front of us, then she turns and stares at herself in profile in the wall-length mirrors. We are then treated to an amazing sight: Olga clenches her butt-muscles and watches, as if in reverie, her nalgas rise in fabulous flesh-domes, pushing the white jumpsuit to the extremes of its stitching.

In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.

In three months, my little book about the Tijuana dump will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday.

Olga and me, the Schmooze-meisters. I’m the one they save for the last three minutes of the show, the guy in the slot reserved for the farmer from Iowa who has meticulously crafted the world’s largest yarn-ball. I carry a pen. I’m the writer.

I wrote a book about Tijuana, about the garbage dump-dwellers and the street kids. Incredibly, it was published by Anchor/Doubleday. In three months, my little book will go into three printings, shocking everybody at Doubleday, but mostly shocking me. I’m still reeling from being dumped by my wife, and the media blitz that follows publication is confusing to me, at best. I’m feeling like Mr. Worthless while 30 radio and television shows in a row gush about what I have done. One morning I do a radio interview on the phone — naked. I lie on my bed and think of the thousands of listeners completely unaware that they’re darned lucky I’m on radio and not TV.

The garbage-pickers are not embarrassed in the least.

The garbage-pickers are not embarrassed in the least.

I’m on a book tour, and one of the stops on the journey is KMEX. I have just returned from Boulder, Miami, Chicago, San Antonio, San Francisco. I am about to go off to Denver, Tucson, D.C., Boston. Miami again, San Antonio again. Lafayette, El Paso, upstate New York. All along the way, I am booked into fabulous rooms in pretentious hotels. In San Francisco, I’m bunked in the Four Seasons; my room has a small office attached in case I need to write, and the bathroom is appointed in gray and rose marble, with a phone beside the toilet. All of this on Doubleday’s tab.

We often delight in leaving the doors unlocked when we get out, greatly worrying the reporters.

We often delight in leaving the doors unlocked when we get out, greatly worrying the reporters.

I’ve been ordering room service for the first time in my life. And I think, lying in my king-sized beds, watching HBO and drinking goodies out of the rooms’ wet bars, I am here to talk about starving people on the border. I watch the doormen snag $5 tips for carrying some lazy bastard’s bag from the cab to the front desk, and I know that if my friends in Tijuana knew about this, they’d all come across the border en masse: two million free-agent doormen wandering the streets of America offering to carry anything they could get hold of.

Dante and Bosch are often cited as references when the newsguys get a look at the dompe, the many little graves on the hills.

Dante and Bosch are often cited as references when the newsguys get a look at the dompe, the many little graves on the hills.

Olga has toadies in attendance, a seemingly matched set in Male and Female. The woman carries billows of costuming; the man apparently drives, receives withering glances, and totes Olga’s armory o’ jewels. He clutches the Briskin jewelry box to his breast and watches her morosely.

Olga is taller than everyone in the room. She herself is clearly tall, but the stilettos and the explosive Tina Turner ’do add at least three feet to her presence. She has traded in her jumpsuit for a skin-tight sequined evening gown with a see-through panel that plunges toward her navel. She never looks at me. Not once, even when we’re being made up. Then she further amazes us all by grabbing her breasts and wrestling them into a more cleavage-deepening attitude.


We wait in a grimy news studio next door to the actual taping. Olga has taken over the set: I stare at her on the monitor. She is complaining about sexism. She lays into men for their ridiculous interest in her bosoms.

I am distracted by a newsman rushing in and sitting behind the news desk. A red light goes on, and he’s reading the “news at 11” drop-in on the air. I’m about ten feet away from him. He wears a suit-coat and dapper shirt and tie, while below the level of the desk he has on white tennis shorts with gym socks and running shoes. I am suddenly convinced that Ted Leitner is actually nude from the waist down every night on the news. Who would know? Hey — I’ve done it!

When I turn back to the monitor, Olga has yet another astonishment to spring on the world. She is shown, jaw clenched in righteous artistic fury, sawing away at a violin. In fact, she is wearing one of her low-cut, painted-on gowns, while women dance around her, and she is standing on a rotating turntable, and — can this be? — yes, she is in fact playing “Bolero” with gusto!

“My act,” she later confides, “is now done with an eye toward taste.”

I sit in the garage-door home of Negra, one of the heroes of my book, and one of my best friends. Toys from the latest “91Xmas” drive are still holding together, though conditions in these dirt barrios are hard on things. The dolls have a sort of leprous skin condition, their arms and legs tattooed with a mysterious patina of gray-brown biological smears. All the dolls are naked.

We munch Taco Bell burritos — Negra’s favorite food. Lately, I have subjected her to a spate of enthusiastic media-types, eager for a touching photo-op. She endures their attentions with aplomb. In fact, she has become adept at interviews and photo sessions. When I pull up with a van-load of gringos, she doesn't even blink — she puts her baby in my arms and heads inside to get spruced up.

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