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18th September

The Mexican police officer that played a farewell song for me

It’s a warm day, the balcony doors are open, and in the distance I hear accordion music.


The sound of the accordion brings to mind a journal entry I read recently, from February 1988.

Several months after I heard I’d been infected with HIV, I left Mexico City to spend a couple of days in the provincial town of Morelia. The reason I gave myself was that I needed to escape the air pollution, but deep down I must have known that it was a farewell trip; the medical care I needed was not yet available in Mexico.


I had booked a room in the colonial hotel I had stayed at during previous visits and spent hours walking through the historic center of the city, simply watching life go by.


In the late afternoons I’d sit on one of the terraces under the arced central square to write in my journal. I wrote about how the fruit vendors in the market had cut open samples of their merchandise to display the quality of their bright red watermelons, deep orange mangos, spiky cactuses, and salmon-pink mamey fruits. I wrote about the “rancheros” chatting on the square while a young boy shined their boots, and how overwhelmed I felt by the smell of lilies, incense, and candles in the cathedral. But I didn’t refer to my recent, earth-shattering diagnosis. There were no thoughts about the uncertain future in those entries, no expressions of anxiety or worry, just detailed descriptions of what I’d seen that day.


One of these descriptions was of a police officer I saw by chance through an open front door

while he played the accordion on a half dark patio. He was stocky and so muscled that he seemed to burst out of his tight-fitting blue uniform. He’d put his left foot on a wooden chair while the accordion rested on his leg, not far from the pistol in its holster. I was moved by how he seemed to have become one with the music, his head and his slightly lopsided cap lifted upwards, his eyes closed, his body swaying while his fingers tapped the accordion keys.


Of all the images of that trip, why did this one, which I saw for only a split second, have so much impact on me that I wrote about it in such detail? And why was I moved again when I read about it in my journal thirty-three years later?


Was it the contrast of the tough cop and the gentle, almost loving way he played his accordion? Do I feel now, retroactively, the fear and vulnerability I must have felt at that moment but couldn’t yet acknowledge?


The accordion music outside my balcony has stopped. All I hear is the chirping of the birds.

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