In October 2010, Tim Hallinan began a blog. The initial name of the blog was “The Stupid 365 Day Project”. It’s most recent title is “Life Sentences”, a most apt title because Tim writes sentences about his life.
Everett Kaser created a website, gathering all of the daily entries since October 1. I journeyed back to the beginning and, on Day 3 of the blog, hit gold. EL SOMBRERO was as funny today as it has been the ten or twelve other times I read it. Laughing until the tears flow does make reading difficult. Everett’s site is
Timothy Hallinan is well-known for the Poke Rafferty series. The fourth book in the series, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, has been nominated for an Edgar Award, the mystery writer’s equivalent of an Academy Award, as best mystery of the year. He is also the author of the Simeon Grist novels that were published in the ’90′s and, happily, a new Simeon Grist novel, PULPED, is soon to be published as an e-book for the Kindle and the Nook. Most recently, he published a stand-alone, CRASHED, as a e-book.
In all the Hallinan books there are laugh-out-loud moments. EL SOMBRERO is funny from beginning to end. It is another side of Hallinan’s talent. Enjoy.
When I was in elementary school, there were no intercultural sensitivity issues because there were no other cultures to inter with. Where I lived, we were all white except for the relatively small number of us who were black, and we all spoke English, with varying degrees of proficiency and verve. What I learned about Mexico can be summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased from one of my second-grade textbooks. Mexicans used something called a tortilla instead of a spoon.
There was no picture, which would have helped. There may have been Mexican restaurants where we lived back East, but my parents, who were whiter than Moby Dick, wouldn’t have frequented them. I conjured up probably hundreds of mental images of what a tortilla was and how it replaced a spoon. (Remember, I was in second grade and my experience of the world was somewhat limited.) And then I learned one more thing about Mexico: It had a dance that was really easy to do and it was danced to a catchy tune called “La Cucaracha.” My teacher either didn’t know or didn’t think it was necessary for us to know what a cucaracha was.
So, in the darkness fate moved its heavy hand and the Mexican Hat Dance was selected as the second grade’s contribution to the annual School Show, which — now that I think about it — must have seemed decades long to the parents who suffered through it. The choice of the dance meant I needed a sombrero (I’ll dispense with the italics), and that, in turn, gave my mother a jolt of inspiration.
My mother dabbled in oils. She painted either the sea at night under a full moon or vaguely Hawaiian mountains, all steep green slopes and pillows of fog under a sky the piercing blue-green of a Korean pottery glaze. And, once in a while, she did a still life because fruit and vegetables don’t move around much. So, in an imaginative breakthrough, my mother decided to paint a still-life on the front of my sombrero.
She decided to do this on the night before the show, and oil paints take a while to dry. When I got on the bus the next day, wearing my gaily decorated sombrero, I was in the center of a pungent sphere of linseed-oil fumes that cleared the seats on either side of me, in front, and behind. That was the first indication that the day was going subtly wrong.
And then came the performance. All the boys were wearing sombreros, although none was as distinctive or as aromatic as mine, and all the girls’ mothers had gotten them white peasant blouses from somewhere, perhaps a failing little boutique called La Peasante or something, because I never saw another peasant blouse again as long as I lived there. We second-graders gathered backstage in our orderly little lines, the music started — da dump, da dump, da dadadada da dump — and we trotted into the light for our moment of glory.
It was immediately obvious that we should have rehearsed the dance with our sombreros on. The hats made the boys a good four inches taller, and when boys and girls faced each other so the girl could curtsy and the boy could bow, there was a lot of whoops, and a couple of hats hit the stage, knocked off when they brushed against the front of some little girl. My sombrero was fastened beneath my chin, and I suppose I was congratulating myself on not losing my hat as I moved down the line to the next little girl, and the girl to whom I’d just bowed began to cry.
I bowed to Girl Number Two and looked over my shoulder at Girl Number One as Girl Number Two also started to cry. They both had vivid streaks of oil paint in the most primary of colors down the front of their white peasant blouses. From then on, things got blurry. I remember girls scurrying backwards to get away from me as it was my turn to bow to them and seeing them bump into the kids behind them, and one or two kids doing impromptu sits on the stage, and then someone in the audience (me, if I’d been old enough and fortunate enough to have been sitting there watching instead of up there dancing) began to laugh. Laughter is, of course, contagious. Even the boys onstage were laughing. The girls were not. I was not.
Kids teased me about that damn hat until fourth grade, when something much worse happened — but if you think I’m wasting that now, you’re nuts.