Traveling in Style : PLACES OF THE HEART : Mexico City : The Arena Coliseo Has the Sights, Smells and Feel of the Mexico of Memory

Hamill, a novelist and a journalist, writes a column for Esquire.

For some of us, there is a Mexico of fact and a Mexico of memory. With an effort, we can produce for you the gross national product or the average mean temperature in Acapulco, or the number of barrels of oil pumped from the fields of Tampico in 1987: the Mexico of fact. But the Mexico of memory is more elusive, more personal, impervious to counting or measuring and almost always infused with the invincible Mexican surrealism.

Often, for those of us who have lived in Mexico or go back often, the Mexico of fact has been transformed against our wishes into the Mexico of memory. We remember the long years when there were 12.5 pesos to the dollar, when beer was 8 cents a bottle and cigarettes 4 cents a pack, and when for a peso a night you could sleep in a hammock on the empty beaches of Acapulco. That Mexico is gone, along with the building in Mexico City where I lived with a woman with midnight eyes, the vast scary prison called " el palacio negro " -- the Lecumberri--where I spent a little time when I was 21, the British Bookstore on Calle Sullivan and the bar across the narrow highway from Mexico City College where I was a student on the GI Bill in the mid-'50s. These were all part of a city inhabited by 3 million human beings; the present city contains 18 million, and we will never see the old Mexico City again.

But there are a few places in which the city of fact and the city of memory actually merge. One of the most fabulous is a great antique of a boxing arena called the Arena Coliseo. When friends call to tell me they are going to Mexico City and that their trip will include a Saturday night, I always send them there.

The Arena Coliseo was already old when I arrived in Mexico City in 1956; there were men who remembered seeing fights there in the 1930s. In the winter of '56, a new sports arena opened, the Arena Mexico, and in the sporting papers, Esto and Ovaciones, they were saying that the Coliseo was doomed. I went to both. The Arena Mexico was built around a conventional rectangle, like the Forum or Madison Square Garden or a hundred other auditoriums in North America. You walk in and want to eat hot dogs.

But the Arena Coliseo is built like a bullring. You come in at street level and half the arena is below you. From every seat, you are staring down at the ring. I've been told that the most expensive hunk of advertising space is the canvas ring apron, and I believe it. You simply cannot avoid looking at it (the space is almost always purchased by a beer company), even when two of the better prizefighters on this planet are engaged in a hard night's work. Down there in that ring I twice saw the great Toluco Lopez, a brilliant featherweight who could box and punch but never won a championship because he was a lush. Down there in the 1950s, I watched fighters named Memo Diaz, Joe Medel, Joe Becerra and Pajarito Moreno, most of them bantamweights, well-taught fighters who were true to the valiant Mexican tradition of accepting pain as part of life's portion. Years later, I watched the great Ruben Olivares demolish a green kid here in a couple of rounds. Today, far away, I still watch the Saturday-night fights from the Coliseo through the milagrito of the satellite dish.

What astonishes me when I go to the Coliseo now is to see how little has changed. There is still a pale-blue nicotine haze hanging in the air. The walls have a scabbed, bumpy texture from generations of layers of paint. In the corridors under the stands, there's an ineradicable aroma, made up of sweat, arnica, frying foods, cigars and cigarettes, and the passage of men. There are still policemen frisking the customers at the door, often turning up weapons that (I'm told) are returned to their owners at the end of the evening.

And there are the fans. There is a guy in a white hat who has been there, I am convinced, since the beginning of time. He has a perfectly trimmed mustache and perfect teeth and perfectly trimmed razor-sharp sideburns and looks as if he modeled his style on that of the Mexican actor Pedro Infante. He always arrives with a different woman, draped on his arm like an ornament. I have seen him with blondes and redheads, with women who are obviously Indian and others who might be Chinese. I get old, the women get old, the fighters get old and retire and are replaced by new brigades of the valorous young. The guy in the white hat never gets old. I sometimes think: Maybe he is like the Phantom in the old comic strip, the Ghost Who Walks, replaced by a son in every generation. Perhaps he is the Mexican Dorian Gray. I don't know. But I cherish the man. As long as he lives, I live, too.

And there is a man I first saw in the 1960s, his face thin and saturnine, his eyes shaded with sunglasses. He always comes alone, using a cane to find his way to his seat. He's blind. I asked him once why he comes to the fights. "I love the sounds," he said. "I love the excitement. I love the way people shout."

There are two men, Benito and Alejo, now in their 60s, friends since childhood. They come to gamble, always arguing with other fans, betting round by round, occasionally minute by minute, usually with strangers and sometimes with each other. They never look happy. Round by round, they are constantly inside the black hole of calamity. They seem to know that favorites can always lose to underdogs unless you're betting the underdog. They know that a fighter of superior gifts can be knocked out by a crude amateur for no good reason except that his girlfriend ran off with a guitar player. They know that in life, there are no sure things. And yet they always come back. When the evening is over and the crowd empties out, they become even more cautious and guarded--vulnerable men in a dangerous world. Out on the sidewalk, I paused once to watch them go home. They hurried through the crowd to a waiting car, sad-eyed, resigned to the vagaries of a heartless fate, smoking cigarettes furiously and arguing. I wished I could give them a parade.

The Arena Coliseo is not for everybody. If you despise boxing, don't go; the fights are often very rough. The neighborhood is rough, too. Mexico City isn't as dangerous as New York or the capital of the United States, but it has its share of bad guys. If you don't know Mexico City, get a driver from your hotel to take you to the Arena Coliseo and have him wait until you're ready to leave.

Obviously, the Coliseo isn't the only attraction in a city as large, old and various as Mexico. A visitor shouldn't miss the Museum of Anthropology or a trip out to Coyoacan where the homes of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky are within blocks of one another (as is the splendid San Angel Inn). I'm also a fan of the Museum of the Interventions. This museum, housed in a wonderful old convent, is dedicated to foreign outrages against Mexico; I can't imagine this monument to defeat existing anywhere else.

I also like the Opera Bar, on Cinco de Mayo street, where waiters will show you a hole in the ceiling from a bullet fired (they swear) by Pancho Villa himself. The shop of the Casasola family, on Praga 16, sells the classic photographs of the Mexican Revolution. There are dozens of excellent restaurants in the city; I always dine at least once at the Fonda del Refugio, on Calle Liverpool, and look at the cartoons by Abel Quezada in the upstairs room.

And if you hire that driver, ask him to take you at least once to the Club Tenampa in Plaza Garibaldi. The Tenampa has been there since the 1920s and is one of the city's great mariachi joints. I emphasize the word joint ; this is not the 21 Club; it's big, sleazy, noisy and splendid fun. There are at least three bands, wonderful murals and a chance to buy a "toque"--an electrical shock sold by a wandering old man who guarantees this will sober you up. Go early. Late at night, the fights are often as good as the ones in the Arena Coliseo. But the Tenampa, like the Coliseo, is one of the few places left where the Mexico of fact and the Mexico of memory still exist together. Enjoy them while you can.

GUIDEBOOK: Arena Coliseo

The Coliseo is located at Peru 77; telephone locally 526-1687 or 526-7762. The arena is open all year, but the schedule varies. Cable TV subscribers in Southern California can often catch fights broadcast from the Coliseo on Spanish-language Galavision (Channel 22 in most areas) on Saturday nights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Here are some other attractions:

Museum of Anthropology: Paseo de la Reforma y Calzada Gandhi, Bosque de Chapultepec, Delegacion Miguel Hidalgo; 553-6266, open Tuesday through Sunday.

Museum of Foreign Interventions: corner of Calle Vicente de Agosto and Division del Norte. No telephone.

San Angel Inn: Palmas 50, Col. San Angel; 548-6746.

Opera Bar: La Opera, Cinco de Mayo 14; 512-8959.

Fonda del Refugio: Calle Liverpool 166; 525-8128.

Club Tenampa: on Plaza Garibaldi.

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