Biography 26.3 (2003) 438-439
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Ben Franklin, Protector of Americans Abroad
In 1985, as an assistant professor of English with a travel grant from the small college in upstate New York where I was then teaching, I took my almost-three-year-old son to Mexico City for the summer. My ambition, besides immersion in a sunny, warm metropolis, was that we would both learn some Spanish while exploring the city's splendid layers of culture. Looking back, I realize that we learned more than either of us could assimilate in our confrontations with a city that, then already at sixteen million, was too large, nomadic, and polluted to be a tourist's dream. But it was a capital-E Education in more ways than I could have imagined.
Midway through a summer of language classes and child-paced saunters, I was struck with the perverse yearning that has always moved me in new, overwhelming places: a desire to read American writers, to reflect on my own country's past. In Freiburg it had been a hunger for Poe, in Dakar for Faulkner. In Mexico City, checking out books on Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the Biblioteca Americana, I had a sudden sharp yearning to read that quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin.
An avid childhood reader of the Young Americans series of biographies, I of course knew the lore about Franklin—"inventing" electricity with a kite and a key, starting the lending library, signing the Declaration of Independence, and being a congenial ambassador to France as well as a prolific—and profligate—father. But as a major in European literatures, I'd avoided classeson the "boring" early Americans, assuming their inferiority. Reading Franklin as an adult on a park bench in Cuauhtemoc, however, I was at once charmed by his shrewd assessments of others, his practical wisdom, his congenial raconteuring. I read the little Modern Library version avidly, feeling a kinship with another traveler's stories of exploring a new milieu where people were only intermittently comprehensible, and one was too often the butt of their [End Page 438] jokes. Journeying from part to far-flung part of the city in quest of murals, masks, and history, I carried Franklin with me everywhere in my travel purse —to savor in cafés, museum courtyards, on the Volkswagen taxi buses.
One afternoon, after cashing several travelers' checks to go gift-shopping, I visited the stunning Aztec excavation of the Palacio National in the old city, then stopped by the national store nearby to purchase several pieces of silver jewelry for friends. With alarm I realized that it had grown late, the dreaded 5:30 P.M. hour, when I'd been warned by friends not to travel because the taxis and buses were crammed full of commuters. As the city moved into the evening hours, they had explained, it was dangerous to be alone in some quarters that teemed with "rateros," the young bandits who robbed indiscriminately, often in groups. But I had spent too much money to allow a taxi, and had to get back to daycare to take my son home. I had no choice.
I climbed on a bus headed to downtown. The aisles were jammed so I stood, my travel purse stuffed full of Ben Franklin, a pile of money and silver jewelry resting atop the book. At the next stop, several young men got on in a group, laughing and talking loudly. The man in the seat next to where I stood caught my eye and, with some urgency, offered his seat. I smiled at the chivalrous gesture but shook my head no, as he was older. He frowned. Then one of the young men jostled my left arm. Annoyed, I turned to push him away, wondering if he was trying to grope me in the crush of people. He laughed. At the next stop the group of reckless young men swept out the back door. The bus returned to late-day quiet.
I thought nothing more of the moment until I got out of the bus by...