Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Saturday, August 28, 2004

Magic Wand

Efficiency is not a word that I have ever associated with any government body, even the government of the United States of America, and especially lately. During my weekday commute this non-association has only intensified in the last decade or so, after having witnessed countless wasted taxpayer dollars minding the border of the United States of America and the United States of Mexico. There have been mornings when I have imagined piles and piles of money being hoisted on top of the border fence, so that in no time at all the big metal barrier is covered in fives, tens, and twenties, sticky with the slimy fingerprints of politicians and the upper class. This mental image that I sometimes carry is ironic in the sense that the real borders of every country are economic. Any fence can be brought down with a crude blowtorch, but razing a ladder to scale an economic wall is another thing entirely.

As they say, it takes money to make money, and so on.

But I will say this about the United States of America: At least they sometimes try to be more efficient. Their reasons for trying to be more efficient are often suspect, what with democracy and voting and so on, but never mind that for a moment, motives can always be explored separately. For whatever reason, various programs are sometimes initiated in order to illustrate the desire of the government to strive to be more efficient in some way. All governments, incidentally, use the same basic formula when striving toward efficiency.

First, you need a good acronym for the new government program.

Some years ago, the United States of America decided that some of the people who cross the border almost every day might be safe enough risks to provide themselves with a means of a fast and almost hassle-free method of passage. Being a safe enough risk crossing the border into the United States of America means that one is not likely to bring undocumented immigrants, pesky fruit flies, illegal drugs, more than one liter of booze, or a Cuban cigar into the country. The United States of America instituted a program known as SENTRI to efficiently deal with such safe enough risks. SENTRI is an acronym that stands for ‘Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection’.

There are hundreds of ironies in all of this, by the way, but I cannot go on without pointing out two of them. First, the symbol that marks the vehicle lane designated as a "SENTRI" lane is a sign that sports a seventeen hundred and seventy-six bluecoat American revolutionary sentry, rifle at his chest, looking quite immovable. Second, the obvious irony is that the words making up the acronym have nothing to do with the application process. For example, the word, travelers should really be replaced by the word commuters, but then SENCRI wouldn’t lend itself very kindly to that image of the bluecoat on the signs. And on and on.

The vehicle SENTRI lanes opened up a few years ago, even before the Homeland Security Department was a twinkle in the government's eye.

To become a SENTRI card holder - which entitles one to bring him or herself in their vehicle across the border in the designated lane - a fee of sixty dollars or so, along with a lengthy application process and certain proofs of residency, citizenship, and so on, must be submitted to the appropriate office. Then, an extensive background check is performed, and maybe three or four months later, they notify the applicant of acceptance or non-acceptance.

Second, you need to promote the new government program.

Since Americans and Mexicans alike are in love with their automobiles, very little promotion was required so many years back when the SENTRI program was born. In fact, there are times when I cross the border as a pedestrian that I notice the regular lanes are only five or ten cars deep, and the SENTRI lane is approaching one hundred. I swear.

About one month ago, I was handed a flyer by an employee of the Homeland Security Department, which used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Department and the Border Patrol, and so on, but that has all changed now. Go figure. So, this flyer was promoting a new program called 'Pedestrian SENTRI', and I should call a telephone number and find out all about it. It was a free ‘beta’ program. I like free. I called. The recording at the other end provided no clue as to what the flyer promised, but said that I should go to a government web site in case of such a lack of information. The web site had no mention of it. I had no idea how to see what in the heck this new government program was all about.

Third, you need someone to sign up for the new government program.

Yep. Right this way. Wherever this way is.

* * * *

Since the lines at the San Ysidro border crossing had dwindled a couple of months ago, in order to sleep in a bit I began crossing there again. It is a lovely feeling to wake up and know that I don’t have to leave until seven-thirty or so, that I have time to make sure that my socks match and so on, that I can even pass on the full calafia down the hill and wait for one with an empty seat. Lately, though, in the past couple of weeks or so, the lines have once again lengthened. Twenty or thirty minutes sometimes.

Standing in that line gave me the opportunity to notice that I failed to apply matching socks to my feet because I had to get up a little earlier now. It gave me the opportunity to consider that it would only get worse in a week or two when school started again. It also gave me an opportunity to notice the brand new pedestrian SENTRI line, off to the right. Never traveled in the times that I was crossing. Sparkling, inviting, begging for someone to walk through.

Last Monday, by chance, I arrived at the San Ysidro border crossing more that one-half hour ahead of schedule. Every time in the past couple of weeks that I passed the old building that used to be the customs building until President Nixon opened the one that is currently used, I noticed a sign that finally gave a clue as to where one should sign up for the new Pedestrian SENTRI card. I never had time before. I seized the opportunity.

On Wednesday, the Homeland Security Department issued me a magic wand.

* * * *

Friday morning, I left the house at eight o’clock. My cab dropped me off well South of the entrance, where I walked right by the long line, and some Homeland Security Department officials eyed me curiously as I approached, pack over my shoulder. I flashed them my magic wand from the distance.

"You needn’t concern yourselves with me," I silently projected through my magic wand.

They turned to each other and continued to chat away.

I was Merlin, damn it.

I cut through the line and walked against the wall past the hundreds in line who watched this magician float by (note to self: must buy some new purple robes and a mage’s hat). I approached the entry gates and waved my magic wand at a white object on the wall. The gates opened.

I walked down the aisle and waved the wand again, turned and faced a camera, placed my left index finger on a reader, and as the man behind the counter said, "Have a nice day, sir," I again waved my wand and the exit door opened and then closed behind me.

I boarded the trolley and wondered if I could get my magic wand to make the border disappear completely.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Building The Perfect Pasture

We are mostly architects, us human beings, in the sense that we build elaborate plans and scheme intricate designs of our everyday lives; and of our futures and of the futures of our children, and so on. As architects, building as we go, I wonder how many of us ever come to realize that most of our designs never quite work out. Most people would call whichever failed structure, or unrealized plan, as unsuccessful, but that isn’t at all an accurate analysis of what is really going on. Humankind’s extremely low batting average is directly attributable to nature’s wicked curve balls and sliders.

We do not fail so much as we do not realize that we often plan what we shouldn’t have planned. Sometimes we are not supposed to swing at a certain pitch.

Or else, we should have planned, and the plan should not have worked, so that we wind up exactly in the position that we are in. This is a very handy religion. It requires no reading, no special understanding or enlightenment, only acceptance of the obvious. However random that our destiny is, the futility of many of our grand designs is simply part of the works. Sometimes we are supposed to strike out.

How simple is that?

* * * *

Friday was going to be busy. The border was like it always is. We were like thick oil into a funnel, slowly spilling out of Mexico into the United States of America. Slippery human cattle are herded through gates and checked by machines and government cowboys, and branded and recorded for reasons other than posterity.



"United States of America."

He looked up at me, matching my picture from my identification card to the gray-bearded man standing in front of his counter.

"Purpose of your visit to Mexico?"

"I live in Mexico."

His fingers tripped over themselves as they slowly punched keys on the keyboard. Numbers and letters were entered into a query and the digital question was answered in a way that posed no threat to me entering into the United States of America.

I am, at least, USDA select.

"What are you bringing back?"

"Nothing that I need to declare."

He glared at me, as he glared at everyone, suspicion born of ignorance, of training, of a government brainwash.

He was supposed to glare at me and, like the lead dog in a rabid pack, sense any fear that I might be attempting to suppress.

"Have a nice day," he said as he handed me back my California Identification card.


Us cattle crossed, at least most of us, and at least one of us put fifty cents into a coin slot in a newspaper rack and bought a newspaper. I parted the paper in the lead car of the trolley. I tried to read the sports page, but I kept thinking about how Vince was going to be fired this morning. The sun wasn’t out quite yet, there were still some low clouds to burn off. Vince was a very slow moving train, already in the process of derailment, and I knew that one of the rails up ahead was missing. At least the sun suspected that something wasn’t right.

Vince had no clue.

As I walked toward the salt mines after departing the trolley and on my way to work, I admitted to myself that I hated knowing about it. I wanted it to be a surprise to me, too. But I knew about it because I had to know about it. My boss had to tell someone, I cannot blame her for that. And I was a logical choice. I am her right-hand man, her mano derecho as we say in Mexico.

Everyone needs a mano derecho, if only for such occasions.

I had two meetings with vendors while the axe was slowly being dropped on Vince's employment. Then, the rare lunch away from the plant. Then, I was officially notified that Vince was no longer with the company.

* * * *

One time, many years ago, even before the terrorists won, we were all waiting in line to cross into the United States of America. The lines were long, we were waiting forever in a maze of metal railing.

Someone, one brave soul, said, "Moo."

We all laughed. Then, one by one, in a chorus, we began to moo. We were suddenly the cattle that we were being treated as. Quickly, the inner offices emptied and government cowboys hushed us up, threateningly reminding us of how we were applying for admission into the United States of America and that we would all be refused entry if we didn’t shut up.

It reminded me of grade school.

Another time, many many years before that, we were all assembled in a large room and made to watch a movie. At the end of the movie we began to clap, us eight-year-olds, until quite by accident, we began to clap in unison. Soon, we were delighted by the power that we had, clapping in unison like that, loud and proud and happily and innocently startled by our own discovery.

Clap, clap, clap, clap, and so on.

The lights abruptly went on and our teachers, who looked both frightened and distraught, quickly hushed us and admonished us for our behavior.

"That," one teacher scolded, "is how communists act, in countries like the Soviet Union."

The Soviet Union of Socialist Republics was once the main reason that we all dove under our desks in nuclear bomb drills. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was once a country, whose main objective was world domination. That country has since dissolved. Nowadays, the United States of America is the only country left whose prime objective is world domination.

But back then, behaving like a citizen of the Soviet Union was supposed to be the worst thing ever. Groups of people, who clapped in unison, even if by accident, were no better than the Soviets.

That, incidentally, was my first lesson in communism.


* * * *

I didn’t speak to Vince until about five o’clock. He was almost finished loading all of his stuff up, and stood outside smoking a cigarette. We had all previously planned a small party at the end of the day, and so I yanked two Coronas from the refrigerator and handed one to Vince, and we toasted.

"I’ve been fired a couple of times," I admitted to him.

"I had no idea it was coming," he said.

The funny thing is that he is the only one who didn’t see it coming. One time, many years ago when I was once fired, I didn’t see it coming either. At least I could relate to that part of it. Back then, however, I didn’t have the same sort of religion that I have now. Back then I would, for example, try to pull a breaking ball on the outside corner, strike out, and be completely bewildered and beside myself as to how I could’ve missed that pitch.

In Vince, I always felt that I was looking at myself, maybe fifteen years ago.

"I was officially notified at about one-thirty," I told him. This was not a lie, the key word being officially.

"That was way after I was canned," he replied. He seemed to be relieved in knowing that I didn't know about it in advance. At least, I hope that it helped a bit.

The other thing that wasn’t a lie was what I did not say. I did not tell him that it was a pleasure working with him. It wasn’t. I like Vince, but he is extremely difficult to work with, at the very least. Vince was not popular with very many people here in that respect.

"In the end," I said, "we are just like cattle. Good luck in your new pasture."

I finished my beer and went back inside to get some coals and fire up the grill. Where Vince will wind up is anyone’s guess, but I hope that he gets some sort of a religion that allows him the opportunity to strike out once in a while. If it does nothing else, it keeps one a little bit sane.


Saturday, August 14, 2004

Palomar Street Trolley Station

Frequently, as though the perfect randomness of the natural world has somehow been invaded by coincidence and purpose (as though love and war or any human conditions have anything to do with anything at all), I am able to not be so cynical; a dark and depressing fatalist. If only for a moment or a few moments, I feel a bit human. More often than not, other people are not only involved, but also are very crucial in this metamorphic circumstance.

Sometimes, especially in such metamorphic circumstances, I actually feel more like a human being than a bookmarker between pages in the great big novel that might one day be called, "The Entire Miserable History of the Planet Earth". I can only make guesses as to how the book ends, incidentally, but so far it looks like we are going to need some sort of a miracle to get out of the cosmic undertow. I am also going to venture a guess that many people throughout history have made the same guesses about the ending of the book that I do.

Others have been far more optimistic.

* * * *

"May there be an end of raids and exile, and of panic in our streets. Happy the nation of whom this is true, happy the nation whose God is Yahweh!"

- The Holy Bible, Psalms 144:14 & 15

"National Socialist Germany wants peace because of its fundamental convictions. And it wants peace also owing to the realization of the simple primitive fact that no war would be likely essentially to alter the distress in Europe... The principal effect of every war is to destroy the flower of the nation... Germany needs peace and desires peace!"

- Adolf Hitler, 1935

"Hurrah for anarchy! This is the happiest moment of my life."

- George Engel, 1887

* * * *

Somewhere north of this house, below in the street that parallels the one that I live on, a fiesta filled the warm night air. Last night The Who was loudly blasting throughout the colonia, in English, on some compact disc in a very loud music machine. Imagine that. People here do not speak much English. Conversely, I can’t imagine the Americans that I grew up with suddenly cheering for Lola Beltran singing some classic Ranchera tune, but the Mexicans at this party were screaming for joy when Behind Blue Eyes started playing.

This is yet another thing that gives me hope, however misplaced, that the human race might somehow affect its own mundane destiny in some way.

Who knows?

I even have it on good authority that we are still searching for a cure for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. We are making headway, one white mouse at a time, so I am told.

Never mind the dead laboratory rats, full speed ahead!

* * * *

The trolley platform at Palomar Street station was crowded, and becoming more crowded as the moments passed. Friday, at almost eight in the evening, we all stood uncomfortably watching the distant light move slowly toward us, so slowly that it appeared that the train was making no headway at all. The air was finally cool, breezes fanned us as we made room for each other.

People shuffled and impatiently gazed at one another.

"It’s been at least a half-hour since the last one," said a man behind me.

He held three bags of groceries, the bags tied together so that he could alternate between holding his goods with either hand or slinging the cargo over either shoulder, which he did frequently. He was older than I was, wizened and gray-bearded, and he reminded me of a friend who I miss. I adjusted my pack, and noticed the light coming closer, people on the platform lining up to squeeze in to what would surely be three large red sardine cans overfilled with human sardines. I stepped back in order to get a perspective up the tracks and saw another light directly behind the one approaching us.

"There’s another one two minutes behind this one," I told him.

He seemed disgusted by the impatient crowd as the crossing gates lowered to impede the flow of traffic on Palomar Street. People crowded the yellow line, the trolley honked in protest and slowly pulled in. I stepped back, and so did he.

Two minutes would not make a difference to either of us.

It took so long for the trolley to pull out because people were attempting to defy the law of physics, the one that prohibits matter from occupying too much volume in one place without variation of temperature that might change solids into liquids or gasses.

People were attempting to redefine their own molecules in order to get into that trolley. For some reason, getting into this particular trolley was so important to some people. Imagine that.

* * * *

We sat in the next trolley car, there were plenty of seats for everyone. I was reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., which is a book about the importance of volunteer firefighters, the ugliness of rich ignorant snobs, and the true definition of sanity. After a brief conversation with the gray-bearded gentleman about the nature of the book, and so on, he commented that he recognized that Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, was a science-fiction writer. I laughed.

"The Sirens of Titan," I told him, "was probably what you read."

The Sirens of Titan is also a book about the importance of volunteer firefighters, the ugliness of rich ignorant snobs, and the true definition of sanity, except that some of it takes place on other celestial bodies. Some people confuse that with science-fiction.

Vonnegut might disagree, but I think this is a perfectly acceptable error to make.

Some people, for example, think that Star Trek was all about outer space.

In fact, Star Trek was also all about the importance of volunteer firefighters, the ugliness of rich ignorant snobs, and the true definition of sanity.

The aliens were of no consequence in the end.

* * * *

After our conversation, I turned to my book, and overheard his broken Spanish to the pretty Mexican girl sitting across from him. He lives in Tijuana, and his Spanish is coming along just fine.

Good for him.

The trolley moved along, clack-clack, clack-clack, clack-clack.

She seemed charmed and delighted with the conversation, and he was polite and friendly and enjoying himself. We did not exchange good-byes as the train pulled into San Ysidro, but I silently wished him well. I hope that his newly chosen country will delight him every bit as much as it has delighted me over the years.

Suerte, amigo, good luck, friend.

I left the trolley and went to a cash machine, since I have caved in and subjected myself to a bank account and I need to occasionally get some cash. One machine was out of order, and the other one told me that my account had no money in it.

This is not true, by the way. According to the bank’s webpage, I have one hundred and eight dollars and thirteen cents that I can withdraw whenever I want to do so.

But last night, the machine told me that I was broke.

Broke as a joke.

* * * *

This afternoon, there is no clue that a fiesta was in full gear last night until at least three o’clock this morning, when I went to bed and it was still just as loud and happy as it was when I came home at about ten o’clock last night. Too bad, really. I just heard a wonderful song, a song about triumph and peace. While there isn’t anything in the lyrics to hint at the importance of volunteer firefighters, it could be construed to include the ugliness of rich ignorant snobs and certainly says a lot about the true definition of sanity:

I am still living with your ghost
Lonely and dreaming of the west coast
I don’t want to be your downtime
I don’t want to be your stupid game

With my big black boots and an old suitcase
I do believe I’ll find myself a new place
I don’t want to be the bad guy
I don’t want to do your sleepwalk dance anymore
I just want to see some palm trees
Go and try and shake away this disease

We can live beside the ocean
Leave the fire behind
Swim out past the breakers
Watch the world die

I am still dreaming of your face
Hungry and hollow for all the things you took away

I don’t want to be your good time
I don’t want to be your fall-back crutch anymore

I’ll walk right out into a brand new day
Insane and rising in my own weird way
I don’t want to be the bad guy

I don’t want to do your sleepwalk dance anymore
I just want to feel some sunshine
I just want to find some place to be alone

We can live beside the ocean
Leave the fire behind
Swim out past the breakers
Watch the world die

- "Santa Monica" by Everclear

* * * *

Lucky for me, I stashed back a twenty-dollar bill, a twenty-dollar bill that will keep me in Tecate and Pacificos until I can find a machine to withdraw some of my one hundred and eight dollars and thirteen cents. Mexico is generous that way, twenty dollars will buy a lot here sometimes, at least when it comes to Tecate and Pacificos.

Somewhere north of this house, there is probably someone who was not so frustrated by a cash machine, yet still cannot manage to recover two-hundred and twenty pesos for some creature comforts.

And certainly, we are both far luckier in the end than was George Engel. He was hanged by the neck a moment after he uttered his immortal words about it being the happiest moment of his life.

Some people are made happy by the strangest things. Like maybe cramming into an already full trolley car at the Palomar Street trolley station. Or maybe even waiting for the next trolley to arrive that isn’t so full.

Or even Tecates and Pacificos.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Cash Flow

"It is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork."

- C. S. Lewis

* * * *

I’m not quite sure if I am ready to give in to Lewis’ bold invitation to blame humans for their own shortcomings, but there is probably a great deal of validity in this statement. I would go this far, for sure: It is almost always a human condition that we mould our environment in such a way as to screw some of us over pretty bad sometimes.

This also fits with my theory that it is the destiny of humankind to destroy its own world, at a specific rate and in a certain method.

Tomorrow, I shall look for my large tape measure and draft a plan for expansion within the plant, I am on a timeline of sorts. I bring this upon myself, according to the wise and wonderful Rocio, because they ask me and I do it, and therefore I am to blame.

And she’s right, it really is my fault, I should just say no.

The part of all of this that really kills me, that is very demoralizing, is that even though I have no true access to our finances, I know that we cannot afford this, and that once the plan is slipped to the owner, he will surely backtrack and beg for more time, seeing that our cash flow is too sporadic to support such a major inversion of money. Whatever work on this project that I do will be shelved indefinitely. And it should be. We can’t afford it right now.

In September I will be there a year. And Rocio will rightfully be upset if I don’t demand a raise, which they have repeatedly said that I deserve and will receive without any prompting from me.

And I don’t think that they can afford that, either.

Lesson learned. Never turn to Lewis in times like this. He will only remind me how futile it is to be a human being. Sometimes we get what we deserve, but usually it’s only when we don’t want it, and it doesn’t work conversely unless we get really lucky.

* * * *

At least I can say this: The people that work for me receive raises, screw the current cash flow. I review them on time and augment their salary according to their achievements and work ethic. I had a seamstress tell me last month, after I told her that she would get a dollar per hour raise, that she didn’t believe that the company would permit it.

I told her that if she didn’t get the raise that she so much deserved that I would quit on the spot. She deserved at least that, she is a stellar employee.

When I submitted the slip, the people in charge of human resources didn’t bat an eye, they simply adjusted her salary accordingly.

At the very least, I am damned proud of that, and of her.

And of all of the people who have to work for me.

At least there is that.