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.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

A Humble Faith

When confronted by people claiming to have some religion that the rest of the world needs, I have an easy and mostly foolproof way of ending the conversation relatively quickly. There are many methods, some more drastic than others, to get the written-propaganda-wielding Jehovah’s Witnesses to turn around and run away, but this one little question completely exposes the most vulnerable weakness of most followers of any particular Western religion.

"Excuse me, sir, I would like to introduce you to..."

"Are these writings based on your particular religion?" I interrupt.

"Yes, they are, there are wonderful stories about..."

"Is your religion based on faith?"

"Well, yes, it is based on faith in our Lord Jesus..."

"Wait. Before we go any further, you need to define what faith is."

They are delighted to tell you that faith is believing, for example, that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God and died for our sins, and so on. They go on to say that all of these beliefs are based on faith and faith alone, and that the rewards are an afterlife in heaven, and on and on. I simply tell them that faith is not at all defined in that way, faith is a human characteristic that is much more basic and even primordial compared to a complicated concept like religion.

When one wakes up at four in the morning, it is dark, but one has faith the sun will rise as it always does. It isn’t even a point of doubt for anyone, it requires no thought and no wonder, the sun will come up, even if we can’t see it at the moment. Our faith in that event is so strong that we do not even think about it. When we get out of bed to stand up, we never worry that gravity has changed at some point in the night, that we are either pulled to the ground or float upward to the ceiling, we know that it will be all right. Again, we have very strong faith in something that we cannot see, hear, smell, taste; or even feel until the event unfolds and we find ourselves standing as we always have, pulling on our jeans.

We get in our cars and have faith that our fellow humans are not going to ram into us on the highway. Although we are somewhat more skeptical, we are only alarmed when someone shows some obvious sign of incapacity to operate a vehicle – we mostly are not worried that someone is going to crash through the center divider on interstate five and test our side air bags. Or maybe we get on the bus without worrying that the bus driver has just finished a fifth of Jack Daniels, we have faith that he or she has our safety on the very top of the list.

"We eat fried chicken for lunch and have faith that it will not make us ill."

"But that is not the same kind of faith," they usually say. "The faith that we have is that believing that Jesus is the son of God will bring you everlasting life. It says so right in John 3:16..."

"Oh? And how is that different than believing that the faith that one has in gravity, astronomy, and our fellow human beings will bring us life for one more day? Isn’t everlasting life simply one more day and one more day and one more day and so on?"

And when they quote biblical scripture, it is always good to point out a couple of things. First of all, for example, the New Testament was written in ancient Greek. Then, translated into Latin. Then into German, and then English, Spanish, and so on. How much of that could possibly be lost in translation? Second of all, and more important, the books of the bible were written by scribes - men who made money writing whatever other men told them to. The words of Jesus are in red text, but a witness who was a human related all of it to a scribe who was also a human.

Presumably, this is the way that most of the bible was written. I wasn’t there, but this is the story as I have read it.

I tell them something like this:

"Base your religion on humility and I might be interested in it. Be humble enough to say, 'You know, we really have no clue how it really works. We have a lot of questions about all of this God and Jesus stuff. Here’s a book full of all of our questions.' If your religion ever prints a book like that, then I’ll be first in line to buy one. Any good religion should base itself on humility, not on something like faith. Everyone has faith. Very few of us have humility. Faith can be misplaced. A humble person has nothing but questions, and this can only result in a few answers."

Maybe I am a closet Buddhist. I have no idea.

* * * *

A week ago Friday, Jorge gave me a ride all of the way into Centro de Tijuana, and we parked up near Boulevard Niños Heroes. The Policia on the corner had been drinking, the breath mints could not affect his slurred speech and uncoordinated movement. Jorge and me had just left La Fuente bar, and I continued taking him on a tour of Calle Sexta. We crossed Avenida Constitución moving west to the Perico, when the officer stopped us and wanted to know what was in my pack. I have been through this sort of thing countless times in Tijuana, he must have known from my answer and selection of words and mannerisms and so on. I am neither untouchable nor infallible, but I am good on the Tijuana streets in the sense that I keep my cool and play the game well. I suppose that I have faith in myself.

And it helps that I have no obvious tattoos.

Jorge has tattoos like the Pope has religion. When the cop immediately gave up on me, he prompted Jorge to lift his shirt and reveal his marked past, most of the ink was not applied in jail, but through the learned hands and expensive ink from the Barrios on the other side of this man’s border. The cop told Jorge, in Spanish of course, that he would give him a break this time.

I choked back laughter and was thankful that he had not said that to me, because I wouldn’t have had the good sense to walk away. This is the difficult part of living in a part of the world where the justice system is Napoleonic. Guilty until proven innocent. I suppose that, in a way, ink that is permanently imbedded into one’s skin can be considered as means to imply some sort of guilt. Fortunately by sheer luck, and certainly not through a fear of needles and ink, I have never been around any tattoo parlors at any point in my life where I had an excess of either time or money.

Or booze. Or whatever.

Not very much of what I do or do not do is out of being humble. It probably should be. But it isn’t.

* * * *

There are many nights that I wonder if I believe in Scotch more than I believe in God.

I don’t feel at all guilty about that, but I do wonder about it sometimes.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Communist Agitator

Not more than a month or two ago, I was walking with Daniel, from the trolley in San Ysidro to enter into Mexico. Through the tunnel that winds upward toward a corridor that spans interstate five, we walk a high bridge where one can watch the traffic enter Mexico. And sometimes the pedestrians witness the momentary happenings of the people who check cars in a secondary inspection before admitting them entry into the United States of America.

Words to the unwise, do not talk on a cellular telephone, and do not stop to gawk under any circumstances. The guards will come out of otherwise inconspicuous doors and exits and force you to move on as only they have been trained to do. Forcefully. Like guard-dogs. As if one was trespassing on private property.

We were walking through that overhead corridor, and watching a rescue team with tools of their trade attending to some large vehicle, surrounded by various uniformed personnel and so on.

Lights below us were flashing like a seventies dance party.

"I wonder what that is all about," Daniel said aloud.

"They are in the process of prying a smuggled Mexican out from underneath a dashboard," I said. "There it is. You should write about it."

Daniel smirked. He hasn’t, so far that I’ve noticed, written anything about that moment.

And he should. He is an excellent poet. All that I can give you is the blunt reality of it all, and assure you that I know, even at a glance, what is going on there. I have this advantage: I have crossed the border thousands and thousands of times. Daniel has spent most of his time in one place or the other.

Also know this: If anyone can make poetic sense out of the border then it is Daniel. He can slow it all down. He can paint you a picture whereas I can only give you a pencil-sketch.

And in order to share a most wonderful experience about the border, I have recommended that Daniel also obtain a magic wand, otherwise known as a Pedestrian Sentry Card.

He is thinking about it.

* * * *

Yesterday morning, the magic wand came in very handy, there was a very long line to get into the freak show that I am fond of calling the United States of America. I passed hundreds of people in line for the show and entered my lane, waved my wand, and approached the spot where I stood and posed for the camera.

There was something on the floor.

A twenty-dollar bill, folded neatly and quite flat, felt strange on my fingers as the uniformed man motioned for me to come forward. I laid the bill on the counter as I placed my left index finger on the reader.

"Ah, you dropped some money," he said, awaiting the computer’s affirmation of a fingerprint match.

It came quickly, this computerized recognition.

"No, it isn’t mine," I replied, referring to the twenty.

There was another uniformed man there, by chance, the very one who started the application process for me. He was no help at first, he said nothing at all, only grinning slightly.

"I found it on the ground as I approached the camera," I said.

No response. I think that they expected me to put the bill into my pocket. Heh. Nothin' doin'.

"Well," I continued, "I don’t imagine that you can accept this."

"No," he said. "I can’t."

I was not happy at all. The twenty-dollar bill wasn’t mine. I could’ve used an extra twenty, but it wasn’t mine. I looked at both of them and then the twenty and wondered what to do next.

"Say," said the one who helped me to apply in the first place, "I bet I know who dropped it. This girl who works in the Duty Free store."

"Seriously?" I asked, hopeful and desperate.

He nodded and I handed him the offending bill.

"Have a nice day, sir," the other said as I waived the wand and the exit doors parted.

* * * *

There are some things in life that a government background check simply cannot reveal.

* * * *

I would never have passed the Vehicle SENTRI lane background check. A combination of youthful indiscretions, not-so-youthful indiscretions, and other things not worth mentioning would have branded me as a non-desirable traveler. How do I know?

A wonderfully candid conversation with one of the officers that fingerprinted me during the Pedestrian SENTRI application process confirmed my suspicions.

"I passed the background check, then?" I asked, somewhat relieved.

"Yes, not bad," she replied, implying that there was something. "Were you expecting a negative response?"

"Well," I said, "other than some silly misdemeanors, I suspect that the Federal Government might have me in some sort of a file."


She smiled.

"Well, I assure you, it was quite innocent. When I was a young lad, one year I filled out my income tax return and it was, let’s just say, less than generous with my return. When I ran across the line that asked what I did for a living, I filled in that I was a ‘Communist Agitator’."

She laughed.

"I suppose that this process is less strict in that respect," she admitted.

"How so?" I persisted.

"Well, let me tell you something, a while back I was working in Otay, helping to process the Vehicle SENTRI applications. Now that was a tough check. It went to Washington and took at least three months to complete and return. Let me tell you about this one guy…"

She took my prints throughout all of this. She was wonderful. Professional, thorough, and everything that one would want in a government employee. I have no doubt that my fingerprints were perfectly replicated in that scanner.

Someone should clone her.

"This guy that applied, he was good-looking, obviously educated, suit-and-tie, all of that. I had to tell him that his background check came out negative. It was terrible."

"Oh?" I egged her on. I am good at egging people on.

"He couldn’t understand why, and we’re not allowed to say why. I told him that he would have to get in touch with the Federal Government in Washington. He stood there shaking his head in disbelief, and then something occurred to him. ‘If this is what I am thinking it is, then I can’t believe it. I mean, I was a teenager. It was an innocent mistake.’ I told him that while I couldn’t actually tell him what it was, that if he mentioned it I might could nod my head in a certain way. I felt terrible for him."

"I can imagine," I lied. I had no idea where this was going.

"So, he tells me all about this story when he was eighteen at some county fair in the Midwest, and he and his friends have a few beers and run around and visit the various booths that sell stuff. One was a hat store. They were all trying on hats and he leaves wearing one and gets arrested for shoplifting."

"That was it?!?" I asked.

She nodded affirmatively.

"The Vehicle SENTRI background check is very selective," she admitted.

* * * *

I suppose that it would be quite difficult to fit an illegal alien in my backpack while walking through the border. Especially through the X-ray machine. On the other hand, I suppose that if someone steals a hat, accidentally or on purpose, then an illegal alien wouldn’t be too tough to fit underneath the dashboard a car.

Communist Agitator or not.

And as if to complete some sort of a perfect shape or formula or better yet, some sort of a perfect sequence in humanity's time on this planet, this morning the man informed me that the young lady was grateful to have reclaimed her twenty dollar bill.

If I am lucky, then we shall never meet. She might then think that human kind, through all of its faults, provides her with the hope that at times any lost cash might be returned to her.

Or else, she would be faced with just another strange gringo with an odd sense of the definition of karma.

And an ex-communist agitator.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Sound Of Sunday

I remember when I was a young boy, maybe seven or eight years old, and I used to lie in bed at night and listen to the Rainbird sprinkler watering our lawn. I had a small portable AM radio, there was no such thing as portable FM back then. On some of the deep-summer nights when the Los Angeles Dodgers played away and early - and either the California Angels were also away or I didn’t care to tune in – the radio would stay in the drawer. My thoughts would be accompanied by the working sound made by the ingenious design of the Rainbird.


Dad always waited until the sun went down, then went out and systematically watered the lawn. Accompanied by his tall can of Olympia beer, every half-hour or so the location and direction of the sprinkler would have to be changed in order to get the proper coverage. That lawn was better than any fairway I’ve ever seen anywhere, thanks to the mighty Rainbird.

The cool green lawn on hot deep-summer days underneath the shade of the trees was partially the result of that sprinkler, and mostly of my father’s diligence in lawn care. But still, that one little mechanical machine, driven by something as simple as water pressure, etched into my memory so deeply as to think about that right now. In contrast to all of the random sounds of the colonia - tamale hawkers and banda music and the rattling of the fiberglass sheet roof over the washing machine – I can distinctly hear the call of the Rainbird.

"…kleh-kleh-kleh-klehk-tlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrtlrt – Kleh-kleh-kleh-kleh-kleh…"

Then again, what with one-hundred degree heat and a strong and hot Santa Ana blowing south, it could always be nothing more than wishful thinking.

* * * *

One thing that I love about having a Monday off, is that I get to go to our local sobre ruedas and shop the open-air market. Even when I find nothing to buy, looking through piles of mostly junk in search of that used cast iron skillet or old book or two-foot long seventeen millimeter box-wrench, I love the atmosphere and the smell of the wonderful food and the eclectic bright colors and so on.

And the sounds.

"Nopales, tres-cincuenta por kilo!"

Music from some booth blasts loudly as the hawkers fight for room to launch their pitch.

"Señores y señoras, sí hay pescado fresco, barato y listo para cocinar!"

Even little nieve carts sell Mexican snow-cones to children and adults alike. The entire colona seems to show up. The young señoritas, especially in this heat, are stunning in their scantily clad forms. Automobiles move slowly through the crowd with no other choice than to be very patient.

And I will start at seven tomorrow morning, walking up to the birria stand and thinking about Ian and Sammy while enjoying some tacos de birria.

I miss them, and I bet that they miss tacos de birria.

* * * *

The largest state, ironically, in the Republic of Mexico, is the state of Chihuahua. One of the smallest breeds of dog is also called a Chihuahua.

How about that?

Chapis quit La Fuente bar, her replacement is from Chihuahua. I taught her how I like my scotch poured Friday night. Two ice-cubes. I have my own glass, by the way, a gift from Miguel who happened upon it one day and knew that I would appreciate a glass of scotch actually served in a scotch-glass.

Thanks, Miguel.

I drank Tecate and Chivas Regal until Wally finally showed up and we pretended to play pool in the back room, but we mostly talked about everything from work to women to beer to how subtle the differences are in the flavor of tacos from the tacos varios carts along Calle Constitución. We finally left just before midnight, but I was far too tired for tacos.

He went for some good tacos de chile rellenos and I opted to catch a taxi libre home, where I wondered about which sounds that Wally grew up with to accompany his thoughts.

In all likelihood, they are the same sounds that I am hearing right now.

"Elote, hay elote!"

And the small steam whistle makes an alarmingly loud call of its own.