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.

Sunday, June 19, 2005


"For rarely are sons similar to their fathers: Most are worse, and a few are better than their fathers."

- Homer

* * * *

The only thing about my own father that scared me when I was a child was his temper, I was convinced that he had the capacity to turn into Satan when I was young and when my brother and I would act like young boys sometimes do. His temper was a fire, kindled by a lifetime of frustrations, fueled by a world that had more control over him that he had over his world. I would not have known that back when I was a child because he kept me safe and sane, nestled in the loving arms of suburban lawns and quiet neighborhood streets somewhere east of Los Angeles. He kept my brother and me away from the bad places where children can go wrong before they reach high school and maybe even the seventh grade.

I would not have known that when I was nine or ten, but I know it now.

My father coached little league, played catch with us on Saturdays and Sundays, came to see me play at concerts that likely bored the hell out of him, and so on. Through all of that, not one time was I ever aware of his condescending superiors at work, impossible sales quotas, sweating out a mortgage payment on the house, or whatever. Surely, all of that was there, burdening him, eating at him, and not once could I have connected that with his temper because he loved me and my brother too much to set one feather from his sack of burdens on our shoulders. Nor on our conscience; I was never made to feel culpable in any way for any shortcomings that our family ever endured, my father shouldered all of it for us.

Some Satan he turned out to be.

My father loves to fish, one place that we seemed to wind up at, when I was a kid, was Lake Puddingstone. Lake Puddingstone is a man-made lake just north of where I grew up, now part of Frank G. Bonelli regional park. Back then, we went through a hole in the fence in the dark summer evenings and tied chicken-liver onto treble hooks, and waited for a bite. The old Coleman lantern, which my father pumped at varying intervals, mirrored dozens of other lanterns on the opposite side of that lake. My father’s pole and reel worked left-handed, he would cast and we would watch the crawdads come toward the shore, sniffing the chicken-blood, the lantern offering us a glimpse of the fresh-water world. He cast lines out for my brother and me. Coyotes howled from the hills behind us, but I was always safe.

"They don't give a damned about us," he would say.

"You’re bigger than they are."

And so on. And, of course, he was right about that. They would have rather eaten our catch that evening than to eat us.

* * * *

"And then the dispossessed were drawn west- from Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico; from Nevada and Arkansas, families, tribes, dusted out, tractored out. Car-loads, caravans, homeless and hungry; twenty thousand and fifty thousand and a hundred thousand and two hundred thousand. They streamed over the mountains, hungry and restless - restless as ants, scurrying to find work to do - to lift, to push, to pull, to pick, to cut - anything, any burden to bear, for food. The kids are hungry. We got no place to live. Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land."

- John Steinbeck from The Grapes Of Wrath, 1939.

An aside, for any fan of Steinbeck: My grandmother could have easily been Steinbeck’s model for Ma Joad; and it was never about land. It was about life. It was about survival.

The funny thing is that I don’t know everything that I probably should about my father’s life, before he was my father. My grandmother went on to California but my father took a pit stop along the way, with his father. I don’t know why or how. I only know a few things about it, mostly how horrible it was for him. I can only imagine having such a childhood, such an uncertain future at sixteen. When I was sixteen, I thought that life would probably be easy, but the older that I get – with what little I know about it – I draw on the childhood of my own father to get by, to justify where I am now.

* * * *

My father was born in Wewoka, Oklahoma, in a time where people in the mid-western United States of America were still scurrying to escape the dusty plains that once wielded an abundance of fruit and grain. Due to a combination of poor land management and meteorological bad luck, the west was infested by backward-thinking poor folks who were barely educated and determined mostly by self-survival. He was born to a nomad, my grandmother’s penchant for moving from one place to another was legendary; as was her penchant for marriage. She swore me to secrecy, to never tell how many men that she married - and so I am held silent on that subject, but suffice it to say that my grandmother went through men like a postmaster goes through stamps.

God rest my grandmother’s wonderful, wandering soul.

About Wewoka: The word wewoka comes from Seminole for barking waters, from some small falls that ran north of where the center of the town currently sits. The Seminole Indians came from Florida back in the days when the United States of America marched their indigenous peoples to reside in encampments many thousands of miles from where they had always lived. My father, who has more indigenous blood than I do, has never felt bad about that. He has known such indigenous people, has grown up with full-blooded Indians in his youth, and has nothing adverse to say about their demise since the European conquest of their country led them to where they are now.

"Ira Hayes had all of the opportunities in the world to do something with himself, to make something great happen for himself," my father would lament.

Ira Hayes was one of the six marines who raised the flag of the United States of America on Iwo Jima during the Second World War. Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian born on a reservation near Sacaton, Arizona. He joined the Marine Corps and fought during the war, and came home a war hero. Ira Hayes died in Bapchule, Arizona, at the age of thirty-two.


"He was a drunk," my father told me, "Ira Hayes, like many Indians, drank himself to death. They found his dead body one morning alongside the road. What a waste."

Sacaton and Bapchule are within twenty miles of Casa Grande, Arizona, where my father grew up, in the hot flat expanse of the Arizona desert. My father came to despise Arizona and the dusty, hot days of his youth. His father, my paternal grandfather, wound up running some auto-body shop with my Uncle Jack, somewhere near Casa Grande or some other hellhole so I am told. My grandfather had one functional eye – again, so I am told, his eye was put out by some wayward metal fragment while beating in a fender or something. My only memory of my paternal grandfather is from when I was perhaps five or six years old, he was eating fried eggs and toast in our home east of Los Angeles. He was an old, broken-down man by then. I was too young to remember anything more than that.

"I saw Ira Hayes many times when I was a kid, he was just another drunk Indian on the streets. They weren’t allowed to buy booze, someone had to buy it for them."

Ira Hayes died long before I was born. He blamed his drinking on the fact that only five men in his forty-five man platoon survived Iwo Jima and the war, and that he was not the hero that they were, his "buddies", who died fighting alongside of him during that war. But my father, as a young man, knew more about him than whatever fifty-year old references that I can dig up about one Ira Hayes. Perhaps my father is right about one thing concerning Ira Hayes; true heroes live as an example to future heroes. Perhaps there is that.

My father lived with his father there in Casa Grande for many years, I have no idea where my grandmother was during all of this time. In California, for example, I remember that she managed – alongside my great aunt – the Holister hotel in Central California back in the sixties. But that was many years later than Casa Grande, many years after Santa Margarita. There are so many more disjoined tidbits of family history on my father’s side of the family, it is like piecing together a puzzle without the image on the outside of the box.

I know that my father was pretty much on his own from when he was about seventeen years old. At some point, he met my mother at Roosevelt High in Fresno back in the fifties, they married about the time that he signed up for the United States Navy. My father served as a coreman, and never had very much positive memories of his time in the service. I was born in nineteen hundred and sixty-one in the old Balboa Naval Hospital, in San Diego. My parents scraped up pennies to keep me in milk and diapers, moved to Santa Ana where my little brother was born, and when my father’s time in the service was up, he worked for General Dynamics in Pomona. He hated it, he later told me. They bought a nice house in the suburbs and gave me an opportunity for a wonderful childhood there, some twenty-two miles east of Los Angeles. My father eventually went into sales and became very good at it, although I doubt that he actually liked it very much. He never would have told me, had I ever asked. I doubt very much that it ever occurred to my father to ask whether or not his father liked beating fenders into proper shape.

I doubt that my grandfather would have answered him, one way or the other.

I had a much better childhood than my father did. After all, I had a hero that my father never had. My father shuttled back and forth from Casa Grande to Santa Margarita, California, a few times. From here to there. I stayed in one place, able to see the world with the clear vision that, in all likelihood, my father never had. I had a perspective that my father never knew.

And there is so much more, but I save that for another time. Another father’s day, perhaps, when my memory is not so important as my definition of heroism.

* * * *

Real heroes are ordinary people who do the extraordinary, most often in ways that cannot be measured in terms of stoic bravery or unflagging leadership; that such heroes guide those of us who would otherwise be foolish enough to look toward the shiniest star or listen to the loudest foghorn, we are so lucky. I am so lucky.

My father is my hero. I should be so lucky, then, if my own children would claim me as theirs. But then, you know, I would only point to Ira Hayes, and accentuate the difference between a living hero and a dead one, and then I would simply point to my father...

Sunday, June 12, 2005


Suicide is man's way of telling God, "You can't fire me - I quit."

- Bill Maher

* * * *

Whoever he was, he was determined. All people who truly wish to end their lives should be so determined to do so, for the probable betterment for all concerned, in the long run. No more worrying about leaving razor blades lying around; no need to lock up the leftover prescription drugs; no more round rooms with padded walls. Removing shoelaces and belts would be a thing of the past if people with suicidal tendencies were so determined as was one someone who committed suicide at the border a few weeks ago.

Whoever he was, no one was going to stop him.

If any human being on this planet wished to end their life on it, there are thousands of ways to accomplish this task. I have no idea, should there be such a thing as an afterlife, if bonus points are awarded for suicidal creativity. Or gumption. Or even batting average. All I know is that motive, the one question that everyone asks after a suicide, is entirely irrelevant. Murder is tragic; suicide is whimsical, like an exclamation point after a sentence fragment. Even a random, senseless murder has motive, but suicide cannot – the killer leaves the recipe and takes his cake with him, never to be tasted by friends or family. In other words, while a suicide takes some amount of planning, the act itself is no different than tossing a coin into a well without first making a wish. The best thing that can happen is nothing at all. After that, no one can say for sure.

What could be more whimsical than suicide?

* * * *

In the thirteen years that I have lived here, countless accidental homicides have occurred in the wide traffic lanes approaching the San Ysidro border crossing in Tijuana. The stricken are mostly hawkers in the wrong place, unwitting victims to a hurried tourist in an automobile, someone trying to quickly cross into the United States of America. Or else, the same type of vehicle strikes some pedestrians who are forced to cross the vast highway formed by merging traffic into the border. Such deaths are always tragic, and people have been calling for some sort of a pedestrian bridge to be built there for as long as I can remember.

Last year, thirteen years later, construction began on such a pedestrian bridge. I have noticed the progress of this bridge almost daily, coming from where the yellow taxis park, the bridge spans the traffic lanes and comes to a winding pathway able to accommodate the wheelchair-bound using ramps. Construction was almost complete when, one morning a few weeks ago, I was walking to cross the border, bypassing the long pedestrian line on the right shoulder of the Northbound traffic lanes. I was forced to the extreme right by some yellow police tape, just before I reached the bridge.

There were small articles in both the San Diego Union-Tribune and in the local papers in Mexico the next day. Someone had approached the bridge and began to climb it, and was warned off of it by a Mexican female police officer. She chased him away and went back to whatever she was doing. A few minutes later, he was hanging by his neck from the bridge, silhouetting the twilight backdrop of the early morning commute into the United States of America.

Whoever he was.

The irrelevant issue, obviously, is that he wanted someone, some certain person during their morning commute, to see him hanging dead by the neck on their way to work that morning. Time must have been a factor, based on how it all occurred. After being chased away, it took no time at all for this person to climb back up onto the bridge. And, with no time taken to reevaluate his proposed actions, he quickly tied knots that would hold at least two hundred pounds and properly disembarked from life as he once knew it. This is all irrelevant because no one will ever know if that last wish made before casting the coin of life into the wishing well of existence ever came true.

Again, I stress that this was not a tragic occurrence. This was whimsy at its finest.

* * * *

Sometimes on the streets of Tijuana, I see them crossing slowly in front of moving traffic. Sometimes even in pairs, like the other afternoon on the way to Centro after work. I was waiting to cross Calle Negrete south when they slowly came north and crossed against heavy traffic, cars were missing them by inches, and their expressions did not change. Nor did their speed or gait, in spite of the screeching tires and wailing horns, somehow they made it to my side of the street. I noticed their faces as they passed me. They were zombie-like, expressionless, apathetic.


A logical conclusion that one might reach, especially on the busy streets of Tijuana, is that such human beings are simply committing suicide, that there is a death wish somehow involved. Not true! Rampant drug abuse of various types can easily account for this behavior. Heavy drug use creates the apathy that some human beings want, that their brains are telling them that they need in order to survive. In order to not remember something that hurts to remember. And so on.

No one I ever met decided to do an eight-ball in order to remember some wonderful childhood memory or fantastically successful personal relationship or business venture or whatever. I never met a crack addict who hit the rock because her children loved her so much that she felt the need to alter her brain-chemicals. People alter their brain-chemicals in order to try and forget something that their brains, in any normal state, will not allow them to forget. People do not use hardcore drugs on a whim, they do it with a purpose. If death is a result of drugs, then whether or not it is by accident, any death is only a death as the result of apathy.

If suicide and drugs have common element, then it is this: Some people take drugs to commit suicide, but they do so prior to being under the influence of the drug. The whimsical moment occurs right before the drug is taken. There must be a common question that the mind asks itself, in such circumstances, which is, "What in the hell am I doing?"

And then, whatever happens after that, happens on a whim.

The moment of truth must be, I am sure, that moment right before the needle pierces the skin. Or else, for whatever reason, when someone puts a rope around their neck; and when the brain of this someone asked itself what in the hell it was doing, and the body that housed the brain merely shrugged and slid purposefully down a pedestrian bridge and hung itself. The neck breaks, resulting in oxygen depravation or paralysis or the snapping the spinal cord or whatever else otherwise renders dead any person hung by the neck.

On a whim.

Sunday, June 05, 2005


At four o'clock this morning my chili beans betrayed me, I had that familiar pain I sometimes get from eating one too many jalapeños. Two trips to the bathroom didn't help, so I got up and made coffee and lived with it, until it eventually went away. At around four-thirty this morning I came into this office and listened to the cats on the roof, only the impending sunrise would drive them back into hiding. Some new-age wagon-barker came on the radio selling something I never heard of, which contained other stuff I never heard of in order to cure odd diseases and keep my prostrate in check and so on. Nothing about curing an intestinal tract that has developed problems passing spicy food in a way that disallows one to sleep through it at four in the morning.

I am disappointed, but certainly not surprised.

I cooked a big giant pot of chili yesterday because I found some canned tomatoes last Sunday in our local Calimax. This is a rare thing indeed, it was as if the Gods of Tex-Mex cooking were sending me a sign, a sign that I couldn't ignore. Of course, were I to have found some kidney beans and then a block of sharp cheddar cheese, it would have been a bona fide miracle. But miracles are hard to come by these days, so I made due with some pinto beans and a block of Monterey Jack.

And the chili was good, right up until four in the morning.

This familiar pain, the one I get from eating hot food, has only become familiar within the last year, I think. The body changes, slowly at first but then faster as the years roll on. I just had another year roll on, I am suddenly forty-four and I don't know how that happened. And just as I am going to help myself to another heaping bowl of chili in about an hour or so, I am going to have to deal with the fact that I am forty-four and will pay a price for eating chili.


I didn't even have time for the several days of pre-birthday loathing that I have enjoyed each year after my thirtieth birthday. I was pretty much blindsided. There I was at work on Friday morning, and Rick shook my hand.

"Happy Birthday, old man," he told me.

"Holy crap, I forgot. Don’t tell anyone," I asked him.

One of the sewers already knew, Aida somehow has this mental calendar she can rely on. She then told Adrianna, but so far as I know, the only other person who found out was my boss, so everyone kept blissfully quiet about it. This is part of what made it bearable.

Relative ordinariness is part of what makes it bearable; however bearable it needs to be in order to turn forty-four.

* * * *

I took a vacation day last Tuesday, back when I was still forty-three, conveniently extending my extended weekend one extra day, the extension of an extension. The United States of America is all about convenience, what with a floating Memorial Day and then a vacation day and so on. I took Anna to school in the morning, right before we left she tried to make a call, and then quickly hung up. It didn't occur to me to ask about it until we were out of the door, walking toward the first available calafia that we found heading south up the hill toward Reforma.

"Who did you call before we left?"

"I called my grandmother," she answered.

She didn't even look up at me, I imagine that she was thinking about school. We mostly always speak English, especially on the streets. This isn't planned, it just happens, sort of like Anna's English or even my Spanish. But Anna's English is unique, and translated in an astounding way. I am not teaching her very much of anything, she does most of it all on her own.

"You didn’t talk to her?" I asked.

"The line was occupied," Anna said.

The line was occupied. I chuckled to myself as we continued walking down the alley approaching the boulevard. I informed her that it was perfectly acceptable to say that the line was busy.

"I know," she told me.

She then looked at me to make sure that I understood that she already knew, and that she chooses her words with purpose and skill. I smiled at her and we continued on. In Spanish, ocupar means to occupy, the Mexicans will say that a line is occupied if there is a busy signal or linea ocupado. Occupied is simply a direct translation. And much more correct, accurately describing the situation as it happened. After all, we are talking about a series of suspended wires, static objects unable to move without some outside force like wind or earthquakes or birds and so on. Only something dynamic can be busy, after all.

So when I was forty-three, Anna taught me that sometimes our colloquial references get the best of us. Telephone lines are sometimes occupied, and people are sometimes busy. While it's perfectly acceptable to interchange these adverbs, they are better served, right where they are.

I wonder what she’ll teach me at forty-four.

* * * *

Friday, after I was no longer forty-three, we left work on time and Rick took me to the Dandy del Sur and bought me a beer. Then, the house bought me a couple and Jody came in and bought me a scotch. And then Charlie bought me a beer, and so on.

This is the part of my birthday I am only now beginning to appreciate.

I headed down to El Fuente and the house bought me another scotch and a beer, and then other people were buying me drinks. The Padres even won, and there I was, sitting pretty and full of booze, booze that I didn't even have to buy.

A very nice pattern had developed. I contemplated pressing my luck down at my favorite taco stand, but couldn't bring myself to mention anything until after I had eaten and paid and was about to jump into a collectivo for the journey home.

"Next time," the taquero told me.

And in the cab, I was alone with my thoughts along with the other nine occupants (I am assuming that no one could read my mind). I was happy and full of beer and scotch and tacos. And I was thinking that maybe next year I should choose one day to accept the generosity and well-wishes of others who walk the same crooked path that I do, every other ordinary day.

I got home and I slept like a king.

* * * *

Yesterday, as I was cooking up the pinto beans, boiling the jalapeños, and prepping the onions and garlic and so on, Rocio's father, Elias came by after work. I handed him a beer, Rocio was asleep and Anna was out playing. Mexico was going to play Guatemala in an hour. Last week, he tried to get me to commit to drinking with him on my birthday, and I politely excused myself. I told him that it was just another day.

And now, the day after my birthday, this is what he told me:

"You're too much like a woman," he said.

And he quickly held up his hand in case I was to respond; it wasn't his intention to insult me, he was attempting to prove a point.

He continued, "Women do what you have been doing, they are ashamed to admit their age or their birthdays. You ever notice that? Let me tell you what aging is for men."

I could hear the jalapeños coming to a boil as I listened, and he took another sip of Tecate.

"It's an art," he said, "You have to age artistically. Look at me," he said, "I’m fifty-five!."

Then the telephone rang, and I spent the next hour and a half talking to my mother about everything from politics to religion, anything that came up, and I lost myself in that. Meanwhile, Mexico beat the snot out of Guatemala, and Elias went home. And then, I ran into the kitchen and cooked chili, and I lost myself in that. We ate and went to bed, and I thought no more about aging artistically.

At six this morning, it occurred to me that I wasn't wrong about the third of June, it is an ordinary day, as ordinary as the rest. There isn't any real reason why, on the third of June, that people should buy me drinks and tacos and so on, just because it happens to be the third of June.

And then, that's part of the art, I suppose. I believe that everyone is special in a certain way. Isn't that one way of letting someone else know that they are special in some way, to buy them a beer and a taco, and so on? If everyone is special, then - even in varying degrees, wouldn't we all go broke buying everyone else a beer and a taco every day?

So maybe aging artistically is coming to terms with the fact that everyone is special and we can't go around buying everyone else beers and tacos all of the time, so we pick the date of their birth to honor their degree of specialty on this planet. And that part of this is gracefully accepting this fact when it’s your turn. Maybe it is in accepting that an ordinary day is chosen to honor an extraordinary person.

Maybe this is the first lesson that I learned at forty-four.

Or else, maybe I'll change my mind about the time I reach forty-five. Or maybe even a few hours after I finish this bowl of chili.