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 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.


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