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, July 31, 2005

Of Time And Potato Chips

Time makes more converts than reason.

- Thomas Paine

* * * *

I waded through the week like it was some sort of a bog, some swampy stretch of road from there to here. Joshua hadn’t called me, maybe that was a part of it. Usually at work, time slips quickly by, frighteningly fast even, like pulling a potato chip out of a bag that is suddenly now empty, where did all of the chips go? Friday, then, was a jumbo-sized bag of chips so far as time was concerned. There was plenty of it. I finished everything and left a bit early.

I was in the Dandy Del Sur with a Tecate in hand at five o’clock, a very rare occurrence.

At seven, I left the Dandy Del Sur and wandered down Calle Sexta to El Fuente, expecting to take in the Padres game. Charlie was already there, his portable radio pressed to his ear, and the bar was crowded. The Padres game was not on the television, there was some novela, some Mexican soap opera, and Chela refused to change the channel. I wasn’t angry, at least not outwardly so, but the prospect of watching some soap opera while a ball game was on – in a bar no less, would have had my stomach churning had I stayed to have a beer with Charlie (who is too blind to see the television, thus, the radio pressed to his ear).

So I got out of there.

I walked north and then around the block to the race and sports book, figuring that the game would be on one of the thirty monitors there. It was a slow evening at the book, except for the sports section, filled with loudness and yelling at the screens and so on. All sorts of games were on; every monitor seemed to have a different game on it, except for the Padres game. Except for the one event that I wanted to watch.

I guess that nobody had a bet down on it, either way.

I ordered a beer and thought about going down to the book on Calle Cuarta, but I was tired. I went to the area where the horses and the dogs were running, sat down, grabbed a leftover Racing Form for Los Alamitos, first post was about seventeen minutes away. I still wasn’t angry, but I sure was puzzled as to what it would take to watch the Padres, short of a long walk, or actually travelling to Petco Park, about an hour away from where I was.

I had been away from the horses for a long time. Years ago, I would spend every other Saturday and some Sundays at that race book, not to mention the occasional bet during the weekdays. And there I sat, wondering what in the hell I was doing there, looking up at the screen, at the first race at Los Alamitos.

Thirteen minutes to first post.

* * * *

My mind drifted back to a time, so many years ago, when I would show up at Los Alamitos on a Friday night, cashed paycheck in pocket, gazing out over the track. The shadows were friendly, the warm air was thinning out the smog-filled skies, clearing a way for the weekend. In those days, before off-track betting, the potato-chip bag of time seemed to always be full, no matter how much I ate. It always seemed like forever until first post.

The first time that I went to Los Alamitos it was with Big John, who taught me about handicapping and how to read the Racing Form. He was my first mentor, I don’t know whatever happened to him. He taught me about speed ratings and workouts and told me stories about track tips and so on. He would tell me about his adventures to Caliente racetrack, right down the road from me, back when the horses ran there. I never imagined myself here in Baja back in those days, Mexico might have well as been the moon so far as I was concerned. For a few months, we would meet on the lower level where for three-and-a-half-dollars you could get a nice buffet, and he would tell me about all of these fantastic stories. Soon after, I showed up even when he didn’t, and then I never heard from him again.

Life is like that sometimes.

Back then, time only seemed to speed up right before post time. For whatever reason, when I had my eye on a possible overlay – a horse that the betting public was willing to not bet at odds far above his morning line, time seemed to fly by. Each time I would rattle the bag, there seemed to be less chips, they were disappearing logarithmically. Many times, I am sure, I was live at the track watching the tote board, seeing the same thing that I was looking at now, only through the magic of a monitor in Tijuana Mexico:

Ten Minutes to first post.

* * * *

The Joshua Experiment has failed – at least the first part of it, and I have no idea if there will be a part two. Beyond the big metal fence, he is somewhere out there, and I wish him much luck, he is going to need a lot of luck. He could be in Florida now, since he told me he needed to be in Florida, or else he could be back near Oceanside. Or else, he could be anywhere. Joshua could be anywhere but here.

I am not surprised, just sad. I knew that this was a possibility all along.

Joshua left one week ago on Friday with a few hundred dollars in his pocket, clothes packed up into two small packs, with a belly full of hamburger and fries. Rick and me took Joshua with us to the bank, took him with us to our biweekly long lunch, and dropped him off at a trolley station. Wherever he was off to, he had plenty of daylight to work with. Rick and me went back to work and I have been mostly silent about it since then.

He told me that he loved me, and I believe him, and he knows that I love him too. But he won’t listen to any of my advice, and I refuse to be lied to. So it goes. We made no promises to each other, so there is no contract to fulfill. Our time here together was mostly great, and I hope that he leaves here having learned more than just a few Spanish words of questionable origin. And I hope that he returns someday with a desire to become responsible to himself.

I hope for that more than I hope for anything.

Someday, sooner that he thinks, Joshua will be looking at time a bit differently than he is right now. The transition will become apparent in a scary way, like looking up at life’s tote board and realizing that there is a finite amount of time in order to get your bet in.

Like in the race book on Friday, when there was only eight minutes until first post.

* * * *

Through all of the cloudiness in my head, I had my eye on a horse in the first race at Los Alamitos. His morning line was a little more than four to one, but I recognized his sire, a fast horse who has thrown fast progeny, and here we were in a maiden race and a horse bred to show speed is dismissed at eight to one. At least, with seven minutes to post, not too many people liked him very much. I liked him a lot, and now he was a nice overlay.

Quarter horse racing is easy to handicap. It is all about speed. There is no rating, no tactical speed, no closing. The idea is to get out of the gate clean and run hell-bent for the finish line. Not a single horseracing venue offers such a simple and straightforward strategy for winning, for handicapping, and for betting. Therefore, it is always a surprise when an overlay presents itself in quarter horse racing.

With five minutes to first post, my overlay was at eleven to one.

I got up, I couldn’t not get up, it was almost an involuntary reaction like when your baby cries and you have to go see what’s the matter. What was the matter with the betting public? The two horses that they had thrown all of their money on were nice horses, but at little more than even money, why bother betting them? If I got up, in a sense, it was because the betting public was a crying baby that needed its diaper changed. After all, my bills were paid, I had extra money in my pocket, and someone was going to cash in a little bit of owed karma. I bet twenty dollars to win and place, and boxed my overlay with three other horses inside of a tidy trifecta. I spent sixty-four karmic dollars with two minutes until first post.

The race was anticlimactic, the overlay, who wound up going off at fifteen to one, led wire to wire and won by a half-length. One half of a length in quarter horse racing is like four or five lengths for the thoroughbreds, and in fact the order of finish was exactly the same as the order that they got out of the gate.

Sometime, life is that easy.

The trifecta only returned one hundred and thirty eight dollars, which is mighty disappointing when a fifteen to one shot lands on top. But the thirty-three dollar win and eight-dollar place was nice, especially when multiplied by ten. I cashed for five hundred and forty-eight dollars and ninety cents, left the window clerk ten dollars, and noticed that the Padres game was finally on one of the screens on my way out of there.

I had to laugh about that.

* * * *

I had a nice wad of cash in my pocket, and as I walked down Avenida Revolución I thought about Joshua and about last Friday. I thought about how he had a nice wad of cash in his pocket, and I thought about being eighteen years old again and maybe having a nice wad of cash in my pocket at eighteen years old. It would never have occurred to me to go to Florida, but who knows what else might have occurred to me at eighteen?

I probably wouldn’t have listened to my father, either. But then, I wouldn’t have lied to him. I can’t simply shrug that off to some indiscretion of youth. But someday, I am sure that I can forgive it.

I went back to the Dandy Del Sur and watched the Padres lose yet again, smugly drinking Chivas Regal while pondering what to do with an extra five hundred dollars. I thought that, perhaps, I could jump on a jet to Florida, go find my son, and tell him all about the bag of chips, and so on. I thought about that, but I quickly realized that eighteen-year-olds have no interest in a bag of chips, that sometimes time is forever until one day it isn’t.

I was eighteen, once.

I came home and slept on my five hundred dollars, and took Anna with me yesterday and spent thirty-three dollars of it on some Chinese food that we brought home and ate. And it was good. And maybe I’ll save the rest. Or maybe I’ll spend it on bags of chips.

Or maybe I’ll go buy some Padres tickets so I can actually watch a game in its entirety.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Any Different

On the coast, south of San Diego, we needed jackets by six o'clock on Friday. The cool breeze off of the Pacific Ocean brought in moisture from the incoming low clouds and made the high-voltage wires above us buzz with atmospheric continuity. We knocked back a few after the workday ended - a bunch of us, including my son Joshua. He gets along well with a couple of the youngsters at work, or those who are relatively young, so to speak, and they enjoy something called freestyle hip-hop, whatever that is. All I know is that it involves rapping to a beat, making something up as you go, and having it all flow. He is reported to be quite good at it.

Of course, I recommended writing, but I don't suppose that the girls are going to be swooning over a writer anytime soon.

So be it.

The rest of us talked mostly in Spanish about work, about other events, about anything at all. Our conversations were periodically interrupted by the screaming engines of some F-18 fighter jet on approach to North Island Naval Air Station, tearing the sky a new asshole. We would look up into the incoming cloud cover and find the forward-swept wings of the jet, dropping under the gray and passing over us until all we could see was the dual exhaust nozzles and the V-shaped tail-fins heading northeast toward a diagonal runway on the other side of Coronado.

The beer ran out quickly and I hoisted my pack in preparation for the walk over to Palomar Street to the trolley station. Joshua, meanwhile, had other ideas. I stopped him from getting into a car with Marcos and Mitz, they wanted to go on another beer run.

"You have to go to work tomorrow," I reminded him.

Joshua was stunned, he reeled back out of the car and glared at me, searching for an answer.

"They live within minutes of this place," I said nodding toward Marcos and Mitz. "You live almost two hours away."

As we said our good-byes and walked South toward Palomar Street, Joshua began an argument with me that lasted all of the way into our first beer in El Fuente. Our argument couldn't be interrupted by the whining Pratt and Whitney engines on the 737's that passed over us on our walk toward Centro, as opposed to the General Electric powerplants attached to the F-18's we had waited on to pass by us just one hour earlier, I found myself hoping for one as we walked the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana river. We had accidentally met Wally on the trolley to the border, and then he met us minutes later in El Fuente bar where we shot some pool and Joshua discovered that he couldn't handle Chivas Regal very well, not even as well as he tried to handle a pool cue. Maybe in Wally, Joshua saw some goal that he needed to arrive at, we haven't had any words about Friday night since then. Or else, maybe Wally beat Joshua so soundly on the green felt, that Joshua felt somewhat humbled. Or else, maybe Wally, in some way, had the same effect as did the F-18's earlier on. I couldn’t say.

But I remember one exchange that Joshua and Wally had in the middle of a game.

Joshua asked, "So, what was it like growing up here in Mexico as a gringo?"

Wally's face remained expressionless, he didn't even look up as he cut the six-ball into the corner pocket.

"I wouldn’t know any different," he said.

I wouldn't know any different.

I bought Josh some tacos (to go), and we made it home without incident. And I thought about what Wally said, and I thought about how wonderfully simple it would be if I were able to say that I wouldn't know any different whenever someone asks me how I like living in Baja. And as I drifted off to sleep, I wondered if Joshua could be thinking the same thing as he downed his tacos and watched Mexican cable television.

And some dogs barked in the streets.

I thought about someone asking one of them, 'So, how does it feel to be a dog in Tijuana?'


Which might mean this: I wouldn't know any different!

And someone in the neighborhood had banda music turned up too high, and at one o'clock in the morning the streets were still full people drinking liquor and eating tacos and looking for something better than whatever they were doing at the moment. And no matter what, regardless of whether or not they had to get up early the next day, I could only think one thought as sleep came:

They wouldn't know any different.

* * * *

Joshua has worked with me for nine days now, and yesterday he went in to do a Saturday by himself. I woke him up at six and made him some coffee and watched him walk out of the door toward Diaz Ordaz to get a cab to the border. I then worked for about three and a half hours to get rid of two viruses that infected my computer – oddly enough, these viruses, in part, are designed to have me purchase some anti-virus software – and then I spent the next four hours cooking chicken potpies for all to enjoy. In the middle of making the dough, Joshua called and told me that he was stopping off to have a beer. I told him to be home at about seven-thirty if he wanted to eat some hot chicken potpie.

And Rocio's father came by on his way home from work in the middle of all of this, and he told me some things in private that I would share, if I had understood a damned thing that he said. It was mostly drunken mumbling, the only part of it that made any sense was that he liked me (in spite of my American whiteness), and that I am a motherfucker (in only the nicest way possible). He left, and as I lined the casserole dishes with future piecrust, Rocio awoke and came out into the dining room to ask me what it was all about.

"You understand him better than I do," I said.

"Not really," Rocio told me, "I just guess most of the time when he’s been drinking."

Elias is most misunderstood when he's been drinking. Imagine that.

"Look," I told her, "No matter what, I can only attribute it to one thing: He doesn't know any different."

She didn't argue the point.

Joshua came home and told me that he stopped by a strip-joint named Madonna's, which is on the corner of Calle Cuarto and Avenida Revolución, a place that Sammy and Ian and me went to so many years ago. Joshua had met someone on the trolley, a bartender who works there, and had Josh promise to stop by. The Church of Our Wholly Blessed Naked Madonna Ian used to call it. The girls who work there – mostly from the United States of America – pull in a lot of cash. There is a good reason for that. Madonna's might be the most expensive-yet-accessible Gentleman’s Club in all of Tijuana. Maybe this is so, I can only guess.

Josh and me walked by that place for the first time last week, taking Avenida Revolución instead of taking the parallel streets with less tourist traffic that I prefer to traverse on my way from anywhere through Centro to somewhere else. And also, to teach Joshua the streets, how they flow, what all of these different dives offer, and where to stay away from. Including Madonna's, unless he has twenty-dollar bills to burn.

At eighteen years of age, there wasn't anything that could keep him out of there. Not even some sound advice from his old man. Or even, not especially some advice from his old man.

So it goes.

He arrived home, safe and sound, and we ate chicken potpies like crazy, even though I am guessing that most of his stash of cash went toward some thirty-something year old American with silicone breast implants and twenty-four ounces of makeup.

And except for my ignored warning about five-dollar beers and grab-ass dancing girls, his experience in Madonna's might very well be summed up as this:

He didn't know any different.

But he sure as hell does now.

* * * *

When Joshua called me a couple of weeks ago at work, telling me that he was fresh out of rehab and had no place to go, it wasn't exactly what I had in mind when, about six months ago, I recommended to him that he give this place a try. But it happened how it happened. And now I am faced with so many challenges, as Joshua also is, and so here we are trying to be father and son after over ten years of not really knowing each other.

And, aside from what might be a natural tendency on my part to make up for ten years of fatherhood, I am faced with the task of trying to force my thirteen years of experiences here in Tijuana onto his learning capabilities, so that he might enjoy this wonderful place sooner than I did. So that he might do more than just survive here. And so on.

And to anyone who might say that I am likely biting off more than I can chew, the only thing that comes to mind is this:

I don’t know any different.