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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Marty Marine

A couple of weeks ago, I left work early. I was upset. Rick offered to drive me to the trolley station, but I just shrugged and started walking out of the business park, making my way over interstate five and down Palomar Street to the station. I was still fuming as I made my way over to the front of the platform and leaned against the short fence and smoked a cigarette, thinking about how completely unfair some things in life can be.

A transit bus pulled in on the East Side of the station and a group of young adults piled out followed by a lady. Everyone except the lady had their transit passes hung around their neck with colored yarn, they were all smiling like Krishna’s at an airport. The lady herded them together like some sort of happy cattle.

They all made their way across the tracks and spilled out around me. Two of them ordered one of the young girls to sit against the fence next to me, and she sat as though she had no choice, as if she possessed no control over her own destiny. The lady who was their handler gently admonished them for making the young lady sit – not because they had somehow taken advantage of her lack of a sense of freewill, nor because it might be wrong to enjoy some sort of superiority and control over another fellow human. The handler lightly scolded them because she could see the trolley in the distance - what good would it do to sit if the trolley would arrive within minutes?

The trolley was eight minutes away.

One young man approached a girl in the group with his arms outstretched. She was quite pretty, this girl who was being approached, and she was one of the more lucid amongst them.

"No hugs," she said. "Don’t touch me."

He said nothing and looked away. Then he tried again, approaching her like a child.

"I said, no hugs!"

The young man hung his head and wandered over to lean against a light pole and the lazy sun reflected off of his trolley pass as it dangled and spun slowly from his neck. He had been there before, up against a lamppost. So had I. It dawned on me to invite him to come with me to the Dandy Del Sur and get drunk. I was imagining him hugging everyone in that bar, spinning around the place like a mad machine designed for hugging.

Maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea after all.

The handler then began to entertain herself by telling any of them within earshot about her nativity scene. The young lady who didn’t want to be touched perked her ears and wandered toward her handler.

"We couldn’t find the baby Jesus anywhere," the handler said.

There were gasps from the crowd.

"We looked and we looked but we thought that he was lost. What’s a manger without the baby Jesus?"

The girl who refused to hug said, "I saw lots of baby Jesuses, five or six."

She didn’t see the need to elaborate any further on the baby Jesuses sightings. I was imagining a meeting of the baby Jesuses somewhere, freshly escaped from a nativity scene.

"Do you know that we finally found the baby Jesus?" she asked.

All were silent.

"Do you know where we found the baby Jesus?" she enticed the crowd.

No one ventured a guess.

"In the washing machine!" the lady shrieked.

* * * *

Rocio has a nativity scene set up on an old sewing machine in the corner of the living room. I noticed that there is no baby Jesus amongst the porcelain figurines; there is Mary and Joseph and the wise men and all sorts of animals gathered randomly, even two water-birds on a small mirror, which is supposed to represent a pond I think.

There is a pond in this manger, imagine that.

I checked the washing machine - no baby Jesus, only some wet clothes. I asked Rocio why baby Jesus was missing from the nativity scene, imagining that he had wandered off after he saw the ridiculous pond between the cow and one of the wise men.

"We don’t put baby Jesus in the manger until midnight on Christmas Eve," she told me.

In fact, so I am told, many of the large nativity scenes on public display throughout Mexico do not include a baby Jesus until midnight on the twenty-fourth of December.

This might explain why a girl that refused a hug had seen five or six of them recently. Maybe she discovered the place that baby Jesuses stay until Christmas. A herd of baby Jesuses. What does one call a herd of baby Jesuses? I mean, dogs are a pack, geese are a gaggle, and angels are a choir; so what are baby Jesuses? A miracle of baby Jesuses? A blessing of baby Jesuses?

I will probably never know, because I didn’t think to ask the girl that refused a hug. If I ever see her again, rest assured, it would be the first question that I ask her. And, if this world makes any sense at all, then this is what she will tell me that she saw on that day a couple of weeks ago:

A hug of baby Jesuses.

* * * *

Early in the morning, when traffic is still light and the border isn’t so packed, I get lucky and catch a trolley just as the sun begins to rise in the east and I ride along and watch it come over the hills. I enjoy riding the trolley while the sun is casting shadows across the trolley tracks. It wasn’t always that way, the sun was usually high in the sky when I started work at nine in the morning. When I used to start work at nine in the morning, I encountered a completely different subset of special people that I encounter now. Not that everyone is not special in their own unique way, but that some people are more special than others – many of such special people ride the San Diego trolley every day.

I like to ride the trolley.

When I used to go to work at nine in the morning, I loathed a blind couple that always seemed to get on the trolley at the Iris Avenue station; they were unnecessarily rude and very bad guests. All of us who use public transportation are guests, after all. We are guests of each others space, and on our best behavior we act accordingly. And we are all blind, in one way or another; all of us, every one.

The blind man that I used to encounter at Iris Avenue Trolley Station was an asshole. His blind lady-friend was the perfect accomplice, she followed behind him feigning ignorance or dependence, and their dogs were victims. The dogs are trained to find any seat available, but the blind man jerked the chain on his black Labrador and forced it to the first set of seats nearest to the door, and then the blind man demanded that all occupants evacuate the seats. The soon-to-be-former-occupants moved quickly, acting as if they had never had a right to the seat in the first place, moving out of some misplaced guilt, or that maybe they didn’t understand the rules on the trolley to begin with.

For the record, here are the rules for riding the San Diego Trolley: Please make sure that you have a valid pass, ticket or transfer. No eating, drinking, smoking is permitted while riding the trolley. And, in consideration of other passengers, please keep your feet off of the seats. That statement comes over the speaker in each trolley car at least once every ten miles or so.

Her dog was a white Labrador, she treated it gently and with the respect it deserved; the black Labrador was smacked around pretty good by the man behind the chain. If the dog didn’t sit just right, just as his blindness wanted it to, he would slap the poor dog around until it contorted itself into a completely miserable and entirely uncomfortable position beneath him. I hated watching that. The last few times that I saw them, the blind man no longer had a dog. Maybe the animal had had enough, maybe it thought this: To hell with it, I don’t need this asshole anymore. And then, perhaps, the dog moved on.

At least, I am hoping that it happened that way. The poor dog deserved no less than to run away, to fetch sticks in exchange for doggy-snacks, to patiently accept the unconditional hugs of small children, and so on. I am not a big lover of pets, but I wouldn’t blame that dog if it never trusted another human being ever again.

I began to think about how that maybe human beings treat their Gods like that blind man treated his dog. Every once in a while, I thought about a God guiding a human being, and the human being eventually shaping the God into whatever they think it should be. They beat it and smack it around until they seem content that the God serves them in exactly the way that they think it should.

Only a human being can take something so beautiful as a guide and then kneed on it until the guide is nothing more than a fixture that fits neatly into their envelope. It is as if it is as expected that the entire experience is nothing more than arranging porcelain figures in a nativity scene. And then, maybe, the baby Jesus located in the washing machine was actually trying to escape. Or maybe even, the hug of baby Jesuses that the girl who refused a hug went on about, were actually on the lamb, manger escapees.

* * * *

The other day, I walked back into Mexico and a project had been completed; I walked across a map of Baja and California, there were points representing the missions that were cast into the cement. Where the pedestrians enter the border into Mexico, after all, is what they taught us in grade school as The King’s Road. El Camino Real, actually, means The Royal Road, which isn’t so romantic of a notion, I suppose, as is a King’s Road. This road linked missions up and down the coastline of Mexico, back some hundreds of years ago. Now there is some sort of a monument celebrating the Mexican mission through the pedestrian crossing into Mexico from the United States of America.

Why not?

Before California was ever California, it was Mexico. As a young lad in grade school, I made missions out of sugar cubes and Popsicle-sticks, toothpicks and cardboard. The missions that we built replicas of were supposed to represent the missions built by the Spanish up and down the coast of Mexico a few centuries ago. The specific missions that we were represented were all in what is now California, a large state on the West Coast of the United States of America. There are yet more missions, for anyone who wishes to study them, in what is still Mexico in the state of Baja California and Baja California Sur, two states on the West Coast of the United States of Mexico.

Anna made missions, much like I did, out of sugar cubes, Popsicle-sticks, toothpicks, and cardboard. They were every bit as silly as mine were, except that hers represented those missions still preserved in Mexico; mine had been preserved by Americans. The missions were all built by Catholic monks, most of who had been tossed out of the hierarchy of their particular order. The Spanish wing of the Catholic Church had long since decided that since the gold was either gone or had never existed on the west coast of the New World, then the souls that were there were not worth the trouble.

Since the California gold rush had not yet happened, most of the monks that felt otherwise were seen as foolish. After all, it was really about the gold – Spain languished in the stuff like a boat full of plundering pirates with twenty cases of rum - until it all ran out.

So, in the sense that the foolish monks stayed and founded missions anyway, our copies of the missions that were built from sugar cubes and Popsicle-sticks and toothpicks turned out to be truer representations of the missions than even our teachers would have dared to believe. And maybe all religions are really based on sugar cubes and toothpicks. Maybe that’s what faith is supposed to be: Popsicle-sticks and cardboard. If that is the case, then religion is truly blind.

And so, then, maybe all religions are really like so many blind people, and the believers are their mistreated guide dogs?

* * * *

"Dad, they’re going to play in San Diego," Anna told me with hopeful eyes and a grin that begged further consideration.

"Oh, really," I said, eyebrow arched as only a father can arch an eyebrow. "Where at, Coors Amphitheater?"

"No-o-o-o, some university..."

We checked the Internet and found that her favorite band, Simple Plan, was going to be playing at San Diego State University. The trolley goes there now, making it accessible to a stubborn old man who refuses to buy a car. And Anna has been stellar, great in school and cooperative at home. I bought two tickets the next day, on my way home from work.

And no, Simple Plan is not my cup of tea, thank you. And I loathed taking the trip, but I went because she deserved the effort on my part. We left late on a Sunday morning, and our taxi to the border pulled off of the via rapida (the freeway) with a flat tire, and we climbed out in the middle of wherever and eventually caught another cab and arrived at the border. It might have been an omen, we dared not discuss it, Anna and me.

Eventually, we crossed the border, ate a hamburger each, and boarded the trolley. Every time the trolley lurched, my ribs hurt. And every time that I caught my balance on a handrail or a pole, pain shot up my left hand up through my wrist. I have since decided to blame it all on a random baby Jesus wandering aimlessly and somewhat invisibly through the streets of Tijuana, Mexico.

* * * *

A week earlier, after a couple of beers on the way home from work, I fell like a sack of flour from some ripped shopping bag onto the cement in front of Tortas Chapultepec. When I fell, evidently, I saved my face from caving in against the sidewalk by using my left hand and the left side of my ribcage. Having once before cracked ribs on the right side of my ribcage, I knew in a moment that at least a couple of ribs had been broken. And my left hand, while probably not broken, had been jammed severely. I was gulping for air, trying to get my wind back – the impact had knocked it from my lungs. After a few minutes, I got my feet underneath me and fought the nausea from the pain and somehow made my way to a taxi.

Somehow I even made it home.

Two weeks later, I went to the very spot where I fell, expecting to find some sort of an anomaly in the concrete where I hit the sidewalk. It was as smooth and as straight as anything. Only a red carpet would have made that path any more inviting to walk on.

I must have tripped over a tiny porcelain baby Jesus who was dashing across the sidewalk in order to join the hug, somewhere in a place that only the girl who refused a hug knows about. I have decided that this is as good of an explanation as any as to why I fell like a bag of potatoes on the corner of Calle Sexta and Avenida Constitucion.

* * * *

If I ever grimaced during the trip north to see Anna’s favorite band, she never noticed or let on like she saw anything to tip her off that I was in pain. The trolley carried us into downtown San Diego into Old Town, where we switched to another set of cars. We turned to the east and everything changed, as if we had left the reality of the city and entered some sort of an amusement park ride.

The tracks that carried the trolley became futuristic, like at Disneyland when – as a child imprisoned with such models of the future from other sources - I was awestruck by the monorail rising high above Walt Disney’s dream world. The trestle held us above interstate eight and then carried us over the San Diego River for the last time, hugging the hills south of it, and then finally into a tunnel that brought us into the underground station below San Diego State University. Anna and me climbed out of the trolley and made our way to an escalator, and then we walked out onto the campus.

The venue was visible from there, perhaps no less than one hundred feet away.

I could have sworn that the air suddenly became electric, even though we were a good hour and a half early for her show. We walked toward the venue and Anna inhaled the campus for the first time. Even I, for a moment, wouldn’t have minded being in school again. There were birds chirping. We heard bells from a distant tower, chiming harmoniously, inviting us to some unknown function or feast, soothing us and gently bathing the environment in purpose and elegance. We floated along and quickly reached the entrance to the outdoor amphitheater.

"Show’s been cancelled," a young man informed us from behind the wrought iron bars, his arms folded in the perfect position of ultimate authority. He even wore some sort of a uniform, pressed and neat.

"Hurricane Wilma," he went on.

"The band’s equipment is still in Cancun. Your tickets are still good in November, the show’s been moved to Soma’s."

Anna didn’t know whether to laugh or to pitch a fit. It dawned on me at that point that the electric air was probably nothing more than the uninterrupted continuity of life’s ironies. Any static in the air was attributable to electronic instruments that were thousands of miles away from the electrical outlets that they were supposed to be plugged into.

"Unbelievable," Anna said.

She smiled and shrugged, I smiled back at her, and we slowly wandered back toward the trolley station.

"Well," I told her, "I sort of figured that we were screwed when the cab had a flat."

"Yeah," Anna told me, "I had the same feeling."

The escalators in the underground station at San Diego State University only work when going up, so we managed the stairs back down to the station and had a seat, waiting for the next trolley. We didn’t have much to say to each other, the hours that were spent coming up now had to be spent going back. It was worse than a ball team on the road losing the game; it was a ball team that never had the chance to play.

A young man came down the stairs, walking aimlessly about some students that waited, standing at the platform, he was smiling and walking with his trolley pass hanging from his neck.

"Do you like to ride the trolley?" he asked a group of students.

The students ignored him, and continued to talk to each other while waiting for the trolley.

"Do you like to ride the trolley?" he repeated. "I like to ride the trolley."

He wandered about the station, repeating himself, and everyone ignored him.

"I li-i-i-i-ke to ri-i-i-ide the tro-o-o-olley," he kept on saying.

When the trolley finally pulled into the station, he was the first to board, enthusiastically walking the aisle until he found a seat somewhere out of our vision. Anna and me sat across from each other and entered into darkness, then the trolley came out of the tunnel and over interstate eight and I watched her contemplating how she was going to try and get me to take her to Soma’s.

"I guess that it wasn’t such a Simple Plan after all," I said, not daring to look at her with the smirk I had on my face.

Anna had to laugh at that, she couldn’t help it.

And Anna wasn’t even thinking about the wayward porcelain baby Jesus that cracked my ribs, she had no idea. That was why I was smirking and not laughing, because laughing hurt too much. Otherwise, we might have just sat there and laughed during the entire trip home.

* * * *

Rocio took Anna to Soma’s in November, someone else that Anna knew also had tickets and so they all rode together, Anna and Rocio and Anna’s friend and Anna’s friend’s mother. Rocio didn’t much enjoy the show, but Anna was delighted and arrived home with lots of free stuff and with whatever memories will endure through the next decade.

Another memory that will serve Anna well into the next decade, I found out tonight, was a memory that we shared that evening on the trip back from the concert that was cancelled. Whether or not that memory involved that young man, the one from the San Diego State trolley station who so much enjoyed riding the trolley, I couldn’t say. When we pulled into the Qualcomm Stadium stop, we were all ordered off of the trolley and told to wait for another one, a different one, which upset that young man in a way that no one else could probably imagine.

The young man who so enjoyed riding the trolley wandered around the platform for a minute, scratching his head, and then spotted someone with a uniform on. The man in the uniform was a security guard on his way to work, probably; waiting like the rest of us to board whatever trolley came next. The security guard had no idea what was going on, just like all of us had no idea what was going on as we waited on the platform.

"What happened here?" the young man asked.

The security guard shrugged.

"Where is the trolley?" the young man asked, and when he received no adequate response, he wandered off of the platform to somewhere else.

He wasn’t on the trolley when we boarded again. He was replaced by Marty Marine.

* * * *

He was closely-shaven and immaculately dressed; the imported Italian suit was obviously tailor-made and fit him with businessman-like perfection. His tie – color-matched to the suit – was brilliantly displayed and placed precisely in the center of his ensemble. He stood confidently straight, hanging onto a vertical metal rod near one of the trolley doors. I decided that he was fifty-nine, his short gray hair framed a handsome face, a determined face.

The thing that set him apart was his lime-green vest, a vest that belonged in a parking lot directing overflow traffic. Except that it was blatantly obvious that this man was probably not destined to go anywhere near a parking lot - not with that vest on, he was well protected against the accidental collision with oncoming traffic.

Printed, in black letters in a plain font - on a white strip on the lapel of his day-glow vest was this: MARTIN.

And just below that on another white strip on the lapel of his day-glow vest, again in a plain yet slightly different font was this: MARINE.

Marty Marine.

Marty Marine left the trolley a couple of stops later, and I thought about how if I had a vest like that then the occasional baby Jesus might not accidentally cross my path and cause me to fall and crack my ribs, that I would have been seen in plenty of time to avoid the mishap. And maybe if I had a vest like the one that Marty Marine had, I could be like a shining beacon helping the guide dogs avoid the temples made out of sugar cubes and Popsicle sticks. And maybe I could have made some sort of a difference in the attitudes of the obnoxious blind people I encountered back when I used to go to work much later in the morning.

Or maybe Marty Marine is what any of us become when the trolley stops and we have to change cars; or when the almost-invisible porcelain baby-Jesus’ trip us up on the way to the taco stand, or even to the Simple Plan concert; or when we are asked to evacuate our seats so that we can witness some blind person beating on their guide-dog.

Maybe all human beings, at their very best, can do no better than to be Marty Marine.

Then, that could be a world that I can raise children in. And I was delighted that Anna also remembered Marty Marine.