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.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Fifty And Eight

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

The concussion sounded consistent with gunfire, but the very quick rhythmic sequence had me thinking that some old Ford was so completely mistimed that immediate back-firing resulted upon ignition. I convinced myself that the sound that I had just heard came from one of many older vehicles here that ran on bad fuel, incorrect mechanical repair, and the unwavering will of the owner. This is Tijuana, Mexico, after all.

After a few moments, it came again.

Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!

And with the last one, the house seemed to crack. I would have thought it to be mere coincidence except that I do not believe in coincidence. I believe in peaceful Saturday mornings and getting out of bed on my own terms. I looked around the bedroom and everything seemed to be in perfect order. I must have been imagining that the house had taken issue with the last back-fire.

The radio lulled me back into slumber. The voice on the radio station was going on about some plan that senior citizens should desire in order to keep the government from seizing their assets should they fall ill. The man said that if I died, then the government of the United States of America would take whatever money or possessions I owned in order to reimburse whatever expenses that Medicare had incurred. This plan started with attending a seminar, and the very thought of attending a seminar triggered my subconscious into some crazy dream that involved a zebra, a volcano, and a short Inca girl with a name I couldn’t pronounce because there were sixteen consonants and no vowels.

That dream ended when one of my daughters woke up, came out of her bedroom, and then went to the bathroom.

* * * *

The local police, stripped of their guns, have taken to carrying slingshots. Slingshots, imagine that! And now, if only to level the playing field, perhaps the criminals can construct and carry their own peashooters and stash the hardcore weapons. I have made more than one rubber-band rifle in my youth, clothespins and finishing nails and whatever piece of long pine I could get my hands on made for fine examples of harmless weapons. Better that than bullets, I say.

Regardless, we are all happy here. Crime is down about twenty percent since the coppers had their guns taken away. Crime is down, but not out. People are still shooting at one another, I don’t imagine that this is any different here than in the United States of America or Canada or Brazil or anywhere else.

But at least, temporarily, the cops don’t have as much of a chance to run with the bad guys.

At least there is that.

And it isn’t perfect, it will never be perfect, regardless of politics and so on.

* * * *

"Dad, are you alright?" Sharon’s voice came unsteadily from outside of my bedroom door.


I was half-awake and looked at the clock, a few minutes after six. Rocio had left for work over a half-hour ago. At least I slept a good fifteen minutes since some car had back-fired.

"Um," I said.

"Dad, you should come out here and look at this," Sharon insisted.

I threw on my robe and opened the door. Sharon was standing at the door of the bathroom, looking at the wall. I wondered where the plunger was, I was thinking far too rationally for the moment. And then I looked at the same wall that Sharon was looking at; there was a nice small hole in it. And there was a nice small hole in the wall that formed the alcove that framed the shower enclosure. And then I went backwards and saw that the first hole had yet another link to another hole in my bedroom, horizontally even from the floor with my pillow but some fifty-eight inches to the right.

Light shone through from outside, a pale and dark blue early-morning supported my claim that the owner of this house – in spite of his argument to the contrary as we signed a rental agreement – had never installed a single piece of insulation in the walls. Through the wall in my bedroom (fifty and eight inches from where my head was at the time it entered) and through the other wall into the bathroom and then into to wall that defines the alcove that houses the shower.

The aluminum extrusion that frames the sliding shower doors stopped the bullet, a perfect piece of ballistic evidence, I fished it out with a pair of cutters.

And, of course, the bullet wasn’t meant for me. But my life, then, is worth exactly fifty and eight inches. Fifty and eight.

A note to the shooter: Suck it up and go to the range. Practice. And better luck next time.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Anatomy Of A Billboard

"We live with this half-truth every day, every time we turn the TV set on. Every time we pass a billboard."

- Hal Holbrook

* * * *

I put it together while walking to the trolley Friday morning, a week ago Friday, it wasn't the top headline in the San Diego Union-Tribune but it made the front page (sin embargo), and it grabbed my attention. I had left the house a little late, leaving later since Anna went on break from school – and I found a cab in the usual place, they sometimes sit idle on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz only a block down the street. Off we went, a quick right onto Jose de San Martin, a left onto Sanchez Taboada, and then a fast right north on the road that turns into the Gato Bronco - except that a quarter mile before crossing Boulevard Insurgentes we wind down onto the via Rapida and join border-bound traffic headed west.

After a few miles we pass Colonia Buena Vista, and about two miles beyond that there is an access road that runs parallel to the freeway with on and off ramps. Traffic suddenly slowed to a stop and then crawled along up to the palacio, Tijuana's City Hall. There were cops everywhere, with troubled expressions on their faces, and neither the cab driver nor myself had any idea why they were there in such numbers. It wasn't until I found a seat in the trolley on the other side of the border that I learned what was going on.

* * * *

Was I to have taken a snapshot or two of Tijuana this morning, the image would have shown sunny and clear blue skies with palm trees in the background. Typical of Baja California, there would be no leafless trees or snow or anything to give away the fact that it is the middle of January – in fact, it was eighty-five degrees here last Monday. Had I taken a picture last Monday, the image would appear almost exactly as would a picture that I could have taken this morning.

I could blow up the image and apply it to a billboard and install the billboard somewhere in Minnesota or Nebraska, and people there would drool on themselves and imagine that they are sipping fruity rum drinks on a beach in Baja California. In fact, I could take both pictures and make almost identical billboards and install them in the cold winter climates anywhere, and get the same results. Half of the people, the half who would look at the image taken last week, would be imagining an activity that would have been quite appropriate for the day. The other half, the half who would look at the snapshot that I might have taken this morning, would be better off staying home.

It was twenty-nine degrees here last night. When I got up this morning it had warmed to a balmy thirty-eight degrees.

Piña Colada, anyone?

* * * *

In Mexico, priests are not allowed in public wearing the collar, so here is a curious separation of church and state – nuns, so far as I know, are usually dressed in habits in public, and this is permitted. I have asked the locals here why nuns are permitted to dress clerically in public and priests are not, and no one seems to know. A gender exemption, perhaps. From the earliest history of modern Mexico, the government has continually clashed with the Catholic Church to the point where public display of religion is still met with nervous disapproval from authorities. After all, three major civil clashes in Mexico occurred directly as a result of church intervention into politics. So far as I have read, nuns have had nothing to do with this, it has always been the bishops.

But some of the secular phobia from the government has shown signs of dissolution in recent years. Jehovah's Witnesses, while not verbally confronting anyone, stand unmolested on street corners with their propaganda held open as a street hawker might display jewelry for sale. Rogue Christian churches have sprung up and dot the city and the outskirts of Tijuana, randomly and unpredictably. And the Catholic churches thrive, even outspokenly defying what once was law – since relaxed by Salinas de Gortari over a decade ago – what with priests and bishops criticizing government officials and laws and so on.

Religion and politics are a serious business in Mexico, and a similar business. While this may also be true in the United States of America, there is so much money in the United States of America that there is no need for the two institutions to compete with each other for it. Besides, there is enough competition amongst the different sections of each institution, enough competition to keep the Republicans and the Democrats, and the Jews and the Christians, and so on, busy jousting with one another with not much time or energy left in order to regard themselves as the competitors that they truly are.

In Mexico, there is not an abundance of money, so the institutions that need money in order to perpetuate themselves get greedy.

The idea behind organized religion is to submit an attractive enough picture in order to lure people to the institution. In order to draw a big crowd, the picture is blown up and mounted on a billboard, although in all likelihood the billboard is not going to truly or fully represent what it pretends to have people imagine it to be. Once inside of the institution, the money comes easily. The plate is passed around and everyone puts something in the plate, payment for guilt. We were born into sin thanks to Adam and Eve, and the bloody crown of thorns from sacrifice of Jesus strangles us even as we lay folding money onto the collection plate. The billboard is all blue skies and palm trees representing salvation and redemption but the donations are all about violence and bloodshed and submission and sacrifice.

The idea behind a government is pretty much the same idea behind organized religion, except that money comes from a combination of some sense of patriotic duty or blind nationalism, and the threat of force as a last resort. The billboard promises that government will take care of us, but the government takes care of us like a bully takes care of a bookworm – if the bookworm gives up its lunch money and does the bully's homework, then the bookworm doesn’t get its ass kicked.

By mid-morning it was up into the low forties here.

Fancy one of those little paper umbrellas in your Mai Tai?

* * * *

From either Los Angeles or San Diego, the approach to McCarran airport in Las Vegas involves a sweeping circle of the city in order to get into the landing pattern, which runs north to south. Out of the window of the jet, one can take in the impressive sprawl of Las Vegas, reaching outward in every direction like some desert ivy. This isn't anything that will be seen on a billboard, even that famous sign that reads Welcome To Las Vegas has nothing to do with the vast majority of the city. The City of Las Vegas goes on and on, forever outward until it doesn't anymore.

It was October, and global warming was still hammering everyone everywhere, I was off on a business trip and decided to make a weekend out of it. Rocio's sister Elizabeth, marriage bound, was to have her bachelorette party that weekend, and I didn't want any part of that, I had ideas on going all in holding pocket aces, sipping house scotch from any number of Las Vegas' finest casinos.

They made me throw away my cigarette lighter in San Diego, so by the time negotiated McCarran airport and found my way out to where transportation was, I looked everywhere around me for a light, but no one was smoking. I hailed a cab and climbed in, fumbled for my motel reservations, and told the driver that I needed to go to the Econo Lodge. I told him that it was supposed to be very close, conveniently close to the convention center.

Then I found out that there were several convention centers in Las Vegas. How could I have known that?

He told me that he knew where this place was, and that I could take The Deuce from my motel to the convention center (assuming that the convention center in question was, in fact, hosting my particular trade show). He asked me if we could avoid the strip, Las Vegas Boulevard, and I knew Las Vegas well enough to give him a green light to take interstate fifteen.

"Mind if I smoke?" he asked me, an accent thick with Arabian or perhaps Persian roots.

"Only if you can spare a match for me."

There, in the back of that taxicab, began my illumination concerning the true anatomy of a billboard. We enjoyed our cigarettes and I listened to him complain about everything, he went on and on and on. I tipped him well, not only because he brought me to my motel and let me smoke cigarettes in his cab, but also because he gifted me with a book of matches – a book of matches that had absolutely no advertising at all. The matchbook was plain white heaven. I figured that it was worth five dollars, at the very least.

That plain white matchbook is still in my laptop case, and contains exactly one match.

Las Vegas is a billboard, in and of itself, all shiny with lights and colors and so on. A thick and sturdy stem supports the billboard, and smaller, intricately fabricated frames rest upon the stem in order to hold up whatever vision that Las Vegas wants to portray. The stem and the frame are the soul of the billboard, a soul that has very little to do with the actual message. That cab driver and the book of matches are part of the soul of the billboard. So was I, for that weekend in October.

So was the young lady motel clerk at the Econo Lodge who seemed reluctant to allow me to pay cash instead of using the company credit card that I had made the reservations with one month before.

* * * *

In the beginning of December, I stood in line and bought my monthly trolley pass, just like every month. Except that the girl behind the glass seemed distracted, it was a transaction that I figured would go as smoothly as it has for countless other months. I asked for a December pass and shoved a crisp one hundred-dollar bill through the slot in the window, and the clerk shoved the pass and some change back at me. I shoved everything in my pocket and bought a paper.

As I boarded the trolley, I reached into my pocket and felt what seemed to be a lot of bills. In fact, there was way too much change for a sixty-dollar pass, and as the trolley started, I spotted Jeff in the same car that I was on and went over to sit down. As I sat, I thought that the girl had changed me too much money. And then I looked at my pass.

"I didn’t ask for this," I told Jeff.

"Ask for what?"

I handed him the pass and he busted out laughing.

"Senior?" Jeff asked, barely able to contain himself. "Hey, look, at least you only paid fifteen dollars."

"I told you, I didn’t ask for it. You don't suppose that they would exchange it?" I asked rhetorically, I already knew that they wouldn't.

"You know, the first time that security asks you for your pass they're going to make you prove that you're sixty," he said.

"Jeff, she sold it to me, all I asked for was a pass. Do I look sixty to you?"

"Dude, it's all of the gray in your beard."

Through the month of December, I was asked countless times for my pass by roving security personnel on the trolley. Not a single one of them ever said anything about my senior pass, they all told me this:

"Thank you, sir."

In December, then, I was a sixty-year old billboard. While the soul of my billboard is still only forty-five, whatever natural forces that form the message on my billboard appearance made me at least sixty years old in December. In January, I made sure that the girl behind the glass sold me the proper trolley pass for my age.

I don't need the extra forty-five dollars enough to age fifteen years for it.

* * * *

Back in October in Las Vegas, before I became a senior citizen in December, I did the trade show and made it back to my room at the Econo Lodge. Once properly showered, I took the Deuce down to the strip and became instantly disappointed. The last time that I was in Las Vegas, Real Quiet won the Kentucky Derby back in nineteen hundred and ninety eight, and in a little over eight years, everything has gone to hell. Every intersection now cannot be traversed without taking some stair or escalator over Las Vegas Boulevard or whatever cross street.

There are too many people and too many cars now.

At night on the weekends, the crowd is insane and the atmosphere isn't the same. I couldn't find a poker table worth sitting at. Friday night, I wound up sitting at a blackjack table wishing to drink, and at least the casino did not fail to fill me full of free scotch.

I paid the casino back hours later. Having gone up a few hundred dollars, the drunker I got the stupider I got. At the end of the evening, the young couple that stayed at the table that I was playing at simply looked at me as if I had owned the world and squandered it away like I had five other worlds in my hip pocket. Over the course of that evening, I remember drawing quite the crowd at some significant moments, splitting aces like logs, doubling down on twelve, and so on.

For a while there, I was quite the hit.

At the end of that evening, I had had enough, and the young couple seemed eager to listen to anything that I had to say about the roller coaster that we just rode.

"Listen, I came here on business and stayed to play some poker. Instead, I just bought twenty or so scotches at twenty dollars each. This is Las Vegas, this is exactly what the billboard promises."

Somehow, I found my way back to the Deuce and the Deuce found its way back to my motel and I found my way back to my room. I say somehow, because I remember nothing past my last words with the young tourist couple at that casino, whatever casino it was.

The tremendous hangover the following day was eventually combated with twelve Coronas and PBS television, and I banged away on my laptop and spent the majority of the rest of my stay in Las Vegas in my motel room in the Econo Lodge. Only today it occurred to me to write some sort of helpful information to fellow travelers concerning my accommodations in the Econo Lodge, so I offered up the following short review:

At Least There Is A Bus Stop Nearby - Jan 14, 07

(By gringo_in_tj, a 45 year old man with a economy budget, traveling for business)

For around fifty dollars, I reckon that one could make a poorer choice in lodging. It is conveniently located in the middle of the seediest spot on Las Vegas Boulevard. My trips to the convenience store around the corner introduced me to the locals - the prostitutes were very friendly, never failing to tell me good morning or good afternoon. The employees were very nice, and seemed interested in my complaint that I had to go all of the way to the lobby in order to get internet access.

This is the billboard, then, that I plant from my trip to Las Vegas. Viva Las Vegas.

* * * *

In the trolley, a week ago last Friday, I read that the Tijuana police officers had their guns confiscated by some troops that were ordered into Tijuana by the newest president of Mexico, Felipe Calderon. I didn't need to read on, I knew exactly why the guns had been taken, and the newspaper didn't have many details about it anyway. The best part of the article came toward the end of it, when one unnamed Tijuana police officer said, "They are treating us like criminals."

I tried unsuccessfully to translate the phrase, if the shoe fits, into Spanish.

The guns were taken and ballistics were run and compared to evidence in some of the unsolved crimes of late in Tijuana, crimes specifically tied to organized gangs and drug cartels and so on. The last that I heard, one officer was caught and in custody and several more were wanted and being sought. One of the local papers took an informal poll and asked various Tijuanenses if they felt unsafe because the police force are currently carrying no weapons, and every single person answered that they, in fact, felt safer with an unarmed police force.

On the trolley as I read that first article, my thoughts drifted back to a few weeks before, when Charlie came into the Dandy Del Sur and took his customary seat in the far corner.

"I should have listened to you," he said.

"What happened?"

Charlie was a bit sheepish, he fiddled with his napkin as Francis served him up a cold Dos Equis.

"Last night, after I had a nightcap in Paco's place, I started to walk home when this police car stopped and the police officers put me up against the car. They took my wallet out of my back pocket and told me that they were checking my identification. They let me go, but when I checked my wallet, all of the money was gone."

Charlie pulled a long drink out of the green bottle in front of him.

"Charlie, I always told you..."

"I know!" Charlie cut me off.

"Always keep my money in front of me, I know. Trust me, I'm never going to leave the house without my money in my front pocket. And I made a photocopy of my passport, so I don't have to carry my wallet around."

"How much did they get?" I asked him.

Charlie shrugged, "Eighty dollars."

Eighty dollars is enough money with which to purchase a gun. At least eight dollars is not enough money with which to start a church or to buy an election, because eighty dollars will not buy any amount of space on a billboard.

It warmed up into the mid-fifties here today, sunshine and palm trees and clear blue skies, guns or no guns. Religion and politics did not stop me from buying a twelve-pack of Tecates, and the beer will stay cold no matter how slowly I drink it. And the Tecate advertisements on the billboards here still sport bikini-clad models on the beach. Why not? It's supposed to reach sixty degrees tomorrow.

And tonight, it will get down into the twenties again, at least, so I have poured myself a tequila and will be quite content to sip on it, and be whatever part of the billboard here that a gringo has to be.