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, September 16, 2007

¿Qué Horas Son, Mí Corazón?

In nineteen hundred and ninety one, I had plans. I was to be enrolled in a school somewhere near Bullhead City, Arizona, where I would learn to deal cards and work in some casino in Laughlin, Nevada, but I figured to make more money playing blackjack than anything else. I was a good blackjack player, counting cards was easy – a lot easier than a lot of things that I did for a living back then. Counting cards is probably a lot easier than what I do for a living now.

But back then, I was freshly divorced, my self-ironed shirts smelled like a different flavor of freedom.

Sometimes, or maybe even most times, I would come home on Friday with no immediate plans for the weekend and wind up at the Colorado River with a full tank of gas and a forty dollar stake at a two-dollar table. On Sunday afternoon, almost always in those salad-summer weekends, I would be driving back toward Los Angeles loaded down with a lot more money than I figured I had a right to take out of there. Sometimes I thought that it was too easy. Only very occasionally and as if by design, I would come back home, down a Franklin or two.

But that was rare.

I wanted to live on the river because I liked it there, but mainly because it wasn’t Los Angeles. There were two children that I knew I wasn’t going to get to see very often. I was waiting to see if my ex-wife was going to kill herself. I figured that there was a chance of that, otherwise, my child support checks would be delivered to one forwarded address after another.

Somewhere from out of the huge compost pile where irony and coincidence fight to the death, a telephone call came from some company that wanted an interview from me. They had heard good things about me. Or maybe, they knew that they had a shot at getting me for cheap. And my friends there in Los Angeles talked me into going to the interview. And the interviewers talked me into working there. And so on.

Less than a month into that job, the owner wanted to fire me. Somehow, I survived that initial pitfall. Go figure.

Qué voy a hacer, je ne sais pas
Qué voy a hacer, je ne sais plus
Qué voy a hacer, je suis perdu
Qué horas son, mí corazón.

I didn’t enjoy working there at all, and I didn’t like the owner, who was not part of the interview and hiring process. Three weeks into the job, I was in the office of Mike the Operations Manager and he cracked like hot egg in ice water. He told me that owner was disappointed in my attitude when, one week into the job, they cut my staff, which made me readjust dates for project completions. He told me that plans were being made to replace me.

I laughed. My initial reaction was that I didn’t care for the job or the owner so maybe fate was doing me a big favor.

“Is there any chance of reversing the situation?” I asked Mike.

Mike thought about it. He shook his head.

“I doubt it,” he said, “I think his mind is pretty much made up.”

I don’t know why I did what I did next. I didn’t need the job, in Los Angeles jobs for people with my qualifications are as easy to find as a rush-hour traffic jam. The money wasn’t that competitive, I could’ve done much better if I had really wanted to stay in Los Angeles in the first place. I didn’t care for ownership.

Me gustan los aviones, me gustas tu
Me gusta viajar, me gustas tu
Me gusta la mañana, me gustas tu
Me gusta el viento, me gustas tu
Me gusta soñar, me gustas tu
Me gusta la mar, me gustas tu.

I left Mike’s office and walked down the hall to where the owner sat in his office, and I poked my head in there. He was on the phone, but he motioned for me to come in. I sat across from him in front of his desk, and did something that I have never done before or since. And I have absolutely no explanation for my actions, but as it turns out, neither do I have any regrets.

* * * *
Rocio’s favorite film is about a mathematician who went nuts. At least, her favorite film is very loosely based on the life story about John Forbes Nash, Jr., a Nobel Prize winner who had to fight off bouts of insanity in order to make good with the scientific community.

“He reminds me of you,” Rocio told me.

“Bullshit. I’m nothing like this Nash guy,” I answered her before I had given it any thought.

“Except for the crazy parts,” I added.

Rocio and Anna and Sharon and even Juan are very much into films and movies. I usually listen to the radio and read or write instead, but one movie that recently entertained the hell out of me was one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a movie about a pirate named Jack Sparrow.
“We’ll let Anna and Sharon decide, then,” I informed Rocio.

“Who am I more like, girls, John Nash or Jack Sparrow?”

“Jack Sparrow,” the girls replied in monotone unison without even looking up from the television, bored with the lack of a challenge from such a query, and that was that.

Besides, what do I know about economics?

Me gusta la moto, me gustas tu
Me gusta correr, me gustas tu
Me gusta la lluvia, me gustas tu
Me gusta volver, me gustas tu
Me gusta marihuana, me gustas tu
Me gusta Colombiana, me gustas tu
Me gusta la montaña, me gustas tu
Me gusta la noche, me gustas tu.

I am no pirate. The lying and thieving parts of piracy are the parts I would be no good at. Nor am I a mathematician nor an economist. I am here, in Mexico, because I rode some wave here even though I could have jumped off of the surfboard many times, and many times I was tempted to do just that.

Or maybe somehow there is a magic compass involved.

* * * *
In nineteen hundred and ninety one, there was some sort of magical voodoo in the breaking waves of my life, I found myself not so much guiding the surfboard but rather riding it to wherever it took me. At one point, it took me into the office of the owner of a company that I would have rather not worked at in order to save a job that I didn’t care for.

He finished his phone call as I fiddled with my tie.

“What can I do for you, David?”

“Well, sir, I just wanted to let you know that even though my staff has been reduced, I think I’ve come up with a way to meet the original project deadlines,” I told him.

This was something that he was not prepared to hear. I confess right here and right now, that it was also something that I was not prepared to accomplish.

“How?” he asked.

I had no time to think, only to react.

“It’ll take a lot of hard work, sir, but I can do it. I’m committed to it. I will not fail this company, sir.”

It looked like I had just fed him a spoonful of some horribly bitter elixir, his mouth puckered and fought off a frown.

“Well, um, I am certainly glad to hear that, David. Let me know if there is anything that I can do on my end.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Three phrases, perfectly inserted, that most owners cannot deny. Hard work, committed, and not fail this company. There are no better lyrics sung to a man who probably had his multi-million dollar house in Palos Verdes leveraged to the breaking point in order to prop up a company that is still likely doing no better than treading water.

Or maybe he has sold it by now, who can say?

Me gusta la cena, me gustas tu
Me gusta la vecina, me gustas tu
Me gusta su cocina, me gustas tu
Me gusta camelar, me gustas tu
Me gusta la guitarra, me gustas tu
Me gusta el regaee, me gustas tu.

I worked my ass off in the months that followed. Mike left the company in the middle of all of it, which put me into a unique position, a position that would eventually lead me into Mexico for the first time in my life. Mike left the company to work for a large firm with a maquiladora in Tijuana, proving that irony and coincidence do, indeed, take their everlasting battle into the streets of human monkey-business, making an arena out of the playground of humanity.

* * * *
On Monday I took Juan to the Chiki Jai where we ate paella and talked about the war. Juan is out of the Army but is serving his reserve time in the National Guard. This means that there is a good chance that he’ll be deployed to Afghanistan at some point in the next year or so. This war stuff goes on and on.

“They hit our convoy, we were only eleven kilometers from base after a three-day patrol,” Juan told me about one incident in Iraq.

“I was pissed. That meant two extra days out there.”

“What, held down by snipers?” I asked.

“No, once we were hit they sent cover for us, we were pretty well protected by then. The vehicle in front of mine took one good. We were lucky, no one got killed that day. But there were other days.”

“Then why two extra days out there?”

We took turns trying to bust some crab meat out of small claws, there was very little that was edible inside. The mussels and clams were outstanding, though. So was everything else.

“You’re not allowed to leave anything out there, every little piece of everything has to be salvaged,” Juan told me.

I took him to the Dandy del Sur for a post-paella drink. Charlie showed up, and then some other regulars and we salvaged our sanity with several dollar bills used to activate the most eclectic jukebox in the universe.

Me gusta la canela, me gustas tu
Me gusta el fuego, me gustas tu
Me gusta menear, me gustas tu
Me gusta la Coruña, me gustas tu
Me gusta Malasaña, me gustas tu
Me gusta la castaña, me gustas tu
Me gusta Guatemala, me gustas tu.

I got home that evening and told Rocio that as good as the paella was, that her and I should go and try the camarones in ajo, that maybe paella is a bit overrated. It was late, and I drifted off to sleep not so much loathing work the next day as loathing the border crossing and the Department of Homeland Security and the complete lack of time I seem to have to do all of the things that I enjoy doing.

¿Qué horas son, mí corazón?

* * * *
I didn’t meet Rocio in Mexico, I met her in the United States of America. I met her boss first, perhaps two weeks prior, and developed an innocent little crush on Carmen. Carmen spoke English very well, was obviously well educated, but as it turned out lacked a lot in common sense. I took a lot of ribbing for that, especially by Rocio later on.

We made components for two companies that had maquiladoras in Tijuana: a medical device company, and Fisher Price toys, long before Mattel bought them. Rocio came up to visit us with a molding technician in order to help us to better define the quality requirements for the injection molded parts that we were making for them. Tired molds, broken and patched up, hopelessly incapable of running cycle times fast enough to enable us to turn a profit.

Rocio was all business, even afterward when the Production manager and me took them out for a beer before they left. We became friends, Rocio and me. The crush on Carmen flat-lined in a hurry; it became obvious after a short time that she was inept at her position, and she was terminated a short time after that. One time, I remember, Carmen called me and gave me some data on a process capability study they were doing on some plastic tires that went on some metal axle for some toy truck.

“As you can see, the data shows that the process isn’t stable. We need to send all of this product back to you”, she told me.

“Um. Dimensionally, does the product meet specification?” I asked.

“Well, yes. But the process isn’t stable, you can see that by the control charts.”

“How are you taking this data? Opening up a box of wheels and grabbing a sample and charting the results?”

“Yes,” Carmen confirmed. “We are taking five out of each box, randomly, out of twenty-five boxes, randomly.”

“Carmen, you can’t chart that way. This is a four-cavity mold. You have to perform a study on each cavity in order to have a valid capability study, each cavity will always be different from the others.”

The silence on the other end of the line was enough to tell me that she was in over her head.

“I’m sorry, you’re right,” she conceded.

I was elected to visit Mexico after Mike’s departure from the company, for whatever reason. It certainly wasn’t because of my Spanish, which was limited to high school classes and whatever slang that I picked up working in the foundries in my youth. My visit to Fisher Price, set up in advance, was my first lesson in Mexican business.

Everyone that I was to meet with either took vacation or was otherwise absent. After much prodding, they finally brought me to Rocio and afterward we went to Centro, my first visit to Mexico and to Tijuana was consecrated with margaritas and latin jazz at a place that no longer exists.

That place is part of a bus station now.

Qué voy a hacer, je ne sais pas
Qué voy a hacer, je ne sais plus
Qué voy a hacer, je suis perdu
Qué horas son, mí corazón.

* * * *
Eventually, I moved Rocio and Juan and Sharon to Los Angeles, where we had a perfectly miserable time with riots and earthquakes and so on. I grew to hate my job even more, and Rocio couldn’t wait to get out of there. So we did.

We chucked everything and came to Tijuana on a wave formed from some battle between irony and coincidence, a wave that might never be ridden out. It all depends, I imagine, on whatever becomes of time in such circumstances.

¿Qué horas son, mí corazón?

And it all depends on whether or not one believes that, like Manu Chao points out, all that is gold does not always glitter.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Ice Cream

"The door to novelty is always slightly ajar: many pass it by with barely a glance, some peek inside and choose not to enter, others dash in and dash out again; while a few, drawn by curiosity, boredom, rebellion, or circumstance, venture in so deep or wander around in there so long that they can never find their way back out."

- Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito, 2003

* * * *

Liberty is like ice cream, it comes in about as many different flavors as one could possibly imagine, and new flavors are invented often enough. Free nations of the world - or those that claim to be free - tout their brand of liberty like some ice cream parlors might advertise their flavor-of-the-day, and ultimately, like ice cream, selection is left to the taste buds of the consumer.

When I was a kid growing up in the United States of America, the ice cream flavor of liberty was red, white, and blue. Liberty was one nation, indivisible. Liberty was when the ’69 Mets won the World Series. Liberty could be Bob Dylan and Barry Goldwater, Elvis and The Beatles, station wagons and Harley-Davidsons.

Liberty was Walter Cronkite back then.

The flavors have changed so far as liberty is concerned in the United States of America. In fact, you are made to choose between red and blue ice cream now, and if you like any flavor other than red or blue then you shall be branded with Nathanial Hawthorne’s infamous letter A on your lapel, afraid to commit. Liberty is the war against terrorism and the war against drugs, or else, the war against antiwar or even the war against the war on drugs. These days if you live in the United States of America, your liberty is controlled by the Department of Homeland Security, they probably have a list that defines what liberty is supposed to be.

Be sure and leave behind your cigarettes and toss any liquids or gels before boarding that next flight to Liberty, U.S.A. Sometimes, it makes me wonder if the money that some Mexicans chase to get over there is worth the effort.

* * * *

"I lost two hours of my life today, two hours that I’ll never get back," I told Jody last Friday in the Nuevo Perico.

It was eleven-thirty in the morning and I was on my fourth beer and my third scotch. Anna had no classes but someone had to go to her school for a meeting at seven-thirty in the morning that at least one parent was required to attend. I am on vacation, so I was the logical choice, never mind that I am a gringo and never mind that I am a male entering into what is considered a side-room in the hallowed den of Mexican motherhood.

There were two other men there, and we were as quiet as church-mice. About one hour and a half was spent on school uniforms and related matters, as we sat in uncomfortable seats and tried not to grimace while mothers and teachers bartered interpretations of what constitutes an overly-pleated skirt. During all of this, people arrived as much as one hour and ten minutes late, giving a buenos dias as if they were expected to be late, that we should be honored by their arrival at any moment they chose to honor us.

This is Mexico - no one complained, it was expected.

After two hours and fifteen minutes, rankled more by my own inability to shrug it all off than anything else, we all got out of there and I hopped a red cab and eventually made my way to Centro de Tijuana.

Ten o’clock in the morning is about the perfect time to walk the streets of Centro. The rateros and vagos are sleeping off last night’s mischief, shops are opening up, the sun begins to warm the vacant streets and sidewalks. I purchased a San Diego newspaper and slowly wound my way down to calle Sexta, into the Dandy Del Sur.

It was like an oven in there.

The only other bar that one can count on being open at exactly five minutes after ten in the morning is the Nuevo Perico. I used to go there when it was called Armando’s Ladies Bar, the key words being Armando’s and Bar, there were seldom any ladies there. Armando finally sold the place, and Joe bought it and changed the name. Back then it was a good place to drink in the afternoon and into the evening, but times have changed. They dropped their prices and it serves well now as a magnet for vagos and rateros.

But before noon, anyplace that’s open in Tijuana is a good place to drink.

* * * *

Jody gulped down his beer and ordered another.

"She told me that on Wednesdays they don’t always show up," Jody told me about his eye doctor.

He had been having a lot of problems with his eyes, problems that liquor and beer and girls wouldn’t resolve. On Charlie’s advice, he took a cab out to someplace near the Grand Hotel one Wednesday and waited two hours while not one doctor in the building came to work. He made his way back to Centro for more liquor and girls and went back to see the doctor a few days later.

"It’s Mexico," he said, "I’m used to it. So are you, heck, two hours is nothing here."

"I know, I know," I assured him.

Jody excused himself and left and so did I when I finished by scotch, and I headed around the corner to a place that I have passed at least a thousand times and never stopped at.

The Chiki Jai is a restaurant opened in the nineteen hundred and forties, supposedly Hemmingway was a patron, along with many stars of American Cinema. No such boast would get me to eat at or even visit any such place, but every time that I have passed by, the cooking of paella and other seafood tickled my nose. I never had time to stop. Friday, I had nothing but time on my hands.
Twenty dollars later, which is a small fortune to spend on a lunch in Tijuana, I was convinced that there would never be anything better to do in Centro de Tijuana with a twenty dollar bill and an appetite than to roll the dice in the Chiki Jai. The camarones en mojo de ajo were excellent, and my next visit will ensure a sampling of their famous paella.

Maybe even today, the last day of my vacation.

* * * *

Liberty in Mexico is red, white, and green ice cream. With a cherry on top, and chocolate sprinkles all over, and some sort of a syrupy covering that coats the beautiful sugary mess. Here, liberty is tacos of your choice at every other street corner, black-and-white Cantinflas on that old television set at the peluqueria, the old man who passes by every day at four in the afternoon, yelling, "Tamaaaales! Taaamaaaleeees, rico, de elote, de chile verde, de dulce!"

Liberty in Mexico is crooked cops and honest criminals, twenty different brands of tequila, kids playing soccer in the street. I would miss the four propane trucks each day that drive by our house and honk a dozen times, the hermanos that stop by your door every Sunday to try and talk you into a new religion, and even the power outages and the occasional lack of running water. If the price of this liberty means having to spend two hours listening to an argument over the number of buttons that a schoolgirl should be permitted to undo in accordance with the current temperature in Tijuana, then I have paid my price for this Liberty, at least until the next small inconvenience.

Liberty in Tijuana, Mexico is deciding to go have some paella at the Chiki Jai on the last day off that I’ll have for a couple of months.

* * * *

Tom Robbins might be correct about novelty, but the one thing that he might not have taken into account in Villa Incognito is that sometimes those of us who venture into the realm of novelty aren’t looking to go back at all. At least, I didn’t leave any breadcrumbs.

And if, by chance, any of that red, white, and blue ice cream from the cone of liberty that I came in with happened to drip out onto the path that took me here, then certainly it has all melted away by now. The challenge, then, that I should ever leave this place, is to remember that no amount of ice cream of any flavor could possibly make me forget that four pleats in a skirt is considered acceptable attire on a schoolgirl.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Too Tired To Dream

Where to begin?

According to the Roman calendar, in the month of May, or maybe even April, in the Christian year of two thousand and seven, I was trying to write on my laptop computer. That was the reason that I purchased it, after all, to write any time and anywhere that I pleased. Again, my stubby fingers tripped over themselves like drunken sailors returning to their ship, falling over and picking themselves up and falling over again and again. I quit trying to type and pulled on my beer.

The sun was slowly going down, its golden reflection bouncing off of random shiny objects dotting the urban landscape while a cool breeze blew through the open door, making the Coronas taste that much better. I could only hear some otherwise hidden traffic - someone is always going somewhere. Even after the sun had long since set, the vehicles were streaming by while I ignored some irrelevant Mexican television station programming.

I drifted off, too tired to dream.

Another Saturday evening, perhaps, passing time in Baja California, Mexico. Except that I was in Chula Vista, California, in the United States of America. For many consecutive weekends without a day off, we had to finish a build-out, a new machine was on its way from across the Atlantic Ocean and was going to arrive in Chula Vista on a certain day, come hell or high water or anything in-between. Saturday and Sunday border crossings take hours, so I stayed in the Palomar Hotel for consecutive weekends, washing sawdust from my hair.

Shortly after the flatbed was installed, the table-router was on its way. More maneuvering and building and air-lines and electrical, more network wiring and training and so on.

That was the beginning and there seems to be no end.

* * * *

"Goddamnit, David, you have to write something and get it published!" Scott encouraged me last Friday night.

We drank in the Dandy Del Sur and compared literary viewpoints and Tijuana taco stands and other truly important matters. Scott is a college professor these days, he teaches art at a college in the United States of America. He might be the only college professor currently living in the red light district of Tijuana. Sometimes he purchases the time of some young Tijuana prostitute, takes her to his room, and paints a nude of her in acrylic.

Scott is quite a good painter.

"Dave, think about it, five hundred words a day is nothing. I mean, how much do you read every day, maybe a thousand words?

"More," I said.

I rattled the ice cubes in my scotch and took a sip.

"Scott, my desktop computer has been broken for months, I haven’t even looked at my email since April. This laptop is impossible to use like this, and this job is killing my creativity," I told him.

"That’s why Bukowski quit working at the Post Office. He said that he needed to save his sanity," Scott replied.

After a ten-minute discussion about Bukowski’s sanity, I examined my own. Scott left. I came to the horrible realization that I had no real idea exactly how many companies that I had worked for in my lifetime. I was approaching, in my current employment, the longest tenure in my employment history in any one place. At forty six, I wasn’t exactly in the position to keep jumping from spot to spot. I wanted to write but had no time to write, taking my free weekends to regain my sanity.

Too tired to dream.

How much longer did I want to stay employed at this place?

* * * *

Companies are probably like ships on the sea, weathering the tides and the storms and the winds and the fog and the nervous calm that occurs when nothing seems to be happening. If this is a true analogy, then I have been on countless ships serving in various capacities, under good captains and bad captains with good crews and bad crews. Some ships were more seaworthy than others; a lot of shipwrecks lie strewn across the vast ocean that is my employment history.
My first job - at least, my first official paycheck came from a foundry in South El Monte, California, in nineteen hundred and seventy-seven. The United States of America was two hundred years old, and Jimmy Carter was president. Lockheed was close to launching the first stealth aircraft.

And so on.

I was torching some scrap steel in the yard out back with a Cuban kid named Eddie. Eddie and me made two dollars and fifteen cents every hour that we did whatever the foreman told us to do, and most of the time we were cutting up steel with an acetylene torch and throwing the small chunks into a large container to be sold off as scrap. Eddie watched me work for a week, and then he got mad at me.

"If you keep working fast like that, we’ll be out of a job in a month," he warned me.

I ignored him. And Eddie was right, at the end of July we were both let go, we finished everything that needed to be done. Except that a week later, they called me back and I never saw Eddie again.

Wherever you are, Eddie, it turns out that you were a lot smarter than I was, after all.

Aside from high school and college and music and so on, I worked at several foundries over the decade that followed. All of these foundries no longer exist. Most foundries have long since disappeared with the advent of computer-numerically-controlled machining. Possessing an aptitude for engineering, it wasn’t difficult to parlay the experience in foundries into machining and general fabrication. Years rolled by and jobs rolled by.

I have worked dozens of jobs that left me very tired at the end of the day, too tired to dream.

* * * *

Popotla is ours, paid for in full, finally. Three plots of land, connected in the shape of the letter L, await any craftiness and ingenuity that I still possess along with sweat and blood and small failures and successes. Like any engineering project, nothing will go exactly as planned. I know this like it’s an instinct, like I know that loud noises and heights are fears we are born with and will only be overcome by resolute and almost blind determination.

This job of mine is over four years old. We have gone from two and a half million yearly to over five million last year. They pay me well now – well enough to keep me there and keep me trying. I have a future home to pay for. We just did our first professional football stadium on our own, the Chargers field walls are ours (the dump that is called Qualcomm Stadium is proof that sometimes you can paint lipstick on a pig and it’s not a pig anymore). We are going after the Forty-Niners and the Dolphins next year.

How about that?

Sometimes this job makes me insane. But I reckon that I’ll stick with it for a while longer, I have a house to build, after all. And there are small victories and never a dull day. And in perhaps two years or so, the house will be finished and I can think about other things, like writing.

Or, at least, in the meanwhile I can figure out a way to dream about it.

* * * *

Today is Labor Day in the United States of America and most people get a well-deserved day off. I get the day off and so does Rocio and we got Anna off to school on time this morning. Rocio then went back to sleep. She loves to sleep, I imagine that she could sleep for twenty hours a day. I can sleep for about six.

So be it.

I have five vacation days and I am forced to take them or lose them. With a Dell keyboard sporting a USB connection, a General Electric mouse with that same tasty capability to connect right into the clunky laptop and bypass the impossible user interface, I have plugged in my 19" flat screen and I feel like I’m riding in a shiny new go-cart.

Look, Ma, no hands!