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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Gift Horse's Bit

One hundred degrees isn’t so bad. On Sunday, everyone here took off to the beach, for Playas de Tijuana, except for me. I remained here, hunkered down as if there was anything that could possibly go wrong. Neighbors were throwing parties, grilling carne asada, music blaring underneath erected canopies because no one could stand being inside.

Except for me, I was driven toward other concessions.

I had to sit here and admit that Laura Hillenbrand was wrong somehow, that she got crossed up somewhere in her version of Tijuana. Hillenbrand’s research is considered to be excellent. Even though I don’t much care for her writing style, I admire her attempt in capturing the feel for what it was like here almost one hundred years ago. I trusted her because of it.

Hillenbrand wrote about the manure-pile sliding down the hill in the storm that took out the casino and the track. This would have put that hill just south of where the current track sits, perhaps a mile. The track and casino would have had to been in close proximity in order for the mound of manure to slide into both before finding its way into the Tijuana river and making its way out to the Pacific ocean.

But if the original track was, in fact, close to where Pueblo Amigo now sits, then the pile would have had to have been north of the river, on the hill close to where the border is with the United Stated of America, close to Colonia Libertad. Otherwise, the pile would have had to go through the river and out the other side. This seems impossible.

It still felt like ninety degrees at midnight, when the music outside finally stopped. Everyone else here managed to sleep except for me, I had three liters of beer and two packages of cigarettes for fuel, and fingers and mind refused to quit. Daniel had kept handing me pieces of information that proved his point, that there was no way that one flood could have knocked out the original track and the casino at the same time.

He went out of his way to do it, he believed it was mine in spite of what I already had.

* * * *

Daniel always comes into the Dandy del Sur and sits next to me, ordering a Dos Equis in aristocratic Spanish, making sure to roll the R’s in rhythmic perfection. Placing the accents appropriately, lifting syllables with crane-like precision, he over-exaggerates his graciousness to the cantinera when she slings a bowl of shelled peanuts in front of him.

"Ahhhh, gracias, muy amable!"

Always, he pulls on his first sip of beer as if it tastes like the best beer he ever had. Even the peanuts, at least the first few, are the best in the world. Something in the way that Daniel looks around, as much as very little has ever changed in the Dandy del Sur, it is always brand new to him.

Whenever we walk together, I am constantly frustrated by his slow gait, just as he is by my quick pace. Daniel looks around consistently and takes his time, something might be otherwise missed. I glance out of the corner of my eye, content that if I do miss something, it will have been unimportant simply because I missed the event, that if I didn’t see it then it really never mattered. Yet, we could easily be brothers even though we don’t look much alike, because there is a sibling-like repertoire in our demeanor.

Sometimes we bicker.

That particular night, Daniel drank quickly, and I had had quite a few scotches already. We were going to an art exhibition in the CECUT, the cultural center of Tijuana. Daniel had brought a friend with him and I forget his name. I am bad with names. I am bad with art exhibits, too. I never know what to say.

So I got somewhat drunk, and then we climbed into someone else’s car and took off toward Zona Rio.

* * * *

Today was not so hot, maybe ninety, maybe less, the wind was only warm and the sun seemed kinder. Anna is out of school for a while, she lounges comfortably in the coils of the cold-blooded cinderblock, amusing herself with video games and internet and television and music.

I wandered down to the fruteria, a smallish store that sells fruits and vegetables and other odds and ends. Conveniently two blocks away, they often run out of even staples, but luckily I stashed away some chiles seranos from last week, because they had none. Six tomatillos, two packages of chorizo, and one onion later, I returned home, and Anna dutifully started on the dishes while I checked my email. Not more than three minutes had passed.

"Dad?" Anna called me out of my office.

She stood there with an onion in her hand, looking at me with an odd grin on her face.


"The lady from the fruteria just dropped this off," Anna told me with mild amusement.

"But I only bought one, it’s right here in the bag," I replied as I rifled into it.

"Apparently not," Anna said.

I reached into the bag and pulled out my onion. Anna laughed. Evidently, everyone knows where the gringo lives, I’m generally more famous than I give myself credit for. Incredibly, the lady that runs the store thought enough of me to make sure that I got my onion – believing for whatever reason that it was left behind – that she made two blocks’ journey and handed it to a surprised Anna at our door.

She would have done that for anyone, perhaps; but she did it for me.

* * * *

We entered the CECUT and Daniel was obviously right at home, there was live music playing before the showing, we arrived fashionably late. Me and Daniel’s friend wandered around and pretended that we knew anything, admiring the paintings while Daniel mixed with the artists and patrons as though he were in his own kitchen. Daniel understands how this relationship works, the networking of poets, writers, painters, some chain that holds their sway.

I am mostly uncomfortable.

"People here know of you," Daniel once told me, long ago.

He never told me that I needed this connection with the artists and writers and so on, but he certainly has implied it at every opportunity. I tried that evening, wine sloshing on top of beer and scotch, and mostly failed at anything, I can’t dance that way. I never learned how, and I don’t know if I ever will. I met the artists and mentioned something that I admired about their work, and where that leaves anyone I have no idea. It might be worse with writers and poets.

The best that I can do with Daniel’s gift horse is to saddle it up and put a bit in its mouth, I haven’t learned how to ride it yet.

We rode back to Centro de Tijuana and they dropped me off where the evening began, it was still early enough for a nightcap at the Dandy del Sur. I walked in and sat at the bar and ordered up a scotch and a beer. Baseball was on. This was my dance, the one I knew all of the steps to. The gentleman to my right, two stools over, began a conversation in Spanish with me.

We talked about baseball, watched the game, and cheered for whichever team needed it. After a half-hour of Spanish, he turned to me between innings.

"Are you refriedgringo?" he asked out of nowhere, in almost perfect unaccented English.

I looked at him, and sort of grinned.

"Actually, yes, I am. How did you know?"

He smiled.

"Who else would you be?" he told me.

The ball game came back on and then we got lost in it for a while.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The laptop isn't dead, but the mouse refuses to work consistently. Tracing my finger along a small pad underneath a cramped keyboard never served me from the start. For the want of a properly functioning mouse, I have instead repaired one of the husks of many broken desktops that will never be discarded until time is set aside to remove the dead patient's organs. Thus, my Frankenstein monsters, such as the one I currently type on, are raised from the dead.

This machine's brain is old, and the thought process and nerve centers are antiquated. So am I, then, in some ways. When I ask this monster to do something that it isn't immediately prepared to do, the hard drive sounds like a vacuum cleaner, motor spinning, sucking something into its delivery receptacle, and in a few moments, it complies. It has imperfections and character. I could add more memory and a burner and another hard drive, and other nifty qualities from other machines, but I won't.

Like anything I've ever written, I could edit it over and over again; change the monster into something else, something better. But then it would lose its character. The character of the monster is the most important aspect, the key to beast. Sometimes that's important, especially when one needs to find its weakest qualities. And then, one becomes capable of realizing that every beast has a purpose.

* * * *

I once wrote a story about a baseball player on the fringe of being a professional. He was in the minor leagues, and then wound up in Mexico just hoping for a chance to hang on long enough to get a break somewhere else. He played in a fictitious league here, called the Baja league; I had minor league teams all over the place here. The players barely made money - they were traded for equipment, or even food.

The story was horribly constructed, rushed, and put away quickly. I only let one person read it, a friend who would understand it perhaps, and not care about the literary quality of it. It was his pornography, in a sense, something he could relate to. A few days after I gave it too him, I had to tell him.

"It's horrible. Very horribly written, rushed, with shallow characters and an improbable plot," I told him over a beer.

"I know," he said, looking at the television in back of the bar, not changing expression.

"But I liked it."

The main character was traded to a team with deep pockets. They paid him well, and he started to play well, really well. The owner of the team had this beautiful daughter, who fell in love with the gringo baseball player, but in the end, when her love was unreturned, he was released. It didn't matter how well he played baseball, what mattered was how well he played anything else that would allow him to continue to play baseball.

The story, obviously, was really about me.

* * * *

"Stop thinking of yourself as a writer. Think of yourself as an author," she told me, someone who likes what I write.

This implies publishing, of course, which is a tricky proposition. The world isn’t asking for another novelist. The world wants everyone to watch television. The world lives through viewing itself on an electronic screen. Everyone is making videos, watching movies, and teething on a reality based in a rectangular box.

Meanwhile, I listen to the radio and type.

The monster I've created inside of myself doesn't watch television, or rarely does. He writes, and reads, and cooks, and wonders what factory or warehouse he'll wind up in next. The baseball player in my story is the writer that I see myself as. I can't seem to be able to do what it takes to be an author, to do whatever it takes to be able to write. Instead, I keep having to go back and work in Bukowski's Post Office.

Soon, this monster inside of me will be grinding out a living in a factory again.

* * * *

I remember once when Charlie got into some trouble, that many years ago when he lived in Los Angeles that someone had duped him into doing something that wound up being illegal. Charlie came into the Dandy one afternoon, distraught, holding papers.

"It's the multi-headed Hydra!" Charlie announced.

"Twice, I thought that I killed it, that I chopped off the monster's head, but it keeps growing a new one!"

The government was taking away his social security. They figured that Charlie owed them a lot of money. He had been scammed into doing something that he shouldn't have done so many years ago, and apparently, the action that was taken the first couple of times wasn't adequate.

"Well, Charlie, you can appeal," I told him, reading the letter sent by the Government.

"Already taken care of that, but I need your help," he said, and handed me about a dozen sheets of paper.

On one side of the paper, there were sports betting odds from the sports book, and on the other side, was mostly illegible scrawl written hastily by Charlie, explaining his case against their claim. I read it the best that I could and argued with him because I wanted him to approach it completely differently, and we went around in circles. I finally acquiesced.

"Fine, Charlie, but I'm doing it under protest," I told him.

Charlie nodded. It took a few hours to unravel his writing; not having good eyes, he couldn't even see his own handwriting. He sent what I printed for him. A couple of weeks later, the Government dismissed the case, and Charlie had finally killed the Hydra.

It wasn't his letter that did the trick; it was the simple act of the appeal. Apparently, too much time had elapsed from when the alleged event occurred, in order for the Government to make a case for collecting from it.

Regardless of how, the monster was tamed.