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, November 08, 2008

Tony's Tales Of Woe


"If life gives you limes, make Michelada." - Olesya Romanovna


The Nuevo Perico was becoming somewhat crowded as I read a magazine at the bar and sipped on a beer, having just come back into Mexico with a belly full of American junk food to which I wasn’t accustomed. My stomach was finally settling, and I looked up occasionally to adjust to the difference in clientele from the afternoon crowd into the evening locals just getting off of work. Friday nights in the Perico are like that. The single billiards table in the back was full and the jukebox was loud and the beer was flowing steady from one of the few taps in Tijuana.

By the time that he came in, the shift change was in full effect. I remembered him from a couple of weeks ago, when Jody and me were talking baseball and politics and he occasionally and politely chimed in and then obligated us to stay longer than we wanted by buying us a beer. His name is Tony. Tony looks as Mexican as anyone but he isn’t. Tony lives in Costa Rica. Tony speaks fluent Spanish and very good English, but he feels like more of an outsider that either Jody or I seem to feel.

Friday evening, Tony saddled up beside me and ordered a beer, Michelada style, except with only lime juice and ice like many Mexicans do. Tony is a very unassuming, dark-skinned man who is slow to speak and haltingly polite. I asked him a lot about Costa Rica. I also refrained from sharing with him any trivial information that I might have come to understand about his country. It was a lesson that I learned many years ago, that it is often wise to keep my mouth shut no matter how impressive that the knowledge of someone not native to one’s country might seem at the time.

You run the risk of embarrassing people to the point of extreme annoyance, a risk that isn’t worth it in the long run.

Instead, I learned about Tony. He ran a brick-making business in Costa Rica with his father. At first, they made the old brick, heavy and traditional, but recently in the last few years they had converted everything into cinderblock. The business was thriving. Tony told me that he held two passports, one from Costa Rica and one from the United States of America. Our conversation was mostly in English and occasionally in Spanish.

"We found a spot in the middle of nowhere and moved our manufacturing out there. We started with six machines and now we have twelve, we used to make two thousand blocks a day, then four thousand, and now six thousand. We bought the land. Then people started to build houses all around us. Now we are thinking of building houses on the land we aren’t using and renting it out," Tony shared.

"How did you learn English so well?" I asked him.

"My parents sent me to school in the United States. I have family that lives there now. I went to various schools. I even went to school in Salt Lake City," Tony said.

I laughed, "I bet you loved that!"

"I called my parents after a few weeks, and asked then if I was being punished for something," he confessed.

"And Tijuana?" I asked.

"Vacation. I just visited my family in the United States, and I like it here in Tijuana so I’m staying for a few days more. I’ve had a few problems but I’m learning."

And with that, Tony proceeded to share, in great detail, his tales of woe.

* * * *

Estelle was always dangerous for me and I usually kept my distance the best that I could. She knew where I drank and would come around every so often and sit next to me and I would buy her a drink or two, that I was obligated to be a gentleman. I didn’t mind. She is beautiful and very well-built, we became friends when she worked at Paco’s bar for a short time; she even speaks English reasonably well. Once, on her birthday, she talked me into going to another bar, and we sat in a dark corner booth and got half drunk and things began to get out of hand.

I got out of there just in time that evening.

Many people have their preferences and Estelle prefers her beer Michelada style and her men to be married to another woman. I always believed her preference for married men to be deeply psychological, in so much as knowing that the one marriage that she had ended with her husband’s constant infidelity and unwillingness to stay with her. Married men ensure that she isn’t going to get hurt again, especially if she assures them not to ever leave their wives no matter what.

I always believed that Michelada-style beer is a waste of hops.

Estelle’s steady and married boyfriend over the last decade or so is Jaime, a successful dentist. Jaime and me were acquaintances before I knew that Estelle was seeing him, we sometimes happened to drink together in Paco’s bar. Or else, sometimes, he would just pop in and buy cigarettes and then leave, presumably back to his dental office around the corner. At least when Jaime drank there, he preferred his beer straight out of the bottle. It was always very small talk.

One day, not long after I found out that Estelle and Jaime were having an affair, and not long after Estelle would seek me out occasionally and drink with me when Jaime was busy somewhere else, we had a deeper conversation, me and Jaime. And Jaime is quite charming when he wants to be charming, and appears very intellectual at times. Other times, Jaime is as full of it as anyone.

We were discussing the border, and it didn’t take long before Jaime was simply countering every statement that I made. Jaime spoke very little English, and our conversation was in entirely in Spanish. Jaime started getting to the point of ridiculousness.

"Look," I finally said, "I wasn’t born here, but I’ve lived here a long time. I have a lot to learn, but you’re simply discounting my opinions because I’m not a Mexican."

"I’m discounting your opinions because I don’t think that you know very much about Mexico,"
he said.

"I bet I know more about some aspects of Mexico than you do," I offered.

Jaime smirked, half-amused and half-annoyed.

"What is the meaning of the colors of the Mexican flag?" I asked, I had a hunch.

"Red is the blood shed in the civil war, green is the trees in the forests of Central Mexico, and white is peace," he said smugly, crushing a cigarette but into the ashtray.

"Red is correct, green is close enough – it represents the natural resources of Mexico, but white is incorrect," I told him.

His eyes got wide, and then narrowed.

"White is hope," I said.


Jaime was clearly irritated. He got up and drained his bottle, preparing to leave.

"Then tell me, what is the meaning of the colors of the flag of the United States of America?" he asked me.

I thought for a moment.

"There aren’t any," I said.

"Don’t be so sure about that," he told me.

When I came home I looked it up. Although unofficial symbolic ideals had been thrown around in government, none took hold enough to become anything close to official. The colors of the Mexican flag were purposeful from the start. The next time that I saw Jaime, I tried to console him by letting him know that he had given me enough reason to look it up, but we never had another conversation after that beyond a couple of sentences.

Jaime was being a pompous ass, but Estelle was sort of delighted that an invisible wall had been erected between us. It was a wall that, over the course of the next few years, she enjoyed passing through as often as possible. She used it to try and make me jealous. She would receive calls from Jaime while having a drink with me, run into the ladies room and then come out and make a preposterous excuse, purposefully, and take off in a hurry.

It would have worked had I been interested enough in her. Jody would sometimes see this happen and after Estelle would leave we would share a laugh.

"She must like you an awful lot to go so far out of her way," Jody would say.

"Aw, she’s just after money," I would tell him.

"But you’re not giving her money," Jody would argue.

"Yeah, but she knows that I’ll buy her a couple of drinks. Besides, even if I weren’t taken I wouldn’t have anything to do with her beyond this. She’s toting around enough emotional baggage to fill the luggage compartment of a jumbo jet."

Sometimes when I look up at the Mexican flag and I see the white center of it, I think of Estelle, that maybe the hope is meant for her.

* * * *

For a good while now, I have pictured humanity as some sort of massive, ever-forming ball of earthworm-like structure on a large raft, and as the ball grows, the raft gets smaller until portions of the ball run the risk of falling off of the raft. Hope is like some sort of clear cellophane stretch-wrap that keeps it all in. It was probably that same semi-invisible film that kept me in the Perico Friday night for a few hours with Tony.

He told me about several encounters in Tijuana with the local police.

"The other night, I was drinking here and then I got drunk. I went to go to my hotel room, and one guy here said, 'Not yet, Tony, you don’t want to leave yet.' But I didn’t listen to him, and I got three steps out the door and a cop was calling me over. Then my friend came out and called me back. So I walked back to my friend and the cop started yelling at me, but my friend pulled me back in here and said, 'I told you, it isn’t time yet.' Good thing he came after me."

I didn’t say anything at that point, I just listened. There were stories about loose women, about people who he had made friends with that maybe weren’t such good friends after all, and about others who turned out to be better. He began every story with the fact that he was drunk. I suspected a pattern.

"I did get robbed by the police here," Tony told me.

"I was drinking in Manolo’s, and I got drunk and decided to go to my room. I came out of the bar and took a few steps and there was a cop. I showed him my Costa Rican passport. Then he wanted to search me, but I didn’t want him to get into my wallet. Then he told me to put some money in my back pocket and he would only search my back pocket. I took what I had in my front pocket and put it back there, about sixty dollars. Then, some people from Manolo’s came out and got involved so I got away with only sixty dollars stolen."

"How much did you have in your wallet?" I asked.

"About sixteen-hundred dollars," Tony said.

"Okay Tony. Look, I’ve lived here a long time, you never walk around with that kind of money unless you know what you're doing," I started.

"Yeah, the owner of Manolo’s told me that afterward, he offered to keep my money for me," Tony said.

"Regardless, you’re better off not having a lot of cash here. Secondly, if you carry a passport from the United States, then you always present that passport, unless you have a United Nations passport. If you carry passport from the United States, you are entitled to travel within twenty-six kilometers of the border without a visa. Plus, if they insist on hassling you, then so long as you’ve done nothing wrong, then call their bluff. Tell them to arrest you if you’ve committed an offense. And do it in plain view of people, because these people don’t like nor trust cops here, and the cops know it," I preached.

Tony nodded solemnly.

"And Tony, watch how much you drink, it’s the most important thing you can do here," I said, risking a defensive response.

Tony smiled and nodded, and I excused myself and left, leaving Tony to think about it.

* * * *

I caught a taxi collectivo up the street in front of where Paco’s bar used to be, a van that seated eight plus the driver pulled out and headed east toward Zona Rio, a few passengers short of being full. The nights are getting cooler here, I closed the window on my side and watched Tijuana go by. The company that I left in March has contracted me for a short while, they are moving into a smaller and less expensive space and they will need help coordinating the move. There is a lot of machinery, complicated electrical hook-ups, running an airline and venting, and basically trying to cram everything into half of the space they once occupied.

I’ll be crossing the border again on a frequent basis for a while, rolling back into downtown Tijuana, watching all of the people I used to watch every day. I thought about what a nightmare their move would be, and the challenge of attempting to fit everything into that space, and the Goddamned border. I haven’t missed crossing the border. I loathe that aspect more than anything.

By the time we got out of Zona Rio, the taxi was full. The driver was impatient, darting in and out, changing lanes, the compact disc skipping often from the jerky maneuvering and the sudden stops. Then, perhaps four miles from where I would be disembarking, there were sirens on the other side of the street up ahead. And no traffic coming from that direction. And then the taxi came closer to the scene.

"An accident," I heard from various people in the cab.

The taxi driver slowed to a crawl, even though there was no traffic in front of us, he isn’t unlike many here and it was curiosity controlling the accelerator. It was dark and difficult to see, but I first saw police with flashlights searching the blocked-off street and others surrounding a car in the middle of the boulevard, and officials of every type were everywhere. Discussions of an automobile accident continued.

"It’s not an accident," I finally said.

Everyone in the cab looked at me, as I stared straight ahead.

"The police are looking for bullets and shell casings," I said.

We drove on.

"Every day it is this," they discussed amongst each other.

I felt bad. I felt like I had just told Jaime that the white in the Mexican flag doesn’t mean peace, that it means hope instead. I felt like I had stolen their hope. I felt like I should have kept my mouth shut. I got out of the cab and walked home, and had a beer and went to sleep. I knew I was right, but I regretted saying anything.

This morning I read the death tolls from yesterday’s carnage. Amongst the paragraphs of the many executions, I found this in El Sol, which I translate into English:

"Upon arrival of municipal and ministerial officials, a gold
1976 BMW sat in the middle of boulevard Federico Benitez
Lopez, across from Plaza Carrousel, without license plates.

Reclining on the right and in the driver's seat was the
lifeless body of a man who wore a black colored cap, and
in the passenger’s seat was the body of another man.

Witnesses said that three subjects drove a pickup from
which they fired while driving next to the car, they were
both shooting rifles at the car twice. On the pavement
evidence experts collected about 20 shell casings, while
the victims’ car showed broken glass and various bullet
holes and damage to the body of the automobile."

I reckon that my fellow passengers would have found out anyway, it isn’t as if the press isn’t taking full advantage of the killings. It isn’t as if they can ignore it, either. I reckon that I couldn’t ignore it either.

* * * *

The flag of Costa Rica features three colors: blue, while, and red, and each color has several meanings. Blue is the sky, religion and spirituality, eternity, perseverance, opportunity; white is peace, happiness, wisdom, and power; and red is blood that was shed in defense of liberty, and warmth and generosity. I guess they didn’t want to leave any possibility out. Who could blame them?

I think of my new friend Tony, and of Tony’s tales of woe, and that really, in the scheme of things, he is much better off figuring out the dynamics of being a tourist with a long leash rather than to traverse the dangerous streets outside of that comparatively safe haven.

Today, I feel like maybe Jaime was right even if he was wrong. I feel like maybe we would all be better off here if we could assign more meanings to the colors of the Mexican flag. The green, in addition to representing Mexico’s natural resources, could represent the limes and the ice cubes that go into making the Michelada-style cerveza. And maybe the drugs that bring more money than the government can supply the means to combat its trafficking. The red may stand for more than the blood that was shed during the civil war, maybe it stands for all blood that is shed on the streets in this corridor. The white can still be hope – there is always hope – but maybe peace as well.

Or maybe the white represents surrender.

The only thing that I know for sure is that the money buying the drugs is more responsible for the death of every Mexican caught up in this carnage than is anything else.


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