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, December 27, 2008

Merry Christmas, Ted

Christmas Eve was easy. Rocio’s parents opted for an early meal, breaking with their traditional midnight dinner, and they ate tostadas up the hill while I cooked up two large pots of clam chowder down here. The rain, which had threatened to be steady and strong, instead gifted Baja with a quick and relatively harmless series of sprinkles that fell quietly with lazy disinterest in seriously wetting anything at all. They were home early, and were even hungry when they arrived, so we enjoyed sandwiches and cheeses and chowder and I was in bed by ten o’clock, serenaded by fireworks outside that became more sparse and distant as I slept.

I am not, by nature, prone to violent thought or violent behavior unless my primordial subconscious is somehow tickled or teased in such a way where, as with anyone, some sort of instinctual reflexive response throws a switch and I find myself wishing to beat the snot out of someone. I have a neighbor who, at irregular intervals, is one of the few humans on this planet with this gift. And it isn’t just me, he seems to provoke everyone into realizing that we are, after all, only animals sometimes with habits of instinct that are only realized in extraordinary circumstances. I don’t know his name, so I call him Ted.

Ted enjoys metalworking. Ted’s favorite time to fire up his grinder is after midnight. Ted’s grinder is loud, and so is Ted, he enjoys yelling at his family, in English, especially three or four hours before dawn. There is a story about me chasing Ted off of my front porch one afternoon with a knife that I was using to cut up some pork, because I wouldn’t give Ted money to fix something that I didn’t own which prompted Ted to use English while insulting my mother. Ted stays away from my front door now.

At two o’clock in the Christmas morning, Ted decided to light off his arsenal of explosive devices. Between explosions, many of which dwarfed dynamite by comparison, Ted cursed his lovely family in both English and Spanish. Ted sounded drunk. Rocio, Anna, and Sharon slept right through everything, and if it was any other neighbor, I might have also just slept for a few more hours, but Ted made sure that I was not only enraged but totally wide awake. The fact that it was thirty-eight degrees outside probably saved Ted from an impromptu visit to the Red Cross, as I decided to come downstairs and make coffee rather than to go over to his house and beat the hell out of him.

* * * *

My Christmas morning is a simple matter of logistics and timing. The stuffing has to be cooked before anything else, so at three o’clock in the morning I was making stuffing and an hour later it was cooling. Ted was asleep by then. I rinsed the turkey from the brining, and started in on the bacon and breakfast. Before seven o’clock, I had biscuits ready for the preheated oven and I was creaming my second skillet of gravy. Rocio came downstairs first, followed by Anna. It wasn’t but a couple of years ago that we couldn’t keep Anna from immediately ripping open the presents, and now she’s patient, she would rather have breakfast first.

People like to show up for breakfast here, for whatever reason biscuits and gravy – a food so foreign here that it defies explanation – is probably just as much of a draw as is the turkey dinner. Rocio’s parents came down the hill along with Rocio’s sister, Elizabeth, and then Bibiana, Juan’s occasional girlfriend showed up. While everyone was consuming breakfast, I was busy stuffing the turkey and oiling it up, then covering it all with foil. The turkey went into the oven at eight-thirty. Ted, almost assuredly, was still sleeping.

After they ate, presents were opened. Anna got her digital camera, Rocio got a nice coat and some kitchenware (that I will delight in using), and I got another jacket. I have more jackets now than anyone on this planet that does not own a clothing store. I also got a magic ratchet and socket from Juan, who we spoke with over the internet from where he is deployed in Iraq. Then, everyone decided to go shopping on Christmas day while I called my own parents to wish them a happy Christmas, and Rocio napped.

Ted, obviously, was also napping.

My rice is not so simple as boiling it in water, I steam it first and then cool it, so I got on it right away. I cooked while Rocio napped and everyone else went shopping. I almost hoped that Ted would have found more explosives to detonate, but the early morning activities probably wore poor Ted right out. By the time that Rocio awoke from her nap, I was already heating up the clam chowder from last night, and prepping potatoes and sucking the juices from the turkey pan in order to make gravy. Anna came back with pictures.

Rocio’s folks swinging at a deserted mall here in Baja.

Anna found a large mirror in a public restroom and apparently couldn’t resist.

Everyone snacked while we waited for the turkey to cook. Once that the rice cooled, I scrambled a few eggs and cut up some cooked, leftover chicken from a couple of nights ago, fired up the wok, and fried everything into a soy-infused yummy mixture that went into a casserole dish and into the oven. Anna mashed potatoes and I made gravy, cooked some corn, and got the rolls ready as the turkey came out to rest before the unveiling.

Rocio snacking before Christmas dinner.

Anna bending down to hug Bibi.

The spread, awaiting the rolls.

The Grinch carving the turkey.

* * * *

I was in bed by five in the afternoon, and I slept a full twelve hours. It was a lovely Baja Christmas. The food was outstanding, the company was wonderful, and next year I am brining the turkey again, it was magnificent. Early next week I plan on taking a bowl of clam chowder over to Scott, hopefully his cold has subsided enough to enjoy it. And maybe next year he can come over, and maybe Daniel will stop in as well. I’ll be fully recovered by then.

Oh, and Merry Christmas, Ted.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Lump Of Coal

I am imagining that, as a gift to all of humanity, global warming is taking a vacation so that my environment can continue to be freakishly cold and wet. People everywhere are having flu and colds, in a great show of solidarity, in order to demonstrate the wonderful effects that carbon offsets are having on the health of this planet. Scott is among those selfless heroes, sniffling and hacking for the good of humanity, so he won’t be coming over for Christmas after all. He will instead stay home and continue to fight global warming with germs and involuntary shivers, for the good of us all.

This cold snap is a fortunate occurrence for our proletariat Christmas celebration, that in spite of Scott’s absence I am going to be able to brine a twenty-two pound turkey overnight without taking up precious space in the refrigerator. Good times.

This is the first Christmas that I have been able to procure a whole turkey in Mexico with ease. They sold completely thawed birds at a great discount, but fortunately had some frozen turkeys on hand at highly inflated prices. This turkey is completely thawed now, it sits in a plastic water-filled container awaiting salt and sugar and spices and water. The turkey came from the United States of America, legally I presume, and will feed however many people show up here. I am always surprised by how many people decide to come to my house on Christmas day.

There is a storm brewing off of the Pacific coast, the westward skies are dark and unhappy, and we will have cold rain in a little while that will last well into tomorrow. This will certainly not detour those folks, many of whom I see only one time each year, from showing up and eating a very traditional American Christmas dinner. Many of the guests had never eaten turkey other than in lunchmeat and hot dogs. Gravy was something that I had a hell of a time explaining. Stuffing, which only about half of the people here seem to care for, remains a mystery to many of the natives because I don’t even know where to start.

* * * *

Traditionally, Mexicans observe Christmas at midnight, as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas morning. Tamales and pozole are served, either one or the other or sometimes both, and gifts are exchanged and opened. All of this occurs in the middle of the night. Santa doesn’t slide down the chimney here, mostly because no one has a chimney, but also because everyone is awake when Santa is supposed to be delivering the gifts. I reckon that Santa is expected to pull up a chair, grab a drink, and have some tamales or a nice bowl of pozole.

I embrace plenty of Mexican traditions, but one tradition that I have always insisted on keeping is the American Christmas routine that I grew up with. On Christmas Eve, mom always baked chocolate chip cookies from a wonderful recipe that has never been tampered with over time. Now Anna, for the third year, is in charge of that task here. The Christmas Eve dinner is simple and tasty. A large pot of homemade New England clam chowder is cooked, and served along with sandwiches and cheeses and other tasty snacks.

The first time that I made clam chowder here, everyone just stared at it in awe; I explained that it was a soup and then I had to fight them from attempting to squeeze lime juice into it. Happily, after the first two years, they have fallen in love with it just as it is.

I then get up very early and make biscuits with bacon gravy, another wonderful American breakfast food that has now become a favorite here. The bird is then stuffed and into the oven while I make the trimmings. Breakfast tends to hold folks over until dinner is ready, or else there is usually plenty of clam chowder and sandwiches should anyone get desperately hungry. Dinner is usually ready at three in the afternoon. All of this cooking is my gift, better than anything that I could wrap and stick underneath the tree.

It usually takes me a full day to recover.

* * * *

Rocio’s parents will show up here for Christmas dinner, but they are going to have their own version of Christmas up the hill like they do every year. Rocio and Anna and Sharon will taxi up the hill at nine o’clock this evening like they do every year, unless it is raining so hard that the taxis won’t go there. They will then come home in the middle of the night and sleep, and a few hours after that I will get up and do what I must. People aren’t so willing to discard their holiday traditions, and instead compromise by partaking in duplicity of traditions in order to placate each other’s cultural tendencies.

That, and apparently people really like good food.

As for me, my many years of relying solely on public transportation have surely earned me a truckload of carbon offsets, which will hopefully be delivered very soon. I’ve been patient about it, I haven’t contacted any government organization nor mentioned it to anyone with the authority or capability to lay my just reward at my doorstep. With the coldness around me, I confess that I am losing patience, perhaps I can count on Santa Claus to come through the back door and leave it all underneath the tree. I already have a half can of lighter fluid, and a metal trash can would work perfectly so long as those carbon offsets can heat up this cinderblock house to the point where the adequately ventilated glowing embers would allow me to take off my jacket for a while.

Or else, maybe Santa can send some lumps of coal, I’m not so picky when the fog from my breath betrays what once was a place where the ice cream vendors were making a lot of money not even two weeks ago.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


On Monday, as Anna arrived home early from school just as the sky darkened, the rain began slowly and then ultimately came down hard and thick in a way that seldom occurs here. I waited while poised to make a run for dinner ingredients whenever the rain stopped. I continued waiting until it became apparent that the rain had no intention of making it convenient for me to run down the block to the small local store, down the narrow alley one block and a half away. The supermarket, just across the street from the convenience store, was probably out of the question. The water comes fast down the hills south of us and it pools in the main boulevard, Díaz Ordaz, where it patiently waits across all four lanes for gravity to take it somewhere else.

The storm drains, designed for a much smaller city, sometimes choke helplessly on anything larger than a few sprinkles when the water begins to flow.

The rain had eased slightly as I strapped on my old work boots and began to trudge through the cul-de-sac, over some mud, and then into the alley, which had turned into a river. I walked along the sidewalk looking for somewhere shallow to cross, and all of the way up to the boulevard there was nothing. Another fellow, ten steps ahead of me, turned back and smiled at me helplessly as I caught up to him and we stood there and thought about what to do next.

"We need a bridge," he laughed toward me in Spanish.

He shrugged, and jumped into water that went up to his knees, waded quickly across, and stood triumphantly on the other side of the alley. I retraced my steps back up the alley, three blocks above, where I finally found a spot to cross. I came back down and hugged the narrow sidewalk on the other side of the alley, and twenty minutes later I was buying bacon and ham and beer while remembering how the water was shut completely off for almost three days not two weeks ago.

Those were the days!

I returned forty minutes after leaving for what is normally a five minute errand, and I was already dicing potatoes when Anna came downstairs in her customary fashion, curious and adorable, however adorable that one could imagine a fifteen year old girl who is almost as tall as I am.

"Whatcha makin’?" She asked with that overemphasized colloquial American accent, pretending to have to stand on her toes to look over my shoulder.

"Soup. Cream of chicken with bacon and potato, and some grilled ham and cheese sandwiches. Soul-warming food for the coldness," I told her.

"How was it out there?" she inquired.

"A river. But it’ll never be as bad as it was around the time that you were born," I said.

Anna waited for me to tell the story, but instead I found myself singing the National Anthem of Canada for no apparent reason.

"Dad, you are so weird," Anna told me.

"Probably. But nothing was weirder than the Gigante market in Las Brisas a few weeks before you were born," I started.

* * * *

In the summer of nineteen hundred and ninety two, we rented our first house in Tijuana. It was located on the north side of the Tijuana river, in a small neighborhood on a hill, and it was called Guaycura, which could have been anywhere in Tijuana so far as I was concerned. All I knew is that it was hotter than hell inside of that house, so I spent an unusual amount of time outside. I found work quickly in an American maquiladora, a job I quickly grew to hate, but I was used to hating wherever I worked.

It began raining in early January, right about the time that I quit that job and we moved across the river onto a larger hill on the south side, Infonavit Latinos. It was the first time that I had ever heard of El Niño, that occasionally unpredictable cyclical anomaly whereby unseasonably warm ocean water causes Pacific winter storms to crash mercilessly onto the North American Pacific Coastline. Wave after wave of storms hit through January and the Tijuana River swelled then relaxed and then swelled then relaxed again, and so on. In those days, most of the roads went right into the river, there were only two bridges west of the Rodriguez Dam, all other automotive crossings were made over roads that were built to allow the shallow river to flow over the pavement.

People used to drive their cars into that river and park on the shoulder and wash their vehicles; the river water wasn’t very clean but it was free.

One rainy evening I brought Rocio to the small clinic in Las Brisas, she thought that she was having labor pains. It turned out to be a false alarm, but they wanted to hold her there for an hour or so to make sure. I needed a cigarette and I was fresh out, so I walked across the parking lot in the rain toward the Gigante market, and the skies suddenly opened up and it started to pour. In seconds, as I made it just underneath the roof of the façade in front of the store, it was coming down harder than I had ever seen rain fall anywhere other than the Arizona desert in the summertime. I stood and watched in awe, and the downpour refused to stop; just when it seemed that it couldn’t come down any harder, it did.

Finally, I went into the supermarket, and just a few steps inside I noticed that no one was moving. While it is to be expected that there would only be perhaps a dozen customers in there, what with the rain and the evening and all, I realized that everyone had stopped what they were doing. Shoppers held their carts still, grocery clerks stopped entering prices, baggers stopped bagging. Everyone was looking up at the ceiling.

Water, in steady streams, all throughout the store, was coming down through the roof, through the light fixtures – which remained lit as if water affected them not in the least – and landed everywhere. The floor, through every aisle, was drenched and the water was slowly pooling, and rain even poured from shelves of groceries as if by design from some exotic shopping experience in a really bad aquatic science fiction movie. Slowly, people started moving again, but with their heads seldom leaving the ceiling, in case something else happened.

I bought my cigarettes and got out of there.

I brought Rocio home in a nineteen hundred and seventy-eight Honda Civic CVCC, which, I swear, floated when it had to. Rivers were borne from side streets sloping toward the boulevard, cars were stalled everywhere, but I pressed on, determined to find just the right speed to get through the water without allowing it to enter the tail pipe nor come over the front of the engine and flood the distributor. Somehow, we made it back up the hill to Infonavit Latinos and slept while the rain continued throughout the night.

In the morning, we learned the devastation. The water in the reservoir behind the dam had suddenly and quickly crested over the top, and the Mexican engineers in charge had no choice but to open the floodgates. There was no warning given to the squatters that camped in that river, they were swept away along with trees, roads, dirt, mud, old tires, and everything else. The official death toll was released weeks later by the government, but it is still considered a joke. No one will ever know how many people died that evening, too many bodies will never be recovered.

A lot of people blamed the Mexican government because it was easy to do, but I knew better. For years, police and other officials had been trying to get the squatters out of the riverbed. That night, the rain came so hard and so fast, that the dam surely would have given way, and perhaps thousands of lives would have been lost. The only fault that I found with the government was in attempting to minimize the official number of casualties. It only made things worse.

* * * *

Tuesday, it was drying out. I left, later than I wanted to and too late to get some Cuban coffee, and went to the United States for twenty minutes and came right back. I walked into Centro at around noon, and ran into Jody on his way to somewhere, to meet with someone, but I did find Scott in the Nuevo Perico. I seem to miss him more and more these days between the times where we can drink more beer than we should at any one sitting. Scott plunked some quarters into the jukebox and Cuban jazz decorated the talk about the rains.

We drank a lot that afternoon.

In the evening we wound up at the Dandy del Sur and I found out that Scott isn’t making his yearly trek up to San Jose for the holidays, so he’ll be coming here instead. We’re trying to get Jody to come as well, but I have a feeling like every year, he has some young girl ready to cook him up some tamales or pozole and perhaps something else. Regardless, I came home Tuesday evening and told Anna that Scott is coming over for Christmas dinner.

"Do I know him?" Anna asked.

"Not unless you’ve taken to drinking at the Nuevo Perico," I teased.

She rolled her eyes and went upstairs.

* * * *

Rocio left at five-thirty on Wednesday morning and about two hours later it began to rain hard again. It rained even harder than Monday, and it didn’t let up, I lay in bed happy, at least, that Rocio missed it. I fell back to sleep and then awoke at nine and came downstairs and made coffee, and it was still raining like crazy. I knew that Anna didn’t go to school, and I heard her upstairs moments after I took the first sip out of the mug. I smiled.

After the great rains of nineteen hundred and ninety three, they built bridges over the river and cemented the entire distance from the Dam to where it enters the United States of America. Once on the other side of the border, the river empties into a flood plain, poorly designed and recklessly unimproved. Tijuana fixed things here enough to where what once happened will never happen again, except that there will still be flooding to some extent, people are no longer in danger of being swept away should the need arise to open the floodgates of the Rodriguez Dam.

At ten o’clock the telephone rang, it was Rocio.

"And Anna?" She asked.

"Upstairs, I imagine," I said.

"You have to check, it’s raining very hard," Rocio pressed me.

I put down the receiver and went upstairs. Anna had already called her school and classes were cancelled. She was in bed, covered, watching television, unaffected by anything. I went back downstairs and picked up the receiver.

"We do not have a stupid daughter," I told Rocio.

At four in the afternoon, the rain had finally stopped, and I had to go to the supermarket. I called Anna down and we took off to survey the damage. The street, and the sidewalk across from us, was littered with everything from brush to trash to tires, but the water had apparently drained nicely. We bought groceries and came back just in time to get rained on again, but before it started coming down hard we arrived home. Turning on the news, the only devastating pictures were coming from the United States of America.

Apparently, the portion of the Tijuana River that flows over the border, unimproved and poorly planned, claimed the lives of horses, goats, dogs, and cats. At least no people were lost over there. Still, after almost sixteen years, the irony is inescapable when the water begins to flow.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Plastic Buckets

I met up with Scott accidentally when I got back to Centro after a short trip into the United States of America, I saw him on the street, crossing Avenida Revolución. It was almost ten in the morning, so we went over to the Nuevo Perico and opened the bar. The sun was warming the sidewalks slowly, and we sat there for a while and drank Dos Equis Ambar from the tap and caught up on everything I miss because I don’t get out of the house much these days.

"I’ve just been writing and cooking," I told him.

"Oh, did you hear that Stanley died?" Scott asked.

"Yeah, a few weeks ago I was at the Dandy del Sur and Aida told me. It was funny because she was so sure that I would somehow be rocked by the news. I just had to tell her that I didn’t get along with Stanley all that much, but I was sorry that he died. She seemed surprised, like all of us gringos love each other’s whiteness or something," I said.

Stanley was one of the most negative and depressing individuals that I ever knew. Almost bald, with a long and very out of control white beard, the first thing that Stanley would tell you, initiating a conversation, was that he wanted to kill his ex-wife. Then, he would tell you about how his paintings were worth thousands of dollars but that he couldn’t sell them in the United States of America for this reason or that reason, and that his artistic ability is recognized in France and Spain. He would go on about how he wanted to go to France and Spain but couldn’t, which would bring the one-sided conversation back full circle about him wanting to kill his ex-wife.

Stanley and me had this same conversation on three separate occasions, many years ago. The last time that he initiated verbal communication with me, I wanted to pull my eyeballs out of the sockets and stick them in my ears, and then it got to the point where I had enough. It was as if Stanley enjoyed swimming in his misery. But that wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to bring everyone else into that putrid pond water that held his soul, as if everyone else should want to feed off of his negativity and loathing.

"Stanley, you are the most miserable human being on this planet!" I finally told him, and walked away.

We never spoke after that. He was around occasionally, but we successfully ignored each other. Scott got along with him well, that while acknowledging Stanley’s preference for suffering and grieving as a life experience, they were both artists and drew and painted. Stanley lived in Playas de Tijuana, which is a large section on the beach a few miles west of Centro. He was in his sixties.

Miserable no more!

Jody came into the Perico at noon so we sat and drank and talked for a while, I bought both of them beers, I really miss seeing them as often as I used to. Another gringo came in, a guy that has been around for a few years, another guy that I don’t much care for. The first time that we met, he bummed a cigarette, and while I normally do not hand out cancer I gave him one anyway. Twenty minutes later, when I refused to give him another, he became irate. I told him to purchase his own cigarettes. We never spoke after that.

He chatted up Jody mostly, apparently he has learned how to buy his own cigarettes, until Jody left and then Scott turned to me.

"Dave, come with me up to Zona Norte, I’ll show you my pad."

The other guy, the gringo that didn’t leave with Jody, made overtures about wanting to tag along. Scott, ever aware of my wariness of many of the part time gringos who show up out of the blue and vanish just as quickly, blew him off. We finished up our beer and got out of there, heading up toward Zona Norte.

* * * *

I always found it amusing to look at my birth certificate, in that I was born in San Diego and yet never really knew the city until after I moved to Mexico and then eventually worked in San Diego for many years in various locations. Working over there taught me San Diego, or at least most of it, in more ways than one. I pull out a copy of that birth certificate now, every time that I cross the border. I present it along with my California State identification card.

I used to have a passport, but it expired long ago.

When I present the birth certificate and the identification card, the Department of Homeland Security representative either looks at everything and I move on, or they punch in some information so a computer can determine anything that would make me a threat to enter their lovely country. Or else, they argue with me over not obtaining a passport. I argue back that I only need to mail a letter and cash a check, but apparently my length of stay only being forty minutes does not impress them. They let me enter regardless; at least, they have so far.

I was going to go back over Tuesday, but a funny thing happened when I woke up that morning: no water. No water means no shower, so I put off my journey until the water returned, which was last night. The water company doesn’t hand out notices down here, they simply turn the water off and perform whatever repairs or maintenance is required, and it is only through the gossip and sometimes the local news that anyone has any advance warning. Rocio’s mother had heard something, she filled about a dozen five-gallon buckets in her own home, and then early Tuesday morning while I was still sleeping she filled some large containers that we have here for just such a purpose. For a few of days, we used the downstairs bathroom for everything, and flushed the toilet by dumping a bucket of water into the commode in order to empty it.

Gravity is wonderful that way.

Rocio, Anna, and Sharon took sponge baths until the water pressure returned because they needed to leave every day, so I waited patiently since I am in no hurry. Meanwhile, I cooked food that requires little in the way of pots and pans, we ate hamburgers that I fried using an electric griddle and fish tacos that I cooked in a deep fryer. The hamburgers are very good clones of an In-N-Out Double-Double, and the fish tacos are from the same recipe of Baja’s finest, right down to the beer-batter and the fresh tortillas. The dishes, what few were dirtied, were washed using our drinking water – an expensive but necessary use of what normally is only consumed in cooking and liquid refreshment applications.

I have often replied, when asked what living in Baja is like, that this is a campout in a cement tent.

Sometimes it really is.

Last night, the water returned, and I awoke this morning anticipating another border crossing and then, perhaps, meeting up with Scott and Jody afterward. I matched a cigarette and listened to the radio, thinking about getting some Cuban coffee on the way over. I am hooked on the dark, rich flavor, which is something that couldn’t happen in the United States of America since the apparent key to defeating communism precludes uniquely robust coffee and genuine Cohibas.

Then, the voice on the radio told everyone that the line to enter the United States of America was over three hours long, attributed to Mexican holiday celebrating the Virgen de Guadalupe. Many people take this day off, attend mass, and then head over the border to do some shopping. No matter how long I live here, at least some of these holidays will always elude my peripheral vision. There is a station on this Mexican cable that we subscribe to, and it covers nothing but the lines at the three border crossings between Tecate and the Pacific Ocean. The cameras, panning endlessly to give as many aspects of the border wait as necessary, confirmed what was said over the radio. The wait to cross was ridiculous. I will go Monday or Tuesday then, and imagine that today Scott and Jody are enjoying the Coahuila, much like we did the last time I was given the tour of the new and improved Zona Norte by Scott.

Besides, I don’t need to go back there anytime soon.

* * * *

Scott led, and I followed him up to the Coahuila, he is one of a few people who actually walks faster than I do when left to his own devices. The streets are the same as when I last walked them, except cleaner and rebuilt. There are even palm trees now. The prostitutes are still there, except that there are more of them, a lot more, and they appear younger now. I am older. It seems relative somehow.

The economic crisis and lack of tourism probably has something to do with it as well.

We ran through perhaps a half-dozen bars, most of them decorated with young dancing girls. The two most impressive locations were Adelita, a mainstay in Zona Norte, perhaps even a landmark, filled with girls of every flavor. They have remodeled since I was last there over ten years ago, they are always remodeling here. But the menu remains the same. The other bar, which I can’t remember ever having entered, is Hong Kong, which baffled me. Scott took me through everything way too fast before we finally went up to his apartment next to the Chicago Club.

Scott’s apartment is a glorified hotel room, a single room with a bed and an attached bathroom and no room for anything else. There are paintings and drawings scattered everywhere, except for one side of the room which is piled three feet high with old newspapers and magazines, like a long line of sandbags might fortify a bunker. There was no alternative to some clutter because of the size of the room.

"They keep bitching at me to throw these out," Scott laughed, looking at the stacks of print.

"Come on, I’ll buy you a beer, I want to go back to that Hong Kong club and take some mental notes," I told him.

We left, into the streets, onto the narrow sidewalks navigating through crowds, past taco carts, watched suspiciously by the same people that remained throughout the remodeling of the red light district. They painted lipstick on a pig, and while the pig looks a lot nicer, it still smells like a pig. It’s nice to know that the Coahuila hasn’t lost any of the charm.

The first time we saw Club Hong Kong, Scott led me in through one entrance and out through another, there was barely time enough to soak it all in. This time we sat, and I bought us some beers. It is spacious; spanning the length of a very short city block, you can enter through either door on two parallel streets, and unlike most clubs in Zona Norte, this place was relatively clean and well decorated. I counted six customers other than Scott and me, and I gave up on counting how many girls were in there.

Maybe fifty girls were in there, dancing in various locations, including on top of the bar.

"Check that out, Scott, they’re being directed where to go," I said.

There was an older woman, perhaps forty, with a wireless headset, directing the girls where to go, rotating them like a choreographer. Upstairs, against railing, some girls either danced or just stood. Scattered throughout downstairs, there were several small platforms, which held two or three girls dancing in various states of undress, and everywhere else they either posed or moved playfully to the music. Next to our table, they rotated two girls upon the small platform, and I looked up. One girl danced topless while the other danced in a short skirt and a flimsy top, and wore nothing else except for high heels. She made sure that we got a nice view looking up at her, and might have been disappointed in my lack of interest.

I have seen plenty of strippers, but fifty girls for eight customers made the scene completely surreal.

"You should see this place at night," Scott told me.

We finished our beers and left, there wasn’t a girl in there under the age of twenty-five.

"Anything else that you want to see?"

"Not especially," I answered.

"Well, then I want to take you to this bar that Jody drinks at sometimes. It’s a dive, but it’s full of locals," Scott said.

After a short walk, we parted the thick, vinyl-coated curtains at the door, past the disinterested doorman, into a small place with about twenty people inside. There was just enough room at the bar. The jukebox blared Norteño music while a couple of people danced, a working girl and a patron, and then another girl dressed in sweats went up on the stage and gyrated ridiculously, which chased the couple back to their table.

People looked on, bleary-eyed and stone-faced.

"She’s pregnant," I said.

"Before she got strung out on drugs, she used to work here," Scott informed me.

I stopped watching her. Jody walked in, and we all chatted about whatever, but I mostly just listened and realized that no matter what they do, it won’t change Zona Norte. I thought about Stanley, and how nothing would have changed him either, that some things and some people aren’t meant for change. New sidewalks and palm trees can’t transplant new people. There will always be fifteen-year-old prostitutes and pregnant crack addicts there. And the gringo money, like when the water supply is cut off and other means are used to survive without it, will always find a way to trickle into that place and keep it going like it always has.

The five-gallon plastic buckets replace the free-flowing water pipes.

Me and Scott eventually wandered back up to the Perico and had a few more beers up there, where the girls aren’t so young and the money isn’t nearly as precious.

(All images courtesy of Eric Rench)