Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

My Photo
Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Friday, September 25, 2009


The room, devoid of anything except for a laptop computer, a very nice throw rug, and some paintings of still life in mild and soothing pastels, was otherwise ordinary in every way. My assistant, a Chinese gentleman who struggled slightly with a chicken, was otherwise much more enlightened than I was - that much was obvious. There was tea, and the chicken did not disturb our small cups, the chicken had other issues.

“You must do this,” my assistant told me. “This is the only way that what you write will be complete and your intentions understood.”

At first, he had attempted to convince the chicken to simply sit right on top of my head, but the chicken’s sense of balance and my tendency toward leaning in to view the monitor on the computer produced unsuccessful results. My nameless assistant then crafted a large hat, one that Dr. Seuss would have been proud of. He gently stuffed the chicken into a black sack with a drawstring, and then stuffed the sacked chicken into the hat and placed it upon my head.

“Now, write,” he urged.

And I did.

The hat, top-heavy and oddly centered was surprisingly comfortable, and the chicken seemed to be equally as interested in staying on my head as I was in completing whatever I was writing. My assistant sat at the ready, poised to catch and hold the chicken-in-the-hat, should it have fallen off due to my jerking around and looking in unexpectedly to squint at the monitor. I typed away. It worked. I have no idea what I wrote, but apparently it was well received.

* * * *

When I awoke, after getting through a short period of an understandably panicked inability to comprehend any of what that dream was all about, I came downstairs. Coffee, email, and the awareness that while Juan’s car was parked outside it balanced perfectly with the fact that, other than myself, the house was empty. Juan had taken the day off and rented a moving van, one day after his birthday. Anna was in school. I contemplated going over the border, but decided against it, I try and limit my travels in order to promote a greener earth and more importantly, in order to enjoy and bask in my own laziness.

It also occurred to me that I could, at any time, walk a block down the street and purchase a chicken.

I’m going to guess that many countries, or at least many parts of many countries sell live chickens. Baja sells live chickens. And, perhaps if I were a tad more ambitious, I could wander here until I found a Chinese man, willing to assist me, someone wise and capable and with some universal understanding of live chickens that I lack. Maybe he would have access to a black sack with a drawstring and could easily fashion a ridiculous looking hat. Perhaps this is the key to everything.

Juan came home, Anna behind him, and they packed another load and all went off to check out the new digs. I have been nudged to go at some point, and I will, but for now I am left to ponder this house with only the three of us. It is suddenly too big. We are now overpaying, relatively speaking, for space we no longer need. Yet, I’m not ready to move again.

We don’t need the extra room, nor the second telephone line, nor many other things. I am the one that stops the progress of Anna and Rocio, who try as hard as they can to dumb things down for me. Hell, I didn’t even cook dinner, what with all of the leftovers in the fridge. What else would one expect from a man that dreams of having chickens on top of his head?

* * * *

Rocio came home, and after a brief conversation I took off to the store. “Why did he have to take all of his stuff?” she asked me. It echoed with every step I took. The moon, currently sawed in half, followed me mindlessly overhead. It gets dark earlier now. I passed a guy with a guitar talking to a guy without one. They both moved kindly to one side so I could pass.

“Buenos noches.”

“Buenos noches.”

We are polite to each other here.

I returned, a twelve-pack richer, along with some hamburger buns, two packages of cigarettes, and a fifth of tequila. Twenty-four dollars and change. Juan and Anna have returned. For now. I know that Anna will leave this place at some point. It scares me.

Soon, Rocio and me will be alone. With each other. It will mark a timely event, one in which we have finished our obligations, in that the rug rats have graduated life and hopefully many of its lessons. It won’t prove anything at all. I will mark it, observe it with whatever dignity I have left. But, I promise to keep some sort of humility when that day comes.

“Good bye, dad,” Anna will say.

“It’s okay, darling,” I will tell her. “And from now on, you can just call me chickenhead.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Independence Day

Last Tuesday was to be an excursion with a purpose, although I immediately began to question my own good judgement before I arrived at my first stop, and I considered the years and years of avoidance that conceived this particular expedition. Last Monday was all business at first, to cross the border and bank and complete postal errands and so on, followed up by unsuccessful attempts at locating friends in and around Centro de Tijuana, and it was generally not rewarding. At every cantina I sipped at a beer only to have the cantinera remark, in Spanish of course, that this person or that were in the other day inquiring about me. None showed up on Monday. This is what happens.

When I came home Monday evening, I found an email from Daniel that he would join my pilgrimage the next day and that we should meet up in that sacred temple called Dandy del Sur, and then came Tuesday. I rode in the back of the route cab, a van devoid of proper shock absorbers, so that anytime we traveled the least bit rapidly I found myself putting the book I was reading in my lap and continuing the book at stoplights. Meanwhile, no matter how rough the terrain, the woman next to me successfully applied make-up to her face as though she were standing in her own restroom. Some people are more talented at travel than others.

By the time I exited the cab and began my walk to the Dandy, I was cranky for no apparent reason. The sun, very warm but not hot, cast slight shadows on Calle Madero, and the breeze seemed to fan an almost electric buzz that could be felt as one wandered down the busy street. Once inside of the cantina, I found my favorite barstool and Alex, the only English speaking cantinera I currently know in Tijuana, served me an amber.

“Jody was here yesterday, he asked about you.”

“So I’m told. He’s never around when I’m here,” I said.

“And last week, what’s his name, the other one…”

“Scott,” I offered.

“Yeah, Scott. He was here asking about you,” she said.

“Figures.” I wasn’t looking for Scott because he owed me some cash; it was general curiosity. Not that I couldn’t use the money, it was that that he could use it more - and mostly that I worried about him. I didn’t want to email him, make him uncomfortable, and I figured he wouldn’t get a paycheck until October. But now I knew he was in good shape, good enough to still be around. With Jody it was always hit and miss, he could be anywhere on any given day. My proclivities, conversely, are aimed toward remaining in one place for a while.

I remained in the Dandy del Sur and drank for a while.

* * * *

When one of your children leaves the nest, the impact is felt differently by each member of the remaining family. The middle girl, Sharon, decided one day that living with her boyfriend was in her best interest. Sharon is twenty-one years old, so obviously, it’s her call. She didn’t announce it. She was very afraid of what her grandparents would think about such a scandalous maneuver.

“Dad, I’m going to see Jose,” Sharon said a few weeks ago, and it was normal for her to yell this to me through my office door in the afternoon. It was only after Anna came home from school and went upstairs to change that I was informed Sharon had packed half of her belongings and taken them with her. Anna’s reaction was mixed. Of course, this meant that Anna would be getting her own room again, not having to share, but she seemed to be inwardly concerned about what scandal the sudden move of her sister might bring. After all, her sister had just moved out and then in with the boyfriend.

By the time Rocio arrived home from work, picked up and delivered here by Juan, she already knew. I was curious about their reactions. Juan, predictably, had very little to say about it. Home from getting shot at and bombed and watching people with which he served die or get injured in a country he had never before dreamt of stepping foot in, his response was vacant, without concern or contempt.

“Yeah, yeah,” was all he had to say.

Rocio yawned. “She’d better behave better there than over here or he’ll throw her out on her ass.”

I continued to prepare dinner. I knew that Rocio’s parents were coming down the hill, but I mostly never have any notion of precisely how many are coming for dinner. This is the occupational hazard, so to speak, of cooking in Mexico. People show up. Répondez s'il vous plaît? It never happens. I came out and confronted the four already present and accounted for, Juan, Juan’s very silent girlfriend Bibi, Anna, and Rocio.

“How many are coming tonight?”

All looked at each other until Juan started counting.

“Twelve,” he told me.

I arched an eyebrow at him.

“The five of us, my grandparents, and three of my friends,” he said.

“That’s ten,” I reminded him.

Rocio chimed in, “Sharon and her boyfriend are coming over. She called Juan and wanted to talk to me at ten o’clock.”

“You’ll be asleep by then,” I reminded her. “Besides, she doesn’t dictate when she talks to you now, you dictate it.”

“I had Juan tell her,” Rocio said. “She’ll be here between eight and nine.”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out forty dollars and handed it to Juan. “Tomorrow, I want you to run to the hardware store and buy a new set of front locks,” I said. Everyone looked at me, as though I needed to explain.

“If you live here, you live by my rules. That’s your passport and your visa. If you decide to declare independence and leave, then I revoke your visa. Your new visa is the telephone, you call and ask to come over like anyone else.”

There was silence and no reaction, nothing but a slight edginess hung almost ornamentally, anticipating some closure.

“Hey, look. This house is my country, my country and my rules,” I concluded. I went back into the kitchen and continued cooking.

* * * *

In 1810, Mexico was still referred to as New Spain, even though the French had, by then, managed to occupy Spain and subsequently decided that by default it should also govern what is now Mexico and what was then a Spanish possession - albeit sacked of its gold and silver. Napoleon, that short genius-bastard of military maneuvers, unrequited love, and unwise political leanings, installed his brother Joseph as the new king of Spain, deposing Spain’s Ferdinand VII. While Napoleon was busy deposing and installing in Europe, a priest named Miguel Hidalgo and a few close friends were conspiring to bring Ferdinand over to New Spain and install him as emperor. The idea was to have him cut ties with Spain and implement a system that did not exploit the indigenous people of Mexico. They targeted December as a good time to execute the plan.

Unfortunately, they were ratted out, and most considered going underground to avoid being captured and tried for treason. Hidalgo had other ideas. After having six or seven dozen inmates sprung from the local jail, on the morning of September the sixteenth he rang the church bells and the people gathered in the small town of Dolores in Guanajuato. This is part of what he told them: “Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!”

The gachupines were the Spaniards, born in Spain, who arrived in New Spain and claimed land away from the indigenous. Within a couple of years, they caught and tried Hidalgo for treason and executed him and his friends. Others took over the cause, also tried and executed, until almost eleven years after the initial grito de Delores, Mexico had finally won its independence. It took another hundred years to arrive at a revolution, and finally, to the point that Mexico enjoys currently. The gritos have evolved over the years to include paying respects to not only Hidalgo, but to Zapata and Villa and Carranza and Juarez and Madero and so on.

Sometimes, I reckon, independence isn’t achieved as planned, but rather happens as a consequence of launching a tirade that culminates in getting the job done in spite of auspicious beginnings. None of the celebrations proceeding such events tend to dwell on the facts; they tend to accentuate the results. Independence is independence, in any case. Our circumstance exceeds its history. Stellar!

Mexico wanted to install a Spanish King, but instead settled for democracy!

* * * *

So, Sharon did stop by that night, after dinner but before Rocio went to bed. I was called out of the kitchen and I talked to Sharon, wisdom or advice that went unheard. I told her that she should marry rather than simply move in with Jose. I told her that such a contract was emotional insurance more than anything. She didn’t want to hear it. I left her and Rocio to battle it out.

Sharon left abruptly, I was outside with Juan and his friends drinking a beer and enjoying the evening breeze. I went back inside to find Rocio packing it in for the night.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She blames me,” Rocio laughed. “Apparently, she’s leaving because of me.”

“It’s an excuse,” I said. “She didn’t have the balls to simply leave, it has to be someone’s fault. She’s twenty-one now, she’s responsible for her own actions. Even when she thinks that she isn’t.”

“I know. I’m going to bed,” Rocio said.

And so, this was Independence Day for Sharon. She has been back one time since, sitting aloof in the stairway, observing what she was once a part of. When she left that evening, Rocio smiled at me. Sharon was certainly the problem child. The problem now lives somewhere else.

“I can leave my purse downstairs now,” Rocio said.

“And I don’t have to cram my money in my robe when I get up,” I added.

We would have danced in the living room, except that there was a somber note over the heads of the rest of the family. Sharon had stolen hundreds of dollars from my pants pockets, even some from Juan when he was on leave here. Anna has certainly had her issues with her sister. But we were required to keep our heads hung low, at least for a while. And so we have.

We behave as expected, after all.

* * * *

Daniel never showed that night, the fifteenth of September, so I left the Dandy and wandered down Sixth street and ate very bad Chinese food. This was, I reckoned, my way of bearing a cross, in that stale egg rolls and sub-par chow mein (without a hint of fried noodles) is my way of flogging myself. After that, I wandered back down the street and fired up my camera. I caught a taxi. “Por el Palacio,” I told the driver.

He looked back at me. “¿Sabes cuanto gente va estár allá?”

Yes, I know how many people are there. Thousands. Just take me and drop me as close as you can. I can walk. I like to walk. We’ll get through this. Fifty pesos.

And he dropped me smack in the middle of everything, it was easy. I wandered, camera ready, a sack of beer in tow, watched closely by law enforcement, but never approached. The six pack was for later, at home, but they could have kicked me out for carrying it in there. No one approached me. Music blared through giant speakers.

I tried to get a perch up on the bridge, but they kept kicking us off of it. I stumbled around in the designated area, waiting for something to happen. I wandered out onto the grass, watching a young mother play with her kid. The bridge was filling up again, so I went back up there, and they stopped trying to remove us. The place below filled up quickly. It was packed.

I thought about Sharon, watching the gritos from such a distance that I couldn’t hear them. People around me made up their own gritos, and other people joined in. That is how independence is, then. You make it up as you go. Nothing ever goes as planned, after all. You improvise.

I got home and Rocio actually awoke and came downstairs.

“How did it go?” she asked.

“I didn’t enjoy it, too many people,” I said.

She nodded. “That’s why I don’t go anymore. It’s different when it’s small, but it gets out of hand in a place like this.”

She went back to bed and Juan came home and told me that he was moving out.

“With some friends. We found a nice place in Aguas Calientes, seven hundred per month. I pay two hundred, but I have a big room.”

So now, Juan is declaring independence, too.

“You’re going to break your mother’s heart, you know,” I told him.

“Dad, I’ll be over here every Sunday for dinner,” he said.

Rocio asked me this evening if we should rent a smaller place now.

“Not yet,” I said. “These kids could be right back here in a few weeks. I don’t think that independence becomes permanent for a good while. It took eleven years in Mexico. It might take longer for these kids.”

After a while, I wandered up to bed and smiled as Rocio started snoring. Independence is a funny thing. As a kid, you crave it, as a teenager and a young adult, you practice it, and then once you hit thirty or so, you realize that it’s either overrated or misrepresented. Maybe that’s why Hidalgo’s original plan involved Ferdinand VII. Maybe that’s why I have a funny feeling that my kids will be back home again sometime soon.

Maybe independence is more a state of mind than a state of being.