refriedgringo

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Anatomy Of A Blown Fuse



"Be careful," I said, except that all of our conversations take place in Spanish. Ernesto was attempting to remove the breaker that probably hadn’t been replaced since the house was built. Decades, I imagine.

Ernesto laughed. "Don’t worry. Are you afraid of electricity?"

"Only when there’s current involved."

Electricity is still a magical and often downright dangerous idea if you ask me. A couple of months ago, the neighborhood experienced an outage that lasted for a good half-hour. This sometimes happens in Baja, and likely happens anywhere in the world. Perhaps a transformer blows somewhere or maybe there is an overload of some type or perhaps there is a line down. It’s completely out of our hands. We endure it, and once power is restored we reset the clocks and continue as if nothing had happened.

In the past few weeks, we began to experience a lot more outages than usual. For a minute sometimes or perhaps five minutes other times, the electricity would cease to run the lights and other machinery in the house accustomed to sucking that invisible juice we sometimes take for granted. I blamed it on anything from the wind to some nebulous occurrence at the local Baja Power Company. The electricity always came back. I had no reason not to trust my suspicions.

A couple of weeks ago on a Saturday, the power went out again and I stepped away from the computer and took that as a quirky sign of opportunity knocking to call my parents, the telephone still worked. The power was off for almost an hour, then came back for a few minutes and then went out again. Fifteen minutes later, electricity was restored. I remember telling my dad, "Hey, it’s Mexico, what are you going to do? We live with it."

Last Sunday, I was supposed to cook the usual large dinner, people were coming over. Rocio’s parents were very early, they enjoy playing card games with Anna sometimes. The power had gone out again when they arrived, so I took Anna and we set off to the market to buy ingredients. As we passed a neighbor who was outside and working on his motorcycle - as is customary in Mexico - we exchanged greetings and I mentioned something about the electricity being out.

"My electricity is fine," he said.

I looked at Anna and we headed back to the house, we had a problem.

* * * *


Sometimes life is a wonderful thing, filled with much promise and beauty and hope and amazing people and fantastic events and incredible sights and sounds and smells and tastes and so on. Other times, life is full of suck. The problem is that each day we wake up and get dressed and live life and we never know what we’re going to get out of it. Sometimes life serves up lots of cotton candy goodness, other times you receive nothing more than a side order of lemony misfortune.

The easiest thing to do is to say that everything happens for a reason; the hardest thing is to actually believe it.

During that long conversation with my father a couple of weeks ago when the power was out, We had the chance to talk about a lot - it was wonderful and he seems fine. The pneumonia is gone but there’s some sort of a heart valve issue. There will be a specialist. I reckon we’ll see what happens. The only thing I know for sure is that my phone bill will be enormous.

Whenever I get the chance to talk with my father I usually feel an overwhelming urge to catch up on the status of the extended family. I am the outcast, living on the other side of the big metal fence. I hear little news of any happenings. Sometimes cousins or aunts or uncles divorce or marry or have children or die and I might not hear about it for several years. The connection, then, is not so stable – a lot like prolonged outages.

The culpability is my own, for not asking more questions more often.

* * * *


I feed my parents information when important things happen here, usually by electronic mail. My letters are mostly short and to the point, I’ve never been much of a letter writer. Like my parents, I usually wait for an opportunity during a telephone call to break news about my extended family here. I did that during the conversation with my father, mentioning that my sister-in-law was expecting her and her husband’s first. She is several months along now, and while we had a scare last month that required a hospital visit she now appears to be fine.

It will not be an easy pregnancy, we all knew that from the start, but so far it is coming along well.

When my then twenty-year-old daughter arrived at home one evening many months ago and announced that she was pregnant, well, that was quite different. She was living in my house, and I had never met her boyfriend. I emailed my parents that evening and broke that news. Something that I had preached to all of my kids from a very early age was about pregnancy and condoms and being as foolproof-cautious as possible. Many times I embarrassed my wife a little by being so open and frank about it. Apparently, one of the kids didn’t listen.

I met her boyfriend the next evening, a fine young man, and told them both to marry, to give the child a chance at having a family, and they agreed that it was the most rational course because, after all, they were in love.

Two months later, she miscarried. Again, I emailed my parents, and it was my mother that responded with something about God’s will. I wouldn’t know about God’s will. The only conclusion that I had a chance at successfully reaching was that everything happens for a reason. Just don’t ask me if I believe that because even with the barrel of a gun at my forehead I couldn’t honestly answer.

One month after that, as though it were any other normal day, that daughter came downstairs and announced that she was going to visit her boyfriend. It was what she did every day since she had miscarried, farted around at home and then went to see her boyfriend. My sixteen-year-old then came home from school, went upstairs, came right back down and informed me that her sister’s belongings were gone. Even though she had just turned twenty-one, it upset her maternal grandparents greatly.

This prompted another email to my parents, and it was my father who joked about it being nothing more than one down and two to go.

* * * *


Last Sunday, I went out to the large bank of electrical meters controlling the block of houses we belong to – in this infonavit, like many others, the houses are not separated, and found our meter. Everyone else’s meters were moving. I found the single breaker controlling our electricity and poked it with a stick. I felt like a caveman. With pliers, handles coated with insulated rubber, I moved the switch up and down and then up. Rocio came out and informed me that the lights flickered and then went out.

On a Sunday afternoon with less than an hour of light remaining, I decided that the switch must be broken; I needed help at two levels.

I’ve wired heavy and high-voltage machinery, houses and build-outs, and understand electricity as well as anyone not formally trained to do so. But I have done this in the United States of America, not in Mexico. Everything is different here. On the other side of the big metal fence, 220 volts are usually run into house up there and then split into two poles of 110 volts. In Mexico, only one line of 110 volts enters the meter. And even if I dared to tackle whatever electrical voodoo was behind the breaker, where would I find a replacement at four in the afternoon on a Sunday?

That was when I called Ernesto, who came down the hill within about fifteen minutes. Between his crude tools and my own, he was into the box and pulling out the breaker within minutes – unafraid, knowing how it was wired and laughing at my notion of what safe electricity might be. He removed the top part of the breaker and unscrewed the clamp that held three wires, the only three wires that supplied electricity to the entire house. He handed me the breaker.



* * * *


My son arrived back home from his second and last tour in Iraq during his sister’s pregnancy, miscarriage, and departure from home. His response was measured; he neither approved what his sister had gotten herself into, nor defended her. His sister and her boyfriend are here almost every evening now, incidentally. It took a few weeks, but these things eventually smooth over.

Not even a month after his sister moved in with her boyfriend, my son moved out to live in a large house across town with friends and cousins. Apparently, the place is enormous, several bedrooms, three bathrooms, it is practically a mansion. He’s twenty-four years old now, his departure is no surprise what with having a girlfriend of many years and probably seeking privacy. He comes over almost every Sunday while I cook a large meal.

Obviously, my parents were told about that as well, but refrained from saying the obvious: Two down, one to go. This should leave just Rocio and Anna and me, but there is almost always someone else here in the afternoons and evenings, and especially over the weekends. And when Anna’s brother and sister show up, they relate news to us and us to them, much in the same way as I relate and gather such news when I call my parents. It is now an interrupted connection, one that lacks complete continuity.

This often brings surprises, leading to a blown fuse not unlike that of the breaker, and there is a lesson to be learned in all of this somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can come to terms with it.

It was Anna’s sister that showed up with her boyfriend the other evening, informing us that they have set wedding dates. The plural is intentional. Here in Mexico, the government does not recognize a church marriage as being official, and the church does not recognize a government marriage as occurring before the eyes of God. Two marriages must be performed here for all who wish a traditional church marriage and that the marriage be recognized by the government.

How about that for the separation of Church and State? How about that for a disconnected circuit?

* * * *


"Any idea where we can buy another breaker?" I asked Ernesto, but he already had his cell phone out and was dialing. I looked out into the Baja sky and guessed that we had a half-hour of daylight left. Meanwhile, my son and an electrician friend of his showed up as back-up. We didn’t need him, Ernesto was connected. He drove me up the hill.

"Remember the friend of mine that owns a hardware store, where you bought lumber for that ladder you built when you lived in Infonavit Latinos?" Ernesto asked.

"That was almost ten years ago," I said.

And as we chatted and drove up the hill I recalled that meeting. We brought a six pack of Tecate and I drank one waiting for Ernesto to talk with him inside of the house while I was out back in the small lumber yard, looking over used lumber. It was closed. A table saw mesmerized me. The table saw wasn’t hooked up electrically. Connected to the where the motor of the saw should have been was a drive shaft that was connected to a transmission connected to an old Ford straight-six engine. I had wished for a camera, it was one of the most magnificent contraptions I had ever seen.

Ernesto and the proprietor came out and we shared a beer. I asked about the saw, and he told me that he kept blowing out electric motors on the saw. Finally he remembered that he had a working engine and a transmission and decided to give it a try. He demonstrated it, cutting through a railroad tie and it was impressive. No, it was amazing.

"It’s a lot quicker when I put a good blade in it. But this wood often has too many nails," he told me that day.

Sunday late afternoon Ernesto pulled up and the proprietor was awaiting us, ten years later. I went inside of his electrical shop, a wonderful mess of components that only he knew the order of. We chatted briefly. He pointed at my now-gray beard and we laughed.

"No son los años, son los kilometros de viaje," I tell him, not my age, but the kilometers of travel.

He laughs, pulling out the correct breaker, and I pay him the required four dollars plus a two-dollar tip, and I bid him farewell, maybe for ten more years. With ten minutes of daylight left, we race back down the hill. Having seen it pulled, I could install it, but I want to pay Ernesto for his time and I refused to reconsider his protests to the contrary. Just as dusk applies that last fatal chokehold of the afternoon to the sun, we have electricity again and it is finished.

* * * *


One thing I have learned in life is this: It is never finished. It was too late to cook and now there were over a dozen hungry people entertaining themselves in various ways, so Rocio ordered some pizza and then sent her newly engaged daughter and her future son-in-law out to get some roasted chicken. Meanwhile, my son had returned with his girlfriend of many years. Within a few minutes, he told me the six words I have come to hear all too often as of late.

"Dad, there’s something I have to tell you."

He didn’t even have to tell me because the moment he opened his mouth I knew. But he did have to tell me because, after all, he’s my son and he’s always faced his problems head on. Even when he knew I would blow my fuse. He had knocked up his girlfriend, who embarrassingly sat next to him while he told me. After having preached birth control to him since his first day of high school, he felt he owed me the respect of telling me before anyone else could tell me. What he said next, innocently and without forethought, brought just enough humor into it to make the evening turn out okay.

"I don’t understand how it happened."

"Do you need me to explain it to you, son?"

The laughter and synchronized arrival of the pizza and chicken along with the beer we drank drowned out any misgivings over everything, at least at the moment. But there are some wrinkles to be ironed out. He wants to marry her but she won’t because he didn’t ask her before she was pregnant. Silly girl. Marry the bastard, you were okay sleeping with him before he asked you to marry him. But, they will do what they will do. I will be a grandfather again, regardless.

The other problem? She lives in and wants to remain in the United States of America. My son, now a U.S. citizen after serving six years in the armed forces, wants to live in Mexico. I don’t blame him. I reckon I don’t blame her, either. But that precarious connection, much like the fried breaker underneath my electrical meter, will have to be replaced at some point if they are going to last.

As for me, I have my own problems. Money is more than tight. I have a sister-in-law that’s going to have a baby and a daughter that is planning two weddings. And perhaps the most difficult thing is how to establish a connection with my parents and tell them about this without it sounding like I’m running a brothel down here. If I blow my fuse, do me a favor and get a hold of Ernesto, I’m sure that he’ll know what to do.

2 Comments:

Blogger bedellgeorge47 said...

That was some fine writing. You captured the whole, big, beautiful mess of the Baja ethos (a way of life that I hope never dies out) and flawlessly paired it with some of life’s grimmer and happier riddles. Well done.

Best,

George Bedell

8:55 PM, December 19, 2009  
Blogger tijuanagringo said...

Mmm hmmm. Enjoyed this story very very much. See you soon, creek willing and the God don't rise.

5:12 PM, December 30, 2009  

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