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.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Of Soil And Blood

Call me Prometheus. That brilliant, hot, burning orb in the sky was trying to kill me one week ago, but this week there is a marine layer saving me from melting. So, I stole that fire and now cook with it, instead. I buy liters of tequila for three dollars and fifty cents each and dare that eagle to eat my liver, Zeus be damned. Baja wipes clean all imperfections that were perhaps meant for higher purposes and achievement was met with some sort of failure, and someday I will also be unceremoniously erased and purged accordingly.

This is what happens.

There is a tiny little store on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz that sells, among other things, the best avocados in the universe. You could walk by it, blink a couple of times, and never have known that you passed it by, what with the shoe store and internet cafe and taco stand there, so many distractions. And young, beautiful girls in sundresses and sandals, taxis and buses of every size and color, noise, the smells of gorditas on the griddle and the busy bakery nearby bakes six times per day, heaven exists in your nose. The pace is neither frantically intense nor slovenly pedantic, but rather steady and secure and flowing like a large, relaxed river.

The daily circuit I complete often includes that little store with the avocados, but always includes the supermarket across the street from it and then the convenience store back on the south side of Diaz Ordaz. I took Anna with me on Sunday to the fish market first, and there was a nasty crash in the intersection with three automobiles looking as though a bulldozer got aggressive and bullied them into complete submission to the law of physics where a body in motion meets another body in motion and, well, metal isn't always as strong as it looks. No one seemed to be injured, although on our way back from the fish market, an ambulance and a fire truck had just arrived on the scene.

In the supermarket, we spent perhaps ten minutes on procuring supplies, and when we left to cross the intersection, there was no trace of anything from that accident. "How long were we in the store, anyway?" asked Anna.

"Ten minutes. It's like rain, it doesn't take long in Baja to wipe away a mess. Like when some bad guys kill some other bad guys, it just goes away quickly," I said.

All that Anna could do was to nod.

* * * *

It is the same dirt and the same rocks, separated by a big metal fence and an almost infinite amount of misplaced ideology. It wasn't that long ago when people swore allegiance to Kings and Queens, not dirt, not rocks, and certainly not ideology. A few hundred years later, and here we are, aligning ourselves according to jus soli and jus sanguinis; soil and blood. Thanks for that, France and Germany.

So, when a few months ago my sister-in-law and her husband - both Mexican Nationals with visas in their passports that allow them to travel into the United States of America in order to enjoy that country within a certain number of kilometers from the border without further permissions - decided to have their baby over there in Chula Vista, California, I announced that to a few hundred close friends. Some people seem to be sensitive to Mexicans having babies in the United States of America. This surprised me greatly. After all, the dirt and the rocks are no different there than they are here.

"Great, more illegals having babies in our country," came one reply.

"Mexicans are taking advantage of our health care system," wrote someone else.

Of course, Mexico has free health care, but it's difficult to convince some people who see a difference in the rocks and dirt of one place and the rocks and dirt of another place - separated by a short walk - to the contrary. But it's true. Anyone holding a job in Mexico is covered. Anyone not holding a job in Mexico will still be able to find free medical services should the need arise. And anyone who wishes can also pay for private health care at their leisure. Mexico is quite an accommodating country.

Little Daniela was born over there and after a couple of weeks, my sister-in-law, who is a licensed and practicing psychologist here in Baja, along with her husband, brought my niece back into Baja in order to enjoy a wonderful Mexican childhood here. Why bother having the baby in the United States of America? It costs less to have a baby over there than it does to obtain the necessary paperwork so that Daniela might visit the relatives of my sister-in-law's husband in Los Angeles. Imagine that.

All of this over dirt and rocks.

* * * *

The supermarkets, on the weekends, have taken to offering free grilling of whatever meat you purchase from them, and they perform this at the entrance to their stores. This is genius. While I prefer to grill my own meat, thanks anyway, the smell of that carne asada is fabulous. More nose candy, as if we needed any more. It makes me reconsider my menu offerings every time I pass by.

It has been so very seldom in my two decades here that anyone has ever said, "Hey, gringo, go back to your own Goddamn country." I can, in fact, count those number of times on one hand. All occurred in someone else's drunken moment. The cantineras always defended me and shushed the protester quickly. "How can you tolerate that bastard?" someone would always ask.

"Dirt and rocks," I would say, but meaning, of course, soil and blood.

So that when I pass by that supermarket, and the smell of carne asada enters my nose, it enters their noses as well. We share that. We share the dirt and the rocks, too. Except that some can't cross some nebulous fence because apparently the dirt and rocks are worth substantially more north of Mexico. My idea, then, is to set up a bunch of grills right on the border and toss on some of that thinly sliced marinated meat, just like they do at the supermarkets here on the weekends.

That'll shut a lot of people up.

* * * *

My son, Mexican born and raised, ultimately graduated high school in the United States of America. He then joined the American armed forces and enjoyed what must've been a terrific time in Iraq, and after six years came home and knocked up his lovely girlfriend. The American dream. He has made me a grandfather, for the second time. I have yet to meet my grandson, named Azael (no idea about the name), but in perhaps another week they'll be able to bring the boy into Mexico knowing that they have the papers to take him back across when they need to. Both parents are U.S. citizens, by the way, the Army gifted my son with citizenship in exchange for fixing their tanks and watching his Army buddies get their heads blown off.

Some claim that the current rate of exchange is a little over twelve pesos to the dollar. It isn't. It is citizenship in exchange for several dead pals and the vacation of a lifetime, complete with people shooting at you or otherwise trying to kill you with explosives. It is the soles of your boots melting on the turret platform while fixing a broken machine in exchange for a pass to cross over into a country you really don't care to live in. It is crossing the international border into the United States of America and being led away in handcuffs because the jerk checking your military identification decides you're lying in exchange for some other jerk checking your claim of citizenship six years later.

Funny that I received not one message concerning the birth of Azael as I did concerning the birth of Daniela.

I think that Prometheus had the right idea, and simply did not execute properly. I will endeavor to teach this lesson to young Azael, teach him to curse when appropriate, and encourage him to also rebel against authoritarianism at every opportunity. I will tell him stories about his father. I will ensure that this young boy understands that dirt and rocks matter not. If I am lucky, and if he is fortunate, then one less person will see the stupid border as a division of soil and blood, and see it for what it is; a duplicitous rite of passage.

The other option, and perhaps the only other option, is to wait for that rain to quickly wash everything away.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Requeim For A Fellow Cynic

"A cynic is just a disgruntled idealist." ~ Ian Orteza, 2006

* * * *

I was born in San Diego, California, in the United States of America in nineteen hundred and sixty-one. My father was in the Navy and we lived in a very small apartment just east of Lindburgh Field. With no money for anything more, my parents rented that place because they couldn’t afford anything better. Jet airliners screamed overhead, merely hundreds of feet above our heads. My parents told me that even before I could walk and talk that they would carry me outside and when those loud flying machines would come tearing up the sky above, in for a landing, I would point up to those monsters and stare in wonder and smile. One natural fear we are born with is the fear of loud noises, and apparently I had missed out in getting that memo. It was therefore no surprise to my parents I would wind up somehow involved in aerospace at one point in my life.

And so it goes, I was involved in the shock and awe business when I met Ian Orteza.

I left aerospace at around the same time that Ian left the United Nations. Ian found it ironic that the U.N. would even have offices in Geneva. "When you enter Switzerland, and you present them with your U.N. passport, they look at you and say, ‘Right, show us your real passport.’ And they act like you’ve insulted them," he once told me. Ian also held a Filipino passport. Geneva honored it.

Another irony: Ian worked in war reparations, while I worked in making the hardware creating the necessity for that reparation job. We acknowledged this several times. We figured that if we kept it going that we would simply keep each other in business. Like true cynics, we decided that since people would kill each other anyway, there might as well be the means to an end, and inversely, the end to a means. The dog could wag the tail or the tail could wag the dog. Our reading glasses would simply slide down the end of our noses and we would enter numbers on a spreadsheet that ultimately makes everything balance out for everyone else.

This is what happens.

* * * *

The internet was so shiny and brand new, there wasn’t even a glimpse of a social networking site. Meredith’s place was hand-coded, and she had a threadless forum, and that’s where I met Ian, along with Sammy and Heath and Michael and Gina and Terry and Chris, and a host of people I still know to this very moment. Ian brought in Katriona, too. So, for a good few years, I would get to work and wonder what everyone was up to, and daily we would post something in there, and from those comments we learned much about each other. How we all wound up on Meredith’s site, well, I imagine the universe attracts misfits to a certain point on its own accord.

I considered us all explorers.

After a couple of years, then, it came as no great surprise that some would venture forward in order to expand their knowledge and to experience another place. Sammy and Ian both flew in to San Diego so I went up to meet them there and to bring them back into my world. If I had it to do all over again, perhaps we would have unwound down in Popotla. But we were young and they were single and the nightlife of Tijuana was too good to pass up. We grabbed it, because we had to. It was an ice-cold beer right in front of us. Or perhaps, a mountain to be climbed. And so we did.

"The church of the naked Madonna’s," Ian called it, the premiere strip joint in Tijuana at the time. We had fun there, but we didn’t stay long. We weren’t interested in hookers. The reference, obviously, was toward what we would experience the next day - the big giant Jesus; or as I called it then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. We went up there and played around with that statue even before it was mounted on the dome where it now rests. I don’t know where Ian’s photos wound up, but the photographic angles up into the lattice were amazing. He was amazing.

Ian Orteza died last week, in his sleep. This World weighs far less today than it did when he was alive. I didn’t cry the day that Ian died, it took me a couple of days, but then I did finally bawl like a hungry child. I got real mad at God. I still am. So, apparently, God is a cynic, too. You’re in good hands then, Ian. Put in a kind word for me, I reckon I’ll need it.

* * * *

There is a depth to some men that surpasses anyone’s ability to ever reach the bottom, and that was Ian. Somewhere in there, a vast chasm of patient knowledge and lasting wisdom resided, and you could sit with him and wait and prod him and maybe you would get lucky and this soft-spoken man would open up. Rocio got mad at Sammy and me, that if perhaps we would just shut up every once in a while that she could hear Ian. After the first night of drunken foolishness, I took Ian and Sammy up the street and we ate tacos de birria because there isn’t a much better way to quell a hangover. And because, after all, birria tastes wonderful.

"This place is a lot like the Philippines," Ian said, cupping his taco masterfully above the plate.

And of course, we went to Caliente, because there is so much history there, Seabiscuit and others, it was at one time – along with Tanforan – the only track on the West Coast. I have pictures somewhere of Ian and Sammy in the old rusted starting gates, until a security guard tried to take a bribe for me taking those photos. I talked my way out of it, like I’m prone to do. We went to the old cinco y diez bridge and took more photos. Then, the Church of the Big Giant Jesus. And so on.

Ian brought me a gift from Katriona, it was a pocket knife with my name engraved on the side. My gift to her, then, was a machete. It was engraved with images of harvesting agave. Fitting, since I’m sitting here drinking tequila. And so, Ian wrote me, "She sleeps with it," and you know how I felt about that. Maybe there are no other four words that are more erotic than those words are. Ian knew. No man writes those words and doesn’t know what they mean to another man. And no woman sleeps with a sword and doesn’t know what it means to the man the sword came from.

* * * *

Ian’s talents were not limited to writing. He sketched a comic strip for some time, called "Orgasmic Chill". Basically, feet out of the bottom of the bed. That’s all we are as lovers, really. He knew. It was so completely clever. It was so completely human.

Ian climbed mountains. Maybe in more ways than Mother Nature set forth, Ian decided that there were more important things to do than to wait for some nefarious challenge from God. I never wondered for a minute why he climbed, I knew. Just like he never wondered how I wound up in Mexico. It’s my own mountain. To Ian’s mother: Your son was my brother. Maybe not in blood, but certainly in spirit. To Ian’s daughter: I cannot be your father, but I will be your friend, perhaps one day you’ll have a question that only a father could answer.

Ian was not the person who inspired me to write; he was the first person to encourage me. I wrote a piece on Christopher Columbus and Ian loved it. If you like what I write, then thank Ian, otherwise I imagine I wouldn't have bothered. It was, I reckon, my own mountain. And, you know, Ian just told me to do it. Sammy will undoubtedly love this next thing:

"There's nothing to mourn about death any more than there is to mourn about the growing of a flower. What is terrible is not death but the lives people live or don't live up until their death. They swallow God without thinking, they swallow country without thinking. Soon they forget how to think, they let others think for them. Their brains are stuffed with cotton. They look ugly, they talk ugly, they walk ugly. Play them the great music of the centuries and they can't hear it. Most people's deaths are a sham. There's nothing left to die."

~ Charles Bukowski, The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, 1998

And Ian, Bukowski would be proud of you. You did live your life and you never swallowed anything without tasting it first. I can’t imagine that you ever believed anything without examining it first, that is the way of us cynics, isn’t it? For you, whatever is there once we’re gone, if wings are given out in heaven, I can’t imagine you flying until you’ve had a good chance to evaluate those feathers. And then, once you’re convinced, I can’t imagine that you’ll ever land again. Some people were born to fly. You are certainly one of those people, my brother. I will miss you so very much, and it’s entirely possible I’ll never love another man as much as I loved you. I will happily take what part of you you’ve given to me to my grave, and everything I write from here and there, well, you have always been a part of it. Enjoy your vacation, Ian, I hope to see you again some day.