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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Shell Game

Over a decade ago, I found myself stumbling around in downtown Tijuana with a cup of coffee in my hand. It was in the early morning, before nine o’clock, before most Tijuanenses were out and about in that area. The wife and me, well, we were having issues so I was renting a cheap but very clean apartment down near the old police station, where I had no kitchen, just a bed and a dresser and a radio and a lot of time on my hands. Those were the days when I made a living playing the ponies. And I did, and I made rent and had plenty left over and certainly enough to get a cup of coffee.

I couldn’t sit still back in those days. This had to be on a Monday or a Tuesday morning, both dark days in terms of betting a track, in that the main tracks were not racing – otherwise, I would have already been at the race book plotting and scheming. So I walked down Avenida Constitución and sipped my coffee and watched the locals meander on their way to whatever. Keep in mind, these were still the salad days of Tijuana. This was before the twin towers fell, before the border became a Goddamn mess, it was a different place then than it is now.

The locals mostly just passed by and no one even looked up. Fish tacos, that cart was so amazing, the smells entered my nose and teased me, but my hangover told me to pass. Worst thing you can do with a hangover like mine was to eat on it. It’s like feeding a dragon, you don’t; let the beast sleep it off. The coffee was enough. The walk was good. And then it happened.

And then, magic tricks appeared and I was the target of a shell game.

* * * *

The sun here will not be denied an entrance. To hell with those places that has no sun! The sun is here. It is wonderful. Vitamin “D” for everyone. Welcome to Baja, pack some sunscreen. Yes, I know, it’s the middle of January. Suit yourself, but trust me, you’ll thank me later. It was eighty-five degrees today. If you get skin cancer, don’t blame me because I warned you in advance.

My days are full, lazy but full. The propane trucks are coming more early every day, and now it isn’t just honking but there’s recorded music, too! There is a jingle that I won’t bother to translate here, but basically the truck is singing a happy tune about enabling you to purchase a tank of propane. I suppose that the idea is twofold: be annoying in an entirely different way than to simply honk the horn, and attempt to make the purchase of a tank of propane gas some magical thing like a visit to Disneyland.

I roll out of bed, make some coffee, and write for a while, what else is there?

In the afternoon, I go shopping. I take my Calimax Club Card, as though it is an enchanted artifact. I buy ingredients to mix together for dinner. Sometimes I buy a bottle of tequila. When I go to pay for my items, they always ask for my magic card, because without it I might as well have entered the store naked. They scan the artifact and hand it back to me and at the end of everything I pay for the items and tip the person bagging my groceries and step back out into the hot sun. During my walk home, I imagine that if there is a God of transaction, then I have certainly done my part to make that God happy.

And then, once home, I peruse the receipt and learn that I saved sixty cents against a fifteen-dollar purchase.

Of course, I get even. I realize that the card is nothing more than a tool for the grocery chain to analyze purchases. People who buy a head of lettuce are likely to purchase two onions. Shoppers carting off a couple of pounds of ground sirloin are likely to add a package of hamburger buns and a bottle of catsup. And so on. And then there’s me. A bag of serranos, a jar of apple sauce, two pints of sour cream, a half-kilo of bacon, a liter of tequila, and a forty-watt light bulb. Good luck with that, Calimax.

That’s my own little shell game, patent pending.

* * * *

So maybe it was twelve or thirteen or fourteen years ago, and there it was, suddenly and unexpectedly, and they went way out of their way to pull me into it. The old man behind the cloth-covered crate fumbled while trying to hide the ball, giving away the location as if he had lost his magic touch. A twenty-dollar bill went down, some Mexican yanked it out of his pocket as though it was the most precious thing he owned, and he slapped it down on that temporary table as though his very life depended on his intuition. And there it was, the ball, right where he pointed. The crowd cheered.

The first thing I was amazed at? The twenty-dollar bill. Nine in the morning, and someone yanks a Jackson out of their pocket? In Tijuana? Sober? And then, of course, the game went on, and the few there were all in on it and obviously kept trying to urge me to donate to their cause. I knew better. After a few more twenty-dollar bills went down, successfully compensated, I told the one that was the most vocal that, unlike them, I didn’t walk out onto the street with the big money like they did. In halting Spanish. And they knew they were the ones that were had.

And they left, all of them, very upset, looking for tourists I imagine. Me? I was delighted. Free entertainment, the kind you couldn’t buy with twenty dollars anywhere. Anytime. That old man was a magician. He made things appear that should have been invisible.

* * * *

And so I read this morning that the tiny and precariously positioned country of Taiwan has fired some test missiles, ostensibly designed as a show of force and a means of defense against China. Apparently, almost a full third of those missiles declined to strike their intended targets, some of which boldly failing in full view of world media. That old man is right back at it. He fumbles that ball, damn it, he just can’t help it, and you know where it’s at and someone is urging you to plunk down a twenty and make a wager. The United States of America is the mark, right? Simple stupid, stupid simple.

I know - I shouldn’t read World News but it’s the same damned story. I could live every one of my last days in Tijuana and never part another newspaper and I wouldn’t be missing a thing. It’s all just a shell game. The minute you don’t play is the minute you start to get smart. Next time you swipe that Club Card, do humanity a favor, buy some dog food, a flash light, and a can of corn. You’ll screw the game sideways and it isn’t like you’re not going to use those items in the long run. After all, the moment you plunk down the money, that old man is going to magically get his shell game back. But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

Tomorrow will again be hot. Do yourself a favor if you venture to Baja, and remember the sunscreen.


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