In the hippie times it was said that LSD picked you up by the scruff of the neck and shoved your face into what you were. Today most of my acid is of the reflux variety, but I have need of my fair share of age appropriate drugs, Xanax, Cialis, the better painkiller. That was one reason I was going to Tijuana, where just beyond the graspy reach of Big Pharma, pills are sold over the counter at a third of the price, just like in a civilized country.
Tijuana has always been that paragon of border towns, with its own mystery as a transition point between paradigms like day and night, life and death, and that bridge over the Bien Hai River the NVA kept blowing up in the DMZ. I could barely recall my previous visit to the place more than forty years before other than getting pie-eyed drunk on tequila, watching the Godfather in Spanish in the lobby of the Nelson Hotel on the Avenida de Revolucion, and how it felt when we came out to find a jagged crack across the windshield of our rental car. That was when Tijuana seemed to exist for no other reason than for USC frat boys to come and act the fool. Now most Americans cross the border to go to the dentist because they can’t afford to get their teeth fixed in the land of the free.
The population of NAFTA era TJ is pushing two million, sprawling east into the desert and down the coast. Toyota, Microsoft, Airbus, GE, Samsung and the other multi-national companies that run the maquiladora factories pay about $500 a month, enough to keep that sucking sound Ross Perot used to talk about slurping. During the early 2000s members of the so-called Tijuana Cartel shot the place up. But even if things have settled down a bit, TJ’s border town mystique persists. Standing on the line to pass through immigración I was thinking of a little known low budget sci-fi flick, Sleep Dealer, made in 2008.
In this version of near future dystopia, Tijuana is the single biggest city on earth. Fifty million now live on the border, many of whom have spent their life savings on black market operations to have socket-like “nodes” implanted into their skin. Called Sleep Dealers these desperate souls work in vast factory halls where they are connected via their “nodes” to far distant robots who perform menial jobs and services in America, depicted as a insular land of interbred white people surrounded by a towering wall. Labor without workers, it is a oligarch’s wet dream. These win-win economics, however, do not extend to the Sleep Dealers who eventually lose their minds from interface overload, but that’s just business.
Apocalyptic fantasies aside, all these years later, Tijuana’s “Centro,” the old tourist district, didn’t seem all that different from my sketchy memory. The hookers and such have been confined to an officially designated Red Light District but hawkers selling masks worn by Mexican lucha libre wrestling heroes continued to beckon. Men in white pharmacist gowns chase you down the street, claiming to have the lowest priced generic Viagra in town. The Nelson Hotel was still there too, with its dingy but durable 1930’s lobby and ancient elevator. Seized by a nag of irrepressible Memory (past 65, memory is always spelled with the upper case), I sat down on one of the creased leather chairs and got a coffee.
After a few moments, a wrinkled, graying man wearing a yellow guayabera sat beside me. Today was my lucky day, he said. “Oh, yeah,” I said, wise to the ways of border town pitchmen.
No, the man who said to call him Roberto, rejoined in an idiosyncratic Spanglish, today really was my lucky day. I was about to make the acquaintance of a totally unique individual, “un unico en su clase…one of a kind… a treasure.” The fact was, Roberto claimed, that he was the only man on earth who had been born in Tijuana and had lived there his entire life.
“Setenta y cinco anos en TJ!,” Roberto said, claiming to have never left his home town for more than a day at a time. That him “unique absolutamente.”
I was waiting for Roberto to go into whatever con job he had no doubt perfected, but it never came. So, after a moment, we fell into casual, if fractured, conversation, just two older men chatting. The topic eventually, inevitably, turned to politics.
I asked Robert what he thought about Donald Trump and the wall he planned to build at the edge of his border town home.
“Ah, Trump y su pared,” Roberto said wearily. “In TJ we know Donald Trump.”
Roberto told me about the Trump Ocean Resort, the 27-story luxury hotel/condo the then future President announced he would build on beachfront at Playas de Tijuana. This was back in 2006 and Trump was seeking to cash in on the rising class of new wealth brought about by NAFTA, which he now derides as “the worst deal in history.” The 2008 crash put the kabosh on plans for the 526 room complex. Further problems arose when prospective resident/investors found out that their deposits, as much as $300,000, would be non-refundable. This resulted in many lawsuits, “muchos demanda judicial,” Roberto reported. Trump, his son Donald Jr. and Ivanka were sued. The Trump side argued that while the developer had appeared in videos pitching the project that bore his name, and personally met with many of the buyers to indicate that the resort would be up to his standards, he was merely “a spokesman” and should therefore be held blameless. The lawsuits were settled by Trump in 2013.
“La gente, they think, oh, Donald Trump, que es muy famoso, muy rico. So I should give him my money. His wife is so sexy, his car so big, I owe him this money. Then it goes wrong and Trump, he says, `no me culpes! Don’t blame me!’ He gets on his plane and goes.” Roberto paused and shook his head. “How do rich people stay rich? Mamones!…Imbeciles!”
This was why he was not worried about Trump’s wall, Roberto said. “Fuck la pared, fuck Trump!” Roberto said. Trump would talk and talk, he could put his name as many concrete slabs as he wanted. But in the end it would wind up just like the Trump Ocean Resort, an illusion, one more sucker’s bet. Roberto had spent a life on the border, he could tell a grifter a mile away. Besides, he said, “Trump es muy feo.” His wife said the President looked like a toad.
“El Americo feo,” I said. “The Ugly American.”
It was unclear if my fellow conversationalist knew the 1958 best-seller, The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick from where the phrase gained its currency (Brando starred in the film) but there was something in the expression that stopped Roberto cold.
“I see plenty ugly Americans long before Donald Trump,” Roberto said bluntly. “I will see many more after he goes.” With that he shook my hand, got up, and exited the lobby.
This was a good time go home, so I hailed a cab to take me back to the border. In this, I’d have to be on my toes; after all, everyone knows about Tijuana taxi men. It’s a game: they try to take you, you try not to be taken.
It is another thing about being old, the way these seemingly incongruous memories intercede. Sitting down in a Tijuana taxi, my mind slipped to the Summer Of Love, 1967. While everyone else I knew in New York was “splitting for the Coast,” (aka California) I remained in the old home town, working as a porter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Instead of flowers in my hair, I got a steam press of Greyhound Bus exhaust. Then, as now, the cabs lined up on the Eighth Avenue side. But there were other cabbies, the independent sort, who hung around on backside of the station, on Ninth Avenue. One of these guys was a balding, smirking guy who thought nothing of introducing himself as “Jack the Gyp.” The first week I was working there, Jack the Gyp called me aside. He said, more or less, “if you got the bags of a tourist, or anyone who doesn’t speak English going to the airport, bring them to me and I’ll give you 10 percent.” No doubt some exotic routing to La Guardia was employed, not that I thought much about this until the day Jack said, “you know, one day they’re going to put my face on television, and half the old ladies in New York are going to shout `that’s him!’”
With that in mind, having once driven a taxi myself, I knew that the thing to look for in Tijuana was how the drivers always said they didn’t have any change. They drive around all day, collecting dollars and pesos, but when a gringo hands them any denomination over a dollar, they never have any change. They figure, you’re going back over the border, you’ll just say fuck it and give them the money.
This situation came up on my ride. The guy told me it would be “five bucks,” which seemed reasonable except, having just stopped by the ATM, I only had twenties. It was obvious what might happen next: I’d give him the twenty, he’d say he had no change, we’d argue a bit, and then, in a fit of pique I’d give him the bill just to get rid of the guy. I wasn’t going for that.
The plot thickened when I located a ten balled up in the front pocket of my jeans. Having likely gone through a wash cycle or two, the bill was not in mint condition. It felt shabby, Alexander Hamilton’s face worn thin, like onion skin. This would not be a problem in the U.S. But as I knew from experience, people in other, less fortunate, countries don’t like to take damaged paper.
I’d already decided how to handle it. If he said he had change, I’d give him a crisp twenty. If he claimed to have no change, he got the beat-up ten. It might take him a while to slip the bill off to some other unsuspecting so-and-so, but he’d be able to do it. In any event he would have ten dollars for a five dollar ride, double his money. Considering the circumstances this seemed a ethically sound solution.
Reaching the border, the predictable occurred. I asked him my question, he offered an exaggerated expression of contrition, said, “no. Lo siento, no cambio.” So he got the ten. At first glance, he looked pleased. But then, after I got out, he began honking the horn, pointing urgently to the bill’s missing corner. It wasn’t a big chunk, but a chunk nonetheless.
I looked up and shrugged, like I had no idea what he was talking about; it was an easy situation in which to play dumb. The driver cursed me and with a squeal of balding tires on the broken pavement, drove off.
I stood there a good long moment, looking around. In this small clash with the tricky Other, I’d emerged victorious. But border towns can be deceiving. You can rely on the myth, or you can open your eyes and see the scuffle of the place, the precariousness of life on the edge. That cab driver might have had a dozen children and very sickly wife. Either way, the playing field was not level, not that there was anything to do about it now.
It was a snap to get back across the border. Five minutes or less, no delay at all. On the way into Mexico the lines were backed up, it took hours to get through. Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?
Driving up to San Diego, I was still thinking about all those ugly Americans Roberto said he’d seen in a lifetime at the border. He could now add another to the list, but he already knew that. It was one more thing to know, over here on the claustrophobic side of 68: the later the game gets, the more critical every play seems to be. Down the stretch, you couldn’t afford to give up even a single karma point. God only knows where the tipping point resides.
By the time I got back to San Diego where I was staying with my sister in the wryly named neighborhood of Normal Heights, my anxieties over the incident had faded. Anderson Cooper was on TV, talking about Trump’s travel ban, how KGB agents fixed the election. Like just how insane could this Propecia guzzling chief executive be? That was a relief, getting a better bead on who the truly ugly one was once again.