Long Road to Tucson.
Being Chapter one in the series: “The Only Way Was East”.
El sueño es más que processo
Nadie va rezar por mi
Dios no reina aqui
— West Marston
Franz took me east through the desert night of the Sonora. Throughout all our misadventures he’d been a faithful steed to me — and the devil knows I hadn’t been easy on him thus far. I ripped his front bumper off and tore out the radiator while speeding down a dirt alley in Lancaster. A motor belt broke off from wear and tear in Llano. His tires had gone bald taking me the many hundreds of miles up and down the golden coast between Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. I’d made my peace that this cross-continental sojourn might be our last ride together. Nobody was convinced he could make it the entire 3,000 miles. But I believed in him. He never steered me wrong before.
We’d just ridden out of the Mojave. Slowly watching as the desert of my childhood became the desert of my ancestors. (Or, some of them anyway.) I bought the new impossible burger from Carl’s Junior just outside Gila Bend. As I ate it, standing in the red clay, I stared up at my landmark. My own personal mountain. Tres Reyes.
Silhouetted at the peak you could see them — if you knew what you were looking for. Three huge wooden cutouts of the magi. Black, Asian and White. Young, Middle-aged and Elderly. Camels mounted, gifts in hand, all three of them Pointed straight toward my next stop: Tucson, Arizona.
I call it my mountain because I was born on Three Kings Day, and I’ve always felt a likeness to the wise men. Like me, they are travelers and seekers of knowledge, headed to one specific point. Normally, when I see them on the side of the sweltering road it feels like nothing but a little wink from the universe. But now that I was leaving my home to cross the country and the embodiments of my birthday were pointing me onward, the message felt explicit: “Keep Going.”
That helped me cut through the doubt I was still facings as to whether or not this was actually a terrible idea. I’m sure they felt the same way on their journey. Following nothing but a star through the desert, hunting down a magic baby. But despite all the doubt, highwaymen, thieves, storms, and starvation they faced, this probably made everything a little easier: No matter what they encountered on the road, all they had to do was keep spurring those camels north. And the same was true for me. My black stallion and I left the ocean, and we wouldn’t stop riding until we found another one. Wilmington, North Carolina or Bust. The only way was east.
The last time I’d seen real camels (or real horses for that matter) was a month earlier on my tester road trip to Mexico. I was still on the fence about leaving when my best friend Esjay• sat me down and told me to quit fucking around. He’d just moved to New York City to try his hand at acting. He was running at his dream and, like a good friend, he was pissed that I wasn’t even walking toward mine.
•This is not his real name. But his last name is Sangre-Joven or S.J. Somehow we started spelling it Esjay because it looked cooler.
“What the hell? You gotta get out of the AV. Come to the east coast and live an amazing life, man.”
“But I haven’t even been to Mexico yet! And it’s right there!”
“Then go to Mexico! …It’s right there!”
“Oh. Well, I guess you’re right”.
Right then I decided to move. Esjay helped me realize something. I was asking for a sign for where to go next, and I was ignoring the huge neon billboard screaming WILMINGTON, NORTH CARO-FUCKING-LINA. And if the fact that I hadn’t been to Mexico was my only excuse, then I guess I needed to take a weekend off of counting dusty paddleboards and go to Mexico. I gassed up Franz and together we rode down to San Diego. If I was going to Mexico, then I wanted to do it with Calluna•.
•This is not her real name, but the stripper name she would use while dancing in Las Vegas. She had just agreed to take the job before we left for Mexico and would spend the following summer there.
The name comes from the plant Calluna Vulgaris, a small European shrub with purple flowers often used to make brooms. The name Calluna comes from the Greek meaning “to beautify or sweep clean,” but she liked it because she liked having the word vulgar in her Alias. Also, she like that it could be Cal-Luna, or California Moon.
I hadn’t seen her since uni. I’d been in Spain and then Lifeguarding for LA county. She’d been pursuing her masters in the Netherlands. She is half Dutch but a full citizen of both nations. She was visiting her family in San Diego for a month when I rode down to propose my adventure. When we saw each other we hugged like twins separated at birth. We sometimes go months without talking, but we will be in each other’s lives until one of us croaks. I could pull a Tupac and fake my death for 20 years, but on my revival, we would still talk like we’d seen each other yesterday.
We have a lot in common. Our interest in arts, culture, and equality. Our ability to occasionally sleep together yet stay platonic. Our passion for world travel. Our bitter chess rivalry. And, the fact that we are mixed.
In the Netherlands, many of her classmates told her: “you’re not black”. In a similar way, I’d been told: “you’re not Mexican.” And as a consequence we’d bonded over our mutual obsession with our bodies, trying to dissect and measure out just how much was from where, as if each part could be chopped up and sent back to its country of origin with small plastic labels on them. “2 Big Green Eyes, export of Michigan. Piel Canela, heche en Mexico.”
We talked about this kind of stuff for hours over tacos in Old Town San Diego at the Cafe Coyote. My Tacos were vegetarian, she ordered fish. A mariachi band was playing “Volver” below us to paying tourists. I told her that I was leaving California and that I wanted to go to Mexico with her before we went our separate ways.
“I’m down, but you have to let me speak a little Spanish, too. I won’t learn if you do all the talking.”
Two weeks later, I was back in San Diego at her mother’s house. She handled all of the planning and booked the Air BnB. All I had to do was pay half. She helped me commit fraud and take the online class necessary to become my niece’s Godfather — my whole family knew I was an Atheist. We drank tea out of a pot that had a huge mitt over it to keep it warm. Something I’d never seen before, maybe it was a dutch thing. We ate Chicken chili that her mother had prepared and she apologized that it wasn’t Vegetarian. Calluna told me we could go get something else if I wanted, but I said it was fine. That I had three rules for being veg:
- Never deny yourself a cultural experience.
- Never be a burden on your host.
- Never waste food.
So I enjoyed the chili telling myself that the adventure had started right then and there. I tried to keep up with Calluna and her mother when they broke into dutch to bicker. Her younger sister told me that she and her mother would be crossing with us tomorrow. She had an appointment with her orthodontist to get her rubber bands changed.
“What color do you want them to be this time?” I Asked
“I’m deciding between teal and-” but her mother interrupted. She wanted to tell me that on my birthday there is a huge parade for the three kings in the Netherlands. It’s the same in Spain. The African King is, of course, a white man in blackface, which is terrible, but not as bad as what happens one month earlier when Sinterklaas and his “Black Pete” helpers parade the Dutch streets giving out presents. Thousands of little white dutch children in elf hats and blackface, blissfully unaware of how fucking ridiculous they look.
“Mom, why are you always interrupting me?!”
And the dutch bickering continued for a minute. I continued to break my fast and put another spoonful of delicious chili in my mouth.
The concrete throat of the Mexican US-Border is a curved and disorienting path, but simple enough to get through. There were guards with guns, but they didn’t do much. We showed our passports and walked right through. Within ten minutes of arriving from the train, we were in Mexico. Swallowed. The process was so fast that I don’t remember much of what the border was like. There was a poster of a small child and a checklist entirely in Mandarin. Who was that for?, I wondered.
We walked past the thousand tienditas and the mile-long line of cars trying to get through. I laughed at myself when I thought we might drive here. Calluna had instructed me that we would absolutely not be doing that when we could easily walk. Growing up in San Diego she had done this many times. In this way our relationship was symbiotic. I had a guide and she had a translator.
We hugged her sister and her mother goodbye and went our separate ways. The first thing on the agenda: follow vegetarian rule number one and get me some Carne Asada tacos.
There are many false cliches that keep just enough momentum in a conversation going so that most people won’t correct them. Like baby kittens, conversations are fragile things and are prone to being eaten by coyotes. Of these cliches, my favorite is this: Tijuana isn’t Mexico, not really. Because if it isn’t Mexico then I’d like to know what the fuck it is. It sure as hell isn’t the US of A.
Just a quarter-mile north of us people were trancing around with headphones in from Starbucks to McDonald’s and back to Starbucks like the walking dead. Asleep. Together, but completely isolated from one another. Here, people were engaging each other in loud and robust conversation in the sexiest of languages. People use a lot of words to describe TJ (dangerous, dirty) but the word I use: Awake.
Unlike its older brother, Mexico doesn’t seem to be undergoing the same identity crisis that the US is. And while many people passed through this town in hopes of better things, even the brick-and-mortar of the city had something many of the actual people living north of the wall did not: a pulse.
I haven’t explored Mexico. I’m just a gringo whos mother is Chicano. But it seems to me that border towns like Tijuana are essential manifestations of the sibling rivalry that Mexico and Los Estados have with one another. Mexicans want the American Dream. But Americans have been dreaming for too long. They’ve gorged and gorged and gorged themselves into a coma. They go to Mexico to experience the waking world.
One hour in Mexico and I was already breaking my promise to Calluna and dominating the conversation with our waitress. In Spain, I’d crossed the boundary between aprendiz and conversacional. Maybe I was too proud of myself. I would blab away at strangers for 30 minutes waiting for someone to come give me a trophy.
“Ay joven, tienes ojos muy bonitas.”
“Muchas gracias, senora.”
I backed off and Calluna asked for suggestions of things to see in TJ. The waitress was very sweet. She told us to go see the grand arch, the wax museum, and the cathedral. They began to chat and I went to the bathroom. The door was only holding on by a hinge and the plumbing was less than efficient, but there was soap in the sink so I couldn’t complain. I talked to the waitress’s daughter, a six-year-old girl doing her homework at an empty table. She asked me if her math was right and I told her it was and that she was very smart. She smiled a two-teeth smile.
Calluna and I drank Micheladas with our tacos but I was already feeling drunk after half a glass and asked her to finish mine. A mariachi band asked us if we wanted a song. We said we’d pass, but an older gentleman behind us dropped a couple of pesos into their hat and they began to play “Volver.” The same song my mother would request in the Cafe Coyote on summer vacations in San Diego.
A wasp landed on the michelada glass and I drunkenly observed how beautiful his yellow ass looked against the red swirl of the drink as the band sang: “Quiero Volver, volver, volveeeeeeer, a tus brazos, otra vez.”• And I thought about leaving California again and got sick to my stomach. Or maybe that was the tacos from all the meat and beer I had suddenly introduced to my gut. Probably a bit of both.
•“I want to return, return, retuuuuurn, to your arms once more.”
For less than $5 we had secured a van to our AirBnB in Rosarito. There were signs above the window saying NO SEAS CERDO, NO SEAS TARDE• with pictures of a pig on one side and Sleepy the dwarf on the other. Pretty good life advice too, I thought. Behind us sat a short and portly man with a big smile. He asked where we were from. This is a question we both get a lot in the states but with very different undertones. This time the answer was simple: Estados Unidos.
He told us that he had just been deported from there. He’d taken a job driving a truck and was pulled over “sin licencia.” He said this was his second time being deported. He was going to Rosarito to rest and would try again soon. He told us he would try to cross two more times but after that, ya no más. He’d cut his losses and try to figure something out south of the wall. Calluna recorded the whole conversation because we like to pretend we are Journalists and now I have to listen to my terrible norteamericano accent while writing this story.
•“Don’t be a pig, don’t be late.”
“You guys let me know if you need anything. Tequila, cigarettes… maybe some Mexican cigarettes?” At that, Juan winked and laughed a little. He had coxed us on to the playa while we were exploring Papas and Beer in Rosarito. He was a tall man with a huge straw hat on, and he worked for the beach resort that we were sitting at. It was January so it wasn’t hard for him to find us a seat under a gazebo. In the distance, a couple was having their wedding photos taken and the bride’s dress was getting destroyed in the sand and the waves, but she didn’t seem to mind. She must have a spare, I thought.
We watched a twelve-year-old boy on horseback searching for tourists who might pay him for a ride. A few minutes earlier we’d found about twenty camels tied up along the side of the road in a huge patch of dirt and grass for what I can only guess were similar purposes. But there was no one watching, save a solitary donkey. He seemed vigilant enough though because nobody was messing with the camels.
We talked about nothing, which is the best way to cover everything you’d want to say. We said “no, gracias” about 70 times to different merchants selling leather anklets, specialty cigars, and shot glasses in the shape of women’s breasts. Most of these were older women who reminded me of my Nina Susie and would say things to me like “Ay, mi amor ¡que ojijtos tienes!”
“Muchas gracias, senora.”
Calluna ordered us two shots of tequila each and passed me a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I smoked a lot in those two days and one night we were in Mexico. At that point in my life, I didn’t really drink, I didn’t smoke, and I didn’t eat meat. But If Tijuana was a city of indulgence then I might as well indulge, right?
It was like Esjay had told me when I visited him in New York on my tester trip to Wilmington•: “Everything in moderation, even moderation,” And he passed me a cig.
•The events of that trip are covered in my story “What I learned in the Water.”
Late into the night (or early into the morning) we’d wandered into our second strip club. I really didn’t want to go in, but the hombre at the front seemed to realize that “Hey! Muchacho!” was a very convincing tagline for drunk gringos and before I knew it, we were inside.
The glowing dance floor gave the dark room a haunting pink that caught the dry ice and made it linger in the air. Calluna and I awkwardly sat and watched some girls dance. Soon the same hombre came up to ask me if I wanted a dance. In the corner, there was a girl with camo panties and glasses grinding on a guy for song after song after song. Big smiles on both of their faces.
Knowing full well she wouldn’t care, I turned to Calluna and asked if I should get a dance. I think that drunk Giovan was ashamed at the fact that I felt guilty about it and was buying a dance to seem cool. Guilty about feeling guilty. Can’t get more Catholic than that.
If sober Giovan were there I could have told him that he probably didn’t want the lap dance anyway. But I wasn’t there, I was nine months too late. So now all I can do is tell you what happened next.