Friday, February 4, 2011

Down And Out In TJ

Earlier this week, I promised that I would relay the tale of the time my best friend, Tarrell, and I headed over across the Southern Californian border for a night of wild drinking and debauchery in the *fine* Mexican town of Tijuana. Note that the asterisked word is being emphasized to denote sarcasm.

Well, today I think I'll tell you this story. Fair warning now: this will be an extremely LONG telling, so you might want to pace yourself and perhaps not read this all at once.

It's okay, I won't take it the wrong way.

It's not as wild and crazy a tale as I'm sure your imaginations are leading you to believe, though. Yet, at the same time, it was a pretty surreal trip nonetheless. You might have gone through an adventure similar to this one at some point in life. I'm thinking college, perhaps? Spring Break? Yes, yes? It's okay, I know. *wink*

Well, see, it was late March 2001, and Tarrell was still in the Air Force stationed out in San Bernardino, CA. It was his birthday, so I thought I'd fly out there to celebrate it with him. Prior to this, the only big trip I'd ever been on--especially one involving planes--was a Jamaican excursion I took Lisa on after her college graduation two years prior. I was still young (24 yrs old) and inexperienced at traveling, but eager to go someplace new since I absolutely loved to fly.

And this was also going to be my first trip without Lisa. We were not yet married at the time, and had only moved in together a few months prior. But she'd already been on TWO away trips with her girlfriends by this point, so I thought it was high time I had my own separate vacation.

I flew out to LAX on a stormy Friday evening in NYC, but of course Los Angeles was balmy, calm and . . . SMOGGY! Tarrell and some of his friends came out to pick me up, and for the next few days I was shown around L.A., Anaheim, and the greater San Bernardino area. But at some point--and I don't remember who suggested it--we all decided to make the 3 hour drive south to the border in honor of the birthday boy. Tarrell had been there before, and so had one of his friends. But both were in the mood to go back again, especially since for the remaining two of us in the group . . . we were about to get our cherries popped, so to speak.

I was only mildly apprehensive, as I had heard bad things about Tijuana. But I figured a group of 4 young guys--two of whom were native New Yorkers, and South Bronxites at that!--would be able to handle themselves. Of course, the movies didn't help ease my nervousness. Being the genre addict that I am, I couldn't help but constantly reference From Dusk Till Dawn as we made the trip south. Surprisingly, aside from the vampires of course, TJ is very much similar in look to the unnamed setting in that flick.

But first off, we stopped in San Diego to check out the sunset along the beaches there and have dinner at a nearby Red Lobster. San Diego is the last American city in California before you hit the border. And, in fact, if not for the political demarcation line and very physical fence and checkpoint, San Diego and Tijuana would be one giant city. One simply rolls into the other, with no clear beginning or end.

We took our time heading for the border, though, because according to the more experienced partiers in our group, TJ was best experienced late at night. So in the meantime we got as close as we could to the crossing and scoped out some surrounding motels. Speaking from experience, Tarrell told me to trust him on this: we wouldn't be driving back home on this night. A room was going to be needed. Naively, I didn't really process what this truly meant. No, that understanding would come much later.

The motel we eventually settled on was sketchy at best, but cheap. This seems to be the mandatory deciding factor when going about these things, doncha know? As I waited out in the parking lot while the room was paid for at the front desk, I couldn't help but notice the literal SWARM of cockroaches crawling up the side of the building. I'd never seen something like this before. Of course I've dealt with my fair share of roaches growing up in the ghetto, but not to this extent. The swarm was so thick, you might have mistaken them for army ants! Lucky for me, I wasn't pathologically afraid of bugs like Tarrell was. And lucky for him, our room ended up being on the complete opposite end of the complex. The walls of which, to my hurried inspection, were not currently being infiltrated by a creeping tide of shiny, brown-backed little vermin.

We only paid a cursory glance to the room we'd chosen: bathroom, small fridge, tv set, and . . . two beds. Which meant we'd have to double up. I was not too keen on the prospect of sharing a bed with another dude, even if he was my best friend. But I figured it would only be for a few hours anyway.

Our den now secured, we all 4 of us climbed back into the car and drove a short 5 minutes down the road to the border's temporary parking lots. We could have driven into TJ, but I was told this was not recommended. Leaving an American car on the streets of a Mexican town while you go indoors and proceed to get drunk like skunks isn't the most idiotic thing one can do . . . but I'm sure it comes close. Plus, if all went as planned, we would be in no condition to successfully pass a road inspection on the way back into the U.S. anyway.

No, like reverse migrant workers, we would cross the border on foot.

Here's a fun fact you might not already know about U.S./Mexico border crossings: Getting in to Mexico is as easy as chewing gum and walking across the street. You simply mosey on up to the fence, wait in line (if there even is a line) and then walk through a turnstile-like gate and, voilĂ !--you're now in Mexico. No guards, no ID checks, no papers to fill out. One second you're on American soil, the next you're not. And all for the same effort it takes to ride the subway in NYC, minus the fare.

But once you ARE on the other side, it's like a completely different world. No, seriously. It becomes apparent almost as soon as your foot sets down on Mexican soil that you're suddenly in a much poorer country than the one you only just left behind. The first thing to happen is that--no joke--you're assaulted by a gang of roughly 15 to 20 very small, very dirty little street urchins. These kids surround you and jabber non-stop for donations. They don't necessarily touch you, they just pester you until you give in just for peace of mind. As I had taken the liberty before crossing the border to very closely secure my cash and cards in various hard-to find places upon my person, I never gave in. I grew up in the Bronx, after all. I wasn't easily intimidated. I had to physically shove the kids out of my way, sure, but they got the message and quickly left me alone.

As we crossed the bridge and made our way down the ramp leading away from the gates, we encountered several more such gangs of kids. They weren't bad kids, mind you. Simply desperate. And the only real reason I didn't give them money was because of the adults who were standing to one side, sullen-eyed but alert, watching every single thing me and my buddies did. My urban survival instincts were on high alert, and I knew better than to go digging for money where all those eyes could see. No doubt that was the strategy. Most of the adults, you could see, were the parents of these kids. They were probably harmless, but hungry. And hungry but destitute parents are almost as dangerous as well-fed but deranged criminals--both have only survival on their minds.

And lo and behold, behind these grim-eyed parents were other pairs of eyes glinting from the shadows. Eyes that were not sad or bowed from poverty, but revealing minds of a more solitary and sinister bent behind them. Coming from New York, I knew the look all too well. So I kept my hands out of my empty pockets and stayed constantly vigilant the entire walk down to where I could see the dingy alleys and raucous streets of TJ spread out below.

For the most part our group stayed silent as we and about two dozen other young American partiers traveled en masse toward the beckoning lights of this gutter town. Every now and then someone would crack a joke, but it was obvious that the majority of us were being cautious and keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. Once you cross the border, you really do feel that the law is in your own hands now. The Mexicali policia were nowhere to be found.

Before long, we were in the thick of things--garish knick knack shops, cheap dangerous looking bars that no American would dare set foot in, and of course plenty of "houses of ill-repute" lining the streets. If not for the fact that two of us had been here before, we might have ended up someplace we shouldn't have been, and I might not even be here today to tell this story. But Tarrell and his other friend, Kristoff, knew the way to the main drag in town, so we pretty much bypassed everything in-between.

Because we're bladed weapons enthusiasts, Tarrell and I did stop at this one establishment displaying deadly and very illegal-looking knives for sale. We were enamored by two separate pairs of butterfly knives, and even tried talking up the shopkeeper on a price. We thanked him quickly and I told the guy we'd be back later if he was still open. With a knowing smile, he said he would be. Afterwards, I asked Tarrell how we were going to get the blades back into the U.S. But he told me that the border agents rarely frisk anyone unless you give them a reason to. And in any event, he said he'd sneak them over himself.

Well, I figured he knew what he was talking about and put it out of my mind.

Eventually we ended up at some drinking hole that seemed to be popular with the American college crowd. We chose this place as our first stop of the night because the drinks were cheap and it seemed to be full of energy. Little did we know why, but soon found out. After taking our drink orders, the waiter left and then almost immediately someone blew a whistle and our table was surrounded by 5 or 6 other waiters who were lying in wait nearby. These guys were carrying trays with two items on them: one bottle of Tequila, and one funnel. If they pointed at you, you had no choice but to tilt your head back and accept what was coming. Our group wasn't in the mood for such shenanigans, however, and pretty soon these guys left to go bother some other poor unsuspecting lads. Unfortunately we would have to hear that blasted whistle bleating over and over again during the rest of our time there. Most people knew better than to fall for it, but others were not so smart. This one girl got so plastered because she would not say no for the world. It would have been funny if she knew how to hold her liquor. But she did not. Let's just say a mop and bucket brigade had to be called out to the main floor, and that was the end of the whistles for a while.

We sat there talking and taking numerous shots, checking out the crowds of people who began to pour into the place. Before long it was getting pretty loud in there, and this group of 5 coeds sat at the table across from us with this stank look on their faces like as if they expected one of us to hit on them. I just shook my head and went back to my drink. Tarrell and his friend Kristoff got on the dance floor, while the 4th guy--Chris--and I hung back to shoot the breeze. After some time, I got pretty annoyed at these girls constantly looking over at our table then pretending like they weren't. I remember a profound sadness overcoming me at this point, because I realized I missed Lisa terribly and that these tramps were not even 1/10th the woman she was.

I also wondered if all the drinking was suddenly making me maudlin.

At some point I got up to use the bathroom, and that was an adventure in itself. Instead of stalls and urinals for the guys, we got a long trough (like the ones cowboys water their horses with) filled with ice. Nothing separating you from the other Joe Blow standing next to you. You simply unzipped and let fly. Not very sanitary, but at the time I guessed it was pretty standard operating procedure for drinking establishments. Order and cleanliness isn't exactly on high demand in such places, right?

Back at the table, eventually the other half of our group returned and we decided it was time to move on. We hit a few other bars up and down the avenue as late evening gave way to early morning, before eventually deciding we wanted to go to a strip club. I had never been to one before, and wasn't really in the mind to do so now. But then I thought: well, I'm in Tijuana! What the hell else is there to do here but drink and visit titty bars?

It goes without saying that I was also pretty buzzed by this point. Honestly, I think I was up for ANYTHING. The group of us guys felt invincible! Although, when it came to the mysterious meat vendors lining the sidewalks, we weren't *that* invincible. Chris was adamant he wanted to try one of those hot-dog/chorizo things, but the rest of us quickly advised him against such thoughts. I myself had come to Mexico of firm decision that no sustenance other than hard spirits would go down my gullet that night. I had heard too many stories. Too many.

So, we went to this one place of ill-repute. Now, it's not hard to find a strip club in TJ. And because this is Mexico, there's really no laws in place to hold the women back from doing whatever they want. Keep this in mind for a little bit, won't you?

This particular club--like many others along the drag--employed people who's sole job was literally to grab hold of your arm and drag you into their establishment. We avoided the first few, but eventually settled on one that had a very outgoing and funny little man doing the pulling. So, we figured why the hell not.

Ugh, we should have been more discerning!

This place was a dive. I mean, no, really. It was run-down, the clientèle very sketchy in a Desperado or Hang 'Em High kind of way. And the women? Butt-ass ugly! Though, very very naked I might add. Come to think of it, very much like that scene in From Dusk Till Dawn, only smaller. It kinda threw me off at first, but then I quickly acclimated. It helped that despite the rough look and feel of the place, they served highly EXCELLENT drinks.

We all 4 of us sat right at the stage and proceeded to get even more plastered than we already were. I remember having double-shot after double-shot of Tequila blanco and chasing them with quite a few bottles of Dos Equis. I should quickly mention, by the way, that I'm not a drinker. However, I've been told that I have a very high tolerance. Which I do. I've only been fall-down stinking drunk twice in my life, and both times I was in close proximity to my bed at home. You might think it sounds like I was really putting them back on this night, but actually I was only comfortably buzzed.

Some of us, however, were a ways further along down that path to inebriation. Tarrell has a high tolerance like me, but somehow even he was more drunk than I was. Yet, nothing at all compared to how drunk Chris was. Wow! At some point he got up and ran for the head. We wouldn't see him again for nearly an HOUR!

But back to me, now. So there I am sitting at the stage having these long, elegant double-shot glasses of white Tequila brought out to me. Meanwhile, around half a dozen scantily clad women have already come and gone before me, none of them really anything to write home about. Each time a dancer finished and collected her tips, however, she'd get off stage and work the room to see if anyone wanted a lap dance. I had already been propositioned 4 times. And finally, like a dumbass, I allowed myself to be goaded by my friends to go for it.

Now, again, let's be clear here. I'd never been to a strip joint before, and I certainly hadn't planned on doing so crass a thing as getting a lap dance.

But then, again, it hit me: you're in Tijuana, dude! For once, just let go and do as the locals do! Or, in this case, do as the local crazy American border trippers do.

So, yes, I got a private lap dance in the VIP room. I wish I could say it was fun. It was not. Honestly, to this day I don't know what the big deal is. You pay 20 bucks to some skank wearing a bikini to dance in front of you and grind on your crotch. Uh, what?

Anyway, after the "dance" was over, this girl started saying something in Spanish to me. Now, I can understand more Spanish than I can speak, but it was hard to make out what she was saying. After many "que?" and hand gestures, I was able to figure out what she wanted. The gist of what she was saying was this: "If you *really* want to have some fun, it'll only cost $30 more!"

I at least had the presence of mind not to laugh outright in her face. I mean, WTF?

No, I told her. That would be quite all right. I had enough "fun" for the night.

Back outside at the stage, I found Kristoff, but Tarrell and Chris were nowhere to be seen. I asked him, and he said T had gone to the head, but that they had no idea where Chris was. So, when T came out we all took turns searching for the missing member of our little entourage. We searched high and low, but Chris was nowhere on the premises. Again, WTF?

By this point Tarrell was freaking out. He insists to this day that he doesn't remember much of this night, so I'm assuming he was close to drunk if not actually drunk. He didn't really seem too far gone to me at the time, though. I just thought he was understandably worried for his friend.

Now, if you think this is where the story gets weird, you're going to be disappointed. I told you: as much I'd like to make this trip out to be the long lost Tarantino flick that was never screened . . . it really wasn't that eventful.

We eventually found Chris farther down the drag. He had only gone out for a smoke, but it was clear to me that he was quite officially "shit-faced" by now. Kristoff was feeling the effects of all the boozing, too. So T and I decided it was time to head back to the border. We carefully wended our way through the crazy-as-balls traffic of Tijuana that was only just now, at 3 in the morning, starting to really pick up. People were running through the streets half-naked, screaming and laughing; cars were hoking like mad; and a whole lot of sketchy blokes were out and about looking to cause trouble. One such guy came up to me and gave me this sick stare down. He was clearly stoned off his ass. He kept jabbering away at me with words that were not intelligible. Yes, they were in Spanish, but I can tell you that even a native would not have understood what this fool was saying.

Looking into his dead-as-coffin-nails eyes as he yammered away at me, however, I could also tell that this guy was a local and just itching to start some beef with a stupid gringo Americano.

Unfortunately for him, I was not that guy. Sensing this vendejo had some sort of weapon on him (I guessed a knife), I immediately squared off and showed him that I was alert and ready. I used the stare I'd perfected over the years growing up in the boogie-down Bronx: the stare that lets other assholes know, I WILL END YOU!

This isn't a joke. Anyone who knows me knows that if you look into my eyes, there's a calm calculating death-killer lurking behind there. I'd been through too much and seen too much shit in my life to let some random dickhead think he can take me out. So, we stared at each other for some time like this . . . and then finally the dumbass got some sense and left without saying anything more. Of the two of us, he was the better for it. Because I might have been buzzed up, but I wasn't stoned. Plus, I had a good 6-inches and 50 lbs on this short fucker! I wouldn't have wanted to end up on the Mexican side of a jail cell, that's for sure. But I wouldn't have stood there and just let myself get gutted, either.

But, that ended up being the only scary moment of the night. The rest of it was just mundane tourist-trap stuff on our way back up to the border checkpoint.Throughout this whole drawn-out exchange, I had somehow been left behind by my friends, but I quickly caught up to them. Tarrell and I stopped back at the knife shop and I ended up purchasing both butterfly knives, giving one to T as his "bornday" gift.

And remember how I described the crossing into Mexico? Well, understandably, it was not the same case getting back in to the U.S. Although this was just prior to the events of 9/11 and we didn't need passports to get back in back then, we did need at least some form of official government identification to prove our legal residency status. I already had my passport from the Jamaica trip, so I used that. The others used their driver's licenses. Tarrell, however, used his military ID.

This did not go over well with the Marine in charge of checking papers. See, if you don't know this little fact about the different military branches of our fair country, here it is: they don't exactly give each other an easy time. And if you're in the Air Force, particularly, you're just asking to get hassled by the first Jarhead who comes across your path.

This was no exception.

The guy singled Tarrell out of line and began to hassle him about the fact that he had an earring in his ear, which is against military policy for active-duty personnel. Thing is, T was not on active duty at that moment. He was on leave. A fact he tried to explain to this dickwad. But, no, this was not good enough for G.I. Asshole here. He continued to argue the fact, stating that because this was a government installation, and he was a government employee, he would have to remove the earring before he would be let through. Or some such bullshit. To be honest, I don't remember the exact exchange too well. I was more worried about my best friend getting searched with the weapons on his person. But it never came down to that, thankfully. Needless to say the guy was just busting T's chops. Nothing really came of it and, although it was a long delay tacked on to an already long night, eventually we all made it through to stand on U.S. soil again.

And man were we lucky to have done it on foot--the car line through the checkpoint was hellishly LONG! I finally saw the wisdom of leaving the car behind. Finding it parked where we left it in the lot, we had to decide who was sober enough to drive it the 5 minutes it would take to get back to the motel. Now, yes, neither of us would have passed a sobriety test at this point. I was probably the most coherent, but Tarrell wasn't too bad, either. And he actually knew where he was going. Not to mention, out of the two of us, he was the better at bullshitting his way through any stop-n-check.

So, we all designated Tarrell as the driver and he proceeded to get us back to the motel without once being stopped or swerving headlong into oncoming traffic. Was it stupid and crazy of us? Sure, I'm not going to lie. But we were young and INVINCIBLE, remember? Such concerns only applied to mere mortals, after all.

Back at the hotel, I crashed on the bed. It was around 4 in the morning now, and we knew we only needed a few hours sleep to get the alcohol out of our systems for the 3-hour drive back to San Bernardino/Riverside. Some us took the direct approach to getting the booze out, however. I know Chris definitely hurled big time in the room's only bathroom. And I seem to recall Tarrell doing the same. Then came time to buddy up on the two beds. But honestly, at this point none of us cared anymore. We were fast friends that had just gone through a capital "E" experience together! Before long, we were all knocked out cold.

I recall that we woke up roughly 4 hours later. The sun was already out and miraculously we were STILL ALIVE! We hadn't gotten mugged, or left in a gutter for dead, or--best of all--not eaten by vampires. And we were back in the good ol' U.S. of A!

Yes, life was good.

The drive back was uneventful. We stopped for breakfast somewhere, and then that was it.

It's funny, because before heading out to Cali, I had no intention of being more than cordial to T's friends when I inevitably met them. But I should have known that any friends of his would be friends of mine. They were a cool group of guys, and the brief few days I spent in their company was enough to make them life-long pals.

Not often you can say that, can you? No, I didn't think so.

If T and I follow through with our planned road trip at the end of this year, I'm looking forward to reuniting with the group again. And maybe--just MAYBE--we'll even recreate this strange, but ultimately unforgettable--adventure across the border.

But this time, I'll remember to take pictures!


Botanist said...

Wow! What an experience. I used to be perfectly comfortable drinking in some of the roughest pubs in Guernsey, but that was on home turf. But big cities in general, and places like TJ in particular, give me the creeps.

The drinking side of it reminded me a lot of the stag weekend with my soon-to-be-brother-in-law and his army buddies. Fun times!

David Batista said...

Yeah, like I said . . . I'm sure we all have a story like this somewhere, Ian. :)

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