For years my friend DT and I would talk about driving down to Mexico, and now, in the summer of 1984, with us both in our early 20’s, we were finally doing it. DT and I had the stereo blasting and we were singing to Who and AC/DC and the Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack. By now L.A. was familiar territory, and I’d spent a lot of time in San Diego. It felt odd to be “just passing through.”
We stopped at the border and bought auto insurance, just like everyone and their brother told us to do. It made me nervous about making the border crossing, but we got through quickly and soon were driving in Tijuana. That in itself is not a problem, because everything is in English and there are Americans everywhere.
The highway heading south out of Tijuana was lined with unbelievable poverty; shacks built out of scavenged wood, parts of old billboards, crumpled corrugated tin, all up and down hills with no plumbing and no electricity. And there were little kids everywhere.
“Holy shit, Jer,” DT was saying, “we’re driving in another country! Another country. Can you believe that?”
I was all too aware of that fact, yes. Once outside of Tijuana the signs were no longer in English, and the speed limit was posted in kilometers per hour. I had nothing to translate on my speedometer; mine didn’t have kilometers on it. I drove a little bit slower than those around me and hoped for the best.
The thing that struck me during the drive down was, well … you have a nice highway, smooth and straight, nicely maintained … but then all the underpasses looked half finished. Like they built the structure and got it so that it could be used, and started putting the finishing touches on it — tiles, paint, whatever — but then stopped half way. The tiles and building material still sat on pallets among the weeds, unused, obviously there for years.
I saw that over and over.
We made it without incident all the way to the seacoast town of Ensenada, and drove through to look for the ocean. In front of a nice looking marina there was a short middle-aged Mexican cop with a mustache standing in the middle of the street, and he waved at me to stop.
Mexican jail, was all I could think of. Raped up the ass by prison guards.
“Hi,” I said through my rolled down window. “How are you doing today?”
“I need to see your registration,” he said in broken English.
I quickly dug through the Volkswagen’s little glove compartment and produced my registration, handing it over.
He glanced over it, squinting like he couldn’t quite see, and then he said, “This is no good here.”
“This is no good here.” He walked to the front of my car and pointed at the license plate.
“Excuse me?” I said, thinking, Mexican jail.
“Where these plates from?”
“California,” I told him, and then realized … these were a brand new design of plates, white instead of blue. He’d probably never seen them before.
He walked back up to my window, still holding my registration. “Is no good here.”
I stared at him, not knowing what to say. He stared back, registration in one hand, the other hand empty. His empty hand was palm up, fingers gently rubbing together.
Oh my God. He wants bribe money. I knew my dad usually solved everything down here by bribing the local cops, but I never thought I’d end up doing it myself. Still thinking Mexican jail, I panicked and dug out my wallet, and handed over a $20 bill.
He smiled. “I let you go this time.” Handing me back my registration, he waved us to drive on.
I put the VW Bug into gear and eased away, out into the street and driving aimlessly along while I shook and felt sick to my stomach. DT later said I was white as a ghost. “You handled that well,” he told me.
“It was better than getting a ticket.”
I drove around another twenty minutes looking for a likely hotel, and got completely confused and ended up going the wrong way down a one way street. I quickly pulled into a parking lot, followed immediately by another cop car. This time, though, they had a legitimate reason to pull me over, and they told me to follow them down to the police station.
Mexican jail, I thought. Raped up the ass by prison guards.
“Can I pay the fine to you?” I asked. “Instead of going to the police station?”
One of the two cops said no. The other one said yes. I paid them $20, which made the “no” cop very agitated and nervous. They let us go with a “warning.”
This left me afraid of getting back into my car. “I don’t want to drive anywhere here anymore,” I told DT. “Not a single damn block.”
“Let’s just leave the car here and walk,” he said.
That sounded good to me. “We’ll find a hotel, drive the car directly there, park it, and leave it there.”
About five blocks away we found a standard looking hotel, nothing fancy, and went in to inquire about rooms. I was worried, already being down $40 with nothing to show for it — well, besides not being in Mexican jail — so I was worried about having enough for the room. I figured it would be about $60 for two nights.
I was wrong. It was $17 for two nights. I asked him several times to make sure, thinking there was a language translation error. No, there wasn’t. Wow, I thought, cool. After we paid and left with the keys, we went up to look at the room — it wasn’t fancy, but it wasn’t bad — I was ecstatic. Finally I could relax.
“Beer!” I said. “We need beer!”
Across the street we were able to buy two six packs of really good Mexican beer for about $2, and that was after they upcharged us for being Americans. Back at the hotel we filled the bathroom sink with beer bottles and ice, and were all set.
Popping open a couple, we sat on the beds and drank.
We were in Mexico, and we were drinking beer.
Drinking beer. In a hotel room. With no television.
“Okay,” I finally said, “this is boring.”
“I know,” DT said, “let’s go to a bar.”
Ensenada in the mid 1980’s was really nice as long as you were right on the water. Inland it was a rickety desert town that existed in a perpetual tan haze of dust. I saw garbage in the street, bashed and dirty cars with cracked windows, and throngs of Americans wandering around buying touristy Mexican-themed junk made in China. The Mexicans seemed to look at us in terms of dollar signs.
We wandered from bar to bar, happy at how cheap the beer was, and finally ended up at a really loud, crowded place where the drink specialty was to have you hold a bugle to your mouth while they poured booze through it, and after you’re gagging on that, they kick you in the head. I watched this happen in total disbelief, over and over, amazed that it left the victims on the floor laughing hysterically. They even did it to a cute, dark haired American girl, though she didn’t seem to enjoy it much, and ended up slugging her boyfriend.
About eleven o’clock we decide to start heading back to the hotel. I remember I wanted to do some writing in my journal, and besides, we had not slept for about 36 hours. So we’re walking back in the dark, through some pretty spooky neighborhoods, and passing this one building a guy comes walking up to us from a stairway. Panhandler, I thought. But no, the guy said, “Hey, you looking for girls?”
“You looking for girls? Pretty, naked girls?”
“Yes,” DT said immediately.
“Down here,” the guy said, pointing to the stairs. The stairs which led down into a basement.
I was not at all sure about this, but DT was already going down the steps, so I really didn’t have a choice. Once through the doors we were hit with a wall of loud music and flashing red and blue lights. Shockingly naked women danced on a stage and on the bars and on several tables. One did tricks with her shaved vagina, blowing out candles and shooting ping pong balls with amazing accuracy.
The audience was full of American sailors. In uniform. All of them bellowing, whooping, and shoving each other. I don’t know why, but that made me feel a lot safer. We sat down, and from the shadows were immediately joined by two beautiful Latino girls. The one beside me said, “Buy me a drink?”
“Um, okay.” I had the feeling I had no choice in the matter.
I sat there awkwardly drinking with this girl while other women wiggled their naughty bits at me and begged for money. DT got into some animated laughing conversation with his girl, and at one point something was announced in Spanish and his girl said, “Oh! That’s me!” She told DT she’d be right back, and then ran up to the main stage, stripped her clothes off, and showed all her deep dark secrets under harsh stage lighting. DT whooped and hollered like his horse was winning at the races.
My girl seemed to be in the same bleak mood as I was, and she hardly touched her drink. “So,” she finally said, “would you like for to make love with me?”
“I like you,” she said. “I would like for to make love with you.”
“Are you serious?”
I was thinking to myself … she is a hooker, right? This is going to cost money, isn’t it? Can I afford to do this? Do I want to do this?
“I … um,” I stammered, “I just broke up with someone.”
“I have a broken heart,” I told her. “I can’t really … I mean, I’m not … you know. In the mood?”
“¿Que?” she said again. I think I was treading outside her limited English vocabulary. “You no want to?”
“I would like to … I mean, you’re beautiful and all … but my heart is not in it.”
“Oh.” She nodded, not looking me in the eyes. Her expression remained bleak, but not disappointed. I got the impression that she was miffed that she’d wasted valuable time drinking the expensive drink I bought her.
She stayed exactly long enough to not count as leaving immediately, then thanked me for the drink, kissed me on the cheek, and got up. I watched her walk to the other side of the room where she sat down next to a very drunk sailor. She was with him maybe two minutes before they got up and left together.
Meanwhile, DT’s girl had finished her dance and returned to him, and apparently made him the same offer. Turning to me he said, “I’ll meet you at the hotel. Later.”
“Are you sure?”
“Oh yes, I’m sure.” He and his señorita got up and left.
I sat there alone, watching the naked women frolicking in this den of alcohol-powered depravity, feeling like a wimp. DT had the balls to go off with one. Why didn’t I? How, I wondered, will I ever become that great American writer if I don’t do things like get freaky with a hooker?
Don’t think I hadn’t noticed that writers seem to be overly fond of prostitutes. They all have hearts of gold. All of them. Just crack open a novel and read. It’s there in black and white.
I finished up my beer — and the rest of the drink that my would-be hooker had left — then stood up and threaded my way through the brawling sailors and squirming live pornography, out the door and up those filthy concrete steps to the street above, feeling very much like having come out of the proverbial Lewis Carroll rabbit hole.
I was drunk, exhausted, and nervous. I have no idea how late it was, but it was pitch black out there and I had only a vague idea where the hotel was. I started walking, making each far-and-between street light my continuous goal, searching for familiar landmarks.
After twenty minutes I found the hotel, stumbled my way up to the room, and was about to put the key into the lock when I thought … what if DT is here with his woman? Actually, I hoped he was, otherwise I’d be worried about him. So I unlocked the door anyway, opened it a couple inches, and called into the darkness.
“DT? You here?”
Crap, I thought, and stepped inside. Fumbling for the light switch, I braced myself to find him dead on the floor with his throat cut, or something equally horrible. The dim light bulbs came to life, revealing a bleak, lonely room.
The ice in the bathroom sink had long melted, and the beer was warm. I popped one open anyway and guzzled. Beer is the one thing, I decided, that I can really count on.
I waited for a while, and then waited some more. An hour passed, and I was so tired I was delirious. Finally I crawled into bed and tried to sleep, but couldn’t.
Another half hour went by, then I heard a noise from outside. Thudding footfalls up wobbly steps, and then a key in the lock. I sat up just as DT came stumbling in, looking bleary and covered with sweat.
“Yeah,” he said.
“So what happened?”
“Well, let me — hold on.” DT went and got a beer. He popped it open and quickly drained half of it before continuing. “Well, we went … we left, right? Yeah. She led me to this other building, like half-way across town. And we go in to her room, and we kiss for a bit, right? Then she stops and says it’s going to cost forty dollars.”
“Yeah. I say, no problem. Yeah. So she kisses me a bit more, and she’s got her hand down my pants, then she stops and says, she’s got to go get something, she’ll be right back.”
“I don’t know. A rubber, I guess.”
“Oh.” I grinned. “How was it.”
“Let me get to that. So, I’m sitting there in her room, waiting. And waiting. The walls are paper thin, you can hear people talking and arguing on either side. There was a fight or something, you could hear things falling. Lots of shouting.”
I’m sure I was looking at him in horror.
“So I keep waiting,” he says, “and I look at my watch — an hour has gone by.”
He paused, looking like he didn’t want to continue.
“So?” I said. “What happened?”
“I sobered up and got the hell out of there!” He laughed and then guzzled his beer. “It took forever to find my way back. I wandered all over the fucking place.”
“So, what did you do?” he asked.
“I came back here and couldn’t sleep.”
He wasn’t surprised. “Oh. Okay. Well, I’m going to sleep.”
And sleep we did. Well past the next morning and deep into the afternoon. When we awoke, we cleaned up and went out again, and I decided I was brave enough to try driving. Down to the beach somewhere, is where I wanted to go. I was thinking about that golden time I spent as a child down here, where I met that girl named Linda during the weeks my dad was waiting for a part to repair his Caddy.
I wanted to find that beach. I wanted to wade out into the waves with a beer in my hand and commune with the past. I wanted to resurrect something dear from my memories.
We didn’t get a half mile before a cop pulled us over for no reason whatsoever. He, like one of the ones from the day before, tried to tell me that my license plates were invalid in Mexico. After parting with another one of my precious — and dwindling — $20 bills we turned around and went straight back to the hotel.
That’s it, I thought. I’m done.
We had passed a Tourist Bureau office a few blocks up, and while DT went to take another nap in the hotel, I walked over to complain and get some advice. The well dressed man inside welcomed me in and sat me down at his desk. I told him about the cops and the money and asked him what I should do.
He shook his head, concerned and sad, and said, “Don’t give them twenty, they’ll be happy with ten. Also, get their badge numbers and report them to me. I will take care of it, I assure you.”
I thanked him, we shook hands, and I left.
DT and I laid low the rest of the day and that night. Money was running low and I was worried about having enough for gas on the trip back. I remembered all too well what it was like being stranded on that long stretch of Interstate 5.
Early the next morning we left, making it out of town without any more police encounters, driving up to the border where customs looked at us like we were drug smugglers. My lack of concern, and happiness to be back in the bosom of the USA, convinced them we were innocent.
It took all day to get up through San Diego and across the Los Angeles basin, and it was well into the night before we were making that long boring shot up Interstate 5 through no-man’s land. I was freaking out because, on the radio, there was a brand new John Lennon song, and it was really good. “What did they do,” I asked DT, “raise John from the dead and put him in the studio?”
It turned out to be his son, Julian Lennon. It gave me chills. It was seriously like hearing his father’s ghost.
It wasn’t long after that when we noticed someone’s car was in deep in the meridian between the north and south bound lanes, flashing their headlights anytime a car went by. Of course no one was stopping. I remember no one stopped for us, either, on our original ill-fated Mexico trip. “Poor bastards,” DT said.
“You know, I bet they’re girls,” I said. “That’s a girl thing to do, just sit there and flash your lights.”
“Let’s go back,” he said.
Going back on Interstate 5, especially in that area, is no easy task. We had to drive 15 miles up the road before finding a place to turn around, and drove 15 miles back to see them still sitting there flashing their lights. We pulled over, and sure enough, it was two terrified teenage girls. It took us a couple of minutes to convince them it was safe to open one of their windows an inch so we could talk to them through the crack. One was a beautiful blond, the other one — equally beautiful — had jet black hair. I immediately thought Betty and Veronica from the Archies.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It runs,” Betty said, “but it won’t go.”
“It made this funky noise and then a dragging sound,” Veronica said.
I went and got a flashlight and looked under the car. Their driveshaft had come detached from the transaxle and lay on the ground. “Um,” I said, “you need a tow truck.”
Betty got brave enough to get out and look. “Oh great!” she exclaimed. “Can you take us to a phone?”
Remember, this was in the mid 1980’s. There were no cell phones. We drove them 40 miles to the nearest pay phone, then waited with them for a tow truck, then led the tow truck back out to the car. The tow truck driver looked like your typical beer bellied guy with food stains all over his shirt. I was concerned with leaving the girls with him there, alone, and as it turned out DT was too. He did a really smart thing … he wrote down the girl’s names, and got the tow trucker’s name and license number before we let them leave.
Veronica had her dad’s credit card and so wasn’t too worried about being stranded. We reluctantly left, but not before both girls gave both of us a kiss. I remember driving away feeling like a genuine hero.
Later, at home while I was recovering from the trip, DT called me sounding excited. “Dude, did you hear?”
“The news, have you been watching the news?”
Apparently while we were down in Mexico, there were a string of murders along the highway we were on by Mexican ex-police who’d been fired for corruption.
The victims: American tourists.