As a literature student, I was given to big thoughts, and as a lifelong Catholic, my big thoughts led to guilt, and when I was twenty years-old guilt led me, against my better judgment, to Tijuana, the busiest port of entry in the world…”
by ana maria spagna
Barbed wire pulls taut across the desert and binds us together. A few hours ago you could see la linea, the line it draws, as the sun sank mercifully away. One side green from well-traveled waters, the other a yellower shade of brown. One side crowded with assembly plants and abandoned pickups, the other covered by fields of strawberries and artichokes. Wet, dry. Cluttered, cleared. Dirty, clean. Rich, poor. Now it is dark and the distinctions are lost. The Argus stands alone, one pink stucco building along the farm access road two hundred meters north of the border, the only establishment of any sort within walking distance of the abandoned barracks where we live, and the only bar for miles. We sit on torn vinyl chairs, segregated by table: sandals here, dress shoes at the bar, work boots in the corner. For a moment, helicopter searchlights filter through the dust-coated window. Then they are gone. The bartender glances up from a game of solitaire. One of the Mexicans chooses La Bamba on the jukebox and begins shuffling about the room in heavy boots, bobbing his head, sloshing his beer. Someone just said that Crazy Ray is getting married. Here. Tonight.
“Who the Hell is Ray?” one of the border patrol officers, still uniformed, asks loudly.
“Hell if I know,” mumbles the bartender.
“¿Quien es el loco?” Try the other language.
“That old guy, lives out there alone,” a Mexican answers in English.
I glance around to gauge the tension. Maybe it’s time for me to leave.
Leave well enough alone, I should have. Three years I’d spent at college in Oregon, glorious Oregon, green green grass and blue skies, a short drive to the Cascade volcanoes, or along a curvy fern-lined road to the Pacific, where, in winter, storms sent spray from atop cresting waves, row after row of them, and you could stand alone on the beach with sand pelting your face and think big thoughts. In town I rode my bike daily to and from work-teaching swimming lessons to special needs kids-in the sun along the river and in the rain among the fir trees, needles dripping and mossy, miraculous. I had not grown sick of the place, not even close, unless it was a kind of lovesickness. The longer I stayed, the longer I wanted to stay. But that summer I left. I had no choice. As a literature student, I was given to big thoughts, and as a lifelong Catholic, my big thoughts led to guilt, and when I was twenty years-old guilt led me, against my better judgment, to Tijuana, the busiest port of entry in the world, to work in orphanages for a small non-profit agency called, simply, Los Niños. And to the Argus.
A shaggy-bearded blond gestures toward the darkened window with a foaming bottle of Corona. “He’s that biker that stays behind the old barracks, keeps to himself.”
The border cop grins. “There’s nothing but trash behind those barracks.”
“Hey, Crazy Ray fixes those bikes he collects back there, then sells them at the auction in San Ysidro. You ask me it’s a more honest living than most americanos make, you know?”
I return to my solitude, embarrassed. I ache sometimes for the long California-girl summers I spent running through the sprinklers. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” my parents used to ask.
“Tan and blond and strong,” I always answered, and I meant it.
In my memory, Tijuana is universally gray. Ocean haze melds with bus exhaust and frenetic activity. I carried a water bottle and wore khaki pants in the stifling heat so as not to offend the conservative sensibilities of middle-class Mexicans, though I really ought to have been wearing a dress, and midweek I rode city buses for ten pesos, less than a nickel at the time, and I almost always had to stand, to reach on tiptoes for the overhead bar, as the crowded bus lurched through the city and I tried to make sense of the world around me.
The problem was not what you’d expect, not what it ought to have been, or not entirely so. Not just the cardboard shacks along the river bottom that would be flooded every year by nature or intent. Not just the long-lashed toddlers in the orphanages or the maimed beggars in the storefronts, but the whole of it: the insensibly loud city, the silent proud abuelas on the bus, stockings rolled to the ankles, the cat-calling chicos on the streets, the gaudy tourist booths and the gaudy tourists themselves, the trash-strewn outskirts, and the upper-class neighborhoods surrounded by stucco walls with broken glass embedded atop them and bougainvilleas draped over them, places that seemed both far too elegant and far too shabby for what they were. At Los Niños, twenty of us lived inthe barracks next to the Argus on the American side. Some of us were summer help and some were year-rounders, and we all volunteered in Tijuana all day every day exchange for room and board. We ate communally, vegetarian usually, and drove vans across the border early each morning to work. On weekends we hosted American high school kids, who also ate communally and crossed the border daily. They did a little work, sure, like we did, but the main point was to introduce them to the realities of the Third World (we still called it that) generally, and of Tijuana uniquely: the cardboard shacks and the beggars, the maquiladoras sprouting up and exploiting child labor, the eerily silent orphanages where babies never cried because it did no good.
Back in the barracks at night, after a meatless spaghetti supper, we gave informal talks on international relations-thinly veiled socialist treatises and plain unavoidable truths-the PRI, the World Bank, the whole wide world complicit to these heinous crimes. Much as I agreed with the politics, I was growing uncomfortable with the professed simplicity. In each of the neighborhoods we visited, there were well-known families who changed religion or political affiliation at the drop of a hat to get more of whatever was being offered-food, clothing, pencils, balloons. Today a social democrat, tomorrow a Mormon. The proud Mexican kids at the orphanage playing soccer fist-fought over which team got to be the U.S., which had to be Mexico. Labels were interchangeable, meaningless. American. Mexican. Officer. Activist. Across all these clear bold lines, the vagaries of human nature freely crossed, and young as I was I could not wrap my mind around the complexities of this, of how humans interact with each other, the stark contrast of what we purport to believe and how we live.
A motorcycle pulls up, a Harley. Crazy Ray jumps off and stomps in to the Argus with a growl. It’s the first time I’ve seen him up close. He’s big, six four or more, wearing heavy riding boots and Levi’s, shirtless except for a leather vest that shows his graying chest hair. His forearms are coated with bicycle grease. A salt-and-pepper beard reaches down to his belt line but doesn’t mask the sun-roughened cheekbones or the furrowed brow. His hair is pulled back in a bushy ponytail topped by a faded ball cap. The cap reads: Rosarito is for Lovers. This must be the first time anyone around here has seen him up close because the Argus falls silent while Crazy Ray leans against the doorway picking dirt from under his fingernails, examining the decor, and eyeing the crowd with amusement. Or contempt. He grunts, turns, and disappears on the Harley into the dark.
“It must be true,”” the shaggy beard announces, and a murmur of excitement follows. The bartender searches for champagne.
I glance over at my coworkers. Someone must have run back to the barracks with news of a happening. The crowd has grown, and they shout eagerly to one another and kick a worn hacky sack that occasionally lands near the jukebox. When it does, one of the dancing Mexicans flicks it back.
My coworkers at Los Niños, especially the year-rounders, lived a dramatically more privileged life than my own. Most of them attended private colleges on the East Coast. Some drove European sports cars into San Diego on their days off. The guys dressed in Goodwill clothes-jeans with holes and thin cotton button-down shirts, the kind favored by Mexican laborers-too tight and too worn. The women wore long woven smocks, generically ethnic, and patchouli oil. Everyone wore huaraches. When I explained it to my mother, she shrugged.
“A silver spoon and a paper plate,” she said, as if this were normal, acceptable behavior. Inauthenticity, after all, is not a crime.
Midweek, some of the year-rounders stayed south of the border in a modest ranch-style home. They hauled water from a community well and used an outhouse and bought Coronas at the corner market by the case, then returned the empties for their deposits. They seemed happy. Their comfort zones were clearly broader than my own. They would have been as comfortable in a business suit, say, or sailing in the Mediterranean, as they were in a suburban Tijuana rambler, and I held it against them.
There was another volunteer, an acquaintance of mine from Eugene at Los Niños. On our days off, she and I went to visit my family in Riverside to eat hamburgers and shop at Kmart. Getting back to our roots, we called it, while we ridiculed those pseudo-hippie coworkers-the one I worked with most often was planning an aerobics class for the teenaged girls at an orphanage. Aerobics for girls who would almost certainly be prostitutes in a matter of months? I was skeptical, and I admitted that I was thinking about quitting Los Niños.
“Why don’t you teach swimming lessons?”
True, we took kids from various orphanages to public swimming pools once a week anyway. It was my favorite part of the job, if I had one.
“That’s crazy,” I said.
“No crazier than aerobics,” she said.
“For America! Do it for America!” yells an immense woman, a new arrival. The woman circulates an oversized turista sombrero collecting money.
“This preacher says we don’t got enough money to pay him. We gotta pay the man. This is America!”
Crumpled bills pile high. The Argus is packed as never before. I dig in my pocket for loose change to toss in the hat. Music scratches through the speakers, “La Bamba” yet again, and now everyone dances. A callused hand slips into mine.
“What’s your name?” I ask, leaning toward my partner. Before he can answer I am spinning away again, reaching for the closest hand in the crowd.
“Turn that thing off. I said turn it off. I’m about to get married here.” The immense woman has left and returned in a white and yellow striped strapless tent of a sundress. She is barefoot and stands on a table covered with empty bottles that has been pushed aside to widen the dance floor. She hollers red-faced long after the jukebox has been silenced.
A gentlemanly drunk reaches out and escorts her down first to a chair then to the floor. Searchlights flicker and flee as the Harley roars into the hush.
The bridegroom appears in the doorway across the bar. He is lit from behind by the Coke machine and proudly attired in an elegant woven robe draped loosely over boxer shorts and a faded Mickey Mouse tank top. His sandals flap loudly over giggles and gasps. He shakes out an American flag and wraps it around himself, partially around his bride. They fuss over it like morning bedcovers.
Crazy Ray grunts and nods to the preacher.
“Do you, Ray … ?”
Crazy Ray interrupts the preacher. “My name’s not Ray,” he says. “It’s Crazy Ray!” He shifts his weight to stand a little taller.
“Do you, Crazy Ray, take this woman … ?”
He does. She does. He pulls a ring from the robe pocket and places it in her nose. She does the same for him. The room explodes with laughter and cheers. Champagne sprays the grimy ceiling and soaks my shirt. The jukebox sparks up again mid-song. The new bride accepts dollar dances and parades across the floor dragging stars and stripes behind her. Crazy Ray rocks on a tipped chair in the corner wearing a permanent half-grin. When she remembers to, the bride races to him dramatically for a peck on the cheek, then she returns to the business at hand. We dance, all of us, until dawn: a loose weave tapestry of strangers held together by a hair-thin thread of joy.
Eventually night unravels into day. I gaze out, sleepless, to watch exhaust rising through still desert air as the orphanage vans warm up for another day, then stare down into the accumulated dust between my bare toes. By mid-morning fifty-seven kids, none of whom can swim, grip the too-high concrete lip of the pool and kick furiously. I holler myself hoarse in limited Spanish, blinded by the splashing. The Red Cross would say that I am teaching those kids just enough to be dangerous, but their lives are plenty dangerous already, and in such hot sun cool water is a relief, and this kicking, this wild wind-milling of arms gives all of us a fleeting sense of purpose and no small measure of glee.
The American teenagers urge the smallest kids to line up at the diving board, and I tread water, egg-beater kicking and waiting for them to pounce, coaxing them away from the edge in a cooing motherly tone, as I backpedal. I let them submerge then yank them back to the surface. Most places, kids would cry. In Tijuana, to a one, the kids arise gasping and choking and laughing, and I hold them tightly to my hip and sidestroke to safety. God help me, it’s all I know how to do.
Did Crazy Ray get married at the Argus? For real? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. I know it was, without rival, the best night-maybe the only good night-I had in my season on the border.. Crazy Ray lived eccentrically but deliberately, and one night he drew some people together. What if it was grand hoax, a giant scam in the name of America? God knows, it was neither the first nor the last. What if it was the real thing, whatever that is? Either way, I had an awfully good time. A few years later, when I took my first real creative writing class, Crazy Ray’s was the first story I wanted to write, though I didn’t know why. Years passed, and I kept trying. I wanted to capture the magic, I think, to show how community, like love and home and patriotism, could be as fleeting as helicopter search lights, as comforting and annoying as the same song played six thousand times on a jukebox, real even when it’s based on a deception, and how connections-spontaneous, unexpected, even ridiculous-are worth celebrating. Inauthenticity, after all, is not a crime.
By late afternoon the next day, I am driving the fourteen-passenger van north with a dozen American high school kids. As we slowly approach the tiny booth at la linea I disengage the clutch to inch forward and a small boy races across in front of the van, a garish Virgin Mary under one arm, Bart Simpson under the other. I barely miss him.
When we reach the front of the line, the border patrol guy recognizes me, or at least this Los Niños van, painted with huge smiling children’s faces on the side. He’s going to have some fun.
“Sing the ABC song,” he says.
“A,B,C … ” I begin. I do not even look at him.
What will come next is anyone’s guess, The Pledge of Allegiance maybe, or a quick American history quiz.
The border patrol guy grins and nods. “Pretty nice,” he says. “Real nice.” He leans his head past me, so close I can smell his body odor and his chewing gum. Big Red.
“Place of birth?” he asks.
“U.S.,” the teenagers mumble in turn, as they’ve been briefed to do, ad nauseum, for two days.
The teenagers have removed their sunglasses-also part of the briefing- and in the rear view mirror, they look, for once, small and a little scared.
“OK, OK,” the border patrol guy says, waving us past, safely into the U.S. again.
I gaze up at the gigantic American flag, too heavy to rise in the wind, and I accelerate with traffic.
As soon as we pull away, the kids are in hysterics.
“Sing it again,” they say. “Sing the ABC’s again.”
“ABC,” I begin, and the teenagers join in and together we sing loud as we exit the interstate and speed east, our backs to the setting sun.
(illustrations: john richen)
Excerpted from Ana Maria Spagna’s latest essay collection, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” Oregon State University Press, 2011. http://osupress.oregonstate.edu/book/potluck . Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes happily in remote Stehekin, Washington, where there are no phones, no stoplights, no taverns and no churches, but a very pretty river and many many trees. Her book, “Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey” won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. More from Ana Maria Spagna can be found on her website as well as in the Vault of Smoke.