I saw them up ahead, blatantly assessing the border traffic coming into Mexico, four older teens who looked tough enough to leave alone and a couple of hombres in their 20s who looked even rougher. One almost imperceptibly glanced at me before looking at a stocky thug who was some distance away on the other side. The thug started to walk toward the turnstiles where I was waiting. I could feel his attention as I approached the ten-foot-high sealed gates. His pace was too slow. I’ve seen it before; he was pacing me from the front, probably planning to mug me as soon as I got through the rotating bars, so he could throw my money (or whatever he hoped to get) back to his boys on the American side of the barrier. Or maybe he would push me into a van and hold me for ransom. The federales wouldn’t care; not as long as they got their cut. I was beginning to regret telling my assistant Jeff not to come along. He’d been through some pretty bad scrapes. But he had split after dropping me off on the U.S. side of a parking lot I knew from spending many hours trying to gather some sleep, or sober up, in whatever car I’d had at the time. I won’t ever miss the blistering Mexican sun, amplified through the windshield, drying and cracking the corners of my lips on hungover mornings, too inebriated on whatever yet prudent enough not to attempt the drive back to San Diego.
In the past year or two, Tijuana has been getting very dangerous, with increasing tourist abductions, the police being stripped of their weapons, drug cartels stepping up the trafficking and violence, and the army trying to enforce the law. Even many Southern Californian Mexicans are staying away from TJ. Soon I knew why. I’ve been lurking around the back streets and alleyways pretty much my whole life, and I have rarely seen a maneuver as blatant as these street kids were trying to pull on me as I came toward a taxi stand just the other side of the border. The FBI says 26 San Diego residents were abducted last year — and that’s only San Diegans. In a brief Internet search, I couldn’t find out how many others there might be, but someone estimated about 6 a month. Wow. But I didn’t know any of this the morning of April 11, 2008, when I sauntered across the border. I tried to look as casual as possible. After all, I’d been to TJ many times, and with more nefarious intent than a cheap root canal and a $20 extraction or two.
I’ve been hearing about Mexican dental work for a while now. For years, I’ve needed to get an old root canal fixed. Then two old fillings cracked, and I knew I’d have to get them taken care of before heading out to hike the Appalachian Trail for four months. I’m sure there are plenty of “Appalachian dentists” out there, but the idea of using a misapplied ice skate to extract a tooth and the subsequent recovery, while trying to carry a pack 20 miles a day, was unthinkable.
I could only imagine the vile poultice I’d have to cram in the socket, something from ole Grandma Jackson over in the holler, up the ways.
I’m a veteran, a U.S. Marine for ten years. I served in the Gulf and the Adriatic Sea in ’95. For some reason, the VA will provide us vets with health care but not dental, even when they were the ones who never finished my root canal in the first place. My “end of service” was up before it got crowned, and of course they lost my dental records on outprocessing. I see an awful lot of yellow ribbons out there, and if someone really wants to do something for a Marine, pay for his dental expenses, and then I’ll believe you.
Anyway, after consulting with a really nice old lady, after a gig in La Jolla — she went on about where she goes to get her teeth done — I decided it was time to take the chance. Especially since the estimated costs would be a quarter of what I would pay here, even with dental insurance, though, unsurprisingly, I don’t have it. So…off to Mexico! I don’t need to be told twice. “Washington Dental,” the old lady said, “that’s where I go.” It turns out that Washington Dental even has a Wiki, which bolstered my confidence. “Mexican teeth!” I said to myself. “Now maybe the coyotes won’t eat me.” I’d once heard that coyotes won’t eat dead Mexicans.
So, the thug was pacing me from the front and I wasn’t sure what to do; but I knew he wasn’t alone, and I would have to walk back past his crew to avoid going through the turnstiles. I decided to bank on the chaos move and turned sharply to walk behind him and past the lookouts. I glanced at them as innocuously as I could, and they relaxed, and I knew they had let it go. They probably had a specific setup that they ran, and only when the circumstance was just right did they strike. That’s what I would do. I breathed a sigh of relief but didn’t really relax; I upped my pace without running and jumped in the first cab on the sidewalk going toward Revolución.
“¡Calle Segundo, por favor! ¡Al dentisto!” I quipped. I didn’t know the address. Under the circumstances, I didn’t want to pull out my $400 Smartphone.
We weaved through third-world traffic, past no fewer than 30 dental clinics. Funny, I had never noticed before. When we pulled up to Washington Dental, I was a little disturbed at the condition of the building. I was still buzzed from adrenaline and unsure of the neighborhood. As it turns out, I had chosen the older clinic. There is a new state-of-the-art facility on Revolución.