Author: David Alton Dodd
Over a decade ago, I found myself stumbling around downtown Tijuana with a cup of coffee. It was in the early morning, before nine o’clock, before most Tijuanans were out and about. The wife and I, we were having issues, so I was renting a cheap but clean apartment near the old police station.
I had no kitchen, just a bed and a dresser and a radio and a lot of time. Those were the days when I made a living playing the ponies. I made rent and had plenty left over, certainly enough to get a cup of coffee.
I couldn’t sit still in those days. This had to be on a Monday or a Tuesday morning, both dark days in terms of betting a track, in that the main tracks were not racing. Otherwise, I would have already been at the race book, plotting and scheming. So I walked down Avenida Constitución and sipped my coffee and watched the locals meander on their way to wherever. Keep in mind, these were still the salad days of Tijuana. This was before the Twin Towers fell, before the border became a goddamn mess. It was a different place then than it is now.
The locals passed by; no one even looked up. Fish tacos! That cart was so amazing. The smells entered my nose and teased me, but my hangover told me to pass. Worst thing you can do with a hangover like mine was to eat on it. It’s like feeding a dragon — you don’t. The coffee was enough. The walk was good. And then, it happened. I was the target of a shell game.
The sun here will not be denied. To hell with those places that have no sun! The sun is here. Vitamin D for everyone. Welcome to Baja — pack some sunscreen. Yes, I know, it’s the middle of January, but you’ll thank me later.
My days are full. Lazy, but full. The propane trucks are coming earlier every day, and now it isn’t just honking but recorded music, too! There is a jingle that I won’t bother to translate, but basically the truck is singing a happy tune about enabling you to purchase a tank of propane. I suppose the idea is twofold: be annoying in a different way than simply honking the horn and attempt to make the purchase of a tank of propane gas some magical thing, like a visit to Disneyland.
I roll out of bed, make some coffee, and write for a while. What else is there?
In the afternoon, I go shopping. I take my Calimax club card, as though it is an enchanted artifact. I buy ingredients to put together for dinner. Sometimes I buy a bottle of tequila. When I pay for the items, they always ask for my magic card. Without it, I might as well have entered the store naked. They scan the card and hand it back, I pay for the items and tip the person bagging my groceries, and I step back out into the hot sun. During the walk home, I imagine that if there is a god of transaction, then I have certainly done my part to make that god happy.
Once home, I peruse the receipt and see that I saved 60 cents on a 15-dollar purchase.
I decide to get even. I realize that the card is nothing more than a tool for the grocery chain to analyze purchases. People who buy a head of lettuce are likely to purchase two onions. Shoppers carting off a couple of pounds of ground sirloin are likely to add a package of hamburger buns and a bottle of catsup. And so on. Then there’s me: a bag of serranos, a jar of apple sauce, two pints of sour cream, a half-kilo of bacon, a liter of tequila, and a 40-watt lightbulb. Good luck analyzing that, Calimax.
That’s my own little shell game, patent pending.
So it was 12 or 13 years ago, and there it was, the game, and they went way out of their way to pull me into it. The old man behind the cloth-covered crate fumbled while trying to hide the ball, giving away the location as if he had lost his magic touch. A 20-dollar bill went down — some “passerby” yanked it out of his pocket and slapped it down on the table. And there it was, the ball, right where he pointed. The crowd cheered.
Nine in the morning, and someone yanks a Jackson out of their pocket? In Tijuana? Sober? Of course, the game went on, and they were all in on it and urging me to participate. I knew better. After a few more 20-dollar bills went down, successfully compensated, I told the guy that was the most vocal that, unlike them, I didn’t walk out onto the street with big money.
So they moved on, upset, looking for tourists, I imagine. I was delighted. Free entertainment. That old man was a magician.
I read this morning that the tiny and precariously positioned country of Taiwan fired some test missiles, ostensibly as a show of force and a means of defense against China. Apparently, almost a third of those missiles failed to strike their target, in full view of world media. That old man is right back at it. He fumbles that ball — damn it, he just can’t help it — and you know where it’s at, and someone is urging you to plunk down a twenty and make a wager. The United States of America is the mark, right? Stupid simple.
It’s the same damned story. I could never look at another newspaper, and I wouldn’t be missing a thing. It’s all just a shell game. The minute you don’t play is the minute you start to get smart. Next time you swipe that club card, do humanity a favor: buy some dog food, a flashlight, and a can of corn. You’ll screw the game, and it isn’t like you’re not going to use those items in the long run. After all, the moment you plunk down the money, that old man is magically going to get his shell game back.
Tomorrow will be hot again. Do yourself a favor if you venture to Baja: remember the sunscreen.