Ciudad Acuña is a small Mexican border town near Del Rio, Texas. Day-tripping Americans come for shopping, cheap booze and a shot at depravity in the compact tourist zone near the international bridge. Occasionally, a misguided traveler will think Acuña offers more than these predictable attractions and ask a taxi driver to show him “Real Mexico.”
I was misguided when I ran into Diego. He was a short, strong-looking Mexican with a thick brown moustache and about three days’ stubble.
We agreed on a $20 tour of “everything to see in Acuña” and he pointed to a 1960-something Chevrolet that he swore was a taxi. The car was as scuffed and dirty as Diego’s boots.
“Hey, Diego, when’s the last time you washed this thing?” I asked.
“Hey, amigo, when’s the last time you try to keep a car clean in Acuña?”
“Why don’t you fix that busted windshield, then?”
“If I change the window every time some rock come through it, I’m even more poor, my friend.”
All this made sense, so I got in and we bounced up the road for nearly a hundred yards before he stopped at an open-air foundry, and without so much as a “Wait here a second,” or an “I’ll be right back,” he got out of the car. The lone welder shut off his torch and sat down with Diego on a wooden bench to smoke cigarettes.
Two or three cigarettes later, Diego got back in the car and said: “That sumbitch still owe me a hundred bucks for that TV I get him.”
“How’d you ‘get’ him a TV, Diego?” I asked. “You sure you’re a taxi driver?”
“That sumbitch still owe me a hundred bucks, amigo. What else you need to know?”
A seriously upset Mexican taxi driver who can’t see through his windshield is a tricky proposition, so two blocks up the road, when Diego suggested we stop for a beer, I agreed.
Inside an unpainted concrete-block box decorated with pictures of naked women on last year’s calendars and illuminated only by whatever light the doorway let in, Diego ordered two Tecates. After a few seconds’ silence, I knew it was my turn to buy.
Diego relaxed a little and said: “Last night, you know, my wife, she really piss me off. So I go out to drink beer and shoot pool. I drink beer all night. This morning I sleep an hour in the taxi. But now, I feel ‘tenso.’ You know… um…shaky.”
Then he swallowed half his Tecate, poured the rest in a plastic cup and said, “Let’s go. I show you some more things.” After a welding shop and a bar, what else could Diego show me?
In three minutes I knew. “We got some big factories in Acuña. Wanna see?”
The “wanna see?” was clearly rhetorical, because before I could say, “Why would I want to see a factory?” we were looking through a chain-link fence at a 300-foot-long windowless metal building and a couple of snarling scabby dogs that hoped we might be lunch.
“There!” Diego said, “Acuña got lots of big factories. I show you another one.”
Before we found the next big factory, though, Diego started feeling a little tenso again, and he stopped at another concrete block building.
It was bigger than the first one and it had electric lights and this year’s naked women calendars. It also had pool tables, and Diego confessed that in this upscale place he had taken refuge from his wife.
Several guys were shooting 8 ball for a lot more than fun and companionship. As Diego handed me a beer and waited for me to pay, he started shouting encouragement: “Fifty pesos you miss, you sumbitch!”
Several hundred pesos later he suddenly remembered he had a taxi passenger somewhere in the bar and challenged me to a game: “You break, Amigo.” I scratched on the break. Diego won. I bought two more beers and we resumed the tour.
Diego was now much less tenso than when we’d left the welching welder. But even though he was feeling better, I was starting to have bigger concerns than just a smashed-in, mud-streaked windshield when he said, “I think you don’t like factories, Amigo. Let’s go someplace new.”
I wasn’t surprised when “someplace new” was another lightless concrete Tecate dispensary. But the new place did feature a jukebox repairman testing whether he could play mariachi music loud enough to shatter bricks. Otherwise, though, everything about the new place, right down to the “gringo pays” rule, was just like the old places.
Before we settled into the music, Diego shouted something at me. There was no chance I could hear him, but when he picked up two plastic cups, I knew we were leaving.
About 90 seconds later, Diego fishtailed the Chevy to a stop in a cloud of dusty gravel, downed his beer in one noisy gulp and said: “You’ll like this place. It’s a Ladies Bar.”
The Ladies Bar was the first place we’d been that looked really threatening. The bartender might have been a lady, but you’d have needed a DNA test to be sure. Six drunk guys were arguing and pushing each other to emphasize points of major disagreement.
I was beginning to wonder what attraction this place could hold even for Diego when a female who definitely did not need DNA verification appeared at the side door, kicked a chicken out of the way and stepped into the bar. She put her arm around Diego. He kissed her and ordered three Tecates on the usual payment plan. He took the girl into a corner and left me alone with the angry men.
Diego didn’t put his beer in a cup. In fact he was starting to look pretty comfortable when one of the debaters got shoved hard to the floor and was reaching into his pocket when the bartender grabbed a baseball bat and came over the bar.
RIGHT THEN it was time for Diego to get the Gringo-Who-Hasn’t-Paid-Me-Yet out of the Ladies Bar and into the taxi.