It had been five years since I had toured the bars, discos, strip joints, and dollar-a-dance whore emporiums of Tijuana. I had been writing a novel back then, and I wanted to walk in the footsteps of my character, who was looking for a missing person. The idea this time would be, in a sense, looking for Tijuana itself, or rather the heart of Tijuana’s Saturday night.
I had a pocket full of money and a native guide named Fernando Castro who parks cars at the La Valencia Hotel in La Jolla. Fernando is 28. He grew up in TJ, and it was still his favorite place to barhop. Fernando speaks Spanish a lot better than I do, and he’s big. About six feet, 200 pounds, close-cropped hair, a neck as thick as a fireplug, and an earring stud in his left ear. Fernando is quiet and not the smiliest guy I’ve known. Overall, he gives the impression of someone you could hit with a lamppost and it wouldn’t ruin his night. I liked these qualities in someone I’d be drinking with at three in the morning in Zona Norte.
Fernando came by my place in North Park about 6:30. To the south, the half-moon hung like a blade in a darkening indigo sky. I threw an overnight bag in the bed of his Toyota truck and hopped in next to him. He had the Pretenders’ Learning to Crawl on the tape deck. In the headlights of oncoming cars and by the reflected light of the dashboard, he looked grim, as if we were on our way to identify a body instead of checking out nightlife south of the border.
Fernando and I hadn’t really talked to each other.We had shared a restaurant booth with some mutual friends one night. Mostly, I had just seen him around, parking cars.
“You married, Fernando?”
“No. I got a kid though, a boy.His name is Fernando You Used to See a Lot of Bras and Panties A DARK NIGHT IN TIJUANA: too. He’s five. I see him on the weekends.”
“Yeah. Same with me. So, ah… nobody’s gonna miss you, you don’t get back ’til 4 a.m. or whatever?”
From the speakers, Chrissie Hynde was singing about how she went back to Ohio, but her city was gone.
At the border, we were waved through. Talking, we missed the Centro turnoff and came up on TJ from the west, from the Ensenada road. First Avenue was jammed with people, as if some huge evacuation was taking place, a sudden,desperate population flow.Of course, that’s exactly what’s going on any night of the week.
Smoke from the taco carts — vendors frying carne asada and scallions, carnitas, tortillas, pork rinds, tongue, and goat’s head — with dust and clouds of exhaust from junk cars burning oil. It all rose skyward toward the gathering cloud layer lit from below by the neon of the strip along Revolución to create a roiling,murky ceiling.
Tijuana used to be much funkier. The main drag, tourist row — basically, Revolución, from First Avenue to Avenida Agua Caliente— is now a roughly equal balance of slick and sleaze. Just five years ago there was more dust and garbage. The place still has an immediately foreign feel to it — you don’t feel like you’re just out of town, you definitely know you’re out of the country. But in recent years, the impression of TJ being some thirdworld version of an American city has become more pronounced.
Lately, I haven’t had occasion to spend much time in TJ. The changes seemed sudden. I was curious about some of the new joints.They were reminders of time passing at the accelerated rate you become painfully aware of as you approach middle age.
We cruised First Avenue for a hotel room. I told Fernando he was welcome to crash in whatever room I could find. “Okay. Maybe. Thanks.”
We drove past Mariachi Square, down First, past El Tony Bar, Cielito Lindo, Hotel San Francisco, the Dragon Rojo Bar, Jockey Club, the Hotel Alaska, the Fantasy Bar. Fernando drove around a few blocks while I tried to find a room. A dozen places were booked up,but on Fourth Avenue, I found a room at the Adelita Hotel. I tossed my overnight bag on one of two single beds with faded roses on the spread and locked the door. Toilet, sink, bed. It was a room.
We parked the truck at the original Tijuana Tillie’s on Seventh,the oldest tourist well in town. Four bucks to park all night, another dollar for a tip. It wasn’t that long ago that two bucks took care of it. It was about eight o’clock. We walked through TJ Tillie’s swinging doors into the saloon, where manic, plodding disco/rap-music blared incongruously in a mostly empty room.Some 45 rpm records hung from the ceiling, along with a few hundred hats. We ordered two Dos Equis and looked around at the four American couples, the only other people in the bar. Two were in, say their 50s and seemed to have known each other for a long time. The men leaned against the bar and drank while the women sat at a nearby table. One of the men — short, white hair, pale yellow sport shirt over a white T-shirt— was smashed. He didn’t let go of his glass of El Presidente brandy, ice,and water while the bartender built him another drink. The one I figured for his wife kept looking sidelong at him and made exasperated faces at her lady friend. The other man,taller, thin, and bored looking, stared at the silent bank of television sets that had a Cubs baseball game, highlights from the dog races, rock videos, and soccer simultaneously winking and strobing in a dark corner. Were these people retired and traveling? The drunk definitely had that pickled, lost look seen on plenty of retired Americans down here, puzzling over a long career at some job that maybe didn’t add up to much.