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Gambling is deep In the blood of Mexicans

Cockfighting, horse and dog racing, bullfighting — just a mile from San Diego

"When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and Hollywood stars came here to play, my pop would play up with any of them." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and Hollywood stars came here to play, my pop would play up with any of them."

STREET GAMES

The streets north of Tijuana’s Avenida Juarez are not the kind of neighborhood for people like me. So when I have reasons to walk there, I always learn things. Some of the things are funny or horrible. And sometimes they are magic.There was a big knot of people between the buses and buildings on First Avenue, and I would have had to brush against some pretty dirty and probably touchy people, so I walked into the street to get past them.

"With ten dogs in each race, there would be one million possibilities."

I was almost around the crowd when I saw they were watching some sort of game. A handsome muchacho in his 20s, wearing the typical black narco-cowboy clothes, was moving three aluminum bottle caps back and forth on a cardboard poster laid on top of a garbage can. I stood behind him, watching him move the caps, and saw a fried green pea rolling under the caps as he swished them. We used to call the game “Where is Granny?”

Should I point out that Jorge Hank Rhon owns both of those two nice buildings? In addition to all of these betting books all over Baja California?

The caps tilted away from him a little, and I was sure I was the only one who could see the pea. If I’d been taller I wouldn’t have noticed it. I very clearly saw the pea under the cap to my right when he stopped and asked for bets. Another young fellow with a lot of assurance held up 10,000 pesos to him, but he made a sour face that made people laugh. Twenty thousand, then. Well, okay; where is she? The bettor smiled like a winner and touched the middle cap. I smiled and shook my head and, thinking the game was over, pointed at the cap on the right.

You look who’s betting — the people. Beggars are sitting there watching the Santa Anita results.

The muchacho kept his hands away from the board, told the betting man to test his luck. No pea under the middle cap. Sorry, amigo. So what’s 20,000 worth these days anyway, right?

But two men in their 40s with very expensive clothes and briefcases were taking interest. One of them, who had been looking directly at me when I pointed to the cap on the right, reached out to tip that cap over. Wait a minute, wait a minute; if the sefior is interested, he needs to make it interesting. The man laughed and reached in his pockets. His friend was telling him what a chance it was, the odds reduced to one against one, but he couldn't find any money. This kind of man writes checks and uses Banamex VISA. The crowd was waiting, suspecting him of making excuses.

His friend offered a few thousand pesos from his own pocket. No, wait. The man had become totally committed, a professional executive whose decision had been made. He pulled out his wallet, an accordion ' plastic cards. The muchacho said sorry, hut he really couldn't take American Express, and the crowd laughed at the way he pronounced the English words. The briefcase man pulled a folded hill from behind one of the cards and unfolded it. It was a $100 hill, more than a quarter of a million pesos. That shut up the crowd.

The muchacho in charge waved the man off; he couldn’t possibly let the man lose so much money. The man insisted, and the crowd started to shift to his side. Now who is making excuses? Embarrassing for the muchacho, who had to admit he couldn't even match the wager. The crowd laughed at him. The executive could sense his victory and was gracious about it; he would wager the bill against whatever he had in his pockets. And his belt. It was a nice enough belt, with a turquoise buckle, but mostly the man wanted to see the younger man have to strip the belt off in public, hold up his pants with his hand. A sly piece of macho symbolism. The younger man looked down at his belt, shrugged, and motioned at the bottle caps, which had been sitting untouched. The executive was very relaxed and cheerful as he reached out and turned the right-hand cap over empty. He didn’t even glance when the muchacho tipped the left-hand cap to show the pea, he just stared at the place where there was not a pea.

The muchacho took the hundred dollars almost apologetically and praised the older man for being a sportsman and for having big huevos. Just not such good luck. Anyone else want to have a try? The man who only lost 20,000 said it was too much for him, and the crowd seemed to agree, moving away from the game. The 20,000-peso loser started talking to the $100 man, asking how was it possible, what could have gone wrong? The executive just shook his head, but the conversation around him got very excited. I watched the executive, trying to see if he would look at me, if he was so convinced because of the movement I made. I was completely stunned myself. I saw the pea there. The man’s loss was impossible. I looked at the board again to see if there was some explanation, and the bottlecap cowboy was gone.

As you might expect, I didn’t forget about that little game in the street. I had been amazed, had felt guilty, felt like I had been a fool, but mostly it was the curiosity and wonder about how things happen that has eaten at my mind since I was a schoolgirl. I was doomed from an early age to write for newspapers.

The man with the briefcase may have more credit, but I have better luck. Two weeks later I was taking a bus to the linea and saw the muchacho from the bottlecap game get on the bus with another young man who I later realized was the small loser in the pea game. They looked around, taking everyone’s measurement. I don’t know if we looked too smart for games or too stupid to know much about music, because they started singing. They did a sentimental old ranchero tune a little too experienced to sound right from boys of their age, one singing a harmony slightly delayed behind the other. They were truly terrible. But they still collected a few coins and smiles. I pulled out my purse and looked around in it while the bus emptied, then told the boys I would buy them both a drink, or several drinks, in the Scorpion Bar if they would talk to me awhile. They didn’t even look at each other before saying yes. They probably assumed I was a lonely housewife in search of a youth movement. Mexican men can be counted on to draw that conclusion easily.

They had several sips of expensive tequila before I told them I’d seen their game downtown and wanted to know more. One boy looked startled, the other just winked at me and made a pincer sign with his finger and thumb. I didn’t have to pay much. They were on their way out of town. They mentioned recent talks with the police, conversations in which money had also changed hands but which they’d found less enjoyable. They have a poor opinion of local policemen, which is apparently mutual.

They gave their names as “Pancho” and “Paco,” which might even have been true, but they call themselves “Los Allala,” a name that could be interpreted at several devious levels. Shockingly, they think of themselves primarily as a musical group. It appears that the group varies in size, always including my informants, but sometimes having as many as eight members. Other than future musical stardom, the purpose of the group is, as they put it, desplumar pichones — plucking the feathers of “pigeons.” The $100 performance I had seen was one of their repertoire pieces called la corcholata, but they knew other classic tunes and were capable of spontaneous improvisation.

“You are surprised I wasn’t working alone?” Pancho smiled at me, shaking his head as though our ages were reversed. “You still don’t know that there were three others working with us. When you approach a game like that on the streets, you should assume that you are the only one not on the payroll, see? The whole thing will be for your benefit. Like a troupe of actors, you see? You come in, you pay, you are entertained. The more fun you have, the more you pay. It’s very fair and progressive, the corcholata. ”

The day I saw the group perform, there had been four riatas in front of Pancho, the una, who moved the caps. All of them were betting and commenting to make the “pigeons” bet. “It’s mostly a matter of making men feel that their macho demands that they play the manly game,” Pancho said. “The riatas are just trying to make that happen. Everyone, even a man who spits and walks off cursing the una, is actually playing against the pichon whose money we are trying to earn.”

Even me, I said. Paco laughed, saying, “Yes. You were beautiful, pointing to the cap like that.” Had they let me see the pea on purpose? “You and a few other people. Though most react only with their eyes.”

But the man with the $100 bill wasn’t part of the troupe, was he? “Fortunately, no. But we’d have to say he played his part magnificently, no?” Paco laughed again, “Much better than we normally expect from an amateur. We could use more volunteers like him.”

But I very definitely saw the pea under the right-hand cap, and Pancho didn’t touch it again. How did it get into the other cup? Both boys smiled at me like adults with a secret from a child. Pancho said, “Well, that is our real trade, see? We had to apprentice ourselves to learn it, and it wouldn’t be fair to our ‘union’ to pass it on, at least for so little money. But I can tell you this much...” Yes? He spread his hands and looked up as if watching something fly from his palms. He said, “It’s magic.”

I hadn’t expected any lessons, so I wasn’t disappointed. The boys raised their glasses to drink my health, and when I tapped my own glass against theirs I suddenly noticed a dried pea floating in it. The boys laughed at my face, and I bought them more drinks. The pea in my glass was completely impossible, of course. Or maybe the waiter was part of their group. Or the tequila bottler? I have kept the pea to serve me as a lesson in the uses of magic.

But Los Allala have other talents. They have done a little bit of everything, depending upon what numbers, resources, and opportunities they have at any time. “Last year we did very well passing counterfeit American $20 bills, especially down south in tourist places. It was a great idea that worked until too many people got in it and everyone was alerted. See, an American 20 is a pretty big bill — over 60,000 pesos — but very common with Americans, they pass them out all the time. They’re as easy to print here as up there, but our edge was that Mexicans are less familiar with them, haven’t handled them all their lives, see?

The first ones we had were great, some of the best falso I’ve ever seen. I heard an old guy in Mazatlan was making it, using government printing presses. Then there was more around, poor quality. It felt false, toilet paper compared to our stuff. The feel is the most important thing, see? We’re passing it to Mexicans; they wouldn’t even know if the words were misspelled. I wouldn’t know myself. But if the color is close enough and it has that same cloth feel as peso bills, they take it. We put it in the pockets of Levi’s and ran it through a washing machine until it felt old enough. About three times. The ink faded a little too, made it look better. Perfect, in fact.

We were paying just under 15,000 barros for paper worth 60,000, making almost $15 per ‘bite.’ But the flood of cheap falso made everybody start looking at the 20s, and the odds went down. Then we couldn’t even get the good stuff anymore. That’s Mexico for you — it’s like one guy puts up a little palapa on a beach to sell shrimp, next time there’s 10,20, a pile of them, and nobody’s making a living. It’s a shame, but that’s how this business is. Things work too well, they go out of circulation for a while. But if you listen to the old guys, they’ll tell you that everything comes back sometime later.”

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Los Allala also learned what they call “the soft-change game” in Los Angeles — they give a fairly large bill like an American 20 or Mexican 50,000 pesos for merchandise worth a little more than a dollar, then change their mind and start a confusing series of exchanges that leaves the seller with less money than before he sold to them. That game is hard to play in Mexico, where money is dearer and eyes are sharper. But still, there are times.... Or, I should say, there are people. “That’s what we are looking for, not the right location or plan. We are looking for the right person at the right time. The little girl whose father just stepped out for a beer and left her in charge, the record store clerk flirting with a pretty girl and wanting to look quick and casual. We just walk around the streets expecting our chance.”

And it is a chance. “You are taking chances every time you do something like that. Sometimes the drooling, half-blind fool at the fonda turns out to be a sharp old goat after all. Or the little girl watching her mama’s stand is some sort of arithmetic genius and calls her two-meter cousin over to straighten things out. Once we tried to sell the old ‘ticket to Los Angeles’ to a policeman’s wife who was just at the bus station waiting for her sister to come in. Maybe we can play stupid and talk our way out. Maybe we have to run for it. It’s a gamble every time we open up our shop. So you see? We are gamblers. We’re risking our nachas out here. Funny thing, though. When we’re just doing our normal business, we’re taking risks; but when we’re running games of chance, there’s no risk involved at all. It’s the oldest joke in the ‘show.’ The pigeon says, ‘Well, I don’t play games of chance.’ And we say, ‘Yeah, brother, neither do we.’ ”

DEATH GAMES

I went to the palenque to hear Ana Gabriel sing, not to see roosters tear each other apart. But the roosters came before Srta. Gabriel. I am by no means a follower of rooster fights.

Less from humanity, I think, than from boredom. Nevertheless, the palenque is an important Mexican cultural event, where the ambience, history, and behavior of the others attending is more interesting than what occurs in the fighting pit. I think it is indispensable in understanding the behavior of Mexican men. The behavior of Mexican women is completely beyond my comprehension.

Palenque used to be a village affair, a tournament of fighting cocks with auxiliary events like music, dancing, feasting, drunkenness, and fighting. The combination of competition with other ranches and towns, heavy betting, family feuds, and a macho party attitude could usually be counted on to produce injuries, pregnancies, and other personal disasters. In the corridos, like the corrido delgallcro as sung by Vincente Fernandez, the hero rides in on his wonderful horse with his beautiful gallo, wins all the money, shoots anyone who objects, and rides off with his blushing chinaca behind him on the saddle.

It took me most of my life to realize that the behavior of humans at palenque is influenced by the behavior of the gorgeous birds that are the stars of the show. They are the emphatically beautiful, the strutting perfection of animal masculinity, genetically preordained to impregnate any female and kill any male that their eye should fall on. The men, especially after a bottle of tequila or mescal, are impressed by this display and emulate it in the way men everywhere emulate their sports heroes.

The only female models in this most male of diversions are singers who come into the ring later, when cloths have been thrown over the splatters of blood. They dress sexy or like cowgirls in a ring of male musicians — delicate, protected flowers. Though they might step to the side of the ring to receive flowers or an adoring kiss of the hand from admirers. In the days before television, the colorful, violent palenque traditions were a core of local life and inspired many songs and paintings, in addition to lifestyles.

Today in Tijuana it is a quieter affair. The men dress as usual, there are no horses tied outside for getaways or spontaneous racing. The musicians play electric instruments, the people sit on permanent cement seats. The night I saw Ana Gabriel, there were only three fights among men in the seats and then only with fists, not knives or guns.

The brave roosters attack each other each time they are fronted and released, sometimes in fierce, slashing aerial acrobatics, other times merely staggering toward each other until one is too exhausted to respond, and the other is the “winner.” But still the men watch the way the cocks inflate into furious balls of bright feathers, the way they keep returning to the fight even when they are trailing blood, the way they will risk dying over the chance to continue the line of their seed. The men are very interested in all of this and in which cock will win. The air is full of flying green tennis balls as bets are placed, each ball slit to hold bet receipts when boys throw them into the crowd and money when they are thrown back. As the balls fly around, the men watch their champions perform.

Maybe it was my thoughts about fighting cocks as role models, but I was very shocked to see one of the galleros give a cock several shots just minutes before placing him in the ring. My curiosity led me to explanations from a man who admits that cocks are the most significant things in his life.

He explains, at least the part about the injections, “That’s a unique thing about gallos — it’s not like horse racing or the Olympics, where you get in trouble for doping. You can give the birds whatever drugs you think they need. They sell all these pills to thicken the blood so there won’t be easy bleeding or internal hemorrhage; everything from vitamin K to defatted liver hemoglobin cells. There are analgesics — they say ‘non-narcotic,’ right? — to add ‘bottom’ to a bird, make him more game. You can get electrolytes, caffeine compounds, all those central nervous system stimulants. They’re mostly based on nux vomica, which is actually strychnine. You can get testosterone capsules, steroids to build their muscles during the keep. You can give them amphetamines and cocaine if you want. I’ve seen people shoot a mixture of cocaine and heroin into a bird. They even advertise this ‘Hot Shot’ that comes in time-release pills or ampules for last-minute injections. Their logo says, 'No Bleed, No Die, Just Fight, Fight, Fight.’ It’s supposed to create a killing frenzy that actually allows the bird to kick and fight beyond normal death. Well...I don’t know. Everyone knows a bird can run and fly with his head cut off, but I don’t believe a dead bird can still fight.”

But he doesn’t believe in using such drugs on his own birds, “except vitamin K against bleeding. I could say it’s philosophical;

I don’t like the idea of having a bunch of drogadictos. But the truth is, I don’t think those things work. I know a guy who really believes in steroids. His birds get these big, strong breasts and legs, there’s no doubt. And they win a lot. But they also lose a lot. The steroids make them demented, they have no concentration, no game. It damages their macho, their maleness.

“So if his kind of pollo loco could always beat my birds, I guess I’d have to try his methods. But they don’t. And for every gallero out there using a whole drug store on his cocks, there’s some country boy saying the reason his bird has just won 22 straight fights is because he keeps them on natural grass pasture with such and such seed and fertilizer and so many goats to fertilize and keep the grasshoppers stirred up so the cocks can kill and eat them.

“Also, to me, there’s this question. Understand, to me the big thing is producing these birds, creating winners. When my bird wins, it’s like...like my painting got a prize. My wife says I play God with my cocks, and in a way I do. I love these birds, and I can’t imagine giving them strychnine or cocaine. But what if I had to, to keep them alive? What if it worked? Would those wins breed true? No. You’d end up with chickens that can’t win without drugs. My birds breed true. I breed for a smart, agile, game bird — that’s what I admire. And every bird, every fight, every little wingbeat or flick of the feet in every fight is a characteristic of that bird’s lineage. Those drug store cockers cheat the future generations. I don’t.”

What techniques does he use, if not chemicals? “First of all, you choose the breeding stock to produce the best birds. You look at other cocks and hens, judging their qualities. You look for certain obvious signs. A big, strong tail is important for guiding the attack flight and also for support when they are pushed back on it. If they put their feet down, they are doomed. And a deep, strong breast, a good neck. The wings are the most important because they fly into each other. They could have bad legs and still win if they have the power in their wings.

“But beyond that there are things I look at that I couldn’t explain. Like feather color. I’m looking at a certain Kelso cross and maybe comparing the color to other crosses I’ve seen. These are not unrelated characteristics, they are all part of the genetic package. The deadliness and beauty come together. All my birds are giros, a three-quarter cross from Red Fox Grey stock, bloodlines pioneered by Oscar Akins and Johnny Jumper. I find them the most beautiful of birds, and I believe they are the winningest, the very best fighters with one-inch blades.

“Every other giro I ever see, I’m looking at it, comparing my birds to it. If I see something I want, I might buy a stud from that farm. I recently paid $800 for a pure Grey rooster, just to get his seed for the future. I see hundreds of Greys and would recognize them again in a minute, though to most people they look the same. As my wife says, ‘They’d all look the same to Colonel Sanders.’ Sometimes when you talk to cockers you’d think you were in a genetics class at the university — but hens are more important than the roosters in producing good fighters. Especially when you’re breeding for bottom. The game streak comes from the hens.

“You have to cross; pure strains are not the best fighters. So you cross and hope to get something better. When you find a good mixture, you breed brother to sister, trying to isolate the good traits. This always produces the best animals. It also produces the worst animals, but you just discard those and work with the good ones.

“When I say the ‘best’ birds, you understand that !’m talking about the best for a certain type of fight. Mostly, for a certain kind of weapon. The Hawaiian tradition is almost completely an aerial show, one big jump to death. In Asia they use very long knives. The Filipino weapon is two and a half inches long. So you want a very fast, agile bird.

“In the United States they use gaffs, round, pointed spikes, like a nail. There is a lot of beating with the sides of the gaff, and you hear gringo cockers talking about how to control internal bleeding. In Mexico we mostly use the one-inch navaja, curved like a saber and sharpened on the inside of the curve. This requires a much gamer bird than the Asian fighting. But by ‘game’ I mean a bird with bottom, that will hang in there, take wounds, and keep fighting, survive out of sheer will to dominate. A bird with endurance and guts. Now Cuban fighting is with the bird’s natural spurs. It’s very hard for them to kill; a fight can last for hours. So you see these big, strong birds like Blue Cubans or Toppies, birds of Spanish Jerezano bloodlines.

“If you think about it, what would be the ‘best’ human body type for fighting? Obviously for fist-fighting you’d want a big, strong MikeTyson type of individual. But if the fight is with straight razors, where one touch could mean death, you’d want a very fast individual with long arms and quick hands. A Bruce Lee type or better yet, Michael Jordan. I’ll tell you, boxing would have a different mystique if the loser died. Or if we could breed fighters.

“Speaking of fighting with a naked heel, those are the most brutal, bloody fights. But that is the natural mode. People think it’s so cruel and barbaric to strap knives on these birds and let them fight to the death. But that’s their natural way, their genetic programming. We breed and feed and train them — give them a better chance, make them better fighters, with better seed. And we give them steel navajas to fight with, better than the spurs they are born with. They will fight to the death anyway. With the navajas it’s less painful, more humane. Would you rather be stabbed to death or beaten to death? With a steel weapon, a bird can sometimes kill his enemy instantly with a clean cut on the very first jump. Is that so brutal? They are just chickens, you know.”

After choosing, breeding, and feeding the birds, there is the matter of conditioning. “The results comes down to the keep. It’s a final conditioning period before a fight, an isolation and intense training to bring the bird to its lowest weight and peak of stamina, speed, and endurance. Just like any athletic training, really. A keep can be anything from 3 to 20 days, and you can buy all these courses and programs on how to do it — what exercises, what food, how much water, periods of rest, periods of light and darkness.

“I do a lot of jumping with my birds to build the wings. You pick them up at the tail a certain way, and they have to flap their wings or they’ll roll over on their face. They have no choice but to get stronger. Meanwhile, I’m giving them a feeding I’ve developed over years. Some people will be giving them steroids during the keep, vitamins, all sorts of things. I play a radio really loud while I’m training them, real obnoxious stations, to get them used to noise. Otherwise they might be distracted in the pit with all the yelling. The keep is a very intense, intimate period with the birds, and by the end of it they’re at their fighting perfection. To me it’s the most enjoyable part of bringing them from an egg to a victory. My methods are totally individual, most winning cockers have their unique methods. And there are some who say the best training for winning fighters is ‘incubator conditioning.’ That is to say, giving a bird the best parents.

“I used to do everything, including handling the birds in the pit. But when you’re fighting thousand-dollar birds for big money, you specialize more. I work with two other fighters, who are good at the palenque but bored with breeding. Alberto, we call him ‘Cacho,’ is our amarador; he does the heeling, putting the weapons in place, which is a pretty important job since it all comes down, finally, to the point of the spike. I let him saw the spurs off their legs in the first place so the stump will be just like he wants it. Before the fight he covers the stump with a little sock, the botana, or a moleskin. Then he chooses just the right weapon.

“He has a big collection of navajas, and you’d be surprised what those little knives cost. I’ve seen him pay $90 apiece for some Filipino weapons. I have some $50 bayonets myself. The length of the weapon is limited by the rules of the fight, of course. But he picks a weight and curvature he thinks best for the particular cock. The cocks strike with an oval motion, both legs rotate across and cross at the ankle. But each one has a little different motion, and you want the point coming straight in. If there is not enough curve, the point might hit the ground; too much and he will be striking with the back of the blade. You can’t train the motion, it’s instinctive, one of the qualities you breed for. So you choose the right tool. Cacho has good eyes for these things, differences of millimeters in a motion almost too fast to be seen.

“So he fits the socket of the weapon over the botana, then ties it on with special strings made just for that purpose. Strong, fiat, light. Like lacing the gloves on a boxer. He has good hands for it, always gets it on perfect. You can’t exaggerate the importance of a bird being well-heeled. Then he puts a sheath over the navaja for protection and turns him over to Chuy, the esoltador.

“Chuy is another specialist; he handles the bird and lets him loose. Part of what he does is the feeling the birds get in his hands. Nothing I could explain, but he sends signals to the bird; just in the way he touches him he signals, I don’t know, calm, confidence, a sort of aura. If that sounds too spiritual for you, you should realize that almost everything the birds do from the first displays to the final death is a complicated set of signals to each other. Chuy sends the same signals to the cock that the bird itself is sending: it’s already over. When he steps up to the line, Chuy is watching the other bird, the other esoltador, looking for anything false, anything he doesn’t like, maybe just suddenly realizing that we can’t win it. He can quit the fight any time, up until the arbitro takes the sheath off the navaja and wipes it with lemon juice to make sure it’s clean and not poisoned. Then the birds are crossed and there is no backing down.

“Chuy holds the bird just so, for the best release, its legs held up in the right ‘V’ position for the initial attack. And he releases it with just the right touch, the right timing. And he’s got to be ready to grab the bird the second he hears the command to handle. Too quick, you’re disqualified; too late, maybe your bird is dead from a lucky shot. Before the birds are faced the second time, Chuy can nurse the bird a little. A lot of it is just his hands, but he knows everything to do to combat shock, bring a bird back into the spirit. You can’t use any medicine or anything on the bird during the fight, not even chalk for bleeding, only hands and breath.

“For instance, if the bird is losing blood or experiencing shock, his crest will start to pale, a bad sign and possibly one that will be interpreted by the other bird. But it is permitted for the handler to blow or suck on the comb, pulling blood into it. This does much to bring a cock around into fighting spirit. On the other hand, it is prohibited to place a finger in the bird’s vent and stimulate his testicles. Somebody decided a long time ago how much of this behavior with fowls is fair to use in a fight.

“If there is no win in the second facing, the birds are moved in and placed at the short-range marks, las cortas, the final period. This is where a good handler can win a fight. By now both birds will be bleeding, shocked, and close to death. And at the cortas, the birds are not released, just placed on the ground. You have to hold them by the feathers on their backs and set them down, then let them go. Sometimes one or both birds will just sit there, sometimes they are already dead when they are released. There is a rule about birds falling over dead. The bird whose beak touches the ground first loses. So it sometimes happens that a dead bird, if the handler has placed it just right, might stay erect, while a live bird tries to attack, then falls over and loses. So a dead bird can win a fight after all. If he does, give credit to the esoltador.

“Of course, most of the people know nothing about cocks. The betting is the thing, and the money is very serious. At the Califomias Fair tournament, you pay a deposit of 20,000 pesos just to get in. Twenty million pesos minimum first prize. Seven thousand dollars. U.S. tournaments have $50,000 purses; in the Philippines you see prizes of $ 120,000, single bets of $ 18,000. And that’s where the real money is, the bets. You don’t just walk in and put down the money. You have to have prestigio, a record. You have to be a contender.

“The way it works is that each fight has a favorite, either from the red side of the ring or the green side. The other bird is wagered at a handicap. So at 80 percent you can bet $8 against the favorite and win ten. Or bet 10 on the favorite and only win 8. The lowest discount is 70 percent. Less a match than that would be ridiculous. So an inferior bird doesn’t get into the real fights. Some cockers just buy their way in, but nobody respects it. Like people know when a boxer is fighting some punk who shouldn’t even be in the same ring.

“It’s not a game where you think about luck, but there’s luck involved. Some nights the favorites win every fight, sometimes none. Maybe you have a really great bird against some loser that is laid off at 70 percent, but in the first attack your bird just thrusts his breast right onto the navaja by pure fluke. What can you do then? Pick up your bird and pay off, that’s all. No matter you’ve thought of everything.

“But is life so different? Listen what happened to me, to us, last fall. You know fighting cocks is legal in Mexico, but it’s illegal to bet on them, which comes to the same thing. People think of this as a Mexican sport, but it’s actually illegal here. It’s biggest in the United States, completely legal in Arizona, Texas, and some other states. All of the gear for fighting comes from North American suppliers; the cages, the feed, the drugs, the scorekeeping software, the videos on genetics and sparring and heeling and training and dominant selection.

“But here in Mexico palenque is actually against the law. No problem, you buy off the law. Or you ‘prestige’ them off. I’m sure you know that 90 percent of the big bettors are mafiosos and drug traffickers. Who else has that kind of money? You see a man bet $10,000 on a single fight at 85 percent against the favorite, you know he didn’t get the money selling carne asada. So the mordida is in, everything is okay, and everyone is happy; the Mexican way. The pit at La Gloria pays off the judiciales in one district, the Floriao pit pays off their own. Every detail attended to.

“But in November, President Salinas comes to town and brings a bunch of capital city federales with him. These guys have no ‘turf,’ no loyalty, no payoff, no respect. They just gobble up everything they see. So they raid the palenque at La Gloria. Grabbed everybody there and took us to jail. They confiscated all my betting money, my birds, my equipment — probably over $2000 worth — then they set me a $1500 bail and are thinking over how much they are going to fine me. And they put me on six months’ probation so I can’t risk going to a fight. And they shut down the La Gloria pit. They arrested 200 people, but when the story went out in the newspaper there were 25 names listed. Mine, of course, but nobody from Chapu who drives a Cherokee and wears thousand-dollar suits, right? Those rich mafioso bastards probably even got their money back. But you see what I mean? You can plan everything, pay the toll, work hard...and still you get the fregada.

“I’ll get the money back, get back into the game. Because money is not everything here. What’s important to me is that my birds can compete against anyone, that I have personally bred winning fighters, watch them fight to prove their blood, do all I can to improve that blood. It doesn’t matter to me if a cock of mine wins or loses as long as he fights game.

“There’s an old joke that people aren’t as smart as cocks because cocks never bet on people. But don’t they? Aren’t they really betting their lives that I’ve done them right? I’m more than their trainer; I’m like God to them. I chose who their parents would be, what they would be like. I feed them what I want and make them do all these strange things...I make decisions that will make them live or die. And they don’t even know it. They probably think I’m just a pair of hands.”

After you listen to enough of these hymns about cockfighting, you realize they are all, above all, romances. Romance between a man and his bird.

The point is, the relationship between gallo and gallero is an intimate one beyond the usual scope of sport; it is a relationship of affection, pride, possession — a living, a bond to the death. Men who hardly speak to their wives spend hours stroking, grooming, and crooning to their roosters. To win is more than having thrown a ball or horseshoe correctly, to lose is far more than watching dice roll to an unfortunate number. The art of palenque always shows two birds in full display clashing in spectacular viciousness. The moment I would commemorate is what I see as a touching and vulnerable moment, a man kneeling just before releasing his bird, holding his hopes and feelings in his hand like a clump of beautiful, fragile feathers, trying as no lover ever has done to project his will past the barriers of flesh and live for a brief, bloody instant in the gleaming eye of a being he loves to the death.

LIFE GAMES

You’re right,” the man sitting in the club seats at the jai alai book told me, “those guys are in love with those birds. But they’re just chickens after all; beautiful, but brainless as cabbages. Lots of those guys love their roosters more than their wives. Like that Vincente Ferndndez record, ‘Today I’m Talking to My Cock.’ Well, I don’t find chickens so good for conversation myself. Those guys...well, probably they loved their wives that well when they first knew them. When they were girls. Beautiful and brainless. Actually, I bet on cocks myself. But a business relationship, not mooning over some damned rooster."

He’s a man of average size and looks and obviously very much at home in the jai alai fronton and the betting book next door. His clothing is very flamante, a cobalt silk shirt and daringly pleated carbon pants — clothes that look fast and disreputable on a man in his 40s.

“I can see what you’re thinking. The cheap, superficial gambler with fancy clothes he can’t really afford. Am I right?” Well, maybe I did have some thoughts like that.

“You know who I am, then. Flashy, temporary. I’m a hippodrome whore. But I know who you are, too. Just by looking at your clothes, hearing your questions. I’m what you want for your story, am I right? So you’re after a little cheap excitement from the dark edges of life to shock your conservative readers. Am I right?” Well, yes, here I am.

“But what if I tell you that I’m a working man, an ordinary person with a family, doing the best I know to keep my life on its legs? What if I told you that gaming is a big industry in Tijuana and always has been? Or that it’s a major part of the local economy and society? Would that make it all too boring for you, would it?

“What do you think of the jai alai? A nice piece of brick, am I right? And you’ve seen the hippodrome? The park, the zoo, the statues, the nice building? It used to be even nicer, like stepping out of a garbage pile into a dream. You realize it’s one of the oldest buildings in town? There were races and games and big casinos here a long time before there were factories and paved streets, believe me.

“You see, I’m the rarest bird, a native of Tijuana. One hundred percent cachanilla, like we say. I can remember before all the glorietas and glass buildings and chrome, I can remember. When Tijuana was a lot more fun to live in.

“My father was a gambler, too, back when Tijuana had some of the finest casinos anywhere. When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and big Hollywood stars came here to play. My pop would play up with any of them, my pop would. He’d come home one night handing out 20 peso coins to every kid in the barrio. Then another night he might lose everything but his underpants, and my mother would have to go ask my cousins for food and be forced to listen to long sermons about the evils of gambling, men in general, and one dissolute, evil man in particular detail.

“My mother was always either suffering like a martyred santa or being treated like a queen married to a mafioso. But she never said a word against my father or his ways. She loved him, you see. And she was in it for the thin years and the fat ones — she’d put her money down on that man and didn’t back off. She was the only woman in the family who didn’t throw the comer when it was obvious that I was going to become a gambler myself.

“My own wife is the same way; she never complains. But the rest of her family does. Apparently they constantly find me less than responsible. They ask if this gives me shame. I tell them it does, but I somehow find the strength to bear it.

“What they don’t understand is that money itself means nothing to me. I mean money like this here on the table. What is it but a symbol? It means only what we want it to mean. When I’m gambling, I’m not thinking, 'Hijole!' I could win a million pesos, think of what that would buy me.’ Any more than, I don’t know, a chess player would care about what he might get for selling the bishop he just captured.

“You see? Money is for scoring the big game and also my power to perform and my ‘ranking’ in the game. If there was a world championship, like boxing or something, it would be decided by how much money. So if people look at me and say, ‘That cabrdn is playing with money his family needs for food and shoes and school books,’ they don’t see the point. From my view, those things are irrelevant drains on my game, on my power and status, my living. The very food I eat comes out of my ‘taco,’ the roll of cash that lets me play and to win money. Can you understand that?

“Sometimes, when my luck has been bad, I feel ashamed to be saving up money while my wife and children need things. But that’s not because I’m gambling, it’s because I’m losing, because times are hard. Would you criticize a taxista who can’t pay for birthday parties and school books because he needs the money to fix up the taxi that earns the money in.the first place? What is the difference? Furthermore, I suspect that if I were a fireman or a cop or a politician, my in-laws would still complain that I’m doing my wife wrong, risking my life and her daily bread. So why worry about it? The best thing I can do for my family is keep winning.

“But of course a man has to eat. If I lose, I don’t have anything to eat. But players are a close class of people, in some ways like an order or a brotherhood. We have our traditions and take care of each other, even though we compete with each other. For instance, if I needed money to pay for food or rent, I could come in here and just let people know it. I wouldn’t have to ask anybody, maybe just the way I’m sitting and not playing would let them know without my opening my mouth. Somebody would ask me if I needed a little money until my horses get smarter. These are generous men, and at any time somebody in the game is winning, just as somebody is always losing. I myself would not hesitate to loan any of these guys a few hundred dollars with no questions, never mention when it should be paid back. Because who knows when? That’s a pretty basic reality around here — Who knows? After all, that’s what makes gambling possible.

“Loans like that are a sort of security system for guys like us, guys with no more security than the next roll of the dice or the next cretin missing an easy kill shot. But such a loan would be for personal welfare, not for playing. Absolutely not. If I borrow money to live on, I’d better not be seen playing here until I’ve paid it back. Or anywhere, actually; there is almost no place in this town I could play any kind of game without my colleagues knowing about it.

“The code of conduct regarding money has to be pretty strict, for obvious reasons. We all stand on the edge of very slippery cliffs, where a man can start sliding and just disappear. It’s almost like drugs, things can get out of control very, very fast. People act like I am a careless, whimsical man for playing; they think the same about all players. The truth is that we are very careful people or we do not last long. Good fortune loves the bold and the careful. The more careful you are, the bolder you can be.

“So anyway, when I talk about gaming in this crazy town, I know what I’m talking about. You may laugh when I talk about the status of gaming, but have you ever looked around this whole city full of ugly architecture and noticed that there are only two beautiful old buildings in the whole town? And which ones? The Agua Caliente hippodrome and the jai alai fronton. Our landmarks. And did you ever think that both of them exist only for gambling in this fine city where gambling is supposed to be so illegal?

“Or look at the question this way, look at it. You see the government spending millions of dollars on tourism here in Baja California. Most of it goes into idiot projects that don’t take in money because they forgot to ask the gringos if they really wanted such a thing in the first place. And we end up with expensive, stupid monstrosities like Mexitlan and wax museums. They spend a lot of money trying to prevent Mexicans from taking money out of the country into the United States. But do they ever think of making some legal gambling casinos here? Like Atlantic City, where it was illegal and evil until they made it legal and good to save their economy? Is that too simple to appeal to a politician? Can anyone really believe that gambling would be a hurtful influence on Tijuana? On Tijuana?This town was built on gambling and whoring. Now some Mercedes-jockies from the capital come here and want it all to be clean glass and sweet sunshine.

“What is wrong with gambling? That people spend too much money on it, like on liquor and women? So? We live with that, don’t we? There are those who believe that gambling continues to be prohibited because of certain other powerful sectors with interests in gambling. Do I have to mention Jorge Hank Rhon, a very rich and powerful chilango, whose uncle is the secretary of tourism? Should I point out that he owns both of those two nice buildings? In addition to all of these betting books all over Baja California?

“There are also those who say the government is afraid that gambling would bring in the Mafia. Does it really make sense that the PRI would be afraid of the Mafia? Is a lion afraid of a tiger? Please! The truth is, it would be hard for a lot of people to distinguish between the Mafia and the PRI. It would be interesting to see a war between those two, though. I guess I’d take the Mafia at eight to five. They’d probably run things smoother anyway.

“You also hear that the government doesn’t want games because they harm the people. Not from anybody with any intelligence, of course. That is not the way governments think or act. They say it’s out of concern for the people, they don’t want the people throwing their money away. Though they don’t mind taxing us and throwing our money away without even giving anyone a hope or a thrill. It’s ridiculous.

“You walk back into Mexico from San Ysidro, and before you even get past the taxistas there’s an open-air Caliente betting book. Incredible, really. A shabby little taco stand with beat-up tables right in the filthy sidewalk full of poor people selling junk...and they have five televisions showing race odds and results. To attract foreign dollars? I don’t really think so. What gringo is going to sit and bet on a sidewalk full of unwashed hustlers? You look who’s betting — the people. Beggars are sitting there watching the Santa Anita results. Yet this is legal. Those people wouldn’t be allowed into a casino even if they wanted to go. So much for the kindly government protecting the masses, eh?

“And take a look around and see how most people in Mexico hazard their money. The lottery. Millions and millions of pesos. Always several games at once, always new ones. And who runs these games? The government. The PRI has their hands on a million-dollar monopoly and isn’t thinking very much about letting anyone else put their spoon into it. That much is pretty obvious.

“To me personally it doesn’t matter, to me. The people lose, I win. If all the games were illegal, I’d make my money on illegal games. All I care about is luck. They talk about luck being a woman, a beautiful lady. Well, luck is a slut, really. As capricious as a she-goat. It leaves you when you most need it then roars up on you when you don’t have enough money, or the other players don’t have enough, to really take advantage of it.

“But there’s no mistaking luck — it’s like carrying an electrical charge. Like having the power to command the world. It’s a sexual feeling, a male feeling. Gambling is deep in the blood of Mexicans. Have you thought of the relationship between the jai alai fronton and the Aztec ball court? Now there’s a little morsel of our national heritage — the original Mexican national sport. Every one of the big ruins — Chichen Itza, Bonampec, Palenque — they had those big stone ball courts. The archaeologists will tell you all about how the game was played. It’s mysterious to me how they would know it all, since there was no writing in those days.

“But maybe they’re right, maybe the whole idea was to hit the ball only with the buttocks and to hit it through that little stone donut up on the wall. So far the sages haven’t published any box scores, but it must have been even lower-scoring than futbol. So maybe if anybody actually managed to score a ring, they got excited enough to stop the game while everybody in the numbered seats stripped down and gave all their clothes and jewelry to the player who scored. And since the spectators were the royalty, the cabinet officials of the day; like a bunch of PRI chilangos, so they’d be covered with gold and all those women undressing would be the most beautiful women in the country. Not bad winnings at all. And not really all that different from today, come to think of it. Except now they have to score a lot of goals to get the clothes and jewels and the automobile. And they only get the naked beauties one or two at a time. And one other little difference...the losers died. Claim stakes, you might call it. It must have made it more interesting for everybody involved. And it shows the kind of patrimony we have, a people who these days are not allowed to play cards for money or bet on some stupid chickens.

“Since you’re so curious and simpatica, I’ll tell you my dream. Over at the hippodrome they’ve got a ‘Six Pack’ exacta, the old ‘Five-Ten.’ You have to pick six winners, but the thing is that if nobody wins the prize, it’s kept until the next week. So it keeps getting bigger. Understand? The normal betting is pari-mutuel. Everyone is wagering against everybody else. So if a thousand people each wager 100,000 pesos on a race, the winner would get a million pesos. Minus what the track takes. Probably about half. And what the taxes take, even worse.

“But if the prize is kept over another week, then you have two million pesos, and the next week you have three. Three million more than the betting is sharing. So I could go to the book and buy up all the chances — a guaranteed win. Of course, it would cost a lot. With ten dogs in each race, there would be one million possibilities. But you’d be winning even more millions.

“This has happened before with these progressive purses. Ten years ago some guys from Texas walked into the jai alai fronton in Miami with around $3-1/2 million in their briefcases and bought all the tickets to their exacta. The purse had reached almost $7 million, so they made around $4 million dollars. Pretty good pay for a morning’s work, in my unstudied opinion. Any time the prize exceeds the amount required to buy the tickets, there’s a chance to do such a thing. There’s a chance at Agua Caliente, but they won’t admit it. Or are too arrogant to see it.

“That would be my life dream, to just buy up a winning like that. To run no risk at all, to cheat on luck the way that bitch cheats on us. But probably I’d see the opportunity and not be able to take advantage of it. That’s the way life is. The way luck is. And I really can’t complain. My luck has kept me alive so far.

“The reason people like gambling is because they are definite. In your normal life everything is uncertain, true? It all depends on somebody else or you never get a final answer. You know what I’m saying — the election is being protested, the chance of rain is 40 percent, your husband might just be tired instead of in love with somebody else. There is never any yes or no, never any right or wrong.

“So the people need something that is definite, that’s either black or white. They talk about gaming ‘addicts,’ but they’re just people who can’t accept it when they lose and don’t believe it when they win. Believe me, you’re going to see more play here in Mexico in the future because we’re going that same way. Our whole lives are a big question, and we probably never know if we did it right or not. But when you wager on games, you either win or lose. It’s a goal or no goal, red or green, dead or alive. You can argue, but you can’t change it.

‘‘There’s stress in playing, but for me there’s also a sort of calm. Where else short of a coffin are things absolute? Not even in the Church. Maybe your wife can pray you out of Purgatory, but let’s see her pray you out of betting on the wrong horse. Sometimes I feel it very strongly that when I’m playing. Things are real — a simple, well-planned universe of good moves and bad moves. When I stop and go outside, the world out there is a cheap, stupid fake where nothing makes any sense and nobody agrees on the rules and nobody knows where they stand.”

PRIDE GAMES

His eyes are old and still, his hair is a dull grey. The way he sips a brandy that appeared without being ordered and stubs a Cuban cigar to punctuate his opinions reminds me of the coughing, chainsmoking old cynic on Que Nos Paso. But he is not cynical; he will weigh any proposition, perhaps defend it with a wager. He has money, and everyone knows his money came from winning wagers. He is dressed like a businessman but with an elegance that isn’t noticeable until his movements show the quality of his material. The tailoring is not the latest, the fabric is worn a little with an older man’s gentle neglect, the gold Ronson lighter and Patek watch are worn, but everything is of top quality. He pretends to culture and education, but his speech is too much of the streets. But he is also obviously a gentleman and a veteran.

Everyone in the Owner’s Club at the hippodrome treated him with respect, other players going out of their way to greet him. Across the boulevard at the Hot Tip restaurant, he takes a table that is obviously “his” and the waitresses call him “Don Faustino.” In his red leather booth under the round stained-glass ceiling cupola, he is a personage who receives the attentions and admirations of other men who wager money. This is a man who could tell much about the arts of wager. But he doesn’t want to.

“Not that it’s any secret,” he says, “the numbers, techniques, strategies; all of that is the easy part, advertised and published in books. That’s for beginners. The real game is something from the heart. Well, not really from the heart, but from somewhere very close to the basic humanity. Risking everything important on something stupid just for the excitement, wanting something for nothing...what could be more human than that? It has nothing to do with money, it has nothing to do with luck. It’s about a view of the world, about taking a conscious role in fortune and fate. About turning life from a struggle into a game.”

Don Faustino is one gambler who does not believe that there exists such a thing as luck. “Luck is a myth, really. It comes from drawing long-run conclusions from short-run observations. If you toss a coin forever, it will show the head 50 percent of the time. If the eagle comes up five straight times, you’d call it remarkable.

If the eagle comes up when you’ve bet on the head, you’d call it bad luck. Professionals win money by superior knowledge of the games, that is all that happens. People who pick horses by their names don’t understand that other people can evaluate them intelligently and have a better chance of knowing what they will do. That’s all you need to win money, to have a better chance over a long time.”

Neither does he believe that dog racing or jai alai are sports. “Futbol is a sport. You see stadiums of 400,000 people yelling, killing each other for the love of their team, you see men giving their all for the love and glory of it. That’s a sport. Even horses run for some noble reason. These dogs chasing a fake rabbit...doesn’t it seem like a strange kind of race?”

I think that all racing is a little strange, really. All the effort, all the money. And what does it signify? Don Faustino shrugs, taps his cigar into an ashtray, and says, “I’ll tell you about some strange racing. Then you tell me what it signifies.

“I am originally from Tepic, Nayarit, and used to spend much of my time at the lake of Santa Maria del Oro. The lake fills a volcano crater, and the water is very pure, almost sterile. It’s a rather mystical place, really. That’s where I spend my vacations and where I learned about magic and sex and luck. But it took me all my life to know what I’d learned. Strange, I don’t know why I said that. My memories get more fanciful each time I remember them. By the time I die, my whole history will be a fantasy. But you know, the lake was the place where we boys ran together and came of age, doing all the tribal things boys do. Every day a race, a contest, a wide-open risk.

“One summer we discovered a great game. We would drop large, round rocks off the end of a dock, then take as deep a breath as we could, jump in, and grab a rock to hold us down while we ran across the sand bottom of the lake. For me, there was nothing ever like it, racing along down there, pushing hard to move through the water, everything distorted but with light 'breaking all around in waves. Everything was silent and slow motion, it wasn’t a race of speed. The idea was, you’d run until you ran out of air. It was the best game I’d ever played at that time. It reminded me of a story about the Incas that I read as a boy, probably in some book from school. According to the story, the Incas had a special death to allow the most valiant and respected of their enemy captives to fly straight to the heart of the sun. They called them the Royal Condors. They would strip the man naked and stand him on a wide field facing into the sunset. A priest would step up behind him with an obsidian knife and suddenly slit the skin between his ribs, then reach in and pull out his lungs, which would stick out under his shoulders like wings. Then he would run to his death with honor. Run into the sun until he ran out of air.

“It’s the eternal classic race against death; the faster you run, the sooner you get there. Life against breath, running against your wind. It really laid its grips on my imagination. I’ll tell you. But I’ll have to be honest; if I’d been there I’d have been making some side bets. You know, to make it interesting.

“I used to picture those condors of the sun while I ran along under water, leaning over the rock and hugging it for the weight to push each step, feeling my lungs bursting for air. I would try to run until I died or passed out, but I never could. Things would get very weird and wavy, but I always ended up dropping the rock and heading for the air as fast as I could. I told my friends about the condors, but they couldn’t see it. All they knew was, it was fun to run on the lake bottom. To me, it was a game for sun kings.

“We found out that we could stay under water longer if we were almost asleep. I suppose the metabolism is slower when you first wake up. I’ve stayed under almost three minutes like that, my personal record. Of course, we would bet on who could stay under longer or run farther. A strange race; not how fast you could go but how far. Boys. We would bet on anything. I enjoyed it even then, but now it seems sad that only money could make the best things in youth exciting. I wonder if any Incas bet on those human condors. I’ll bet they did.

“Once one of our friends brought a big metal sign out onto the dock. It was a steel disk almost two meters across, painted like a big cap from a bottle of Pacifico beer. We threw it in the lake, hoping it would skip like a stone, but it was too heavy. But it skimmed out several meters before it started to sink. It was just a few millimeters under the surface, moving slow as a big turtle under the water, moving away from us, sinking so slow we could barely see any movement. It curved away from us, and finally we couldn’t see it anymore. We talked about it awhile, wondering if we could have ridden it like a magic carpet in the water, how we could have gotten on without upsetting it. Then we lost interest and started fishing. Later, maybe 15 or 30 minutes, one of my friends jumped up and said, ‘Look! Look! It’s coming back!’

“True; the big bottle cap was coming right toward us, still barely moving, now half a meter deep: It went by like a manta ray, and we could even read it, 'Tome Pacifico, Nada Mas.’There was something very wonderful about it, that big sign sliding along under us like it had its own mind and plans. I tried to bet that it would come back by, but nobody would take it. I finally got a bet that it would be close enough to read at least twice more. And it was. It passed by five more times, always the same speed, always deeper, always just a little farther out in the lake.

“When my friends went in to cook the fish, I stayed and watched for the sign. I kept thinking I saw it hovering along down there, but I couldn’t be sure. How many times did it come around again? I’ll never know for sure. And you don’t know why I’m wasting your time with these crazy stories.”

“It’s a sort of parable, you know. I have thought of it many times. The first time the sign passed by us it seemed like a miracle — round and gold as the moon, sliding under the water like a fish seeking flies. Could such a thing happen twice? Should you hazard money on a miracle? But after the second pass, none of us would have bet on the proposition; we knew the mechanism now, the cycle behind that event. But what if someone else had come by and seen it passing silently beneath the pier? How much would they hazard that such a thing could never happen twice? I can see that you hear what I am saying. You might wager about eclipses with a savage Indian, but not with an astronomer, true? Thus it is.

“There are games of chance like throwing dice, and there are games of knowledge in which those who know the rhythms and cycles play on those who don’t Ninety-five people bring all the money to the racetrack, five people take most of it away. And the one who makes the most is the owner of the racetrack. It’s not so different with dice or cards either. The ones who know the mathematics and the large cycles win money from those who arc concentrated only on the drama and trauma of the moment. They say, ‘Ay, the double zero! When will that happen again?' And a man they don’t even notice says, ‘Once every 34 times.’ That man is the student, the scientist of life. He’s taken fate into his hands and examined it. The others, who are just living their life? They aren’t really living at all.

“Ah, what am I talking about here, chirping like an old cricket? About putting money on the most marvelous things of my life, making them mean as little as money. Now I can see what that did to me. Nothing was wonderful enough without some money or pride being wagered. Is that crazy? Losing used to make me feel impotent and cheated, desperate to place another bet to change my luck and feel like a winner. Two out of three, four out of seven, 2000 out of 3000. Double or nothing. Never settle for losing. Until you’ve lost everything and have to go home. Winning is the greatest feeling in the world, maybe better than sex. But the more powerful motive is not wanting to lose. It’s like...well, winning a woman is exciting, but losing your woman is absolute hell. There’s no comparing the impact on your heart and your life.

“So every race, every cut of the cards, every toss of the coin reveals either orgasm or death. It’s like movies or telenovelas, really. Life condensed to essentials, with all the water and fat boiled away. Life may be short, but it seems like a lot of time to kill when you’re bored. There’s the secret of gaming for you right there...you might be winning or you might be losing, but you aren’t bored.”

LOVE GAMES

Yes, you would say that the way he walks is very sexual and feline; more so than either athletes or dancers. Even though he supports himself with a cane. I wonder about these professional gaits; the characteristic baseball strut, the boxers’ glide, the stooped shuffle of basketball. Is it muscles trained by certain movements or graces learned by feeling the eyes of crowds? This man’s movements, which seem designed to be devastating to women, come from a long career of dancing with bulls and flirting with that instant when the satin swirl of the dance collapses into the brute animal of death.

He walks with a cane because a month earlier he couldn’t walk at all. Because a month before that he had a “perchance” in the Tijuana toreo; a bull perchanced to catch him on its horns, cutting deep into his thigh muscles and thorax, then shaking and trampling him, breaking skin, flesh, ribs, and knees. Now he is healing, trying to get command of his body so he can fight again. He is 45 years old, and most of his colleagues say he would be crazy to return to fight.

“I suppose I’m in no position to argue with that,” he says, “taking into account what has happened. I feel like I can still fight. But I felt that way in the arena until suddenly my leg didn’t move fast enough and I was on the bull’s face. Then it was too late; the pain of the first puncture hurt me so bad and what I felt in my stomach and chest had me frightened...then he got me again. I had never imagined being gored. Never. Certainly nothing like this one, tearing me up like this. I’ll tell you how I felt; I felt very badly hurt. A few seconds shaking around on the face of a furious bull is a long enough time; then I had to spend forever in the clinic, hurting. Those animals have no respect for a man’s years, and that’s the sad truth.”

The list of injuries is a long one, from knees to the top of the head. His body is a map of scars. He says that the scars could be studied to determine the size of the bull and how it behaves at the time of killing. I thought briefly of Kafka’s “Penal Colony,” where the condemned man deciphers his wounds to learn the nature of his crime. But he rejects retirement, rejects easier paths such as caping calves. He is already planning a return to the arena on a full matador card, even after these accidents have left him broken and aware of the full extent of fear. This might be from heroism or egomania in a man or from the fear of admitting fear. In this case the reason is simpler.

“I’m poor. I have not done very well with my money and have had problems with managers, impresarios, and bull-breeders. It’s useless to complain about that; I’m a grown man. But I have a family that I love but no money to support them, no patrimony to leave my children. I’m no daredevil, but under these circumstances, a man has to be a bit of an adventurer.” So he speaks of returning to wager his health, even his life against money.

“You could call it that, I suppose. I don’t see it as a wager, just doing my art, my career. How can I compute my chances? It’s too simple to say that I’m risking my life. I’m a matador, I expect to die on my wheels, not watching television. So are there odds that I will die? What are the odds that you will die?” I compute them at 100 percent. But hopefully I will not die in pain with my tripas in the dirt. What if he should go to the arena again and be opened again by the bull?

“If I can’t do this job, obviously I would have to quit, find some job to do with my wife to make money for my children. But since I think I can continue, there is only one way to find out. I am surprised by people who say I should walk away from bulls because they might kill me. What is bullfighting, anyway?

“Without somebody going onto the horns now and then, where would the mystique come from? It’s the mystical part of the entire pageant, what men burn candles and tell rosaries and guard superstitions over. They are not praying not to be gored. I think that the young, especially, actually learn to await that experience. They are praying that if they are gored they won’t die or won’t die in some ugly way. In fact I have begun to think that I am even praying for that, just not to die in a manner too stupid or ugly or ungracious. Like the bull does. At the ultimate level of this diversion, that is the real balance. The bull can only die like a beast, never with the grace and beauty of a man, with paintings done and women mourning. He is just meat. On the other hand, what has he got to lose compared to me? He has always been meat, but I have a soul in the bargain. That’s what nobody but a torero can ever really understand. The moment of truth doesn’t come at the tip of a sword, it comes at the tip of a horn.

“Fighting the bull is only a question of skill, of the mind and spirit controlling mere animal flesh. But when you have made a mistake, when the bull takes control...when the horns enter your body, it is all so very suddenly a question of luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. The place we keep our prayers and lucky pendants and good deeds against. In just seconds, big, rough events occur in places where only millimeters separate life and death. You want to talk about truth, I give you the moment when the hard, sharp world comes inside of you and with no respect for your belief or your person. It’s also the moment all the people wait for. You know that. You know it’s not the bull’s blood that excites them, that makes it so macho and sexually exciting for the fine ladies. It’s my blood that does that. Otherwise, I’d be just an athlete, just a cowboy. I carry the real import of this sport right here in my veins, and there is nobody to help me keep it there. If I don’t, the seats will get more than their money’s worth, right? They’ll get something special they’ll never forget, like catching a home run ball. It’ll be their lucky day.’

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Not California Dates, Clear Air for Hiking, December’s Cold Moon

Date Palm's can be found in Anza Borrego
"When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and Hollywood stars came here to play, my pop would play up with any of them." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
"When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and Hollywood stars came here to play, my pop would play up with any of them."

STREET GAMES

The streets north of Tijuana’s Avenida Juarez are not the kind of neighborhood for people like me. So when I have reasons to walk there, I always learn things. Some of the things are funny or horrible. And sometimes they are magic.There was a big knot of people between the buses and buildings on First Avenue, and I would have had to brush against some pretty dirty and probably touchy people, so I walked into the street to get past them.

"With ten dogs in each race, there would be one million possibilities."

I was almost around the crowd when I saw they were watching some sort of game. A handsome muchacho in his 20s, wearing the typical black narco-cowboy clothes, was moving three aluminum bottle caps back and forth on a cardboard poster laid on top of a garbage can. I stood behind him, watching him move the caps, and saw a fried green pea rolling under the caps as he swished them. We used to call the game “Where is Granny?”

Should I point out that Jorge Hank Rhon owns both of those two nice buildings? In addition to all of these betting books all over Baja California?

The caps tilted away from him a little, and I was sure I was the only one who could see the pea. If I’d been taller I wouldn’t have noticed it. I very clearly saw the pea under the cap to my right when he stopped and asked for bets. Another young fellow with a lot of assurance held up 10,000 pesos to him, but he made a sour face that made people laugh. Twenty thousand, then. Well, okay; where is she? The bettor smiled like a winner and touched the middle cap. I smiled and shook my head and, thinking the game was over, pointed at the cap on the right.

You look who’s betting — the people. Beggars are sitting there watching the Santa Anita results.

The muchacho kept his hands away from the board, told the betting man to test his luck. No pea under the middle cap. Sorry, amigo. So what’s 20,000 worth these days anyway, right?

But two men in their 40s with very expensive clothes and briefcases were taking interest. One of them, who had been looking directly at me when I pointed to the cap on the right, reached out to tip that cap over. Wait a minute, wait a minute; if the sefior is interested, he needs to make it interesting. The man laughed and reached in his pockets. His friend was telling him what a chance it was, the odds reduced to one against one, but he couldn't find any money. This kind of man writes checks and uses Banamex VISA. The crowd was waiting, suspecting him of making excuses.

His friend offered a few thousand pesos from his own pocket. No, wait. The man had become totally committed, a professional executive whose decision had been made. He pulled out his wallet, an accordion ' plastic cards. The muchacho said sorry, hut he really couldn't take American Express, and the crowd laughed at the way he pronounced the English words. The briefcase man pulled a folded hill from behind one of the cards and unfolded it. It was a $100 hill, more than a quarter of a million pesos. That shut up the crowd.

The muchacho in charge waved the man off; he couldn’t possibly let the man lose so much money. The man insisted, and the crowd started to shift to his side. Now who is making excuses? Embarrassing for the muchacho, who had to admit he couldn't even match the wager. The crowd laughed at him. The executive could sense his victory and was gracious about it; he would wager the bill against whatever he had in his pockets. And his belt. It was a nice enough belt, with a turquoise buckle, but mostly the man wanted to see the younger man have to strip the belt off in public, hold up his pants with his hand. A sly piece of macho symbolism. The younger man looked down at his belt, shrugged, and motioned at the bottle caps, which had been sitting untouched. The executive was very relaxed and cheerful as he reached out and turned the right-hand cap over empty. He didn’t even glance when the muchacho tipped the left-hand cap to show the pea, he just stared at the place where there was not a pea.

The muchacho took the hundred dollars almost apologetically and praised the older man for being a sportsman and for having big huevos. Just not such good luck. Anyone else want to have a try? The man who only lost 20,000 said it was too much for him, and the crowd seemed to agree, moving away from the game. The 20,000-peso loser started talking to the $100 man, asking how was it possible, what could have gone wrong? The executive just shook his head, but the conversation around him got very excited. I watched the executive, trying to see if he would look at me, if he was so convinced because of the movement I made. I was completely stunned myself. I saw the pea there. The man’s loss was impossible. I looked at the board again to see if there was some explanation, and the bottlecap cowboy was gone.

As you might expect, I didn’t forget about that little game in the street. I had been amazed, had felt guilty, felt like I had been a fool, but mostly it was the curiosity and wonder about how things happen that has eaten at my mind since I was a schoolgirl. I was doomed from an early age to write for newspapers.

The man with the briefcase may have more credit, but I have better luck. Two weeks later I was taking a bus to the linea and saw the muchacho from the bottlecap game get on the bus with another young man who I later realized was the small loser in the pea game. They looked around, taking everyone’s measurement. I don’t know if we looked too smart for games or too stupid to know much about music, because they started singing. They did a sentimental old ranchero tune a little too experienced to sound right from boys of their age, one singing a harmony slightly delayed behind the other. They were truly terrible. But they still collected a few coins and smiles. I pulled out my purse and looked around in it while the bus emptied, then told the boys I would buy them both a drink, or several drinks, in the Scorpion Bar if they would talk to me awhile. They didn’t even look at each other before saying yes. They probably assumed I was a lonely housewife in search of a youth movement. Mexican men can be counted on to draw that conclusion easily.

They had several sips of expensive tequila before I told them I’d seen their game downtown and wanted to know more. One boy looked startled, the other just winked at me and made a pincer sign with his finger and thumb. I didn’t have to pay much. They were on their way out of town. They mentioned recent talks with the police, conversations in which money had also changed hands but which they’d found less enjoyable. They have a poor opinion of local policemen, which is apparently mutual.

They gave their names as “Pancho” and “Paco,” which might even have been true, but they call themselves “Los Allala,” a name that could be interpreted at several devious levels. Shockingly, they think of themselves primarily as a musical group. It appears that the group varies in size, always including my informants, but sometimes having as many as eight members. Other than future musical stardom, the purpose of the group is, as they put it, desplumar pichones — plucking the feathers of “pigeons.” The $100 performance I had seen was one of their repertoire pieces called la corcholata, but they knew other classic tunes and were capable of spontaneous improvisation.

“You are surprised I wasn’t working alone?” Pancho smiled at me, shaking his head as though our ages were reversed. “You still don’t know that there were three others working with us. When you approach a game like that on the streets, you should assume that you are the only one not on the payroll, see? The whole thing will be for your benefit. Like a troupe of actors, you see? You come in, you pay, you are entertained. The more fun you have, the more you pay. It’s very fair and progressive, the corcholata. ”

The day I saw the group perform, there had been four riatas in front of Pancho, the una, who moved the caps. All of them were betting and commenting to make the “pigeons” bet. “It’s mostly a matter of making men feel that their macho demands that they play the manly game,” Pancho said. “The riatas are just trying to make that happen. Everyone, even a man who spits and walks off cursing the una, is actually playing against the pichon whose money we are trying to earn.”

Even me, I said. Paco laughed, saying, “Yes. You were beautiful, pointing to the cap like that.” Had they let me see the pea on purpose? “You and a few other people. Though most react only with their eyes.”

But the man with the $100 bill wasn’t part of the troupe, was he? “Fortunately, no. But we’d have to say he played his part magnificently, no?” Paco laughed again, “Much better than we normally expect from an amateur. We could use more volunteers like him.”

But I very definitely saw the pea under the right-hand cap, and Pancho didn’t touch it again. How did it get into the other cup? Both boys smiled at me like adults with a secret from a child. Pancho said, “Well, that is our real trade, see? We had to apprentice ourselves to learn it, and it wouldn’t be fair to our ‘union’ to pass it on, at least for so little money. But I can tell you this much...” Yes? He spread his hands and looked up as if watching something fly from his palms. He said, “It’s magic.”

I hadn’t expected any lessons, so I wasn’t disappointed. The boys raised their glasses to drink my health, and when I tapped my own glass against theirs I suddenly noticed a dried pea floating in it. The boys laughed at my face, and I bought them more drinks. The pea in my glass was completely impossible, of course. Or maybe the waiter was part of their group. Or the tequila bottler? I have kept the pea to serve me as a lesson in the uses of magic.

But Los Allala have other talents. They have done a little bit of everything, depending upon what numbers, resources, and opportunities they have at any time. “Last year we did very well passing counterfeit American $20 bills, especially down south in tourist places. It was a great idea that worked until too many people got in it and everyone was alerted. See, an American 20 is a pretty big bill — over 60,000 pesos — but very common with Americans, they pass them out all the time. They’re as easy to print here as up there, but our edge was that Mexicans are less familiar with them, haven’t handled them all their lives, see?

The first ones we had were great, some of the best falso I’ve ever seen. I heard an old guy in Mazatlan was making it, using government printing presses. Then there was more around, poor quality. It felt false, toilet paper compared to our stuff. The feel is the most important thing, see? We’re passing it to Mexicans; they wouldn’t even know if the words were misspelled. I wouldn’t know myself. But if the color is close enough and it has that same cloth feel as peso bills, they take it. We put it in the pockets of Levi’s and ran it through a washing machine until it felt old enough. About three times. The ink faded a little too, made it look better. Perfect, in fact.

We were paying just under 15,000 barros for paper worth 60,000, making almost $15 per ‘bite.’ But the flood of cheap falso made everybody start looking at the 20s, and the odds went down. Then we couldn’t even get the good stuff anymore. That’s Mexico for you — it’s like one guy puts up a little palapa on a beach to sell shrimp, next time there’s 10,20, a pile of them, and nobody’s making a living. It’s a shame, but that’s how this business is. Things work too well, they go out of circulation for a while. But if you listen to the old guys, they’ll tell you that everything comes back sometime later.”

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Los Allala also learned what they call “the soft-change game” in Los Angeles — they give a fairly large bill like an American 20 or Mexican 50,000 pesos for merchandise worth a little more than a dollar, then change their mind and start a confusing series of exchanges that leaves the seller with less money than before he sold to them. That game is hard to play in Mexico, where money is dearer and eyes are sharper. But still, there are times.... Or, I should say, there are people. “That’s what we are looking for, not the right location or plan. We are looking for the right person at the right time. The little girl whose father just stepped out for a beer and left her in charge, the record store clerk flirting with a pretty girl and wanting to look quick and casual. We just walk around the streets expecting our chance.”

And it is a chance. “You are taking chances every time you do something like that. Sometimes the drooling, half-blind fool at the fonda turns out to be a sharp old goat after all. Or the little girl watching her mama’s stand is some sort of arithmetic genius and calls her two-meter cousin over to straighten things out. Once we tried to sell the old ‘ticket to Los Angeles’ to a policeman’s wife who was just at the bus station waiting for her sister to come in. Maybe we can play stupid and talk our way out. Maybe we have to run for it. It’s a gamble every time we open up our shop. So you see? We are gamblers. We’re risking our nachas out here. Funny thing, though. When we’re just doing our normal business, we’re taking risks; but when we’re running games of chance, there’s no risk involved at all. It’s the oldest joke in the ‘show.’ The pigeon says, ‘Well, I don’t play games of chance.’ And we say, ‘Yeah, brother, neither do we.’ ”

DEATH GAMES

I went to the palenque to hear Ana Gabriel sing, not to see roosters tear each other apart. But the roosters came before Srta. Gabriel. I am by no means a follower of rooster fights.

Less from humanity, I think, than from boredom. Nevertheless, the palenque is an important Mexican cultural event, where the ambience, history, and behavior of the others attending is more interesting than what occurs in the fighting pit. I think it is indispensable in understanding the behavior of Mexican men. The behavior of Mexican women is completely beyond my comprehension.

Palenque used to be a village affair, a tournament of fighting cocks with auxiliary events like music, dancing, feasting, drunkenness, and fighting. The combination of competition with other ranches and towns, heavy betting, family feuds, and a macho party attitude could usually be counted on to produce injuries, pregnancies, and other personal disasters. In the corridos, like the corrido delgallcro as sung by Vincente Fernandez, the hero rides in on his wonderful horse with his beautiful gallo, wins all the money, shoots anyone who objects, and rides off with his blushing chinaca behind him on the saddle.

It took me most of my life to realize that the behavior of humans at palenque is influenced by the behavior of the gorgeous birds that are the stars of the show. They are the emphatically beautiful, the strutting perfection of animal masculinity, genetically preordained to impregnate any female and kill any male that their eye should fall on. The men, especially after a bottle of tequila or mescal, are impressed by this display and emulate it in the way men everywhere emulate their sports heroes.

The only female models in this most male of diversions are singers who come into the ring later, when cloths have been thrown over the splatters of blood. They dress sexy or like cowgirls in a ring of male musicians — delicate, protected flowers. Though they might step to the side of the ring to receive flowers or an adoring kiss of the hand from admirers. In the days before television, the colorful, violent palenque traditions were a core of local life and inspired many songs and paintings, in addition to lifestyles.

Today in Tijuana it is a quieter affair. The men dress as usual, there are no horses tied outside for getaways or spontaneous racing. The musicians play electric instruments, the people sit on permanent cement seats. The night I saw Ana Gabriel, there were only three fights among men in the seats and then only with fists, not knives or guns.

The brave roosters attack each other each time they are fronted and released, sometimes in fierce, slashing aerial acrobatics, other times merely staggering toward each other until one is too exhausted to respond, and the other is the “winner.” But still the men watch the way the cocks inflate into furious balls of bright feathers, the way they keep returning to the fight even when they are trailing blood, the way they will risk dying over the chance to continue the line of their seed. The men are very interested in all of this and in which cock will win. The air is full of flying green tennis balls as bets are placed, each ball slit to hold bet receipts when boys throw them into the crowd and money when they are thrown back. As the balls fly around, the men watch their champions perform.

Maybe it was my thoughts about fighting cocks as role models, but I was very shocked to see one of the galleros give a cock several shots just minutes before placing him in the ring. My curiosity led me to explanations from a man who admits that cocks are the most significant things in his life.

He explains, at least the part about the injections, “That’s a unique thing about gallos — it’s not like horse racing or the Olympics, where you get in trouble for doping. You can give the birds whatever drugs you think they need. They sell all these pills to thicken the blood so there won’t be easy bleeding or internal hemorrhage; everything from vitamin K to defatted liver hemoglobin cells. There are analgesics — they say ‘non-narcotic,’ right? — to add ‘bottom’ to a bird, make him more game. You can get electrolytes, caffeine compounds, all those central nervous system stimulants. They’re mostly based on nux vomica, which is actually strychnine. You can get testosterone capsules, steroids to build their muscles during the keep. You can give them amphetamines and cocaine if you want. I’ve seen people shoot a mixture of cocaine and heroin into a bird. They even advertise this ‘Hot Shot’ that comes in time-release pills or ampules for last-minute injections. Their logo says, 'No Bleed, No Die, Just Fight, Fight, Fight.’ It’s supposed to create a killing frenzy that actually allows the bird to kick and fight beyond normal death. Well...I don’t know. Everyone knows a bird can run and fly with his head cut off, but I don’t believe a dead bird can still fight.”

But he doesn’t believe in using such drugs on his own birds, “except vitamin K against bleeding. I could say it’s philosophical;

I don’t like the idea of having a bunch of drogadictos. But the truth is, I don’t think those things work. I know a guy who really believes in steroids. His birds get these big, strong breasts and legs, there’s no doubt. And they win a lot. But they also lose a lot. The steroids make them demented, they have no concentration, no game. It damages their macho, their maleness.

“So if his kind of pollo loco could always beat my birds, I guess I’d have to try his methods. But they don’t. And for every gallero out there using a whole drug store on his cocks, there’s some country boy saying the reason his bird has just won 22 straight fights is because he keeps them on natural grass pasture with such and such seed and fertilizer and so many goats to fertilize and keep the grasshoppers stirred up so the cocks can kill and eat them.

“Also, to me, there’s this question. Understand, to me the big thing is producing these birds, creating winners. When my bird wins, it’s like...like my painting got a prize. My wife says I play God with my cocks, and in a way I do. I love these birds, and I can’t imagine giving them strychnine or cocaine. But what if I had to, to keep them alive? What if it worked? Would those wins breed true? No. You’d end up with chickens that can’t win without drugs. My birds breed true. I breed for a smart, agile, game bird — that’s what I admire. And every bird, every fight, every little wingbeat or flick of the feet in every fight is a characteristic of that bird’s lineage. Those drug store cockers cheat the future generations. I don’t.”

What techniques does he use, if not chemicals? “First of all, you choose the breeding stock to produce the best birds. You look at other cocks and hens, judging their qualities. You look for certain obvious signs. A big, strong tail is important for guiding the attack flight and also for support when they are pushed back on it. If they put their feet down, they are doomed. And a deep, strong breast, a good neck. The wings are the most important because they fly into each other. They could have bad legs and still win if they have the power in their wings.

“But beyond that there are things I look at that I couldn’t explain. Like feather color. I’m looking at a certain Kelso cross and maybe comparing the color to other crosses I’ve seen. These are not unrelated characteristics, they are all part of the genetic package. The deadliness and beauty come together. All my birds are giros, a three-quarter cross from Red Fox Grey stock, bloodlines pioneered by Oscar Akins and Johnny Jumper. I find them the most beautiful of birds, and I believe they are the winningest, the very best fighters with one-inch blades.

“Every other giro I ever see, I’m looking at it, comparing my birds to it. If I see something I want, I might buy a stud from that farm. I recently paid $800 for a pure Grey rooster, just to get his seed for the future. I see hundreds of Greys and would recognize them again in a minute, though to most people they look the same. As my wife says, ‘They’d all look the same to Colonel Sanders.’ Sometimes when you talk to cockers you’d think you were in a genetics class at the university — but hens are more important than the roosters in producing good fighters. Especially when you’re breeding for bottom. The game streak comes from the hens.

“You have to cross; pure strains are not the best fighters. So you cross and hope to get something better. When you find a good mixture, you breed brother to sister, trying to isolate the good traits. This always produces the best animals. It also produces the worst animals, but you just discard those and work with the good ones.

“When I say the ‘best’ birds, you understand that !’m talking about the best for a certain type of fight. Mostly, for a certain kind of weapon. The Hawaiian tradition is almost completely an aerial show, one big jump to death. In Asia they use very long knives. The Filipino weapon is two and a half inches long. So you want a very fast, agile bird.

“In the United States they use gaffs, round, pointed spikes, like a nail. There is a lot of beating with the sides of the gaff, and you hear gringo cockers talking about how to control internal bleeding. In Mexico we mostly use the one-inch navaja, curved like a saber and sharpened on the inside of the curve. This requires a much gamer bird than the Asian fighting. But by ‘game’ I mean a bird with bottom, that will hang in there, take wounds, and keep fighting, survive out of sheer will to dominate. A bird with endurance and guts. Now Cuban fighting is with the bird’s natural spurs. It’s very hard for them to kill; a fight can last for hours. So you see these big, strong birds like Blue Cubans or Toppies, birds of Spanish Jerezano bloodlines.

“If you think about it, what would be the ‘best’ human body type for fighting? Obviously for fist-fighting you’d want a big, strong MikeTyson type of individual. But if the fight is with straight razors, where one touch could mean death, you’d want a very fast individual with long arms and quick hands. A Bruce Lee type or better yet, Michael Jordan. I’ll tell you, boxing would have a different mystique if the loser died. Or if we could breed fighters.

“Speaking of fighting with a naked heel, those are the most brutal, bloody fights. But that is the natural mode. People think it’s so cruel and barbaric to strap knives on these birds and let them fight to the death. But that’s their natural way, their genetic programming. We breed and feed and train them — give them a better chance, make them better fighters, with better seed. And we give them steel navajas to fight with, better than the spurs they are born with. They will fight to the death anyway. With the navajas it’s less painful, more humane. Would you rather be stabbed to death or beaten to death? With a steel weapon, a bird can sometimes kill his enemy instantly with a clean cut on the very first jump. Is that so brutal? They are just chickens, you know.”

After choosing, breeding, and feeding the birds, there is the matter of conditioning. “The results comes down to the keep. It’s a final conditioning period before a fight, an isolation and intense training to bring the bird to its lowest weight and peak of stamina, speed, and endurance. Just like any athletic training, really. A keep can be anything from 3 to 20 days, and you can buy all these courses and programs on how to do it — what exercises, what food, how much water, periods of rest, periods of light and darkness.

“I do a lot of jumping with my birds to build the wings. You pick them up at the tail a certain way, and they have to flap their wings or they’ll roll over on their face. They have no choice but to get stronger. Meanwhile, I’m giving them a feeding I’ve developed over years. Some people will be giving them steroids during the keep, vitamins, all sorts of things. I play a radio really loud while I’m training them, real obnoxious stations, to get them used to noise. Otherwise they might be distracted in the pit with all the yelling. The keep is a very intense, intimate period with the birds, and by the end of it they’re at their fighting perfection. To me it’s the most enjoyable part of bringing them from an egg to a victory. My methods are totally individual, most winning cockers have their unique methods. And there are some who say the best training for winning fighters is ‘incubator conditioning.’ That is to say, giving a bird the best parents.

“I used to do everything, including handling the birds in the pit. But when you’re fighting thousand-dollar birds for big money, you specialize more. I work with two other fighters, who are good at the palenque but bored with breeding. Alberto, we call him ‘Cacho,’ is our amarador; he does the heeling, putting the weapons in place, which is a pretty important job since it all comes down, finally, to the point of the spike. I let him saw the spurs off their legs in the first place so the stump will be just like he wants it. Before the fight he covers the stump with a little sock, the botana, or a moleskin. Then he chooses just the right weapon.

“He has a big collection of navajas, and you’d be surprised what those little knives cost. I’ve seen him pay $90 apiece for some Filipino weapons. I have some $50 bayonets myself. The length of the weapon is limited by the rules of the fight, of course. But he picks a weight and curvature he thinks best for the particular cock. The cocks strike with an oval motion, both legs rotate across and cross at the ankle. But each one has a little different motion, and you want the point coming straight in. If there is not enough curve, the point might hit the ground; too much and he will be striking with the back of the blade. You can’t train the motion, it’s instinctive, one of the qualities you breed for. So you choose the right tool. Cacho has good eyes for these things, differences of millimeters in a motion almost too fast to be seen.

“So he fits the socket of the weapon over the botana, then ties it on with special strings made just for that purpose. Strong, fiat, light. Like lacing the gloves on a boxer. He has good hands for it, always gets it on perfect. You can’t exaggerate the importance of a bird being well-heeled. Then he puts a sheath over the navaja for protection and turns him over to Chuy, the esoltador.

“Chuy is another specialist; he handles the bird and lets him loose. Part of what he does is the feeling the birds get in his hands. Nothing I could explain, but he sends signals to the bird; just in the way he touches him he signals, I don’t know, calm, confidence, a sort of aura. If that sounds too spiritual for you, you should realize that almost everything the birds do from the first displays to the final death is a complicated set of signals to each other. Chuy sends the same signals to the cock that the bird itself is sending: it’s already over. When he steps up to the line, Chuy is watching the other bird, the other esoltador, looking for anything false, anything he doesn’t like, maybe just suddenly realizing that we can’t win it. He can quit the fight any time, up until the arbitro takes the sheath off the navaja and wipes it with lemon juice to make sure it’s clean and not poisoned. Then the birds are crossed and there is no backing down.

“Chuy holds the bird just so, for the best release, its legs held up in the right ‘V’ position for the initial attack. And he releases it with just the right touch, the right timing. And he’s got to be ready to grab the bird the second he hears the command to handle. Too quick, you’re disqualified; too late, maybe your bird is dead from a lucky shot. Before the birds are faced the second time, Chuy can nurse the bird a little. A lot of it is just his hands, but he knows everything to do to combat shock, bring a bird back into the spirit. You can’t use any medicine or anything on the bird during the fight, not even chalk for bleeding, only hands and breath.

“For instance, if the bird is losing blood or experiencing shock, his crest will start to pale, a bad sign and possibly one that will be interpreted by the other bird. But it is permitted for the handler to blow or suck on the comb, pulling blood into it. This does much to bring a cock around into fighting spirit. On the other hand, it is prohibited to place a finger in the bird’s vent and stimulate his testicles. Somebody decided a long time ago how much of this behavior with fowls is fair to use in a fight.

“If there is no win in the second facing, the birds are moved in and placed at the short-range marks, las cortas, the final period. This is where a good handler can win a fight. By now both birds will be bleeding, shocked, and close to death. And at the cortas, the birds are not released, just placed on the ground. You have to hold them by the feathers on their backs and set them down, then let them go. Sometimes one or both birds will just sit there, sometimes they are already dead when they are released. There is a rule about birds falling over dead. The bird whose beak touches the ground first loses. So it sometimes happens that a dead bird, if the handler has placed it just right, might stay erect, while a live bird tries to attack, then falls over and loses. So a dead bird can win a fight after all. If he does, give credit to the esoltador.

“Of course, most of the people know nothing about cocks. The betting is the thing, and the money is very serious. At the Califomias Fair tournament, you pay a deposit of 20,000 pesos just to get in. Twenty million pesos minimum first prize. Seven thousand dollars. U.S. tournaments have $50,000 purses; in the Philippines you see prizes of $ 120,000, single bets of $ 18,000. And that’s where the real money is, the bets. You don’t just walk in and put down the money. You have to have prestigio, a record. You have to be a contender.

“The way it works is that each fight has a favorite, either from the red side of the ring or the green side. The other bird is wagered at a handicap. So at 80 percent you can bet $8 against the favorite and win ten. Or bet 10 on the favorite and only win 8. The lowest discount is 70 percent. Less a match than that would be ridiculous. So an inferior bird doesn’t get into the real fights. Some cockers just buy their way in, but nobody respects it. Like people know when a boxer is fighting some punk who shouldn’t even be in the same ring.

“It’s not a game where you think about luck, but there’s luck involved. Some nights the favorites win every fight, sometimes none. Maybe you have a really great bird against some loser that is laid off at 70 percent, but in the first attack your bird just thrusts his breast right onto the navaja by pure fluke. What can you do then? Pick up your bird and pay off, that’s all. No matter you’ve thought of everything.

“But is life so different? Listen what happened to me, to us, last fall. You know fighting cocks is legal in Mexico, but it’s illegal to bet on them, which comes to the same thing. People think of this as a Mexican sport, but it’s actually illegal here. It’s biggest in the United States, completely legal in Arizona, Texas, and some other states. All of the gear for fighting comes from North American suppliers; the cages, the feed, the drugs, the scorekeeping software, the videos on genetics and sparring and heeling and training and dominant selection.

“But here in Mexico palenque is actually against the law. No problem, you buy off the law. Or you ‘prestige’ them off. I’m sure you know that 90 percent of the big bettors are mafiosos and drug traffickers. Who else has that kind of money? You see a man bet $10,000 on a single fight at 85 percent against the favorite, you know he didn’t get the money selling carne asada. So the mordida is in, everything is okay, and everyone is happy; the Mexican way. The pit at La Gloria pays off the judiciales in one district, the Floriao pit pays off their own. Every detail attended to.

“But in November, President Salinas comes to town and brings a bunch of capital city federales with him. These guys have no ‘turf,’ no loyalty, no payoff, no respect. They just gobble up everything they see. So they raid the palenque at La Gloria. Grabbed everybody there and took us to jail. They confiscated all my betting money, my birds, my equipment — probably over $2000 worth — then they set me a $1500 bail and are thinking over how much they are going to fine me. And they put me on six months’ probation so I can’t risk going to a fight. And they shut down the La Gloria pit. They arrested 200 people, but when the story went out in the newspaper there were 25 names listed. Mine, of course, but nobody from Chapu who drives a Cherokee and wears thousand-dollar suits, right? Those rich mafioso bastards probably even got their money back. But you see what I mean? You can plan everything, pay the toll, work hard...and still you get the fregada.

“I’ll get the money back, get back into the game. Because money is not everything here. What’s important to me is that my birds can compete against anyone, that I have personally bred winning fighters, watch them fight to prove their blood, do all I can to improve that blood. It doesn’t matter to me if a cock of mine wins or loses as long as he fights game.

“There’s an old joke that people aren’t as smart as cocks because cocks never bet on people. But don’t they? Aren’t they really betting their lives that I’ve done them right? I’m more than their trainer; I’m like God to them. I chose who their parents would be, what they would be like. I feed them what I want and make them do all these strange things...I make decisions that will make them live or die. And they don’t even know it. They probably think I’m just a pair of hands.”

After you listen to enough of these hymns about cockfighting, you realize they are all, above all, romances. Romance between a man and his bird.

The point is, the relationship between gallo and gallero is an intimate one beyond the usual scope of sport; it is a relationship of affection, pride, possession — a living, a bond to the death. Men who hardly speak to their wives spend hours stroking, grooming, and crooning to their roosters. To win is more than having thrown a ball or horseshoe correctly, to lose is far more than watching dice roll to an unfortunate number. The art of palenque always shows two birds in full display clashing in spectacular viciousness. The moment I would commemorate is what I see as a touching and vulnerable moment, a man kneeling just before releasing his bird, holding his hopes and feelings in his hand like a clump of beautiful, fragile feathers, trying as no lover ever has done to project his will past the barriers of flesh and live for a brief, bloody instant in the gleaming eye of a being he loves to the death.

LIFE GAMES

You’re right,” the man sitting in the club seats at the jai alai book told me, “those guys are in love with those birds. But they’re just chickens after all; beautiful, but brainless as cabbages. Lots of those guys love their roosters more than their wives. Like that Vincente Ferndndez record, ‘Today I’m Talking to My Cock.’ Well, I don’t find chickens so good for conversation myself. Those guys...well, probably they loved their wives that well when they first knew them. When they were girls. Beautiful and brainless. Actually, I bet on cocks myself. But a business relationship, not mooning over some damned rooster."

He’s a man of average size and looks and obviously very much at home in the jai alai fronton and the betting book next door. His clothing is very flamante, a cobalt silk shirt and daringly pleated carbon pants — clothes that look fast and disreputable on a man in his 40s.

“I can see what you’re thinking. The cheap, superficial gambler with fancy clothes he can’t really afford. Am I right?” Well, maybe I did have some thoughts like that.

“You know who I am, then. Flashy, temporary. I’m a hippodrome whore. But I know who you are, too. Just by looking at your clothes, hearing your questions. I’m what you want for your story, am I right? So you’re after a little cheap excitement from the dark edges of life to shock your conservative readers. Am I right?” Well, yes, here I am.

“But what if I tell you that I’m a working man, an ordinary person with a family, doing the best I know to keep my life on its legs? What if I told you that gaming is a big industry in Tijuana and always has been? Or that it’s a major part of the local economy and society? Would that make it all too boring for you, would it?

“What do you think of the jai alai? A nice piece of brick, am I right? And you’ve seen the hippodrome? The park, the zoo, the statues, the nice building? It used to be even nicer, like stepping out of a garbage pile into a dream. You realize it’s one of the oldest buildings in town? There were races and games and big casinos here a long time before there were factories and paved streets, believe me.

“You see, I’m the rarest bird, a native of Tijuana. One hundred percent cachanilla, like we say. I can remember before all the glorietas and glass buildings and chrome, I can remember. When Tijuana was a lot more fun to live in.

“My father was a gambler, too, back when Tijuana had some of the finest casinos anywhere. When the Caliente casino had a solid gold salon and big Hollywood stars came here to play. My pop would play up with any of them, my pop would. He’d come home one night handing out 20 peso coins to every kid in the barrio. Then another night he might lose everything but his underpants, and my mother would have to go ask my cousins for food and be forced to listen to long sermons about the evils of gambling, men in general, and one dissolute, evil man in particular detail.

“My mother was always either suffering like a martyred santa or being treated like a queen married to a mafioso. But she never said a word against my father or his ways. She loved him, you see. And she was in it for the thin years and the fat ones — she’d put her money down on that man and didn’t back off. She was the only woman in the family who didn’t throw the comer when it was obvious that I was going to become a gambler myself.

“My own wife is the same way; she never complains. But the rest of her family does. Apparently they constantly find me less than responsible. They ask if this gives me shame. I tell them it does, but I somehow find the strength to bear it.

“What they don’t understand is that money itself means nothing to me. I mean money like this here on the table. What is it but a symbol? It means only what we want it to mean. When I’m gambling, I’m not thinking, 'Hijole!' I could win a million pesos, think of what that would buy me.’ Any more than, I don’t know, a chess player would care about what he might get for selling the bishop he just captured.

“You see? Money is for scoring the big game and also my power to perform and my ‘ranking’ in the game. If there was a world championship, like boxing or something, it would be decided by how much money. So if people look at me and say, ‘That cabrdn is playing with money his family needs for food and shoes and school books,’ they don’t see the point. From my view, those things are irrelevant drains on my game, on my power and status, my living. The very food I eat comes out of my ‘taco,’ the roll of cash that lets me play and to win money. Can you understand that?

“Sometimes, when my luck has been bad, I feel ashamed to be saving up money while my wife and children need things. But that’s not because I’m gambling, it’s because I’m losing, because times are hard. Would you criticize a taxista who can’t pay for birthday parties and school books because he needs the money to fix up the taxi that earns the money in.the first place? What is the difference? Furthermore, I suspect that if I were a fireman or a cop or a politician, my in-laws would still complain that I’m doing my wife wrong, risking my life and her daily bread. So why worry about it? The best thing I can do for my family is keep winning.

“But of course a man has to eat. If I lose, I don’t have anything to eat. But players are a close class of people, in some ways like an order or a brotherhood. We have our traditions and take care of each other, even though we compete with each other. For instance, if I needed money to pay for food or rent, I could come in here and just let people know it. I wouldn’t have to ask anybody, maybe just the way I’m sitting and not playing would let them know without my opening my mouth. Somebody would ask me if I needed a little money until my horses get smarter. These are generous men, and at any time somebody in the game is winning, just as somebody is always losing. I myself would not hesitate to loan any of these guys a few hundred dollars with no questions, never mention when it should be paid back. Because who knows when? That’s a pretty basic reality around here — Who knows? After all, that’s what makes gambling possible.

“Loans like that are a sort of security system for guys like us, guys with no more security than the next roll of the dice or the next cretin missing an easy kill shot. But such a loan would be for personal welfare, not for playing. Absolutely not. If I borrow money to live on, I’d better not be seen playing here until I’ve paid it back. Or anywhere, actually; there is almost no place in this town I could play any kind of game without my colleagues knowing about it.

“The code of conduct regarding money has to be pretty strict, for obvious reasons. We all stand on the edge of very slippery cliffs, where a man can start sliding and just disappear. It’s almost like drugs, things can get out of control very, very fast. People act like I am a careless, whimsical man for playing; they think the same about all players. The truth is that we are very careful people or we do not last long. Good fortune loves the bold and the careful. The more careful you are, the bolder you can be.

“So anyway, when I talk about gaming in this crazy town, I know what I’m talking about. You may laugh when I talk about the status of gaming, but have you ever looked around this whole city full of ugly architecture and noticed that there are only two beautiful old buildings in the whole town? And which ones? The Agua Caliente hippodrome and the jai alai fronton. Our landmarks. And did you ever think that both of them exist only for gambling in this fine city where gambling is supposed to be so illegal?

“Or look at the question this way, look at it. You see the government spending millions of dollars on tourism here in Baja California. Most of it goes into idiot projects that don’t take in money because they forgot to ask the gringos if they really wanted such a thing in the first place. And we end up with expensive, stupid monstrosities like Mexitlan and wax museums. They spend a lot of money trying to prevent Mexicans from taking money out of the country into the United States. But do they ever think of making some legal gambling casinos here? Like Atlantic City, where it was illegal and evil until they made it legal and good to save their economy? Is that too simple to appeal to a politician? Can anyone really believe that gambling would be a hurtful influence on Tijuana? On Tijuana?This town was built on gambling and whoring. Now some Mercedes-jockies from the capital come here and want it all to be clean glass and sweet sunshine.

“What is wrong with gambling? That people spend too much money on it, like on liquor and women? So? We live with that, don’t we? There are those who believe that gambling continues to be prohibited because of certain other powerful sectors with interests in gambling. Do I have to mention Jorge Hank Rhon, a very rich and powerful chilango, whose uncle is the secretary of tourism? Should I point out that he owns both of those two nice buildings? In addition to all of these betting books all over Baja California?

“There are also those who say the government is afraid that gambling would bring in the Mafia. Does it really make sense that the PRI would be afraid of the Mafia? Is a lion afraid of a tiger? Please! The truth is, it would be hard for a lot of people to distinguish between the Mafia and the PRI. It would be interesting to see a war between those two, though. I guess I’d take the Mafia at eight to five. They’d probably run things smoother anyway.

“You also hear that the government doesn’t want games because they harm the people. Not from anybody with any intelligence, of course. That is not the way governments think or act. They say it’s out of concern for the people, they don’t want the people throwing their money away. Though they don’t mind taxing us and throwing our money away without even giving anyone a hope or a thrill. It’s ridiculous.

“You walk back into Mexico from San Ysidro, and before you even get past the taxistas there’s an open-air Caliente betting book. Incredible, really. A shabby little taco stand with beat-up tables right in the filthy sidewalk full of poor people selling junk...and they have five televisions showing race odds and results. To attract foreign dollars? I don’t really think so. What gringo is going to sit and bet on a sidewalk full of unwashed hustlers? You look who’s betting — the people. Beggars are sitting there watching the Santa Anita results. Yet this is legal. Those people wouldn’t be allowed into a casino even if they wanted to go. So much for the kindly government protecting the masses, eh?

“And take a look around and see how most people in Mexico hazard their money. The lottery. Millions and millions of pesos. Always several games at once, always new ones. And who runs these games? The government. The PRI has their hands on a million-dollar monopoly and isn’t thinking very much about letting anyone else put their spoon into it. That much is pretty obvious.

“To me personally it doesn’t matter, to me. The people lose, I win. If all the games were illegal, I’d make my money on illegal games. All I care about is luck. They talk about luck being a woman, a beautiful lady. Well, luck is a slut, really. As capricious as a she-goat. It leaves you when you most need it then roars up on you when you don’t have enough money, or the other players don’t have enough, to really take advantage of it.

“But there’s no mistaking luck — it’s like carrying an electrical charge. Like having the power to command the world. It’s a sexual feeling, a male feeling. Gambling is deep in the blood of Mexicans. Have you thought of the relationship between the jai alai fronton and the Aztec ball court? Now there’s a little morsel of our national heritage — the original Mexican national sport. Every one of the big ruins — Chichen Itza, Bonampec, Palenque — they had those big stone ball courts. The archaeologists will tell you all about how the game was played. It’s mysterious to me how they would know it all, since there was no writing in those days.

“But maybe they’re right, maybe the whole idea was to hit the ball only with the buttocks and to hit it through that little stone donut up on the wall. So far the sages haven’t published any box scores, but it must have been even lower-scoring than futbol. So maybe if anybody actually managed to score a ring, they got excited enough to stop the game while everybody in the numbered seats stripped down and gave all their clothes and jewelry to the player who scored. And since the spectators were the royalty, the cabinet officials of the day; like a bunch of PRI chilangos, so they’d be covered with gold and all those women undressing would be the most beautiful women in the country. Not bad winnings at all. And not really all that different from today, come to think of it. Except now they have to score a lot of goals to get the clothes and jewels and the automobile. And they only get the naked beauties one or two at a time. And one other little difference...the losers died. Claim stakes, you might call it. It must have made it more interesting for everybody involved. And it shows the kind of patrimony we have, a people who these days are not allowed to play cards for money or bet on some stupid chickens.

“Since you’re so curious and simpatica, I’ll tell you my dream. Over at the hippodrome they’ve got a ‘Six Pack’ exacta, the old ‘Five-Ten.’ You have to pick six winners, but the thing is that if nobody wins the prize, it’s kept until the next week. So it keeps getting bigger. Understand? The normal betting is pari-mutuel. Everyone is wagering against everybody else. So if a thousand people each wager 100,000 pesos on a race, the winner would get a million pesos. Minus what the track takes. Probably about half. And what the taxes take, even worse.

“But if the prize is kept over another week, then you have two million pesos, and the next week you have three. Three million more than the betting is sharing. So I could go to the book and buy up all the chances — a guaranteed win. Of course, it would cost a lot. With ten dogs in each race, there would be one million possibilities. But you’d be winning even more millions.

“This has happened before with these progressive purses. Ten years ago some guys from Texas walked into the jai alai fronton in Miami with around $3-1/2 million in their briefcases and bought all the tickets to their exacta. The purse had reached almost $7 million, so they made around $4 million dollars. Pretty good pay for a morning’s work, in my unstudied opinion. Any time the prize exceeds the amount required to buy the tickets, there’s a chance to do such a thing. There’s a chance at Agua Caliente, but they won’t admit it. Or are too arrogant to see it.

“That would be my life dream, to just buy up a winning like that. To run no risk at all, to cheat on luck the way that bitch cheats on us. But probably I’d see the opportunity and not be able to take advantage of it. That’s the way life is. The way luck is. And I really can’t complain. My luck has kept me alive so far.

“The reason people like gambling is because they are definite. In your normal life everything is uncertain, true? It all depends on somebody else or you never get a final answer. You know what I’m saying — the election is being protested, the chance of rain is 40 percent, your husband might just be tired instead of in love with somebody else. There is never any yes or no, never any right or wrong.

“So the people need something that is definite, that’s either black or white. They talk about gaming ‘addicts,’ but they’re just people who can’t accept it when they lose and don’t believe it when they win. Believe me, you’re going to see more play here in Mexico in the future because we’re going that same way. Our whole lives are a big question, and we probably never know if we did it right or not. But when you wager on games, you either win or lose. It’s a goal or no goal, red or green, dead or alive. You can argue, but you can’t change it.

‘‘There’s stress in playing, but for me there’s also a sort of calm. Where else short of a coffin are things absolute? Not even in the Church. Maybe your wife can pray you out of Purgatory, but let’s see her pray you out of betting on the wrong horse. Sometimes I feel it very strongly that when I’m playing. Things are real — a simple, well-planned universe of good moves and bad moves. When I stop and go outside, the world out there is a cheap, stupid fake where nothing makes any sense and nobody agrees on the rules and nobody knows where they stand.”

PRIDE GAMES

His eyes are old and still, his hair is a dull grey. The way he sips a brandy that appeared without being ordered and stubs a Cuban cigar to punctuate his opinions reminds me of the coughing, chainsmoking old cynic on Que Nos Paso. But he is not cynical; he will weigh any proposition, perhaps defend it with a wager. He has money, and everyone knows his money came from winning wagers. He is dressed like a businessman but with an elegance that isn’t noticeable until his movements show the quality of his material. The tailoring is not the latest, the fabric is worn a little with an older man’s gentle neglect, the gold Ronson lighter and Patek watch are worn, but everything is of top quality. He pretends to culture and education, but his speech is too much of the streets. But he is also obviously a gentleman and a veteran.

Everyone in the Owner’s Club at the hippodrome treated him with respect, other players going out of their way to greet him. Across the boulevard at the Hot Tip restaurant, he takes a table that is obviously “his” and the waitresses call him “Don Faustino.” In his red leather booth under the round stained-glass ceiling cupola, he is a personage who receives the attentions and admirations of other men who wager money. This is a man who could tell much about the arts of wager. But he doesn’t want to.

“Not that it’s any secret,” he says, “the numbers, techniques, strategies; all of that is the easy part, advertised and published in books. That’s for beginners. The real game is something from the heart. Well, not really from the heart, but from somewhere very close to the basic humanity. Risking everything important on something stupid just for the excitement, wanting something for nothing...what could be more human than that? It has nothing to do with money, it has nothing to do with luck. It’s about a view of the world, about taking a conscious role in fortune and fate. About turning life from a struggle into a game.”

Don Faustino is one gambler who does not believe that there exists such a thing as luck. “Luck is a myth, really. It comes from drawing long-run conclusions from short-run observations. If you toss a coin forever, it will show the head 50 percent of the time. If the eagle comes up five straight times, you’d call it remarkable.

If the eagle comes up when you’ve bet on the head, you’d call it bad luck. Professionals win money by superior knowledge of the games, that is all that happens. People who pick horses by their names don’t understand that other people can evaluate them intelligently and have a better chance of knowing what they will do. That’s all you need to win money, to have a better chance over a long time.”

Neither does he believe that dog racing or jai alai are sports. “Futbol is a sport. You see stadiums of 400,000 people yelling, killing each other for the love of their team, you see men giving their all for the love and glory of it. That’s a sport. Even horses run for some noble reason. These dogs chasing a fake rabbit...doesn’t it seem like a strange kind of race?”

I think that all racing is a little strange, really. All the effort, all the money. And what does it signify? Don Faustino shrugs, taps his cigar into an ashtray, and says, “I’ll tell you about some strange racing. Then you tell me what it signifies.

“I am originally from Tepic, Nayarit, and used to spend much of my time at the lake of Santa Maria del Oro. The lake fills a volcano crater, and the water is very pure, almost sterile. It’s a rather mystical place, really. That’s where I spend my vacations and where I learned about magic and sex and luck. But it took me all my life to know what I’d learned. Strange, I don’t know why I said that. My memories get more fanciful each time I remember them. By the time I die, my whole history will be a fantasy. But you know, the lake was the place where we boys ran together and came of age, doing all the tribal things boys do. Every day a race, a contest, a wide-open risk.

“One summer we discovered a great game. We would drop large, round rocks off the end of a dock, then take as deep a breath as we could, jump in, and grab a rock to hold us down while we ran across the sand bottom of the lake. For me, there was nothing ever like it, racing along down there, pushing hard to move through the water, everything distorted but with light 'breaking all around in waves. Everything was silent and slow motion, it wasn’t a race of speed. The idea was, you’d run until you ran out of air. It was the best game I’d ever played at that time. It reminded me of a story about the Incas that I read as a boy, probably in some book from school. According to the story, the Incas had a special death to allow the most valiant and respected of their enemy captives to fly straight to the heart of the sun. They called them the Royal Condors. They would strip the man naked and stand him on a wide field facing into the sunset. A priest would step up behind him with an obsidian knife and suddenly slit the skin between his ribs, then reach in and pull out his lungs, which would stick out under his shoulders like wings. Then he would run to his death with honor. Run into the sun until he ran out of air.

“It’s the eternal classic race against death; the faster you run, the sooner you get there. Life against breath, running against your wind. It really laid its grips on my imagination. I’ll tell you. But I’ll have to be honest; if I’d been there I’d have been making some side bets. You know, to make it interesting.

“I used to picture those condors of the sun while I ran along under water, leaning over the rock and hugging it for the weight to push each step, feeling my lungs bursting for air. I would try to run until I died or passed out, but I never could. Things would get very weird and wavy, but I always ended up dropping the rock and heading for the air as fast as I could. I told my friends about the condors, but they couldn’t see it. All they knew was, it was fun to run on the lake bottom. To me, it was a game for sun kings.

“We found out that we could stay under water longer if we were almost asleep. I suppose the metabolism is slower when you first wake up. I’ve stayed under almost three minutes like that, my personal record. Of course, we would bet on who could stay under longer or run farther. A strange race; not how fast you could go but how far. Boys. We would bet on anything. I enjoyed it even then, but now it seems sad that only money could make the best things in youth exciting. I wonder if any Incas bet on those human condors. I’ll bet they did.

“Once one of our friends brought a big metal sign out onto the dock. It was a steel disk almost two meters across, painted like a big cap from a bottle of Pacifico beer. We threw it in the lake, hoping it would skip like a stone, but it was too heavy. But it skimmed out several meters before it started to sink. It was just a few millimeters under the surface, moving slow as a big turtle under the water, moving away from us, sinking so slow we could barely see any movement. It curved away from us, and finally we couldn’t see it anymore. We talked about it awhile, wondering if we could have ridden it like a magic carpet in the water, how we could have gotten on without upsetting it. Then we lost interest and started fishing. Later, maybe 15 or 30 minutes, one of my friends jumped up and said, ‘Look! Look! It’s coming back!’

“True; the big bottle cap was coming right toward us, still barely moving, now half a meter deep: It went by like a manta ray, and we could even read it, 'Tome Pacifico, Nada Mas.’There was something very wonderful about it, that big sign sliding along under us like it had its own mind and plans. I tried to bet that it would come back by, but nobody would take it. I finally got a bet that it would be close enough to read at least twice more. And it was. It passed by five more times, always the same speed, always deeper, always just a little farther out in the lake.

“When my friends went in to cook the fish, I stayed and watched for the sign. I kept thinking I saw it hovering along down there, but I couldn’t be sure. How many times did it come around again? I’ll never know for sure. And you don’t know why I’m wasting your time with these crazy stories.”

“It’s a sort of parable, you know. I have thought of it many times. The first time the sign passed by us it seemed like a miracle — round and gold as the moon, sliding under the water like a fish seeking flies. Could such a thing happen twice? Should you hazard money on a miracle? But after the second pass, none of us would have bet on the proposition; we knew the mechanism now, the cycle behind that event. But what if someone else had come by and seen it passing silently beneath the pier? How much would they hazard that such a thing could never happen twice? I can see that you hear what I am saying. You might wager about eclipses with a savage Indian, but not with an astronomer, true? Thus it is.

“There are games of chance like throwing dice, and there are games of knowledge in which those who know the rhythms and cycles play on those who don’t Ninety-five people bring all the money to the racetrack, five people take most of it away. And the one who makes the most is the owner of the racetrack. It’s not so different with dice or cards either. The ones who know the mathematics and the large cycles win money from those who arc concentrated only on the drama and trauma of the moment. They say, ‘Ay, the double zero! When will that happen again?' And a man they don’t even notice says, ‘Once every 34 times.’ That man is the student, the scientist of life. He’s taken fate into his hands and examined it. The others, who are just living their life? They aren’t really living at all.

“Ah, what am I talking about here, chirping like an old cricket? About putting money on the most marvelous things of my life, making them mean as little as money. Now I can see what that did to me. Nothing was wonderful enough without some money or pride being wagered. Is that crazy? Losing used to make me feel impotent and cheated, desperate to place another bet to change my luck and feel like a winner. Two out of three, four out of seven, 2000 out of 3000. Double or nothing. Never settle for losing. Until you’ve lost everything and have to go home. Winning is the greatest feeling in the world, maybe better than sex. But the more powerful motive is not wanting to lose. It’s like...well, winning a woman is exciting, but losing your woman is absolute hell. There’s no comparing the impact on your heart and your life.

“So every race, every cut of the cards, every toss of the coin reveals either orgasm or death. It’s like movies or telenovelas, really. Life condensed to essentials, with all the water and fat boiled away. Life may be short, but it seems like a lot of time to kill when you’re bored. There’s the secret of gaming for you right there...you might be winning or you might be losing, but you aren’t bored.”

LOVE GAMES

Yes, you would say that the way he walks is very sexual and feline; more so than either athletes or dancers. Even though he supports himself with a cane. I wonder about these professional gaits; the characteristic baseball strut, the boxers’ glide, the stooped shuffle of basketball. Is it muscles trained by certain movements or graces learned by feeling the eyes of crowds? This man’s movements, which seem designed to be devastating to women, come from a long career of dancing with bulls and flirting with that instant when the satin swirl of the dance collapses into the brute animal of death.

He walks with a cane because a month earlier he couldn’t walk at all. Because a month before that he had a “perchance” in the Tijuana toreo; a bull perchanced to catch him on its horns, cutting deep into his thigh muscles and thorax, then shaking and trampling him, breaking skin, flesh, ribs, and knees. Now he is healing, trying to get command of his body so he can fight again. He is 45 years old, and most of his colleagues say he would be crazy to return to fight.

“I suppose I’m in no position to argue with that,” he says, “taking into account what has happened. I feel like I can still fight. But I felt that way in the arena until suddenly my leg didn’t move fast enough and I was on the bull’s face. Then it was too late; the pain of the first puncture hurt me so bad and what I felt in my stomach and chest had me frightened...then he got me again. I had never imagined being gored. Never. Certainly nothing like this one, tearing me up like this. I’ll tell you how I felt; I felt very badly hurt. A few seconds shaking around on the face of a furious bull is a long enough time; then I had to spend forever in the clinic, hurting. Those animals have no respect for a man’s years, and that’s the sad truth.”

The list of injuries is a long one, from knees to the top of the head. His body is a map of scars. He says that the scars could be studied to determine the size of the bull and how it behaves at the time of killing. I thought briefly of Kafka’s “Penal Colony,” where the condemned man deciphers his wounds to learn the nature of his crime. But he rejects retirement, rejects easier paths such as caping calves. He is already planning a return to the arena on a full matador card, even after these accidents have left him broken and aware of the full extent of fear. This might be from heroism or egomania in a man or from the fear of admitting fear. In this case the reason is simpler.

“I’m poor. I have not done very well with my money and have had problems with managers, impresarios, and bull-breeders. It’s useless to complain about that; I’m a grown man. But I have a family that I love but no money to support them, no patrimony to leave my children. I’m no daredevil, but under these circumstances, a man has to be a bit of an adventurer.” So he speaks of returning to wager his health, even his life against money.

“You could call it that, I suppose. I don’t see it as a wager, just doing my art, my career. How can I compute my chances? It’s too simple to say that I’m risking my life. I’m a matador, I expect to die on my wheels, not watching television. So are there odds that I will die? What are the odds that you will die?” I compute them at 100 percent. But hopefully I will not die in pain with my tripas in the dirt. What if he should go to the arena again and be opened again by the bull?

“If I can’t do this job, obviously I would have to quit, find some job to do with my wife to make money for my children. But since I think I can continue, there is only one way to find out. I am surprised by people who say I should walk away from bulls because they might kill me. What is bullfighting, anyway?

“Without somebody going onto the horns now and then, where would the mystique come from? It’s the mystical part of the entire pageant, what men burn candles and tell rosaries and guard superstitions over. They are not praying not to be gored. I think that the young, especially, actually learn to await that experience. They are praying that if they are gored they won’t die or won’t die in some ugly way. In fact I have begun to think that I am even praying for that, just not to die in a manner too stupid or ugly or ungracious. Like the bull does. At the ultimate level of this diversion, that is the real balance. The bull can only die like a beast, never with the grace and beauty of a man, with paintings done and women mourning. He is just meat. On the other hand, what has he got to lose compared to me? He has always been meat, but I have a soul in the bargain. That’s what nobody but a torero can ever really understand. The moment of truth doesn’t come at the tip of a sword, it comes at the tip of a horn.

“Fighting the bull is only a question of skill, of the mind and spirit controlling mere animal flesh. But when you have made a mistake, when the bull takes control...when the horns enter your body, it is all so very suddenly a question of luck or fate or whatever you want to call it. The place we keep our prayers and lucky pendants and good deeds against. In just seconds, big, rough events occur in places where only millimeters separate life and death. You want to talk about truth, I give you the moment when the hard, sharp world comes inside of you and with no respect for your belief or your person. It’s also the moment all the people wait for. You know that. You know it’s not the bull’s blood that excites them, that makes it so macho and sexually exciting for the fine ladies. It’s my blood that does that. Otherwise, I’d be just an athlete, just a cowboy. I carry the real import of this sport right here in my veins, and there is nobody to help me keep it there. If I don’t, the seats will get more than their money’s worth, right? They’ll get something special they’ll never forget, like catching a home run ball. It’ll be their lucky day.’

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