Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P.  Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.
  • Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P. Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.
  • Image by David Fokos
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La Bola. Right where Pac-Man's mouth would be was the entrance to the building.

We contemplated our options. One ecstasy pill, check. Two 20-year-old women looking to party, check. Location was the hard part — where can you party your brains out and act like an idiot without getting into trouble or running into your parents' friends? As if by way of a very close bullhorn, the answer came to each of us simultaneously, jolting us from our repose and alighting the dark interior of my car with hope — TJ!

Any kid who reaches the age of 18 in San Diego knows about the endless clubs of Tijuana offering cheap beer and margaritas to those young adults who are old enough to die for their country but not to drink in it. We followed the masses of military boys and college girls to Avenida Revolución, where bars blasting everything from techno music to the Beastie Boys were set next door to each other.

Pedro Iturrios, plant manager, Consorcio Cervecero de Baja California: "Our malt and hops come from the Czech Republic, but the water is Mexican."

Teens stumbled from one discotheque to the next. We chose one and paid a couple of dollars for an endless drink supply (a luxury afforded only to females at these clubs). Kids ordered "poppers" for their friends — one would point out a victim and pay a few bucks to an employee of the bar. The employee would track down and capture the victim and either sit the victim in a chair or simply hold the victim's head while he proceeded to pour tequila straight from the bottle into the victim's gullet. When enough had gone down, he would grab the targeted one's head and shake it like a madman.

Cinépolis V.I.P. theater: cake, crepes, sushi, nachos, pina coladas

This happened to me once. Surprised to spot the man with the bottle heading toward me, I dodged and ducked my way through the crowd until I was caught. A chair appeared beneath me in the middle of the dance floor, and the pouring began, after which was the inebriation-inducing head shake. I hate tequila, but I managed to stumble back to my strawberry margarita (a drink in which the taste of tequila is masked with citrus and sugar) without puking. I never learned who ordered the popper. Probably the older man who hit on me a few minutes after it was administered (at the time, I was 18 and he was around 35).

Diego Moreno Maldonado: "There are fabulous Chinese restaurants in town, more authentic than those of San Francisco's Chinatown."

I'm sure if something like poppers existed in the Gaslamp there would be lawsuits, but the kids in TJ never think to tell, especially when they're crossing the border against their parents' wishes. Every joint on Revolución reeked of spilled beer and tequila. Shortly before 4:00 a.m., when most clubs closed, those two fragrances were joined by the stench of vomit and urine.

Balak welcomes anywhere from 1500 to 1800 drinkers and dancers. "People come here from all over northern Mexico."

Return to the Border

Eight years had passed since my last excursion into our neighboring country. When recounting teenage antics with friends at a recent soiree, I bluntly announced, "TJ sucks. Unless you want to get wasted, laid, or annoyed, there's no reason to go down there."

"En el contrario," said my friend Eddie. "There are plenty of cool places to go — you just don't know about them."

"Right," I said. "I forgot I could get a knock-off leather purse."

"You have no idea," said Eddie. "Name the day, and I'll show you myself."

Eddie was born in Irapuato, a city located in central Mexico. He has been a resident of San Diego since the age of nine and attended high school with me at Bonita Vista High. After graduating from UCLA with a communications degree, he entered business with his father, conducting market studies for American and Canadian companies wanting to do business in Mexico, mostly for the electronics industry.

Now he works at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. To put this in simpler terms, Eddie is a gorgeous and happenin' Cabana Boy, a man-about-town who is known — and liked — by many. But I wasn't convinced he could make TJ better than it was in my memory. I called his bluff, demanded proof, and made a date.

We left early on a Saturday morning, taking the Interstate 5 from Mission Hills to the Mexican border. I insisted on driving but refused to drive into Mexico; I don't know the laws of the road, and I recalled that the cab drivers in TJ were almost as bad as those in New York City — it's better to be driven by them than to drive near them. I turned off at the exit marked "Last U.S. Exit" and followed the road to the parking lot north of the border.

"Eight dollars a day" was painted in red on a sign by the lot's entrance. I pressed a green button for my automated ticket and parked my car, then did as my father taught me and made sure nothing visible on the floor or seats might tempt a desperate vagrant to smash a window. Annoyed with my checking and rechecking, Eddie pushed onward, muttering about paranoia.

Getting into Mexico is easy. We walked the span of a city block to the first of two metal turnstiles — a rusty, clanky way to let people in but not out. We made our way down the sidewalk, on either side of which construction workers were building tall, solid walls. Perhaps these are intended to block the unattractive view of the endless line of vehicles waiting to enter the United States.

Finally, we stepped into a clearing where dozens of shiny yellow cabs waited while their drivers flocked to oncoming foot traffic and solicited fare. Children selling Chiclets, Oaxacan women displaying jewelry on the sidewalks, men hustling painted ceramic statues of Jesus and Marvin the Martian, this is the TJ I remembered — except this time, everything was lit by morning sun.

Eddie nodded at the closest of the cab drivers. "Paseo de los Héroes, por favor," Eddie said as we sat on the dark blue velvet seats in the back of the cab. Paseo de los Héroes is the main drag of TJ — that is, if one does not count the tourist-laden Avenida Revolución.

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