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“Isn’t it near Deer Lake? Lake Mille Lacs? Lake of the Woods? Itasca, source of the Mississippi? I know it’s north of the Twin Cities. North of Bemidji, even?”

In the land of 10,000 lakes, locating a single one with specificity is a brainbuster. I had once passed through Detroit Lakes on a trip to Canada, but I was ten years old at the time.

They finally let me through, and I vowed to learn more about the geography of my natal state.

Another line of questioning:

“Where are you going?”

I sometimes wanted to say something flip, like “the United States” or “Point Barrow, Alaska” or “Hey, I’m a citizen, my passport says so…” But I learned to be measured in my response.

“First, Walmart off Palomar in Chula Vista, then Borders Books in downtown San Diego, then Little Italy, for some ravioli and an espresso…”

I think they really just wanted to hear my English, to see if it was accented, and if I could speak colloquial Americanese. Well, I can throw in “Mickey Mouse” and “Joe DiMaggio,” too, if required.

For several years during the dotcom boom of the late ’90s through the early 2000s, I flew from San Jose to San Diego every three weeks or so, mainly because I was making good dough, and because my European sojourns during that period had given me a wanderlust that was insatiable. I dubbed Tijuana “the poor man’s Paris.”

I’d fly down from the San Francisco Bay Area on Southwest, take the red trolley to San Ysidro, then catch a Mexicoach across the border and into downtown TJ. It was no-sweat automatic. Business as usual. I had so many frequent-flyer freebies, they’d expire before I could use them, and my complimentary free-drink booklets offered more than one beer guzzler could ever consume. Crossing north, it was the same: just walk over the border. “Citizenship?” they’d ask. Answer “USA!” and you were on your way, with plenty of time to make it back to Lindbergh Field for the return flight within an hour or so.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was little action taken to alter the way things were, the way things had been, but trips in the weeks to come brought dramatic change.

Arriving at the line a couple of hours ahead of my flight was no longer good enough. There were thousands of people. Crossing, someone said, took four hours. I could leave my front door in San Jose and be on Avenida Revolución in 2 1/2 hours, but to get back over the border, I needed four hours to cover a mile? I’d never make my flight, or so I thought, until a Mexican guy told me I could ride a bike across in five minutes.

An entire enterprise had arisen: the renting of children’s bicycles.

The bikes were itty-bitty, so diminutive that your feet touched the ground. You had only to scuttle along, pushing with your feet into the regular motor-vehicle lanes, where amidst the thrumming of hundreds of engines combusting internal, you could move ahead of the cars — as motorcyclists do, weaving in and out — and thus rapidly cross into the U.S.A. Some loophole in the law — or perhaps a clear policy had not yet been established — allowed this bizarre workaround to flourish, and for a while, hundreds of kid-sized bikes rented out for $5 a pop. On the U.S. side, guys collected the bikes and walked them back into Mexico, four at a time.

Where all those little bicycles came from so suddenly, stockpiled behind a chainlink fence, is a mystery, but I imagined that somewhere in TJ, lots of elementary school kids were missing their wheels.

With the realization that bicycle riders were allowed rapid access, more day laborers, construction workers, and NASSCO shipbuilders began riding to the trolley terminus in San Ysidro from Tijuana. For a time, hundreds of bicycles could be seen locked to whatever immovable object was available around the trolley station.

An American friend, also living in Tijuana, took to riding a bicycle from his residence in town a mile or so to the border crossing, but he gave it up after he was waylaid by a gang of thieves on the pedestrian bridge early one morning. They bulldogged him off the bike as he rode by, robbed him of his backpack and wallet, and left him in a scraped heap on the bridge. He started to take a taxi to the border — at a cost of $5 a day.

Then came the requirement that bike riders had to enter the customs building and get in line with all the pedestrian border crossers. There was a brief protest, a hubbub of discontent, but the whip had come down. Thus, the bike-rental business on the Mexican side dwindled.

I began to cross earlier and earlier. I was by this time living in TJ, and to get to my job in the U.S. had become increasingly annoying. I’d lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic congestion had been growing for two decades — particularly during the influx of population brought about by the dot-com boom — and the commute to SF from San Jose, some 50 miles, could take three hours or more. Now, a commute of a little over a mile was a three-hour undertaking. I began to leave for work at 4:00 a.m. in order to be on time for a job that began at 8:00 a.m.

For awhile, I could safely arrive at the border gateway at 5:30 and still get to work on time. But the magic hour of crossing remained unpredictable. A 5:30 magic hour inexplicably became a 3:30 a.m. magic hour. It was the proverbial last straw.

I’d recently secured a three-month contract position that required prompt arrival at the even earlier hour of 7:30 a.m., and using the trolley line and bus system, I crossed five days a week at 3:30 in the morning. This entailed getting up at 2:30 a.m. I’d get ready for work, then catch a cab to the border, where thousands of other border-crossing workers were lining up with the same intention. At least the guardians at the gate were sympathetic, and the lines moved swiftly; I could usually cross within 45 minutes. But then it was necessary to sit in the trolley terminus McDonald’s drinking coffee and killing time with all the other commuters until the first trolley or bus into San Diego arrived at around 4:30 a.m. The San Ysidro trolley terminus McDonald’s must be the revenue flagship of the franchise: at that early hour, it has all of the buzz of a Nevada craps table when the come line keeps on comin’ — the coffee sales alone must gross close to a hundred grand a day during the workweek.

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bohemianopus Nov. 24, 2011 @ 8:57 a.m.

I LOVED reading this! Hopefully, one day, we will be able to go back and forth across the border like we did before 911. Glad to read you were able to find a solution.


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