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Tijuana, graveyard of the godforsaken gringos

Always take a taxi

Image by Simon Scholtz RIP

The long corridor is quiet now. A reasonable facsimile of Willie Nelson lies dozing in his shorts, on his back, in the dark, the door to his room open to the caressing balm of a Pacific breeze that drifts easterly along Coahuila Street. No lights ignite the dark; there is only the shadowy simulacrum of Willie at rest, his head pillowed at the foot of the bed, his feet up where his head should be. The day before, he was on a wild-eyed rant. Walking up the staircase, I heard him singing this ditty from my childhood: “Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk…” Then he started over again. When I got to the top of the staircase, this gray-bearded, gray-braided spectre caught in mid-song smiled weakly. “A song from my childhood,” he said. I looked into his sad eyes, nodded, and ambled past. Best to let grogged dogs lie, I thought. So what if we both knew the same bit of musical doggerel from the same post-war era. Does that give us common cause? Make us “soul brothers”?

He has been here for several days now, sweeping empty Tecate cans and cigarette butts out of his room on a daily basis. In another room, not far from here, a few years back a much younger man was doing the same, spending days cloistered in a Mexican hotel, drinking red wine from the green bottles that, empty, lined up outside his door, while he chain-smoked American cigarettes. Eventually, they all break one way or another, like a cueball rolling slowly on a green felt plane. Left or right. They stay or they go, but they do break, finally, in one direction or another. The young man stayed, until one morning I saw him sitting on the stairs weeping, his bare and bleeding feet having left crimson prints all along the mottled gray concrete hallway outside his room. Broken green glass trailed out of the open door of his room, as did a trail of cigarette butts and ashes. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I could tell he had had his own personal Night of the Iguana and was about to leave. Some can take it, some can’t. Mostly, when they go, it’s because it isn’t their time…not yet.

Author T.B. Beaudeau knows that downtown TJ dive bars are the place to gather news about Tijuana’s expatriate gringos.

The old guys, like doppelgänger Willie, they don’t care so much. They have reached The Point. They have enough life experience, have seen enough that the trail ahead seems more like a backtrack of the trail behind, a pointless and Sisyphean task, and so they seek out a legendary graveyard, as the elephants do. The young man of the bloody feet was too young to stay. If he did, it would had to have been under a new set of terms, self-evolved, but he still had some esperanza roiling about inside him. So he left in a cab, to go back to the place from where he came, a place most likely of tightly manicured hedges and well-watered lawns. As for the old guy, well, this may be his moment on the beach. But some of these old guys are tough and tricky. You never can tell if they might not get away at the last moment, sucked back out by a stronger tide…to return to friends, family, the society they knew…or maybe just rehab.

The notion of the therapeutic retreat, the pulling back from the life one lives is an attractive one. I tendered such fantasies myself as early as high school, wanting to avoid the pressurized hurly-burly of society and its claims upon one’s person, the multitudes of expectations, the burdens of responsibilities imposed by others, bellowing bosses, demanding wives, disappointed and disappointing children. I had the nagging perception that everything would be made all right if I could just spend three days alone, lying in bed for 72 hours in an air-conditioned motel room in Centralia, Washington. It never really leaves, this desire.

That’s who comes here, this is what they seek. For the old guys, however, it’s the majesty of disappearing into Mexico, finding the graveyard of godforsaken gringos and then letting Nature take its course. We have a progenitor, of course — Ambrose Bierce. He left a cushy job in San Francisco as a newspaperman in 1913, in order to find out what the Mexican Revolution was really like. He never went back. He simply evaporated, a puff of vapor under a hot Mexican sun.

For those who have crossed this Rubicon, there may be salutary moments of lucidity, when a man can turn back, but if you stay on track it gets harder and harder to make the timely retro-spin northward, back to Anglo-Landia. You make your bones every day down here, until you become bones yourself. There is no rest, no respite for the live-in gringo. You get beat up, you get robbed, your pockets picked, you have your ups and downs with Mexican cops, you learn some Spanish, you meet other, similar ancient ones, like the chimerical Willie Nelson at the top of the stairs.

The Walrus arrived one week. He is another like Willie, religiously drinking a few caguamas a day, strolling the streets in huarache sandals, letting the summer sun bake his feet into bright-pink balloons, so painfully burned he could not walk for days at a time. Once, he sent me to the corner store for a caguama — he could not take a step.

The Walrus plays music that seeps from under his door and flows down the hallway. “I’m in love,” sings Wilson Picket. “Love, love, love makes me do foolish things,” sing the Marvelettes. Yes, yes, indeed…


Love makes the world go ’round. Especially if you’re an old coot on Social Security or a government pension. Stateside, the chicks just don’t get it, they don’t understand you, but down here there are a multitude of Mexican cuties running around looking for a handsome bloke like you. You never knew you were that attractive, and you’re so glad that at last someone sees the real you. And loves you, too. For many of the old bulls, this is the last roundup, a final fling, an opportunity to have it their way, just once.

The Upstater, from New York, used to fly into San Diego every couple of months. Retired, and a widower of several years, he’d wander the streets of Tijuana, making up for lost time. But that was several years ago. Now I see him sitting on a public bench on Revolución, feeding pigeons. Then there’s the Old Baseball Player, legendary not only for his capacity to consume cerveza, but for his single-minded pursuit of female companionship. For myself, the testosterone has dwindled significantly since my salad days. It is almost a blessed relief to not feel the nagging compulsion to copulate, to not entertain the notion that one’s duty is not being done as a mammal. I have fond memories of reading a parody of the 1970s sex manual, The Joy of Sex, retitled as The Job of Sex — and in retrospect it was. Certainly many of the “girlfriends” we run into down here view their liaisons with gringos as a job. They may as well be shampooing poodles for a living.

Other godforsaken gringos find love, at least at their end. Astonishingly, a high percentage of these men, many of whom speak only English — and who have lived previously under the rules, regulations, and customs of Anglo-American culture — become enamored with a Mexican cutie or two, spending large sums of money for their upkeep and believing that these women only have eyes for them…shoobie-doo-wop-bah-daaaaah. Of course, these delightful female charmers may try to engineer the same sweet set up with half a dozen gringos at once. One old guy, seated next to me at the Monte Carlo restaurant, which is next to the notorious good-times bar Adelita’s, complained bitterly of such an experience, of the shocked discovery that he wasn’t her one and only.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, putting a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. He swallowed. “I mean, I told her I’d rent her an apartment and pay her bills, and I been doin’ that for six months, but she still’s got to cheat on me.”

He’s 50-something, his eyes glazed over with incredulity. He met her at Adelita’s, where lovely lies and adroit deception are the tools of the trade. It is always amusing to see one of these types in the bars, having an intimate tête-à-tête, billing and cooing with a woman one-third his age who doesn’t understand a word he is saying. She offers a musical laugh, mimes the lover, bats a coy eyelash, demonstrates every nonverbal courting cliché imaginable. A love-smitten fool and his money are soon parted.

Some have been through this routine several times, always heading back into the fray with a renewed conviction of eventual victory. They need to feel “in love.” Men! Who would have thought it?

One beefy character, an L.A. truck driver, attended the baby shower of his pregnant street-hooker fantasy girlfriend. He was not the daddy, but being a good sport he brought along the gracious gift of a baby stroller for Madame Mama-to-be. The woman was planning to be away for a while…


We all have had our brushes with death. The Old Baseball Player has been knocked out three times during muggings in the Zona, the most brazen attempt a couple of years ago, at high noon, with 60 people standing around, most of them hooker-onlookers. When he came to, his wallet was missing and his neck was wrenched, but he claimed he got a punch in before he blacked out. The Upstate New Yorker was cold-cocked in broad daylight on Madero, one street over from Revolución, his wallet stolen by two assailants who leaped from a doorway as he passed. And old Charlie, several months before he died, was robbed of $80 when his billfold was “frisked” by cops outside his apartment. It was the first time in eight years of living in Tijuana that he’d been stopped by the cops. At the bar he complained, “But they’re supposed to protect and serve.”


I first saw the lion tamer crouching at my side. He wore a short red jacket with epaulettes and gold piping and white pants with a satin stripe down the side, and he was pulling me into a seated position. I was on the sidewalk, and what a beautiful dream I was having. All those blue and red lights flashing stroboscopically, swirling around me like the reflections from a rotating disco ball…or is that a rising moon? A bad moon risin’. That song. Had I not heard it just a short while ago on some juke box, emanating from some doorway? Never mind. I guess the show is about to begin…. The lion tamer asked if I had ID. For the circus? I thought. Now you need ID for the circus? Ridiculous, I thought. Or I thought I thought. A carnival ambience was all around me, a whirling maelstrom of colored lights, snippets of conversation, and visual montage. People were talking. What a show! A large white truck, what? A lion truck? They keep the lions in that? A large white truck was backing up to the curb? I was on a curb? The sky was still turning dark. It was an opalescent gray the last time I noticed, but now it was going all indigo. I felt around me and pulled my hand back to see blood, quite a bit of it. The lion tamer! I’d been bit? No, wait, I thought, I’m on a dirty sidewalk at the entrance to the Zona Norte, right off Calle Primero and Constitución. Suddenly, the beautiful dream vanished. I was beginning to understand.

“Was I shot?” I asked the man in the fabulous garb, now dissolving, acid-trip-like, from lion tamer to paramedic. “Stabbed?” A long string of something hung from the back of my head like a piece of damp linguini; I could feel it, a rivulet of semi-coagulated blood running halfway down my back. The medic said, no, I had not been stabbed. A loco had gone on a rampage, and I’d been clubbed from behind.

I’d walked six city blocks from a bar where I’d been watching the World Series — those damn Yankees — down Constitución toward my hotel in the Zona Norte. I remembered seeing the lighted sign of the hotel a block ahead, and then, well, there was the apparition of the lion tamer. I said to the medic that, since I was neither shot nor stabbed, I would like to get to my hotel. Now I was yakking away in Spanish while the cops looked at my passport.

“We’ve got to take you to the hospital,” the medic said. “You need stitches.” Indeed, I was a bloody mess. The upper portion of my shirt was soaked in blood down to my chest. I had no idea how long I’d been unconscious. Obviously long enough for an ambulance to arrive, and police on motorcycles. The medics helped me up and into the ambulance. I thought it was being overdone, but in my semi-stupor I went along. I’d been stitched up several times as a child, but that was decades ago.

The ambulance crossed town, over the river and southward to Tijuana General. The medic brought me into the emergency room, gray-green walls, dimly lit by fluorescent lamps. They looked at my passport again and took me back into a room where a doctor was dealing with a few other patients; one, a man whose head was swathed in bloody gauze, sat near me. I could feel the wound at the back of my head, just above the base of my skull. It seemed to have a flap.

The doctor came over and grimaced. Hey, I feel good, I thought. It can’t be that bad. Adrenaline had kicked in. I couldn’t quit talking — in Spanish. “¿Qué pasó?” I asked. “¿Algo malo?” (What happened? Something bad?) An attendant appeared with a pair of scissors and a disposable plastic razor and began prepping the back of my head. The doctor had a syringe full of something. “¡No quiero!” I told him, pointing to the syringe. “I don’t want it.” It was some kind of local anesthetic, I supposed, but in my adrenaline-amped paranoia, I thought it might as easiliy be rattlesnake venom. The doctor said it was something to kill the pain while he stitched me up. He’d already threaded a curved needle with what looked like green fishing line, monofilament five-pound test. “Está bien,” I told him. “No quiero.” Now I tried to recall my early-childhood stitch-ups. I remembered the chin one and the side-of-the-head one. The needle had stung. I’d cried back then, but no way was I going to cry now.

A 12-year-old boy was in the room, his forearm wrapped in a freshly applied plaster cast. Transfixed by what the doctor was about to do to me, he took a seat on a high stool at my back. The doctor started his sewing. Yeah, it stung, and my eyes began to burn furiously. I was five years old again. I was under bright lights in an ER at a hospital in Stockton, California. No, get it right, I thought. I’m in Tijuana General, wearing a blood-soaked shirt, having been knocked unconscious in a notoriously bad-news area that I thought I’d become hip enough to navigate sin problemo. Always take a taxi, I reminded myself. The needle punched through the skin of my scalp, again and again. Stitches — puntos, they call them in Mexico. Next time you see a Mexican with a buzz cut, notice how many of these guys have head scars. Disproportionate, no? Now I’m a scar bro myself.


This was Rule No.1, at least from what I’d read on the internet about Tijuana: always take a taxi. And usually I did. It costs two bucks to go six blocks, and it was a warm, Indian-summer evening, and the World Series was on the tube, and I had downed a couple o’ pints. I certainly didn’t feel drunk — that usually demands a couple o’ pints more — and because the afternoon had waxed crepuscular, and a light sea-breeze was a blowin’, I’d opted to walk the six blocks back to the hotel. And — whammo — I’d been hit in the head. This happened about four years ago, when the cop wars were really heating up. Cops killing cops. Corruption run rampant. Gringos rounded up and robbed by cops. Extortion. Informal after-hours speakeasies opened up all over the city.

A sidebar: I am walking to work on the American side. It is about 4:00 in the morning. As I’m about to cross the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River, I see a vagrant sifting through a pile of garbage pulled from a trashcan he has overturned. I watch a TJ squad car pull up beside him. Poor bastard, I think. The cops are gonna haul his raggedy, misbegotten ass in. I cross the street. And then the cop steps out and puts me up against the squad car. Why? Well, the bum clearly has no money, but a gringo might have some dough. This is when I learned the value of a U.S. passport. At that time, the U.S. government had just put into Spanish a declaration previously written only in French and English; this was an admonition and a request to let the bearer of the passport be about his business without undue harassment and delay. The declaration was obviously addressed to foreign officials, such as any official who might be tempted to harass a U.S. citizen until said citizen would, say, hand over any dinero he might have on him. When I pointed to this announcement, the officer read it out loud, as if to demonstrate that he was, in fact, literate. Then he said that the proclamation in my passport had no authority in Mexico, that it was only for crossing into the United States. He looked at me quizzically. What are you trying to tell me? his eyes seemed to say. He had me put my hands on the car while he rifled through my pockets. I crossed every day to go to work, so this became Rule No. 2: never have more than 40 bucks on you at a time.


The U.S. regular staying in TJ is prone to a rising paranoia. We all talk about it. Because this ain’t no retirement villa, though if retirement villas included easy access to poontang, it could be — even those of us who can’t do it like knowing that the opportunity is there if we could. It’s like money in the bank.

In the seven-something years I’ve spent in TJ, I’ve had three friends die on me. When a gringo dies, the news is usually brought by another gringo, an informal network of bearers of bad news. The men who died were all older men, men like me.

One guy lived in Las Playas. Think of that self-portrait of Cezanne set against a warm, dappled background of rust puddles and buttermilk — it bears a striking resemblance to this man. Stanley.

I visited Stanley’s house once. He lived a packrat-like existence, an intelligent man whose dishwasher, rare in TJ, became just another place to store books. He’d attended UC Berkeley and UCLA, taken art classes from Elmer Bischoff and David Park. He got by with a stipend from his brother and by reading tarot cards and doing astrology charts in bars; in terms of a personal Weltenschaung, he’d never really left the Telegraph Avenue of the 1960s. He kept hinting to me that the apartment next to his was available. But like most gringos who live down here, I generally keep to myself, unless I just happen to come across one of my fellow gringos. On our way out of his place, Stanley proudly pulled up a piece of paper taped to the wall, revealing a Hustler magazine photo that showed five women entangled in a pornographic puzzle only a madman would dream of joining. “I will bequeath this to you when I die,” Stanley said, gray eyes twinkling over a sly grin. Little did he know that he was soon to be dead.

When I heard the news in the bar one morning, I couldn’t believe it. Only a few days before I’d taken photos of him in another bar. He’d showed me some chunks of ham and cheese he’d bought at the Sorianos supermarket on Revolución. I believe I bought him a shot of Pinch or Bushmill’s — some kind of whiskey. A day or two later, I saw him out in front of the Jai Alai Palace. No longer talking of the rare painting he’d been trying to get appraised in San Francisco, or the land in Riverside County that he co-owned with his brother, he’d gazed off into the distance. “I’m so depressed,” he said.

Now he was dead, said the Old Baseball Player. He’d heard it from a Mexican cab driver, who’d heard it from another cab driver who ran the Playas route. These Mexican cab drivers, the good ones, the old-timers, they know everything, especially about the gringos. I said to the Old Baseball Player, “Just because you heard he’s dead is no reason to believe he’s dead. Hell, there wasn’t anything wrong with the guy, and he looked in darn good health.” “He’s dead,” my friend said. Something about the other cab driver seeing Stanley’s body being taken out of his apartment. “I’m calling the consulate,” I said.

The U.S. consulate used to be located up on Agua Caliente by the horse track, now dedicated to dogs, but it recently moved to snazzier digs. One thing recommended by savvy tourist guides is that U.S. citizens inform the consulate of their long-term stays in Mexico. Just in case. I have yet to do so.

I didn’t know precisely where the U.S. consulate was, so I went to an internet café and did a search. On their site I saw that I could send them an email, so I wrote, “Hey, I heard that so-and-so, American citizen, died in Las Playas a few days ago. Is this true?” I never received a reply.

Over the next few years, I periodically ran Social Security Death Index searches for Stanley on the computer. He never showed up as dead, at least under the name I knew him by. There were no obit announcements in the Los Angeles Times, his hometown paper. Nothing. “He died like Ambrose Bierce,” I told the Old Baseball Player. “Not a trace to be found.”


Another friend of mine, a scholar of Latin and Greek and a staunch Oklahoma Catholic who’d attended the University of Kansas, died while I was giving him a glass of water.

For several days, he’d failed to show up at the bar at his usually precise 5:30 p.m., where he’d clutch a transistor radio to his ear and listen to a sporting event while drinking half a cubeta of beer — he was known among his barmates as the Atomic Clock. Suddenly everybody wanted to know, “Where’s ol’ Charlie?”

All the gringos knew him to be a deeply religious man who attended mass in Tijuana just about every day. He was also a favorite with the Caliente sportsbook staff, due to daily visitations to place outrageous, multi-sport parlay bets. They’d even give him custom-made, blown-up copies of his ticket so he could more easily read it. Charlie suffered from a rare and worsening eye disease that gave him tunnel vision, and the letters on the custom job were half an inch high.

I knew the general whereabouts of his place; I’d been there one time. I went with another friend, Dave, who felt confident he could find the exact address, this confidence based on a familiarity with Mexican culture. Sure enough, we found it. As Dave had predicted, a little old lady was guarding the door to the complex, keeping watch. She knew what we were looking for and took us up to his room. Through a slit in the curtains we saw Charlie lying on the bed. He’d been sprawled there for three days. The ceiling light was on and his wide-open eyes stared upward.

“Jesus Christ, Charlie, we gotta get you outta here,” Dave said. He managed to climb in through the window and open the locked front door. My duty was to watch over poor ol’ Charlie while Dave went up the street to a police substation to call for an ambulance. Charlie had apparently earlier refused to be taken to a Mexican hospital when it was offered by a paramedic crew. He’d wanted to lie there, come what may. Sometimes, in the gringo graveyard, as in the legendary elephants’ graveyard, the animals know when they are going to die, and they just want to get to their place of dying, and to do so expeditiously.

I gave him a glass of water, and he died right in front of me. I’d never seen a person die before. It was like watching a cowboy movie, when I was a kid. Some guy’s been shot, he’s lying on the ground, his buddy tries to help him. The shot guy asks for water. He takes a sip from his friend’s canteen, says some words, and expires. Charlie’s cryptic last words were “I had a bad encounter…” I took comfort in Montaigne: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

By the time the ambulance arrived, along with the cops and the coroner, Charlie was gone. The transistor radio was silent, its battery drained, his slender fingers still clutching it to his chest. The little old gate lady had been walking in and out of the apartment, holding a silver spoon above Charlie’s breathless nostrils, looking for sign of life. But his eyes remained open, glazed. I didn’t know the protocol for all this, but I could not bring myself to close his eyes upon this world. A couple of days later, his brother came out from Oklahoma to pick up his body at the TJ morgue.


There was a guy who lived in the hotel where I was staying. He was long, lean to the point of being gaunt, and had a greasy comb-back of thunder-gray hair, the kind of hair old men and old dogs have. He wore a raincoat every day and always had a cigarette in hand. He was reputed to drink a fifth of whiskey a day, but I never saw him obviously drunk. He would grin grimly at me as we passed in the entrance hallway or out on the street. His sharp and shifting little eyes seemed to say, I know this game. I never learned his name, nor did I ever say a word to him, but we both understood why were in TJ: eternity was stalking us.

He was a gambler. Sports. Always had a bet ticket, the TV in his room channeling some sporting event — loudly. It had become his raison d’être. No women; only cigs, whiskey, coffee, and sports gambling. The game was all.

One night I was awakened by the shrill warbling of sirens. Voices grew loud out in the hallway. Was it nine o’clock? I must’ve dozed off. I heard the clumsy tramp, tramp, tramp of heavy boots on the tiles. It’s always something, I thought. I rolled off the bed and put on my shoes. When I opened my door, I saw firemen running upstairs, dragging a firehose. At the end of the long hallway, clouds of thick, pewter-gray smoke chugged out from under a door, but for some reason, I didn’t think the fire would reach me. Qué sera, sera. Nonetheless, I went down the stairway. “¿Qué pasó?” I asked the concierge. “Hay fuego y se murio,” he said. (There is a fire and he died.) “¿Ese viejo?” (The old guy?) “Sí, sin duda,” he said, a somber cast on his face. (Yes, without a doubt.)

I never found out whether it was a heart attack and then the fire, a result of a dropped cig, or whether it was something worse: too much whiskey, a pass-out job, then cig-ignition. It’s tough to follow up on events like this in Tijuana. Such talk is bad for business.

Outside the hotel, a covey of demimondaine had come out of the clubs to see what the hub-bub was about. Three fire trucks were parked in the street, and an ambulance. I did not watch the charred corpse get carried out, but I did see the charred husk of the room, the remnants of the mattress and the melted television at the foot of the bed. Hotel management boarded up the windows and placed a funeral wreath of black ribbon on the room’s axe-hacked door. There it remained for months after the fire. If you die in TJ, you may be fortunate enough to receive a wreath of black ribbon at your last whistlestop. I will be grateful, I know.

Gary is another case. I knew him through the Old Baseball Player — they were about the same age. Gary was a career Marine, retired. Long-time TJ habituée. Before 9/11, he’d ramble around Revolución, hitting the bars. Slept in his minivan stateside. Used to take a daily dump and do his morning ablutions at a Starbucks off Palomar on Broadway. He had a thing for fancy-looking wristwatches, but only the cheapest knock-offs. He might go through three of them in a week, discarding them when they went sour or when he grew bored with their ostentatious pizzazz.

Gary always inquired about other people’s health, maybe because he had heart problems himself. A matchbox-sized lump was visible on his chest, protruding from under one of his many tanktops. This was his pacemaker. He was living on borrowed time, and he seemed to have a keen sense of that clock winding down. He was a regular client at the go-go girlie bars, a habit possibly acquired in myriad ports of call, but I saw him more often sliding into the stateside Starbucks; the Old Baseball Player always asked me about him. Rumors of Gary’s death circulated regularly, but then he would eventually resurface in some TJ bar, beer in hand, ever less lucid, senility-bound. Then, one day, the Old Baseball Player informed me, “Gary is dead.”

“How do you know?” I asked. Some mutual friend had told him that Gary, at some 75 years of age, had been racked up in the VA hospital in La Jolla for a couple of months, ultimately expiring from his bad ticker. Thinking about this, we both agreed he’d looked green around the gills during more recent sightings, as gray-green in the face as the old guys you see on San Diego city buses headed up to Scripps Medical Center near Hillcrest, or the VA hospital in La Jolla. Some of these guys look like the spawning salmon I’d seen while fishing the Sacramento River in Shasta County, flesh falling from their bodies while trying to get in one last copulation. I’m talking about the fish. But a lot of old gringos are like that, too.


And a lot of old Mexicans. A bar hooker at Adelita’s told me about one of her regulars, a guy approaching 80. “No necesita Viagra,” she’d say. This was back when the drug was brand new. “Todavia se puede coger, sin problema.” (He can still fuck without a problem.) Old guys like me, we liked to hear these reports. Plus, this woman, who was from Sonora, had authority. She’d once been a hospital nurse. Then, one day she said flatly, “Ese señor, se murio.” (That guy died.)

A decade ago, when TJ — a city that a couple years before had been named by Time magazine as one of the world’s top ten most dynamic — was gripped by the initial convulsions and economic dislocations of 9/11, on top of the collapse of the dot-com boom in California, the Old Baseball Player and I were warmly greeted, indeed congratulated, by some of the old-time tijuaneses, for toughing it out in their town. Even with all the problems, there we were, walking the streets, getting hassled by the cops, waiting in long lines to cross the border, and putting up with the general economic collapse. As if we had someplace else to go. Something more pressing to do.

There is a Frenchman down here, Rene, dubbed — what else? — “Frenchy” by another rubescent-nosed gringo, dubbed “Brooklyn,” because, well, that’s where he is from. Frenchy is a voracious reader. I’ve never seen the cache of books hidden away in his apartment, but his talk leads me to believe that his collection rivals mine. The other day he stopped me as I was walking up Revolución with a recently acquired tome on European history. He looked at it and asked if I could read French. “Bien sûr!” I affirmed. We bemoan the fact that neither of us gets much chance to practice our French, speaking-wise, while congratulating each other on our ability to speak Spanish. All a part of being a member of the club.

Frenchy told me he owned a volume of European history written in French; I could borrow it if I wished. The one stipulation was that I had to give it back. In Tijuana this is something that cannot be guaranteed, for who knows what the morrow may bring? One of us may be dead, burglarized, or out on the street.

We bump into each other regularly as we amble about town doing what we do, sometimes at the 7-Eleven next to the Jai Alai frontón, sometimes at well-known gringo watering holes around downtown, the Zona Norte being too expensive for routine imbibation. The Old Baseball Player is our go-to guy for the latest in beer prices. He ferrets out the deals of the day during his perigrenations. I’ve learned something about myself down here. I, like everyone, have querencias, places I prefer to be. The term comes from bullfighting and has to do with that spot in the ring that the bull, while never having been in the ring before, prefers. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, so just find a spot you like, routinely drift in that direction, and stay there. Over the years I’ve been criticized for loyalty to my querencias, but if my comrades loved Cuban music as much as I do, they would understand.

Sometimes, though, we become almost migratory. The Old Baseball Player, for instance, has been known to move from hotel to hotel, rarely staying in one place for more than a few weeks. He once quipped, “I think they get tired of seeing me. I know I get tired of seeing them.” Another quip, this one regarding women: “Just remember, whenever you see a woman you think you just got to have, somewhere there’s a guy who is sick to death of fucking her.”


When you come to Tijuana, you must be prepared to lose everything, including your life.

Every one of us has been knocked out cold at least once, usually as part of a robbery. In the first 50 years of my life, I met nobody subjected to routine robberies and muggings. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met dozens.

A close eye is kept on the U.S. stock market, not because anybody owns any stock, but because when the U.S. market drops a couple of hundred points, you get extra pesos at the casa de cambio. In ten years, the rate has gone from 9 to the dollar to as high as 14. Could mean a few extra beers.

I’ve heard rumors of my own premature demise. “Hey, where’s my friend from San Jose?” the gringos have asked. “Haven’t seen him for a while.” Then comes, invariably, from somewhere, the laconically spoken, “Must’ve died.”

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The long corridor is quiet now. A reasonable facsimile of Willie Nelson lies dozing in his shorts, on his back, in the dark, the door to his room open to the caressing balm of a Pacific breeze that drifts easterly along Coahuila Street. No lights ignite the dark; there is only the shadowy simulacrum of Willie at rest, his head pillowed at the foot of the bed, his feet up where his head should be. The day before, he was on a wild-eyed rant. Walking up the staircase, I heard him singing this ditty from my childhood: “Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk…” Then he started over again. When I got to the top of the staircase, this gray-bearded, gray-braided spectre caught in mid-song smiled weakly. “A song from my childhood,” he said. I looked into his sad eyes, nodded, and ambled past. Best to let grogged dogs lie, I thought. So what if we both knew the same bit of musical doggerel from the same post-war era. Does that give us common cause? Make us “soul brothers”?

He has been here for several days now, sweeping empty Tecate cans and cigarette butts out of his room on a daily basis. In another room, not far from here, a few years back a much younger man was doing the same, spending days cloistered in a Mexican hotel, drinking red wine from the green bottles that, empty, lined up outside his door, while he chain-smoked American cigarettes. Eventually, they all break one way or another, like a cueball rolling slowly on a green felt plane. Left or right. They stay or they go, but they do break, finally, in one direction or another. The young man stayed, until one morning I saw him sitting on the stairs weeping, his bare and bleeding feet having left crimson prints all along the mottled gray concrete hallway outside his room. Broken green glass trailed out of the open door of his room, as did a trail of cigarette butts and ashes. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. I could tell he had had his own personal Night of the Iguana and was about to leave. Some can take it, some can’t. Mostly, when they go, it’s because it isn’t their time…not yet.

Author T.B. Beaudeau knows that downtown TJ dive bars are the place to gather news about Tijuana’s expatriate gringos.

The old guys, like doppelgänger Willie, they don’t care so much. They have reached The Point. They have enough life experience, have seen enough that the trail ahead seems more like a backtrack of the trail behind, a pointless and Sisyphean task, and so they seek out a legendary graveyard, as the elephants do. The young man of the bloody feet was too young to stay. If he did, it would had to have been under a new set of terms, self-evolved, but he still had some esperanza roiling about inside him. So he left in a cab, to go back to the place from where he came, a place most likely of tightly manicured hedges and well-watered lawns. As for the old guy, well, this may be his moment on the beach. But some of these old guys are tough and tricky. You never can tell if they might not get away at the last moment, sucked back out by a stronger tide…to return to friends, family, the society they knew…or maybe just rehab.

The notion of the therapeutic retreat, the pulling back from the life one lives is an attractive one. I tendered such fantasies myself as early as high school, wanting to avoid the pressurized hurly-burly of society and its claims upon one’s person, the multitudes of expectations, the burdens of responsibilities imposed by others, bellowing bosses, demanding wives, disappointed and disappointing children. I had the nagging perception that everything would be made all right if I could just spend three days alone, lying in bed for 72 hours in an air-conditioned motel room in Centralia, Washington. It never really leaves, this desire.

That’s who comes here, this is what they seek. For the old guys, however, it’s the majesty of disappearing into Mexico, finding the graveyard of godforsaken gringos and then letting Nature take its course. We have a progenitor, of course — Ambrose Bierce. He left a cushy job in San Francisco as a newspaperman in 1913, in order to find out what the Mexican Revolution was really like. He never went back. He simply evaporated, a puff of vapor under a hot Mexican sun.

For those who have crossed this Rubicon, there may be salutary moments of lucidity, when a man can turn back, but if you stay on track it gets harder and harder to make the timely retro-spin northward, back to Anglo-Landia. You make your bones every day down here, until you become bones yourself. There is no rest, no respite for the live-in gringo. You get beat up, you get robbed, your pockets picked, you have your ups and downs with Mexican cops, you learn some Spanish, you meet other, similar ancient ones, like the chimerical Willie Nelson at the top of the stairs.

The Walrus arrived one week. He is another like Willie, religiously drinking a few caguamas a day, strolling the streets in huarache sandals, letting the summer sun bake his feet into bright-pink balloons, so painfully burned he could not walk for days at a time. Once, he sent me to the corner store for a caguama — he could not take a step.

The Walrus plays music that seeps from under his door and flows down the hallway. “I’m in love,” sings Wilson Picket. “Love, love, love makes me do foolish things,” sing the Marvelettes. Yes, yes, indeed…


Love makes the world go ’round. Especially if you’re an old coot on Social Security or a government pension. Stateside, the chicks just don’t get it, they don’t understand you, but down here there are a multitude of Mexican cuties running around looking for a handsome bloke like you. You never knew you were that attractive, and you’re so glad that at last someone sees the real you. And loves you, too. For many of the old bulls, this is the last roundup, a final fling, an opportunity to have it their way, just once.

The Upstater, from New York, used to fly into San Diego every couple of months. Retired, and a widower of several years, he’d wander the streets of Tijuana, making up for lost time. But that was several years ago. Now I see him sitting on a public bench on Revolución, feeding pigeons. Then there’s the Old Baseball Player, legendary not only for his capacity to consume cerveza, but for his single-minded pursuit of female companionship. For myself, the testosterone has dwindled significantly since my salad days. It is almost a blessed relief to not feel the nagging compulsion to copulate, to not entertain the notion that one’s duty is not being done as a mammal. I have fond memories of reading a parody of the 1970s sex manual, The Joy of Sex, retitled as The Job of Sex — and in retrospect it was. Certainly many of the “girlfriends” we run into down here view their liaisons with gringos as a job. They may as well be shampooing poodles for a living.

Other godforsaken gringos find love, at least at their end. Astonishingly, a high percentage of these men, many of whom speak only English — and who have lived previously under the rules, regulations, and customs of Anglo-American culture — become enamored with a Mexican cutie or two, spending large sums of money for their upkeep and believing that these women only have eyes for them…shoobie-doo-wop-bah-daaaaah. Of course, these delightful female charmers may try to engineer the same sweet set up with half a dozen gringos at once. One old guy, seated next to me at the Monte Carlo restaurant, which is next to the notorious good-times bar Adelita’s, complained bitterly of such an experience, of the shocked discovery that he wasn’t her one and only.

“What do you think of that?” he asked, putting a forkful of scrambled eggs into his mouth. He swallowed. “I mean, I told her I’d rent her an apartment and pay her bills, and I been doin’ that for six months, but she still’s got to cheat on me.”

He’s 50-something, his eyes glazed over with incredulity. He met her at Adelita’s, where lovely lies and adroit deception are the tools of the trade. It is always amusing to see one of these types in the bars, having an intimate tête-à-tête, billing and cooing with a woman one-third his age who doesn’t understand a word he is saying. She offers a musical laugh, mimes the lover, bats a coy eyelash, demonstrates every nonverbal courting cliché imaginable. A love-smitten fool and his money are soon parted.

Some have been through this routine several times, always heading back into the fray with a renewed conviction of eventual victory. They need to feel “in love.” Men! Who would have thought it?

One beefy character, an L.A. truck driver, attended the baby shower of his pregnant street-hooker fantasy girlfriend. He was not the daddy, but being a good sport he brought along the gracious gift of a baby stroller for Madame Mama-to-be. The woman was planning to be away for a while…


We all have had our brushes with death. The Old Baseball Player has been knocked out three times during muggings in the Zona, the most brazen attempt a couple of years ago, at high noon, with 60 people standing around, most of them hooker-onlookers. When he came to, his wallet was missing and his neck was wrenched, but he claimed he got a punch in before he blacked out. The Upstate New Yorker was cold-cocked in broad daylight on Madero, one street over from Revolución, his wallet stolen by two assailants who leaped from a doorway as he passed. And old Charlie, several months before he died, was robbed of $80 when his billfold was “frisked” by cops outside his apartment. It was the first time in eight years of living in Tijuana that he’d been stopped by the cops. At the bar he complained, “But they’re supposed to protect and serve.”


I first saw the lion tamer crouching at my side. He wore a short red jacket with epaulettes and gold piping and white pants with a satin stripe down the side, and he was pulling me into a seated position. I was on the sidewalk, and what a beautiful dream I was having. All those blue and red lights flashing stroboscopically, swirling around me like the reflections from a rotating disco ball…or is that a rising moon? A bad moon risin’. That song. Had I not heard it just a short while ago on some juke box, emanating from some doorway? Never mind. I guess the show is about to begin…. The lion tamer asked if I had ID. For the circus? I thought. Now you need ID for the circus? Ridiculous, I thought. Or I thought I thought. A carnival ambience was all around me, a whirling maelstrom of colored lights, snippets of conversation, and visual montage. People were talking. What a show! A large white truck, what? A lion truck? They keep the lions in that? A large white truck was backing up to the curb? I was on a curb? The sky was still turning dark. It was an opalescent gray the last time I noticed, but now it was going all indigo. I felt around me and pulled my hand back to see blood, quite a bit of it. The lion tamer! I’d been bit? No, wait, I thought, I’m on a dirty sidewalk at the entrance to the Zona Norte, right off Calle Primero and Constitución. Suddenly, the beautiful dream vanished. I was beginning to understand.

“Was I shot?” I asked the man in the fabulous garb, now dissolving, acid-trip-like, from lion tamer to paramedic. “Stabbed?” A long string of something hung from the back of my head like a piece of damp linguini; I could feel it, a rivulet of semi-coagulated blood running halfway down my back. The medic said, no, I had not been stabbed. A loco had gone on a rampage, and I’d been clubbed from behind.

I’d walked six city blocks from a bar where I’d been watching the World Series — those damn Yankees — down Constitución toward my hotel in the Zona Norte. I remembered seeing the lighted sign of the hotel a block ahead, and then, well, there was the apparition of the lion tamer. I said to the medic that, since I was neither shot nor stabbed, I would like to get to my hotel. Now I was yakking away in Spanish while the cops looked at my passport.

“We’ve got to take you to the hospital,” the medic said. “You need stitches.” Indeed, I was a bloody mess. The upper portion of my shirt was soaked in blood down to my chest. I had no idea how long I’d been unconscious. Obviously long enough for an ambulance to arrive, and police on motorcycles. The medics helped me up and into the ambulance. I thought it was being overdone, but in my semi-stupor I went along. I’d been stitched up several times as a child, but that was decades ago.

The ambulance crossed town, over the river and southward to Tijuana General. The medic brought me into the emergency room, gray-green walls, dimly lit by fluorescent lamps. They looked at my passport again and took me back into a room where a doctor was dealing with a few other patients; one, a man whose head was swathed in bloody gauze, sat near me. I could feel the wound at the back of my head, just above the base of my skull. It seemed to have a flap.

The doctor came over and grimaced. Hey, I feel good, I thought. It can’t be that bad. Adrenaline had kicked in. I couldn’t quit talking — in Spanish. “¿Qué pasó?” I asked. “¿Algo malo?” (What happened? Something bad?) An attendant appeared with a pair of scissors and a disposable plastic razor and began prepping the back of my head. The doctor had a syringe full of something. “¡No quiero!” I told him, pointing to the syringe. “I don’t want it.” It was some kind of local anesthetic, I supposed, but in my adrenaline-amped paranoia, I thought it might as easiliy be rattlesnake venom. The doctor said it was something to kill the pain while he stitched me up. He’d already threaded a curved needle with what looked like green fishing line, monofilament five-pound test. “Está bien,” I told him. “No quiero.” Now I tried to recall my early-childhood stitch-ups. I remembered the chin one and the side-of-the-head one. The needle had stung. I’d cried back then, but no way was I going to cry now.

A 12-year-old boy was in the room, his forearm wrapped in a freshly applied plaster cast. Transfixed by what the doctor was about to do to me, he took a seat on a high stool at my back. The doctor started his sewing. Yeah, it stung, and my eyes began to burn furiously. I was five years old again. I was under bright lights in an ER at a hospital in Stockton, California. No, get it right, I thought. I’m in Tijuana General, wearing a blood-soaked shirt, having been knocked unconscious in a notoriously bad-news area that I thought I’d become hip enough to navigate sin problemo. Always take a taxi, I reminded myself. The needle punched through the skin of my scalp, again and again. Stitches — puntos, they call them in Mexico. Next time you see a Mexican with a buzz cut, notice how many of these guys have head scars. Disproportionate, no? Now I’m a scar bro myself.


This was Rule No.1, at least from what I’d read on the internet about Tijuana: always take a taxi. And usually I did. It costs two bucks to go six blocks, and it was a warm, Indian-summer evening, and the World Series was on the tube, and I had downed a couple o’ pints. I certainly didn’t feel drunk — that usually demands a couple o’ pints more — and because the afternoon had waxed crepuscular, and a light sea-breeze was a blowin’, I’d opted to walk the six blocks back to the hotel. And — whammo — I’d been hit in the head. This happened about four years ago, when the cop wars were really heating up. Cops killing cops. Corruption run rampant. Gringos rounded up and robbed by cops. Extortion. Informal after-hours speakeasies opened up all over the city.

A sidebar: I am walking to work on the American side. It is about 4:00 in the morning. As I’m about to cross the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River, I see a vagrant sifting through a pile of garbage pulled from a trashcan he has overturned. I watch a TJ squad car pull up beside him. Poor bastard, I think. The cops are gonna haul his raggedy, misbegotten ass in. I cross the street. And then the cop steps out and puts me up against the squad car. Why? Well, the bum clearly has no money, but a gringo might have some dough. This is when I learned the value of a U.S. passport. At that time, the U.S. government had just put into Spanish a declaration previously written only in French and English; this was an admonition and a request to let the bearer of the passport be about his business without undue harassment and delay. The declaration was obviously addressed to foreign officials, such as any official who might be tempted to harass a U.S. citizen until said citizen would, say, hand over any dinero he might have on him. When I pointed to this announcement, the officer read it out loud, as if to demonstrate that he was, in fact, literate. Then he said that the proclamation in my passport had no authority in Mexico, that it was only for crossing into the United States. He looked at me quizzically. What are you trying to tell me? his eyes seemed to say. He had me put my hands on the car while he rifled through my pockets. I crossed every day to go to work, so this became Rule No. 2: never have more than 40 bucks on you at a time.


The U.S. regular staying in TJ is prone to a rising paranoia. We all talk about it. Because this ain’t no retirement villa, though if retirement villas included easy access to poontang, it could be — even those of us who can’t do it like knowing that the opportunity is there if we could. It’s like money in the bank.

In the seven-something years I’ve spent in TJ, I’ve had three friends die on me. When a gringo dies, the news is usually brought by another gringo, an informal network of bearers of bad news. The men who died were all older men, men like me.

One guy lived in Las Playas. Think of that self-portrait of Cezanne set against a warm, dappled background of rust puddles and buttermilk — it bears a striking resemblance to this man. Stanley.

I visited Stanley’s house once. He lived a packrat-like existence, an intelligent man whose dishwasher, rare in TJ, became just another place to store books. He’d attended UC Berkeley and UCLA, taken art classes from Elmer Bischoff and David Park. He got by with a stipend from his brother and by reading tarot cards and doing astrology charts in bars; in terms of a personal Weltenschaung, he’d never really left the Telegraph Avenue of the 1960s. He kept hinting to me that the apartment next to his was available. But like most gringos who live down here, I generally keep to myself, unless I just happen to come across one of my fellow gringos. On our way out of his place, Stanley proudly pulled up a piece of paper taped to the wall, revealing a Hustler magazine photo that showed five women entangled in a pornographic puzzle only a madman would dream of joining. “I will bequeath this to you when I die,” Stanley said, gray eyes twinkling over a sly grin. Little did he know that he was soon to be dead.

When I heard the news in the bar one morning, I couldn’t believe it. Only a few days before I’d taken photos of him in another bar. He’d showed me some chunks of ham and cheese he’d bought at the Sorianos supermarket on Revolución. I believe I bought him a shot of Pinch or Bushmill’s — some kind of whiskey. A day or two later, I saw him out in front of the Jai Alai Palace. No longer talking of the rare painting he’d been trying to get appraised in San Francisco, or the land in Riverside County that he co-owned with his brother, he’d gazed off into the distance. “I’m so depressed,” he said.

Now he was dead, said the Old Baseball Player. He’d heard it from a Mexican cab driver, who’d heard it from another cab driver who ran the Playas route. These Mexican cab drivers, the good ones, the old-timers, they know everything, especially about the gringos. I said to the Old Baseball Player, “Just because you heard he’s dead is no reason to believe he’s dead. Hell, there wasn’t anything wrong with the guy, and he looked in darn good health.” “He’s dead,” my friend said. Something about the other cab driver seeing Stanley’s body being taken out of his apartment. “I’m calling the consulate,” I said.

The U.S. consulate used to be located up on Agua Caliente by the horse track, now dedicated to dogs, but it recently moved to snazzier digs. One thing recommended by savvy tourist guides is that U.S. citizens inform the consulate of their long-term stays in Mexico. Just in case. I have yet to do so.

I didn’t know precisely where the U.S. consulate was, so I went to an internet café and did a search. On their site I saw that I could send them an email, so I wrote, “Hey, I heard that so-and-so, American citizen, died in Las Playas a few days ago. Is this true?” I never received a reply.

Over the next few years, I periodically ran Social Security Death Index searches for Stanley on the computer. He never showed up as dead, at least under the name I knew him by. There were no obit announcements in the Los Angeles Times, his hometown paper. Nothing. “He died like Ambrose Bierce,” I told the Old Baseball Player. “Not a trace to be found.”


Another friend of mine, a scholar of Latin and Greek and a staunch Oklahoma Catholic who’d attended the University of Kansas, died while I was giving him a glass of water.

For several days, he’d failed to show up at the bar at his usually precise 5:30 p.m., where he’d clutch a transistor radio to his ear and listen to a sporting event while drinking half a cubeta of beer — he was known among his barmates as the Atomic Clock. Suddenly everybody wanted to know, “Where’s ol’ Charlie?”

All the gringos knew him to be a deeply religious man who attended mass in Tijuana just about every day. He was also a favorite with the Caliente sportsbook staff, due to daily visitations to place outrageous, multi-sport parlay bets. They’d even give him custom-made, blown-up copies of his ticket so he could more easily read it. Charlie suffered from a rare and worsening eye disease that gave him tunnel vision, and the letters on the custom job were half an inch high.

I knew the general whereabouts of his place; I’d been there one time. I went with another friend, Dave, who felt confident he could find the exact address, this confidence based on a familiarity with Mexican culture. Sure enough, we found it. As Dave had predicted, a little old lady was guarding the door to the complex, keeping watch. She knew what we were looking for and took us up to his room. Through a slit in the curtains we saw Charlie lying on the bed. He’d been sprawled there for three days. The ceiling light was on and his wide-open eyes stared upward.

“Jesus Christ, Charlie, we gotta get you outta here,” Dave said. He managed to climb in through the window and open the locked front door. My duty was to watch over poor ol’ Charlie while Dave went up the street to a police substation to call for an ambulance. Charlie had apparently earlier refused to be taken to a Mexican hospital when it was offered by a paramedic crew. He’d wanted to lie there, come what may. Sometimes, in the gringo graveyard, as in the legendary elephants’ graveyard, the animals know when they are going to die, and they just want to get to their place of dying, and to do so expeditiously.

I gave him a glass of water, and he died right in front of me. I’d never seen a person die before. It was like watching a cowboy movie, when I was a kid. Some guy’s been shot, he’s lying on the ground, his buddy tries to help him. The shot guy asks for water. He takes a sip from his friend’s canteen, says some words, and expires. Charlie’s cryptic last words were “I had a bad encounter…” I took comfort in Montaigne: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”

By the time the ambulance arrived, along with the cops and the coroner, Charlie was gone. The transistor radio was silent, its battery drained, his slender fingers still clutching it to his chest. The little old gate lady had been walking in and out of the apartment, holding a silver spoon above Charlie’s breathless nostrils, looking for sign of life. But his eyes remained open, glazed. I didn’t know the protocol for all this, but I could not bring myself to close his eyes upon this world. A couple of days later, his brother came out from Oklahoma to pick up his body at the TJ morgue.


There was a guy who lived in the hotel where I was staying. He was long, lean to the point of being gaunt, and had a greasy comb-back of thunder-gray hair, the kind of hair old men and old dogs have. He wore a raincoat every day and always had a cigarette in hand. He was reputed to drink a fifth of whiskey a day, but I never saw him obviously drunk. He would grin grimly at me as we passed in the entrance hallway or out on the street. His sharp and shifting little eyes seemed to say, I know this game. I never learned his name, nor did I ever say a word to him, but we both understood why were in TJ: eternity was stalking us.

He was a gambler. Sports. Always had a bet ticket, the TV in his room channeling some sporting event — loudly. It had become his raison d’être. No women; only cigs, whiskey, coffee, and sports gambling. The game was all.

One night I was awakened by the shrill warbling of sirens. Voices grew loud out in the hallway. Was it nine o’clock? I must’ve dozed off. I heard the clumsy tramp, tramp, tramp of heavy boots on the tiles. It’s always something, I thought. I rolled off the bed and put on my shoes. When I opened my door, I saw firemen running upstairs, dragging a firehose. At the end of the long hallway, clouds of thick, pewter-gray smoke chugged out from under a door, but for some reason, I didn’t think the fire would reach me. Qué sera, sera. Nonetheless, I went down the stairway. “¿Qué pasó?” I asked the concierge. “Hay fuego y se murio,” he said. (There is a fire and he died.) “¿Ese viejo?” (The old guy?) “Sí, sin duda,” he said, a somber cast on his face. (Yes, without a doubt.)

I never found out whether it was a heart attack and then the fire, a result of a dropped cig, or whether it was something worse: too much whiskey, a pass-out job, then cig-ignition. It’s tough to follow up on events like this in Tijuana. Such talk is bad for business.

Outside the hotel, a covey of demimondaine had come out of the clubs to see what the hub-bub was about. Three fire trucks were parked in the street, and an ambulance. I did not watch the charred corpse get carried out, but I did see the charred husk of the room, the remnants of the mattress and the melted television at the foot of the bed. Hotel management boarded up the windows and placed a funeral wreath of black ribbon on the room’s axe-hacked door. There it remained for months after the fire. If you die in TJ, you may be fortunate enough to receive a wreath of black ribbon at your last whistlestop. I will be grateful, I know.

Gary is another case. I knew him through the Old Baseball Player — they were about the same age. Gary was a career Marine, retired. Long-time TJ habituée. Before 9/11, he’d ramble around Revolución, hitting the bars. Slept in his minivan stateside. Used to take a daily dump and do his morning ablutions at a Starbucks off Palomar on Broadway. He had a thing for fancy-looking wristwatches, but only the cheapest knock-offs. He might go through three of them in a week, discarding them when they went sour or when he grew bored with their ostentatious pizzazz.

Gary always inquired about other people’s health, maybe because he had heart problems himself. A matchbox-sized lump was visible on his chest, protruding from under one of his many tanktops. This was his pacemaker. He was living on borrowed time, and he seemed to have a keen sense of that clock winding down. He was a regular client at the go-go girlie bars, a habit possibly acquired in myriad ports of call, but I saw him more often sliding into the stateside Starbucks; the Old Baseball Player always asked me about him. Rumors of Gary’s death circulated regularly, but then he would eventually resurface in some TJ bar, beer in hand, ever less lucid, senility-bound. Then, one day, the Old Baseball Player informed me, “Gary is dead.”

“How do you know?” I asked. Some mutual friend had told him that Gary, at some 75 years of age, had been racked up in the VA hospital in La Jolla for a couple of months, ultimately expiring from his bad ticker. Thinking about this, we both agreed he’d looked green around the gills during more recent sightings, as gray-green in the face as the old guys you see on San Diego city buses headed up to Scripps Medical Center near Hillcrest, or the VA hospital in La Jolla. Some of these guys look like the spawning salmon I’d seen while fishing the Sacramento River in Shasta County, flesh falling from their bodies while trying to get in one last copulation. I’m talking about the fish. But a lot of old gringos are like that, too.


And a lot of old Mexicans. A bar hooker at Adelita’s told me about one of her regulars, a guy approaching 80. “No necesita Viagra,” she’d say. This was back when the drug was brand new. “Todavia se puede coger, sin problema.” (He can still fuck without a problem.) Old guys like me, we liked to hear these reports. Plus, this woman, who was from Sonora, had authority. She’d once been a hospital nurse. Then, one day she said flatly, “Ese señor, se murio.” (That guy died.)

A decade ago, when TJ — a city that a couple years before had been named by Time magazine as one of the world’s top ten most dynamic — was gripped by the initial convulsions and economic dislocations of 9/11, on top of the collapse of the dot-com boom in California, the Old Baseball Player and I were warmly greeted, indeed congratulated, by some of the old-time tijuaneses, for toughing it out in their town. Even with all the problems, there we were, walking the streets, getting hassled by the cops, waiting in long lines to cross the border, and putting up with the general economic collapse. As if we had someplace else to go. Something more pressing to do.

There is a Frenchman down here, Rene, dubbed — what else? — “Frenchy” by another rubescent-nosed gringo, dubbed “Brooklyn,” because, well, that’s where he is from. Frenchy is a voracious reader. I’ve never seen the cache of books hidden away in his apartment, but his talk leads me to believe that his collection rivals mine. The other day he stopped me as I was walking up Revolución with a recently acquired tome on European history. He looked at it and asked if I could read French. “Bien sûr!” I affirmed. We bemoan the fact that neither of us gets much chance to practice our French, speaking-wise, while congratulating each other on our ability to speak Spanish. All a part of being a member of the club.

Frenchy told me he owned a volume of European history written in French; I could borrow it if I wished. The one stipulation was that I had to give it back. In Tijuana this is something that cannot be guaranteed, for who knows what the morrow may bring? One of us may be dead, burglarized, or out on the street.

We bump into each other regularly as we amble about town doing what we do, sometimes at the 7-Eleven next to the Jai Alai frontón, sometimes at well-known gringo watering holes around downtown, the Zona Norte being too expensive for routine imbibation. The Old Baseball Player is our go-to guy for the latest in beer prices. He ferrets out the deals of the day during his perigrenations. I’ve learned something about myself down here. I, like everyone, have querencias, places I prefer to be. The term comes from bullfighting and has to do with that spot in the ring that the bull, while never having been in the ring before, prefers. There is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, so just find a spot you like, routinely drift in that direction, and stay there. Over the years I’ve been criticized for loyalty to my querencias, but if my comrades loved Cuban music as much as I do, they would understand.

Sometimes, though, we become almost migratory. The Old Baseball Player, for instance, has been known to move from hotel to hotel, rarely staying in one place for more than a few weeks. He once quipped, “I think they get tired of seeing me. I know I get tired of seeing them.” Another quip, this one regarding women: “Just remember, whenever you see a woman you think you just got to have, somewhere there’s a guy who is sick to death of fucking her.”


When you come to Tijuana, you must be prepared to lose everything, including your life.

Every one of us has been knocked out cold at least once, usually as part of a robbery. In the first 50 years of my life, I met nobody subjected to routine robberies and muggings. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met dozens.

A close eye is kept on the U.S. stock market, not because anybody owns any stock, but because when the U.S. market drops a couple of hundred points, you get extra pesos at the casa de cambio. In ten years, the rate has gone from 9 to the dollar to as high as 14. Could mean a few extra beers.

I’ve heard rumors of my own premature demise. “Hey, where’s my friend from San Jose?” the gringos have asked. “Haven’t seen him for a while.” Then comes, invariably, from somewhere, the laconically spoken, “Must’ve died.”

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Comments
26

Good stuff. Next time you do a piece this long, you might think about twisting the characters around some of the old watering holes. Personally, I'd rather leave an empty caguama bottle on the spot you spit your final bit than a black wreath. I would, of course, have previously consumed it in your honor.

Sept. 25, 2013

This is the kind of really good, in depth story about Tijuana that I used to enjoy in the Reader a long time ago. I appreciate it. And, as an aging male San Diegan myself, it's reassuring to know this place is available, if the need ever arises. No need to walk off into the forest, or desert, or finish it with a handgun.

Sept. 26, 2013

Very good cover story (Sept. 26) and enjoyable, better than I could do, all of these rare. I appreciate those who can put an entertainment spin on a story, as I am all informing and persuading, save for my humor. Your story is all too-true, as well, unfortunately, but there are other sides to it, albeit not as interesting as the one you have chosen.

Sept. 26, 2013

The last couple paragraphs say it all...

"When you come to Tijuana, you must be prepared to lose everything, including your life."

"Every one of us has been knocked out cold at least once, usually as part of a robbery. In the first 50 years of my life, I met nobody subjected to routine robberies and muggings. Since I’ve been here, I’ve met dozens."

                  "Baja is back"  July 24, 2013

"a 2012 survey on travelers’ perceptions conducted among 600 Southern Californians (in San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, and Los Angeles counties). Respondents Respondents who would not visit Baja because of “danger, crime, and drugs” decreased by 44 percent."

Doesn't this story show a 180 degree perceptual difference from the reader PUFF PIECE a couple months ago (below)? So does reality come from surveys or the Gringo school of hard TJ knocks? I'll take the second, as the white man is always a 'mark' in any 3rd world country, especially in Mexico and many parts of Los Angeles these days.

Obviously these gringo geezers are pushing the vulnerability envelope by living in TJ and hanging out at bars and the local houses of ill repute. As a single male myself in his 40's, not to put myself on a pedistol but I have never paid for sex. If that's your thing since it's legal in Mexico, ask yourself how many of these women(children) are forced into the sex trade to pay off debt for a family member or to a coyote,ect?

I can see the appeal of a woman from another culture. The divorce rate in CA. is 75% and America's self aborbed materlistic culture is rapidily deteriorating IMO.

But I can think of better ways of spending my twilight years, like getting my soul right with God before I leave this world.

Strong

Sept. 26, 2013

Prostitution is not legal in Mexico. It is simply tolerated and controlled because the authorities would rather keep it all in one place, confined, which makes perfect sense for Mexico based on how life operates there. In other words, they would rather not see the girls parading themselves near a schoolyard or a shopping mall.

So far as the comparisons of the stories, I can understand your frustration, but you have two writers coming at Tijuana from two different angles. If you go down there to visit and keep your eyes open to avert trouble, you'll probably be just fine. However, if you live there and are out and about on a daily basis, it's like anywhere you might find yourself in a sketchy environment, you'll see your fair share of crime.

But mostly, everyone's moral compass spins in a different direction. The older single gringos don't have any ties to any relationship unless they're dumb enough to believe that a slender, beautiful, 23-year old gal thinks some retired balding gringo with a potbelly is the sexiest thing ever. The old ballplayer, for instance, will tell you that he doesn't pay for sex, he pays them to leave afterward. And there is a lot of truth in that even after taking one's tongue out of one's cheek.

Enjoy the story from the perspective it's written, because to do a comparison is always going to be disappointing. The attitude of a story never tells a complete story, that's never the point. Twain's version of the Mississippi River wasn't everyone's version, and it certainly wasn't the complete story, but it was a damned good story, nevertheless. I'm sure that Faulkner would have done it differently, and it still probably would have been good.

Sept. 29, 2013

Prostitution is legal in Tijuana, and there are licenses and taxes paid, as well as a Labor Union for the prostitutes. I asked about writing a Reader cover story on same, as my ex-girlfriend was a leader, but that idea was rejected. As far as perspectives, these are only two mentioned above, and I can think of at least 20.

Sept. 29, 2013

Prostitution is not legal, John, I promise you that. The licenses and taxes aren't constitutionally correct. Otherwise, the girls would be all over, legally plying their trade. It's simply controlled. If you want to pen a story about it, my advice would be to start with the judicial in Tijuana and work backwards. I believe the perspective would be more in line with how things work in Baja. If you're serious about that article, try it backwards, I bet it would be rewarding - if not with the Reader then elsewhere. But try working in reverse, it's tough to get interviews at first, but sometimes persistence pays off.

Sept. 29, 2013

Just want to say that I really enjoyed the story. Reminded me of Rum Diary a bit (the novel, not the movie). More like this, please.

Sept. 27, 2013

One of the best Reader cover stories this year. Superb writing by Beaudeau. Two thumbs up.

Sept. 28, 2013

First time I ever agreed with you.

Sept. 29, 2013

I really don't care if you ever agree with me. It's meaningless.

Oct. 8, 2013

I really enjoyed this story and would love to hear more stories (I also enjoy reading David Dodd's stories). I like to spend my Saturday afternoons and evenings in TJ cantinas and get the feeling we have querencias in common (Dandy, Tropics, Bar Nelson,Bar Tenampa are mine).

Standing invitation for a few rounds of caguamas on me, send me a direct message on this account.

Sept. 29, 2013

Hang out in the Nuevo Perico once in a while in the afternoons. You never know who you'll run into in there.

Sept. 29, 2013

This goes without saying, and I need as an author, publisher, and editor many years to point it out: You DO know that stories of this nature are fictional, although based upon some real experiences, right? Like sermons and ministry, entertainment stories are not to be taken as factual. Good piece of entertainment.

Sept. 29, 2013

No, John, you have this one wrong. Every piece in here is correct and entirely accurate. The only thing that might be deceiving is the time-line in these events, they weren't so close together as some might interpret, but I assure you that this is and was entirely accurate.

Sept. 29, 2013

Figuratively and creatively correct, but it is fiction, not news, and intended to entertain, which it does. Excellent piece. Instead of "Downtown" perhaps say "Zona Norte". Never take a taxi, so that you do not get robbed by the cab driver, except if you are foolish enough to enter Zona Norte.

Oct. 6, 2013

You can get robbed in Centro as easy as anywhere else. Zona Norte is sketchy, but there is more of a police presence there than in Centro. And in over two decades in Tijuana, I've never been robbed by a cab driver. If your experiences have been different, it doesn't make mine or T.B.'s fictional.

Oct. 8, 2013

David, are you the author? Best cover piece in Reader history. Some in this thread are treating it as NEWS, which the author usually writes, but it is not. It is Local Color, or Human Interest, and as such is not supposed to be accurate. As a NEWS story it has a lot of problems, such as the time line compression as you have indicated. It also has lots of opinions of the author, which is only acceptable in an editorial. I could go on, but need to reemphasize that it is an excellent article and entertaining. I have different opinions than most of what it says, but my story would be boring.

Oct. 7, 2013

Of course I'm not the Author, John, but your statement that this is fiction is entirely incorrect. I took T.B. to find Charlie, I'm the "Dave" in that portion. I knew Stanley, although I didn't much care for him. The "old ballplayer" is someone I've known since before T.B. came to Baja. I know Rene. It goes on and on.

And I remind you that this isn't a beat piece on crime, it's an article which is editorial and certainly told POV. But it's accurate, all except for the seemingly tight timeline, and that's what happens when T.B. starts with 7,000 words and the editors of an alternative weekly are challenged to cut that in half. He did a fantastic job framing this and sprinkling in his thoughts on the TRUE EVENTS that have happened in this section of Baja in the last several years.

Oct. 8, 2013

you seem to be making quite an effort to debunk this author. it can't be because they are published and you are not? i think the writing in this article was just magnificent. just beautiful. keep up the good work, son!

Oct. 1, 2013

I agree, and have said so, that this is a good piece. And, I have been published in about two thousand newspapers in the past 45 years.

Oct. 6, 2013

really? for that i apologize. tell me what you've written lately. i'd like to read some of it. i'm a big fan of supporting local artists. i have a lot of friends that are writers and hugely admire their ability to write. what an insanely marvelous talent to have. . .wish i had it. but reading is even better. for me anyway. you get to enjoy and learn without the headache of writing. good luck with you writing as well! .

Oct. 6, 2013

Really, really enjoyed this story. How the cholo on the cover has anything to do with this fine account, we may never know.

Oct. 2, 2013

It take it that " Old Baseball Player" is David Dodd, ¿verdad?

Oct. 9, 2013

No. I'm just the "Dave" in the story. The old ball player, however, currently resides right next door to me. Hope I'm keeping the noise level down here. He's a fine gentleman, I enjoy talking baseball with him as often as I can. He was drafted out of high school into the Red Sox organization. It was long enough in the past that his minor league career is not entirely complete with any internet reference. To date, so far as I know, he has not read this story.

Oct. 11, 2013

This article is well-written and contains some truth. Still, it is unfair and misleading. I'm a Gringo who has spent a great deal of time in TJ since 1998, from the wealthiest parts of town where the city's elite gather to the seediest districts where nobody with social stature (or physical vulnerability) would want to be found. I'm all the better for it in every way. I know Tijuana has endured a reputation for corruption for at least 80 years and I have seen first-hand how the combined effect of 9/11 and the wave of drug violence from 2008 to 2011 forced TJ into an unprecedented level of economic stagnation and social isolation. Yet I have also seen TJ overcome these setbacks, shake off its dependence on Gringo tourist dollars, and become a city where most residents again feel physically safe and financially secure. Depicting TJ as a Gringo destination for inevitable, tragic death is simply outlandish. Death is guaranteed anywhere you go if you just stay long enough.

Oct. 16, 2013

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