It’s the end of the road for the Wild West, except the crooked sheriff now carries an automatic rifle, the saloon women dress like school girls (and might not be girls), the horse bandits use high-powered surveillance technology, the piano man plays corridos and Pink Floyd, and the town drunk is rumored to be a retired prostitute pushing well into her 80s, bathing from buckets in broad daylight on the roadside.
At Plaza Bicentenario, a crowd gathers to watch a wiener dog retrieve dollar bills from onlookers as her trainer toots a whistle, issuing commands. Another, a faded gold mutt, leans beneath a cardboard sign reading: “Baños publicos — 5 pesos.” He has just pissed on the concrete and, as the trail of urine snakes away, he stares off with forlorn disinterest at a plate of carne asada tacos, which sit beneath his downturned mouth, untouched.
I laugh at the sight of him. He makes a perfect caricature of so many faces that haunt the streets of Centro. And it’s so overwhelmingly sad and absurd that a canine should carry that same, unmistakable expression of supernatural longing, eyes no longer looking toward the heavens, lips forever on the verge of babbling a feverish mantra of yearning for the Absolute, hopeless. It’s all too real. Even the dogs are down and out in Zona Norte.
At Calle Primera, La Zona unfolds like a pulp-fiction short. The first thing that hits is the smell: that chemical edge of Fabuloso cutting earthy undertones of sewage, which is either cooked out from the ground or purged from the drains, depending on the season. A film of raw human depravity coats everything. The inverse-sheen makes old neon signs and 25-cent smut peddlers appear angelic but backward. And it’s redeeming, somehow, knowing so many of the eyes you meet on the street will readily caress or kill you for 50 dollars, probably less. You can breathe easier, knowing the pulse.
Nikki’s roll-down door, closed last year with ample fanfare and a few arrests on sex-trafficking charges, still reads “FREE LARRY + MIAMI” in white spray paint. Kentucky Fried Buches — a locally famous stand that sells fried chicken necks — still reeks of stale oil grease, and red-lipstick doorway lurkers still frown at the sidewalk. But the most changeless certainty of all is the cops, who troll the streets in pickup trucks, snatching passersby as they go.
Hey, La Zona is a single-minded mistress. She will give you anything you want, for a price, and you’d better believe that includes your freedom. I’ve seen an old man stripped naked midday, blocking traffic. When he didn’t produce any broncas (literally, “problems,” but slang for drugs), he was sent scurrying off with his bags of groceries, his face bitter with shame.
Another time, they stopped a friend and me on our way to a bar and, as I emptied my pockets, my companion retaliated, citing “Articulo dieciséis!” — the 16th constitutional article that states no one shall be disturbed in regards to person, family, domicile, papers, or possessions without a written order from competent authority. They left us alone, then, with the counsel that I avoid such ill-mannered company.
A Tijuana artist known in some circles as “Wimpy” once explained: “In a culture of oppression, success means becoming an even greater oppressor. That’s what you strive for. That’s what makes you a man.”
And I consider this fact as I descend to Coahuila. I imagine the police plucking me from the streets, salivating for contraband.
“Traes broncas?” they would leer (“Are you carrying drugs?”).
“Para nada, oficial,” I would reply. “Solo verduras.” “Not at all, officer. Only vegetables.”
They would proceed to liberate me of my shoulder bag and with shiny eyes they would unravel several black plastic wrappers. And their grins would curdle to grimaces as the bags opened to reveal beets, an avocado, ensalada de nopal (cactus salad), tomatillos. They would look me up and down, thrust the bags back into my hands, and, restraining the urge to spit in my face, mutter: “Aguacate no es un una pinche verdura, güero.” (“Avocado is not a fucking vegetable, white boy.”)
But I slip through unnoticed today, stopping to listen to the banda tunes blasting from La Nueva Pachanga, where late one night I met a bald gringo who claimed to own a chocolate-bar empire.
“Thirty years ago, I saw a girl on the street eating a cheap candy bar, and it broke my heart,” he related over caguamones (1.2-liter bottles) of Victoria. “So I bought a box of good chocolates in San Diego and sold them all. Then I bought three boxes, then ten, then a thousand.”
He may well have been full of shit, but in the dim light and beer haze of 2 a.m. Nueva Pachanga, the Willy Wonka of La Zona took on the somber tone of a Russian philosopher.
“Your mind is like a television,” he explained. “It’s picking up thoughts and transmitting thoughts. That’s all you’re able to do. You don’t have the ability to generate your own thoughts. You’re picking up thoughts from other men’s minds, and those thoughts came from God. That’s God speaking to you.”
I mull over what God is trying to convey as I continue down Coahuila, shuffling through the sobre ruedas — the flea market. The saddest mariachi on Earth blows his trombone to a cactus. A prostitute postures up to her pimp. Vendors hawk stolen bedding and appliances. A congregation cries out to El Señor through a narrow doorway.
I’m at the Sunday street market to find a chair, but I don’t find a chair, and when I come back to my depa — Mex-slang for apartment — I sit down to write, and I have no seat. I borrow one from the kitchen and consider how crucial that is, just a place to sit your ass, a square-foot to rest your bones and call your own.
A train groans in the distance. A camote (sweet potato dessert) vendor screeches like a flute possessed by a Kumeyaay devil. Somewhere, somebody is making love. All I can think about is the far-gone dog down by the cathedral and how he probably never did pay five pesos for that piss he took.