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Kitchen Spanish

Braving the border for a Bonnie - 2022 Writing Contest Winner

Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes and as usual it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk.
Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes and as usual it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk.

A clatter against the window of my second-story room in Golden Hill awoke me. Then, shouts. What the hell?

Eh, Miguel.”

Miguelito.”

Barba de Chivo, levántate, cabrón.

Only Rodolfo called me Barba del Chivo, followed by a mischievous laugh. He thought he was clever. My beard in no way resembled a goat’s. The other voice, I guessed, was Mariano’s. I pulled myself up from the bed, walked to the window and peered outside. They were down there, arms cocked to hurl another onslaught of pebbles. I lifted the window.

Author Michael J. Williams

“Stop it, guys. Un momentito, por favor,” I shouted.

Throwing debris at my window was their only way of getting my attention from the ground. Only residents of the rooming house at 23rd and B Streets had keys to the first-floor door and stairwell that led upstairs. There was no doorbell. I couldn’t afford a phone. What could they possibly want at 9:30 am on Saturday? I did not expect to get up so early. I had closed out the night at the Turf Club on 25th, drinking beer and digging Tiny on the piano. I threw on a T-shirt and jeans and took a leak in the dingy bathroom that all the second-story residents shared.

Rodolfo and Mariano were dishwashers at the Firehouse Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach where I worked as night cleanup. They roomed together with Rodolfo’s sister a few blocks up on B, past Jaroco Market and the Golden Hill coffee shop. Most nights, Rodolfo drove us and some other colleagues home from work in his 10-year-old, mid-‘70s, faded red Bonneville. It beat taking the bus from PB and walking the rest of the way up the hill on Broadway or B from Downtown.

Once I made it downstairs, Rodolfo said he needed my help. Since Mariano spoke some English, he filled in the gaps when I didn’t understand Rodolfo’s Spanish. With two days off from work, Rodolfo had driven Mariano and another dishwasher, Danilo, down to Ensenada. Mariano and Danilo were from Ensenada, and had legal documents to cross back into the U.S., but Rodolfo did not. Why would he go down to Mexico? Not smart, I thought. Then again, the Guadalajara native was only 20. He was tired of being left behind when the other guys went to bars on this side of the border, where you were supposed to be 21 to enter.

¿Porqué te fuiste atrás La Linea sin documentos?” I asked to the best of my limited Spanish ability. “Why would you cross the border without papers? ¿Estás loco?

Por supuesto, a bailer con las chiquitas. Y pistear,” he said, with the characteristic Mexican flourish of the hand to indicate getting pissed — middle fingers clenched with the pinkie pointing up and the thumb down, similar to the Hawaiian gesture for “everything’s cool.” The night before, they had started back from Ensenada. Rodolfo dropped his companions off near the border. Mariano and Danilo crossed and took the trolley to downtown San Diego. Neither one of them had driver’s licenses. There was no sense in hanging with Rodolfo as he attempted to sneak across the border on foot, and if he tried to drive through the border checkpoint without a green card or work permit, he would be detained and deported and have the car confiscated. So Rodolfo left the Bonnie in a Tijuana neighborhood where he thought it would be safe. He proceeded on foot to a point along the border fence separating Baja California from the San Diego enclave of San Ysidro. I surmised he followed the same route as the year before, when he had first slipped into the U.S. At the chain-link border fence, he crawled through a hole and evaded the roving border patrolmen. Then he hid out in the chaparral — “como los conejos,” he said, grinning with pride. “Rabbits” was slang for border crossers who scrambled surreptitiously through the brush to reach El Otro Lado.

Once he got to the streets of San Ysidro and the trolley, he was fairly safe from being stopped by La Migra. He didn’t fit the description of the typical immigrant farmworker. Like a lot of people from the state of Jalisco, he had a fair complexion and reddish brown hair, and he was casually well-dressed. Still, it was a huge risk to cross the border, and he was lucky. Now, having just gotten back home a few hours earlier, he was asking me to go down to Tijuana and retrieve his car.

Eso es muy loco,” I protested. “No puedo hacerlo. Muy difícil. Demasiados problemas a mi. Muy peligroso. I can’t do it.”

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Rodolfo begged with exasperation, “Por favor, mi amigo.”

Mariano jumped in.

Oye, Miguel. No difícil. Easy. I go with you. I help you take car to La Linea. You are gringo. No problema con La Migra.”

He said we would take the trolley from downtown San Diego to the border. We would cross together. He would get a cab to take us to Rodolfo’s car. He would accompany me back to the border in the Bonneville, then he would hop out to go back to Ensenada. He had another couple of days off and wanted to spend it with his girlfriend.

I deliberated. I was reluctant. But it seemed straightforward enough. I had driven back and forth across the border many times when I used to have a car. There had never been a problem. Usually, the guards simply asked what you were bringing back from Mexico. If they were satisfied you weren’t hiding something to get around import restrictions, they waved you through. And Rodolfo had given me many rides home. He as well as Mariano and several of the other Mexican men who worked the kitchen at night had become amigos.

“Okay,” I said, with a sigh. “Tomorrow morning. Vámonos mañana por la mañana.”

Mariano shook his head. “We go now, Miguel. Ya, I no have time. Necesito regresar a Ensenada. I gotta go back. Ándale pues. Let’s go.”

“I have to work tonight,” I said. He assured me I would be back that afternoon. I went back upstairs to grab a jacket and some cash.

Mariano and I cut over to Broadway to head Downtown, avoiding B Street’s sharp decline. We walked by the outdoor phone booth at 21st and Broadway that I used when I had to make a call. Though it was late fall, it was a typically pleasant day in San Diego: sunny with some scattered clouds and cool, but not uncomfortable in a jacket. I had to walk fast to keep up with lanky Mariano’s strides. He had the build of a shortstop. If Rodolfo was like a little brother, Mariano was his cool older brother. He was in his late 20s, and he had an attitude of self-assurance. Nothing ruffled him. With his charcoal-brown Afro and café con leche complexion, he could have been mistaken for Cuban, or perhaps Veracruzano. Muy suave.

Before I started at the Firehouse, I had been basically homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. I had been studying at San Diego State, but when the semester ended, my roommates graduated and moved out of our apartment on University Avenue, east of 56th Street. I couldn’t afford the rent on my own. Out of desperation to generate some cash, I took the job at the Firehouse doing cleanup and chopping vegetables if needed. Within two weeks, I had enough to afford the $48 weekly rent in an aging two-story Victorian in Golden Hill. The owners lived downstairs and rented out the eight rooms upstairs. The half-dozen guys I worked with at night — dishwashers and food preppers — were Mexican and spoke little English. Whether documented or not, they worked hard and sent what they could afford back home. The night workers accepted me as one of their own and helped me learn the ropes. Pablo, a cheerful man in his thirties from Sinaloa, was particularly helpful. He would teach me the Spanish words for tools, utensils and food.

Working in the kitchen, I got used to everyone calling each other “cabrón.” When they started calling me “cabrón,” I took it as a sign of acceptance rather than an insult. And when Pablo found out I lived in Golden Hill not far from his place, he offered to drive me home along with the other guys who roomed along his route. He, his wife and baby daughter lived in an apartment near 25th and Broadway. But one night, Pablo did not show up for work. We never saw Pablo again. He had gone to Roberto’s down at the corner for a late night snack when La Migra showed up and took him away. Shortly thereafter, Rodolfo acquired the Bonneville and assumed the role of late-night chauffeur. Often, us single guys would party after work, hitting Mexican joints like the Lucky Lady on 16th Street, La Fe on Market Street a couple blocks up from 16th, and La Posada on University in City Heights. Sometimes, Rodolfo could get past the door, sometimes not. Once, I lent him an expired driver’s license to serve as a fake ID, but the bouncers were wise to it. Despite my misgivings about this expedition to rescue Rodolfo’s car, I agreed to do it. It felt like I owed him something like a debt of gratitude.

Mariano and I reached Park Avenue and got on the trolley. As we bumped along through Barrio Logan, National City and Chula Vista en route to San Ysidro, I learned more about Mariano. Growing up, he had worked as a fisherman with his dad in Ensenada Bay.

Mariano el marinero,” I said to see how it sounded.

Yo no soy marinero,” he responded.

“No?”

Soy capitán, soy capitán,” he said, quoting a lyric from “La Bamba.”

His mother still lived in Ensenada, but his father was dead. Speaking in a low voice, head bowed, he told me his padre had been gunned down at the border while Mariano was a teenager. His dad was trying to transport gold across La Linea and was ambushed. Mariano was vague about who did it and why. I did not pursue the subject.

We hopped off the trolley at the last stop in San Ysidro and joined the throng heading across the border. We crossed through the turnstile that separates the two countries. Uniformed Mexican sentries watched through reflective sunglasses, seemingly uninterested as we walked by the customs house. No one stopped us. We reached the taxi stand just beyond the border, where many cabbies lined up to take fares to the tourist strip along Avenida Revolución. Mariano surveyed the fleet and walked over to one he had picked out. He recited some instructions to the driver that I did not understand. The driver took off, heading south on the boulevard that ran along the city’s concrete river channel. At a huge traffic circle with a towering statue of Cuauhtémoc at the center, the driver swung right onto an avenue heading west and crossed over Agua Caliente Boulevard. He proceeded up the long ridge that extends south from downtown Tijuana, skillfully eluding slower vehicles and potholes. Then, abruptly, he skidded right onto a wide dirt road, leaving a trail of dust.

I said, “Mariano, por favor, where are we going? ¿Dónde está el carro?

No sé, Miguel. Rodolfo no have name or number, solamente una descripción,” he said with a shrug. He put his hand over his brow to indicate he was searching. “Estamos buscando.”

Okay, I thought. We are driving around a sprawling, poorly organized city of at least a million people looking for a car among hundreds of thousands of cars without an address or even a street name.

Mariano was swinging his head this way and that like a periscope.

No problema, Miguel. Rodolfo me dijo que es en una avenida grande en Colonia Independencia.”

So, we were looking for a big street in a neighborhood we knew nothing about.

¿Dónde?” The driver said. “Estamos en Independencia.”

“Keep going,” Mariano urged.

It seemed like we had been driving around for an hour, going in circles. We drove up and down several paved streets and arrived at a four-lane boulevard divided by a median. We turned left. After a few blocks, Mariano shouted, “Esto! Esto! A la derecha.” There was the red Bonneville, covered in dust, parked on the north side of the road.

Mariano paid the driver in pesos and handed me the change, saying, “Si necesitas pagar una mordida.” Bribe money in case I got pulled over. He dropped the keys into my hand. I slid into the driver’s seat.

“Goddam. What the fuck is this?” I yelled. The standard Bonneville steering wheel was gone. In its place was this tiny ring, about the diameter of a cantaloupe, forged out of steel chains fused together. In his zeal to fit in, Rodolfo had changed out the steering wheel for the classic low-rider chain model. Because its circumference was so constricted, you could make turns much more sharply, potentially cutting corners too short, running over curbs, and scraping parked cars or roadside barriers.

Es ridiculo. I can’t drive with this thing. No puedo a conducir con esto ruedo,” I complained to Mariano.

Oh. El timón,” he corrected me, pointing to the steering apparatus with a snort. “Oye, puedes hacerlo, Miguel. You can do, no problema. We go. Ándale, cabrón.”

I drove up the road and carefully made a U-turn at the next signal. Whenever I slowed and came to a stop sign or made a turn with Mariano guiding the way, he shouted, “Dale, dale. Ándale cabrón.”

In Mexico, I had often observed that drivers preferred to make adjustments more with their gas pedals than their brakes, usually accompanied by well-timed honks. Now, I was getting a tutorial.

Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes, and as usual, it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk. The chicos offered chiclets, señoras waved knit tablecloths and shawls, men donning vaquero hats flashed gauche Elvis Presley paintings as they draped leather belts over their forearms.

Mariano lightly punched me on the shoulder. “Ya me voy, amigo. Adiós, Miguel. See you Tuesday.”

I watched him as he threaded through the lanes of the exhaust-belching vehicles. He was heading back to downtown Tijuana, where he would catch a third-class bus to Ensenada for the equivalent of a few bucks. I relaxed in the driver’s seat, pondering my future moves. Get across the border, drop off the car with Rodolfo, head home, rest a bit, walk downtown, catch the bus to PB by the start of my 9 pm shift. I got the green light to pull forward to the border guard’s kiosk. He was a big white guy with dark bushy eyebrows. He furrowed his brow as he looked at me, then turned his gaze to the funky steering wheel.

“This your car?”

The question caught me by surprise.

“Uhh, no. It’s a friend of mine’s.”

He reached inside the kiosk, grabbed a yellow plastic cone with a number on it, slapped it on the hood, and directed me to pull forward into one of the parking spaces next to a long office building for Secondary Inspection. An official came out and asked me where I had been, where I was going, and what I was doing with this car. Trying to stay calm, I explained I was doing a friend a favor by picking up his car in Tijuana and driving it home for him.

“Why?” he asked.

“He got too drunk last night and couldn’t drive,” I improvised. “He had to work today, so he asked me to come down here and pick it up.”

The official rolled his eyes. “Can I see your driver’s license?”

I pulled out my wallet and reached for the spot where I kept it, in the front right slot along with other important cards. It was not there. I flipped through the other cards in vain.

“I’ve misplaced it,” I said, not knowing where I could have possibly left it.

“Come with me,” he replied.

He led me into the waiting room of an office. There was a window with an opening at the bottom to slide papers through. Behind the window was an attendant. A locked metal door separated the waiting room from the inside of the office. I was scared. As far as they knew, I was a thief smuggling a car across the border. I was likely minutes away from being hauled behind bars. I had no license, I had no proof of ownership, I had no proof I even knew the vehicle’s owner. I looked through my wallet again. Maybe I had left the license at a bar, since I was always getting carded. I couldn’t figure out where I had left it. Without hope, I shuffled through the cards on the left side of the wallet, where I kept the nonessential ones. There, I stumbled on the expired license I had lent to Rodolfo.

Maybe it will help, I thought. It was worth a shot. I went up to the window and showed the attendant my old license. She took it and entered the interior of the office. After a few minutes, a uniformed dude came out. He had a badge and revolver belted to his waist.

“Mr. Williams, Can we go over this with you? Whose car are you driving?”

“It is the car of a friend and colleague,” I said. “His name is Rodolfo. I think his last name is Castro. He lives on B Street in San Diego. I work with him at a restaurant in Pacific Beach.”

He wanted to know what I was doing driving across the border with this vehicle. I repeated the made-up story.

He handed me the keys.

“You’re free to go. But a word of advice. Don’t do this again.”

I drove back to Golden Hill and parked the Bonneville on B Street a few cars down from Rodolfo’s pad. I knocked on the door, keys in hand. His sister answered. She was an attractive woman, late twenties or early thirties.

Buenas tardes,” I said. “¿Está Rodolfo en casa?

“You are Michael, yes?” she answered in accented but clear English, as I dropped the keys in her hand. “We were expecting you. Rodolfo is taking a siesta before he goes to work. I will tell him you came by. Thank you for being so kind to my brother.”

That night, Rodolfo was there by the chrome dishwasher, his white apron splotched with dishwater and food stains. “Eh, barba de chivo, ¿Qué onda?

I wanted to spit out every English and Spanish epithet I knew. But it dawned on me that if I did, I would be crossing a line. Not only with Rodolfo, but with all the hombres in the kitchen.

Tenemos suerte que tienes tu carro y yo no estoy en la cárcel,” I said. “We’re lucky you’ve got your car and I’m not in jail.”

“Ok,” he smiled. “Lo siento, Miguel. Sorry. Muchísimas gracias. Pues, quieres un ride esta noche?

“Well,” I tilted my head like I was weighing his offer. “Si, por supuesto, cabrón.”

— Michael J. Williams

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Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes and as usual it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk.
Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes and as usual it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk.

A clatter against the window of my second-story room in Golden Hill awoke me. Then, shouts. What the hell?

Eh, Miguel.”

Miguelito.”

Barba de Chivo, levántate, cabrón.

Only Rodolfo called me Barba del Chivo, followed by a mischievous laugh. He thought he was clever. My beard in no way resembled a goat’s. The other voice, I guessed, was Mariano’s. I pulled myself up from the bed, walked to the window and peered outside. They were down there, arms cocked to hurl another onslaught of pebbles. I lifted the window.

Author Michael J. Williams

“Stop it, guys. Un momentito, por favor,” I shouted.

Throwing debris at my window was their only way of getting my attention from the ground. Only residents of the rooming house at 23rd and B Streets had keys to the first-floor door and stairwell that led upstairs. There was no doorbell. I couldn’t afford a phone. What could they possibly want at 9:30 am on Saturday? I did not expect to get up so early. I had closed out the night at the Turf Club on 25th, drinking beer and digging Tiny on the piano. I threw on a T-shirt and jeans and took a leak in the dingy bathroom that all the second-story residents shared.

Rodolfo and Mariano were dishwashers at the Firehouse Beach Cafe in Pacific Beach where I worked as night cleanup. They roomed together with Rodolfo’s sister a few blocks up on B, past Jaroco Market and the Golden Hill coffee shop. Most nights, Rodolfo drove us and some other colleagues home from work in his 10-year-old, mid-‘70s, faded red Bonneville. It beat taking the bus from PB and walking the rest of the way up the hill on Broadway or B from Downtown.

Once I made it downstairs, Rodolfo said he needed my help. Since Mariano spoke some English, he filled in the gaps when I didn’t understand Rodolfo’s Spanish. With two days off from work, Rodolfo had driven Mariano and another dishwasher, Danilo, down to Ensenada. Mariano and Danilo were from Ensenada, and had legal documents to cross back into the U.S., but Rodolfo did not. Why would he go down to Mexico? Not smart, I thought. Then again, the Guadalajara native was only 20. He was tired of being left behind when the other guys went to bars on this side of the border, where you were supposed to be 21 to enter.

¿Porqué te fuiste atrás La Linea sin documentos?” I asked to the best of my limited Spanish ability. “Why would you cross the border without papers? ¿Estás loco?

Por supuesto, a bailer con las chiquitas. Y pistear,” he said, with the characteristic Mexican flourish of the hand to indicate getting pissed — middle fingers clenched with the pinkie pointing up and the thumb down, similar to the Hawaiian gesture for “everything’s cool.” The night before, they had started back from Ensenada. Rodolfo dropped his companions off near the border. Mariano and Danilo crossed and took the trolley to downtown San Diego. Neither one of them had driver’s licenses. There was no sense in hanging with Rodolfo as he attempted to sneak across the border on foot, and if he tried to drive through the border checkpoint without a green card or work permit, he would be detained and deported and have the car confiscated. So Rodolfo left the Bonnie in a Tijuana neighborhood where he thought it would be safe. He proceeded on foot to a point along the border fence separating Baja California from the San Diego enclave of San Ysidro. I surmised he followed the same route as the year before, when he had first slipped into the U.S. At the chain-link border fence, he crawled through a hole and evaded the roving border patrolmen. Then he hid out in the chaparral — “como los conejos,” he said, grinning with pride. “Rabbits” was slang for border crossers who scrambled surreptitiously through the brush to reach El Otro Lado.

Once he got to the streets of San Ysidro and the trolley, he was fairly safe from being stopped by La Migra. He didn’t fit the description of the typical immigrant farmworker. Like a lot of people from the state of Jalisco, he had a fair complexion and reddish brown hair, and he was casually well-dressed. Still, it was a huge risk to cross the border, and he was lucky. Now, having just gotten back home a few hours earlier, he was asking me to go down to Tijuana and retrieve his car.

Eso es muy loco,” I protested. “No puedo hacerlo. Muy difícil. Demasiados problemas a mi. Muy peligroso. I can’t do it.”

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Rodolfo begged with exasperation, “Por favor, mi amigo.”

Mariano jumped in.

Oye, Miguel. No difícil. Easy. I go with you. I help you take car to La Linea. You are gringo. No problema con La Migra.”

He said we would take the trolley from downtown San Diego to the border. We would cross together. He would get a cab to take us to Rodolfo’s car. He would accompany me back to the border in the Bonneville, then he would hop out to go back to Ensenada. He had another couple of days off and wanted to spend it with his girlfriend.

I deliberated. I was reluctant. But it seemed straightforward enough. I had driven back and forth across the border many times when I used to have a car. There had never been a problem. Usually, the guards simply asked what you were bringing back from Mexico. If they were satisfied you weren’t hiding something to get around import restrictions, they waved you through. And Rodolfo had given me many rides home. He as well as Mariano and several of the other Mexican men who worked the kitchen at night had become amigos.

“Okay,” I said, with a sigh. “Tomorrow morning. Vámonos mañana por la mañana.”

Mariano shook his head. “We go now, Miguel. Ya, I no have time. Necesito regresar a Ensenada. I gotta go back. Ándale pues. Let’s go.”

“I have to work tonight,” I said. He assured me I would be back that afternoon. I went back upstairs to grab a jacket and some cash.

Mariano and I cut over to Broadway to head Downtown, avoiding B Street’s sharp decline. We walked by the outdoor phone booth at 21st and Broadway that I used when I had to make a call. Though it was late fall, it was a typically pleasant day in San Diego: sunny with some scattered clouds and cool, but not uncomfortable in a jacket. I had to walk fast to keep up with lanky Mariano’s strides. He had the build of a shortstop. If Rodolfo was like a little brother, Mariano was his cool older brother. He was in his late 20s, and he had an attitude of self-assurance. Nothing ruffled him. With his charcoal-brown Afro and café con leche complexion, he could have been mistaken for Cuban, or perhaps Veracruzano. Muy suave.

Before I started at the Firehouse, I had been basically homeless, sleeping on friends’ couches. I had been studying at San Diego State, but when the semester ended, my roommates graduated and moved out of our apartment on University Avenue, east of 56th Street. I couldn’t afford the rent on my own. Out of desperation to generate some cash, I took the job at the Firehouse doing cleanup and chopping vegetables if needed. Within two weeks, I had enough to afford the $48 weekly rent in an aging two-story Victorian in Golden Hill. The owners lived downstairs and rented out the eight rooms upstairs. The half-dozen guys I worked with at night — dishwashers and food preppers — were Mexican and spoke little English. Whether documented or not, they worked hard and sent what they could afford back home. The night workers accepted me as one of their own and helped me learn the ropes. Pablo, a cheerful man in his thirties from Sinaloa, was particularly helpful. He would teach me the Spanish words for tools, utensils and food.

Working in the kitchen, I got used to everyone calling each other “cabrón.” When they started calling me “cabrón,” I took it as a sign of acceptance rather than an insult. And when Pablo found out I lived in Golden Hill not far from his place, he offered to drive me home along with the other guys who roomed along his route. He, his wife and baby daughter lived in an apartment near 25th and Broadway. But one night, Pablo did not show up for work. We never saw Pablo again. He had gone to Roberto’s down at the corner for a late night snack when La Migra showed up and took him away. Shortly thereafter, Rodolfo acquired the Bonneville and assumed the role of late-night chauffeur. Often, us single guys would party after work, hitting Mexican joints like the Lucky Lady on 16th Street, La Fe on Market Street a couple blocks up from 16th, and La Posada on University in City Heights. Sometimes, Rodolfo could get past the door, sometimes not. Once, I lent him an expired driver’s license to serve as a fake ID, but the bouncers were wise to it. Despite my misgivings about this expedition to rescue Rodolfo’s car, I agreed to do it. It felt like I owed him something like a debt of gratitude.

Mariano and I reached Park Avenue and got on the trolley. As we bumped along through Barrio Logan, National City and Chula Vista en route to San Ysidro, I learned more about Mariano. Growing up, he had worked as a fisherman with his dad in Ensenada Bay.

Mariano el marinero,” I said to see how it sounded.

Yo no soy marinero,” he responded.

“No?”

Soy capitán, soy capitán,” he said, quoting a lyric from “La Bamba.”

His mother still lived in Ensenada, but his father was dead. Speaking in a low voice, head bowed, he told me his padre had been gunned down at the border while Mariano was a teenager. His dad was trying to transport gold across La Linea and was ambushed. Mariano was vague about who did it and why. I did not pursue the subject.

We hopped off the trolley at the last stop in San Ysidro and joined the throng heading across the border. We crossed through the turnstile that separates the two countries. Uniformed Mexican sentries watched through reflective sunglasses, seemingly uninterested as we walked by the customs house. No one stopped us. We reached the taxi stand just beyond the border, where many cabbies lined up to take fares to the tourist strip along Avenida Revolución. Mariano surveyed the fleet and walked over to one he had picked out. He recited some instructions to the driver that I did not understand. The driver took off, heading south on the boulevard that ran along the city’s concrete river channel. At a huge traffic circle with a towering statue of Cuauhtémoc at the center, the driver swung right onto an avenue heading west and crossed over Agua Caliente Boulevard. He proceeded up the long ridge that extends south from downtown Tijuana, skillfully eluding slower vehicles and potholes. Then, abruptly, he skidded right onto a wide dirt road, leaving a trail of dust.

I said, “Mariano, por favor, where are we going? ¿Dónde está el carro?

No sé, Miguel. Rodolfo no have name or number, solamente una descripción,” he said with a shrug. He put his hand over his brow to indicate he was searching. “Estamos buscando.”

Okay, I thought. We are driving around a sprawling, poorly organized city of at least a million people looking for a car among hundreds of thousands of cars without an address or even a street name.

Mariano was swinging his head this way and that like a periscope.

No problema, Miguel. Rodolfo me dijo que es en una avenida grande en Colonia Independencia.”

So, we were looking for a big street in a neighborhood we knew nothing about.

¿Dónde?” The driver said. “Estamos en Independencia.”

“Keep going,” Mariano urged.

It seemed like we had been driving around for an hour, going in circles. We drove up and down several paved streets and arrived at a four-lane boulevard divided by a median. We turned left. After a few blocks, Mariano shouted, “Esto! Esto! A la derecha.” There was the red Bonneville, covered in dust, parked on the north side of the road.

Mariano paid the driver in pesos and handed me the change, saying, “Si necesitas pagar una mordida.” Bribe money in case I got pulled over. He dropped the keys into my hand. I slid into the driver’s seat.

“Goddam. What the fuck is this?” I yelled. The standard Bonneville steering wheel was gone. In its place was this tiny ring, about the diameter of a cantaloupe, forged out of steel chains fused together. In his zeal to fit in, Rodolfo had changed out the steering wheel for the classic low-rider chain model. Because its circumference was so constricted, you could make turns much more sharply, potentially cutting corners too short, running over curbs, and scraping parked cars or roadside barriers.

Es ridiculo. I can’t drive with this thing. No puedo a conducir con esto ruedo,” I complained to Mariano.

Oh. El timón,” he corrected me, pointing to the steering apparatus with a snort. “Oye, puedes hacerlo, Miguel. You can do, no problema. We go. Ándale, cabrón.”

I drove up the road and carefully made a U-turn at the next signal. Whenever I slowed and came to a stop sign or made a turn with Mariano guiding the way, he shouted, “Dale, dale. Ándale cabrón.”

In Mexico, I had often observed that drivers preferred to make adjustments more with their gas pedals than their brakes, usually accompanied by well-timed honks. Now, I was getting a tutorial.

Mariano directed me to the border-crossing lanes, and as usual, it was bumper to bumper. We edged forward while the vendors on foot tried to sell us junk. The chicos offered chiclets, señoras waved knit tablecloths and shawls, men donning vaquero hats flashed gauche Elvis Presley paintings as they draped leather belts over their forearms.

Mariano lightly punched me on the shoulder. “Ya me voy, amigo. Adiós, Miguel. See you Tuesday.”

I watched him as he threaded through the lanes of the exhaust-belching vehicles. He was heading back to downtown Tijuana, where he would catch a third-class bus to Ensenada for the equivalent of a few bucks. I relaxed in the driver’s seat, pondering my future moves. Get across the border, drop off the car with Rodolfo, head home, rest a bit, walk downtown, catch the bus to PB by the start of my 9 pm shift. I got the green light to pull forward to the border guard’s kiosk. He was a big white guy with dark bushy eyebrows. He furrowed his brow as he looked at me, then turned his gaze to the funky steering wheel.

“This your car?”

The question caught me by surprise.

“Uhh, no. It’s a friend of mine’s.”

He reached inside the kiosk, grabbed a yellow plastic cone with a number on it, slapped it on the hood, and directed me to pull forward into one of the parking spaces next to a long office building for Secondary Inspection. An official came out and asked me where I had been, where I was going, and what I was doing with this car. Trying to stay calm, I explained I was doing a friend a favor by picking up his car in Tijuana and driving it home for him.

“Why?” he asked.

“He got too drunk last night and couldn’t drive,” I improvised. “He had to work today, so he asked me to come down here and pick it up.”

The official rolled his eyes. “Can I see your driver’s license?”

I pulled out my wallet and reached for the spot where I kept it, in the front right slot along with other important cards. It was not there. I flipped through the other cards in vain.

“I’ve misplaced it,” I said, not knowing where I could have possibly left it.

“Come with me,” he replied.

He led me into the waiting room of an office. There was a window with an opening at the bottom to slide papers through. Behind the window was an attendant. A locked metal door separated the waiting room from the inside of the office. I was scared. As far as they knew, I was a thief smuggling a car across the border. I was likely minutes away from being hauled behind bars. I had no license, I had no proof of ownership, I had no proof I even knew the vehicle’s owner. I looked through my wallet again. Maybe I had left the license at a bar, since I was always getting carded. I couldn’t figure out where I had left it. Without hope, I shuffled through the cards on the left side of the wallet, where I kept the nonessential ones. There, I stumbled on the expired license I had lent to Rodolfo.

Maybe it will help, I thought. It was worth a shot. I went up to the window and showed the attendant my old license. She took it and entered the interior of the office. After a few minutes, a uniformed dude came out. He had a badge and revolver belted to his waist.

“Mr. Williams, Can we go over this with you? Whose car are you driving?”

“It is the car of a friend and colleague,” I said. “His name is Rodolfo. I think his last name is Castro. He lives on B Street in San Diego. I work with him at a restaurant in Pacific Beach.”

He wanted to know what I was doing driving across the border with this vehicle. I repeated the made-up story.

He handed me the keys.

“You’re free to go. But a word of advice. Don’t do this again.”

I drove back to Golden Hill and parked the Bonneville on B Street a few cars down from Rodolfo’s pad. I knocked on the door, keys in hand. His sister answered. She was an attractive woman, late twenties or early thirties.

Buenas tardes,” I said. “¿Está Rodolfo en casa?

“You are Michael, yes?” she answered in accented but clear English, as I dropped the keys in her hand. “We were expecting you. Rodolfo is taking a siesta before he goes to work. I will tell him you came by. Thank you for being so kind to my brother.”

That night, Rodolfo was there by the chrome dishwasher, his white apron splotched with dishwater and food stains. “Eh, barba de chivo, ¿Qué onda?

I wanted to spit out every English and Spanish epithet I knew. But it dawned on me that if I did, I would be crossing a line. Not only with Rodolfo, but with all the hombres in the kitchen.

Tenemos suerte que tienes tu carro y yo no estoy en la cárcel,” I said. “We’re lucky you’ve got your car and I’m not in jail.”

“Ok,” he smiled. “Lo siento, Miguel. Sorry. Muchísimas gracias. Pues, quieres un ride esta noche?

“Well,” I tilted my head like I was weighing his offer. “Si, por supuesto, cabrón.”

— Michael J. Williams

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Comments
1

This was an awesome story. A few Spanish mistakes but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Bailar Timón is a rudder. Volante is a steering wheel.

April 14, 2022

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