Jeezus! I hate crossing into the US border from Mexico. I've done it hundreds of times, and for everyone it's an extended exercise in humiliation. Millions of people go through this nightare every day from San Diego to Boca Chica, Texas. And I've always said: When I die and go to hell -- I will be stuck for all eternity 300 yards from the US border on that extra hot day in Tijuana in August with no air conditioner and a broken car.
San Ysidro is pretty much the bottom of the barrel. It is, after all the busiest border crossing in the world (according to the Guiness Book of World Records). So, it's not uncommon to wait for two hours to snake your car fifteen feet at a time before you stop again, talking to the nice officer in the booth. Meanwhile, you're surrounded by a scene that could have been painted by Hieronymus Bosch or filmed by Jean Cocteau. Hundreds of hawkers get in your face to varying degrees of aggressiveness, selling their miscellaneous wares. There is a Virgin Mary in plastic or ceramic. Here is a sugary respado. There is the wooden donkey cart hand made. Here is the Mexican flag blanket. There is the plastic kitsch from China. Tourists are just prisoners in line, being besieged by all manner of people trying to cadge out of you those last few pesos before you get back to your "real" country.
Possibly one of the worst things that ever happened to me was that time in winter when I made the mistake of eating a lot of dried fruit before the crossing. Back in the days before I had terminal constipation, you can imagine the problems I began to have as I slowly inched my way forward in the rain and dark. Every minute became more agonizing until that moment when I actually shit in my pants. By the time I got to the immigration officer, there was an unusual and hurried conversation before I finally got into a gas station bathroom in California. I'm sure the mess I made there did not improve customer relations.
It's easy enough to complain about the indignities of San Ysidro, but I prefer them to at least one smaller, more intimate border crossing -- Tecate. One time in the spring, Wifey talked me into going on Mexico 3, instead of following the highway up the coast to Tijuana. Go to Tecate, she said. It's easier, she said. And being the good German that I am, I followed orders.
Now mind you, I had heard stories about Tecate from my friend Stuart. Stuart is a burned out old hippie redneck from Arizona. He's a craftsperson and also an illegal marijuana grower on his rural five acres. You can say that he has an attitude. He does not work well with others, and has a serious hard-on for any authority. I have sampled some of Stuart's wares, so I know he has crossed with his own stash. He told me about the time that he and his wife were strip searched by the ICE in Tecate. Evidently, they did not like the way he looked or acted. So yes, I was fully aware of Tecate's reputation for being one hard-ass border crossing.
I'm pretty sure we had figured out that we were going to cross there beforehand, because like any other year, I will probably have some leftover of my stash that I use, mostly for medicinal purposes at 3AM. I am not one of those two pack a day smokers. I am very Presbyterian when it comes to smoking. But at the end of the year? Well -- smoke 'em if you got 'em.
I did not overindulge; no magic visions that I can remember and hardly any good buzz. But what I did smoke was enough to give me that marijuana odor. I'll never forget the time I engaged in too much medication for my midnight pains as a middle school teacher. Both students and staff members made rude remarks. I'm just lucky they don't do drug testing for teachers in LA. If they did, they'd probably have to wash out 80% of their FTEs. So, I didn't absolutely reek of ganja, but I'm sure I left enough of an aroma to be signaled by the drug dog that was patrolling the line.
Unlike San Ysidro, where there are hundreds or even thousands of cars waiting to cross into the United States, Tecate is small and intimate. It is a tiny town best known for its 1890s brewery of its namesake beer. And so, there were only one or two cars that separated me from the customs line when I pulled into the station on that fine spring day with my arm hanging out the window.
Everything was beautiful that day. The valley that we traveled on Mexico 3 passed by vineyard after vineyard, and all the grapes were in bloom. The more rural areas leading to Tecate contrast sharply with Mexico 1. After San Quintin on One, you will be passing through only poorer analogs of what you see in the Central Valley of California. Gigantic agribusinesses ultimately lead to skyscrapers, row after row between Ensenada and Tijuana, where the drug cartels erect one identical empty high-rise apartment building after another like some kind of lothario putting notches on his bedpost.
Instead, there is the bucolic pastoral beauty of the Guadalupe Valley. I did not even notice that the drug dog had singled us out.
We pulled up to the ICE officer for our preliminaries, and he immediately sent us to secondary. Now many people get nervous when they are singled out for special treatment at the border. Maybe I am a fool, but I prepare for any trip by not carrying anything that will get me in serious trouble. No drugs for me crossing the line, thank you very much. And so my conscience is clear and I am relaxed even when some border guard suspects that I might be a terrorist.
I'll never forget the time I was in my great artist phase. I'd been handed the centerpiece of a major show in Los Angeles, and to make a long story short -- part of my art installation included bringing the parts of an abandoned Mexican fishing shack to the gallery in San Pedro. Our dinky station wagon was pulling a little trailer of wood debris and rusting corregate metal roofing tied down by some windings of twine as we bounced through the potholes of Mexico 1.
In San Ysidro, we were waved impersonally into secondary. And there were those long waits in between inspectors. Because it was after 9/11, the military was assisting on secondary inspections. The Air Force private in fatigues questioned us warily before he departed. Then the sergeant came in his blues. We got the same brusque, brief questioning before we were sent up the chain of command. All the while, we were leisurely browsing through our modern art picture books. Finally, we got to the lieutenant.
The lieutenant asked us to step out of the car, and we went back to the trailer. He asked what were holding, and we said, "Pieces of wood, some corregated roofing, and maybe there's some fiberglass sheeting in there. It's art." The lieutenant thought for a moment as he held the knife to the twine bundling the junk together. I'm sure he was trying to intimidate us. But the prospect of unloading all of that junk, only to find out that it was nothing but junk was sure to be an exercise in futility for Customs, and my body language communicated that. After pausing for a moment with his knife, he folded it back in his pocket and politely told us to have a nice day. Turning to the sergeant he said, "It's art."
Being a small border crossing, Tecate is somewhat overstaffed in my opinion. One of the differences between Tecate and San Ysidro is that we were immediately surrounded in secondary by four people on each corner of the battered 1985 Toyota Tercel station wagon with 310,000 miles on it. If we had in fact been trying to smuggle anything of note into the US, no doubt this car would be one of the most sorry ass vehicles to ever break the law.
The officer at my door confronted us, and I thoughtfully offered him a whole orange that we hadn't finished eating before the US. He ceremoniously confiscated said orange, and he ordered us out of the car. Opening the back of the hatchback, one of the border officer asked us if we had any pets. Since Junior and Missy M were in their cages, it was pretty obvious that we were a vaudeville act with a traveling cat circus. The absurdity of the question no doubt amused me, and I began to smirk.
They asked us to leave Karen's purse on the stainless steel table, and we were ordered to stand at the other stainless steel table 30 feet away. By now, the whole situatoin was approaching the summit of ridiculousness, and I couldn'tt help but to begin to revel in the absurd humor of it all.
Karen of course, did not respond this way. She has a temper, and she was getting pretty mad. And she was telling the multiple ICE agents and their supervisor exactly what she thought of them. ICE agents are used to angry customers. But then, they don't deal with someone like me. There are those times when I don't have any idea of what I'm going to do. And this strange idea entered my mind.
I saw the crew surrounding my car, and I was not exactly up to what they were doing. But I was certain that I would not go to jail for any contraband that I had in my junk. Out of the blue, my inner hillbilly redneck channeled itself, and I began talking in that twangy kind of accent they use in those hollows of Kentucky. And this is what I said:
"Wail now! There are fore yune-EE-formed EM-PLOY-EEs of the Yew Knighted States Governmint IN-spect-ing mah car!"
This put the hoodoo on the whole crowd. Unconsciously, I had noticed that they were all Hispanics -- decent hard working people trying to make a better life for themselves by obtaining a civil service position. That's to be admired. But here they were -- agents of repression asserting the total authority of the federal government. And I was mocking them.
I certainly didn't mean to come off sounding like a racist. But perhaps I was. The redneck accent I used was certainly unexpected, even to me. And no doubt it triggered a collective reflexive action on the part of the inspection crew. Thinking back about it now, perhaps it brought back some unpleasant memories of their mothers and fathers working in the fields and being confronted by that cruel overseer from Fresno. I don't know. But it had an immediate effect.
The inspection suddenly stopped, and they told us to get back into the car in our drive to San Diego. They were so flustered, they didn't even discover that bottle of Cuban rum I had under my drivers seat!