Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
“Wanna make some extra money?”
I raise my head from my deepening discouragement, tilting it towards the voice coming through the passenger-side window. A man in his thirties is stooping down while leaning inside my car. His shades slide down a notch to reveal eyes constantly shifting between his shoes, the sidewalk, and me.
“Doing what?” I ask.
“Driving,” he replies. “I need someone to give me a ride to the border to pick up my medication.”
I study the man for a moment and I hesitate. A salesperson’s job can be demoralizing, even for the optimistic. Two weeks of door knocking has produced exactly one sale, a whopping sixty dollars in commission. I was trying to figure out gas money when he approached me. Is this a solution? Or a temptation?
“Why do you need to go to Mexico to pick-up a prescription?” I ask dubiously, my eyes narrowing slightly.
He shrugs while carefully picking his words. “Prescription drugs are cheap in Mexico,” he finally says. Checking again to see if anyone is listening, he drops his voice an octave. “Besides, it’ll get you out of doing sales for a few hours.”
He then flashes a smile which quickens my pulse. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
The famous closing line. I’ve been around the block a few times, and I know that, in this part of the country, when you can’t find what you’re looking for, you go south of the border. All you have to do is get it back across the border and it’s yours. While pitching his employer the day before, this same guy told me about the mountains of cash he was earning while working for his employer, along with the good benefits. Prescription medications are cheap with good medical insurance. So why Mexico? Sum of the parts: danger.
Then I think about my own situation. I have no money for food or gas, I’m running out of daylight, I can’t generate a lead (much less a sale), and my worsening situation is not helping my sales pitch one iota. I’m alone in the cruel city, with no way to bail myself out, except for this guy standing at my car window. Sum of the parts: desperate.
“Maybe it’s legit and you’re just being paranoid,” I think.
“Sure, get in,” I finally say.
The drive is uneventful. We engage in idle chit-chat, both of us avoiding any discussion of the coming expedition. We park on the U.S side (a golden rule) and cross on foot, passing through the heavy turnstile. Crossing from Stateside is always easy: nobody ever cares if you go into Mexico. It’s your life, after all. Once across, my shifty companion immediately veers to the right, walking straight towards a pharmacy located a couple of hundred yards from the border fence.
“You see,” I scold myself, “nothing to be worried about; the guy’s just looking to save some money.” As soon as this thought crosses my mind, my malefactor companion walks a crooked line, straight past the pharmacy and into the adjacent alleyway.
If I was nervous before, now I’m terrified. Alleys are never good places, especially in Tijuana. I keep following, eyes darting every which way, hoping to gain a moment of warning before evil pounces on us.
My nefarious companion is unfazed, taking purposeful strides along a route only he knows. When the alley opens into a sprawling market square with numerous people, I exhale. We approach a little cantina on the edge of the square. My partner stops abruptly, plopping his rear into one of the patio chairs while motioning for me to do the same.
A stout waiter approaches. A flash of recognition crosses his eyes as he gets closer.
“Two cervezas,” my counterpart says.
The waiter arches an eyebrow. “Como?” he asks, leaning closer while cocking an ear towards my associate. My companion mutters a few indistinguishable words into the waiter’s ear. The waiter gives a quick nod and disappears back into the bar, returning a few moments later with two beers. “Un momento,” he says to my partner before disappearing again.
I nervously sip my beer, looking for any distraction from the events unfolding in front of me. We are surrounded by college students drinking away the pressures of final exams while basking in the rising heat. Shoppers stroll in relatively clean walkways by Tijuana standards.
“No, officer, I’m not doing anything illegal, I’m just trying to get drunk like every other young American down here. What do you mean I don’t look like a college student!?”
“Lord,” I moan silently, “What am I doing here?”
I notice an elderly gentleman, dressed in traditional gaucho garb, walking into the middle of the square with a lasso in his hand. His gray locks of hair hang ever so slightly below his tilted down hat, almost obscuring the tired and vacant eyes so prevalent among the citizens of this poor country. His faded but impeccably clean suit hangs over shoulders slightly slumped from a lifetime of hard work. A handlebar mustache completes the stereotypical picture.
After checking the knot on his lasso, he begins to swing it over his head. A spark appears in his eyes as I begin to watch. The loop swings down, spinning around his torso before moving down to his feet, each twitch of his wrist becoming faster and faster. Up and down the lasso swirls, occasionally spinning out and away as his feet nimbly skip over the cord. The speed and deftness of skill is mesmerizing. He even lays prostrate at one point, spinning the lasso above him while feigning boredom. The old chap never makes a mistake, even when forced to artfully dodge the random tourist not paying attention, pirouetting away before returning to his original starting point.
He finishes his performance. My hands begin to come together in recognition of his performance, only to be interrupted by a voice to my right.
“LOOK AT THE FAGGOT COWBOY!”
My head spins towards the offending voice, expecting to see a drunken American student lacking all respect. In dismay, I see one of the indigenous waiters mocking a fellow countryman. The students, plastered and robbed of any sensibility, join in. The gaucho takes a bow anyway, met with indifferent silence as the jeers melt away.
He carefully wraps up his rope. With rope in one hand and hat in another, he approaches the tables. As he moves from one table to another table, the callousness of the spectators is matched only by his empty hat. Lastly, he approaches our table.
As I look into his dark brown eyes, my delight from his performance is replaced by a sinking heart. The spark is gone, replaced by a deep and profound shame born from wanton poverty. In one crystallized moment, I could discern the gaucho’s past. The numerous years perfecting a skill and trade of no use in a modern world. The endless years spent wandering in search of somewhere where he could ply his trade. The despair from being reduced to a mere beggar, performing in front of crowds that didn’t care the least bit about his art.
And I didn’t have a dime.
I look at my colleague, flicking my eyes back to the gaucho. He nods reluctantly while pulling out a dollar. Relief appears in the gaucho’s eyes when he sees he will not go completely hungry tonight. “Gracias,” he repeats over and over while backing away.
Shaken by the cruelty hammering upon this poor soul, I haven’t noticed the other eyes witnessing this single act of generosity. Dirty and broken children emerge from the shadows, each hoping to receive some help from the wealthy American sitting at the cantina. In every eye, I see the misery and pain from hungry bellies.
My partner quickly becomes exasperated with handing out coin after coin. Almost on cue, the waiter reappears, dropping the change from his beer purchase into his hand, along with something else I can’t see. My partner springs to his feet, says “we’re outta here,” and starts walking briskly back towards the alley, not looking back to see if I’m following. I give chase, desperately avoiding the eyes following me out of the market square.
My partner tells a quick story to the officials at the border, something about bringing money to his girlfriend, and we cross the border without incident. Back in the car, he pulls out a handful of pills and quickly counts them before tucking them back into his pocket. I don’t ask.
Our drive back is filled with silence. My passenger tries to engage in small-talk, but I am non-committal in my responses. My mind is haunted by images of desperate and pleading eyes. We pull-up in front of where we started. My passenger gives me the money he promised me, gets out, and walks away, all without a goodbye.
As I look down at the grubby bills in my hand, a thought occurs to me, one that makes me shudder.
How many of us are one step away from being just another poor cowboy?