THANKS FOR STICKING AROUND
Let me apologize again for the bum mailing last week, and thank you for sticking with your subscription to my words of wonder. I traced the whole screw-up back to Russian hackers, but they have been dealt with.
The good news is, in the passing week I completed and published another book in the BORDERLAND series: “Pain Angel”. It was a total pain in the butt, but I think you’ll appreciate the results. Read more below.., including where to pick it up FOR FREE.
(If you’re seeing this here, but didn’t get the mailing, but would like to get them in the future, just click on this little graphic and sign up. Your address won’t be shared and you can unsubscribe any time you want.)
TWO BORDERLAND BOOKS FREE!
In the past month, I shortened it at one point, taking out all but one of the story lines. Then I lengthened it, tossing in a subplot involving the smuggler “La Flaca”—and a small dose of “magical realism”. To add to a mystery take-over of the heart of Barrio Logan, tough but touching developments in the heart of Officer Novena Rosas, a backstory that gives insight into how attorney Victor Moncalvo became so evil… and a couple idiots who manage to give rotten drug smugglers a bad name. At any rate than God it’s done at last… and I’m proud of it. I want to invite any and all of you to pick up a copy to enjoy FREE from May 25-29 (perfect chance to stock up your eReader for Memorial Day Weekend). PAIN ANGEL is out, it’s a very nice book, it’s free for you right now, and I’m not going to say any more about it.
Which brings me to BONEYARD 11. which is now FREE. Notice the new cover to bring it into the “brand” look? It was always a spin-off of the main series.
Oh, and here’s yet another of my patented quickie cobbled-up videos. Giving you a hint at what BONEYARD 11 is all about.
THE BANDITOS ARE BACK! (And still cosmic)
What “On The Road” was to disaffected American kids in the fifties, or “Stranger In A Strange Land” to the grokkers of the Sixties, or “Fear and Loathing” to seventies white punks on dope, or “Another Roadside Attraction” to Eighties survivors, A. C. Weisbecker’s “Cosmic Banditos” was to the tuned-in of the Nineties. A token book, a badge, a secret handshake: you saw somebody with the dog-eared paperback in the pocket of their jeans or zipper pouch of their backpack and you smiled at them like they were your brother Mason or fellow Rosicrucian. An amulet of shared times, to bind readers together with an experience that makes that similarity stronger than the differences. Who knows, maybe Cosmic Banditos will have a Second Coming. What could be more Schrödingeresque than that? Back on sale, on ebooks (and how appropriate is digital media for a quantum caper?) and a real bargain at only $3 on Kindle. I can’t recommend this book enough.
Early Bad Influences
I’ve included two short pieces for your delight this month, both “border coverage” in keeping with the emphasis on the BORDERLAND series. Both were done for the San Diego Reader. (Don’t get me started on them.) “Honeybunz” is the kind of noiresque, “my-real-so-called-life” stuff that I was known for at the time; “Faith, Etc.” was done with Ana Maria Corona, and a much more positive style of looking at the “sister cities” of TJ/SD. I’ve been thinking back a lot lately about how I got involved in devoting (sounds better than “pissing away”, huh?) most of my life to periodical writing. Where did I go wrong, and so on. Then it hit me that the first urban weekly I got involved with that really paid well was the Seattle Weekly. (That’s Seattle for you. The university paper was called The Daily. Their magazine was called Seattle, not The Monthly, but I’m sure it was a close editorial call.)
And that thought led me WAY back to what was probably the first periodical I actually, personally, had a subscription to, and read avidly. It was a little pulpy tabloid, well put together, that was circulated to school kids. So I sat at my third grade desk reading a paper called…. My Weekly Reader.
My “Whitman’s Sampler”
This is my standard introductory freebie, but if you haven’t you might want to browse it: the price is certainly right. An eclectic sampler of various forms of my work, from stand-alone novel chapters to short stories and articles to poems and even song lyrics. And all, amazingly enough, somewhat thematic to Piotr’s great image of a cute pirate lass tossing a pot and amassing booty. Always FREE, by way of introduction: I’m always please to meet you.
Remember bears (especially aviator bears) are the mascots and spirit animals for this newsletter. If you see any really cool and/or cute one, send them in for a mention.
TWO BORDER LIT SHORTS
Two short pieces of border lore, as reported by your humble correspondent. The one from my “Flesh Wounds” collection is fairly “noir”, the “Imaginary Lines” piece a more usual exploration of Mexican herbs/magic. You can click to read on my website, or click the book covers here to download pdfs of the pieces. More on the role of journalism in my writing/life down in the “Influences” bit.
Just as the purest form of the Mexican diet is very often found in the rude conditions of the streets, some of the humblest and most exotic products sold in Tijuana are the herbal, folk, and “grandmother” cures sold by migrant sidewalk vendors. At times of fairs and religious festivals they can be found lining the streets along with the other entrepreneurs who spring up with stands full of plastic hardware and Chinese-made tools.
Maybe a miniature Indian woman so old she barely speaks Spanish will sit on a worn blanket covered with dishes of shredded bark and leaves she has gathered in the southern rain forests. Or there might be a timid young mother nursing a new child and offering small paper sacks scrawled with spells, pictures of the organs they promise to relieve, or emblems of saints. A certain weathered ranchero is almost always seen with fresh-cut desert herbs and skinned, headless rattlesnakes dried into stiff loops.
The herbs usually have native names that are outlandish even to Mexicans and can be counted on for relief of vague symptoms that might include “female complaints”, loss of love, and tumors. Endorsements include personal testimony, generations of folk wisdom, and much pointing to saintly names written on the sacks while making signs of the holy cross or the evil eye. Of course, opportunities to experience these “divine gifts of purest nature” are too unpredictable for those who don’t wish to wait until the next Festival of Guadalupe to purchase an ounce of tlanchichinole or dried viper. But fortunately for those who haven’t properly planned their infirmities and thus have to content themselves with purchasing their cures over the counters of more conventional establishments, Tijuana has a wide range of such shops, each specialized in certain types of tastes and organismic shortcomings. Places with names like Centrál Botánica, Farmácia Homeopática or Centro Naturalista sell herbs, health food, “grandmother cures”, and sexual enhancements. But they play a much more important role in the national metabolism than food, medicine, or even sexuality—they sell magic. Or what might be called applied faith.
Some of these botanic stores resemble San Diego “health food” stores and sell foods like wheat germ and whole grain bread (pan integral as it’s called here). Others stack herbal remedies beside the type of products sold in conventional pharmacies. In Tijuana these are often selected towards such medicines as strong sedatives, rejuvenation formulae and cures for cancer or sterility that are not available in the United States, where the line between the medical canon and unorthodox cures is more sharply drawn than here.
The entire idea of “alternative medicine” is much less clear in Mexico than in the United States, which is why people cross the border for drugs and treatments that are illegal on the other side. There are two perspectives on that matter: some denounce exploitation and fakery while others reclaim against narrow-mindedness and suppression of health by powerful interests. To me it seems that in the United States science is like a powerful floodlight, like those observed lighting the border. There is light and there is darkness: the shadows have sharp edges. In Mexico, the official sanction is more like a bonfire whose light shades off gradually into darkness and casts softer shadows that flicker and dance.
Some shops, like the Centrál Botánica de California, sell very little except herbs, but every herb you could think of. It is like a clean white warehouse full of herbs and dried plants. In fact, it looks something like a clinic, and I find it amusing and a little frustrating that all those aromatic herbs are sealed tightly in glass jars and stacked in alphabetical order: their cures are all genuinely organic and botanic, but there should be so much more to smell!
On the other hand, as part of a large network of herbal growers, gatherers, and vendors, they are very serious and knowledgeable about herbs and provide literature and advice on their uses. Which is fortunate because it could take years to sort out the variety of folk cures available. It is very helpful to approach these tall walls of odd-looking dried plants knowing that cuachalate is good for ulcers, azocopaque for rheumatism and gout, sihupatle for painful menstruation, tlanchalahua for burning fat while dieting, and pimpinela for combating dandruff, hair loss and follicle damage. But in what doses, and by what preparation? And what if they are taken together? It’s like walking into a drug warehouse wondering which color pill might do some good.
Centrál Botánica de California emphasizes their selection of plants from all over Mexico and even the world, but some of the herbs are from local sources. Eucalyptus leaves, for instance, which can be picked for free in much of San Diego, become exotic imports when sent to other Mexican cities. Guata, a kidney remedy, and alcachofa for cirrhosis and other liver diseases, are regional desert plants that Centrál Botánica gathers not only for their local store, but to ship throughout the Republic. Even humbler is the powerful diuretic weed la gobernadora, which grows alongside highways throughout the northern part of the state. Local people harvest it during its flowering season and it, too, becomes a state export. Damiana is the most famous Baja California herb, not so much for its curative properties or the liquor made from its leaves, but because of its reputation as an aphrodisiac.
Which approaches another important sideline of the herbal shops. Man, after all, does not live solely by bread; not even integral bread. When the flesh starts to fail the spirit–or vice versa–semi-medicinal avenues can be attractive and most of the botánicas stock as many sexual tonics and invigorants as can be found. There are entire walls covered with various formulations of Ginseng. Preparations of exotic Asiatic herbs like ma huang and gotu kola promise virility if not actual passion. Almost all such stores and all drug stores carry patent potency potions like Zumba. Such preparations are almost exclusively in support of male vigor. Willing women are considered a bit too sexy as it is and any lack of response they might experience would best be cured by more vigorous male attention. Naturally a cure for female unwillingness would be a best-seller, but so far little has been reliably established on that frontier.
Though there are impressive claims. A male friend once pointed out to me a product called Gerovital, another popular Tijuana drugstore item since it is illegal in the United States. He told me he and his wife, both of them in their middle fifties, had bought some and tried it out right there at the store. By the time they got home they were both frantic. They left a trail of clothes into the bedroom and fell upon each other like what he called, “adolescent animals in heat”.
That demonstration, as you might imagine, convinced them to buy more Gerovital, even at a price of over twelve dollars per dose. But it never again worked the same magic as the first application and they quit buying it. He thinks the initial effects were due to anticipation, or to belief conditioned by the decision to spend the money. He mentioned something called “the placebo effect”. What that means is: if a person truly believes that a medicine will help him, it will. Having been given this respectable name, the principle becomes very scientific. Perhaps it’s just my ignorance of both medicine and mysticism that makes me unable to differentiate “placebo effect” from superstition. Or from a healing through true faith.
This “placebo” idea seems to describe a space between the medical and the mystical that refuses to be clearly defined; a space in which the great majority of the naturalistic boutiques do most of their business. And in that space, in the collection of “productos místicos“, there can be seen a spiritual portrait of the local people.
A favorite product is “Legítima Agua Espiritual“; plastic bottles of water to be used in blessing, cleansing, or attracting fortune. Sanctísima Muerte water, which seems to be a big seller, offers success, strength, and fortune, especially if conscientiously applied in a nine-day program. Obviously the appeal of this product among Catholic people is drawn from the insinuations of the Novena and the charged words “Holiest Death”, just as the acceptance of the powers in water is conditioned by the use of Holy Water in the Church. Many of the waters also use the names of Saints, especially such as St. Antonio Martyr, Santa Marta and St. Cipriano, who bring fortune or protect from witchcraft. Other waters invoke “Macho Garlic”, “Adam and Eve”, “The Buddha Divine Grace”, “Against Witches”, “Just Judge”, “Double Good Luck Thirteen”, “Peace in the Home”, and “Come To Me”.
Another form of magical application is the “Legitimate Powerful Powder”; an envelope of dust which can be sprinkled on the wet hands, the body, perhaps even the bed and clothes of the intended enchanted. The powders are simple and easy to use, so there are many of them. “The Black Hen” protects against curses and the evil eye. “Hunting Dog” will get rid of bad neighbors–unless, perhaps, they are “Black Hen” customers? More practical are “San Martin Caballero”, which aids in business and financial success, and “Student Powder”, which promises “ready brains and a clear mind”. An envelope of “Frog” allows a lover to “dominate the thoughts of the beloved and always have him captive”; “Kneel at my Feet”, with its picture of a man kneeling in front of a temptress, indicates a form of love perhaps somewhat less pure.
The most bizarre of the powders, sold in “La Guadalupana“, only blocks from the Cuahuila redlight district, features a silhouette of a prostitute leaning on a lamp post and the name “Woman X”. On the back of the envelope, instead of more usual instruction, are several inscriptions. First a famous quote from the famous nun poetess Sor. Juana Inez: “Who is more guilty, she who sins for pay or he who pays for sin?”
Next a quote from Jesus Christ, “Let he who is without sin throw the first stone.” Furthermore, the package notes, the Holy Church itself has said that, “Sin is Original”.
“So firm your resolve, go ahead,” the little packet concludes. “But put on this powder before you go to work.” It would not require subtle psychology to assume that just reading the packet would provide a woman sinning for pay as much relief as whatever benefits the powder itself might provide. Certainly a bargain at only two thousand pesos each packet.
Many of the “Name” brands of waters and powders also appear as colored candles and incense–more examples of copying proven Catholic imagery—as well as soaps, and shampoos. The apparent idea is that if a name works it can be successfully franchised to other products; thus concept-marketing love, grace and fortune in the same manner as Oscar De La Renta or Ralph Lauren. There are even matches to strike for luck or protection and, certainly the latest technology in the ancient field of commerce, aerosol sprays. Just a touch of the button can soak a room, boudoir or automobile in the essential vibrations of St. Marta, St. Jude, or Holiest Death.
This combination of primitive magic and modern pressure technology is a good analogy to the ways in which faith seeps around and thorugh the boundaries of the world. I’m sure many developed and enlightened Americans see the use of luck matches and saintly aerosols–apart from being damaging to the ozone–as childish and primitive, a little too charming to be absolutely laughable. But what’s really on sale is faith, in a variety of strength and flavors. Many of those who mock superstition are only incapable of having or imagining faith. Which is also a lack of hope. And, for that matter, charity.
Magical thinking, especially about luck (a kind of magical concept in itself when you think of it: a name for a force beyond randomness) and romance (the most magical thinking of all) is still very prevalent at all levels of Mexican culture. When I was at the University I worked in a florist shop. Women customers would ask if I had a boyfriend and pass on little recipes to getting one through magia blanca with flowers. I sold a lot of white and red carnations that were used to make petal baths for bringing luck in love. And I got a lot of advice on using the petal water on a lucky day like Friday, thinking positive thoughts while soaking the petals, and consulting the phases of the moon.
Even more common are traditions of plants that bring luck. I remember when almost any business you visited would have a potted albahaca, given for luck by friends. Better yet, a millonaria with a coin (preferably gold) buried in the soil to bring wealth. In the older days, a garden with albahaca, romero, ruda and medicinal salvia would bring a wholesome spirit to the entire household.
The best-selling Beauty Advice from Head to Toe by Arturo Palacios, famous hairdresser to movie and music stars, has a great deal of advice that would be considered as much magical as herbal. For instance, he recommends cutting the hair at the full of the moon then planting the clippings under a plant that flowers or flows in the desired way so the hair will grow as the plant grows. It is amazing how many vain idiots blindly follow Palacios’ advice, even though I can testify from personal experience that it doesn’t work.
At another level, I could use the example of my own mother. She gave my older sisters nice flower names like Gladiola and Jacaranda. Then, after four girls with no boys, and two miscarriages, she started calling us after saints. And after only two of us, Ana and Monica, with saintly names she had Juan Jose. And after Marta, Tomás,Tonio, and Clara. What would you call such behavior? Superstition? Faith? Responsible Catholicism? Sympathetic magic? Call it what you will, a notable thing is that it worked. What would you call such results? I myself consider the path from the Holy Names to my mother’s womb a little too complex to allow the drawing of facile conclusions.
Maybe this is the famous Latin tendency towards “magical realism”. Having the disadvantage of being an actual Latina, rather than a New York literary critic, I’m not really sure what “magical realism” actually is. It seems to be a sort of infection which causes otherwise normal books suddenly to develop characters who are surrounded by butterflies. But the point of all these potions and lucky charms is the engineering of belief. Since belief is the strongest power in the world, the technology is potent, if shadowy and poorly-understood. What is important to the normal believer is to believe in something that works.
Which explains the confusion of images one finds in many of the botánicas, where you can see pyramids next to Buddhas next to crosses and ankhs. One dark store with a gypsy atmosphere of incense smoke has a meter-high statue of a bald Chinese Confucius or Lao Tse cast in solid red transparent plastic. It’s quite grotesque, of course, but I could visualize it with a bulb inside it, making a warm red night light. That particular shop sells the ultimate in products for clients who want to spread their bets; little icons covered with pictures and statuettes of everything from the Virgin of Guadalupe to the third eye, from Saints to the Buddha, from horse shoes to Indian idols to lottery symbols to national flags. The shrines are covered with heat-shrunk plastic wrap to shield the fetishes inside from dust and other physical harm, perhaps so they can concentrate their powers on more important protections.
Obviously this is ignorant superstition at its most chaotic. But those little shrines are also a form of folk art, cultural realities that indicate that the Catholicism of Mexico is not as solid as many people believe it to be. In many ways we are as primitive as Africans and for a large percentage of Mexicans, Catholicism serves less as an absolute than as a central institution to organize whatever mob of credibility can be hung upon it. I’m not sure that the Mexican ability to believe in everything at once is inferior to a country like the United States in which most people appear to believe in nothing at all.
Apart from that, even the most objectionable and sacrilegious of this mixing of Catholic, native, and lost-and-found images is typical of the religion of the world, which is also not as solid as people think; less like banks or governments than like blurring urban languages and mutating fashions. The hybridization and cross-pollination of belief systems has been going on everywhere, forever. And the use of Catholicism as a host to sustain more primitive beliefs is nothing new at all. The most famous Catholic parasite is Voodoo. It is not widely known, but Voodoo practitioners must be Catholic communicants–even Papa Doc Duvalier, head of the only state in the world with Voodoo as the official religion, couldn’t practice his own religion after he was excommunicated from the Catholic church.
A Latin American version of witchcraft and paganism hidden in Catholicism is Santeria, “saintcraft” very similar to Voodoo. Santeria is also a religion of possession–perhaps not al that different from the recent phenomenon of “channeling”–and it is also a parasite on Catholicism, like a tapeworm or the eggs of the cuckoo.
To a santero, the saints are just masquerades, faces the old African gods wear in the West, just as Negro people needed to put on different faces and names in the new world. On a santero altar, a candle of Santa Barbara really represents Shango. Saint Lazarus and Saint Peter hide within them Yamaya, and Oggun. Matters of exact identity are of little import to gods who come down to earth and take over human bodies; speak with their mouths, rampage with their genitals, kill with their hands. A prayer book for the Seven Powers contacts the Gods. A call to Great Saint Peter is redirected to Ocha, orations to Our Lady of the Waters are heard by savage ears. The candles, the herbs, the blessed water, even the authentic holy prayers—all serve different masters in a religion that treats of blood, sensualism and power. To a Catholic, santeria is a blasphemous parasite that invades the bosom of the True Church. But to a santero the Church is merely a flavorless shell that protects and nurtures the spark of true faith within it, just as Zen Monks and Sufis see Buddhism and Islam as mere vehicles.
This is not to say that Santeria is common in Tijuana, although it does exist here and its adherents buy products from the botánicas I have mentioned. Even the white, sterile Centrál Botánica sells freeze-dried deer blood which can be used both as a cure for stomach pains and for occult purposes. They promise that it is as medicinally dynamic as fresh blood, but would it serve as well for occult purposes? I couldn’t find any witches or vampires to testify, though one woman did whisper to me that the blood was not really from deer, but cattle. I certainly wouldn’t have known the difference by examining the little brown nuggets, but I did find that they reconstituted very easily in hot water. Instant blood. I imagine that vampires would find it similar to instant coffee, the sacrifice in quality compensated by the convenience.
Similarly, they sell rattlesnake in gelatin capsules. Claimed to be just as good as the crude cadaver for purifying the blood, reducing tumors and ridding of acne. . . but do these capsules have any of the sexual potency so instinctively present in the stiff, taut-ribbed snakes? Who would you rather believe, the educated words of a white-suited expert or the naked, blatant sight of the flesh of a serpent in the hands of a weathered, ancient cowboy?
Because faith exists in many gray zones and shades: even Voodoo and Santeria are formalized religions with many followers who share the same beliefs and symbols, but there are thousands of similar blendings and heresies and minor “sects” with no name. A local curandero might do a cure through herbs or sacrificial magic, yet attribute the cure to Jesus or the Virgin. A devout woman might go to mass, buy small metal milagros in front of the cathedral to influence holy grace, stop by for some mystic powders to rearrange her health or love life, drink some Buddha Dream Tea before going to bed with a book on Zodiac Karma. The little shrink-wrapped shrines are sacred to some nameless impulse. This has also been the case around the world throughout time. When Christianity was introduced into India, the missionaries were pleased with how fast it was accepted, then horrified to realize that Hinduism, a huge, amorphous amoeba of a religion, was capable of swallowing up their teachings and converting Christ into the latest manifestation of Krishna.
And here in Mexico, where Octavo Paz once said that Mexicans believe in nothing except the lottery and the Virgin of Guadalupe, there are heretical evidences of cultural blending and appropriation in the Guadalupana cult. These are things a devout Mexican scarcely dares to think about–but there they are. One attack on the legitimacy of the virgin of Guadalupe has been widely read because it was authored by the Rius, Mexico’s favorite cartoonist, satirist and polemicist. In comic book form, Rius sets out to show that the Guadalupe “myth” was actually a Catholic plot to convert the Aztecs and enslave the Mexican working classes with the opiate of religion. Rius, for all his other talents, is an atheist, Communist, vegetarian, feminist, and author of a self-teaching suicide manual. Aside from attacks on the Church itself, Rius relates interesting ideas about the succession of Gods in Mexico. The spot on Tepayac hill where the Virgin wanted her temple built was the site of an Aztec temple to Tonantzin, mother of Huitzipochitl, a Christ-figure in the Aztec religion. The Virgin took on various aspects of the Aztec goddess, including the date of her solstice celebration.
This is a fascinating area of scholarship, but Rius devotes most of his work not to exploring the similarities of Aztec and Christian concepts, such as the missionaries comparing the rain god Tlaloc to John the Baptist, but to collecting proofs that challenge the entire story of the Virgin appearing to a humble Indian and painting her image on his cloak to prove to Bishop Zumurraga that he should build a church on Tepeyac. He identifies–but how reliably?–the man who painted the cloak. He makes much of the switching of Church calendar dates to approximate pagan festivals, but we see the same thing with St. Valentine’s day, and even Christmas–much less Easter, Lent, and Carnival, which are derived from the Equinox. He shows, with proofs virtually impossible to deny, that Bishop Zumurraga never mentioned the incident in his writing and was actually absent from Mexico when the vision took place.
So. Should I accept these proofs because they are documented? Renounce them because they are heretical? Or just continue believing or disbelieving that God’s grace could rise out of Man’s fakery, that the Christ could rise out of a manger, that health can rise out of a weed, that luck and romance can rise out of concentration on trivialities? In a world in which scientists, doctors, and governments disagree on the values and dangers of the food and medicines we consume things like faith, magic and love remain difficult to prove, but impossible to disprove completely.
And so we come again to the important and tiresome matter of proofs and facts, supposedly the very things that differentiate the sheep from the goats, the light from the darkness. Everybody wants faith in things unseen, but also everybody wants to see for themselves. How wide is the circle of light, how broad the umbrella of faith? Who among us understands even the simplest miracle?
As a Catholic, I believe that if a certain man says certain words he can convert ordinary wine and bread into the actual, literal blood and flesh of a man who died twenty centuries ago but it’s certainly nothing I would try to prove to anyone. It is one of the oldest and most widely held beliefs in the world: scientifically ridiculous. So should I laugh at the superstitions of the ignorant? Or condemn them as inferior competitors of the true faith? Or sympathize with the odd perversions and contaminations we render to the spirit when we try to apply it to the weakness of the flesh?
Life, health and sanity are all circles of light surrounded by endless darkness. Perhaps it is in the twilight between the two that the nature of both become more clear to us. If we’re going to have faith, we might as well have blind faith: if we’re going to be realists, we might as well be a magical realists.
HONEYBUNZ RUNZ GUNZ
I didn’t really plan to get back into gun-running; it just sort of happened on it’s own steam. I wouldn’t have planned to do it because it’s so dangerous. Gunrunning is not just a job, it’s an adventure. And I’m not into adventure, I’m just a simple smuggler out to make an easy buck. But these things have a way of getting out of hand.
Sometimes things just seem to come together with a will of their own; other times they just fall to shit the same damned way. Both processes accelerate when guns, women, or money get involved. I’d long since repented of selling guns in Latin America (before NAFTA at that) but just when I backslid I had a chance to do a story on gun-running for the effete local tabloid that was my usual outlet for such “yuppie noir”.
I’d been hanging with this Ofelia, a dancer in Tijuana, Well, actually she was just sort of hanging out at my apartment, but she used to bring all her friends over to show them her pet gringo. Then she’d fall asleep, or pretend to, and her buddies, who were mostly top-priced skin dancers and prostitutes, would jump my bones. What with one thing and another I was getting pretty fond of her. A lot of people were. She danced about ninety-eight percent naked in Los Patudos, which is a major hangout for various levels of gangsters, mostly sort of mid-management types. I guess. Even people involved in Mexican “mafiosos” don’t really know how far up it all goes or how widely it’s connected. But some of those boys in the corner booth at Patudos are about as heavy as anybody I’d want to meet.
Anyway Ofelia was a hot ticket with these mobsters. I could never figure out why. She’s decent looking but nothing spectacular. She’s tough, but not as hard-boiled as some of those “rucas“. Maybe just because she was the star dancer at the place they hung out and everybody wanted to tag up. Mexican gangstas have a fairly locked-in mindset; they all dress alike, think alike, drive the same sort of car, carry the same sort of gun, listen to the same albums. That’s what makes them belong to gangs, I guess. So Ofelia knows the ones who like to pretend they’re bigtime narcos from the ones who really are. And she prefers the real thing. She told me she likes “dangerous” men.
So she was in luck. They don’t get more dangerous than this one psycho Culiacan cowboy she started seeing. He was a pistolero who sort of became an independent contractor. A hired killer who couldn’t keep straight who not to cross up—not the type looked up by insurance salesmen. The first time Ofelia went to his apartment, the place was littered with “cuernos de chiva“, which is Sinaloa slang for an AK-47, since they think the curved magazines look like goat horns. He told her, “Baby, I’ve messed up bad and they’re after me so we’d better have a real good time while we can.” I think most girls would have been out the door before a man even finished a remark like that. But it would start Ofelia making her own gravy.
Just her luck she wasn’t around when the guy got nailed to a fence up in La Presa and shot about a hundred times, mostly about the face and crotch. But she heard about it right away. And not only was she the only one who knew where he lived, she’d copped a key. So she came to see me about it. That’s when I finally figured out what she saw in me. She had a whole fan club scary enough to turn her on. But how many could she trust? I do a lot of dirty work with Mexicans just because they figure they can trust a gringo more than another Mexican. And she was right—if she’d gone to one of her gangster pals with her idea, they’d have just slapped her around, boogied her, and taken it all for themselves.
She let us into the pistolero’s place up in Lomas, pulled the curtains and turned on the lights. For a minute I just stared at the interior decor. What you might call Narco-Deco. Everything was blood red, black or gold. Almost every non-functional object was in the shape of a naked woman or some portion, like a gold mug shaped like a tit. One whole wall was a sort of sculpture made out of beveled mirrors in gold frames, so you couldn’t move without the wall buzzing and jumping with a hundred little images. The walls were red, covered with pictures of sports cars, jet fighters, Gloria Trevi naked, saints and Virgins. And a Rambo movie poster in a frame about six feet square. There must have been eight remote controls on the coffee table, which was a sheet of smoky glass held up by the knees and elbows of a naked brass woman. If I hadn’t known the tenant was a Sinaloa drugboy I think I could have guessed.
The bedroom was even more of a circus, but I didn’t pay much attention when I saw the guns. I suddenly realized I was standing in an apartment full of the most illegal contraband in Mexico, way worse than heroin or coke. And that if somebody came in, the owner, the mob, the cops, the federales, I’d be guest of honor at an execution-style slaying. Ofelia saw my face in one of about three dozen mirrors and started laughing. She didn’t have all that much trouble talking me into helping her take the guns. No way would I have walked out of that place unarmed. I stuck a Ruger .357 and a Smith 9mm automatic in my belt under my shirt and we wrapped the rest of the stuff up in this huge red velvet bedspread with little gold Playboy rabbit beads sewn all over it. Black silk sheets he had. Two different stereo systems just in the bedroom. Oil painting of Vincente Fernadez and Elvis in mariachi drag on horseback with blazing six-guns. No dresser, just clothes on the floor, a closet full of black western wear, and boxes of bikini undies. Not to mention nine assault rifles, two Italian pump shotguns, matched Ingram MAC 10’s in a presentation quality briefcase, and a dozen large caliber pistols. Also an ornate machete with an eagle handle and the blade engraved, “I avenge Life with Death, and Honor with Blood.” I still have the machete somewhere. No cash or dope that we could find. I made Ofelia carry the bundle out to my truck. I had my hands under my shirt and was soaked with sweat. We loaded up, pulled out, then just drove on home. When we got there, Ofelia was blatantly hot for my rod. I was fairly turned-on my own self.
Getting rid of the guns didn’t even figure to be as hard as getting hold of them in the first place. I made about a dozen calls around San Diego and Baja before I got hold of Wally, kicking back in Cabo. I asked him if he could flog the guns, he said he could turn them in a New York minute right up in La Paz, so to come on down. And bring some American peanut butter. No problemo.
Better yet, I quickly figured out how to pay for the trip by doing an expose on gunrunning for the incredibly gullible tabloid rag I mentioned (OK, OK, the San Diego “Reader”). I showed them pictures of a little storefront on the main drag in San Ysidro: no sign, no markings, no windows, just a very serious steel door. I’d staked the door out and stepped in as a customer was stepping out and had surreptitious shots of the interior—all the walls and counters lined with assault rifles, big-caliber handguns, and combat add-ons. They wouldn’t even make eye contact with me, but it was pretty obvious that the place, four blocks from the Mexican border and without a scrap of advertising in the U.S. was selling guns headed abruptly south. Big biz, guns into Mexico. They bought the story idea, promised two grand on delivery. So far, so good.
Except when I was calling trying to get hold of Wally (and a few quotes from assorted smugglescum) I happened to talk to the mother of a surf Nazi named Claypool who’d done a bit of pot trafficking with Wally in the past. At which point the story threw me the kind of curve that the writer in me just creams all over but makes the vestigial human being inside me cringe. I’d gotten a pretty good lead on a kid named Claypool who was a sure bet for running. I called the number but got his mother, who asked about him with a fine edge of panic and heartbreak that twisted my tail so bad I almost didn’t show up in her house in La Jolla like I promised her. But I did. She gave me his picture, a thumbnail bio, and the fact she hadn’t seen him in a month and was getting worried. She thought maybe he was moving drugs, which evidently he had done before. She begged me to look out for him while I was down in Mexico—let her know. I could send the information to her since they were moving back to Houston where the old man would design weapon systems for somebody other than General Dynamics. I told her sure I would. You know, sure I would. But it gave me a bad feeling about the whole project.
Wally is a major maniac, even among the lunatic fringe of the smuggling industry, a legend in his own time-share. The first time I met him he impressed me with an evening of extremely nutso shit, culminating with Wally slamming two garbage can lids together on the head of a Mazatlan cop, then marching off clashing them together singing, “Oh the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole, and all the people could see his asshole,” to the tune of a Souza march. There wasn’t a dry eye, believe me.
But my favorite Wallylogue came down in Guadalajara. See, a major difference between selling guns and selling watches or VCR’s is that nobody is going to pick up one of the watches and kill you with it. The fact that it is possible to do with a gun (remember “Terminator”?) is one reason for all the concern about security. We’d been selling low-end pistols, and I mean beaters you’d find abandoned in alleys, to this clown who was supposedly leading some Mickey Maoist cell allegedly affiliated with the insidious Tecolotes at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara. Fancied themselves a local Sendero Luminoso. Wally had a case of the ass at him for some reason. I heard there was a woman involved. There so frequently is.
Anyway, this knucklehead struts in with his grizzled teenaged henchmen and starts critiquing the merchandise he’s getting at bargain-basement rates. He’s bitching about the condition of one big .38 six-shooter with plastic “antler” grips so Wally loads it for him, telling him he can check it out, then starts riding him, insulting him. He’s getting madder and madder in front of his shock troops and Wally manages to goad him into pointing the Buffalo Bill model gun at him. Everybody just freezes and Wally freaks out, falls on the floor crying and begging for his life. Their glorious leader just sits there, a little dumbfounded, and Wally goes completely apeshit: jumps up, starts screaming at him, cursing him, tears the shirt off him, falls down and starts biting him on the ankles and howling like a dog. The guy is pretty shook up and he’s sitting there holding a loaded gun but doesn’t pull the trigger. Wally starts humping his leg like a horny dog and yapping at him. Finally he gives up the mad dog act and just takes the gun away and sticks it right in his ear.
By now Comandante Clown is just along for the ride, his mind totally blown. His merry men are goggle-eyed but not moving. Wally lines them up against a wall, shakes them down, takes all their money, drops their drawers, rubs one muchacho’s girlfriend’s picture in his crotch pretending like he’s coming. Then he sticks all those Salvation Army guns in their pants, which are down around their ankles, and tells them to get the fuck lost. The main Mao-Mao starts to say something and Wally starts screaming and gibbering, points the old Fanner Fifty right between his eyes and pulls the trigger. He faints. Wally had taken out the firing pin (if it ever had one) just to see if he guy had the balls to use it to steal the shipment. He was pissed off he didn’t. It’s seems safe to conclude that if the Sendero Ludicroso is still in business they have new leadership. Wally mentioned that they haven’t bought any more guns. He’s pissed about that, too. Who else would buy all those old beaters?
Our main stock in trade had always been pistols—not a glamour stock like UZI’s or rockets, but a staple of real-world traffic and a mainstay for revolutions. Our real business in Guadalajara (with what you’d have to call real revolutionaries) was flogging some pistolas of a fairly complex pedigree, clones of Brazilian copies of the world-famous Fabrique Nationale/Browning 9mm automatic, stamped with numbers and names of Excam (a Miami maker noted for Destruction Eve Specials) with the guts machined in a small Seattle shop by an ex-employee of DynoTech, known for their elegant cut-down versions of major calibers. Despite what newspaper writers and other nitwits try to tell you, a great deal of small-arm manufacture is cottage industry, real SBA stuff. Why not? Guns aren’t that hard to make, easier than model engines or radio-controlled aircraft. The hardest part is making sure they fit the ammo. Ammo is harder to make, but almost all shooters do their own reloading. Wally sold one band of lunatics in Honduras a standard Sears reloading press at a two hundred percent mark-up, plus about a million spent brass NATO cartridges for a ridiculous profit, even after he threw in twenty thousand primers. And they didn’t bitch about the price, were about as thrilled as commie crazos ever get. But you can see why people like Wally aren’t all that popular in government circles. Governments are, by their very nature, opposed to citizens having guns, drugs, or unrestricted information. The worse the government, the more they hate having guns around. The worst ones don’t allow them at all. I hate to be heavy-handed about this, but maybe you’ve noticed that the worse our own government gets, the more you hear about gun control. Mostly from newspimps, of course, who act like the NRA is some big scary outfit with a fraction of the power of a newspaper chain. Oliver Stone is naive: the Kennedys were probably killed to promote gun control and Doctor Junior got thrown in, too, because blacks generally tend to be suspicious of honkys who want the cops to have all the guns.
But back to the Ofelia deal. Wally had it all set up by the time I drove down to La Paz. A great bunch of guys with political aspirations and rich liberal money behind them, like the Zapatistas. Wally had dealt himself out (except for a finder’s fee, probably from both parties involved) and I would meet them and do the deal; American cash over the counter. When they showed up I was covering them with two of the AK’s, held like pistols in both hands. It’s just salesmanship, really. For one thing it establishes a level of professional caution and intimidation right from the get-go. And weapons always look bigger, meaner and more desirable when they’re pointing at you, Once you spook them a little, they’re very definitely convinced that the weapons are deadly. When I considered rapport established, I pulled the magazines out, jacked the chambered rounds across the room (another nice effect and a bottom-line convincer), then let them get a load of the goods. They bought the works. At my low. low everyday prices. If you paid full price, you didn’t get it from the Grinning Gringos. Those AK’s should have been worth a grand apiece down there, but they got them for half that. Like so many of your modern revolutionaries and gangsters, they didn’t really understand shotguns. I let them have one, worth a grand, for two hundred and kept the other one. Like the old-school gangsters, I do understand shotguns. Give me one over a machine gun any damn day. Which was the situation when they left. They had five hombres with a pile of machine guns, I had a shotgun. They could tell I wasn’t worried. They didn’t hang around outside in the hall, so Wally didn’t have to step out of the communal bathroom and blow them away. When we saw them hit the street with their bundles, Wally and I got in his car and headed down to Cabo for a drink and some international banking. Three days of diving and drinking and I was hotwheeling back to Tijuana. Ofelia’s half, less expenses, came to about forty-five hundred. She’d been hoping for more, but understood about not being able to go upmarket from our position. She also kept out a really nice little Walther automatic worth six hundred in the States, twice that in Mexico, and its weight in pink flake during those major moments. It was just her style. I’ll never forget her stalking around my place wearing nothing but boots, Stetson, and net hose with the gun stuck in the garter. Profiling for the mirror. You talking to ME, pendejo? Perfect: “Taxi Dancer”. What I’d really like to do with Ofelia is set her up with Wally, then hang around and video tape the results. Most documentaries don’t have enough sex and violence.
But there’s always one last little thing, isn’t there? On my way back I was doing a little more research for my big gunrunning expose. I interviewed a few old smuggling pals around Mulege, who mentioned that there might have been a gun deal go down a few months before—some fool getting burned by the Federales. They told me where I might be able to get some pics for the story. Out at the dump behind the cemetery. The Mulege cemetery where the big stone arch with it’s engraved legend, “Here’s where all your schemes and philosophies collide with the only reality.”
I didn’t even have to check the plates. The minute I saw the van I knew all I needed to know about that particular angle. It sat there in the sun like a skull, stripped of all life, hope, or argument; two shotgunned holes in the windshields giving it the endzone stare. I didn’t have to look inside to know it was the last landmark—end of the trail for the hodad who would be bad. I think the pellet and bullet holes in the van were after the fact, from bird hunters. They wouldn’t have needed to jump him in the van, he’d have walked right up to pointblank range like Bambi high on a jacklight, never even wonder what hit him. He should have stuck with drugs. There’s a twentieth century epitaph for anyone who wants one.