By lex, on March 25th, 2007
We were to meet at 0700 at the church parking lot, so it was with cattle prod in hand that I went to summon the Biscuit from the land of nod at 0630 on a Saturday morning, only to be met with the familiar-as-my-own-heartbeat but nevertheless heart-rending wail of “Five more minutes!”
Very well, says I, five more minutes, but when I come back you’ll need to spring to action!
Receiving from this earnest exhortation a regal wave of a blanketed hand – off with you, hence, begone, our business is concluded, I went below. At the appointed tic of the clock, I returned, awoke Herself and asked, considering all the possibilities, whether it wouldn’t be a good idea to call the Best Friend and ensure that she too, was a-stir. With some foreboding.
Quickly and nattily dressed in my best “go to Mexico and paint stuff” rig, I awaited the Lady’s descent from chambers with car key in one hand and a degree of impatience that increased severalfold until it tip-toed up to actual alarm. Timeliness is drilled into a naval officer’s noggin from the very first day of his apprenticeship, and we were often reminded in the days of our incautious youth that neither time nor the tides waited for any man, regardless of his own self-regard. Worse still than the general crime of being late is the aggravating felony of being late to something that could remotely be classified as “early” – and 0700 squeaks past the post – since such a grievous sin was regarded not merely evidence of general professional shiftlessness, but perhaps also indicative as it were of some private vice, or character flaw.
It would be nearly as tedious to relate as it was to experience how many queries of, “Are you coming down now, dear, surely ‘yes’ for the love of God?” were met with casual replies of, “One second!” which were not, in the event, accurate appraisals of the elapsed time, to say the least. Having finally flogged the apple of my eye out the door, we made our sulking way over to the Best Friend’s house, where the process was repeated absent your correspondent’s personal involvement. A man’s house is his castle after all, and there are very few men who will in good grace tolerate someone else’s father on his doorstep, shouting up at his daughter at 0645 on a Saturday morning.
We arrived at the church parking lot a humiliating five minutes after our appointed hour, and this our crime was compounded by the fact that nothing further would be possible in the way of forward motion until my charges had been treated to Starbucks for a cuppa. This was passed in a tone that brooked no disagreement, so down I charged in an unseemly haste for to purchase a grande house with room for cream and a white mocha, just for the goodness that were in them.
Back to the parking lot to share a moment of awkward conversation with people who, although they worship together and are mutually pledged to going foreign for some charity work, haven’t the remotest idea who each the other person is. We’re Episcopalians, after all and being all about stiff upper lips and Personal Reserve no one would ever mistake us for Pentecostals or charismatics, not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Into the church van then, where I was at first pleasantly surprised, then increasingly aggravated before becoming almost personally offended to find that there was, in fact, a more impatient driver than myself. And yes, I am the kind of guy who has to drive. We soon had the hills above Tijuana in sight, and you no more needed a map to tell one side from the other than you need a biology textbook to tell a foot from a hand. Crossing the southern border was a breeze though, and soon we were wending our way to the Esperanza Clinic, Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico.
Accustomed as we have become to arguing the finer points of such domestic policy initiatives as single-payer health care and prescription drug benefits, it is always something of a shock to step across into a place so very close to the Land of Plenty of People Trying to Lose Weight to discover that there are those close-by trying to find enough food to make it through yet another day, and I was once again reminded why we have 12 million illegal aliens working in our fields, factories and restaurants. If I’d have been born there you’d be chasing after me too.
The Esperanza clinic was built through donations from the Catholic diocese here in San Diego and is maintained by four nuns and three doctors who charge 40 pesos (~$4 US) to those who can afford it (and nothing for those that can’t) for routine health care consultations. Hoping to avoid creating a dependency they give food bundles away for those who are willing to trade an hour’s labor, but will feed the truly destitute or incapacitated all regardless of any quid pro quo. It occurred to me – not for the first time – that while some people climb up aboard their stilt-puppets in the name of progress, others roll their sleeves up and help people.
Anyway, the people surrounding the clinic (and for whom it was built) are what as known as a “colonia,” established on un-regulated – and hence, unrecognized – from a governmental point of view – land. They make their living picking through an enormous garbage dump that filled a deep canyon many years ago, and which now reaches into the sky as something between a hill and a mountain. They craft their dwellings from cinder blocks, wood scraps and tar paper, and consider themselves luckier than many. (Ed – click on the photo below to see more pictures)
The work we had to do was easily done for the 14 of us that came south, and the nuns oohed an ahhed at the quality of the work done, but most especially at the alacrity with which it was accomplished. We painted the inside of a new building that will be used by the nuns to to train volunteers how to go out into the community and teach the locals how to take care of themselves, and for many of the local ladies, their unborn children. Drugs are a significant problem in the community, and alcoholism and all of its associated social ills are also pandemic. It’s close to the bone, here.
Although we were not quite in a Hobbesian state of nature, neither were we so very far from it, so when the Biscuit and her Bestest tired from their labors and went a-seeking of new experiences, they were earnestly abjured by your correspondent to stay within the enclosed compound and not go looking for their adventures outside the gates. Being innocents in some respects at least, but experimental to a degree which gives your scribe no few sleepless nights they took this advice rather mulishly. Keeping one eye on my work and the other eye on them, I eventually espied them preparing to set forth outside the enclosure to carry the groceries – a charity provided for by the nuns – to an elderly lady who lived near by.
You’d have had to have a heart of brass to forestall teenage girls from carrying a grandmother’s groceries up the hill, but you’d have to also be a great deal less imaginative than is your correspondent to let them very far out of sight in such an environment. I know, you can’t protect them forever. But you can protect them while you can, and I am, after all, a sheepdog. This is what I do.
In the event, it was a good moment for a respite of my own – it may surprise you to know that of those there assembled, I tended towards the youngest of my gender, which resulted in me having to squat down on haunches and paint the low borders where the rollers couldn’t reach more than any friend of mine would have hoped for. In any case, my leisure served the purpose of following the girls up the hill as they went to deliver their packages, staying far enough behind not to intrude upon their privacy but ready at a moment’s need to intercede. All went well.
As I said, the work itself was done in a matter of hours, and we were treated to some lovely carne asada with beans, rice, tortillas and quesadillas. There was a particularly potent salsa which we were finger-waggedly cautioned about, “Ohe! Muy caliente!” and, as befits a woman of the cloth, she said true and I continue to pay the price. The ride back in the van, compounded by the labors of the day, was too much for my protegees – they were quite unstrung. Soon we were in the bumper-to-bumper that getting back across the border entails, with courageous vendors walking between the cars and offering churros, velvet portraits of Al Pacino in “Scarface,” and five-foot high crucifixes of Our Suffering Lord for any such as had always wanted one in just that size, but never quite gotten around to buying.
Now, we had discussed the option of grabbing a taxi from the border line, beating back into the centro tourista and shopping like we meant it – the ladies true incentive of coming on this journey, it became emergently clear – but there was no clean way of getting across traffic and back into the southbound lane. But, as we creepingly approached the border itself there was a little island of sorts between the traffic lanes that had a number of vendor stalls, and the young ladies – energized by the thought of Buying Cheap Stuff Cheaply – leapt from the car to seek their pleasure, your correspondent following after.
Now, for all that they are only 16 years old, they are both of them as cute as buttons, and clearly Not From Around Here, so the ladies rapidly drew the admiring attention of many of the local Latin aspirants. Hard as it is for me to admit, few of these were equally pleased to see your narrator heave into view close in trail, however and in the back alleyways he was treated to impressive demonstrations of puff-chested, face-by-face machismo of the type that was probably intended to intimidate. But with 200 pounds of close-combat trained conviction (and with one hand in his pocket, caressing a BMW car key that would make a creditable gouge, in a trice) he smiled cheerfully back into their smoldering gazes with all the quiet confidence of a Christian with four aces, hoping to silently transmit his equal willingness to befriend the world if friendship was desired, or else to kill the first man who aimed to be an enemy and consequences be damned. Because to be a victim requires first that you be a victim.
Befriended then, and unmolested, we moved on through the still amorous crowd of admirers, bought the odd gewgaw here and there and returned once more to the van. Crossing the border northbound again took us only an hour and a half, and we counted ourselves lucky.
On many different levels.