Taking a month off from reading the news and writing about it every week allowed me the unusual luxury of eating and drinking and being merry without much interruption.
Without doubt the unmerriest moment of the holiday occurred while crossing into the US with two Mexicans and my Vietnamese girlfriend
My geopolitical spidey sense began tingling as American Humvees overloaded with Mexican troops began appearing in large numbers near Tecate and didn’t stop until we hit San Diego.
For the duration of my time in Ensenada, my host had proved himself an acrobatic hedonist—a liberal dope smoker who used his seatbelt buckle to open beer bottles and nothing else. He refused to lock the doors to his home or car on some principal he never explained— I believe it was fueled by his desire to live the life of an avowed anti-gringo—the sweet life.
We spent a whole week rollicking through vineyards, inhaling tacos and six course meals—a life affirming romp. Somehow in the salty Seaside air, the crapulence never came.
Truth be told, we weren’t sober until he volunteered to drive us back to LA.
He seemed vaguely tense as he careened the car he called “the time machine” through the oak-lined canyons that led us to Tecate.
After we passed through a shot-up bottleneck of abandoned sandbags and tires that he said once served as a military checkpoint, I raised a question.
"Does the army every bother you?"
"Sure," he said, grinning. "They pull me out of the car and tell me they’re going to do all kinds of terrible things to me."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like, one time this young kid came up and said ‘hey sarge, let’s take this asshole down to the well and hold his head in the water until he talks," he said and began giggling.
"I just kept laughing. I had to. I said ‘who? me? my head in the water? ha ha ha… I’m just a happy dope smoker sirs. I don’t know anything. You have to do that. You can’t show them you’re afraid or you could end up in real trouble."
I don’t remember us talking much for the duration of our flight through the desolate Road Runner landscapes toward the line of 50 cars, idling at the border checkpoint next to a seemingly endless wall of hand painted billboards and murals decrying the injustice of Americas immigration policy.
The line was long, my host said because the Mexicans were heading North to buy shit in the post-holiday gringo sales.
He and his wife each had ten year multi-entry visas. My girlfriend had a full year to exit and enter. But the squat, Chicana ladies who formed America’s first line of defense that day waved us toward their headquarters where a tall white officer walked a beagle between the boats and RVs parked out front.
"What do we have to do?" my girlfriend asked.
"Whatever they tell us to do," I said.
“Exactly,” my host said with a sad smile.
The permit desk looked and felt like a police station in Sci Fi dystopia. A picture of the president hung on the wall over a sign that read ALL OF YOUR ACTIONS AND CONVERSATIONS ARE BEING RECORDED. There was barely enough room for the three of us to stand and nowhere to sit.
The woman working the desk answered all our questions with a dull chuckle and seemed sweet enough. She got pretty quiet when her supervisor, Mr. Conte showed up.
Conte had blow dried grey hair and the slouched, puffy body of an aging football player. His gunbelt hung under a significant pear paunch. He spoke forcefully, like a bad middle school teacher. A hole the size of a grape seed kept drawing my eyes to the bridge of his nose.
"Whoa," he said to the girl at the desk. "Vietnamese passport! lemme see that."
He flipped though the pages and began mispronouncing her name, playing with the syllables and tones like pieces of a children’s nursery rhyme. Then he levelled his eyes at her and shot out a question. "Hey," he asked. "Should I keep my people on for overtime to deal with all the traffic?"
She smiled uncomfortably.
"Let me ask you again," he said. "Should I keep my people on overtime to deal with all the traffic?"
"No," she guessed.
This was not the answer Mr. Conte was looking for. I said something, and she changed her answer. Everyone in the room laughed uncomfortably and Conte disappeared. Moments later, he returned with another question.
"Ho Chi Minh," he said. "Good guy? Or bad guy?"
"What?" she answered.
"Ho Chi Minh. The father of your country. National hero. He’s your George Washington, right?"
She gave an answer that was careful and noncommittal—one Conte didn’t listen to before launching into the lecture he’d planned out minutes ago.
"During World War II, Ho Chi Minh and his guys used to hand Japanese prisoners over to my dad’s unit," he said.
Everyone looked at each other nervously.
"OK so your dad was in the OSS and he fought alongside the Viet Minh until the US caved and handed Vietnam back to the French, right?" I said finally.
"I’m glad someone knows their history," he said, with a trace of disappointment. "Vietnam’s like Japan and the Philippines. We have a shared history."
Conte lingered in the room, keeping us all there for another ten minutes to hear about his unsuccessful application for a post at the consulate in Saigon. At one point, he asked my girlfriend to lift up her hair for her picture so we could all see her “pretty face.”
All of this was too much. But it ended then. We got back into the car and drove to a beat up office so our Mexican friends could buy a mandatory one-day insurance policy.
At a second checkpoint, heavily armed US customs officials pulled an old man and a young boy out of an accord and let a dog run through the cabin.
It felt great to be home.