Going across a border is supposed to cleanse you, not do the opposite. I’m not there yet, la linea. Only as far as San Diego. I’m writing, what am I writing. About the football match, the Doors. Hola, buenos días, ¿cómo estas? This is language, how people converse, not just hackneyed phrases. Western Metal Supply, order coming in. Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. You liked that phrase. Do you remember liking it? You couldn’t say why. I read the news today, oh boy. Ring the bell, order up. Wouldn’t it be nice?
2 Saturday, San Diego
Hotel lobby, the comings and goings of guests. I emailed a PDF of the house building plans to the front desk with a request that they print it for me. Information continues to trickle in, about what we will be doing. According to the itinerary Dan sent out to all of the participants by email, “This mission trip is an intergenerational trip” where we will be “building houses in a depressed area of Tijuana.” Last night Graham informed me he and I are in charge of Van 7. I thought that had an eponymous ring to it. “Van 7”, like it’s a movie, or at least there’s a trailer for a putative thriller called “Van 7” where a couple of guys—brothers-in-law: one a pastor, the other an underachieving blogger—are part of a church group that goes into Mexico except their particular part of the group ends up getting lost, drives into a bad part of Tijuana, has to use their fledgling Spanish, a little bit of luck, and the grace of God to get out alive, et cetera. It’s actually not a bad idea.
I was out of the hotel around six this morning, a little puffy-eyed and crotchety. I went out to where those old windjammers are moored in the harbor, then south along the embarcadero as it courses the bay. It was quiet. There were joggers and bikers but not too many walkers. It was overcast, room temperature—not cool, not warm, a little humid. The gulls and the pigeons were skanking around. I walked past piers, a cruise ship terminal, and the U.S.S. Midway, a big ole aircraft carrier of yesteryear. When I was as far south as the Gaslamp area I crossed back over Harbor Drive into Gaslamp. It was quiet there, too. Some of the bums were asleep but others were awake and soliciting. I saw hardly anyone else.
I went into Ralph’s, a supermarket, and bumbled around until I broke down and asked a guy if they sold apple cider vinegar. He was stacking cases of bottled water.
“I do sell apple cider vinegar,” he said. He stopped what he was doing and walked me back to aisle four—the one aisle I didn’t go down, of course. There was an array of ACV but I couldn’t stray from the Bragg’s. I paid $4.49 for the small glass bottle and cracked it right outside the store, feeling like a dipso, wincing with the retch and burn of the stuff. It could be placebo but my wife and I have been taking a daily shot of ACV for half a year now. It’s like the thing that ain’t broke and won’t brook fixing. I chas—building plans in hand!—ed the ACV with some warm water from my Nalgene. It didn’t taste much better than the vinegar.
From there I headed south and over to 7th Street where the bums were concentrated especially heavy. I walked between two who were having a gam. One fella had that deep raspy cigarette blues voice and I imagined him playing a harmonica and singing a standard. At Lucky’s Lunch Counter I dismantled two eggs, hash browns, two pieces of bacon, a thick and buttery buttermilk pancake and a chewy slice of sourdough that I initially looked at full of doubt, sure I shouldn’t have ordered it. Belgium led England 1-0 in the consolation game of the 2018 World Cup.
At 10:30 I am sitting on a couch in the hotel lobby reading the building plans. There is only one thing missing. Or, solo faltaba una cosa: café! That reminds me of a line I read from John Steinbeck’s The Log From the Sea of Cortez on the plane ride here from St. Louis. He was on this small chartered boat that sailed along the coast of and eventually all around Baja California for the purpose of collecting marine animals. He said that once the first pot of coffee was made the smell of it never left the boat. And…there goes a red Testarossa out on Harbor Drive, its fins slashing the air like the gills along the side of a shark. 11:23. I’ve moved but I’m continuing to pore over these plans, step-by-step. There are parts I can’t see, don’t get the gist of, not quite. At 12:25 I need a break. The material is not complicated but it is a little hard to absorb out of context. I will see if my room is free and then go get some lunch.
Busted backpack, baby decor
hen’s teeth and horse’s toes…
13:49. There was a GrubHub takeout order leaving as I was walking in but other than that I’m the only person in this restaurant, name of Thotsakan, soft Thai music playing, attentive waiter, the door open to the sidewalk of San Diego. I’ve put down a large Singha and a plate of panang.
3 SaturNight, Hotel Room
I can sit upright in the bed in room 617 of this hotel in San Diego and look out the window. There’s a construction crane three hundred yards off. Not too far beyond that, just a little higher, is the landing path for aircraft approaching San Diego International. The planes are so close to me that I can see them rotate slightly along their tubular axis, leveling out just so before touching down. Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, a United as I speak.
There were clouds this morning. Perhaps that was the marine layer. I couldn’t say what type of clouds they were, there was nothing distinct about them. Stratus I suppose, but they weren’t especially high. They’re like a thick haze sitting up there. And then, poof, snap your fingers and the skies are blue. As they are now, as I’m looking out this window, as far as I can see. It’s still a little hazy, a city’s haze. Out further, beyond the flightpath, there’s a highway and then hills, the land rises and bends as the coast permits, just like it does north of Cayucos or north of Los Angeles and Santa Monica. There are homes up along that bend, white stucco and terra cotta. And then along the top of that rise, along that ridge there skinny nearly imperceptible poles are topped with the round topiary shapes of palm fronds, the type of tree the Lorax cut down. It seems like I could just reach out and flick the tops off of those palms, they’d disperse like the gone-to-seed tops of a dandelion flower. I see one large evergreen, a fir or a hemlock I’m not sure. And there’s one tree with a ginko leaf-shaped crown, like a fan. Palo verde? I don’t know. Live oak maybe.
Much nearer: out of my view this moment but were I to get up and stand at the window as I have much done this day, are the train tracks. Two sets of two, frequent with action. One pair is dedicated to the local rail, which I believe is called the trolley. But as I know trollies, I find this moniker to be ill-fitting the local San Diego train. At least one line of the “trolley” runs from here all the way to the border. That’s some trolley. Then on the two tracks nearest to the hotel runs a mix of freight, Amtrak, and commuter rail traffic. I have seen only a couple freight trains these last twenty-four hours, but they’re there, Burlington-Northern to be exact. The one I saw today was carrying what I believe were wind turbine i.e. windmill fan blades, as made by Vestas. I could not see the blades as they were entombed in large opaque white cylinders one to a flatbed car, chained in place. I wish I could say with confidence how many of these tubes went by on a single train, backing the traffic up: cars, pedestrians, dogs, bikes, and scooters alike.
Along the freight line track also goes the Amtrak headed in either direction, several times a day. Each of the different Amtrak lines has its own particular name. This line is called the “Surfliner”. It’s written on the side of at least a couple of cars on each train. I am close enough to the tracks to see the people in the cars, in seats or sitting at tables. Seeing them made me very envious of their train travel. It’s been too long. I harkened back to Europe, to the Netherlands, to Germany, to SwitZerland, to England, and to Scotland. To Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. My view from here literally is the planes, trains and automobiles view. Now I’m thinking of John Candy and Steve Martin and Thanksgiving. Oh how far the mind can go, no engine required.
I left a train out, getting whimsical there. There is also what I imagine is a regional line, perhaps known as a commuter train. It’s going past right now, called the “Coaster.” Like the Amtrak it’s double-decked. Its engine pulls five cars, going past here maybe once an hour in each direction. To Los Angeles, to Chula Vista?
The crossing arms relent and rise. Not! They quickly reassert and fall. Here comes the trolley. These crossing arms are constantly rising and falling, I love it. This train traffic I was not expecting and I am certain I would be in a dimmer mood without it.
As a smaller Delta lands—no, not a faucet but a plane—I must remark that the light is fading. There aren’t any clouds, and I can’t see the sunset, but with the water in its foreground I imagine it’s still pretty good.
The crane predominates in the twilight. The frame of a new condo/loft/apartment building rises up below it, studs and plywood, the building blocks I’ll be grappling with in only a couple of days.
The baseball game I was watching went into extras but it’s over now. The Angels beat the Dodgers. No more TV baseball. I’ll go back to radio baseball on my phone. How about something local? Cubs at Padres?
I’ve been doing Instagram this trip. My dad is on there and I want him to see what I’m out here looking at. I’ve been imagining our group will be traveling in what could rightly be called a convoy. There was a song I can remember my dad playing on tape in one of the Buicks he used to drive. The song was called “Convoy” or something along those lines. I’m getting the lyrics now, C.W. McCall, 1975. The version my dad played was sung by Boxcar Willie. I’m listening to it; pretty good song.
“We was headin’ for bear on I-one-oh
about a mile out a’ shakey-town
I said, Pig Pen, this here’s the Rubber Duck,
and I’m about to put the hammer down.
We got a big old convoy, rollin through the night,
Yeah, we got a big ole convoy, ain’t she a beautiful sight?”
Rubber Duck signing off for the night.
4 Rendezvous, 940 Dennery Rd.
I guess I’m still in San Diego, or we are—I’m a we now, at a Starbucks, the rendezvous point. The sun is strong, I’ve got my collar up, fighting it.
We stopped at Jilberto’s Mexican Food for lunch. I ordered and ate most of a sizable plate of carnitas. I got the corn tortillas. It was a tiny little hole in the wall sort of a place, where you order at the counter and maybe get a seat in one of a few booths. The service was good. I sat in one of the little booths with Graham. The lady running the counter offered me ice to go with my water, which was funny because the only water I had was in my Nalgene. But I did want the ice. The carnitas was crispy and plentiful, accompanied by beans and rice and shredded lettuce.
It’s me and Graham and five others in a Dodge Caravan minivan. The rest of the group are traveling light at the moment. They loaded their camping gear and their tools into one of two cargo vans back in Burlingame last weekend. I’ve got two backpacking camping mats plus my tools crammed into my large backpack, a heavy load. I worried I’d show up with the big old backpack and be teased because I’d brought too much stuff; that there wouldn’t be any room for me to put my stuff. As usual when I have a runaway worry like this, there was zero cause for concern. I even got a little backpacking in when I walked from Terminal 1, where I was waiting for Graham and the others flying in from the Bay Area, to Terminal 2, where in fact they had disembarked and were waiting for me. It’s not too far a walk.
This is our last stop before the border. One small contingent of the group had a 90-minute flight delay which has caused some reshuffling. I’m just being quiet, staying out of the way, not asking any questions. I took a photo of an old camper truck sitting in the mostly empty parking lot of this sprawling shopping center. Two crows glide into my view, black against blue. There is only sparse cirrus in the sky, way up high. Now a guy with a trolley-cart from Home Depot is loading items into the back of that vintage camper. It’s the all-in-one sort, from the seventies I’d guess, brown and white. Four wheels, three vents on the top, each slit at a 45°. The guy loading the camper is younger than I’d have guessed—my age probably—with his hat on backwards.
One, two, now three fighter jets come roaring up over the ridge to our east. They’re loud as hellfire but not flying all that fast. What else? I’m writing to kill time. No one needs subjecting to my halting, pitiful small talk. There are times I talk and I feel like my cheeks are stuffed with marshmallows. What am I saying? Prevarications, little figments.
The land is scrubby here. Tan, brown, dark green. It’s similar to how Tucson looks with one major difference—there are no cacti here! First cactus I see I’ll let you know. I’ve taken a look at the map on my phone. We’re not that far from the border but I think we’re out of San Diego. Hard to say. If San Diego-Tijuana is one big metro area we are in the middle of it. And, Lord, is the sun strong! This is just the way it goes with the sun. I pack some 50+ SPF and make resolutions to apply it frequently and now when I need to slather some on I’m caught off guard, the tube buried in my pack somewhere. As some consolation there is a nice breeze, coming from what I believe is the west.
I’m sitting on a smidge of concrete at the base of a lamppost. The base of the lamppost is square but the concrete piling it sits on is circular. A little bit of the concrete juts out. I’m too shy at the moment to throw myself into that group so I’ll just bake here on my little smidge. A security guard comes up, reaches above me and touches his phone to what must be a chip embedded in the post.
“It’s their way of keeping track of us,” he says to me.
More of the group has arrived. There is relief and mild jubilation. We are about to get an orientation talk from a representative from Amor Ministries, the group that offers, runs, and will host us on this trip. A prop plane buzzes above.
5 Tijuana and Camp Amor, First Impressions
Oh water, how I appreciate simple water, the flow of it, the way it changes how your mouth feels. The solvency of it. I am sitting in an old basic camping chair in the area where our fire will burn later, I hope. There is a lot of scrap wood piled off out of the way, for burning I presume. Plenty of things gets burned here I sense. And no Department of Natural Resources agent is going to show up to question the practice.
I should probably pause for a moment and start doing a better job of setting the scene. It’s warm, bright, sunny, dry and windy. We have our tents all bunched up even though there is an area of several football fields around us in this campground that is vacant at the moment. The ground is hard, compacted dirt and gravel, not quite sand. There are mountains, the size and shape you’d see in Tucson, Arizona or southern California. The feel of it is similar to what I’ve experienced in the Mojave Desert. We can’t really be that far from the Mojave, as the crow flies. But there are no cacti. The mountains are really quite bare, scrubby at best. There are not many trees at all here and none are large.
We’re in a softly defined compound. Along some of the perimeter there is a tall, serious fence. At the gate to the grounds there is a guard checking to see who is coming and going. But toward the back of the place is a short, seen-its-better-days barbed wire fence that would deter no one. The trees are loosely distributed, something like palo verde, scrub pine, live oak, a sort of desert willow? I don’t know these desert trees, really. I’m just making it up. A few folks are setting up a wash station. One young woman is carrying a tub of water. Wash basin, rinse basin, water coolers like you’d see sideline at a football game or being bludgeoned with a bat in a baseball dugout. Clorox wipes, a trash can.
Toward the center of the place I am eyeing what I now realize is a wash area. Two large rectangular vestibules probably made of cinder block, painted brick red. One for men, one for women. I caught a bit too much sun today. There’s too much to describe and I’m a little staggered in the sun sheen. Tijuana, the way it greets you, the way it opens, like it’s some hidden-away valley full of just about everything you didn’t think was in it. The towers, the Jesus statues, the factories, the stores. My sense of what Tijuana was was so wrong. I thought it was some low-level, flat, derelict border-post, full of waiting. But it rolled majestically, there were crevasses, a flowing aqueduct and businesses we well know the names of: Honeywell, Home Depot, Samsung and John Deere.
We were excited to be in Mexico. In the back of our van it was I think Isabelle who said, “This is so awesome” at least a couple times. I was thinking the same thing. It was a relief to get through la linea. We weren’t sure if we were going to have to get out of the vans or not. We were told not to be on our phones and not to have our sunglasses on.
There are good reasons I’m sure to “convoy up” in Tijuana but it proved a clunky formation just as we thought we were through. Right out of the chutes on the Mexico side, right when everyone is flooring it like they’re pulling away from a toll booth, we realized that our pickup truck—full of wheelbarrows and sawhorses and other tools—had hit some kind of snag. Elias, our Amor guide, directed us all to pull over. Graham, driving our van, had the task of cutting over through at least a couple lines of accelerating cars and then on top of that a Mexican Border Patrol truck with its lights flashing hells-angels started flying at us “wrong way,” darting out from somewhere none of us could even see. We sat there on the shoulder just inside Mexico fearing the worst but ten minutes later the snafu was cleared up and we made our way into Tijuana.
I could and should chip away at this ‘first impressions’ account for hours but I’m going to try to catch one of those showers.
6 The First Night
I’m in the tent with Graham, my brother-in-law. How about that? If at the beginning of this year you’d’ve told me I’d find myself in a tent for a five-night stretch with Graham in Tijuana I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s his tent; I like it. It’s got lots of pockets and lots of mesh panels whose covers we can roll up and fasten back to encourage air flow. We haven’t put the fly on yet. He didn’t seem to want to put it on and I didn’t either. There is a rain chance or two listed for the week but nothing likely. I wonder about dew overnight.
It’s gotten quiet; dark of course. Fantastic temperature. I’m on my back for comfort because leaning on one shoulder or the other is a real strain on my shoulders and upper back. It’s hard to write whilst on my back though, holding the pen and the notebook above me. A dog is barking just close enough. The pen strains to function as I hold it upside down, gravity pulling ink away from the page, exactly the opposite result I’m hoping for.
I did soap off a bit in that shower vestibule but I wouldn’t call what I did a “shower”. No baño. My first attempt with the solar shower was a real failure. I’ll try again tomorrow. I couldn’t get the thing to spray out of its nozzle. I had enough water in it but I was working the pump mechanism to no avail. It’s supposed to pressurize. Who knows. I gave up and just put water into a bucket and got soaped up and rinsed as needed using my soap container to scoop water and direct it at the lather. I was a little flustered in there because everyone else seemed to know what they were doing, whether they were working from a shower bag or merely out of a bucket, dumping it over their head. I was the idiot with the $70 solar shower who didn’t know how to use it. There were what appeared to be a bunch of extra solar shower bags hanging in the shower vestibule but I couldn’t be sure those were for the using; that seemed too good to be true. On top of that I somehow let half of my towel get wet. I was so disenchanted with the moment I just left my silly solar shower in there, as in, “Here, take it! I don’t want it!” But in that huff-off I left my floppy hat in there too, hanging on one of the rebar hooks. The hat I cannot afford to lose. I went back in to get the hat and carried the solar shower out as well, setting it on one of the tarps outside, where other solar showers were set, apparently to bask in the sun all day and warm the water inside. Mine was hardly full, though, and flaccid, falling over on itself in a sad way. Oh well.
Dinner was carnitas. It was good, fine, but not as good as that carnitas I had for lunch, I’ll tell you that. That lunch carnitas was as good as any I’ve had. The shredded pork was that perfect combination of pan-crispy but not overcooked, still in bite-sized clumps that weren’t more than a mouthful. Ladies and Gentlemen, Graham has left the tent. I’m lying here, on my stomach now, with my neck pillow under my sternum. I hope my back does not get too upset about this arrangement. Lying on my stomach is usually hell on my lower back but how else am I going to write?
The stars are muted somewhat by a layer of haze. I don’t think it’s clouds. It’s a thin, not especially high layer of vapor and/or film, not totally unlike what lay over San Diego in the morning. It’s thinner here now. The clouds at sunset were beautiful, mesmerizing. There were cirrus, wispy and pure. There were altocumulus looking like they had been spread out in the sky with a palette knife. They thickened up over the course of half an hour and became undulatus. At this point they were catching all the color they could hold, blazing with pinks yet sedate with a soft orange-yellow glow.
It was something I badly wanted for a photo, a beautiful desert sunset. But we were singing songs and modern hymns and Graham was leading worship. So I don’t have the photo to prove to you just how perfect and beautiful the sky was that first night, Sunday in Mexico, with the desert mountains rumbling up in their stately, plump way below. There are lots of phone lines and power lines running along the two roads that intersect at the corner of the Amor compound. This is like a themepark set up to coax and cultivate my dream photo oeuvre safari: old or never finished buildings, discarded this and that, cistern pipe, barbed wire and shadows.
After singing and worship we broke off into small groups. It got kind of heavy. I decided that when my turn came I wasn’t going to hold back. One of us talked about a friend lost to suicide, the parents were checked out until it was too late; two of us talked about the loss of parents to the wrecking creep of dementia—only slowly did I begin to realize that one of these parents is actually on this trip; I talked about unknowingly watching my dog die, the hammer blow that dealt to my marriage, the fallout that ensued between me and two of my nearest neighbors. We were supposed to talk about storms that’ve hit our houses. We talked. It’s trite and R.E.M. made it into a song but what I realized as we worked our way through this small group is that below the surface everyone in that group was hurting. We’re all carrying around some guilt and we’ve all made mistakes and on top of all of that we’re also always fielding some new problem that crops up on top of everything else. But the talk was a little more than I was prepared for and I hope we can get through the week without too much more of it. I’m here on this trip trying to leave some past behind, trying to live in the present. My shoulders are barking as I try to situate myself, futilely, in some magically comfortable way on this inch-thick backpacking mat. Why did I pin my hopes on this worthless surfboard of air? A dog is barking. I’m done for the night.
7 The First Morning, a Monday
A loud engine, diesel I guess. Farther away, the morning cry of a rooster. How long has it been since I heard the cry of a rooster? My shoulders are blocks of concrete, freshly set. I don’t want to lie here no more. It’s time to up and at them. Time is it? Don’t know, can’t say. We’re gonna lay a foundation today.
Morning impressions. I am imagining the shape I made tossing and turning over the course of a night, mummy-rolling in the dirt, grist-milling the gravel beneath me. I catch whispers from a neighboring tent. There’s another bird out there, not too close, not a rooster, ca-caw, pu-paw, pu-paw. I have no idea what that is; best guess is a multilingual crow but the pitch is a little higher, and it’s insistent, a word I would not use to describe a crow’s call. One bird, two birds. Oh, a little light in the sky, enough to silhouette a cloud, traffic hums along the road, smaller birds begin to chirp, the rooster calls again. There were coyotes in the night, not so close but out there all the same, howling.
In the east the light grows. Then, to what must be north, fog. To the south, fog. R.E.M.’s “Stand” is in my head for some reason I could not begin to explain. Is that my own personal alarm call; literally, to ‘stand’ and exit this tent? “Think about direction wonder why you haven’t now. Stand, in the place where you—” Oh, no, are those the coyotes, to the south? As soon as they are there they are gone again. It’s 5:10. Coffee in veinte minutos.
“¿Dónde está la Pulquería?”
What look like airport shuttles, what I take to be colectivos (buses) tool up and down the main road out here on a regular basis, at all hours. It’s part of the rhythm of this place and somehow they are unobstrusive. The weather app on my phone has this spot called Presa Rodriguez. Now a repurposed school bus goes by. Google Maps has the “Amor Hacienda Camp” listed. As I’m looking at that zoomed-out view, I can say that where we are camped here at Amor is actually on the outskirts of Tijuana, to the east, and not far from the border, along which the Tijuana River runs. There aren’t many roads out here. What a spot. To the east a ways, the city of Tecate. Very nearby on the map is a “Campo de Beisbol Valle Redondo”. We saw some baseball diamonds, games a-going, as we drove in from California. Las Fuentes? Paseo del Campo? Two possibilities for this road’s name.
Among the top questions I had mulled in anticipation of this week was: Coffee? Yes, coffee thick and strong. With a cup in me I was in the mood to hunt for photos. I walked toward the gate we came through as we entered camp yesterday. Along that road out there was a field in which sat a broke-down jalopy and an inexplicably large red cylinder. I badly want a photo with those two elements in it. I approached the gate but it was closed and manned and I demurred. It seems indulgent of me to ask that that the gate be opened just so I can “have a look around” across the road. Further, I didn’t know exactly how to say what I would need to say: I’d be back in uno momento, por favor, señor? I have no tense in my Spanish, a sad bilingual sort I am. I’ll leave it alone; get my morning photo in here.
I made two sandwiches for today’s brown bag lunch. One is turkey and ham. The other is a peanut butter and jelly. Gotta come to Mexico to go down that old road, eh? I included an orange, a banana and a small bag of chips. I put it in a cooler that bore a duct tape label of “Burlingame #2.” That’s lunch. It’s 6:06 and this camp is back in full swing.
8 Tijuana Ride Portrait
Stray dogs barbed wire rocky road flatbeds of hay, an old airstream, cinder block house, church, losing our bead on the convoy, Boxcar Willie, graffiti, ALTO, red dish blue dish, rubble, jugos naturales. The convoy pauses, we catch up, go under a bridge. Houses in rows like storage units. Sprawling modern warehouse. Job fair under canopies at a road intersection, in the median, looks impromptu, but it’s right where it’s supposed to be, where it always is. Radio towers on a mountain. Traffic laws don’t exist. Houses in the valley. Stucco. Gated community. Traffic light? It might be a grimmer life here but the people don’t deem themselves unhappy, don’t seem stressed. Two dogs in a parking lot. Building supply. A dog scratches behind his ear. A dove. Señora sweeping. Gates, fencing, old cars, makes and models from the eighties and nineties. Produce stand. Cat with no tail. The dogs! Some now I see are clearly not healthy, lost hair. Dirt road. Agave and prickly pear. Nissan on blocks. Very rough and winding. Tires, bolts of cardboard. Cinder block house started and left to the air. Rubbish piles of half-burnt anything with plastic and glass. Now we climb in earnest.
“Well, this house might have a view,” says Graham, driving.
Chickens. Fire. Trash fire. Plywood house with a matching plywood dog house. Still climbing. Suddenly we’ve lost the view of the caravan but we know we’re close. One turn corrected and we are here, above the city, in the haze.
9 First Day’s Work
The house we started building today is 22′ x 22′ on a concrete slab. We laid the slab today. The site had to be leveled—the dirt broken up, a form put down. For the form we used twelve-foot 2 x 4s, two to each side, each set of two nailed to a third 2 x 4 at the midway point. To break up the dirt we swung pick axes, something I don’t think I’d ever done before. I mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow using a hoe; I trucked the wheelbarrow to the spot of progression on the slab and dumped its contents (cement and sand and gravel, some gravel pieces pretty large, like driveway rock). I helped to level the concrete by tamping and screeding, working with a partner on this part. The foremen had divided the pad into four quadrants, pouring the first two quadrants (catty-corner one another) simultaneously.
As one quadrant filled a pair of workers sat just outside it with another one of the twelve-footers as their leveling tool. To tamp, one person held the 2 x 4 perpendicular and fast to the pad form while their partner picked up the 2 x 4 and smacked it down against the wet and lumpy concrete. Over and over, carving out the path of a pendulum. To screed, each partner held one end of the 2 x 4 flush with the burgeoning pad and slid the board back and forth over the porridge-like concrete. During the tamping and the screeding a third person would take a shovel or a hoe and rake back any obviously high sections of the wet concrete, in the direction of the unfinished edge. After all of this, some of us used trowels to finish the surface. Dan did request—and get—from Elias a long sort of float on a pole to help him reach and surface some of the harder-to-reach sections. It was like something you’d use to clean a pool except it had not a net at the end but a thin flat metal head, like that of a hammerhead shark I suppose. We had sponges but I don’t think we used them on the pad.
It was sunny and hot enough. The sun more so than the temperature got me. I was drinking water after water but my Nalgene would get quickly warm so the act of drinking the water was not refreshing. Still, I knew I had to keep at it, so I did. The folks in this group have been solicitous of each other; of me. It might be my red face. I put sunblock on this morning in the tent, though I didn’t put any on my face.
10 Second Night: Mattress and cot score!
Dark now, you know, night. Hicimos un montón de trabajo hoy. As I lie back on this much-upgraded air mat, I can hear the sing-song nature of that little boy’s Spanish floating over us at the worksite. We weren’t there long before we looked up to find we had an audience. They were boys from the neighborhood, ranging from five or six years old to thirteen or fourteen. A little later a woman or two showed up, arm draped with Mexican blankets, a stack of hats on her head. I thought about it. B has a Mexican blanket, from Tijuana I believe. We keep it in the car; use it often. Graham bought a big hat, something between a ten-gallon and a sombrero.
I was writing about the work we did today before worship started, before I got a tip from Frank about the air mat I’m on (and the cot Graham is on). I gather it is second generation camping gear—surplus—but you wouldn’t know it. I was telling Frank that I slept kind of rough last night. He suggested I check one of the cargo vans; he thought there might be some extra gear in there. I think it is his extra gear and he was being a little coy, maybe I’m wrong. In any event, the mat I’m now on is two or three times thicker than my backpacking mat, perfectly sufficient.
We also built eleven wall sections today. Someone started the twelfth late in the day. I was in on a few of them. I quickly realized that my hammer is little compared to the rest. I have a bigger hammer but because I was flying with my tools I opted for my little one. Still, some of the hammers I saw today made me envious. Then there’s my saw. Roger, who knows things; who taught me how to make a better measuring mark today using a pencil, a carrot mark and a square; saw my saw and dismissed it outright saying, “You’ll be sawing all day with that little thing.” But on this account I have the last laugh. I said to him, “No, this is a good saw.” And I ripped a 2 x 4 to prove it. Nice cut, quick and straight.
I made a lot of cuts with that saw today. I made a lot of measurements and I drove a lot of nails, some poorly. I’ll say, it really does make a difference if you happen to be trying to drive a nail into a knot. The knot will not let you in. I bent some nails and even after Roger gave me the quick primer on making better measurements—long my carpentry weakness—I still made some bad measurements.
I made one mistake I fear will come back to haunt the house. I needed a twelve footer to serve as the top plate on a rake wall Tom (pictured above) and I were tasked with constructing (a rake wall, as opposed to a straight wall, is slanted along the top, eight foot on one end, seven foot on the other; serves as one of the wall sections declining away from the crown of the roof to one of the two low edges of the house). I picked up a twelve footer that had already had some “nail here” marks on it. I don’t know why it was marked up and then abandoned but it was. I made my own “nail here” marks but when it came time to join a stud to the top of the plate I joined it to the wrong side of one of the marks, setting everything off by the width of a 2 x 4, or one-and-a-half inches. If nothing else, this mistake meant we would have to custom-cut some of the fireblocks for this wall section because the standard spacing between the studs was now thrown off. The team had already pre-cut a bunch of these fireblocks so I was making extra work for us: additional measures and additional cuts. We were making this wall section in the road, having to pick it up from time to time as one of the neighbors needed to get by. It wasn’t a busy road—a dead end I heard it said. And the people were nice enough, no one honked at us even though we were in the way, us Americans showing up and taking over the road and a couple of neighboring driveways, our convoy appearing out of nowhere to build a house for a pastor in a depressed neighborhood in Tijuana, up the side of a mountain, by way of rocky, bumpy, worn out dirt paths.
I’m losing steam here but I want to jot down as much of this as I can while it’s still fresh. Some of the twelve wall sections have cut-outs for windows (I worked on two of these). Other wall sections have cut-outs for doors (two exterior doors and two interior doors—I didn’t work on any of these sections). I wish I had brung a square. The reason I didn’t is it was listed as a “T-square” in the materials. I looked up what a T-square was and it seemed to be a larger device used especially in the hanging of dry wall. If there is a next time I will buy and bring what I believe is called a speed square. Graham had one and I started using his for making my cut lines across the face of a 2 x 4 through the carrot mark I made when I had the measurement I wanted. I bought a compound square for myself a while back, not really knowing how to use it but sensing I needed to know how. I dropped it one day in my garage and a very crucial little piece broke off. I didn’t quite realize this until I was doing some research on the different kind of squares leading up to this trip.
The other really nifty tool I saw today was a la Roger. He called it a cat’s paw. It was like a hybrid chisel-crow bar. Small. Beautiful, really. The first time I saw him use it to remove a misplaced but already buried nail I had no idea how it was going to work. He set the paw end against the wood that held the buried nail and whacked the other end with his hammer. The paw end would delve into the wood and grab onto the head of the buried nail. Repeating this process a couple of times he would start to disclose the buried nail. When there was enough of the misplaced nail’s head unearthed he would take the claw end of his hammer and then bend the heck out of the nail over and over, making macaroni out of it, until it was out of the wood for good.
I’m lying in the tent still. Graham is over on his side, on the cot, reading. It’s quiet in camp. I think most people are asleep. There is another group here now, from outside of Chicago. How would you know, there’s only three of them in Cubs t-shirts. But they seem to have turned in, too. There is a little bit of breeze. Graham says he likes the air. I concur; can’t complain. It stinks of smoke now and again, a professional trash fire. A trash fire’s trash fire. Maybe that’s why it’s so hazy in the morning. I hear trucks bouncing along the road out there. Sounds too heavy to be a bus.
“That sounds like a tank coming,” says Graham.
“It might be,” I say.
Is it a semi? A diesel truck towing a trailer probably. There are train tracks nearby but I’ve neither seen nor heard a train. It’s funny though that another member of the group, Alex, who is tall and older, bearded, the band leader, here with his daughter; was talking to me this morning about writing and somehow I mentioned the notion of writing while on trains. He said if I got the chance someday I needed to take a ride on the California Amtrak, the one that ran along the coast, he couldn’t think of the name of it.
“The Surfliner,” I said.
“Yes! You’ve been on it then?”
I told him, no, I just happened to look out my hotel room window this past weekend in San Diego and caught a glimpse of it running. Goodnight!
11 Second Morning, Tuesday
It’s 5:05 again. I slept better. I still don’t have a good pillow setup. I’ll try to get that right tonight. If I didn’t have to take a leak I’d try to keep on sleepin’.
5:33. Coffee is slated to be on at 5:30 each morn but I can tell you there isn’t any yet.
“How many laps did you do? Five? I’m on three.”
There are two people running laps around the compound. The gait of a jogger is pretty distinct; unmistakable even to one sitting in a vault toilet at—coffee up! There goes Frank. Where did he come from? He was eagle-eyeing that coffee just as much as I was, maybe more, swooping in from out of nowhere. It’s clear above me now but I’m-a go get some of that coffee ‘fore I say any more.
Coffee from a styrofoam cup. This is not a recycling trip. Next time I need to bring my own cup. I’m responsible here for plenty of plastic and styrofoam ending up in a hole somewhere. Burned for all I know. There was a lot of trash at the site. I imagine cleaning the pastor’s plot would not be too difficult and would make a noticeable difference. But I’m not at all sure I would have some other place to take the collected trash to. Some of the trash made me think someone cleared out a closet and just emptied all of its contents out onto the ground at this location. I saw a couple of different ladies sandals, just lying around, one slowly making its way down the hillside behind the site. There were a couple of smashed VHS tapes, the crushed hard plastic working its way into the dirt, the wavy tape strewn about nearby in an ugly black tangle, a free end blowing in the air like a streamer. There were pieces of glass, pieces of tile. Bits and pieces of old rope. Nails that weren’t ours. Plastic bottles of various make and model. There was an outhouse at the site, not as nice as the vault toilets at camp. I could probably just find a decent place to sit today and write about the place describing it for two hours. No one would begrudge me. I think I’ve managed to ingrain ‘writer’ into my perceived identity on this trip. Because I said I was a writer. Because I am putting pen to paper.
Before this account; before this week runs away from me I should probably say something descriptive about the work site itself: whose it is, what is already there. It’s a church. The church of Mt. Herman, “culto sabado.” I take this to mean that it hosts meetings on Saturday. The church is run by a Pastor José, for whom we are building this new structure. It is not immediately clear to me whether this new structure is going to serve as a newer, bigger, better church. Or if he and his family will be living there. Or some third possibility. Amor Ministries, the company running this trip, does not always build houses for pastors. I had heard initially that we were building a house for orphans. I don’t think that’s correct in this case.
The materials we are using to build the new structure—the lumber, the cement, the nails—were all stacked in the extant church when we got there on Monday morning. We are also storing most of the tools we are using in the church from day-to-day. I don’t know if these tools are the property of our group or if they are provided by Amor: the hoes, rakes, string, shovels, trowels, mixing bins, sponges, sifting frames (screens stretched over a rectangle of wood) and stucco hawks. I’m pretty certain the five or six wheelbarrows we are using are property of the church or were provided by someone on our team, Frank or Roger maybe. Outside the church are two piles of a mixture of sand and gravel, dumped there in the days leading up to our own arrival.
The current church is rectangular in shape with a dirt floor. There is a basic electric line running into the church from the road, and I saw one outlet in there but nothing was plugged into it. There is one fluorescent ballast lamp hanging overhead but I’ve never seen it turned on. There is a music stand in there and a rollaway mattress, folded up, in half. There’s a water line culminating in a spigot closer to the road, non-potable no doubt. I saw Philemon hook a hose up to it yesterday, to fill some of the large water tuns we are using for mixing and for cleaning. Philemon, I gather, is a congregant. It’s possible he is sleeping on that dirt floor in the church to guard the materials and the tools. He wears penny loafers but he’s doing all the work we’re doing.
I’m standing alongside a wall a little ways off from our wash station. The wall is a little taller than waist high, making it a good place to write. But time is ticking by. I will go make my brown bag lunch and then have breakfast, which today is French toast and turkey sausage. It’s 6:05.
Trash on the hillside, burnt trash, charred piles, rings of it, it’s part of the landscape. Mangy dog, pink ears, sittin’ in the same spot as yesterday, heart breaks. They say someone smuggled a dog out last year. Convoy pauses. There are some nicer houses mixed in, with a clean look, straight lines. Dogs that look like Hugo and I pause. End of the rocky descent. Produce stand, papaya. The kids look happy. Peaceful, playing, energetic. One of them has donned a torso of cardboard and another kid is slugging him, but they’re both laughing. The cardboard protects him. Bags of dog food for sale. Graham threw his crusts to a dog. I gave one a pet but I wasn’t supposed to. Pinto. That was his name and they were giving the dogs the names of different kind of beans. Calimax, Telcel. OXXO, the convenient store. La polícia.
I don’t actually think the traffic law system here is bad. It’s probably better because no one really has a right-of-way when two cars are headed for the same space. That way no one claims the space by right. Both cars merely edge in. If you need to make a turn against traffic—cross lanes—you’ve got to wait a car or two but then a critical wait time seems to have been achieved and it’s like, “OK, that was long enough, I am going, now it’s your turn to wait for me.” There are some traffic lights, where things work as we would expect but otherwise it’s more like all of the cars are being conveyed on cogs. All the cogs fit together and they all keep spinning.
Samsung factory. Coke truck. Water flowing in the aqueduct. At the Samsung plant they’ve got a whole bus station built into the side of the plant. The factory arranges the workers’ transportation. A whole queue of shuttles lines up, some of them overflowing the lot and lined up on the road outside the factory. Coming home yesterday I saw men in green Foxconn vests, walking up the hill, having just been dropped off by a colectivo of some sort, probably also arranged by the employer. Foxconn is an Apple supplier; makes iPhones.
We just, we have our phones and our TVs and we know the price but we don’t know the cost. All that’s the part of “free trade” that we don’t talk about. It allows us to get what we want in America at the lowest possible price—Amazon will even have it delivered to your door. But the mess that’s made on the supply end is kept carefully under the rug, across the border, across the ocean—because in whose interests is it to discuss? Not to the consumer’s; not to the corporation’s; not to the politician’s. It’s a very convenient mutual mumness.
Yeah, people in the U.S. work for their dollars, at jobs they probably dislike so who am I to tell them they can’t go home and tool around on their phone and order boxes to their front door? I who at the moment am skimming dividends from some of these very companies? But it just burns me up that we are so eager to talk about global warming and cast aspersions but it’s our consumption system that is creating this burgeoning mess all over the world and it’s everyone’s fault. And until we abnegate the trade system that gets these Mexicans to the Samsung and Foxconn factories, pays them a quarter of what we’d pay them in the U.S., sends them home to burn their trash… what a bunch of politicians agrees to do at a summit in Paris by 2025 doesn’t mean a goddam thing. And I’m just not quite sure what to do about it because I’m not at all hopeful that any American is willing to stop and reassess the Big Picture tomorrow and start learning to make do with a lot less.
I mean, sure, let’s open the borders—but if we aren’t willing to walk away from our phones and our doorstep delivery (because everything has to be cheaper, has to be available at a better price)—then is anything really going to change? Is it possible we should have more tariffs but more open borders at the same time? What would that look like? I’m not an expert and I haven’t really even thought about this until now, I’m just spitballing. But it seems like the corollary to higher tariffs would be freer movement across borders, that the two go hand-in-hand and not the opposite. Can we reach a deal to get rid of NAFTA and ICE at the same time? It seems that through ‘free trade’ we have granted corporations a right that we have simultaneously disallowed to workers: free movement in search of the best arrangement. If we are going to have one-half then let’s have the other-half but it strikes me that neither political party in the United States is offering such a notion on their platform.
I drove our van to the worksite this morning. It was uneventful. Different driving experience for sure. Man, all the plastic trash. Bags, cups, wrappers. It doesn’t go away, it just piles up. It’s bad. Trash fireyard. It’s actually somewhat organized, this one. It’s one step toward a landfill. Mounds and troughs. Burn and turn. Written in stone on the hillside, “ANTORCHA”. Is that a place? This place? What does it mean? A guy in a Red Sox hat. Brickyard. Here’s that place with the boulders, large rocks smoothed by the years. Antorcha.
I think they eat a lot of junk food here. But life is inherently more challenging physically: a lot of walking, manual labor, less money to spend on food. So they don’t keep weight on.
Trash collected in dog and cat food sacks but then left on the side of the road. Is someone supposed to be coming to pick that up? Another upside down car, but this one hasn’t been torched—yet. There’s an old station wagon, burnt but not flipped upside down. These folks are off their game. Close to camp now. We pass a propane tank field, the ground surrounding it newly graded, a concrete wall erected around it, with razor wire topping. This place stands out. We turn left onto the camp road. Out in the field to the right is that old broke down jalopy and the large red cylinder whose origin mystifies me. A building falls in on itself. To the Amor gate. We receive back one half of a matching dongle pair, which we passed over to the guard this morning.
13 Tuesday Work Recap
I just washed down a couple ibuprofen. Dinner was tamales. I had two, along with some rice and beans.
We got dusted in-tent today. We never did put the fly on. It hasn’t rained or gotten dewy but it gets windy at this camp site, apparently on a daily basis. There wasn’t any noticeable dust in the tent yesterday. Dirt? Sure. Grit and small pebbles. But what deposited today was a film, apparently just fine enough to get through the tent mesh. The mesh can keep out the mosquitoes but it remains prone to dust.
Today at the site we erected the wall sections, which required squaring them once they were upright on the concrete pad. To square the wall sections meant measuring from each of the four exterior corners to where the four interior wall sections met, in the middle of the house. If all four of the diagonal corner-to-corner measurements were equal the wall sections were square. Then we plumbed the walls, which is making sure that they are straight up and down.
We used levels to do this, with someone hammering a corner stud with a sledge to knock an out-of-kilter wall in one direction or another. Once the walls sections were upright, square and plumb we began to join them together, anchor them down and brace them. When we laid the concrete pad we had sunk in the still-wet concrete a series of anchors, the bottom part of which was now buried in solid concrete. The tops of these metal anchors could be bent over the bottom plates of the wall sections and nailed down. The interior wall sections didn’t have these anchors but we hammered some of the sixteen-penny nails through the bottom plates of these walls and into the concrete. I wondered if this wouldn’t induce cracks in the concrete but I didn’t see any once the nails were driven home. To brace the walls against the weight of us that would soon be on the roof, we took eight-footers and placed one in each corner, spanning from a corner stud to a bottom plate, in diagonal fashion. This would keep the structure both square and secure until all of the work on the roof was complete.
Then the four roof panels went on. These panels were being quickly put together while the rest of the group worked to get the wall sections in place on the pad. Once atop the walls, the four roof panels had to be squared and joined together. Meanwhile, another crew was sifting gravel out of the sand-gravel piles, the ore in this case being the refined, rock-free sand. That’s for the stucco we’ll put on the house at the end. It was pretty cool to see how quickly the pieces of the house flew together today. Once the roof sections were squared the plywood panels could go atop them. A crew on the roof lined up all the plywood pieces, flush with the edges of the roof and nailed them all into the rafter studs. The problem we encountered with this particular house—where it started to vary from the standard Amor House plans—is that our new structure abuts the extant church in an immediate way. So there were basically two roof edges that were going to come together, but where was the rain going to go? Would it just be allowed to run off into the narrow, inches-wide slot between the two buildings? Hmmmm. Just as if we were faced with with an unexpected construction snag in the United States, the solution to this problem lay in an impromptu run to … Home Depot.
Two of the group made the run, returning with some flashing material and some PVC pipe, their plan being to fashion something like a gutter. Dan said there was no formal gutter material at the Home Depot, so apparently gutters are not all that common in Tijuana. It’s not something I noticed as we drove through the town, it’s not something I was looking for.
My saw—the Japanese handsaw my father-in-law J.O. gave me—has gained some notoriety on this trip. Roger asked me before we left camp this morning, “Are you gonna have that butter knife with you?” Of course, I said. Therein I gained my favorite assignment so far. He had me score the underside of the five door plates before the wall sections went onto the pad. Essentially, the stretch of wood representing the bottom of the door frames was going to be removed when we erected the walls because we didn’t want or need that piece of the bottom plate there any longer. So while the wall sections were all still laying on their side prior to being erected on the slab I made my marks using a pencil and a square flush with the door studs and then cut into the underside—the bottom of the bottom—going in somewhere between 1/4″ and 1/2″. This way we would not have to cut against/along the concrete when the wall sections were upright and in place on the pad. I later went along with the saw and cut down along these pieces of wood, popping out the five pieces of wood in order to leave nothing but concrete at the bottom of each door frame. It worked perfectly. I didn’t scrape concrete and my cuts were pretty darn flush with the studs framing the door. I felt really good.
As we were closing today Frank came up to me and said, “I heard you have a keyhole saw.” I said I didn’t know the term but I showed him the saw and he called it a fine piece of craftsmanship. Ha! I can remember J.O. wanting to get their house in Monteagle, Tennessee cleaned out when they were in the process of moving to AriZona. He said, “You want a saw? A Japanese handsaw?” I was taking anything they wanted to get rid of: a pitchfork, a shovel, a rake, why not a saw, too? B said she could remember him using it to cut down what would become their Christmas trees at tree farms in Seattle. I learned myself how sharp it was the first time I used it because I cut myself with it!
By the end of the day today we had three of four windows put into place along with the two exterior doors. The agenda for tomorrow includes stretching bailing wire all around the outside of the house and then stapling on felt paper over the wire. Over the paper goes chicken wire. Ah, the singing has started but I think they are only warming up. Still, I’ll make a bathroom run now and be punctual.
14 Pemex Storage Plant No. 2
21:04, Dipper sighting!
23:00, just outside of camp, along the main road out there, goes a car with music playing, bass, a thump I can feel here in the tent, as it undulates along the ground.
I find myself increasingly obsessed with that strange building fortified within its own compound walls nestled into what would be the corner of this campground were it not for the strange building sitting in that part of the lot. It looks like some sort of water treatment plant but I don’t think that’s really what it is. It’s more likely a pipeline node, related to that propane tank field across the street. I say propane but it could be any liquified gas, held in those large tanker-truck-length, pill-shaped containers. I looked up the gas container field on the map and it just so happens to be listed: Pemex Storage Plant No. 2. Pemex is the state-run oil company.
I’m tired. Lots of knocking out there. Weather today: at 5 o’clock waking it was not quite warm. It was overcast early at the site then sun and clouds mixed. Not as hot as yesterday, not as sunny, maybe a bit more breeze. Back at camp: mostly cloudy, a little cool in the shower but I dried off in trunks and a t-shirt just walking around. A pleasant wind. Now. 68°? A breeze. Open window weather. Not crisp. I’m in my bag but it isn’t zipped. The fly is still off but it goes on tomorrow.
OK, red light off. Anything else I write’s gonna be in total darkness…
15 Wednesday Morning
From the next tent, “Good morning,” says Roger, to his tent-mate, Dr. Mark.
Roger that, Good morning, Mexico, how are you?
It’s 5:33. I slept in!
16 ¿Cual es este lugar?
Post-shower walk, photo feast, A Feast of Wire, Brasstronaut. I am baking out here but the photos are so right.
I have found a spot in the shade, against the trailer behind the cookhouse. The “water treatment”/pipeline installation at the corner had me checking it out once again. It’s fenced off from us and well-fenced off from everything else. I got close for a photo but a small dog started barking at me. A young man of six or seven appeared on the roof and called off the dog. I said hello to him, “Buenos noches.” With a small wave, he said the same to me.
There are some nice plants in there. There is a bunch of well-looked-after prickly pear and some flowery bush, too—rose of sharon, perhaps. It’s clean in there, like a zen garden. There are blue flange pipes humpbacking out of the ground, it’s beautiful. I found the entrance gate and it’s fortified with barbed wire, the drive lined with a variety of shrubs and cacti. It’s just about the magic hour, it’s all dirt and sun and paint and wire and I am floating.
I’ve got the Brasstronaut going after some Calexico. It is perfect. But I did just get sun-zapped. Still, the photo feast, the breeze drying me off as I walked in my board shorts. There’s another, smaller Pemex tank field right across a smaller road right at the far end of the campground lot. That field has a railroad spur going into it, which I believe to be active though I admit I have still not seen any train activity there. In fact, from the main road I can see that at one point this spur crosses under a padlocked chain-link fence, the standard sort of chain link, that a train easily could get through but a person could not. I have reached the conclusion that the Amor campground is bordered on at least two sides by government property. Is it coincidence, entonces, that Amor is located here, in this particular spot? I don’t think so.
How long can I talk to myself here? Brasstronaut is in my back pocket, a back pocket that seldom if ever gets a phone in it because I get in water wearing these trunks. I leave for a float in less than two weeks? More camping? Wow. This has been some run.
Today. “Today, today, today….” I really am lucky. I got myself into Tijuana and situated myself amongst this mix of people who are building a house. They’re getting a little bit of help from me, yeah, but they are teaching me and stretching me and keeping me safe all at the same time, via Amor, via the convoy, it’s up there with the great experiences of my life: the Outward Bound trip in the Florida Keys in high school; and, the trips to the Mojave Desert and to the big island of Hawaii in my first two years of college. These have been four of the best moments of my life. This will be my fourth night camping out here.
17 Wednesday Work Recap
Today. We wired the walls with bailing wire, wrapping the wire around roofing nails previously driven into studs, only half-driven not sunk. I did some wrapping. I needed more wire. I might have overwrapped the end nails as I got to the corner of a wall or to the edge of a door- or window-frame. I thought that taking the bailing wire and doing a full turn around the nail head would mean a tighter wire but it might have backfired. A JR backfire, that’s pretty classic. Once we had run enough wire so that it spanned by a horizontal interval of five or so inches across every exterior-facing wall, we then tightened the bailing wire further by driving roofing nails into every stud and pushing the wire either up or down, in alternating fashion, from left to right across the exterior wall, sometimes crossing the wire if that was needed to get the wire as tight as possible. I recall the building plans speaking to the spirit of the process, it being more important than the letter of the technique. Once the bailing wire was as tight as we were going to get it, we covered all of the exterior walls with felt paper—a.k.a. building paper, tar paper. We secured the felt paper to the side of the house by stapling it into studs and plates. The windows and the doors had to be cut out.
The rake walls (the slanted wall sections) required pieces of the paper to go on at a slant. This was one of the first jobs I was eyed for due to my height. Roger said something to me about being tall. He said his mom had a saying, “You can’t teach height.” I’ve heard that saying in a different form on baseball podcasts, “You can’t teach speed.” But all the same, once the walls were up I had steady work on that part of the house, where the walls met the roof. I stapled in most of the tarpaper rake wall sections, sometimes standing on a bucket for a little extra height (the rake walls being eight feet at their apex sloping down to seven feet high at their terminals).
While all of this is happening along the walls, there are up to eight people on the roof running the same felt paper across the roof, driving it home with nails hopefully sunk in rafters. Once the felt paper was completely covering the roof they rolled out on top of that what I’ll call shingle paper. It’s a thicker roll consisting of a smear of tar and sand, similar to what a shingle looks like. It represents the final dressing of the roof. The roofing crew finished off their work by taking roofing tar and smearing it over any visible nail head on the roof, sealing it to the weather forevermore.
“Don’t watch ‘Fuller House’, watch ‘Full House’.”
18 Thursday Morning, Atlas Shrugged
I laid down after the exchange of the Secret Pal gift bags last night; thought I’d just rest m’eyes a bit. You know how that works, though. A couple of hours later—23:30 to be exact—I woke up in a stupor feeling pretty awful. There was more heavy in small group last night. Confusion and weight and … a sense of … loss? dumbfoundedness? incredulity? There just isn’t enough time or enough emotional capacity to do what we need to do for each other. We’ll have to settle for the best we can do, it has to be still worth doing.
I’ve got my two sandwiches made, same as usual: one turkey and ham (two slices turkey, one ham, on wheat, mayo, mustard, lettuce, pickles, American cheese … which is starting to melt in its wilty way by the time we get to it at lunch hour); and, one peanut butter and jelly, made with the brand names we are used to in the States.
Now I hear that we needn’t have made lunch because Pastor José and his family will be serving us carne asada mid-day at their new house. I’m curious to see how that will go. I guess I will give my sandwich to one of the boys hanging out at the site; the PB&J I’ll keep and eat at the end of the work day, as I’ve done the previous three a la Dan.
I didn’t sleep as well last night. It could be because of indigestion or it could’ve been because of that small group. My pillow is all my clothes, most now dirty, stuffed into a pillowcase. It’s lumpy and malleable and not very functional. I tossed and turned and futzed around with the pseudo-pillow throughout the night. I was awake for good at 5:33. I must be waking based on someone else’s schedule or alarm because my four waking times are: 5:05; 5:05; 5:33; and, 5:33. Someone says there was a blaring horn at two this morning; air brakes at 3:30. Maybe I heard the air brakes, jutting me into another position.
Mike M ate all the Good and Plenty I had given him via the Secret Pals exchange. I also put a bag of almonds in there, nothing else. It wasn’t much. I feel like I owe him one. Before meeting him; based only on his listing of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as his favorite book I had thought about taking off of my shelf the copy of Tobias Wolff’s Old School, which mentions and in fact pretty much trashes Ayn Rand and her philosophy. Having met Mike now, having some sense of him, having heard him talk of his career in Connecticut on and near Wall Street, having asked him about the book, I wish I would have brought it along and included it in the bag. But I didn’t. I thought, If he really adheres to Atlas Shrugged it’s not my place, indeed it would be quite cheeky to give him a book that among other things attacks a writer he admires. At the water cooler this morning I asked him about Atlas Shrugged and, you know, he kind of shrugged. He said he read the book at an impressionable age—14 or 15—and it made an impression on him. Yet he implied he is not an active adherent of Rand’s. He might have gotten a kick out of Wolff’s treatment of Rand, as I did. Because it’s kind of funny how I could relay a similar experience of having read Atlas Shrugged, albeit at a later age, 21 or 22, impressionable all the same.
It’s overall clear today, no clouds: but there’s a haze, that Tijuana haze, smoke in the air, from here or there. I will miss these mountains, their knotty brown slopes, these terraces notched into the side of the slope to our northwest, too fine for the camera to catch. Leaving is going to be a jolt. Sonu asked me if I was going to miss everyone. I answered in the way I would, “There will be some withdrawal,” I said.
I think back to how I felt when I would go home—when my parents would pick me up after I’d been at the McKendree College summer camp, which I loved; went to at least a couple years in a row, maybe three; made friends, two of whose names I still know: Chris Elder and Matt Dintelmann. I’d be so depressed when it was over. Immediately. I bawled on one car ride home and my mom was rather put off and got after me. “Why aren’t you happy to see us, John? You want to stay there? You don’t want to come home?”
The answer is that I liked who I was at those camps, the version of myself that suddenly manifested there, and began to grow. All of the experiences were set in amber and for some reason were precious. When we played basketball I was better than everyone else, better than ever. We watched Dune and it was way before my time. Michael Jordan torched the Suns or was it the Trail BlaZers in the NBA Finals and shrugged his shoulders after hitting a barrage of three-pointers. A girl said I was ugly but I realized, only a couple of years later, that she was actually saying the exact opposite. I discovered Pearl Jam there. We stayed up late. We bought JOLT soda at the campus store and it seemed to be the only place in the world it was offered on sale. I wanted to keep going in that direction, I didn’t want anything to stop me—and then, the week was over. It was crushing.
That won’t quite be the case here but this trip and this group will have managed to set a certain standard for future trips. Is there any other way I could get myself into some gritty place, foreign or domestic, and not constantly be worried and on guard? When else will I be in a tent with someone who is not my wife and not vex at his gentle snores? Not feel crowded in the midst of eighteen closely packed tents? Yes, I will miss you, Sonu, all of you, for a little while at least.
It’s breakfast time. Eugene, the cook, has rung the bell.
“They don’t exactly ring a bell, you know.”
Yes, they do, here. It means it’s time to eat.
19 Stucco Hawks
It’s mid-day. The pastor y su família arriván con la comida. “Hola, ¿como están?” We did one coat of stucco. I’ve done stucco patches on our house but never a new coat on a wall. This recipe is also a little different. No lime. No gravel. It’s a base coat and then a coat over that, same day. I do appreciate how having the chicken wire stretched tight on the wall helps the stucco latch on and stay there. The consistency of the stucco was probably a little wetter than what I mixed mine to be—but it stuck on well. I worked with a hawk and trowel but increasingly used my hands a la Gary. I do though love the term Stucco Hawk. It could be the name for a team or for a band, The Stucco Hawks.
“OK, it’s time to line up for lunch,” says Alex. “They’re gonna serve it in the new house, so a single-file line would be good.”
It’s carne asada. I caught an aroma of it. Pretty good. Graham is offering a prayer to bless the food. There’s a line. I could stand at the end of it. I guess I will. Maybe not.
It’s sunny with only a little sly cirrus in the sky. I’m in the shade, sitting on a concrete slab that is a neighbor’s driveway ramp. The breeze is swaying the willow above me, allowing for a soothing dappled shadow to shift and sway across the surface of this page. Another neighbor has music going. There are vocals, lots of accordion, a tuba, oomp-ah, oomp-ah. These music-playing neighbors have their clothes hanging to dry along the wrought iron that sits atop the parapet lining their plot. The speaker is not good but it is perfect. If I go home and have a cerveza, and a quiet moment, this is the place I’ll be coming back to, and sighing.
Dog resting in shadow of car. It’s a June dog, a schnauzer, a female. If I were going to try to smuggle a dog back it would be her, without question.
“Styrofoam is a really big thing down here,” says Sabrina S. “I’ve never seen so much stryofoam in my life.”
The rest of the group is getting after lunch but I’m sitting here and drinking it all in and I don’t want to move. Why is it every time I touch pen to paper this week my eyes start to get watery?
20 Two Pastors
When the first coat is dry it takes on a light gray instead of the dark-brown-looking gray. I’m at the back of the house. The pastor came out, touched the stucco, said one word to me that sounded like, “Tecate!” but couldn’t have been.
The view down to the city from here is panoramic.
There is a promontory just down the hillside that I really want to walk out on but won’t. The utility lines run down there and stop: phone and power I suppose. The city: houses tightly packed in the dusty haZe. Mostly flat roofs but some are at a rakish slant high end to low end. Some with a peak in the middle or the not-quite-middle. The trees are sparse and not big, two or three stories tall at the most. The streets are wide, kind of empty-looking, there aren’t cars lined up and down on either side gumming up the works, because there are fewer cars per capita. No, I don’t have data on that, I can’t prove it with science but I’ve seen a lot of cars packed with a lot of people, more people than I’m used to seeing in cars. Lining a lot of streets are people’s storefronts, with, I imagine, their residence in the back.
Graham and I took a selfie. He clambers down the hillside a bit to take a photo shooting back up at me.
I raised my head to look at him but, “You just look down,” he says.
He’s walking out to the promontory! The guy has no fear. Looking down the hillside here, out back of the new house, out back of the church, I see a pile of our trash from the week, half-heartedly burned.
Graham gets halfway out to the point and gets called back for a photo. What a letdown. I bet he’s grating inside but he’ll never show it.
“OK, I’m honored, I would love to,” he says.
“Para iglésia nosotro … Uno dos y tres.”
Now they’re doing the Grant Wood portrait with the pastor and his wife against the back of the house, each of them with a shovel. Rodrigo is doing the translating. He is a Chilean citizen (here on a green card?); part of our group, here with his two boys.
“What time are you preaching on Sunday?”
“Esta Domingo… Mirandes…”
The trash: chicken wire scraps, shingle paper, styrofoam, wrappers, the spindle on which the roll of shingle paper once was spun, the empty two-ply paper bags that held the Cemex cement, plastic cups, various odd and end pieces of wood. It was probably Philemon that came out back here with it, tried to set fire to it, didn’t have any accelerant. No gasoline, no lighter fluid.
“So this’ll be a safe place where people with drug and alcohol problems can come.”
It’s Pastor José speaking with Rodrigo providing the translation. They’re shooting a video on Graham’s phone.
“Little by little, it’ll help them to get ahead. They come from far away.
“People’s happiness motivates him to continue doing this work.”
Graham and Pastor José have their arms around each other.
A fútbol field, a little pristine rectangle of green, perhaps it is artificial turf. Across the city another hill rises up, roads crossing their lines into it as they ascend.
Graham is being introduced to the pastor’s daughter and her two sons.
“My name is José Angel,” says one of the grandsons, who speaks some English.
I see tires on roofs, retaining walls built into hillsides, either with pavers or with a heavy smear of cement aggregate.
Gutter test water hits me as I am writing! The page above now is smeared and marred but not ruined.
“¡Baño!” says Pastor José, as more water rains down, from out of nowhere.
21 Finish It
The guys are so itching to keep doing work. They poured a walkway down to the outhouse. It was a pretty difficult step-down to get there before we got here so maybe their ramp will be an improvement. Now they have set down a frame at the back door where they appear to be planning to lay cement for a back stoop. That’ll be nice. One of those places I look at and say to myself, “Love one day to step out and have a smoke there; look out and wrap myself in the shawl of the city.” For the frame they have pieces of two-by nailed together. Dr Mark is sledging in some stakes.
“Well, just stand back and tell me if it looks square. Does that look square? Looks good. How about this side?”
“Looks pretty square.”
One stake on each side of the stoop. They’re gonna hold off finishing the stoop until the second and final layer of the stucco is done.
Now I notice a handrail added alongside the ramp leading down to the bathroom, made of PVC pipe, remnants of what they bought for the gutter project. It’s called Charlotte Pipe, made in the USA. Dot com!
The sun just doesn’t quit. We’re very close to doing stucco part deux.
“Hey Roger, thanks so much for doing that ramp, it’s great,” says Ron.
Gary impresses a mint upon me. Sunscreen time.
“Second stucco. Let’s do this! Head ’em up and move ’em out!”
That’s Gary. Imagine some sort of combination of Mickey Rourke and Mick Jagger. He has a presence perfect for this endeavor. There is a rumor that this is his last trip. It being my first, I hope that rumor scurrilous.
We’re adding water to the sand and cement mix. There’s a little less cement in this mix. And—supposedly—no gravel. This is the finishing touch.
22 Last night in Tijuana
I’m back at camp, after dinner, after another walk to the back of the grounds, to take a further look at that strange treatment plant adjoining the Amor camp.
I took a seat in someone else’s chair, a zero-gravity kickback and relaxer; looked up; hovering there was a kite of some sort. Flap flap flap and then it dropped like a stone, diving for something it saw scurry on this hardbaked playa we’re camped on. There are holes in the ground back there, not just for ants, a network below the ground for some small mammal. Graham said he saw a ground hog or something like it in that field with the ole broke down jalopy and the weird round cylinder but I didn’t see them. I jumped up from the chair and ran back to where our tents ended. It had missed its target and once I was up and headed that way it lit for a second on the apex of one of the small apparently useless buildings just outside a low row of barbed wire. Maybe it saw me heading toward it but for whatever reason it was up and away, into the sun. I lost it, fighting the sun as I looked into the west, looking for a bird in the light above the mountains, unsuccessfully. I think it was a kite but it could have been a kestrel or some small hawk like that, a merlin maybe. I’ve been seeing kites at home and it hover-flapped like one, dove like one, was black and white like a kite, though it couldn’t be the kite I know because those kites don’t exist here.
I took a better look at the garden inside the grounds of that treatment plant. It’s more substantial than I realized. There are gourds of some sort, maybe more than one sort: spaghetti squash and Mexican squash? There were at least a couple of grape vines, leafy and knotty, tied up, well looked-after. There was a lemon tree or if they weren’t lemons they were quinces or something. The leaves were like those of a peach tree but I don’t think it was a peach tree. The cacti are stately. Oh, tomatoes, too. Some cherry tomatoes and another kind, roma maybe. No trash in there, a couple of aluminum cans but I imagine those were filled with water and dropped out there slowly to water the ground. The trees had been watered, recently. The fencing is blue rebar, bent away at the top. The dog barked at me again. Good guard dog. There aren’t any signs or hints of any kind as to what the heck the place is. There was some red-flowering plant in a plastic pot but it wasn’t any sort of vegetable. And it wasn’t rose-of-sharon. There is also some sort of little booth in there, I don’t think it’s a bathroom. It’s not big enough for a bed but there did seem to be a sort of wooden ledge in there, like a window seat. It had some drapes hanging it. Needless to say I did not see anyone in there either.
Graham is taking a photo of me as I write in the red light, in the tent. It’s 22:48, getting kind of late on this Thursday night in Mexico. We leave around nine tomorrow morning. Estimate to be across the border is 11 a.m. I’d be thrilled if we really made that time.
This tent is a dusty silty sandy mess. What I need to do in the morning:
(1) Take down paracord clothesline
(2) Put fly away
(3) Drink ACV and then pour ACV into an airplane bottle for Saturday morn.
(4) Get towel from outside tent and put in fanny pack
I packed both airmats so whereas I had the last three nights been sleeping on a double-decker with this green Lightspeed four- or five-incher on top of my backpack mat I am now on just the Lightspeed, which I will roll up tomorrow and put back in the van, again my thanks to Frank for packing those surplus items. Imagine amassing extra camp gear for a trip like this, maybe others. Old mats from over the years, I’d need a nice big place to store it all. I wonder if it lies flat when it’s not used or if it stays rolled up. It’s a darn good mat. Lightspeed—is that the brand? I don’t see any other logos.
My pillow tonight is the bottom end of my big backpack with my neck pillow resting on top. It fits my head level well and I’ve got the cushion/softness of the neck pillow as the last object in contact with my head. It’s probably a better arrangement than what I’ve been using the last four nights. It’s worth a try at least.
I’ll be getting to a point before long of doing my lightning round paragraphs. Whoa, someone snoring like a bullfrog, or the Jaws theme song. I didn’t hear that any of the last four nights. Sinister!
The smell now of smoke. Tent chatter has all dissipated. There are still some camp sounds, someone rustling paper.
I am fading. Graham was sitting up but now he’s on his back on the cot with that green light going. Bright as compared to my red. He’s been reading, and likes, Assassination Vacation, which is about the deeper stories behind the people involved in the presidential assassinations. I’m going to go brush my teeth.
Unzip, get in.
Zip back up.
“Who is it?”
Like the phone was ringing, she answers. She is doing something with Ziploc bags and pill containers. It is only she and I still awake. Seated around the campfire tonight, before we sang, she remarked to me how much she likes to sit and watch a campfire burn. She talked about how we could be “busy with our eyes, watching the flames.” I had never heard it said that way, or better.
After I brushed my teeth I was standing out there, looking south, toward the main road. The old school buses noisily going by. I’m still struck by just how well-lit it is along that road, the petro-liquids stored over there, government-run. A Coca-Cola colectivo went by—the logo was on it, red on white. Either Roger or Mark is rippin’ chainsaws; why, how could I want to sleep, this is too good. I’ll sleep in San Diego.
I just stood and marveled, thought I saw Mars. I’m not certain. It could have just been a light on a tower. She is speaking to herself as she is organizing. I saw that Coke bus, taking workers home or going to pick them up for the graveyard shift. I thought about how I own the stock, bought it in 2009. I’ve been reinvesting the dividend, done fine with it but a thousand other stocks I could have made more money on—that’s not the point. I get these KO dividends. “OK….” What am I doing with them? Will I ever use them? And then the Coca-Cola colectivo goes out at midnight to assemble the workers. It makes me feel like a hypocrite and so what do I do? I’m not selling the stock—and do what with the cash? The only way I’m going to feel better—about myself: myself, myself, this is about me, ultimately, isn’t it always—is to rest and ride on those divvies but OK if I’m talented and have the means I should be doing more for someone besides myself, like, I’m taken care of, my parents, B, they’ve seen to that and it’s like, OK says Life, to me, now what’s your next move? So damn, what is my next move? Graham shuffles on the cot, a bus rubs up against a speed bump and I take a drink from the cup.
“What did I just drink?”
Christ, did she just say that or did I just think it? She is whispering. Do I have service? Where the hell am I? Won’t somebody do something? It’s the creep that science can’t turn away. And unlike Bill Gates I don’t have $30 million to throw at it in hopes it’ll go away.
I got hugs tonight. I feel like I’m part of this group. A sound in the distance. Was that a barred owl or a dog or a coyote? This has all been special.
Out the mesh I am looking at Cassiopeia. It took me a while to find the Little Dipper. It really is quite close to the Big Dipper, more yin & yang than I ever thought. The stars are good tonight but not stellar. It’s the haZe—plus, Tijuana is a big city! And if you want to go up the coast, this is a megalopolis, the border is a fiction. How far north you want to go? Chula Vista, San Diego, Anaheim, Los Angeles? The stars in the middle of Missouri are better. So at least Missouri has that going for it!
Graham shuffles again. Another diesel dingo whines out on the highway. I think I could do this for a while yet but I’m keeping him up and I could use the sleep. So, hasta mañana, or perhaps, ¡hasta pronto!
23 Exit Interview
“I’m back in California.”
“Yes. Where at exactly?”
“Just over the border. Otay Mesa?”
“Hmm. What are your first impressions?”
“It’s warm but there’s a breeze.”
“It wasn’t hot in Mexico?”
“La linea took us over three hours. I was in the van sweating. We were down to an eighth and starting to fret.”
“You got gas?”
“Yeah, the first place. U.S. Gas.”
“Sounds official. Text your loved ones?”
“My wife, my mom. Sent a baseball text to my buddy.”
“What about food?”
“Not for a while yet. We’re gonna rendezvous a little further north.”
“940 Dennery Road?”
“What? No. That was on the way down.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t gonna get one but Judy and Isabelle insisted. Iced. I was telling myself I didn’t want one but I did. They knew it.”
“These are friends of yours?”
“Maybe. I just met them.”
“When will you see them again?”
“That’s a damned good question.”
24 Dateline Vagabond Inn
I’m the worse for wear. It’s 17:39 on Friday night July 20, 2018 in San Diego, USA—dot com! I’ve got a bandage on the tip of my right index finger. Did I already write this? I grafted off a piece of it sponging that stucco, I think some chicken wire was poking out and got me.
Today was a beat down, as hard as any of them. I thought about trying to fly standby but I could never quite summon the verve. The line at the border took us over three hours to work our way through. It wasn’t stop and go, it was park, wait three minutes, advance the length of a car, park again, wait. I drove us two hours into it but had to bail to hit a baño. Graham took over.
I walked into the pharmacy with the sign advertising its bathrooms and made an immediate beeline for the bathroom. The guy behind the counter asked me where I was headed.
I had on me an envelope of pesos that I had licked shut and taped several years ago, 2010 I think. I tore one end open and shook out a few coins. One was a diez peso coin and I thought, ¡perfecto! I handed it to the guy but he rejected the coin.
Either he could not or would not take the coin. He said it was an old coin, no longer used as currency. He suggested perhaps that the coin, from 1976, might even be a collector’s item. I was thinking: if that is true—and clearly I had no clue—then why didn’t he just take the coin, surely it was worth more than its nominal value. I kept the coin and handed him a veinte peso bill receiving as change two two-peso coins and two single peso coins. I really was wanting to get rid of coins not get more of them!
I used the bathroom. It was perfectly clean. There was a little dongle under the faucet that you had to hit in order to get the water to flow. I was also looking to pick up three bottles of water for the van. Treinte pesos. I went back into my envelope, pulled out a $200 peso coin and gave it to the guy. (While all this is being transacted someone else comes into the pharmacy and tries exactly what I did, making straight for the bathroom until the guy intercedes by asking them what it is they are looking for. They say, ‘We were looking for the bathrooms.’ The guy tells them it’s ten pesos. I was thinking to myself, ‘People are happy to pay diez pesos to use the bathroom so why not just put the cost on the sign, the sign being strategically placed in order to get people to come into the pharmacy to use the bathrooms….)
My $200 peso coin was also rejected.
He said the same thing, it wasn’t in circulation anymore. This coin was from 1985—not exactly ages ago! Alas, alackaday, amor. I took two veinte peso notes from out of the envelope, handed them to him, and got more two- and one-peso coins in return; I was so perplexed.
He asked me where I had gotten the now-defunct coins. I told him it must have been from my parents, who went to Mexico when I was younger and brought us all back some coins. I held onto them over the years, somehow. I believe I had put them in that envelope in 2010 in preparation for my own trip to the Mayan Riviera in August of that year. I must not have needed to use the pesos and then kept the envelope unopened and intact since then. Despite the snafu it’s probably a good thing I still have the coins because I had brought a second envelope of pesos with me on this trip, all bills, but I left it as an offering under a two-liter bottle of Coke on top of a white bucket on the dirt floor of a little church I visited up along a mountainside in a depressed part of Tijuana.