by Bo Keeley
As Told to and Retouched by Art Shay
(Swans - July 26, 2010) Out of the clear Baja blue, a smoke finger guides my buddy and me to the first scrap heap. "Where there's smoke, there's treasure!" she bays, staring up as if at a rainbow.
The early pickers get them and she, portly in a scavenged red miniskirt, steps ahead.
This is a rags to riches story born of the latest American depression that has delivered millions of jobless illegal aliens back to the unreceptive Mexican border towns like San Felipe. There are nada jobs here either, which layers thousands of returnees in soot to scavenge the dumps for clothes, and after the fires, the valuable dross of gunnery range metals unearthed from their first graves by diggers like the toughest returning Mexicans and me.
As the times tighten and flames leap, a laissez faire is sweeping Mexico that the USA eyes warily and may follow as pitiless, pointless bureaucratic rules are lifted on both bribery-rich sides of the border fuelled by the universal concern of simple survival. A year ago it cost $5 to become a certified rag picker, but now no one bothers to batten on the collection scam.
The strategy is to jog to the first wisps ahead of other sky watchers to ask the burner for permission to scrap the clothes that he kindly sets aside before applying the match. For every clothes picker who recycles at yard sales, ten metal recyclers vend to scrap yards. A hierarchy in poverty is evolving despite itself.
My Martha is a pro, so tough she wears her clothes out from the inside. Not really mine, but there's a base charm to mascara and dirt under the fingernails. Dirt -- with substance but no valence number -- becomes one of the elements of life. It comes with scratching away at the land and its refuse.
"No sun-damaged clothes, test the zippers, nothing that has touched soiled toilet paper; gaudy outsells conservative; snatch kid's stuff to cover the baby boom. Everything must compress into this garbage bag," she orders huffily. The huff of leadership in strange causes. In thirty minutes we score a dress, cap, pair of joggers, purse, and pajamas from a vacant lot behind the flea market. It's hard not to exult.
A second smoke signal pops over the dump a mile away, but Martha says, "You go," and calls it a day that will include washing, tagging, and hanging the clothes from her trailer fence. "If you strike a mother lode, come see me." She slaps my rising handshake, and caws, "The first time I wiped smoke tears from my eyes I got three styes." As I say, dirt sucks.
I ratiocinate. The 50 square-mile seaside dump surrounding us is the most majestic fucking dump I've trod in the last 97 countries I've visited. I pack my rachitic Ford for a picnic.
The depression has hammered the Mexican border towns -- Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Juarez, Laredo, and the others -- harder for three years than anywhere in the world has been hammered. The great irony is the regress of countless thousands of illegal workers from jobless USA to blue funk Mexico. There are no jobs here either, but the cost of living is dirt cheap. A baby boom is underway thanks to sex replacing work as a pastime. But San Felipe, three hours south of Calexico, California, offers two visible venues of survival: yard sales and recycling metals.
Air. Food. Water. Shelter. Sleep. Damn regulations. The life blood of hope and expiration.
The Mexican view is that they steal across the border for work in the land that was stolen from them. It's a matriculation after high school... now a homecoming! I've eked out bios à la John Steinbeck with peso tips into the dirty fingers of about 100 hungry economic deportees and assorted-reason refugees. Your US tax dollars pay shipping and handling on thousands of deportees courtesy of the Border Patrol and INS, but the majority of illegals ebbs voluntarily, and optimistically sticks close to the border, to stealth across in one direction or the other as in better times.
"Of course!" cries Pablo, at the second signal as he leans on his hot shovel. "I'll return." Once healthy and strapping after 20 years of construction work in Houston, two years ago he lost the job and hitched to San Felipe, and now wavers between blackened and wheezing. Nonetheless he's the alpha picker of a vein. Garbage here is burned to level the heaps, making them easier to rake and trowel for recyclable metals. The law that allows the burning of anything but plastic has been relaxed in these tough times to produce blacker smoke. Human excrement in the family trash, multiplied by 25,000 San Felipe citizens, is unavoidably mephitic. It stinks horizon to horizon. Mexican plumbing turns up its nose at soiled toilet tissue and will gurgle at but not flush toilet paper. Pablo just got out of the hospital for lung disease, and scavenges for the love of a girl who takes his money and treats him cruelly. She passed around a traditional black funerary sombrero telling family and friends that he had died of black lung disease and raised $400 because everyone likes Pablo. But she kept the money low between her ample tits. And kept it, affording both General Grants in the packet a little frison of joy at scoring so well at fifty. Today poor lost Pablo'll scrounge up $5 to pay the witch for his sister's phone number to tell her he's alive. "What can I do?" he shrugs. "I'm in love!" Love concurs all even down here, even in that titty wallet swelling with Ulysses's green images.
A dark shaft shoots up on a hot spot a mile away where the town's single garbage truck unloads. A bulldozer pushes waves of mini platelets of earth foaming with trash to be ignited by the alpha, Aaron, who tells everything except the secret of how to read the ripples for nuts, bolts, and nails. I once gave him $4 to buy a new urinary catheter for the stoma hole in his belly to replace a gas hose that had caused a nasty infection. His English is fluent from 30 years as a Los Angeles mechanic before recently being deported for a traffic infraction and the discovery of bogus papers. "I'm too old to return," he drawls, drawing the tethered stoma bag from his hip to pissify an ember.
Most illegals pay a Coyote a standard $1000 each to lead a group of up to 30 mojados, or "wets" as they call themselves, on a 2- to 3-day hike across the border into the Texas, Arizona, or California desert where vans shuttle them to the cities of choice. Upon arrival, for another $300 the illegals buy bogus Green Cards and fictive driver licenses, take jobs picking oranges in Tampa or welding in the San Pedro shipyard, work up a resume, and for years send regular weekly $50 money orders home to sponsor new emigrants. The Mexican American population spiraled for three decades... until the recession reversed the tide.
Though most Americans applaud the exodus to Mexico, Texas journalist Peter Gorman turned the tables on me in yesterday's e-mail: "Hasta la vista, and we should add, thank you! Thank you, illegals. Social Security was busted until you came here and paid into it without being able to take from it. Because of you the teabaggers will get their monthly checks. Same with Medicaid and Medicare because you paid taxes and didn't receive any care. Now the scroungers have doctors available to them. So, thank you and when things get better -- bring your family and friends. Keep floating the USA for all of us. We salute you!"
My Felipe mechanic, Jano, an ex-Coyote at the fat Atar, Mexico, portal to Arizona, fidgets at the prospect of dropping his wrenches again for hiking boots. "It's certain Mexico will ride the American shirttail of recovery and there will be border work, if I choose those riches." In the mid-90s Atar heyday, fifty vans raced the dusty streets shuttling 1,000 to 3,000 new daily arrivals 60 miles to coyotes at the border. He earned $200 per head on a 36-hour walk to awaiting vans to transport the aliens to, his specialty, Los Angeles. Then, ten years ago, the Mexican drug cartels shoved into human smuggling and gun-barrelled the independent coyotes aside. Jano persisted, and on a trip was beset and beaten, with both feet broken by a rifle butt. "They spared my life," he keened," because someone knew my family. I crawled for two days, but knew the way home."
For the more discerning emigrant, two "executive routes" exist. The first, described by a local resident, is the Mansion Route. "The trick is maneuvering to be picked up by the right US Border Patrol agent, and then you mention your contact. He takes you to a certain immigration agent, who transfers you to a county sheriff who gives you to another sheriff. The trail is so clouded at this point that no one can trace it to a mansion run by a sympathetic American. I paid the California homeowner $5,000 for the packet that included a private room with cable TV until my ride to Redwood City came with a fake Green Card and driver license."
The second executive route started last Monday by a doughty neighbor on the way to Mexicali to reunite with his Phoenix family. He waved goodbye with $6,000 in his pocket that "will 99.9% guarantee me a one-minute entry into the USA." He elucidated, "The immigration agents on the Mexico and American sides are the same for certain officials. A group of 10 of us will meet on this side, walk around the official gate -- not through a fence hole -- we're free and clear, able to touch the fucking INS building, and catch a van to Los Angeles. No hard feelings, but I hope I never see you again."
They'll be back, you think, unless the US government revamps the catch-and-release handling of illegal aliens. Wrong. From having interviewed a hundred refugees in Felipe, ridden freights with USA-bound Central Americans through Mexico, bunked with illegals at the border towns awaiting coyotes, and once getting caught by the US Border Patrol in mid-stream of the Rio Grande on a hiking trip, it is my call that the border cannot be closed, or the illegal immigration stopped, any more than a tsunami or an underwater oil leak stemmed by guys wearing ties and more concerned with their dividends can be stopped.
Now all of these and more, they swell in the border towns like San Felipe, begging for a John Wayne -- Or Pancho Villa.
The Ant and Grasshopper is now playing south of the border in every pueblo. The grasshopper has spent the cool months singing and fucking off while the ant worked to store up food. With summer waning the grasshopper finds himself dying of hunger and upon asking the ant for food is rebuked for idleness. In the Mexican version the Grasshopper eats the ants, proudly singing the virtues of extravagance and propinquity.
The best pastry shop in town, not far from my $25/week apartment, sells $400 a week worth of birthday cakes. The owner psychologizes that the Mexican has been so poor for so long that when he gets something sweet in his mouth he swallows it at once not thinking about the next hungry second. The shop delivers 3-foot diameter, 6-inch thick cakes that feed 80 to shanties of families who spend two weeks' wages of $300 on a single birthday party: $70 for the cake, $50 to rent a pool slide, and the balance on invitations and frills. But it's a splash that makes the kid the neighborhood hero for a day, and earns an invitation to everyone else's party. Since each family has so many kids, the baker's profit is a predictable piece of cake.
When an individual has a godsend or other miracle he throws a neighborhood barbeque on Saturday with beers for all until ten grand dissipates, he bankrupts, and the people treat him like a peon. The crown of attention rotates around a pueblo and each bearer, as "other-directed" as the predecessor, is elated to be king for a day and spends the rest of his life a pauper enjoying others' windfalls.
The Patron of Three Islas Rancho located two hours south of San Felipe lost his curator on a drunk the day he picked me up hitchhiking, and hired me on the spot for room and board to guard his abandoned $1.5 million oceanfront spread until he found a replacement. A year ago, he had sold the inland 1000 hectares of the Rancho for $60,000 to Carlos Slim, the world's richest gambling man, to slam through a new highway that would turn the Sea of Cortez coast into a Baja Riviera. Instead, he used the money to buy another racehorse ranch, four trucks, a doublewide for mom, and threw parties until the cash drained. Now he cannot afford gas for the vehicles, feed for the horses, electricity for the trailer, and I went AWOL from the Rancho a month ago on running out of beans and matches. Yet he is a good man whom I then loaned $100 seed capital to reopen the Rancho cafe with fresh paint for the sign, window screens, a full ice chest, case each of beer and soda, and one week's burrito fixings for the construction crew of 50 that moved into his Rancho to sleep in a heap in one 40-foot x 40-foot room. Last week the Patron was serving fifty $3 plates 3 times a day to the workers at great profit, but with a fresh entourage of admirers and overextended credit, he's profli-fucking-gate broke again and can't repay his debt.
One of the best things about Mexico is no one expects you to feel sorry for him. The Mexican woman defines herself by her work. Kids grow up with soccer and chores. Soft-handed professionals roll up their sleeves for stoop labor when the chips are down. No one thinks to complain.
Agnes, the waitress at a beachside café, is a rare exception. Sandwiched between two once-thriving Curios shops whose owners, like the café's, sit in prey for a single tourist sale to feed the family for a day, Agnes enjoyed a $3 hourly wage plus tips in better times. Recently the other waitresses were laid off, and she was forced to wait tables, wash dishes, and fellate the owner for $5 a day. She quit, explaining, "I refuse to wait and wash dishes for $5 a day!"
The silver lining of depression is the character it brings out and the idea of laissez faire. People who support laissez faire economics are against minimum wages, duties, licensing, and other restrictions. The opinion is that an economic system should be driven by free market forces, not government intervention, like my childhood Kool-Aid stand.
Pushcart vending -- tacos, snow cones, burgers -- is on the rise, culturally grandfathered from licensing. Every PeMex gas station has a territorial tamale salesman with a homemade nametag and sombrero to flog them. Fishermen in rubber boots stomp door-to-door hawking buckets of the morning's foot-long catch at bargain prices to sleepy housewives. A mom-and-pop itinerant cafe parks a dilapidated station wagon about town, swings down the tailgate kitchen, and jogs the streets wearing the most recent race shirts and balancing platters of marathon tostadas.
I am an unfortunate man when it comes to acquiring the riches of the world, however security work is a remote possibility since prospective employees must pass a urine test for drugs. A week ago, an hombre offered $.50 for my urine, claiming I was one of the few drug-free men in town. When I couldn't produce a stream on short notice, he despaired that I thrust my hands into a dish of warm water. That easily filled a provided condom that with a sleight of hand would transfer the gold to the doctor's test tube at a urinal. He got the job, and advises me to go into business.
The better jobs in traditional Mexico are hand-me-downs within wealthy families, or grabbed by graft. Police, immigration, and government positions are low paying, long hours, stressful, and highly coveted. Any newcomer to an agency who doesn't bend to mordida, or bribe, is quickly shuffled out the deck because bribery works only where there is not one honest joker. The jefes' voices in the backrooms of these organizations over time acquire a hoarseness caused by swallowing pesos.
A few sunrises ago, a San Felipe ex-pat illustrated it. "I was parked on the beach when there was a rap on the window. An officer asked me to step out, found a jug of rum under the seat, and his partner told me to empty my pockets shouting, 'Bingo!' at finding a wad of twenties in the wallet. They took my keys, and one drove me to the police station, as the other tailed in my car. I was chained to a desk, and examined by a doctor with a Breathalyzer who declared me drunk. He summoned the comandante who has a reputation for shrewd, fair play, and who warmly congratulated me for being able to sit and talk after blowing a 2.4 Breathalyzer. 'This is the way it works,' explained the comandante. 'The first time we pick you up costs 24 hours in jail, the second 36 hours, the third 48 hours, and then the officer drops you off at the city limit. But punishment is unfashionable because it costs the city money. Give me $80.' Compare that, I thought, to a night in jail, court costs, plus towing and storage fees. I gave him the money, was handed my keys, and drove off with the jug under the seat, and a firm understanding of police procedure."
Meanwhile, the San Felipe baker philosophized about his initial encounter with the Mexican customs agents. His cakes outsell the others because he imports superior ingredients from the USA, cooking with butter instead of the conventional lard. "The first time I brought $500 worth of US ingredients across the border I expected to pay the normal Mexican duty. However, the jefe took me by the elbow and asked, 'Do you want to negotiate with the state at 17% duty, or with me?' I gave him $20, and the customs officials split the daily pot."
Another craved position is behind the wheel one of the luxury buses that puts US Greyhound to shame for comfort and schedule, hardly to mention fares. Before boarding I always inquire of the station agent or driver, "If I don't need a ticket, is there a discount?" and always ride at the ticketless 60% fare. Each bus has two drivers -- one sleeps in the baggage compartment as the other accelerates -- and if the station agent brokers the deal then it's a three-way split to earn nearly as much in fares as the companies.
The Federales (Federal Police) by popular Mexican acclaim are crooked, and my experience offers no negation. The key is to climb the authority ladder to the highest possible rung before offering a bribe. The Mexico Army is clean and professional, except likewise when approaching the ranks of lieutenant or higher. Three citizens have informed me that when a big drug run is scheduled through the military checkpoint north of San Felipe, the jefe sends the soldiers into the field and opens the road until the load passes. A few days ago, I rode the bus at the ticketless rate through the open checkpoint to the Mexicali border, handed a Mexican immigration agent $2 with the lie that I was a senior to get to the head of a 300-person line waiting to cross, and once in California rode the local buses for two hours seeing a thousand Mexican Americans and two Caucasians who fed a quarter instead of the posted $1.25 fare into the bus coffers.
The historic strategy to fight corruption is with a larger bribe. Nitpicked by payolas for three months in San Felipe, I sought to consolidate everything into one easy payment. I was told to look up an influential man named Dinosaur, who spent 25 years in US prisons, to get on the list of a crack attorney who would get anyone out a jam provided he had done nothing illegal. In the United States that requires a Supreme Court decision. I found him in a trailer compound two blocks from my apartment reclining on a plastic chair, face crucified in pain, with his swollen left foot braced on a bucket. Somehow, with eyes closed, he sensed me staring at the discolored sole, and without flinching a tattoo, rasped in a Godfather gravel voice, "Yes?" "I've worked in dog kennels and seen this condition enough to offer advice," I answered. "I've gotten drunk and sober, and I'm getting drunk again for the pain, so please hurry." I told him to soak the sting in cold water for the first 24 hours, elevate the foot at night, take aspirin for pain, and tomorrow with the swelling gone walk or bike to increase the circulation. He snapped his fingers, and a señora took shape through a door to fill the pail from a hose. "Now, what can I do for you?" he asked politely, dropping the foot in the bucket. I inquired about the lawyer, and was told that one pays $50 for the business card with a number to call when there's a bribe demand without a transgression, and the attorney reams the wrongdoer a new anus without applying saliva. "Anyhow, I'm not going to give you a card," said the Godfather, reaching under the chair and grasping a worn pair of brown sandals. "Take these instead, and point to them if anyone bothers you." He circled a hand high as I walked off -- they fit fine -- and suddenly the trailers' window shades parted, a soccer ball sailed into the courtyard, and passersby I hadn't noticed strolled along the fence. I had taken a thorn from the proverbial lion's paw.
Every little good and service has a price in a depression. In the USA this is called graft, except when you tip the waitress, bellhop, doorman, or parking attendant. However, in Mexico it extends as a personal tax in most private transactions. There is an important distinction between tip and bribe: A tip sweetens a legitimate deal, and a bribe forces something criminal, like buying As on a report card.
I decide against opening the urine business. There's a brighter idea. I motor from town with giggles over both shoulders and, glancing back, two kids on bikes wing the quad like angels. "Hooray!" I shout, and they let go as the ATV strikes the 3-mile thick, 15-mile dump belt of broken glass. A man, too poor for a bribe, and too proud to importune, pushes a car fender in a wheelbarrow two miles to the scrap yard, and smiles as I zip past. Another drags a crate by a rope around a bonfire edge, digging for brass fixtures and copper wire that rake a premium.
However, my investment is trousseau, and only the best for Martha. The learning curve is slim pickin's for one hour slaloming hundreds of garbage heaps and pointing Socorro while plucking a cap, gloves, sneakers, and a valuable insight: There's a geometric progression of prizes from the beach toward the sierras of the dump where no competition cares to walk.
Also, where there's trash there are rats and rattlers, and 100 feet above, sharp-eyed vultures waiting for the quad to kick up a meal. A hairless rat plunges headlong into a discarded fishnet and I help him out. There are sidewinders, but I've seen only one 3-foot Western Diamondback, which are hunted for meat at $8 per carcass. Rover is also eaten in tough times, reminding me of the vet school sad joke about my dog Fido being worried because Alpo is up to a dollar a can. That's almost $7 in dog money.
Get a life! they told me in USA after getting canned as a California sub-teacher, and I found one south of the border on an IRA interest at $20 a day: $4 rent, $10 food, $1 gas, and $5 for hard times that never come. There are many ways to get ahead. The first is so basic, I'm embarrassed to say: spend less than you earn. The only thing in recession was my hairline listening to the US depression blues, so I crossed the border with the Mexicans.
An Intruder pickup grumbles down the road, and I circle like a crow till the driver dumps and leaves, and swoop to find 30 kilos of fish bones, but with another tip-off: Follow fresh, deep tracks to new pickings. Tire treads web the desert amid thousands of piles of varying quality from household trash to construction site scrap, and age from ten years ago to today, but only one in a hundred tracks is crisp and heavy. Soon, a deep trail leads through a copse of Ocotillos to the jackpot!
The bonanza stretches 8 feet in diameter and 3-feet thick of unalloyed clothes. The top layer has sun bleach, the bottom crawls with mold and scorpions, but the middle layer feels and smells clean. The only explanation is that someone won the lottery and jettisoned their closets.
It's spooky getting to know a family through their wardrobe. Mama is rotund, baby cuts teeth, teen girl likes Sunday best, and Papa sports ties I wouldn't be caught dead in even out here. I pick with prudence for an hour, slowly stuffing a discarded suitcase slung from the quad with toddlers' togs, blouses, jeans, high heels, a double sheet -- about forty articles that heft at 20kg and, after the wash, will bring $50, or two day's wages when one can get work. My costs have been $3 for gas, a squirt of Fix-a-Flat, and three sweating hours. I slap a velvet toilet seat cover on the quad to cruise for shade.
I veer the quad left at an errant Bugs Bunny, scoop it on the fly and follow the trail to a fluffy armchair under an elephant tree near a collection of scruffy stuffed animals -- teddy bear, ape, spotted leopard, giraffe -- for leverage in a blossoming plot. I capture the zoo into a garbage sack tied on the rear carrier, sit the ape atop with a long pink scarf, and canter to town.
Martha's $60 per month trailer sits in a rose patch dusted with beach sand. She looks radiant in yesterday's green blouse, and her mouth falls open at the bulging sack and suitcase, and my proposal to trade them for a massage. She hand-washes the batch, hangs it to dry on the front fence with moist, dangling tags starting at $1, and opens the trailer door and lowers the curtain.
Magic hands! I take a deep breath, and spout, "Will you... go out with me tomorrow to the dump?"
She says, "I do!" and the next day we saddle up to trash Shangri-La. However, she bears heavily on the 125HP ATV in sand, and two flats cut our profit margin. No massage.
The novelty of pawing garbage heaps with scorpions in clothes gets old on the second Tuesday of the month when the local thrift store sells used clothes at a dollar a kilo! Scrimping ex-pats donate their laundry, and take used clothes off the racks to bypass the cleaning bill. I fill a bag, and get a final massage.
It doesn't feel right. The rags to riches story wears thin, and I distribute the stock about San Felipe abloom with yard sales, except for a blue shirt to cross the US border when real depression hits.
About 2,000 penniless illegal aliens have returned to San Felipe (pop. 25,000) in the past three years, mostly males age 20 to 30 who kissed their US wives goodbye, to enhance the genetic pool with individual initiative, create the baby boom, and dash my chance of getting a date. The men own a gusto and intellect unsurpassed in Mexico that led them across the border in the first place, and these are the strong who invade the dump ring. The thesis that depression evokes laissez faire is proven in Mexico, and may carry in these sobering times to the USA with a full-blown free market for the good of the people.
The laissez faire Raggedy Ann -- my scrap heap buddy -- hanged herself in the local jail yesterday. It was a plot, of course, to get transferred to the local psych ward. She tore out the IVs and materialized last night, bleeding on the neighbor's porch screaming, "Help!" He didn't recognize the voice and called the cops, who handed her to the US counsel for deportation. Times are hard -- hurry down.
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About the Author
Bo Keeley is a retired veterinarian, former publisher, author of seven books on sports and adventure, national paddleball and racquetball champion, commodities consultant, school teacher, psychiatric technician, traveler to 96 countries, and executive adventure guide who has been featured in Sports Illustrated and other national publications as an alternative adventurer. (back)