By Henry Biernacki
The people waiting at the Civic Center stop seemed to be going to get someone out of jail or taking the train to the US/Mexico border. That was life, dia y noche in San Diego, and the most charming way to enter Mexico. The charm to crossing into any new country is to walk, where the discovery immediately begins. You immediately realize you are required to go a bit further to uncover more of this new part of the world.
Immediately after 2nd Ave., the Blue Line: San Ysidro/Tijuana, ran in both directions. That was a busy stop where everyone quietly waited for the train, in the shade, against the wall, and in front of the Westgate Plaza Hotel. It was already a bit too bright as the sun sank into the late day sky and no clouds out, unless one could count the funny wispy ones that do not carry rain, ornamentally decorative clouds Niklas reckoned, aesthetically pleasing, but no real substance or function.
The warm air huddled around San Diego as the sun dropped below the horizon with its minimum golden tint, a lot different from the Vegas night from which he just returned. San Diego had one or two bright neon signs with open hanging in the windows of the bail bonds shops, running along C Street, Front Street, and B Street, instead of the all night casinos brightly lit with false hope of winning in Vegas. This evening, Niklas would spend it along the streets of Mexico. Las Vegas and Tijuana never closed. That is their appeal. While San Diego is a small big city, it closes.
On the opposite side of the street and up past the bagel shop, ran the tracks where the breeze blew a bit cooler, because of the shade the jail gave to the solid concrete city. All Niklas heard was the sound of people stepping on the dry crackling leaves and the creaky benches as people stood up and sat down.
“Disculpe,” a girl said to Niklas as she threw her arms up without stopping. She continued walking further down C Street, “Si sabes donde esta la entrada?”
Niklas glanced up from reading a book on the Constitution of the United States. He assumed she was speaking to him when she asked where was the entrance to the jail? Her tight dark blue t-shirt read, “NOPE, KEEP THE CHANGE,” referring to the government.
“Al carcel,” Niklas responded?
In an almost disbelief grunt, the girl said with a sarcastic voice, “Si, al carcel!”
Niklas stood up. He pulled his right hand out of his jeans pocket to hold the book in his left hand. He spun slightly to his side, pointing straight ahead to the large police sign. Niklas sat down to continue reading. With a large gasp, the girl rubbed both hands through her greasy hair, letting her hands fall like the limp branch of the tree. Niklas stood up and walked next to the hotel to wait.
The thumping of the train rolled down the street, vibrating along the tracks the way an organ vibrates the wooden pews in the Tijuana Cathedral. This is a trolley stop, on the way to the border, excitement of a world between two countries.
It had its regulars. Every train and bus stops do, just like bars and gambling houses always have theirs. The only thing Niklas had regular is that he always wore the same blue button up shirt with a leather jacket and blue jeans.
On the Fifth Ave. stop, that was full of girls whistling at the boys in front of JJ’s Deli Café. If you had light hair and light eyes, they whistled two times louder. Right in front of the deli café, like clockwork, and every Saturday afternoon when Niklas was going to Tijuana, a girl leaned back in her man’s chest as if they were in a Zocalo.
He could hear them kissing from across the street. Then there was Jerry, the shoeshine man, who he sat on that white stool. He never took the smoke out of his mouth, not even, when he was shinning those nice black or brown leather shoes, you know, the ones that cost a couple hundred.
Jerry said with a sizeable smile, “Hell, I cannot risk getting black polish on my cigarette. You never know what is in the polish. It may make it taste dreadful and it may really screw up my lungs.”
As he sucked on the smoke, he slapped at shoes. He must have shined every color, size, and style imaginable. After each shine, Jerry took a large swig of the cold lemonade he bought from Cigarettes Soda Snack Eyes Shop. It was almost like a gift after such work.
C Street was not exactly different from any other place in San Diego, but it did have a culture with its own locals. Everyone knew everyone and when there was an outsider, each person knew it. When you realize the immediate differences, it is as different as the other side of the ocean, but everything is connected like the bed of that same ocean. Slowly, when you become more aware, you realize how similar people really are.
The people there were looking for a reality and themselves, except everyone they saw was the shadow of someone else. A man stopped in front of the red benches of the Civic Center, looked at the map and glanced down in the rubbish bin. He finally pulled out half of a chocolate chip cookie, took a bite, but something more appealing caught his eye. He put the rest of the cookie in his bag. He pulled out a slice of pizza from the bin, which was from the New York Pizza Italian Deli up on C Street and across from Mrs. Field’s Cookie store. Getting pizza from the New York Pizza Italian Deli was the best Italian food in San Diego. They loaded toppings with lots of cheese, tomatoes, mushroom, jalapenos, and olives. Their dough is a bit doughy and just enough on the crunchy side. That is NY pizza: so simple, hot, big, and inexpensive to give you so much comfort by just holding it. Although, to find a real Italian in San Diego was as near impossible as finding a real Mexican in Italy.
The man ate the half eaten slice of pizza as he ran his left hand along map, following the blue line. “Is this,” the man said with a mouth full of pepperoni, “the one,” never covering his mouth as he went on, “oh sorry. This is good pizza.”
“The best,” Niklas responded. “The train goes to Mexico or not to Mexico?”
A lady walked by sipping a beer from a brown paper bag, slurred something to herself as she looked at Niklas. Niklas knew she was not talking to him, because a few days ago before and even before that, she mumbled words to someone sitting next to Niklas, but looking up in the sky.
A Mexican walked by dragging his cowboy boots along the chipped sidewalk. He took little sips from a bottle of Orange Fanta while he ate the last bit of a taco with jalapeno peppers sticking out the side. He shook his shoulders after he ate those peppers like a cat shaking off water. It gave him the chills and burned. The man stated his ears hurt after that bite.
He winked at Niklas, tilted his head and said, “Bastante picante hombre pero que rico. Me duelen mis orejas.”
To Niklas, nothing was that hot, but they were tasty.
He could feel the train coming before he heard it. The ground shook. Slowly the train arrived. Stepping on the blue line allows you to slowly adapt yourself to entering the border country. It slows down the pace of the outside world, speeding by in their cars and racing around. By taking the train, a traveler exits out of the confines of the banal world, throwing oneself in a world of slight chaos where other people exist. To finally cross the border into Tijuana, well, that is an entirely new story of grandeur.
The train merely takes you to the edge and then drops you off. Off in the distance you can hear the clicking of the steel gates continuously turn throughout the evening. You have to go a bit further, alone, to go into a new world: a border country.
“Global Henry” (Traveler to over 120 plus countries)
Author: No More Heroes
KEYWORDS: Border Country, Henry Biernacki, Mexico, Border, California, San Diego, travel, Tijuana