Going South

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An essay in Better Than Fiction: True Travel Tales From Great Fiction Writers (Lonely Planet, 2013

Going South

I SUPPOSE IT WAS INEVITABLE. My family’s annual vacations had always consisted of weeks-long summer driving trips, and almost exclusively north, to cool, tidy, familiar Minnesotas and Wisconsins and Manitobas. I had studied Spanish for ten years. I was 17 going on 18, out of high school a semester early, working a minimum-wage job and admitted to the college of my choice. And for three years my favorite book had been The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe’s iconifying 1968 chronicle of Ken Kesey and his dozen friends’ pointless and profound coast-to-coast-to-coast 1964 trip across America in an old school bus. It was a moment, for people my age, when high adventure seemed not only possible but easy, not only easy but obligatory.

And so in the summer of 1972, five other Omaha boys and I bought a stubby old yellow school bus. It got atrocious mileage, even by the standards of that era, but gas cost only 35 cents a gallon. We ripped out most of the seats, built some crude wooden storage cabinets, installed a cassette tape player and speakers, tacked down 100 square feet of gold loop-pile carpeting, bought some maps, and – cell-phoneless, internetless — lit out for the territory. We were headed south, due south, way south, beyond the frontier, to Mexico.

Two or three days later in Texas, at the end of I-35, we learned that anyone who looked like a hippie was being turned away at the border. Although not exactly hippies, we were a half-dozen teenage boys with longish hair, dressed in t-shirts and jeans and jammed into a funky school bus. (Also, it turned out, we were about to bring coals to Newcastle – that is, mescaline to Mexico. The most hell-bent of my companions, unable to abide throwing away perfectly good hallucinogens, swallowed his entire two-gram stash in Laredo.) At a Woolworth’s in Laredo we bought a tube of Brylcreem, and for $3 apiece the squarest dress shirts we could find. Those of us with mustaches and sideburns shaved. Voilà! De-counterculturalized, looking more like Mormon missionaries or The Partridge Family‘s nerd cousins than Merry Pranksters or Easy Rider dudes, we were waved right across by two sets of border guards, out of America and into Mexico.

My recollection of most of the trip is strangely vague. I know we slept on the bus and ate mostly bread, cheese, cold cuts and fruit. I do remember certain specific, redolent neo-ugly-American moments — blasting Traffic’s “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” out of our open door and windows as we rumbled through small towns, leaving scraped streaks of chrome yellow on masonry walls as we squeezed down streets barely wider than the bus. And I recall our route around the country – Monterey, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and Mexico City, then Cuernavaca, Acapulco, Mazatlan, Nogales. But forty years later, out of all those hot, dusty, windy weeks, one single day remains distinct and extraordinary.

It was the golden age of hitchhiking – a year earlier a friend and I had hitchhiked from Nebraska to the east coast and back to look at colleges — and as we approached Mexico City from the northwest, we stopped to pick up a kid, maybe a year or two younger than us, who had his thumb out. Between our shaky Spanish and his shaky English, a friendship was struck up. Standing at the front of the bus, holding on to the chrome pole next to the driver’s seat, ducking to look out the giant windshield, for an hour our new pal Fernando guided us deep into the city and finally to his working class neighborhood.

He demanded we come up and meet his parents and siblings. His mother insisted she was going to serve these six hungry young American strangers a late lunch. His father required that we each guzzle a submarino, a tall tumbler of Coke over which a shot glass of tequila was held with two fingers and dropped like a depth charge – and then another and maybe one more.

We talked about the last Summer Olympics, which had taken place in Mexico City, and the two black American medalists who had raised their black-gloved fists as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. And our new friends were still excited about the 1970 World Cup, also staged in Mexico, in which their national team had gotten to the quarter-finals. Fernando or one of his buddies who’d joined the party asked us, “¿No es jugar al fútbol, fútbol mexicano, en los Estados Unidos, verdad?” — You don’t play Mexican football in the U.S, right?

He meant soccer, of course. And back in 1972, American kids did not play soccer – except, providentially, the six of us. I’d been the first to learn, at a nerdy international-themed summer camp when I was 12 and 13. Because soccer was foreign, it seemed cool, and   because none of the real athletes in Omaha was any better at it than we were, a few of us freaks and geeks had organized a tiny intramural league in high school.

“Sí,” I said, “en nuestra escuela hemos jugado en un equipo de fútbol mexicano!” – In our school we played on a soccer team!

By means of phone calls and shouts, Fernando instantly assembled a local team of six. Minutes later the block was cleared of all parked vehicles, and a few empty oil drums – traffic blockades and goalposts – had been lined up at each end. The street was at the bottom of a ravine, the opposing hillsides covered with multicolored cinderblock and stucco houses from bottom to top. In other words, it was a kind of natural stadium, each terrace and porch its own skybox. Children and adults stepped outside, sat on walls, leaned on posts, opened Cokes and Coronas. And awash in the preternaturally perfect August light of six o’clock, the game began.

Until that day we had played only on grass, but years of school-recess asphalt kickball had prepared us, more or less, for the hyperspeed and crazy bounces of street fútbol. And the pre-game tequila probably made our pothole contusions and gravel-studded abrasions less painful. We had a goalie, but our positioning otherwise was highly ambiguous, with backs racing upfield to shoot, and forwards falling back to defend our oil drums.

The most glorious and dreamlike part of the experience was the spectator mob. There were 100 people watching, maybe 150, but the loud, happy chants and cheers – provoked by any and all dramatic action, whether committed by a local kid or a gringo — made it feel like a crowd of thousands. At half-time a raspador, a vendor of fruit-flavored shaved ice — an actual concessionaire! — wheeled his cart onto the block.

The game ended as sunset approached and church bells struck seven. I’m pretty sure we didn’t play for a regulation 90 minutes. The thin air at seven-thousand-feet-plus was rough on us boys from the low plains. And we lost decisively – Mexico City 5 (I think), Omaha 2 – but we scored, twice, playing their national pastime on their street. We were breathless, sweaty, filthy, bloody, bruised and totally,  deeply, existentially gratified.

We awoke at sunrise, performed quick ablutions in the family’s single bathroom, ate Fernando’s mother’s breakfast of scrambled eggs and tortillas, offered money that was refused and refused again, reboarded the bus and headed out, on the road again, more than ever ready for adventures.

But nothing else on the trip – not our first visit to Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing, published the previous fall, was a kind of sacred text), not our first visit to Disneyland (the Merry Pranksters had been headed for the World’s Fair in 1964), not the archetypal young California blonde speeding around a curve in Big Sur and smashing her yellow convertible into our parked bus – was as wondrous as our impromptu soccer match in that ragged, random, impossibly hospitable Mexico City barrio whose name I don’t remember and maybe never knew.

The process of recalling and reconstructing my faded and fragmentary memories of that ancient journey and heroic game has been as much like writing fiction as nonfiction. If it were fiction, I might have an unexpected and ironic and life-changing encounter years later, as an adult, with Fernando. Real life was not so obliging. In a piece of fiction, surely, the bonds forged over the course of 7,000 miles on a bus — we few, we happy few, we band of brothers — would endure yet be tested and twisted over the decades. In fact, I haven’t been in touch with any of my fellow travelers for more than 30 years; two of them died young, the mescaline-eater by his own hand at age 41. In a work of fiction, I might right now have the dusty, yellowed old “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” cassette in front of me, an elegiac artifact of my youth, as I construct a remembrance of things past. But I unsentimentally tossed out all my old albums long ago. I discovered on Google just now that that particular tape sells for between $60 and $500, depending on condition.

As it happens, however, I am in Mexico, at the end of a month-long stay, longer than I’ve spent in the country since 1972. I’m on the sunny rooftop of a house on a street called the Alley of the Dead, overlooking a hillside covered with a jumble of brown and white and yellow and red stucco houses. I hear afternoon church bells. And in the schoolyard at the bottom of the hill, children are kicking a soccer ball.