The Makings of a Book. . .
I was dropped off on 1-35, mid morning, south of Austin. The roads out of the city are strange: a highway, or “feeder road”, is parallel to the interstate, and the only connection between the two is a short ramp where you gotta gun it to survive. I was standing by a long stretch of fast cars and a narrow shoulder. Horrible hitchhiking terrain. So I walked up to the next exit, where the shoulder was gaping, but where cars went just as fast. I passed by a small cornfield, thinking that if I didn’t get picked up, at least I’d have a place to sleep that night.
I held out my sign: S. Antonio. I stood between two entrances to restaurants. A quarter hour in, while I was looking at the ground and eating some peanuts, I heard a honk. A girl in a white car waved at me. I grabbed my things and walked over.
“Where you off to?” I asked.
“That’s about 40 minutes from here. Right?”
She popped the trunk for my luggage. I jumped in the empty seat beside her. We were off.
She was a pretty woman with a strong face and healthy thighs. She wore a short-sleeved women’s blazer and her hair was loosely twisted into a French braid. She was going to court in San Marcos to finalize the divorce of her husband.
“Hopefully it will all be done today.”
She had a carseat in the back.
“You got a baby?”
“Two children: two and six.”
“Do you pick hitchhikers up when they’re riding with you?”
“Oh yeah, sure. All the time.”
In San Marcos, she let me out at a filling station in a similar situation to the previous one, only this one was curved with five roads merging into one. One of them lead back to a neighborhood. I stood on the side of that road. There was enough room for a ride to pull over at the old Dairy Queen.
Several cars turned into the Dairy Queen or the neighborhood, but none of them recognized me. A couple cops rode by and I waved. Suddenly, a blue car abruptly stopped as he turned into the neighborhood. He wiggled his hand excitedly. I ran over.
“Where you go?” He was a Mexican man with big, brown eyes.
“Oh no. I just leev here,” he said pointing down the street, sounding suddenly sad. Then immediately he perked up and pulled out a wad of bills, saying, “You need? You need? Here, here.” He fingered out a few dollars and pushed it at me reverting back to a smile. He was eager to help the homeless.
I thanked him graciously as he sped off as quickly as he came. I walked back over to my stuff, carrying my sign. Right in his place, coming the other way, another Mexican in a blue car looked at me curiously, searching for the language of my sign. I turned it to him. He shrugged and nodded.
I jumped in. The car smelled of strong cologne. We rounded the Dairy Queen corner and cut on down the highway. He was a mighty big fellow, driving back home to Corpus Christi, passing through San Antonio. Most of the drive he was on his phone with various people from his work and some woman who was telling him a story while she was working at a pharmacy. She put him on hold every time a customer came to the counter. “And it wasn’t even an interesting story,” he said.
When he wasn’t on the phone, I squeezed what I could out of him. He is a wifeless man with no children who “loves it that way,” and thoroughly enjoys his job as a superintendent at a local high school. He could retire in 11 years if he wanted to, at age 49.
“I also get to travel a lot,” he said, “but not quite like you. I like the hotels.”
He let me out at a stoplight on Commerce St downtown, across the street from the hotel he often stays in when he visits San Antonio.
I gathered my bearings under the bus stop shade. The famous Alamo was down Commerce and to the right. I took a swig from my jug of water and stepped out into the sun. I tied a bandana around my neck to block it and periodically wipe my unshaven face of sweat. The jug, I nestled behind my head against the brain of my backpack. It fit snuggly.
The buildings were shiny and pale orange. Regular city buildings. Colorful cars zoomed up and down the streets. Pedestrians strolled by in pairs on the sidewalks. I tried to blend in, but my hair was a mad mess and I hadn’t washed my clothes in days.
The feeling of being left alone in a new city is a rare one. It’s sort of an unvisited alien world made by humans like any other human you’ve ever met. A world unknowing of you, but in which you can easily navigate because you’re aware the parameters of the intelligence of the race you’ve just invaded.
I walked to a regular park, shaded under big, curling trees and wind-beaten palms. I rested and waited for nothing. A lady nearby was selling snow cones from a cart. I bought a purple-flavored cone with a dash of red for $2. It was worth the stains.
I’d never been inside the Alamo until that afternoon. Admission was free and I could walk through wearing my pack without hassle from the sheriffs. They walked around in brown uniforms under white cowboy hats. Some wore shades like meaty Texas Rangers, with hands on their hips.
In a dark room, where someone was probably slaughtered, I watched the short film about the history and battles of Mission San Antonio de Valero, or “The Alamo.” It told all about its being built as a Catholic compound for the Spanish in the late 18th century, the post-occupation by Mexican soldiers, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Davy Crockett, The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, and of course the battles for property and Texan liberty. I learned that a fellow South Carolinian had something to do with the win of the state.
The hall was decorated with all sorts of daggers, guns, rifles and ancient, rusty skeleton keys that hung behind glass. Facts were written about each relic. A beat up silver chain was strung through the dusty hoop of an unwound pocket watch. Across from a diorama of the compound were replicas of uniforms used by both Texan and Mexican soldiers. It’s hard to grasp the idea that the structure we walk through – with our fanny packs and cameras, snapping photos of old weapons and purchasing plastic snow globes at the gift shop – is the same place that natives and immigrants were massacred in order to allow the winners of the battle to sell these snow globes.
I came out of the fortress with some new knowledge. For a couple hours I roamed the city on foot, speaking to several people and to no one. I passed by liquor stores, bars, shops, statues, and the market square. After sitting on a church step in the shade, I walked down a sidewalk and gave one of the dollars from the Mexican in San Marcos to a crusty, crying bum in the corner. One homeless to another, I suppose. I cruised down a set of wide steps to walk beside the river along the shops and trees and cafe tables along the water. Tour boats drifted by. Ducks swam with orange feet and bobbing pigeons cooed. I ordered a plate of Mexican food for $6 and wrote in my notebook beside the afternoon water
I left a tip and walked back up the stairs to the street. I’d arranged for a friend of mine to pick me up on the corner of Commerce and Losoya, so I made a seat out of my backpack next to a trash can and a cop. He rode away on his bike after a few minutes.
I was watching the people that walked around. Some with tattoos, some on bicycles, others with children or briefcases.
One kid with dreadlocks and a skateboard was crossing the street my way. He looked like a guy I might get along with, so I nodded to him. But I guess I was just a bum to him because he hacked back a loogie and spat it at my water jug, splashing my arms and face with spittle. I looked at him with disgust as he walked on. I did nothing to the ignorant punk.
Eventually I was picked up on the corner by my friend, Sarah. I’d met her in Mexico several years back while she was traveling abroad for school. It was a trip seeing her after so many years. She looked just the same. Only her hair was longer and pulled back from her face. She was a thin but mighty girl who works in a warehouse and recently broke the nose of a guy who was trying to jump her behind a gas station.
She lived alone across from a middle school in a suburb. Apartment B in a single story quadroplex where the races of people were shuffled like cards– colorful and intimate. Her place was small with just enough room for her and her dog, Pearl. There was food stacked everywhere in the kitchenette.
“I’m sorry for the mess here. All of my food spoiled last night because my fridge went caput. But I got the piece and fixed it this morning. I’m going to run to the store here in a little bit.” And from then on, she insisted on showering me with homegrown southern hospitality. First things first:
“We’ve got to get you a bed,” she said. She didn’t have an extra since it was such a small place.
“I’ve got a sleeping bag, I’ll be perfectly fine,” I insisted.
“Oh Lord, no, I wouldn’t even think of allowing you to sleep on my floor.” So we got in her car and she drove us down the busy interstate to her friend’s house to get a twin bed. Her sedan was small but the back seats folded down to add sufficient depth to the trunk. Out of the three of us, Sarah was the only one who believed it would fit. With some elbow grease, we shoved it in, sheets and all. We thanked her friend and drove off back onto the highway, sheets flapping in the wind, hanging halfass out the trunk and half in my ear. It was a brilliant sight, and only the first stop on her voyage of hospitality.
We dropped the bed off at her apartment and zoomed back out to the grocery store. She insisted I grab anything I wanted. She gathered her own things, while I grabbed some fruit and cheese and avocados. We met in the middle. I countered her attack by buying my own food, but back at her place she cooked us a fine filet mignon with green beans and cornbread.
She’d also bought two Mexican Cokes in glass bottles to remember our weeks in Oaxaca. After dinner we popped the tops off both the bottles and clinked our glasses. “Salud!”
We reminisced about Mexico.
On of the first memories that came to mind was the afternoon we got mugged on a trail leading to the Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. We’d met another guy, Jeremy, traveling through Mexico on route to Venezuela who wanted to join us to the ruins. We took a bus up the mountain, got off midway, and walked a trail up the remainder of the mountain. We stopped to take some pictures on a piles of rocks, looking out onto the valley and surrounding mountains. We walked on through the shady forest of shrubs and trees. Another group from the bus ahead of us galloped on and out of sight.
I was leading the pack when I came across two native men.
“Monte Alban es alla?” I asked them, curious about directions. They said nothing. And before the thought could be thunk, they had us cornered against the trees with knives and violent frowns. One had a gun jammed into the back of his pants. They stabbed at us, demanding our cameras and money from our wallets. They were grouchy men with fierce eyes, getting precisely what they wanted.
Eventually, Sarah led the men in a massive chase by cutting across us and sprinting back down the trail to the road. The bandits were stunned and confused and ran after her. Jeremy followed her. I split off and ran to get help up at the ruins. I sprinted with worried laughter in my breath at my first encounter with foreign violence, hoping more weren’t lurking around the next tree. I ran and ran and soon began hearing cars on the road below the trees. I cut right and climbed down through the brush and hopped down the wall to the road. I flagged down the next car that sputtered by. It was a local girl who understood exactly what I said and quickly gave me a ride straight up the mountain to the ruins.
I found three Mexican cops (probably more corrupt than the bandits) and they hightailed it to the crime scene with me in the back of the truck. I just wanted my camera back. But as it turns out with foolish tourist attempts at being locals, we lost everything that we didn’t need.
“And you know, it’s events like that where you know you can survive those kind of moments. And if you don’t, at least you died fighting,” said Sarah.
I then brought up a bus ride to the coast that absolutely tortured my tummy.
The three of us decided to go to the coast to catch some surf in Puerto Escondido a few days after the mugging. But instead of taking the 12-hour bus around the mountains, we decided to take go the six hours through the mountain in a ramshackle bus with four others. It was a terrible maze through the Mexican jungle. Nothing but winding dirt roads. The worst thing about it was that this other guy and I bought fruit in a cup from a street cart on the first dusty mile of the trip. Sarah gave us some Dramamine as she lied down and went to sleep. But it was the most fowl six hours of my young life. It was erratically bumpy and winding, sloshing around the rotten fruit I’d eaten and shaking up the spices of Mexico to the point of utter illness. I’d burp up the vile gas that the watermelon made in hopes it’d clear the way, but that only made it worse, lingering in my nostrils. I ended up barfing out the window at 50 miles an hour, curving around a mountain bend with no railings on the side. Jeremy ended up retching on the side of the road after I insisted the driver take a break. Sarah just slept. She made it out barf-free once we got to the golden sunset on the beach of Puerto Escondido that evening.
“And you know the funny thing about that trip?” She asked.
“Um. . . nothing?”
“I didn’t give y’all Dramamine. I gave y’all sugar pills. Placebos!”
“No shit!” I slapped my head. “No question it didn’t help!”
“Yeah, but Jeremy,” she laughed, “he said halfway through the ride that he was starting to feel better because of them!” We laughed.
We remembered our favorite foods like chilaquiles and tamales, a street circus in a park in Oaxaca City, and an hour long spiritual steam in a clay sweat lodge in the jungle where afterwards we drank the most refreshing gulps of mint cucumber water to replenish our lost minerals.
The night before I left San Antonio, she took me out for a fine fish taco dinner at her favorite Texas restaurant. More southern hospitality.
Written in San Antonio, TX 2012