By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
Background: In 1963, at age 19, I went to stay in Duran, New Mexico, a tiny Mexican-American village in the high plains. I was the only Anglo in town, but soon became good friends with Manuel Chavez, a man perhaps twenty years older than I.
Manuel wanted to get married, but there were no local available women except Memo's daughter, Anna, who was sweet but fat. Whenever Manuel or some of the other local men wanted a woman, they would get in a car and drive to Juarez. Manuel talked about going to Juarez to marry one of the prostitutes. In his wallet he carried a black and white photograph of himself seated in a booth with an arm around a pretty whore. The photograph showed Manuel smiling. The girl was smiling too.
"She say she marry me," Manuel bragged. "She beautiful, no?"
"She say she wait for me. She come back with me."
Manuel was having trouble with his upper front teeth, and decided to have them replaced in Juarez. Susano's nephew, Bony Madril, who had a ranch in Colorado, was going to drive Manuel to Juarez. Bony wanted Manuel to come work for him in Colorado and give Manuel a better life than he had in Duran, but Manuel would never leave Duran. Manuel told me he was going to Juarez for his teeth two days before he was to leave and I decided I would go with them to Juarez, then go back across the border and find a warmer spot somewhere in southern Arizona. My shack was too cold.
Bony was to arrive at Manuel's trailer just after sunup. We were up well before dawn. We waited. The air outside was cold and snow was falling. Several hours passed.
"He's not coming," I told Manuel.
"He'll be here," Manuel said.
When Bony came, he drove up with Eloy Martinez, whom I had never met. We took off and arrived in El Paso around noon, parked the car and crossed the Rio Grande into Juarez.
Ciudad Juarez at Dusk (2004)
(credit: Daniel Schwen)
I had never seen anything like Juarez before—wild with broken down streets and music wafting out of bars. We sauntered into a café and sat at a chipped linoleum counter. I ordered a big plate of enchiladas and pitched into them. Before long a cockroach dragged itself out from under my chili but I kept on eating.
Afterwards Manuel and Bony went to the dentist's office, where Manuel had a mold made of his teeth. The replacements would be made that same day and the next he would have his teeth pulled and the replacements implanted. I could not believe it.
While Manuel was at the dentist's having a mold made of his teeth, I wandered around Juarez. I stood admiring a carved wooden chess set in a store window and someone from the store came out and said it was a good set at a very good price. I shook my head and he lowered the price. This went on two or three more times until he named an unbelievably low price. I did not need another wooden chess set and walked off.
At a designated time I met the others. That afternoon the four of us sat in booths in one of the bars, each with a whore, all of them cute young women from outlying villages who had come to Juarez to make a living. Each bar had its own whores. This was the bar where Manuel's prostitute worked and they were together. He sat there with his arm around her shoulders. He was in heaven. The bar had little cribs in a patio-like area behind the barroom with an old lady at the entrance to the patio who checked the customers for venereal disease.
Afterwards Bony and Eloy went their own ways. Manuel and I kept drinking all that day in other bars as they blasted Mexican music into the night. Manuel and I were sharing a hotel room. We went to the hotel and tried to sleep but could not. We decided to go a bar. Our key was attached to a big holder that I did not want to carry in my pockets. Downstairs I explained to the clerk that I wanted him to hold the key for us. He thought I was giving up the room. He grabbed for it. Seeing what he was up to, I held onto it and we tugged back and forth until some of the loungers jumped up to take his side. The clerk was yelling, and the loungers were yelling and threatening us. Manuel was not sure what was happening. I was furious. I stomped outside followed by Manuel, and once outside raved about how we had been cheated. "We'll get some dynamite," I told him. "I'm going to blow the hotel up." I have a few scattered recollections of reeling through Juarez streets, looking for a store—maybe a hardware store—that would sell dynamite. As drunk as I was, I knew I had to be cautious to avoid arrest. I had heard what happens to gringos who are arrested and held in Mexican jails. When two policemen stopped us and asked for identification, Manuel swayed and staggered as he tried to pull out his wallet. The cops looked at mine, then his.
"You can go," they told me, "but your fren' he has to stay."
I could not believe this. "No," I said, "I'll stay with him."
If they were not going to arrest me, then maybe they would help us. "We had a hotel room. The clerk stole our key and kicked us out. Help us get our room back."
"Where's these hotel?"
I told them. After a long, noisy argument with the clerk, we got back our key and made our way upstairs.
The next day Manuel had his teeth pulled and the new ones implanted. He was in pain, and you knew it when he tried to grin. A few years later I heard that his gums had gotten terribly infected.
The next day the four of us crossed the border bridge into Texas. Nearby lay the freight yards. I got my pack from Bony's car and bid them goodbye and that night hopped a freight to Tucson where, for some reason, I began heading north. I hitched to Flagstaff, not far from the Grand Canyon. I did not know where I was going, except that I wanted to escape the cold, but could not. I was out of money. I wired home for fifty dollars from my stash but left the Western Union office before it arrived. I got back on Route 66 and hitched a ride from a trucker all the way back to Duran, where he braked in front of Kasim's store.
Kasim would not let me have the shack again. "You know you did wrong, leaving without telling me." Everyone else thought that was crap. Polonio, the postmaster said, "What does he want you to do, kiss his ass?" Manuel offered to let me bunk with him, in his trailer, which I did for the next six weeks. By the time I left Duran in early spring, I had sunk roots into the town, and for the next twenty years I returned periodically.