Back in 1979 I was working for the San Diego Union along with a reporter we’ll call “Alex Drehsler” because that’s his real name and I’m about 75 percent sure the statute of limitations has run out on most of what we did together.
That’s Alex on the right hanging out with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua back in 1979, so I think you gotta say Alex was living a pretty interesting life.
And Alex and I were friends.
The San Diego Union had its own flag just in case management decided to invade somebody, which considering its politics was a distinct possibility, and also had a fleet of white, Ford Pintos with the newspaper names (Union and Tribune) prominently displayed on the doors.
I’ve got absolutely no memory of why we were using company cars, but I do remember driving one in downtown San Diego late at night after some kind of work-related event and as I recall Alex was in another one of those Pintos driving next to me.
The company cars were equipped with fire extinguishers (wonder what the Union knew about the combustibility of Ford Pintos that they didn’t share with the employees) and one of us decided it was funny to spray a fire extinguisher into the other guy’s window while traveling side by side.
That, of course, invited retaliation.
This is the kind of stuff people did before political correctness made sure you could get fired for a bad joke, much less conducting running fire extinguisher battles in company cars after getting a decent buzz on.
In the good old days you could appear in front of the Supreme Court and get off if whatever you did was funny enough to make five out of nine judges laugh so hard snot came out their nose.
Pretty sure that’s in the Constitution and if it’s not it certainly ought to be.
How about a road trip?
So at some point, Alex (who spoke fluent Spanish, had lived in Latin America and covered south-of-the-border issues for the Union back when newspapers could afford to do that sort of thing) asked if I wanted to go with him for a night on the town in Tijuana.
I said sure because what could possibly go wrong in that scenario?
Alex picked me up in a Lincoln Continental and when I asked if it was his car he said no, the newspaper rented it for him. I dug the Continental, but still wondered if the newspaper was providing the car why we weren’t driving one of those piece of shit Pintos and Alex said he couldn’t drive a car that had “San Diego Union” on the door to Mexico because of the death threats.
Alex had done a story about Tijuana city officials, including the cops, driving stolen American cars which some very bad people took exception to and those people threatened to kill Alex next time he crossed the border.
Well, hey…thanks for inviting me along, wouldn’t want to miss that.
At that point we were already driving down the freeway on a way to the San Ysidro crossing and I was trying to decide if Alex was full of shit; the death threat stuff seemed like something out of a movie.
So I’m still undecided as to how true all this is when Alex says he wants to stop by his house before we cross the border.
Before we went into his house Alex turned off an alarm system and he then showed me the wiring beneath his welcome mat and interior rugs that would set off the alarm if you broke into his house and stepped on them.
So now I’m convinced there’s at least some truth to the death threat story and I’m thinking maybe I should Uber back to San Diego on my own even though Uber hadn’t been invented yet.
Alex says don’t worry; nothing will happen when we cross the border into Mexico…but if he gets recognized, getting back out might be a problem.
Oh, fine…always wanted to live in Tijuana fulltime.
Can’t remember the thought process that had me sticking with the plan; probably not wanting to seem like a chicken or letting a buddy down, but I’m pretty sure that’s the same thinking that got Davy Crockett killed at the Alamo. If the situation had been fully explained to him, there’s a decent chance Davy would have said fuck this and headed back to Lubbock to watch a Texas Tech game.
Anyway — bottom line — me and Alex crossed the border and headed out for our big night in Tijuana.
Bear with me; from this point on tequila was involved
We were walking around Tijuana when we stopped at a small grocery store and Alex started talking to a guy in Spanish. This went on for a while and I slowly began to understand that Alex was interviewing him – most casual conversations don’t require taking notes – and afterwards Alex told me what the interview was about.
Police torture of citizens.
Great. These guys are already pissed off about the stolen car thing, so they’ll clearly be thrilled about a cop-torture expose. The guy being interviewed said he’d been tied to a bench, a wet T-shirt was held over his face, water was poured over it and he was drowning while sitting up.
First time I ever heard of waterboarding.
BTW: I’m pretty sure the people who say drowning is a peaceful way to go are full of shit. If it’s so damn peaceful, why is it used as torture? And if anyone disagrees, let’s stick his head in a bucket of water, hold it there and see if he struggles.
If he dies without making a fuss, he wins the argument.
I didn’t have a hard time buying the police torture stuff because I had personally witnessed a guy get in a fight on the wrong side of the San Ysidro crossing and make the huge mistake of taking a swing at a cop. The rest of the cops held him down and twisted his foot until his leg snapped and he was then drug off for more fun and games at some undisclosed location.
They don’t play around in Mexico.
Next stop was the Long Bar on Avenida Revolucion and as you might have guessed has a really long bar. Alex and I ended up there drinking while being serenaded by one of those strolling mariachi bands, The Falcons.
These are not the Falcons, but I wanted you to have this image in your mind for the next part of the story ‘cuz it’s going to get colorful.
Alex hired them for the night and the Falcons followed us around, playing wherever we stopped and one of those stops was in some badass bar in Zona Norte, Tijuana’s red light district. When we walked in the bar everything stopped dead like in one of those Western movies and looking around we appeared to be the only Anglos on the premises.
Then the Falcons walked in behind us.
Alex told me not to worry, bars like this didn’t get a lot of mariachi bands stopping by and the other patrons weren’t going to kill the two white dudes who brought the band along and paid them to play.
Kinda brilliant when you think about it.
Alex then put on an act for the crowd. The Falcons asked what Alex wanted to hear – crap like La Cucaracha and the Mexican Hat Dance – and Alex replied:
He then asked for some revolutionary songs that only somebody who knew the culture would would know and after the Falcons started playing, a guy with a scar that started on his forehead and ran down the middle of his face to his chin brought over two drinks and said: “You guys play good music.”
Lucky Alex picked the songs.
If it had been up to me the Falcons probably would have been strumming their way through something like Yummy Yummy Yummy I Got Love in my Tummy by Ohio Express while we got our asses kicked. (Although now that I think about it, I would love to hear the mariachi version of that song.)
From here on things get really fuzzy because I was doing shots with the local cartel guys, but at some point Alex said it was time to leave and some dude I hadn’t noticed before led us down alleys, over fences and through people’s backyards.
At this point it was raining and we were running and finally came to the back stairs of a house, went inside and Alex interviewed another torture victim who was lying in bed with the covers up to his chin while wearing a knit cap like it was freezing cold even though it wasn’t.
I’m pretty sure the whole Falcons-play-music-while-we-go-out-the-back-and-run-an-obstacle-course was Alex making sure we weren’t followed to the tortured guy’s hideout because apparently the cops were looking for him, too.
After that we wound up in some all-night dance hall where I think we had to pay for the dances – that still existed back then – and by now I was hungry and ate some kind of chips which turned out to be fried tripe and frankly tasted pretty awesome at that point in the evening.
On the other hand, after that much beer and tequila a deep-fried Chuck Taylor Converse high-top would have tasted pretty good, too.
We drove south to Rosarito Beach, drank some more, watched the sun come up and then went back to Tijuana and had some menudo – tripe soup…supposed to cure hangovers and in this case did – for breakfast.
We crossed the border back into the USA without incident.
Looking back I think Alex timed our rush-hour border crossings on purpose; we crossed the border when people were commuting back and forth and the border guards were busiest. Try crossing at 3 AM and they have plenty of time to scrutinize you, your Lincoln Continental and conduct a body cavity search on your dumbass buddy.
So what have we learned?
I’ve thought about that night more than once and decided if we found out we couldn’t drive the Lincoln back across the border we would have had to hire a coyote to get us back and crossed with a bunch of illegals and that would have made one helluva movie and as always, Kurt Russell – the young Kurt Russell – should play me.
So if you own a movie studio, give me and Kurt a call and we’ll see what we can work out.
I’ve lost track of Alex – if you know where he is leave a comment – but my last memory of him is getting a call at work and Alex asking me to guess where he was. The answer was Havana, Cuba back when Americans weren’t supposed to be there.
That’s how I want to remember Alex; some wild-ass guy chasing a story through Latin America and maybe conning a buddy into going along for the ride. If that buddy survives, he’ll have a damn good story to tell.
And that’s today’s lesson.
You can always play it safe and stay at the Holiday Inn and eat at McDonald’s, but face it; nobody is going to want to hear about the time your room was clean and you ate a Quarter Pounder. And on top of that, play it safe all you want and you’re still going to die and won’t have any good stories to tell at the retirement home.
So once in a while say yes even though you don’t know where that yes will take you.
And don’t be afraid to try the fried tripe – after an evening of Coronas and Cuervo, it’s delicious.