THE TRINKET JUNGLE
Once every month or two I make a crossing from Mexico
into the Untited States, passing through Mexicali. I go
to El Centro to buy the few staples sold cheaper in the
United States and to pick up my mail. It is a time-consuming
journey and I have often spent as many as three hours
waiting to cross. Except for the unusually hot weather,
this morning's trip seemed no different than any other.
At one section of the crossing, where long lines of
cars habitually knot themselves together like Peruvian
counting ropes, groups of small boys, girls, men and old
woman pass beside the vehicles, selling souvenirs or services.
I call this place The Trinket Jungle.
As usual, I approached the Trinket Jungle nuzzling the
chrome in front of me, gaining a car length every few
minutes or so. The window was rolled down and Heat was
leaning into my van, arms folded against the door. And
Heat wore a grin.
Mirages swam between my eyes and the steering wheel
and my hair felt like a matt of fuses waiting for a spark.
I was experiencing the sickening impression my nose was
on backwards and I was breathing my own breath. Suddenly
a small Mexican boy leaped onto my bumper and began washing
the windscreen. They do that all the time.
Through the rippling waves of heat the boy looked like
a demon. His squeegee was a pitchfork. I told him to go
"Vete!" I said. "Diablo mono!" I
called him monkey-devil because of the prehensile way
he clung to my windshield wiper.
He went away. They don't often do that.
A little girl took his place and wanted to know if I
would like to buy some Chicklets. I shook my head and
she moved to the next car.
Then a man with hammocks draped over his open arm turned
a slow pirouette beside the van and said, "Hãmacas,
senior. Muy duro."
"No," I told him. He stumbled over a speedbump
and comically recovered his aplomb with a rosy curse and
a nimble two-step.
The exhaust smoke from the Winnebago in front of me
was forcing the temperature in the van way beyond the
cul-de-sac of any honest thermometer. I sensed something
endothermic happening to my feet and kicked off my running
shoes. Meanwhile, sweat was pretending my eye sockets
were dried lake beds that needed filling.
The second wave approached.
There was the man selling fruit-flavored crushed ice
followed by a boy peddling Spanish magazines.
An open handed beggar-woman peered dejectedly into each
passing window. She must have been in her late sixties.
She carried a healthy six month baby on her back, cacooned
by a woven pouch.
A representative from what I thought was the Mexican
chapter of the Salvation Army trotted by, canvassing with
a half-wit's lopsided zeal. He dropped a religious tract
through my open window.
Highschool students energetically flourished trays of
soda pop, trying to raise money for a graduation dance.
A crippled man wearing a coat of inflated balloons bent
toward a passenger in the car next to me. I watched him
hold the ember of his cigarette away from his inventory
as he spoke.
When the woman with the candied apples was safely behind
me, I caught sight of the border and relaxed a little.
I imagined I had passed through the curtain unscathed.
Then I saw him.
He was standing on the curb, not even bothering to weave
his pitch in the flow of traffic. He held only two objects.
But he held them high. One was a large ironwood carving
of an elephant. The other was a plaster statue of Jesus
Maybe it was the heat but there was something fascinating
about this final hurdle. The man looked almost otherworldly.
He was a tall Meztizo with flexible limbs. His broad mouth
and hatchet nose gave him a sinister, yet at the same
time almost majestic appearance, very much like an Egyptian
Pharoah. The man's skin added to this impression by being
the same color as the polished ironwood he held in his
hand. In stricking contrast to the saddlery of his flesh,
his teeth were white as sails.
As I watched, the Mexican seemed to hover in the air,
legs spread imperiously, feet delicately poised above
two entirely contrasting nations.
Then something happened. Standing aloof in the oven
of the air, the man began to transform in my mind. He
lost his material moment and meaning in the present and
became imbued with a kind of subtle, allegorical significance.
His showmanship, which he displayed with the wild expressionism
of his posture and the deep P.T. Barnum tones of his voice,
seemed to suddenly inflate beyond the man's mortality
and for one strange instant that vendor became for me
a symbol of the Mexican mind which can hold simultaneously,
as if often does, such systems of absurd imbalance as
an elephant and a Christ. The utter nonchalance on the
man's face only served to reinforce this impression. Here
was a Mexican who knew his business, which was the absolute
reconciliation of all things incompatible. It leads to
a better man and a better way to make a dollar, for a
man who can sell a Christ and an elephant is a man capable
Although my van's passenger window was closed, it was
not difficult to imagine what he was saying.
"If there is a want for anything in your home these
two works of art are all you need.
"This elephant can be from anywhere. You bought
it in Africa. Or in India. It has elements from both.
Or you bought it in Mexico, where a man can buy anything.
It is the beast of kings and queens. In ancient times
it was thought to represent good luck. No man should be
without one on his table. It brings good fortune.
"Or witness the Good Shepherd. Hand painted. The
small price is worth the added comfort to your soul. Nothing
evil can befall one who travels with Our Saviour.
"Either one for eighteen dollars, American."
In the mind of Mexico, every grand notion can be tossed
onto the scales of this man's outstretched arms. The ideas
nest in either the elephant or the Christ.
Which will it be?
The choice was obvious. I rolled up my window.