San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


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 away.

"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 Christ.

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 of anything.

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.