“I’m an insect. You put me in a matchbox to live. You shake my box to torture me. You open the box, peer inside, and laugh at me.
“I’m the match who will burn YOU to death!”
The mentally disturbed neighbor above my room is off his meds again and freaking out. If it’s not his hallucinations I must endure, it’s the drunks mistaking my apartment for their own and struggling to open my door with their key in the middle of the night waking me after a twelve-hour shift. I’m also tortured by noise from sirens, traffic, and street confrontations.
I rent a room within a shoddy hotel in the skid row section of San Diego, oddly named Whispers. Each floor has a common shower and toilet. My neighbors include retirees, parolees, alcoholics, and the mentally ill.
I’m a shlub; pushing 30, never married, no girlfriend, and earning a living as a ride-share driver. It’s a life created by a desperate man. I earned a Bachelor and Master’s degree in Philosophy, teaching high school and junior college philosophy courses. I was fired from both when I could no longer tolerate my student’s smartphone affixations and grade grubbing making me apathetic to teaching. I enrolled in bartending school, graduated, but for every drink ordered by a customer, I’d pour two; one for the customer, and one for myself. I sweated AA meetings for a year and have remained sober.
I never crossed the border into Tijuana until an excruciating tooth ache and the inability to afford its treatment in San Diego led me to a dentist in Tijuana recommended by a fellow ride share driver. The cost to treat the root canal was less than 50% of the cost in San Diego. I decided to spend the rest of the day in Tijuana observing a bustling border town and devouring tasty street tacos. A single dollar was worth about twenty Pesos.
I met a quirky set of expats at Club Shanghai. They were largely retired men who could no longer afford to live in San Diego. I never understood the Chinese city name connection but it was a way to end the day watching the beautiful women dance for drunken, groping male patrons. I grew bored of the depravity while nursing a soft drink and left.
Kevia was my age. She staked out a position on the tourist heavy corner of Avenida Revolucion and Tercero streets, sketching portraits for the tourists.
I marveled at how an image flowed from her brain, down her arm, into her hand and fingers ending up on canvass. She was quick and her work was professional. She knew Tijuana very well and her advice on eateries, cantinas, and cultural sights earned her tips in addition to the $10 portraits. I sat watching her draw while resisting her attempts to draw my portrait. It was already too difficult to look at myself in the mirror!
Kevia was petite and flamboyant. She wore her brown hair short and was an expert at makeup application. Her colorful skirt and loosely fitting blouse gently waved in the breeze like marvelous sails. Kevia’s jewelry was local, inexpensive, but impressively crafted by artists from a variety of materials. She was attractive; creating a style, or more exactly, a brand named “Kevia” which stood out.
She was late for a sketching gig for one of the kids of a wealthy Tijuana family and had just missed the bus. I could see her anxiety as she quickly gathered her belongings. I hailed a cab, handed the driver $10, and told him to take her to her destination. She was grateful,
“You interest me! Let’s share Mexican coffee and delectable breakfast treats tomorrow morning, if you’re available.”
“I’ll make myself available. Meet you here?”
“Yeah, 8:00 am sharp. I begin working at 9:30.”
“My name Noam.”
“As in Chomsky?“
“My parents were academics and admired his studies.”
“I’m Kevia. See you tomorrow.”
Kevia was likely an educated woman what with the “Chomsky” reference which made our coffee date all the more exciting. I craved intellectual discourse.
I met Kevia as planned and we entered a patio of a cathedral with a marvelous fountain. Catholic nuns served up delicious Mexican coffee and pastries. There was no menu, no price list, just an offering basket.
“How did you learn to draw?”
“Why are you etching portraits for tourists in Tijuana?”
“I guess were playing who discloses their dubious backgrounds, first?”
“I came down to see a dentist. I’m a broke gig worker. I have an MA in philosophy, got fired from teaching, and became an alcoholic tending bar.”
“Your honesty is refreshing, Noam. I’ve lived here several years after a nervous breakdown led me to self-medicate with meth. My addiction got me fired as a Hollywood studio animator, and to feed my meth addiction, I pawned all the jewelry and silver from my parents and grandparents. I can’t cross the border because there’s a warrant out for my arrest. I scrape by doing street portraits and teaching drawing to the children of the wealthy in Tijuana. I live alone in an apartment above a beauty salon who is my landlord. I get a great discount on my hair, manicures and pedicures. The only benefit of gig work is flexible hours so I can be here with you.
“I’m happy you joined me this morning. You enjoy living in San Diego?”
“I’m getting ‘priced out’ of San Diego. I’m heading to the South Pacific when I’ve saved the money.”
“I’m moving to Mexico City. I crave the artistic stimulation of a capital city. I’ve got to hit the street corner and sketch. If you would like to show me around Tijuana, I’ll pay for dinner and drinks. Mondays are slowest in Tijuana and the best time to explore. I’ll meet you Monday evening at six o’clock on the corner and introduce you to some mind-blowing Mexican seafood. Just for the record, I’m sober and it won’t work out for us if you’re a drinker or substance abuser.”
“One hellish year in AA was enough for me.”
“I know ‘hellish’. My meth head boyfriend dumped me unconscious outside county hospital fearing I overdosed. My family brought theft charges against me rather than flowers. I fled to Tijuana and checked into a recovery clinic run by a cool expat retired psychiatrist.
“With full disclosures made, time to split. See you next Monday, Noam.”
The taxi sped off with a newfound friend who sparked a romantic interest dormant within me.
While working rideshare, I picked up a woman from the San Diego International Airport and the rideshare APP incorrectly instructed me to deliver her to an address in Tijuana. She was about sixty, attractive, shapely, and well-dressed.
“My name is Noam. You live in Tijuana, Ma’am?”
“Yes, but I’m only there once a month. The remainder of my time is spent in LA with my daughter and grandchildren. My name is Maria.”
“I see you want me to deliver you to an address in Tijuana but the rideshare service won’t permit me to cross into Mexico. I’ll drop you near the border crossing, if you like?”
“I’d prefer you take me home. It will give us an opportunity to chat, and save me time. I’ll pay you extra, in cash!”
“I could use the extra money, and my SENTRI card will permit me quick entry back across the border but I’ll lose my rideshare privileges.”
“I’ve heard of SENTRI. Isn’t that a special endorsement to your passport allowing you speedy passage back into the United States from any foreign country?”
“The SENTRI card waves me through Customs without the need for lengthy questions from CBP officers like: ‘Why did you visit Mexico?’ or ‘Do you have anything to declare?’ Most importantly, it’s unlikely I’d endure a vehicle search.”
“You must be a very trusted citizen by the CBP.”
“Anybody with a clean background check can qualify. What brings you to Tijuana today?”
“It’s ‘El Dia de Los Muertos’.”
“Isn’t it Mexico’s version of Halloween?”
“It’s not about scaring people like Halloween but celebrating our deceased loved one’s. Our families welcome back the souls of our deceased relatives for a brief reunion that includes food, drink and celebration. I’m welcoming back my deceased parents and husband.”
“We could use more of that type of celebration instead of feeding our sugar fixes and wearing costumes.”
“The United States could use a lot of things. The most clever amongst us finds a way to provide what you call the ‘fixes.’”
“If you can ‘fix’ my cost of living, let me know how. My rent for a shoddy room is killing me.”
“Since I only visit my home one weekend per month, why don’t I rent you my Tijuana home for $300 per month, including utilities, internet, and cable? I’d like somebody to keep an eye on it while I’m away.”
“Coincidently, I have an appointment in Tijuana on Monday. May I see it then?”
“Your rideshare APP shows the address. Drop by at noon and I’ll show you the house.”
I dropped Maria at the border crossing. I pulled away and onto my next rideshare pickup but an uneasy feeling about Maria overcame me. Maybe it was all the talk about death?
Maria’s place was a modest home situated in the hills overlooking Tijuana. Compared to my hotel room, it was a palace, including two bedrooms, a remodeled kitchen, bathroom, living room, and was fully furnished. The rent was one-third what I was paying in San Diego, and the border crossing was not far from the house.
I welcomed the opportunity to leave Whispers. I rented Maria’s house on the spot with just a handshake, no rental agreement, and no security deposit.
Later that evening, Kevia and I met at a cozy beachfront seafood restaurant named Las Playas. I was invigorated by the gentle ocean breeze filling my lungs. As I leaned into kiss Kevia on the cheek, her perfume was a magnificent pairing with the fragrant smell of the ocean.
We held hands and watched a blood redish-orange sun setting into the Pacific Ocean. Kevia’s yellow blouse and skirt accentuated the setting sun. We shared a goodbye kiss from the sun in the form of a refreshing breeze whipping up the passion between us.
“I’m moving into a house in Tijuana.”
“I can’t wait to see it, Noam. I’ve learned to read a person’s journey through life by sketching their faces; similar to a palm reader. You’ve had a bumpy ride, sweetheart. I want to sketch you. In return, teach me about philosophy.”
Kevia always carried a sketchpad to capture an inspiration immediately.
Throughout a melt-in-your-mouth sea bass dinner, I rambled on about every philosopher from Aristotle to Socrates while Kevia sketched me, studying my face with the intensity of a laser beam. Minutes passed like seconds, and Kevia handed me the sketch. She captured my appearance but graciously infused it with good looks.
“Come with me to Mexico City. I’ve been devising an animated series for children about coping with the ups and downs of life. I’d like to weave your philosophical wisdom into the animation. I believe we’re kindred souls, so pardon my directness, Noam.”
We ended the evening with a passionate kiss under a full moon and witness to the lights of distant sail boats and ships bobbing up and down like a glowing ribbon in the wind. I returned home with my sketch. I proudly hung it on my bedroom wall, but my image began to resemble a Rorschach test. My psychological interpretation depicted a careless and desperate man seeking an immediate fix to his mundane existence.
Maria’s home was pleasant except for barking dogs and the ever-present vigilance I maintained while sleeping despite bars covering the windows. Crime is prevalent in Tijuana. Nonetheless, moving to Tijuana made sense. I was saving money, living better and I became romantic with Kevia.
One weekend when Maria came home, she treated me to dinner at a fabulous steakhouse featuring prime meats seasoned the way only Mexico has perfected and cooked barbacoa style.
“A handsome and educated man shouldn’t be working rideshare for a living! I have an opportunidad for you, Noam.”
She moved alongside me in the booth, placed her arm around my neck drawing me near to her, and whispered, “I want you to drive from Tijuana to Los Angeles and back weekly as a drug mule. Each successful delivery pays you $5000 cash!
“Pobrecito, the look on your face suggests you’re imagining bricks of cocaine sequestered inside your car with the odds of getting caught by drug sniffing dogs very likely. Don’t underestimate Mama! After dinner, the smuggling operation will become clear when I introduce you to Manny.”
We drove to a dark and menacing industrial area comprising the alley ways and side streets where no tourist’s venture. The paint and body shop were nondescript with no sign, no windows, and included only one way in and out; a roll up metal door covered by iron bars. Maria honked, the metal door opened, and Manny rolled aside the heavy metal security bars. Maria pulled inside and Manny hurriedly approached with an employee.
Manny was a large, formidable man with a thick head of greased back hair and moustache. I couldn’t help notice the prominent tattoos on each forearm; one was a crucifix, the other was the Devil. He was the owner of the shop which was small. The concrete floor was cracked and stained by oil, grease, and a variety of indiscernible liquids. In addition to hammers and saws for pounding and cutting metal, I noticed razor sharp tools appearing out of place within a paint and body shop including drill bits, landscaping shears, pruners, a nail gun, and machetes.
“Manny will fix the dent in your front end.”
They sanded off the paint and primer to the metal. After pounding out the dent, Manny drove my car into a small, claustrophobic, suffocating paint booth with a loud obnoxious exhaust fan drowning out any conversation. Manny carefully applied a gray primer coat with a sprayer, and painted the repair with two coats of paint matching the original color. His employee pulled a switch igniting searing hot heat lamps to dry the paint job. Manny left to retrieve a freshly painted SUV.
“So, what’s this ‘scheme’ of yours Maria?”
“Manny’s primer is infused with cocaine. The cocaine odor is undetectable by even the most sensitive canine noses, particularly when covered by two coats of paint laced with noxious chemicals formulated to repel canine noses. The Cartel believes in the principle of hiding in plain sight and determined a successful businessman with proof of cross border relations and a SENTRI card would substantially decrease the seizure rate with this painting procedure. You’ll be provided a luxury car registered in your name; set of expensive business suits portraying a successful businessman; a Permanent Resident Card issued by Mexico linking you to a luxury condo in Tijuana; a business card issued by a legitimate American real estate firm with business ties to Mexico; and a furnished condo in Beverly Hills where your driver’s license and vehicle registration will be linked. A white man with these credentials and a SENTRI card will be passed through Customs without question.
“You’ll cross the border and deliver the car we furnish you concealing the cocaine to body shops in LA. I suspect you can cross three times per week. Would $60,000 cash every month interest you?”
“I’m afraid of the Cartel.”
“I’m your only contact with the Cartel. I’ll pay you at the condo in Beverly Hills.”
“What if I’m caught?”
“You run the risk of arrest but the reward is the big money. If you’re arrested and convicted, don’t cooperate with the authorities. The American jails are filled with snitches and assassins who will murder you. I’ve scheduled a test run. Where is Lupe, Manny?”
Manny texted, and within minutes, a young, pregnant, Mexican women showed up.
“This woman is named Lupe. She has a work VISA to cross the border. She’ll drive that freshly painted SUV Manny is bringing over whose primer has the cocaine infusion.”
“Why are you subjecting a pregnant woman to CBP apprehension?”
“I want to convince you my scheme is safe for you. Females are most often used as mules because of their desperation to earn money to feed their families and Lupe’s big belly is a ‘red flag’ of economic desperation to the CBP who may likely question and inspect the car.”
Manny’s shop was creepy. The metal door slammed shut, followed by the iron bars locking. Maria and I drove away following Lupe in my car.
“Manny has a lot of tools which seem out of place in a paint and body shop.”
“Tools of the trade! Keep your eyes on Lupe.”
We watched Lupe approach the CBP from several car lengths behind. The drug sniffing dogs paid no attention. Lupe was permitted entry when her VISA was verified.
“You have faith in my scheme, Noam?”
“Maria, I’m all in!”
“I’m delighted. We’ll hold onto this old Japanese compact of yours for safekeeping.”
“What do you mean, ‘safekeeping’?”
“The primer on your front-end repair was infused with cocaine. Had you declined the job, I had the leverage to change your mind for you, and I’ll continue to have the leverage to keep you on the job! You don’t want your car found by the CBP with a kilo hidden recklessly within it! Don’t be upset with me. Consider it a trade; your car for a brand-new luxury high performance car.
“Never underestimate Mama!”
I drove a high-performance German car to body shops in and around Los Angeles. The crews weren’t much for chatter, choosing to work as quickly as pit crews, sanding the car to the bare metal, and repainting the car while others meticulously vacuumed up all of the primer and paint remnants. The car was painted white and ready for my return to Tijuana for another cocaine infused painting at Manny’s.
At every LA body shop, I noticed black trash bags quickly loaded into a van which sped off. I suspect the paint and primer remnants vacuumed up were delivered to a lab which extracted the cocaine particles. Judging from the number of black bags, I was likely transporting enough cocaine per trip to make the endeavor highly profitable. It distressed me to think some unsuspecting customers snorted primer and paint particulate from time to time.
I’d spend the night in the Beverly Hills condo if the car was prepared overnight. Maria would stop by and pay me in crisp, new $100 bills. For the first time in my life, I was dealt a winning hand. I was livin’ large and makin’ huge bank.
My well-documented facade and SENTRI card assured the CBP I was a legit businessman with dual residence, and likely entered my documents into my passport profile eliminating the necessity to question me each time I crossed the border.
I explained my overnight stays in LA to Kevia as “long rideshare runs from San Diego to LA” requiring overnight stays with friends due to fatigue. Although I was living in the high-rise condo in Tijuana, I maintained Maria’s rental for meetings with Kevia.
I began to detest the charade and lying to Kevia. The less she knew the better. It was necessary to maintain several accounts within Mexican banks recommended by Maria to avoid Treasury oversight. The combined balance was reaching a million dollars, and it was time to plan a future living in Tahiti after quitting the drug running. I wouldn’t tell Maria, fearing for my life. I’d simply disappear and leave for my new home in Tahiti hoping the Cartel wouldn’t find me.
Kevia and I were in love but my only alternatives included ditching Kevia altogether or bring her over to join me in Tahiti which would be dangerous for her if the Cartel came to murder me. It would be ridiculous living in Mexico City with Kevia after quitting Maria and the Cartel. Any alternative except continued drug running spelled death for me, and likely, Kevia.
I was screwed like the framed sketch was to my wall and increasingly aggravated by my Rorschach interpretation of Kevia’s sketch. I believed the body shops and black plastic bags were metaphors for death and the sketch was warning me to get out before it was too late.
Almost a year had passed and I decided it was my last trip. I was eager to complete it and relax in a first-class seat to Tahiti. I recognized many of the CBP officers who quickly cleared me through customs but not today. I approached a portly CBP officer who appeared to be reaching retirement. He had a trimmed white beard and a Santa Claus demeanor. I handed him my SENTRI card, he ran it through the CBP computer system, and before passing me through Customs said,
“I have a grandkid in business school who wants to become a hot shot young executive and drive a fancy car like this. You mind showing it to me? We got cars waiting behind you so it won’t take but a minute?”
My heart raced.
“Of course, Officer.”
He slowly walked around the car, admiring its beautiful design, leather upholstery, high performance engine, tires, and electronic gear. He bent down behind the car, and looked up underneath the rear bumper.
“You just get the car painted, son? The paint shop missed a spot.”
The body shop missed painting over a six-inch strip underneath the bumper exposing the primer. He rubbed his finger across the surface of the primer, leaned into smell it, saying,
“If you rub your finger across this primer, it’s granular to the touch. They gave you two coats of paint likely to cover the lousy primer. I worked in a paint and body shop before joining the CBP. I recognize shoddy work.
What did you study in college to become so successful at a young age? Develop one of those darn App’s?”
“Philosophy, Officer, but I work in real estate development with cross border ties.”
“I know a little about philosophy. I married a Vietnamese gal I met in Saigon during the war. She’s been trying to convert me to Buddhism ever since. If you want to save a few bucks, buy a can of spray paint from the dealer and touch it up.”
I got back into the car, eager to leave.
He leaned into the car and gave me that “fatherly advice” stare. “You remind me of my grandson. Take my advice and grow eyes in the back of your head if you’re going to keep this up.”
“Have a good day.”
That narrow escape and sage advice from Santa was my final justification for quitting Maria’s employ. My winning hand was flipping me the bird!
When I finished my delivery to the LA body shop and got paid by Maria, I drove the car back to my Tijuana condo, wrote Maria a resignation letter, and hurriedly began packing for my flight to Tahiti, departing from Tijuana’s international airport. I’d phone Kevia once I arrived.
The phone rang. The caller I.D. read, “Doorman.”
“Señor Noam, I have a woman here named Kevia who is demanding to see you. I told her I can’t send her up without an escort but she insists!”
“All right, Paco. Bring her up.”
The doorbell chime alerted me to their arrival. I opened the door.
Kevia was fuming, stormed in, and Paco was visibly shaken. I handed him a $20 bill and thanked him.
“I’m sorry Señor Noam”.
“Todo esta bien, Paco. Gracias.”
“Who the hell are you, Noam, and what are you doing living in this penthouse?”
She quickly made a tour of my expansive condo.
“This walk-in closet is larger than my apartment, and these expensive Italian suits, shirts, and shoes could fill a store on Rodeo drive! I believed you were a sweet, sensitive, down on his luck philosopher. I hoped we’d split to Mexico City together but now I discover you’re just another liar!”
“Another opportunity was presented to me after I met you. I was waiting to see our relationship blossom before revealing it to you.”
“A threatening Mexican woman asked me to sketch her today. She looked over the completed sketch, remarking, ‘You could have made me look more attractive like you did for your friend.’ She placed a $100 bill into my tip box saying, ‘Be careful of men in Tijuana. They’re all liars and cheaters.’ I watched her walk away and throw the sketch into a trash can. Of whom was she a ‘patron,’ so to speak? I’m sorry, babe, but you don’t make the grade as a gigolo capable of affording all of this.
“I’ve been burned by liars before. After you fell asleep, I couldn’t resist inspecting your wallet on the nightstand. Your driver’s license lists a residence in Beverly Hills, a business card says you’re a Vice President of an LA real estate firm, and Mexico issued you a Permanent Residence Card with this address.”
“It’s a long story. I was going to explain to you, but I’ve got to get out of town quickly and catch a flight!”
“Who are you running from and where are you going?”
“I can’t say now, baby, but it’s for your own good. I’ll call you as soon as I’m settled at my destination.”
“I can’t believe what’s going down here. It feels shady and not only are you in danger, but you may have put me in harm’s way?”
“I never said anything about my business to protect you. I love you and have money. We can create a good life together if you give me time to think, but I got to get going, now!”
Kevia walked to the balcony and took in the 360-degree view of Tijuana which also looked over the border into California. Tears rolled down her face as she gazed towards California.
“I had a loving family and a promising career but I threw it all away. I have the opportunity to begin anew in Mexico and I want to do it with a loving, trusted partner.”
I placed my arms around her waist, holding her close. We were the only two on the magnificent deck. The glistening pool resembled a mirror inviting us to look inside and imagine ourselves together.
“I won’t live another life of duplicity! I’m sober and want a straight life with a good man. I won’t get mixed up in whatever evil doings you’re engaged in.”
The phone rang.
I knew it was Paco calling to tell me my taxi to the airport arrived. I grabbed my carry-on and leaned in to kiss Kevia. She pulled away.
“Please give me the opportunity to explain all of this once I reach my destination. I’ll make it work out for us, I promise.”
“If my cell number is disconnected, consider it my goodbye and thank you for your friendship, Noam…or whoever you are!”
I settled into the leather seat in the first-class cabin, and lifted my first glass of scotch to my lips after five years of sobriety. My phone rang. I trembled before answering,
“We track your car by GPS and found you’re back in Tijuana. Let’s drive to Ensenada for an elegant shellfish dinner tonight.”
“I’m on a plane leaving Mexico. I’ve resigned. I left you a note explaining.”
“I’m insulted you left me a note without telling me in person after all I’ve done for you! I report to very powerful and dangerous people.”
“I apologize for the impersonality of the resignation but I’m tired and scared. Please accept my resignation. If it’s money you want, I’ll wire you, if it will set me free.”
“Your money is meaningless to the Cartel but your service is essential. I recruited you and you’ve become a very good earner. You’ll resign when the Cartel gives you permission. I’m attracted to you and we make a formidable team who’ll create a stable of money hungry young Americans making the Cartel and ourselves a fortune with the car painting scheme. I’ll explain to them you’re taking a vacation for health reasons but have your ass back in Tijuana in seven days.”
“Your old car will be discovered loaded with cocaine bricks by the CBP. When you return home, you’ll be arrested by the CBP when you show your passport. If you’re arrested and ‘rat’ to the authorities, you know the consequences. I don’t care where you’re flying to because there is nowhere on earth to hide. You’ll be hunted down and murdered. I want you to stop seeing the portrait artist you’ve been sleeping with in my home. If you continue to see her, I’ll remove the temptation for you.
“Never underestimate Mama. Bon voyage!”
Maria texted me a “kiss” emoji. It felt like an electronic leash and the name of the strip club, Shanghai, aptly described my situation. I became the insect in the matchbox my neighbor ranted about. If only I could find a match powerful enough to burn myself out of my predicament.
I was reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher who believed in nihilism. I hoped he was correct in saying, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”