Bumps In The Road

Ciudad Juarez Border Crossing
El Paso, Texas. Flipper’s playing another all ages show. The venue’s an alternative warehouse space, the turnout small, but the kids are enthusiastic. Near the end of the set Ted abruptly turns off his amp and walks off stage as the audience screams for more. I pick up the guitar, turn the amp back on, and try playing with the band. But I’m not Ted, it sounds like shit, and after five minutes or so we just quit.

Everyone’s tired. We’ve been on the road for over a month. We’re getting on each other’s nerves. Bruce left the tour in Atlanta, and we had to fly De Martis out. It was either that or cancel the rest of the shows and go home. Not even that has helped defuse everyone’s fear that the tour’s beginning to fall apart. Now the southern bookings haven’t been going well. We’ve fewer shows, and the crowds and guarantees have been smaller. That leaves us with less cash, longer drives, and more downtime. We didn’t even have this gig in El Paso until I booked it a week ago.

While the band is backstage I find the promoter, Ed Ivy, and get our money. I know Ed from Dead Kennedy tours, so while we’re talking shit and hanging out I take a chance and ask if he knows where to score drugs. He looks at me kind of strange, says he can get some weed.

“Looking for something a little stronger,” I tell him. “Real drugs.”

“A friend of mine’s mom has Valiums?”

It’s late afternoon and everyone is hanging out in the common room of our two-bedroom suite on the fifth floor of a semi high-rise hotel in downtown El Paso. All the surrounding buildings are lower, so we have an unobstructed view of the entire neighborhood. As I cross the room I catch a glimpse of traffic caught at the Mexican border a few blocks away. On the street below, there’s a menudo restaurant and even from up here the smell of the cooking grease and spices wafting in through the open window is intense.

Everyone’s a bit down as we’ve just received word our next show has been canceled and we have the night off. Actually, without the show we have almost four days off. This isn’t good. Our last few gigs haven’t been very profitable, and apparently now we have nothing until we get to LA.

We’re all sitting around sort of having a band meeting. But it’s not really that formal. I’m hoping we can get this over with so Will and I can figure out how and where to score drugs. But Ted has some sort of an agenda that he wants to address. It’s also apparent that De Pace is angry about something other than the show being canceled. So I’m listening, but neither of them is directly saying shit.

Earlier Ted and I had been talking and joking around, we’d gone out to get coffee, and then hung out in his room while he showed me his newest toy, a Rockman headphone amplifier (a mini-amp invented by Tom Scholz the annoying guitar player from the band Boston, and possessor of the worst guitar tone in rock’n’roll). So I’m sort of confused as to why Ted is now pissed at me.

And then he tells me his plan.

“There’s a show tomorrow night, San Francisco, we should headline,” he says. “Want you to call Ness at the Mab and get us on the bill. Tell him we’ll do it if he pays airfare and a thousand bucks.”

As this comes from out of nowhere I’m not really sure how to respond. Yet, I take a second and try to think Ted’s plan all the way through. However, I’m a little stunned from being blindsided by such an odd demand, and more than a little annoyed by his attitude. Plus I’m not really sure why Ted and Steve are so angry, and I wonder if it’s directed at me. But that’s beside the point.

The reality is Ted’s plan can’t work for numerous reasons. 1. Airfare to San Francisco for four, booked at the last minute, is more money than Flipper makes even at normal out of town shows, but it’s also more than they’d make if they played the Mab, because it’s local and we’re from San Francisco. So, if anything, and on the odd chance this could actually happen, the thousand bucks is definitely out of the question. 2. Ness Aquino, the Mabuhay Gardens’ owner, isn’t going to put up the money to fly anybody in for a show, especially not Flipper. 3. The show already has a headliner, a band Ted thinks Flipper should be playing with—but not opening for. This presents another set of problems trying to get them on the bill. 4. This plan leaves me hanging with the truck in Texas, and having to drive to LA by myself, which I’d be okay with if Ted’s plan actually was a halfway reasonably intelligent plan and the band was able to make some money and rejoin me in Los Angeles for the two shows that we do have there. But as it is, if they played the show for airfare, they’d be stuck in SF, we’d have to cancel, and I’d still need to get the truck and the gear back to San Francisco.

I’m looking to the other guys for support. But they’re avoiding eye contact, and keeping their mouths shut. Even Will isn’t helping, as he probably wouldn’t mind if the SF show actually panned out.

“This is not a good idea,” I say.

“Do your fuckin’ job,” Ted yells. “Tired of paying you to be Will’s babysitter.”

“Fuck you. Not calling Ness.”

“You work for me. I fuckin’ pay you. Make the call!”

Ted’s standing, jabbing the air between us with his finger, and yelling at me. I flick my lit cigarette and nail him in the middle of his chest. His raggedy black sweater, a mass of sparks, starts burning and he swats it out. Then we’re both up, toe to toe, about to get into it.

“This really what y’all want?” I say. “Cause it’s fuckin’ stupid. Ness ain’t goin’ for it.”

Bruno gets between us and says to chill out. Then he tells me I should just make the call, see what I can work out, no harm in asking. I tell them all to go fuck themselves and storm out of the suite slamming the door. In the hallway I immediately regret losing my cool. But I’m angry and hurt, so fuck them, the ungrateful bastards.

I have nothing against Ted. I think he’s crazy, but in that good creative eccentric kind of way, and I like the guy. But the babysitter comment pissed me off. I can’t help but think if I was a speed freak, like Ted, instead of a junkie like Will, then this wouldn’t be an issue. And just because the tour has gotten fucked up doesn’t mean I’m supposed to jump at any lame-ass idea and try and salvage what’s already falling apart. I’m not the booker. I didn’t put the tour together. I’m just the road manager. And I already booked yesterday’s show and as shitty as it was we still made money and none of them even thanked me. Besides, nobody’s suggesting I try to see if we could get some smaller shows in Phoenix, or Vegas so that we can make gas money to get us to LA. I mean that would be the more sensible use of my time. And yeah, it’s a less glamorous idea than headlining a cool show in SF, but that’s a pipe dream that’s never going to happen.

I’m outside on the street in front of the hotel smoking a cigarette, pacing the sidewalk, pissed off, when Will and Bruno come out to find me.

“So close to fucking him up,” I say and kick the side of the building with my steel toed boots.

“Ted woulda killed ya,” says Bruno.

“I know.”

I don’t want to argue, or continue being angry and decide to let it go. Thankfully so do they, and instead we set out to walk around downtown El Paso, which turns out to be pretty seedy and depressed. The whole place appears to be in decline. Half the storefronts are vacant or boarded up. The only open businesses are taco stands, currency exchanges, and liquor stores. The local economy is obviously not doing well.

We stop to eat at a Mexican restaurant. The florescent lights are bright, the place glows with a harsh green tint. While we wait for our food, a handicapped woman with a deformed foot mops the floor and the smell of disinfectant is so overpowering my eyes water. When the food arrives I discover I’m fucking starving and inhale my plate of enchiladas like a ravenous dog, shoveling them into my face, not tasting a thing. Can’t remember the last time I actually ate, and consider ordering more, but decide against it.

Back out on the street we run into De Pace, who’s wandering aimlessly alone.

“Look at this shit,” he says, holding up a small wad of grimy almost black peso notes. “It’s the dirtiest money I’ve ever seen.”

“Why’d you exchange it?” I ask.

“Thought I’d get some. Ya know, send to friends.”

It’s a weird statement. But then Steve does weird shit all the time. I’ve found him on several occasions lost amongst the aisles in gas station mini-marts checking out the prices on can goods and cleaning products, as if he’s comparison shopping against the prices at home. At truck stop snack shops down south he’ll buy pigs feet and pickled eggs, carry them out to the truck, and say he got me a snack while laughing manically. It is funny and thoroughly gross, but then they’ll sit there on the dash in their little to-go trays rotting away until someone throws them out.

“Ya got the pesos for souvenirs?”

“Yeah, but didn’t expect ‘em to look like used toilet paper.”

When we get back to the hotel we find Ted in the lobby, waiting by the elevator. He says something with a smile, sort of a joke, but I ignore him. I’m still pissed. He offers me a cigarette, a Marlboro, and I fucking hate Marlboros. I have to accept that this is Ted’s way of apologizing, or maybe he’s just wanting for it all to be forgotten. So I’m cool about it, take the smoke, and let it go.

An hour later, we’re all bored and restless and outside in front of the hotel smoking cigarettes talking about doing something, but none of us knows what.

“Let’s go to Mexico,” Will says.

When a taxi drives up, we hail it, and tell the driver to take us into Juárez. He wants to know where we want to go. I tell him we’re looking for a bar, or a club to hang out and drink. Will says it’d be cool if the bar has live music. The driver asks if we want any women. I tell him no. He says he knows where to go and we’ll love the women there. I say that’s all right, just a bar with music will do.

The streets are dark until we hit the border and cross the bridge, then the lights are blinding. On the Mexican side a sleepy guy in uniform asks what we’re doing and where we’re going.

“Tourists,” our driver tells him, and sleepy uniform guy unenthusiastically waves us through.

As the glare of the border fades, we come off the bridge, cross a large broad interchange, and turn down a street lined with brightly lit souvenir shops and tax-free liquor stores. All the buildings are painted brilliant colors and the sidewalks are crowded with people. Groups of young men standing around smoking cigarettes in front of neon lit bars openly stare at us as we pass. Outdoor food stalls periodically line both sides of the street and there’s the smell of frying meat in the air.

Then the business district abruptly ends and we drive into a dark, badly lit, residential neighborhood of low houses and vacant lots. The road immediately becomes rougher to drive on, and the farther we go, the worse it gets. Soon it turns into dirt with huge potholes, the streetlights now all but absent, or they aren’t working, and every thirty feet a dead dog carcass. Most of the houses have tall fences or walls around them with a dim light at the gate. Otherwise the streets are dark, deserted, and there’s no one anywhere.

The driver makes a turn onto an even worse road, with deeper potholes, and somehow another dead dog, and stops in front of a nondescript white house with no fence and a bright bare light bulb above the door.

“What’s this?” Asks Will.

“Is club,” says the driver. “Pay me. Wait for you.”

I hand him money and we all get out.

The street is pitch black, I can barely see where I’m stepping. There’s no traffic, only a few parked cars that look abandoned. On my left is a huge pothole, filled with brackish water. In front of me is the dead dog illuminated by the porch light, its crushed head framed in pool of dusty coagulated blood.

I can hear music coming from inside the house as I knock on the front door. A fat sweaty guy with greasy hair and a full Fu Manchu mustache opens it a slight crack, checks us out, then opens the door all the way and invites us inside. I walk into a front room that is so dark I have to wait for my eyes to adjust from the glare of the bare bulb on the porch. Dim shafts of smoke-filled light spill in from the various doorways to other rooms, but the main room doesn’t appear to have any light of its own. In the center of the room there’s a jukebox, a few tables, some mismatched chairs and a blue satin sofa that’s ripped and stained. Off to the side is a pool table, and in the next room over there’s a bare mattress on the floor, that can be seen through the open door.

Two chubby girls dressed in see-through négligés and panties pretend to be playing a game of pool. They eye us, touch themselves, and giggle. One of them bends over the table as if making a shot. She’s barefoot and fat, her stomach hangs onto the green felt, and her ass wiggles as she moves. The other girl runs her hand up and down the pool cue in an oddly obvious and suggestive manner. They are possibly the two most unattractive women I have ever seen.

A man approaches from out of the dark and asks what we want.

“Cervezas,” says Bruno.

I’m glad someone remembers Spanish.

We stand in the middle of the room and wait for the beers. In the dark corners, doorways and alcoves, shifty looking dudes check us out. A large woman wearing only a wife-beater t-shirt that’s straining to contain her ample body, smiles and gestures towards the grungy couch, and we all sit down. The floor is littered with cigarette butts and empty beer cans. I notice that she too is barefoot and immediately think of tetanus. When she walks away I watch her naked butt cheeks rumble and sway.

The beers arrive, they’re bottled, not cans. And, sadly, it’s American beer, and because of this the man wants a ridiculous sum for them. We pay him, not knowing what else to do. The tune on the jukebox ends and the room gets silent. The clack of pool balls the only sound.

No one is saying anything. It’s like they’re waiting for us to do something and we’re not doing anything but drinking beers. Obviously, this is a whorehouse and we’re supposed to be here to check out the women. Yet the whole situation is uncomfortable, and there’s a menacing air about the place. The shifty looking dudes stare at us as if we’re doing a great injustice to their woman by being here to have sex with them. But if it is indeed a whorehouse, then that’s what’s supposed to be happening. So then I’m wondering if it’s just our appearance that they don’t like. Although being the dope-fiend that I am, I’m of course trying to figure out if any of these shifty looking dudes knows where to get drugs. I mean it is Mexico after all. But every time I glance their way their expression says they want to kill me. I have the feeling they want to rip us off for just being here, so I’m afraid to crank up the hostility by asking about heroin. It’s like we’re the prey and they’re the predators and anything we do to push the power balance their way will get us killed. Plus I’m not that confident if we do score that they, or our cab driver, won’t sell us out to the Federales. And the idea of spending time in a Juárez jail is enough of an incentive for me to simply drink my beer and keep quiet.

Fifteen minutes of the chubby girls in the corner giggling and the scary dudes staring with dead eyes and all of us staring back, and I’ve had enough.

“I’m outta here,” I say, to no one in particular.

I put down my empty beer and walk to the door. A guy dressed in black, wearing a cowboy hat, steps off a stool and partially blocks my way. I say excuse me, move around him, and go outside. The air feels cool after being in that stuffy house. The cab is gone. The street is desolate and deserted—except for the dead dog, which is still there and still quite dead.

The rest of the band gradually files out behind me. We look at each other, but no one says anything. After a minute or two our cab turns the corner and slowly creeps its way toward us. When it stops, we all get in and drive back across the border to the hotel in silence.
 
 
Originally published by Razorcake May 28, 2013