I think that pretty much anyone who has lived to be a certain age has experienced loss. Some more than others. Some less. The real question is what are you left with after you lose everything?
Some people might answer by saying nothing. Some might answer by saying pain. Others might answer this question by saying freedom or hope while still others might say a void or emptiness. Me... I was left with a little of all of these. But mostly with questions.
Questions which I am still struggling to answer. Questions which I may never be able to answer. Questions for which there may be no answers at all. Who? What? When? Where? How? Why?... Why not?
Winter comes quickly to Juarez. Who knew it could get so cold in the desert? I certainly did not prepare for it. When winter hit us our first year there we didn't have enough blankets and no functional heater for the first week. There were two old portable gas heaters that we found in a closet in the house behind a bunch of junk but there was no gas lines so I went out and got some flexible gas line and some fittings from a hardware store in El Paso.
I had to tap into the gas behind the stove and run the flex-line across the ceiling tying it up to the lamp which hung over the dinning table with a shoe lace. It looked a little funny but it got the job done. No more water freezing in glasses that were left out on the table over night.
Christmas that year was great. I don't think the girls had ever had a stocking or more than one present each before. Probably much less. Teresa told me before we got married that before she had to leave them to come to the U.S. that no matter what Santa would always leave a black plastic trash bag with three dolls in it on the door step every year. I think I may have gone a little overboard trying to compensate for all the years that I wasn't there.
Commuting across an international border can be a very interesting experience. Every day you see the same people standing there in the traffic. Selling their bags of peanuts, fried pork skins, and sodas. Advertising their amputations and deformities or displaying their unfortunately disadvantaged progeny with the hope that someone... anyone... will give them a few pesos.
I used to spend about two hours a day in line to get to work. I would see the same people every day and got to know quite a few of them. I recall one morning in particular I was in my car with my window rolled down (I had fixed it by this point) and I was talking on the phone with my mother. Someone came up to my window and started asking me for money in spanish.
Being as I was somewhat distracted and had already given away all of the money that I had with me that day I responded by saying "no hay" ( pronounced no eye ) which means I don't have any. I took a drink of water and when I looked up I made contact with one empty eye socket and one big brown eye. Having said "no hay" just a second before, and seeing that eyeless hole, I was caught so by surprise that I sprayed my mouthful of water all over the inside of my windshield.
He was a junkie but I felt sorry for him so I made sure to bring a few bucks to give him the next day. I can't for the life of me remember his name but it turned out that he spoke pretty good english and we sort of became friends over the next few months. He would remain an acquaintance of mine for the remainder of my stay in Juarez.
A couple of weeks after that kid tried to rob me at my door. I, or rather my car, developed a problem with one of its fuel injectors. I couldn't afford to fix it so I went out and purchased a cheap mountain bike to serve as transportation to and from work. I wasn't in very good shape at the time so traversing the eight mile stretch to and from work was somewhat difficult for a while. I was frequently late due to flat tires etc. for a little while during the period of adjustment. Fortunately my boss was pretty nice and cut me some slack.
A bottle of sotol had become my friday night friend by august 2007. My wife wasn't super pleased about it but so long as I waited until the girls were asleep before I got started she didn't give me any guff. My cigarette intake had also been increasing slowly but steadily as time progressed.
Teresa would let me know that she could tell that I had been smoking by eating a raw clove of garlic and giving me a passionate kiss. Simple but effective I must say. She definitely knows how to get her point across. God I love that woman.
Near the end of august 2007 I started to develop a tooth ache. It slowly developed a little bit each day for quite a while getting more and more painful. At first I would control the pain with Tylenol. When the Tylenol was no longer effective I started drinking every night in a pathetic and ineffective effort to control the throbbing in my head.
Late one night in early september 2007, if I remember correctly, the pain from my tooth became so excruciating that it felt like someone was jamming a pencil in my ear. Even after a whole quart of sotol I was left holding my face and crying on the stairs in front of my apartment at two in the morning. It was a hurt unlike any other.
I don't know exactly how long I sat there before my neighbor Enrique came out and asked me what was wrong. I explained my situation and that I couldn't afford a dentist. With a somewhat sinister smile he said that he had something that would help me.
Obviously curious I inquired what it was and he told me to wait there for a second. About five minutes later he returned and handed me a small ball of aluminum foil with a small piece of plastic sticking out. When I opened it up I found what looked like a little piece of a tootsie roll.
I had seen it done before... You take a spoon, a few drops of water, and a chocolate chip. You heat it just until it starts to boil but not longer. You then take the back end of the syringe and mix it. A small piece of cotton fiber from a cigarette filter rolled into a ball serves as a filter. Placing the needle into the cotton you draw up the warm coffee colored liquid. Then you inject yourself just like the doctor had in the past. Incredibly stupid I know. But anything for a reprieve from the torture..
The pain was still there but it was off in the distance somewhere. Like a scream heard from down the street. Everything was so far away. For a few hours nothing mattered. Not the papers. Not the pain... Nothing.
It only cost five dollars (actually fifty pesos) and at first I only did it when the pain was intolerable. Of course slowly but surely once or twice a week became three or four. Three or four became everything... all the time. Within three months I was shooting heroin twice a day every day.
Within four months I got a root canal. This must have been about two months too late. I quit immediately... until the next night.
I don't think there's anything so stealthy as heroin addiction. It sneaks up on you so quietly... so gently. Like the giant super-octopus that it is. It wraps its titanium tentacles around your neck. It puts one down your throat and one up your ass. When you don't feed it it rips you apart from the inside. The only way to break its magnetic grip is to starve it to death. Which takes a very long time.
At first I got it from Enrique. Then I got it from El Mojo. Then the guy with one eye took me to "El Refuego" which he told me meant "The Hustle". From there I found a few other spots.
In Juarez they call them "picaderos" which loosely translated means hot spots. They were shooting galleries and they were all over Juarez. So long as you weren't wearing a police uniform and you had a little bit of money you were welcome. Some of them only sold cocaine. Some of them only sold heroin. Some of them sold both.
It wasn't like they tried to hide it or anything. I mean after all the local cops were on the clock for the cartel. They kept a few people at strategic vantage points with radios just in case. You could go in and get your drugs, a pipe or syringe, and stay and get high. Nothing fancy mind you. Mostly gutted out, crumbling, abandoned adobe structures, but effective.
The picaderos attracted american junkies as well as mexican junkies because while you were there you were protected by the cartel and the drugs were cheap. Nobody fucked with you while you were inside or in the immediate vicinity because retribution would be swift and severe. They made lots of money twenty four hours a day.
Nobody in their right mind would rob a junkie because their money would be for drugs. The way the cartel saw it, if you steal from a junkie then you would be stealing money that would have been the cartels. A death sentence. At the very least a severe beating.
I think it was april or march 2008 when the president of mexico declared war on the cartels. Thousands of soldiers poured into Juarez like a migration of ants. They would take over entire neighborhoods and conduct house to house searches looking for weapons and drugs.
This show of force was in direct response to the previous years more than two thousand and something homicides. Only thirty or so of which were innocent civilians. There were a slew of large scale busts and arrests. Including, but not limited to, a ranch in Juarez with a private air strip where D.H.L. Jets would land and disgorge contraband and a house and warehouse in Mexico city where they found more than 200,000,000 dollars in cash and thousands of gallons of meth making supplies in the possession of some Chinese dudes.
All of the really high profile picaderos, some of which had existed for twenty years, changed into "drive through" dealing spots. Only the small ones such as "El Refuego" survived and they had to beef up security. Most of the dealing spots cut their hours of operation down to daylight hours only and many of them closed entirely.
Earlier that year in february of 2008 I lost my job. Go figure. I had been missing more and more work and showing up late when I was there. No matter how cool my boss was it was unacceptable behavior.
I would get up every morning thereafter, put on a pair of slacks, shirt, and tie, and go to El Paso. I developed a little hustle where I would pull my car into a gas station and tell people that I was trying to get to a job interview but had run out of gas. It worked incredibly well.
I would average about fifty bucks in three hours, moving from station to station, and my car was always full of gas. I was making more money hourly than I had at my job. No one, or at least hardly anyone, ever questioned me. If they did I would just drive away. I carried on like this for some time.
In juarez I was a fly in the milk. I was a speck of one color swirling around in a dynamic fluid of another. Probably because of this I wound up growing a tail. I started to notice that I was being followed everywhere I went. I dismissed it as paranoia for obvious reasons. Just because your paranoid doesn't mean there's not someone out to get you.
I'm pretty sure it was may 2008 when I went to "El Refuego" at about midnight. I knocked on the large steel door and announced myself as "El Guero" (the white guy). I was pretty much of a regular fixture there by that time so everyone knew me. From the door man, to the dealers, to the godfather, and apparently the police too. The door creaked open and I was greeted by either "Barbas" or "Chongo" (Beard or Monkey). I don't remember which as they were both there. I went inside.
The crumbling adobe structure consisted of a corridor about forty feet in length with two rooms on the right hand side and one larger room on the left. There were no doors other than the steel one in front. The ceiling of the room on the left had been ravaged by a fire at some point in the past and, although weakened, it was still in place. At the end of the central corridor there was a small table and chair where the dealer would sit.
There was an assortment of junkie shit laying around. A couple of torn up mattresses, small tables, and milk crates to sit on. There were a lot of candles that served both as a source of light and a heat source for cooking dope. It was filthy.
The dealer that night was Giovani who was the son of another dealer who was called "Tio" which means "Uncle". They all had nicknames and they were all connected in the mafioso sense of the word. There were about fifteen people there total.
I bought twenty dollars worth of heroin and a syringe and proceeded to cook up my fix. I had stabbed myself unsuccessfully about three or four times trying to find a vein when there was a loud bang, bang, bang, at the door. An authoritative voice instructed "open the door".
We all just sort of looked at each other for a second. This was impossible... There was another loud rapping on the door. "Beard" asked who is it? Open the fucking door now the disembodied voice answered. No one would dare talk like that there... except... Pandemonium ensued.
We scattered like flies feasting on a pile of excrement right before someone steps in it. Scared half to death I ran over to the room at the left of the dealers table. It was dark. Maybe it was safer.
With my loaded syringe in one hand I pulled out the remainder of my dope with the other and threw it. I inserted the needle into the muscle tissue at the top of my right arm. As I started to depress the plunger there was a loud cracking sound and a man completely covered in black ballistic nylon fell through the burned out ceiling and landed on his back not more than two feet away from me.
Black combat boots, bandolier, assault rifle, hip mounted pistol, gear belt, and a ski mask. Shit... At this point I was hoping that they were the police because if they weren't then we would all be dead in a matter of minutes. I guess you could say we were lucky.
"Barbas" opened the door and in rushed, I don't know how many more, Mexican army soldiers and Mexican federal police. With our hands on our heads we were, not so gently, escorted outside and made to lie face down on the filthy street. In a word... we were screwed.
There we lain for a few minutes before they came around and, quite systematically, proceeded to kick the living crap out of each and every one of us. With the exception of Monica, the lone female, we all got it pretty bad. For my ration I received a kick in the head, a stomped ankle, and a swift kick in the side. They cracked one of my ribs.
Once they had had their fun they lined us all up against a wall and searched us. About this time was when the television crew was let in. we were all summarily filmed for broadcast later that morning.
They then loaded us all into the backs of a couple of large military stake-bed trucks and transported us to a nearby army base. My car was "impounded". It was a very bumpy ride to endure face down, hands on head, with a cracked rib.
Once at the army base we received extremely thorough "medical" examinations. Extremely thorough... We were then led through a barracks full of sleeping soldiers to an empty room where we were given blankets, water, and a sandwich. We spent the night there.
The next morning we were taken to the "procuderia" which is a sort of court house. We were then taken downstairs and placed in holding cells where we sat for three days. How they managed it I have no idea but some of the guys I got busted with had smuggled in some drugs and money. They had some diazepam tablets and I don't know how much money.
However much it was it was sufficient to bribe the guards into getting us some chocolate bars and the diazepam helped to stave off the withdrawals somewhat. We were given blankets, food, and water. I have never heard anything like the sound of fifteen people puking their guts up before. It was... different.
On the morning of our third day we were all taken upstairs and interrogated. We all had a different story. Even though I had thrown my drugs away before I was arrested I was nevertheless charged with possession. It would seem that either the "Federales" or the soldiers had taken the liberty of planting some drugs in my car.
At this time, in Mexico, possession of less than two grams of drugs was an infraction carrying a maximum sentence of three days in jail. Possession of over two grams was considered dealing and was classified as a crime against society which carries the penalty of a very long prison sentence. Poor Giovani... I don't know how they knew that he was the one dealing but they knew. From what I heard he got ten years. He couldn't have been more than twenty or so.
A few hours later we were released. When I tried to get my car back I was told that nobody knew where it was. It took me three trips back and forth between the American Consulate and the procuderia to retrieve it.
When they impounded my car it contained my tools, an lcd computer monitor, my passport, my wallet, and some money. When I got it back it was not only empty but completely torn apart. Keys too... gone. My tools alone were worth thousands of dollars.
When I returned home from jail I was greeted by my family and told that they had seen me on television. Apparently, because I was an american with a chinese name, the media tried to spin me as some archetype villain. Who is this mysterious american Ho-tai Gaston etc. etc.
A few weeks later I was on my way back to my house after scoring some more heroin. It had just gotten dark and I had to stop at a stop sign. It was a blind intersection at the top of a hill.
I looked both ways and pulled forward to cross the street when an older model Chevy pickup, lights off of course, came flying over the crest of the hill, doing about double the speed limit, and slammed into the drivers side front fender of my car. There was a loud hissing sound and a large cloud of oily steam... oh well. So much for that chapter of my life.