‘Reynosa, no mas’

Other teenagers drove out to pastures or parking lots to raise hell on weekends. We traveled to a foreign country.

Plans for a weekend trip to Eddie’s were laid early in the week. Though we talked among ourselves about who was in and who was out for this weekend’s trip to “Mex,” in mixed company we deemed “ ’co” to be a more prudent code and oh-so-clever. I was a high school sophomore; and though I had been to Mexico many times with my parents, it was time to take the leap.

Tonight I make my first trip to ’co. My ’co-veteran friends say the last thing you want to do is show up too early and sit around Eddie’s when it’s two-thirds empty. Might as well wear a giant hat reading “First Timer.” So we wait until about ten o’clock to head south out of town.

Ten minutes south of McAllen, we come to the little border town of Hidalgo, and the lights of Reynosa, just across the river, light up the smoggy night air. The smell of half-refined PEMEX gasoline burned by First World hand-me-down gas-guzzlers fills the air.

We park the van in a lot on the U.S. side for five dollars; we’re crazy, but we’re smart enough to take at least this one precaution. At the international bridge, we put a dime in the turnstile and begin our twenty-minute hike to the Third World.

The Rio Grande is a living misnomer at this point in its life, a mere fifty or sixty feet across. But the international bridge is high over the gully that the muddy river winds through. Spiraling concertina wire tops the chain-link fencing that keeps pedestrians from jumping down to the riverbanks.

In the middle of the bridge we pass a four-foot obelisk that marks the international boundary, and a little thrill runs up our spines. We take this morsel of exotica as our just compensation for having to grow up in a place with so few rock concerts. This is the one thing we can brag about when we meet peers from San Antonio or Houston or Dallas at church youth retreats. “What’s that? You saw Ozzy at the Cotton Bowl last weekend? Yeah … well we were partying in Mexico last weekend (Barney Fife sniff) … gonna be there this weekend too.”

As we reach the Mexican side, we’re looked over by a number of rotund Mexican customs officials. They strike me immediately as more lax in their uniform. Each one is dressed a little differently, just subtle things, like different styles of hat, or different footwear, or one tucked, one untucked. This is the first hint that we’re playing by different rules over here, working without a net. The law is the barrel of a gun — the snide grin of a drunken federale. I can feel the top-to-bottom corruption of the government hanging in the air, and in the unsettling, rheumy gazes of the border guards.

Reynosa, no mas,” each of us says in turn. They nod knowingly and wave us and our U.S. dollars on through.

Coming down off the bridge, we hang a hard right and wind our way down a small hill, past a restaurant with cabritos, baby goats, butterflied in the storefront, heat lamps spotlighting their glistening ribs. Posters for the bullfight last weekend are still taped up in the windows and strung onto light posts and telephone poles.

In the vacant lot next to the restaurant, an old man in a federale hat, a paramilitary shirt, filthy polyester sansabelts, and black loafers coated with the white caliche of the parking lot he’s watching takes a drag off his Kool filterless. He’s not a federale. But he’s got the hat. We’ve got a running joke: “Got a hat? Be a cop.” And anyone of them can approach an American teenager and shake them down or extort their families for everything they’re worth. That’s the prevailing wisdom, anyway. But it’s not enough to keep us Stateside, and if anything, the air of danger only adds sweetness to this forbidden fruit.

On the left side of the brick-paved street is a pharmacy where Winter Texans from Iowa and Illinois buy ampecilina and prescription-strength pain relievers at pesos on the dollar and without a prescription.

Past that is Trevino’s, a two-story gift shop and bar with a marble façade and rebar sticking out the roof. Apparently, there is a disincentive to finish buildings here because that kicks you into a higher tax bracket. If you can keep some bare cinder blocks, exposed drywall, or some rebar protruding somewhere, the building’s not finished, and the tax collectors have to remain at bay. And so structures can and do sit ninety percent finished for decades.

Through the doors of Trevino’s we enter a world of over-the-top silver jewelry, life-sized suits of armor, liquor bottles, black onyx figurines. Proceeding through the gift shop, past the Buddha fountain and miniature zebras, we enter a cave-like bar. If we were here on a Friday afternoon in the fall, we could expect fifty or more high school kids there sipping hard on hurricanes and getting rowdy in the echoing marble room in preparation for that night’s football game.

There is a drinking age in Mexico of eighteen, but no one I’ve ever known has ever had their I.D. checked. Middle-aged, mustachioed waiters in red tuxedo waistcoats have been bowing and scraping to Valley teenagers for generations now. (It’s a time-honored rite of passage for South Texas adolescents, but time is the only thing that honors it; it’s a memory that grinds uncomfortably against my adult notions of social justice. There’s just something upside-down in the natural order about a distinguished fifty-year-old man taking orders from a bunch of middle- and upper-class — and, I’m sure, under-tipping— suburban teenagers, regardless of their nationality.)

Happy “hour,” which lasts from four o’clock to seven, means two hurricanes — or Tom Collinses, or Tequila Sunrises — for a dollar-fifty. A teenager so inclined could form a habit quickly, and I’m sure some did. Trevino’s is like a little island paradise away from the horrid rigors of middle-class suburban high school life. It even has a little waterfall in the back that cascades down to a moat.

Out of Trevino’s and down past its twin, the Imperial Lounge, we come to a street vendor selling baked potatoes. Across the street from him is a taco bar. No Taco Bell this—corn tortillas only, dripping in grease, filled with salty, thinly sliced fajitas, and garnished with pico de gallo. We wash it down with a Corona or a little eight-ounce Coke, which over here is still made with cane sugar and is considered far superior to Stateside Coke.

Daytime in Reynosa’s Zona Rosa, and the Imperial. Once we thought nothing of “going across” for lunch or shopping, but cartel violence put a swift end to tourism in Mexico’s border cities.

Catty-corner to the right is Sam’s, where tuxedoed waiters will bring us two tacos, a pile of refried beans, and a side of greasy, limp crinkle fries. It is part of Mexico’s charm that every dining experience is lavished with the formality of the tuxedo, even when the fare is little more than fast food. Picture tuxedoed, middle-aged men bringing a McDonald’s Happy Meal out to you, then pouring your Dr Pepper with a grand flourish and a warm smile.

In the daytime, if we were to go left, in two blocks we would hit the market, a standard feature of every mid-sized Mexican city. The market is about six square blocks of little shops selling fruit (which you cannot bring back across), leather and wicker goods, onyx chess sets, and, behind little cloaks taped to the upper shelves, onyx and marble sex toys.

But if it’s night — and it is — we have one block to go, straight ahead. Passing door after door, cut out of the painted cinder blocks, keeping our balance on an elevated sidewalk that slopes at twenty degrees toward the street, careful not to hit our heads on the protruding window-unit air conditioners dripping wedges of condensation onto the sidewalk, finally we come to an unassuming doorway. There is only one small sign over the door that flashes: “Eddie’s.”

It’s midnight, and as we pay our five-dollar cover and pass through another door, our senses are assaulted by Def Leppard at high volume, a light show left over from disco’s heyday, and a pall of cigarette smoke.

We’re shoulder-to-shoulder with South Texas teenagers, fourteen on up to the hangers-on who are in their mid-twenties and cruising jailbait. The walls are painted black, and on an elevated dance floor in the middle, seventeen couples are getting down, now to “When Doves Cry,” now “Crazy Train,” now “Panama.”

Most guys are wearing baseball jersey-style concert shirts. Mine is from Yes’ 90125 tour, black with white sleeves. This qualifies me as an intellectual. Some guys are wearing long sleeve T’s by Lightning Bolt or Ocean Pacific, but most are wearing jerseys. With the exception of a few who are wearing metallic parachute pants, the rest of us are wearing our most faded pair of Levi’s.

Some of us got haircuts this week: short in front, on top and sides, long as as our parents would allow it in back. We’re shod in checkerboard canvas deck shoes called Vans. It’s pretty much a uniform and you deviate from it at your peril.

The bar is in the far corner, serving up beer and sugary mixed drinks, real hangover time bombs. To the right of the bar is the men’s room, which consists of only one long, tin trough at knee-level, which runs all the way around the room. No toilets. Gotta find a restaurant for one of those.

After wriggling our way to the bar like sperm fighting their way to the wall of an egg, one of us orders a salty dog, the other a seven-and-seven. Then we begin the process of circling the room, always counter-clockwise around the rectangular dance floor. See and be seen. See and be seen.

As upperclassmen see me, their faces light up with approving smiles. “Hey, Avrel!” they shout over the blaring music. “How you doin’?! First time?!” I smile and nod nonchalantly. Think Dazed and Confused: International Edition.

See, high school is about nothing if not about stratifying people into the Cool and the Uncool, the In and the Out. And one very easy way to divide our high school into two such groups was: those who braved Eddie’s, and those who didn’t.

So your first time there is magic; don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s a forbidden fraternity, and anything forbidden is sweeter. It’s a dark speakeasy, where fifteen and sixteen year olds in Nikes and Levi’s and concert shirts sip Jack-and-Cokes and bum Marlboros off of each other as the black lights make their socks and smiles and cigarettes glow purple. What could be more adult?

I never felt the Eddie’s experience was immoral in and of itself. If you kept your wits about you, no one got hurt. Once every other year or so somebody from an area high school would wrap their car around a palm tree on the way back from Mexico. And there’d be grief counselors at school and a funeral or three, and a week later we’d all be back drinking Jack-and-Coke and dancing to “Crazy Train.” The key was just to stay over there until you were good enough to drive back.

And I never felt any twinge of guilt about it except when it came to what I would tell my parents. Most times I could cleverly avoid an outright lie. One line was, “I’m going to spend the night with Dave.” I wouldn’t say, “at Dave’s,” but only “with Dave.”

It helped when you had a friend, as I did, named Eddie, because then you could just call out, “Going to Eddie’s! Be back later,” without expanding on it.

“Okay, dear. Have fun.”

“Thanks, I will.”

About once a year on a random night, Mom would startle me with a point-blank, “You’re not going to Mexico, are you?” And by pure coincidence, I wouldn’t be, and so I would respond with vigor and marginal indignance, “No!” as in, “Heavens, no!” Then we’d proceed to some party on this side at someone’s house that was usually more hedonistic than Eddie’s for the false sense of homeland security.

But inevitably, there came times when I was faced with telling the truth and missing out on some irretrievable high school night that everybody surely would be talking about for the next forty years, or lying. (There’s a term for that now: FOMO, “fear of missing out.”) And so I swallowed hard, and I lied. I figured at some point that they had to know, especially when, in my senior year with the finish line in view, I stopped covering it up so much, and it felt as if my parents and I, along with everyone else’s parents, had jointly adopted a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

At times I’d enter Eddie’s and see the two hundred or so Valley teenagers, and think to myself: Every one of these kids has told a lie tonight to be here. There are two hundred pairs of parents in the Valley tonight who think their sons or daughters are spending the night at a friend’s house. But that friend’s parents are in Houston, or Dallas, or Colorado this weekend. I’m sure the claim that I was spending the night at a friend’s house wore a little thin when my parents stopped to consider that not once since the sixth grade had one of my friends ever spent the night at our house while my parents were home.

The fact of the matter was that a good many kids probably told their parents exactly what they were doing, and the parents either didn’t care or were too fond of their own memories of Reynosa in the Sixties to forbid it.

Inevitably, fights break out at Eddie’s, and a circle of teenagers three deep forms to watch the action, like a cockfight. When that happens, my buddies and I chug the remainder of our drinks, as if on a descending airliner, and beat a retreat back out to the street.

Tradition held that, several times, the federales had raided Eddie’s and arrested dozens of teenagers for under-aged drinking. And nothing would get the federales into the club faster than a couple of boneheads bowed up to each other in the middle of the dance floor. It is time to get out of here.

It’s nearly four a.m., time enough to catch a few hours of sleep before church. Tonight, we’re sleeping in the van, “camping” if you will on a neighborhood side street. See, Dave’s parents think he’s at my place, and my parents think I’m at Dave’s. It’s the way it had to be. So we’ll grab a few hours of sleep on the carpeted floor of the van, then change into our three-piece suits and report to Dr. Mann’s Sunday school class by nine-fifteen. It might be a real challenge staying awake through the sermon this morning, but we have that covered too.

As part of the ushering corps of First Presbyterian Church of McAllen, we stay in the narthex or the Session Room of the church, just as long as we hit our mark to pass the plate for the offertory. And the two fine young men will glance at each other and beam with pride that they have pulled off another world-class high school party night. If you make it to Sunday school, everything is OK. After the Sunday pot roast you can collapse in a heap on the bed, not so much as turning over for five hours, until roused for Sunday night youth group.

After about two years of this, my friends split into two distinct groups. The first was willing to let this be our fun: late nights, beer, rock and roll. The other group became unsatisfied with this level of distraction, and, every weekend, tried to top whatever craziness they had executed last weekend. Having grown tired of the beer buzz, they graduated to the “crime buzz.”

Perhaps as a result of those Sunday school classes we kept making it to, perhaps as the residue from my hyperactive conscience of childhood, I decided to draw the line at fun, and not cross the line into fun at the expense of others, finding ways to recuse myself before the bashing in of mailboxes and stealing of stop signs and man-hole covers began.

It’s four a.m. now, and Dave and I are strolling through the empty brick streets of Reynosa back toward the bridge. It is so quiet out here. No— that’s just hearing loss. The night air washes over us and perks us up a little. Dirty as the air is in Reynosa, it’s a hundred times cleaner out here than inside.

As we cross the street that runs alongside the taqueria, Dave spots a rat scurrying across the street a half-block up. I give chase for a full thirty seconds, cracking Dave up so bad he has to lean against a pillar in front of Trevino’s, to brace himself.

The old man in the parking lot is still there, and we see his Kool filterless glowing in the distance.

The heat lamps on the cabritos have gone dark, and venetian blinds have been pulled down in the Farmacia, the Iowans having retired to their Stateside RV parks hours ago.

Paying three times as much to return to the United States as we paid to leave it, we trudge along the skinny sidewalk that connects the Third World to the First. The boys selling chiclets have long since turned in and are sleeping like angels on dirty pallets in some nearby cinder-block ghetto.

The muddy Rio Grande ebbs slowly toward the Gulf fifty feet below us. As we reach the U.S. side, we pass through a building with a bored C-shift U.S. Border Patrolman. He looks up from his crossword puzzle at the rheumy-eyed fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds whose clothes and hair reek of cigarettes and breath smells of Budweiser. “Are you all U.S. citizens?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you bringing anything back with you?”

“No, sir.”

“Okay. Be careful,” he mumbles, returning to Twenty-seven Down. He’s seen a lot of us tonight, and he’ll see a few more before the sun comes up over the mesquite of Hidalgo.

We feed our bodies a limb at a time through the barbed wire fence that surrounds the parking lot. As we approach the van we survey the lot for cops, then, entering the harsh shadow created on one side of the van by an overhead street light, seek relief.

The van starts on the first try, and we breathe another little sigh of relief, as if we’ve been walking a high wire for six hours and are now just three steps from the safety of the platform again.

We hand our parking ticket to the attendant in the little portable building, pull through the Whataburger a block away, and head north, toward church.

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Excerpted from Dude: A Generation X Memoir, by Avrel Seale, available here or as an eBook here.