It was a beautiful day.
That was pretty standard in San Diego though. If you’ve heard anything about southern California’s most beautiful city, it’s that the weather is very similar to heaven, if heaven had central air. The temperature never gets above 75 or below 60 and the only time it rains is the day you notice your car needs a good wash. There are literally no clouds. I am not exaggerating, I am not being cute and I’m not a weatherman. But every time you look up, you’re greeted with a sky so blue that it makes my eyes look like week old garbage. And trust me, that’s saying something.
I was a freshman in college at the University of San Diego. Yeah, that was a good choice, I agree. I’m not going to talk about that though. Not so far as to say that it isn’t important to me. I loved my time at USD. But this story doesn’t take place in San Diego. This story merely started there.
This story, as you may have guessed from the title, takes place in Tijuana, Mexico. For those of you that don’t know, San Diego and Tijuana literally share a television station. Again, not exaggerating, not being cute, and not a weatherman… but they are, geographically speaking, very close to each other. I didn’t go down to Mexico solely because I’m a wild child that took weekend trips across the border just so I could legally drink as an 18 year old. Well, yes I guess that is one of the reasons. But it wasn’t the only one.
It was common practice at the University of San Diego to take buses to the border, cross it on foot and immediately hail a cab to a nearby club that was having a “College Night.” This was one of those nights. This was, in fact, one of the first nights for most of us freshman. And if I had known what would transpire, I almost certainly still would’ve gotten on that bus. But I would’ve been a little more careful about where I peed.
As I imagine most stories that end up in Tijuana begin, I drank. I drank quite a bit. For some reason, 18 year old Conor felt like drinking blue liquid out of a squirt gun wielded by a scantily clad Mexican woman was a consequence-less endeavor. Oh, how wrong he was. Eventually, I blacked out. And like most good black-out stories begin, I was arrested before I came to: this is where the story begins… after midnight in Tijuana.
I’m being led down an unfamiliar alley by the back of my belt loop by a mustached federale. Granted, every alley in Mexico is unfamiliar to me but this one felt particularly foreign. Possibly because I didn’t remember how I got into this alley. More likely because I don’t think I’d ever had anyone’s forefinger so tightly wrapped around the back of my pants.
I panicked. I don’t know if any of you have ever been arrested in America, but it’s pretty terrifying. You start thinking about how much time you are going to have to do, what your fingerprints are going to look like and how many people are going to see your name in the police blotter the following morning. All those thoughts ran through my head while I was temporarily unaware of which side of the border I was on.
Then it hit me. I just passed four taco places in a row and I haven’t read an English word in five minutes. Plus, this cop doesn’t have any handcuffs. I’m in Mexico! Without testing the waters to find out if this mustached federale even spoke English, I said the bravest words I have ever uttered:
“How much money to make this go away?”
With the quickness of someone that has been waiting to be bribed all day, the mustached federale responded:
My sigh of relief was audible from San Diego. I had to have $60 in my wallet. I blacked out a long time ago, but I brought $120 to Mexico in case of this exact situation. I have to have at least $60. I HAVE to. And while my sigh of relief was audible from San Diego, my groan of disbelief was audible from Chicago when I realized that I had a whopping zero dollars in my wallet.
The crushing defeat was quickly assuaged when I remember that ATMs exist. At least, I assumed they did. This was my first time in Mexico and had heard some pretty negative reviews about Tijuana. So I asked. And without responding, the mustached federale jerked the back of my pants into a nearby kiosk that had an ATM in it. It was almost like he was planning on getting bribed.
At this point in the story you are probably yelling at yourself, trying to get drunk 18 year old Conor to stop giving full control of his bank account to a mustached federale who wanted a $60 dollar bribe so bad, you could see little peso signs in his eyes. Don’t worry, guys. Less drunk 18 year Conor was smart… and left all my bank cards and information in San Diego.
Again, I panicked. It was a silent panic because I had to act quickly, but it was still a panic. I didn’t know what I was going to do. The only card in my wallet was my ID. And, ignoring all those signs in fast food restaurants that say “no substitutions,” I put my ID into the ATM machine with confidence of someone that invented the technology.
I knew it wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t that drunk. But there was a small part of my brain that felt like if I could convince him that I really wanted to give him $60, he would let me go. Looking back on it, I knew that would not have been the case. Fortunately, the mustached federale gave me a full two minutes of trying my luck with my ID in the ATM while I planned out my next move.
Eventually, the mustached federale cut in.
“I don’t think that’s going to work.” He said, without a lot of confidence.
Again, there was a small part of my brain that thought, when it came to bribing a Mexican federale, it was the thought that counts.
“I have done this a thousand times. If this doesn’t work, I am going to lose my mind. This has NEVER not worked.”
Apparently, my confidence and charm came through in this moment. Because without hesitation, this mustached federale took my ID from me and started putting it in the ATM; with the confidence of a man that had just been told it works from the man that invented the technology.
This didn’t last long. The mustached federale had already watched me attempt this non-existent transaction for a full two minutes and wasn’t going to waste another minute. Once we exited the kiosk, I asked him if I could go back into the club to find my friends. Certainly they hadn’t been as fiscally irresponsible as I had been and they could scrounge up a measly $60.
The mustached federale agreed to these terms as long as he could hold onto my ID. This also did not last because I realized much sooner than him that, no matter the condition of Tijuana, you still need to prove your age before you go into a club. Once I got my ID back and was briefly separated from the federale, I had committed to running for the border. Not nearly as dramatic as you’re picturing but still, pretty wild.
I went into the club, hoping to find my friends so I could sneak subtly out of the club without being noticed. I had already taken my blue-striped shirt off so that he wouldn’t recognize me. Completely forgetting that I was an 18 year old white kid with long black hair. Not terribly difficult to spot. Unfortunately, as I slowly descend the stairs of the club, I realized: I had been left behind.
Knowing my time was running out, I started asking strangers if they were going to San Diego. I knew that I couldn’t walk out of the club alone and get into a cab without being spotted. The mustached federale was probably outside waiting for me and my $60. But I assumed that I could blend in if I were with some like-minded people: drunk guys.
I found a batch of particularly drunk bros and asked them if I could catch a ride with them. The drunkest of the bunch exclaimed that, of course I could tag along. As we exited the club, no one grabbed me. I didn’t know where we were walking but I assumed it was towards freedom. Then I saw it. A bright yellow cab. I had never been happier to see something that smelled so bad. At least, I assumed it smelled bad because tragically, I didn’t make it inside.
I was five steps away. Five. Then, I heard some incoherent Spanish yelling. I could tell it wasn’t a taco vendor and it definitely wasn’t any of my friends. Remember, they’re all gone! I can only assume that whoever was yelling was trying to say something like this, “That’s him! The one carrying the blue-striped shirt! Get him!”
I was quickly apprehended, handcuffed and roughed up by three other, non-mustached federales while my mustached friend stood by and watched. I don’t remember the name of the federale. I don’t remember the name of the drink I had blacked out on. I don’t even remember what I had been arrested for. But I do remember that I was getting my head thrown into a car that was in the parking lot of Senor Frogs. It’s the little things in life that make it so beautiful.
Eventually, they were convinced that I wasn’t going to run away. The three non-mustached federales walked me over to the mustached federale. He looked me up and down and asked for my phone. I nodded towards my right pocket because I was handcuffed. Apparently, the ratio of federales to sets of handcuffs in Tijuana is four to one.
I had no idea what was going to happen. I had been in San Diego for only two months. I had made a lot of friends but my closest family member was in San Francisco. And while they’re pretty cool, I’m not sure a nine-hour drive on a Friday night into Tijuana was in the cards for them.
While this elevating panic rushed all over my body, my mustached federale thrust his hand into my pocket. He ripped my phone out and flipped it open with the intensity of a someone that had been trying to get a $60 bribe for the last three hours. He opened the Contacts pages, shoved the phone in my face, and screamed:
“Who do I have to call to get this sixty dollars?!”
After calling my date for the evening with disastrous results, I called a friend of mine that I knew had a car. As I later found out, he had also been in Tijuana that night and had been effectively punched in the face by the body guard of a young man who doesn’t take kindly to people dancing with his girlfriend. This made him unable to come get me on his own. But this did not stop him from rallying three other friends who had a car and $60 between them to come and save me.
After an hour of sitting on a car in the Senor Frogs parking lot with four federales, only one of which who spoke English, my friends arrived. As my friend approached the federales and handed them the much sought after $60, he couldn’t help but ask.
“So what did he get arrested for?”
“Peeing in public.” The federale casually uttered while counting his earnings.
There were several bathrooms in the club. The only reason I left the club was to get a little air as far as I can remember. I may have been blackout drunk but I’m not an idiot. Why would I pee outside of a club that has more bathrooms than bartenders?
As I mentioned, I don’t remember the beginning half of this story. So there is literally no way of knowing whether or not I peed in public. But drunk 18 year old Conor was not going to let this injustice stand. He would defend his actions, he would justify this egregious waste of time with a well-spoken, well-thought diatribe in front of this mustached federale and his non-mustached lackies.
Eh, it was the best I could come up with.