Back Pages: The Streets of Laredo

Editor’s note: We spent a pleasant day in Laredo, Texas, on Sunday. I’ll get around to that a little later. While I’m catching up on a week’s backlog of stories, here’s a harrowing tale of imbecility from the last time we saw Laredo. It was the fall of 2003, and we were wandering Texas in the aftermath of the Austin City Limits festival. We’d slept in our car on Monday night, and woke up Tuesday unsure of where to head next. We checked out the colorful information board describing the many regions of Texas, and decided on a trip down I-35 to Laredo.

Laredo, Texas, Sept. 23, 2003 – The Streets of Laredo? We park on Houston, next to the courthouse. Becky mocks me for my jingoistic, xenophobic fears.
Just because I think it a trifle imprudent to park behind a retrograde Lincoln Town Car that appears to have been purchased off the set of Hawaii 5-0, with weeds sprouting all about its rear fenders, she thinks I’m a Neanderthal.
We traverse on foot, a pied, whatever, el calle de Laredo. We walk. No one speaks. The air is silent like football practice at the Texas School for the Deaf.
There’s an imposing statue of George Washington on Houston Street, in City Hall’s front yard. The Father of Our Country leans forward and cradles a scrolled document in his left hand. His right hand is outstretched. I imagine him saying, “Greetings, my brown-skinned  neighbors, my Spanish compadres. The time is not far off when my offspring shall reach out and take hold of your balls and squeeze them until the blood trickles from your eyes and ears. You shall know us by our kindly smiles and our insatiable appetites.”
And it came to pass.
And we walk and take in the sights. Greyhound. El Conejos. Americanos. Never seen so many bus stations. Must’ve been like this in 1947.
What do the streets of Laredo smell like? A commingling of refuse, exhaust fumes, cigar smoke and the sweetness of weedwhacked grass. Conspicuously absent in the melange: the piquant aroma of Mexican food. We walk the streets of Laredo hungry. We stop at the H.E.B. groceria to get cash. Checkout lines too long.
And so we walk, tired and hungry. The espresso ties knots in our guts. We look for that which we cannot find. No food, no ambient friendliness, no apparent prosperity, not even a whiff of decadent charm.
Not here. Not for our prying eyes. It seems as if the river a few blocks to the south is a meaningless geographical anachronism. It can’t be any worse on the south side of the Big River.
Yes, we walk the street of Laredo on a Tuesday afternoon. It is harder to find a Mexican restaurant here than anywhere, any town that’s ever been strolled.
And then, El Tacorrico. Very cute kids on top of us. We don’t speak Spanish, and they little English. The 10-year-old boy, as Becky rightly and righteously points out, speaks pretty fair English indeed. And we now have tortilla chips in front of us and hot chipotle salsa. No carne.
Comical, yes. Two cute Hispanic kids hover over us as if they’ve waited all day for a customer to pounce on. We stammer incoherently, made nervous by our ignorance.
The children shall save us. The adults shall crush them and corrupt them and twist and jade them before they get the chance. Then they shall become adults. Poor bastards.
Jaime is 12. He’s our pudgy, charming, genial server. His mother is our cook. Another man’s here now, receiving special service. Stupid gringo, he got away. Never learned the language of old Mexico.
Brownskinned man lolls wearily over a can of beer on the patio. He’s been listing the same way since we got here.
We leave El Tacorrico satisfied. Becky says we should head to Corpus Christi. We head back the way we came, on I-35 north.

Streets of Laredo, postscript: Federal border checkpoint, I-35 north of Laredo. The pot-sniffing canines put us in a spot. D. Fraembe and D. Bon, our friendly agents du jour.
D. Bon says save us all the trouble and tell us where you got the pills. We stupid gringos. Really stupid. Stupid gringos no buy no pills. D. Fraembe and D. Bon break us down while a third agent searches our car.
As luck would have it, we have no pills. As luck would have it, we bought no drugs in Mexico, nor in Laredo, nor anywhere else, for that matter. We don’t lie. Not really.
Blonde-haired, blue-eyed gringo asks with a knowing grin if we brought anything back that we shouldn’t have. And he asks again. Later, when it was all but over, he took pains to offer a little advice.
“You,” he says with a grin, “are a terrible liar.  The worst. I knew right away.” Said his canine pal tipped him off. Still unsure about that. Maybe they knew nothing. They did know at least one thing: They did know how to scare the shit out of us.
Blue-eyed gringo, he says Becky’s a great liar.
“I believed her,” he says. “She lies so good, she’s scary.”
We didn’t buy the pot, it was given to us by a sweet, well-meaning friend. We had trafficked it from Washington to Austin to Laredo and north again.
The sign read “all traffic must exit.”
The doomed feeling rose in my gut. Federales, arrayed with smug smiles on faces, German shepherds on leashes.
Are we American citizens? Check.
Where were we? Fuck. We’re fucked. Suddenly I realized it looked pretty bad. Couple of gringo tourists making a day trip to atmospheric Laredo. As Becky put it, the nice folks at the Texas tourism bureau made it look pretty attractive at the rest area south of Austin. The blazing bougainvillea, that’s what got Becky. I kind of went for the old missions.
We wandered to Laredo, all the way to the Rio Grande, without once thinking about the possibility that border cops might be on the lookout for passing drugs. Because we’re stupid gringos, not street-smart smugglers. Not street-smart anything.
Street morons.
Stupid gringos.
The best, the most revealing part, i how I break down and panic and give up the ghost. I thought I was being cool, as I always do.
When it becomes apparent early that things look grim, my mouth rushes forward so fast that all contact with the brain is severed.
Talking I am, yes. Quickly. Only later do I grasp the comic nature of my antic gibberish. I explain how we went to Laredo. You know the song, “Streets of Laredo?” We went there to, well, check out the streets of Laredo. I shake my head spastically, and admit it had been an ill-conceived idea. It was soon discovered there was nothing going down in the streets of Laredo.
Reminds me of the time I was 18 and came home drunk from a high school dance. I stumbled into my parents’ bedroom to say goodnight. To prove I wasn’t tipsy, I babbled manically, ostensibly to prove I had my wits about me. Once the needless, suspicious, barely-coherent verbiage had spilled from my mouth there was no hope of retrieving it.
All of which recalls the Mark Twain adage “Better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you’re a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”
And so it went, right up to the point that Becky explains all we did in Laredo was eat dinner. And I jump in and said “yeah, we finally found a place to eat. EL TACORRITO!” which ends with a pathetic, absurd attempt to roll my Rs. I can’t roll my Rs. I’m a stupid gringo.
On top of that, I say it all with a  ridiculous grin on my face as I lean across Becky from my perch on the passenger seat.
That was surely the clincher.
And so they tell us to pull over, just as they would at a border checkpoint if the suspect you might be pirating contraband fruit from Thunder Bay, Ontario across the border at International Falls.
And we get out of the car, but only I get out, in retrospect, with the stench of guilt pouring off me in waves.
My body language confides the following information: Yes, we have weed, dear federale. Weed, I said. Did you hear me, sir? I said we have weed!
No, possibly it says: Fuck, we are dead. We are trafficking in serious contraband, and the jig is up. You got us, Amigo.
Right away, D. Bon cuts to the chase. Tell me where you got the pills, he says.
My eyes shift nervously from D. Bon to the agent tearing apart our car, back to D. Bon. Repeat.
As I talk to D. Bon about my innocence, my body language and manic tone of voice betrays my every word. Now the guy checking the car has the glove box open. Next, I’m certain, will be the ash tray, the Miranda rights, the cuffs, the roach infested south Texas jail. There won’t even be a notebook to scribble ironies, sweet little ironies, into.
But no, the guy doesn’t even check the ashtray. He’s looking for the big score.  He’s tossing our shit around the back seat. Wrestling with the malodorous cooler with the rotten tortillas festering at the bottom. Now he’s elbowing Jeff Lebo’s backpack out of the way. Now he’s in the trunk rifling through heaps of dirty laundry, pushing aside Terry Mosher’s mandolin, and sorting though other assorted detritus.
As D. Bon hits me with scare tactics, I hold on to the tattered thread of hope, only because this idiot is making a hash of the search.
D. Bon says if you’ve got a little bud or prescription medicine, that’s a lifestyle choice. Just tell us where it is, and make it easy on us, and you.
Later comes the not-so-subtle threat: You don’t want me to call the DEA and get them down here to tear apart your car.
Meanwhile, a young Hispanic fellow with a benign mien (I didn’t catch his name) takes Becky aside and grills her privately. The old good cop, bad cop routine.
As I cling to the charade with mounting ridiculousness, the confession spills out of me. It bubbles slowly, pus oozing from an infected cut. D. Bon tells me it won’t be so good for me if they find the drugs while I’m holding steadfastly to my ludicrous denial. Go much better for stupid gringo if he give up information now.
“I’m just a stupid gringo” I remember saying.
“That’s your opinion,” he says, demonstrating a consummate professionalism.
“It’s just my job,” he says, while I feel him out on what kind of shit we’re in for, should, in a hypothetical kind of way, they find anything incriminating.
II utter some nonsense about “philosophically speaking.”
“I don’t deal in philosophy, sir” he says.
Now he turns the screws a little tighter, and Inspector Clouseau heads back to the front seat.
I’ve had it. Like I’m trying to spit out a Catchphrase answer while the clock beeps faster and faster, I fumble for the appropriate words of confession.
I fall to my knees.
“It’s in the … (for a pregnant moment, I couldn’t think of the word for “ashtray”)  the ashtray!”
Paranoia stalks us for the rest of the night, all the way north on 35 to San Antonio.
First a cop appears in front of us, cruising at 45 MPH. Then he pulls into the left lane, slows some more so we can hear the blare from his radio. In our damaged minds, we hear: “Caucasian couple, male 40, female 27, in silver Plymouth Neon, traveling north, in Washington plates.”
We are sure they were following us, sure they had bugged our car, sure we are going down.
We don’t.

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One Response to Back Pages: The Streets of Laredo

  1. Pingback: Uvalde and beyond | Uncle Sam's Backyard

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