I was exploring on my bike the San Antonio River just south of the city along the region where the historic missions can be found. I was on the east side of the river between Mission San Jose and Mission San Juan walking my bike atop the river levy. I angled down to the flood plain and walked to the bank. I said the east side, but I like to get fancy and do that left bank, right bank thing. I was on the left bank of the San Antonio River. (Here’s how it works, picture yourself standing in the river, facing toward where the river is flowing. Your left hand is nearest the left bank, and so forth.) The river was rushing through this narrow dam and I didn’t hear the voice at first. I looked up and saw an unkempt man a bit older then myself standing on the far bank. He stood next to a mountain bike like mine, wearing a cycling jersey, cut-off jeans, sunglasses and a baseball cap. His long black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. It was Anthony. I’d met him a couple of times before on the bike trail. He painted houses and seemed perennially unemployed. From his gestures I gathered he wanted me to meet him down river at the first crossing I could find. That would be S. E. Military. I waved and headed off. The one thing we had in common, other than our lack of employment, was that even though we appeared to be sadly out of shape, we could move pretty fast on two wheels. I took it as a challenge, and made it down the river, up and across the bridge, and met him on his side.
He invited me to his home for lunch. I didn’t know he was from the neighborhood. But we were just a few blocks from his peeling tar paper home on Pyron, within eyeline of Mission San Jose. The dogs lounging under the pecan tree didn’t get up, they just followed us with their eyes, the whites of which were the same color as their yellow teeth. A child’s wading pool was over-turned across the hood of a derelict Monte Carlo; to dry out, I presume, but that must have been a year or more back, as it now was dried and cracked from the onslaught of the sun. We went inside where it was dark and cool, but a bit stuffy. If Anthony had any kids, they were in school. He introduced me to his wife. She was on the phone speaking Spanish to her mother. She ignored him, but offered a smile to me. I watched as she retreated to the back of the house. I sat at a kitchen table and let Anthony make me a sandwich. He was one of those fair-skinned Latinos, and I could see he’d gotten too much sun. When he removed his sunglasses, they left an outline with his cheeks and forehead in red.
The kitchen was clean but not quite homey. Several cast iron skillets hung from hooks over the sink. An open package of paper napkins shared the table top with a pair of those plastic disposable salt and pepper shakers. Taped to the refrigerator door was the one indication of children. A paper plate with a turkey traced around a little hand in tempera paint. It looked pretty old. Anthony pulled out a can of beer for himself. He raised an eyebrow, but I shook my head. He gave me a glass of tap water. I removed my cycling gloves and washed my hands in the sink with dishwashing soap. Anthony made us each a Spam sandwich with white bread and mustard. He placed a pickled jalapeno on his plate but didn’t offer me one. As we ate I recalled the last time I’d had a Spam sandwich.
It was about ten years ago (and ten years between Spam sandwiches is about par for the course, unless you live in Hawaii, where I understand they eat that shit all the time), and I was living in the Big Bend region of Texas. A tiny hamlet of Vado Rojo, a few miles down-river from Presideo. In fact, that’s where I started that left bank right bank stuff. But I could never get my Mexicano friends and neighbors to play my game (“you see, Texas is the left bank, Mexico is the right bank”). I’d crossed over to the Mexican town of Ojinaga with my neighbor Father Mel. Father Melvin LaFollet served the Episcopal Dioceses of the Rio Grand. His region was huge. And for some reason he’d gotten pulled into some charity work where he was providing milk goats to impoverished families in Mexican towns across from Vado Rojo. These were goats he raised, a large hardy Spanish breed. The legalities of all this seemed questionable to me. In fact, I found myself sitting in a bar off the plaza with Father Mel and my friend Enrique, who was there because he knew everyone on both sides of the river, and he was also a master of diplomacy. Why I was there I can’t recall. Muscle, I guess. It was me holding onto the goat in the back of Father Mel’s van as we drove to the international bridge and crossed over. Also, I’m pretty sure I begged to help out. Smuggling goats into Mexico had adventure written all over it.
Me and Father Mel were nursing Dos Equis and Enrique had a Coke. I kept looking to the open door onto the dusty street, even though I had no idea who we were meeting. The noon-time sun hammered down out there and it must have been a hundred and fifteen. But the beer was cold and company excellent. I was sitting with two of few intellectuals in the whole river valley. Enrique and father Mel were talking about the literary merits of Ovid and my eyes wandered to the bar. I realized that under the counter, on the patron side, the bar was titled, and on the floor was a titled trough. How exotic! The bar was also a urinal. It made perfect sense. No awkward stumbling off to the men’s room. No fear some asshole would steal your smokes whilst you were taking a piss. You park yourself there in the perfect stance and stay there all night, with a finger poised jauntily on your zipper.
Enrique and Father Mel stood up, and I glanced around to see the man approach. I also stood. I gathered he was the local minister of agriculture…something like that. We needed his approval to bring a goat into his country. It would have been no trouble except for a humorless Mexican border guard who, I gathered, didn’t like the look of Father Mel. I can see his point. Father Mel was described by a National Geographic writer as looking like a “mad poet.” He’s every inch the exiled man of religion you don’t want among the canape and tea service set in the big city: wild silver hair, an off-kilter laugh straight from the exorcism chamber, and, peeking from the hem of the cassock, a pair of flip flops. He made an off-color joke to the border official, and here we were, trying to sweet-talk a bureaucrat so we could continue our mission of mercy.
Señor Agrícola sat down with a stern, all-business manner. We all shook his hand and sat. Father Mel squirmed a bit. Then he exploded, asking why this, why that, why why why. Enrique took a deep breath and exhaled. Before a very peeved Señor Agrícola could snap back, Enrique asked him a simple question I couldn’t quite make out. The man nodded, all business. Enrique called to the barman and placed an order of something, pointing all around. Enrique has a calm, quiet presence. He’s about 6′ 4″ and maybe 270 pounds. Sure, he can be very garrulous, but in a polite, deferential manner; and so, when he makes a declarative statement, people freeze, and give his words serious consideration. He wears a Pancho Villa mustache, but when he shaves, he says he looks just like a Ute.
A beer arrived for our guest, and he and Enrique had a chat about a man they both knew well–either Enrique’s uncle or Señor Agrícola’s uncle … my Spanish is spotty. Father Mel sat glum. And me? I grinned like an imbecile, still beguiled by the fact that the bar was a urinal. Brilliant!
The barman finally arrived with four chipped ceramic plates, each with a Spam sandwich. And in the middle of the table he placed a large bowl of peanuts, liberally coated with chili powder. Señor Agrícola brightened up. He squeezed a lime wedge all over the peanuts and began tucking into his sandwich. He was loosening up. I gathered he would turn a blind eye this once, but not again. In the future we would need vaccination papers from American vets as well as have the animals certifiably vaccinated in Mexico by state sanctioned veterinarian.
Father Mel slammed his fist on the table. Thankfully we were the only people in the bar. The bartender shook his head with a smile and turned up the volume on his TV. “This is charity,” he repeated. “Caridad! Un organización benéfica!” He had a flat midwestern accent that didn’t lend itself to the poetry of Spanish.
Señor Agrícola looked nervously to me, then to Enrique. Enrique put a hand on Father Mel’s shoulder and whispered in his ear. Father Mel sighed and walked to the bar. Enrique asked, “Que opcións?” The man just shook his head sadly. But when Father Mel placed another beer in front of him, Señor Agrícola held up his hand. We all froze. He took a drink. Then he pulled a map from his jacket’s breast pocket. He unfolded it on the table, and we were looking at the river valley. He pointed at a spot on the river. An inaccessible region in the canyons. “Aqui. Aqui bien.”
I gathered this would be a good place to cross. He’d do us the favor of turning a blind eye.
“The devil you say!” Father Mel spat out. He repeated his oath in Spanish.
The bureaucrat looked beseechingly at Enrique. But I noticed Enrique wasn’t bending duteously. Señor Agrícola noticed it also. He raised an eyebrow. Enrique firmly but politely took hold of the map. He spun it around. He placed his finger right on the river where Vado Rojo sits. He said without preamble that we would be crossing the goats right there, practically out of father Mel’s pens and into Mexico. The official was about to make a comment, but Enrique launched into a controlled, well-thought-out position I had heard him make so many times to me in English about how the border is an arbitrary boundary which divides a culture, a people, which should be one. He went into the ordeals of the people on both sides of the river, the common struggles they had to put up with that divided families and friends. Hopes and dreams crushed because of illogical nationalistic boundaries. “This river doesn’t separate us, it never has. It brings us together.” Enrique said this in Spanish, but I caught a few words and knew instantly what he told me so often over afternoon cappuccinos in his kitchen with his wife.
Señor Agrícola and – I think I saw a glisten in his eye – took to his feet. He roared with a laugh. Said something about the family of man. And he pounded me on the back, as if I were the missing part of this grand, confused rubric. And he headed off to work.
“I love doing business in Mexico,” Father Mel gushed with a genuine smile.
We delivered the goat to a gracious family in the shadow of Sierra de la Santa la Cruz. “I hope they don’t eat it,” Father Mel said as we drove back home. “It’s a milking goat. Not an eating goat.”
We crossed a few more goats there at the river crossing at Vado Rojo, and then the man, up in Muenster, Texas who was paying for the goats, dropped out of touch. Without the money, the smuggling operation stopped.
Sometimes it saddens me that I’ve spent more time on the left bank of the Rio Grande than I have on the right back. I hope to remedy that.
But the San Antonio River…I’m all over both banks.
So I finished my Spam sandwich and glass of tap water. I wiped the mustard from my lips with a paper napkin. Anthony slapped me on my back as I left. He was holding a new beer. I could hear his wife, still on the phone, laughing somewhere back in the house. As I rode to the street the dogs didn’t even look up. They were flat on their backs like noon-time lions under Serengeti trees in a nature film.