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Just Deserts

Here’s my third piece about the US tour I did with punk bands The Instigators and The Detonators in 1986. If you missed the other two, Noo Joysie’n’Noo Yawk and Not Meeting Bill, you’ll find them among the blogs on my website. The events I’m about to describe took place towards the end of that tour. We’d left New York, zigzagged across Middle America, and were heading south-west towards California.

Having crossed Texas, we reach the border city of El Paso which stands next to the Mexican city of Juarez, the two separated by the wide waters of Rio Grande. Juan, the bassist with our US host-band, The Detonators, lives in the USA but is Mexican. He offers to take me and The Instigators into El Paso for a few hours. None of us has ever been to Mexico and we eagerly agree to go. We’d have been considerably less keen if we’d known what we were about to experience.

At dusk we begin the long walk over the bridge that links El Paso to Juarez. Chatting and joking, we’re blissfully ignorant of the fact that we’re about to venture into the most violent and dangerous city in the world.

The contrast between these two cities could hardly be more extreme. Basically we’re stepping out of American opulence and straight into third world poverty. The first thing you notice is the dense desert dust kicked up by the ancient battered American cars that chug down the ill-made dirt streets. There are few Americans here. The only ones we see are bunches of big loud Texan males who’re clearly here for a night of cheap booze and cheaper sex. And the sex is on offer everywhere, with Mexican women calling to you as you near them. Though we’re English guys with a Mexican host, it quickly becomes clear that we’re assumed to be Americans. What’s also made abundantly obvious is that Americans are welcomed only for their dollars. As we pass each of the women who’ve previously been smiling at us, many of them spit on our backs and sing us sarcastically off-key renditions of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In The USA’. Luckily for us, as eighties punk performers, being gobbed and spat on is something we’re well used to. Springsteen’s slab of neo-Americana is harder to take.

Anxious to escape this hostility and keen to have a beer, we persuade Juan to find a bar. The one he selects turns out to be more of a club. We’re the only non-Mexicans in the crowded place and, from the outset, are made uncomfortably aware of this. However, it’s when the comedian comes on that we become the focus of the entire venue. In eighties Britain we had comedians like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson to victimise non-white Brits. This guy is their Mexican counterpart, intent on venting his spleen on gringos. Throughout his lengthy set, we’re repeatedly the focus of his jokes. As he proceeds, the crowd around us grows more hostile. Meanwhile, the club demands that we buy more drinks but at three or four times their original price, while bouncers stand over us preventing any of us from leaving. We Brits can’t follow the comedian’s jokes, but I watch Juan, who understands every word, go from embarrassed to uneasy to frightened. And we all get the final joke. It’s one he acts out with graphic clarity. He’s telling the audience that we Yankees are only here to screw Mexicans. Now more angry than funny, he ends his set by standing right in front of us before turning round, miming dropping his pants, bending over and offering us his arse. As he finishes, the bouncers and some of the crowd become increasingly threatening. We can’t leave. The price of our next round of drinks is astronomical. And then, from nowhere, Juan is saying that he’s explained to the club’s management that he’s Mexican and we’re English musicians, not American sex-tourists. With the bouncers and the crowd still hating us, we’re suddenly being allowed to leave. For the first time in my white life, I’m actually making my escape from the experience of being a victim of rabid racism. Its threat is something I’ll never allow myself to forget.

Half an hour later, we’re walking back over the bridge into America. But Mexico still has one more lesson to impart. Where the bridge was empty when we were coming the other way, it’s now crowded with families, hundreds of them. They’ve come from America but they’re not going into Mexico. They’re simply settling down to sleep here in the open air between the two countries. I ask Juan why. He shrugs before explaining that they work, mostly picking crops, in America, even the tiny children. If they go back into Mexico, they won’t be allowed back into the USA. However, they aren’t allowed to stay overnight in America. The only solution is for them to leave America, sleep on the bridge without entering Mexico, and return to the USA for another day’s work next morning. This is how they all live, trapped and homeless, moored midway between poverty and exploitation. That’s another unforgettable memory.

Late one afternoon, we start our long drive across the Arizona Desert. Even with all the van doors open, it’s unbelievably sweltering. We refuel at a truck-stop out front of which is one of those colossal American fridges that’s larger than a British telephone box but not quite the size of The Empire State Building. It’s filled with watermelons. We buy one and devour the chilled slices that ooze sweet juice. In that heat this qualified as the finest fruit encounter of my life.

We drive all night and, though the desert may have grown cooler, the inside of the van remained an oven. Just before sunrise, we reach a gas station and pile out primarily to use the one toilet. Seeing the others queuing impatiently, I walk round the back of the place and a couple of hundred yards out into the desert and take a piss. Part-way through, I glance back and see that the garage owner and two of his co-workers have come outside and are standing there watching me. Weird! I stare back but they don’t move. As I finish I ask them what they’re doing. ‘Just seein’ if you survive,’ says the boss of the place. ‘Survive?’ I ask. ‘Them rattlers,’ he replies. The sun’s now slanting its first rays over the sand and scrub. I glance round me. There are rattle-snakes everywhere. Luckily I’ve somehow managed get here without treading on one. I thread my way cautiously back while the garage guys grin like the life or death of this English idiot was slice of entertainment just as juicy and cool as any slice of watermelon.

That afternoon we reach the Colorado River and decide to wash off our stale sweat by all going for a dip. It’s not until we’re fully immersed and swimming around with only our heads out of the water that we begin to notice the numerous sheets of toilet paper floating by. Seconds later we start to notice the turds and, only then, spot the huge sewer pipe just upstream from us that’s pumping its contents into the water. No wonder the water had tasted surprisingly salty for a river. We continue to swim, though now we’re all heading directly for dry land.

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