Matt (l) JEP (c) and Sacto Ritch (r) just as the carnage began to unfold. The following events occurred fifteen years ago and I have to be forthcoming in admitting that my memory of them has been clouded by time and the absolutely incredible amount of alcohol that was consumed that night. Still, I think I am pretty close. Sacto Ritch can correct me…..Oh, who am I kidding? He was in worse shape than I was. We’ll let his brother chime in with his view of the events if he ever stops by the pages of The JEP Report.It was on the eve of the first Gulf War, during the summer of 1990. I was stationed in San Diego and a friend of mine from high school, Saco Ritch, was out visiting his mother in Chula Vista before going into the army and in the process, helping his seventeen-year-old brother move out to California from Michigan. We had reconnected while I was home on leave a few months before and had made arrangements to get together while he was on the west coast.The plans had started off innocently enough. We planned on traveling down to Tijuana Mexico to do a little shopping, eat lunch and maybe have a couple of drinks before returning to the American side of the border to finish the day at the beach. None of us had any idea that the short jaunt would morph into one of the most savage drinking excursions I had ever embarked upon, making up in intensity what it lacked in longevity.We crossed the border early. I estimate that we probably passed into the Third World between ten and eleven in the morning. Things were not yet up and running at full bore yet and if I remember correctly, the sidewalk vendors had yet to arrive in full force. In order to kill some time, we kicked back for an early lunch and a couple of Margaritas. A few turned into many and as the sun rose higher, we decided to find some shade. We sought refuge in Rio Rita’s, a dive located in the basement of one the many shops lining the Avenida de la Revolucion.Rio Rita’s was a dreary place, devoid of any natural light and consisting of three subterranean levels. The first level was unremarkable and reminiscent of any bar one could stumble into from Detroit to Dakar. The second level was smaller and opened up only after the first had been filled. The third level was a gargantuan cavern that turned into a nightclub on weekend nights, pulsating techno dance music, sexual tension and rhythmic well-choreographed violence that, when combined with the lack of any natural sunlight, wreaked utter havoc upon one’s personal sense of the space-time continuum. Rio Rita’s was a drunkard’s dungeon, a place where lunatic Latin alchemists transformed the painfully sober into degenerate inebriates before turning them helplessly out into public. Once out of the safety afforded by darkness, they would find themselves at the mercy of the throngs of street urchins, prostitutes, pick pockets and corrupt law enforcement officials that have earned Tijuana the notoriety it so rightfully deserves.In hindsight, I now know that we never had a chance. There are just too many unsavory elements at work in the tourist traps south of the border that know that your sobriety is against their best interests. A sober man is far less likely to give to beggars, succumb to the sex trade, be an easier mark or do something that he is going to have to bribe his way out of later. A drunk, on the other hand, is much more generous to the downtrodden (being halfway there himself), is more susceptible to the idea of taking on bar girls by the half-dozen, likely to not notice when his wallet has been has been liberated and is almost guaranteed to urinate in public fifteen feet away from prowling federales in search of a contribution to their illicit retirement funds. The entire economy of Tijuana is based upon this predator/prey relationship, a twisted fiscal system that depends upon the compromised intellect of the targeted tourist thrashing through the throes of a massive tequila bender in order to grease the gears of the local economy.Not that this is a bad thing. It is exactly this sort of predatory environment that makes Third World binge drinking so damn exciting. There is always an undercurrent of danger just beneath the veneer of your excursion and you always know that absolutely anything can happen at absolutely anytime. You can find yourself in the midst of paramilitary police raid just by drunkenly stumbling around the wrong corner. You could pass out after your third drink and suddenly wake up in a tub of ice short a kidney or onstage as the unsuspecting object of an amorous farm animal’s affections for the amusement of a paying audience. During the course of the night, you could find yourself living it up in a nation that changed ruling juntas in the past 24 hours than you’ve change dance partners. The only thing that is certain about drinking in the developing world is that adventure awaits you and, as long as you embrace the uncertainty of the situation, a good time is a virtual guarantee. There is just something about civil strife and insurrection that brings out the party animal in people.As an old Tijuana hand, I should have known as we descended the stairs deep into bowels of Rio Rita’s that we would not emerge from that dark pit of debauchery as rational human beings. Then again, I had been down that path before and maybe subconsciously, I did know but just chose to ignore it. Either way, once we crossed the threshold we would only be allowed to leave as wasted remnants of the men who entered. We seated ourselves and ordered a bucket of Tecate’s, six beers to split between ourselves, basically three a piece as Sacto Ritch’s seventeen-year-old brother refused to join into the regalia and cut himself off after a couple of beers. Less than a half hour later, we ordered another complimented by a round of bottom shelf house tequila. Before the hour was up, we had probably tossed down two more shots a piece before ordering a third bucket and deciding, far too late, to start pacing ourselves.Sometime during that third bucket, I had to get up out of my seat to go use the restroom. It was only then that I suspected what we may have done to ourselves. Up until that point I had felt myself to be in surprisingly good shape for having downed a six-pack and three shots of tequila in under an hour, but when I finally managed to stand up I realized that my legs were not quite as responsive as they should have been. By the time I reach the bathroom, I was swaying noticeably and as I answered nature’s call, I found that it took all the concentration I could muster to keep myself from falling over backwards and pissing in my own face. My buzz was coming along rather nicely.After staggering back to our table, I announced that standing up was not yet the greatest of ideas and suggested that Sacto Ritch seek an alternative solution to any urinary emergencies he may encounter in the short term. Of course, with his intellectual capacity compromised by Cuervo, he was unable to come up with anything and inevitably found himself forced to disregard my advice and make his way to the head. I remember laughing hysterically with Matt as we watched him try his best to walk a straight line down the bar but fail miserably. He could barely do it without falling over and most likely would have at one point had he not been saved by an empty barstool that kept him from dropping onto all fours.Eventually, he returned to table but it had obviously taken far more effort than the thirty foot journey should have. He fell back into his seat winded and barely able to keep his head upright. “Man, I am wasted!” he announced as he situated himself.“Yeah, I’m getting there myself. We should probably go after we do one more round of shots and another bucket of beer.”Matt attempted to point out that this was probably not that great of an idea but realized the futility of his protests as Ritch shouted out the order to the bartender before he had the chance to finish his sentence.After finishing our drinks, we knew we had to change our venue. After several tries, we stood up out of seats and made our way to t he stairway that led up to the street outside. Now, the flat trek to the john had been bad but the twenty-five or so steps we needed to ascend to get outside seemed almost impossible. I went first and made it up about two steps before my skewered equilibrium forced me off-balance, nearly causing me to fall backwards. Fortunately, I fell forward and made outside by crawling up the stairway on all fours.I was hit by a huge shock once I emerged outside. The sunlight was blinding and extremely disorienting. I reeled backwards and finally upright and braced myself against the wall for balance while I tried to get my bearings. We were at the beginning of Tijuana’s main drag and had a good mile between ourselves and the border. It was going to be a long walk and frankly, I did not think that I was up to the challenge. I looked down the stairway into the darkness that was Rio Rita’s and saw that Ritch obviously was not either.Ritch was about four or five steps from the bottom, kept upright only by his brother, Matt. He was on the verge of slipping into unconsciousness and if Matt decided to let go, there was little doubt that he would fall haphazardly right back into the bar he was trying to escape. We were in real trouble. I needed to do something to help but had no idea what. In the end I decided the best thing I could do was not get involved. Matt was having enough trouble getting Ritch, who was twice his size, up by himself and if I went down there, it was even odds that he would then be stuck carrying both of us up. I figured things would work out much better if I walked to the corner and grabbed myself a hot dog.I am quite sure that millions of words have been written singing the praises of Mexican cuisine but in everything I have ever read on the subject, I have never heard anyone describe what I believe to be Mexico’s most succulent offering to the world’s culinary catalogue. That underappreciated delicacy is the Tijuana hot dog. This basically consists of the average sausage that is so familiar to those of us residing north of the border, but it is wrapped in bacon and grilled before being served on a steamed bun with liberal amounts of crisp onions and chili pepper sauce. It is to die for and is capable of producing the kind of craving that Midwesterners exposed to White Castle occasionally get for little square hamburgers. When I was stationed in San Diego, I had actually been awakened out of a deep sleep with a craving so hard that I made a late night trek to the trolley to score a few of those babies before the line shut down. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there seemed to be three of those hot dog vendors on every block but on my last trip there in 1995, we were hard pressed to find even one. I sincerely pray that the California’s fascist fetish for healthy eating has not pushed them to extinction.The only downside to the Tijuana hot dog is that it does have a very distinct sobering effect on you. After eating two or three of those, I was actually in good enough condition to sustain an easy walk back to Rio Rita’s to see how Ritch and Matt were doing. When I got there, I found that they were about halfway up the stairs. Ritch looked a little better that time though. He was still unable to walk and Matt was still supporting all of his weight, but he was giggling incessantly indicating that all things considered, he was in pretty good spirits. I figured that those guys could probably use a couple of hot dogs too so I went back to the vendor and picked up a few for my friends.I returned just as my two cohorts were emerging onto the street. They made about two steps onto the sidewalk before collapsing against a storefront wall on probably the only patch of cement not taken up by street vendor merchandise. The hot dogs seemed to wonders for Ritch and after a bit, he seemed able to move under his own power again. Finding that an unfortunate development the two of us decided, overruling Matt’s protests, that more drinks were called for. We then trudged deeper into Tijuana, eventually ending up at Tequila Sunrise, a two-storied nightclub at the far end of the strip.We were probably there for just over an hour before Ritch made a dramatic turn for the worse. One minute he was full of animation, giggling and joking around then suddenly and inexplicably, he fell suddenly silent, indeed almost catatonic and lost all color in his face. The next thing we knew, he was practically unconscious.In this state, we knew Ritch had become a liability, a menace to the well being of our party. If we started something, like initiating a melee, mooning the authorities or provoking a transvestite, we may have to flee. With Ritch in the condition he was in, there was no way he would be able to keep up with us should a situation like that arise so we decided that we had to get him back on the safe side of the border. We snapped him out of his reverie just enough to get him out of the bar to the street and hailed the first passing cab.At first, the cab ride was all fun and games. I took a spot next to our driver in the front seat while Ritch and Matt piled in the back. Almost as soon as we got going, Ritch started his giggling again before suddenly morphing into a sentimental mood where he felt himself compelled to tell his brother how much he loved him and how much he meant to him. A little uncomfortable with the sudden incestuously homoerotic turn the conversation suddenly took and not wanting the cab driver to get the wrong idea, I turned around to change the subject. Before I could speak however, I watched Ritch’s giggling suddenly stop as a look of high anxiety abruptly flashed across his face. He then burst out in a cold sweat, lost the color in his face and clumsily fumbled for the lever to roll the rear windshield down just as the cab rolled down to a stop in front of a red light. I looked over at Matt and yelled, “Take cover! She’s gonna blow!”Ritch got the window down just in time. As soon as he made an opening large enough to get his head through, he stuck his melon out into Tijuana traffic and launched an impressive array of semi-digested hot dog, chewed up bacon chunks, onions and beer all over La Avenida de la Revolucion. Matt looked absolutely appalled and I broke out into insanely hysterical laughter. Ritch seemed able to see the humor in the situation as well as I caught him laughing between episodes of blowing sausage chunks out of his nose. I looked over to see how the cab driver was reacting to the event and witnessed something that, at least in my case, seemed to drain all of the humor out of the situation. The driver was also desperately seeking to get his window down but, for someone who was allegedly sober, was wildly unsuccessful at it. His eyes were practically bulging out of their sockets and his cheeks were grotesquely over-inflated, giving him a rather macabre appearance that was reminiscent of a deranged chipmunk in the midst of a Frito feeding frenzy. It was obvious that he had already blown and was rapidly losing the battle to keep the contents of his stomach from escaping his mouth.In an act of extreme desperation, the driver turned and looked at me as if somehow I may have held the key to releasing him from his predicament but my reaction of throwing myself against the passenger side door in a futile attempt to get out of line of fire probably instantly dispelled any hope he had of me coming to his aid. Finally he just burst, launching liquid laughter all over the dashboard, windshield, steering wheel and his own lap. Giving up on the window, the driver then pulled the handle and opened his entire door before sending a second round of pity puke safely outside the cab and into the street. Taking his cue I jumped out of the cab myself, pulling Matt and Ritch out with me, and tossed a $5 bill into the seat. I figured that to be more than fair compensation for a taxi ride that lasted all of three blocks. We managed to blend into the crowd on the sidewalk before the driver regained his composure. I vaguely remember exchanging a round of high-fives before making our way back to the border.
We were on our way back to the side of the US - Mexico border that had sanitary public transportation when Matt and myself finally gave up. We had been carrying Ritch for several blocks and had finally just worn ourselves out. We desperately needed a break. As we were approaching the intersection where the Tijuana’s Revolution strip began the number of restaurants and nightclubs started to dwindle, replaced by merchant businesses selling counterfeit handbags, leather goods, native crafts, t-shirts and switchblade knives. As far as we could tell, there were only two options available to us for a little respite. The first was the Hard Rock Café, an establishment that probably would not be receptive to three obviously intoxicated patrons with a high potential for public projectile puking. The second option was located right next door within a dingy yellow windowless building that boasted a hulking Hispanic enforcer positioned just outside the front door and horrid Latino rock and roll music blaring out from within. It looked like a nasty place, a place full of woe and depravity where the bottom tier of Tijuana’s underclass could gather to plan acts of violence, rapine and thievery against hapless American tourists who lacked the sense, street smarts or sobriety to resist. In other words, it looked like a place that would make us feel right at home. The establishment was named Chutey’s House of Beer.
I felt an impending sense of doom as we passed through the doorway into the dank darkness that was Chutey’s and tried to prepare myself accordingly. I put the best scowl I could muster on my face and was a bit relieved to see that Matt had done the same. We needed to project to whatever dangers that lurked inside that we were not men to be trifled with. We needed to broadcast to any potential threats that we were extremely dangerous and capable of unleashing dramatic acts of unspeakable violence at the mere hint of trouble. We needed to ensure that every being within the confines of that decrepit little bar knew that we were men on the edge and the slightest provocation was certain invite nothing more than certain doom. At the time I thought we did a fairly good job at this but looking back, I do not see how we possibly could have. In 1990, though I stood three inches over six feet, I barely weighed 150 pounds. Matt was six inches shorter than I was and possessed a similar build. Ritch, who was by far the most naturally menacing of the three of us, was completely unable to move under his own power and with his incessant giggling sounded like a mildly retarded hyena in the process of a nitrous oxide overdose. He could not have been less intimidating had he stepped into Chutey’s with his hair in pigtails, tarted up in “Hello Kitty” underoos and carrying a Care Bear backpack.
My first act upon entering Chutey’s was to size up the crowd, a task that proved fairly difficult with eyes that were still accustomed to squinting in the Mexican sun after having consumed enough tequila to kill a Kennedy. Matt and myself poured Ritch into a booth against the wall and I scanned the tables that surrounded us. Based upon all of the long, straggly unkempt hair, tattered clothes, tattoos, glass eyes and missing teeth among the establishment’s other patrons, I came to the only conclusion I possibly could have under the severely compromised intellectual capacity that I had to work with. I concluded that we were surrounded by pirates and immediately panicked. Upon realizing our predicament, I suddenly saw what lay in store for us. I suspected that we would soon be set upon, being severely beaten, mugged and sexually ravaged before being sold to a band of sociopath white slavers operating from some remote base in Southeast Asia. I felt myself starting to melt down as my paranoia started bubbling to the surface and I felt sure that Matt would become similarly distressed if I relayed my suspicions about what I felt was imminent to him. Ritch, on the other hand, would have been fine. At this point, he was so bombed he probably would have been up for anything.
Aggressive attacks of anxiety, though more often associated with delusional hysteria, can also induce a moment of rationality in a person not usually prone to logical thought in the middle of a tequila bender. No sooner had I sat down than I realized that the Caribbean, and thus the Spanish Main, were off of Mexico’s other coast a continent away and this fact, coupled with the advances in the enforcement of maritime law that have taken place over the past five hundred years, suggested that a sizable buccaneer contingent hanging out in Tijuana’s tourist district was highly unlikely. I decided to give the crowd a second look.
My second glance, enhanced by eyes that had finally adjusted to the darkness and the brief emergence of some semblance of intellectual lucidity, produced slightly different results. I still saw an overabundance of people with unkempt hair, tattered clothes, tattoos, glass (or rather, lazy) eyes and missing teeth but I also noticed that we were, with the exception of the bartender and the doorman, the only men in the place. It then dawned on me, once I noticed that nearly every single woman around was seductively staring us down, that we had stumbled into a house of ill repute, a very bad house of ill-repute where the women looked uncannily similar to Caribbean privateers. Much more at ease now, I got up and walked to the bar to get us another round of beer.
As I told the bar’s proprietor that I wanted “tres Tecates”, I glanced back at my drinking buddies. Matt looked absolutely mortified and rather unable to pry his eyes off of the table in front of him for fear of initiating an unwelcome business proposition. Ritch looked like a newborn in Disney World, knowing that he was surrounded by articles of amusement but not yet quite able to control the movement of his head to look at any of them. As I looked at them, I heard a raspy voice from behind me ask, “How you doin’, mayn?” It almost sounded as if I was being propositioned by Louis Armstrong after a successful sex change operation. I spun around and was face to face with a woman who, though she was probably one of the most attractive ladies in the place from the waist up, was cursed with backside so incredibly large that it was an unusual find on a human animal. It would have looked much more appropriate on something that got around on four legs.
“Just fine.” I answered as I wished the bartender would quit taking his time with our drinks. She then asked me if I wanted to do something that, even though I was a sailor, I had never before thought imaginable. I was half tempted to take her up on the offer just out of morbid curiosity when good judgment got the best of me and I politely turned her down.
No sooner had my refusal passed my lips when I was confronted by another voice on the other side of me. “Whats-a-matta-mayn?” I had to look down to make eye contact with this one. Way down. I was being addressed by what I assumed to be the madam of the house who stood, maybe, four and a half feet tall. If I had to guess her age, based upon her white hair, gin blossoms, liver spots and raisin-esque skin texture, I would bet that she was old enough to have started her professional career as one of Pancho Villa’s consorts. She appeared to be a feisty little troll and once I looked down at her, she started laying into me. “Wha? You no like me guuurrrlz?”
“Oh, they’re fine ladies, but I’m not here for myself.”
“Who you here for dhen?” She pointed a thumb over towards Ritch, whose head was still drowsily bouncing all over place while his insane giggling never skipped a beat. “Heem?”
I pointed over at Matt, who had no idea how much more uncomfortable his first visit to a brothel was about to become. “No, him. He’s never been with a woman before. I think it’s high time someone went over there and showed him a good time.”
I could barely contain myself as I watched the midget geriatric stroll across the bar and slip into the seat next to Matt. Shortly afterwards, the bartender brought me my beer and, for one last time before I returned to my drinking companions, I stole a glance to my left to check out the grotesquely deformed derriere on the woman who occupied the five or six seats next to me. She caught me looking and asked, “Do you lahk wha you see?”
“It’s amusing,” I answered as I wondered if she was capable of facing south without sending that massive thing through immigration control. In 1990, NAFTA was nothing more than a rallying cry for Ross Perot so I could see how an unauthorized backside border breech could cause some mighty incredible inconveniences for a working girl plying her trade that close to the US.
Now, though it would be as unfair as it would be untrue to describe Matt as being “uptight”, it would not be misleading if I said that he is among one of the most straight-laced people that I knew at that time. Though capable of enjoying himself, cracking an occasional off-color joke and mistreating his grey matter as well as the rest of us, when push came to shove, he was on firm moral footing and was steadfast enough to resist any peer pressure prodding him towards doing something he was outright opposed to. Still, it was always fun to try and I can honestly say that there are few things funnier than watching Matt squirm his way through a situation that he is thoroughly uncomfortable with, such as being profoundly felt up a four foot tall geriatric whose vintage suggests that, in addition to working in the world’s oldest profession, may very well have started it herself. As a fairly naïve seventeen-year-old, Matt was WAY out of his element in Chutey’s House of Beer and I would not have been able to live with myself had I not exploited him in some way.
The last memory I have of that particular pit stop was of Matt writhing under the hands of a woman who displayed amazing dexterity for someone her age. His eyes were opened as large dinner plates and his laughter, though loud, had very little humor to it. He played it off well but the look on his face was absolutely priceless. It was kind of a combination of amusement, disbelief, irritation, discomfort and fear all rolled into one. There is no way that a written description could possibly do it justice but tragically, digital cameras were barely even thought of in 1990 and Al Gore had not yet gotten around to inventing the World Wide Web. Trust me, if this excursion taken place five years later I have little doubt that Matt would have enjoyed more than his fair share of internet celebrity. It was definitely a Kodak moment and to this day I have that expression indelibly etched upon on brain. Unfortunately, most of what happened immediately after that was permanently erased.
My memory of that night picks back up as we were waiting in line to get back to the US. Matt and myself had Ritch propped up beneath the armpits and were smacking him around trying to get him alert enough to answer the customs questions that were sure to be asked when we tried to cross the border. Our efforts paid off as Ritch managed to make it back over the border, but not very far. As soon as we stepped out of the customs building, Sacto Ritch keeled over to his right and landed in the flower bed just outside of the exit, firmly passed out.Matt stared at him a moment and then looked at me. “What the hell do we do now?”It was a good question. We could not just leave him there and he was just too big to heave up at this point, with Matt being tired and with me quickly catching up to Ritch’s level of inebriation. We needed a plan, a good plan, thought through well and executed with precision. This was no time for rash decisions. With that in mind, I decided to sleep on it and laid myself down in the flower bed next to Ritch for a little afternoon siesta. Yes, afternoon. At that point it was probably just past four o’clock.
When I woke up, it was dark and I was no longer in the flower bed. I was at the trolley station maybe a hundred feet away. Panicked, I sat up and tried to figure out where my cohorts were. I soon found Ritch lying beneath the trolley stop bench next to me, having gotten sick again by the looks of it. Matt was no where to be found. I remember walking over to make sure he was still breathing and, after finding that he was, went back to sleep.
The second time I woke up, Matt was back and eating a meal he had picked up at the McDonald’s across the street. It was nearly midnight. “You know,” he said as he saw me stirring, “We need to get back before the trolley stops running. You want to see if we can get Ritch onto the train?” That sounded like a solid idea.Again, we tried to rouse Ritch and met with modest success just as the train pulled into the station. We got him up and he managed to walk the four or five steps to the train under his own power. As we reached the door however, we found it blocked by a San Diego Transit Authority police officer who looked us over. After sizing up Ritch and finding him still over-intoxicated and wearing liberal amounts of the hot dog feast he had eaten hours before, informed us that there was no way he was letting us on the trolley. We went back to the station and retook our seats.We all managed to stay awake as a few more trains came and went. Finally, the last trolley arrived and was blessedly devoid of uniformed law enforcement officials we bolted for the train just as the doors closed and I quickly passed out again.That time, I woke up in my rack back on the ship with no recollection whatsoever of having gotten myself home.
Later that morning, I made my way back to Ritch’s mother’s house and found her fairly enraged at us for what we had done the night before. She got over it though and practically adopted me for the rest of the time I was in California. Ritch joined the army and soon found himself in Iraq where, unarmed, he was credited with single-handedly capturing four enemy soldiers who surprised him while he working on an artillery track. He claimed that, after thirty days of incessant bombing, the Iraqis would probably have surrendered to Mister Rogers had that been the first American they came across in that particularly stretch of Mesopotamian desert but I doubt it. If he wields a monkey wrench in the same manner he wields a beer bottle, those bastards probably knew that they didn’t stand a chance and decided to give up their weapons before they gave up the ghost.
Ritch now lives in Northern California. He has settled down, gotten married and now has a son. He plays bass for a local band called Josephine and since that night fifteen years ago, we have embarked upon many other high powered drinking excursions. Through all of those however, I have never seen him drink another drop of tequila.