My friend Jeff and I crossed the International Bridge (or International Overpass) into Ojinaga, Mexico — pop. 22,744 — at 10:25 a.m. The temperature was already 90 degrees. But from our brief elevation we saw green fields, startling in a rainless place, irrigated with water from the Rio Grande and the Rio Concho, which meet in this hottest corner of the Upper Chihuahuan desert. We were in Ojinaga, known as O.J., hoping to find a crowd and a TV and watch Mexico beat Cameroon in the second match of the 2014 World Cup.
Off Libre Comercio Avenue we swung right onto Ignacio Camargo Boulevard, looking for a bar/seafood restaurant where I’d been told (and shown pictures to prove it) that the dining room was lined with relics from 1983′s “Scarface.” A handgun. Ammo. A cigar. A roll of U.S. currency. Al Pacino reclining in a bubble bath above a brass plaque that read, “I Worked Hard For This, I Need Nobody.” It’s name: El Bucañero. The Pirate. It was, I’d been told, a clubhouse for drug runners. I imagined watching the game there might be like watching Italy’s 1982 World Cup campaign from the backroom of John Gotti’s Ravenite Social Club in Manhattan.
The most notorious of the O.J.’s traffickers, back in the 1980s, was called the Lord of the Skies (El Señor de Los Cielos), because he reportedly flew in product from Colombia using a fleet of retired-from-commercial-service Boeing 727s. The Lord came to O.J. to learn from a local, known as the Fox of the Ojinaga Desert (El Zorro de Desierto de Ojinaga). The Fox had an effective system for getting contraband out of Chihuahua state and into Texas, which he imparted to the Lord. Then he was killed in a shootout with heavily armed Mexican Federal Police, in a raid possibly organized by his former protégé (who then took over). It has only gotten worse in the years since then. A 2012 article in the Mexican newspaper Reforma detailed behavior almost comical in its debauchery: “a reign of terror in which illegal detentions and searches, kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial executions, sale of drugs, and extortion were encouraged and planned in meetings on military installations, while alcoholic beverages were consumed in the company of prostitutes.”
We’d driven down from Marfa, Texas, 60 miles north, after being advised by various well-intentioned Americans to “be careful,” “bring a gun” and “stay out of jail.” (Marfa’s sheriff during the Fox and Lord days in O.J. is currently serving a life sentence for hiding more than a ton of cocaine in a horse trailer.) But if Ojinaga’s reputation is for drugs, Marfa’s is for bohemia. In the 1970s the bearded, kilt-wearing artist Donald Judd bought an entire decommissioned cavalry base, now the Chinati Foundation, and filled it with his own work, and that of various anointed contemporaries (Claes Oldenburg, Dan Flavin, John Chamberlain). Since then, artists, writers and musicians have taken residence in the town — which has a full-time population of 1,981, and is about 200 miles from the nearest airport. (The singer Jonathan Richman has played twice at the bookstore; the painter Christopher Wool owns a house, a studio and a ranch; the photographer and director Larry Clark is shooting a cycle of Marfa films, the first of which won the 2012 award for best picture at the Rome Film Festival.) One local describes the town as a place for “transgressing social mores.”
In preparation for the O.J. trip I spoke to a group of Mexican American men who grew up on the border. A guy with worn-out teeth, a nicotine ridge around their tops, said, “You should go to B-29s!”
A second man (shaggy hair; sharp eyes) told me, “Just go to Juárez and get murdered.” (Translation: Die, Gringo.)
I said I could probably get murdered locally.
He shrugged and replied, “You should go dancing with 15-year-olds.” (Translation: Go to hell.)
B-29 said, “You gotta go to a cockfight!”
Sharp Eyes mentioned a recently elected public official and said I should invite him along: “He knows how to have a good time down there. But you’d better bring $120.” An oddly specific sum.
* * *
I love the World Cup because it provides a month-long opportunity for everyone to transgress social mores. It is possible to immerse yourself in soccer and step out of your life — a version of the same impulse that might compel one to live in an isolated town like Marfa; but without any of the elitism-of-accomplishment attendant in the fact that the place is not so much a backwater as a desert island of high culture and high achievers. So in this respect I would identify an important transgressional distinction. The World Cup is for amateurs. Accomplishment of any sort — knowing statistics, player bios, even more than a few of the game’s rules — can take away from the pure pleasure. The joy of the world’s biggest sporting event is the way in which it demolishes divisions: of class, of labor, of religion, of nationality, and creates a global community of people who are briefly doing exactly what they want to do. Skipping work or staying up late to watch men kick a ball. To partake of that pure experience was why we were visiting O.J.
* * *
There were occasional pedestrians moving down the rubbly edges of Libre Comercio. We guessed everyone was gathering at bars and around TV sets. Would we be able to get a parking space at El Bucañero? It loomed ahead, a large structure with a thatched roof, designed to look like a beachside palapa. The lot was empty and the doors were chained shut. We got out of our vehicle — a 2002 (World Cup year) Pontiac Montana van — and saw that there appeared to be some sort of VIP area on the roof of El Bucañero, from which a man hollered down, “We’ll be opening at noon!”
We replied, “We are in town to see, el jugo de fútbol!” — the juice of football. He laughed and recommended we go to a bar called Lobby’s, a mile or so back on Libre Comercio. This turned out to be a very-well-stocked, if antiseptic situation (five different whiskeys and innumerable mixers, among them Cinzano). A sign above the door said, “Desde 1980″ — the years of the Fox and the Lord. We walked in five minutes before the game started and got the best seats in the house, right below a flat screen TV Jeff ordered a michelada and a Coke. I got water and guacamole. When we requested these things the waiter replied, “Claro que si” — But of course. And the game was on.
Nobody else seemed to care. Of the 19 patrons/staff in Lobby’s two were watching (me and a man in a cowboy hat with a tooled belt and a mesquite-handled knife in a leather scabbard—who put three packets of sugar in his coffee without taking his eyes off the TV). The clientele seemed to largely consist of men transacting business in whispers over plates of huevos rancheros and, surprisingly, pancakes. There was even a jug of maple syrup, at the elbow of a very fat man in a white button-down shirt.
I asked our waiter, “Where do people watch the game?”
He replied, “In their houses.”
* * *
Jeff wasn’t watching either, but focused, instead, on texting some Marfans for suggestions as to a better place to go. Eventually he got wind of a “sports bar called The Pig” near the town square. We determined to go at halftime. Then Jeff went outside for a cigarette. When he came back he told me, “This guy called Ramón was selling water. I tried to ask him if people were really all watching in their houses but he thought I wanted to go watch the game at his house and said, ‘No. My house is no good. My T.V. is very small.’ He recommended ‘a hotel where each room is private and has a T.V. and costs $6-$7.’”
It dawned on me that the word for game was “juego,” not “jugo” and I told Jeff this. He said, “Yeah, I was wondering that. But ‘juice’ is better. We are looking for the football juice.”
Then Mexico scored. Applause from watchers and non-watchers until the goal was disallowed. A professorial man with a neatly trimmed mustache and spectacles declared, too rationally for my taste, “Yes, indeed, it was offside — by centimeters.“ The fat man sneezed like a thunderclap. I wheeled round to see if his maple syrup was going to fall to the floor in the shock wave. But it was heavy enough to stay put.
The professor said, “Salud!”
“Gracias,” the man replied.
All very decorous. No whores or murderers in sight. The professor and I nodded at each other and he said, observing the broadcast from Brazil, “They’re getting so much rain.”
* * *
Jeff and I left Lobby’s — courteous farewells from staff and patrons — and followed a gray Chevy pickup up Trasviña y Retes Avenue, where dental clinics and window tinting shops vied for retail frontage. The Chevy had three different-size trailer hitch balls bolted to its bumper.
I said to Jeff, “Hitch hat trick.”
Off the town square we asked a clutch of taxi drivers where the Pig was. They pointed down a side street. A couple of blocks walk and we were lost. A muscular young man strutted out of a nail salon. On the back of his neck, in looping script, were tattooed the words “El Gato.” I asked the Cat if he could tell us where to find the Pig, and he guided us to a shuttered storefront — closed. At which point I threw up my hands and asked him, “Where is the World Cup fever in this town?” He shrugged. Walking back to the van we passed a hand-painted sign duplicating the logo for Major League Baseball and another that said “Officially Licensed NFL Products.”
My phone said it was after noon. En route back to El Bucañero we pulled up to a tinting shop called Silvestre (for the Looney Tunes cat), where a menacing-looking man brandished a roll of window tint, like a club. In answer to our question about the location of World Cup juice he simply said, “Beat it, Señor.”
* * *
El Bucañero: still closed. The roof man said, “We open at 12!” I held out my phone and replied, “It’s 12:12!”
“That’s American time! We’re on Mexican time here!”
We decided to gas up the van at a Pemex service station on the corner of Justo Sierra and Libre Comercio. Alongside us was a horse trailer. And on the far side of this trailer a group of men and boys were shouting joyously. Jeff stepped around and then called me over: on a 19-liter bucket marked “MEXICANA DE LUBRICANTES Aceite Lubricante Hidráulico” was a beat-to-hell Sylvania cathode ray set, bringing in the game on rabbit ears. Thirty-year-old Oribe Peralta, a forward (I apologize for knowing this) from the state next door, Coahuila, had just scored for Mexico.
The Pemex’s pump attendants were celebrating with a sunglasses seller, half a dozen customers and a loitering boy. I paid for our gas, looked at Jeff, and said, “This is where we’re watching the rest of the game.”
The football juice was gasoline.
I parked the van next to a gleaming Dodge pickup marked “POLICÍA,” a cop with a machine gun standing next to it.
“A goal for Mexico,” I said.
He said, “A goal?”
His face opened into a smile. “How great!” And he reached out to shake my hand.
Back between the pumps I asked a tall, middle-aged attendant called José Luis how he thought Mexico was going to do in the tournament.
He replied, “Campeón!”
A chubby man in a blue-and-white-striped shirt, eating a burrito, and wearing a tricolored bracelet marked “MEXICO,” held out his free hand for me to shake and then sat down heavily on the concrete pump island — right in front of the Sylvania. He said his name was Chuy. A kid called Jorge, around 12 years old, in a burgundy T-shirt decorated with a drawing of a flying-V electric guitar, sat down beside him. A teenager in a black quilted baseball cap, with a gold Coach logo, was carrying around a metal grid from which badly attached sunglasses kept clattering to the oily pavement. He tucked in to watch on the other side of Chuy. Jeff and I introduced ourselves. Cars and trucks pulled up and filled up. The Pemex was pumping three things: 87 octane (“Magna”), 93 octane (“Premium”) and diesel. Payment was accepted and change given in dollars or pesos. A man in a white Suburban asked if Jeff and I were hungry. He pointed to some food in his back seat.
A huge white panel truck grazed me as it passed. An older man in a pair of very blue jeans, a yellow plaid shirt, and ostrich-skin boots stepped away from his vehicle to join us.
“Nice boots,” I said.
He nodded impassively.
“Can I see the tops?”
When he pulled up his pants, to show yellow tops that matched his shirt, everybody laughed and pulled up their own pants, too. Jorge, the 12-year-old, had a gold plate over the laces that spelled out “Adidas” in bas relief letters.
The sunglasses seller pointed at Chuy’s dirty-gray tennis shoes and said, “Nike!”
An attendant gestured at Chuy and said to me, “Don’t get close to him — he’s gay.”
People honked for gas and were ignored. Another truck pulled up and the driver, who introduced himself as Maño, said he was heading for Chihuahua city, and asked Jeff if he wanted to ride along. Jeff weighed the proper response. Maño made a case for the beauty of the city, and the brevity of the drive through the desert.
“No,” Jeff said, “I need to see how the game turns out.” The man clapped him on the arm and drove off — Texas plates.
Chuy finished his lunch and was now holding three pale blue, 60-peso notes — each bearing a portrait of Benito Juárez — namesake of the border metropolis. Sunglasses seller suddenly snatched the bills out of his hand and did a dance of triumph. Everybody hollered (Me, in English: “What a burn!”) till he handed them back with a sweet smile.
Now there was a baby with us — dressed in a gray shirt emblazoned “#1″ and “TEXAS” — getting passed from man to man, then held in place before the TV. The clock was running down. At 90 minutes the game was looking like Mexico’s. Then four minutes of injury time — eternity — were put on the clock, and Benoît Assou-Ekotto, a Cameroon defender, playing offense, sent a cross into the box, and a striker called Benjamin Moukandjo headed it at the goal. Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico’s Guadalajaran goalie, made a dramatic save. We all gasped. Chuy grabbed his head with both hands.
Jorge, the 12-year-old, said, “Shit!” in English.
Jeff laughed: “The kid just said ‘Shit!’” Then he turned to Jorge and corrected him, professorially: “Mierda.”
When Mexico won we all cheered with happiness, and before everyone dispersed I managed to get a picture of Jorge, Chuy and two attendants giving thumbs ups: “Campeónes!”
I said we’d be back.
As I was getting the van’s keys out of my pocket the cop with the machine asked, “Did we win?”
He shook my hand again.
In was finally after noon, Mexican time, so we had lunch at El Bucañero: two margaritas, grilled fish and ceviche. The place resembled a fancy bar at a beachfront hotel, and, apparently, they’d remodeled — no sign of the “Scarface” memorabilia. I asked the waitress where it had gone and she had no idea.
* * *
Crossing the border, signs warned that our cars could be X-rayed with machinery that emitted a “minimal” amount of “safe” radiation. (I later read a quote on this subject from John Sedat, a professor of biochemistry and biophysics who runs a macromolecular structure lab at the University of California, San Francisco: “Society will pay a huge price in cancer because of this.”)
A female Customs and Border Patrol agent waved us forward. She was wearing wrap-around sunglasses, a blue jumpsuit with a silver badge on the left breast pocket and a stitched nametag — “WOLKOWITZ” — below the right.
We handed her our documents.
“Take off your sunglasses,” she ordered me. “I want to see your eyes.”
“What were you doing in Ojinaga?
“We went to see Mexico play Cameroon in the World Cup.”
“That’s happening here?”
“No. In Brazil. We just watched on television.”
“I think I would have heard about it if it were happening in Ojinaga,” she said.
Jeff replied, “Yeah — you’d be like, ‘What’s with all this traffic!?’”
She squinted at us: “Why’d you want to watch the game here?”
“It seemed like a good opportunity to advance Mexican American friendship.”
Still holding our documents, she rolled her eyes.
“Did you watch in a bar?”
“Uh. No. At a gas station.”
“You watched the whole game at a gas station?”
“Just the second half, actually. And after that we went to El Bucañero.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Oh …. A seafood restaurant.” I left off mentioning its drug runner pedigree. “It’s good.”
“What, like sushi?”
“No, no. Ceviche!”
“Ugh.” She grimaced. “I. Do. Not. Eat. That.”
I paused a beat, wondering how far I could go in calling out this prejudice; how transgressive I could be without getting my vehicle irradiated. Then I flicked my eyes to her stitched name patch and hollered, “C’mon, Wolkowitz, give Mexico a chance!”
She handed back our documents, waved her hand toward Marfa, and said, “Get out of here!”