Another fall, and I returned to teaching at the community college. There, I continued to meet some interesting and offbeat instructors. One, a fellow instructor of English, boasted he could show me the former house and a couple haunts―a laundromat and chain restaurant―of the novelist Cormac McCarthy. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, McCarthy was living in El Paso, published but virtually unknown, and writing his masterpiece, 7,000 Different Ways to Describe the Landscape of the Greater Southwest, Including One Mountain of Dead Bodies, a phantasmagoric novel of the adventure, hardship, violence, and depravity of the 19th-century wars of Indian extermination in the border lands. Today, McCarthy is a highly successful writer living in northern New Mexico, his acclaimed and bestselling novels of the 1990’s and later having been made into such movies as All the Pretty Horses, The Road, and No Country for Old Men. Today, I greatly admire his work. At the time I taught in El Paso, however, I’d heard of but had yet to read him, so I had no desire to see where he washed his socks.
Then there was the philosophy professor―a Latino, no less―who inexplicably insisted, during our bull sessions in the adjunct instructors’ communal “office,” on pronouncing “Don Juan”―in this case, of Carlos Castaneda fame―as “Don JEW-ann.”
But by far the most interesting instructor I got to know was a man I’ll call Ernesto. Some four years older than I, Ernesto taught economics. He was short and had bug eyes, a generous belly of which he was proud, a thick head of hair, and a full, gray Hemingway beard. Unlike most of the instructors, he always wore a suit and tie. (Which caused me to recall some advice I received as a new college professor: Never dress like your students; the bulk of them will not respect you if you do.)
Ernesto said he was of pure Cuban stock. Born in Cuba, he and his parents fled the island either just before or during Fidel Castro’s regime. In America, they found a home in New York State’s Westchester County. Ernesto was fluent in both the Cuban and Mexican strains of Spanish, pointing out to me that there is a considerable difference between the two. (And the philosophy instructor’s use of the word “JEW-ann” irked him to no end.)
He loved much of the music I grew up with, including the Latin music of the Puerto Rican-Americans Joe Cuba and Ray Baretto, and he delighted in translating for me the Spanish, in the form of lyrics or patter, that occurred in the recordings of these two musicians.
Like many Cuban Americans at the time, Ernesto had a hatred of Castro and the dictator’s Marxist revolution. Still, as much as Ernesto admired Ronald Reagan, I didn’t get the impression he was a hardcore Republican. He was, as they say, fiscally conservative but culturally liberal, so I therefore considered him something of a Libertarian or perhaps a “compassionate conservative” to whom presidential aspirant George W. Bush would soon appeal. He knew I was a life-long Democrat, although never let that interfere with our relationship.
Ernesto never lacked for an opinion. “What is all this focking fighting about all over the world?” he’d grumble. “Religion! That’s what! But religion doesn’t make me mad. Poverty makes me mad! Hunger makes me mad!” And to me, on the mating game: “You Anglo men like the anorexic Ally McBeal-types; we Latin men prefer our women full-figured.”
Ernesto attended Columbia University during the institution’s 1968 left-wing student uprising, with which, being a conservative, he had no truck. Columbia awarded him a master’s degree in economics. What brought him to El Paso, where he had a charming wife and had raised two successful sons now out of the nest, I never learned. In addition to teaching at the community college, Ernesto, a determined entrepreneur, ran two modest businesses in Juárez, a pizza parlor and wholesale pantyhose outlet, and another pizza joint just across the border in New Mexico’s Sunland Park.
To my considerable amusement, Ernesto often demonstrated an earthiness and a great gusta de la vida. To indicate his distaste with something, he’d draw his open hand through his crotch, always over his cleaned and pressed Christian Dior trousers: he was, after all, careful to avoid overt crudity when expressing his displeasure in this manner. At a house party, he’d swing, sway, and whirl with his wife, and sometimes mine, to Joe Cuba’s popular sixties Latin boogaloo “Bang Bang.”
When we’d occasionally lunch together, always at one mom-and-pop El Paso Mexican restaurant or another, Ernesto invariably ordered something called “caldo.” Arriving in a huge bowl, it appeared to be a watery meat-and-vegetable soup. No matter the restaurant, the concoction always included, to my great perplexity, a generous bone―for all I knew, a section of bovine metacarpus. Perhaps the bone was for added flavor; to me, however, it appeared to be no more than an annoying obstruction or a clever way to pad a meal. While I sank my teeth into my usual plate of fatty cheese enchiladas smothered in red or green chile, I’d watch Ernesto with equal contentment slurping up this strange, insipid border consommé between bites of a tortilla.
In mid-December, when classes were over, Ernesto talked me into taking him in my truck into Juárez, in order that he could briefly attend to his businesses. Never would I have dared to drive a motor vehicle of mine into that city with someone other than him.
“Don’t look suspicious,” Ernesto advised me after we crawled over the Santa Fe Street International Bridge and into the general chaos that was the Juárez port-of-entry. “The thought never crossed my mind,” I responded. “Until now. So thanks a lot.” Ernesto then merely shrugged.
Vendors on foot hawked sunglasses, crucifixes of plaster and wood, Mexican pastries, candy, pistachio nuts. Boys with buckets of water and squee-gees dodged through the crush of traffic as they offered to clean windshields―for a fee, of course. Pedestrians shuffled into Juárez with plastic bags packed with goods from Payless Shoes and J. C. Penny’s. Proud, handsome, stiff-legged old Mexican men with trim gray mustaches, colorful snap-button cowboy shirts, and straw cowboy hats ambled north and south.
At the port, like all drivers entering from the United States, we were required to stop. In Spanish, Ernesto coolly dealt with the questions and reptilian gaze of the badged and uniformed Mexican funcionario. He then paid the entry fee―I cannot recall, but it might have been as little as an American quarter―and we proceeded into and through downtown Juárez.
Driving in Juárez was a challenge, although not necessarily because the city’s motorists often speeded. When the lines in the streets were not confusing, they were often faded to near invisibility; at times, they didn’t exist where, in my experience as a motorist, they should have. The directional signal on Juárez vehicles was an unknown device. The citizens jaywalked with abandon. I shuddered when, with a loud thud, a rear wheel of my truck briefly hopped the curb of a protruding concrete median; after this event, I had fears of changing a flat in this maelstrom while Ernesto risked his life directing traffic, flailing his arms and barking desperately at Juárez motorists in (Mexican) Spanish. But I gripped the steering wheel and forged ahead while Ernesto enjoyed the scenery, including beggars in wheelchairs and colorful Matachines in long, flowing headdresses celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Ernesto directed me to a small, unmarked storefront, one he used as a storage facility, near downtown, where we loaded several boxes of pantyhose into the extended cab of my Toyota; he said he planned to retail them in El Paso.
From there we returned to downtown Juárez where, at a hole-in-the-wall on a quiet side street, Ernesto sold pizza by the whole pie or slice. He introduced me to the smiling young man and woman, both residents of Juárez, who were running the place that afternoon; after some hesitation, I found I could exchange a few friendly words with them in English. After Ernesto conferred with them at length, he and I sat down and enjoyed two slices each of “Don Ernesto’s” pizza and two large cups of “Pape-see” Cola in crushed ice. Not New York or paisan New Jersey, but not bad.
As we ate and watched a young Juárez couple walk in and order, Ernesto, the chef-economist, beamed as he said to me, “These are my people, my 90 percent market niche that the chain pizza parlors”―and by that I presumed he meant the Domino’s, Godfather’s, and Pizza Huts of Juárez―“don’t touch.” I had no understanding of the economics of that observation, but I sensed in it a necessarily cold business calculation, yet also a deep Latin American pride, solidarity, and respect.
Walking the block back to my truck, we passed a muchacha, likely a Juárezeña. Medium height, buxom, rather distant from an “Ally McBeal-type,” she wore a tight skirt and heels, and her multi-colored makeup had been applied with the familiar precision, artistry, and―at least in my opinion as a non-Latin man―overstatement of the urban, young, and up-and-coming Mexican and Mexican-American woman. Ernesto smiled and nodded respectfully as she passed. She barely glanced at us, but a smile, albeit a faint one, crossed her face, as well. Then, “Always remember, Pheel,” whispered Ernesto, “snow on the roof does not necessarily mean no steam in the pipes.”
“I’ll journal that.”
On the drive back to the United States, we discussed the trials and tribulations of teaching the young people of El Paso and Juárez (the community college taught a good number of day students from Mexico), many of them the first in their families to receive a college education. Ernesto loved the challenge far more than I did, reminding me that “respect is everything,” and that it must be mutual between student and instructor.
Once again, we crept over the International Bridge, surrounded by the swarms in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and scooters. Seated on the bridge’s concrete walkway precisely at the designated point where the two countries meet, a Styrofoam cup at her side, a young woman, wrapped in a rebozo against the oncoming chill, discreetly suckled her child as she sought donations. With her diminutive size, dark complexion, and almond eyes, she might have been a Tarahumara Indian from the Barranca de Cobre region of Chihuahua, and thus a good distance from home.
Amid all of this, Ernesto suddenly waxed philosophical, returned to the basics: “I can’t help it, Pheel. I’m like Orson Welles: All I’ve ever wanted to do was eat, fart, and fock.”
Okay. I had never known this about the legendary American actor, director, and 1970’s TV shill for a middling California wine. In any event, this might have explained why, a couple of months later, after Ernesto had agreed to join me on a climb of Camel Mountain―I wanted to pry him from the twin border cities, reveal to him the economy of the desert, see if he had at least a little “mountain man” mettle in him―he crapped out on me the night before the event.
I still loved him.