It was before the drug violence was so intense. And a post-9/11 kind of thinking hadn’t yet arrived. We walked along College Ave towards the freeway and crossed Montezuma Road. The clammy overcast skies burned off slowly, and the student lunch crowd would soon stuff Trujio’s taco shop across the street. The San Diego State University trolley stop in the adjacent parking lot could be mistaken for an inverted parking garage—the entrance descending into a large concrete structure with flood lighting and a red ceiling. Fifteen minutes later, the unearthed train soared past Qualcomm Stadium where the Chargers play, gliding on the raised tracks above the clogged lanes of the 8 and into Old Town, and eventually past the Padres ballpark downtown, ending at the border crossing at San Ysidro. Just over the pedestrian walkway, Tijuana reached into the thirsty hills.

Traffic waiting to enter the U.S. extended single-file like ants marching through the desert—albeit absent the efficiency. The August sun roasted. The seven of us showed our drivers’ licenses to the federalis—no passports necessary—and clambered across the bridge to Mexico. In this direction, there was no crowd to fight. We climbed down wide concrete stairs into a dusty, unpaved courtyard about a hundred yards in diameter. A large fountain in the middle created a bull’s-eye. The air smelled of tortas and carne, and knick-knack stands selling sequined wrestling masks lined the perimeter. Tijuana’s guts opened straight ahead.

Kyle had some funny stories from TJ, as he called it, from his first year living in Southern California. We had flown to visit: six under-traveled Pennsylvanians landing to enjoy a then-exotic place with no supervision or obligations, little money and zero boundaries on our drinking. Fuck yes, we wanted to get stoned and spend a day in TJ. In little over an hour we arrived at what now has become a volatile location in terms of Mexican and American immigration and drug policy. Ignore the kids, warned the border patrol. Give to one, then come all. But none of us had ever had to shun begging children because, where we came from, there weren’t any.

Seven or eight friendly and perhaps underfed boys and girls mingled and approached us separately, each grinning and casual, perhaps carrying a thin awareness of the discomfort asking for money can cause. The grime beneath their nails was thick, accumulative, and had grown like tiny mustaches on their still delicate fingers. Some asked bluntly for dinero in a mix of local Spanish and broken English. Swift, like a band-aid. The business savvy shuttled goods: candy, inch-tall plastic figurines, or simply held out their open hand until you paid for what they tried cramming into yours. A particular elementary-age girl in a weightless dress simply made good company, strolling beside us, giggling and requesting nothing. There’s a deftness required to melt at times indifferent hearts.

Besides an errant smile or sarcastic quip, none of us caved. We window-shopped TJ’s side streets for hours, wallets tucked away, wandering deeper from the bridge. But one boy, in jeans, tailed us. He wore a loose black t-shirt that would’ve fit someone six inches taller and thirty pounds heavier. He knew, at some point, we would sit down. Then he’d strike.

The animated owner’s middle-aged gut wiggled above his pleated khakis as he waved us into the taqueria. The patio was perfect for seven hungry gringos, shaded by the wall of a building at our backs and a leaning palm tree standing by the table. Just as we sat, a rusty pickup truck from the 1980s backfired around the corner, sending the locals to the pavement, wary of the real possibility of actual gunfire. Normalcy returned seconds later and we looked over the menus, our American cluelessness unharmed. When the owner turned from taking our orders, the young entrepreneur circled the table and placed an inch-long packet of Chiclets gum wrapped in cellophane next to each right hand. Red, green, and blue gums. At the end of the table farthest from the street, he stood with an outstretched hand next to Noodles. His tapped Chiclet supply was replaced by an expectation of modest compensation, ignoring a basic tenet of capitalism: choice. Still, Noodles cracked; she had to, for all of us. We couldn’t give him the gum back, and we couldn’t give him nothing. He did not come to be tormented by steaming plates of chiles and pollo and tamales arriving at our table; he came to get paid. Noodles fed him a folded dollar from the pocket of her jeans. A smile, a nod. Gracias, he muttered, before darting past two aimless muts sniffing beneath the palm tree and disappearing into the narrow alley behind us, gone.

We waited for the ambush. No doubt word had spread to other in-need and deserving and scheming ears that our group could be bought. But no one came. This young salesman owned an unmatched persistence. After emptying a bucket full of cheap beers in ice, hands were shaken with the talkative owner and we set off. The evening simmered in an orange and purple glow. We retraced our steps north, said goodbyes to this hardly known city.

The gauntlet of young palms reopened at the last intersection between the town square and our return home. Our ballsy beneficiary reappeared. He sat on the corner, elevated on a chair above the curb beside an older man while two hands scrubbed and polished his size four feet. Cracking a victor’s grin, he watched us again deny his peers, his competitors, all maybe ten or twelve years old, the prize he’d earned. He had, for a brief moment, defied his Tijuana fate—and had the shoeshine to prove it.

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