EL PASO TEXAS/JUAREZ MEXICO 1966
Craig Johnson and I decide that we wanted to go to Mardi Gras in Louisiana. We’d heard about Bourbon Street and the endless party that rolled all the way to Lent; the sacred Catholic tradition. I thought it was fitting that the biggest and longest party would be held to commemorate the austere days of Lent that followed.
There were two weeks left before the party began and we worked as diligently as two punk kids in their late teens could work to devise a plan to get there. In other words, we sat around talking about it as we passed the pipe. Oh, there were many pipes and many dreams in those days and a scant few actually came to full ripening.
But, this one on a late afternoon in January took a leap into the forefront when our wild-eyed friend, Kenny Wyman showed up. Whenever there was an adventure to be had or dangerous enterprise to partake, Kenny was always the first to jump up and get the rest of us going. His excitement and energy was infectious. His harebrained schemes were outrageous, and we followed blindly always looking for new horizons.
When he heard about our foggy plan, he immediately sprung into action with an idea. “We could get to Mardi Gras without spending a penny.”
My ears pricked up.
Kenny said, “My dad works for Southern Pacific Railroad. The company has a standing offer to take any employee and all of the members of their family anywhere in the United States for free. It’ll be easy to borrow Dad’s identification and get us all aboard the train.”
There were a few glitches, but we didn’t let that stop us. His father was in his forties and the picture on the identification clearly showed his age. Kenny himself and his brother stood above six feet and were skinny as rails. I, on the other hand, barley topped a measly five foot eight and with the football player build of Craig Johnston, we looked so little like Ken’s family it was painful. But, it didn’t seem to dampen Ken’s exuberance. With gangly arms swinging, as they often did, feet lifting off the ground from excitement, it was hard to diminish the moment with any talk of the impossibility of getting on the train for free.
“What the hell,” Ken giggled, passing the joynt, “We can’t get arrested for trying. All they can do is throw us off the train.” Kenny always made a twisted kind of sense, some sort of semi-intelligent wisdom. When Kenny spoke, most everyone within earshot usually followed, if for any other reason simply to see what would happen. As it was, we were like lemmings.
A few days later, turning in every extra coke bottle that was loose in the neighborhood, including snagging a few empty cases from the back of the Chinese grocery, we came up with thirty-two dollars between us. We borrowed hiking packs and filled them with food from our parents’ houses. We jumped on a cross-town bus and rode to the Oakland Southern Pacific Train terminal.
The terminal was built in the twenties in the classic Deco style. Columns and massive beams opened to a vaulted ceiling sixty feet over our heads. It was like a gigantic church, with pews in rows down the middle of the building.
To that point in my life, except for a few excursions to Haight Street in San Francisco and Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, which was filled with a majority of white kid dropouts, I hadn’t really explored outside of my white middle class neighborhood in the San Francisco East Bay.
The diversity of humanity was awe-inspiring and I gawked at every ethnic representation; many dressed in traditional attire.
We had a number of hours to wait for our train and spent our time wandering around getting into mischief and, except for Kenny, worrying about whether we were going to get on the train or not.
Dressed in scruffy long hair, cowboy boots, paisley vests, and peace symbol pins, we followed Kenny and boarded the train like we owned the company. He walked up to the conductor and handed him the booklet of identification cards. The man gave us a suspicious glare, stared us down, but let us board the train just like Kenny said.
I was shaking with anxiety as we found a car with mostly empty seats and went into a huddle until the train began to slide away from the station. I was sure the conductor would change his mind.
The ride for the next few hours was pleasant as we rolled through San Jose, Morgan Hill and Gilroy. The countryside was lush and green from the winter rain. The hills seemed little more than bumps as we clickity-clacked along worn rails.
Somewhere in Salinas, I fell asleep stretched between two seats. By morning, I was sore and cranky, but the sight of the ocean off the coast of Ventura lifted my spirits.
Kenny spotted some vending machines and we concluded that the old quarter on a piece of fish line scam would work on the antique machines. The trick, before high-tech electronic vending machines, was to light a piece of fish line and drip it on the edge of a quarter until it stuck. When I picked up the line the quarter hung on end like a piece of jewelry. I then slid the quarter carefully into the slot of the machine and fed it down until it tripped the switch that counted it as a quarter. I pulled the quarter up a fraction of an inch and let it drop until the machine registered it as a second quarter. We’d learned to do it with pinball machines back home. As long as no one came by, we could click the machine all day.
Between Ventura and getting out in downtown Los Angeles we pretty much cleaned those machine out of Snickers bars, Cheeso’s, potato chips, crackers, cookies, cokes and other assorted goodies. When we got off the train our pockets were full, our packs were full, and stomachs a little queasy.
Since there was a six-hour layover before the eastbound train arrived, we wandered as far as we could into the older parts of Los Angeles. It struck me at the time that those who rode trains and busses must have had an odd view of America. Stations were always in the seedy parts of town. We saw drunks, hookers, scammers and drugies, everyone except normal people. We were lucky though, because we fit into that part of town so well, no one noticed.
The ride out of the city was slow and boring as we stopped in every little jerkwater station to the edge of the desert. By evening, finally the train began the long pull across the Mojave and we settled down to sleep. The candy bars that we’d liberated that morning were dwindling, so Kenny found another group of old mechanical machines that the quarter trick worked. We decided it would be a three-day ride to New Orleans and we better milk these machines slowly so that whoever refilled them wouldn’t catch on. We rationed ourselves to three small raids a day, just enough to break the pangs of hunger and nothing more.
By the next morning the train rolled into Arizona and we were dropping deep into marijuana withdrawal. I was so hung over, I felt like getting off of the train right there and going home. When I spoke my wishes, Kenny suggested we get off of the train in El Paso, Texas and cross the Mexico border to find some more pot.
“Hell,” he said, “we’ve got thirty dollars. I’m sure that we can get a load of pot with that.”
Our spirits were revived. Since we were going to leave the train the next morning, we decided that raiding the goody machines more often was appropriate. We ate well that night, that is if you consider Cheezo’s and Almond Joy candy bars eating well. In the morning with high spirits, a pocket full of candy bars, and thirty dollars, we disembarked at the El Paso station and made our way across town to the U.S.\Mexico border.
We got a few sideways glances, some disapproving expressions and outright dirty sneers, but thought nothing of it as we sauntered into Juarez, Mexico. It was the first time I’d ever crossed the border.
As soon as we crossed the bridge the city took on a seedy, broken down, neglected look.
“Let’s get a taxi,” Kenny said, “Those guys know what’s what in any town. I’m sure if anyone can score for us, they can.”
Hailing a cab was almost comical. As soon as one of us put up our hand on the street, six cars, all coming and going in different directions, made U-turns in the middle of the street, slammed on their brakes, raced backwards up the road, blocked traffic to make a left in front of oncoming traffic, whatever it took to get to us.
Within a few seconds a congestion of cabs sat three deep and on the sidewalk. As I am always willing to give in to the weakest, most downtrodden underdog, we chose the guy that was further from us and least able to get our attention.
The drivers were chanting sacred, well-versed mantras, “You want girls, I have virgins. You want guns, I have guns. You want marywanna, I have Colombian. Peyote, I have tons.” The list of available contraband was amazing. We got into the cab and instantly the other five cabs disappeared.
“Whatch yo want, girls,” the skinny, dark-skinned man asked in thick English.
We looked at one another. For a moment I was sure we were going to get side-tracked from our mission, but being the smoking fools that we were in those days, I said, “Pot, we want pot.”
The little guy looked in the mirror quizzically. It was obvious that he didn’t understand.
“Marijuana,” I said again.
His eyes crinkled as recognition hit him. “Marywanna.”
“Yes,” I agreed.
“We go to my cousins,” he said.
We were off racing through back roads, sliding around turns and running stop signs. There was nothing the driver considered sacred that would keep him from his destination. Curbs, when there were curbs, were jumped and yards were crossed. We drove for ten minutes. I was completely turned around when he stopped in a back alley and put his finger up while getting out of the car, signaling the universal sign for, “wait a minute.”
As promised, a minute or two later he got into his car and raced away. Within a few blocks, in an open lot, he pulled over and handed back a baggie of brownish leafy material. Excited, Ken took the bag and poured a little out into his hand. We all looked. If there was any pot in that mixture, we couldn’t find it. There was, however, coriander seeds and a leafy mixture that resembled dried lawn clippings.
In unison we shook our heads no and handed it back.
Instantly he went into a rage speaking in Spanish obviously accusing us of not knowing what good shit looked like, but we were not to be dissuaded.
After every approach to sell the baggie of weeds to us, he gave up and offered us peyote cactus.
Our eyes brightened and we looked at the fattest, greenest, carrot-shaped tubers I had ever seen. We bought six roots for twenty-three dollars including the cost of the cab fare and had the driver drop us off at a local drug store close to the border.
Kenny had heard that in Mexico drug stores sold non-prescription Dexedrine. He said we had to have some for the trip. The remaining seven dollars were spent on three bottles of tablets and a beer for each of us at the bar next door.
Feeling tipsy, and a little more bold then we had a right to, we sauntered out of the darkened bar into the light of day and headed straight for the border.
Walking across the bridge, we passed the sign that said, “You are entering United States Territory,” and for some ungodly reason I assumed that if we hadn’t been stopped there we were home free. It wasn’t until we were across the bridge that I realized we had to go through a checkpoint.
Now, had I had a lick of sense, had I even given it one shred of thought, had I considered the stupidity of the act, I would have never attempted crossing with pockets full of Peyote and bottles of pills that were against the law in the U.S., dressed to the hilt in our California Hippie garb.
We walked up to the inspector and he asked us to declare anything.
We said nothing.
He asked us to empty our pockets and we emptied old pocket knives a dozen coins between us, a few combs, and some melted candy bars, leaving the peyote pods hidden.
I don’t know, who would have thought that the inspector would guess that we had more. Duh!
Once he found the peyote, a hoard of officers swooped down on us and escorted us into a small room. In there, we were questioned. The officers seemed to be in a quandary as to what to do and just kept at us trying to get more information, but there was no more. We were just three punk kids that didn’t have sense enough to keep on our side of the border with our drugs.
After a while, the officers told us to strip so that they could search us. They were nice enough to leave the room while we undressed then came back in later. They had confiscated the peyote, but we were still holding three bottles of Dexedrine tablets.
When we stripped, we decided to hide the bottles bundled in our shorts. You have to understand the why of the next sequence before I explain how. We’d been traveling for five days to that point and none of us had thought to bring a change of underwear. To our good fortune the guard that returned was a little squeamish and looked carefully through all of our clothing, excluding our shorts that concealed one bottle each.
After inspecting us, he left and we knew that we were going to have to get rid of the pills. Quickly, without thinking, which we were prone not to do in those days, we decided to eat as many of the pills as we possibly could. We downed about ten each before trying to find another place for the remaining forty pills per bottle.
I dumped them into a trash can under the table and tried smashing them into powder, which didn’t really work. Sure that we were running out of time before they came back, we ditched the three bottles into the garbage under scraps of paper.
A few minutes later the guard came in and hand cuffed us, then led us out to a waiting police car. The car drove us downtown and dropped us at the police station where we were booked and searched again, given lice showers and jail clothing.
After a few hours, the guards finally took us to a holding cell and put us in a separate cell next to one another.
By then the Dexedrine had taken full effect and we talked the guards’ ears off. We were probably the happiest, most cooperative prisoners the guards had ever met.
They finally put us in more permanent cells where we talked to the prisoners next to us and across from us, above us, below us. We talked to every person who would talk. When all of the prisoners got tired of us talking, we talked to one another all night.
When the morning meal came, we talked to the trustee that brought the meal. We talked to the guard that overlooked the trustee’s activities, and finally with no one else to talk to, we talked again to one another.
We ate breakfast in the long hall that the cells emptied out into and talked to prisoners that we hadn’t talked to the night before. Just about the time that I was getting the feeling that we were getting on our fellow prisoners’ nerves, the guards came and took us off to court.
The judge asked us a few questions, which we answered in as few words as possible, less than five hundred. About halfway through my dissertation about something I don’t remember, he stopped me and sentenced us to thirteen days in the county jail for vagrancy.
Turned out, and so lucky for us, that peyote was not yet illegal in Texas.
We found later that the sentence of vagrancy was a catch-all for anyone they wanted to get out of the way, or, as in our case, to scare.
After sitting in our cells for hours, the guards took us out one at a time to be interviewed by, of all people, a newspaper reporter. I talked to him for an hour. I talked about politics, the peace love movement, drugs, free love, sex, girls, newspaper business. I talked and talked to this guy until he finally frantically called for the guard. I was led back to the cell talking to my guard.
One at a time, each of my two cohorts had their turn to talk to their heart’s content.
We learned later that we were the first Hippies in Texas and we made the papers that afternoon.
Once we were back together in the cell, we talked until dinner was served, then talked while eating.
All that and the next night we worked out the world’s problems, politics, wars, famine, you name it. By the morning of the third day all of our clocks suddenly wound down and we slept off and on for the next three days.
Sometime during that three days of slumber, we were awoken and taken to a dormitory with twenty or thirty other prisoners sleeping, eating, showering, listening to the radio, and playing cards together in one big comparably comfortable room.
One thing for sure, after eating candy bars on the train, the food in the jail was great. There was always freshly-baked French bread. My first taste of molasses came from that cell, although I would not know that it was molasses until years later.
We spent thirteen long days in that jailhouse and thirteen days in jail is like thirteen weeks on the outside. Time seemed to stand still.
When I got out, I called for some money to ride a bus home and returned to California.
To date, I haven’t returned to Texas. I never made it to New Orleans, nor yet made it to Mardi Gras.
Although we talked of going on many adventures, and we separately explored many places, Craig Johnson, Kenny Wyman and I never traveled together again.