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giovedì 23 giugno 2011

TIJUANA 2: Michael Hemmingson's "ZONA NORTE" [2008, 215 pp]

[ZONA NORTE is a fascinating and disquieting book. Many books at once, better. There is a learned discussion about the history, characteristics, pros and cons of autoethnography; there is a sociological analysis of peculiar social phenomena and environments; there is a narration of a portion of Michael Hemmingson's life, as it drifts or journeys (across borders of various types) through different cities and relationships; there is, last not least, a philosophical interrogation on desire (and need).- All of this merits the greatest respect. I couldn't say if it was hell or paradise he travelled through, but undoubtedly he makes them excruciatingly real- while all of the time trying to maintain a steady eye on what he's doing - and on the meetings and choices he makes. GC]

Zona Norte: A Note 

The red light district of Tijuana, Zona Norte, or the northern district, is about a ten-to-fifteen minute walk from the border, la línea, or a $3-to-5 taxi cab ride. Another signifier of the area is ―La Coahuila, named for the narrow, alley-like street most of the clubs and streetwalkers are located. 
When approaching Tijuana by car or city trolley, the city arches can be viewed in the distance—tall, metallic, dull in the sunlight, located at the town square of Prima y Revoluciόn. This is where Zona Norte begins. The square is crowded with mariachi musicians waiting to be hired. There are scattered women going in and outside taxi dance bars. Street barkers  try to get customers into their cantinas, restaurants, and shops. Children sell gum and candy for a quarter. Old women sell jell-o and jewelry out of cardboard boxes. Police officers and federales patrol the area on foot and in trucks, seeking out crime and bribes. Shoe shiners will spruce up loafers for $1. Dozens of street vendors sell tacos, ice cream, churros, and corn-on-the-cob. Cars drive around in circles, voices blasting out of a horn that tamales or other food items are for sale, hot and ready out of the trunk. Hundreds of taxi cabs wander every street, seeking a fare to take back to la línea… 

La Línea: A Note 
They call it ―the line: la línea. It is a Rubicon between two worlds. ―More than a just a political boundary la línea locates both Mexico and the United States on opposite sides of the coin in a global system of trade and production‖ (Light, 1999). Running 2,000 miles, the border stretches across the desert and mountains of the Southwest, representing much to many: a buffer between two friendly but distinctly different nations; a zone of protection between the First and Third Worlds; a final, tortuous hurdle between making $6 a day and making $6 an hour (de la Garza, Magus & Castro, 2003). 
Urban philosopher Mike Davis (1995:3) writes in Granta
The populist flavor of Tijuana, of course, is scarcely savored by the day tourist from the Midwest. The radical shortage of water, and thus of formal landscaping, gives the city an arid, almost Saharan visage that reads immediately as Danger: Third World. Moreover, Tijuana remains stigmatized by its past life as a zona roja for the U.S. Pacific fleet. Yankees still fear contamination by their own moral sewage…. La línea, by contrast, has unexpected energies. A steel knife slicing through daily life on both sides of the border, it is also, in [Gustavo] Leclerc's words, ―a superb stage for subversive practices of all kinds. While the Migra is playing hide-and-seek with the mojados in the hills, kids from an adjacent colonia organize a soccer game on the U.S. side. Street vendors sell tamales. Artists build illegal installations. And Tijuana simply yawns in the face of its paranoid neighbor across the wall. 
Brizzolara (2006:192), in his column for the San Diego Reader, describes Avenida Revolución, the main drag, itself a kind of dragon entity in some eternal urban New Year's dance of the Worm Ouroboros. Whistles, sirens, waiters shaking the heads of your missing children like maracas as they pour tequila, Kahlua, mescal with the worm that makes you dream of flying 100 miles an hour exactly one inch off of the ground. Those dreams come later, nightmares are likely first. Faces come at you out of the night and indeed you are likely to hear the Lizard King singing that exact Peso Opera piece from sub-sonic weapons-grade sound systems. But this is not Berlin, wall or no wall, it is Tijuana. Through your open window, set high, as if in the cinder block of a cell wall, curdled blue/gray smoke writhes inside. Shot through the charred carnitas fumes like lightning is the staccato stuttering detonation of distant disco balls.

La Patria 
Before the violence between the drug cartels and the police that frightened many tourists off, every Friday and Saturday night, thousands of people, many in the age 18-21 crowd (when I went there at age 16 in 1983, I could buy alcohol and go into strip clubs—see Chapter Three) traveled southbound from San Diego across the San Ysidro/Puerta México Port of Entry. They passed by Plaza Viva Tijuana, a retail commercial center adjacent to the border station, and, by foot or taxi, headed straight for the nightclubs and bars along Avenida Revolución, the biggest ―paseo‖ in town. That is ―where la patria begins,‖ states a municipal motto posted at the Tijuana Tourist Terminal between Sixth and Seventh Streets. The party continued in bars and cantinas on parallel streets Constitución, Agua Caliente, and Niños Heroes, and did not end until sunrise. ―No cover before 10:00 pm, ―$20.00 all-U-can-drink and ―2-fer-1 specials seduced the hordes of young pedestrians into disco bars such as Club A, Baby Rock, El Jardin, Zka, Bacarat, Tequila Sunrise, Safari's, and of course the Hard Rock Café. These contemporary nightclubs invested in glitzy decors, convoluted lighting, and potent sound systems designed to blast out norteño, Tejano, Conjunto, rock and roll and techno pop at decibel levels high enough to drown out conversation even among the sidewalk passersby. Inside, as high-pitch whistles quaver and onlookers hoot and holler, it was common to see barhops moving through the crowd with Tequila bottles of all varieties (Cuevero, Don Julio), inviting patrons to hold their heads back while servers pour straight shots directly down their throats. Club employees were generally Tijuana citizens but not natives, many first and second generation immigrants from all parts of the republic: Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas and every other state of the nation. This is the same for those doing sex work on the east side of Avenida Constitucion, just north of First Street. No one is ―from Tijuana; they have all come here to work and make money. 

Different Places to Find Prostitutes 
―Tijuana‘s prostitutes have drawn tourists since the turn of the century, spreading in recent years from the red-light district known as ‗La Coahuila‘ […] to other pockets of the city of 1.2 million‖ (Associated Press, 2005). 
●Taxi dance cantinas. Near the arches, before reaching La Coahuila, are several taxi dance bars, or cantinas, such as the Diamond Bar and the Rio Verde Club. These are small, crowded, smoky, dark establishments frequented by mostly local women who come to make a few dollars dancing, drinking, and perhaps to have sex (at the right price). Few American, European, Asian, and Middle Eastern tourists are found here; they are generally for local men with limited funds. It is seldom that anyone speaks, or knows, English in a taxi dance bar. A gringo or other foreign tourist is a rarity, but the money is always welcome; thus, bartenders, waiters, and women do not turn away any man who happens to wander in. 
●Massage parlors. These establishments can be found all over Tijuana, not just Zona Norte. Their signs are advertised above dental offices and pharmacies. While these are indeed places to obtain sexual gratification, a bona fide massage can be enjoyed as well. 
●Stripper bars. Many of these can be found on the main tourist drag, Avenida Revoluciόn—numerous barkers will stand outside, aggressively yelling at passing men to come in and ―see the girl, see the pussy, see the hot young things. Sometimes these places will be empty, despite all that is promised. The Unicorn Club and Bambi's are commonly known—they are establishments I chose to avoid. The drinks are over-priced and the women (if they are women, as transsexuals are known to frequent clubs with low-lighting) are professional hustlers. In Zona Norte, there are a handful of stripper bars—Hong King Club, Adelita's, and Chicago Club—that I will later discuss in detail. ●The Street. The majority of prostitutes in Zona Norte stand on the street, lined up against the walls, trees, trash cans, cars: waiting. Las parditas. Tijuana/San Diego Sexualities 29 
●Gentleman's clubs. In these upscale venues, the drinks and food are overpriced and the woman dressed as if out on a night to the Opera. The women usually speak good English and claim to be college students or graduates. Sometimes American, European, and Asian women will work in these places. The women will sit and talk to a client for hours, as long as the client pays for drinks, food, and the time. Gratuity expected, whether sex occurs or not. 
●Escort services. These services have their own websites. They feature pages for each woman, with their photos and codes for what they do—e.g., BBBJ is ―bare back blow job (no condom). Appointments are set by phone or email. The women will meet a client at a hotel, if the client is staying in a decent place, or will meet a client at the border, either with a driver or in their own, where the woman will take her client either to an upscale hotel or her apartment (usually for repeat, trusted clients). 
●Craigslist. Escorts advertise here, either via an agency or on their own. Women who need to make some emergency cash, rather than regular professionals, will post ads. Some ads are scams—the woman will post a picture of someone else, perhaps a woman who is younger, thinner, or more model-like; there have been reported situations to set a person up and rob them. While finding a prostitute via Craigslist can be an adventure for those seeking a seedy thrill, it is not, as a general rule, recommended—especially not in Tijuana, where the availability for prostitutes is greater, and safer, by just seeking the experience out on foot. (I devote the next chapter to women who advertise on Craigslist.) 

Rio Verde Bar Subjects: Blanca and Marsh 
I did not know, exactly, what kind of establishment this was on my first visit. I was still exploring unknown territory while in the field. There are several cantinas (like the Diamond Bar) near the square on First and Revoluciόn, where the mariachi musicians converge like vultures waiting for a fresh carcass. On the west side is the Alaska Motel, rooms $20-25 a night. It is not the cleanest or safest-looking place. Across the street is the Nelson Hotel, far more secure (with doormen) and upscale at $45-50 a night (I would later learn this is a popular space for call girls to meet clients). The Nelson has a cozy, clean bar attached, where I usually sat down to have a beer and a shot of tequila among other Americans. The 
area cantinas were local-centric, the bartenders and patrons didn't speak much English; as I speak broken, badly enunciated Spanish (albeit the fact I am half-Hispanic), I tend to stick out. As an observer (and being cautious) I did not want to draw undue attention to myself. I kept in mind admonitions about banditos who were always on the prowl for unsuspecting gringos to rob.2 I was aware, at all times, who was near me, who I walked by, and who was walking too close behind me.
Rio Verde is on the way to Zona Norte, with an all-you-can eat pollo (chicken) restaurant on one end, a barbershop on the other. (A couple of women, usually in their forties, stand around by the entrances of motel rooms; they are not as aggressive as some of the streetwalkers two blocks down who will grab at the sleeves and arms of men walking by, hissing “chhtt-chhtt” and quoting prices, such as ―$15 sucky-sucky or ―$20 fucky-sucky.) I had passed by Rio Verde before, heard loud music inside, saw men and women walk in and out, drunk, laughing, crying, but had never felt the need to enter the space. A waiter, standing on the sidewalk, enticed me. ―Hey, amigo,‖ he said, ―you like the tits? You like the ass? You like the girls, yeah? C'mon inside. Check it out, bro.‖ I usually do not get sucked in by the promises and harassment of street barkers, I simply ignore them; but I was in the field now and here to learn all that I could about the seedy sexual side of Tijuana, so I decided why not and went inside. 
Rio Verde is a dank, dark, dirty hole in the wall that smells of bleach, urine, and stale cerveza. The ceiling is low and the walls are paint-chipped and moldy, with a putrid stench of fungi. Along the walls are many small tables and chairs. In the middle of the bar is round stage, risen half a foot, where couples can dance; from 7-9 p.m. the girls in the bar will dance topless, the DJ urging, in Spanish, to tip a girl $1 or dance with her for $1 a song later on, and be sure to buy her mas cervezas, amigos. Rio Verde is a taxi dance bar that caters mostly to local men seeking the company of local women. The women range from eighteen to forty, with an average age of late-twenties. They do not dress like the prostitutes on the street or in other clubs, except when they are spotlighted on stage; they wear casual street clothes, jeans and t-shirts and halter-tops and skirts. On the several occasions I have been in this establishment, I found it curious that many of the women whom I considered attractive were sitting alone, not dancing or being paid attention to; the women who seemed to be getting the most dances and beers were older and overweight. A colleague suggested that I had to consider that culturally, these men may have been choosing the plump women they admired when they were younger, the mamasitas and aunties who fed and loved them; or perhaps these women reminded them of a former girlfriend or a dead spouse, because the majority of the local men in the bar were in their 50s-60s. Cultural anthropologist Katherine Frank (2005:97) concurs: ―Nudity, it has been argued, lies in the eye of the beholder and not simply in the exposure of the body's surface. When the women danced topless during the exhibition part of the evening, I noted that those with larger, drooping breasts and weight around their middles received more $1 tips than the thinner dancers with small breasts and hips. (I kept in mind that in a cultural context, a slender woman without ample breasts or hips might not be deemed worthy of child-bearing in a Catholic society where the image of the mother is honored and appealing.) Again, this observation was based on my biased assessment of what I personally find attractive about a woman's exposed flesh. 
Nudity…[is] not in the exposure of the body's surface, and what constitutes nakedness in generally seen by anthropologists as varying by context and culture. The implication of this variation, and in the need for a ―witness, real or imagined, is that nudity is not just a state of being, but is, rather, a social process. Strip clubs, as venues in which nudity is commodified, standardized, and regulated and where bodily revelations are sought and purchased, provide a dynamic illustration of the production of nudity and its meanings. (Frank, 2005: 98) The majority of available women sit on benches near the stage, looking bored or feigning boredom. When I walked by, some looked up at me and smiled, others acted like I was not there; either way, it was obvious I was an American, the only gringo in the space. Other women were sitting at tables with men, drinking beers and talking in Spanish, laughing as the men touched their breasts and legs; some women sat at the bar, watching the couples dance on stage. The music had a thump-thump-thump-thump tuba-like bass beat (an apparent influence of German polka) with traditional horns and stringed instruments—norteño y Tejano are the styles. Fast music had a certain style of dancing connected to it: the women placed their feet on the men's feet as the men, with their hands on the women's waists or buttocks, would rapidly bounce them up and down, in circles.4 Observing this was as foreign to me as if I were on a remote island and watching a tribe‘s ritual dance to drums and chanting. I felt like Geertz (1973) at a Balinese cockfight. 
I was about to leave; I felt out of place, I felt stared at, and did not think this would be a good forum for me to engage in participant-observation. I spotted a woman at the bar whom at first I thought was  American: her skin was fair and her eyes were blue—what struck me the most is she looked so much like a female friend of mine that she could have been my friend's long lost twin sister. She had the same body type, same neck, same chin, and same posture as my friend that I had to stay and talk to her and find out who she was and why she was here.5 She wore a sweater and a short skirt. She was in her late twenties or early thirties (she said she was twenty-seven but I did not believe her). Timidly, I asked her if she would like to sit and have a drink with me—she didn't quite understand what was I saying because of the loud music. She knew more English than most of the women who frequented Rio Verde; she understood my gesturing to a table and raising a hand to my mouth as if drinking a beer. She smiled and nodded and we sat at an empty table. Immediately, three waiters rushed our way, a competition to see who would get to us first. I ordered a Dos Equis for myself (usually two for one: $3.50, but beers in general were $1-1.50 at most establishment, so the ―two for one‖ was psychological rhetoric to make you believe you were getting a deal) and a Corona for her, which cost $6.00 and was in a small, eight-once bottle. This is how women made some money here, if not from $1 dances then commissions on drinks, which averaged $3-4 per beer, $1 going to the waiter and the rest to the bar that probably, based on the size of the drinks, paid ten cents per bottle in bulk.6 Needless to say, there was profit to be made by all. 
She told me her name was Blanca. She did not have children, like many of the women I would later interview did. She asked me questions that I would later be asked by many others: was I from San Diego? What did I do for a living? Was I married, did I have children? She did not, however, ask me if I wanted to go somewhere and have sex. As this was my first visit here, I was uncertain what the women in the Rio Verde did or did not engage in, which was naïve of me, of course. I didn't want to assume or overstep any boundary and I was still a novice in this particular field to yet understand that every bar and club was a situation where sex was a negotiable variable; sex was the end game in every venue of this part of town. 
Blanca held my hand and caressed my arm; she allowed me to kiss her neck and cheek and she giggled and slap my face (lightly) if I got too fresh. I was mesmerized by how much she was exactly like my old friend—she giggled like my friend, had the same facial expressions and mannerisms. I tried to tell her this but she did not understand. I asked her if she ever got on stage and danced topless and she shook her head and said, “Poquito chee-chees.” She grabbed her small breasts with both hands, which were padded under her blouse. When I touched her breasts, she would only allow me to do this for a few seconds, then slap my hand away (despite the fact many men in the bar were caressing the chests of their companions). When the women stopped dancing on display and couples returned to the stage, Blanca asked me several times if I wanted to dance. I shook my head and told her I wasn't in the mood, I wasn't much of a dancer, and I didn't know the dancing style that was popular here. She pouted and appeared disappointed, but was happy when I continued to buy her one beer after another; she made more money from the beers than dances. I asked her my set of questions; the questions, however, did not quite apply to her. She did not understand the context. What did I mean by working? ―Isn‘t this work? I asked. ―I come here to dance, she told me. I reached between her legs with my hand. ―Why you do that? she said. ―Why do you think? I said. She slapped my hand away and giggled. 
I asked if she would be interested in coming back to my room with me (I was the Nelson Hotel) and she told me she did not do that sort of thing, she was not a puta, she was just here to dance. ―You no dance? she said. ―No,‖ I said. She yanked on my arm. ―Oh, please,” she said. If she was not a prostitute, none of my questions would apply to her. There was a man sitting at the bar, wearing a blue blazer, who kept staring at us and this made me nervous. I felt like he was waiting for me to depart so he could have her attention. ―I have to go now, I said. ―No, she said. ―No; why go? I handed her a $20 bill. ―Thank you for your time. She kissed me on the lips. ―Thank you, baby. *** 
Taxi dance halls, clubs, and bars have a curious history, originating in the United States during the Prohibition Era. These ―were social centers where men could come and pay to dance with a bevy of pretty, vivacious, and often mercenary women. Ten cents per dance was the usual fee, with half the proceeds going to the dancer and the other half to the owner of the taxi-hall (Cressey, 1932). June Miller, in the canon of Henry Miller's autobiographical books, notably Sexus (1962), worked as a taxi dancer, both before and during their marriage—this is how she made money; men would fall in love with her and buy her material possessions, pay for her meals, attempt to acquire her romantic devotion through economics, all the while married to and in love with a writer (and supporting this writer) who was perpetually destitute. The taxi-dancer vocation, born of the Prohibition Era and Depression America, is understandable: with a lack of decent employment available, how else can a woman, with children, single or married to an unemployed husband, earn an income? The taxi dance hall in the United States has since been replaced by the common stripper joint, or perhaps, in certain aspects, dance clubs, where, within the social expectations of such spaces, women expect men to buy them drinks if they go out on the dance floor with them, or talk to them. For a few minutes of attention, get me buzzed. Women can dress provocatively, go to a club, and never have to pay a dime—single women or groups of women are often not required to pay a door fee, and single men will buy them alcohol and food for their attention. Actual ―taxi dancing is no longer a lifestyle in the United States; the postmodern taxi dancer appears to be relegated to the third world, in Mexico and Eastern Europe, where the real estate of such venues allows her to perform her trade (Punt, 2006). 
So this is the social role of the Tijuana taxi dancer: she will dance with a man for money, she will be affectionate with him, pay attention to him, and possibly come to an agreement for a sexual exchange, but it does not necessarily mean they are ―prostitutes‖ in the traditional mode, such as the streetwalker or massage parlor worker. ―Prostitution is not only about sex, but also about companionship; the longer I study prostitution and marriage, the less difference I can see between them (Vollmann, 2004). In clubs like Rio Verde, that I imagine resembles the social atmosphere of taxi dance halls of the early Twentieth Century, the normal social scripts of meeting the opposite sex and dating do not apply. When I have visited Rio Verde or any other taxi dance bar, and sat alone for longer than ten minutes, a waiter or waitress will ask me, ―Do you want a companion? and will gesture to the area where women sit and wait. The philosophy of such an establishment appears to be an interactive space where men can expect not to experience rejection, as long as they have money to spend. This is unlike an American singles bar or club where selection is based on the current definitions of physical attraction as well as perceived wealth and worth. The women in Tijuana taxi dance spaces do not appear to care about nationality, economic status, weight, age, or what kind of clothes a man wears, as long as the man pays for their drinks, food, and dances, this is all that is required. An instant date! This is what I discovered on my second journey into Rio Verde two weeks after my initial visit and observations of the space. *** In the Rio Verde, I realized that the music played is a narcocorrido—an evolution of the norteño folk corrido custom, using accordion-based polka, a loud thump-thump of bass, as a rhythmic frame. Corridos are usually about the poor and destitute, or noble banditos; the narcocorrido focuses on drug smugglers – their adventures, experiences, and killings. Narcocorrido lyrics refer to certain events and assassinations, including actual dates, places, and names of the killers and the killed. The lyrics speak approvingly of criminal activities and lifestyles; gangsters often commission a new song that glorifies and documents a drug deal that turned violent or the slaying of a person and why (betrayal, theft of drugs, an informant or witness) that communicates to other criminals, and the public, their deeds, often legendary in the cartel underworld. Thousands of years ago, soldiers and warriors lived for the day a song or poem would be composed about their battles and killings. It is 4:00 a.m. in the Rio Verde, and drunken men bounce up and down polka-style with women young and old for $1 a song. The woman stands on the feet of the men and they dance in circles on the small stage to music and lyrics about murder and dismemberment, bodies in shallow graves and heads being chopped off… *** I was sitting at a corner table, observing the men and women and how they interacted with one another. I noticed a young woman, about five foot four, wearing jeans and a pink blouse, enter. She had an energetic glow and, as with Blanca, she reminded me of someone: she looked like an ex-girlfriend of mine (again, I thought of what a colleague told me about men choosing women who resemble those they once loved or cared for). A waiter asked me if I wished to have a ―companion. Indeed, I told him I did; could he bring over that girl by the bar, with the pink blouse? He heartily nodded his head and went to the young woman, took her by the hand, and brought her to me. She sat down next to me and grabbed my leg and gave me a kiss on the lips. ―Hola, she said. ―Americano? ―Habla English? I asked her. ―Very little, she said, and kissed me again. I bought her a beer—one of many we would consume over the next five hours. She said her name was Marsh. She was a fast-talking twenty-three-year-old who loved to drink, smoke, and dance. I ordered beer after beer for the both of us, finally switching to buckets (six for her at $36 and six for me at $18). She drank her beers fast and wanted more. “Mas! Mas!” she cried. She ordered a sandwich and I paid for it. She bought cigarettes and candy and I paid for them—about every fifteen minutes, someone from the street would walk in, carrying a box of cigarettes, gum, hard and soft candy, salted peanuts, and small bags of potato chips (on their heels would be men and women selling flowers or carrying Polaroid cameras: for $5 you could obtain a photo of yourself and your ―date kissing, hugging, or drinking and being merry). 
She allowed me to touch her anywhere I wanted, my hands inside her blouse and jeans. She French kissed me and held my hand the whole time, like we'd known each other for months. This is what is called, in escort vernacular, ―GFE—Girl Friend Experience, where a woman will, publicly or privately, play the role of the loving companion, as if there was a history of a relationship. Marsh acted like she was my soul mate; she performed her role well. There is so much that can be said about this type of social act. She told me she had one child, two years old, who was with her mother tonight. I asked about the father and she shook her head, told me, ―Muy mal. A bad guy. She hissed, made the sign of the cross. She wore a St. Jude necklace that she kept touching, at one time kissing and looking up. St. Jude guided her life, she told me. I asked how long she had been coming to Rio Verde. ―Six months, she said, and said that she was usually here Wednesdays through Sundays from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. Her mother knew what she was doing; as long as she stayed doing the taxi dances, it was okay, but not okay of she worked in the bars over in Zona Norte. 
She coaxed me into dancing with her. I was drunk enough to let go of my social anxieties about public dancing and joined her on the stage; there was regular disco music on the sound system that didn't require any of the specialized cultural dance moves I had witnessed. When she danced, her eyes closed and a serene smile appeared on her face; she sang along with lyrics about broken hearts and eternal love (the narcocorridos would not play until the wee hours, near dawn) . She almost fell off the stage twice and I grabbed her by her pink blouse—she hugged me and kissed me and didn't seem to notice I had saved her from drunken embarrassment, possibly pain. 
Back at our table: we were surrounded by three waitresses waiting for the next beer order. One said something to Marsh I didn't understand. 
Marsh grabbed me between the legs. ―Ess ohhhkay? she said. “Molesta?” I told her to feel free to molest me. ―You like sexo? she asked. I told her yes. ―You and me? she said. I suggested we go back to my room at Hotel Nelson. I had to repeat this request several times; she conveyed to me she was not allowed to leave with men while working here, that we had to use the room upstairs. She wrote her cell phone number on a napkin and told me that she could come visit tomorrow or another day; her rate was $60 an hour. I suggested she call it quits for the night and come with me. She shook her head and pointed: ―Up there. We go. Women were walking up and down narrow stairs to the second floor. When I asked Blanca what was up there, she had said, ―The office. Marsh said, ―Room, for sexo. The waitress who had whispered in her ear was urging Marsh to take me up there. I was told that the price was $40 for the bar, $40 ―for the lady, and we would get half an hour. I gave in. ―Yah? Marsh said. ―Yeah, I said. “Oh, yahhhhh!” She was happy. Whenever she said, ―yah, her voice would go up several octaves and into a squeal. The waitress gathered our buckets of beer and led us upstairs, where a DJ sat in a booth and half a dozen women were trying on different clothes in front of a large, broken mirror; they were in various states of undress and did not mind that I was there; in fact, several smiled at me and licked their lips, knowing why I was here with Marsh. The stairway up was narrow and I almost tripped, mostly from inebriation. The ceiling was so low that I had to crouch. We were led to a back room with a single light and a small bed. I paid the waitress $40 and Marsh $40. Marsh got on her knees in front of me. She kissed me. I thought she was going to offer oral sex; she holding three different condoms, one a Magnum, asking which one I preferred. She stood and turned the light off. She didn't want me to see her get undressed. It was extremely dark and I couldn't see anything. There was a window that looked down on the dance floor. A tiny bit of light from the bar came in. The walls shook from the music. I found my way to the bed. 
It didn't seem like thirty minutes when the waitress knocked on the door and said our time was up. I didn't feel like arguing. Marsh and I had completed the act I paid for. I should note that, in my experiences in Zona Norte, I seldom had intercourse with any prostitute—sexual encounters were usually manual or oral satisfaction. Even with condoms, I was weary of diseases and I had little interest in copulation, mostly because of a recent bad ending to a relationship that left me melancholy and distrusting  of all women in general. I am not saying I was being an indifferent social scientist, I simply did not have interest in that form of connection at the time.7 But I did this time—perhaps it had to do with being drunk, or that Marsh reminded me so much of that ex-girlfriend ten years ago, so I wanted to have sex with her, and we did, and she pretended to enjoy it, she pretended to reach orgasm, or maybe she really did enjoy this and maybe she did have a real orgasm—either way, it did not matter to me, and I wanted to get out of this low-ceiling, hot, dark, stinky room with a piss-stained carpet and an uncomfortable, itchy bed. 
Marsh and I returned to our table where we continued to drink and kiss; we got up to dance some more, we sat down and drank some more. We were being noticed: the women sitting at the benches kept looking at us with scowls on their faces. I pointed this out to Marsh; she said they were jealous that I was paying so much attention to her, as well as paying for her alcohol, food, and cigarettes…soon I was paying for her friends, too. One would come by and sit with us, chat with us; they wouldn't take a beer from Marsh's bucket, Marsh would ask me to buy them one (of course, they would get a drink ticket and make $4). “Mi amigas,” she said, pointing to her head, ―I love you. I knew she meant that her friends thought she loved me, or perhaps it was the other way around, that the reason I was spending so much money on Marsh was that I was infatuated with her. I asked if she did love me. ―Yahhhhh! she cried. ―You for me? 
―Sure, I said; ―love is love. She loved me as long as I had money. But I was running out of that money. I said I had to go back to my room and get more—cambio, dollars, pesos. She thought I was leaving her. ―I'll be back, I said, imitating the voice of the Governor of California, ―or you can come with me. She wanted to stay. 
There was a problem: I owed $6 for a beer but didn't have it. The waiter was not happy. One of the bouncers wouldn't let me go. I explained to him I had more money in my room, two blocks away. The waiter insisted he had to go with me. I said, ―Fine. We weren't ten feet out the door when the local police stopped us, asking if we were engaged in a drug deal (many of the waiters in bars and clubs, I would learn, supplemented their income by selling cocaine, meth, and Ecstasy). I told the police I had to get some money from my room. The police officers searched my pockets for drugs, or perhaps money. They found my Press ID badge, issued by the San Diego Police Department. They seemed nervous, annoyed; they thought I was a cop from San Diego. I informed them that I was a reporter. ―Journalista,” I said. I sure wasn't going to 
say, ―Anthropologist or ―ethnographer—what would they make of that? My identity of journalist made them even more nervous and they let me go. They would not let the waiter accompany me, however. I thought of staying in my room. I had spent nearly $200 in Rio Verde, all of it on Marsh. She was getting the better part of the deal—$40 for the sex (twice as much a streetwalker would get), food, candy, and at what I estimated were twenty-some-odd beers she had consumed, $80 in commission. I did not, however, want to stiff the waiter on the beer, in case I crossed paths with him, and I had to admit I was enjoying Marsh's company and her happy-go-lucky-the-hell-with-the-world attitude. She touched me in a way I did not understand, and to this day still do not understand, to the point where I would later put myself in danger (see Chapter Eight). I got $100 from the secret pocket in my backpack and returned to Rio Verde. The waiter was not happy. I gave him $10 and told him to keep the change; now he was happy. Marsh was at the table; she seemed surprised I had come back. I got her another beer, although by this time she was so drunk she could barely walk or talk. She excused herself to go to the bathroom, but she didn't go upstairs to the women's baño, she went towards the men's at the other end of the club. She was gone for a long time—after fifteen minutes, I was worried that she had slipped and fell or passed out. I went to look for her. She was there, in the men's bathroom, three guys standing around her; she was snorting up two lines of cocaine or crystal meth (white powder, at least) from the surface of the rusty sink. The three guys cheered her on. Marsh turned 
her head, sneezed, and saw me. She smiled. ―Heyyyyy! she yelled over the music, waving me over. I turned around and left. (pp 25-39 (MH's scholarly papers on the Social Science Research Network) ['Zona Norte' was once hosted here whole; I downloaded it then]

Michael Hemmingson "ZONA NORTE: The Post-Structural Body of Erotic Dancers and Sex Workers in Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles: An Auto/ethnography of Desire and Addiction", Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008 (215 pag)

(see 'To the memory of Michael Hemmingson (1966-2014): "ZONA NORTE: The Post-Structural Body of Erotic Dancers and Sex Workers in Tijuana, San Diego and Los Angeles: An Auto/ethnography of Desire and Addiction", complete', (; and, and all of the IMPERIAL posts)

2 commenti:

  1. Tenzin Nanette Miles: Having crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana daily for 5 months...and studying Urban Soc., this would be an interesting reading.

  2. Michael Hemmingson:
    Wow, thanks, Giacomo! Appreciate research and work on Tijuana, drug cartels and the sex industry there has not come to a halt, I am still working with the AP on various things, I will be doing a history of cartelo violence for Byliner, and hav a memoir in the works about working there as a journalist and starting a family down there in the midst of it all...ZONA NORTE in paprback is still forthcoming from Borgo Press and I will be doing a less-academic version for Headpress in the UK.