Sunday, June 16, 2013

We Were Young Once

No, I am not mean. I'm covering faces of people I'm not really in contact with anymore. Who knows? Maybe when they run for president, they don't want pictures of them drinking tequila at 16 surfacing. Me? I think it gives me some sort of street cred. And I was skinny. Why wouldn't I embrace a skinny picture of me?!
I love facebook for so many reasons. I can keep far away-family up to date on the kids. I can spy on ol' frenemies from days gone past. But mostly, I stay connected to people and places I might have lost along the way.

Last week my friend Laura posted a few pictures from our high school days. I almost choked on my overpriced cappuccino when I realized it'd been 17 years since I've seen her or Liza (my first friend in El Paso, who I met on the first day of sixth grade). But there we were, sitting in a dive bar in Juarez, Mexico in 1996.

I thought a lot about Juarez, and as silly as it sounds, how it shaped my young adulthood and still flavors part of who I am to this day.

The Juarez (and El Paso) that we knew as teenagers isn't the same city that it is today. This was before women started dying with no answers. Before drug turf wars made the city look like a smaller version of Baghdad.

It was dangerous, sure. And our parents nailed us to the wall when (or if) we got caught sneaking across the border. But it was a wonderland to us and it's blinking lights and loud booming speakers called to us like a siren across the Rio Grande. We couldn't stay away.

In Mexico, we were adults for a few short hours, almost as if crossing the huge, smelly bridge that had urine spots and vagrants every three or so feet was like walking into a buffer zone where the voices of our parents and our teachers couldn't reach us. Oh, sure, there were curfews we had to make or our asses became grasses (haha!), but for the three or four hours we had, we were tiny little underage despots with $15 in our pockets that somehow lasted through the entire night. Through buckets of Dos Equis. Through marathon dancing to Quad City DJs. Through boy drama (constant). Through girl drama (constant). And through the late-night snack attack that found us throwing caution to the wind and eating what we hoped were beef tacos from a side-alley taco cart and a man named Gonzo. (That, my friends, is a true story.)

In our little Juarez world, there were districts that seemed to change any given night. On Friday night, the rich kids from Coronado might have taken over Fred's Rainbow Bar (the most friendly establishment to underage drinkers as far as I was concerned...except for that one time the Federales and their pale brown uniforms raided the place and Alicia's ID got me through fake and safe). That meant, if we didn't feel like standing around mean mugging the girls we didn't like, we hoofed to La Playa. Or Copacabana's. Or, if we had extra money that night, we could splurge for a few glasses of whiskey at the Kentucky Club and buy a cigar like we knew what to do with it.

The Kentucky Club was always filled with a low-key older crowd. Rich dark brown furniture. An old Formica bar complete with polyester red and chrome bar stools. My favorite El Paso author (and MFA advisor, I might add!) Ben Saenz wrote a collection of short stories and named it Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Bar.

All these memories, this rich tapestry of sights and sounds and smells, somehow became part of me.

That early taste of absolute freedom, of making life and death choices that could have gotten us locked away or killed, made it hard for me to stand situations that I wasn't in complete control of. It made me mad hungry with a need for absolute autonomy those first few years of adulthood that I burned through more majors, friendships, and relationships than I can probably count. I had been to the promised land where nobody told me what to do, where my decisions were strictly mine for the next three hours and it burned in me a stubbornness and a recklessness that took a decade and a half to shake. (Let's be honest. I'm still shaking it. And when I'm not shaking it, I'm desperately trying to recapture the chutzpah we had in spades.)

Juarez is a common bond we share as El Pasoans (current and former.) As far away as Alaska, strangers would watch in confusion and awe as a complete stranger and I could relate tales of the exact same bar on the exact same night. Living in different circles, we'd crossed paths unknowingly.

Growing up with a place like Juarez is like that, It's a common bond. A bit of an identity. It's a hardened edge you had in college when your new friends were crazy with their new freedom and you managed to take it all in stride because you'd already tasted a bit of it. It wasn't a new drug to you, but an old friend.

Young and free. Liza (far left) says we made he recite the alphabet backwards as we walked back over the International bridge. I wouldn't doubt it. Laura, the sweet girl who dug some of these photos up, is next to the emoticon-face girl. I miss these girls and I miss our youth and naivete. Some days. Most days, though, I'm pretty ok with being this version of me.
But all this freedom, all this wild west vintage vibe we's not there anymore.

 Guns and drugs and murder took over not long after we graduated and now, well, who knows what El Paso teens do for their dose of freedom. Do they start bonfires in the desert like we did when we were broke and couldn't pay our way into the Mexican clubs?

So while the challenge has been made that if my daughters even consider doing something as remotely dangerous and stupid as we did that they'll be grounded until they're 40, the fact remains that for us, it was an oasis.

A dirty, smelly oasis where we were kings and emperors on a Friday night.



  1. Great nostalgia post! You haven't aged a bit, can I say? Haha.

    1. Thanks so much, Flo. Gonna miss you next year...hope you are loving the old Aggie stomping grounds!