April 20, 1998
In the lambent sprawl of Plaza Garibaldi mariachis stood about with slim hopes of anyone hiring them. It was a little after one a.m. But the roving beer hawkers were still busy yanking cans from ring-tops of six-packs and offering singles for a few pesos. Mike Hall noticed that we were the only gringos anywhere in sight. I was oblivious to that but I winced on seeing John Spong and David Courtney buy two more Modelos. I was ready to call it a night. I was fifty-three, the only one among us who was married. Mike, the next oldest at forty, was a thin, soft-spoken man who had tanked a small career as a rock songwriter and recording artist so he could make a better living as a magazine editor and journalist. His laugh was both soft and explosive, and during the long weekend we had gone from being colleagues to friends; with fine wit he had briefed me on the ups and downs of his life as a musician. The lark in Mexico City had been like that for all of us, except that John and David were already close friends, best friends it seemed. Their banter had that timing, the practiced knowing of what the other was about to say.
The younger of the two, John was a dropout lawyer breaking into magazine work as a fact-checker. John was six feet and slender, with auburn hair and long sideburns. People noticed him; he had the air of a wiseacre, a funnyman. David, a freelance writer who specialized in music, was in the second hour of his thirty-second birthday. He wore a ridiculous straw bowler he had bought on the Zócalo, the city's vast central square. David swigged from a fresh beer and pointed out a troupe of norteños--musicians from northern Mexico who were distinguished from the black-clad mariachis by their brown suits. He and John started to amble over and check them out.
We had come to Mexico City to watch a prizefight. The night before, we had watched my young friend Jesus Chavez stop a Mexico City opponent. The arena where he made his Mexican debut was in a dark and dangerous barrio on the periphery of Plaza Garibaldi. I knew we were pushing our luck to come back here. But the others argued that one more night in the Tenampa Bar would give our trip a symmetry--where it began, where it ended. I kept silent, went along, relaxed after downing the first beer and shot of tequila, and soon held up my share of the talk and laughter. But the whole trip had been a bittersweet affair for me. Jesus had gained a number one world ranking the same month the U.S. government ordered him deported. In a few hours we were going home, and I had growing doubts that Jesus ever could.
Watching John and David wander off toward the norteños, I said to Mike: "Let's get these guys out of here." He told me later it was the first time he had ever heard me sound impatient, and it was the only time this trip I invoked whatever authority that came with my years. In Austin I worked out in the boxing gym where Jesus emerged as a contender. These days I did it just for exercise, sparring rarely, but I had sweated and banged myself into the best condition of my life.
Among the young fighters, I was respected as one of the old guys who could make the big bags pop. Jesus lived in a dusty little room at the gym for several months, and it quickly became apparent that we were in the company of a real talent. With undercards that showcased the novelty of skilled women boxing, Jesus's frenetic main events in a converted rock music hall breathed raw excitement into a town with little history in the sport, and for Jesus, with it came the regional titles, then the television, and the climb up the rankings. But Jesus was more than just a star athlete to me, and to him I was more than an aging hanger-on. When I walked in the gym he would call out "Zhannreeed," and at the end of the days we often sat on the ring apron talking about things far removed from boxing. Then, suddenly, his dream and prospects were crushed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service and a massive new federal law. Lawyers and federal judges would be analyzing the new immigration guidelines for years, trying to determine exactly what they meant, but one aspect seemed certain: if noncitizens had ever committed a felony in the United States, they not only could be deported-they had to be. The law allowed the INS no discretion, leniency, or, it seemed to me, common sense.
My friend was deported to a country he scarcely knew. He hadn't lived in Mexico since he was ten years old. As the day of his departure got closer, for a couple of hours we could forget and escape it in the gym. Jesus used to train me, and I was fascinated by how much the little guy knew. One day I was trying to make my left uppercut into more than a clumsy shove. "Relax your hand," he told me, "and raise your right heel just a little." The heavy bag popped loudly and danced on the end of the chain. Explain that. Jesus refused to patronize or humor me, though. Calling and taking my punches with gloves that resemble catcher's mitts, he would pop them together loudly, as if to wake me up, and poke me between my heaving ribs and wheezing lungs.
"How you gonna hit me standing way out there?" he ragged me for my cemented footwork. "You've gotta step up in the pocket, then throw that jab."
Those words would come back to haunt me.
I can't remember when I first heard about the peril of the green cabs. It was one of those buzzes that suddenly pervade the conversation of travelers bound for a common destination. In the Mexican capital, drivers remove the passenger bucket seats of old-style Volkswagen Beetles to make room for more fares to pile inside, they paint the cars bright green with white roofs, and hit the streets. You see them by the thousands--unregulated gypsies and, lately, predators in collusion with armed robbers. Residents swore these urban bandits were cops or ex-cops. My friends and I had discussed the hubbub about the green VWs. How much was real, and how much was gringo paranoia? Logistics had divided us and forced us into the green bugs a few times, and nothing had happened. We spoke some Spanish and were veteran travelers. We were big strong guys. We figured we had strength in numbers. We were unaware that the U.S. State Department had just added Mexico City to its list of most dangerous foreign destinations.
Finally all of us were ready to call it a night. Despite my brooding about the immigration policy and my worry about Jesus, we had enjoyed a fine getaway in the Mexican capital. Now it was time to go back to our apartment and sleep and, the next day, board a plane and resume our lives in Texas. With self-assurance John Spong walked out to the line of taxis that served Plaza Garibaldi. He waved on a couple of VWs, then a mostly white Japanese compact pulled up. It looked fairly new and expensive, which made it seem reliable. But the lower fenders and doors were painted green.
I never saw the driver's face. I said hello to him as I slid across the backseat. He stared straight ahead and offered nothing but a vague grunt. We had already taken one cab ride from the plaza to our apartment, and I knew landmarks along the well-lighted way. Soon after leaving the cabstand, this driver made a sharp turn and raced through the dark barrio.
"This doesn't look right," I said.
Why didn't I lock the doors, if my presentiment was so strong? Or just throw my arms around his neck? I could have easily overpowered the guy. But you want it not to happen; you want to be wrong. And so you do nothing.
We reemerged on the Paseo de la Reforma and breathed easier. But in the detour we had picked up a tail--one of those green and white Volkswagen Beetle cabs. Mike rode in the front seat of our Nissan; in the back I was squeezed between John and David. The taxi driver carried us almost to our apartment--then stopped abruptly in the middle of a block. Mike had noticed the VW, and he looked back and saw a nightmare. In disbelief's slow motion, two men jumped out and ran toward us holding guns. "Go, go!" Mike cried, turning to the driver, but he was hunkered down, stonefaced. The deliveryman.
The pistoleros threw open the doors and vaulted inside; with a lurch our taxi sped off. Both men appeared to be in their thirties. Their guns were old, scarred .38 revolvers. In an instant I went from drunk to sober. A gun in your face does that to you. The robber in the backseat was fat, doughy-faced, and nervous. He forced down the heads of John and David and tried to hide his own face by burrowing into an absurd, rolling semblance of a football pileup.
In the middle, pinned back by their weight, I sat face-to-face with the honcho in front. He had sharp, angular features and black hair combed Elvis-fashion. Possibly a ladies' man. "Shut up! Go to sleep!" he yelled. He sat on Mike's leg and stuck the gun's muzzle in his ear.
The last thing I needed was a lot of eye contact with this guy, but with all the weight and bulk in my lap, forcing me back against the seat, I couldn't avoid it. Responding to my gaze, Honcho leaned over the seat and pistol-whipped me across the cheekbone. He didn't hit me very hard. It was like he was asserting his dominance, controlling an animal. His English was pretty good. He was used to handling a gun and ordering people around. Even odds the robber was a cop.
But he was a bungling thief. Honcho took Mike Hall's watch, then seemed to get distracted. On and on we rode with the second gunman, this wordless, out-of-breath hooligan, in our laps. The preposterousness magnified the terror. I watched Mike lean over until his head touched the driver's shoulder. His expression was that of someone patiently bent on riding this out. For no reason I could determine, Honcho whacked me with the gun again. I was astonished by my calm.
"Well, so much for not taking the green cabs," reflected John. In the hassle and backtalk of telling Honcho that he had spent his last peso on beer, he also got his mouth bloodied by the gun. "I don't know, man," he said in high register, to no one in particular, "this has gone on a long time."
On my right, David was twisted like a pretzel under the second gunman's weight, yet he clung to his dumb straw hat. "I can't breathe, get him off me," David groaned at one point, sounding panicky. Moments later he announced: "I'm gonna open the door and throw this fat fuck out of here."
That's a bold idea, the others of us thought. We wondered what we would do with the driver and Honcho then, and the scenario did not look promising. Watching the muzzle of Honcho's gun, which was an inch away from Mike's temple, John told David, "You might hold up on that."
We careened onto a hellish, lighted freeway that was black with soot and shreds of exploded truck tires. Then we were on an upper deck of the freeway and could see nothing. As the ride carried us deeper into anxiety and unknown sections of the city, our thoughts raced between fright, desperation, and trying to remain calm and think this through. John and David discussed strategies of escape while I thought, Hasn't anybody noticed that one of these guys knows some English?
"Give us your money!" Honcho screamed at me.
"Well, let me get my hands free!" I yelled back. It was unfortunate and perhaps inevitable; he and I had a relationship now. I struggled and finally came out of the pile with my wallet. Honcho snatched it and tore my cheap watch off my wrist.
Their take from all of us was about $150 and one of my credit cards. I leaned forward and tried to reason with the guy. "We've given you everything. Todo! No tenemos más! What more do you want? What's the point?"
Dismissively, Honcho turned his gaze away. As we came off the freeway into another barrio I heard him say they were going to separate us. If I had been more familiar with Mexico City street crime, I might have thought they meant to take me and my credit card to an ATM machine--where with great displeasure they would have learned that I never set up PIN numbers for cash withdrawals. A bad situation was getting a lot worse. I thought they were going to kill us.
The driver stopped the cab near an intersection. Honcho got out first and ordered the rest of us to follow him. "Screw you, it's our cab," John sassed him. Mike climbed out of the front seat, followed by the gunman in back. Behind me John stepped out on the driver's side. As I emerged last from the car, Honcho grabbed my left arm roughly. But two men were trying to control four.
David cried, "Run, run, scatter!" The fat robber clubbed him on the head with the gun and ripped his clothes, trying to restrain him, but David broke free and sprinted out into the street. I saw or heard none of that. I felt Honcho's grip loosen on my arm, and in reflex I threw his hand off me. After that it was all instinct and adrenaline.
As I backed away, Honcho came after me with a look of fury. I weighed 195 pounds, and in the gym I had learned to throw a hard straight left hand; I guess I meant to stagger the smaller man, then make my escape. But I also felt the pleasure of anger--of striking back at the only real enemy I had ever had.
Yet all that sounds calculated and slow. In fact there was no time for any thought, and in my reacting I failed to heed my friend Jesus's advice: Step up in the pocket, he said, then throw that jab. If I were going to throw a punch at a man with a gun, I damn sure needed to land it. And by inches it fell short.
My friends said Honcho fired once at the ground, as if he were working up his courage or seeing if the old gun worked. It's odd; I have no memory of that. With stone contempt and considered aim he looked me in the eyes and pulled the trigger.
In the air between us a wan flash of lightning appeared, crackling from above his left shoulder to the ground. As the bullet's force threw me backward, I swear I could feel its churning spin: the crude gouge of a screwdriver, with the force of a train. Searing pain in my abdomen and spine was instantaneous and absolute. I cried out to my friends a line that in movies always made me cringe.
some days later
It was just an odd coincidence, a tangle of telephone wires and time.
I lay in a hospital bed diagnosed as a paraplegic. The Mexico City neurosurgeons who removed the bullet from my spinal column had told my wife and daughter I would never walk again, yet panic and despair never seized me in those first days. I was glad just to be alive and removed from that terrible fear and supreme hurt. I had surrendered to the horror and known I was close to dying but had come out the other side. I was in Texas, I was safe. But my life was blown to pieces. How could this have happened to me? Was it random fate, like the man who gets struck by lightning? Or should I have known better than to be standing out in the rain? All my adult life, my judgment had walked shoulder to shoulder with macho confidence. In my work and my enjoyment I skirted risk. Now I could no longer walk at all, and I had to face the possibility that I had tempted fate one time too many. That I had brought this on myself.
I could move my feet slightly--a hopeful sign, my family and I chose to believe. Also, I had pleaded with the Texas doctors to give me something that would knock down the pain. Boy, had they come through. I was lucid at times and then off I'd go--friendless and helpless in strange worlds that seemed to have no use of me at all. I wouldn't recommend morphine as a recreational drug. My nights were zonked but sleepless--hardly ideal for a human body trying to heal. Still, I cherished the fluid periodically allowed to drip down a tube into my arm. Doctors of pain are always asking their patients to rate their discomfort on a scale o£ one to ten. That night with my back on the pavement and then on the emergency room bed, my pain on that scale was two hundred, ten thousand. A tidal wave of pain reduced my proud manly bearing to that of an inconsolable child. I begged for morphine in Mexico City. And the torture of that night was still a blazing red coal in my mind.
I remember little about the features of the Houston hospital room. Maybe it was the next stop after intensive care. There was a telephone beside my bed, and Dorothy, my wife, had written me in structions on how to make a call and charge it to our calling card. Once so easily memorized, that procedure was beyond my mental reach now. But in some conversation it had gotten through to me that the voice mail on our line in Austin was full and it had been rejecting messages of callers for several days. Dorothy and my daughter, Lila, hadn't been home since their flight to my bedside in Mexico City, followed by a rescue flight to Houston two days later. Dorothy was overwhelmed by all the demands thrown upon her: how to make medical decisions for me and keep a refinance of our house going and assure the care and feeding of our dogs and cat. So with notepad and pen on the bed beside my hip, I cradled the phone between my shoulder and jaw and set out to dispose of one small chore.
There were seventeen calls; I remember just one.
After I was shot and the taxi and the pistoleros vanished, Mike had held my head in his lap while John and David ran along the street crying for help. Then Mike rode in the ambulance and gripped my hand, trying to comfort me, as we sped through the streets and my blood soaked his shirt and jeans. "Mike," I told him," I'd rather die than take this pain, but I want to see Dorothy again."
"Well," he said gently, "there's your reason why."
At the hospital Mike didn't even know how to make a phone call, but at last he found someone who spoke English well enough to tell him how to reach an operator who would accept his U.S. calling card. Mike had met Dorothy once or twice but hardly knew her. His call to her went unanswered, and when the voice mail turned on my drawl--"We'll get back to you as soon as we can"--he left her the most upbeat message he could manage. Afterward he thought, Oh my god, what if she's not there? He fought down his emotions, knowing how close he was to panic. It's nearly three in the morning, he reasoned. She didn't hear it, she must have slept through the call. So he tried again, and this time Dorothy picked up the phone. I can see her rising on an elbow, then lurching up and turning on the lamp. Then when she had hung up and was alone with dogs who were suddenly awake and nervous, pacing, she reached for her cigarettes, her heart slamming within her, and disbelief began to give way to dread and shock.
Now I lay in a hospital bed in Houston, listening to Mike's first call from the emergency room in Mexico City. "Dorothy, this is Mike Hall," he said, voice quavering. "Something has happened to Jan. It's all right, he's going to be okay. But you need to call me right away...." The tremors in his voice belied him. Nothing was all right, nothing was okay. It's a wonder Mike had the composure to say anything coherent. In the receiver I held against my ear, close behind him I could hear the desperation and the horror of my own screams.