Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.
Each time he readies this cornucopia for his people, it fills him with excitement, but ever since the chase and the $130 fine a few months ago, there is always the nagging concern that maybe this time will be another disaster.
He has just left the only supermarket that responded to his pleas — the Albertsons in South El Paso from which he has been taking a daily cartful for the past five years — and he realizes he is already feeling unusually tense. Will they let him cross? He arranges the surplus and expired products with the restraint and methodical efficiency of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s already become rote: he arrives every day at the loading and unloading zone, passes through to the bakery and pastry section, collects everything his compatriots don’t want, to be taken to those who can’t choose what they want, puts it in the cart, and distributes it among the coolers he always carries in the trunk.
Calm down, calm down, he sips water, exhales, gets in his pick-up truck, murmurs a rapid prayer. His nerves are on edge after three border crossings in a single day last week. Normally things aren’t so hectic, but it appears that, in these times, perishable goods have lost their attraction for American shoppers, and they pile up, pile up, pile up and usually land in the dumpster.
He buries his anxiety, starts the engine, and heads for the border, temporarily imbued with the tranquillity of hope and faith. That journey of barely five minutes is filled with the faces he will hopefully see today. First appears little Maria Fernanda from the orphanage, whose parents were murdered a couple of months back, but is always full of affection, seeking to be hugged, embraced, cradled. Then he decides he will leave some bread at Angélica’s house, partially repaired after another rampage of her teenage son, who sniffed glue as a kid, and then went on to marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Wresting his thoughts away, the visage of Rahui comes to him, Rahui, who himself lives precariously in the Tarahumara settlement, is always eager to help unload the pick-up truck and distribute food to his neighbors. Just before he arrives, there flashes into his mind an image of that wryly upbeat woman everyone calls La Perrita, who loves chocolate and dirty jokes and who was thrown by her children into the teeming chaos of the overcrowded psychiatric hospital after she fell on the train tracks and lost both legs and an arm. Merely thinking about them fills him with warmth: the loneliness of a childless divorce vanishes like smoke when he arrives in Juarez, when he joins his makeshift Mexican family. He sees them every week, they kiss and hug (nowadays much less), play, pray, sing, laugh and even celebrate together at Christmas and Easter. God willing he will be able to get across. God willing.
Agents on both sides of the border have him firmly in their sights. While returning to the U.S., despite a digital trail of his countless arrivals and departures, is usually a breeze (because it’s his own country, and he has the SENTRI pass for trusted travelers), Mexico often poses problems. As he approaches customs, Jeff plans how to proceed. There are five entry points at the border — he knows them all too well, after 23 years of experience. To lessen suspicion, Jeff tries to repeat as infrequently as possible, keeping a running mental record of which is due. Although controls are less comprehensive in this direction, Jeff is often accused by officers of carrying too much food. Through painstaking trial and error, he has determined what is likely to be considered an acceptable amount — two four-foot containers per trip, three at the most — but today they may say even that’s too much. Then he will have to go back and wait for another day and try to distribute the food to the homeless people he finds in El Paso or to his neighbors, because food banks only accept donations of non-perishable food. As a last resort, Jeff will eat what he can himself before it goes bad, but what the supermarket discards is already on its last legs, and not a single eclair more can be crammed into the freezer. What can he do: sometimes the trash is an inevitable fate, and his thoughts always turn to his children whenever he’s forced to toss the spoiled food.
He’s approaching that high wall that’s been steadily growing since 1819, and Jeff can’t stop sweating. Come on, you’ve been doing this for years and years. There are a couple of cars ahead of him. No comparison to what it’s usually like; the border closed on March 21, and only those considered essential can pass. He’s essential, in theory, but they can refuse him on any pretext.
If they don’t let him through, he won’t try his luck at another checkpoint. He would hate to repeat the experience of last year’s pursuit and ticket, when he was carrying four coolers loaded with pastries and the agents wouldn’t let him cross, and he switched to another entrance and initially managed to get through, but the first guards had tipped them off, and he was commanded to stop, and he started singing loudly to feign incomprehension, and they chased him down with a truck, and they dumped him back in the United States and screamed at him, and he had to pay a fine of $135 to boot. And 2300 pesos goes a long way on the other side. No, if they don’t let him pass, he’s not going to gamble again. Now he treads carefully: better to live to fight another day, even if he has to throw away precious expired food.
The border gets closer, closer, and Jeff tenses his shoulders, squeezes the steering wheel with his hands, prays and prays that they don’t give him any trouble, turns down the K-LOVE music that always accompanies him, fits the yellow cap over his gray hair, adjusts the tiger-print mask (better to leave it on, right?), readies his passport, and hands it to the officer with gloves and caution and his blue eyes glowing with supplication and prayers crouched at the corners of his lips. Will he manage to get across?
In general, he knows the weak points and proper approach for each of the border patrol officers, who don’t give a damn about the starving people in their country or the children wasting away in orphanages. However, the agent he’s drawn today, Jorge Lopez, always keeps him guessing, because depending on what side of the bed he woke up on, he sometimes displays compassion, sometimes blazes with fury; and he’s just as likely to dutifully process the official food transportation tax as he is to cough with the self-importance of petty authority to elicit a bribe.
Jeff forces his eyes into a smile and says good morning, how are you, sir, thank you very much. To avoid any sign of weakness or concern about his lengthy entry record, he concentrates on mentally plotting his course for the day. Before starting the deliveries, he will head to kilometer 27 to buy meat, milk, eggs, and fruit at the El Roble supermarket. The cash, cobbled together from various donors as well as a sizable portion of the profits Jeff makes from his own eBay store, provides for a decent haul of fresh food. On recent trips, he’s wandered bewildered through the richly-stocked supermarket aisles: piles, mountains of toilet paper gleam under the fluorescent glare, because this battered city can’t afford the luxury of descending on stores like locusts to hoard for a catastrophe. In these times, a full supermarket is synonymous with thousands of empty cupboards and refrigerators. In Ciudad Juarez, hunger and drugs kill many more people than any damn virus.
Officer Lopez addresses him as if they haven’t faced each other two hundred and forty-two times previously, and Jeff responds with restrained friendliness, and Officer Lopez asks if he has anything to declare, and Jeff mentions the three coolers full of bread and pastry, and Officer Lopez peers at him with puzzlement and examines the vehicle with eyes filled with the eternal suspicion of one who works every day in the uncertainty of discerning good from evil.
Suddenly, this inspection, now so routine, seems to him like an oasis of calm, and he is flooded with a sense of tranquility. Let God’s will be done. What truly worries Jeff is that the lords of this jungle will exploit the situation to lure in and conscript the most desperate for the skirmishes of their lethal trade. In April, obligatory social distancing was imposed in Mexico and more than 70 percent of the large factories in Juarez closed. Now many are on the streets and dying of hunger: staying home is not a choice, but a privilege.
On top of everything, this virus has the cartels pissed off, because most of the ingredients for making drugs come from China and the ban on shipping goods from the Asian behemoth is, in this land, a ban on getting rich. Incensed. The closed borders are decimating the drug routes. Downright infuriated. A few weeks ago, five gringos were executed, including a school teacher Jeff had been working with.
But Jeff doesn’t fear these thugs, and he drives around quietly in his pick-up truck, with his Christian music and “You have a friend in Jesus” on the license plate, telling himself, repeating to himself, that the bad guys may not fear him, but they fear God. At sixty-seven years old, maybe what he should really fear is the virus, high-risk group and so mobile, but what terrifies him much more is that his people may not have anything to put on their plates.
Agent Lopez regards Jeff with apathy: it seems that today it will be the official tax; two, three hundred pesos per cooler, he will have to pay. Times aren’t so hard now really: the health crisis doesn’t stop civil servants from drawing their salary, so Jeff is only forced to cough up a bribe a third of the times he crosses the border. The situation always gets worse after federal elections, when every departing president has the nasty habit of emptying the state coffers and leaving the customs agents trembling. Since they won’t get paid anything for three or four months, they forget to ask for the official paperwork to be filled out, and their mouths fill with absurd sums, knowing that the flow of gringos will feed their families when the state can’t. There’s still a year or so to go before the next election, so, putting aside morals, Jeff is essentially indifferent: he just declares what he’s carrying, and the cost of the bribe ends up equivalent to that of the tax — only the pockets in which it ends up change, but that’s not his problem. He just wants to get to the other side.
He waits as the agent fills out forms, signs such and such document, pays for this, that, and the other, and finally crosses the border to his second home, that city forsaken by God and man — without drinking water, without sanitation, without paved streets, and without hope — and sighs with relief. Jeff is determined that he will not stop — he will keep on making his three weekly trips in this pick-up truck that has only seen El Paso and Juarez and that already bears 300,000 miles and tarts and cake and tiramisu and muffins and pies and eclairs and cobblers and rolls and bread and experience.