Hey Gringo! You’re in trouble now!

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John McHarg

San Felipe, Baja California 1998.

I didn’t want to go, this was a fairly common reaction when Gary suggested going anywhere. Through frequent bad judgement being anywhere with Gary was a bad idea and as was to prove more than accurate, this time was no different. “Let’s go down to San Felipe”
This was Thursday, payday was tomorrow which in the car dealing trade in Barstow was every two weeks so inevitably every two weeks I’d hear ‘let’s go somewhere’ from this guy, he just couldn’t handle booze although he loved drinking it, it would almost always end up in him starting a fight. “No I can’t, remember Linda is flying in from Glasgow for a week” I replied with acknowledged futility. “Bring her too!” It wasn’t a suggestion it was a statement of fact. Next day I drove down to L.A.X. to get Linda, through the arrival gate she walked with the biggest suitcase I had ever seen along with her sister whose suitcase matched perfectly, I wasn’t expecting the sister.

Formalities and greeting dispensed with we got into my hired car and drove back up to Hesperia where I was staying.
The next day we all got together in Victorville and inevitably ended up in the Mall, the company consisted of Gary, Andrea and her friend, myself, Linda and her sister Sandra, needless to say the first day of the girls holiday amounted to nothing ,in a Shopping mall, in Victorville California.

“I’ve booked us huts on the beach at San Felipe, we drive down tomorrow” that was that as far as he was concerned. Next morning after getting destination details, the sisters, their suitcases and I made our way down to Mexico via Palm Springs and through the Border at Mexicali. It’s a beautiful journey through the Mojave Desert, San Bernardino Forest back into the desert and down to the border, I’d recommend it just for the boost it gives to your spirit and the girls were excited to be going to Mexico, they really shouldn’t have been as it turns out, however the journey and the Smiths CD I forced them to listen to was the start of what I hoped would be a nice trip, “from the ice age to the stone age, there is but one concern, some girls are bigger than others, some girls are bigger than others, some girls mothers are bigger than other girls mothers”.
Down the 5 and into San Felipe was quite a long trip and we were happy to arrive and pleasantly surprised, the beach was amazing and the accommodation really nice ‘nice one Gary’ I though, this might be ok. We all slept sound and spent the day on the beach together, that night, well that was to change everything in my life.
“Right! Let’s go out!” The girls were still a bit jet lagged and tired so wanted an early night “ok” I answered “where?” “There’s a bar in town, bottles of beer are only 50 cents here” “FUCK!” I thought.
We strolled into town and found the 50 cent beer bar (they all where) in which Gary eagerly started purchasing. To be honest, the night went pleasantly although I was on full red alert for indications of normal state of affairs behaviour and remarkably enough we even managed to leave the bar without trouble ensuing, a first for my socialising experiences with this guy. ‘Phew’ I thought as we were leaving, it was a ‘Phew’ far too soon….

As we strolled our way, happily I may admit, back to the accommodation we walked past a guy standing at the door of a real estate store, even to this day I am amazed at the speed into which Gary started a fight with the guy, it was so quick that I had walked a few meters on before I had even heard or realised what was going on, my instincts kicked in and I automatically jumped into trying to separate them, before I knew it I felt the searing pain of a baseball bat on my left arm……from that point to the re-emergence of my conscience in the back of a Mexican Police car with a gun pressed firmly into my temple all I can say is the red mist had set in.
“Gringo, you’re in trouble now”

The clarity of which I can remember almost every detail of the next 18 hours is a blessing and a curse as I can recount this story faithfully but I can still smell the shit, blood and piss in my nose and on my clothes when I do think about it. I got dragged into the police station by 3 officers, two male one female and deposited to the desk sergeant who instantly started screaming Spanish at me. “Gringo! NOMBRE” I didn’t have a clue what they were screaming at me but I did know that a Mexican cop screaming Gringo at you was BAD NEWS. They hate ‘Gringos’ it’s their hate term for Americans. “No Gringo, Scotland!! No Gringo!” I pathetically pleaded. This went on for a while until, and I’m shitting you not, this was said

“Scotland? Celtic? Whisky?”

“Yes!!! Yes! Celtic! Whisky! Yes…”

This changed everything and I mean everything! They calmed down and started asking me questions , I wasn’t American I was Scottish, they couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe my luck.
For some reason that I will never be able to explain the fairly pleasant line of questions led to this. “What does your mother work as?”

Now at that point my mother was working as an assistant, nursing elderly catholic nuns in the North of Glasgow, I could have spent a week trying to come up with a lie to impress and it wouldn’t have had the impact that this truth had.

“Your mother is good woman.”

Mexico is a VERY VERY VERY Catholic Country and the mere suggestion of fellow Catholics from other Countries had a remarkable effect on these officers, they went from utter fury to total genuinely interested inquisition (no one expected the Mexican inquisition!)

One peculiar thing I remember is that even though this was 1998 they processed my details on an old manual singer typewriter.
All the erm, pleasantries and formalities aside they told me I was heading to the cells.
When I use the term shithole it normally relates to a messy dirty rundown place, but in this respect it really was a hole in the fabric of space and time filled with actual shit and a lot of pish.
The bar cell door was about 600mm wide which led into a room of about 4mx6m in almost complete darkness. To say I was scared is accurate, to say I was shitting myself isn’t as the environment had done that for me. The smell was brutal as was the sensation of the body fluids and near fluids squelching between my toes. I made my way with my hands along the wall on the right to the end of the cell and stood with my back against the wall. The only light was the little amount trickling in from the cell door, the source of the light was a bulb that was around a corner about 3 meters away.
After about 20 minutes I had no choice, I was exhausted, a wee bit beaten up and my arm was killing me, I had to sit down. The jeans I was wearing and the 1974 No 5 West Germany football top immediately soaked up as much of the dank surrounding as it could hold. It was only then that I noticed the front of my top was red and warm from the nose bleed that had developed, it wasn’t easily stopped.
I reckon it took a good 2 hours before I noticed two pair of eyes staring at me from across the cell 6 meters away. Now, that’s when the fear really kicked in. I said nothing, they said nothing, we just sat there, in the human waste staring at each other. My fear was misplaced, this was the beginning of an amazingly positive experience in my life.
“Hey Scotland! Agua! Water for you” The Policeman was standing at the bar cell door holding a bag of water, a clear plastic bag of water. “Your friend have brought you a bag of water” I took it and drank with a thirst I have rarely known, it was then my cellmates made themselves known to me. “Please, agua, Please” they pleaded. I wouldn’t ever refused any man a drink of water and in this situation I was eager to share.
I can’t remember both of their names, I really wish I did as these two guys gave me a re-energised love of humanity that night but I do remember their faces, their humour and their story, which they told me in near perfect English.

I explained who I was, where I was from and how I had ended up there, their foul language equally matched mine, I stole ‘Celtic, Whisky’ and we spend the next 2-3 hours talking, mainly them asking me about myself and my Country. They were locals, “peasants” and I mean no insult, that was their own words, they hung around town begging from tourists and getting drunk, “we come here lots of times Scotland”. In that dark shithole, we shared stories and laughter.
Now this is a weird story I know but it gets weirder.
“Hey! You, the guy I was fighting with! You Irish?” There was an American guy in the next cell, asking if there was a guy in my cell who was Irish. “D’you mean me?” I replied.

“Yeah you” was the response. “I’m fucking Scottish! Who the fuck are you and why did you hit me with a baseball bat?” “Maaaaaaaaaaan! I’m sorry dude, I had no idea what I was doing, I was really drunk” This was Bill, he went on to explain to me that he was a local businessman, a realtor as they say in America.
His mother had come down to visit him and it had gone badly, he went on to admit he was an alcoholic and his mother had left earlier that day, he had got drunk and went out looking for a fight, to make himself feel better about himself which he had managed rapidly with the appearance of Gary.
As we both stood at the cell doors about 400mm away from each other in that dark shithole we shared our life stories and a few laughs. “Hey maaaaaaaaan! I feel terrible about fighting with you, I want to make it up. He offered one of the properties he owned locally, free of charge for as long as I liked, I thanked him and politely declined.
Bear in mind this had been a few hours now and the girls were a huge concern, knowing the bullshit that Gary was capable of I later found out my fears were well founded, I may get to that at another time.
From having a gun pressed painfully into my temple to the moment the judge appeared, in shorts, sandals and a pristine white t-shirt, at the cell door must have been around 18 hours, maybe more. He proceeded to speak to Bill to which Bill replied in fluent Spanish, I tried to interrupt to find out what was going on but the Judge told me to be quiet, I wasn’t gonna argue with him, judging by the guard that was standing next to him it would have been an unwise move. This went on for 20mins with Bill assuring me that it was “getting fixed”.

“Ok” the judge pointed to me and said to the guard “let him out” In that moment I can still go back to and relive the relief, it was overwhelming…It lasted approximately 20 seconds. When I stepped out of the cell I immediately turned round to speak to Bill and it was then I saw his face for the first time, or more accurately what either myself, Gary or a combination of both had done to his face, it was a bloated beaten bruised mess, I felt like I had been hit with a baseball bat again, it took me all my composure to not burst out crying at that moment, in that jail, I was disgusted with myself. “I’ve paid your fine maaaan! It was 40 bucks, I admitted it was all my fault and you were only trying to stop the fight, you can go”. I couldn’t speak, I just looked at him and then finally all I could utter was “I’m so sorry Bill”, “Maaaaaan! It was my fault”.
“Ok, come with me Gringo!” Where the judge led I followed, into his office, well I say office it was a shack with a desk and some crappy chairs.
So, so far this has been a weird story right? And you don’t believe a word of it right? Well, it’s true and it gets a wee bit weirder.
“I cannot believe I have someone from Scotland in my jail! I am delighted, tell me all about Scotland” and I did, everything I could think of and that was about an hour and a half before he let me stop. As a side note, I drank the one and only cup of coffee I have every drunk in my life, in that shack, speaking to that judge, it was nectar on my tongue, I hate coffee and haven’t drunk it since. Finally I politely told him I really had to get back, I was covered in blood, head to toe in shit and piss and exhausted, he didn’t mind.
On handing me my stuff he said ” do you have any souvenirs for me?” Remarkably there was still money in my returned wallet and I took out what I had to give him, “no, no no Gringo, not that, something from you to me, to remind me of your stay”. For no reason I can explain to this day I rummaged through my wallet and found a tightly folded one pound Clydesdale Bank note, I took it out, opened it up and showed him the picture of Edinburgh Castle. “The capital of my Country” his joy was a sight to see, “sign it, please” which I did. He pinned that note up on the wall of his shack and we shook hands like friends do.

“Before I go, can I ask when Bill will be getting out?”

“Oh Gringo, ( this Gringo wasn’t an insulting Gringo) we are sick of his behaviour, he is a big man with big money but he has caused trouble too many times now in San Felipe, he gets drunk and does it all the time he is going to the big house”,

“The big house?” I replied.

“Yes, Prison, this time he admitted his guilt and in Mexico you are guilty before you are innocent, he can’t buy his way out now, lucky for you he did or you would be going too.”
I returned to the accommodation to the obvious relief and bewilderment of the girls, this is a whole other story which I won’t get into now as Gary again is instantly involved.
I will finish on this, on getting cleaned up and packed we got our stuff into the car and drove through San Felipe, on our way through I couldn’t believe it but there, at the side of the road in the town centre was my two cell mates. I pulled up, opened my window and called them over. They were delighted to see me, we hugged and I emptied my wallet and pockets of everything I had, I knew what they would do with it but it’s all I could do in the moment. These two guys took me from the absolute bottom of despair, to laughter and amazement in a shit hole, in a jail, in Mexico, and for that and them and the life changing experience that was I will be forever grateful.

 

 

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