We Can Get Through It. Eventually.

At present I’m repairing a number of news racks. These are large metal objects that I’m not remotely qualified to wrestle with.

I’m out of my comfort zone. Again. But then, that’s where I seem to collect the mail. My only true comfort zone comes at day’s end, a glass of wine in hand, watching a mystery on television. The solution is immaterial; I am consumed and, in any case–literally–am never the guilty party. That’s always a relief.

Being out of your comfort zone can be humorous or unnerving. Sometimes both, simultaneously.

With these racks it’s decidedly the former. I’m tremendously clumsy and unorganized, know next to nothing about plexiglass–except that it’s vexingly difficult to cut–and these racks seem to have come from the Dr. Seuss school of mass production. Which is to say it would be less of a bodge if they were all the same. If I could make a template, say, of a uniform size of plastic and eventually get the art of cutting it.

But that’s life for you, right? Sometimes you’re forced to learn something simply by doing it. Six years ago I knew next to nothing about running a newspaper. Nowadays–as I know it must seem I do to some readers–I can just about do so in my sleep.

Twenty-five years ago I loaded an old Dodge van with various household items and, towing a similarly laden 1964 International Scout, drove the 1,500 miles from our East Bay home to Cabo San Lucas. I’d never towed anything in my life before–not even a U-Haul trailer. It was an adventure three days in completion. The first 500 miles, to the border, I was only concerned with two things: learning the dynamics of towing, and making it over the Grapevine. The first was easy enough, and the second was accomplished in low gear with no boil-over. This was in July or August.

The border, shall we say, was no bueno. Because it must have appeared that I was dealing in purloined goods, I was to be examined, extensively, by the Federales. The border agent directed me to a shed where they waited for just this type of shady character. I figured this could take hours–and I wanted to make Ensenada by nightfall. Driving the Baja after dark would be a mistake. It probably still would be. But my luck held. One look at the amount of work involved with this inspection–and my terrible Spanish–convinced the authorities that I was, indeed, a family man moving his family’s things.

I dodged a bullet that I was unable to a few years later. I’ll come to that.

The ensuing two days and 1000 miles were interesting. I’d never driven in the Baja before. The road was decent–except once, when it was a river–and I soon learned to get gas much more frequently than I was inclined to at home. That’s because, in those days, you never knew where the next Pemex station might be or if that station would actually have gas. I pulled into one and the attendant shrugged, saying, “No hay.”

Fording a river was definitely out of my comfort zone. It had, apparently, rained somewhere high in the mountains–tendril of a tropical storm, perhaps, because it was sunny where I was–and I came around a bend to confront water rushing across the road. Because of the race against darkness I decided to risk it. The water was about a foot and a half deep and moving at a decent clip. Would I do it again? Yes–but only because I’ve done it before and now know it can be done. At least in fully loaded vehicles. To be clear, though, I was terrified at the time.

What finally defeated me was my destination, a hilltop home in Cabo. After all that going and under all that weight the van literally could not make the grade. At a steep left-hand turn halfway up the hill there was no more pull and, sliding backward, I jackknifed to the curb. The next morning I had to retrieve the van and the Scout separately–but I’d made the trip.

The bullet I was unable to dodge came in the form of some overzealous customs agents. I’d flown in from the Bay Area bearing nine suitcases worth of Christmas presents from my parents to our kids. We had four then. In those days, after you’d collected your luggage, you were instructed to push a button before exiting the terminal. If the light turned green, you went unmolested into the country. You could be carrying anything–heroin, human heads, plutonium, time bombs. Anything at all. But if the light turned red, your luggage was to be scrutinized. Naturally enough, juggling more suitcases than I’ve ever travelled with previously, I got the red light. This would not have troubled me in normal circumstances. The red light was entirely within my comfort zone. I’d been awarded it many times before. But on this occasion my parents had wrapped all these gifts–so I truly had no idea what I was bringing into the country. I did know it wasn’t contraband. I also knew they intended to levy an import tax on the value of all the items–a tax I reckoned that would amount to about $1000. Which we didn’t really have to spare, and I didn’t have on me, anyhow.

And then, of course, I’d have to fix all the previously pretty gifts. Another no bueno.

What followed was a colossal sort of three-card Monte where I was shuffling things from the inspectors as they took them out of my bags and shuffling other things from their attention into other bags. In the end, I think I was only successful in avoiding import tax on a set of hubcaps I’d bought for the Scout. I had to return the next day and pay for the release of all this in cash. At least, that’s how I remember it. I was right about the amount. Just checked with the Chief.

I haven’t written this to illustrate the disparity between Americans feeling entitled to live wherever they please while immigrants coming to our shores–especially from some parts of the world, the so-called sh*tholes–might be put in cages. There were rules to abide by and we followed them.

I wrote this because for something like 40 years now the country–on both sides of the aisle–has seemed out if its comfort zone. And we can get through it. Eventually.


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