A box that metes out electric shocks turned up recently in the Tiki Bar at Vancouver’s boutique Waldorf Hotel. The hotel’s creative director Ernesto Gomez introduced it thus:
“We’ve been building it for a while, and trying to make it safe,” Gomez told the Straight, explaining that the idea is for people to join hands while a gradually increasing electrical charge is administered. “At some point somebody lets go, and they have to do a shot. The last person standing with the shock machine, well, he’s the most macho. Maybe they get a free drink or something. We’ve got to figure out a prize.”
This, by the way, isn’t just random insanity. The electric-shock machine is actually popular in Mexico. “It’s all part of turning the room into what you would see at a 3 a.m. Mexican-cantina-brothel-type place,” said Gomez, who also promised to beta-test the unit before any of us get our stupid drunk hands on it.
My first personal encounter with the contraption known as Caja de Toques occurred on a slow day in Tijuana.
THE BOX. Metal. Rusted. Dial at the centre, as on the front of a beat-up closet safe. It hangs from the neck of a silent Mexican man like an oversized talisman. Cords extend from opposite ends, a grip at the end of each cord. Hands, not the silent Mexican man’s hands, rather your, the anxious young customer’s hands, go on the dangling grips. Rotating the dial clockwise sends something measured in volts through the cord to the grips. The question: do you tender pesos for the sheer cheeky masochism of this service—or wager them that you can hold onto the ends of the cords longer than the silent Mexican man is capable of turning the dial?
THE JOINT. There’s a lone fly buzzing above shelves stocked with a single brand of Tequila. There’s a spittoon that’s stained—from spit. There’s a live rattlesnake curled up inside a jar. Hard men are drinking tequila and beer alone at different tables. The silent Mexican man is a crumpled man; grey, dusty and gaunt. He is the very best of Tijuana which, by definition, makes him the very worst too. To be a tourist in Tijuana, to be someone who’s going to enjoy “TJ” (as the college kids who cross from San Diego call it), you must forget this silent withered Mexican men with the mousey Fu Manchu might be a real human. The trick of TJ is to think of him as cartoon character. A Jorge, perhaps. You theatrcially roll the ooor in your imagination, which is in overdrive, as it turns these splotchy bits of reality into vivid animated cliches. TJ is a realm that nobody sees but you.
THE DAY is a Tuesday in the low season. There are no bullfights. No school holidays. No other turistas. It is an overcast day. It is a quiet day.
On a slow day in Tijuana, the young male is a more aggressively sought commodity than on regular days. Over a 45-minute circuit of Avenida Revolución, you pass the donkeys painted like zebras, shoe away runny-nosed orphans hawking Chiclets, talk poontang with scarred night-club owners in gold-chains. You stop to watch the pale ladies with pillowy arms from Central Europe and midwestern America pose clandestinely for photos next to beggars with no eyes or legs. Revolución is the anti-travel experience of, say, visiting a leper colony on the Ganges. The squalor and human suffering is bonafide kitsch.
A large man in a flower-patterned shirt tells you, when you cross the border, that straying from Revolución, is “like sticking your hand into a cockatoo cage.” His tone is more of an invitatin than it is a warning. Off Revolución, where Tijuana is dustier and more blanched, your feet will get itchy, and you will stumble further and further off the circuit. You stumble past the Lorena Hotel, which rents rooms by the half-hour. A scrawny white teenager scrubs blood from his collar on the curb out front. You stumble into the regions of what the AAA TripTik® calls the red-light area north of Calle 1A, west of Constitución. Then down calles and avenidas with no signs. Finally, you are hustled into the somber toon joint by a sneaky señorita who scans the street to make sure nobody had seen you enter.
The dark room is half-filled with very hard men who don’t speak to one another. You refer to them, giddily inside your imagination, as “hombres.” You’ve only encountered such men in Robert Rodriguez films. They wear crisp blue jeans, thick leather belts, heavy patterned shirts and American Stetsons. Dark Stetsons. There’s a tension as you enter. And so you scurry into the booth at the back to regroup.
Your eyes adjust to the darkness.
You drink Tecate.
You begin to believe that you yourself are some kind of hard man. A man not to messed with.
The silent Mexican man with the homemade torture device shuffles to your booth. He thrust the grips at the ends of the cords in your direction. With indifference, he thrust them again. The third time, he puts them right on your hands. Harmless as the ends of a skipping rope.
You cannot give the order to your fingers to curl around the grips.
Maybe…you are not some kind of a hard man, after all?
The silent Mexican man mistakes the hesitation for indifference and shuffles towards a sullen Mexican man sitting with a shot glass at another table. To your momentary relief, he is dismissed with some Spanish to the effect of fuck off.
You drink the Tecates faster. You decide that you will spend the rest of the night in the somber cartoon joint to atone. You will wait for another, badder silent Mexican man. Maybe you will stab him with the corkscrew on you Swiss Army knife to show everybody how bad you are.
You have given the realm—the whole notion of the seedy border town bender—a mythology and vividness that might not actually have existed at that precise moment. You realize now that you’re merely two blocks off Revolución. Your rapidly evaporating hardness has come down to TJ’s reputation for sin and debauchery. Your personal TJ is Herb Alpert, who named his brass band after the realm across which your eyes now flit. His silky elevator music, its magical jauntiness never let you doubt that TJ could be anything but a place where, no matter what kind of potential harm you might throw yourself at, there could never ever be any real consequences to anybody. Everybody who’s allowed to goes back when the sun sets. You simply click your heels three times, wave your passport and recross the border.
There’s a desperation to Tijuana at dusk. Of not having sold enough trinkets. Children tug at the cuffs of your cargo shorts, pleading for nickels.Their noses run. Their lips are cut. You didn’t see the donkey show. You didn’t buy contraband erection pills. Your pockets haven’t been picked. You’ve eaten more authentic tacos in Boise.You might be the only tourist left in Tijuana right now, and the high-pressure sunglass vendors are trying to buy your bug-eyed snowboarder shades. You have, in short, failed to consummate any kind of significant relationship with TJ whatsoever. You cannot flee fast enough.
But before you go back to San Diego. Before you even leave the somber cartoon joint, you witness the silent Mexican man approach an older, stately Mexican man sitting at the bar. He has a weathered face, shrouded beneath a black Stetson that is less crisp than the other Stetsons. You tell yourself that this man is a rancher. He nods slowly at the enigmatic box and solemnly he places a stack of fresh American bills atop the counter. The silent Mexican man passes him the cords, and surreptitiously, painstakingly, every head in the bar shifts to the money, then the box, and then the hombre rancher. Your heart explodes up into your throat as you watch him, almost regally, take the ends of the cords.
The silent Mexican man grabs the money and hobbles out of the joint.
Still shaking his hands, wiping sweat from his brow, the rancher looks to a younger, tougher looking hombre two stools down. The gaze is held for an instant, the younger nodding in quiet acquiescence to the older. And all is silent again on a slow day in Tijuana.
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