It's not as if it was going to fund Fidel Castro's next birthday party. After all, it was just one cigar. One head-spinning cigar as it turned out. But, when my spring-breakin' buddies and I were stopped at the U.S. border last April--by a border agent with a striking resemblance to Erik Estrada no less--I could only think of one thing: ¡Ay Cohiba!
The trip was supposed to be a getaway, a chance to enjoy Southern California women south of the border, Sol cervezas under the Mexican sun and, of course, fine Cuban cigars. There's no better place to do those things than Tijuana, a hands-on "Pirates of the Caribbean" for college kids on spring break.
This was intended to be an escape from the drudgery of work and school for our group, which included myself and two sets of brothers--Frank and Gabe Zarate and Chewy and Camilo Lopez. We were old high school friends, but our school days in a tiny San Joaquin Valley (California) farm town never prepared us for what was coming.
"Where ya guys been?" Ponch asked, not showing any indication of the CHiPs weighing heavily on his shoulders.
"Where ya guys from?"
"Where ya guys staying?"
"In San Diego."
Quick questions. Quick answers. All honest and to the point. We weren't looking for trouble. There was enough trouble, in all its hourglass shapes and shot-glass forms, in the other direction. Our four-day vacation was nearly over, and we were crossing the border for the final time. We were headed home.
So we thought.
"All right, guys, follow me," the guard said, motioning toward a metal table in the back of the gymnasium-sized room. There his border-patrolling pals could ask more questions. Sure, that's all, more questions.
After searching our plastic shopping bags--most containing T-shirts and another good friend, Jose Cuervo--one of the agents instructed me to empty my pockets. This guy must've been the little brother of former NFL bad boy Lyle Alzado. Not quite as imposing, but looking twice as mean since Lyle probably kicked his ass three times a day for his first 14 years.
Needless to say, I did what the man ordered and cleared my pockets, one contraband Cuban Cohiba included.
"Now what do ya have here?" he asked, as I went from sweating bullets to fully loaded AK-47s. Before I could answer, Ponch quizzed Camilo about the plastic bag in his back pocket.
"What's in there?"
"It's my Batman suit," Camilo answered, again, both quickly and honestly. (Flash back three hours, standing on the streets of Tijuana. Smells of asada, churro and urine hang in the air. Sounds of mariachis, taxi drivers and scam artists surround you in this country where no one knows your name but everyone calls you amigo.)
"Hey, Camilo, here's a real Batman suit, just like you wanted," I told him. His eternal quest for laughs was evident throughout this trip and always successful, like when he strutted around our motel room with a Motel 6 bath towel as his cape and superpowers of imagination.
Pointing out the combination Batman mask and cape, sized for a kindergartener no doubt, was my attempt at a joke. We should've known better than to offer to buy it for him. Five dollars and five minutes later, our gang of five now featured the Caped Crusader himself. Masked with a six-year-old's Halloween costume, Camilo got plenty of laughs --from his friends, other pale-skinned amigos, and vendors up and down the street.
The gag was worth every peso. But now, with Columbo on the case, "It's my Batman suit" was completely the wrong answer for these no-nonsense border guards.
"Looks like we've got a talker here," one said, pleased for no apparent reason. It was no longer a joke, no longer funny. Not surprisingly, the cops took Camilo's answer as a smart-ass remark, prompting a full-blown investigation into the pockets and bags we carried. Then it got personal, because then came a frisk that made a Tijuana lap dance seem like a businessman's handshake.
He frisked me as if there were no tomorrow, and I feared there wasn't. There's no need to go into details, so let's just say the words "Inspector Gadget" never meant so much.
Pockets emptied. Privacy invaded. Contraband still on the table.
"No, that's a Cuban all right," Li'l Alzado said, after my ill-fated attempt to claim the cigar was Dominican. Nor did he buy my explanation about the mistake made by the Tijuana cigar dealer. Then I crumbled, turning into a complete wuss. I began telling him that I was sorry and that he could take the cigar because I didn't want it anymore.
No lie there. At that moment, I wanted that cigar less than a case of herpes. The truth would've been to tell him that I simply had forgotten to remove the black-and-yellow Cohiba label before I got to customs and claim it was Dominican if questioned. As you can tell, I wasn't that smooth.
Thank God. Because somewhere deep in the heart of this gruff border agent was a glimmer of sympathy. Yes, sympathy for a lying, sweating bootlegger.
"Don't buy anymore, OK?" he said, returning to me my robust souvenir. "I won't. I swear," I told him, before thanking him at least six times too many. My buddies and I gingerly made our way out of the building. Free at last, free at last. Twelve hours, 397 miles and dozens of rehashings down the road, our vacation was over. Immediately, we all agreed the trip was the time of our lives.
A few weekends later, I finally had the chance to sit down one evening for a peaceful smoke.Was it worth it? You betcha. But it nagged me that evening on the porch, and the thought still bothers me today. I couldn't let the lesson of our encounter be lost.
The moral is clear: if you're ever shopping in Tijuana, avoid the vendor selling Batman costumes.
Jeremy Martin is a sports editor for a Merced, California newspaper.
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