Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

On Spiders

I think it’s time to talk about spiders.

Why are spiders so terrifying? I have no answer. But if I had a dime for every time I almost walked through a gigantic spiderweb inhabited by a huge, lurking, ravenous spider, I would have at least a dollar.

Here are some terrifying facts about spiders:

1. Somehow, spiders have the ability to construct webs–across sidewalks. This means that romantic moonlit strolls with your lover will often be interrupted by screams of horror and sudden, spine-shattering ducking motions. Ladies, there’s nothing like a sporadic duck-and-scream to really emphasize your curves. It’s kind of the new bend-and-snap.

2. Sometimes, your smoke alarm goes off, and while you frantically wave a dish towel at the screaming siren, you will disturb a spider from its rest.

3. There is something so hideously pregnant about fat spiders. As anyone who’s taken Biology 101 AKA Charlotte’s Web knows, the insides of spiders are fairly bursting with silk and mini spiders. Their bodies are so horribly bulbous, and yet their legs are so spindly.

4. As anyone who’s ever read Lord of the Rings AKA been homeschooled knows, in certain parts of the world there are evil female spiders who live in caves and are more than happy to eat you.

5. When I was a child, my siblings and I loved playing this game outside where my dad would hide in the darkness and do his best to scar us for life by leaping out of crevices, bushes, trees, trash cans, etc. Unfortunately, his scare tactics paled in comparison to the night when I ran through a giant spiderweb.

6. Why is that spiderweb moving? Oh, maybe because there’s a half-paralyzed bug stuck in the middle, thrashing in agony as the bulbous hunter sits and watches and waits for it to die.

7. Whoever started the rumor that you eat eight spiders a year in your sleep deserves to be force-fed nine plump, juicy spiders, preferably the ones with the red hourglass on their back. If you tell me that it’s not a rumor, I’ll say, “Hey girlfriend, what’s your address?” and a week later you’ll get a pie in the mail. THAT’S ALL I’M SAYING RIGHT NOW.

8. Did you know daddy longlegs are harmless? Except they’re not. Their poison is strong enough to kill a man, but their pincers are so weak that they can’t puncture your skin. The only place thin enough for them to puncture is your lip. Oh, remember that time I was relaxing in North Carolina with my bestie and A DADDY LONGLEGS CRAWLED ON MY FACE? (Note: I don’t know if any of the science in this “fact” is true, but I really don’t want to look it up and come face-to-face with a stock image of a spider. That’s why I’ve given you an image of a puppy.)

Traumatizing Moments From My Present, Volume Six: Like One of Those Rap Guys’ Girlfriends

If I had a dollar for every time someone freestyled a rap about how beautiful I am, I would have $1.

Now, if that one dollar came from a man named TUPAC, then all would be well and good, but unfortunately that dolla-rap came from a creeper of terror who was missing a significant portion of his face.

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A few months ago, my boyfriend left town for two weeks. My pheromones must have been giving away my temporary singleishness, because lemme tell you babe, the men flocked around me like never before. Unfortunately, there were no dead rappers or Hugh Jackmans in the mix–just a savory compilation of the homeless, the very old, and the physically deformed. It wasn’t an ego boost. It was a roller-coaster of terror.

During these two weeks, I had a wedding to attend. I also had a tube of brand-new Dior lipstick. Let’s just say I was looking really good in my long white dress and veil–what? The invitation said Black Tie! Anyway, the day got off to a wonderful start–I almost missed my train, I screamed at my absentee boyfriend on the phone, and then I got a free iced soy chai due to my tremulous, fragile beauty aka panicked shrieks of I’m-so-late-for-this-wedding. The wedding was lovely (hi David and Emily!) and as I sat in the train station, waiting to return to the city, I was aglow with happiness and well-wishes. And I thought to myself: I totally want to buy a tabloid for the ride home. So I walked up to the only other person in the station and chirped, “Hey, is there a gas station or something around here?”

He began to turn around, and the moment I saw his smile I knew I had made a huge mistake. Ladies, you know exactly the type of smile I’m talking about–the OMG, a girl is talking to me, yessss smile.

And then he turned all the way around.

And he only had one eye.

OMGAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH)Q#(IRUD.

The space where his eye should have been was a twisted mass of hardened flesh but what was I supposed to do? You can’t run away from someone just because they’re missing an eye! He told me that there was a Jewel down the road. I said thanks, and started to walk away. He offered to ride his bike there and buy me a tabloid. I almost died but declined his generous offer. He offered to walk with me. I said, “You know what? My train is almost here…I think I’ll just stay.”

So I walked over to a bench and sat down, and like any normal guy would do, he FOLLOWED ME. He then proceeded to tell me about his burgeoning career as a musician. He creates beats. Did I want to hear one? He pulled out his phone and started playing some sort of insipid fake-boom box thing as I smiled tightly. And then he started rapping along while gazing deep into my eyes as I tried not to laugh/scream/stare at his missing eye. He sung the lyrics that were in his heart, lyrics that have been burned into my memory forever, lyrics that were vaguely reminiscent of a serial killer-type obsession: You’re so beautiful. What I gotta do to get with you.

Then he told me that despite being 30-something, he lived with his parents, but he was thinking of going back to community college. I encouraged him to do so, because I’m a huge fan of higher education. Unfortunately, I think he viewed my platonic career advice more along the lines of a man shall leave his father and mother and shall cleave to his wife because he started talking about buying a two-bedroom. I was like, Um why would you need a second bedroom NO DON’T TELL ME. Then he asked for my number and I told him I had a boyfriend and he said, “But you’re allowed to have friends, right?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think my boyfriend would want me giving out my number to another guy, you know?” And he chuckled and said, “Yeah, cuz then I’d call you and he’d be like “Who’s that?” and you’d be like, “This guy I met on the train.”” And I said, “…yeah.” And then he told me I reminded him of his ex-girlfriend.

And as I got onto the train, shivering violently with repressed hysterics, he gazed deep into my two eyes with his one eye and said, “Studio vs. two-bedroom.”

I just smiled and looked away because I had no idea what he was talking about,  but in retrospect, I think he was asking me to move in with him.

An Interview With Octomom

Brace thyselves.

NBC, after catching word of my crackshot interviewing skills–most notably with Barack Obama and Myself–offered me $8,000 last week to interview Octomom. I refused. They upped the offer to $80,000. I said no, shut off my cell phone, and locked myself in my apartment. They burst through the door, bound and gagged me, and dragged me in the back of an unmarked white van to an undisclosed location on the Mexican-American border, strapped me into a chair, held a shank to my side, and forced me to interview Octomom. OH, THE HORROR!

Now those sharks are forcing me to publish the transcript on my blog, because they claim that “the look of utter fear and loathing in your eyes won’t translate well through a visual medium.”

–THE INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT, 1.24.2011–

Octomom: Hi!
Me: LET ME OUT OF HERE YOU BASTA–(my yell is cut short via a slap across the face from NBC Executive).
Octomom: What’s your name?
Me: I don’t have to answer that, do I?
NBC Executive (shortly): No. Don’t be a fool, Tori.
Octomom: HI TORI!
Me: THAT’S NOT MY NAME!
Octomom: One of my kids is named Tori, I think.
(I shudder.)
Octomom: What’s that supposed to mean, bitch?
Me: I don’t know, why don’t you go on Oprah to cry about it?
Octomom (to NBC Exec): Are you going to let her talk to me this way?
NBC Exec: Nope. (He tasers me.)
Me: OUCH! THAT REALLY HURT AND IT’S STILL HURTING!
Octomom (evilly): Hehe. He. He.
NBC Exec: You start asking questions now, Tori, or headlines tomorrow are going to read, “Nubile Young Journalist Found Dead While Escaping to Mexico to Save Failing Career.”
Me: Wow, I actually heard the capital letters in your vocal inflections. I guess that’s why you’re a big shot TV person. Wait–did you just call me a journalist?
NBC Exec: What if I did?
Me (shrieking): SCUM OF THE EARTH! I AM A WRITER! A WRIT-ER!
Octomom (tapping her fingers rapidly on the arm of her chair and grinning vacantly into space): I’m publishing a memoir!
Me (bruised and beaten): No…no…this is not happening.
NBC Exec: Hehehe. Hehe. He.
Me (staring at the dirt floor and shaking): So, um, w-what’s the b-best part of being a mom, N-N-Nadya?
Octomom (an evil smile spreading slowly across her face): That sweet baby-smell after their baths. You know, when you’ve just fished them out of the pool and–
Me: You bathe your children in the pool?
Octomom: It’s the only place they all fit.
Me: Ew.
NBC Exec: Keep asking questions. (He is now smoking a cigar and has donned a pair of dark sunglasses.)
Me: Um, how do you maintain your youthful good looks?
Octomom: I love that Henna & Placenta hair conditioner you can buy at CVS.
Me: OH GROSS! GET ME OUT OF HERE!
NBC Exec: One more question, and you’re free to go. Hehe. Hehehe.
Me (frantically swallowing the bile at the back of my throat): Tell me more about this m-m-m…m-m-em…I CAN’T!
(The shank digs into my side, drawing blood.)
Me: TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR MEMOIR! OH, SOMEONE, ANYONE, SAVE ME!
Octomom: It’s an in-depth look at the struggle for, achievement of, and ultimate vapidness inherent in the American Dream. Critics are already calling it “a literary tour-de-force” and I haven’t even written Chapter One yet! Tee-hee! Oh, and it’s in second person.

I fall to the floor in a dead faint. I wake, my nostrils filled with ether fumes, on the floor of my apartment. There is a single note pinned to my shirt: Watch your step, young journalist. Sixteen baby-eyes are watching you.