On an early July weekend of this year Ray Devlin and I were sipping Carta Blanca in Chapi’s in downtown Tijuana; the cold beer seemed to help blow the heat away. Ray was appreciatively eyeing Marisa, the pretty, young Mexican girl who had come back to work in the bar about a month ago. We had first seen her when she was nineteen — two years ago — in the company of Gomes, the sixty-five-year-old retired Portuguese-American tuna fisherman who lived in a ninety-dollar-a-month room in Tijuana’s La Mesa district, east of downtown. Gomes (no one ever bothered to ask his first name) had been an engineer on a tuna boat for many years. He once told me that his retirement income was about $25,000 per year; in addition, he could always go up to the docks in San Diego and pick up a fast hundred for a day's work as a watchman.
Gomes didn’t own a car. He got around Tijuana by bus and taxi. His only real extravagance seemed to be spending money on girls, and that just very occasionally. If she were young and good-looking and new in the bar, Gomes would give her one hundred dollars for a trip to the nearest hotel room. Gomes speaks fluent Spanish, which puts him a few steps ahead of the other American regulars who pay occasional or frequent visits to Chapi’s or to the other bars in and around Tijuana’s Sixth Street, just off Revolucion.
I could see the interest in Ray’s eyes as they ranged over Marisa’s pleasing form. Like Gomes, Ray is particular when it comes to a prostitute — he has to be in the mood, he says, and the girl must very definitely strike his fancy. The last four or five times he’s been to Tijuana he’s kept his pants on and his money in his pocket.
“I’ll tell you, Mike,” he smiled, ‘‘I’m just about ready this time.” I called Marisa over to our booth and she sat down, happily.
I knew Marisa. She was pregnant when she first came to work at Chapi’s two years back. The father, she says, is a smuggler who refused to speak to her after he found out she was carrying a child. From the start Marisa was out of place at Chapi’s; she must have been driven there by pure desperation. Sitting alone or with a customer, she would sometimes break out into song, smile and sing for a few minutes, then burst into tears. Later she told me it was because her mother was dying. Marisa possesses a sort of childlike quality and (as all who know her agree) is particularly unsuited to a life of prostitution. When she was seven months pregnant she came into Chapi’s and asked me to move to Tijuana to live with her. When I told her that was impossible, she was very sad. ‘‘Now I am alone,” she said simply, and left. Somehow she survived, had the baby, and was back at work at Chapi’s.
Ray ordered a drink for her, which she hardly touched; Marisa doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. “You are very bonita, very bonita, Ray told her, using one of the four or five Spanish words he has learned in twenty-two years of visiting Mexico.
“How much for all night?” he asked, and I translated the question for Marisa, who thought about it for a moment, and said, "Setenta y cinco dolares."
“Marisa,” I told her, “this is a good friend. Not all Americans are rich like Gomes. Fifty is enough, no?”
Well, yes. And she and Ray departed for a nearby hotel. When I saw him the next day he told me, “I didn’t stay the night.” Ray passed it off with a quick shake of his head. “It’s not her fault. She really is a very nice, sweet girl. She doesn’t belong in that business.”
Marisa is one of a long and somewhat blurry line of women, professional and otherwise, that Ray has coupled with all over the world. He’s had so many in Tijuana alone that he couldn’t even come close to guessing at a number. “And I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’ve had the best, the very best, the most beautiful women this town had to offer.”
At forty-nine Ray carries his stocky but solid build like a boxer. He reminds me of the one-time middleweight boxing champion Carmen Basilio, except that Ray has a broad and boyish face as Irish as a shamrock. Although his hair on top is disappearing, he usually passes for much younger than he is.
I met him three years ago at Chapi’s, when Denny introduced me to him. Denny works for the city of Chula Vista. When he moved to San Diego after getting out of the service, he refused — out of fear — to set foot in Tijuana for seven years. After he had finally worked up his courage to go down, nothing short of several broken arms and legs could keep him away. Denny could write a Duncan Hines guide to the bars of downtown Tijuana and of Zona Norte. Rooting for the Chicago Cubs and bar-hopping in Tijuana are just about his only leisure activities. He never drinks in California.
Denny met Ray through the good offices of Joe, the doorman for the last twenty years at the Red Stage Club on Revolucion. Denny had spotted Ray a number of times and, curious in a historian’s way about other bar-hopping regulars in TJ, persuaded Joe to introduce him.
Ray claims mixed emotions about the night he met Denny. “I never used to talk to any Americans down here,” he says. “I used to come here to get away from Americans. Now all I do down here is to talk to fuckin’ Americans.” He pretends disgust but then orders another round for us both. Knowing that my finances are much more precarious than his own, he seldom permits me to pay for a drink.
Ray is unfailingly polite to everyone. He’s an excellent listener. His reading is mainly confined to the Los Angeles Times and the novels of Joseph Wambaugh, but he has a native intelligence. He tries to comprehend everyone’s “humanity.” And he likes to share vignettes from his own life, a not uninteresting life as things go.
There’s his trip to Thailand, for example. Several years back Ray went to Thailand for a week with his roommate Ted. The two have shared an apartment in Playa del Rey for fifteen years, despite the extreme dissimilarities in their characters. Ted is in his middle sixties, very quiet and reserved, long divorced, and the total opposite of Ray when it comes to libidinous activities. In Thailand Ted made the usual tourist rounds, but Ray — of course — had something else in mind. The morning after he arrived in Bangkok he went outside the hotel and flagged down an old man driving a rickety cab. He found out the cabbie spoke English.
“ ‘Well,’ I said to him. ‘other Americans like to visit temples, the markets, the river. That’s fine, but me — I fuck.’ Well, the old guy promised to take good care of me, and he did. too.” He first took Ray to one of Bangkok's fabled sex shows, which won applause even from Ray’s jaded senses. Then he took his charge to a place that had a large glass cage with exactly one hundred beautiful young girls in it, none older than twenty-one, each one with a number. “You paid twenty bucks and got whatever girl you wanted for the night. If you didn’t like her after a while, you could trade her back in. The first time I tried it I shelled out sixty dollars and got myself three girls.”
Ray couldn’t resist bringing Ted to see the girls in the glass cage, hoping that Ted maybe would see something he’d like and he would have the pleasure of buying her for Ted as a gift. Ted was horrified at the sight of the cage. He admonished Ray with a brief but pungent lecture on the humanness of the girls inside, and how this “obscene cage” turned them into things, into slaves. Upset, he turned and went back to his room to watch Chinese television shows. Ray was bothered by his roommate’s attitude, but not for too long. He had made a bosom buddy of the old cabdriver, and he bought him several girls. When he left Thailand he also bought his new friend a color TV set as a parting gift.
It's a very long way from Bangkok to the working-class town of Worcester, Massachusetts, where Ray was born. His parents died when he was eleven and* he was raised by an older sister in Worcester's Irish section. One day when he was fourteen he was bouncing a ball against the side of a wall in the town's better neighborhood when he noticed a shade being slowly raised on the second floor of the house across the street. A young girl stared down at him from the window. Ray folded his arms over his chest and stared back up at her. This girl — Sharon — was thirteen, and she was beautiful. His heart jumped: he was in love. She later told him that she felt the same way when she saw him.
After they had been keeping company for about a year, Ray talked Sharon into having sex, while her parents were away on a trip. She cried all night, but it seemed okay; after all, it was inevitable that the two would one day marry and settle down. Of course Ray would have to be established in some sort of a trade or career, but since he was an impetuous kid with little patience for the dull routine of school, he dropped out at seventeen and joined the Marine Corps on St. Patrick’s Day.
“It was the thing to do then if you had balls and wanted to be special,” he said recently. “If you were a Marine, you were the elite. It was an idea that was much stronger then than it is now.” Ray thought he'd make a career in the Marine Corps.
The Korean War was then in progress and American troops were being committed as part of the United Nations “peacekeeping forces.” Ray underwent basic training at Parris Island and in February of 1952 he was sent to Camp Pendleton to await orders for embarkation to Korea. In the eight weeks or so that he was here he was given three liberties; he spent each one in Tijuana. “At that time Tijuana was nothing but dirt roads, with little hills running right down to the border. As soon as you crossed the border there were — or at least it seems to me now as I remember it — there were dozens of whorehouses, which were really just dirty little shacks. The girls would call and shout at you from the windows, and the usual price was three bucks a pop. When you went back, as soon as you re-entered California, you had to stop into the Navy venereal disease station and get a ‘short-arm inspection.” And you were expected to throw your change into this big bucket to help spring the Marines and sailors who were being held in the Tijuana jail.”
Ray had visited whores for the first time in his life four or five months earlier, when he was on advanced training maneuvers in Cuba and Panama. A black Panamanian girl was his first, and the experience had nothing of the sweet tenderness that characterized his relations with Sharon. Remembering the stern VD lecture he had received in boot camp, he had pulled out a prophylactic and asked the girl if she minded if he wore it. “Honey,” she replied in excellent English. “I don't care if you wear it on your head, let's get this show on the road. The meter’s running.”
From Camp Pendleton he shipped to Korea with the First Marine Division, Fifth Battalion, and what he remembers most from those years was the cold. “Cold, mud, and fear. That was it. I hated it. Every minute.” Well, possibly not every minute, as Ray found opportunities to pursue his favorite sport with those peasant women in the rice Fields who turned the incomprehensible war to spare-time profits by servicing the needs of the soldiers. “When I first saw those scrawny broads I said, ‘Hell, no! No way!’ Yeah, well, a month later I found a way.”
What Ray remembers most from Korea was his buddy Bobby Lee Samuels, a skinny kid from the Texas panhandle. Bobby Lee had a sweetheart waiting at home for him, but six months after landing in Korea he received a “Dear John” letter from his girl. “After that, he just went crazy in a cold kind of way,” Ray recalls. “He became a pathological killer, no fear of anything. He was notorious.”
Bobby Lee won both a Bronze and a Silver Star in Korea. But standing out particularly in Ray’s memory is the time when he and his friend were escorting five or six North Korean prisoners across a bridge, and “for no reason at all, Bobby just turned and shot one of ’em dead. I was really pissed off. There was no reason for him to do it.”
Ray soon received a bit of insight into the wellspring of Bobby Lee’s icy anger when, a few days before Christmas of 1952, he received a letter from Sharon. She explained that she had met this wonderful boy from Holy Cross College, and, well, they had decided to get married, and she was calling off her engagement with Ray. At first he became physically sick, then he began to feel dead inside. But lying coiled in the center of the dead spot was a terrible rage. He became a little like his friend Bobby Lee — but never, he believes, quite as wanton. He fought through the winter and spring, and followed his friend’s example by signing up for another tour. He returned to the United States for a month before starting his second stint in Korea.
There was a surprise waiting for him in Worcester: Sharon had broken up with her college boyfriend. She and Ray quickly got back together again. He now regretted having to return to Korea, but by this time a truce had been signed and the fighting had come to an end. When he returned to the States he was sent to Cherry Point, North Carolina to begin training as an air-traffic controller, but Sharon didn’t want to be a military wife, so Ray changed his plans. When his enlistment was up in March of 1955 he would go home, get a job of some kind, and marry Sharon. Each weekend for a year and a half he made the long journey to Massachusetts to visit her.
After his discharge Ray found work in Worcester as an apprentice machinist, and the wedding date was fixed for November. To give the young couple a start, Ray was to move into the home of Sharon’s family; her parents had had a contractor add a spacious bedroom for the newlyweds. A “greenback shower” was held for Ray and Sharon, and more than $1500 — plus gifts — was garnered. The wedding invitations were mailed out.
Just about this time Ray also received $800 from the State of Massachusetts, his Korean veteran's bonus, and did something that today he still speaks of with regret and some bewilderment. A week before the ceremony was to take place he suddenly left for New York to visit some Marine Corps buddies who were living there, and he didn’t come back for two months. At the end of that time his $800 had melted away into a glutinous haze of booze and girls.
“I didn’t know then why I did it,” he says. “I didn't know for years. But after a long time had passed I realized and admitted to myself that I wanted to get even with her. That had to be it, I think.” He shakes his head. “You know, the Marine Corps fucked me up. Take a seventeen-, eighteen-year-old kid, train him to kill, send him into combat. What’s that going to do to his mind?” Nevertheless, when he speaks of his time in the Corps he does so with an understated but obvious enthusiasm typical of many men who have seen combat and shared dangers with friends.
When he returned to Worcester he lived in a cheap rented room and was shunned by many of his old friends because of what he had done to Sharon. After a few months his former employer took pity on the bedraggled and broke ex-Marine and gave him his old job back.
Ray lived with a married woman for several years, and also managed to get another girl pregnant, who sued him for nonsupport of the unborn child. He was acquitted of the charge, in part because one of his female cousins lied under oath and said that he had been with her on the night the conception was alleged to have taken place. Family loyalty was not the primary reason for this cousin’s perjuring herself: Ray was having sex with her as well.
The nonsupport case, however, had been reported in the Worcester newspaper, and it caused great embarrassment for the Devlin family. It seemed that an uncle, a former alderman and a man of local prestige who also bore the name Raymond G. Devlin, lived on the same street as Ray, and some townspeople had confused the two. Ray’s numerous other arrests for drunkenness and brawling also were giving pain to the family, so after the acquittal his older brothers visited him and insisted that he leave immediately for California — then as now a last hope and refuge for East Coast losers.
“They told me I had to go away and put my life back together again, if I could. I resented it then but I realize now they were right. If I had stayed in Worcester I would have ended up either dead or a drunk.”
He got a job in a machine shop in Los Angeles and a few years later went to work for Lockheed. He lived a comfortable life, eating well, chasing women, doing what he wanted. He did live with one girl for seven years but took off when she started speaking of a home and a family.
Ray wanted freedom, freedom from responsibility. His income was high and he enjoyed his leisure. He made his way to Tijuana often, and speaks enthusiastically of what the downtown area was like in the 1960s. “There were great bars everywhere, so many you couldn't count ’em. There was the Capri. And the Shangri-La, beautiful girls, a waterfall, a nice piano bar, and all the waiters had their heads shaved, just like in the movie. There was the Manhattan, real class. There’s nothing like that around now, just three or four places left that I even want to go to.” I tell him he’s like the great ground ape: his territory’s shrinking and he’s becoming an anachronism. But he says he doesn’t come to Tijuana mainly for sex, “but for the atmosphere. I like the people, I like the music.” He plays the popular songs of Julio Iglesias and Jose Jose on the bar jukeboxes.
Some four years ago Ray met Elena in Chapi’s. She was twenty at the time, and from all reports one of the best-looking girls ever to work there. He paid for sex the first time and after that it was on the house. Whenever Ray was in Tijuana he would head for her apartment. On several occasions Elena encouraged Ray to have sex with her younger sister, and he was only too happy to oblige. Elena spoke perfect English, and after a year asked Ray to take her and her sister with him to Los Angeles. “I hated to turn her down, but I had to. Right after that she went to California anyway, and I think she’s living now in Fresno, married to some American.”
Prostitutes such as Elena allow Ray to indulge himself in profuse variety without the burdensome responsibility of taking care of a wife and family. But sometimes he speaks with pain of the son in Massachusetts that he has never seen. “The kid knows that I’m his father, but he hates me. His mother taught him that. Well, I can’t blame either of them for feeling like they do.” Through his brothers he once managed to get a message to his son to the effect that costs for any college the boy wanted to go to would be taken care of, but no response was ever received.
Ray is now an introspective man, constantly analyzing himself and his motives. This inclination accelerated ten years ago when he was driving back to Worcester for a visit, and, while traversing the Texas panhandle, was moved by a sudden need to look up his old friend Bobby Lee Samuels, whom he hadn’t heard from in years. In the Amarillo phone book there was a listing for a Robert Lee Samuels. “When I drove up to this big house in this ritzy area I thought ‘Oh, man, Bobby Lee’s struck it rich.’ ”
A man answered Ray’s knock and told him that no Bobby Lee Samuels lived there. Ray was suspicious but was about to depart when he noticed a huge portrait over the fireplace in the living room — a portrait of his old Marine Corps pal in his dress blues. Determined to see Bobby, he got into a shouting match with the man, when an elderly lady came to the door and asked him his name.
“When I told her, her eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. She invited me in — it was her late husband’s house, Bobby Lee’s father. After a while the brother, the one who answered the door, told me the whole story.”
The story was that Bobby Lee, like Ray, had also left the Marine Corps and come home to his girl. There was a planned wedding, but then someone told Bobby that his girl was at a bar with another guy. Bobby Lee went there and saw it was true, and came after the guy with a broken beer bottle. As he thrust the bottle at the man’s face, his girlfriend jumped between them and took the jagged end in her heart. Bobby Lee was arrested for murder, and while out on bail in the custody of his family, went out to the garage one night and shot himself. After hearing this tale, Ray spent the night in an Amarillo motel, unable to sleep.
When Ray visits Tijuana he usually gets a room at the Holiday Lodge Motel in San Ysidro and walks across the international border. He doesn’t like to drive in Mexico — I kid him about the fighting Marine who’s afraid to take his car to Tijuana. Often when he’s down from L.A. he’ll call me and we’ll go south together, in my car. He's quick to buy drinks for people; money is unimportant to him. His enjoyment is in chatting with American and Mexican friends and watching for a new and special girl who may catalyze his libido. A machinist friend of his from National City calls him “Radar Ray” for his almost unconscious habit of turning his head constantly, scanning the scene for fresh flesh.
A year and a half ago Ray told me he had discovered a new place — “Freddy’s” — just up the street from Chapi’s. It was a nice cocktail lounge, he said, no whores, but a pleasant and quiet atmosphere. Freddy, the owner, a friendly man of about forty, was once a bartender at Caesar’s. Another attractive aspect of Freddy’s was the female night bartender, Alma, a good-looking woman in her mid-twenties, with an even-featured oval face framed by short-cropped dark hair carefully combed over a high and intelligent forehead. Freddy had discovered
Alma working in a restaurant in Tijuana and took note of her captivatingly shy and charming smile. “I took one look at this girl,” Freddy told me, “and I knew she would make a lot of money for me.”
Freddy’s hunch was accurate. Alma had about her a quality of sweetness, of gentleness and honesty, that the male patrons (and there were many) found irresistible. She brought the customers in, and Freddy never had to worry about being cheated when Alma was on duty; everyone knew she wouldn't — couldn't — steal a nickel. She was friendly and pleasant with almost everyone, without ever crossing that tine line into undue familiarity. She was never coarse. Some of us, taking a cue from her name, began to call her “sweet soul.” She had an aura of vulnerability that called forth great affection, and in some a desire to protect.
Alma made very good tips; combining them with her relatively small salary. she would take home $200 to $300 per week, excellent pay for Mexico. There was one customer who came in several times a week, had a few drinks, and always left her a twenty-dollar tip. A young Mexican boy visited regularly, infatuated, and tipped five dollars each time. An anonymous American youngster came by often and tried hard to stare at Alma. He was also too timid to speak much to her, although Alma does speak and understand some English (which she learned while she stayed illegally in Orange County for four months, living with a cousin and trying to find work). Others gave her expensive presents, which she accepted only with great reluctance. A wealthy Texan once came in and spent the night drinking there, proclaiming his undying love for Alma with each glass of whiskey. Freddy would observe all the by-play between Alma and the customers with a Cheshire grin pasted on his face. But once, not too long ago. a lone mariachi slipped in when Freddy was absent, and with his old guitar and a remarkably tine voice sang to her, unprompted — a beautiful and haunting tune which he had written just for her and had titled “Alma.” She listened to him sing her song with a pleased but also embarrassed smile. Alma will try, sometimes, to suppress her smile, but once the lips open over her even white teeth, her eyes — often sad. pensive, and dreamy — animate her face, a fascinating lure to the men perched on the stools of the bar.
The negative side of the job was the many invitations she had to refuse, the hopeful customers she had to turn down. Perhaps because she was a woman working in downtown Tijuana she was considered by some to be fair game. Ray was greatly attracted to her and shortly after she went to work there asked her to accompany him to Las Vegas (Alma has a valid passport).
I know she declined but I can't recall her actually saying no; I believe she may have told him, “Maybe some day,” but what I do remember is the smile, sympathetic and slightly abashed.
Freddy told Ray not long after that Alma did not date customers, or anyone else. Freddy also stated that it was all right with him if Alma wanted “to go to the room” (the standard Tijuana euphemism for engaging in prostitution), but in his opinion all she wanted was “a nice guy who would marry her and take care of her.” (We later learned — from Alma — that Freddy himself wanted to be that guy: he told Alma he'd divorce his wife to marry her. She demurred.) But Ray received the definite impression that Freddy was “taking care” of Alma in a sexual way. When I used to tease her about this, she would try to keep smiling but was plainly very embarrassed. Gomes says that he once wandered in after closing time and saw Freddy and Alma making love in the booth. What is known in the U.S. as “sexual harassment” is often standard practice in Mexico when a woman seeks and gains employment.
Gomes himself learned that Alma wasn't for sale to others, however. He offered her his usual hundred and was told nicely that she “didn't make appointments.” Gomes tried again the next day, upping the ante to $300, and received the same reply. He then abjectly apologized to her and patted her hand in a fatherly way.
On one occasion an American strolled in, ordered a drink, and attempted to engage Alma in a somewhat intimate conversation. Alma seemed amused, yet she was embarrassed that I was witness to this rather transparent maneuver on the part of the man. He soon saw it was a losing cause, though, and left. “He’s looking for Lupe and Margarita,” Alma smiled, using her generic names for the area’s prostitutes. Thereafter, Ray and I would sometimes tell her that we were looking for Lupe and Margarita, and she'd go along with the joke: “Not here, try at Chapi's.”
Alma did tell me once that she did feel uncomfortable working in downtown Tijuana, with its often strange nighttime goings-on. She was brought up conservatively, she said, and wasn't really accustomed to all this, indicating with a nod the world outside the barroom window.
Alma Teran spent her childhood in Guaymas on the eastern shore of the Gulf of California, in her grandmother’s small house near to the sea and to the fishing vessels. There were five sisters. The father had long since disappeared into Mexico’s anonymous vastness, and the mother struggled along by working long hours as a cook (later becoming the head chef at one of the best restaurants in Mexicali.) Alma married when she was sixteen and had three children. Her choice of a husband seems to have been a poor one, as all the boy apparently wished to do was to lie about the house all day, not wanting to work. Alma finally got disgusted and left him when she could take it no longer. Then, in her early twenties, she became the mistress of a Tijuana tax lawyer who promised to marry her when his divorce was final; he took her on a vacation to Hawaii. Naturally, the divorce never materialized, and he, too, soon dropped out of sight.
Faced with the task of providing for her children, she first unsuccessfully tried her luck in California (living with her cousin and seeking a good restaurant job) and then returned to Tijuana and went to work in a maquiladora, assembling electronic parts. When she was temporarily laid off at the factory, she secured the job at the restaurant where she met Freddy.
Alma didn’t have an active social life; she preferred staying at home and reading to going out partying. Her only close friend is a female doctor who works for Tijuana’s Social Security Hospital. Through this friend she met a young doctor whom she dated occasionally but broke off with when he wanted to marry her.
Six months after going to work as Freddy's bartender she moved into an Infonovit development, a government-built house on a remote hillside project in La Mesa, with her kids and her mother. These “houses” are really a sort of working-class condo, non-detached, the rooms tiny. As in many Tijuana colonias, the water comes on for only a few hours every other day, if at all. But the price is right: no payment at all for some six months, and then the equivalent of about sixteen dollars per month. To ensure privacy and to protect her mother's garden, Alma spent $1700 to build a wall around the dwelling.
For a year and a half Ray would stop over to have a few drinks at Freddy’s whenever he visited Tijuana. He was “very fond” of Alma; hut so was I, and so were many others. One weekend, though, perhaps six or seven months ago when he was here and I suggested we have a few at Freddy’s, he said he didn't want to go. That surprised me. and I wondered aloud if he had had an argument with Alma, which he completely denied. He just didn't feel like talking to Alma tonight. he insisted. In my obtuseness I didn't see what was in fact happening: Ray was developing a greater “fondness” for Alma than he was feeling comfortable with. But I persisted and he yielded.
Alma, as always, seemed glad to see us. Of course, Ray always left her a good tip, but I think there was more behind her reaction than that. She once told Ray that he and I were her only American friends. Sometimes she'd share little secrets, little jokes. Once Ray was there alone when a Mexican youth engaged him in conversation and told him that Alma, like all women bartenders in Mexico, was available. Ray gently tried to correct the boy, but without success. “Here, I'll show you,” the kid boasted, and called Alma over and spoke to her in Spanish. She listened politely and replied, “I’m sorry, I don't make appointments.” In English. She looked over to Ray with the vaguest trace of a smile. The chagrined youth admitted that he had been mistaken. Whenever Ray was about to leave he'd ask her, “Alma, when you gonna learn English?” She always said, “Raimundo, when you gonna learn Spanish?”
Later that same night he talked about growing old, about his frustration in watching the passing of the years. “Give me back my youth!” he shouted over his beer. I quoted Yeats’s “Lament of the Old Pensioner,” which struck him so much I had to promise to send him a copy.
Ray was making $40,000 a year as a machine set-up man at Lockheed, but he complained constantly of the taxes he was forced to pay. If he worked overtime, as he sometimes had to do, he might make $980 and end up taking home no more than $470. He had no property, no tax shelters.
Then sometime in June he came down from Los Angeles very excited and full of plans. He would open up a beer bar in Chula Vista or National City with Ted and another friend of his at work; all were in need of tax shelters. Each partner would own twenty-five percent of the bar, and Alma would also be a twenty-five percent owner, without having to put up any money, provided she was willing to operate the place. (Ray had spoken to his friends of Alma’s honesty and ability to draw customers.) Since the partners felt that this bar would probably lose money for at least a year, Alma would also be given a weekly salary of $225, plus tips. As a further inducement to his partners in Los Angeles, Ray agreed to forgo his own tax write-off the first year and pass it on to them.
Ray wanted to know what I thought of this plan, and whether I felt Alma might agree to it. He thought perhaps she might be hesitant to quit Freddy’s; he didn’t know whether or not Alma might be in love with Freddy. I told Ray that I thought Alma would accept the offer; that, in my opinion, her relationship with Freddy was an occupational necessity, not something she voluntarily chose; and that the offer seemed to be a very good and generous one, one she’d be foolish to turn down.
I wondered only why he had chosen this particular tax shelter, including Alma into the plans.
“Well, first, I think she can really make a success of a bar.” he replied. “1 know you think the same way. Second, I want to do something for her. A couple of weeks ago I sat there until four in the morning, a little bit lit. Freddy was, too. Somehow the conversation got around to life and living, and Alma turned to me and asked, ‘What do you want from life? Are you happy?’ I told her I wasn’t, and she insisted that it was because 1 wasn’t married, that I was lonely. That’s not exactly true, but I let her believe so. I asked her if she was happy, and what she wanted. Well, she really got wound up, and started talking so fast she had to switch to Spanish and have Freddy translate for her. I never saw her like that. She was really agitated. She said that she’d been hurt many, many times in her life, and that she never wanted to be hurt again. She was lonely, she said, but would never marry another Mexican man; they were too ‘macho,’ she said. She said she would do what she had to do for her family. The way she spoke, Mike, it was a revelation to me. It really got to me.”
We went down to Freddy’s. In my fractured Spanish I managed to convey to Alma what Ray had in mind. She was interested, but I could see she was very worried that Freddy, or a friend of Freddy, might somehow overhear us. Freddy did in fact pop in and out of the bar a few times, and threw us some suspicious looks. “He’s very intelligent,” Alma said, concern in her features. She agreed to meet with us the next day at 1:00 p.m. at Victor’s Restaurant in the La Mesa neighborhood of Tijuana. Ray wanted Alma to understand the offer and the situation fully, and, realizing my difficulties with the language, made arrangement with his bilingual friend, Joe — the Red Stag doorman and long-time recipient of Ray’s generosity — to be there as well.
The next day I drove Ray’s Cadillac to downtown Tijuana to pick up Joe, and we arrived at the restaurant promptly at 1:00 p.m. We ate hamburgers and waited for Alma. At 1:20 Joe smiled sadly and said he didn’t believe she was coming. He knew these girls, he said, these downtown girls, and they never showed up for appointments in the daytime. Ray was exasperated that Joe didn’t understand that Alma wasn’t a whore, but Joe just shook his head pityingly: he knew these girls who work downtown.
A little after 1:30 we decided that Joe was right and were ready to leave, but I wanted to finish my milk shake. Ray claimed that he wasn’t really disappointed that she hadn’t shown, because he was beginning to feel uneasy about the responsibility he had taken on, being the leader in the partnership. He felt he had done the right thing, had tried to help her, but frankly, he was relieved that the burden on him had been lifted. Then he looked up and out the door, and said, “Here she comes!”
Alma’s cab had been delayed in construction traffic. She looked flushed. She joined us at the table, and Joe quickly- translated Ray’s offer in detail. Alma accepted it. She was to run the bar, pay the taxes, order the supplies, hire and fire people. Ray did say that he’d have to check the legalities of getting Alma a work permit; he didn’t think there'd be any problem, he hoped not, but Alma shouldn’t get her hopes too high until he knew for sure. Alma confessed that she was uneasy about Joe — since he worked in the Red Stag, Freddy might know him. Ray assured her that he had known Joe for twenty years, was godfather to his children, and trusted him implicitly. Ray allowed Alma to drive the Cadillac back to her house, which she enjoyed thoroughly. She and Joe chatted in Spanish on the way; I could see that Joe was taken with her. (Later, Joe told Ray that he couldn’t believe that a “downtown girl” would actually show you where she lived — the downtown girls simply never do that. Ray shook his head and gave up.) The blue Cadillac, with the Mexican girl driving and with two gringos and one Mexican passenger, moved through the dusty streets of Alma's colonia. The neighbors gawked; they probably had not seen anything like this before.
Ray checked with an immigration consultant in San Ysidro and also with one in Los Angeles. Alma’s options didn’t look too promising. Applications for resident status and work permits were backed up from 1978. And a twenty-five percent ownership in a $20,000 or $30,000 beer bar wouldn’t help her either — the government required that an alien make a minimum $40,000 investment, to be guaranteed by a bank bond. Apparently a “marriage of convenience” was the only viable option. Ray called me and wanted to know if I would be willing to marry Alma; he’d give me a few hundred dollars for my trouble. I pointed out to him that of the three partners, two — he and his roommate Ted — were bachelors. I had no financial interest in the partnership. “One of you two should marry her, if you’re that determined to have her run the bar,” I said.
Ray told me he’d be down on Tuesday, and that I should get a message to Alma to meet him at San Ysidro’s Jack in the Box so that the nearby immigration consultant could explain the problems to her. Should he, he wanted to know, tell the consultant to delete mention of the marriage option? My opinion was that Alma should be aware of all her choices, and Ray hesitantly agreed. It was arranged that I would meet them in front of the consultant’s office at around one, after their appointment with the consultant, and that we would go to lunch.
I met them at the appointed time, and as I drove up the freeway to the Black Angus in Chula Vista, Ray casually asked Alma, “Should we tell him?”
“Tell me what?” I said, and drew my own conclusions. “That you decided to get married? Hey, I figured that, if it’s the only way to get Alma across.” They said nothing. They seemed subdued yet agitated.
At lunch neither ate more than a bite or two, and Alma, unable to constrain herself any longer, announced in Spanish, “I want you to know that this is not only a marriage of convenience, just so I can work. I have a lot of affection for Raimundo, I think he is a very, very good man.” There was great strain in her face. “Please, tell him I said this.”
Ray nodded when I translated, and he asked Alma gently, with an inflection of humor, if she thought she would like running her own bar.
Ray had rented his San Ysidro motel room until Friday, and we met a few days later. He explained what had occurred in their meeting with the immigration consultant. The consultant had patiently explained to Alma all the options available, and how none seemed applicable to her case. “Mike,” Ray told me over his beer, “I watched this sweet, honest girl, the ‘sweet soul,’ and saw her face drop each time the consultant eliminated each possibility one by one. I couldn’t understand the Spanish, but I could see in her face what was happening. I had built up her hopes again and now everything was turning to shit. I was one more guy hurting her. Without meaning to, I was doing once more to a woman what I guess I’ve always done, built up their hopes and then — bam! I had tried to help and it was going the other way. The consultant finished explaining the marriage option and the room fell silent. I could really see the pain in her face, believe me, although she tried to hide it.
“Then the consultant said to me, ‘I’m sure you know, Mr. Devlin, that this is a very wonderful woman you have here.’ For God’s sake, Mike, that’s what everyone says about Alma! Well, something happened to me, something happened to me here —” Ray pointed to his head “— and I decided right off. I told Alma through the consultant that I did want to marry her, for real, not just for convenience, that I didn’t want her to work in a bar. I told her I wanted her to quit work right away, that we’d be married as soon as we reasonably could, and that I’d bring her and the kids to Los Angeles with me. I told her I didn’t want her hurt any more. Tears started to form in her eyes and then she broke down and cried. Then the consultant quickly explained the procedures we should follow. And then,” Ray sighed, “we met you for lunch.”
Ray seemed to be shell-shocked by all of this. Frankly, so was I. What had started out as an idea for a tax shelter had ended up with Ray proposing marriage to Alma. That same night Ray lay awake in his motel room, the motley whirl of his emotions depriving him of rest and causing him to vomit up all he ate. (He was unable to hold down anything solid for a week — “the perfect way to lose weight,” he said; “propose marriage.”) His decision baffled him. He lay in his bed contemplating the responsibility he was lifting onto his shoulders: closing on fifty, he would have a wife and three small children to look after. He got up and went into the bathroom and stared into the mirror at the youthful appearance that he had carried into middle age like a prized trophy. He touched the smooth face that he felt would soon be lined with care, and he thought of the new, young girls he would never know, of his prideful self-image of eternal youth. He tried, mightily, to fight back the tears, but — for the first time in decades, since his parents had died — he began to cry. In a few minutes he was sobbing like a child.
On Thursday Ray met Alma’s children (“Beautiful kids,” he said) and took Alma and her mother to dinner. This time he prevailed upon his good friend Rafael, a downtown curio shop owner, to accompany him in order to provide translations. There was, at first, a certain amount of strain. Alma still could not quite believe what was happening and probably expected Ray to disappear before her eyes at any minute. Nevertheless, she thought it fair to make one thing quite clear — namely, that she believed in “fifty-fifty”: she told Rafael to explain to Ray that she would be a wife but not a servant or a maid. Ray replied that he understood and agreed completely, but Rafael was flabbergasted. Nor could he believe his ears when Ray told Alma that he’d give her his paycheck every week, because he himself had no conception as to how to save or handle money. Rafael almost choked as he translated this, but Ray was trying to assure Alma that it would be an equal-partnership, American-style marriage, and that she would be treated properly.
“Ray is getting off on the wrong foot. I’ll tell you that,” Rafael told me a few weeks afterward. “He’s making mistakes right off — that’s bad.” Alma confided to me that while she liked Rafael, his “macho” attitude showed him to be a typical Mexican male. “They want the woman to be a slave, a servant to them, and to have no say in anything. They want to be married, or to live with a woman, give her children, and then run away and not support them. And even when they’re married, they want to have other women, too. They’re always looking for erotic adventures.” Alma shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, her eyes troubled. “I’ve lived in Mexico for twenty-seven years, and I have never met one married woman who was really happy. Not even one. The Mexican man, it’s in his culture, this Latin culture. They are brought up that way. Unless he’s out running around, making his wife unhappy, he doesn’t feel like a man.” Alma caught herself up; she seemed ashamed that she was talking so long and so forcefully. And then the smile. “I don’t like the macho man,” she concluded in English. (Alma, of course, knows nothing about Ray’s long-ago wedding-day disappearance, his courtroom damnation of the mother of his son, the glass-cage girls in Thailand, or any of the multitudinous exercises of his powerful libido. And in the telling of Ray’s story, I have disguised all of the names.)
For his part, Ray half expected, half wanted Alma to back out. I asked him if he loved her. “Love is different when you’re my age and when you're eighteen. It’s not the twisting and wrenching thing it was then. Let’s say that I’m very fond of Alma.” His genteel, almost antiquated choice of words contrasts sharply with the otherwise profane and working-class rhythm of his New England speech. “I’m really very fond of her. Let’s face it — I wasn’t going to that bar for a year and a half to talk to Freddy.”
Ray had phoned his news to his sister in Boston who had raised him and who was almost like a mother to him. “Ray,” she had soberly warned him, “this time don’t run away from responsibility, like you’ve done all your life. Don’t go and hurt another woman. If you walk out on this marriage, I mean it when I say I wouldn’t ever want to speak to you again.”
His niece in Los Angeles had.constantly chided him for his “selfishness,” for using women. She informed him that a year ago her psychic had predicted that her uncle would become seriously involved with a woman, but the niece was unconvinced: “You’ll hurt that girl, Ray. I know you, and I know you will.”
At the dinner, Alma’s mother was quiet for most of the evening. She’s a solid, rooted, and unassuming woman who had struggled to hold her family together. She finally spoke to Ray by way of Rafael. “I have prayed to God for many years that he would send a wonderful man to marry and take care of my beautiful daughter Alma, and now I think he has answered my prayers.” Ray told me that when he heard these words, he clearly perceived the closing circle of his freedom. First his sister, then his niece, and now God. Ray alluded several times to what the mother had said, almost fascinated, as if the words were a sentence from a divine court.
He was getting criticism from the other side, too. A female bartender friend of Denny’s, the exact opposite of Alma in all respects, got drunk and castigated Alma, and called Ray a “total idiot. . . . She just wants to use you to get into the United States, you damn fool.’’ Other of Ray’s friends were making bets as to whether he would actually go through with it. Ray was adamant, almost grimly so.
“I’ll kill myself before I hurt this girl,’’ he told me one day. “She just asked me again why I was doing it, and I told her, honestly, that she had been hurt enough by life, and 1 wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again. She cried again. Listen, if she changes her mind before the wedding, and who knows, maybe she will, at least I gave her that chance. I'd feel bad for a week, then I’d be back chasing after Lupe and Margarita. But if not. I’ll go through with it. Listen, Mike, I’ve had it all, the best-looking women, I’ve been all over the world, I’ve had a ball. Now I’ll do something for someone else, someone as decent as Alma.” Ray figured that sex would take care of itself. “Sure, I doubt if Alma’s going to be particularly passionate, and probably puritanical, but that’s okay. I won’t cheat on her, either.”
In the two-week wait before the marriage, Ray asked me numerous times if I thought Alma would change her mind. Maybe she really loved Freddy, maybe she'd be reluctant to leave Mexico, maybe. ... I told Ray to forget it, that she would very definitely not change her mind. “No chance, huh?” he’d laugh. I suggested that with his new family he ought to be thinking about getting a couple of part-time jobs in order to supplement his income. More laughter.
Ray also supposed that because of the age difference, one day Alma would probably want to leave him for a younger man, and he’d understand perfectly. “In ten years what’s an old man of sixty going to do with a relatively young woman still in her thirties?” Meanwhile, he would give her and the kids what I believe he conceived to be the great gift of American citizenship, complete with running water twenty-four hours a day.
A week before the wedding, Alma, Ray, and I went to dinner and I managed to speak to her alone for a few minutes. She told me that she was unconcerned about American citizenship. “I don’t care about it. If Raimundo wants me to be a citizen of his country, okay. All I want is for him to love and respect me, and to have a good, good marriage.”
Meanwhile, she had called Freddy on the phone and told him she was quitting, and why. Freddy was shocked; he felt betrayed. He went on a wild binge and five days later showed up at her house at two in the morning, drunk. He pleaded with her to return to work, and when his entreaties failed, he angrily informed her that neither Ray nor I was ever again welcome in his bar (he believed that 1 had translated Ray’s treachery). Denny saw him downtown one night and said he was muttering about the gringos who had ruined his business by stealing his star attraction. Denny also said that with Freddy constantly drunk, his bar was going to hell.
A few days before the scheduled wedding Freddy again came to Alma’s house, sober this time. He again offered to divorce his wife and marry her; this time, as a bonus, he would legally turn over half the ownership of the bar to her. Alma gently and regretfully told him that she did not want a man who drank as much as he did, not one who always wanted other women, as he did. Defeated, Freddy mumbled a wish for her happiness and slumped away.
The wedding took place in late August, in downtown San Diego at the county courthouse, the brief ceremony performed by the woman who runs the marriage license department. Alma’s mother and sister were there, as were some of Ray’s friends and relatives. Ted was there, too. He had earlier told Ray that he would very much like to live with the new family; if he lived alone somewhere, he said, he would almost certainly die very soon. Ray told him to consider himself a part of the family.
A reception for about twenty people was held at the Puerta del Sol Restaurant in Tijuana. The Americans,, for the most part, stayed on one side of the room, speaking English; the Mexicans, speaking Spanish, on the other side.
The newlyweds honeymooned for a week on Shelter Island. Because of a quirk in the immigration laws, Alma had to stay on one side of the border or the other after her marriage, for the four to six months it would take her to gain legal resident status. Ray assumed that Alma would choose to stay in Tijuana for this period, with her mother and children. He was going to buy her a car to get around in while she was waiting. (Alma planned to attend English classes.) During the honeymoon, though, she decided that the purchase of an automobile was an unnecessary expense. Then, too, according to Ray, with each passing day she was becoming more and more attached to him. She decided she would go to Los Angeles with her husband, save on the car purchase (so as to be that much closer to the purchase of a home), and learn fluent English more rapidly in Los Angeles. She’d miss her kids, of course, but her place, she felt, was with her man.
I had dinner with them in a Shelter Island restaurant the last night of the honeymoon. When Alma went to the restroom, Ray brought me up to date on a few matters, but only, he said, because I had been so close to the whole thing from the beginning; otherwise, he understood, a man should not talk of his wife like this to others.
Alma had told Ray that she loved him — did he love her? He had started to say, as usual, that he was very fond of her, but by now she had found out what “fond” meant and it wasn’t enough for her; if he didn’t love her, she would pack her things and return to Tijuana. Ray would protect the girl, as always. Yes, he told her, he loved her. She happily went about teaching him to say the words in Spanish.
Ray glanced at the restroom door to make sure Alma wasn’t on her way back. He smiled broadly, sheepishly. “One other thing — I was completely wrong! She is absolutely the most passionate woman I have ever known, and absolutely not faking it, either. I’ll have to slow the pace down or I’ll be dead in six months.” We laughed.
The newlyweds are now living in Ray’s apartment in Playa del Rey. The girls in Chapi’s wonder where he is. They ask Denny and me what happened to Ray, when is he coming back. The bartenders who received his generous tips wonder what happened to good old Ray. We tell them all, do Denny and I, that Ray is married, that he won’t be coming back to Sixth Street, and they stare at us silently, disbelieving. But those who know both Ray and Alma, we believe. We don’t think we’ll be seeing Ray quaffing Cartas in downtown Tijuana again, keeping his eyes alert for that one special girl who will excite his imagination.