It's been a month since I got a part-time retail job at Sport Zone on Coronado Avenue in Chula Vista. The job is five miles away from my apartment, but sometimes it takes me up to three hours or more to get there.
My morning commute is a colorful one. Not one of bright colors, but of dark tones. I have to cross from the western edge of Zona Norte to the border entry in San Ysidro. The first couple of blocks are tranquil — houses that look like heroin dens have no activity in the early morning.
Activity starts past La Burbuja laundromat and a hotel that claims to be family-friendly. Transsexual prostitutes are already looking for customers at 7 a.m. In the next couple of blocks I have to worry about not stepping on a used needle, which can sometimes be noticed on every other corner.
The heart of Zona Norte remains the same as it is at all hours — prostitutes and drunks on the streets, bars blasting music and inviting people in. Dawn does not affect them. The stench of deep-fried chicken stings the nostrils while people eat their dinner/breakfast.
It might sound like I am the only one trekking through this gruesome land, but schoolboys and workers of all ages are walking by.
After crossing Puente Mexico I arrive at the border, the wait at which is always unpredictable. On my second day on the job, I was 45 minutes late, though I started my commute three hours before my shift. After being late for work, I prepared to get to the border even earlier; I've been more than an hour early for work because sometimes there is little to no wait to cross.
"I cut every time I cross," says David Villegas, a 24-year-old who has been crossing the pedestrian path to his job in Plaza de las Americas for six years. "When you cross every day you recognize other people that are in your same situation and sometimes they let you cut, sometimes you let them cut you. I don't even have a passport; I cross with my birth certificate and my City College ID. And, hot girls, oh they love to cut, no one says anything to a hot girl, so they usually just walk up to the front and they let them in."
He shows me his certificate, which is held together by tape and an ID from a college he no longer attends. Villegas, like many others in Tijuana, was born in San Diego and has gone back and forth between each country all his life. I see many people cut in front of me daily. My friend Paco is the same way. He has other tricks to get to the front of the line unnoticed.
The border line functions like a community: most people are going to work and have met each other before. Those with luggage or heavy bags are the tourists who get lost in the mystery of the unmarked lines. I find it really tough to cut in line. I only do it if I see a familiar face on my way to the back of the line, and even then I feel guilty, but nothing happens. I don't get kicked out or get an infraction, just a guilty conscience and people murmuring under their breath, "Another asshole who cuts." People sometimes get kicked to the back of the line by cops, but instead of going back, they just cut again a few minutes later.
Customs and Border Protection reputedly got a new manager a month ago — that's the word among those who cross frequently. Now, instead of letting everyone in slowly and keeping the line intact, they admit people in groups of 50, making the line seem longer than it is. Once inside the building, it looks like Black Friday as people rush to be the first to cross. The once free-flowing pedestrian Ready Lane, which opened in July of last year, now takes as much time as the general line.
When I got hired for the Sports Zone job, the person in charge of the interview seemed concerned about me living in Tijuana. "The line is unpredictable,” they told me. “I feel like you are going to be coming to work late every day." Because of that, I thought I wasn't going to get the job. Turned out that all my coworkers live in Tijuana, and they live farther away from the border than I do. One of them lives in Rosarito; he has to wake up at 6 a.m. to make his 11 a.m. shift. The rest live almost equally as far away.
About the job, I can't complain. There were many applicants wanting this simple retail job. Next thing for me is to get SENTRI or Global Entry pass so the border line is erased from my daily commute.