This is a true story. All events are as they happened, and the characters are real. I recognized it at the time—something incredible was taking place—and this something presaged a supernatural purpose. In the space of five and a half weeks, “just wanting to fit in” evolved into having beers with El Chapo. I kept records, notes, and photographs, but was afraid to share much until the various statutes of limitations had expired. A wife and two impressionable children came along in the interim—and this story remained hidden away, lest they discover what a shit I’d been in my twenties. Meanwhile, the legacy of our misdeeds overtook us each in turn, and one by one, those scores were settled.
Buckle up and hang on. You’ll be “riding shotgun.”
Chapter 1: Nineteen surfers. Fourteen apartments. One old building at the beach
· “Heartbreak Hotel,” “The Crib,” “Stud Estates” aka “The Manor”
It sucks being a wannabe. Forever on the outside, looking in. I grew up an introverted nerd (even my teachers called me “Poindexter”) and was desperate to escape the cruelty of my self-imposed exile. No amount of alcohol, drugs, or profanity seemed to crack the mystery of the “cool quotient.” Even now, despite being a fixture in “The Manor” the last two years and investing endless hours in the surf every day, I still was considered more of a hanger-on than a resident. Truly earning your bona fides—and being accepted as belonging in the building—was reserved for those who had surfed Mexico. Baja didn’t qualify. I’m talking Mainland, the farther south the better. There were two classes of residents: Those who had surfed mainland Mexico, and those who wanted to. It was the surf culture’s version of sporting a letterman’s jacket on campus. People looked up to them. Paddling out with one was akin to an apprentice shadowing a journeyman. In the surfer’s pecking order, known as the “line up,” the rest of us deferred prime position to them. They got all the best waves—and all the cutest girls. Man, they were cool. I wanted to be “in” in the worst way, and I figured this was my ticket.
Over the past few days, a tangible buzz had energized the building. “Moose” and “Jelly” were preparing for a trip to the mainland. Yeah, we all had nicknames. Not like “Moon Doggie” or “Gidget.” Those are lame. Our names were cool … except maybe for mine. Early on, I was tagged with “Paul E. Opters,” and it stuck. I suspect it was because I was seen as “helicoptering around” the upper-tier residents too often to be cool. Still, it was better than my neighbor’s moniker. The morning he was christened “Stinky Feet,” his given name, “John,” was retired forever.
Moose had been to the mainland. Hell, he’d been everywhere. He was so cool, he’d even been in jail a few times; mostly drug stuff, as far as I knew. Jelly hadn’t been. To the mainland, I mean; not jail. Even so, he must have earned his credentials some other way. Perhaps it was the overly confident façade, or the string of beautiful girls’ broken hearts he trailed. Either way, he qualified as a “big man on campus,” too.
They were each a few years older than my twenty-one. Moose was a master manipulator; I’m guessing it was his idea, and I was roped in from the beginning. They let me overhear them planning their trip, knowing I’d do just about anything to be included. Turns out, neither of them had a vehicle that would make the trip. (I learned later, they’d tried the same ruse on everyone else in The Manor who owned a vehicle that would suffice, and I literally was the last viable option in the building.) They played me like pros. I assured them my 1966 VW Bus was perfect for the trip. It had a killer stereo with six speakers, twin amplifiers, and a subwoofer powerful enough to make silverware dance on the flip-up table that held my stove. I’d harvested the chilly-bin portion of an old mini-fridge and modified it as a hidden icebox under the custom-made full-size bed. My Bus was so cool, it even had a name and custom license plate: 1DRBUS, aka “The Wonderbus.” Too naive to realize I was being used as a convenient tool, I laid it on thick—a car salesman, hungry to make quota, couldn’t have been more persuasive, nor been more stoked when the sale was closed. Not only was I being included on the trip, it was my Bus that was making it possible! If this didn’t garner me top-tier status, it was beyond my reach.
A few not-so-minor details of the trip began to filter out. It was to be a two-month surfin’ safari, plunging nearly two thousand miles into the rugged, coastal jungles of southern Mexico. I had a full-time job (and nowhere near the cash to cover such a trek), but backing out now would be coolicide. And that’s what gave rise to a Saturday night just like every other Saturday night.
Only completely fucking different.
· May I have your order, please?
I’d convinced my best friend, “Perro,” to be an accomplice. (Spanish for “dog,” his nickname had morphed over the years from “Horn-dog.” How he’d earned it, I’ll leave to your imagination.) He and I had been sworn enemies in middle school, where I was a year ahead of him by virtue of skipping the third grade. We met in first-period Woodshop. I was an eighth grader and the “shop aide” (read: “insufferable teacher’s pet”), and Perro was the consummate class clown. It was my job to make sure all of the hand tools were put away, machines cleaned of sawdust, and floors swept at the end of class—and it was left to me to assign those chores to the seventh graders. I took woodshop so seriously, I was an aide for first-period Beginning Shop, had Intermediate Woodshop for second period, and Advanced Woodshop for sixth period.
Up until that point, I’d little to no experience being in charge of anything, and Perro— boasting a lifelong track record of being a little shit—made my life miserable. I’d assign cleanup of the table saw to him and return to find its cutting surface newly elbow deep in sawdust, scrap, and cuttings, Perro sitting on top, cocking his index finger behind his thumb and placekicking one nugget at a time through some makeshift goalposts. Nothing could get him to take things seriously. That all changed one day in 1969, though, when he overheard me griping to another classmate that we were too poor to own a television, and I was going to have to watch the moon landing at a neighbor’s. Perro got up in my face and let me have it. “Hey! What do you know about being poor? Your family lives in those apartments with the pool, and you’re complaining about not having a TV? The whole time I was growing up, we lived in tents and moved all the time. My family went out and picked fruit every day. I thought we were camping! It wasn’t until last year my mom told me we were transient farmworkers when I was a kid. So shut the hell up! You have it made!”
It was at that moment Perro and I became blood brothers. I finally understood why he was so happy and carefree about everything. To him, he was living the dream: A house he could call home; parents he was fiercely proud of for what they’d accomplished; and friendships he was now safe to make, knowing they wouldn’t be cut short by the end of yet another harvest season.
Since then, we’d experienced a multitude of things together, but had our own unique perspectives on most everything growing up. He held his own with three older brothers who pummeled him frequently; and I had three sisters I wasn’t allowed to hit back. He was half a foot shorter than me when we met, but he shot up past me in high school before I passed him back the summer after graduation. He lived in the same house and school district for years. My family routinely wore the awkward badge of being evicted for nonpayment of rent and lived in eight different school districts during that same time. I became the one who couldn’t count on a friendship lasting beyond our next move. So, when it came time to try and pull off something that might prove to be life changing, Perro would be my partner in crime. I wanted to surf the mainland, and this was how I was going to get the cash: I would steal it. But not directly. That would’ve called for far bigger cojones than mine.
I ran the nightly restock crew, did some of the ordering, and had keys to the front door of a busy supermarket in Coronado “Island,” the next town north. Coronado isn’t an actual island—though the residents snobbishly consider themselves a prime-rib community. It’s bordered by water on three sides, and the Navy’s SEAL Team One base provides a formidable buffer from the hamburger hamlet of Imperial Beach to the south. (Even the federal government plays along, calling the navy base in Coronado, “North Island Naval Air Station.”) In my store, clearly the nicer of the two supermarkets in town, the aisles always were abuzz with activity, whether customers during the open hours or the restock crew at night. That is, except for three hours once each week, when it was stone-cold empty from 12:01 a.m. to 3 a.m. Sunday morning, when I showed up to let in the crew.
I’d worked out every detail and rehearsed it in my head a hundred times. The plan was to enter the store a little after midnight and have everything I intended to snag, sitting on the edge of the rear loading dock by 12:45. From there, Perro would dump it all into the back of his truck, and then drive the twelve miles south to our apartment. I figured I’d be there to help him carry the spoils up to our second-floor apartment and still have plenty of time to get back to the store to open up for the crew by 3.
I’d let my fellow Manorites know I’d be doing some “after-hours shopping,” and a steady parade of orders rolled in. To my surprise, even a couple of their moms stopped by with lists. (No wonder the building was chock-full of miscreant ne’er-do-wells!) I asked what they’d like, and we negotiated a price. An accidental stroke of genius, I was killing two birds with one stone: getting supplies for the trip, and financing my part of it.
The stockroom was always a mess. No one even noticed the pile I’d accumulated behind a bunch of back-to-school crap. I’d carefully engineered two pallet loads to resemble useless overstock by stacking cases around their perimeter—leaving a large void in the center of each, into which the smaller prizes could be dumped, helter-skelter. Four cycles of “overordering” provided ample cartons of products with which to construct the pallet walls, their foundations laid with 30 cases (that’s 2,160 cans!) of Chicken of the Sea “packed in oil” tuna (more than 1,400 of which were for Stinky Feet’s mom! In retrospect, I suspect she was filling orders for her friends as well. No one likes fish that much, do they?); 10 cases (240 jars!) of Jif Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter; enough Folgers Coffee to open a bistro—and beer. I wouldn’t be cool without snagging some beer … well, not just some beer, a lot of beer. In fact, it pretty much worked out to be one pallet of everything else—and one pallet of beer. I’d “shopped” during my regular shifts, depositing a can of this or package of that, until both pallets (and my neighbors’ orders) had been filled.
· Give me a sign
12:35 a.m. I’m alone in the store, heart pounding out of my chest, my mouth so dry I fear I’ll choke on my tongue, charging down the aisles, pushing one basket and pulling another, scooping up stuff like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. Why the panic? Once word of what I’d planned made the full circuit around The Manor, a flood of last-minute orders poured in for a bewildering mishmash of things. Could it be I’d oversold what I could deliver? Oh man! I was going to be soooo cool! … But only if I didn’t let anyone down.
I have to kick it up a notch. My list is long and I’m determined to fill it. Razors, batteries, sunscreen, a meat thermometer, beer, beef jerky, film, party napkins, candy, cigarette lighters, a dozen canned hams, more beer. ... I pile everything on top of the two already overloaded pallets, grab the pallet jack handle, and muscle the first ridiculously heavy and teetering load to the roll-up door. 12:42. Good. Three minutes early! I should wait to open the door. Don’t mess with the plan. I double-check the time. Still 12:42. An alligator drop of sweat splats across my watch. Shimmering beads of perspiration trace my feet on the stockroom floor. How can my mouth be so dry and my skin so wet? Damn, it’s quiet. I don’t remember the fluorescent lights humming before. Check my watch again. 12:43. You’ve got to be kidding me. One minute? One lousy minute? What am I thinking? This whole stunt is nuts. Actually, it’s not too late to wise up. I haven’t broken any laws yet, have I? What a drag to get caught. But a bigger drag to put all this crap back! And the cool factor. The Mex. trip. I gotta do it; and do it now before I lose my nerve. Time? 12:44. Screw the time, I’m raising the door.
Perro sits behind the wheel of his pickup truck parked across the street, precisely according to plan. No turning back now. I drag the first pallet, spin it 180 degrees, and maneuver it into place—partially overhanging the edge of the loading dock—before squeezing the pallet jack handle as gently and precisely as I can, releasing its hydraulic fluid with a muted squeal and easing it down. It’ll be easier to dump its load into Perro’s truck that way. Part of the pallet unsupported, its wood creaks, pops, and groans under the load, threatening to fail. The clattering of the pallet jack, as I yank it free, screams through the still night air. There's a row of tidy little, white clapboard beach cottages across the street. Someone’s bound to complain. Six days a week they have to listen to this racket, and I’m ripping ’em off of their one night of peace. I spin the jack into position and ram it home under the second pallet. Wham! Wham! Wham! Wham! There’s just no quiet way to do it. How ironic will it be to get busted on a disturbing the peace call? This one’s mostly beer. Is the law harsher for stealing beer than it is for tuna fish and peanut butter? Again, the pallet so heavy it’s lurching and weaving like it’s got a buzz on. Easy does it. I pivot the load a little too quickly and panic-scramble around the left side to keep an ominously leaning wall of beer from falling. God, my hands are shaking! I withdraw the jack and flash a thumbs-up to Perro. He nods and drops a left-handed salute in return. I lower and latch the door. 12:50. Five more minutes, and Perro will have our booty on the road. It’s my plan, and it’s working perfectly.
Something doesn’t feel right as I lock the front door of the dimly lit supermarket and cross the empty parking lot. My part done, I was to leave the store, head back to our apartment, and wait for Perro. But something is off. I can taste it. Rather than drive off right away, I sit in the 1DRBUS, staring at the store, and fumbling with my keys, consumed by indecision. My formerly white T-shirt, now translucent and pasted to my chest with sweat, revealed my surfer’s tan. I’d drilled Perro too many times to count. “Stay with the plan, don’t change a thing,” I’d repeated. Was I above my own rule? Since it was my plan, wasn’t it also my call to stray a little from it now? Was I just freaking out, or was this a moment of clarity? 1:02. Twelve minutes now since I’d signaled Perro and lowered the roll-up door. He should be done loading and on his way south. Would it hurt to double-check? It was totally against the plan—but I couldn’t not do it. I had to check on Perro. Out of the lot; into the street; turn the corner and … I can’t freakin’ believe my eyes! His truck hasn’t moved from across the street! Our two pallets of loot sit untouched, spotlighted by the loading dock lights like the stars in a Broadway freakin’ musical! Panicked, I pull alongside Perro. He’s loaded, alright! Face into his shoulder, arm draped out the window, out cold! He hadn’t signaled me at all! I’d watched him pass out!
He snorts and awakens with a start. His eyes drift gradually back into alignment. “Wha …? It’s okay, I’m awake! Oh fuck! Look at all that shit!”
I’m practically apoplectic. We’re fifteen minutes late already. The plan is out the window. “Get everything into your truck as fast as you can! I’ll go around the block and check for cops. I’ll be back in a couple minutes and follow you home.”
The neighborhood around the store is deserted tonight. No cars. No cops. No one at all. There must be something going on across town. This is much too quiet. So be it. Maybe karma is smiling upon us after all, I think as I pull back around to check on Perro again. Holy shit! I’ve badly overestimated how much will fit into the back of his truck! Perro’s in the loading bay alongside his truck, floundering shin-deep in cans and packages, working to keep even more of them from spilling over the side—and losing the battle. How’d I fuck this up? Do cases of stuff expand when they’re dumped into a truck and not stacked? Did I forget to allow for the wheel wells? The heap dwarfs the eight-foot bed of his truck. Shit, it’s piled higher than the cab in places! Perro spots me, just as a sixty-four-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch tumbles free and bangs loudly off the side of his truck on its way to the pavement.
“GODDAMMIT, Opters! How the fuck am I supposed to fit all this shit in my truck?” Perro demands in a drunkenly loud voice.
I sound hoarse and barely can manage a loud whisper. Throat so dry, I gag on my words, unable to complete a sentence without forcing a swallow every few syllables. “Fuck that! … We’re way late! … C’mon…! We gotta go…!”
· Hansel and Gretel
Perro fires up his truck and eases it slowly up and out of the loading area. A heavy-duty, full-size, three-quarter-ton, lifted, four-wheel-drive, Ford F-250XL pickup truck; it’s odd to see it so obviously overloaded and canted rearward. Reaching ground level, Perro rolls the truck gingerly over the little hump where ramp meets sidewalk. Despite the abundance of caution, a dozen or so cans and several jars of peanut butter break loose, tumble down from the mountainous load, and crash to the ground. The sound is that of a baseball bat whacking a piñata filled with Mason jars. Perro slows to a crawl, looks back at me wide-eyed, and shakes his head. Too rattled to think it’s funny, I mouth a silent, “Go! Go! Go!” in return.
We are such a bust.
Not only do we have a truck piled high with stolen beer and groceries, we’re littering and disturbing the peace. All this, as we drive through Coronado, California—quite possibly the most uptight coastal town in the country—at 1:20 a.m., on a Saturday night in the summertime. A staunchly conservative community, the city combats crime and homelessness by promptly driving any sketchy characters over the bay via the eleven-thousand-foot San Diego–Coronado Bridge and depositing them, now safely out of their sight, in downtown San Diego. Coronado routinely leads the nation in traffic citations and DUI arrests per capita. They don’t have a use for pink-flamingo yard ornaments. On any given night, cops have people standing on one leg all over town, and the lawn jockeys may as well be offering up a pair of handcuffs.
Perro must be sobering up. He’s following the route through town I worked out to avoid the main streets—and hopefully the cops. It’s a backstreet that cuts straight across the island, but everyone hates it because of the ridiculously exaggerated dips at each intersection.
Possibly underestimating the weight of the load, or forgetting just how severe these dips are, Perro roller-coasters through the first intersection. A split second after the truck bottoms out, thousands of cans, jars, and packages levitate in unison. Up and over the two-lane hump. Repeat. Oh, the humanity! Cans and jars bail overboard from three sides, skipping and skittering wildly in every direction. A canned ham cannonballs into a parked car, leaving behind a crisp horseshoe-shape imprint on the driver’s door; a gooey sneeze of ham juice graces its window. Obscene smears of broken-glass-festooned peanut butter trail the truck. A school of tuna cans machinegun a trio of shiny metal trash cans curbside. Across the street, a car alarm’s flashing lights and blaring horn heralds our passing. Beers are bursting everywhere in my path—geysers of yellow suds fill the air, conjuring visions of being shelled by some unseen prohibitionist. My windshield wipers on now, the air reeks of a bad frat party.
With a newfound respect for the dips, Perro slows to walking speed through the next eight or ten intersections. Nevertheless, the load continues to shiver and nest, in a packaged-goods game of musical chairs. Nonconforming cans and jars continue their migration toward the sides of the truck’s bed, only to plunge as lemmings to their death. We’re almost through town and make the turn past the Navy’s S.E.A.L. Team One Training Base. At last we can accelerate to highway speed. We pass the base’s main gate guard shack. Right on cue, the flap on a twelve pack of beers, perched atop the tailgate, pops open, and a volley of cans drops in sequence, like depth charges rolling off the stern of a destroyer hunting an enemy submarine. I watch one of the military sentries point us out to the other.
WE ARE SUCH A BUST!
The next five or six miles take us along the narrow isthmus of sand that separates San Diego’s bay from the Pacific Ocean. It’s a dark and desolate stretch, and the police have better things to do on a Saturday night than patrol it. Temporarily free of immediate peril, I notice Perro’s right taillight is out. Un-freakin’-believable. Another sixty-four-ounce can of Hawaiian Punch leaves his truck and bangs hard against the underside of the 1DRBUS, the sharp blow resonating into my feet. Surely by now, someone is hot on the trail of groceries and beer we’ve left in our wake. Every ruptured can-splat on the pavement paints an unmistakable arrow to the scene of the crime. We’re a modern-day Hansel and Gretel, leading anyone who cares to notice right to our door. At minimum, they’ll know we left town headed south toward Imperial Beach, because we’re marking our route along the only road that goes there. Worse, there’s not another car on the road to dilute the odds of our being identified as the perps.
· Sacrificial van
One more bend in the road, less than a mile to go. I can’t believe we’re going to get away with this! Perro drifts onto the shoulder for a few seconds before he catches himself and corrects. The minor swerve kicks up a cloud of dust and sends another medley of merchandise over the side, further reducing our bounty. Something catches my eye in the darkness up ahead, and I strain to make it out. SHIT! It’s a Coronado Police car! In two years, I’ve never seen a cop tucked into that spot at night! Daytime, yes. It’s a notorious hiding place for a speed-trap cop during the day. But now? I spy his little red radar-gun light pointing at us as we pass, and quickly check our speed. Fifty-eight miles an hour. Good.
Oh shit! His lights just came on and he’s pulling onto the highway behind me. Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit! He pulls up to within a couple of car lengths behind me. I don’t think Perro’s even noticed him yet. I have to think. I don’t want to go to jail. I can’t go to jail! What was I thinking!? This was so stupid! Okay, gotta think. ... I have an idea. If I crash, he’ll have to stop and see if I’m okay, and Perro can escape home. What if Perro doesn’t realize I’ve crashed on purpose, and he stops, too? That would suck. Sacrifice myself for Perro, and have it be for nothing. I gotta do it. We can’t both go down. I’d rather go to the hospital than to jail. … I think. Yes. That’s it. I’ll veer off to the right if the cop makes a move on us. I wonder if he’ll think I’ve been drinking. My van reeks of beer. I’ll bet he can smell it from where he is. There’s no way he’s not going to pull me over. Another quarter mile and we’ll be out of Coronado. FUCK! His reds and blues just came on! I take a deep breath and brace for the impending crash. The cruiser whips around to my left so fast I lose sight of him for a split-second and hesitate. He’s past me in a blur, flying up the left lane toward Perro. Did I just chicken out? Everything is happening so fast, I’m confused for a second. Okay, I can still crash when he pulls in behind Perro. He’ll have to stop, … right? I mean, he wouldn’t just leave a burning wreckage in his rearview mirror to pursue some guy littering, … would he?
Once more, I gird myself for impact. One, two, thr… Wait! He just blew past Perro, too!!! The cop flies up the road another hundred yards, whips a U-turn, and zooms off northbound— siren on, reds and blues strobing all the while. He’s responding to a call from back in Coronado! Oh my God! I wonder if he got summoned to go investigate a bunch of cans in the road? I think I just wet my pants. Who would notice? I’m soaked in sweat, but breathing. The gods are smiling. We’ve made it back to our own neighborhood.
They call our town, Imperial Beach, a quaint little coastal cul-de-sac, officially famous for being the “Most Southwesterly City in the Continental United States.” Big-Freakin’-Deal. IB’s true claim to fame is as the original “Meth Capital of the U.S.” We referred to it with mock affection as, “Venereal Beach, Where the Debris Meets the Sea.” Our cops were Barney Fyfe clones; Hells Angels the authority figures.
We were home free.