A Laugh Threatening Situation
Chapter 3 – Hola Muerto Su Nombre es Autobús
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Most parents fight over who gets the kids during a divorce. My parents let me choose.
Stay in Bumfuk with Dad or go to Mexico City with Mom?
I was only nine years old and it took me exactly .001 seconds to decide to go to Mexico. A decision that had nothing to do with my Mom or Dad and everything to do with the fact that Mexico was not Bumfuk.
I think both my parents wished I’d chosen differently, but they’d decided to let me decide, and to their credit, they honored my decision.
So it was that a few weeks later I found myself running loose with the locals in the Distrito Federal de la Ciudad de México.
Before we left, my parents were afraid that I’d struggle to fit in, especially since the only Spanish I could speak was “hola” and “adios.” But for me, after years of not fitting in at all, I was finally so different, being the lone Gringo in my school, that most of the other kids were curious about me, and generally welcoming and friendly.
Except for one time when some kids tried to set me on fire. But they were just kidding. I think.
And that other time when they convinced me to throw water balloons at the heavily armed school guards.1They had AK-47s, so this was a very bold move, but it was a hot day and they laughed it off.
Or that other time when I asked the kid next to me how to say “May I please be excused from class to use the bathroom?” in Spanish.
He whispered the words to me, and I repeated them out loud in front of the whole class. Perfectly.
“Profesora eres una gran puta gorda?”
Which, if you no hablo Espanol, means I asked the teacher if she was a big fat whore.
This got a lot of laughs from everyone but my Maestra who immediately had me expelled. I was sent home crying without knowing what I’d said or done.
And without a chance to use el baño.
I tried explaining what happened to my stepdad and he just could not believe they’d kick me out of school for something so innocuous as interrupting class to ask to use el baño.
We discussed what happened over and over until he asked me to repeat the exact words I used. I’ll never forget his face when the peso dropped.
Despite the hijinks, this was one of the greatest and most influential periods of my life. And it wasn’t all mischief and mayhem. Much of who I am today is in some way influenced by this period of my life.
Mexico is where first I learned girls liked me.
In fact, it’s where I met my first girlfriend. My parents used to send me on grocery runs to the Commercial Mexicana, a giant supermercado about a 15-minute walk from our house. After I had picked out all the items on their list, the deal was I could spend any leftover dinero on things I wanted. This typically included sweet treats from the bakery and Tikal chocolate bars.
And it was in the candy section that a much older señorita (she was 11) asked me if I would be her boyfriend. I said “si” and we kissed in between the aisles. I was a lot more excited about going for groceries after that. I looked for her on all my subsequent shopping trips, but I never saw her again. I’m still working through the resultant trust issues.
Mexico was where I first knocked someone out with a single punch.
Family friends from the US came down to stay with us for a few weeks, and they had two daughters, one of them my age. We fought constantly. We were driving the adults crazy and, in a desperate attempt to stop the bickering, they came up with the brilliant idea of setting up a boxing match in the living room so that we could settle our differences once and for all.
We faced off, someone tapped a fork against a glass, and it was on. I took a swing and the next thing I knew she was face down on the carpet and not moving. I thought I’d killed her and started to cry. When she eventually came to, we never fought again. So, our parents’ plan worked, in spite of its absurdity. And I’ve mostly avoided coming to fisticuffs with anyone ever since.
And Mexico was where I first learned I could learn hard things.
Like multiplication. I was never great at math and for me, mastering the multiples up to 12 x 122144. was one of the hardest challenges of my young life. All I really wanted to think about was soccer. But one day I accidentally kicked my ball over a wall that was covered with shards of broken glass, never to be seen again.
The adults said the only way to get a new one was by memorizing some math. Flipping flashcards became my new after-school activity. Pop quizzes became routine. And finally, I got them down. Rewards for achieving goals are still a part of how I get things done. And I have not lost a soccer ball since.
It was a wonderful time. I was just nine years old and free to run around like a little Mexican bandito. And like any bandito, I needed accomplices, and I found mine in two brothers, twins, named David and Jorge.
David and Jorge didn’t go to my school, but they lived in my neighborhood. I don’t remember how we met, I just remember we became instant amigos. They showed me how to shoot a slingshot, sneak into the fenced-off soccer fields, and ride on the backs of buses for free.
They also helped me burn my face off. Anyone who knows me knows I love my hot sauce. And my zest for fiery foods began while carousing the markets with David and Jorge.
The chile vendors at the mercado would arrange their stalls so the peppers they sold went down the row increasing in heat from mild to deadly. David and Jorge would convince the women to give us free samples, and every weekend we’d munch whole chilies competing to see how far down the row of stalls we could get. The game ended when someone finally said “no mas.”
It was highly competitive and hard work, and I eventually beat the Mexicans at their own game, but not without consequences, and lots of tears and laughter.
But it wasn’t the hot peppers that nearly killed me. It was the city buses.
None of us had bicycles, so the way we got around was by jumping on the backs of buses. We’d wait for one to start pulling away and then run after it, hop up, jam our fingers into the engine bay vents, and cling on as we tried to find a place to stick our feet on the slippery sloped bumpers.
Catching a bus this way wasn’t an uncommon sight and while we did it for fun, we were often joined by other freeloaders who couldn’t afford a ticket.
The drivers usually knew we were there and would occasionally stop to chase us off. But we’d just jump right back on or wait for another smoke belcher to come along and take us where we wanted to go.
Sometimes the metal engine vents would be burning hot, or smeared with grease (intentionally, as a deterrent) or covered by remnants of an old advertisement and we’d slip off, running hard to avoid a faceplant. But most of the time it was pure adventure.
And oh so dangerous. I can calculate at least three likely ways we could have died.
- Inhaling leaded fuel exhaust fumes (slow death)
- Falling off and cracking our skulls or getting run over (quick death)
- Ending up in a bad barrio and being cooked into carne asada when your Mom doesn’t pay the ransom. (delicious death)
These days, in the age of helicopter parents, the idea of letting a nine-year-old boy loose in Mexico City seems scandalous and estupido.
Yet, somehow, I survived, with a taste for fiery chilies, a fondness for the scent of leaded gas, and a much improved Spanish vocabulary.
Gracias a Dios.
Life Pro Tips
- The seeds are the hottest part of any chile pepper. If you want to increase your chances of survival, decrease the amount of seeds.
- Chicharones are crunchy and delicious. They are also made from fried pig skin. If you’re cool with that, fine. But you deserve to know.
- Don’t jump on the back of a moving bus.
- 1They had AK-47s, so this was a very bold move, but it was a hot day and they laughed it off.