The Jai Alai fronton was a grand, arched-top, ivory adobe building which stood in the midst of 1950’s Tijuana. A piece of architectural folk art. An Aztec gaming palace. The building dominated the border scene, at least in my young kid’s eyes. And it continues to drift through my dreams. What in hell went on in there? A Basque game? A gambling sport? Were there whores in the cheap seats? Was Clark Gable in the front row? Sterling Hayden? The world’s fastest game. Jai Alai. Men with baskets on their arms, slinging hard pelota balls against stone walls. It was Mayan. Prehistoric.
I have a menu from the Jai Alai Café. It’s dated Saturday, May 10, 1952. It’s a beautiful, deco-designed cream-colored sheet of French paper, with a dark blue frame. The food list is bordered on four sides by artistic renderings of lobsters and sides of beef. Lobster was the specialty that night, and it came “fresh from the Blue Pacific.” Are there any lobsters left in the blue Pacific? Is the Pacific blue? There’s a small sidebar for the “magic chef broiler,” which produced “savory broiled steak and chops…a gourmet’s delight.”
Let’s look down the menu, past the lobster cocktail supreme, the cream of fresh mushroom soup, the homemade chicken mole (Puebla Style), the roast prime rib and Yorkshire biscuit, the “unjointed capon” with corn fritters and honey, the fried abalone steak, the “young venison steak au garniture,” and the two quails sautéed on toast. Personally I’m thrilled that the capon was unjointed. It probably made fine dining easier. All that twisting and turning of capon legs can be a bother – might interfere with the wine toasts and the placing of Jai Alai bets.
But wait. Let’s not ignore the coup de grace deserts: crème de menthe parfait and the camembert or Leiderkranz cheese. Ah, the hell with it, how about pineapple pie, or Italian Zabaione - an Italian custard desert made from egg yolks and sweet wine (Marsala or Proseco) whipped to perfection and served with figs. Haute Cuisine in Tijuana. The cracking of pelota balls on stone.
Finis. That border era has long vanished into years of blood and dread. Tijuana. Juarez. Nuevo Laredo. The mariachis have disappeared from the tourist market. The photo-man with the donkey painted like a zebra is gone. Gone with the abalone steak and unjointed capon and lobster from the blue Pacific. Gone with the cheapo divorces and thirty five cent margaritas. Dog tracks. Horse Tracks. Jai Alai frontons. History.
As Marlene Dietrich said to Orson Welles in Touch of Evil (the greatest of noir border flicks): “Your future is all used up…”
As world economies tilt, and the malicious carnival jive of partisan politics erodes reason, there’s a new economy of cash, guns and blood bartered for drugs. This economy flourishes. Across the borderline. The world’s fastest game. Bet on it.
(These themes are embodied in 3 new Mesabi songs: And God Created Bordertowns, Goodnight Juarez, Jai Alai…coming soon.)