Tuesday, August 9, 2011

And God Created Border Towns

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.)


editor said...

Not a jai alai story, but a Mexican story. A sport for strong men. A Pancho Villa story:

"Athletics was an important part of Villa's life; he wore tennis shoes and white pants when he exercised. At Canutillo he engaged in jogging as well as in the sport of rebote, a game much like modern racquetball. (The old stone rebote court today stands in a pig pen on the west side of Canutillo village. It should be protected and preserved as a historical monument by the state of Durango.) One of his rebote partners, a teacher named Rodolfo Rodriguez Escalera, during a 1981 interview with Professor Ignacio Sanchez Arriola of Mexico City, remembered:

"Look, one time we were playing and it was my turn to serve against Villa. At the moment of service he stepped in the line of fire and I grazed his arm. I was very scared . . . so I apologized. He said, 'No professor: play, play, play. This is a game for strong men.' So we continued as if nothing had happened."

It's sad to see the world being drained of color. Glad some of us are fighting the rear guard action.

Everything's gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez...

Anonymous said...

Hi. Are you saying Tom's written a song about the Pancho Villa raid on Columbus? I'll look forward to hearing it, if so. If not, it would make a great song, but more in line with some of your earlier ones. A lady friend who goes to your performances when you visit KC [I introduced her to your records in the 1990s] said she'd requested "What Do You Want From Me?" and you replied you couldn't remember it. Possibly my favorite of your songs, along with Crop Duster, Saint Olaf's Gate and several others, I suppose.

Incidently, she gave you a book I wrote about the Lost Adams Diggings at one of your performances a few years ago. Likely you never read it.

I'd like to think you did though, because you've given me a lot of pleasure these several decades and it would be nice thinking I reciprocated some tiny degree.

Thanks for sharing your music all these years.

Chas S. Clifton said...

I regret that I came along too late for abundant abalone steaks.

Anonymous said...

Just came across the lyrics to 'Tonight We Ride' on a websearch. Never heard that one but it covers the waterfront for Pancho Villa I reckons.

I was listening to Tom Russell and Patricia Hardin, The Early Years and heard Alkalia ... been there all the while but I guess I'd never wired to the lyrics before. Great song.

Anonymous said...

My Mom's baby sister, Aunt Betty (90) just gave me a menu from the Taxco Café in Mexicali from her time in the Marines during WW2. It's signed by Tyrone Power who was at a table nearby.

It advertises "Dining and Dancing in Luxurious Surroundings". Pancho's Special Cocktail was 35¢ (prices in US$).

I wanted to live her story. It seems those days were, even during a war, more comfortable. I suppose every generation finds something to dream in melancholy.

Thanks for the nice post.

She wants to sell her menu for fun because everyone else thinks it's just a piece of old paper and doesn't want her memories to die with her.

Not sure why I'm telling you this. My friend reminded me of your "Guadalupe" tonight - so I searched and look at how worlds collide - when they need to - how sweet.

susan Mordecai said...

Can we talk hurricanes, the whore Irene ripped me off, 3 walls now stand where there once was 4. I am writing to you from that little town in Vermont, Plymouth. A few years back you came to town on my invite and gave us your best, unlike that whore Irene, oh now, she left me wet, muddy, soiled and broke, not a cd left in what was once my home, here I am homeless, how I wish I could hear you sing Hurricane. If I had a hat I would pass it.
susan in plymouth, VT

Saddle Tramp said...


[ ... ] " and I was just a kid. I thought, ' Jiminy Cricket ' if I'm going to win the hand of this lady, I'd better get off to the War ". - Sterling Hayden ( in pursuit of Madeleine )

Indeed he did! Both!

Last Saturdays P.O. Box held the signed Mesabi Bundle.
Hard pressed to pick a favorite song. Equally hard pressed
to funnel it down to a run off of two, but if forced at gunpoint, they would be:

* Sterling Hayden
* Jai Alai

Pure Tom Russell.
Straight no chaser.

The DVD ' Don't Look Down '
My only complaint. Wish it were 4 times longer.
Maybe a DLD [ Part II ]

Today's P.O. Box found Yard Dog's shipment of the signed copy of ' blue horse red desert ' the book of Tom Russell art in it's hard shelled armor. Deserving protection for this beautiful book of so much more than just Tom's paintings and the paintings alone are worth the trip.
Much, much more. A must have!

And Dylan has painted himself across Asia and Brazil with a cockfight amongst 'em.
De Kooning is coming to life at MOMA.
Tom Russell leads nobody down a blind alley.

I'm runnin' that boder usually twice a week. Down through Yuma, Calexico El Centro and through the valley down along where the failed bones of those who did not make it are buried. Down through the Border Patrol Check Points
where they perform shake downs in the secondary inspections. Lots of bags of white powder on the hood. Scopes down into the gas tank. Crow bars ripping off quarter panels. Must be worth the risk to run the gauntlet. On up the hill from Ocotillo, climbing the mountain of boulders. Devil's Canyon. Heading to Otay Mesa & Calle de Linea where closeby they tunneled under that line. Up the 5 Freeway and catching a billboard revealing that Gordon Lightfoot is still out there playing the casinos. Wouldn't know him from the picture. Only one Gordon
Lightfoot though. Only one Tom Russell.
The real ones. The rare ones.

Take it in the eye. Take it in the ear. Tom pierces both on the way to the heart with truth and beauty. You cannot have one without the other.

tVIA: Raining in the Mojave. The road to Phoenix listening to Tom Russell ...