I hop in the taxi at the Tijuana airport and tell the young driver where I am going in poorly pronounced Spanish. He nods, smirks—the look had a hint of mystery, evil or foreboding, but it could have been merely a smirk. I didn’t know how to interpret it—and tells me in Spanish-accented English his name is Jason, not a traditional Hispanic name. Suspicious, I check his license clipped to the passenger-side visor for verification. It identifies him as Eduardo Luis Suarez Mendoza, a name that I cannot connect to “Jason.” Am I safe with this guy? I wonder. But my fears are eased when he asks with concern, “You want that hotel, seňor? Tijuana have many nice hotels. Mexico have many nice hotels. That one ees…”
I interrupt Jason. “It’s OK,” I say with know-it-all arrogance, without hearing his warning. “It’s OK,” I repeat with less conviction, however, as the cab stops in what appears to be a seedy neighborhood. I pay him and, as I get out, notice the neon sign hanging off the building is missing some letters. “Hotel Medicra” it reads with several irregularly separated blank spaces. The drive-up and adjoining street are poorly illuminated as is the walkway to the hotel’s entrance. I stumble on a section of loose, poorly maintained cobblestones, but do not fall. I enter the dimly lit hotel lobby and approach the front counter. The receptionist, a young woman with hybrid features that meld Mexico with Japan, Thailand, or possibly Iran, looks up and beams that public relations smile one learns in Intro to Front Desk 101 at the University of Hotel and Restaurant College.
In Spanish I say, “I have a…” and my mind goes blank. I can’t for the life of me remember the word for “reservation.” I think it starts with an “A.” Panicked, I stare at the receptionist for help. She continues beaming that PR smile. My eyes lock on the pin on her left breast. It says “Leticia.” Oh, her name is Leticia, I think. Then I realize it might be the name of the pin. Or the breast. Her name could be Ichiko for all I know.
I try again. In Spanish. “Tengo una…abuela. No. Abarrote. No. Abrogado.” Leticia, or Ichiko, looks at me with confusion.
¿Tiene usted una reservación? she asks as a scrawny street dog so unkempt its breed is unidentifiable runs past me.
“Reservación? Sí.” The word is reservación? Why’d I think it started with an “A”? “Mi nombre es Hugh McLaughlin.”
“Ah. Sí. Hola, Seňor…Magal…” she says, her voice trailing off, unable to repeat my last name. She turns to a computer and types. “Aqui,” she says after a moment. “Hoog Magalahoofleen. Bienvenitos a Hotel Mediocridad.”
¿Habla usted inglés?” I ask with hope.
“No. Hablo espaňol y hindi.”
Hindi? Really? I think. Hindi? Oh, that’ll be a big help. I spy a meandering crack on the wall across from me that resembles the route of the Ganges River. Leticia continues typing and pulls a form from a stack. I think to myself, You need to speak English, Leticia. You’re in Mexico. Americans are running to Mexico like rats escaping a sinking ship. I drum my fingers on the counter. Hindi? How the hell are we gonna get through this registration crap with my poor Spanish and your…Hindi?
But we did.
A rickety old man with a left breast named Javier appears at my side and picks up my light carry-on bag as if I couldn’t lift it myself. He could be 80, maybe more. Hey, I think, I got it here from the airport. I probably can get it to my room without developing a hernia or hemorrhoids. Probably could do it easier than you. I pause in reflection. Oh. That was rude. You still work because you have to. You live off propinas.
Leticia hands the past-his-prime bellman an old-fashioned hotel room key. He says something which I think means “Follow me,” but could be “Thank you, Ichiko” or “My other breast is named Ernesto.” I begin following him through the lobby and within a step or two realize the carpet is threadbare and the furniture features rips, stains, and burn marks. He leads me toward the elevator which has a handwritten sign on its door. It says “Fuera de Servicio,” Spanish for “Out of Order.” I am not certain the sign is referring to the elevator, the hotel in general, or the man with breasts possibly named Javier and Ernesto. We pass the elevator, step into a narrow stairwell, and we begin the climb to the third floor. Immediately, however, I smell urine, stray street dog urine. It fills the passageway, trapped like the stench of a high school jock’s gym locker. And, because of Javier’s age and deteriorating physical condition, it takes a while to reach our destination and relatively fresh air.
We arrive at the hotel room. The door is covered in elderly blistered paint. Javier opens it. A sudden splash of cold air greets me. At least, I think, it doesn’t smell like a gender-neutral canine baňo público. The gust of cold air is accompanied by a loud painful sound. It is reminiscent of Jack Lemmon’s Felix Unger’s sinus condition snorts in The Odd Couple. It is the air conditioner.
“A/C is good. Berry good,” my guide says.
“Could you turn it off, please?” I shiver.
“No turn off. Broked.”
“Sí. Broken. Dos aňos. Two years.”
Then, as if this level of disrepair is routine, he leads me into the room and sets my bag on a worn area of the carpet. “Here television,” he says, as he hands me the remote. “Baňo,” he adds as he points to the bathroom. I think I see icicles on the mirror. He steps toward the front door and turns toward me. He seems a bit impatient and distracted, but smiles.
My teeth are chattering. I look at him, then at the shrieking air conditioner. ¿Esto es normal?
“Sí, he is normal.”
This is not gonna work, I think. I, however, glimpse my watch and realize I don’t have time to find another hotel. I should have listened to that nice cab driver. But, I rationalize, it is only for one night. I’ll make it work. “OK,” I mutter with defeat and hand him ten pesos. He departs after a hurried “Gracias.” As he shuts the door, the rattling, whining sounds of the faulty air conditioner amp up. I probably should have researched this place, I reprimand myself, and not trusted that guy’s suggestion. After all, I hardly know him. But I thought “Mediocridad” was the name of an elegant city in Spain or Colombia.
I take the TV remote and turn on the archaic box-shaped television hoping to drown out the irritating noise. I channel surf through 36 channels, only two of which are in English. They are Fox News and one with which I was unfamiliar, a network airing only Jamaican-made films. It is called Cine-Mon. I shut off the TV.
I take my laptop from my backpack, set it on the desk, and turn it on. I pull out from under the desk the mismatched bench and realize it is not nearly high enough to be an effective seat for the tall desk. I open a desk drawer looking for a Gideon Bible to sit on. Instead I find a set of telephone books, both White and Yellow Pages. From 1996. From Chicago.
As my laptop is warming up, I turn around and study my bed. It is a queen-size with two large pillows. Covering the bed is a shabby pink chenille bedspread. On top of the cover, leaning against the lumpy, large mound of pillow, are three small brightly-sequined decorator pillows. One has no tears. But it has sections of missing sequins. A silky pea green runner with lemon yellow tassels stretches across the foot of the bed.
I hate runners on hotel beds. What is that ugly thing’s purpose? I wonder and snatch it off the bed with anger and throw it in the corner. Removing it exposes a stain the size of the Oklahoma panhandle. I sigh. Then I shiver. I step to the corner, pick up the useless runner and begrudgingly wrap it around myself like a shawl. The air conditioner laughs.
I sit on the stack of phone books and log on to my computer. Frost has formed on the screen. The only thing I can see is the time in the bottom right corner. It reads “7:57.”
“Shit,” I gasp. “Already.” I am to meet my Grindr date in the lobby at 8:00. The handsome 25- year-old named Pedro said he’d be wearing a light blue tee-shirt with “Tijuana” across the chest. I’m excited. I have never used an online dating service before, especially a sex-guaranteed sleazy one, and I haven’t been with a 25-year-old in 35 years. I dash into the bathroom, brush my teeth, and bolt out of the hotel room.
As I reach the bottom of the three flights of stairs, panting from the last minute rush, I spot, in the dimly lit lobby, a man in a light blue tee-shirt. He has his back to me. He turns. He looks at me with a smile of expectation. It is Javier. His expression morphs from smile to immediate disappointment as he realizes I, too, am not the handsome 25-year-old I had presented myself to be on Grindr.