There was a time when I used to cross the bridge into Mexico frequently. I could park my car near the bridge, get out and walk across into Mexico, paying the small fee to enter the country and then enjoy a few hours of the carnival atmosphere the border town version of Mexico had to offer to anyone who had a quarter and a couple of hours to spare.
Juarez is certainly a part of Mexico, but it is not typical of the whole country—at least the half-mile wide strip of restaurants, bars, and shops located close to the two bridges connecting El Paso to Juarez isn't. Those places were designed for tourists, and are about as indicative of what the rest of Mexico is like as the Strip in Las Vegas is of the rest of America.
While Juarez might not be like my favorite places in Mexico—which are Zacatecas and Puebla—it is still a good place for an inexpensive meal, cheap drinks, and some interesting shopping. I still keep a few Mexican blankets in my truck, and I have no idea how many bottles of Kahlua and tequila I have brought back over the years. I enjoy walking through the mercado, and sampling the food.
My favorite store in Juarez is a boot shop about half a mile from the bridge, where I have purchased custom boots for over forty years. You go in the small dimly-lit shop—it's about ten feet wide and thirty feet deep—and carefully check out a few examples of boots sitting on a rack along one wall. The whole shop smells of oiled, worked leather, and you can see the men in the back of the shop working by hand, shaping the leather into boots, using ancient tools.
To buy a pair of custom boots, you select the kind of leather, the color, the type of sole and heel, the stitching, and so forth. In my case, I always requested a pocket inside the left shaft—an option that cost an additional $4. And being a little clumsy, I wanted a full rubber sole rather than the usual leather sole.
Once the style of the boot has been selected, you stand barefooted on a large single sheet of newspaper while the outline of your foot is traced with a black marker. On the opposite wall from the boot samples are dozens of huge books, bound in black leather. Each book is fat with the bound newspaper pages, each containing the information about the desired boot, as well as the number of the claim check. If you can remember the number from your previous purchase, it is all you need to order an identical pair.
The cost of the boots is $40, with half down and the rest due when you return two weeks later with your claim check. Over the years, I have bought half a dozen pairs of such boots, and I still wear my last, aging pair occasionally.
Over the last few years, however, my trips across the border have become a little less frequent. This has been partly due to the to see who will control the lucrative drug traffic into the United States, and partly because the Customs Agents on the border have tightened their control, adding lengthy delays and small bureaucratic headaches to the return crossing.
Somewhere along the line, quick trips into Juarez just stopped being something to do for fun on an afternoon. It was still possible, but The Doc and I just found other things to do. While we still occasionally traveled south of the border, we flew into the interior and bypassed the border crossings completely. Unfortunately, we gave up going for lunch in Juarez.
At least, until a colleague of mine passed away. While he had worked at Enema U, he was going to be buried in the family plot back in Juarez, so several of us decided to attend the funeral. Once again, we parked our cars in El Paso, crossed the bridge into Mexico by foot, and continued by taxi to the funeral.
After the funeral, my friend and I went to our favorite seafood restaurant in Juarez. The place serves excellent ceviche—a dish made with raw fish cured in lime juice, served with chopped onions and chiles. If you’re not familiar with Mexican food, you’ll just have to trust me: it tastes better than it sounds. And, of course, it is served with ice-cold Tecate, my favorite Mexican beer.
While we sat enjoying our meal, I suddenly remembered the boot shop a few blocks away. I dug out my wallet and began excavating through the contents. Like most men's wallets, mine is a cross between a museum and that one drawer in the kitchen where small tools and what-nots go to die (In our house, we call it, "the No-No drawer"). Digging through my wallet, I found a credit card for a gas company that hasn’t existed in a dozen years, an astonishing number of library cards, and finally, a long-forgotten claim check for a pair of boots.
The claim check was eight years-old and while I had paid the initial $24, I had never gotten around to picking up the promised boots. Would they still be there?
My friend and I finished our dinner and walked to the boot place, passing up countless opportunities to purchase onyx chess sets, artwork featuring Beavis and Butthead on velvet, and t-shirts that were most likely manufactured in China.
Arriving at the boot shop, I found that nothing had changed. The boot samples were exactly the same and while there might have been a few more bound books on the wall, in the back of the shop, the men were still making boots using tools and methods that were at least a century old.
When I presented my aging claim check, there was a brief and fruitless search among the accumulated boots behind the counter. After a brief conference, the clerk located the bound book containing my footprints, studied the details, and then returned with a smile on his face.
“They are almost ready,” he announced confidently. “Come back next week.”