lonely days and lonely nights
Confessions of an Antiques Smuggler
by C. Trebor
Thirty days and thirty nights in Apodaca, the Mexican state penitentiary, only thirty miles from Laredo and a million miles from hope...
This is a story I never thought I would ever put in print. But it was so long ago that now I just sit back and chuckle. I guess its time I throw in my two cents, because it just may give you whipper-snapper younguns something to think about.
It was in the fall of 1981. I had just moved from Mexico City to Texas, lured by the prospects of untold wealth to be made in exporting Mexican windshields by the boxcar to Amarillo, Dallas and Houston. I was soon joined by my Tasqueña wife and new son, Bobby. The business was great and money was just starting to roll in.
No truer words were uttered, "once a junker, always a junker" and once smitten, youre hooked for life. Dab-gumit, I just couldnt quit. I had spent the last ten years in Mexico City, cashing in on my GI benefits by enrolling at the University of the Americas, where I majored in Latin American Studies. To augment my monthly allotments, I found myself working the Sunday flea market, La Lagunilla, the famous junkers and antiquers paradise of Mexico City, which I may add, is the largest in Latin America. Under the tutelage of my new boss and mentor, Don Valeriano Garza, then king of the antiquarians, it wasnt long before I too was a regular hot-shot, whipper-snapper, know-it-all who had gained the trust and respect of the close knit circle of chacharéros, thanks largely to Don Valeriano.
I was amazed how the flow of goods that came our way were so inexpensive, and were so sought after by the hoity-toity antique shops of the affluent Pink Zone district. Everything passed our way, from colonial statuary to Venician glassware. Valerio was so adept in entering the homes of rich old ladies. They loved and trusted him, beseeching him to liquidate their heirlooms, easily relinquishing the goods. Yup! This guy was the Lovejoy of Mexico (without the shenanigans), and he never shunned anyone away if they needed advice or just a shoulder to cry on. It wasnt until much later that I realized what a jewel this guy was, but thats another story.
Here I am in Houston, with a good job and, incredibly enough, a smidgen of disposable income. But, also with an understandable inability to pass up a flea market, antique auction or estate sale. So what next? All of a sudden you find yourself with boxes of trinkets, few places left to display them, and a checking account in eminent danger of going into the red. "Looky here ol buddy, Carlitos," I said, to my partner and long time best friend, "Ive got this really neat plan."
I will spare you all the excruciating details of the three days it took me to convince him. But he finally agreed that it was a good idea, super salesman that I was.
After setting up a successful beachhead in Houston with our glass exports, the radical idea of diversification into antique imports into Mexico City seemed to be quite viable at the time.
"Are you guys crazy, are you out of your minds? This will never work, its too risky. And youre not going to leave me alone to mind the store, Ive worked here for less than a month," Jerry Holter, our new book keeper, was not easily convinced.
"And, look here Jerry, olbuddy, youre going to need the truck for deliveries, so were going to take your car for the trip," I said. "Ok? Jerry, Jerry, whadda ya say? OK?"
"My new Chrysler, LeBaron?" Jerry protested in total disbelief, with his most horrific look.
"Jerry, for crying-out-loud, its a midnight run, well be back in a few days," argued Carlos. Of course, once hes convinced, hes the best politician in the world.
Its Friday morning, Carlos and I wave at Jerry as the gleaming silver LeBaron creeps out of the warehouse bay of ParaGlass Texas, Inc. All the goodies are neatly packed and tucked under the back seat and in the trunk: four iridescent blue Tiffany bowls; a pair of Favrile glass Jack-In-The-Pulpit flower vases (all of which are signed LCT followed by a five digit number attesting to their authenticity); an exquisite turn of the century art nouveau mermaid, with fine aquatic motifs, Royal Dux porcelain; a pair of overlay glass table lamps signed Emile Gallé and bunches of other Loetz and Lalique knickknacks as filler. The bulkiest of all was a three piece mantle clock of gilt-bronze and polychrome marble, which I may add was the most awful, gaudy and pretentious dust collector. It was along for the ride, as a detractor; or it may end up paying for the trip. Hey, the price was right.
Carlitos and I had been through a few adventures together over the last ten years and this one wasnt much different. Granted, most of the others involved women and serious drinking parties, but of course we were going to whoop it up afterwards with the gang back in Mexico City. The long hours on the highway only fomented talk of our past escapades and detailed plans for the ones to come.
We made the border crossing at Laredo without a hitch, the Customs check was rutinary and uneventful.
"Buenas tardes señores, que llevan?" ("Good afternoon gentlemen, what are you bringing?") "Nada, nada, solo llevamos unos regalitos y dos botellas de Johnny Walker, vamos a la Ciudad de Mexico," was Carlos response. ("Nothing, just a few gifts and a couple bottles of scotch") Noticing just a few suitcases sitting neatly in the back seat we were waved through with little fanfare and no further inspection. After all, we were doing absolutely nothing wrong and as far as we knew, carried nothing illegal.
It was Friday night, and you just dont go into Nuevo Laredo after six hours of driving without a little diversion. So we decided to visit our favorite dive, The Cadillac Bar. Carlitos and I have always been avid drinking buddies.
After blowing all our extra cash we finally headed out to carve a path to the big city. Too inebriated to drive, I passed the helm over to Chuck. "Hic!" Big mistake.
At the twenty-six kilometer check-point I was cutting Zs while my pal was in a heated argument with the customs agents that now surrounded the car. Every single piece of brick-a-brack was unwrapped and sitting on the inspection table, reminiscent of First Monday Trade Days, in Canton, Texas.
"Hey, what gives?" I asked, stumbling out of the car.
"Man, compadre, youre not going to believe this. Were in deep shit. The customs agents are confiscating everything, they say were transporting pre-colombian artifacts. Look, just show them receipts or bills of sale or anything. Talk to them."
We spent the longest six hours arguing, but could not convince these young Customs agents (from grade school to the Customs Academy, Ill bet) that what we had were not treasures looted from Mexico, but more contemporary artifacts from a period where electricity existed and clocks had been invented. The scene was a total disaster. These young recruits wanted to impress their boss, due to arrive at seven AM, and we were their trophy.
The turn of events was not to favor us. We thought that a more informed coronel of the revered Customs Dept. would see the obvious mistake, but no, the gods were not on our side. A special museum expert was called in from Monterrey to access the goods and we were promptly taken to the nearest holding station. By Saturday morning we still knew nothing and our holding guards little more. After all, it was the weekend. There was no interest on their part in being cooperative. "Señores, we have been informed that the perito of National Treasures from Monterrey will not be able to make it until Monday. My capitan said you should be allowed to go and come back on Monday for the "peritáje"
"Oh, well thats great, lets get out of here Carlos, may I please have the keys to the car, lieutenant?"
"Oh no señor, you must leave everything, it is in the bodega for evidence, or maybe you decide not to come back and we keep everything. You dont want that, do you señor?"
Carlos argued vehemently, but to no avail. We were trapped, and they were not going to budge, it was hopeless. We decided to accept our temporary freedom, to retreat and regroup. Being as broke as we were, we had few options. We wandered the streets of downtown Apodaca aimlessly, exchanging brilliant ideas. The locals, in their weekend best, careened around the plaza in their papas borrowed cars, or maybe they were juniors and it was their very own.
"Nah!" Carlos explained, "These kids are probably successful drug dealers, and here we are, busted for some penny-anty, trumped up case well never beat."
Sensing Carlos depression, I knew his next retort would be that its all my fault and how I got him into this and I knew Id never hear the end. It was time to pull out my lone hundred dollar bill, secreted away in my wallet, and save the day, er night.
"Cabrón!" Carlos exclaimed, "Youve been holding out on me."
"Ah, shut-up, lets go get drunk!"
Monday morning brought us no closer to freedom, even after the archeological artifacts "experto" from the "Museo de Antropologia" chortled his most sarcastic disagreements with the customs agents. Not to be out done, the young Lt. in charge, perfectionist that he was, requested the presence of the Hacienda expert to access the value of the merchandise, hitherto undeclared. This business deal was not to be, our jailers were obsessed with the idea.
One thing is for sure in Mexico, most of the people really are compassionate. They had given us the opportunity to choose which of the two would be the fall guy. There wasnt any point in both of us going to jail, they reasoned. Someone had to be free to go get the $7,450. U.S. dollars to pay the penalties and taxes on the contraband.
All the logical fingers pointed to me. I was the least able to come up with the loot, and the least connected to any powerful political family, as was Carlitos, bless his heart. So thats how an $8,000.00 dollar investment in trinkets, a brand new Chrysler LeBaron and me, Chuck Trebor, spent thirty lonely days and lonely nights in the Apodaca State Pen.
On Wednesdays it was conjugal visits day, your wife could come see you. They actually have little rooms so you can apologize to her in private, but shoot, my wife didnt talk to me for months after this fiasco. Thursdays they let musicians and mariachi into the courtyard and turned a blind eye to the tequila and cerveza, which flowed freely to help the inmates forget their shame. There were at least a dozen gringos doing very hard time for marijuana raps, one had been there for seven years and still had ten more to go. He was a Vietnam vet like myself, he cried when I left. Of course Friday was always ladies night. If you had the money, you could have the ladies-- oh, what fun! Ill never forget Carlitos thoughtfulness. He had actually arranged for an old Maria to bring me supper every night, knowing well the dismal offerings in jail. God bless him.
And thirty days later Carlos was back from Mexico City, back to set me free.
There arent too many days I can call "the happiest of my life," but that was truly one of them. I was in hog heaven and cared very little for the money lost, very little for the time spent in the slammer. All I cared was that I was out! Hurrah!
In Mexico its always customary to tip, and with jailers its no different. So borrowing some money from Carlos, I requested permission to re-enter my old confines and set out to bid adios to my jailers and jail mates. I tipped heavily and left the remaining money to my ex-mates. They needed it more than I.
Carlos loan from his Pop was easily paid back with the quick flip of the merchandise to la Sra. Souza, in Mexico City. After paying all the fines and penalties, and for our merrymaking in the big city, we still had plenty of loot to go home with. So I guess it really didnt turn out too badly after all.