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On the Edge: the Last Bar in America

December 02, 1985|BILL MANSON | Bill Manson is a journalist from New Zealand who has worked all over the world. He is now living in San Diego

SAN YSIDRO — At 4 o'clock it was already getting dark. I had been running from the border, looking for somewhere to hide. There was nowhere. It was hard to tell which side I was on. I was surrounded by lavanderias, escritorios, a biblioteca, Padilla's Mexican Insurance and countless casas de cambio offering the dollar at 498 pesos.

But I knew this was America when I heard the drone of a spotter plane somewhere overhead in the low clouds. This day, the elements favored the illegals. How many times in my short stay in San Diego had I seen that bizarre scene of the choppers and their lights closing in on some unseen clump of "aliens" up in the tussocky hills next to the border crossing. How often under the loudspeaker barks of the hovering spacemen and the white tubes of their searchlights had I seen those desert bushes explode into a dozen men, stumbling out with their hands up, to be herded by light and loudspeaker down to a waiting posse of border guards.

Me, I was just running from the rain, but I was still desperate. Back at the border I had gotten caught up in the Sunday swirl, the tide of humanity that surges back and forth from one civilization to the other. Cars, fumes, jostling crowds, sailors coming back up with their ceramic E.T.'s and sea gulls on bollards . . . . I just had to get out. Out of the mainstream at least until the tide retreated a little. So I had followed the instructions on the sign: U-Turn to U.S.A. I'd started back up the roads snaking north, just as the rain began.

It's about a mile up that you suddenly get the feeling that you're at last in an eddy. A backwater. No more frantic border shambles. Suddenly a little old town, with little old garages and only a few trees between it and the raw desert moonscape that starts past the tracks. On the veranda of an old wooden house under a towering ancient pine, an old boy with a florid face and a black cowboy hat sits watching people doing hop, skip and long jumps through the rain puddles. Above him a hand-painted sign reads "San Ysidro Hotel."

"Is there . . . ."

"Full up," he grunts. "Has been for years."

"No, just somewhere warm, a drink . . . ."

He looks at me, checking me out. Border guard? FBI? Then he nods across the road. I turn and look.

The other side is a concrete row of two-story buildings with some of the pastel shades you associate with Mexican towns, some of the token half-moon tiles the Pep Boys tend to use on the fronts of their car-part stores. But nothing Pep Boys scale here. That's somewhere beyond. From its faint roar, and the distant sprouting of signs, you know the traffic river runs behind the trees. The last lap to the border.

It takes a moment to see what he's looking at. It's just a tiny place with a door and a window and a sign that says Grady's Keg and a screen door with a handle advertising Seven-Up. But inside . . . inside it looks so snug. As I get closer, it sounds so warm, and as I open the mesh door, it smells so--God! Turkey! "You're just in time son, we're having Thanksgiving early. Get stuck in."

A big hand takes my arm and leads me straight over to a table that just fits between the outside door marked "Gentlemen" and the jukebox. It's crowded with pots and dishes of potatoes, yams, stuffing, cranberry sauce, each in its foil-encrusted dish--and a big-bird turkey. I feel I'm intruding, but I tuck in. I feel like I've slipped into the wrong family dinner. Still, nobody else seems to mind. Conversations fly around me in English and Spanish.

Somehow it just feels so damned cozy. Maybe because it's so tiny. There are no pool tables, no high-back alcoves, none of your bar-top video Trivial Pursuit games. The man singing on the jukebox turns out to be Engelbert Humperdinck singing in Italian. "Quando, Quando, Quando." The woman serving behind the bar turns out to be the owner, Dottie Brinegar, daughter of an old Kentucky moonshiner, a 54-year-old mother of eight.

Behind her on the bar wall are black and white photos. Old pictures of race horses and their owners and trainers. "Winner: 'Speculative,' D. Long up. 'Brooklyn Bum,' 2nd. 'Big Shindig,' 3rd. V. W. Lee, owner. E. L. Lee, trainer. Dec. 21, 1958."

"You interested in horses?" says a Mexican-American. "Those fellows up there used to come in here every race day from Caliente. Andy, he still comes in here. That's his brother in the black suit. Others--they're dead. But Andy, he should be in today. Him in the picture."

"I sell only American beers," Dottie insists. But her Michelob poster is in Spanish:

"Michelob--Excelencia Insuperable!"

"Journalist, huh?" says a big fellow on the corner stool. "Pity Two-Glass Jim ain't here--he'd tell you a story or two."

Two-Glass Jim is their oldest regular, 78. Brings his own glasses. Two of them. One for the beer, the other loaded with rock salt to sprinkle in it. Ted Kaeg is a young'un. He's only been coming here every day for 20 years.

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