December 23

In progress: San Diego, Tijuana, and the bars of Tucson

Miss Peggy, 80 year-old bartender at The Buffet

The bulk of my time along the US-Mexico border last month was spent doing research for my Walls book. However, I also managed to collect material for a few stories I am writing for Up!, the in-flight magazine of Westjet Airlines. This is much lighter fare than my walls work, but after a month among the sadness and despair of the borderlands, writing these travel stories will be a welcome relief.

My first assignment is a series of short pieces about San Diego that investigate the border-qualities of the city. The most interesting thing about San Diego, I found, was the collision and collusion between the culture of American California and the Baja south of the la ligna. I met gringo-American tattoo artists inspired by Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ motifs, and a restaurateur who opened a fantastic gastro-cantina named El Take it Easy that serves what can be best called border cuisine. Even the San Diego Children’Museum refers to to the border in its exhibits, especially in a piece called Toy An Horse: an enormous two-headed Trojan horse looking simultaneously south to Tijuana and north to San Diego.

I am also working on a feature story about reconsidering Tijuana. The city, known as TJ by affectionate anglos, has seen a crippling reduction in cross-border tourism in the past decade or so. As a result, the locals have reclaimed Avenida Revolución, the main tourist street. Shops that used to sell sombreros and trinkets to Americans have been transformed into galleries and smart cafés for Tijuanese artists. The nightclubs that try to lure Americans with girls and cheap tequila are nearly empty, but in the old 70s-era cantinas local hipsters share the padded bartops with aging Mexican drinkers. I spent a glorious Monday night touring these cantinas with an American expat living in Tijuana, and I am looking forward to writing it all down.

Lastly, I will write a story about great character bars in Tucson. Or, more accurately, the great characters who work in Tucson’s great character bars. This story will feature Miss Peggy, the 80 year-old bartender at The Buffet; a 77 year-old barkeep named Tiger who has tended the Hotel Congress’ Tap Room for the last fifty-one years; Jim Anderson, ‘consultant’ at The Meet Rack who is a cross between a mad genius and a dirty old man (most of what he said in our interview is unprintable); and Kate Miners, also known as Madame Inga Kaboom, co-owner of The Surly Wench Pub and founder, director, and sometimes-dancer of the house burlesque troupe: Black Cherry Burlesque.