by Charles Rotmil
When I left Los Angeles in the early morning of November 1959, I had nearly four hundred dollars on me, having recently received all of my unemployment checks of thirty-five dollars a week in a single blow. It seemed like a lot of money to me at the time. I decided to hitch a ride all the way to Guadalajara. Do or die. I guess I did not care what happened to me. Do or die, indeed. My marriage breaking up was really hard and when I took off from New York on a whim, with almost no money at all, I just did not care what happened to me next.
The Los Angeles experience, the angelic experience, gave me a lift, I guess, from the morose state I had fallen into from the marriage breakup. Now I was on the road again, seeing myself in a way as Jack Kerouac, taking his book literally. But instead of marijuana I took five Almond Joy bars, thinking that would be all the food I would need until I got to my destination. I had read an article in the New York Times about a small community in Mexico that made guitars cheap and to get there one had to use a mule. I would figure everything out as soon as I got close to that place.
I got a ride with a truck driver to outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In the middle of nowhere, I got out and walked to a field that had a huge stack of hay bales. I thought I could sleep on top of that. I walked to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. The farmer’s daughter answered the door and I asked for some water. She seemed curious about me and I thought, “hey, this is how it works, no?” The farmer’s daughter syndrome. But she was quickly pushed aside and the farmer came to the door to ask what I wanted. I asked for a glass of water and if I could sleep on the hay bales. “You want to do what?” He could not figure me out, wearing a t shirt, Levis, and a small backpack. It had gotten dark. They did not let me in the house. I guess I expected more hospitality than that. Instead, they looked at me with suspicion. I asked for a glass of water. I got it, but nothing else. I was hoping for maybe a bowl of hot soup, but never got it. I asked again if I could sleep on the bales of hay. “Sure, if you want to do this,” he said. I was lucky they did not call the police.
I walked over to the huge stack, climbed on top of it, and lay down on the largest bed in the world, sleeping under the stars. Unfortunately, it was not the same as sleeping on plain hay. It was rough almost like sleeping on a bed of nails. The hay bales were tied with metal. But I was so exhausted by then that I fell asleep.
As soon as daylight broke I woke up and I could see the landscape, flat and empty. It was like the beginning of creation or a Salvador Dali painting. On the right, far away, I saw a car approaching. I walked down to the road to hitch a ride and raised my thumb. The car came by and then came slowly to a stop. I ran over. Two Mexicans were driving. They asked me in Spanish where I was going. I asked them where they were going and they told me Guadalajara. That is where I want to go I told them. They asked me for diez dolares. I said fine and got out the ten bucks. I climbed aboard and we drove all the way to Nogales just outside the border. At that point they took out some shotguns and hid them under the hood. I walked around Nogales and bought a bottle of some yellow stuff, almost like eggnog. I changed my dollars into pesos and suddenly I felt really rich with the pesos twelve to one. When I got back to the car, they told me they were ready to go. Vamos, andale.
I climbed in and we took off, down south of the border. I was in Mexico finally. They drove non-stop, day and night, while I sat in the back drinking that yellow stuff, which was sweet and good.
They drove down along the coast. I kept waking up somewhere else, my head leaning out the window. At night, by a gas station, huge insects the size of lizards were circling around the lights. Jack Kerouac, indeed. The Mexicans filled up the gas tank, and we went back “on the road” accompanied by the strong scent of gasoline.
I fell asleep again. When I awoke, feeling groggy, I saw a tarantula crossing the road and the car just crunched over it. I asked if I could go back to get it for a souvenir. “No, hombre,” they said. We were close to Mazatlan. We stopped at a bar to get something to eat. Not knowing what to order I got a glass full of raw clams. I put on what I thought was ketchup and it ended up being hot sauce. I ran out screaming with pain.
We drove down to Tepic. We stopped again at a hole in the wall place to eat. There were so many flies that it was as if they were part of the meal. This was definitely the Third World. The drivers kept talking in Spanish, and I did not understand them. Finally we got to Guadalajara. “Esta aqui Hombre!” I got out of the car. “Gracias, mucho,” I said. That much I knew.
I was in a park and not sure what to do or ask for next. “Baño? Baño por favor?” I had to go to a bathroom badly. I asked someone who led me to a place a couple of blocks away. It turned out to be a spa. I went in and took a shower, well needed, and a steam bath. A boy asked me if I wanted a beer, and I accepted. He brought me the bottle of beer. Then I got a massage, if you can call it that. He was cracking my back and twisted me around like pizza dough. I thought he was trying to kill me he was so rough. When it was over and I got dressed, the bill was around fifty pesos. At the time the exchange rate was twelve pesos to one dollar. I did not know what to tip.
I walked to another public square and there I met Juan, a student from the University of Guadalajara. He spoke English and he told me his mother owned a pension and maybe I would want to live there at three dollars a day, including all my meals. Great deal, I thought. His friend joined us and I realized they were gay. They were hoping I would be interested. No, gracias.
I got this great room with a marble floor and a balcony. The next day I went to the open market, which was huge. I ate right off the stands, including an orange with chili sprinkled on top. It seemed everything had chili, sweet or not.
Before long I was able to speak Spanish somewhat, learning fast. It was surprising that you did not need to use pronouns when asking for something. Rather than say “I would like” you just said “Like food.” No subject. “Quero, una cerveza. Me gusta mucho.” Even curse words like “icho de chingara” or “chinga madre.” I kept hearing outrageous expressions everywhere I went.
In the marketplace, I took photos of children who seemed lost. Or the many packs of abandoned dogs which I saw everywhere. The town was high up, about 5000 feet, so the air felt pure, and the sky was magnificent.
Once I met two elderly tourists who guided me to a place they wanted me to see. We went inside to an empty room. The walls were stucco. An older woman inside had these little statues on a table, all of them of a sexual nature. One of them stood out: it was a priest in front of an altar praying. When you lifted the altar up, it revealed the priest having sex doggy-style with a woman on her knees. That was a bit of a turn off. It was not what I expected to find in Mexico.
Juan loaned me a bike. I biked alone to Lago Chapala and the town of Ajijic about 45 kilometers from Guadalajara. I was just above the town of Ajijic when suddenly the derailleur chain came off and locked the gears. The bike came to a sudden stop. A bus right behind me almost hit me when it veered right past me with its brakes screeching. I flew over the handlebars and hit the hard surface of the road, scraping my legs and hands. I got the chain back on and got right back on the bike. I stopped at a small farm by the road and asked for water. The farmer led me to a well and he dropped a bucket into it and came up with this greenish liquid and I drank from it. As I would learn later, a big mistake.
It was downhill all the way to the village below. Ajijic was a village popular with expats who live there cheaply. I walked to the lake, which was slowly getting eaten up by water lilies. In the distance I saw a horse up to his neck in the water, then, a young woman bathing with the sun behind her. Both the woman and the sun blinded me. In the mountain range were sleeping volcanoes, waiting for their day to erupt. Bucolic views all around.
After a few hours of exploration I took a bus back to Guadalajara, one of those buses jammed with people and the top loaded with suitcases and boxes and my bike as well. When I got back to the pension I had a raging attack of diarrhea. Yep, I got Montezuma’s revenge, the dreaded disease, from amoebas or something else in the water I drank from that well. I thought I was dying. I lay feverish in bed for three days. The lady in the pension came by to comfort me with water and with damp towels. The attack went away in three days. You would think I learned my lesson, but maybe not, because I kept eating off the street vendors or in the marketplace and took more chances. I did not care. I loved the street food.
Meanwhile, I kept getting into accidents. A couple of days later I was biking around town, my head low on the racing bike, when I hit a man head on. I mean head to head. Nothing happened to him but my forehead was cut wide open. I took a cab to a hospital where they gave me some shots and stitched me up.
Then a few days later I woke up real early and went to take a shower. I wanted hot water so I turned on the gas full blast to heat it but nothing happened, I lit a match and brought it to the gas. The flame was blown off. I lit another match while the gas was still going full blast. Suddenly, the entire room exploded. I saw a flash of light all around me. As if I was surrounded by flames. I was blinded by the explosion. I held a towel to my face and everyone came down to see what happened. Again I was rushed to a hospital. They gave me shots of cocaine in both arms. The protective skin over my eyeballs had burned off. More cocaine drops in both eyes and I was given a salve for my eyes as well. When I got back to the pension, I sat at a table with everyone and we played cards. I could barely see what I was doing, but I wanted to prove I was doing fine in spite of it all.
In a few days I healed. Before you knew it I was out taking photos with my Nikon S2 Rangefinder camera back in the marketplace and the area where silversmiths were working and the mariachi bands were playing. There were cheap beers and cigarettes named Faro, which were so thin they would fall apart while you smoked them. The matches cost more than the cigarettes. The market was filled with the smell of cheap oily chicken soup and refried beans. And always those oranges with chili powder sprinkled on top.
After a month, it was time for me to return to New York and face the music of my divorce. I told everyone I had to leave. They used a teletype machine to contact a friend of theirs, Dolores, and asked her to show me the town of Nuevo Laredo before I crossed over to Laredo, Texas.
I went to the American consulate and told them I had read somewhere that one could accompany a dead body back home for a free train ride. Not sure if they understood me or not, but they gave me a free ticket to the border by train. If there was a body aboard, I never saw it. On the way up, we stopped in Querétaro, where, I was told, Maximilian was shot during the Revolution. The next train was at two. But they did not tell me it was two in the afternoon the next day. So I had to find a place to sleep. I found this place that had many small rooms each with a bed using newspapers for a mattress. It cost around 80 cents, so I did not mind much.
While walking to this place, a young girl, maybe fourteen, asked me if I wanted sex for ten pesos. I gave her the money but moved on. Instead, I went to sleep, got up late, made it to the train station, and got to the border in a few hours.
I had been told in Guadelajara to wait for Dolores, their friend who would show me the town, at a public square. I did not know what to do so I wandered around the square. Before I knew it, a man who looked like W.C Fields asked me if I wanted to have some fun. “There is a place I go to where girls drop their clothes into a hat. Real fun. Want to go? My treat.”
So I went with him to a courtyard in back of a house. We were the only ones there. It was cold being December. I thought the south was warm but I was wrong. A man came and served us a beer. I had exactly ten dollars on me at the time. I had planned to hock my camera once I got back to the states and take a bus home to my close friend and ex-lover, Alisson.
The man who brought the beer suddenly laid out a large cloth with numbers on it. He gave a cup filled with dice to W.C. Fields. W.C. threw the dice on the cloth and won. The tall man laid out five twenties. W.C. said to me, “Why don’t you throw the dice, my treat.” So I did. I could not tell what came out, there were so many dice. “You won,” he said, and showed me the five twenties. “This is yours, just show me a twenty.” I said, “I don’t have a twenty.” “You don’t,” he said? “How will you get back to NYC.” “I don’t know,” I said. The tall man took the cloth away and it was all over. “What about the girls,” I asked. “Too cold for that,” Fields said.
I went back to the park and after an hour or so a man in a car stopped by. “Are you waiting for Dolores?” he asked. “Yes,” I said. “Climb in, she is busy right now, let me show you the town.” We drove around the town and then out of it. He stopped by a row of tiny cabins, one next to the other. Women stood up in front of each door, most of them old and fat. Prostitutes, he explained to me. It is legal in Mexico. Gambling isn’t. There was a policeman there and the man showed the policeman his own handgun, which he had taken out of the glove compartment. They compared guns. My man’s was better than the policeman’s.
Then he drove me further out, and I could see the town from afar in a field. I said I had to go to the bathroom, and he said I could go right there. I got out of the car and figured this was the end of the line for me. I got out and took what I thought was my last piss. Nothing happened. Instead the man drove me back to the village square. It was getting dark and he said to wait there and Dolores would show up soon.
A car pulled up with a broken window in the back. “Come on in,” a young woman said to me. She was good-looking, petite, and she wore a sequined silver dress tight as could be. We went to a bar and sat in a booth. She ordered some beers for us. Then we danced on the floor. “No me quites,” she whispered. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was getting aroused just dancing with her. Then we took off to a motel. She had arranged for everything. As soon as we got into the room she took off her clothes and so did I and we wasted no time in getting it on. She was a fully formed woman, zaftig I guess. I was for a moment in heaven. So that is what they meant by showing me the town. When we were done after about an hour, she got up and got dressed. She said she had to go home to her kids. It was a strange gift from Guadalajara.
In the morning I got into town somehow and went right to the consulate. I told him about the W.C. Fields team. “Oh those, well, you have to watch out for them. They rip off tourists all the time. Nothing we can do about them. Not within our jurisdiction.” I asked for help to get back to the States. “What do you mean? You just have to cross the bridge.” And he gave me a pack of Pall Malls, even though I did not smoke.
I crossed the bridge and paid the two bucks to do so. On the other side, I found a Salvation Army store and they had an organ. I knew some pieces by heart, from my marriage to a pianist: a Bach Anna Magdalena prelude that Bach had written for his wife. The minister was impressed and he let me pick any coat I wanted from the rack of used coats. I found a trench coat, thanked him, and took off for the road. I thought I could hitch a ride back to New York. I crossed Texas with a man who kept saying as we drove past emptiness, “Great cattle country.” I did not know what he was talking about, maybe he meant for grazing. He only went so far, and I got another ride with a pseudo-cowboy. He was heading for New Orleans. It got dark and he offered to stop in a motel. I went along with that. We got a room and sure enough during the night, he approached me in bed and tried to touch me. I refused, of course. I could not understand whether he was a homosexual or a predator.
The next day I took for the road again to hitch a ride and this time I was stopped by the police. They had me put my arms up on the roof of their car and went through my knapsack. “What is this about?” “There is a prison nearby and someone escaped.” They looked at all my photo negatives. They let me go and I finally got a ride to New Orleans. I was shocked to find that it was freezing there. I thought the south was always warm. I was wrong.
It was a Sunday and I was hungry. I asked a bum what he did for food. Why not find out how they lived. It is a moot point between a road traveler and being homeless.
He told me of a Baptist Mission and I went there. The minister in charge told me to come back later. I was famished but he told me that the meal was later. I walked around some more and did see the streetcar named Desire roll by. It does exist. When the time rolled around I went back to the Baptist Mission and stood in line with other people from all walks of life, people in used army clothes, Eisenhower jackets, and trench coats. We finally got in and got a meal and shower ticket. You had to take a shower before the meal. A kind of baptism I thought. It was like a scene out of a concentration camp. Naked men in all shapes and sizes, mostly gaunt. Not the place to think of dignity. I took a shower, dried myself. We had coffee made from chicory, fake coffee at best, and some kind of thin soup and bread. It filled me up.
We then had to wait a while in a sitting room with other men, reading magazines. I found the copy of GQ for September 1960. This was from before I left New York. I was hanging out in Washington Square when a photographer asked me to model some sweaters. The photographer used a view camera, 8×10, and he was traveling through the village to find “beatniks.” It so happened I was relaxing, an unemployed philosopher, at the Washington Square Fountain. At the time, I lived not too far away in the East Village on 10th Street and Avenue B.
I guess they took me to be a Beatnik. We went to an alley and I happened to have Howl by Ginsberg, which got into the photo of me leaning against an alley wall. And then we went to the Café Bizarre and took more photos. So here I was, down and out, in New Orleans, seeing photos of myself as a fashion model.
Finally we gathered to an assembly hall to hear a lecture. A man was sitting at a small organ and started to play some tunes on it, while swaying from side to side. The minister started his lecture, giving us advice about leading a better life, and when he got to the part about Jesus, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was over and we were led to a huge room, which was not heated, and I got to sleep on an upper bunk bed. It seemed as if I barely fell asleep when were awoken, asked to get dressed and have breakfast. More Chicory coffee, the fake stuff, and porridge. And then they asked us to leave for the day.
I made my way to the center of town and found a shop where I pawned my Nikon for just enough to get bus fare back to New York City. I did not want to hitchhike anymore.
In the bus station a man came up to me and asked “Snakken Norsk?,” meaning did I speak Norwegian. “Why?” I asked. “Well I thought maybe you were Norwegian or Dutch. We need another man on a ship I am on.” I was tempted to have another big adventure just like that. But I did not accept.
I made it back to New York City without hitchhiking, slept most of the way, and I got back to my ex-lover’s apartment. I rang the door once and when she opened it I fell into her arms. We made love for days.
When I left for this trip I was fresh from studying with Harold Feinstein in New York City in his loft. He implanted honesty in my concept of photography. No cropping of images. No using the rangefinder and setting it on one exposure for the day. Just aim and shoot without looking at the rangefinder. Later when I returned to New York I happened to go to a class run by Alexey Brodovitch, who was then editor of Vanity Fair. He loved the photos I took in Mexico. He showed them to his class. “This is it.” He recommended I go for an interview at Magnum Photos, the international photography cooperative founded by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and others. When they saw my photos, they knocked them down and told me I did not meet their standards. So it went. Just another example of how I missed the boat many times. I was left behind, while others moved ahead of the pack.
I swore I would never hitchhike again. Now I was ready to face the music of my impending divorce and the building of a new life.