03 July 2012

On my not buying beer.

She walked past me three times, eyeing me each time. I had no idea why. Did she figure I was some potentially dangerous stranger, or did she think I look interesting, or familiar, or attractive?

Not that that last thing was relevant to me: She was obviously a teenager. When teenagers flirt with me, it creeps me out. I can’t help but think of them as children. Even when I was a teenager, I felt that way. That’s why I never took dating seriously till I was in my mid-twenties.

On the fourth pass, she walked right up to me. She motioned for me to take my earbuds out. I had the iPod on, rocking out to… nah, I was listening to NPR podcasts. Anyway, unlike me, she came right to the point.

“Can you buy me a beer?” she asked.

I smiled. Aww, how cute. She wants a beer. Still… “No, I can’t,” I replied.

“Okay,” she said, and walked off. No harm, no foul.

I couldn’t, of course, for two reasons. Naturally, the whole corrupting-a-minor thing. Wait till you’re 21, kids. And the other is that I wasn’t carrying ID: I may look old enough to buy a teenager beer, but not old enough for the clerk to let me slide.

It reminded me of Mexico.

Back in high school I went to Valley Church, then called Valley Evangelical Free Church before churches began to downplay their denominational affiliations. Every spring break, Valley’s youth pastors took a bunch of us kids to Mexicali for a missions trip. It was hosted by Azusa Pacific University, and hundreds of kids from churches all over California would participate.

We sucked as evangelists, of course. Most of us didn’t know a lick of Spanish. I knew a lick, but not enough to be all that effective. It wasn’t just our meager language skills. It was our lack of zeal for God. We weren’t there because of an intense desire to share the gospel of Christ Jesus with the Mexicans. We were there because it was spring break in Mexico, and Mexico is awesome.

Inland near the California border, where it’s mostly desert, Mexico is obnoxiously hot. But otherwise you can drink a lot of cheap soda, eat amazing Mexican food, buy knockoff cassette tapes (it was the ’80s, after all), and hang with your friends all week. Ostensibly we were helping local area churches with their Vacation Bible Schools. In reality my friends and I largely sat on the sidelines and translated a few songs by The Cure into pidgin Spanish. “¿Por qué yo no estoy tu?” for example; we didn’t yet have a grasp on the modal tenses.

There were downsides, of course. We had to stay in tents. Our bathroom facilities were port-a-potties, which we called “baños,” and amused ourselves by waiting for someone to be heavily occupied in its use… then run up and shake it, causing the contents of the tank beneath to slosh threateningly. We called this “baño busting.” The name caught on—especially after the leaders banned it.

With so many kids, we had very limited access to showers. I resorted to baby wipes. Even so, the girls insisted on wearing makeup lest we boys discover they, too, had acne. And they brought battery-operated curling irons to do their hair every morning, ’cause they had to maintain that popular hairstyle where half your bangs stick straight up. Like I said, it was the ’80s.

On Friday, we’d say good-bye to the local church we were “helping,” then go shopping in downtown Mexicali for a few hours, then drive back across the border and spend the night in Los Angeles. Saturday, we’d drive home; though one year we spent Saturday at Disneyland. (Which is a whole other story that I’ll have to relate sometime.)

When we went shopping in Mexicali, we did so unsupervised. We were paired up—usually a boy with a girl, for the girl’s safety, although a lot of times other guys would ask to trade girls with me, because they had been spending the week trying to hook up with that particular girl. Which was fine by me: I wasn’t into any of the girls in our youth group; I was into women. I was really crushing on one of our translators… but of course she was completely unattainable, and I knew it, and oh well. So I didn’t mind switching girls.

Okay, enough backstory. To my point: One year the boys greatly outnumbered the girls, so for the Mexicali shopping trip, some of us boys went stag. I was paired off with Jim (not his actual name), who was determined to get himself a beer. “There’s no drinking age in Mexico, right?” he said; “I’m getting a beer. Who’s with me?”

Well, I was assigned him, so I suppose I was with him. The other boys went off to buy tapes and aviator sunglasses and low-quality jewelry. Jim and I went off to find a grocery or convenience store.

“Are you getting a beer?” he wanted to know.

“Nah,” I said. I don’t drink. Never have. Too many alcoholics in my family. I know that if I ever start, I won’t stop. It’s just the personality I have, and I have no intention of tempting fate. Non-alcoholic beer, or communion wine, is as far as I’ll ever go. So I told Jim, “I’ll get a soda. You get your beer.”

We found a bodega, and Jim went straight for the fridge. “What’s a good beer?” he asked me. “Is Corona a good kind?” I have never drank a Corona in my life, so I was no help. Jim picked one Corona, took it to the cashier, and purchased it.

He hid the bottle close to his chest as we walked out, looking up and down the street lest he get caught. “He totally didn’t card me,” he said, as if he’d just got away with the world’s greatest scheme. He kept eyeing the bottle like he couldn’t believe it worked.

“Why would he, if it’s not illegal?” I said. I actually don’t know whether it was illegal at the time or not; only that it wasn’t enforced, and still really isn’t. “Drink your beer.”

Jim pounded it down. He drank the entire bottle, right there.

“Does my breath smell like beer?” he asked, blowing at me. “Aw, man. Pastor’s totally gonna know I had a beer.”

Jim was one of those kids who thought himself more sophisticated than he actually was. I had discovered this some days earlier, when I took him to shoot off bottle rockets. I had brought some with me to Mexico; I didn’t know they were illegal. Well, not until the next morning, when the administrators announced this to the entire camp, in response to my pyrotechnical display the previous evening. Speaking of which: I set up the bottle, lit the fuse—and Jim, laughing his fool head off, took off in a dead run. My friend Scott and I watched him scamper away, wondering why he wasn’t sticking around for the liftoff.

“I think he thinks we’ll get caught,” I said, and set off a second one. Then a third. Then we left before people started to deduce where the rockets were coming from.

Hooligans like me had discovered long before that people aren’t that quick to catch on, and then catch you. Our pastor might have known Jim intended to buy a beer—he’d been talking about it since for weeks before we left Vacaville, which gave our youth group’s gossips plenty of time to tattle on him. But the pastor might have chosen to ignore it, seeing as a single 12-ounce beer won’t make a 180-pound boy drunk, and having to deal with the disciplinary fallout would have been a major pain, and he just wanted to go home already. It was something a wise person could let slide. What’s more likely, though, is that the pastor had no idea, and wouldn’t have assumed we were off buying beer. Switchblades maybe, but not beer.

“Get some gum,” I told Jim.

“Right, gum!” he said, and we went back into the bodega. He bought one of those tiny five-packs of Chiclets, and put all of them at once into his mouth. After a few minutes, his breath smelled like peppermint Chiclets and beer—but it might pass for Listerine. “Yeah, that’s the ticket,” as we used to say in the ’80s.

Then I bought some sunglasses, and we went back to the Volkswagen bus, with no one else the wiser. Well, except every kid who knew Jim was off to buy beer. “Did you get the beer?” they whispered at him. “Yeah,” he said; “it was great!”

And that was his Mexicali adventure. Mine was smuggling the rest of my bottle rockets back over the American border.

So when I tell people about the occasional delinquent activities of today’s youth, a lot of them are horrified. These would be the people who grew up as sheltered Christian kids. Because their parents so successfully protected them from harsh reality, they’re convinced things like this never happened when they were growing up.

Never in their neighborhood. Kids were much better behaved back then. They followed the law. They respected their elders. A teenage girl, in our city, going up to some strange man and asking her to buy her beer? That’s just another sign of the moral and societal decay of America. That’s why it’s our civic duty to go out and vote for Republicans.

Yeah. Right.