John Cain

 
 

Excerpt From Lifes A Good Gig

From Chapter 1 Street Musicians of Tijuana The Life & Times of Pedro Luna

This time, when I first met Pedro Luna, he was 83 years old. He was a short man, maybe 5 feet tall. His clothes were old and dusty with little holes in the knees of his trousers. His shoes were ratty with the sole of one held together with duct tape. He carried a well worn guitar with a crack running down one side. He looked like a person who has lead a physically hard life, like a third-world, poor dirty little street bum that nice Americans like you and me pretend not to notice when we're passing them on the streets.

Upon seeing Jeff his smile opened wide with joy and you could see a couple of gold teeth surrounded by empty gaps. His face was dark, unshaven and wrinkled but he had a thick head of black hair with just a little grey in it. He greeted Jeff with profuse affection. Jeff introduced us to each other, always addressing Pedro Luna as "Don Pedro," a sign of respect for one's elders.

We invited him to sit and have a drink. He was timid to sit with us as if his social status didn't warrant such treatment, also because the management of the place probably frowns on such things. It's one thing to hustle the customers, like shoe shine boys, trinket hucksters and serenading musicians, but its quite another thing for them to sit with the customers. We assured him it was alright. Don Pedro didn't drink but he did have a cup of coffee.

Don Pedro's Music Don Pedro asked what we would like to hear. "I know over 800 songs," he proudly declared, "but, my memory is so bad nowadays I have to use this." He showed us a hand-tooled, square leather pouch about the size of a pack of cigarettes attached to his belt. Inside the pouch was a stack of cards that had been cut from the cardboard of cigarette cartons. One side of the cards I could read the trademarks of cigarettes, Marlborough and Winston. On the un-printed side of these cards he had listed by number the title of every song he knew. He took out a handful of cards and handed them to me. I scanned the titles. It was all hand written in various colors of ink and pencil. I couldn't read the scribbled writing so I pointed to a number. Pedro lifted his guitar and held it like a man holding a precious baby.

Being a small man the guitar seemed huge and his left cheek rested on the shoulder of the guitar as he played. It looked like he was cuddling his guitar. He began singing a song I'd never heard. His voice was husky, tired sounding and full of vibrato. It had the sound of many long roads traveled. He didn't have much range or force in his voice. His guitar strings plunked and sounded old and lifeless. On the neck of the guitar his fingers were crooked and his knuckles looked swollen like someone with arthritis. The fingers of his right hand were short and looked unusually pointed. He played with a pick. Yet, he made beautiful music. It poured from his soul like a flood of rainbows. His dark eyes were distant and happy as he sang and when he glanced over at me I could see a spark like little suns deep inside them, perhaps the bio-electricity of his life force.

We sat with Pedro Luna for hours talking music and life. At one point don Pedro handed me his guitar and asked me to play a tune. I took the guitar and when I played it I noticed that it was tuned a fourth lower than a normal guitar. I asked Pedro about this. He explained that because of his arthritis it's hard for him to press down on the strings to finger the cords. By tuning it a fourth lower there is less tension on the strings making it easier to press down on them and this way he can still play. He just has to remember to play the songs in a key that's a fourth higher in pitch. Sheffield has been visiting Pedro Luna in TJ about once a month for a few years.

The first time they met, Sheffield had been showing a group of out-of-towners the tourist sights of TJ. They were drinking over priced, watered down Margaritas in a tacky tourist joint. Excruciatingly loud American disco music was blasting so they could barely hear each other talk. Into this din don Pedro Luna walked humbly up to their table and politely asked if they wanted to hear a song. Pedro played and sang apparently unconcerned that the loud disco music was drowning him out. Sheffield was impressed that Pedro maintained a peaceful attitude throughout. On subsequent trips to TJ Sheffield kept running into him by chance, one afternoon finding him sleeping with his guitar on the sidewalk, another time at Victor's Guitar Shop. Sheffield was buying a requinto (a ¾ size guitar used in Mexican music.) He was closing the deal, about to pay when Pedro Luna came in and greeted Sheffield. Upon seeing that he was a friend of don Pedro the shop keeper voluntarily knocked ten dollars off the price.

Don Pedro is past his heyday and the more aggressive street musicians easily out hustle him. Sheffield has taken Pedro Luna on as a personal project. "I know he's not the best musician anymore," says Sheffield, "it's not about that. It's that he's a musician with a good soul and who is a survivor. He's been working this street for over fifty years, man! It's his spirit that I respect. He's the real deal." 

In spite of his poverty, his hard life and daily rude treatment by drunken American tourists, he is completely guileless and kind. If the harshness and injustice of life ever pisses him off he never shows it.

Searching For Pedro Luna It was the first week of January when Sheffield and I made another visit to TJ to seek out don Pedro Luna. It had rained hard two days before and though the sky was crystal clear and blue it was windy and cold. As we crossed the bridge over the Tijuana River I said to Sheffield, "If I was a writer this is how I'd describe this moment." And out loud in a theatrical voice I recited the following, "As we crossed the bridge that spans the reeking Tijuana River the wind from the ocean lifted the stench sharply, and rudely slapped our faces like the cruel pimp of a drunken TJ whore." Anyway, I was glad I decided to wear a jacket.

We tried to analyze the ingredients of the familiar yet complex stench that is Tijuana. "There's a basic core stench," said Sheffield, "what is that?"  "I believe that would be the open sewage," I answered, "but it's mixed with various shades of diesel fumes, unleaded auto exhaust, smoke from burning garbage, fried onions and garlic, rancid cooking oil with thin wisps of perfume and cigarette smoke." Gosh, Cain," kidded Sheffield, "if only your musical ear was as good as your nose you'd be a decent musician."

We bid adios to don Pedro Luna and headed back to America. We were feeling good and the idea struck us to have one last shot of tequila before we crossed the border. Sheffield suggested a funky Mexicano bar that was off the Avenida. From the outside it looked like a pretty rough place. Being basically chicken I'd never ventured into a bar like this before, but Sheffield fearlessly walked us through the door. There were no other gringos in the place. Again, the ubiquitous and excruciatingly loud Mexican cumbia and Nortena music was blasting. On the walls were hung placards of the names of regular customers with their nicknames below; "Carlos-El Puma, Xavier-el Cubano, Raul-El Loco, Chito-El Jinete, Juan-El Guapo, etc."

We took seats at the bar and ordered Bohemia cervezas and shots of tequila reposada from a chubby Mexican lady bartender. We licked then salted that little part of the back of one's hand between the thumb and forefinger. We licked the salt, clinked glasses and shouted "Viva Mexico!" We chugged the tequila and bit down on slices of lime. The tequila had no kick to it and Sheffield wondered if was watered down. I couldn't tell. Maybe it was just really smooth tequila.

As we sipped our cervezas Sheffield talked of how he has noticed that now days most all the street musicians in Tijuana are older men and there seems to be no younger guys replacing them. Maybe this is a dying tradition. Although their musicianship is not necessarily of the highest level, slightly out of tune, playing conflicting chords, and tempos are sometimes uneven, their music has great value. "Hey, man, this is Mexico," Sheffield said this to me in a tone that sort of explained everything. They play with heart, corazon, spirit and they sing the words of their songs with conviction and love. And this is what they teach my friend Sheffield and me. And we humbly and gratefully accept their great gift.

Epilogue: Fast forward three weeks. It had been a particularly hard day for Pedro Luna. He had spent most of the afternoon plodding up and down Avenida Revolucion trying to make a few dollars. As usual most of the rowdy tourists ignored him. His knees were aching and his throat was still sore. He tried drinking a can of Ensure that Sheffield had brought him but his throat was too sore to swallow it. He hobbled home to his room in the boarding house. His friend Paulo had given him some left over chorizo which he fed to his cats.

Don Pedro was more tired and winded than he ever remembered being. He stiffly lay down on his small thin mattress to rest. As he closed his eyes there was a long howl of a coyote. "Curioso," thought don Pedro, "there are no coyotes here in the city." But he soon fell into a deep sleep. He was awakened by the feel of a gentle hand on his shoulder and the sound of a sweet familiar voice. "Papito, wake up. Look, the moon is rising. Que bonita!" It was Pedro's wife. "Come look at the moon and sing to me. Sing me the song about the noches tropicales." "Si, mi amor. Dame la guitarra," he answered. She handed him his guitar. Smiling and looking into her eyes with love Pedro played and sang to his wife. He had no more pain in his knees or throat.

Epilogue to the epilogue: I got bad news the other day from Sheffield. He had gone to Tijuana to see Pedro Luna and found out that don Pedro had passed away about three weeks after we last saw him. Sheffield was by himself and not knowing how to express his feelings did what many guys do in this circumstance, he proceeded to get shit-faced drunk. He started by visiting all the funky bars we usually visit then hit every other one he'd never been to throwing back straight tequila shooters till he ran out of money. He was so drunk he got lost and couldn't find his way back to the border. He even tried hitch hiking but not even a taxi would pull over. Hours later he finally found his way across and forgot where he'd parked. When he finally found his car he didn't have enough money to pay the parking fee. His ATM card didn't have enough funds to pay either. After some argument the attendant finally let him go. The next morning, Sheffield tells me, he woke up vomiting chunks and shaking like a wet Chihuahua on a windy day. So ends the saga of Pedro Luna.