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Spring Breaking Away

Growing up in Brownsville, I’d always felt excluded from the debauchery of South Padre Island. Then Manuel got that Trans Am and took us on a trip I’ll never forget.   

By May 2015Comments

Illustration by Owen Freeman

It’s Sunday in March 1990 when Manuel calls me to say he’s mobile with a new car and wants to hit the island. The island of which he speaks is South Padre Island, and during spring break, it’s Texas’s answer to Myrtle or Daytona Beach, where vacationing college kids let it all hang out, an almost mythical debauchery that had been going on every year since we, as teenagers in Brownsville, could remember.

Manuel says he has his hands on a white 1973 Firebird Trans Am with an elaborately detailed but fading blue phoenix painted on its hood. “Dude,” he says, “it’s a cool car.”

It isn’t. It’s a tired car with bucket seats up front, cramped bucket seats in back, and cigarette burns dotting every vinyl surface like tattoos on the arms of a fifty-year-old roadie, an exhausted veteran of the seventies and eighties rock and roll culture who has heard way too much Aerosmith. This effect is punctuated further by its source of audio: an outdated cassette deck, stuffed inelegantly into the radio port, that chews up tapes like neighborhood strays chew up unburned garbage.

Manuel just loves this car. He knows it won’t be his for long, because his father frequently buys and sells cars from auctions and junkyards. I’m not a motorhead, so I really don’t care when Manuel talks about the “lines of the car,” the “raised intake,” the back tire width, or the spoiler on the trunk. I’m usually embarrassed to be seen in a vehicle like that, but being poor and living in the farmlands beyond the city limits, I don’t really have a choice in the quality of the cars willing to pick me up.

At that time, we lived in a barrio way out of town and off a dirt road. And it was certainly a barrio: on our side of Oklahoma Road, everyone was related in some way or another. Marriage, sexual assault, sibling exchanges, in-law or out-law—we were all related. On the other side of the road, it was a bit more of the same but with a different family.

Where Manuel lived, it wasn’t the same. His family lived off a paved road, near a highway that hugs the meandering contours of the Rio Grande, just behind the Brownsville airport. Unrelated families lived next door to one another, like in a real neighborhood, and not in the spirit of clannism. But his neighborhood was low and hot and quiet, the same as it was four miles away where I lived, in the interior geometry of farmland: heat, hanging pollen, and little to do on those days when there was nothing around except the high buzz of insects and the slow, sweaty movement of defeated mammals at high noon, needing refuge from the sun. As teenagers growing up there, well, these kinds of days normally meant trouble; either it was looking for you or you were looking for it. That’s when Manuel calls me.

I’m in a pair of denim shorts and a decaying T-shirt and sitting on a towel to avoid sweating directly into the cushions of the no-longer-new sofa my mother still feels rather fond of. I’m probably watching a VHS video I’ve seen a hundred times when he rings. “Dude,” he says, “it’s spring break.”

Now, spring break in South Texas is not what it is elsewhere. Here it’s less a quantifiable series of days on a calendar before you return to class than an excusable period of depravity and a gold mine for those invested in the business of vice. It’s what Mardi Gras does to New Orleans, except on a beach and for two or three months at a stretch. It’s more like a season—or a war against good decisions. It’s a chance for beautiful people from all around the world to drive down to South Padre and get a sunburn or a speeding ticket, maybe a case of manageable herpes.

South Padre is the destination for every Texas university and college during spring break, when the doors to what feels like every sorority and fraternity house in this state are thrown open and hundreds of thousands of normally compliant, long-suffering students, on the drive down to South Padre Island, become hysterically Cyprian, debauchees of catastrophic levels descending on this awaiting island, the developed portion of which is just four miles long and about half a mile wide. And it’s a clusterfuck of epic proportion. Booze, drugs, brawls, nudity, and instantly regrettable tattoos flow freely alongside a sewer of vomit and urine, like closing time in the last days of Rome.

If you’re a visiting college student, losing your identity and sense of self is the rule here; blending and dissolving into the crowd is your best chance at finding a potential, momentary mate. So you dress at the median level and pump your arm in the air to the booming music, whoop at the wet T-shirt contests and barely skim the surface of anything important or sincere, and then turn around and do it again with the next person. Here the crowd hates the individual. Merging into the larger, drunken herd and conforming to the banality of the crowd guarantees you a good time. Being a penguin in a crowd of penguins is what you’re after. You get to rub up on sexy, bikini-clad girls when you yell, “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! ” to the hit single of the summer, and they won’t press charges or file a restraining order.

But being Mexican kids from the area population, we felt automatically excluded, not just because our names ended in a z but because we couldn’t afford to dress like those fancy boys who descended on the island like an occupying force. Try as we might, we couldn’t become absorbed in the throng, partly because we simply couldn’t buy those identical baseball hats and white boating shorts with the pastel collared shirts that so many of the frat guys wore, walking around in a cohort with a posture of innate self-assurance, knowing that if anything happened, Mom and Dad would sue someone.

Growing up, we never really talked about it. We didn’t have the language or critical analysis to fully express the exclusion we felt. But we somehow concluded, nonverbally, that the rejection we internalized was because of race. Most of the privileged college students invading the island for spring break were white—some Mexican Americans and blacks among them, sure, but mostly white—and we decided in an unspoken agreement that the pushback we locals felt was because we were not white. Getting called “Pedro” by drunk white guys when you tried to strike up a conversation and having girls turn their backs to you (and not suggestively) happened so often it wouldn’t even bother us after a while. Or it wouldn’t bother others. It always bothered me.

In reality, the exclusion was not because of race. Or at least not just because of race. The other factor was class. As the teenagers from Port Isabel, Brownsville, Los Fresnos, and the surrounding counties, we would drive to South Padre Island to see the spectacle, hope beyond hope that we would be allowed to participate, usually with less than $20 on us. We were rural boys, and most of us listened to shitty music, thought growing our hair long would make us look “cool.” Obviously, we were not the clientele the owners of monolithic bars like Louie’s Backyard and Tequila Frogs hoped would wander through their faux-bamboo doors, all guarded by the same Mexican gargoyles, instructed especially to keep out the people who looked like themselves. It was a physical pathology, right out in the open, but no one talked about it.

Complicating it further, most of the working class who support this annual event are Mexican and Mexican American. The island has others too: dropout artists, surfers, and genuinely kind families who really get the area—who all make up the tapestry of the place where spring break is somehow executed every year with a limited amount of homicides, assaults, rapes, and highway casualties. It’s just a wonder of human management, a controlled debauch. Really something to behold.

So obviously that Sunday, at age seventeen, I’m drawn to this, as is every other hormonal Mexican kid in Brownsville. I mean, it’s just sitting right over there. And Manuel is calling, says he has the Trans Am.

“Dude,” he says, “it’ll pick up the chicks.”

And I have nothing to do except sweat, with $6 burning in my pocket.

“I’m ready when you are,” I say.

It’s the afternoon by the time Manuel drives his loud, stupid motorhead car down my dirt road. He’s using a screwdriver to both open the doors and turn the ignition, and he has bad cock-rock playing on the FM stereo, wires and screws dangling out of the radio because he’s just added it this morning.

When I walk out to the car, I’m disappointed to see he has company. I never liked Manuel’s taste in friends. Sitting, quite dominantly, in the front seat is someone I know by reputation. For purposes of this story and for my ease of comfort, because even at 42 I’m frightened of this man, I’ll describe him here as Feliciano, but that’s obviously not his name.

My $6 is the only currency on hand, so Manuel drives us to the one convenience store that sells booze to children, and I buy two bottles of Boone’s Farm before we set off on the 28-mile run across the salt marshes that separate us from South Padre Island and all the bacchanalia it might hold for us.

Sitting to my left, directly behind Manuel, is another of his friends. His name is Marco, and he’s a troubled kid. Manuel introduced us sometime before, when Marco was driving a Mercury Grand Marquis and said he had a place to hang out for a weekend—and so we were skipping school that Friday afternoon in one of those badly built box-room apartments across from Hanna High School when the owner of the apartment came home and kicked us out. The apartment, like the car, had been stolen. Marco had “run away” for the weekend, stealing people’s keys, and ended up staying at my house for five days. I was torn between wanting to help him and wanting him out of my life, and wondering if it was still considered “running away” if you were seventeen. I thought at that point it was just moving out. And now here he is again, not mentioning the kindness my mother showed him that week, hardly acknowledging me, and, of course, skint. He breaks open the Boone’s Farm and takes the first, and biggest, drink.

In the front seat, Feliciano rolls up his window, demands Manuel do the same, and starts doing cocaine. No shit. He just pulls out a little plastic pouch and key and starts doing bumps. Then he puts it away again. Now that? That pisses me off.

Not that he’s doing cocaine. What annoys me is that he put it away and didn’t offer it around. Growing up, I had a complicated relationship with cocaine, seeing what it did to people and desiring it nonetheless. Back then, in Brownsville, as teenagers, we were completely fascinated by it. It surrounded us, trafficked by relatives and friends across the border and shipped north. It was mythical, the stuff of legend, both diabolical and blessed.

To have it sitting in the front bucket seat, a Whitesnake song blaring out of the tinny front speakers (the speakers in the back had been stripped), and me throwing my last six bucks in the pot with Feliciano not doing what he could—it just broke the bro code.

Windows rolling back down, the Whitesnake playing under the whip and howl of the wind through the Firebird’s windows, I hide farther back in my bucket seat with the final quarter of the Boone’s Farm, miserable in that moment and ready for more misery as we head toward Port Isabel and the Queen Isabella Causeway into South Padre Island, hoping that the notoriously ticket-happy Port Isabel cops won’t spot us.

The cops in Port Isabel are like bouncers for South Padre Island, making their year’s budget by ticketing people very much like us: an uninsured motorhead car, teenagers with low-shelf booze, one with cocaine, the driver unlicensed and sporting a mullet.

Driving through Port Isabel and sitting at the traffic light at the base of the bridge, waiting for it to turn green, builds an anxiety like nothing else did in South Texas. When the light finally turns green and you drive 20, 30, 40 miles per hour up the ramp of the causeway, it’s a yahoo! sort of moment. Port Isabel and its cops recede behind you, and the foot flattens on the accelerator, and for just a second you hear that engine roar, and you hit 60 or 70 on the elevation of the causeway, and you know you’re going to be all right, for just a little bit more.

Even I felt it that day, as Manuel hit the gas pedal on that Firebird and we ascended the crest of the bridge, saw the party going on down below on the island that Sunday, the feeling of opportunity and fun and—dare I even think it? Love? Lust? An unsophisticated fumbling of hormones, stinky sneakers, and sand rashes? No. Nope. None of that.

We were headed for more marginalization and exclusion. I mean, think of it. I’m in a date-rape car from the seventies with three other guys, one of whom is blisteringly high on cocaine, the guy next to me is at best morally confounded by his circumstances, and Manuel, the driver and skipper, well, he has a greasy mullet and a beard growing in through his acne that isn’t the least bit sexy.

I sink into my seat and start in on the final bottle of Boone’s Farm while Manuel drives up and down the main drag, blaring power ballads from his squealing stereo. Marco would either lean out of Manuel’s driver’s-side window or poke his head out of the top to yell at the “ladies.”

What girls there are that Sunday afternoon are more concerned with shopping and ignoring the morons in the old Trans Am, local boys obviously, and make sure to cover up any semblance of bikini or sunburned shoulder. Gangs of frat guys walk the shops, drinking openly and glaring at us as we drive by at 20 miles per hour. That’s when I feel most comfortable having Feliciano with us; his sort of crazy could take on, like, five of those boys.

The Trans Am has the opposite effect Manuel was hoping for and is more of a woman repellent. And Marco makes it worse by yelling provocative suggestions from his position behind the driver. It’s humiliating. But no one stops him. Not even Feliciano.

About an hour later, after we drive the length of Padre Boulevard more times than feels necessary, it seems like we might finally end this pathetic trip and head back home. Manuel turns down a small road to make a final, desperate trolling pass, and I see a set of keys in the trunk of a modern, zippy hatchback.

“Dude, there are keys in the back of that car, right over there,” I say from my position behind Feliciano. Manuel brings the car to a halt, a near-screech. Immediately, Feliciano opens his door, stands up, and looks around. “Meet me back at your house,” he says to Manuel.

He pulls the keys from the car—something quite new, precious, and, well, insured—opens the driver’s door, and we’re off. He’s driving behind us in someone else’s car.

I stay in the backseat as we drive across the bridge and into Port Isabel, maneuver casually through the town to the gas station right before we hit State Highway 48 back to Brownsville. We pull up next to Feliciano, who’s smiling huge. Marco leaps out from his position behind Manuel and jumps into the passenger seat of the newly appropriated vehicle.

I can tell Manuel’s thinking the same thing I am: This is just wrong. This is different. An escalation neither of us is prepared for. He feels the same way, but he also wants to impress Feliciano, who gives us a thumbs-up, grinning big. “I’ll meet you there!” he says, and takes off in the new car. We drive behind them, and we see Marco roll down the window, celebrating like an idiot, going “Woohooohooooo!” and trying, in his stupidity, to twirl out the window some of the loot, which gets blown out of his hand on the 75-mile-per-hour drive home.

Neither Manuel nor I speak on the way to his house, except when I ask him if there’ll be anyone around. “No,” he says. “I’m alone.”

Feliciano backs the purloined hatchback into Manuel’s garage when we get there. It’s a sexy Nissan thing. Marco is acting loud and stupid while we pop the back and see the luggage of about four or five frat guys, going away for a drunken week.

Feliciano insists on our taking out the baggage, clearing the car. “Get it out now,” he says. “I have to go.”

This confuses Manuel and me. “You don’t want your share?”

“I have to get this across the bridge before they report it. I’ll have your share for the car later. I can make, like, two thousand bucks off this. I’ll save your part,” he says as he’s emptying the trunk. He pulls out of the garage and heads for the Rio Grande, and Manuel and I look at each other like, You think you can trust him? And the answer, Not in the least. But at least he won’t shoot us.

The plunder lies on the oily garage floor, splayed out in front of us so we can split it like pirates of old. It just doesn’t settle with me, looking at it. I mean, I’m excited at the ordeal, like kids are, sure, but it feels wrong.

Marco has no problems organizing the score: he sorts the clothes, the cologne, the shoes, the electronics, the music. Then he starts making his demands: This is mine, this is mine, and this is mine. Manuel takes all the cologne and the fancy boat shoes and lots of clothes. I take some T-shirts, a pair of shorts, a pair of court shoes, and the music. All the tapes. Those are mine, I say. There’s one CD and a boom box with a CD player that Manuel claims.

I pick up the CD and hand it over to Manuel, who pops it into the player. The reaction in that garage is split: The other two boys flinch in unison to the folk-rock. My eyes, ears, and brain dilate. Manuel removes the CD and places it back in its case. He hands it to me. “Dude, you can have this.”

That’s how I discovered John Wesley Harding.

The CD was a copy of Harding’s Here Comes the Groom, an ambitious and terribly catchy album out of England that lit up my soul the very moment I heard it. I still love it. Seriously. Some of Elvis Costello’s Attractions played on it, along with Kirsty MacColl, who sings with the Pogues on “Fairytale of New York.” It’s an enthralling debut album.

And for me, hearing it at that moment, it was suddenly the one clean thing in that dirty business.

On your way back from South Padre Island into Brownsville, there was a mini–strip mall that had a pawnshop. Some time after the grand theft auto, I started visiting this pawnshop every weekend and going through its legacy of tapes, its music section, as it were. I had realized that because of the honey trap that South Padre was, the people who preyed on the vacationing white people would come to this pawnshop, this first stop on their way back to Brownsville or Matamoros, and pawn their loot. As a result, the place had the best music collection in the Rio Grande Valley.

It was here that I first found a copy of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Darklands for $1. I found Aztec Camera’s High Land, Hard Rain for 50 cents because it was missing the packaging. I paid another buck for the Sugarcubes, R.E.M., and God knows what else. This was music that was, at this time before the Internet, channeled only through “college radio,” and I, at seventeen years old, found it here, for $1 if it had the jacket, 50 cents if it didn’t, stolen by the Mexican equivalent of Dickensian pickpockets. And I figured out that afternoon with Manuel and Marco and Feliciano that I would receive my most nourishing artistic matter by the most basic, predatory, and parasitic social system in place around me, after I had, that day, participated willingly.

That Sunday, I’d broken through the thin veil of complicity and become an accessory to grand theft auto, and in doing so was introduced to one of my favorite musicians, whom I’d end up meeting much later in my life and get to tell him this story over dinner (but that’s another story). I listened to that album for years after, modified my own language to it, felt amazed by the sensitivities, the themes, the craft in the wordplay. I never grew tired of Harding’s narratives, his sense of humor, his Englishness. It captivated me.

It was a remarkable counterweight to the events and feelings of that day, the feelings of inferiority, the aggressive culture of boys cruising in a shitty car, listening to bad music, the cocaine, the theft, sitting next to Marco, such a corrupt and troubled boy. That album, and John Wesley Harding as a singer-songwriter, balanced something in me that, to this day, I find inexplicable—a conflict between beauty and ruin, which started in that moment and which I still struggle against now as an author. This was a crystallized moment of purity in a conflicted soul.

Wes is an author now too. His real name is Wesley Stace, and his books, like his music, are absolutely enchanting. Wes is the real thing, a genuine artist, someone to model yourself after. And that CD, ill-gotten as it was, put me on a different course.

Manuel lost the Trans Am the week after the car-theft incident. He was driving the curves on Boca Chica Boulevard in front of the Brownsville airport and ran smack into the back of a GMC. He was fine, but the Firebird would not rise from the ashes, not that time. And we never really saw Feliciano after that day. Of course, we received nothing in the way of money or drugs for our “share” of the purloined hatchback. I suppose it was better that way. Feliciano became dangerous, wild and seemingly without a conscience, at least from the stories that would sometimes surface through our loose network of friends. I can’t say I felt sorry for him as he descended into the netherworld of the border, or felt anything for him, really, except maybe ambivalence and a need to steer clear. I mean, it’s what he wanted, even at that age.

Some people are just born to what they know, who they become, destined to follow a certain path, and it’s best to stand out of the way and let them.

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