in the 1980s, I had read a description of the Mexican Gulf Coast
by the late travel writer Paul King, who glowingly compared the
state of Campeche to the South Sea Islands. Unable to drive to the
South Sea Islands, I decided to see if Mr. King’s praise of Campeche
was justified. It was.
I had taken many trips around Mexico by bus, but this one had to
be driven. After filling up my van and getting some Mexican insurance,
I was on my way. My first day south of the border passed quickly
and after a night in Tampico, I was soon crossing the Tropic of
Cancer (thoughtfully marked by Federal signage).
The price of gas at that time was subsidized by the government to
be roughly half the U.S. price. But unleaded gas was in short supply.
A black plastic “reducer” was needed to allow unleaded gas into
the tanks of most American cars.
Since gas stations were all government-owned Pemex (Petroleos Mexicanos)
stations, decisions on station placement was done on mileage considerations
rather than traffic counts or convenience. On major highways, Pemex
stations were few and far between. Mexicans do not post “last chance”
Pemex stations were all “full service” and even in the 1980s, big
city stations were equal opportunity employers. Attendants could
be young men or young women.
Motorists were often warned about mythical enterprising attendants
who would sometimes “forget” to clear a pump before starting to
fill your car. Therefore you might be paying for your gas and
the amount left on the pump. Maybe it was a local custom called
“paying it backward.” What did I know? For all the warnings, it
never once happened to me.
But if a station had a bad reputation, motorists would alert one
another by making eye contact with the potential victim-to-be and
then, using their little finger, the person sending the warning
would pull down the lower lid of their eye. It was a gesture subtle
enough to be used by conspirators in a crooked poker game. I was
warned so frequently that before I understood the warning I thought
everybody was mistaking me for an ophthalmologist.
The gesture to “fill’er up” was equally silent and succinct. Simply
placing a horizontal palm to one’s Adam’s apple passed for “lleno”or
Veracruz was like driving the length of Florida, but Day Four found
me in Campeche State with a gas gauge reading less than half full.
I spotted a Pemex station, but being a rural station, it lacked
the charm of the big city stations (which resembled those of former
Soviet bloc countries).
was here I met Julio César – the spiffiest attendant I had
seen thus far. He didn’t wear a uniform but his oversized white
shirt was sharply pressed. He made a show of clearing the pump with
a gesture worthy of Vanna White (Vanna Blanco in Spanish).
He washed the sand, coconut debris and passion flower pollen off
my windshield, as well as iguana phlegm and an assortment of broken
iridescent butterfly remains. He polished the windshield as though
it was his own car.
I went to the restroom and upon my return I spoke with the “official”
attendant on duty, a man of about 45 years with the expression of
a philosopher and a T shirt that said “Bellaire Seniors.”
“Your son? I asked, nodding my head toward Julius Caesar. He seemed
to hesitate in answering, but after a brief pause he said “No.”
“Actually, he’s an orphan,” the man added belatedly.
And he works here? I asked.
“Not exactly," he said, “but it’s a chance for him to earn
Knowing it was unlikely there was an orphanage nearby, I asked how
he ate and where he slept.
The answers were rapid but clear enough to follow. Julius slept
in the storage area and his meals were supplied from the breakfasts,
lunches and dinners of the attendants. Home-cooked, delivered hot
and fresh. There were three full time attendants and each of the
attendant’s wives added a little something for Julius’ meals.
“He eats better than we do” the attendant smiled. On Sundays, he
rotates between the three families. “We make sure he goes to church,
but he never misses a day of school. Never.”
It wasn’t a strain to feed an extra stomach when there were three
families involved. As for Julius Ceasar’s shirt – the attendant
was proud that I noticed his wife’s ironing on the shirt that he
himself used to wear.
I walked back
to Julius’ smile and gave him some blue bills with Benito Juarez
(or Paul Muni) on it. Blue money! – I wondered if Van Morrison had
been to Mexico? I gave him another bill for the excellent windshield
work. For the service he rendered – I rendered unto Caesar.
I hope that Julius’ earnestness and work ethic has served him well.
Coming of age in a developing country without the “safety net” of
what we call “Children’s Protective Services,” - I didn’t worry
for his safety. I knew he had the protection of three families –
and without the meddlesome bureaucracy.
I may never know what happened to him, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised
to someday read that there’s a mayor or governor in Campeche State
with the name Julio César.
© John Troesser
October 12, 2014 Column
More Columns by John Troesser