For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
It was time for James and me to leave Mexico and drive back to Chicago. We were far from the gilded, blithe couple of the year before. James now actually looked at bar and restaurant tabs before paying them. The value of his heavily leveraged stock portfolio had plummeted; he was desperate for ready cash.
James had a doctor in Acapulco who wrote him legal prescriptions for Quaaludes. We had gone to see him together the day after we arrived, so James could apologize for his failure to get the doc a gun. A thick layer of dust covered everything in that dingy, one-room medical office, but there was nowhere to sit down anyway. The place stank of body odor and old cigar. James’s doctor was an elderly, bald, and short, his face and skull covered with constellations of brown age spots. Dr. Lude leered at me while kicking his legs about his chair, like a four-year-old at a birthday party. When James tried to push me closer to this hideous imp, I arched my eyebrows in an are-you-kidding look. James shrugged and peeled off twenty dollars from his ever-present roll of American money. Prescription and bill were exchanged, and we headed to the pharmacia next store.
Now, on our last morning in Acapulco, James took off in the Cadillac without a word while I packed up my pink Samsonite. When he returned he announced that he had made one last visit to see his doctor. I wasn’t surprised. I expected that James would want to bring back Quaaludes for himself and to dole out to pretty cocktail waitresses to demonstrate what a cool guy he was.
“Look here,” said James; and there was the glitter and the grit of the old James in his eyes as he handed me his new prescription. I couldn’t decipher the scrawled Spanish, but I clearly saw the number 1,000.
“A thousand Quaaludes?”
James’s doctor had told him that was legally the maximum number of Quaaludes he could prescribe. This obliging doctor also told James that he should fill his prescription at the Rorer factory outside Mexico City, since no local pharmacia carried 1,000 Quaaludes. Quaaludes were forty cents apiece in Mexico. James believed he could sell them in Chicago for four or five dollars a pill.
James claimed that because he had a prescription, possession of Quaaludes, even in that amount, would not be illegal in Mexico. He had also worked out where to hide 1,000 Quaaludes in the Cadillac.
I had been dreading the drive back, the horrors of the Mexican highway, the days filled with cigarette smoke, cassette tapes I never wanted to hear again, and too little food, the nights trying to sleep sitting up. But my heart lifted a little at any reappearance of the old James, even one with such a crazy, pill-in-the-sky dream.
We drove out of Acapulco, James beaming at his cleverness: “The ludes have to be even cheaper than forty cents at the factory. In Chicago, they were at least five dollars apiece when we left. I bet I can get six dollars now.” Not for a minute did I believe that James would be able to buy that many ludes, but for James, that four or five thousand dollars he was going to make was as real as if it were already in his pocket.
We reached Mexico City that evening. James navigated the maze of highways and cobblestone streets to the Zona Rosa, pulled in front of a wedding cake of a hotel, and handed the keys to a waiting valet. James popped for this lovely hotel room and a real dinner, something I had not enjoyed for days. He was preening; he felt he was in control, on the verge of a big score that was even more satisfying because it was illegal.
The next morning, a helpful man at the front desk gave James directions to the industrial suburb where the Rorer factory was, and we were off on what I was sure was a wild goose chase. Within an hour, we pulled up to the gatehouse in front of the immense steel grey factory, distinguished from the surrounding buildings and warehouses by a giant RORER sign. A guard left his post to peer into our car and James whipped out his prescription as if he was showing it to a Walgreen’s pharmacist. The guard shrugged, raised the control bar, and waved us through. I felt a squirt of panic in my guts. We parked; James left the air conditioning and the Mexican radio running for me while he strolled into the building.
I had finally managed to calm myself down when the dark tinted front door swung open and James appeared carrying several cardboard boxes, one stacked on top of the other, a tottering tower of pills. “Pop the trunk,” he called out. With 1,000 ludes in the back of the car and me without a thought in my head that I could bear thinking, we drove and drove through Mexico north, finally stopping at a rundown motel in the border town of Nuevo Laredo.
The motel did get American TV, and I spent hours flipping channels, trying to find something to take my mind off the fact that James was busy finding hiding places for a 1,000 Quaaludes in the Cadillac. Whenever I looked out the greasy motel window he would be under the car or disassembling the trunk. James did know his cars. He also thought he knew border crossings well enough to get away with this.
“There is nothing to worry about. The Border Patrol is looking for pot and heroin, not pills,” he said. “There’s been no pot in the car. They can bring in the dogs, there’s nothing for them to sniff out.” And of course, he reminded me, he did have a legal prescription. We were perfectly safe.
James was a degenerate gambler. As he always did while in the midst of a big game, James doubled his bet. At some point while I was watching re-runs of Star Trek and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, James had not only stuffed 1,000 ludes in the Cadillac, he had found someone at the motel to sell him a pound of weed, and made a trip to a hardware store for roll of duct tape.
James put the pot and tape in a brown paper bag, took off his gold chain, ransacked my suitcase for the plainest dress I owned, and told me to swap my contacts for glasses. Thus disguised, we went into the motel office, where James put a five-dollar bill on the counter, asked the startled clerk for the name of the best restaurant in Laredo, on the American side of the border, and to please call a cab to take us there.
The taxi, a rusty and rattling Volkswagen Beetle, came, we hopped in, and James shoved the bag of pot under the back seat. James had become an overnight expert on drug smuggling, always the self-taught man.
“If we’re stopped and searched, and they find the pot, we’re in a cab. A cab is a public conveyance, they can’t prove it’s ours, anyone could have left it there,” as if forgetting a pound of marijuana in a cab were as common a misplacing an umbrella.
At the border crossing, a bored official asked the cab driver where we were going and then waved us through, not even looking in the back seat or asking for our passports. James reached under the seat for the brown paper bag, put it in my purse, and gave me instructions.
It was a nice restaurant. Too bad I couldn’t swallow a bite. While James paid the bill and called a cab to take us back across the border to Mexico, I went to the ladies’ room, locked the door, and got down on my hands and knees under the sink. I took the tape out of the bag, and attached the brown bag to the top of the drain pipe, winding the tape around and around. I crawled back out, stood up, craned my neck from a bunch of angles to make sure nothing was visible under the sink, brushed off my legs, washed my hands, tossed the rest of the tape in the garbage, and went out to where James and the cab were waiting.
The next day, we put on the just-plain-folks clothing from the night before, trying to look as innocent as a twenty-one-year-old blonde and a swarthy forty-three-year-old man in a new model Cadillac El Dorado coming back from Mexico could look. I suggested buying some souvenirs to make us seem even more normal, but the newly expert James said that would draw attention to us: too many people tried to smuggle drugs in piñatas and marionettes.
We looked suspicious enough for the border patrol to give us their full attention at the crossing. We politely stepped out of the car when asked, James opened the trunk and all our suitcases, I dumped out the contents of my purse. The guards walked away for a little conference while James smoked a cigarette. I sweated and had to pee and made up my mind that if we were busted, I would claim that I was a simple Minnesota country girl, being held against my will and forced into a life of deviance and drug smuggling. I practiced crossing my eyes; I could say James was keeping me doped up on those Quaaludes…
“Okay, sir, you’re free to go. Have a nice day.” And with that, we were back in the U.S., with 1,000 Quaaludes somewhere in the Cadillac and a pound of pot to pick up. We stopped at the restaurant from the night before, where James ordered two coffees. I reclaimed our pot in its brown paper bag from under the ladies’ room sink, and we were back on the road.
We had gotten away with it, but our thirty-minute encounter with the Border Patrol had undone me. James was rubbing my leg and complimenting me on keeping my cool, and I was running through everything that could still go terribly wrong. We were in Texas, where the Caddy’s license had already been flagged for guns and white slavery. We had a carload of illegal and semi-legal drugs. And we had thousands of miles and a bunch of other god-forsaken states to cross before we safely home on Oak Street.
My mind suddenly snapped into focus: I told James I needed to go see my mom in Colorado. Like right away. James shrugged and said he didn’t mind doing the rest of the drive by himself. We had been together non-stop for months and needed a break from each other. James pulled into the next rest stop and I called my mom from a pay phone; a recorded message told me that number was no longer in service and gave me a new one. I dialed that one, my mom picked up right away, and I discovered that my mother and her new second husband had moved to Steamboat Springs, where they were renovating a run down ski hostel called the Haystack. I mouthed a silent “shit.” I knew that rathole; I had stayed there once on a ski trip. My mom didn’t have much of a reaction to my announcement that I was coming to visit and didn’t comment on how strained and anxious I must have sounded.
James drove me to the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport, where I bought a ticket to Denver and then onward to Steamboat Springs. A last night together in a real motel with working AC and clean-smelling sheets made me cautiously optimistic that we had gotten away with it. I was almost relaxed, now that I had planned my own escape and James was crowing. No lawful gains could have made him as happy — it was proof that he would always turn up winners, even when faced off against the Border Patrol. During an attention getting airport goodbye, James lifted his face up from mine just long enough to say, “Promise me you’ll be back in Chicago soon.”