What I did was illegal.
In 1955, I was living in California, married, when my “kid” sister, Muriel, called from New York. We had lost touch since she married Alfred Letourneur, a famous French bicycle racer, and I hadn’t spoken to her for perhaps a year. Her voice was punctuated by sudden audible breaths, when in a rush she blurted, “Alfred is acting crazy and he threatened me with a knife!”
Then, in quavering, halting tones, she said our cousin, Bobbie Levine, now a shrink, Dr. Robert Le Vine, told her to “Get the hell away! Leave the apartment. Leave New York. Alfred is dangerous. Go to Mexico. Get a quickie divorce.”
“Joe, I’m scared,” she said. “Could you meet me in Juarez, Mexico.”
I agreed and arranged a meeting place and booked a flight to El Paso, across the river from Juarez. If I did nothing but hold her hand, it would reestablish our connection.
Growing up, Muriel was cared for by nannies and ignored by our parents. Mother once remarked that Muriel was a pain in the (my selfish mother’s) ass, cried constantly as an infant and that, anyway, she was a “mistake.”
Three years older than Muriel, I had been her protector, her big brother. I had bought her first colored pencils and, later, paints with my allowance and taught her what little I knew about painting. Out of high school at 16, and leaving for college, I didn’t realize what my loss to her would mean or was aware of her resentment at my leaving. Ruthie, our older sister, Dad’s favorite, was in her mid-twenties and, in her own world, was looking for a rich husband. Gwen, our much older sister, was gone, married. Ruthie claimed Muriel was a constant irritant to Dad. She wore paint-smudged clothes in contrast to his immaculate neatness, and ostentatiously carried the Daily Worker, the communist paper, in contrast to his Wall Street Journal.
Muriel eventually escaped home, went to Tyler college at Temple University, developed a cartoon style and began to write and illustrate children’s books.
Since I left college and enlisted at eighteen in the navy after the Pearl Harbor attack, followed by four years of danger in World War II, I stayed in Los Angeles. As the years accumulated, we grew apart. At the time of her call, my marriage to Jane after the war, was in its ninth year, and although I wasn’t aware of it, it, too, was about to come apart. Although concerned for Muriel, I welcomed the adventure of meeting her in Mexico.
Alfred Letourneur, Muriel’s husband, the knife wielder, was an athlete, an ex-six-day bike racer. Before they left for New York, he had opened a bicycle shop in Beverly Hills. We had dinner together at a French restaurant, and after different bottles of wine with each course, Alfred’s demeanor never changed; I about slid under the table.
In other ways, Alfred reminded me of my father but in stature only. They were both short, 5 feet 3 inches, but there the likeness stopped. Mercurial, alcoholic, powerfully built, Alfred was in the record books for holding a world motor-paced speed record, 108.9 miles per hour (Jeez!) and was a former partner to Torchy Peden in six-day bike races. He once also towed an “Airstream trailer” in a TV commercial. Famous, he had won six times at Madison Square Garden and defied tradition by have the number 13 on his back. He had thighs like redwoods, powerful arms and chest, looked more like a weightlifter than a cyclist. I was told he was as famous in France at the time as Joe DiMaggio was in the states. Though he was an amazing athlete, he was an ineffective businessman and his bicycle shop in Beverly Hills went gaflooey, failed.
When married, he and Muriel moved to New York where he became a host in an upscale New York restaurant catering to expatriate French who knew of him. In a rare phone call, Muriel bragged what a great lover he was—each morning he circumnavigated Central Park three times on his bike, then came home and made love the “French” way, she said. It was more information than I needed and I imagined something with escargot.
I booked a round trip to El Paso—a propeller plane; there were no Jets in the ‘50s—and from El Paso, Texas, crossed the border to Juarez. I don’t remember much of the divorce other than staying in a small hotel to establish residence for three days and being a witness.
Divorced and grateful, Muriel went back to New York. I stayed an extra day in Juarez to explore the city. It was safe then and at a Saturday night “paseo” I enjoyed watching young people and the smiling, playful way men and women flirted. There was something charming, warm and joyous and easy about it, in contrast to the hard-eyed men in the streets in El Paso, who, with eyes narrowed, no smiles, scanned women as if ripping their clothes off. Their looks said hard and fast.
In Mexico, the look said, slow and fun or so it seemed. Maybe I was in a mood that colored my perception, but the difference seemed obvious. Years later, in Rome, I was aware that if eye contact was made, it was serious, an assignation. A few days later in Paris, everyone seem to stare and flirt. No assignation. No business. Some social scientist, if one hasn’t already done so, ought to write a thesis on flirting. Anyway, on with this sequence of non- sequiturs.
When I arrived at the airport for my flight home, it was getting dark. Airports were small in the early fifties and so were planes (like today’s “puddle jumpers”). We walked on the tarmac to the small plane. I was behind a thick-set man who looked like an army tank, his arms bulging in the sleeves of an olive grey-green suit. How do I remember the olive grey-green suit? Because, when he climbed the portable stairs to the plane, in front of me, his jacket hiked up, caught by the dull metal handle of a gun in his right back pocket. A dark metal, freaking gun! It looked like a 45-calibre, like the sidearm I wore in the Navy a decade before. Writing this today, more than sixty years later, it seems unbelievable…a thuggish guy with a gun, getting on a plane, but at the time it never even crossed my mind that we were in danger and, at that time, we weren’t. The guy was either a cop or a gangster. Not a thing happened relating to the gun or the bruiser—another non-sequitur, but it added flavor to a strange weekend.
On the plane I sat in the last seat on the right, near the snacks. For a few minutes I thought about how uncomfortable the guy would be, sitting on a gun in his back pocket. The seat next to me was empty. In the ‘50s, air travel was still novel. “Prop” planes, seating about twelve a side, were slow. Stewardesses, not so much. In those days, they were sex symbols.
After about an hour, I was either reading or drawing on a pad I always used to carry, when the stewardess, the only one, sat next to me. Her name was Gaye Ashby. Honest to god, Gaye Ashby—how could anyone forget that! She had a soft southern drawl, a light fragrance, and she was gorgeous. Her name, voice, and looks belied belief. I don’t know if Marilyn Monroe was around just yet, but Gaye Ashby out-Marilyn-ed Marilyn. Blonde curls wreathed an angelic face with light blue saucer eyes, large full mouth, upturned nose, she projected a soft vulnerability.
When it was time to serve food, Gaye instead sidled next to me, saying, “Most of the passengers are asleep, do you mind if I relax?”
First, she wanted to know what I did. I think I either started or was about to start teaching art courses at UCLA. She said, “I knew you were different,” then raising the armrest seat divider, she put her head on my left shoulder (instant recall of where I sat: last row, right side, window seat) and took about a ten-minute nap. I inhaled her fragrance and admit to feeling some serious twinges. After a short snuggle, she got up to attend to our landing in the small San Diego airport.
During our stopover, two new passengers came aboard and sat in the two empty seats directly across the aisle. They huddled close together, furtive and frightened, trying not to be noticed. Of course, in acting so, they became more noticeable. They also looked different—dark- skinned, small, sturdily built, the woman in a thin cotton dress, thin cardigan, looking cold and the man dressed as if he had just gotten off a field, even wearing a straw field hat. When I looked over, they quickly looked away, avoiding eye contact, almost shrinking into their seats.
At takeoff, Gaye again sat next to me and I whispered,
“What’s up with those two.”
“They’re ‘wetbacks,’ they have tickets, but we’ve wired immigration; they’ll pick them up in the LA airport. Happens all the time.”
She took a quick minute to check the handful of passengers, turned down the overhead lights, came back and, once again, snuggled. A bit more than snuggled.
At first, she seemed drowsy, even sleepy, but then putting her hand on my thigh, eyes closed as if she were half asleep, she started softly rubbing, moving it gradually up as the stroking continued. I couldn’t quite believe what was happening. I was such a good little boy, faithfully monogamous, never cheated, but, Jesus, do I take her hand away? Or do I start touching back? No to the first, and yes to the second. “Uncle Dave” ruled the moment. Damn!
By the time we arrived at LA, things were getting almost “out of hand,” so to speak, and I don’t know who was more aroused, she or I. In a husky voice, she said she had to prepare for landing, then had a few check-in duties in the small airport, told me to meet her, giving me directions, and then, “Stay in my apartment. I have a free day tomorrow.”
I agreed. Just like that. I realized I had set no date for homecoming with Jane, so just like that I was ready to do…whatever. My brain was in my tuchis. It was impossible to resist. Goodbye monogamy. Goodbye morality.
After hearing the captain’s announcement, “Prepare to land,” I was aware of the couple opposite, avoiding eye contact, trying to make themselves invisible and again, instead, making themselves more visible. We landed after midnight, about two in the morning. From the overhead the man pulled a faded patterned valise that looked like it was made of cardboard. As we stood, collecting things, standing close to them, I whispered, “Yo—amigo. Buena suerte,”…or some such inadequate Spanish, wishing them luck, telling them I was a friend.
No response. They looked startled, as if they were discovered. Seconds later, as we were descending stairs from plane to tarmac in a dark, moonless night, I saw the lighted door of the small airport we were to enter. In the ‘50s, the LA airport was tiny. There was no one there, so I gathered that the immigration cops were waiting inside in the reception, ticket area. To the right, separated from the airport proper, was the covered baggage shed.
Now, for the illegal part of the story. Something happened in my addled brain. “The Lady or the Tiger?” Spontaneously, without thinking, I whispered in half Spanish, that gringo cops were waiting.
“No-no airporto. Policia, police! Go…go…baggage area…al derecho, wait for me. I pointed. Yo get car. Yo pick you up. No airporto….no airport!”
Most of it was done by sign language and single words before reaching the bottom of the stairs, hurriedly. They looked at me wide-eyed, startled, frightened. But the woman seemed to understand—more the woman than the man, who seemed suspicious. They had seconds to decide. But without waiting, the woman looked into my eyes, nodded, and at the bottom of the stairs, grabbed her husband’s arm and, in the dark, they sneaked to our right, around the far side of the baggage claim area and did not enter the airport.
I, too, skirted the airport, and since I had no luggage to collect, went to the parking area next to the small airport building where the immigration cops were, got into my green convertible Pontiac and, feeling my heart pulsing in my neck, I swung to the far side of the baggage shed, passing the airport on my right, and taking a quick glance at the front and seeing no one looking like either police or Gaye, I found the couple, huddled in the shadows on the far side of the baggage shed, waiting.
It took only minutes! Amazing! It was about two in the morning and cold. Opening the car door, shoving the passenger seat forward, I motioned them quickly to get into the back and pointed down to lie on the floor until we get out of the airport. If we were spotted, the immigration cops would arrest us all, me included. Once out of the airport, I motioned for them to get up, we were safe.
“Donde? Donde? Where?” I sked.
The woman held up two Greyhound bus tickets a cousin had sent them to somewhere up in the central valley around Stockton or Fresno, I forget. I read a Greyhound bus station in downtown LA address. All this was done with hand signs, single words, but I understood.
We didn’t speak after that. My Spanish was too halting and I didn’t want to make them any more uncomfortable or frightened. So, no one talking, I drove to downtown LA and found the bus station. I parked, nodded, “Aqui, este. Is the place.” I got out and opened the door and said again, “Aqui. Here.”
When they realized I was legit—they weren’t robbed or taken to the police, or whatever horrors they might have thought—the woman started crying, actually crying real tears, and opened the cardboard suitcase, wanting to give me something.
She then embraced me. It wasn’t the embrace I had originally anticipated but it felt good. I felt good. I wished them suerte and headed back to the last year of a marriage, still monogamous, but by the skin of my teeth.
As I write, questions occur—Did I choose the “Lady or the Tiger?” Was my choice to avoid cheating on Jane, my wife of nine years, or simply simpatico at their plight? Was it altruism wanting them to succeed or was I simply chicken about a quickie sex affair? Or suddenly moral? Or all of the above? Or none. Maybe it was just an adventure. Later, I thought of Gaye Ashby, waiting…and the immigration cops…waiting. Surely, they put two and one together. Should I have told Gaye of my decision? For years I had fantasies about her, the foreplay in the darkened plane and what I missed. It also occurred to me what pussies men are, me included. If a woman offers herself, do we automatically go for it? Yes. Was Gaye ever stood up? I doubt it. What about the “wetbacks” quote?
What about me? After all, what I did was illegal. Etc., etc., like rabbis arguing over the Kaballah, or medieval monks arguing about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
Joe Blaustein born in New York City (Manhattan) in 1923, was always an artist. He graduated high school at 16, enlisted in the Navy at 18, after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He spent four years in the Navy, two on a “tin can” Destroyer 666, as Combat Intelligence/Information Center (CIC) officer and saw heavy action. Home in L.A., he became an adjunct professor of studio art painting and drawing classes for 63 years at UCLA. Simultaneously, he was VP and advertising director of a national advertising firm for 35 years, retired at 65, and continued to teach at UCLA until 2018. During that time, he was named Teacher of the Year twice and Outstanding Professor in 2014. He continues to teach privately from his home in Topanga.