Saturday in El Paso

Be forewarned, this post is primarily an exercise in recording a day’s events. You’re welcome to join me, but be prepared (and feel free!) to skim or drop out altogether if you lose interest.

This is my third Saturday in El Paso this year, and the last one for awhile. I’ll be headed back to Frankfort on Wednesday, then back here in about nine weeks. I’ve settled into visiting my dad for three weeks every three months, and that seems to strike the right balance for now. His health is good and he has a caretaker who comes five days a week, so I’m here mostly for the company, which both he and I enjoy.

This was the first Saturday of the month, which meant it was time for the Men’s Breakfast at my Dad’s church., Sun Valley Baptist. My dad is a faithful attender, and for many years he has brought gravy for the biscuits. His gravy is a mixture of off-the-shelf base (Morrison’s Country Style Peppered Gravy Mix) and Hormel Dried Beef (usually known as “chipped beef”) cut small. The beef is a holdover from his Army days, when chipped beef on toast was a staple in the breakfast line—all the ex-military guys at the church (and there are many) look forward to it—which is strange, since they also refer to it jokingly by its Army slang name SOS, or “s— on a shingle”.

The gravy is readied the night before for assembly, which only takes a few minutes, but still we’re up at 6am because … well, my dad. He starts the bulk of the water heating and mixes the gravy powder in a bit of warm water by hand, to get the lumps out. In goes the gravy and the beef, and it warms until 7 when we leave for the church. Breakfast doesn’t begin until 8, but the event is as much about the socializing as the eating so quite a few men are already there, their excuse being that they’re needed to make pancakes or sausage or hash browns or eggs or coffee.

Not until a few minutes before 8 do the bulk of the men show up. Things always start on time. Usually there is some sort of presentation after the eating—today a county commissioner was supposed to talk about bonds or some such, but he stiffed us, which was mostly fine with the crowd. Around 8:40 the pastor started with a few announcements, and it looked like we would be freed a bit early, but no—there was a long tangent about starting a junior church at the Sunday evening service because the kids were just “too disruptive” to allow for proper teaching (later my dad, who attends that service every week, said he couldn’t remember any disruption), then off onto some “what’s with kids these days?” ruminations—and then, when he seemed about to wind down, started a short message on the Beatitudes! Even so we were done by 9:10, and my dad told me that it was one of the less meandering episodes.

The every-Saturday event here is a visit to see relatives in La Mesa, my dad’s hometown just across the border in New Mexico. We didn’t need to leave until 11am, time enough for a morning walk. I remembered my notepad but forgot my cap (I hardly ever wear one, but the sun here is bright and a cap makes things a bit more comfortable), took the usual route except for a slight detour to check out a new store in a strip shopping center I pass near.

During my mind-quieting two block stretch I tried something a little different, trying to merely observe things without even naming them, to empty my mind of even the series of names. It was mostly successful, though I did from time to time find myself needing to stop myself from pursuing a line of thought. I am not trying to achieve any Zen-like state here, only looking for new ways of being observant. I suspect this approach would work better someplace outdoors where I could sit still or slowly wander through natural surroundings. But these are the best surroundings casually available to me at the moment, and the walking is more important.

When I got back, my dad was cleaning pecans—again. Starting in mid-December he assembled around 1000 pounds of nuts, which he cracks and shells, putting the halves into 1.5 pound Ziploc bags and selling for $8 apiece. To crack the pecans he uses an inertial cracker, a gizmo which pulls a rubber-band-loaded slide back, then lets go so it can slam into a two-piece metal cup cradling the nut, shattering the shell. Originally he used a manual version (and even once replaced a broken rubber band with a garter), but now he has a motorized version that can whack 10-12 nuts a minute, with him placing a new nut in the cup between whacks. He will spend a couple of hours at a time doing this on the back porch when the weather is warm enough, 50 degrees or more (he bundles up as needed). It would be better if the porch got some El Paso sun, but it doesn’t, and yet he gets by.

Once the cracked-nut supply is built up, then comes long hours of shelling and cleaning. The shell is cracked but needs to be peeled away, which requires lots of pulling at sharp pieces of shell with fingernails—my own hurt just to think about it. Then he pulls the halves apart, and uses a tiny screwdriver to clean debris from the grooves of each half. He has two pans, one small and one large. He fills the small pan, then dumps the contents into the large and begins again. It takes three small pans to fill the big pan, so after the fourth small panful it’s time to bag the nuts. They go into quart-sized Ziploc freezer bags, usually the kind that are closed with a slide, and then into the freezer. I think his inventory is close to 100 bags at this point. I will take two of those home with me on Wednesday, just as I did at the end of my last visit.

While he did that for the hour that remained before we left for La Mesa, I checked email and then watched a bit of TV. The TV is always running here, but usually I don’t mind because my dad likes to watch old classic movies, westerns in particular but just about any good movie from before 1970 will do. Lately he has also been dipping into a channel called El Rey Network, which runs what I think of as “drive-in” movies—kung-fu films, blaxploitation, horror, and other low-budget stuff—the kind of thing that Quentin Tarantino finds inspiring. I like them too. This morning for the first time I saw the first hour or so of Shaft, which I thought was better than average for the genre, and very 1971.

At 11am we left for La Mesa, with me driving. My dad can drive just fine even at 85, and I like to ride along with him when he wants to do the driving, just to show that I’m confident in his abilities—easy enough. This morning he drove to and from the church breakfast, but he asked me to drive out to La Mesa. Usually he drives out and asks me to drive back, since he is a bit tired by then. But today it was me both ways. We drove out on Transmountain Road, which goes over the high mountain pass—one mile up, about 1500 feet above the desert floor. When we got across the mountain and onto I-10, the traffic suddenly slowed to a crawl, unusual for a Saturday morning. It didn’t take too long to come upon the problem—something had back-ended or sideswiped a T@B trailer (with the distinctive teardrop shape), which proceeded to explode across the road. The owners were still gathering debris together as we drove past.

The drive to La Mesa takes about 45 minutes. We always gather at Chope’s Café, run and now owned by my 97-year-old Aunt Lupe (Chope was her husband, but he died many years ago). I of course think it is the best Mexican restaurant in the universe, but others have rated it highly as well. It is especially known for its chile rellenos, which probably aren’t like those you may have encountered. These start with long Anaheim chile peppers, roasted and peeled, stuffed with a stick of longhorn Colby cheddar cheese, then dipped in an egg-white-and-flour batter (heavy on the egg whites) and fried in lard in an iron skillet. Very light and greasy batter—delightful! We pull up to the side of the building, walk around the back and then through the kitchen (which always makes me feel entitled) to get to the sunroom where my aunt will be sitting with an always-varying collection of relatives.

Today, aside from my aunt and her caretaker, my dad’s two sisters were there, Aunt Henri and Aunt Grace. For many years as a kid I summered in La Mesa with my grandparents, spending a lot of time with my two aunts, and we get along splendidly as adults, joking like old friends. Aunt Lupe (who is not really a blood relative, but grew up together with my grandmother as an almost sister—and the café is not even 100 yards from my grandparent’s house) mostly sat and watched and listened, occasionally commenting or responding—she has a touch of Parkinson’s, and some other problem that makes it difficult for her to speak, but is still very alert.

We arrived around 11:45, and by 12:20 we were on our way again because … well, my dad. He likes to visit, but can only relax in certain situations (like cleaning pecans!). On the way out he picked up an order of enchiladas to take home for his supper. My own diet is just reaching the halfway mark after four months, and so I’ve had to watch a lot of other people eat my favorite Mexican food in the world while I go without (an interesting and helpful experience I’ll write about at some point). My current daily routine is no breakfast, large salad with oil and vinegar dressing for lunch, apple and banana mid-afternoon, and rice with some protein (usually a chicken thigh) for supper. Because we visit over lunch on Saturdays, I eat the apple and banana before we leave, and the salad when we get home.

After we got home my dad went back to his pecan cleaning. I assembled and ate my salad, answered a couple of emails, then ran to Wal-Mart for a few things—a tomato for my final El Paso salad (I had two left, needed one more), one last bag of ground Starbucks coffee (what’s left will go into the freezer until I return) and some puddings my dad likes. Now that the freeway near the house is open it takes less than five minutes to drive to the Wal-Mart, so I don’t mind making a trip for just a few things. I will make one last trip on Tuesday, to get bread and cheese (I have the butter) for the two sandwiches which I will take on the plane Wednesday, along with an apple and a banana.

I was back by 3, just in time to watch The Professionals (Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster) in its entirety. Turner Classic Movies is God’s gift to old-time movie fans, of which I am one, and the schedule gets especially tasty in February as the Academy Awards approach (they call it “31 Days of Oscar”). After that they moved on to The Philadelphia Story (Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn), which I dearly love but I’ve also seen about one hundred times. So I thought the time would be spent better writing this.

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