Juan hated his work as a breakfast and lunch waiter in The Savory Yolk, a diner in the Mission Valley area of San Diego. The restaurant was in a small strip mall on Friars Road, in a busy intersection between State Route 163, the financial skyscrapers of Fidelity Investments, and the freestanding building of the Quayles Jewels store. He was trained to smile and serve, and he lived mostly off tips because his salary was at the legal minimum. His earnings paid for a room in a house located in the eastern part of Chula Vista. It was a house full of rooming tenants and he held no lease. He also could afford to pay for his car, food, gas and had about nine hundred a month left over to support his mom. The situation was far from optimal, and his income barely allowed him any freedom to go on dates or have much fun. His habit of paying only the minimum amount due on credit cards was not helping to reduce the burden.
The long slog of waiter to manager, then to maybe someday owning a restaurant, was the rags-to-riches American dream script he was programmed to follow. Somewhere in the back of his mind, however, he felt like an outsider, like he didn’t fit. The knowledge of the injustices his father had gone through, and how those had changed his life, galvanized Juan’s resolve to find a better way.
On the Mexican side of the border, he bought thin leather and a leather-sewing needle. He also bought beige-colored string for sewing leather strips and snap-on buttons. He went to his mom’s and spent weekends there working meticulously, sewing the tiny pouches needed for his idea to succeed. The leather was tough, and Juan learned the value of a thimble. His mother was so happy he was there that she never questioned what he was doing. Each pouch had a carefully sewn snap that easily opened, revealing a small carrying area.
He bought some chicken wire and made a small, impromptu pigeon cage out of the closet in his bedroom on the US side of the border. Every day, he would go to his mom’s and visit; then he would stuff two birds into his jacket and cross back into the United States with the concealed pigeons. Sometimes he crossed with four birds, making two trips on the same day. He looked slightly larger, but his jacket took the excess perfectly. The birds always entered a state of panic that caused them to “play dead,” and this suited Juan perfectly. In his bedroom, he would leave the TV on so that the bird noises were drowned out and the other tenants in the house would not notice them. He tested his idea by releasing birds from the bedroom window, whereupon they returned safely home to Tijuana.
Juan realized that Virginia was ecstatic that he was visiting her more often, although his sewing probably made the visits seem strange to her. To her way of thinking, this was an activity confined only to women, and he knew she had begun to wonder about his sexuality. One evening, she confronted him.
“¿Juan, te gusta coser?” (Do you like to sew?) she asked.
“No, mamá. Solo que necesito un saco especial para un…” (No, Mom. It’s just that I need a special jacket for a…), Juan replied.
Juan left it at that. He then became extremely guarded and made sure his mom wasn’t in on his plans. This was difficult, because she was so nosy. He prepared the suit with thirty-five inner pockets across the front. He then inserted socks from the house into each one to check the appearance. It was hard work. He needed the jacket to disguise the many “balls” created by the socks, and it was so lumpy he began to despair.
Juan wandered the aisles of the open-air markets in Tijuana looking for a solution to the lumpiness in the suit. It came to him when he passed a mattress store. The foam used to make the mattresses was available in really thin sheets, and he inquired as to where he could buy them. As it happened, furniture upholsterers carried this foam product routinely, and he bought a sheet with no problem. He carefully cut the half-inch-thick foam and lined the jacket with it. He found that the suit became stiff and cartoonlike, but disguised the uneven layer of socks inside. Perfect.
Though tired, he began to think about how to accomplish the next and most important element of his plan—the facial disguise. To be successful, his attire and face had to match and could not look in any way Latino. He had ordered a human-hair wig, using a false name and paying with cash. He had to use the cash-advance feature of his credit card, because the wig was expensive as hell. The wig shop was called Secret, which he hoped would be a good omen, and he bought a blond, male wig of high quality. The wig was fitted in a way that looked very natural, but being blond, it then made Juan’s complexion look fake. The store owner noticed and mentioned that he had the matching skin-tone makeup. After Juan applied it all over his slightly darker skin, it made him look totally different, which was exhilarating. He’d never had the experience of being a blond male, and right away he realized he would also need to apply the makeup to the backs of his hands and his forearms. Once he’d done that, though, he would become someone else! He bought a pair of inexpensive sunglasses and walked the streets of San Diego.
He decided to test the disguise on people he knew. This was risky, because he did not want anyone to know about his plan. So he proceeded carefully.
Juan entered the McDonald’s where he regularly ate and was taken aback when he reached the cash register. Pirulin, his regular cashier, looked straight at him, and Juan almost said hi, but he contained himself.
“Sir, would you like to try the McRib with curly fries?” Pirulin asked. “Sir.”
“No.” Juan faked a heavy voice.
“Sir, do you know what you want?”
“I-I’m sorry, young man, I will not be eating here.”
Juan quickly left, not able to tolerate it much longer, and heard Pirulin mutter, “Qué pendejo ese gringo.” (What an ass, this cracker.)
Juan smiled. The disguise truly worked. He was ready to move into the major leagues, but he needed to control his emotions. The minimal encounter with a casual acquaintance had made his heart race. He needed to be completely calm. His next move would be to see how well he could maintain the pretense with a complete stranger. Juan decided to go to the local Home Depot and try out the wig. He drove there and entered the huge establishment. As always, nobody noticed him or offered to help. He wandered the aisles, thinking about his plan. He found and grabbed Velcro tape, carefully reading the length-measurement of the roll and making a mental note. He would need two or three rolls, so he carried them with him.
Then he decided to speak to a rep.
“Excuse me?” Juan said. “Do you know where I can purchase aluminum foil?”
“We only carry radiant barrier insulation,” the Home Depot attendant answered. “It’s like aluminum foil but more expensive.”
“I see. Could you show it to me?”
Juan followed the woman in her orange Home Depot vest to the insulation section of the store. Once there, she showed him a cardboard box chock-full of aluminum-foil tubes that were quilted with perhaps air inside them. The woman immediately began to walk away, but Juan wanted to see how much further he could carry the charade without panicking.
“Excuse me?” Juan said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure. How else can I help you?” she asked.
“I was wondering if you noticed something about me?”
“What do you mean?”
She began to look at Juan as if it were for the first time.
“If you had to describe me, what would you say?”
“You mean to the police?”
“No, no, just in general. If you went home and your husband asked, ‘How was work today?’ you would say something like, ‘There was this customer that asked me a strange question, and he looked like…’” Juan waited expectantly.
“I see. I would say a nice-looking white man in his twenties, wearing jeans and a long-sleeve shirt under a short-sleeve T-shirt,” she described as she studied him, then added, “Thin. Wearing glasses, and with blond hair.”
“I just wondered. Thanks,” Juan said.
He moved swiftly in the direction of the door, opting for the do-it-yourself checkout stand, where he paid for the Velcro tape, which was not as cheap as he would have liked. His budget was tight, and maybe he could have gotten this on the other side of the border for less, but he decided to save time.
The wig and facial makeup had worked. He took advantage of his disguise to once again go and window-shop at Quayles Jewels. It was always busy, and if one browsed fast enough, salespeople didn’t have enough time to approach. And his plan required familiarity with the location.
Later that night, he realized that what was not working was the “thin” comment he’d received form the lady at Home Depot. An image came to him of a movie actor removing his makeup on camera. He needed to find some latex that would make him look fat. This was another step in the right direction and one he could learn from research on the Internet. He needed to appear heavyset, because the jacket made him look heavy, and his face had to match his outfit. There was an added plus to a fat face—when he returned to his normal self, he would be less identifiable. Over the next few days, he studied YouTube videos on the craft of layering latex to enlarge his neck and create a double chin.