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Frederick Levy Headshot

South of the Border

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Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of murdered U.S. civil rights leader Malcolm X, was found dead in a gutter outside a nightclub in Mexico City last week. It was a tragic end to a tragic life for a doomed family. As a child, Shabazz was convicted of manslaughter for setting a fire that killed his grandmother. As this new crime is investigated, and more information is learned, I recall my last trip south of the border and the reasons I have not been back.

One of the greatest parts about living in Southern California is its proximity to so many great locales. A day trip to the mountains of Big Bear or to the deserts of Palm Springs is a short car ride away. The first time I ever visited Los Angeles, when I was 17-years-old, I took a day trip to Tijuana, located about three hours south of the city, just over the border. It was years before 9/11, before you needed a passport to cross into Mexico, and the first time I had ever been out of country. We parked on the California side and literally walked into Mexico.

There was lots of poverty. Kids as young as three in torn and dirty clothes and without shoes were selling Chiclets on the street to tourists. Policemen patrolling the area with military grade guns stood right out in the open. I'd been warned not to drink the water, and I'd been told crazy stories about American college students partying it up too hard who wound up in a Mexican jail rivaling something you might see in an Eli Roth movie. Although a bit unnerved, my feelings of angst were displaced by my youthful naiveté, and the reassurance of my Southern California born and bred friends that it was a perfectly safe place to visit. I remember shopping in the plaza, purchasing a guitar, a hammock, and a fake Rolex all for less than forty dollars, and drinking margaritas under-aged at fifty cents a glass.

Throughout the years, whenever friends would visit from out of town, Tijuana became a must-see stop on my local tour. As I got older, and braver, I'd drive across the border confirming beforehand that my personal auto insurance policy would cover me if something went wrong with my car while there. Once I even rented a van so I could cross the border, purchase a hand made dining room set at a great discount, and transport it back to LA.

While working on the movie Titanic, I spent a lot of time in Mexico, driving back and forth across the border, and even spending days at a time in hotels in Ensenada. I had a favorite restaurant, Puerto Nuevo, right on the beach that featured incredible views of the ocean and amazing specials on lobster.

A few years ago, my friend Janice bought a condo in Rosa Rita, where she planned to retire one day. She had been begging me to visit, and I finally accepted her kind offer and spent an incredible weekend with her at her home. We had so much fun, that I promised I'd be back again soon.

Driving home I came across a detour in the road. I was a little wary. In all my times back and forth across the border, I had never encountered anything like this. But I followed the signs, and made a conscious effort to note where I was headed in relation to the main way that I usually went. This alternative route led me to back roads, through what looked like residential neighborhoods, with stop signs at every corner.

I was getting a little apprehensive because there weren't many other cars around, and certainly no other tourists. I'd stop at each corner, observing the traffic signs, and slowly but surely work my way back to the main road. Before I was able to navigate closer to the border, I was pulled over by two Mexican police officers.

Suddenly all of the apprehensions that went through my mind as a youth were back. Friends had warned me that I should offer the police cash if they pulled me over, but did I have enough cash on me? Would they be more offended that I was offering a bribe? I really had no idea what was truth and what was pure fiction.

The officers had me get out of my car and remove everything from my pockets. I laid down my keys and wallet on the hood of my car. I had a few hundred dollars in cash on me, and I honestly assumed they would just take it and let me on my way. They didn't speak much English, and my Spanish was non-existent. They looked through my wallet, attempted to ask me a few questions, and then to the surprise of my rattled nerves, they let me go.

Once I was out of sight, I looked through my wallet, shocked to discover that all the cash remained. Puzzled, I counted my credit cards only to find that two of them were missing. I crossed over the border, back into the states, and cancelled my missing cards. I breathed a sigh of relief that that was all that had happened. Still a little bit shaken, I drove home to LA in silence.

I haven't been back to Mexico since. I hear stories, like the one about Malcolm Shabazz, and I remember why I don't return. I was lucky. Credit card charges are fairly easy to reverse. Cash can be replaced. Malcolm will be remembered, but he won't be brought back from the dead.