I walked the renters through an entire list of This Is How This Runs, Here Is What Can Go Wrong, This Is How You Fix It. That is the way old houses are: charming, but held together with baling wire.
Finally, the day came. We had done the Mexican consulate’s bidding in San Francisco and made an exact list, in Spanish, of the number of boxes, each one’s cubic feet, and its contents. For electric or electronic things: the make, serial number and description.
In other words, we had to take the list to the consulate for approval; and we had to be packed first, in order to have the list – an impossible task since, as everyone knows, packing is something that takes place right up to the last minute when you take one last look and drive down the driveway.
In the end, we had fifty-one items: boxes, pieces of furniture. And one grand piano.
On the way to the consulate, we took along a laptop computer and printer. We had been told the household moving visa would be denied if there were mistakes. We managed to get our list signed in one day – something relatively unheard of – with no additional trips driving back and forth to Sebastopol, an hour and twenty minutes north. This is not quite accurate. I had make a mistake. I had written “blender” instead of “licuadora” for blender. I had seen it written as “blender” in Mexican stores.
We rented a fifteen-foot GM Penske truck, and backed it up to the house. The day before we left, piano movers came and lifted the piano onto the truck and tied it to stout brackets on the inside wall of the truck bed. It stood on its side, its legs removed, wrapped in blankets, then shrink-wrapped to the piano. Everything rode on a piano board, a kind of sled made of very hard oak. As an old sailor, I am distrustful of other people’s knots, and so I re-tied the piano, just to be sure.
Then we loaded the 50 other items. Unfortunately, there was still much more to take, and we loaded that in, as well, not at all sure what would happen to it at the border, since it was not on the official list.
Just driving into Mexico in the past had been anxiety-producing. Moving to Mexico seemed exponentially more worrisome. We had already learned that no one, including the authorities, agree on the requirements. Written rules were contradictory. Some rules, we knew, were enforced. Some were not. It usually depended on who you were dealing with, at the various steps.
On the fifth or sixth of November 2005 – stress has erased the exact date in my memory – I climbed into the truck, and Dianne took the wheel of our 1997 Ford Aerostar van. It was packed to the gills with things not on any list, including one two-piece surfboard, paintings, tools, clothes, the silver place settings Dianne’s father had given Dianne’s mother the day Dianne was born, and a tray of sprouting broccoli seeds, for greens on the way.
A few days later, we made it to friends’ house in Tucson, where we spent the night and discussed with them various possible scenarios that might or might not unfold. The next day we drove to the Yellow Transportation Company, an American but Mexican-run enterprise, spitting distance from the border, which was a desolate gulley a few hundred feet south of the warehouse, distinguished by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. There we unloaded the Penske truck ourselves and got to know the platform workers at Yellow. Two of them helped us push the piano across the truck bed to the truck’s ramp, and down it came, all six hundred and fifty Steinway pounds of it, with me going through the motions of breaking its descent, on the front end. If it had leaned too far sideways, it would have gone over. But the ramp had a serrated metal surface and the friction against the piano board slowed the piano’s descent.
When the piano reached the warehouse floor, at a considerable angle, it stopped, maintaining its angle and unable to make the transition. Luis, the loading foreman, jumped into his forklift and threaded one of its two tongues under the piano board, lifted slightly, gently, and backed up. The piano eased down and came level with the floor. Again with one tongue, Luis eased the piano across the floor to its resting place to one side, so that it would be out of the way while we dealt with all the rest of the items.
Luis and the other man disappeared. They had to make a delivery with a trailer truck. We were alone in the warehouse – a little surreal. We placed everything that had been in the rental truck on about eight palettes, bunching things in the middle of the pallet, so they could be held against each other by shrink-wrap. We tried to arrange things so they would not rub against the things on the other pallets or against the piano package.
We had expected to have to load everything onto another truck and have it taken to a customs broker somewhere close by, on the US side of the border. The broker there, as we understood it, would then go through every box to check its contents and match it with the officially stamped list from the S.F. Mexican consulate. Then it would be trucked back to the warehouse for the official loading.
Before Luis left, he suggested we skip all that and let him call a friend of his, also a broker. Eventually, the new broker appeared, young, looking hung over or on drugs, with blood shot eyes and a strained expression. Dianne, who is fazed by nothing, engaged with him with her usual grace, in Spanish. What, for example, would it cost? $250, he said quickly. Hmm, $100 less than the other broker. Did we have to move everything to another place for inspection? No. What about all the things that weren’t on the official list? The question seemed to bother him. What’s in those things? Oh, all used stuff. Nothing new. Nothing could be less than a year old, according to the consulate. We were cutting that fairly close – really close on some items. He thought about it. Just add it to the pallets, he said. But it’s not on the list, we said. What is it? he asked again. Stuff, household stuff. Put it on the pallets with the rest. We have some glass canning jars with different kinds of grains, we added. Those can’t go in. We have four sacks of grains: organic flax seed, winter wheat berries, steel cuts oats, and short grained rice. That can’t go on the truck until you have permission from the Department of Agriculture. How long would that take? A couple of days, it can’t go on the truck. We were feeling our way along. What do we do with the bags of grain? Put them in the van. Which of course meant more uncertainty. We have some new things, we finally confided. I mentioned the least consequential of the new unlisted items. A couple of small air cleaners. Take them on the van. Will we declare them at the border? You have to. But they weren’t on the list. Take them in the van.
He left. We would see him again in the morning. We dumped the grains from the canning jars into a garbage bin. We packed the other grains – 125 pounds of it – into the van. We took some duffel bags off the van and add them to the pallets, to go with the truck.
In the dark, we drove back to Tucson, me in the truck, Dianne in the overloaded van. I told her, the U.S. Border Patrol would probably stop me at about the ten-mile mark. We had seen the checkpoint on the way down. When we got to the ten-mile mark, we were both pulled off the freeway. I stopped beside the agent. Where are you going? Returning the truck to Penske in Tucson. What’s in the back? It’s empty, I said. To my surprise, he waved me on. He asked Dianne, who was in the van behind me, where she was going? I’m following my husband; he’s in that truck ahead of us. Good night. Good night!
We dropped off the truck, tank full, and threw the keys in a slot. There was no sign anywhere saying it was the Penske parking lot, but we knew the address and saw other Penske trucks. We drove to our friends’ house, enjoyed a gourmet dinner, and fell asleep on the pull-out couch.
The next day we drove to Nogales again, to the warehouse. Our young broker appeared almost immediately. He had spiffed up, he was well groomed, clear-eyed and very professional. Dianne’s instincts, as usual, had been better than mine. He handed us the documents and the seal that would go on the truck to show that nothing was added after it left the trucking company.
We wondered what it all meant. Did you inspect everything? we asked. It wasn’t necessary, said the young broker. You said everything was used. We paid him $250 and shook hands and said good-bye. He refused our offer of “a little extra” for coming to the warehouse, saving us the trip to his office, for what he might be able to do for us at the border. He would accompany the truck through customs on the other side, he said. He and the truck driver would push a button. Red light, they would pull over for inspection. Green light, the truck could proceed, the seal unbroken. Or, some deal would be made, perhaps arranged ahead of time, or made on the spot. Or our guy would know their guys, they would be cousins, friends, or trusting business acquaintances. Or a combination of all of the above.
Luis drags the piano into the designated trailer truck, with me and Dianne pushing. Another man helps. We position the piano on the right side of the trailer bed, between two rings, each of which is supposed to support 1,000 pounds. I pull on each one to sense whether this is a plausible claim. I decide it is. The piano is positioned so, like before, it stands on its side, on its oak piano board, shrink-wrapped and protected by old sleeping bags and rugs. I do the tying: back and forth, back and forth, bowlines and half hitches. The piano must not fall over.
Luis lifts a pallet up, drives into truck, and deposits the first pallet next to the piano. It is a bundle of drums containing some unknown substance, belonging to someone else. Back in the warehouse, he walks around each of our pallets, holding a roll of shrink-wrap. He makes maybe five circles around each pallet.
Then he picks the pallets up and runs them into the trailer and positions them. I check on each one, to see how it’s going to ride, what it’s going to rub against. While Luis still has two pallets to go, the driver of the truck arrives, holding papers to be filled out.
We go into the office to pay. What’s the weight, they ask us? We say, the piano weighs about 650 pounds, but we have no idea about the rest. The woman thinks a bit. She taps a pencil against her lips. 20,000 pounds, she says. We say, that seems a little high.
We go back out onto the deck. Luis extracts the pallets from the loaded trailer and positions them up and down the loading platform. Then he takes each pallet, lifts it, and reads the read-out of its weight on a computer just under the forklift roof. We trust Luis. He likes us, asks us about teaching and education, tells us about his plans. He would like to study German. He writes down the weight of each pallet, loads each one back on the truck again, in the same order. He adds up his list of individual weights. 2,300 pounds, he says, and hands us his page of figures. We take it to the office. The woman with the pencil accepts it without hesitation. She taps a calculator. The cost for shipping to Guanajuato is $650. Same number as the piano, I think. That includes a 40% discount, she says. We smile and say thank you. We wait, while the other woman calls in the credit card numbers. They like Dianne. They have spoken English to us. Now they chat with each other in Spanish. The driver wants to get going. I think of him as the demigod Mercury. His eagerness to get on his way makes me wonder if the border can stop him.
Finally the credit card authorization comes through. The woman holding the phone nods to the driver, and he’s out the door. We say good-bye to the office workers and Luis, and get in the van. The spot the truck occupied at the loading dock is already empty. We wonder what will happen to our things.
For me, the border is Kafkaesque and dangerous. Less so for people like Dianne, who have nerves of steel. We stop to pay 17% duty on a few wildly under-assessed paintings and a few new items. This probably buys us credit metaphysically. When we press the button a few meters down the highway, we get the green light and keep on going, heading into the interior.
We remember there will be another customs stop at the 23-kilometer mark, and we are right. Our car permiso has expired, and we think we had better set matter right. We take our papers to a window. They tell us to go get two copies of my passport, our FM3’s, and my California driver’s license. We go back to the window with the copies. A pleasant young woman looks up the data. They didn’t used to be able to check on you, but now they can. The window is built so that you’re talking to thick glass. Your voice reaches the clerk through an opening far below the level of your chin. She can hear you well, but with traffic noise, you can’t hear her Spanish unless you bend over and put your ear to the opening. It’s hard to catch each important, bureaucratic word – more so, when you’re sixty-seven, tired, and stressed.
She says, you took the car back to the states without leaving the permiso with us. I nod. It is true. I say, in Spanish. We understood you didn’t have to renew the permiso, if you had the FM3, which we have. She says, when the car leaves Mexico, you have to give up the sticker; you can get another one when you return. You are delinquent by a year and four months.
I see a Kafkaesque wall rising. I ask, what can we do? She gives me instructions about going somewhere around the corner. I go look for the place, but don’t find anything that looks like a possibility. We get in the van. Dianne thinks we have to drive forward. We do that, but they tell us, we have to cross to the other side of the highway – for something, which I don’t quite catch. Dianne crosses on foot, asking questions at a small building that seems unused. Dianne beckons. I drive over to the building, where an woman agent sits in a small empty room and collects turned-in permisos.
I tell my story. She asks, where is the document that your present sticker used to be attached to. I say, I’m afraid I don’t have it. She says, well, you can’t enter Mexico. I roll my eyes, a communication gesture Dianne has tried to wean me from. The woman tells us we have to drive back to the other side of the highway and see the head Customs Agent himself.
I go back to the original window. I say, I’m sorry but I don’t understand the next step. She comes out of her office. She has taken pity on us and leads us out to the parking lot. She tells me to peel off the sticker from the inside lower left of the windshield. We walk back to the Customs Agent’s window, another tiny room with a modest empty desk, and a Sphinx-like man sitting behind it. Dianne tells me to go with the young woman. She, Dianne, will talk to the Customs Agent, without the help of my sullen looks. The young woman dumps me outside and tells me to come and see her again at her window when we have the Customs Agent’s decision.
Apparently, it’s up to him, whether we are forgiven for losing the sticker’s adjoining document. Dianne explains the situation to him in her clear direct Spanish. He signs the waiver. The two men after us, gringos, are not so successful. They lack proof that their car, a company car, has permission from the owner to enter Mexico. We translate for them. The man applying for the waiver is actually the owner of the company, hence of the car, too. But he must produce a business card to prove it. He only has a Xeroxed copy of one of his business cards. The Customs Agent decides against him. He and his associate must return to Nogales, Arizona side, and come back with real proof. They are stunned when we tell them this. We leave them in their misfortune. I am back at the original window of the young woman, with the dispensation in my hand. In ten minutes we have our new sticker and are on our way, entering deeper into Mexico. A few meters ahead we approach the Button again. We get the green.
We drive in the dark, something one should not do in Mexico. There are often things in the road: rocks that truckers place to keep their rigs from rolling as they work on them. Cattle, horses, or burros, which are black, or at least very dark and impossible to see until the last second, when it is too late. We finally find a motel in Magdalena.
In the morning, we hurry on. The truck, with our things on it, is hurtling down Mexican route 15, and we are racing to Guanajuato, to get there before the piano does. We call Yellow in San Luis Potosi in the morning to learn about the progress of the truck. It will not move on Saturday and Sunday, they say. We have time.
The following Saturday we arrive at Samuel’s tienda, a modest grocery store, two blocks of steps up from our house. His sister-in-law Lourdes, a woman who rarely speaks, and his son David carry the whole contents of the van down to the house. We pay them 100 pesos each. They park the car in the space we rent for $50 a month, and we fall into bed, newly re-united with our cat Lilus, who had flown down ahead of us with a veterinarian friend. Lilus keeps us awake, demanding reassurance.
The next day, Dianne makes phone calls. Goyo, who has moved pianos for the Festival Cervantino and his crew are standing by. Goyo has cased the approach to our house. They will carry the piano down the side of the canyon from the truck. Carry it. The truck is supposed to have a ramp. There was no ramp attached to the truck we saw loaded in Nogales. Our friend Marie, first oboeist in the symphony, has been talking to the piano movers. The truck is due on Monday between 11 and 11:30 in the morning. It arrives right on time; the piano movers are ready.
They disassemble the pallets and carrying all the permitted and not permitted items down to the house. Then they move the piano to the edge of the trailer. There is no ramp. The trailer truck has backed almost all the way to Samuel’s tienda, blocking access to the whole barrio. The left rear wheel of the tractor – the outer wheel – is suspended over a drop off. I photograph it with my digital camera. I sense the carriers are uneasy with my photographing. I think they think I’m recording evidence. I think I’m recording practical risk-taking. They tip the piano over the edge, and down it comes, six hundred and fifty pounds. Somehow the five of them break its fall. Then they place thick leather harnesses over their shoulders and lift the piano onto a dolly.
The dolly doesn’t work on the uneven steps, and they return to carrying. It takes them 30 to 45 minutes – maybe an hour – to carry the piano down two city blocks of steps, down through the alley, through the garden gate, through the garden, up the first set of garden steps, across the garden again to the stairs that lead up to the level of the living room. The movers strain, stop, set the piano down, lift on the count of three, strain, struggle ahead, set it down again. The weight is really more than five men can handle. It is hard to distribute the weight evenly. There are two looped leather straps, very thick, which go around the shoulders of two men in back and two men in front and then under the piano, one strap in back, one in front. The fifth man guides and heaves.
At last, they get the piano through the open French doors and into the sala, the living room. They attach the legs, and then stand the piano up. When everything is assembled, Dianne sits down and plays part of a Bach piece. The piano is still in tune. Everyone is amazed at everything: that they got it down the hill and into the sala, that it plays, that the task is completed, that Bach is with us in our house in Guanajuato. Dianne pays them 3,000 pesos, with a 500-peso tip. We have arrived. The piano has arrived. Everything we packed has arrived.
When everyone leaves, Dianne cries. She and the piano have completed a very long journey. She is very happy. And we both are exhausted.