Drugstore Caballero

Recreational prescription drugs put Mexican farmacias on the map--and American pill seekers on the road

From the sound of it, I'm surprised the doctor could, either. Still, he presented each of them with a prescription for both Valium and amphetamines.

"Can you imagine any doctor in this country writing a prescription like that today?" asks Oscar.

No.
Which is exactly why the mood in the back seat is considerably less jovial than the festivities in the front seat, where Neil is now reenacting scenes from an After School Special about a teenage girl on drugs.

"Now you're sure this is legal?" asks Ed as we approach the border.
"Your doctor writes you a prescription and a pharmacist fills it," says Neil. "What's illegal about that?"

"But this isn't my doctor," counters Ed.
Neil flashes a wicked smile in the rearview mirror.
"He is if you give him $30."

Then, on a more reassuring note, he adds, "It is kinda scary your first time. This isn't your typical HMO."

After paying $4 to leave the van in a Burger King parking lot on the American side, we walk across the border into Nogales. My eyes are immediately riveted to a sign warning of the consequences of transporting "DANGEROUS DRUGS."

When I point it out to Neil, he shrugs. "'Dangerous' is a judgment call. We came here for 'relief.'"

Some relief.
It's been ten years since I've been to Mexico; 30 since I've visited Nogales. I've forgotten the poverty. Bands of skinny children swarm around us hawking Chiclets. Cradling a doll-like baby in one arm, a malnourished woman solicits handouts in a plastic fast-food cup. Just a few feet away, a zebra-striped donkey defecates in the street.

"Shit!" exclaims Neil, when we arrive at the shabby storefront where his doctor practices. "He's closed."

Taking this as some sort of omen, I suggest we call it a day.
"Are you kidding?" asks Neil, reaching for his wallet. "I've got his phone number here somewhere. He can be here in five minutes."

But, before he's able to locate the number, a Mexican guy accosts Oscar and mumbles something in Spanish.

"He knows another doctor who can see us, instead," says Oscar. "Let's go."
I feel cheap, dirty, scared. Wading deeper into this surrealist squalor, I suddenly experience one of those old "roach in the ashtray, flashing lights in the rearview mirror" adrenaline rushes of my youth.

Tossed into this same situation back in the early Seventies, I'd have been having the time of my life. Of course, back then, this trip would have been totally unnecessary. Pills were everywhere. At school. At parties. In the family hamper. (How I talked my way out of that one, I can't remember.)

But that was more than half a lifetime ago. Simultaneously exhilarated and appalled, I seriously question the wisdom of our seedy sojourn, even if it is being done under the guise of investigative journalism. But, before the good angel and bad devil on my shoulders have finished duking it out, we've arrived at the doctor's office--or "Stress Clinic" as the crudely lettered shingle reads. There's no turning back now.

Located in a small shopping arcade off the town's main drag, the doctor's office is like none I've ever seen. The tiny waiting room has all the ambiance of the customer-service counter at an auto-parts store--and a third-rate one at that.

A couple dingy, mismatched chairs are relics from the age of Herculon. There's a seriously out-of-whack Mediterranean-style Magnavox television dating back to the early Seventies; fluorescent pink and green bars strobe across the screen as Porky Pig stutters away in Spanish. The selection of reading material offers even less diversion--a back issue of Assembly Line Today and a conveyor-belt catalogue. A dust bunny floats across the floor.

After the shill disappears into the examining room, Ed mutters something about leaving. But before we can make a move, the shill and the doctor reenter the waiting room. After cursory pleasantries, the two men huddle together in a corner and chatter away in Spanish, occasionally acknowledging our presence by a hitched thumb or a suspicious glance over the shoulder. Were anyone to view a videotape of the scene, he would probably assume he was watching a dope deal going down. And that's exactly what he was seeing, albeit a "legal" one. The whole setup seems as transparently phony as the stripes painted on the "zebra" down the street.

Money changes hands. After collecting what appears to be a finder's fee, the shill leaves the office, presumably in quest of new patients. The doctor, meanwhile, disappears back into the examining room.

As soon as the doctor is out of earshot, Oscar makes a startling announcement. "If the federales show up and wonder what we're doing, here's the story: We've just brought in a friend who hurt herself in a dune-buggy accident in Rocky Point. And the minute they go in to see her, run like hell!"

Although Oscar later admits he was simply enjoying a joke at our expense, Ed and I immediately swap crazed glances; I mutter something about leaving immediately.

Stricken with paranoia, I can't believe I'm doing what I'm doing. We're in Mexico. To buy pills. And it's legal? Something seems wrong--terribly, terribly wrong.

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