Gladys is taking me down a side street in TJ, a street between the avenues Revolucion and Constitucion. It‘s a pleasant day, not too hot, a soft breeze going. The street is void of the usual bustle of tourism; the shops are relatively empty. All of a sudden we’re in Mexico, not just Tijuana. The sun has not followed us to this avenida. Colors are subdued — only blacks, grays and browns. No plaster Betty Boops, no multicolored rugs, no velvet Elvises. Although Gladys has been on this trip more than a dozen times, she still gets a little disoriented. She scolds herself. Finally we see the sign, swinging slightly from above, a small painted white wooden weathered sign with the letters not so carefully painted in. Gladys points with glee, and then pats herself on the back. See, she knew Dr. Gomez‘s office was here, she knew it all along.
Gladys is a good friend of mine and is taking me to visit Dr. Gomez. She’s long been the envy of many friends with her apparent endless supply of cure-all pills. She‘s a regular A.A. member, but doesn’t believe in pain. I never really questioned it before, I just enjoyed her generosity and medicine cabinet. And now Gladys is letting me in on her little secret. She takes a trip to Tijuana to visit Dr. Gomez. She‘s a believer in those monthly checkups. One can never be too sure. And besides, she assured me, it’s all very legal. I‘m cautious of breaking the law.
Gladys forges ahead, leading us through a grimy glass door into a rundown foyer plastered with homemade Magic Marker signs all over the walls. There’s an old wooden staircase to the right leading to a second floor. I guess we‘re in some sort of medical building, but it really doesn’t feel that way. Gladys knows right where to go, oblivious of the surroundings, acting like she owns the joint. She marches up the creaky staircase that leads to the doctor‘s office, another grimy glass door with panel windows. (I guess no one really does have anything to hide.) Before entering, Gladys peers through the smudgy glass, searching for Nurse Oscar. She sighs with relief as she spots him. They hug in the waiting room (I guess that would be what it was) like old lovers. He leads us into the doctor’s office, where Dr. Gomez sits behind a battered old desk, puffing on a smoke, dressed in a soiled shirt, half buttoned with his belly spilling out over his wrinkled Levi‘s. Nurse Oscar is a bit better groomed. No white coats here.
We take a seat across from Dr. Gomez, raising our voices over the blaring TV facing his desk. Dr. Gomez is friendly enough, but generally aloof. Gladys and I both go for our cigarettes as Nurse Oscar graciously provides us each with our own ashtray. As doctors and nurses go, they are certainly accommodating. Nurse Oscar even lights my cigarette.
Gladys draws a big drag and begins exchanging pleasantries with the doctor. Finally he asks what ails her this time. She reaches for her purse and motions me to do the same. We each pull out lists. I’m somewhat prepared for this stage of the examination. Earlier, on the drive down, Gladys and I went over my list. As I hollered out each drug to Gladys, she‘d puff on her cigarette and enthusiastically yell back, bobbing her head up and down, “Oh yeah, oh yeah.” When I got to methqualone, Gladys choked exhaling her smoke. “Are you kidding? We’d be stopped in traffic now if that were even a remote possibility.” I carefully squeak out my order, making sure not to mention methqualone.
Dr. Gomez sits motionless. He gives a big sigh. Prices have gone up, and there seems to be a shortage of our most desired request. There is a shortage of Valium. Gladys‘ face falls. She’s crushed. There is an uncomfortable silence. But wait! Dr. Gomez has an idea. He might be able to pull a few strings. Gladys perks right up and darts me a look that says shut up, this isn‘t a place to haggle. All of a sudden a portable phone appears, and Nurse Oscar is thumbing through the yellow pages. Another of Dr. Gomez’s nurses arrives (I assume — they have the same outfit on), and they land three different pharmacies that might fill our prescription. Only at the newly inflated price, naturally. Gladys has much gratitude for what they are going through. Of course. Of course we‘ll take it.
We’ve been in the doctor‘s office now for 45 minutes. The two nurses have made two trips to pick up from their pharmacy connections. The going price for Valium, 60 bucks for 90; codeine, a buck a pill; Ritalin, 50 cents apiece. With all the commotion going on, Gladys develops a headache. She bellows to Nurse Oscar for some aspirin. He tries to give her codeine, but she says no, gotta drive, just some plain aspirin. He rummages through every drawer and keeps coming up with narcotic substitutes, which Gladys declines every time, shaking her head back and forth irritably. What kind of medical institution is this, no aspirin? She finally gives in to a Fiorinal. After checking with me if I wouldn’t mind driving back, she then pops a codeine on top of it. Great. She gets to take her pills, and I can‘t even have a cheap margarita.
While the two nurses are running all over Tijuana (they would have us believe) for Valium, Gladys chain-smokes cigarettes, tapping her feet and fingers like an imperious Valley housewife. I sit there quietly, studying my longtime friend. No one would suspect her love for pharmaceutical drugs. Her look is conservative — her years of accountancy have chiseled her features. But when the subject of drugs comes up, she lights up like a crazed hippie. She starts sputtering at the simplest inquiry. She’s the absolute last word on every drug. She pores through a PDR like a phone book. No one dares argue with Gladys when it comes to dope.
My trance is interrupted by the arrival of a visitor (er, I mean patient). Dr. Gomez leads her to an adjoining room (I guess that was the examination room). Gladys is getting impatient and goes to check on the doctor (the door was left open). An astonished Gladys returns, squealing, “There‘s a patient in there, and Dr. Gomez is doing an exam! I’ve never seen that before in my life. There‘s a woman lying on a table.” I shrug my shoulders. I admit, it does seem out of place. We go back to smoking our cigarettes.
Finally, Nurse Oscar and his accomplice return, all outta breath, with the dope stuffed in their shirts and pockets. Why does all this feel illegal, even though it’s supposedly not? They pile the bottles on the desk, stacking them according to price, as we start counting out our cash. No Blue Cross–Blue Shield here, baby.
The nurses are ordered out again. The examination has begun. We each hand over our driver‘s license to the good doctor (Gladys nods to me that it’s okay), and he sits at his typewriter. And what a typist he is. Now I‘m convinced that all his medical training has not been in vain. I mean, a legible prescription? He grunts and wheezes as he taps out every letter with the utmost precision, paying close attention to every detail of our names and addresses. He’s a bit absent-minded now, and has to be reminded of which drugs go with which prescription. Gladys is only too happy to go over it again, enunciating each syllable like a precocious child in a spelling bee. The doctor continues tapping and then tears the prescription from the typewriter like an author banging out the last line of a novel. He‘s obviously pleased with himself that he has once again fulfilled his God-given talent. Oh, the healing powers of the medicine man! He hands us each our prescription while Gladys instructs that we stuff our bottles of pills in various hiding places. (Hey, I thought this was all legal, what do we have to hide?) We have a little goodbye chitchat with Dr. Gomez and shake hands. The two nurses appear again, this time with an order of soup, beans and rice. Dr. Gomez and Nurse Oscar have had a hard day’s work. Time for an early dinner break, perhaps then a siesta, then back to the yellow pages and typewriter. The tools of the medical profession.