Food Feature: The art of the deal in Tijuana

The King has left the barrio

In addition to the unseemly narcotics and immigrant smuggling trades, Mexican border towns are teeming with a carnie-barker economy of cheap counterfeit designer merchandise, craft and faux art, which includes the much coveted "velvet" Elvis variety. It was my desire to procure my own collection of this unique mainstay of Americana, and that's what brought me to Tijuana.

As I awaited the bus that would ferry me across the border (for $1), I got the feeling that "TJ" had enjoyed something of a renaissance. Once a place for drunken sailors to get screwed, stewed and tattooed, it seemed as though the city now attracted families. Sure there were the requisite ne'er-do-wells with gout-ridden fingers pawing crumpled dollar bills retrieved from stained, thrift-store pants, but for each human stain I saw on the bus, there were three or four well-dressed, well-groomed individuals, couples and even families, exhibiting the enthusiasm of shoppers heading to an outlet mall.

The bus deposited us in a station overflowing with souvenir vendors. I made my way through the maze of cha-cha merchandise, constantly repeating, "No gracias" as I dismissed the endless gauntlet of vendors who deemed me an easy mark.

Upon reaching Tijuana's main drag, the Avenue de Revolucion, I was bombarded by the din of stop-and-go traffic, rock 'n' roll music and enthusiastic hucksters hawking their wares. The audio assault was complemented by the smell of stagnant curbside pools of water and exhaust fumes. Tijuana may have become a haven for bargain-hunting tourists, but it remains a filthy city.

I quickly retained the services of one of the many street corner photographers, who for $10, will snap your picture with a donkey painted to look like a zebra. I am at a loss to understand the significance of being photographed with a zebra, as to the best of my knowledge, zebras are not indigenous to Mexico. But "when in Rome ... ." I sidled up to "Junior," donned a sombrero and smiled for the camera.

My trip now documented, I pressed on. There were leather goods, shot glasses, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike knock-offs at every turn. But velvet artwork was conspicuous by its absence. It was as if the paintings were purposely hidden to create the illusion that they are rare and in short supply. I stopped a passerby on the street: "Perdon senor. Donde puedo comprar las pinturas de tercipelo (Where can I buy velvet paintings)?"

I was directed to a tiny shop in the back of a small marketplace. I had prepped myself for what I expected to be intense haggling with numerous shots of tequila. Although not the bargain-basement prices I have enjoyed on previous trips south of the border, at $3 a shot (premium tequila) and $2 a beer, I was ready to negotiate for less than $20.

The shop contained numerous paintings of the likes of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Bob Marley. Tucked in a corner, I espied a portrait of the King. This particular painting captured the King during his 1970s "jumpsuit and jelly donut" period. His trademark sneer was complimented by bushy mutton chops, a rose- colored scarf and an oversized white collar.

"Cuanto cuesta para el Rey (How much for the King)?"

The shop owner sized me up. Smelling the tequila on my breath, he replied, "Eighty dollars."

"Senor, Estoy borracho, per no soy loco (I'm drunk, but I'm not crazy)."

Without flinching, he countered; "But sir. This is a very important painting. This artist is well-known for his paintings of Elvis."

"No me diga (you don't say)," I replied. "I bet if I walk around the block, I can find many paintings just like this one." I turned and began to walk away. "I'm also pretty sure the artist is a computer. ... Veinte cinco (25)," I said.

The shop keeper countered once more, "Fifty dollars."

I turned and walked toward the door. "Veinte cinco."

I could hear the rapid devaluation of the painting as I ambled out the door.

"Forty-five. Thirty. Thirty. That's it. I can go no lower," said the shop owner.

After a few more beers and a few more shots, I came upon another vendor who had a generous supply of velvet Elvis paintings: a 1970s Elvis with a tear on his cheek; a black-and-white likeness of the svelte, 1950s, "Love Me Tender" Elvis; as well as the "very important" headshot I'd seen in the other shop.

I asked him for a price. He replied, "Thirty dollars." Now I probably could have beat him down another 10 bucks, but I was feeling generous in a NAFTA kind of way, so I offered him $100 for four. He smiled and we had a deal.

After a quick lunch at Tijuana Tilly's (the once- raucous beer and shot joint is now more of a Bennigan's), I dumped another $50 into the Mexican economy and headed back to the bus station with bags full of hand-painted tin Christmas tree ornaments, a bobble-head Chihuahua, a half-dozen caballitos — hand-blown tequila shot glasses — and my newly acquired art collection.??

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