USA TELEPHONE: 323-432-7978

Gill Gevins

Gill Gevins

Gill Gevins


“It was shortly after my arrival in Mexico that I decided to hold a surprise birthday party for my new bride. A surprise party is a foolish idea under the best of circumstances; in this case it proved to be nearly a fatal one.”


We were enjoying a late lunch on Los Muertos beach when the misguided notion first wormed its way into my sun-addled brain. Just behind us a mariachi band was lurching its way through an off-key, ear-numbing version of “Guadalajara”. Most of the restaurant’s patrons, faded ex patriot retirees who hadn’t missed a happy hour in ten years, didn’t seem to mind the music. Running a good four margaritas off the pace, I was not so fortunate.

Menu in hand, I motioned for the waiter and attempted to tell him in my most authoritative butchered Spanish that I was ready to order. Unfortunately, I committed a small error in pronunciation which changed just slightly the meaning of my statement. Instead of saying, “Waiter, I am ready to order,” I said,
“Waiter, I am ready to urinate.”
My wife turned beet-red with embarrassment and the waiter politely pointed out the general direction of the bathroom.
“Bathroom?” I said indignantly. “I don’t want the bathroom. I want to urinate. Right here. At the table.”
The waiter looked confused and a little sad. My wife kicked me viciously under the table–twice.
This was not the first time I had embarrassed my wife, who had lived in Puerto Vallarta for many years and who spoke excellent Spanish, by my insistence on practicing my new language at every opportunity.

The week before, at a party hosted by an important government official, I had verbally stumbled with even greater abandon.
The gracious host had taken me aside and inquired how I liked Puerto Vallarta.
“I love Puerto Vallarta,” I replied sincerely.
“And what do you like most about Vallarta?” my host asked.
“The sun, the people, and the…”
At this point I had intended to say how much I loved the seafood (mariscos). But I became confused and substituted unwittingly the word “maricones,” a sadly uncomplimentary term for gay men.
“.. I love the gay men!” I told my startled host.
“They are delicious. The best I ever tasted. And so inexpensive!” I concluded, beaming with enthusiasm.
My host nodded somberly, turned and walked away.
A little later at the same party I capped off the evening by asking the nine-year old girl whose birthday it was:
“So tell me, how many anuses do you have?”
The poor thing turned bright red and fled for her life. Back at the restaurant, my wife had finally tired of chewing me out and was munching on a plate of shrimp al mojo de ajo, when a covey of waiters suddenly surrounded a nearby table and, having first set a cupcake sporting a single candle before a couple of bone-white newly-weds from Nebraska, launched into the worst rendition of “Hebby Burrday” I had ever heard.
Birthdays, I thought to myself, everyone seems to be having a birthday. And Lucy’s is coming up in two weeks. I know, I’ll give her a surprise party to make up for humiliating her in front of half the town.

Back in those long-gone days, Puerto Vallarta was not the modern tourist destination it is today. It was a rustic little town where things were not so easy to arrange. Telephones were few and far between. Not many locals spoke English. And something simple like getting a drain unplugged could take days or even weeks. Realizing none of this, I foolishly set out to create a surprise party of truly Byzantine proportions.
In retrospect, my most serious blunder, aside from the decision to have the party in the first place, involved the fireworks. For some inexplicable reason, I had to have fireworks.
After a great deal of effort, I managed to acquire the approximate location of the quasi-clandestine fireworks factory. I set off in the early afternoon, behind the wheel of my Safari (a tin can like vehicle whose production was suspended in 1973 due to safety considerations). The factory was supposed to be located on the outskirts of a small village called Coapinole an hour outside of Vallarta. The road leading to Coapinole was poor to non-existent, but I managed to find the place without too much difficulty.
Pulling up alongside a small general store I asked the proprietor, “Donde estan los cueteros?” Cueteros are the men who fabricate and set off fireworks. The man gave me a set of directions, the key component of which seemed to be a left turn at “el rancho”.
I spent the next thirty minutes driving around in dusty circles in a vain attempt to find this rancho. I wasn’t exactly certain what a rancho was supposed to look like, but I had in mind an image of the “Ponderosa” from the old Bonanza TV show: corrals, horses, cattle and pastures.
Needless to say, neither Hoss nor Little Joe was available to help me and I was reduced to repeatedly stopping and asking for fresh directions. But no matter whose directions I followed, I kept returning to the same two story building where a wild party seemed to be in progress. From within its unpainted cinder block walls, earsplitting music, boisterous shouting, wild laughter and even the occasional scream could be heard. Finally, I climbed out of the Safari and asked a staggering passer-by where the rancho was. He pointed drunkenly to the two-story building and said “Rrrrrrrancho!”
When I expressed my lack of comprehension, the man suddenly began to dance around in the dirt, gyrating his hips and making unusual grunting sounds.
My first thought was that the man was doing an Elvis impersonation. But then it suddenly dawned on me: a rancho was, among other things, a whorehouse.
I turned left and drove to the end of the road where I found a barbed wire fence and a crude gate.
The trail was clearly marked and easy to follow. Down one hill. Up another. Through a small grove of coapinole trees. Past a herd of cows, etc.
After walking for about two kilometers, I cleared a small rise and came upon a sign set in the dirt which read: “Peligro” (danger). Ah, I must be getting close, I thought. A hundred meters further on was a larger sign bearing the same warning, and a hundred meters beyond that still another even larger sign with giant blood-red letters: “PELIGRO!”
The fireworks factory, when it finally came into view, consisted of a thatched lean-to, several crude wooden benches and a long equally crude wooden table.
Three of the dirtiest men I had even seen were huddled together around the table connecting fuses to an enormous infernal-looking contraption I could not even begin to identify.
The oldest of the three came forward and greeted me effusively. He was short, stout and bore an enormous round scar on his shirtless torso. His hair, his skin and most of his clothes were covered with a thin film of black powder which, I later learned, was TNT. Thankfully, no one was smoking.
The old maestro and I got on famously, and I soon found myself in possession of three dozen rockets and a wheel-like device called a “corona”. The maestro and his two sons gave me all manner of instructions and admonitions as to the proper handling of the fireworks, but they spoke far too rapidly for my inexperienced ear. In fact, aside from the price, all I was able to decipher with certainty was the word “peligroso” (dangerous), which they must have repeated at least ten times.
Back in town, I cached the rockets with a nervous neighbor. Then I went home and attempted to explain away yet another mysterious absence to my wife.
Lucy, not a jealous woman by nature, was beginning to suspect that I was having an affair. And I could hardly blame her. I had been taking an awful lot of long walks and aimless drives lately. Of course, what I had really been doing was inviting all of the guests, most of whom had no telephones.
This is, I discovered, the principle reason why having a surprise party for a spouse is such a stupid idea: lies, half-truths, devious behavior: no way to treat the person nearest and dearest to one’s heart.
I had a feeling that Lucy was about to ask, “Who is she?” so I told her I was going down to the beach for a swim.
Actually, I was on my way to a secret rendezvous with the off-key mariachi band.

By the time the fateful night had arrived, I had degenerated into the proverbial nervous wreck. A slight but persistent twitch had developed under my left eye and my lips had become bleached a whitish pink by over doses of Maalox Plus.
But everything was arranged. At precisely seven-thirty the mariachis would come gushing into the house horns ablaze, followed by our twenty guests and the neighbors bearing the twenty T-bone steaks I had stored in their fridge.
The diversion — every surprise party must have a diversion — was a birthday dinner at the Camino Real hotel. Lucy had just finished dressing and was not in the best of moods. Aside from being largely convinced that I had been plowing in forbidden fields, she had never been in favor of the birthday dinner. What she really wanted, she had made clear on six or seven occasions, was (God help me!) a birthday party.
I withdrew the bottle of birthday champagne from the ice bucket (champagne at the Camino Real was out of the question) and popped the cork. This, of course, was the “signal”.
In marched the mariachis playing “Las Mananitas,” followed by the throng of invitees. Lucy, taken miraculously, completely by surprise, burst into tears.
Words cannot express how elated I felt to see those tears of joy and the look of absolute love on my wife’s blushing face. But I had no time to linger over sweet sentiments. So I gave my ecstatic wife one long passionate kiss, and then set to work, blithely ignorant of the fact that I was about to come frighteningly close to killing myself and many of my guests not once, not twice, but three separate times. Several of the invitees had been assigned the various tasks of setting up the bar and schlepping the booze and such over from the neighbor’s house. While they performed these critical functions I applied myself to the barbecue.
My impromptu grill (a rack purloined from our stove and supported by a bunch of bricks) held only five steaks, so I was beginning with a serious disadvantage. Hurriedly, I laid out a bed of charcoal on the ground in our small courtyard, only to realize that I had no starter fluid. This was a serious problem. In those days, self-starting briquettes, or briquettes of any kind were not available in Puerto Vallarta. Charcoal, of the homemade variety, was purchased at lumberyards.
I panicked for a moment before remembering that I had a half a liter of Raicilla (Mexican moonshine) stashed under the kitchen sink next to the Drano.
Raicilla, I had once been told, has such a high alcohol content that it could be used as a charcoal starter. As I stood dowsing the coals with Raicilla, my boss walked over and asked if I needed any help.
“Maybe, Chuck,” I said. “I’m trying to light the charcoal with Raicilla. We might have a lot of huffing and puffing to do.”
Chuck sipped his vodka and laughed good-naturedly. “Lighting a barbecue with Raicilla; that’s the funniest thing I ever heard.”
“Well, it’s either that or eat our meat raw,” I said, taking out a match.
“So, here goes nothing.”
I tossed the match onto the coals, not expecting much in the way of a reaction.
“Hiroshima, but on a smaller scale,” was how it was later described.
Chuck and I instinctively jumped back, but not before we had lost various hairs on many of the exposed portions of our physiognomies. My boss, luckily for me, was not a shorts man. The thermal blast had badly singed his lower trousers, which, much to my dismay, I realized were actually smoldering.
“Jesus, I’m sorry, Chuck,” I exclaimed. “I had no idea.”
“No problem,” Chuck said shakily. “I think I spilled my drink.”
As Chuck stumbled off to get a refill, Tony, a hypochondriac time-share salesman who also happened to be a Vietnam vet, walked over and said,
“Jesus Christ! If we’d had that stuff in Nam we could’ve won the war.”
In any case, the Raicilla turned out to be an amazing charcoal starter; it didn’t just start the coals, it immolated them. Within minutes they had all turned a lovely uniform white.
Everything was moving along beautifully now. My wife was in heaven. The guests were eating, drinking, dancing and laughing their hearts out. The steaks were popping off the grill like clockwork, cooked to perfection. I only had one small problem. There were twenty-two guests and only twenty T-bones. I had no choice but to eliminate two meat eaters.
“Tony,” I said, “you want to her the dumbest thing?”
“Was it something I said?” Tony asked defensively. Besides being a hypochondriac, Tony was also a certified paranoid schizophrenic.
“No, this kid who works at the butcher shop,” I said. “This kid tells me, as I’m walking out with twenty T-bones, that there’s some kind of new microbe they’ve discovered that doesn’t affect the cows but is fatal to humans. I said ‘kid, you better get another job.’ Can you believe…
” Tony had already begun to back away from the barbecue pit, covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief.
My next victim was David, another time-share salesman who was a fairly serious alcoholic as well as the most shameless freeloader I had ever met.
David was always the first to arrive at a party and the last to leave, as long as the booze held out.
I did not have to seek David out. He was operating on a tight schedule which brought him by the barbecue area every five minutes to see if his steak was ready.
“David, I told you, we’re serving the ladies first.”
“No problema, no problema,” David said, taking a huge gulp from his giant glass of vodka. “Did I mention, rare is fine? I’m not fussy. I can eat it practically raw.”
I knew exactly what David was up to. He was hoping to double-dip: get one rare T-bone early, then an over-cooked one late.
“David,” I said, dropping my voice to a confidential whisper. “I’ve got a problem.”
“What’s that?” David asked, inching closer.
“We’re going to run out of booze, especially the vodka. Could you help me out? Run down to the corner and pick up a couple of bottles of Smirnoff’s?”
“Sure, sure, no problema,” David replied.
“Thing is, I’m out of cash,” I confessed. “I’ll pay you back later.”
“No problema.” David turned and headed straight for the bar to top off his half-full glass. That took care of steak number two. David would be passed out in half an hour at the most. We’d just plant him off in a corner of the garden where he’d be out of harm’s way.
By eleven o’clock, the food was gone, the booze was, in fact, running low and the mariachis had packed up and gone home. David had been dragged under an avocado tree where he was snoring contentedly. All that remained to cap off a wildly successful night were the pyrotechnics. While my wife and most of the guests gathered in our small canyon-like courtyard, I climbed up to the third floor of the house and out onto a narrow cement ledge. It was from this precarious perch that I planned to manually launch the three dozen TNT-loaded rockets.
I picked up the first projectile and examined it uncertainly. The truth is, I had never set one off before and was not sure how to proceed. I was looking at a fat, five-inch long cardboard tube with a long stick attached to it. The fuse was located at the bottom of the tube and seemed awfully short for such a long rocket.
Should I hold the rocket by the tube (three of which would have made a nice stick of dynamite) or by the long flimsy stick?
Holding onto the tube as I lit the fuse did not seem like such a swell idea.
What if, instead of launching itself skyward, it simply exploded?
Somehow, holding it by the long flimsy stick didn’t feel entirely right either. But in the end, I opted for the stick.
Holding a cigarette in my right hand and the stick in my left, I shouted,
“Here goes!” to the crowd gathered below.
Just as the tip of the cigarette was about to make contact with the fuse, however, someone screamed:
It was Ubaldo, the only person at the party who had ever lit a Mexican rocket before.
“Not the stick!” Ubaldo yelled. “You hold the rocket – not the stick!”
Suddenly, in a flash of lucidity, I realized that the stick was located below the rocket, thus placing it, as well as my hand, squarely in the path of the rocket’s fiery thrust.
So I grasped the fat cardboard tube gingerly in my left hand (if the launch goes awry, I reasoned, at least I’ll still be able to write my name), touched the cigarette to the fuse and held my breath.
The rocket ignited and I fought the strong urge to immediately let it go. You have to allow the rocket to gather a bit of momentum, I had been told, before you release it. While I waited the second or two for this momentum to build, I tried my best not to pee in my pants.
But up it soared high into the sky in a beautifully straight trajectory, before exploding with a huge, thunderous bang.
Down below, everyone clapped and cheered. I took a theatrical bow, and nearly fell off the narrow ledge.
By the tenth rocket, I had gained a certain degree of confidence. By the twentieth, I was beginning to feel a little cocky, which was not wise. On the twenty-first launch, I decided to release the rocket with a stylish flick of the wrist. Unfortunately, the flick threw off my timing and the rocket took a nose-dive straight into the garden.
“Run!” I screamed. “Inside! Everybody inside!”
As the rocket attempted to burrow itself into the ground, most of the guests ran screaming into the house. My boss, Chuck, and David were two of the exceptions. Chuck, his reflexes slowed by one double too many, made it to his feet and had taken only two unsteady steps before the rocket exploded. David, passed out on the ground not ten feet from the blazing tube, was of course in no condition to go anywhere.
The blast, focused by the four walls of the small courtyard, was unbelievably loud. Chuck, already dazed and confused by the alcohol and his near death experience at the barbecue pit, belatedly covered his ears and began to stumble around in circles, mumbling, “I’m deaf. I’m deaf. I’m deaf.”
David’s reaction was somewhat less orthodox. Like a man who has been awakened from a dream in which he is being chased by a shark, David, lying prone on his belly, began to wildly thrash his arms and legs in a fruitless attempt to swim across the courtyard.
I raced down the stairs and up to my boss. “Chuck, are you all right?” I demanded.
“What?” he said, shaking his head like a wet dog.
“Are you okay?” I repeated.
Chuck’s hearing loss was only temporary but I did not know that at the time. I began to review in my mind the availability of alternative career choices.
“What about the corona?” Ubaldo asked.
Ah yes, the corona.
The corona is a wheel-like device made of bamboo sticks with four rockets attached to it. It is set upon a pointed stake and lit. In theory, it begins to spin around and around until it has acquired sufficient thrust to lift itself up into the air, where it spirals high into the sky emitting copious showers of sparks and smoke.
I decided to set off the corona out in the street where there was more room. The street, Basilio Badillo, was a heavily trafficked road even in those days, but it seemed a better choice than the courtyard.
“How do we anchor the stake?” I asked Ubaldo.
“I don’t know,” Ubaldo shrugged. “With some bricks or something.”
I placed a stack of bricks all around the stake, set the corona on top and put the end of a lit cigarette to the fuse.
The fuse, which contains several firecrackers just to make things more interesting, exploded–which was normal. The corona began to spin around, which was also normal. Then the stake, which I later learned should have been buried at least a foot deep in the ground, fell over. The corona, prematurely separated from its launching pad, began to hop and skip insanely around the street before finally coming to rest under the gas tank of a parked car. As the smoke continued to billow and the sparks to fly out from under the car, everyone scattered.
“It’s gonna blow!” Tony, seized by an involuntary Vietnam flashback, screamed.
The entire street filled with smoke as traffic came to a standstill and everyone waited, from a safe distance, for the impending explosion. Interestingly enough, the gas tank did not explode. But by the time the smoke had cleared out, so, too, had all of our guests. Except for David who (having failed to breaststroke his way out from under the avocado tree) had slipped back into sweet dreams of open bars, complimentary buffets and generous, willing women with large breasts and even larger bank accounts.

© Gil Gevins