Back when God was a little boy (as my Mumsie used to say), there was an article in Warren Hinckle's fabled Ramparts Weekly that explained how to drive and drink at the same time. The drink of choice was Martinis, very dry.

What you did was to mix the drink up ahead of time, chill it thoroughly, fill up a thermos --- and, if possible, have your wife or secretary or bartender in the passenger seat to hand it to you. A coffee cup was recommended (there had to be some concessions; a Martini glass, complete with olive, might be a bit too obvious).

Just to make sure, it was suggested that one might want to hold the cup down low, below window level --- and have some chewing gum about in case you were stopped.

Those were the days, weren't they? A time when we believed that one of the tasks of 20th Century Rationalism was to figure out how we could drink and drive at the same time without getting busted. A noble era, indeed; a time when we weren't so brainwashed; a time when we didn't automatically think "felony" every time we had the urge to enjoy a well-lubricated drive home from work.

Fortunately, those of us who delight in such freedoms can visit other countries where the sin-level hasn't dropped so low that one can get stuck in the slammer for five years for such festive behavior. For instance, where I live --- far from the winds of American courtrooms --- drinking while you drive is more or less the norm. It is a sign of your manhood if you can actually make it home without crawling your car up a tree or down an embankment.

In the slightly respectable colonia where I live, much to the admiration of the neighbors, a nearby cement power pole was demolished on New Year's Eve by a drunk in a Ford 250 --- a sign that the right to navigate stewed out of your mind is still alive and well here.

They say that the driver was so thoroughly soused that he survived a direct hit --- one broken nose, twenty stitches to the face --- the Mexican equivalent of a dueling scar. The police were called, but a few well-placed pesos by a companion took care of the danger of time in the pokey. They say that after the payment of the "little bite" --- the "mordida" ($100 U.S., presumably for destroying the property of the Federal Comisión de Electricidad) --- a half-consumed bottle of tequila and a small baggie of a suspicious white powder were returned to the owner. No questions asked. Now that's civilization in action.

The very fact of the existence of the mordida convinces some of us that we are living in one of the most progressive democracies in the western world. It's the great grease that makes us all equal, from the poorest taxi driver to the richest businessman. If you are caught, as all of us will someday be caught, with your car up a light pole or with your hand in the cookie-jar or with your pants down, the Ceremony of the Passing of the Gelt will and does fix everything. Of course, there are a few things you have to be careful about.

One is, we don't use the word bribe. It's inelegant; we do not call a spade a spade.

And you don't say to the man in uniform, "Can I pay you?" or "How about some money to fix this up?" The preferred question is, "Is there anything we can do about this, officer?" ("¿No hay nada que pudiamos hacer?" Tourists! Memorize that phrase!)

If the arresting officer moves in close to the car door, you can assume that he is inviting the mordida, but you don't just wave the money out the window, lord knows. The preferred position is inside, just below the level of the window. You hold the cash there --- no checks or credit cards accepted --- and the agent of the government sweeps his hand in and out and into his pocket in one quick move.

There are extremes to be watched out for. Mexico City lists days on which all --- native and tourist alike --- are not allowed to drive, depending on the last digit of the license plate of the car. This sounds fairly simple, but we live in a land of carefully nurtured confusions, in which the officers of the law use to their best advantage.

Once I was stopped out near a sink-hole of a village named Toluca, which lies twenty-five miles to the west of the capital. I was told that my license plate had the wrong number, that the proscription against driving extended far, far beyond the Mexico City limits --- perhaps all the way to Guadalajara (or Guatemala) --- and since it was late Friday afternoon, I might have to stay over until court convened on Monday (or, because of the upcoming holiday --- there are always upcoming holidays --- it might be Tuesday, or Wednesday, or Thursday before my release.)

The officer was a gentleman. He was also polite but insistent. There was little bargaining to be done, and he relieved me of a goodly portion of my vacation fund. But then again, have you ever seen the inside of the Toluca jail?

My friend Tom was unfortunate enough to be driving through Mexico City with trailer which, in itself, and given the traffic and the race-car attitude of the city drivers, is not unlike attempting to cross the Atlantic, in a double-beamed kayak, in midwinter. In addition, he was abroad when he shouldn't have been and was stopped by not one but two police. The damage was close to 2,000 pesos. He wasn't eager to wrangle; he had, like most of us, gotten lost trying to navigate the city and was damn sick and tired of it.

However, there was a bonus. For his $220 (US), he got two motorcycle policemen, with sirens, escorting him, at high speed, stopping all traffic, not unlike a major political figure, to the final exit to Puebla. "I probably got through Mexico City faster than anyone that day," he told us later. Forty-five minutes for what would, usually, be a four- to six-hour journey on clogged streets.

He considered it a bargain.

--- Carlos Amantea

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