Jimmy Chagra was three years older than I and he was a senior at El Paso High when I was a freshman. I saw him punch out a kid in the hall by the library once, and another time I saw him pummel a tall, skinny dude in an Austin letter jacket in the parking lot of the Downtown YMCA. I gave wide berth to most of the seniors, but I tried to stay out of Jimmy Chagra’s sight altogether.
After I got out of high school and left El Paso, I would hear gossip throughout the 70’s that a lot of El Pasoans – I forget exactly who now, Officer – had involved themselves in the smuggling of mota from Mexico. It seemed like everyone in El Paso was doing it. Whenever I visited, I’d run into old acquaintances who had morphed into runny-nosed cosmic cowboys, bejeweled in leather vests, turquoise belts, and snakeskin boots. They would laugh as they told me that they were in the import business, wink wink, and Jimmy Chagra’s name often came up in this context, always as the head honcho.
My parents moved to a house in Mission Hills on Santa Anita just across the street from Jimmy Chagra’s parents and they would tell me how they would come home from dinner sometimes and find the whole street blocked off by the FBI doing a search of their neighbors’ home. My parents assured me that Jimmy Chagra’s mom and dad were the nicest people you would ever meet. “We don’t want to know what’s going on,” my own mom would say. “It isn’t any of our business.”
Naturally, I heard about the bust of the bunch of El Paso boys in Oklahoma, all of whom worked for Jimmy Chagra, and then I heard about Jimmy Chagra’s older brother getting killed. Later I heard about Jimmy Chagra’s indictment, the assassination of Judge John Wood, and how Jimmy Chagra was a person of interest. I heard he was arrested and given the sentence of life for ongoing criminal activity.
When I moved back to El Paso in the 80’s, I remember reading Gary Cartwright’s book Dirty Dealing, and I remember being fascinated by transcripts published in a now-defunct local magazine of incriminating conversations held in Jimmy Chagra’s new, wire-tapped Leavenworth headquarters.
After that, Jimmy Chagra receded from mind as people in the pen tend to do. Occasionally his name would pop up like other famous Pachucos – Debbie Reynolds, Gene Rodenberry, The Night Stalker – but he certainly commanded less and less attention as the years rolled on.
On and off throughout the first five years of the current millennium, I was writing profiles of El Paso personalities – mostly artists, writers, and musicians – for local publications, and just about the time I had come to feel it had run its course, I received a phone call from a woman with a deep East Texas twang. She told me that she was the sister of Jimmy Chagra’s first wife and that he had been reading my profiles online in prison. He liked them, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing an authorized biography in exchange for a percentage of the book, movie, and TV rights. He was out on parole after 23 years as a guest of the state, living under an assumed name in the witness protection program in metro Phoenix, and if I was interested I would have to travel there to discuss the details of a deal with him.
After recovering from the shock of discovering that Jimmy Chagra was such an astute judge of literary talent, I was intrigued and readily consented to meet.
He was living as James Madrid in a trailer park in Mesa, just east of Phoenix, with his third or fourth wife, depending on the telling. There was a tad of dotage to his carriage, but he had a prison-yard physique, lean and hard. He was tall, with a strong mustache and a rich Arizona tan. He chain-smoked Marlboro’s, just like a guy in the old days would, and his drink of choice was Seven-and-Seven. He spoke in a hearty baritone and he looked you straight in the eye. His own eyes shined as he talked of his life and his hopes for the fame and the fortune – mostly the fortune – that would rain down upon us as together we’d tell the details of his exploits including previously undisclosed facts about the case the Feds once called “the crime of the century.”
He had bona fide charisma and there was an undeniable appeal to the project but there was something else about him, something indefinable, something that told me this man is dangerous, this man is delusional, this man is insane.
He wasn’t that threatening however because it was clear he was only a shadow of who he once was. He no longer had a crew to carry out his nefarious and dastardly deeds, and he seemed to be primarily motivated, aside from his lust for wealth, to never be sent back to the big house. He told me that he did not want to die in prison. He was a man in check but there was still a feral narcissism about him that made me wary.
He told me that he would give me so many shares to the rights to his life in exchange for writing it up, but only if I bought more of the rights with some cash up front to get him through the time it would take to write the book and sell it.
That night I told a cousin who lives in New York who also remembered Jimmy Chagra from our school-days of the offer. He told the story to a friend of his – an editor at Simon & Schuster – and she passed it on to an agent who the next day rang me up. After grilling me about the story of Jimmy Chagra he told me he could put together a book and movie package of this kind of tale no sweat. It was Blow meets Casino meets Macbeth we agreed.
I got back to Jimmy Chagra and we struck a deal. I hired a lawyer to write up a contract, and upon our signing, I gave Jimmy Chagra a tidy chunk of change.
I began work on a summary of the story – something for me to wrap my head around and something the agent could shop around to publishers and producers. I re-read Dirty Dealing and I taped 4-5 hours of conversations with Jimmy Chagra covering a general overview of his life from which I wrote the summation. Jimmy Chagra wanted to know if we were almost finished yet and when could we expect an advance. “Writing a long book is going to take some time and we’ve hardly just begun,” I told him to his frowning face.
I originally tried to keep my involvement with Jimmy Chagra on the quiet but pretty soon it got around and then all anyone in El Paso ever wanted to talk to me about was Jimmy Chagra. Everyone had a Jimmy Chagra story that they wanted me to know. Jimmy Chagra burned them on a deal, cheated them in poker, screwed their girlfriend, or broke a pool cue over their head.
But I was only interested in what Jimmy Chagra had to say and I wanted to hear it from his point of view. He relished telling his stories and he told them well. We quickly established an easy and friendly rapport.
I taped 10 or 12 hours of his early years as a young punk hanging around El Paso, his very first smuggles, how his business outgrew Mexico as a source of produce and how he moved his operation to Colombia. Finally, I sat down at my computer in earnest to start the solitary chore of organizing and writing a book.
He had told me rough-and-tumble tales of derring-do and it was all really fun stuff to write. I spent whole days and weeks writing stories about clandestine meetings in Mexico with disreputable hombres and the thrill of flying low across the border in a plane full of weed. I wrote about shootouts with the Federales and plane wrecks, about deals gone bad, coke-fueled orgies with bunnies and starlets, kidnappings and chases. Women, drugs, gambling, outrageous amounts of cash – what could be more fun while sitting alone at the computer in my condo?
To make things even better, the agent had enkindled the interest of a high-powered movie producer. We all started to get excited, and that’s when the trouble began – a certain Jimmy Chagra kind of trouble.
Jimmy Chagra needed more money and he needed it now.
“When do I get my money,” was a question I began hearing with increasing frequency.
I kept explaining that we were still closer to the beginning of the project and the money usually came close to the end, but Jimmy Chagra needed money now. He offered to sell me a larger share of the rights at a discount, but I felt I already owned quite enough so I deferred and he actually seethed. I asked him what happened to the money I had given him just a few weeks earlier and he told me he had had bills and debts to pay and it was gone. I suggested he get a job until payday – certainly there was a Lebanese owned carpet store somewhere in Phoenix that would love the notoriety of having Jimmy Chagra work the floor, and he went ballistic. How dare I think he should have to work. He was Jimmy Chagra goddamn it – he once commandeered an army of drug smugglers, he once toted around millions in cash, he conspired to have a federal judge slain, his trial was covered in Time Magazine for God’s sake, why should he have to work?
I called the agent and tried to get a timeline about when we could get the man some scratch but he said we were going to need a whole lot more on paper before we could expect any cash. I asked him if maybe he could front Jimmy Chagra some money until then and he said, “Hahaha.”
I finished writing the early chapters and I was getting ready to return to Mesa for the next round of interviews, but the only subject Jimmy Chagra would broach with me was the sordid topic of coin. “I’m not doing any more interviews until I get more money,” he finally said.
I had been making great progress – it had only been a few months since he’d first contacted me and I had an outline for the whole book and I had finished the opening chapters. I had secured a Jewish New York agent who had enticed the interest of a big-time Jewish, Hollywood producer; it was all going so smoothly. I just wanted to proceed, and I decided if I was going to have to lay out a little more cash in order to get to the payoff, I was prepared to do so.
I called Jimmy Chagra back and told him that if he was reasonable I would help him get by for the next few months until we made the big sale, and he was exalted. I was his very best friend again. He explained to me what money he had, what money his wife had coming in, and how much his bills were each month. We figured if he got so much a month – not an unreasonable amount – for the next six months he’d be able to squeeze by and pay me back when proceeds from the project materialized. It was either lend him this cash – either I submit to this extortion – or I give up my big chance at a book and a movie, and so I agreed. I sent him a check for the first month of our new arrangement and I began to prepare for the next trip to Mesa.
A few days later he called me. “Thanks for the check,” Jimmy Chagra said, “but listen, bring the rest of the money in cash with you, okay?”
“What do you mean, the rest of the money,” I asked, and he said, “You know, the rest of the money you owe me. I want it now.”
“That’s not the deal we made,” I said, and he said, “You’re not going to dole an allowance out to me like I’m some child. I want the rest of my money now.” I asked what happened to the money I had just sent him and he told me it was none of my business. I asked him if he had lost it gambling, and he said it was his money and he could do whatever he wanted with it. “Actually it’s my money,” I said, and he said that actually it wasn’t because I had given it to him, it was his now, and how many goddamned times did he have to tell me he wanted it now, and that I’d better give it to him.
I told him I wasn’t giving him money under threat, and I certainly wasn’t giving him money just so he could lose it gambling, and he told me if I was a man of my word I’d give him what I had said I would and I’d do it now. I told him it was he who wasn’t keeping his word and then things went south. Who the hell did I think I was to talk to him like that? I was just a selfish son-of-a-bitch, a lying little bastard. Attempts to defend myself served only to intensify the obscenity of my being – I was a piece of shit, I was an asshole. While pondering if it was ontologically possible I could actually be both simultaneously, I could think of no retort other than some tit-for-tat which I just did not wish to engage in with proven bad-ass Jimmy Chagra, so I reiterated I wasn’t giving him more money, and I hung up the phone. He called right back but I didn’t answer and he didn’t leave a message. That was at 9 pm; I was in El Paso and he was in Mesa, with about a seven-hour drive between us. Six-thirty the next morning I awoke to banging on the door and the sound of Jimmy Chagra’s ominous baritone – “I know you’re in there, goddamn it, open the door.”
I am not embarrassed to admit I was shaken. Jimmy Chagra had just the night before pronounced me an asshole, and now he was banging on my door. I told him I wasn’t alone and that I wouldn’t let him in. After a moment’s pause and in a gentler voice he told me that we needed to work this out, we needed to talk. He sounded like the big bad wolf trying to sweet-talk his way into one of the little pig’s house. I had no intention of letting him in so I told him I’d meet him at The Village Inn in a half hour, and I watched from the window to make sure he drove away.
I need protection I thought. Damn! I wished I had a gun. I had a butcher knife, but I couldn’t walk around with a butcher knife, and my steak knives were just flimsy little things from K-Mart. I found a sharp pair of steel scissors, decided they would have to do and I put them in my back pocket. I imagined he’d attack me and, strictly in self-defense, of course, I’d kill Jimmy Chagra with the pair of scissors in The Village Inn. I imagined the mess it would make and the headlines in the next day’s papers.
When I got to the restaurant he was in a booth by the window and I sat across from him. He said we had to make amends and I concurred. For an instance a small hope flickered that we actually might, but then Jimmy Chagra said that what I needed to do was be at the bank when it opened at nine, withdraw the rest of his money, and give it to him. Then we’d be okay again he said, and we could proceed with the interviews.
I told him that wasn’t going to happen and he said well then that was it, I wasn’t a man of my word and he couldn’t work with me further. He would just have to sell the rights to his life to somebody else. “You can’t do that,” I said, “I already own the rights, we have a contract.” He asked me what good did I think that flimsy contract would do, and I replied I’d sue him and anybody with whom he put out a book or film.
Jimmy Chagra leaned across the table, looked me in the eye and hissed, “You don’t know who you’re fucking with, man.”
The silence between us was palpable and the scissors in my pocket were getting hot. Our eyes were locked, but then something unexpected happened: Jimmy Chagra blinked.
For what was almost an imperceptible instant, a look of panic crossed Jimmy Chagra’s mug. It wasn’t me he was afraid of I knew, it was the fear that he wasn’t able to intimidate me out of some cash, that he no longer had it, and that he wouldn’t be able to lose more of my money in a casino that day. He looked pitiful as we both knew that the other knew there wasn’t anything he could do, that his attempts to intimidate me were wasted. This chump is on parole, I thought, and if he keeps threatening citizens, all he’s going to get is his greedy ass tossed back in the clink.
The scissors grew cool in my pocket. I leaned back in the booth and, I couldn’t help it, I smiled at Jimmy Chagra. He looked at me incredulously and then he too leaned back. “You go ahead and sue me, motherfucker, you and I aren’t working together no more.” He turned his body away from mine and looked out the window and the truth of his statement sunk in. We weren’t going to come back from this and have the kind of friendly camaraderie and discourse necessary to write a book together like we’d earlier shared.
“We’ve put a lot of time into this already, Jim, and everything’s going good,” I said, but he just stared off out the window towards Mount Crazy Cat. I sat there for a minute, but when I realized he wasn’t going to respond, I got up and left The Village Inn.
That was the last time I saw Jimmy Chagra, but it wasn’t the end of our affair.
I went home and copied all the files to disks and gathered up the other physical detritus of my adventure in Jimmy Chagra World – the tapes of the interviews, the printouts of the transcripts, the outlines, summaries and text I had written – and I put it all in a plastic bag, wrapped it shut with tape and threw it on a shelf in a closet. Then I laid on my couch and stared at the ceiling for a couple of days. I thought about all the time and money I had wasted, and I wondered what was I going to do next.
One thing I realized I would have to do, I was going to have to spend the rest of my life Googling Jimmy Chagra every day to see if anyone else published a book or produced a screenplay about him so I could sue them. That would be an exciting future.
After just a few days, before I had even begun to snap out of my funk, the phone rang and it was none other than the man himself. “I found someone I can work with,” he said, “and he’ll buy you out.” I realized that whoever was doing the buying would certainly also be giving him more money and I begrudgingly, silently acknowledged respect that Jimmy Chagra could so constantly be on the hustle and always get away with it. Aside from those twenty-three years.
The new chronicler was a Las Vegas-based writer, and after minimal negotiation with his lawyer I agreed to hand over and relinquish all rights to my research and writing in exchange for remuneration considerably less than I had once imagined I would make off the life of Jimmy Chagra, but it was a profit and it was more than I had ever made from my writing before. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, and I decided I’d better grab it while I could. I arranged to travel to Vegas to hand over the goods, sign the contract and get the dough.
But what if it was a set-up? What if Jimmy Chagra had arranged with some of his old gangster buddies to have me whacked? What if they gave me a one-way ride out to the desert, made me dig a hole, popped a cap in my ass and buried me in the hot Nevada sand alongside all the other countless saps who had ever crossed the big boys? Oh, God! Should I take my scissors to Las Vegas with me?
I flew to Vegas with the fruits of my labor in hand and I checked into the Hilton, just off The Strip. I was genuinely paranoid but the exchange with the lawyer went seamlessly, and I deposited the check in a Las Vegas branch of my bank. When I got back to the hotel, I took a dip in the pool and I got a massage – a legitimate massage – from a Filipino lady at the hotel spa. After dining at the all-you-can-eat shrimp-and-prime-rib buffet, I went to the bar, ordered a martini, and made the acquaintance of a fetching young working girl who enticed me to invite her to my chambers. That was the first time I ever did anything like that. Well, in a Hilton. And the next morning, I caught a flight back to El Paso.
I felt completely adrift. The previous five months of my life had been consumed by Jimmy Chagra, and I missed working on the project. I had a few small jobs lined up – some photo-shoots, a short article for a local magazine – but it was trivial in content and scope compared to the drama of Jimmy Chagra’s life. I decided that now was a good time to make a break and change my own life. I wanted to get back to working on my personal photography, but I had too many distractions and too much baggage in El Paso, and besides, all anyone there ever wanted to talk about with me was Jimmy Fucking Chagra. I decided it was time for me to blow that dump, and within just a couple of months, I had moved to Albuquerque, not because I had any burning desire to live in Albuquerque, but just to get the hell out of El Paso, and the Duke City seemed like an easy move to make. Eventually, I moved a little further up the road to Santa Fe and as I had hoped, I became involved in my art and stopped spending any time at all thinking about Jimmy Chagra.
During the last week of July, however, I was driving up Galisteo with a friend when I got a call from a reporter from The El Paso Times. He had heard a rumor that Jimmy Chagra was dead and he wanted to know if I could confirm it. I told him I wouldn’t know. He said he heard I was writing a book about him and asked if I wished to comment. No, I didn’t, I didn’t wish to comment, and I explained that our literary brush up had been brief and unsuccessful. I wasn’t in touch with him any longer and I had nothing to say. He asked if I knew of anyone he might talk to for more information, and just in hopes of getting rid of the guy, I told him about the writer in Vegas and under what name and where the newly deceased had been living, and that he could probably track down his most recent wife there.
I told my friend what the phone call had been about and how I had avoided saying anything because I didn’t want to be all that associated with Jimmy Chagra any longer, but my friend said, “You said a lot.”
Sure enough, the reporter quoted me as the authority on the famous dead man’s assumed name and whereabouts, and he reported that I had tried to write a book about Jimmy Chagra but that he hadn’t cooperated. It got picked by the Associated Press and it ran in what seemed like every paper in the country that’s still publishing. It was in The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Jacksonville Whatever. Journalists will screw you every time, those lousy bastards.
And then my phone started ringing and the emails began pouring in. Everyone wanted to talk with me about Jimmy Chagra. What did I think about Jimmy Chagra? What did I think about his death? Well, I didn’t have any thoughts about Jimmy Chagra, or about his death, and I didn’t know what to say. I really didn’t care. I just want to work on my photographs, so leave me the hell alone about Jimmy Chagra already, or I’ll get out my scissors, because you don’t know with whom you’re fucking, man.