Mauricio Across the Border - Part 2

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Mauricio moves back to Mexico. He finds himself in a whirlwind of fame as the star of the hit television show, Tunéme La Nave, the Spanish-language version of Pimp My Ride. But then life catches up with the fantasy. Maurcio tries to cross back to the U.S. and is abandoned in the desert.    

Miss part one of this story? Listen here.

This story is also available in Spanish through NPR’s Spanish-language podcast Radio Ambulante.

Read the script below:

LEVI: Mauricio grew up in a historic neighborhood where a guy rides a bicycle through the streets at night selling tamales.

MAURICIO: The tamale guy, it’s a really popular thing over here in Mexico. 

The street Mauricio grew up on is like a parody of what you’d expect. 

MAURICIO: I used to miss this...

It’s in a car neighborhood, lined with parts stores and mechanics who specialize in different repairs.

MAURCIO: Every business here is about cars: bolts, cables, batteries, radiators. Right across, you have engines, they fix transmissions. On the other side they fix the suspension.

Mauricio used to ride his bike through here, peering in at what the mechanics were doing on his way back home.

MAURICIO: Well this is the house.

The house Mauricio grew up in is small, painted green green – shaded by tall palm trees that his grandfather planted. When he left LA, it was his first time back here in nearly 20 years. His first time in Mexico as an adult. And he realized there were parts of his own identity that he hadn’t really explored.

MAURCIO: If you go outside Mexico… and live outside your country for 20 years, you come back to your country, it’s like coming back home. You feel so [much] more Mexican. If you were Mexican, you feel two thousand percent more Mexican.

Mauricio’s got tattoos all over his arms, including a huge West Coast Customs logo. And when he got to Mexico, he started adding tons of new ones of important figures in Mexican culture and history. 

MAURICIO: Zapata. Pancho Villa. Miguel Hidalgo, Benito Juárez, La Quetzalcoatl, Coyolxauhqui. Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez.

Mauricio left Mexico with dreams of being on television. But what’s extraordinary about Mauricio is his wildest dream did come true. Just not on the side of the U.S. border he would have expected.

Sunset at Mauricio’s shop (Photo Courtesy of Levi Bridges)

[SOUND: "TUNÉAME" THEME SONG]

Once Mauricio got back to Mexico, the two guys who brought the West Coast Customs brand to Mexico came up with the idea to launch a version of "Pimp My Ride" in Spanish. And Mauricio became the host. They called the show “Tunéame La Nave” — it’s a direct translation of "Pimp My Ride" that’s so perfect it’s almost poetic.

MAURCIO: To me when they say we're going to record this show to me was a test. Let's see what happens. 

Mauricio didn’t get his hopes up. They made a pilot, but nobody was sure whether it would go anywhere. The idea was that people would send in pictures of their cars each week and Mauricio would choose which one would get tuned up.

[ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"]

Woman: ¡Ay por favor no sea mala onda, tunéame la nave de mi hermano!

Man: ¡Por favor TV Azteca tunéame la nave!

Mauricio designed most of the show himself. He didn’t want there to be any acting, not like on "Pimp My Ride.” But most of all: he wanted the show to be funny.

MAURCIO: I wanted to put the salsa in it. Mexicans we always wanna put chili in it, we want to put lemon in it, we want to put salt in it. So I wanted to put the spices in it, you know.

The result was a like a blend of Three Stooges and "Pimp My Ride". Where workers bumble around the body shop spilling paint thinner on each other.

Fade up archive tape, fade out under next track

[ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"]

Mauricio: ¡Eh Churromais qué te pasó!

Churromais: Disculpe Mau, la neta.

Mauricio: ¡Mira nada mas me llenaste de tinner.

The show got picked up by TV Azteca, one Mexico’s main television channels.

MAURCIO: After the show air, it hit big. I had fans from five years old to 70 years old. 80 years old.

Suddenly Mauricio’s show was being broadcast  to every state in Mexico.. Mauricio became famous in his own country. He was literally the Xzibit of Mexico’s "Pimp My Ride".

[ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"]

xxxxxxxxxxxx Announcer: Siempre existe un líder en cualquier proyecto. ¡Él es Mauricio!


Mauricio speaks before a crowd of fans in Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández

MAURCIO: Nobody told me you're gonna become famous. A lot of people started to recognize me. 

Not long after the show started to air, Mauricio went to downtown Coyoacan — not far from the Mexico City neighborhood where he grew up. A crowd of people surround him.

MAURCIO: And they start asking me for a picture. And then it was an autograph. And then it was a picture. Then it was an autograph.  It was full of people, you know, so I couldn't move. I just started walking fast, walking fast. And everybody was following me like 'Hey come on, come back.' 

LEVI: And when you were a kid, you always wanted to be on TV. Did you think about that part of it? [MAURICIO LAUGHS] You know that like you can't just go out of the house anymore? Were you aware that was part of the deal?

MAURCIO: Of course! When you're a little kid, you never thought about being famous. I always wanted to be in television. 

Mauricio didn’t let it go to his head. He was flattered by the attention. And pimping out cars for free, that felt so good in a country like Mexico. Where it’s way harder for people to afford things. Where material things, especially cars, can sometimes have way more value than in the U.S..

MAURCIO: When you buy your first car in Mexico, you take care of your car for long, long time. People of Mexico, we love our car. The car is part of the family. You talk to them, you call 'em your baby, you put a name on the car. I can say if we Mexicans can put our car inside the living room and watch TV with the car, we would do that. That’s how we are, Mexican people that's how we are.

Tunéame La Nave was supposed to be kind of a comedy. But the show would also get emotional. . People were really moved when they saw the finished cars.


Photo Courtesy of Mauricio Hernández

[ARCHIVE SOUND FROM "TUNÉAME"]

Man: Fue del año 83 cuando me accidenté. Me dieron un balazo en mi pierna. Perdí mi pierna.

MAURCIO: I had a, like, sadness inside of me because it was hard for me to see people crying, see people getting really sentimental. I wanted to cry with them, you know. So at the end of the recording sessions, I would go to my office, close the door. And I remember I used to cry a lot. 

Mauricio’s a genuine kind of guy. And that came through in the show. It’s probably part of why fans were so drawn to him. But Mauricio says the attention  he was getting in Mexico created a rift between him and Ryan — the owner of West Coast Customs.

MAURCIO: I don't want to call it jealousy, but when I became a celebrity in Mexico with his brand, I guess he felt kind of jealous. And I totally understand that. But, it was not something that I planned. 

Mauricio says that Ryan eventually came down to Mexico for an event promoting West Coast.

MAURCIO: And we sit down in the table of signing autographs. And we had this line full of people that wanted to get an autograph. And I remember Ryan was right next to me and people would come to me to get an autograph. And I was already thinking, this guy is gonna get mad because people didn't recognize him.

Mauricio says that after just a few minutes Ryan got up from the table and left.

MAURCIO: I felt something was wrong, because I knew him

So Mauricio went to check in with Ryan. He wanted to know what happened.

MAURCIO: And he's like 'Nothing.' I was like 'You sure?' And he told me, Yeah, I'm sure. Why don't you go and take care of your fans? They all want you.' And after that, it, it wasn't the same. 

It didn’t just affect their friendship. Mauricio says when Ryan sold the franchise they made an agreement.

MAURCIO: Ryan was supposed to get me a visa back so I could go and see my kids. And that's so I can come back and keep working for West Coast Customs in the States. That was part of the deal that we made before I was come into Mexico.

Mauricio tried talking to Ryan about the visa. But he says, Ryan just kind of ghosted on him. Ryan didn’t talk to me for this story, so you won’t be hearing from him. I reached out to him a few times, and his publicist sent me an email saying they wish Mauricio “ our very best.” When I first talked about all this with Mauricio five years ago, I got the impression he was kind upset with Ryan. But that’s not how Maurcio’s describes what happened.

LEVI: Did you feel like he betrayed you in any way by not saying, 'oh, yeah, of course, I'll get right on this and bring you back. I know you want you to come home.’ How do you feel, how would you describe it?

MAURCIO: Not betray. But yeah, left. Left alone. Kind of abandon. Just abandoned me. Probably it’s not that I wasn’t like I wasn’t important to him. But it’s just like I didn’t wanted for him to feel like that. Like that ‘Oh I have to do it. Oh I have to bring this guy.’ I wanted it to for him to come out from his heart. I woulda like for him to love to do it. Like 'when can I bring you back? How can I bring you back?’ 

Mauricio was really stranded in Mexico. Getting his own TV show, becoming famous, that was not part of the plan. And despite all the cool things that ended up happening, Mauricio wasn’t planning on staying in Mexico.

MAURCIO: I had a promise to my kids in the States that I was gonna come back on Christmas Eve so I could be with them. 

He’d been in Mexico for about six months. By this point, it was summer 2009. Time was ticking. And if he was going to make it back in time for Christmas, Mauricio realized he couldn’t count on Ryan anymore to get there.

MAURCIO: I was like if he doesn't want to help me, then I'm going to do it. 


Mauricio chats with one of his workers at his shop in Valle de Chalco, Mexico. Photo Courtesy of Levi Bridges

So Mauricio says he tried applying for a tourist visa. People who don’t earn a lot of money in Mexico often get denied visas because folks in U.S. consulates think they’re just trying to find a way to work in the U.S. But a Mexican television host. Easy.

MAURCIO: And the people at the embassy they asked me, you know, have you ever been in the States? Which I say, “No.” And at that moment, they told me, ‘OK, well, your visa is approved.’  But then a week after, the embassy called me up and tell me that I had to go again. You know, there was some kind of problem. I went to the appointment and the same consul he asked me right away, he say 'Why you lie to me?'

The consular workers investigated Mauricio. He still had a record from that time during the LA Riots when the cops found Mauricio and his cousins taking beer from that looted convenience store. 

MAURCIO: So they give me a five-year penalty to get into the United States. But because I had that promise with my kids about me going to see them on Christmas Eve, I had to be there, get there, no matter how. I just wanted to get there. 

Mauricio was committed to reuniting with his kids. He only planned on being gone from LA for four months. Now almost a year had gone by. He’d already missed out on a lot of their life helping Ryan build West Coast Customs.

MAURCIO: I wasn't the perfect dad. But I can tell you I was always trying to be the perfect dad.

And he was damned if he wasn’t going to keep this promise. So Mauricio did something really bold -- there was really only one way he could get back to his family. He went up to Tecate, a Mexican town on the border with California, and hired a coyote. A smuggler. To take him over the border.

MAURCIO: It was five thousand dollars which I was going to pay to cross, and they were going to cross me through the mountains. At that moment, I can tell you honestly, I was scared. 

He was afraid of getting caught by the Border Patrol. Of getting locked up. Spending Christmas in jail instead of with his kids. Maybe never getting back to California at all.

MAURCIO: It was hard to cross at that moment. They had, like, so much security around the border. 

Crossing the border is dangerous. Thousands of migrants have died trying to get to the U.S. Many trying to reunite with their families. And here was Mauricio, a Mexican celebrity—a guy with a national TV show— making good money, walking through the arid borderlands. Like countless other migrants.

Mauricio met up with two coyotes in Tecate who planned to sneak him over the border, walking, with a group of migrants who were also trying to reach the U.S.

MAURICIO: We were like about twelve people, 15 people. I remember it was people from Oaxaca. It was people from Guatemala.

The coyotes told them all to empty their pockets. Get rid of everything they had.

MAURICIO: An ID, cell phone, keys, coins, bills, wallet. You couldn't take anything. Just water. 

They set off around midnight. Slipped under a barbed wire fence and started walking through the darkness. Tecate’s a small city in the mountains east of San Diego and Tijuana. It’s high, semi-desert country, with scrappy shrubs and these massive boulders scattered everywhere.  Before they left, the coyotes made sure that nobody, especially not the Border Patrol, could track them.

MAURICIO: They gave us this carpet. With some wire. Whatever you were wearing: boots, tennis shoes, whatever. You had to put carpet on the bottom. So you don't make the footprints.

With the pieces of carpet attached under everyone’s shoes, Mauricio says they took off trudging up into the mountains. The coyotes were walking fast. Really fast. Something about them didn’t seem right to Mauricio.   

MAURICIO: I knew a lot of people doing different drugs, you know, and I knew those two guys were getting high on the way. I knew the smell of crystal meth. And I like caught 'em like a couple of times smoking. And that's why they were walking so fast. They were not getting tired. I had that feeling that something was, something was wrong.

As they walked into the darkness behind these two methed out coyotes, the temperature kept dropping.

MAURICIO: It was cold. It was in December, I remember it was really cold. I had this bad ass jacket. 

One of those big puffy jackets for winter.

MAURICIO: And it was really, really warm. But it was making that noise. It was them kind of material that makes noise. So I remember that guy he told me he’s like you cannot go with that jacket. 

The coyote told Mauricio, he had to throw the jacket away. Any sort of extra noise, it might draw attention to their group from Border Patrol. Mauricio said he wasn’t going to walk without a jacket. So the coyote gave him his.

MAURICIO: His was cotton. He gave me this crappy ass jacket.

They crisscrossed up into mountains, back and forth following an unmarked trail of switchbacks.

MAURICIO: And I was already tired. I was really tired. It was really tough, like going through those mountains. 

LEVI: I've seen those mountains they are steep. 

MAURICIO I knew, physically I wasn't prepared.

LEVI: Why? Were you just not in good shape?

MAURICIO No, I wasn't in good shape. I was never doing exercise. I smoke, I smoke a lot.

Mauricio was having trouble keeping up with the group. Eventually they all stopped in a cave up in the mountains. Mauricio collapsed on the ground.

MAURICIO: I remember they told us just to wait there. And I could hear ‘em like smoking outside because you could hear the lighter going, going and going and going. / And because I was tired, I don’t know, it just happened in one snap. But I was tired. I don't remember, like, sleeping for a long time. But I do remember when I woke up, there was nobody at the cave.. At first I thought they're all outside, you know. And when I went outside. It was nobody. Nobody. 

The coyotes abandoned him out there. This is actually pretty common. As a reporter covering immigration and the border, you hear lots of stories about stragglers getting abandoned by coyotes during border crossings. Mauricio was out there all alone with nothing. The coyotes had made everyone empty their pockets.

MAURICIO: But I kept my cell phone. I hide it.

Mauricio had the number of the guy back in Tecate who had arranged this trip, so he gave him a call.

MAURICIO: He kind of like got mad first, but then he told me stay there, we're going to come and get you.  I was scared. It was really scary because then I was alone, left out in the mountains. The only light we had, it was the moon. You could hear snakes. tsts-tsts. You could hear the bushes move. 

LEVI: And you're like a city guy. Have you ever been out in the middle of nowhere by yourself like that?

MAURICIO: No, of course not. No. No way. Never. 

Mauricio was just out there totally freaked out. Waiting and waiting. But nobody ever came.

MAURICIO: And after like half an hour  I called this guy and when I tried to call him, there was no phone. They shut down the phone. It never went through again. 

Mauricio started walking through the night, trying to find his way back to Tecate.

MAURICIO: I was already getting desperate. I will see the Border Patrol. Like far away up in the hill. I will see the lights. I will scream, so they could hear me. I wanted to get caught by the immigration because I wanted to be safe. 

But Border Patrol didn’t see him. He kept walking through the cold night. It was getting harder to see.

MAURICIO: The moon went away. It starts getting cloudy, and then it started raining, like really hard.

Now Mauricio was starting to panic. He kept tripping and falling in these deep depressions in the earth, bruising his arms and legs.

MAURICIO: I couldn't see nothing. Like nothing.  Like you will have your eyes open and you will see only darkness. Just like a blind people, but it was more desperate because you had your eyes open.  I got panic. I panic a lot. Thinking ‘I'm going to die here.’ So I remember I started saying 'Mauricio start thinking, thinking, what you going to do?' 

He still had the cell phone. So when the rain died down, he called this Mexican emergency hotline.

MAURICIO: And they told me, “How much battery do you have?” And I said ‘I don't have that much. Can you find out with a satellite where I am? I don't know. Something.’

But no. This was back in 2009. For the Generation Z kids in the room, the Find My Phone app wasn’t really a thing yet. The people on the other end of the emergency hotline urged Mauricio to just stay in one place. Wait until morning.

MAURICIO: I was already all wet because of the rain. And I started shaking. Like bad. Like really, really bad. I started having hallucinations, my kids’ faces in the sky. And I will scream their names and tell them that I'm sorry so many times and I will cried and then I will laugh. I was getting nuts. I started remember when I was a kid, when I was a boy. What I did right, what I did wrong. I was preparing myself to die. I remember I told God I don't want to die like this, please. I don’t wanna die right here. The worst thing that went through my mind it was like, ‘I'm going to die here and nobody's ever gonna find my body.’ 

Mauricio kept walking. Even after sunrise, Mauricio says there was this thick fog hanging over the mountains.  It was still hard to see. He called the SOS number one last time.

MAURICIO: And then this lady answered the phone. I told her ‘I'm really desperate. And I didn't have that much battery anymore.’ I know it was the last shot that I was gonna had. And I told her, ‘please tell my mom, tell my kids that I love them. But I know I'm going to die here.’ 

They kept talking, trying to get Mauricio to give them any details that might help them find him. As the sun rose higher the fog lifted a bit, just enough to see the landscape ahead.

MAURICIO: The land was like painted red. The trees, the bushes, everything was red.

All that red was a long ribbon of flame retardants that had been dropped from the air to put out a wildfire. The emergency hotline transferred Mauricio to a guy who knew the region well.

MAURICIO: He's like, “I know where you are.” He told me that as long as I will see red walk in that direction. That was the last call because then my phone shut off. I knew if I will follow the instructions, I was gonna save my life.

Mauricio kept walking, following the line of red flame retardants over a hill. And at the top, the city of Tecate came into view. In the city below, Mauricio saw  an ambulance that had been sent for him. He ran down the hills toward the arms of a paramedic.

MAURICIO: He hugged me with his blanket. And I don't remember nothin else. 

Later that night he finally regained consciousness.

MAURICIO: I woke up with all this bags full of water warm around my body. They couldn’t believe it because I had a 90 percent of hypothermia in my body. They couldn’t believe how I survived.

When the doctors released Mauricio, he got on a plane back to Mexico City.

MAURICIO: I was feeling sad. I was feeling empty. I was feeling happy. 

Happy that he’d gotten a second chance at life. Sad and empty because he had run out of options to get back to his family in California. The trip over the border, almost dying, really traumatized Mauricio.

MAURICIO: I was already having fearness of darkness. I had a panic. I couldn't sleep. 

He couldn’t bring himself to try crossing the border again on foot.

MAURICIO: No way was I gonna try that again.

Now Mauricio had to confront a new reality, one where he wouldn’t be living with his kids.

MAURICIO: And my mind was like: I let them down you know. I told them, “well, I can't go. I can't go anymore.” I risk my life to see you guys and almost die. I'm sorry. I know they were young, they couldn't understand.

Mauricio started thinking about starting a new life in Mexico. Staying their permanently. He asked his partner to join him.

MAURICIO: Bring the kids, come over here, let's make a life together. And she will always laugh. She will always laugh and say, ‘Do you think I'm going to go there and leave the States and go back to Mexico? That's never gonna happen.

Not long after that conversation, Mauricio and his partner separated. Mauricio’s kids came down to Mexico a few times to visit. But their relationship wasn’t really the same. Things felt strained with all the distance. Over the years they grew further apart. Today, they hardly talk.

MAURICIO: Sometimes people gets the chance in life to become a good father. And some of us, we just don't. For some reason it doesn't happen because trust me that I try.  

As Mauricio was trying to accept everything that happened, he threw himself back into producing the TV show in Mexico.

MAURICIO: Like they say you know the show has to continue.

But doing the show wasn’t the same.

MAURICIO: I was missing my kids. I was missing a family life.

During season three of Tunéame La Nave, Mauricio ended up hitting it off with someone he met on the show. They decided to start a family and eventually had a daughter. Mauricio’s other kids are all boys. He always wanted to have a girl.

MAURICIO: I will always like to be around my my sisters  I used to comb their hair, get 'em dressed up to take them to school. Pick pick 'em up from school. I wanted to have my own girl. I wanted to have my own daughter. 

It felt like a second chance.

MAURICIO: The love that I feel for my daughter, it's undescriptable. It's magic.

Mauricio’s daughter was born during the last season of Tunéme La Nave. TV Azteca canceled Tunéame in 2013, after four seasons. Mauricio said there were problems between the producers and the network. But even though this was the thing he’d dreamed of doing since he was a kid, losing the show didn’t feel like that big deal. Especially after everything else he’d been through.

MAURICIO: I didn't really care, we had the brand, we had West Coast. We had a shop. So I was like, well, we don't have a TV show. Let's make cars. I had this platform. I'm famous. I know how to work in cars. So I could just open up my new shop. 

Maurcio was happy just running his own body shop. And being a father again. But it was a financial adjustment.

After he lost the show, Mauricio says that lots of people he’d grown close to, that he thought were his friends, really just wanted to be around him because he was on TV, or because he had money.

MAURICIO: You rather be by yourself, then be with somebody that probably is going to hurt you. Because that people that you say that's my friend, he probably end up stabbing you in the back.

A couple years later Mauricio’s new partner also left him, along with their daughter. And although Mauricio doesn’t want to get into all the details, he says part of the reason is that she lost interest when Mauricio’s show got canceled. They had to reduce their standard of living. Mauricio was just a guy working at a car shop now.

MAURICIO: It really hurt me. The separation really hurts me a lot. I had a lot of times of depression.  

Mauricio still had a national following in Mexico, and he’d hold events for his fans. He was struggling with depression. And a big part of his job now was trying to put on a happy exterior for the people who adored him.

LEVI: What were you experiencing that you felt like you couldn't tell them?

MAURICIO: My fans they seen a strong Mauricio. But I couldn't be that guy. From inside I was dying. A lot of people think being famous is easy. And it’s hard. It’s like you have to deal with your personal life and the life of the people, that think they know you.

Mauricio says the love he got from his fans did help cheer him up. But only for a little awhile.

MAURICIO: It’s like a drug. You need that. But then when you turn off the light, when the show is over, then you end up in the room with nobody. 

MAURICIO: I didn’t want to get recognized. I wanted to just cut my dreads, leave my cell phone, everything. Grab a backpack and just go anywhere. I don’t want nobody to know about me.

He ended up taking what might sound like a drastic step for a television celebrity in his mid-40s. He moved back home. With his grandmother.

MAURICIO: She said ‘I know where are you going through, why don’t you just come here?’ So I came back to the house. Being around my grandmother will always make me happy. Just listening to her, watching her walk, cook.

Being home was just what he needed. Mauricio’s relationship with his ex in Mexico eventually improved. He sees his daughter regularly and sometimes they do things as a family, even if they aren’t together. Overtime he started to adjust.  And Mauricio started opening up to his fans on social media about what he’d been through. He made himself vulnerable to them.

MAURICIO: I started getting a lot of messages asking me for help. I was starting to be a psychologist for my fans once they see me strong, asking me how I did it. I lost a TV show, a family. How am I still strong?

His fans started reaching out to him about their personal problems. People going through breakups or feeling depressed because they were overweight or lost their jobs. Some people reached out just because they were thinking about going to the U.S., to a place like California, like Mauricio did.

LEVI: When you meet Mexicans who tell you that they want to go to the US, what do you tell them?

MAURICIO: Not to go. It’s not worth it.

When Mauricio was living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant, he always felt like a second class citizen. Like he was living in a country where he didn’t belong. And he wants to spare Mexicans from experiencing that.

MAURICIO: I had saved a lot of people from going to the States.

It’s hard to say whether things would have worked out so well for Mauricio if he’d stayed in Mexico — whether he ever would have gotten a TV show or owned  his own business. Living in the U.S. is part of what helped Mauricio make his wildest dreams come true. But along with all the good things that came out of that, being an immigrant also caused him a lot of pain. And he wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

[AMBIENT SOUND: MAURICIO’S NEIGHBORHOOD]

Walking around Mauricio’s old neighborhood in Mexico City, we talked about what it felt like coming back here for the first time after 20 years away. He says it was like a breath of fresh air after so many years suffocating in the U.S.

MAURICIO: I feel like I could breathe again. I feel like I could be free again. I could be myself. I could walk the streets. And not worry about anything.

Credits

Host:
Bob Carlson

Producer:
Bob Carlson

Reporter:
Levi Bridges

Reporter: Levi Bridges is an audio producer currently based in Moscow, Russia.
Editors: Carla Green & Bob Carlson

Theme Music by Alex Weston, with music help from Joe Augustine and Narrative Music
Musical saw + vocals by Krissy Barker