By Greg Niemann
“Clam Man here. I’m the Clam Man. Wanna buy some clams? My clams make you horny,” the bearded old man chanted as he dragged a full gunny sack through our campground. While selling clams was his business, the camaraderie and banter of San Felipe’s resident character with visiting Americans was what really motivated the Clam Man.
The gunny sack befit his attire: loose, baggy pants held up by a rope, a wool watch cap and a thick, worn overcoat to thwart the wintry chill.
That was the first time I’d met this living legend, but over the next decade I’d see him many, many times. On that first encounter he came to our camp site as my buddies and I were setting up that day, sat down and began to extol the merits of eating clams, always implying that they did wonders for a person’s sex drive.
It was back on Christmas Eve 1976 and Jon and Ray and I really got a kick out of this old character. We were single at the time, in our thirties, and had fled Orange County during the family-oriented holidays for a Sea of Cortez adventure.
Without really giving it much thought I was falling into a pattern my dad went through when he and my mom divorced a few years previous. After nine kids and over 30 years invested in their marriage, they called it quits.
My dad’s change was radical, including growing a long beard and becoming one of Laguna Beach’s eccentrics. By himself, he roamed all over Mexico, often driving the Baja peninsula and sometimes taking the ferry over to the mainland. We kids noticed a pattern; his long trips usually began around the time of his December birthday and included the holidays.
That year I didn’t think about him or his pattern as we crossed into Mexico, but upon later reflection I was doing the same thing. I just found that the adventure of a new and different place would overshadow missing familial comfort of typical Yuletide togetherness.
We three arrived and pitched our tent in the San Felipe Trailer Park right in town behind the pool hall. (There’s a casino there now). In addition to its close-in location, it had the amenities of electric power and hot showers.
After wishing the Clam Man a Merry Christmas we walked the few blocks to downtown.
Near the main intersection ahead a crowd was gathering. Curious we approached the small mob which consisted of about a dozen kids. The object of their attention was an older man. Even from his back we could see long white hair and a large full beard.
The children crowded around him giggling, “Santa Claus, Santa Claus,” even though his uniform consisted of blue jeans and a checkered wool shirt rather than a red and white suit.
He turned, saw me, and bellowed, “Gregory, what are you doing here?” He was surprised, but I was shocked. “Papa,” I said, “I didn’t know you were coming to Mexico.”
“Well, you know me. I just come and go – often to Baja this time of year,” he bellowed in that familiar authoritative voice.
He was just arriving in town and, after introductions, followed us in his Toyota pickup to our campsite.
He pulled up to our tent, got out, and immediately proceeded to berate us. “A pay campground! What’s wrong with you guys? There’s miles and miles of empty beaches; in fact I usually camp out around the point by the sand dunes. And you wimps pay to camp right in town. I thought I raised you better, Gregory.”
No longer cowed by his bluster, I answered, “We wanted to be close to town so we could check out the nightlife.” That he understood.
So later we all went to San Felipe’s meager nightlife in 1976, a couple of almost-empty bars. I think we were the only would-be revelers out. After all, it was Christmas Eve, Nochebuena, and a religious time for the Catholic Mexicans. When we four finally stumbled back to camp my dad again called us wimps.
He unrolled his sleeping bag on the sand just below the sea wall, and snorted himself to sleep amidst the brilliant display of stars, and a few twinkling lights from town.
The next day before my dad took off for a more pristine desert environment the Clam Man showed up. His eyes lit up when he saw who had joined us. He smiled seeing this fellow old crony, “Gus, ¿cómo está?”
My dad affectionately returned the greeting, called him “Pasqual,” and they began to compare notes since they last saw each other.
Jon and Ray and I looked askance. “Guess I don’t need to introduce them,” I quipped.
“I think they’ve met,” said Ray.
“Hey guys, meet Pasqual, the Clam Man,” my dad finally offered. “I think he’s got more kids than I do.”
My dad continued, “I once asked him how many kids he has and he couldn’t remember, saying ‘Señor, down here we don’t have television, we go to bed early, and I eat a lot of clams.’
That was part of their mutual admiration, aside from their long hair and beards (one white, one dark) --they both had a lot of kids and enjoyed life. It was an interesting reunion and my buddies now had two old codgers they took a liking to.
Getting to know him – 1980s
Later, during the early-1980s, I used to take my family camping to that same San Felipe beach. As sure as the ubiquitous camp dogs, the spectacular sunrises, and the awesome tidal fluctuations, we were greeted each day by the Clam Man. Sometimes we bought his clams, other times we just talked.
The Clam Man, Pasqual “Cruz” Guerrero, operated out of his home/restaurant, a unique ramshackle structure adorned with whale bones and signs extolling the virility of clams. It’s on the right-hand side between the famous San Felipe arches and the traffic circle as you enter town.
In 1997 I wrote an article about the Clam Man and with a photo it was published in a popular Baja newsletter. On my visit to San Felipe the following year I stopped by the restaurant and presented a copy to his widow, Marcelina Abundez. Even though she could not read the English, I know she cherished the reminder.
The next day over breakfast at the El Cortez restaurant I was approached by a young woman who said, “Señor, I understand you wrote that article about the Clam Man. Do you have another copy?”
I did, and when I presented it to her she identified herself as Margarita, a daughter of the Clam Man. It turns out she is one of the Clam Man’s five daughters and three sons. Humph, I thought. Only eight kids total! My dad won those bragging rights.
She told me about her family. Only two of the Guerrero children had left the area, Francesca who moved to the United States, and Maria Elena, who relocated to Mexicali. The sons, Miguel, and the twins Smith and Hector were working in San Felipe operating a trucking concern delivering water to the various camps. Apolina (Pola) worked for a camp in town, Margarita worked at the El Cortez Hotel, and Theresa was helping her mother run the Clam Man Restaurant.
The restaurant was not much, a few rickety tables on freshly swept hard-packed dirt, and no menu. What do you need a menu for when all they have is clams? Family members would regularly venture to some broad flat beaches north of town where they gathered the staple that made their family famous. By March, 2000 small butter clams were still only $1.50 a dozen while the larger ones cost $2.00. “We can steam them or barbecue them, and fix them up with limón and salsa,” intoned Theresa.
On a 2002 visit I stopped to give them a photo I had taken of the Clam Man’s widow and a grandson, Miguel Angel “Miguelito. I got to talking to Theresa about her legendary father who passed away in 1988, the year before my own dad died. “My father was a beautiful man,” said Theresa, her eyes damp with reflection. “Everybody knew him and he knew everybody. We were a lucky family.”
I thought about that resident San Felipe character called the Clam Man. He was not only touched by his family, but made friends with so many visiting Americans. He knew everybody, so it was sort of fitting that he and another long-haired character would strike up a friendship, even though the local kids called my dad Santa Claus.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.