Misty Tequila Colored Memories

There I am, a random sunny weekend day in suburban Northern California, with a bag of groceries in my arms and holding hands with my husband.

We’re headed to the car in the parking lot when a low, slow Honda Civic rolls by. The car has been lowered, the wheels are miniscule and from inside the car comes some techno music. Not the multilayered computer-mixed techno of this modern era, but a thin synth-pushed techno that was quite reminiscent of the dance club music of the late 1980’s.

And suddenly I am no longer on a grassy knoll outside of Whole Foods in suburban California, but I’m wandering over the Paseo del Norte bridge and stumbling down Avenida de Juarez.

And I am inside Alive, a bar just over the border in Juarez, Mexico. If I listen hard enough, I can hear the sound of tequila slammers hitting the bar, syncopating with the terrible music blaring from the terrible sound system.

Alive, a venue located underground (the irony was not lost on me) with a tan blown-foam covering on the walls and a trip-worthy ramp leading to the bowels of the nightclub. I’d remind myself as often as possible not to touch anything and mind my own business.

But a bucket of Coronitas and a few slammers later and hey, let’s dance!

And me with my walnut sized bladder begging myself to hold it because the bathrooms at Alive were awful. Just…frightening.

But who cares! I was young! I was invincible! I was the only responsible person in a group of very irresponsible college kids. We were having fun. In another country. With no parents in sight! Freeeedom!

Yes, I was young and in my prime and not something like 43 and worried about jobs and money and is that cereal I just bought gluten free because wheat gives me tummy rumbles and oh yeah, did I get hemp milk because by god I’m lactose intolerant too. And can you read the label on this box because the print is too tiny and I sure as hell can’t read it.

It was a fleeting memory and I told it all to The Good Man. He replied “You and I had very different lives.”

And I suppose that’s true, we did.

But I can’t shake the memory. It’s not that partying in Juarez was a particularly good time. I was always the “good kid” and worried to death about all my friends and how to get them all back home safe and intact. I worried that one of the guys would get in a fight and we wouldn’t have enough money to pay the Federales to let him go. I worried my pockets would be picked clean by the kids (I had fended off more than a few). I worried that if the time came to run that I would be the one not running fast enough.

None of that really sounds like fun.

Those times are long past, something of stories and fairy tales as I wouldn’t go near Juarez for all the tequila in the world now.

I guess that memory on that sunny California day was something like fond reminiscence? I think it is more my youth that I miss than the crappy bars like Alive and Spanky’s and The Tequila Derby.

While searching for photos of Alive, I found this story on CNN. The author perfectly describes what it was like then and what it’s like now and does a much better job than I did.

Juarez was fun – before it was dangerous.

This 1950’s (or maybe 1960’s) era postcard, oddly, comes closest to my memories of Avenida de Juarez. In the late 1980’s that big bottle over the liquor store on the corner (left side of the photo) was still there.

Image from an eBay posting selling the original postcard.

Happy Hour!

Oh happiest of Happy Fridays. Sure, I was on vacation Monday and Tuesday, but I’ve packed a week or more of work into the two days I’ve spent back in the office and more more lies ahead. Yeesh!

As I rolled into work on my morning commute, I thought “today’s a real good day for a Happy Hour” which got me to thinking about all the bars I’ve visited in my little life.

Which got me wondering about what are the best (and by best, I the biggest dive) bars I’ve been to.

Here’s my top five, in no particular order:

  1. The Grant & Green Saloon (pre-renovation, when it was still a blues club), located conveniently at the corner of Grant and Green streets in San Francisco.

    It was in this dank, cave-like (it was painted black), seedy SF joint that I first saw the irrepressible Johnny Nitro & The Doorslammers.

    I still can’t believe I used to go to this place *by myself* Ah the stupidity courage of youth.

    One main feature of this dive was the bathroom. The ladies was located at the end of a weird dark hall. The door had a questionable bolt latch. The toilet tank was held together with a metal strap. The broken toilet seat was patched with heavily road worn gray duct tape. When you sat, first the tape would stick to you, and then the seat would give way a bit.

    When your business was done, you’d stand, and the seat came with you. It stuck to your leg just long enough for the seat to shift back together and pinch a good amount of thigh skin between the broken pieces. It hurt like a sonovabitch and I’d come away with a welt and left over adhesive from the tape. Curse words were uttered.

    Also, the boys loo at the front of the hall would stop up with some regularity, so when it was busted, the drunk boys would lumber to the end of the hall and shake the door to the ladies room. Regulars knew if you shook the door hard enough and long enough, that weak bolt would give way and *surprise* you’d be caught in a squat facing some drunk lumbering boy.

    I learned to pee really, really fast. Also, I’ve never been one of those girls to go to the bathroom with friends, but I did at the G&G. It helped to post someone outside the door to keep watch. (the door was too far away from the toilet to be able to both hold the door and do business).

    Despite all of what’s gross about the G&G, I saw some of the most amazing live blues there. I was actually heartbroken when they fixed it up, painted it white and put in new plumbing. It’s never been the same since….

  2. The Saloon just down Grant street from the G&G, in San Francisco

    Oh the Saloon. It contains what can only be called a “funky smell”. Sunlight never hits the inside of this place, and that’s probably for the best.

    Established in 1861, it’s San Francisco’s oldest continually operating bar. The Saloon holds some history. Legend has it the local firefighters saved the building from the fires that raged after the 1906 earthquake due to the prosperous brothel that operated on the upper floors.

    There are plenty of stories about young men having their fill and stumbling out onto the foggy San Francisco night, then waking up on a boat out to sea. An unwilling member of the ship’s crew and unable to return to port for months or years at a time. The colloquial term for that is Shanghaiing.

    All of that history invades the place, and you feel it. There is still live blues seven days at week at The Saloon (and two bands a day on the weekends).

    It’s strange, smelly, filled with weirdos, and a tiny dance floor (but the bathroom isn’t so bad). I’ve had some of the greatest nights of my life inside that place. The timbers jump when the base player thumps that thing.

    It’s fantastically beautiful. And Fresno alley just outside the door is a place filled with all sorts of shenanigans (including photography, the light there is awesome).

  3. The Alive just over the border in Juarez

    I couldn’t find any links to information about this place, other than wistful memories from many a person who was there back in the day.

    The Alive was actually underground, you had to navigate this long, steep ramp to get into the place.

    Just an aside….does it seem like a good idea to YOU to be in an place when you are 18, in a foreign country, underground, drunk and there is only ONE entry/exit? Ah the stupidity courage of youth.

    This was a place for cheap Coronas, thumping dance music, and a bathroom that I can hardly even describe. There were no lights in there (probably for the best). With my walnut sized bladder, I did my best to hold it for as long as possible. Once, I went in there (couldn’t wait anymore) and I slipped into a stall. SOMETHING was moving on the surface of the water in the toilet. It was alive. I have zero idea what it was and it scares the sheeeit out of me to think about it now.

    I held the door handle for my life and leaned back, doing the best I could to be the farthest possible distance I could get from the seat and still hit the water. I prayed that door handle wouldn’t give way. I prayed whatever was in the water wasn’t bitey. I prayed I could just get this done and go home.

    I survived and emerged unscathed. It took three tequila poppers (some called them slammers) to get over the trauma.

    Then I danced and tried to forget.

    I used to have such fun in Juarez. The danger made it more interesting, I suppose. Of course, these days it’s ill advised to slip over into Juarez. Too much awful business going on there. I’m afraid The Alive is an experience that is long gone (and maybe that’s for the best).

  4. A bar attached to the Steven’s hotel in Carlsbad

    At least I think it was the Steven’s Hotel. This was a bar that was located on the backside of a hotel on Canal Street in Carlsbad (it’s been soooo many years since I lived there.)

    I don’t actually think this bar exists anymore. I can’t seem to find any record of it from a Google search.

    To get to the place, you had to ascend these steep metal stairs. Going up wasn’t so bad, coming out was a bit treacherous once you were a little wobbly in your shoes, and especially if it had rained a bit. People slipped and bobbled down those stairs in droves. A big pile of borrachos at the bottom of the stairs. I wish I was kidding.

    The bar hosted Pot Ash miners, local cowboys, and us college kids. This was something of a volatile combination. The plate glass windows were replaced by plastic after too many fights in the bar kept smashing the glass. You couldn’t get beer in a bottle or glass. Only cans and plastic cups held drinks.

    The mood was weird, and tense. But the beer was cheap and whatever half ass local band was playing would getcha dancing. And hell, it was somewhere to go and something to do in Carlsbad. So ok.

    I had some odd, yet fun times there. Strange spot and strange people.

  5. Cowboys bar in Las Cruces

    Who knows what this place is called these days. At NMSU in the 80’s and 90’s this was THE place to be.

    A band called Easy Money used to play there. The lead singer was named Toby Keith. They were a pretty good band. The lead singer was a complete arrogant ass. Nobody liked him, and now he actually is somebody. (I still think he’s an ass)

    At one point they introduced a special where on Fridays, if you bought a pitcher of beer, you could eat as much pizza as you wanted. Big mistake. Hungry and broke college kids can eat a LOT. And if we all put in a dollar, we could get one, maybe two pitchers of Coor’s Light. So there.

    That promotion didn’t last long.

    I danced until my feet hurt many a night at Cowboys. God I loved that place.

    All night drinking and dancing, then after the bar closed, a group trip to Village Inn for late night pancakes. Why do pancakes taste so damn good at 2 am?

Whooo doggies, that was quite a trip in the Wayback Machine. I think I need a smoke (and a vodka drink) after all of that. (no, no, just kidding, I don’t smoke….)

Sadly, I won’t be at ANY those places tonight. Instead I’ll be at the Red Couch Saloon where The Good Man tends bar.

He knows which wine goes best with Cheetos.

Happy Friday everyone! Enjoy your night.

Photo of the interior of the Saloon, Copyright Scott Palmer.

Ok. In case anybody asks…

I’m going to help make you the smartest margarita drinker in the bar.

So what, exactly is Cinco de Mayo?

Ok, so like a super long time ago (1860’s) there was this Mexican president named Benito Juarez…totally like that border town, you know?

Anyhow, Benito stopped making payments on debt owed to France.

And France was all like “Whoa man! No waaaay” and they *attacked* Mexico to get their money.

Then they totally thought they would also take over Mexico, and that would teach them a lesson and stuff.

But Mexico was all like “No way Jose!” and they fought back.

And in this one battle in the city of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the Mexican army totally kicked some French *ass* and there was much rejoicing.

And so we drink tequila and eat guacamole in memory of those valiant Mexican fighters!

Unfortunately…it didn’t really hold up the French for long and by a year later they occupied Mexico City.

Some French dude named Maximilian thought he was all kinds of hot sh*t. Whatever Max!

Then the U.S. was all like “stop acting like children! Take your toys and go home!”

So they did. And Benito Juarez got to be president again.

But anyhow, there was that one super huge battle in Puebla, against all odds, and so that’s why we all have to eat Mexican food and drink and stuff.

It’s super patriotic.

I swear!


Source: Wikipedia

2007 Cinco de Mayo parade, Calistoga, CA. Image by Karen Fayeth.

And still they worry

I am a proud graduate of New Mexico State University, as are my sister and brother before me. Attending NMSU comes with certain…er…traditions. Unavoidable. A right of passage. Integral to one’s education in the relatively sleepy town of Las Cruces.

You see, there ain’t a lot going on in Las Cruces. It’s a lovely town, mild, temperate, a great place to retire. It’s hard to be a fresh-faced college kid of, oh say, eighteen, away from home for the first time and looking to find a little fun. In the U.S., you have to be 21 to get into the clubs, but just across the border, being eighteen gets you in the door.

On that fateful day my parents dropped me off at school, as the engine of our old blue Blazer fired up, my mom admonished me, for about the one millionth time, to “stay away from Juarez“. Convinced, was she, of bad doings and some sort of old fashioned notion of “white slavery” rings running rampant.

I, being the most behaved of the three children in our family did, in fact, stay away from Juarez…at least for a while. But soon enough, the lure was too tempting. “All the kids were doing it”, as they say, and so I loaded up with a group of irresponsible, ne’er do wells that I’d met in the dorms. Off we went careening into the night down I-25 to I-10, slipping through downtown El Paso, parking near the train tracks, walking through a pretty seedy neighborhood, and across the bridge at the Avenue of the Americas, up and over the Rio Grande.

I remember huffing and puffing across the bridge (it’s a fairly steep span), and looking down at the water, thinking it not like any other part of the Rio Grande I’d ever seen. Halfway over the bridge you officially cross into Mexico. We paid our toll on the other end to get through the border station, a few coins, I recall, and then there we were. In another country. The stop signs read “alto” and I wondered what in the hell a kid like me, pretty sheltered in my upbringing, was doing there, and how I’d get home. Nothing that a two dollar bucket of Coronas and a bunch of tequila poppers couldn’t get me past…..

Ah, I remember it clearly now, some twenty years hence, the sharp sound of shot glasses slamming into the wooden bar, non-stop, all night long while crazy disco club music played in the background.

I can’t imagine now, in my adult conservatism, actually walking DOWN the weirdly blown-foam padded-wall tunnel of the place I think was called The Alive that was essentially underground ( : shudder: ). The place next door, I remember, sold yards of beer (the boys always went in for that. I couldn’t drink beer that way, the foam would make me feel claustrophobic). Those places were right over the border. There was a place, farther in, run by a man everyone just referred to as “the albino”. Everyone knew who he was. An American who owned a bar in Juarez and catered to the college kids, even selling a concoction called “The Aggie” that almost no one I knew drank. They also sold these nice poor boy sandwiches that were tasty, and good to help absorb some of the tequila and Corona coursing through the veins.

Luckily for me, I’ve never enjoyed being over the top drunk, and I was just scared enough (thanks to very, very tough parents) that I never let myself get too out of control, fearful of what might happen. School legends of poor treatment at the hands of the Federales ran through my head. What that means, of course, is that I was in charge of my friends who didn’t have the self-control that I tried to have.

I have dragged many a drunk friend over the border, slapped them back to consciousness and demanded they repeat the words “United States Citizen!”, the secret password to get back into the States. I have kicked and smacked at small children who tried to steal the rings off the hand of my friend (I, myself, never wore jewelry when I went to Juarez. That advice, along with “wear shoes you can run in” stuck with me, and I always followed both). I have ridden home in cars with people driving that I knew probably shouldn’t be driving.

And when I think back on how stupid I was, how stupid we all were, I’m thankful, like drop-to-my-knees-and-give-thanks-to-whatever-entity-you-choose thankful that I made it out alive, unscathed, and here to write wistfully about it on the other side.

So what got me to step into the “way back machine” and have a memory jaunt this evening? Well, ABQjournal blogger Bruce Daniels has a piece today titled “Aggies Back in Class”. In it, he references two articles from the Las Cruces Sun News that are printed in keeping with annual traditions. Classes have begun again at NMSU, and with the surge of incoming Freshman, the articles are aimed at keeping kids from slipping across the border and enjoying all the delights the Mexican border town has to offer.

Some kids might heed the warning. Parents will be fearful. And kids will still go. I remember tales while in school of many a kid not making it home. Cars rolled on I-10. Boys who got in fights and were tossed in jail. Friends who got the crap beat out of them trying to cross back over. A lot of scary shit. And still, it won’t keep kids from going. For better or worse, it’s a rite of passage.

I hope, tonight, from the safety of my red couch, that these newbs, these fresh-faced kids, these young folks with everything ahead and little to lose will keep it safe. Enjoy the freedom of being eighteen and away from parental control and explore the bounds of adulthood. Figure out how much tequila is too much, respect yourself enough to get yourself safely home. And most of all, have fun (while wearing shoes that make it possible to run, if necessary).

In a weird way, after all these memories, I crave a shot of tequila topped by Seven-Up, slammed into the bar, rapidly consumed and chased by a cheap Coronita.

By the by…the epilogue to my story is thus…..

It took me many years post-graduation and into adulthood until I finally figured out how my Puritanical mom seemed to know *so* much about Juarez. One day she sheepishly admitted that she and her roommate (my mom lived in Albuquerque when she was eighteen, working as a secretary) used to jump in the car on a Friday afternoon, zoom down to El Paso, find a couple military guys from Fort Bliss, and have themselves a party over the border. I’m sure it was all innocent fun back in the 1950’s, but still kids went across the border to have a little dangerous fun. She knows that during my college years I went to Juarez, but we choose not to talk about such things…….