Goodbye Old Martinez Hall (Part III)
(Given the recent noise (summer 2012) about La Martina’s renovation of Old Martinez Hall and the denial by county commissioners of a beer and wine license, it’s interesting to look at the local mores. According to the news she was turned down four times. She could have appealed to the state the first time, as so many other applicants have done (in Arroyo Seco and on Highway 64 West) and avoided the controversy. The commissioners can vote “no” but tell constituents the state said “yes”: the controversy passes and everyone forgets about it. But La Martina chose to fight instead of switch and the controversy continues, which ups the political ante. She, too, must take responsibility for holding up the mirror and embarrassing the community.)
Here’s Part III about Old Martinez Hall from “Gringo Lessons.”
Long before the end of summer in 1971, Ken retired from the Ranchos business partnership and rejoined the civilized company of elbow-benders at La Cocina. Fortunately, Pilo Tafoya, steady as a rock, had taken Ken’s day shift behind the bar. A quiet gentleman, Pilo had an indirect role in saving my ass, later at KVNM FM. Pilo was one of a number of memorable characters from the Ranchos days.
Few will remember Obid Brito but he was symbolic of the compassion and tolerance of Taosenos. Obid got drunk too early in the morning at the El Cortez and then went home or slept it off outside under a tree, near a bottle or a six-pack he hid under a bush. His hair under an old cap was matted, his pants dirty, sometimes he didn’t wear socks, and he didn’t smell too good. Occasionally, one of the pool players would wrinkle a nose, put down his stick, take Obid by the arm and drive him home to his falling-down house. Occasionally he appeared freshly shaved and washed. Though passive by nature, he was ready to fight when teased. If he was still around at closing time and it was a warm night, I’d prop Obid up against an outside wall.
The hipster, Manny Ocanas, was one of the few people who actually bought tickets for the Ricky Nelson and Bo Diddley shows. Later, in the 70s at the TCA, he attended concerts of jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Fatha Hines, and Woody Herman. As a septic hauler and political fixer he,too, helped keep FM radio alive in Taos.
Then, bars were prohibited from selling liquor for consumption off the premises on Sundays. Just before twelve, the legal hour for selling liquor by the drink, there was a knock on the back door. Chemo Valerio, hired to plaster the building and remodel the upstairs (a project completed four decades later) had a few greenbacks in his hand. “Bill, I want to buy a case of beer.”
I was no George Sahd, who operated the Ranchos Trading Post up the street and had the angels on his side or the price of a fine for violating the Sunday blue laws. Chemo also worked for the New Mexico Alcoholic Beverage Control. If I sold him the beer, I might get busted. If I didn’t, I might get busted later for some infringement. “Here take the beer, Chemo, on the house–you’ve been working hard.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.”
In the mid-seventies, I operated the upstairs Plaza Theatre Bar. During fiesta, the ABC busted every bar on the Plaza except mine.
Wood carver and furniture maker Gilbert Vargas, in the early summer of 1971, took me over to his shop to look at a high backed carved wooden banco with a bench-seat that opened up for storing liquor. It was a beautiful, eight feet long and solid as a piece of granite. He offered to sell it to me cheap for a $1000—not even half of what it was worth.
“We can’t afford it, Gilbert,” I said. “But, we can trade for a bar bill.” Gilbert got a $1000 worth of credit at the bar.. He bought drinks for all as one round begat another that summer. The banco rattled around the Plaza Theatre Building during the late 70s. I don’t know where it finished its journey but at least Harvey Mudd got something for his $5,000 investment in the El Cortez Tavern-Old Martinez Hall venture. When I saw Gilbert forty years later at the barbershop, he said “That summer almost killed us, Bill.” We laughed. My folks have a six-foot high square 12-inch by 12-inch liquor cabinet in their foyer, carved by Gilbert, called the “Taos Tower.”
In the fall Mudd and I agreed to lay off Old Martinez Hall on a willing sucker for next to nothing and I retired to my house in Canon. My nerves were shot and I slept twelve hours a night. During the day I read Henry Miller, finding solace in books, a lifelong habit, to which I returned when I needed to restore my sanity. In The Wisdom of the Heart Miller writes that “reality is the goal” and in Reflections on Writing, that “Art is a only a means to life, to life more abundant.”
Henry’s comment confirmed an inchoate but intuitive feeling I had–the call and response–stimulated by experience and education, a dialectical adventure in search of meaning. When I left Taos after twenty years, returned to college and passed my Ph.D exams in the 90s, I began to understand and feel what Emerson meant when he said, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”
My Gringo Lessons continued between beers that fall of 1971, thanks to the poet, Richard Trujillo of Canon, an ex-con and the author of the “Tio Zuco” tales. Commenting on the Chicano culture, Richard noted that “most of these local guys didn’t know they were Chicanos until they went to college.” He also said the locals short-circuited him on charges for unmentionables.
At La Cocina, Ruthie reassured me with a smile, and, “What’ll you have, hon?” After the 18 months spent in Ranchos at the El Cortez Theatre and Old Martinez Hall, Taos Plaza seemed as civilized as San Francisco.