One was orange. Not the usual, cliché, Sante Fe orange of one of those quasi-Caribbean, suburban, Los Angeles homes, but a true Mexican orange. I can almost imagine the owner peering his head into the open can at the paint store, and in a moment of epiphany, deciding that this would be the color that would trump all other colors. This would be the shade of orange to draw the customers into his restaurant in droves.
The other one was blue; a rich, textured, dark navy blue that managed to hide all signs of age, and any lack of maintenance. You could stand on the road, looking at the building and not doubt for a minute that it had just been painted that day. It was only after a much closer inspection that you would realize that the blue restaurant had likely been here much longer than the orange one.
From any general point of view, the menus were nearly identical. The orange restaurant offered the usual Mexican fare: burritos, enchiladas, fish tacos, salads, desserts, and an assortment of beers. The blue restaurant offered the same. The only real difference between these two adjacent establishments was the number of people inside.
From very early on in the day, the blue restaurant was packed full of local families, workers, kids, cats, dogs, and the staff bustling about. It was a hive of activity. The orange restaurant always sat empty. The only person ever seen inside the orange eatery was the owner. Seeing as these two restaurants directly faced each other, I found it nearly impossible not to notice this sad looking man, standing in his orange restaurant, staring over at us in the blue restaurant filled to capacity. As tragic as this situation was to me, no one else ever mentioned it, or paid the orange restaurant, and its lonely owner, any attention at all.
Very few fellow travelers ever found their way into either of these places. The daily crowd was only ever made up of locals. I also noticed that most of them were quite happily unemployed. They would wile away the days chatting, laughing, playing cards and drinking coffee after coffee. They all seemed to be enjoying life to a remarkable degree.
One day while I was sipping my coffee, two grubby looking American men wandered in. I was somewhat surprised to see people around the restaurant that weren’t familiar to me.
“You know these parts pretty well, Mister?” one of them asked.
“Yup, I’ve been here for a few months now, why?” I responded.
“Well, would you know where we can find some good whore houses round here?” he asked.
I slowly put down my paper. “Oh, this is a nice Roman Catholic town. You won’t find anything like that here. Why don’t you try up the coast in Veracruz.”
The two men looked at one another and started chuckling.
“What’s so funny?” I asked.
“We’ve been to three whore houses in this town already this morning. We was just waiting for shift change and figured we’d see if there was some better ones around.”
Soon after that I began to avoid any tourists I saw. Instead, I found it much more comforting to be sitting in my blue restaurant sipping coffee and getting to know the locals that did the same.
There was this one little Mexican boy that would come into the place carrying a big white bucket. His name was Pablo. He would sneak in when the restaurant was at its busiest moment of the day, climbing right in through the tangle of running waiters’ legs, while occasionally taking a slap across the head from one that he’d accidentally tripped en route. Once he had made his way into the center of all the action, Pablo would turn his bucket upside down and sing a song for the crowd, smacking his pail for an accompanying beat. The words to Pablo’s song were the same every day. He sang how he was a poor boy that had no money for food, so he would sing for his supper. The song rarely went on for any longer than a few minutes, and it always ended with the sorrowful youngster wandering around asking for change to be thrown into his bucket. As soon as the patrons began to look a little annoyed by him, one of the wait staff would promptly kick him out.
Finding this little guy to be immeasurably adorable, I was, often his foremost benefactor. I had assumed that my donations were going to the worthy cause of providing him with his daily meals until I noticed that Pablo was just taking all of his earnings next door to the arcade. It appeared Pablo was rather addicted to a Mexican version of the arcade game “Frogger”. After seeing this, my generosity slowed down to only a few pesos a day.
One of the only other tourists I ever saw in the blue restaurant was this walking cliché of a man from Texas. He had parked his massive motor home (complete with a gun rack, and a bumper sticker that read: “Don’t mess with Texas“) outside the restaurant and wandered in for breakfast.
“Excuse me son. You want to make a couple of bucks?” he asked me between mouthfuls of huevos rancheros.
My last conversation with travelers still fresh in my mind, I was cautious with my response.” I’m not actually in need of any extra income, why?”
“I need someone to wash my motor home is all, figured you might be up to the job.”
I immediately thought of little Pablo. “Well I do know of a local kid that would be thrilled for the work. He’s usually in the arcade next door. Want me to have a look?” I asked.
“Shure thang. You just tell em I’ll pay em five bucks if he gits tha job done right.”
I poked my head into the arcade next door to find Pablo glued to the knock-off Frogger game. I quickly explained the opportunity to him. I advised him to fill his bucket with soapy water and start cleaning the motor home parked outside right away. Pablo jumped off the milk crate he was using to be able to see up to the video game’s screen and ran off to get his bucket. Moments later he was back at the blue restaurant, bucket and cloth in hand, enthusiastic to get to work. I returned inside and informed the Texan that he could just relax and enjoy his breakfast, as the job would be accomplished in no time.
Pablo was outside washing the motor home for more than an hour and I could see the Texan was just starting to get antsy. Finally, Pablo came running in all covered from head to toe in soapy water. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Meester, meester, I cleeeened your truck. Can I have my money now, pleeese meester?” Pablo shifted his weight from leg to leg, and rubbed his hands together, obviously thrilled at the idea of spending five whole American dollars in the arcade.
“Well son, lets just us go have a look and see the job you’ve done out there. Then I’ll git you yer five dollars.” The Texan stood up and headed out the restaurant door, Pablo following close behind. I couldn’t resist. I got up and followed them out too.
Pablo, without his bucket, was only about four feet tall, and likely could only reach up to about five and a half feet if he stretched. The result of his small stature became instantly apparent when the three of us arrived at the place where the motor home was parked. The motor home, prior to its washing, had been covered, top to bottom and bumper to bumper, with a thick layer of road dust and grime. Now that it had been washed it was shiny and spotless, all up to about five feet. The top half hadn’t been touched. Pablo had cleaned, as best he could, as far up as he could reach all the way around the motor home. There was almost a perfect line where clean met dirty. At first, the Texan and I didn’t say a word. We just stood there staring at the motor home. Then, breaking the uncomfortable silence, the Texan started to laugh. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a ten-dollar bill and handed it to Pablo.
“Terrible washing job son, but, dammit, that’s the funniest thing I ever saw. Well worth the ten bucks.”
I never did eat a single meal in that orange restaurant during my time in this little Mexican town. I decided to trust the most common advice any traveler can tell you: eat where the locals do and you’ll never go wrong.