Addicted to Love

Romance resides at the bottom of a bottle in local cantinas

He says it's been two weekends since he last saw her, counting this weekend. Today is Thursday. He stands, barely five feet tall, in his gravel driveway in Magnolia, that Hispanic expanse to the east of downtown, between the Maxwell House plant and the Ship Channel. "Dad, how come you keep going over there?" he says his 20-year-old son kept asking. "The lady isn't offering you nothing -- no kind of compassion, no kind of hugs, no kind of kisses, nothing." So he says he's not going to see her anymore, he's finally wised up. He doesn't want his real name used, so let's call him Mauricio.

Mauricio is an addict. Now 45 years old, he began seeing the woman, whom we'll call Rita, about three and a half years ago, right after his wife left him for another man. They'd had five kids, all boys, all dark-haired and strong like their father. Rita was there for him when his wife died a year later, from a brain aneurysm. Rita loved him, or so he thought. Why else would she keep taking his money?

Rita is a cantinera. She works at a bar on Broadway and gets paid to drink. Her job has nothing to do with a scientific study, and she surely didn't find it on the back page of an alternative weekly. Male customers come into the cantina and buy themselves $2 beers. If they want the pleasure of Rita's company, they have to buy her a pony beer (eight ounces) for seven bucks. She splits the difference with the house, often taking in more than $100 a night.

Dancing is a fringe benefit of the beer buying.
Daniel Kramer
Dancing is a fringe benefit of the beer buying.
The ability to play pool is an important part of a 
cantinera's repertoire.
Daniel Kramer
The ability to play pool is an important part of a cantinera's repertoire.

Over the years, Mauricio estimates he's spent about $4,500 on Rita, which is a lot for a guy who makes ten bucks an hour. "It went to the point where she would loan me money and I would spend that same money on her and I would pay her back," he says. "How about that?"

Mauricio went to the cantina every weekend, even if it wasn't the safest place for romance. One time a guy accosted him and accused him of harassing an old man. Before Mauricio could explain it wasn't him, the guy reared back and broke a pool stick over his head. "The good thing is, he used the thin side," he says.

When Mauricio wouldn't show up, for whatever reason, Rita would call him at the house and ask him to come visit her. He rarely denied her. He gave her a bracelet, a watch, a ring -- a promise ring, at that. "I'd invite her to eat at the flea market; you know how they have hamburger stands and hot dog stands in there," he says. "I thought it was great, especially when I had lost my wife. But I thought much more of her than she thought of me." One time, drunk as a skunk, he offered her $300 to sleep with him. She declined.

Mauricio's sons kept telling him to stop seeing Rita, to find a nice woman who would love him for who he was, or at least someone who would give him some affection. Mauricio's friends made fun of him, as most guys do when they see their buddy isn't getting any play. But Mauricio couldn't stop seeing her; that would mean all his effort had been for naught. "You've got your eyes open, but you're still blind," he says.

But now Mauricio says he's had enough. Last time he saw her, he was angry and sauced; he cussed her out, wanting to make sure he would never return. That was two weekends ago, "counting this weekend."

So tonight he's going to other bars, in search of other women.

Consuela sits at a table against the wall, her plump frame resting in a plastic chair. She's the new one of the three. The other two are playing pool by the jukebox, all done up, chatting to one of the bar's regulars. This place is pretty dead for a Thursday night, or at least that's what Consuela's slouch is saying. She's wearing a blue shirt, new jeans and stacked-heel flip-flops. Her pretty face is framed by hoop earrings.

Consuela, of course, is not her real name. She's only been in the United States for two months, she tells Mauricio, who has showered and shaved since we last saw him. This is the second cantina he's visited tonight. The first, although livelier, presented him with a small problem: He had connected with a young cantinera who was very quiet and who didn't know how to play pool. ("To pay $14 for a beer and have her say, 'I don't know how to play pool, can you teach me?' " he says. "I mean, come on.") Rather than finding someone new at the same place, Mauricio headed out and hit up this joint on Navigation, where he's now sitting across from Consuela and a $14 beer.

Consuela is from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, she says. She left her two kids -- an eight- and a ten-year-old -- behind with her parents while she made the long, slow journey across Guatemala and Mexico. Her plan is to send money back to them. A cousin of hers lives in Houston and knows the owner of this bar, so here she came.

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