There are two rules you have to follow, my buddy tells me, when hanging out in cantinas. One: Don't stay for more than a couple of drinks, otherwise you're giving people enough time to figure out how to fleece you. And two: Don't order Mexican beer; only gringos drink that stuff.
I drink a lot of Mexican beer, especially in the summer, so that should settle my ethnicity. As for my buddy, he likes his beer michelada, with salt on the rim and a dab of Tabasco inside. He's tall, dark and fluent in Spanish -- the perfect wingman for my mission. He's also a member of LULAC with political aspirations, so we'll leave his name out of this.
Our plan: to check out some bars on the Near Northside, where neighbors are complaining about drug-dealing, prostitution and violence.
First up is a bar on Paschall, a shacklike edifice with a gravel parking lot. Police reports indicate this place has seen a bit of trouble in the last two years, including alleged stabbings, assaults, robberies, thefts and whatever the cops call it when ten guys spill out into the street in a melee of slugging and shouting. My buddy and I walk in, half-expecting one of those cinematic moments where the jukebox scratches and everyone turns around to look at us, but we enter seamlessly.
This joint is surprisingly well lit on a Friday night. The walls are covered in faux wood paneling, not unlike that seen in mobile homes, and an odd collection of kitsch -- stuffed animals, mirrors, eyeglasses -- is piled on a shelf behind the bar. We order two Miller Lites and pop a squat at the bar, trying not to look like narcs.
And nothing happens. Maybe it has something to do with the clean-cut Hispanic guy and his Anglo friend sitting at the bar, but no one in this place seems to be doing anything illegal; people are even pretty friendly. Sure, some of these guys have prison tattoos and others have bloodshot eyes, but the place really just feels like your typical icehouse, even down to the toilet not having a seat. We chug down a couple of beers, make conversation with some guy from Monterrey, take notice of a bit of activity out the back door and hit the road.
Future visits to the joint at various times of the day don't yield much else, save for the feeling I'd get in a heck of a lot of trouble if I tried to walk out the back door to see what's going on out there. I almost make it once, only to be told, in English, to stop because a bite-happy dog is on the loose. The "dog" doesn't seem to mind when another dude walks out there a few minutes later with a wad of cash in his hand.
But, all in all, this place isn't anywhere near as sketchy as you might expect. Or as my buddy says, "Somebody's got to sell the beer. You've got to have a license to fucking sell the beer. They've done that. And that's all they're doing."
But what about all the action out back?
"That's the dark part of the fucking place," he admits. "If we'd walked back there, we probably would've seen people running like roaches."
The next stop on our Narc Tour is a bar on Quitman, a place with a much tamer police file, but one that's been getting complaints nonetheless. (Last October the bar owner testified against two Houston police officers, accusing them of demanding protection money.) We stay here for only one beer, because, well, almost everyone goes outside to the taco truck the minute I arrive. "You're fucking up somebody's Friday night," my friend says.
Another bar on Quitman yields friendlier clientele, but we begin to realize our chances for excitement are pretty low, so we hop in the car and head out to the Richmond Strip for a nightcap. On the way there, my buddy says, "The funny part about all these fucking declarations of wrongdoing and stuff is, you go to a big fucking corporate party or Christmas party and they've got the back room. There are fucking people snorting lines of coke in there. How legal is that? So you're going to fuck with these people in a small neighborhood?
"That's the part I don't care for," he says. "The size of your wallet dictates the good time you can have."
He calms down after we order a drink at our final destination, a pub on Richmond that just so happens to be full of Anglos. And before we're even halfway done with our pints, a woman we've just met tells us she's got a little baggie of coke in her purse.
We can have some, she says. All we have to do is ask.
"I used to open and close the bars," says 68-year-old Armando Bermudez, sitting in a bakery on Quitman. "Now I just close them." Bermudez refers to this panadería as his office; he hasn't touched the hooch in 14 years, he says, so it's in here that he spends most of his evenings, sipping coffee, chatting with buddies.
When he's not slurping java, he often circles the neighborhood in his car, looking at cantinas. "That's all I do," he says. "I just drive around and see who's got the most shit going down. If I see too many violations from the outside, can you imagine what's going on inside?"
Bermudez is vice president of Near Northside BOND (Blocks Organized for Neighborhood Defense), the civic group that's been lodging complaints against these bars. Last year the group helped close down the Blo-N-Go, a small bar on Paschall, by raising enough of a ruckus to ensure the owner's liquor license wasn't renewed.
"It took us ten months to finally get the Blo-N-Go from start to finish," says 77-year-old Gene Goins, president of BOND, who estimates there are 200 other cantinas in the same zip code. "If it takes us ten months on each one, that's about 2,000 months, and heaven help us all."
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Their next target is the bar down the street from the Blo-N-Go, the one with the gravel driveway and the faux wood paneling.
"It looks like the black hole of Calcutta in there," says Goins.
"I wouldn't walk in there," says Bermudez. "You want to make a story? Build a story from the outside, take pictures from the outside."
And miss the chance to drink on the job? I think not.