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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   January 2009

Salsa Days

The night the lights went out on Jessie's Cafe.

By Phillip Parotti



Editor's note: Fans of Phillip Parotti's occasional, er, colorful reminiscences of growing up in Silver City will rejoice to see that we're ringing in the New Year with another look back at the "olden days." Previous Parotti yarns may be found in our issues of March 2007 ("Diamond in the Rough"), September 2007 ("Some Memories of Mildred's") and May 2008 ("Brick and Mortar Memories"), all of which are available on our Web site at www.desertexposure.com

Long, long ago, when the world was young (about the time I was trying to get out of diapers), Druley's Restaurant occupied the southeast corner at the intersection of 12th and Pope in Silver City.

SALSA

The Druleys ran a fine restaurant; indeed, they were so successful that they opted to build a more modern facility, and in the late 1940s moved straight up the hill into new quarters across from Swift Memorial Hospital, approximately where Hudson Street now intersects with Silver Heights Boulevard. As a result of this move, by the time I reached my last years in high school, the "Hole-in-the-Wall," formally known as Jessie's Cafe, had moved from its first known location, directly across North Bullard from what is now Morning Star, to take over Druley's old building — where it became a fixture.

From the beginning, Jessie's Cafe was an institution. For high school males, the Hole-in-the-Wall was to Silver City what Arnold's Drive-In was to Richie, the Fonz and the rest of their crowd on TV's "Happy Days." In our case, however, the fun didn't really begin until after midnight, after we had taken our dates, girlfriends or groupies home and deposited them inside their front doors. Then — and only then — the men gathered, squeezing into the 12-foot-wide confines of that long, deep Hole-in-the-Wall to order tacos (and never anything but tacos), so that we could test our courage and manhood against Jessie's salsa.

You may reasonably wonder what that salsa was like, so I will try to give you a reasonable explanation: Jessie's salsa was made from pure, aged jalapeos, grown by specialists to exceed the volcanic heat of blistering habaeros. Prior to grinding — and we had this on good authority from an acquaintance in the kitchen — each jalapeo was individually steeped in liquid cayenne for about 10 weeks before anyone so much as touched it with tongs. Thereafter, when the time was ripe, the sous-chef, wearing rubber gloves and a welding mask, carefully removed the peppers from their storage container, ground them in a blender that had been twice sterilized with gasoline, combined them with two parts turpentine and one part jellied napalm — to give the mixture body — and then served the salsa in small open-faced bowls, so as to preclude either spontaneous combustion or anything approaching a critical mass.

Those guys who came in beaming (a clear indication that they had actually scored two and a half to three full minutes of serious necking before their dates' mothers — or worse, their dates' fathers — had turned on the porch lights) went straight for the test: Brimming with self-confidence, heady with self-assurance, they seized their spoons and knocked off a full teaspoon of Jessie's salsa before they even took time to think about it, tears of joy welling in their eyes. They knew, you see, after one spoon of that salsa, they knew that they could whip the world and live to tell about it.

For the misbegotten, on the other hand, for the rejected, for those who had spent hours working, laboring, toiling to overcome the Doris Day morality and Victorian constraints thrown up by Misty, Muffy, Buffy, Shelly Cream or Ethel Pure only to be told "good night" under the porch light with a warm smile and a hearty handshake . . . Well, those poor guys had a really tough row to hoe. And it was a tough thing to watch, let me tell you, and an even tougher thing to endure.

No matter, Jessie's salsa provided the ultimate test of courage for the beaten man. Sweaty of forehead, nervous of limb, down, out, all self-confidence crumbling beneath the pressure of that hearty handshake, a real man nevertheless rose to the challenge, gripped his teaspoon, dipped it into the salsa, watched and hesitated as the spoon turned green, and then with one last manly grip, raised the dissolving spoon and hurled its entire contents straight onto the back of his tongue before swallowing hard. Once or twice — I am not kidding — I thought I saw fire emerge from individual mouths.

We thought those guys were goners, for sure, but let the saints be praised, they survived, each of them, and when they did, they emerged from their trials as new men, as men ready to resume the struggle, as reborn men ready to pick up their telephones and call Misty, Muffy, Buffy, Shelly Cream or Ethel Pure for one more date. Theirs was the true triumph. For them, surely, the anthems would sound.

Jessie's, if you see what I mean, was a sacred place where the rites of passage were religiously observed. And one night, in an hour of triumph, Rollo nearly put out her lights.



Back in the summer of 1958, Rollo and I had just become seniors. Vinnie had graduated and was about to head for college, and highly intelligent J.F. was just about to begin his sophomore year. We spent a lot of time together, the four of us, doing what any normal crowd of high-school boys likes to do. In particular, we were anticipating the New Mexico State Student Council Workshop, a six-day event held annually on the WNMU campus. The workshop sparked our interest by bringing bevies of beautiful high school exotics like Latitia Snap and Becky Sharp into town from all over the state. During the weeks leading up to this event, our normal dates — Misty, Muffy, Buffy, Creamy Shelly and Ethel Pure — had gone into something I can only describe as a withholding pattern, the withholding being a severe tax upon male sanity and a true test of Jessie's salsa. Collectively, we couldn't quite understand what might be driving such an unprecedented and overt cold front.

"Cripes!" someone exclaimed, "What the hell do they expect from us? You don't suppose that one or the other of those girls actually expects us to take them out to dinner, do you?"

"Whoa!" the other three of us shouted at once, our survival instincts going onto full alert.

We weren't stupid. Even that early, you see, all of us knew, because it was a part of "The Code," that the minute you asked a girl out for dinner, you were done for — because the very next thing she was going to expect was a marriage proposal. Movies, dances, football games, coke dates . . . , well, those things fell within the bounds of reason. But if you took a girl out to dinner in Silver City . . . why that could cost as much as five dollars, and any fool could see in a second where that was going to lead.

We dissolved into silence, considered our options, and made our move. We went straight up to the college campus and registered at once for the New Mexico State Student Council Workshop.

In retrospect, it was almost too good to be true: Latitia Snap, Becky Sharp, Jenny Diver and Miss Lucy Brown — all of them very respectable girls, all of them cheerleaders from high-minded, eastern-establishment New Mexico high schools, and all of them temporarily out from under the firm control of their mothers, their boyfriends and their high-school sponsors — did come to town, did shower us with attention at the opening dance (probably because we had announced our distinguished status by wearing our letter sweaters in the middle of August), and did allow us to walk them back to Ritch Hall, holding hands. There — oh, wonder of wonders — just like the other 95 or 100 couples there assembled, they gave themselves up to possibly 40 full seconds of serious necking before they went in, and they did it right there beneath that 10 million candle-power floodlight that had been installed directly above Ritch Hall's front door with the intention of discouraging just such behavior.



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