ON THE OLE’ RIO GRANDE

with JULIO from Cafe Pilar 

 

 8/8/2020

DETERMINED TO MAKE GOOD TIME, we made our way quickly out of Taos. Our packing only stalled for a cigarette break and a last minute reorganization of the way things went back into the cars before bidding the Sagebrush Inn adieu. There were a couple coffee shops and cafes immediately south on the way out of town, but by the looks of them they had been shuttered for at least a week, maybe months, because of the novel coronavirus, and before we knew it the abandoned structures and run-down homes became more and more sparse until it was just us at the old Rio Grande rolling down the 68. We passed pars going into Taos at sporadic increments, cars pulled off the highway into the dirt on the side of the road, men fishing in the river in their fishing hats and vests, fly-fishing the Rio Grande. There were little brown kids with lifevests on splashing knee-high in the river under a bridge that T’d into the highway. Their parents and younger siblings look on from the shore. They were boys, they weren’t men yet. They stayed out of the main current.

We drove by rafts launching from soft sandy landings at wide parts in the river where the water wasn’t rushing along so fast. Around a bend in the road there was a flash of a yellow sign with red lining and corrugated steel roofing with icicle lighting hanging down; Pilar Café it said. Adrian didn’t stop, but around the next bend we realized that Charlotte’s car was no longer behind us, so Adrian pulled off and turned around. Zach and Charlotte were getting out of the car when we pulled up. Charlotte needs her coffee in the morning and Zach really likes his. I do too, so I was happy to stop. Adrian acquiesced.  

Masks On, said the sign by the door. Keep Social Distance. There was a menu written in a quick hand and multiple colored markers on a white board behind the counter. This was as good a place as any for breakfast. After all, we were already stopped. Charlotte ordered the huevos rancheros, and we boys all got breakfast burritos. The old greasy-haired man behind the counter rang us in. His voice was hoarse behind his mask, and on a wood column next to the register hung a black and white picture of him on his old CB350 in the 70s. His hair was darker then, and he was slimmer too. There was a mustache on his upper lip in the picture which reminded me of myself. Except I had a much bigger bike back in LA. And I’m a bit taller, and hopefully more handsome. It’s not a vanity thing really. It’s laziness. Life’s easier if you’re good-looking and you know how to talk to people.   

At one point the chef, a lean young tattooed buck all in black with a Mexican accent, came out from behind a sheet curtain that led to the kitchen to tell the raspy old proprietor that he still had some eggs left. He wore a black bandana up around his nose, and his black New Era sat slightly tilted on his head. His eyes looked surprised to see us. Then excited, he jumped back into the kitchen. As we put our orders in with Rico, the old proprietor, he would write them down and stick them up in the kitchen window.

“And the coffee?” Charlotte asked.

“It’s outside,” said Rico. 

On the front patio under the corrugated steel was a table with a Keurig machine and a box of pods and a stack of paper cups. Yum. We were the only patrons, but it was still relatively early. I poked my head back in the front door. 

“Y’all have a bathroom?” 

“Yeah, there’s a door around the back,” said Rico. Yum. 

So I walk around the back. The land slopes down away from the highway towards the river. On the side of the building is a door at the top of a short set of stairs that looks into the little kitchen, and I could see chef working away in there. He had quick hands that knew what they were doing, and he was light on his feet. The bathroom was up a set of stairs too. It was a small room painted pink which from the middle you could touch all four walls. I made sure not to. After, I used my elbow to hit the flusher, the faucet and the soap dispenser, and then I kicked the door open with my toe to go. It swung freely. There was no bolt to lock it.

The food was surprisingly good. We ate out on the back patio, which was an array of kayaks, christmas lights, condiments, and soft rafts and lifejackets. Before we left I snuck around the side of the building to try and sneak a photo of chef through the open door without him seeing me. No, chef is a man constantly aware of his surroundings, even when he’s focused on the food. 

“Whatchu want, chico?” He didn’t look up. His eyes were on the knife in his hands, but he raised his eyebrows at me. And my butthole clenched a little bit.

“Uh, hi! I was wondering if I could take a picture of you.” 

Nothing. I turned to go to the cars as he finished chopping up a green bell pepper.  

“Hey, wait a second.” 

When I turned again, he was standing at the head of the stairs; black lace-ups, black latex gloves, and a chef’s knife in one hand. He pulled the bandana down. There were more tattoos on his face, more scars too. Looking down, he said, “Well, take a picture then. Or should I keep my mask up? What do you think?” He pulled it up.

“How ‘bout one with it up and one with it down.” I started shooting. “Yeah. Now with it down. What’s your name?” 

He pulled it down. “I’m Julio. Where you from.”

“California. LA.” 

“Oh yeah? You know I used to do prison films. Like short films, in prison.”

“Where you from?”

“Juarez. That’s where my brother was killed. It’s sad. I used to cook in Santa Fe before coming here and met Rico, man. He was really good to me. Let me have my kitchen here, let me cook. But Santa Fe’s cool, man. My daughter lives there.”

“We’re on our way to Santa Fe.”

“It’s nice. I lived there for a little. That’s where I made some prison videos with my homie. Like little skits. You should check us out! On Youtube, Vatoz Locoz with a ‘z’.”

I told him I would, and I thanked him. I didn’t tell him I’d keep an eye out for his daughter. But then again, I have no idea what she looks like. I am curious now though.