Tidings From The Hidden Places: Dick’s Liquor
Located on Douglas Avenue in Las Vegas, New Mexico, Dick’s Liquor owns a name glaringly obscene even for an establishment dubbed in the ’40s. A place you either hate or love, Dick’s has that accretionary charm of an establishment that started small and added on one function, one room at a time. From its start as a package liquor store, Dick’s soon became a delicatessen and mutated away from selling pints of Jim Beam and six-packs. Now providing sandwiches and white tuscan bean soup and unlikely magnums of sparkling wine, manned by college students, the deli is less of a boozarium and more of a New York oddity amidst the deep West. The secret begins in the back.
Stroll past a huge freezer through a two-foot-four-inch-wide door and you’re into the bar. Painted black and festooned with TVs, the 80’s version of a sports bar awaits you. The staff control the channels (most of the time) and so this sports bar shows tennis and European football, as well as baseball and American football. They’ve decorated the walls with a ’50’s biker sign, a poster of steel workers eating lunch on a beam, and the iconic John Lennon in an NYC T-shirt. The bathrooms are made of cheap paneling, with doors so sprung they haven’t locked for years. Each restroom sports a sign that advertises a “Don’t Drive Drunk” Friday-and-Saturday-Night cab service.
You can eat here too, served from the deli or the restaurant’s kitchen – yes, further back and a half flight up hovers a family restaurant, rather like Applebee’s but with a lot of blond wood and without the plastic. The restaurant extends Dick’s clear across the block. Its official door opens onto the side street and it lurks in one of those 1800’s mercantile buildings. We’ve never made it into the restaurant because we can’t pass up the wildlife roaming the bar.
At eleven this morning, elbows cocked on the bar, a Hispaño has a shot of amber glowing liquid in front of him. He chats with the barkeep while he stares at the talking heads on the tube hung in his face. In the booth by the deli, a mixed-race family with two small, beautifully latte children camps out. One of the munchers tries to crawl high enough on the wall to erase the imported beer list from the blackboard. We snag a table, our favorite near John Lennon, and order – fish and chips for me with a red salsa side, the Naked Burger and a salad for her. We watch the lunch crowd straggle in.
First we spy two ranchers, one dark brown and short, one tall and burnt brick red. Boots, snap-button shirts, the cowboy hats, the bellies cantilevered out by giant belt buckles, they choose a tall table and studiously avoid the TV images. They talk about procaine penicillin. I want to ask them about procaine, but She-Who-Can-Find-Out wiki’s it on her smart phone – vets use procaine for pink-eye. Rats, a missed opportunity to talk to men who smell faintly of cow manure.
Then the working class arrives. White and Hispaño, all overweight, dressed in coveralls that scream of Public Utility or Phone Company, they crowd into a booth and order beer all around, then the green chili meatloaf special. Surely the beer is in direct violation of workplace safety procedures. For this crowd, the conversation runs half-sport, half-family. The biggest guy in the crowd has three kids living at home, ranging in age from seventeen to twenty-eight. He pays their gas and car insurance and worries they’ll never find jobs with benefits.
College students slop in – Las Vegas harbors the University of the Highlands, part of the UNM system. We marvel at the piercings – it’s not just the belly button, the tongue, the eyebrow, the earlobe. We learn the new cool – a diamond stuck through the upper lip (right side only, we conclude) and a fat hoop stuck through that rib that runs across the inside of one’s ear. We don’t eavesdrop or talk about the Renaissance or Nietzsche: we learn who is shagging whom and who came out bi.
Insurance and Real Estate arrive. They may be sleeping together, but today they ignore each other. Instead they email and send texts off on their phones while they sip ice tea and wait for soup (spicy peanut) and salads. Big enough to threaten her health, she fills a bench for two, while he perches across from her, bone thin with stooped shoulders. Peering down into the diminutive screens, she grunts while he vents off melancholy sighs – the back-breaking pressures of business in a small town.
An extended family claims the farthest back booth, underneath the flickering image of an NFL child-beating scandal. First to arrive is the college professor now gone frail. He’s dressed in shabby tweeds and a driving cap. His gray beard and thick glasses prepare us for a declamation on early Babylonia, or perhaps Germanic languages. Shaky, bent like an aspen under a load of snow, he eases into a booth as if it hurts to bend. A young couple join the prof, her with big Texas hair and a butt-hugging black miniskirt and stout waist, him with a shaved head and tattered Levis. Children, next door neighbors, devoted former students? They’re nattering on about local politics when a gray-haired woman arrives in dingos and jeans with a bandana around her neck, escorted by a ten-year-old boy.
It’s the wait staff who are killer. The barkeep is a Latina about forty with a physique of a twenty-year-old gym instructor and a mane of shining black hair, held back by a purple scrunchie. She runs ten tables without breaking a sweat and laughs and talks with many of the customers – holding the little baby, touching the professor on the shoulder, whispering something into a fat man’s ear. I adore the fan of wrinkles that sweep back from her eyes and her sharp chin. Her understudy the waitress hustles the food in and the detritus away, making all of us feel old and feeble as she pounds up and down the stairs. She has dark flashing eyes and hair that frames her face in blue and red. We ask about her tattoos – she’s working on a full sleeve “but I want to leave the other arm naked, for contrast you know. Oh, it’s the movie Labyrinth. I love that movie. See, here is David Bowie the Goblin King and Ludo, and here’s Sarah in the ballroom scene.” We ask how long she’s worked at Dick’s. “Since I was a freshman. I’m taking a semester off, so I’m full-time for awhile.” To pay for the tattoo, we think. Her name is Tatyana, for the last Romanov princess. Or the tennis player.
Like a belt of juniper trees, Dick’s Liquors holds a cross-section of New Mexican life, blown in, clinging to the rock or burrowed deep, waiting for spring rain. It’s homespun, sophisticated, educated, illiterate, anything but ordinary. Honestly, we may add Dick’s to our collection of tall tales, but you can’t make this stuff up. More tall stories later as we careen across the wilderness. In the meantime, try the pastrami and have a fried green chili on the side.