Date: Mon, Jan 8, 1996 7:23 PM EDT
Subj: El Paso Report
EL PASO, TEXAS: I had dinner Saturday night at a sushi bar. Things are not what they seem in El Paso, Texas.
Back toward the motel, turning down a side street, the windshield fills with a bright velvet blanket dotted with jewel-like lights sparkling against the inky black background. “Love the view,” I say.
“That’s Juarez,” my host reminds me. “The green lights are Mexico.”
“Caught in a crossfire”, to borrow words from other Texans, El Paso deals with a depressed Mexican economy and its concomitant poverty and Third-World status while struggling to maintain the affluence and conspicuous consumption of North America. The Mexican green lights glitter like emeralds.
To the outsider, El Paso is a town in Texas. The locals say they live in “the outback of Texas, forgotten by Austin.” As a result, El Paso is more like New Mexico than Texas. The flat roofs and adobe structures intensify the illusion of not being in Texas — of being someplace else.
There’s (name of store), a funky place in the University district. It’s a gold mine of used, rare, out of print, and assorted odd junk. Most books are grouped in the traditional way, but poetry is next to “some science fiction” as the hand-lettered label indicates. The shop also is home to some of the oddest form of taxonomy I’ve seen yet. The proprietor and my palm-reading buddy immerse themselves in a heady discussion of Talbot Mundy, a British mystery writer. The store has several rare editions including a $200 (dust-jacket complete) copy of JimGrim and Allah’s Place.
The Mundy discussion rages on because both men know the author’s work front, back and upside down. $200 is steep for a hardback but hey, it could happen. Watching two middle-aged men argue the finer points of a little-known and obviously under-appreciated British novelist while standing in a funky bookstore in El Paso is unnerving. Or a pleasant surprise. I’m still not sure which.
There’s a shop attached to the bookstore that sells Tarot cards and magic tricks, marital aids, candles for casting spells, and assorted miscellaneous merchandise of a similar ilk. You may decide for yourself what this means.
A few miles away there’s Forti’s Mexican Elder, a restaurant in the industrial district. Concertina wire encloses a small compound; it seems more Sarajevo than El Paso. Pink-stucco houses nearby soften the edges. And so does the food. The Green Chile sauce is wonderful and hot enough to sear one’s lips, not to mention what it does to the rest of the palate.
A pair of boots for a buddy is the mission of a particular day. First stop: the Tony Llama factory outlet store. What could be more Texan than Tony Llama boots? However, prices on accessories seem no cheaper than any other Cowboy paraphernalia store. It has tourist trap written all over it. He finds a pair. He pays too much.
Finally, there’s astrology. It has brought me to El Paso again, thankfully. Hispanic culture is attuned to the mysteries of life. Hispanics seem more willing to consult a reader for advice about affairs of the heart and business. Monday’s paper carries two mentions about the fair, including a banner headline on the front of Section B. Pictures, too. Once again, I seem to have been forgotten.
Listening to the roar of Interstate 10, I prepare to return to Austin.
I received two gifts while I was in El Paso this time, both books. One was from a client, he gave me a copy of Howard Stern’s latest epic tome, Miss America. The other was from my friend the palmist with the new boots. The Oriental Club by Talbot Mundy. When I got home, my girlfriend scooped up the Stern book, but first she opened the dusty old British thriller. Metaphysical fiction–disguised as a British murder mystery–from a dusty bookstore in the furthest extreme of West Texas, who’d a thunk it?