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La Cucaracha: San Miguel's World-Famous Cantina

by Lou Christine

The beat-up and dingy bar Cucaracha doesn't exude glamour. An exception might be the hubba-hubba pin-up of a sultry Marilyn hanging off the crumbling plastered wall. She's naked and posed in a provocative position.
To define San Miguel's Cucaracha: it's late night personified. Located in the town's Centro, on Zacateros, it is just a stone's throw away, but polar regions apart, from San Miguel's well groomed Jardin.
The bar's torn leather furniture looks ready for the wood pile. The stark concrete floor is usually littered with unmentionables, including an always burgeoning field of crushed cigarette butts. Going to the restroom is like a walk on slippery slopes, a murky adventure within the dank darkness. Praise the Lord males don't hafta sit down. Females! I don't know what they do.
Forget the phoo-phoo crowd, La Cucaracha is far from a Mecca for designer wear. The hang-out's following are mostly clad in faded jeans and droopy tank tops. A bombed-out campesino, down for the count, head-plopped, mouth wide-open, the whole upper half of his drunken torso sprawled atop a messy table, could conceivably be the joint's welcome mat. More than likely, not much attention will be paid to the unconscious one.
Yet, despite a seedy impression, there's something intriguing taking place. Why else would this watering hole be so popular? It holds fast to its two-fisted, hard-drinking reputation.
Originally, Cucaracha was located a couple of blocks over, where a posh Banamex is now located. Back then, San Miguel crazies were knocking down booze almost round the clock, and Cucaracha was their temple. Notables like Kerouac, William F. Burroughs, the infamous Cassidy, Ken Kesey and the likes of Allen Ginsburg all frequented the place while living part-time in this town. The hangout was internationally renowned. Some chic, north-of-the-border monthly once rated the place one of the top bars on earth.
These days, Cucaracha is a last-chance bastion for freebooters. One shouldn't be averse to second-hand smoke, there's at least a pack burning in the air at any given time. The craving for nicotine can be fulfilled without flicking a Bic.
In contrast to the din, there's a perpetually-playing modern CD juke box spinning out a gambit of tunes. A Mexican ballad is followed by the eternal voice of Jim Morrison belting, "I woke up this morning and had myself a beer..." as half the place gets down and sings along. Throwing caution to the wind, couples dance in front of the juke box, on tables and on the bar itself.
The staff is laid back, or perhaps just oblivious, as they wait on customers. Serving strictly on a COD basis, popping beer caps is conspicuously taking time from their backgammon or domino games. One suspects that if those T-shirted bartenders suddenly discovered a sparkling diamond stuck inside the bottle of a quench Victoria, their blank expressions wouldn't change an iota. As long as things remain copacetic, everything's cool.
Around 2 a.m. San Miguel's off-duty wait help storm through the dilapidated, almost hanging-off-the-hinges doors, mixing in and meshing their semi-formal work attire with those donned in denim and wrinkled cotton. Things get cooking. The clientele is a potpourri of clandestine chic. They're the new-aged and the disheveled, the tattooed and snaggle-toothed, of all persuasions. They're mostly local, yet always hip. Dredlocks and super gelled up spiked dos, in shades normally reserved for parrots, and a number of skinheads, some by choice, others due to the aging process, bob in pandemonium. Having pierced body parts isn't a prerequisite to hang out. There are the freshly scrubbed faces belonging to first-time-away-from-home art students, those seamless fresas who are full of exuberance, chatting away with wrinkled-faced maestros. There are the like-wow chicas, with hour-glass figures, pretending to be seduced by burnt-out writers who, by all means, have bad intentions. World travelers wash in for some good, or bad, company for the sake of talking story, and even El antiQuario executives have been spotted frequenting the place from time to time. The forever hand-shaking wanna bes, willing to speak with anyone, "Wanna buy me a drink, amigo?" mix with the town's international flavor. French might be spoken in one corner while east-coast, big-city yacks from another. Exquisite bouquets of vacationing Chilean gals often become all the buzz, attracting a hornet's nest of bar flies who, if given a chance, might try and out-do the monarchs by winging it all the way to the foothills of the Andes.
By 2:30 the joint's a-jumping. Chocked with foxes and coyotes, Romeos and Juliets, in-laws and outlaws, the hybrid grooves to the blaring tunes. The pulsating beat of the juke box, along with the nudging of alcohol, helps erase the disappointment of the previous mundane day, now no more than a lingering memory. " One for the road" Joes should be sued for false advertising as, come the crack of dawn, they are still there, toasting away. After a certain hour, a non-seeing character affectionately known as Blind George gains visual parity with the rest, who see only cloudy images. Decibels rise.
Now and then some brothers go over the top, but there's usually enough level-headed types willing to step forward. There is that distinct air of tension. A pragmatic mind might ask, "What the hell am I doing here?" But ya gotta figure, "My man, it's the middle of the night and you're boozing in a place where the name speaks for itself!"
Frequenting the Cucaracha is not a boy-scout outing, nor will it be penciled in on the local Biblioteca's House and Garden tour. Perhaps it's a "right of passage" for young Sanmiguelenese. It boasts aspects one doesn't discuss with dear ole mom or the parish priest, except when whispering away inside the confessional. Yet for the most part, Cucaracha's a mellow place. One is more likely to shake a thousand hands there than dodging a swinging fist.
The standard pour is a fat mother, equaling perhaps the width of the meaty mitts belonging to a stevedore. After a number of sure-fire belts a pug face like me sees himself as more handsome, taller, thinner, wittier, with more hair, a sexy dancer, a grinning fool who's about to become bullet proof. Well, not always, but sometimes.
By golly, by 3:30 that steamy photo of Marilyn all of a sudden comes alive! The provocative-posed diva beckons. There's no doubt to the observer that her forever young-and-frozen, come-n-get-it sardonic smile is meant exclusively for them.
Although somehow the management doesn't give one the impression they've taken an art appreciation class, an eclectic collection hangs on the walls. Operating far beyond the borders of Gringolandia, a scowling Uncle Sam takes a shot at recruiting guys for the US Army. The "I Want You!" message calls from the yellowed, faded poster. There's a full-scale mural, painted with bold brush strokes reminiscent of Orozco's style, of a wild cantina scene. A terrific cityscape of ole San Miguel is suspended from another wall. The painting over the bar depicts a group of merry-making cockroaches, loitering on bar stools, all raising hell, toasting each other inside a surreal, roach-infested pub. It's a weird scene, no doubt created from the humorous confines of an artist's imagination, perhaps after a sordid night spent inside the Cucaracha. By the wee hours, the rathskeller reminds one of that far-out, alien bar in "Star Wars."
For many of San Miguel's young, and for those young at heart, the Cucaracha is a special gathering place a perhaps not-so-appropriate or fashionable conclusion to another dynamite day in Paradise. But what the heck... whatta ya think they're doing at 4:00 a.m. up in Tekamah, Nebraska?