“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” That’s what Jack London said, and it has to be my favorite writerly quote of all times. As I noted in a previous post, it seems that writers all too often plant themselves in their local coffee shop and wait for a bolt of inspiration to strike. I, on the other hand, am a firm believer in the need to take London’s advice to heart and go in search of inspiration. Be it an entirely new experience or just a change in writing venue, writers need to actively engage and drum up the inspiration. I think this is important because not only does it signal a shift in a writer’s psychology and the channeling of his or her creative energies, it also serves as a conduit for bringing stimuli to the writer. I, for example, have the slightly odd habit of sitting under trees in the middle of the night and waiting to see what the muses happen to throw my way, but that’s not the only thing I do for inspiration. I also like to go to scary restaurants. It seems that every time I search out a real dive or a hole in the wall, I always come back with ideas for a good story.
I love it when you walk into a restaurant and the waiter looks at you like you’ve lost your mind. That happened the last time my sidekick and I went in search of a new scary place to eat. We found it in a rundown shopping center, where a hand-painted sign mounted on the roof identified it as El Gallo de Oro, or the Golden Cock in English. At first, the building appeared to be abandoned. A closer look through the grimy windows that hadn’t been broken out and papered-over, however, revealed a lone server inside. I yanked open the door and walked though.
The walls of the Golden Cock were painted an electric blue and a bar flanked the rear of the one large room with three pool tables and a large TV on the left-hand side and eight or so tables on the right. All in all, it wasn’t a bad set up, and it appeared much cleaner than I had anticipated. Still, it was a dump. And the waiter just looked at Ramón and me like we were crazy. I’ve experienced this phenomenon at other hole-in-the-wall kinds of Mexican places before, and I think it has something to do with the fact that I’m blond and well over six feet tall and must weigh at least twice as much as the average patron there. But other than the two of us, there wasn’t a single patron in the joint. And it was lunchtime.
What the heck. We resisted the urge to flee in the hopes that the food would be worth it.
“This is a restaurant, isn’t it?” Speaking in Spanish, Ramón approached the waiter who now stood behind the bar. “Yes,” he answered, somewhat hesitantly. “What’s that gringo want?” he added, pointing at me.
“How about a couple of menus?” I responded in Spanish. I don’t like being called a gringo, by the way. And I always get a kick out of the way rude Mexican waiters react when they find out I speak Spanish with a characteristically non-gringo accent. “We don’t have a menu,” he replied sheepishly, wiping down the bar.
No menu? Strange, because on the wall hung a huge hand-painted sign, covered with nice words like “taco” and “tostada” with prices. In my language, I believe we’d call it a menu. “Is that the menu?” I enquired, pointing at the enticing collection of tasty-sounding dishes. “No,” he answered, looking at me like I was cuckoo for coco puffs again.
Already this was turning out to be an interesting experience. I suppose the fact that the large menu in question touted goodies from “La Marimba Restaurant” might have explained it all away, but who hangs the menu from another restaurant in their restaurant?
“Okay, so what do you have then?” Ramón had stepped in to speed things up. We had already been there for five minutes and had accomplished very little.
“Whatever you want,” the surly waiter responded. “We’ve got it all.”
“How about some chips and salsa to start off with then?” I sat down at the table, glad to see that we were finally getting somewhere.
“No, we don’t have that,” said the waiter.
“How about some guacamole?”
“Well, what do you have then? Besides nothing.”
“We’ve got tacos, we’ve got menudo…”
I quickly nudged Ramón, a known menudo fan – Who wouldn’t love spicy tripe soup with its pleasantly fecal aroma? – but he quickly shook his head, confiding later that he didn’t trust the menudo “in places like that.”
“…we’ve got shrimp soup…”
“Ah, caldo de camarón! Yes, we’ll take the shrimp soup.” Finally, we were getting somewhere. After digging a Coke and a Corona out of the cooler behind the bar, the waiter trotted the order back to the kitchen. What I was craving was a simple plate of scrambled eggs with refried beans, but I decided to keep my mouth shut.
After a swig on our drinks, it occurred that they not might take plastic in a place like that, so we asked, and sure enough, they only took cash. While Ramón valiantly scurried off in search of the next ATM, I just sat there, enjoying the uneasy silence despite the blaring reguetón from Spanish MTV.
I attempted to break the ice. “So…What happened to all the windows?” I pointed to the front of the room.
“Ah…” The waiter smiled. (Was he warming up? Maybe my speaking Spanish was doing the trick.) “At night we’re more like a club, and this weekend there was another fight. Knives and guns. Police came and everything.”
“Ah…” I nodded my understanding – and sympathy – and headed to the bathroom. It must have been some fight because a large chunk of wall was missing and the urinal had been knocked askew on its mount. Back at the table, I asked how long the restaurant had been around.
“Couple of years.” He was smiling now, but I think it had more to do with the buxom dancers prancing around on Spanish MTV.
Then I committed an apparent faux pas. I like to try to identify accents, so I said, “Where are you from?”
The smile disappeared from the waiter’s face and he went back to wiping. “North Carolina.” Then he clammed up for the rest of the visit.
Soon Ramón returned with cash in hand. A woman – I’ll call her Rosa – padded out of the kitchen in a pair of slippers and deposited small condiment bowls with chili, chopped onion and wedges of lime on the table. She shuffled back and emerged with a large bowl of red broth that she placed before Ramón. A quick stir with the spoon revealed a swarm of whole, unshelled shrimp swimming in the spicy broth, their still-attached feelers reaching up and out of the soup to dangle frighteningly and alien-like over the sides of the bowl. Then Rosa emerged with my bowl of swaying antennae and a covered container of steaming, hand-made corn tortillas. After serving me, she padded back to the kitchen and returned with a delicious-smelling plate of scrambled eggs and refried beans. Ignoring my crestfallen look, she sat at the next table and dug in.
No fair – I wanted scrambled eggs and refried beans. But, I decided not to pout. After all, the tentacle soup did look good, sort of. In any case, I was prepared to enjoy it.
But, a slurp of the broth revealed a bland, chalky soup with little seasoning other than the vague piquancy derived from large chunks of reconstituted chiles. The saving grace could have been the large and multitudinous shrimp – apparently juicy – however they turned out to be dried shrimp that had been brought back to life in the soupy morass. After fighting my way around the shell and feelers I finally located a shrimp-like morsel and bit in. Remotely redolent of a crustacean, the flesh was mealy and incapable of providing me with gustatory satisfaction. I decided on the spot it was the worst thing I had ever tasted. The tortillas, though visibly enticing and possessing a pleasantly doughy texture, had a flavor like that of damp paper towels. I don’t think a single grain of salt had made its way to the soup or the tortillas.
We decided to settle up and go, but just as I was getting ready to ask for the check, a shiny flicker of light on the bar caught my attention. I stopped and turned my gaze on a bit of chestnut-brown shellacking with legs that had apparently loosened itself from the surface of the bar and raced over to the edge and down the side.
The surly waiter had sat down with Rosa, and the two of them were laughing over the contents of a registered letter the mail carrier had just delivered. “Oh, my god. Turn around slowly and look at the bar,” I told Ramón. “But, don’t do it too fast so they see what we see—” But, of course, he whipped his head around and just rolled his eyes when he beheld the object of my fascination: a real, live cockroach. An actual cockroach of the musical species cucuracha mexicana that we all sang about in high school Spanish class.
I fairly squealed in sotto voce glee. “The perfect end to the worst meal I’ve had in ages. Nobody’s going to believe this! This will make the best blog ever.” The joy I was experiencing could only be described as perverse, and I started to raise my camera. “La cucaracha…la cucaracha…ya no quiere caminar.” The song danced in my head.
Nonchalantly, I focused my camera on the bit of bar where the roach frolicked, when Ramón shot me a glare. Knowing that look, I feebly lowered the camera. “But…” I stammered. “La cucaracha para mi blogo…” He motioned with his head, and I saw Rosa and the surly waiter eyeing us with suspicion.
“La cuenta.” I made that writing motion on the palm of my hand. Ramón dealt with the tab and I headed for the door, attempting a very amateurish hip shot of the bar as I bolted. The door slamming behind me, I turned around and waited for Ramón to come out. When he emerged into the sunlight, I noticed we both had bright rings of red chile stains around our mouths. His was more pronounced than mine. “How much was it?”
“27 bucks. And that was before the tip.”
“Oh, my god!” We got ripped off and had cockroaches and the worst food ever. In the car I examined the four photos I had taken. With bated breath I went to the hip shot of the bar, but I had missed la cucaracha by a good foot or so.
But when I examined the first picture, the one of the front of El Gallo de Oro, I had to let out a hearty laugh. Practically in stitches, I leaned over and showed Ramón the screen of the digital camera as he navigated the lanes of traffic. Proudly displayed in the one window that hadn’t been shattered in the brouhaha over the weekend was the letter A in green on a white background, that most coveted of restaurant inspection scores.
At home I went on line and checked, and sure enough, El Gallo de Oro was awarded a 93%. Not that I would let something like a bad score keep me away anyway. But I asked around and some of my friends in the know say places like that are often fronts for other kinds of businesses, so who knows what could have been going on there. Drug deals. Human trafficking. Mexican mafia kinds of stuff. Or just bad service. Even if it was just an awful little hole in the wall with the worst food ever, the opportunities are endless when I let imagination take over and write the rest of the story.