My first trip to Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada was during the summer of 1964. An older friend had the rusting carcass of a 1951 Fleetwood 40-foot house trailer on a rented patch of sand just south of town.
Lazy days were spent under the seedy looking palapa tacked to the ocean side of his pink and white “beach pad,” but the evenings would find us in Hussong’s. I would like to say I clearly remember my very first night in this infamous cantina, but alas I cannot.
But I can remember some of the great times I had in the ensuing years in this ramshackle remnant of the 1890s.
The Mexican law which forbade women from entering a cantina was not repealed until 1984, so technically any female who was in one prior to that date was breaking the law. Since Hussong’s was a favorite hangout for southern California’s youthful adventurers, gringo women were often among the revelers.
The bartenders and wait staff took no formal steps in response to the inappropriate intrusion, but had their own type of punishment for the women who dared enter the forbidden cantina.
There was a small shelf at the top of the inward opening door to the restrooms. As soon as a woman entered the restroom, someone would balance a beer tray on the short shelf at the top of the door. When the door reopened, the tray would drop to the floor with a most calamitous clatter, and all in attendance would applaud and cheer.
Some women were a bit embarrassed, some laughed at the prank and enjoyed the attention, while the more adroit who knew of the prank would quickly open the door, step out and catch the tray in midair. This cunning act of skill often engendered a raucous standing ovation as well as a free shot of some rotgut tequila from the bartender.
Early afternoons in Hussong’s would always provide some high-quality entertainment with the ebb and flow of both patrons and vendors. The Mexican clientele was strictly working-class men while the gringos were predominantly beach bums, surfers and off-road enthusiasts. The daylight vendors were mostly selling nuts, seeds and a few mystery snacks, but there was a solitary vendor who peddled a special experience.
This lone vendor was a man without legs who wheeled himself into the building on a low platform with four castors. Trailing behind him was another four-wheeled platform with a large deep-cycle battery and a black box the size of a bread loaf. The black box had a single dial and wires connecting it to the battery as well as wires that terminated into two steel bars the size of rolled coins.
The experience which this man dispensed was, quite simply, pain and suffering. This cagey cripple would zero in on the most obviously inebriated group of Mexican patrons and begin his sales pitch. I was never quite sure just what his pitch entailed, but it always seemed to play on the individual’s machismo.
The idea was — bear in mind that participants paid for this privilege — to grab a steel bar in each hand. Gradually the vendor increased the electrical current, the needle of the dial would climb until eventually the brave borracho released his grip on the steel bars.
As the bars went around the table, each macho drunk would attempt to hold on longer than his compatriots, thus proving the mettle of his manhood. There were times when the steel bars went around the table more than once. On several occasions I witnessed grown men cry like babies while flopping on the floor like dying fish.
One Saturday evening when the aging cantina was packed with gringos, several local cops were attempting to coerce bribes from some of the more intoxicated patrons. They would accuse them of being drunk and disorderly — I mean, really, this was Hussong’s in the 60s and of course people were drunk and disorderly.
The cops would scan the crowded room for their intended victim, then grab him and haul the poor dupe outside where the intimidation would begin. After listening to a litany of the depredations one could suffer in a Mexican jail, they were always grateful to pay their “fine” to these kind guardians of public safety.
On this particular evening after our small group at a back table watched three people go through this classic Mexican extortion routine, we discussed the situation, ordered more cerveza and discussed it more. Yes, we decided to take action.
Between the five of us we had earlier purchased 30 industrial-strength sky rockets. These beauties cost 25 cents each, were larger than a road flare and could reach an altitude of 500 feet before producing a report equal to an artillery round. Working the plan we had cunningly fashioned, two of us casually got up from our table with a couple of empty beer bottles each, and went outside to the parking area next to the building.
I retrieved four rockets from the back of my truck and we placed them in the bottles at the back corners of the lot. We then removed the filters from four cigarettes, lit them up and placed them on the fuses of the rockets. Our return to the crowed cantina was casual, and there we resumed our seats and waited.
When the first one went off the cops traded a knowing look, expecting to catch some foolish gringo who would pay a really big “fine.” The next two went off simultaneously which induced a hush throughout the boisterous crowd as the cops sprinted for the parking lot.
They were most likely closing in on the rear of the lot as the last one whooshed into the night air like an RPG, followed by its thunderous detonation. Many folks followed the sprinting policemen outside to watch the expected confrontation between the cops and the ill-fated pyrotechnician.
Of course, neither flatfoot possessed the forensic skill to find the empty beer bottles and sniff for accelerant residue. So they started searching the neighborhood as everyone else filed back into the tequila-soaked environs of the old cantina. The two frustrated cops did not make a return appearance that evening.
In retrospect, episodes such as these galvanized my connection to the free and easy culture of Mexico. Much has changed in the last 50 years, but the soul of the country still remains, just slightly out of time.
The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at [email protected].