Lise Liddell ©2011
My greatest tequila memory - and considering how much of it I drank I am surprised I have any recollection of it at all – spawned itself when my brother was a sophomore and I was a junior at The University of Texas at Austin in the late spring of 1984. The two of us and Frank’s girlfriend, Carlene, decided to take a routine road trip to Mexico, as college students are prone to embark upon random adventures that require time, energy, and money they don’t have, just to see what kind of fun time lies waiting out beyond the campus horizon.
In the early 80’s, hauling your butt down to Mexico with your college chums stuffed in your Cutlass Calais with its sunroof busted and stuck open, was not the scary prospect it is today. You needed nothing to cross the boarder except maybe a driver’s license for whoever was the designated driver - which back then was not someone abstaining from alcohol, it was just someone who owned, or whose parents owned the car. Whole busses of frat boys would go to Boys Town to loose their virginity. They might come back having lost all their money, too, but losing their lives to the random spray of bullets by a drug cartel was never a concern.
The legal drinking age in Texas at the time was 18 and “carding” was almost non-existent. I believe at that time the drinking age in Mexico was maybe 2, if there was one at all. People drove drunk all over Texas and Mexico. There were hardly any cars on the road back then. You were a lot more likely to hit an armadillo than another vehicle. During my childhood in Houston, my own parents drove drunk countless times, with their three kids tossed in the back of the station wagon doing summer-salts and having fist fights. No seat belts, as there were no seat belt laws. And if we had to drive more than two hours, mom and dad plunked down a cooler stocked with Carta Blanca beer on the front seat between the two of them, chugged down one beer after another, and then tossed the bottles out the window. This was also before the onset of, “Don’t Mess with Texas.”
Therefore, driving your naïve drunken ass down to Mexico, all over the tarnation of Mexico, and then back into the heart of Texas was only a cause for jubilation, and absolutely no cause for concern in 1984. You could tell your parents about a trip like that and the only response would be something to the effect that if you had that much time to goof off you’d better be making decent grades. So we trucked it to Mexico frequently, usually heading to Laredo where a high percentage of the UT student body could be found on any given day.
On this trip, however, we decided to go to Piedras Negras, right across the border from Eagle Pass where Frank had been on a few hunting trips. The day was a beautiful bright spring day that was already feeling like summer at around 85 degrees, and the three of us were high on college-aged adrenalin and idiocy. We whizzed down I-35 South to San Antonio, jumped onto US-57 South, and exuberantly hi-fived and cheered at several Mexican Federales as we crossed the Mexican border about four hours after takeoff. We headed straight to Club Moderno, where Frank had been informed by a reliable frat-brother source that the owner had invented the Nacho. As far as I’m concerned, the nacho is a far more enlightened invention than boring old sliced bread. The three of us were headed for Mexican Mecca.
At about two in the afternoon, we walked underneath the standard neon signs that decorate most Mexican restaurants, into a boxed building with not a single window. Apparently the lack of natural light, and however much money he’d made on the Nacho copyright, was no inspiration to the King of Nachos to install lighting fixtures in his restaurant. The inside was lit with 25 watt light bulbs crammed into some kind of wacky wire fixtures posing as chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, and a few blood-red glass votives glowing on each table. The room was as good as pitch black. The place had about 20, four-top wooden tables with dilapidated wooden chairs scattered about. Only a few tables were occupied with what looked to be like Mexican businessmen wearing suits, smoking fat cigarettes and fatter cigars, and getting plowed on various tequila drinks.
We sat down and ordered a round of Margaritas, along with a plate of truly original nachos. The nachos were definitely worth making the trip for – made with light crispy fried flour tortillas, a tender blanket of melted cheddar cheese over homemade spicy borracho beans, and slices of fresh jalapeno heaped on top - they were truly divine. I hate to admit it about my own beloved state, but back then the standard Texas nacho usually involved pre-packaged stale corn tortilla chips, 2 lb cans of beans, and 1 lb blocks of Velveeta “cheese”.
And lets get to the real delicacy: those Mexican Jalapeños were not the rubbery things you get in a jar in the US that taste more like bad pickles, and not the hybrid fresh ones that are so mild you puree them into baby food. These bastards were the real deal - strong enough to immediately trigger the onset of dehydration through overproduction of fluid through your sweat glands, requiring of course the emergency mass consumption of tequila infused beverages.
And speaking of, the margaritas were better than any I’d ever had in all my young years of Texas living and drinking. There are no margarita “mixes” in Mexico, and none of that frozen goo that comes pooping out of a machine, either. Mexican Margaritas are made with 100% freshly squeezed limejuice from the most the excellence limes on the planet. A Mexican lime is no bigger than a Texas pecan, but it holds about 6 times as much juice as most larger American limes, and about 2 times as much as a Florida Key lime. The flavor is tart, tangy, but not acidic. You can drink your fill of margaritas without getting that nasty stomach burn. Then of course there is the tequila, akin to the champagne of France, as it is made only in Mexico, and the Mexicans know how the hell to manhandle their homegrown spirit. Our drinks were most likely made with Sauza or Jose Cuervo, two of the oldest and most prominent tequila makers in Mexico, a little Cointreau, and of course the lime juice. We sucked ‘em down like Slurpies.
After another two rounds, a bowl of guacamole, and a mess of enchiladas the waiter suggested we try a Tequila Sour, made with tequila, a little lemon juice and sugar. We “hell-yeah,” ’ed him, and started into tequila course number two, drink number four of the afternoon.
About this time two friendly Mexican Mariachis, resting their gut string guitars on top of their jolly lard shelves, showed up to serenade the crowd. Since we were 50% of the crowd and the only ones getting riled up and making noise, the guitarists planted themselves next to our table and began to sing, upon my request, El Cucaracha (The Roach, in Spanish), a song I had long cherished since first hearing it in elementary school. We gave the performers a huge round of drunken applause and then quickly secured a first named basis with them. Before long we had gotten chummy enough with the guys that they pulled up chairs, and Carlene being a gracious hostess, ordered each of them a tequila sour. The three of us joined in the music fest - singing songs we didn’t know, in a language we didn’t know. Tequila has a way of granting its worshippers spontaneous knowledge.
After a while, Frank asked the boys if he could play one of their guitars. A guitar was happily handed to him as the two singers discovered a potential brother in music. Frank played Neil Young’s, “Needle and the Damage Done,” then The Grateful Dead’s, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy”, and finally, Elton John’s, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Each of us sang these depressing anthems like we were at a UT football game belting out fight songs. We had some more tequila sours, and after about an hour of passionate camaraderie between folks of different cultures and countries, the players announced they needed to move on to other tables, as new patrons were arriving, and then asked Frank to hand over the “ochente dollares” he owed them for guitar rental and entertainment. The three of us were a bit startled that our new best friends wanted money from us. Frank somehow bargained the guys down to forty bucks, while Carlene and I scrounged around in our pockets and purses for cash. We paid the boys, took their request for money as a sign from God that it was time to get the hell outta dodge, paid the bill, and headed for the exit.
We stumbled our way out of the cool dark comfort of our cave into the cruel scalding Mexican sunlight, which, coupled with the astounding amount of tequila boiling in our brains and guts, caused the immediate stopping of our feet in their tracks, intense pupil dilation, and throbbing migraine pangs that we felt had been inflicted upon us by pure evil.
We were hosed.
Each of us planted a hand over our eyes and cursed the sun god with an astounding plethora of expletives in both English and Spanish. With one small step for the college buffoons that we were, we went from feeling like we were approaching spiritual revelation with our kindred Mexican brothers to knowing decidedly that we had been plunged into the ninth ring of hell with Satan himself getting ready to feast on our tequila saturated limbs and organs.
We staggered to the car for what we felt sure was going to be the eternal drive home, and serendipitously ran into a nasty traffic jam trying to cross the boarder. We were stopped still in the middle of the street for 45 minutes, the three of us sitting in the car sweating and bitching about the torture we were being subjected to and how we never should have thought up this ridiculous scheme in the first place, when Frank looked over and noticed a market with cases of beer stacked in front of it. He jumped out of the car, ran in and bought two cases of miniature Corona beers. Chopper hopped into the back seat with him and they popped beers for each of us, saving us from the pain of sobering up in 90-degree weather with an a/c not equipped for duking it out with a car sitting in idle with a permanently open sunroof.
I began to play chauffer and DJ and we quickly got on our happy role again singing along to the 120 minute Jimmy Buffett cassette tape I’d made by recording 2 of his “ode to fun” LP’s onto one tape. We were definitely “wasted away, again in Margaritaville.” There were plenty of “fins to the left, and fins to the right,” that looked a lot like Mexicans. We didn’t “know where we were gonna go when the volcano blew,” but we didn’t care as long as there was plenty of tequila there. Finally, we told ourselves that “come Monday it’ll be alright,” as long as we made it back to school and sobered up in time for Frank to take his “History of Mexico” test, and for all of us to attend our disgustingly sober respective sorority and fraternity meetings. But for now, the tequila was good and still taking care of us, with a bit of nurturing from little brother Corona.
It took us about six hours to get back to Austin. By that time the tequila had simmered way down, and the miniature Coronas had worn out their piggyback ride.
Obviously, the only thing to do was to drive directly to Jorge’s Mexican Restaurant and order margaritas. Not as tasty as the real deal in Piedras, Negras, but a perfect ending to one of the most memorable days of my life.
Carelene and Frank ended up marrying different people, but the three of us remain close friends, and of course each of us remains quite fond of tequila. When I told Frank I was writing a story about our trip he said that recently he’d talked to a Mexican friend of his and asked him if he’d been to Piedras Negras lately. His buddy replied, “No way, Amigo. The shitiest, meanest, people migrate to that city.” Still, part of me believes I’d jump into my 12-year-old Jeep Cherokee with it’s very own busted sunroof to meet Carlene, Frank, and Jose Cuervo at Club Moderno, anytime, any day, in a heartbeat.