I spent my summers during college working with the US Forest Service in Leadville, Colorado, a silver boom town fallen on hard times. It clung to a mountainside at 10,200 feet, one of the highest towns in the country. It had beautiful summer weather– 60s during the day, down in the 30s at night, occasionally snow– and I thought it was paradise.
Our four-man crew lived in a broken-down Forest Service single-wide trailer out by the river, grandly called the Crystal Lake Guard Station. Every day, we would load up the FS truck and head out. I always had to drive, while the others slept off hangovers, since I was the only member of the crew who didn’t have a DUI on his record, and qualified for a government driver’s license.
The route we followed every morning and every night passed through a modest collection of battered mobile homes and run-down shacks that everybody called Stringtown. It was an exclusively Hispanic place, since separation of Hispanics from “whites” was an accepted way of life around Leadville. That meant that we didn’t normally see Hispanics in the Leadville bars we frequented.
Stringtown had its own bar, though, and it fascinated me. It was a low-slung, dilapidated wooden structure with dirty windows and a dim light inside. Over the door was a faded sign that said “El Perdido”—which in Spanish means “The Lost” or “The Hopeless.” Hot damn, my kind of place! I always wanted to stop for a beer, but the guys wouldn’t let me. One of the Indians on the crew, Gene Artichoker, told me, “It’s a Spic joint, Slim. White boys stay out of there.”
Ah, but the allure of the dark entry into “El Perdido” was irresistible for an ironist like me. And I was certain I was invincible. So one Saturday afternoon, while the rest of the crew had gone to Colorado Springs and I was pulling weekend duty, I decided to go in.
The parking lot was empty at 2 p.m., occupied only by a spotless 1958 Mercury, painted a glowing turquoise. I pulled in and parked the green FS truck next to the Mercury. I knew I was violating all kinds of Forest Service rules by using the government truck this way, but our crew did that sort of thing all the time. I got out, stepped onto the unsteady porch and pushed my way in.
Inside, it was so dark and quiet that I thought maybe the place was empty. There were virtually no tables or chairs on what looked like a dance floor, or even neon beer signs on the wall. I’m not certain where the light was coming in. Gradually, though, I was able to draw out of the gloom a few tables in a dark corner. The tables were occupied by several old Hispanic men who seemed quite drunk. They weren’t talking much, muttering in Spanish, and they gave me only a cursory bleary look with quickly disappearing interest.
At the bar, the only beer on tap was Walters, a cheap brew, now defunct, made down the valley in Pueblo. No Coors here. I leaned against the rough plank bar for a while, until I was beginning to think there was no bartender. I considered walking around the bar and helping myself, like we would in the Leadville bars. But after a time a skinny man in a white cowboy shirt got up wearily from one of the tables and wandered over and asked me what I wanted. I wondered if he’d been waiting for me to leave. He drew me a Walters and I paid my 50 cents and tried not to look too closely at the glass he poured it in.
There was no one at the bar to talk to, so I walked around the room looking at what there was to see, until I arrived at about the only light in the room– the jukebox, glowing seductively against the wall like a Robert Frank photograph.
It was a beautiful old thing, a warm, welcoming altar where lonely El Perdido drinkers could come to drop in their coins and seek solace in sad Mexican love songs. I looked down the short play list and saw that everything was in Spanish, and I did not recognize anything. Finally, though, I came upon the iconic Freddie Fender, the singing hero of the Hispanic world, and his classic song, “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.” And I thought, “What could be better?” in El Perdido.
So I plunked in my quarter and listened for a while to Freddie whining about his lost love and wasted life. Then as the song was ending I headed toward the door with a polite nod to the men in the corner, saying nothing. The bleary drinkers stared into their beers and barely noticed me as I left.
“Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” at El Perdido.