Friday, November 02, 2012

Coming-of-Age in Santa Fe

            My brother sent me an email with a link to the obituary of one of our mother’s former bosses who recently died at the age of 90, about the age Mom would have been.  Chez Renee was a French nightclub and restaurant where the food was delicious and the tips were good.  Mom worked at all the hotspots in Santa Fe starting with the El Sirocco, where she was a cocktail waitress.  A sirocco is a dry wind that originates over North Africa and picks up moisture as it crosses the Mediterranean.  I don’t think Mom ever learned that.  Her education was on another level: how to avoid groping hands while serving a drink and still get a tip.

            She also worked at the Forge, which was part of a hotel near the plaza. Management required the women to dress in short French maid outfits and fishnet stockings.  It was all very sophisticated and new to Santa Fe, and they even took a picture of the “girls” which appeared in the New Mexican.  Mom and the other women appear shy and not ready for primetime. They  stand in a line like Rubetown Rockettes, each with one fishnetted leg awkwardly flung out.

            When I was 10 she worked at Claude’s on Canyon Road.  This may have been the pinnacle of waitressdom for her as Claude served lobster flown in live and fresh everyday.  Santa Fe, a high mountain desert had live lobster! 

At Claude's, patrons from Paris and New York dined next to Governors, cowboys and movie stars.

The lobster was packed on ice in wooden crates and I’d poke them with a fork so they’d wave their claws.  I was allowed to be there for a short while because my three-year-old brother was in the hospital recovering from a car running over him.  Claude was one cool and prosperous lesbian.  I hung in the kitchen and read books, listened to the jazz band, peeked out at the glamorous patrons, and admired all of Claude’s girlfriends, who often recited poetry for me. 

            The restaurants closed at 2:00 a.m. and then there was side work and set up to be done for the next night.  She’d been there since 5:00 p.m. the night before, and her only day off  was Sunday.  That’s 60 hours a week.  She was only 36 when she started coming home even later than her usual 4:00 a.m.  Sometimes she didn’t make it home at all before I had to leave for school.  I knew she’d met a man, but she wouldn’t admit it.  Mom and I stopped getting along. My 13th year was spent in East Texas with my dad, but I missed my mother so much.  I’d call her collect and she never complained, even put my cat and dog on the phone so I could say hi.  She’d describe their reactions which were always that they missed me.

            Daddy drove me home to New Mexico and I never told him that I had a new baby sister waiting for me.  He threw a fit about it when we got there, said I should come back with him, that all the boys would try to take advantage of me once they knew about Mom.

            That summer before 10th grade was the best and last summer I had with Mom.  Because of her pregnancy, she’d had to take a job babysitting for a woman who lived in a trailer park.  Money was tight, but the trailer park had a swimming pool!  My brother and I spent hours every day with our mother poolside.  There.  Watching over us.

            When she got her strength back, she bartended at the El Corral, a cowboy bar where I was introduced to Patsy Cline’s music.  My baby sister was placed on a pillow in a drawer, the black-and-white portable t.v. loaded into the car, our homework in our school bags and we were set to go.  The three of us stayed in the back room.  We could see Mom laughing and working, the mirrored bar lights making the smoke-hazed room kind of dreamy and unreal.  Except for the men, who now noticed me.

Drawing of Mom done by one of her admirers.


  1. I'm never really sure if your posts are about you or a character in a novel... and I love that.


  2. I wonder about that myself, BB, especially when I float amidst my friends, passing for normal.

  3. Sandra, this tribute is wonderful to read! When young, I had a drink in all those bars. I was a Cerrillos kid. When I lived on Canyon Road in the early 70's Claude's was my hangout, table by the fireplace. They served Guinness Stout, a rare find in NM ! Waitressing is hard work, full of what the bosses call "a sense of urgency" and what the help calls "my aching feet."

  4. Didn't realize Claude's was still open in the 70's, Penny. I think it became a disco at one point: I had a fake I.D. in high school.

  5. In the 60s and 70s Claude's on Canyon Road was a big hangout for beatniks and artists...hippies didn't drink so much, they smoked instead. The east coasters & LA people loved the place. You could always find someone like Gregory Corso there, when he wasn't looped on smack. & the guy who held up the light at the beginning of Fiesta Parade, searching for truth (forgot his name). It was wild, and there were snarly arguments sometimes, over matters like Ezra Pound, Peter Fonda, flirty women. The guys were always (then) bearded, arty, poor, and sexy as hell. Women were shabby-chic (word not yet coined then). Yeah, Claude was gay (another word not yet coined then), but back then the gay bars were the greatest places to be even if straight 'cuz anything ws ok there. It was FUN.