When my friend storyteller Joe Hayes visits El Paso, he and I perform our fronterizo ritual--we go across the river "to melt some ice at Martino's" on Avenida Juárez. For 30 years we’ve been melting ice at Martino’s, but, alas, a few weeks ago we went across and there was no ice to melt. Sure, the restaurant is still open, but it seems to be hanging by the thinnest of threads. Very few folks are crossing over, very few are spending money on the other side. They read the paper, they worry. The night we were there, the tables--with their starched white table cloths, copper plates and shining silverware--were totally empty of customers and the place seemed dark, as if they were saving electricity or didn’t have money for extra light bulbs. Still, the two waiters on duty were delighted to see two patrons walk through the glass doors. I have known these same two waiters for most of those same 30 years. The primary waiter was José who must be 70 years old at least now. I don’t remember his assistant’s name now, but I remember him as a very young man. The two men gave us that incredible gracious and manly service that Martino’s is known around the world for. We ordered two Bohemia--our days of two magnificent Beefeater martinis are now past--and studied the cornucopia of dishes on the ragged menus. Sadly, they didn’t have black bass, they didn’t have the rib-eye or the filet mignon medallions but they did have a salmon filet for Joe and a New York steak for me. As always we had the French onion soup (delicious as ever) with the peculiar head lettuce salad. We ate and talked about our Martino’s memories and commiserated with the waiters over the emptiness of the restaurant. It was a bitter-sweet time. A very precious time. We had drunk two Bohemia each and we finished our night with a cup of coffee. Before we said goodbye, I went into the bathroom to melt some ice. You see, for all these many years at Martino’s the iceman brought a block of ice that he placed into the urinal in the men’s room. The ice kept the urinal clean, the smell sweet. After martinis and beer and water, it was always nice to go and melt some ice. Like it was a special gift that you could only find on the other side. But now at Martino’s the iceman no longer cometh.
Some notes: El Paso lawyer and civic activist Michael Wyatt took the photograph of the "Ballet Parking" sign that still sits out in front of el Restaurante de Martino. The photo of the waiter José (such a handsome man, so full of what Garcia Lorca would call "duende") is by photographer Dennis Daily who used to be an archivist at the NMSU Library. Dennis has done a number of photographs of the waiters at Martino's which I have in my archives and will publish as time passes. They are classics. The photo below is off the web. Don't get lost.