Finding an Urban Slot Canyon in an El Paso Barrio

By William C. Crawford

We drank way too much for way too long. The Tap can do that to a body. That is why it was voted the Best Dive Bar for nine straight years. The vintage jukebox offers up a menu ranging from Hank Williams to the Four Tops with salsa bands and Pavarotti thrown in. The beer is cold and cheap with Tecate holding most of our attention.

The last thing I can distinctly remember is Jimmy Pro arguing with two ex GIs about the maximum range of the now defunct Stinger Missile. Jimmy was once U.S. Army certified on the Stinger, but nowadays he is mostly qualified on Tecate. Things escalated as Jimmy is a burly, ex-Ivy League Dback. The Stinger boys then proceeded to kick our faded military asses. I faintly remember the barrel-chested barkeep dragging us out back into a tight alley dominated by the overpowering stench of filthy garbage cans. Must have been well after 2:00 a.m.

I awoke to sparkling winter sunlight piercing into my bloodshot eyes. Jimmy was propped up against some handy ancient brickwork. Miraculously, the barkeep had tossed our packs out with us. Important because we still had our valued camera gear. We staggered down the putrid, narrow alley which eventually opened up a bit to reveal a seemingly endless urban slot canyon. It was filled with the backdoor clutter of the barrio. The alleys in Texas seem to stretch for miles, radiating a funky Latino culture which might easily fill an expository volume. I fell stiffly to a sore knee and pried open my pack.

Jimmy, unfazed and painfully hung over, continued to trudge slowly off in the distance in search of restorative, morning java. I eased out my Nikon and grabbed this image as he faded out down the polychrome crevice. We paid a tough price for this classic barrio remembrance. But the narrow slot canyon, that desert geo form, surely does have its urban counterpart in this cramped, El Paso underbelly.

As we straggled into our favorite local cantina for caffeine relief, we found a well-read copy of the El Paso Times crumpled in our booth. The banner headline offered up the unthinkable: “Barkeep and Five Patrons Die In Late Night Shoot Out At The Tap.” It seems some well oiled, young vaqueros ended a heated argument over control of the iconic juke box with some serious gunplay. The barkeep who ejected us stepped in and all hell broke loose. The Tap ain’t known as a dive bar for its peaceful ambience. Our premature departure probably saved our butts. We lived to eat breakfast only because we over-nighted in the relative safety of an urban slot canyon.

I am writing an illustrated volume about these dusty Border fissures. They seem to stretch forever, disappearing finally at the outer reaches of the human eye. They are the melting pots for Latino art and culture.

But for Jimmy Pro and me, they shine brightly as safe sanctuaries.

William C. Crawford is a writer & photographer based in Winston-Salem. He was a combat photojournalist in Vietnam. He has published extensively in various formats including fiction, creative nonfiction, memoirs, book reviews, and essays His book, “Just Like Sunday on the Farm: Crawdaddy Remembers the Nam and After,” is a unique memoir, vivid essays and photos showing his time as a combat photographer in Vietnam in 1968.

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