Photo Courtesy El Paso County Historical Society
When I was eight, a bus ride to downtown El Paso cost a nickel. I’d go see a movie almost every weekend, not caring what was showing.
I had no idea it was gonna be two hours of political deliberations about ending the Cold War. I was bored out of my gourd, yet I stayed till the bitter end.
I guess I was in no rush to go back home.
Most of the time I would get into town early enough to window shop and check stores out.
The Popular department store had paperback books up on the third floor: MAD, B.C., Peanuts and others. And I liked riding the escalator.
The Kress store in the middle of town had a cool toy model section with cars, hot rods and monsters. On one side of the store was a diner. I’d glance at it from a distance wishing I could have an ice cream soda while sitting on a swivel seat.
The record section had The Beatles latest album on display, and I wished I had a couple of bucks to buy one.
If you exited the north side of Kress’ doors you’d face Mills Street. On the other side of the street was the center of downtown; a square plaza where crosstown buses would layover and riders could transfer to a different route.
Locals called it La Plaza de Lagartos, but city officials had already christened it San Jacinto Square many years before.
In the center was a pool with two scaly, grey alligators lazily sunning themselves – they seldom moved at all.
People would toss pennies, dimes and nickels at them in an attempt to wake them from their stupor.
The motionless beasts carried spare change on their backs for weeks. I’d stand and stare from behind a four-foot iron fence. They were hideous and strangely silent. I would stop by on occasion to see if one of them would move.
Maybe their sedentary lifestyle was because of the lithium content in the El Paso drinking water back then.
One afternoon a couple GI’s stopped by to see the gators. They were laughing with one another and I soon found out they were daring one of them to jump in. Sure enough, a G.I. jumped over the fence, grabbed an alligator’s tail and shook it a couple times.
Annoyed, the gator bared its teeth with a hiss and the soldier jumped back over the fence in one quick motion. They laughed again and I stood there with my mouth open just like the surprised gator!
Always a worry-wart, I wondered about the legal ramifications. Are the cops showing up? I guess I was the only one in the plaza that witnessed it. The alligator went back to sleep. It’s cousin didn’t even notice. And dozens of people had missed the free show.
As I turned away I wondered if the day would not get any better than that. Then, a short distance away, three school friends of mine had just gotten off the bus. “Hey”, I yelled out. They turned and waved me over, ”Want to go to Coney Island?”
I looked at them like they were speaking a foreign language, “What is that?” They pointed and said, “It’s just across the street down the block. They have the best hot dogs there”.
Hmm…it sounded good but I wasn’t sure I had enough. I checked my pocket change. Lets see…35¢ for the movie, 10¢ for a soda, a nickel to get back home on the bus. “Guys, I only have a quarter left”, I said kinda bummed. One of them piped up, “You can buy 2!” “Huh?”
“They’re 12¢ each!”, they said with big grins. Since food was involved, everyone walked a fast clip to get there.
Facing East Main Street between Mesa and Oregon Streets, Coney Island was the proverbial greasy spoon diner almost out of a Happy Days episode. Burgers, fries, hot dogs, milk shakes…this place was an oasis to us kids and many others.
We sat in a small booth and my friends and I must have looked like we belonged to the Little Rascals fan club. The aroma of the diner was a mixture of frying burgers, coffee and cigarette smoke. I immediately noticed the record player machines installed at every table.
I was checking out the songs – you could get 3 plays for a quarter. Then, an unimpressed waitress came over and took our order: everyone wanted chili dogs.
The food arrived and sitting right in front of me, were two pigs in a blanket swimming in chili.
As I picked one up and took a bite – it was delish. The buns were fresh and the dog and chili combination was tasty. My friends were eating pretty fast. I was still still savoring my first bite. I had another and was hooked.
The first dog was gone in no time, so I tried to make the second one last. This was good eatin’. I thought to myself, “I gotta come back here soon”.
I hated to go, but there was a movie that my friends were going to that I had planned on seeing as well.
“Reptilicus” was showing at the State theater located on East San Antonio. Nothing like a monster movie after a couple of chili dogs.