Dining, Dancing, and Drinking in Tia Juana

Damon Runyon

Wilkes-Barre Evening News/January 11, 1926

In the casino of Mr. Jim Coffroth’s race track at Tia Juana, Mr. Willie Kid Nelson sang “Mexicala Rose” for me in a high falsetto, by way of atmosphere, the casino band in dinner jackets standing behind him furnishing the music.

“Mexicala Rose” is a ballad that seems to me to gather into yearning melody all the heart aches and the sobs of the “drums” of the borderland. This is not a “plug” for the song. I do not know the authors, or the publishers. 

The casino is a combination gambling house and cafe, a series of big rooms, rather artistically decorated. There are a couple of bars, paneled with pictures of bull fights, and Mexican love scenes, and crude conceptions of early western life, such as card games and gun fights among booted, bewhiskered gents.

Until the first of the year you could dine, dance and lose money shooting craps or playing twenty-one, a polite name for the army’s old blackjack, in the casino. Then the gambling was closed down by the Mexican authorities, and the gaming tables stand blanketed and silent.

But you may still dine there, as you may dine nowhere else in the world, on fresh turtle soup, and Mexican quail and other culinary productions of vast merit. They have a remarkable chef in the casino, and a good band. The cigar girls and the police officer loitering about the entrance furnish a certain touch of Mexican color. But you really need Mr. Willie Kid Nelson singing “Mexicala Rose” to get the true atmosphere.

It is said the gambling in the casino was stopped because the business men of Oldtown, which is Tia Juana proper, complained. They said the folks visiting Mr. Coffroth’s race track were disposed to linger in the casino doing their gambling, and also any drinking they might have to do right there instead of going on to Oldtown which makes something of a bid for gambling and drinking.

You can scarcely blame the business men of Oldtown for desiring to protect their chief home industry. No one might go there at all, although I would recommend a half hour’s conversation with Mr. Herbert Jaafe as something of an excuse for a visit.

Mr. Herbert Jaafe, a member of an old time Southern California family, is just completing the most palatial bar and cafe in all Oldtown, though not the longest. That distinction is held by a place across the street where the bar, as stepped off by your correspondent, is about the length of a football gridiron. A man would need a bicycle to drink with every party at the bar.

But Mr. Jaafe has gone in for elegance rather than mere length in his new San Francisco bar. He has reproduced as far as possible an old time San Francisco bar of some fame in the days before the big fire and he has added some ideas of his own including a reproduction of the curtain of the opera house in Milan, Italy and an antique room.

Mr. Jaafes’ antique room contains such relics as bronzes that belonged to the czar of Russia and old prints and paintings that came from France, as well as armor and weapons of ancient Rome, and the spurs that poor Maxmilian wore when the Mexicans executed that unfortunate fellow sent from France to rule their country.

Mr. Jaafe speaks at far greater length on the value of his antiques than he does of the merits of his wines, liquors and cigars so liberally displayed within easy reach of a dozen bartenders. He has mingled art and alcohol, so to speak, and with some success.

He is one of the few survivors of that once familiar race of liquor vendors who tried to make their ginmills attractive to their customers. I hope and trust that Mr. Jaafe will not resent the reference to his palatial emporium. At least it is not a speakeasy. On the contrary, you have to speak loudly to be heard above the babble of other patrons.

I should say offhand that every door in Oldtown is a saloon, and they closed up a lot of ad lib institutions not long ago, at that. The boys were making their whiskey one night, and selling it the next, a practice tolerated only in the U.S. A. 

The big gambling house of the town is called the foreign club, and it takes a Iine plunger like Jakey Slagle to get close to one of the numerous twenty-one or crap tables through the mass of men and women players, mostly Americans. They don’t permit roulette though I don’t know why, unless they figure roulette gives the customers too much chance.

But for all the drinking and the gambling, Oldtown prides itself on its peacefulness. There is rarely a fight over there, and when one does happen to blow up it seems that they have efficient officers to take charge. Some of these officers were pointed out to me, and they seemed to be wide-hatted, easy-moving gents of impressive appearance. They ware their John Roscoes, or pistols, out of sight.

As I gather, Oldtown has undergone something of a moral wave recently. One of the leading citizens assured me that vice is minimized. He spoke of the paved street with some pride. His remarks produced in me the fear that if they keep on they may make Oldtown quite unattractive to the casuals from over the border.

However, I think it will be a long time before they are able to entirely efface the atmosphere or the strange one-story town that you get, in a measure, from Mexicala Rose as sung by Mr. Willie Kid Nelson.

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