So last week on a family vacation to Colorado, I got my haircut in Española, New Mexico, in a hair salon with a bullet hole in the window, right around the corner from the Saints and Sinners liquor store.
In its perforation, the salon was not alone on the tough town's main drag. A hardware store across the street sported several bulletholes. Down the street, the town's little theater was set to host a gangsta rap show, and the lead story in the paper concerned a cold-case murder in which two Ute Indians stood accused of beheading two carnies 15 years ago.
It would not surprise me if the mayor of Española had a neck-tat.
I had been directed to the salon by the concierge of the Pueblo-run Santa Claran casino hotel, a rare oasis of moderate luxury in the town. Had my wife and kids and I spent one more night in our $120 suite, we could have watched from four stories up as Johnny Lee exulted that he was no longer "Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places," but that was 12 hours later.
Early that Saturday morning, the lobby's sole occupants were three non-Indian Sikhs with towering white turbans and cascading gray beards, sitting around recommending chiropractors to one another. (It turns out Española and neighboring Sombrillo are home to the largest ethnically diverse Sikh population on earth.)
Those guys never had to worry about a haircut, but I did. The salon was not yet open when I got there, so I meandered across the street to El Parasol, a picnic table-dotted taco stand set among a grove of cottonwoods. There I devoured a tender shredded pork burrito that was slathered in some of the best guacamole I've ever tasted. According to Yelp, I was lucky indeed: El Parasol reportedly has some of the best cheap eats in all of northern New Mexico.)
While eating, I watched a tattooed and agitated man across the street, eagerly watching every car pass between anxious glances at the cellphone he clutched tightly in his hand. He looked for all the world like he was waiting for a drug dealer, but why so obvious?
I gave him a wide berth as I crossed the street and entered the strip-mall salon. Gloria (not her real name), my stylist, had trendy blond-streaked black hair; immense, limpid and kind brown eyes; and heavy Amy Winehouse-style make-up. The twentysomething wore black stretch pants stuffed into black cowboy boots. A friend saw her picture and said her appearance exemplified the spirit of a My Little Pony.
Gloria was a trip. I told her I wanted a short back-and-sides and asked if she could tame my eyebrows. "Whip-crack," she said, waving an imaginary whip in the air and laughing. "Come over here and sit down."
She was originally from Taos, she said, and so as modern country videos blared from the TV, I asked her about her new life in Española.
"It's the armpit—no, the asshole—of New Mexico. Everyone is on heroin. Five people died right back there the other day," she added, waving towards the area behind the strip-mall.
She told no lie. When I got back to Houston I found a 2009 Forbes article that cited Española (population 10,000 or so) as one of America's drug capitals, alongside notoriously drug-drenched cities like D.C., New Orleans, and Baltimore. The year before that the New York Times had come to town to explore the same grim epidemic. Española's rate of death by overdose was six times the national average. Since Vietnam, uncles had been turning on nephews in a terrible cycle. Police today sometimes find three generations shooting up together.
Gloria told me her own family had not been immune, but that she and her mother, at least, had both steered clear. They had other problems. Gloria told me her mother would accuse her of being jealous of her life and they would fight. "Huh? Bitch, I ain't jealous of you," she laughed.
She held a low opinion of nearby Santa Fe. "It's full of rich, weird white people," she said. That, and nothing more, was all there was to that. She said she longed to visit Houston. (Wow.)
When she held up the hand-mirror to show me the back of my head, it was smudged. "Oh, that's just my cocaine," she explained as she tried to wipe off the mess, and erupted into an infectious cackle. She was kidding. I think.
Anyway, the haircut was pretty good, if expensive. ($24 with tip.) "Goodbye forever," Gloria said. "I am sure you will never come to this town again."