Long Live Viva Pancho
Viva Pancho is a Mexican restaurant in Times Square, on West 44th Street, just off Broadway. It’s verde awning reads, “Viva Pancho”/“Home Of the Sizzling Fajitas,” in chili pepper script. Neither quaint holdover from the old Times Square, nor modern day restaurant group vision, it could very well be situated in a New Jersey strip mall. I suspect most of their business comes from Red State tourists who are relieved by the unassuming nature of the exterior, and reasonable prices on the menu in the window.
The entrance takes you into the bar, which features a rectangular counter that’s pushed into the corner, and seems too big for the small room, like an unfortunate sectional in a Manhattan studio apartment. The walls are mirrored, I suppose, to give the illusion that the space is bigger than it actually is, while having the consequence of forcing you to see yourself sitting there. The other, better option is to look up at the muted soccer game on the TV hanging overhead. A single strand of colored lights dangles above the dining room archway, as though someone forgot to take it down after the party. During the day, the room is awash in anemic sunlight.
Though I’ve waited tables at Virgil’s, the barbecue restaurant next door, for a decade, I’ve only been to Viva Pancho three times. The first was shortly after being hired. Several of us, who had all started at around the same time, and were destined to become the next senior staff, went there as a group following a shift. Everything was new, and we’d yet to discover ourselves, or our regular spots, Jimmy’s Corner and St. Andrew’s, the other direction down the block. Though no one complained, it didn’t feel right. And we never went back. It was kind of like Freshman Orientation Weekend, and making out with the girl in your dorm, who would eventually ostracize herself for the stuffed animal collection overcrowding her bed. The memory is slightly fuzzy, and somewhat embarrassing, but mostly just weird.
On another occasion, while leaving work, I happened to glance in the window and notice a coworker and friend, sitting alone at the bar, smoking, and sipping a slushy red margarita. Impulsively, I reached for the door. He seemed uncomfortable with the encounter, like I’d caught him waiting on a tryst. I begged off when the bartender approached, and made a hasty exit, purposely avoiding looking back in the window as I hurried past. Maybe he was meeting someone. Or maybe he was embarrassed to be discovered alone in Viva Pancho. Or maybe, after a particularly trying shift, he didn’t want to be bothered; which was why he was there in the first place.
The last time was when a new-hire waitress, whose drink was margarita, felt like a margarita after a lunch shift, and convinced me, as we happened to be getting off at the same time, to join her. Said waitress always felt like a margarita after a lunch shift. Viva Pancho was her hangout. She headed a regular Viva Pancho clique. So I had no expectations. But what the hell, I figured. After an hour of our venting about dealing with the public, and two or three margaritas, or maybe it was two hours and four margaritas, I looked in the mirror and saw our miserable faces at that sad bar in the middle of the afternoon and knew that wasn’t going to work out.
Everyday, I walked past Viva Pancho without giving it a thought. On my way to work. And on my way home. Five days a week. For ten years. If I ever did consider it, it was in regard to how it had remained in business for so long. Restaurants come and go in this city. New Yorkers swarm a new place, like wolves on a fresh carcass, then abandon it to the vulture Bridge and Tunnel and tourists who pick over the bones until there’s nothing left. Yet, Viva Pancho had survived the revitalization of Times Square without so much as a facelift.
When the economy slumped, Viva Pancho took to marketing in order to foster business, in the form of an ancient Mexican man in traditional sombrero and sarape -- or, at least, a kitsch version thereof. He didn’t call out to you with a deal, in the manner of the Little Italy barkers. Or shove a menu at you, like they did on Theater Row. He simply stood there, the embodiment of Viva Pancho. For months, I passed without acknowledging him, and without receiving acknowledgement. Then one day, while on my way to work, we looked at each other.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hey,” I replied.
It was not a casual hello. This was a friendly greeting. One that recognized a relationship. He knew me, and I knew him, even though we’d never so much as exchanged a glance. The next day, it was back to our agreed upon anonymity, even if the dynamic was altered, a level of self-consciousness added. Everyday, I passed. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month.
How many of these stealth friendships was I involved in? There was the thin security guard who walked with a transistor radio tuned to NPR, seemingly always just ahead of me on the ramp to the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon. There was the older lady with hair like Marie Antoinette, and a penchant for paperback thrillers, who sat across from me on the ferry on Tuesday mornings. There was the middle-aged African American man in the skullcap from the 1 Train, who was quick to give up his seat for a lady. On the corner of Broadway and 44th, there was the man with the kabob food cart, and the man who sold New York street scenes and celebrity 8x10s, and the caricature artist, and the Chinese calligraphy artist, and the fortune teller, and the guys that hawked knockoff designer handbags from a sheet unfurled on the sidewalk, that they snatched up when the police approached. And the kids that asked, “Do you like comedy?” -- which counts, because they didn’t ask me. And Batman, and Spiderman, and Elmo and Cookie Monster. And, of course, there was the man in front of Viva Pancho who, one time, broke the fourth wall and said “hello.”
Sometime ago, while passing Viva Pancho, I realized the ancient Mexican in the theatrical Pancho Villa costume was gone. Maybe he ran into immigration problems. Or finally had enough of that oversized sombrero and gold lame sarape. Hopefully, he didn’t meet a worse fate. Most likely, since he wasn’t replaced with another Pancho, he’d been given the pink-slip. I guess the economy had recovered sufficiently, or the summer tourists invaded, or gone back to work, as the case may be. Or, perhaps, it was determined, in a Viva Pancho departmental meeting, that it was no longer cost effective (re: someone’s bonus was on the line) to employ a living, breathing Pancho. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll suddenly reappear. Viva Pancho.
Tom Diriwachter's new full-length play, "Age Out," runs to the end of January at Theater for the New City