It’s easy to miss Martha’s Place, an unassuming little crimson-painted hovel with a red tin roof—about the size of a double-wide trailer—settled only a few feet off Rutledge Pike on a grim stretch reserved mostly for industrial buildings and trucking outfits. It’s not all that inviting, from the outside, having few windows and naught but the obligatory “Must be 21” sign to greet new patrons.
No, it’s not Cheers—you know, the ’80s barroom sitcom, about a place “where everybody knows your name.” Or at least it’s not Cheers as the WASPs among us would recognize it—i.e., predominantly white, middle-class, with the sort of cultural trappings appropriate to a whitebread clientele. The proprietor of Martha’s is a woman named Martha Acosta, and her clientele is heavily Mexican-American, but nonetheless generously inclusive of all other relevant colors and creeds.
And for the Martha’s regulars, who seem to make up the majority of the tavern’s population at any given time, it is indeed a place where everyone seems to know each others’ names. So much so, that many of them freely walk behind the bar, to flirt with the staff or grab a piece of chalk for the pool table that is the focal point of the tavern, stationed at floor-center in front of the door.
On a Monday night, 10-ish, the five patrons in Martha’s are all Caucasian, including a friendly brunette bartender named Heather in her late 20s, who dispenses mostly bottled domestics to the guys playing eight-ball on the floor, and to Wayne, a middle-aged fellow planted comfortably at the end of the bar. (Heather: “Wayne, what have you been doing all day.” Wayne: “Well, I watched TV.”)
Martha’s Place has a homey, ramshackle charm about it; there’s plenty of food to be had, from a host of boxes on a countertop or from two refrigerators, also behind the bar. It consists mostly of salty snacks and fried stuff, of the variety your cardiologist warns you to stay away from, if you have a cardiologist.
Next to the Tecate sign in the tiny window, there’s an authentic handmade Mexican musical instrument of some sort, wooden, stringed, the kind of thing you’d expect someone in a mariachi band to play.
But most interesting are the hand-written signs, pearls of wisdom such as, “Martha is always right.” On one of the refrigerators is an admonition that reads: “Do not spit on the floor, mother fuckers.” Adjacent to it is a note in Spanish: “Favor de no esqupur en el piso cabrones.” It’s left to the bilingual among you to figure whether the messages are the same, or delivered with the same vehemence.
Close to 11, a well-dressed 30-ish man named Miguel walks in and enlivens the place, pumping a handful of quarters into the Touchtunes jukebox; his first selection is a spicy Salsa number, his next a smooth Latin ballad.
Moments later, Martha herself walks in, a not-too-tall, but attractive Mexican-American woman with red-tinted hair, attended by a small entourage. Then a couple of African-American patrons, who also seem to be familiars of Martha and her staff. The billiard balls are clicking; the beer is flowing; and for the rest of the night the jukebox is blasting either Latin pop or banging hip-hop, some of which also has a Latino flavor.
Many taverns like to collect keepsakes from regulars; at Martha’s, the walls are covered with laminated dollar bills, signed in Sharpie by patrons. Some of the signatures are standard-issue—“Mike” and “Kelly” and “Eileen”. Others are more personalized; maybe ultra-personalized would be a better descriptor. “No More Mercy,” reads one bill. “Mike is awesome,” reads another. Quite a few more have been signed by someone named Corn Bread.
The bilingual character of Martha’s isn’t necessarily emphasized, but it rears its head in those instances where clarity takes on a heightened importance. At the bathrooms, for instance; the men’s room is labeled both “Gentlemen” and “Hombres.” Inside, there are explicit instructions, in two languages, on how to avoid overburdening the evidently sensitive plumbing.
As the night wears on, Martha’s fills up, though not uncomfortably so. The hip-hop and the Spanish pop songs and the clicking balls and the chortling of regulars seem to commingle in a pleasantly beery haze, that dreamy, intangible state of communal being that separates a good bar from a bad one, regardless of physical circumstance. It’s the kind of place that, due to its racial and cultural mix, some might call “diverse.”
Except Martha’s doesn’t seem that diverse at all, when you’re sitting there, mixing with the regulars; that would require some level of recognition of such from the parties in question. And at Martha’s, they’re just too busy for all that; there are beers yet unfinished, after all, balls to be racked, and a world of music on the Touchtunes.