Getting off work early yesterday afternoon after two days representing my employer at a public policy conference, I decided to visit the local watering hole. The watering hole in question is a declining local brewery, that despite it’s declining status, still serves as a social hub for a wide swath of the town. That swath of the town now seems to include homeless folks.

To be honest, the social aspect of this watering hole has always been it’s biggest draw. The building, well, it exists against all the odds of time and shoddy upkeep, the food quality varies depending on who is working in the kitchen (and the menu hasn’t changed, ever), the service depends upon how well you know your server and the beer is only mediocre most of the time. However, for twenty years is was the only option for better beer in Las Cruces. At one time, anyone worth knowing in town was connected to it in some way, either as a regular, a friend of a regular, or a colleague of a regular. This was true across almost all circles in town from the university, to the local business world and even the political circles in town. Part of the draw was that you could show up at any time, on any day, and find folks there you knew.

In the last few years competition has come along in the form of both additional local breweries and a taproom from a large Albuquerque brewery opening up in town. Most all of the competition is better, and many of us regulars has hoped that it would be the prod that would finally improve our beloved watering hole. Unfortunately, not only has this watering hole not improved, it has doubled down on what it has always done and suffered the corresponding 50% drop in sales as a result.

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Perhaps nothing illustrates the decline better than my experience yesterday afternoon. Being located in a formerly industrial area of town mixed in with an old and never well-to-do neighborhood of poorer folks and old houses with some creative construction and renovation techniques, there have always been some number of homeless folks in the area. In the past, they were never welcome at the watering hole, and were politely told to move along. While the locals in the neighborhood were welcome, exceedingly few ever came by. In general, I suspect they don’t drink their beer at $4.25 a pint. Today, there is also tent city located nearby. Two of the last three times I have been there recently, homeless folks have also been customers. I jokingly suggested that the watering hole couldn’t afford not to have them as customers, to which a friend and bartender pointed out that it was actually true and that the policy was now to serve them if they had money to pay.

In theory, I suppose there is nothing wrong with having homeless folks as patrons of your local watering hole, but the problem is that they kill the atmosphere and send your regular customers to the competition. In the case of yesterday, our homeless customers were an older couple (both wearing mismatched, ill fitting men’s clothing). Besides being well into a pitcher, the woman’s behavior suggested she was under the influence of more than just ethanol. Her mental status was altered, and I’m guessing the tract marks on her arm had something to do with it. They periodically got up to root through the ashtrays and smoke what was left of the cigarettes that other folks had discarded. While I politely spoke to them at one point, conversation lagged into an awkward silence of two groups of people on the same communal patio, but not having anything to do with the other. It turns out homeless addicts and middle-class folks who work for the university don’t have much in common to talk about. They couldn’t talk university politics or about how the new mustang has finally become a properly good sports car even with the base V6, and I can’t really relate to grievances about the tent they are renting in the tent city.

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After awhile, the homeless couple went on their way. The woman stumbled very slowly down the sidewalk, with the guy right behind her. A few minutes later I look out to see the guy in the middle of the street struggling to push an old, brown Maytag washing machine on a hand truck. I’d like to know where he got the washing machine from. For that matter, where did he get the hand truck from? Neither of those things were with them at the brewery, and there isn’t anywhere in the immediate vicinity where I would suspect one would stumble across a hand truck, or an old washing machine.

At that point, a friend and I both decided it was time to go have our second beer at the competition. Over there, we found more folks we knew (and who were also once loyal customers of the old watering hole), better beer and a distinct lack of homeless folks. The female portion of the patronage from the nearby university also provided nice scenery. It ended up being a nice, if slightly strange evening. And if you’re looking for your old, brown Maytag washing machine in Las Cruces, it was last seen on a hand truck with one flat tire being pushed by a homeless guy going East on Hadley...