Phill Casaus: Cruising with the queen and king of cool

·5 min read

Aug. 27—There's no way to quantify this, but I'm pretty sure the happiest corner in Santa Fe is the intersection of Nusbaum Street and Washington Avenue.

Directly across from my front window.

Morning, noon and night, curious tourists, appreciative gearheads and nostalgic possessors of an AARP card gather around a silver (actually, cherry), 1964 Chevrolet Impala and a man named Orlie Martinez, a de facto ambassador to New Mexico's lowrider culture and a helluva nice guy, to boot.

Orlie isn't a museum, and the Impala isn't the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, but for a lot of people who visit the city, they might be the most interesting things an outsider sees. If, say, you live in Menominee, Mich., or Dallas or Paducah, Ky., you might hear about lowriders. With Orlie and the jewel he calls "La Reina" (the Queen), seeing is believing.

"It's beautiful," said one woman walking past Martinez on Washington Av, rapid-firing photos of the car parked outside Hotel Chimayó.

"I appreciate old cars, I really do," added her companion, pausing to stalk the Impala as if it held the secret to life or the fountain of youth.

"Let me know if you folks want to go for a ride," Martinez offered. "It's the hotel's car and it's free for guests and we can cruise around the area."

It happens like this for months on end — people mesmerized by a restored 58-year-old hunk of Detroit and a 44-year-old resident of Española. Together, Martinez and La Reina offer a slice of New Mexico in a way that you probably can't easily get on a short visit to Santa Fe. It's a one-car car show; a 90-second or 20-minute history lesson about lowriders; a low-speed cruise through the cooler parts of a unique, funky town.

"Kinda cool for people that don't have much time, you know?" he said.

Orlie Martinez — is that a lowrider name or what? — loves every minute. There's something about this Impala and its restored, almost flawless, appearance that yanks adults back to their childhood, their first date, their grandma's house, their nation's best days. Add the lowrider conversion — even from across the street you can hear visitors squeal when Martinez makes the car bounce — and it's Meow Wolf without the wait.

"A lot of memories," Martinez says, recounting what he hears during days that you think would run together, but almost always are unique.

"You know, everyone has a story," he continued. "People like just walk on the street and will stop and talk to me and tell me about their memories that they had ... they got passed down a car like this, or they went on a family trip across the country."

Most days, Martinez's biggest trips are his commute home to Española, where he grew up. He doesn't do that in La Reina, of course; she has her own parking spot at the Chimayó; she sleeps there at night. But if the job doesn't go home with Orlie, the authenticity does. The man loves lowriders through and through. He owns an '83 Chevy Monte Carlo, another '64 Impala and is elbow-deep in the restoration of an '85 Oldsmobile Cutlass.

He isn't married and has no kids. But he texts photos of the Monte Carlo as if the car had just graduated from Harvard.

"Growing up, I didn't have much money, so I would save my money, and one of the ways, you know, of saving money is working on your own stuff," he said, describing how he became so immersed in cars. "So you just learn like trial and error or, hands on, you know? So basically, everything I've learned about the lowrider has been hands on."

Orlie (short for Orlando) said he got his hands on the gig several years ago after a car show. Heritage Hotels, which owns the Hotel Chimayó, thought the classic ride would work well with the theme of its properties. Someone accurately assessed Martinez would be the perfect man to care for the vehicle and talk to those who love it.

"So actually I was a pretty shy guy until I worked at the [New Mexico] History Museum and started interacting with people there. I've done retail. And so, I've interacted with people, but this is the most, like, genuine experience ... working with the tourists," he said. "You know, it's cool, 'cause they always have some stories to say, to tell, and then just when they see the car, they start telling you all kinds of stuff that happened to them. You know? It's cool. It's cool."

La Reina is as pampered as an O'Keeffe original. Martinez washes the Impala all the time — Dawn soap, microfiber towels to protect the paint.

If she's not getting the full service, Martinez has cloth at the ready, buffing out any water spots on the chrome.

When the first snow comes, La Reina goes into hibernation and more upgrades are made. As lowrider timepieces go, this one gets a lot of miles. People want to cruise Santa Fe. "There's a saying in lowriders ... break in, fix it, drive it, break it, fix it again," he said with a chuckle.

You get a lot of that from Orlie — a smile, a laugh, a genuineness that's about more than a car. It's cool. He's cool.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.