Though flanked by Jack in the Box and, farther up the street, a Denny's, the diner stands out as being a good after-party, post-drinking weekend hangout...or, at the very least, a place to park yourself and get huevos rancheros and a cup of sober-up coffee. As far as diners go, it looks the part, which is a lot of the appeal, with burgundy pleather booths, a Formica-topped counter, and oval-shaped windows. Rudford's definitely has the old-style, train-car-influenced pattern many diners of the 1940s adopted but which has since been put to the wayside.On Friday night, notorious for being the most hectic time, the diner and its patrons fall under the care of Brandon and Alicia, the graveyard servers, both of whom work 9:00 p.m.-5:00 a.m. every week. They work with a natural fluidity, each aware of the other's movements.
The diner is divided into front and back, each outfitted with its own soda and coffee stations and each designed to be manned by one server at a time, but the two are frequently in each other's spaces. Alicia refills lemon bowls behind the counter as Brandon dashes past her, dipping a scoop into one of the ice buckets before pouring a soda. They have inches to spare; the space between the wall and the counter is barely large enough for two people to pass, and Brandon and Alicia maneuver around each other, jetting back and forth to the glassless rectangular window where orders come up, clipping their slips to a rotating, chandelier-like wheel suspended inside. The cook, visible from the waist up, squints at the orders before, shielded from view, he prepares the food. The comforting smell of mashed potatoes fills the restaurant and mingles with the tinny sound of piped-in oldies from unseen speakers.
Brandon, 23, is tall and lanky with a slow, infectious smile. In his spare time, he builds computers. He eventually wants to go back to school for a degree in technology. Brandon started working graveyard shifts a year ago when the manager, who only works in the daytime, offered him the shift.
"Nobody wanted to do graveyard," he says, "especially on a Friday night, where it's very stressful and very busy and you need to know the menu and the customers. A lot of people don't survive."
So far, Brandon has been happy as a night worker, adopting it into his general routine. He lives in El Cajon, drives 20 miles to work in the evening and home again in the early morning, then sleeps until 12:00 or 1:00 in the afternoon. During the day, he manages to get his errands done, hang out with friends, and, of course, build a computer or two.
Alicia, 28, only works graveyard on Fridays, though she used to take on a full week of night shifts. She has a mane of dark hair and friendly brown eyes and can switch effortlessly between English and Spanish when talking to customers. She's a mother of two, Briana, 11, and Alexis, 8, and has finished a program in medical billing and coding that, ultimately, she decided is not for her.
"So many times I've tried to broaden my horizons," she laughs, "but I keep coming back here. I get real attached to my customers. I can never work a nine-to-five behind a computer. If you can, more power to you, but my personality doesn't really fit that profession."
It was hard for her, however, doing graveyard every night, especially with the two kids, who stay with her mother while she works the late shifts.
"Being a single mom is demanding," Alicia says, recalling the days when she would have to be up for her older daughter's softball games after a hard night of work.
"I'd just go and suck it up and sleep during the day," she says, "but my kids are a little older [now]. When they're hungry they can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So, if they know I'm tired, they'll get themselves a bowl of cereal. That's why I'm lucky. I think if they were younger it would be harder."
Outside, it has long since gotten dark. It's just past midnight, and customers have begun trickling in; a few couples, mostly young, and a smattering of older folks. This Friday is slower than normal, according to Brandon and Alicia, and they have more time to relax and chat with each other and with the customers. A few of the regulars have seated themselves at the bar. One is a retired electrician with Coke-bottle glasses, and the other is Arturo, a broad-faced man in a blue shirt, a late-night fixture at the diner.
"Hey, Arturo!" Alicia calls, as he lumbers up to the counter. Arturo grins at her and waves.
"He comes in and talks to us," says Brandon, casting an eye in Arturo's direction. "He loves to say, 'Can I bug you right now?' 'Cause he likes to bug us, definitely, when we're busy."
Both Brandon and Alicia have a roster of regulars. Some come in during the day, but many come in the night hours.
"The regulars are the people who go out every Friday night," Alicia says.
"We have [customers] who have been here since the '80s, that come in every day," says Brandon. "They live their everyday lives, and they get to know us on a personal basis."
Alicia in particular has bonded to a number of pregnant women who come in at all hours, craving a strange assortment of food. Laughing, she says she often doesn't know their names, just those of their unborn children.
"I feel like I'm their auntie when the babies are growing, because I feed [the moms] through the whole pregnancy, when they're craving bread pudding, ice cream, pickles...I mean, weird [stuff]."
She turns to the retired electrician.
"Can I get you anything else?" she asks.
He smiles at her.
"A million dollars," he jokes.
The bar rush has started, though, as Brandon and Alicia report, it's not as busy as usual. A group of rockabilly kids traipse through to the back of the restaurant, one in full John Travolta Grease regalia, complete with sculpted hair. Another wears cat's-eye glasses and an elaborate pink-and-purple hairdo. Alicia recognizes a girl in a white party dress, and they embrace, exchanging pleasantries before Alicia turns back to her work.