Author: Joshua Rhome
Neighborhood: El Cajon
I sit here in the little room I rent in a house off Magnolia Avenue and think about El Cajon and my past and how entangled they are. I’ve defamed it so much and run from it so often that I find it funny that it’s the city I’ve decided to write about out of all the ones I’ve lived in.
I was 23 or 24 when I moved to El Cajon from Phoenix, Arizona. A stretch in jail and an odd probation arrangement forced me to leave Arizona, and cheap rent landed me here in El Cajon, renting an apartment on Mollison just south of the freeway exit.
At the time, El Cajon reminded me of a woman I used to date back in Arizona. She had the complexion of dirty dishwater and was angry and sullen.
The things I think about when I remember those first few years in El Cajon are probably not the important ones people want to hear about or the ones that lend the most insight into its heart or soul or any of those clichés, but they’re mine.
I remember Kelly’s Pub on Tuesday nights. I’d watch men with tattoo sleeves and flat-brimmed hats buy drinks for women in low-rise jeans and men’s undershirts. We’d all drink until our heads rolled off our shoulders and hit the floor, and then we’d pick ourselves up and walk home unsteady and weaving, picking our way past 7-Eleven and craters in the weak gravity of the moon.
I remember Sundays hosing down my old Chrysler LeBaron at the car wash off Main Street, watching families on their way to church, smelling soap and wet redemption in the air.
I remember spending hours at the Food 4 Less staring at all the colors in the translucence of the fluorescent lights in a swoon of painkillers, trying to fend off the rot and burn of my body, so confused that I walked home empty-handed, leaving my car in the parking lot amongst shoppers loading Tecate and pork chops and Wonder bread and shaving cream into their trunks.
I remember sitting in front of the welfare office off First Street waiting for food stamps, eating pastries and albondigas, watching the beautiful copper faces down the street at the Crystal Clean bent over car hoods, drying them.
I remember Krispy Kreme doughnuts after shooting pool at the Grand all afternoon. I remember getting thrown out of the Quarterdeck the day my mother found out she had breast cancer. I remember Dumont’s and the Carousel. I remember falling in love with a tall brunette with a sad mouth at the bar of the Applebee’s next to the Parkway Plaza mall. I remember them soldering the gates in the rear of my apartment building shut so no one could sell dope to the kids walking home from the high school down the street. I remember mothers pushing strollers and towing kids down Second Street, ankle deep in memories of last week and first loves and violent homelands left behind. I remember the two beautiful, shy Chaldean kids who worked at the liquor store on Broadway before someone laid them face down and put a bullet in the back of their heads. I remember all the colors of the hands that passed by me and the histories of ancient peoples etched into the back of every one of their knuckles. I remember the tired faces on the 874 bus at six in the evening. I remember kicking a habit and getting clean in the rooms of a small church behind the public library. I remember walking past lighted windows smelling chicken frying and wondering What do the lives look like on the other side of all those lonely doors?
I’m not sure what I think about El Cajon and all these memories, this city of liquor stores and middle-class homes and low-rent apartments, this city of proud faces and work boots and families. I don’t know. I haven’t been able to spend much time walking the streets lately. My health hasn’t been good, and I’ve been too busy to daydream about all the stories behind the eyes reflected off the hot asphalt that runs through this city. Sitting here, in the middle of the night, staring out my window into the dark street, I can hear them, all the warm bodies inhaling and exhaling in unison, their hot breath rising up past the streetlights into the black sky. I wonder what they had for dinner, if they’re sleeping alone, if they’re dreaming about Starbucks or balancing their checkbooks or the thousands of beating hearts spread out around them.