The Hell’s Angel takes me aside. It’s 10:00, Saturday night. A bunch of them stand around outside their headquarters by a row of angle-parked Harleys, here where Palm meets El Cajon Boulevard.
”Look, we’ve had problems with your paper before,” he says. “They say they’re going to write one thing, then they print another. Sorry, man.”
That’s a shame. I was hoping for a street-up view of the city that half the county thinks of as, at least if you believe my friend Scott, who has lived here most of his life, Redneck Central. Rightly or wrongly, El Cajon gets dissed. But does it deserve the “redneck” moniker? Well, start with the name: El Cajon. The Box. How can you take a city called “The Box” seriously? At the very least, El Cajon is maybe the most hidden, unappreciated city in the county. Almost like a foreign country to most beach people. It’s near the end of the line for the eastbound trolley, a valley you skim past on your way up Interstate 8 heading inland to the casinos, or the desert, or Phoenix. Think El Cajon, and your first image is of that great shoebox-shaped hole in the mountains. Next, you can’t help wondering if this is the site of an ancient impact that left such a neat hole the meteor must have been square. You could almost believe this is where all those poor dinosaurs fried. Because, for sure, archeologists have found everything here, from woolly mammoths to pterodactyls. And, of course, you wonder, when you come through the hills and look down into this high, granite-walled valley, how anybody can stand the boxed-in summer heat. Why they’d choose to live here in the first place. Julian has its apple pies, Oceanside has its ocean, Potrero has winds so clean that the most allergic people in the nation can breathe free up there. Heck, Borrego Springs has its incredible stars. But El Cajon? One-hundred-degree summers and…a Mother Goose Parade?
“Why am I here? I hate it. I don’t know why I’m here!” This gent named Pat searches the ceiling for an answer. “I’ve been here for 40 years.”
Now we’re in the Grand Bar, the “oldest known bar in El Cajon.” How else to get to know a town? This is down near the historic heart of the town, where Main and Magnolia meet. “I came when I was in high school,” Pat says. “Just a teen. I hate the heat here. The mayor’s an idiot. They keep tearing up downtown. They tore it up, they tore it down. They rebuilt. Now they’ve torn it up again. There’s so much drugs in some parts. And I swear it’s getting hotter by the year. Hell, I go up to Alaska every August, just to cool off. I’ll call back down from up there, and where it’s 62 degrees there, here it’s 115. And I say, ‘Why am I going back down?’”
Everybody’s knocked back a couple of brewskis (this is an hour after my chat with the Hell’s Angels), not drunk, just lubricated in a happy Saturday-night sort of way. But Pat’s serious about this. He also says, “The people, now: the people here are awesome. Far more laid-back. You know everybody. They know you. And, hell, we’ve got Jimmie Johnson and the Mother Goose Parade, and the car show Wednesday nights, right?” He shakes his head. “Still don’t know why I’m here, though. I guess because I’m here.”
This search started with something my buddy Scott blurted out the other day. I asked if El Cajon deserved its, well, “redneck” reputation. It was as if I’d touched him with a live wire. He’s mad.
“I get so…pissed…off when I hear that word, the R-word,” he says. Okay, he’s biased. He lives here. “We’re no more redneck than Chula Vista or I.B., or Oceanside, or Escondido, or P.B., or downtown, Goddammit. But we get the label slapped on our foreheads, as soon as anyone asks where you’re from. You can see the look. I mean, have you ever taken the time to come and find out what we’re actually about up here?”
There’s a silence. Me, trying to remember.
“Thought not. Let’s talk again when you have.”
So, search for the soul of El Cajon, chapter one. I guess I’d always thought of it as one of those awkwardly sized, awkwardly placed cities. Too close to the Big Smoke of San Diego and not quite critical-mass-big enough to stand on its own feet. But first, the facts. Before I move an inch, I check my Wikipedia.
El Cajon, it says, is not to be confused with the cajon, a boxlike wooden Afro-Peruvian drum you sit on, or with Cajon Pass (4910 feet up in the San Gabriel Mountains). “El Cajón is Spanish for ‘the Drawer,’ relating to the town’s origin as a parcel of land granted out of the vast Mission San Diego de Alcalá tract and used for farming by Spanish missionaries.”
It says El Cajon is 14.6 square miles in area, of which zero square miles is water, has an elevation of 436 feet above sea level, and was incorporated as a city in 1912. It lies 17 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, 20 miles north of the border, is 6 miles long by 4 miles wide, sits below 800- to 1700-foot-high granite hills, and once, before being tarmacked over, contained 7500-plus acres of prime farmland.
By 2000 it had a population of 94,869 and had about 34,000 households, including 23,000 families. Ethnic breakdown was around 74 percent white, 22 percent Latino/Spanish, 5 percent African American, 1 percent Native American, 3 percent Asian, and about 11 percent from other races. And yes, that adds up to more than 100 percent, but Latino/
Spanish includes citizens with that background from every race, so there’s some duplication there.
The El Cajon portrait continues. As of the 2000 Census, “The median age was 32 years… For every 100 females aged 18 and over, there were 91.4 males… Males had a median income of $32,498 versus $25,320 for females. The per capita income for the city was $16,698… About 16.7 percent of the population was below the poverty line.”