So, armed with all this, I leapt aboard the Orange Line on Saturday night, got off at the El Cajon trolley stop, and started walking down into the Box...the Drawer, whatever. After visiting with the Hell’s Angels, I ended up in the Grand, sitting with Pat’s group, chewing the fat.
“Everything’s cheaper here,” this guy at the next table, Boyd, says. “Including the women. Joke. But it is cheaper. The western side of town’s cool. The east side’s the real redneck part.”
He and his roommate Craig pay $950 for a two-bedroom apartment. This side of town. The west. Not bad.
The ladies in Pat’s party have been filling my glass regularly. I get up to even things up a bit, when I come across the owner, Alex, sitting at the bar with his wife Julie.
“Is this really the oldest bar?” I ask. “Looks pretty new to me.” Because outside it’s brand new, with rounded walls like one of those old drive-up roller-skate places, only refurbished, and a bunch of hogs gleaming in the parking spots right outside.
“Oh, yes,” says Alex, “but not in this location. The old Grand was a dingy, small place a few blocks away. People felt comfortable there. When I took over and shifted up here to East Main, a lot of customers felt I’d betrayed them. Here, you have to dress up a little. I want this to be a real neighborhood bar, but we’re changing. Like El Cajon.” He says El Cajon is a blue-collar town, but not like the blue-collar towns back east. “I came here from New Jersey. A lot rougher. For six months it’s miserable cold there. What do you expect?”
He certainly looks as if he’s doing a good business, but how about the rest of the town? Main is pretty deserted. Doesn’t feel — at this hour anyway, admittedly around 11:00 — as if there’s a lot of life downtown. Alex says the mayor wants the business base to expand. “But it’s hard to start a business in this town. The mayor needs to make it more inviting. We have the highest sales tax in the county, and the November ballot just passed an increase on that by a quarter percent to 8H percent. The process and restrictions to anybody wanting to set up shop here are just too onerous. But the biggest problem is that they’re building low-income rental housing, and that attracts more low-income people, and they never have any excess cash to spend at local businesses, so the local businesses go out of business. We don’t have one major grocery chain downtown. Albertsons pulled out a year ago. Now we have Foodland — and the Chaldeans.”
Ah, yes, the Chaldeans, the Christian Iraqis who have settled into the valley big-time. “They’re buying a lot,” says Alex, “and moving into grocery stores and liquor stores, which is fine, but they don’t do business with others. There’s no reciprocity between them and us.”
“We hate to see the old El Cajon go,” says Julie, Alex’s wife. “In the old El Cajon I grew up in, nobody left, it was stable, and everybody looked after each other. When I was younger, the liquor stores were all family-owned. Now it’s all Chaldeans, Vietnamese, foreigners. People are more guarded, standoffish.”
I hadn’t thought about it till now, but it’s mainly a white crowd here. Led Zeppelin’s letting rip with “Whole Lotta Love.”
If you wanted to label the mayor of El Cajon, it’d be “number one redneck.” And he wouldn’t mind. Because he flaunts it. Beard, cap, shades, refusal to wear the three-piece suit, the whole deal. You just know he’s dismaying other city elders, who want him to put on a more dignified front for the city. But with Mark Lewis, forget it. This guy is El Cajon. For a start, when he was younger, he was a full-on biker. He’s got a record of being stopped by the cops of his own town, for all sorts of unspecified reasons, back in the day.
His office, on the sixth floor of City Hall, is splattered with official recognition plaques, other plaques loaded with bons mots, flags, pictures of the mayor with citizens — and a place of honor facing his desk for a John Wayne portrait. There are objects decorated with painted-on cows, and even a pig.
Mayor Lewis hands me his card. It’s an expensive-looking hologram that combines Lady Liberty, fireworks, the Capitol, the flag, and the words “America… Home of the Free Because of the Brave.” On the other side it adds, “Not paid for with taxpayer dollars.” He also shows me a much more modest card saying, “County of San Diego. Mark Lewis. Waste Management Coordinator.”
“That’s my other job,” he says. “That’s right upstairs.”
He jokingly rattles an old-fashioned milk bottle with two quarters in it. “That’s our tax dollars,” he says. “We need more.” He picks out a photograph of a John Wayne stamp ceremony. He’s not joking now. “He really was the last American who was, like, ‘This is yes, this is no; this is right, this is wrong.’ It was good, what he stood for.” He comes to another picture. “We have the largest flag in East County, about four stories tall. We fly it on holidays.” He has a Golden Donut Award and a long wooden plaque that says, “Thou Shalt Not Whine.” And he has his own mounted motto: “Be yourself. Have fun.”
“El Cajon doesn’t get the respect?” he says. “We don’t care. Redneck? Fine. I had a Harley. Got pulled over by the police I don’t know how many times. They’d target us. When I was first elected in 1990, I had long hair, beard, the whole ball of wax. This is the beauty of El Cajon.”
And redneck? Talk about e pluribus unum: “We have 70 languages in our community,” he says. “We’ve had an influx of Chaldeans, Kurds, Iraqis, Syrians, 20,000 of them. They’re all busy going to language school. They fit right in here because guess what? We’re all about family. And that’s their strongest trait too. I encourage them to come here. I want them to live in El Cajon, to help pay taxes. They run stores, not fancy stores, but community stores. They have real community spirit. I tell you what: you never see a Chaldean begging for money. You never see their elders in a rest home. That would be embarrassing in their culture. Their family takes care of them.”