As soon as you leave the SDSU district, where College Avenue collides with El Cajon Boulevard, libraries and frat houses give way to liquor stores, check-cashing places, 99-cent emporiums, and plenty more clear signposts that you’ve entered an urban, merchant-driven neighborhood. The Campus Drive-In Theater occupied that intersection from 1947 until it was torn down in 1983. You can still see its four-story-tall neon sign, a miniskirted majorette spinning her baton and wearing a full Indian headdress, behind the College Grove Shopping Center off Highway 94. The old drive-in lot currently houses yet another nondescript modular shopping center, where few stores outlive their first year’s lease.
One rare longstanding retail landmark is the Subway sandwich shop near 63rd, which opened back in 1982, the East Coast company’s first franchise in San Diego. Today, our city has more Subways than Roberto’s/Alberto’s/fill-in-the-blank-Berto’s, but in a neighborhood where everything around it has changed, this original location maintains its mom-and-pop-hangout atmosphere, despite the newfangled bread machines and a Tolstoy-dense menu that now takes up the entire back wall.
One shouldn’t pull over or park in the proximity of women who stand around the bus stop in front of the AM/PM or who stroll up and down El Cajon Boulevard between the 92175 post office and 70th Street. It doesn’t matter how you look or what you drive; you don’t even have to make eye contact for the more aggressive entrepreneurs to walk right up to your passenger door and try to climb in. It’s easy to fend off unwanted contact with a lady of the night (or of the morning, afternoon, or lunchtime). Simply point a little disposable camera at her, flash, and you’ll hear the clippity-clopping of her high heels fading into the distance.
The huge Ralphs supermarket is open all night, and you’ll often see furtive, undernourished-looking people there buying lighters, steel wool pads, and tire-pressure gauges they use to make crack pipes. Ralphs is the only place you can get such smoking necessities at night in this neighborhood, since 7-Eleven stopped selling Brillo pads and liquor stores quit carrying single-rose stems sealed in versatile glass tubes. The Laundromat on El Cajon near 70th has a public restroom that costs a quarter to use. At night, it’s usually occupied by homeless or far-from-home people “renting” the bathroom and, most importantly, its lockable door, rare in this part of the city, often to make use of those Brillo pads, tire gauges, and butane lighters they just bought down the street at Ralphs.