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.
But not all customer interactions are good ones; the late-night crowd, especially when intoxicated, can get volatile.
"One time I had a customer who got so mad she threw a glass of water at my back and it broke against me," says Brandon, as he scratches down an order. "I had to toss 'em out."
Alicia was sexually harassed one night by a customer who grabbed her behind as she was taking an order.
"He just comes up to me and smacks me on my booty," she says, miming the gesture.
The situation was defused when Brandon and Louie, who is both a busboy at Rudford's and a late-night regular, demanded that the offending customer leave.
Mostly, however, the customers are harmless. Often drunk, often lonely and sometimes crazy, but harmless. Late nights bring out the eccentrics. Brandon remembers a woman with "too much blush and frazzled hair" who told him her entire life story, while Alicia has waited on a homeless man who refused to talk, instead writing extensive notes about the impending apocalypse on restaurant napkins. Both have had their share of customers who work as pimps and prostitutes, one of whom, according to Alicia, is pregnant and still on the street.
"It's pretty sad, actually," she says, shaking her head. "I mean, it blows my mind, because they get younger and younger and younger. And this girl that's pregnant, I said, 'Girl, and you're working?' and she said, 'I got to make my money!' "
Some of the odder customers bring an uplifting spirit into the restaurant, cheering both staff and patrons.
"We have transvestites come in," Alicia says. "They love when we treat them like women 'cause they think they are. But, I mean, I don't judge anybody. They're great people, they make me laugh. They come from Lips and I ask, 'So, how was the show?' 'Great, but you missed it.' And I'll say, 'Well, give us a little taste,' and they'll, like, sing and everybody starts clapping for them. You get a little show."
As she speaks, the door flings open and two young men stumble in. One is blond and tall, the other shorter, wearing a long-sleeved, baseball-style blue shirt. Baseball Shirt lets out a piercing whistle, one that reverberates around the restaurant. He moves like a cartoon drunk, coming to rest at a table occupied by two men and a woman; his friend joins them, sliding into the opposite bench.
"Thor is going to put his giant German penis all over your leg," announces Baseball Shirt, partially to the table and partially to the entire restaurant.
The people in the booth look as if they're trying not to laugh.
Brandon and Alicia exchange glances.
"Well," says Alicia, with a smile and a sigh, "it's Friday!"
SHE WATCHES OVER THE SAN DIEGO RESCUE MISSION
At 11:30 at night, number 120 is the only lit building on Elm Street. On the last block of Elm before the north 5 freeway intersects it, number 120 houses both the men's and women's/
children's divisions of the San Diego Rescue Mission homeless shelter. The lobby is bright, staffed by two men who answer the phones and control the sliding doors that admit entry into the building; a stash of Breathalyzer sticks sit in a basket by a bucket of ice water.
Christine Marquardt-Kerns, or "Chris" as she is more commonly known, arrives not long after she's paged. She is the lead residence manager for the emergency night shelter at the Rescue Mission, a job that requires her, as she puts it, to be a "jack of all trades." A friendly woman clad in a button-down shirt and plain blue jeans, Chris leads the way down a catacomb of hallways, each opened by the swipe of a card. "You can't get anywhere in here without one of these," she says, holding hers aloft. She touches it to a small pad installed by the door and, with a click and a beep, the lock releases.
Her office, located on the ground floor, overlooks the Nueva Vida Haven, the room in which women and children are housed for the night. Nueva Vida is dark, lit only by two orange dome lights and illumination spilling in from the hallway. It is silent save for the sounds of breathing, some even-sounding, some labored. In addition to ten bunks (20 beds), the room is filled with families on pallet beds, made up from whatever the shelter can find and whatever the women and their families have brought. Kids sleep in piles next to their mothers and sometimes, as Chris says, their grandmothers. Some have stacked possessions in rows beside their cots and blankets. An old chrome ghetto-blaster radio rests against piles of clothing and other belongings, next to a sleeping family of three.
Chris's office is a room towards the back of Nueva Vida. It contains two desks, a computer with Internet access, a few bookshelves, and a large monitor, on which are shown fuzzy images of all the floors of the building. In addition to Nueva Vida, Chris must do facility checks for several of the residence halls, where women in the Rescue Missions' various programs are housed for the longer term. These checks she does hourly, swiping her card to get onto the elevator and to each floor, where she walks the halls on her rounds. She must also prep the dining room for breakfast and stay on top of the laundry for the emergency night shelter; most of the laundry is linens.
"I have a heart for this group of people," she says, sitting at her desk while the women and children sleep soundly outside, "[and] with my Christian background, that's my desire, to work with this group."
For the past four years, Chris has worked nights with the Rescue Mission, often covering a 12-hour shift. Her family has been understanding, and she spends most of her off-time with her husband, children, and nieces. "I think my family is just a lot of hanging out together right now," she says. "I still have two teenagers at home. Because my daughter's in high school, I've been going through a little bit, 'cause I'm, like, 'Oh, I never see you!' She's a football manager, so when she's getting off practice, I'm already at work. So...it's been tough. I think it's been tougher for me than it has been for her. When [my son] comes home from school, I'm still asleep, 'cause daytime is my nighttime, so..."
But Chris keeps a good balance, working Monday through Thursday and taking weekends off. Her job description is "pretty much a mix of a lot of things."
"You have to do a little case-managing," she says. "I do a lot of one-on-one talking with them; sometimes they just need to talk or vent. Sometimes we get a rapport going and we can joke with certain ones, making it lighter for them, so they don't have to stress all the time. We do floor checks every hour. We do laundry. Last night I did 27 loads. So we do that all night."
Besides the "routine," as Chris calls it, there are times when she must deal with emergencies.
"I had a baby delivered in here," she recalls, leaning back in her chair. "It was an experience. I was doing floor checks after about midnight, and she goes, 'I think it's time,' so I said, let me check you, and I said, 'Yes, it's time, let me call.' She was over by the bed, and the baby was already coming. By the time the paramedics came here, the baby's head was already out."
The night wears on. Chris loads and unloads washers, does her hourly check of the upstairs, patrolling the stroller-filled halls. The building used to be a hospital, she explains, which accounts for the sterile tile floors and wide-doored rooms. It is here that the women in the various residential programs live, often up to 18 months at a time. Pictures of past residents hang on the walls, a reminder that better days are ahead.
Everything goes as planned until the routine is broken by a call from Alma, a staff member who covers the upper floors. Chris is stocking the dining hall on the second floor when Alma reports that two cops have brought in a teenage runaway, C., whose mother, T., is staying in the emergency night shelter. Chris shakes her head. "I told her mother she wouldn't get any sleep tonight," she says ruefully, before putting down her bin of forks to assess the situation.
Down in the women's shelter lobby, the cops, a baby-faced rookie and a more seasoned officer, stand with C. between them. In bright orange shorts and T-shirt, C. stands defiantly, hands cuffed in a criss-cross behind her back. They found her, the elder officer says, down by the ballpark. An earpiece trails from his ear down behind his shoulder.
"There's only two reasons a young lady would be down there," he says. "Prostituting and crack cocaine."
"I was on MySpace all day," C. insists.
"We played the name game with her for almost three hours," the officer tells Chris and Alma. "It was lie after lie after lie. She has no problem lying to the police."
Chris returns to Nueva Vida to wake T., C.'s mother, who follows groggily as Chris leads her to the lobby to collect C. Mother and daughter are the spitting image of each other, so much so that the cop even comments.
"It's like clones!" he says.
T. smiles tightly. C., sitting on the couch, says nothing. The rookie officer releases the handcuffs, and C. rubs her wrists, silent and sullen, but for the time being safe.
"C. doesn't look at what the consequences could be," Chris says, once back in her office. "That's the part I hate. I try and get them to think. Some of the kids [that] have been on the street, they try and act like they're grown, so a lot of times I have to remind them, 'Hold up, you're only a child. Let's slow you down a little while you're in here.' "
After C. and T. settle in for the night, yet another emergency -- slightly less urgent -- crops up. Back in the dining room, Alma arrives to inform Chris that one of the residents upstairs, G., is complaining of back pain. She can't get out of her bunk, and Alma calls the paramedics while Chris tries to locate the source of the pain by pressing on the woman's back; G. groans in pain, and Chris eventually gives up. The paramedics, once they arrive, try this too, but G. is in too much pain.
"Can you rate the pain on a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you've ever felt?" one of the paramedics asks.
"Ten!" G. replies.
Outside the room, Chris smiles.
"They're so young," she whispers, referring to the two paramedics, who can't be over 25.
"Don't drop me!" G. jokes, as the paramedics help her onto the gurney. Though in pain, she still has a sense of humor. They wheel her into the elevator and are gone.
"A lot of people say, 'I don't know how you do this,' " says Chris, ensconced once more in her office. "God has given me this calling. When I was seven years old, I had a vision of a huge inn, and if someone needed a place to stay, they could stay. And I've always had a heart for what I call 'the underdogs.' "
"I tell even my staff that get hired on, I tell them, 'You have to be called to this job. Because if you haven't been called to this job, you're not going to last. You won't make it here. Especially at night.' "
THE STARS ARE BIG AND BRIGHT AT THE SAN DIEGO ASTRONOMY ASSOCIATION'S OBSERVATORY
The San Diego Astronomy Association's Tierra Del Sol observatory site is about 60 miles from San Diego, just past the Golden Acorn Casino on Old Highway 80. It's up a treacherous dirt road, nearly impossible to navigate without headlights, which one, as the driving directions indicate, must do if arriving after sunset so as not to shock the dark-adjusted eyes of the patrons.
The observatory was built in 1998 on ten acres of what president Bob Austin describes as "high desert," a clearing of dusty ground amidst scrub trees no higher than a man's head. It's made up of several sites, the first of which are the "public pads," two long walkways of concrete laid parallel across what serves as the observatory's parking lot. Anyone is free to leave their car, set up a telescope on a pad, and sit under the sky. A group of teenagers has pitched a row of tents, sleeping until the night's event: a meteor shower that's due to start at 4:30 a.m.
Bob is a shadowy figure amongst the trees. In the moonlight, his hair and beard look white, his shirt glows faintly. He leads the way with a slight limp, the result of back surgery, and gives an impromptu guided tour.
The observatory buildings are just beyond the public pads, he says, to the left of the wide dirt track that serves as a main artery through the compound. There are nine buildings, seven private observatories, and two public structures, a red-lighted room that serves as a clubhouse, and a station for public viewing. Each is made of concrete, roofs fully retractable to reveal the night sky.
To the right of the road, beyond a chain-link fence, are the private pads, smaller slabs of concrete shielded by scrub. Laughter emanates from somewhere among them, oddly musical in the silence of the night. Light from red-light flashlights flicker, and shadows pass through the trees.
Bob's observatory, which he shares with two other members, is the fourth in the row of buildings. He opens it with a key and beckons entrance.
The space is about the size of a child's room, walls six or seven feet tall before they give way to the sky. The telescopes, two large, futuristic-looking contraptions, are situated on one side, equipment boxes, camping gear and a desktop computer on the other. The two scopes, Bob explains, are an eight-inch LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain and a ten-inch Meade Classic LX200, the latter of which is set up to take astral photographs. On the computer is a murky image of a dusty star. This, Bob explains, is the Bubble Nebula, a network of stars and gas surrounding a star called the BD602522. Bob has set his telescope camera, a Santa Barbara Instruments ST-7E, to capture 18 ten-second exposures of the nebula, which are all downloaded to his computer. The image on the screen is a sample, an outline, really; once the set of exposures is completed, Bob will combine the 18 photographs together with special computer software that will generate a final, cleaner image.
He points to the screen.
"See this little frame here?" he asks, pointing at the sample image; it glows red, reflecting in his glasses. His voice is soft and even.
"There's a star in the center." He points to a crawling status bar in the corner. "The line down here, see it moving? That's a chip. It's taking a picture, downloading it, checking to see what the error is off-center and sending a correction to the mount to keep the star centered. The top one, that's hardly moving, it's because it's a ten-minute exposure. It's showing the progress of that one ten-minute shot."
Bob has some examples of his finished products, and he pulls them out as Rush plays softly from an unseen stereo. The shots are beautiful, swirling masses of murky blue, white, and yellow, milky orbs in both the foreground and background.
Done with the photos, Bob takes a seat in one of the collapsible chairs gathered in the center of the room. Surrounded by telescopes and humming machinery, it is clear he is at home.
He had an early start; Bob's forays into astronomy began when he was in elementary school.
"I was about somewhere between 10 and 13," he says, "[when] I received a small refractive telescope for Christmas and spent hours and hours just looking at Saturn and Jupiter. It was all I could find."
During high school, his interest waned, but years later, when the SDAA put on an event at his daughter's school in La Mesa, he found his love for astronomy rekindled. He rejoined the SDAA, which he was a member of as a teen, and in 2001 began to experiment with astrophotography. Six years later, he now runs a website devoted to his passion, astronomy-pictures.com, and is considered an expert around the observatory. In 2004, he was elected president and is one of the most frequent visitors.
"I come up two to three weekends a month," he says. "I usually stay for two days just because of the cost for gas. I sleep in here."
He overnights at the observatory only when he doesn't have work the next day -- Bob sets up Internet migration for Hewlett Packard in Rancho Bernardo -- but there are times when he has to scramble his schedule.
"We had a meteor shower a couple of weeks ago," he says, "and it happened to be on a Sunday night, in the early morning. I made arrangements to not come in Monday, and I made up for it by working on a Saturday."
There are a handful of others who also frequent the observatory. Bob describes them as he leads the way back down the path to the public rooms. Dirt crunches under his feet.
"We've got Alice," he says. "She's up here a lot. She's also the corresponding secretary. And the guy with the loud laugh, that's Jim, he's our director. So there's the core group that comes up a lot. We love it up here."
Back at the public viewing room, the diehard regulars have assembled, sitting around the telescope in plastic chairs. The light in the room is dim and red and highlights the faces of Jim, Alice, Jim's stepdaughter Angie, her daughter Colleen, and stepdaughter C.C. -- both of whom are getting a few hours of sleep. Everyone is killing time before the meteor shower, which, according to Jim, happens once every 300 years.
"It's going to be awesome," says Angie, eyes shining.
A bartender by trade, Angie was introduced to the sky by her stepfather. She attended a meteor shower a number of years ago and loved it and has come up to the observatory on a somewhat frequent basis ever since. "It was so freaking cold," she says, almost breathlessly, "it was so cold...I've never seen anything like it before in my life. They were right here in front of you, like a..."
She makes a whooshing sound, drawing her arm across her face, before continuing. "They just sort of went on forever."
Alice, sitting across from her, nods.
"Meteors," she says, "they're fabulous. Out here, you see meteors and the Milky Way, and it's gorgeous, it's unbelievable."
A small, spectacled woman in her mid-50s, Alice has been coming to the observatory for over 12 years. She has her own private pad and is on the site almost every weekend, often staying overnight.
"When I first started doing astronomy, I thought I knew the sky," she says. "I knew the constellations, I knew the basic stars...[then] I came out here, and I couldn't find anything. Because there were too many stars! It was so dark out here. That was 12 years ago. There were so many stars I couldn't even find the constellations. It was unbelievable. I came out here and I couldn't even find the Big Dipper."
These days, the stars are getting harder to find for another reason: light pollution. According to Jim, there are plans for a big casino in the works that would go up on one of the Native American reservations that border the observatory, something that would greatly decrease visibility for the astronomers. While busy trying to fight that, the observatory members also must contend with an increase in neighboring houses, some of which are blasting the area with light.