Maybe it’s the walk toward the little yellow bar near the corner of 50th Street and El Cajon Boulevard that skeeves a person out.
4977 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights
(No longer in business.)
Eyes are fixed to the ground to avoid stepping on an empty 40-ounce malt-liquor bottle. I’m trying not to make eye contact with the man who stands outside the front door of a car getting an earful from the female driver. Walking anywhere near the La Cresta Motel doesn’t ease the mind. Just east of “Little Saigon,” discount furniture stores, auto-repair shops, nail salons, liquor stores, and budget motels occupy El Cajon Boulevard. Last Call (4977 ECB) is the only stand-alone bar in this area.
At the entrance to Last Call, a large sign reads, “go ugly early.” It’s ugly out here around the clock.
Upon entering the bar, the feeling dissipates. When I drop in, the narrow bar is decorated for Halloween. Fake spider webs cover the owner’s artwork that hangs along the wall. The television blares a Thursday-night football game. The ten patrons range from guys wearing Royal Aces Motorcycle Club leather vests to an older man dressed in a suit eating food from the Crispy Fried Chicken restaurant a few doors down. An awkward-looking bald man with a distended belly waddles to the square porch outside the front door every 15 minutes for a smoke.
The men, and they are all men, are white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. They know each other. They laugh at each other. Missing is any semblance of vibe.
The bartender Tu (pronounced two) laughs often and way too loud for a dive-bar barkeep. Hanging above the bar is a sign advertising one-dollar kamikaze shots every time an ambulance drives by with sirens blaring.
The beer craze seems not to have made its way to this portion of El Cajon Boulevard.
“Bob” takes the stool next to me. The New England Patriots score and we both groan. He’s a Tennessee Titans fan. We talk about how miserable that team is and how awful the Chargers are. Bob is fresh out of the military. He spent eight years in the Navy and now plans on attending college in the spring. He comes to Last Call three nights a week on average.
“It’s a cool little bar,” he says. “It sounds strange but everyone is, like, nice. There’s no drama...at least not a lot of drama. Plus, it’s only three blocks from my house.”
I walk to the bathroom. When I return, Bob has a shot of Jägermeister waiting for me. I tell him I am buying. He refuses and calls Tu over and pays the tab.
We talk about kids, about his time in the military. He says it was easy compared to his first job working at Marshalls. “Man, people were just rude. Putting things back in crazy places. I hated it.”
We joke that instead of people thanking him for his service in the military that they should thank him for his work at the discount box store.
The guys next to us start chatting when the Patriots score. They are regulars and are free to join in on any conversation.
I tell Bob I will buy the next time and I leave the bar. I step outside. El Cajon Boulevard feels more personal, not some seedy street but an urban landscape where people live, work, and drink.
5526 El Cajon Boulevard, College Area
I feel rather unlucky just being inside the parking lot at the Lucky Lady Casino and Card Room (5526 ECB) and adjoining sports bar. Inside the fenced-in lot, two men smoke cigarettes. “If that hand wasn’t so bad, I would have won,” one of the men says to the other.
A block east of 55th Street on El Cajon Boulevard, the sports bar is a retreat from the slaughter of the adjoining card room, a mourning place for the unlucky gamblers who just pissed their paychecks away at the tables.
The room is more rec-room than bar. Lotto Quick Pick forms stand on every table. A lottery ticket vending machine is positioned near the entrance, next to a popcorn machine. Gaming tables and televisions outnumber patrons. There are five foosball tables, two billiards tables, a beer pong, a shuffleboard table, and ping pong table. Televisions are mounted above each table.
A group of card-room employees gossip at the end of the bar. Two mechanics are reeling over the piss-poor play of the New York Mets in the World Series. The two bartenders whisper to one another at the opposite end of the bar, taking breaks to cut limes.
I get the feeling that the bar is here just to give the unlucky a place to take a breath before heading back for another poker hand. Or, worse, maybe it’s here to snag any remaining money that patrons do have. This is no neighborhood bar. It’s a way station for the unlucky.