It’s 11 p.m. A roar like a fighter jet in trouble heads right for us.
Actually it’s a squadron of bikers, taking off at the light here at ECB and 70th. First one, then two, then three of the guys kneel on their seats, ram up the revs, hoist their front wheels in the air, and hare off down El Cajon Boulevard like bucking broncos.
Crazy. Kind of magnificent, too. Isn’t that what ECB’s for?
This guy and I stand here, going kinda wow! I’m on the north side, he’s on the grassy median.
Now he squats with a cardboard sign in his lap, facing the eastbound traffic. “Anything will help,” it says.
Amazing who you meet when you start walking: My new love affair with ECB started with Hadramout, the Yemeni place. Just had to come back and see what else was happening.
5900 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
The red neon sign of my all-time favorite garden café glows across the top of two classical columns. The original Living Room (5900 ECB) sits between a funeral parlor and the Center for the Blind. It’s a table and tree-strewn garden with music, burble of conversation, a hedge for privacy and soft music, and students from nearby State sweating deep thoughts into their laptops. Washed yellow walls and varnished wood and a dolphin drinking-fountain inside give this place the perfect café atmosphere.
So, now I’m ordering a coffee ($2.15), and a quiche Lorraine ($9.25). My fave. Eggs, cream, gruyere, Swiss, and parmesan cheeses, bacon, sautéed onions, and garlic, and a beautiful thick, flakey pie crust. Plus pineapple, toasted whole wheat, salad.
At the counter they’re yelling things like “Non-fat chai!” And “Turkey lasagna!” I go sit at a solid oak table. There are four other Living Rooms around town, but this — the first — is the one. I ask Lexie, who took my order — she’s a post-grad in marriage therapy. They’re all students here — what the secret is.
“The owner, Beat Wick,” she says. “He’s Swiss. It’s his baby.”
“This used to be known as the ‘Mile of Guitars,’” says Steven Olsher. I’ve just happened in on his big red-and-yellow place, Apex Music (6210 ECB). We’re at 62nd Street. Looking for the first Jack in the Box. Was supposed to have opened around here in 1951, when ECB was Highway 80, the old road to the East Coast.
Instead I discover Steven, sitting cross-legged on his concrete floor, trying to squeeze some lights and cables into a bag. He’s got long wavy brown hair that he says he cuts off every few years to make wigs for cancer patients. “This end of the boulevard’s got good music pedigree,” he says. “My family’s been in the music business since 1952. Dad set up the equipment for the Beatles at Balboa Stadium. Pointless, of course. All you heard was screaming.”
Now he’s leading me through what looks like a total shambles of Vox amps, Peavey speakers, guitars, cellos, and cables, wires, drum kits from the ’50s, keyboards. “I’ve been here 43 years. I’m a service engineer. I repurpose everything,” he says, “and [set up sound systems] from Bach to rock, and back. Do a lot of concerts. I’m 25 steps from the guy who’s 20 steps from the star.”
But why have his business here?
“This part of El Cajon Boulevard is like the Music Quarter. There’s a resurgence of nightlife up here. Prices are more affordable. Like, in my practice studios here I charge $5 to $7 per hour.”
Wow. Even I could just about afford that.
Better not name this place, but it’s a hookah-coffee-joint near College and ECB. “We serve meals, hookahs, and after hours we can send take-out to your apartment,” says the owner. “All night long, with very beautiful ladies to bring your order, if you want.”
“Gimme an Effin beer.”
6164 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
I know Shawn the barman’s not going to take this the wrong way. This is Effin’s Bar and Grill (6164 ECB), the student hangout at 61st Street, decorated all green and Irish. But what I’ve come for is a Black and Tan — Guinness on top, Saint Archer underneath — and their potato skins ($6 for three skins with cheese, bacon, sour cream, and chives). They’re pretty wicked.
But what I like most is the fizz of student life around me, the need to be a bit crazy after reining in your wildcat mind all day. Also a gal is pouring free sampler tumblers of Black Magic rum, ginger beer, and lime. “Please don’t take the tumbler home,” she says to each of us.
In the end, I’m back at 70th, heading for a #215 bus. Or the #1. Huh. Going to be a wait, this time of night. See a bar sign.
“The Blvd. Well worn. Unglamorous. Simple. Home of the $3 Hooker,” it says.
6949 El Cajon Boulevard, San Diego
Huh? It’s The BLVD Bar (6949 ECB). The place has those roll-up garage doors that open the interior to the sidewalk. Lots of pool tables. Square four-sided bar in the middle, all lit in purple lighting. Still quite crowded, around 11.
I hoist myself onto a stool. “Hooker?” I say to the bartender, Londis. He points to one of the draft-beer handles. “The house draft,” he says. “Three bucks.”
“This was tiny, dark, a total dive bar,” says Londis when I ask. But ten years ago, Mike Salazar, the owner, decided he wanted to open things up. People worried we’d lose our regulars. But they seem to go for it.”
Time to go. At the crossroads, the guy with the sign’s still there. Say hi again as I cross ECB. I have $3 in my hand.
“No, no money.”
He starts walking away, up the line of cars.
“What did you say your name was?” I kinda shout.
“None of your damned business,” he says.