Black and white at The Grand
Three large black men sat squished together in the back seat of my rental car as we headed east on I-8. The ping of my Uber app brought us together that Friday night. I was on the clock. They were dressed to kill, with scopes set on The Grand, a bar in El Cajon.
During the ride, the man in the middle started a conversation about different races understanding each other (I’m white). He urged me to watch the movie Imitation of Life. (Two years later, it’s next in line in my Netflix queue.)
As we neared the end of the ride, he spoke about The Grand as if it was something special in El Cajon — even something mysterious.
I dropped them off by the green “Grand” sign on West Main Street, a half block west of Sunshine. “El Cajon’s oldest known bar,” the sign touted. The two silent men opened their doors and stepped out. Before the third got out, he said to me, with serious intent, “El Cajon is my city.”
When I drive through downtown El Cajon and pass by The Grand, I think of my Uber customer and the things he said to me. I start asking questions. Some say The Grand is notorious. For what? Nobody will tell me.
So I pay a visit. The green “Grand” sign is no longer there. The first time I saw it I was reminded of the mysterious glow of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby, the one Jay Gatsby would peer at from his mansion across the bay.
The green glow on Main Street has been replaced by a large solid black circle with “The Grand” set against it in small white letters. When I look at it I think of black holes and other celestial mysteries. After dark, white light illuminates the sign from behind the black circle, giving it an eclipse-like appearance.
It’s Sunday evening. There’s nobody manning the door. I step inside to the sound of a beat that is steady but not too loud. The atmosphere feels relaxed, the bar set straight ahead along the wall to the left. Aside from one person looking at me with a stone-cold look on his face, most people carry on their drinking and talking, indifferent to my presence.
I brush against the curtain of a photo booth on my right. The sound of pool balls clacking echoes from around the corner to my left. A chalkboard on the wall further in to the right reads, “Karaoke Tuesday and Thursday” and “Friday night steak dinner.” Pretty straightforward.
I sit at the bar, hoping the bartender has a free minute to talk. A blonde-haired woman sitting two stools down looks at me and says, “You don’t drink, do you?” It sounds more like a comment than a question. Her expression lightens when I tell her why I’m there.
“What is unique about this bar?” I ask. A couple different bar patrons respond.
“It gets really dark here Friday and Saturday nights,” answers one.
“They turn down the lights?”
“No, it’s all black.”
“You mean black people?”
Another tells me about the motorcycle clubs that frequent there. “This is one of the bars in El Cajon that allows cuts” — biker vests. “The Boozefighters, Ugly MFs, and Sexy Bs all come here. We see Ironworkers too.” The Ironworkers sound most intimidating.
In walks Jeff DiLallo. He bought The Grand a couple years ago. He says he changed the name of the bar from “The El Cajon Grand” to “The Grand.” Last year he put the new logo on the sign out front.
Our conversation is quickly interrupted by two women who walk in and give him a hug. “Hey, it’s double trouble,” he says. “The kind of trouble we love,” one of the women responds.
He turns back to me. “We had a rough first year after taking over.” DiLallo says he wants the bar to be a diverse place that is safe and enjoyable.
“The N word and the F word are not allowed here.” He's referring to the six-letter F word. “At first we experienced a cultural pushback from El Cajon, but now we are succeeding remarkably. Our profits are 400 percent what the previous owners’ were.”
I ask him why people say the bar is notorious. His body language suggests my question hit a nerve. “The only trouble we ever have is with bikers,” he says.
When I walk out The Grand seems a little less mysterious than when I walked in.
I stop by the following Friday. I see black and white people. The only discomfiting thing I see is the street people standing around the Jack in the Box drive-thru next door. When I leave The Grand a crazy-looking lady from Jack in the Box stalks me to my car. I lock the doors when I get in so she can’t try to jump in.
The Big Box
The city of El Cajon came to life in the middle of a valley that rests in the shadow of mountains and foothills in every direction. One can stand at the center of downtown at Main Street and Magnolia Avenue, look at the horizon in all four directions, and see rising land.
Fletcher Hills to the west. To the south Mount Helix and its elongated eastern slope. Granite Hills to the east. The foothills of Bostonia form part of the northern wall. The El Cajon valley curves around the west side of Bostonia and continues further north through El Cajon’s airport, Gillespie Field. It shoots further north through Santee, where it is walled in to the north by Eucalyptus Hills and to the west by the mountains of Mission Trails.
Boxed in by natural walls in all four directions, the valley was named “the big box,” or el cajon in Spanish by Spaniards exploring the area. That’s how Knox House Museum curator Eldonna Lay explains it.