The Open Road
I first saw the Club Cafe signs on road trips out west with my family in the Sixties. The highways were lined with billboards in those days, and my brother and I repeated like a rosary the advertised wonders that my father sped by at 75 miles an hour. Eat and sleep in a wigwam! World's most spectacular cavern! Homemade fudge and divinity!
I remember riding endlessly through the New Mexican landscape of blank mesas and scrub brush, too desolate even for license plate bingo. We chanted the regular progression of Club Cafe billboards like Burma Shave verses: "Sour Dough Biscuits & Pinto Beans. Where the Cowboys Eat! Beef - Beans - Biscuits. EZ On/Off Rt. 66 - Adequate Parking - Sour Dough Biscuits."
But we didn't stop at the Club Cafe. We always had sandwiches packed, or cooked at night on the Coleman stove - camping meals, like Wolf brand chili, sausages and eggs, sloppy joes. We didn't stop at the roadside caves or reptile farms; we went to national parks and forests. My parents said that the best things in life were free and that the food we made ourselves was better than the mustardy hamburgers, steaming in menu tissue, sold along the highway. But I still lusted for Indian curios and ice-cold cherry cider. I knew I would stop at places like that when I grew up.
My parents were probably right: the Club Cafe would have been just another greasy spoon if we'd stopped there in 1967. But survival, if not the sourdough biscuit, has finally distinguished it. It's a relic, its peers on decommissioned Route 66 long gone. Virtual extinction has made it all worthy of notice. Even academics write about the old roads, about motels, diners, and gas stations. I buy their books, and I wonder if they're writing for the same reason I'm reading: Looking for things that have disappeared. So I felt I was on a mission, doing research, no less than an American roadside hagiographer, when I finally ate there in December of 1988.
Dan and I had been taking turns driving all night to get to Santa Fe for Christmas. The sun was up over the scrubby hills and a blue southwestern sky was streaked with mare's tail clouds. I spotted a crumbling Club Cafe billboard about 25 miles south of Santa Rosa on US84, probably the last one left from the looks of it. We stopped and took a picture.
I felt a wild exhilaration on holiday trips with Dan, at once free and self-contained. I wasn't with my family, eating turkey and feeling like Baby Huey - overgrown and ridiculous - while my parents grew old and my brother married, reproduced, and bought real estate. I was instead speeding down the highway in my own life, reminiscing about them.
I was telling Dan about the time our brakes burned out driving down Sandia Peak. "My mother actually opened her door and dragged her feet, trying to stop this - what? ton? half-ton? I don't know - this giant Ford station wagon, you know, with the woody sides? She was screaming at us to jump, jump and my dad was yanking the emergency brake, cussing, `goddamned son of a bitch' - it was a family vacation classic."
"Your mom," Dan shook his head and laughed. We drove in silence for a little while, smiling about the story.
When we rolled into Santa Rosa, I assumed that, like all serious pilgrims, we'd make straight for the temple. I wouldn't let Dan stop first for gas. As we pulled in to park, I was relieved to see that the cafe had somehow escaped getting a mansard roof and a bad facelift in the 1970s.
A kind of souvenir annex led into the place and we checked out the revolving postcard racks and piñon incense hogans. I picked out an autumn foliage view of Sandia Peak to send my parents. I thought I'd write while waited for our food. Remember this? Jump! Jump! There was nobody to pay, so we went on into the cafe and took a booth away from the front plate glass windows. A tan formica counter adjacent to where we sat looked original. Domed stainless steel sugar and napkin dispensers huddled into chrome guard rails along its back. But the rest of the place was let-down, a lot of red-and-black patterned vinyl, a kind of Bopper Mediterreane look. After a minute or two, the waitress brought tall, laminated menus, the kind of ridiculously oversized things you'd expect to order a Surf 'n' Turf from, or a Mai Tai. I had envisioned little paper menus - in plastic jackets with reinforced metal corners - and typed-up daily specials paper-clipped inside.
"Order milk for your coffee," Dan said. "They're gonna have that non-dairy shit you love to hate."
I looked around the assortment of Marlboro smokers along the counter and at the tables up front. Nobody looked like a university professor studying popular culture.
"Ready, folks?" The waitress had snuck back up on rubber soles and was poised with her pen. She wore a professional smile, more like a facial feature than an emotion of any kind - it was just a part of her, like her red knuckles or her no-iron uniform top.
We ordered a cinnamon roll, eggs, sausage, gravy. And sourdough biscuits, of course. A few minutes later we were sipping grey coffee out of awful plastic cups, while I read the non-dairy creamer ingredients out loud, when a guy in a fatigue jacket came up to the counter and sat with his back to us.
"How much's a cup of coffee?" the man asked the waitress.
"Seventy-five cents, with refills." She didn't look up from the ticket she was totaling up.
"How much's it without refills?"
"I'll have a cup - no refills, please, ma'am," he said with overblown courtesy. He had pulled off a horribly pilled stocking cap and was twisting it in his hands.
It was quiet except for the clatter from the kitchen, so everybody in the place had followed this exchange. The waitress slapped a saucer down on the formica, rattled a cup into it, and filled it without looking at the cup or the man. He slurped his coffee loudly and wiped it into his beard before turning to his neighbor at the counter.
"I rode outta that yard in El Paso last night on the ten-o-five. I always had good luck there. But, hell, I didn't have no idea I had to switch down there at Sumner. And this fella here is telling me I got to ride all the way back down yonder. He said I won't never get outta here cause they watch me real close."
His neighbor stared straight ahead. The waitress topped off their cups.
"I ain't got but fifty cents, ma'am."
She didn't answer him as she walked back to the kitchen.
"I don't know when they took and changed that line - I never did hafta switch down there. I been riding the SP 15 years but I ain't rode outta that El Paso yard in a while. This sure has fouled me up."
This went on for a while. A man at the counter must have worked for Southern Pacific, because he kept trying to offer information about routes and schedules. Dan got up to wash his hands and buy a newspaper. I sipped my bad coffee and listened.
"I got to get to Stockton, California to see my family. Hell, it's getting close to Christmas and I ain't seen my daddy in five years. I'm wasting my time riding on up to Col'rado Springs. They're saying it's gonna snow tonight. I'm in a hell of a fix."
Dan had come back with an Albuquerque newspaper. I checked the New Mexico map I had in my pack - it showed the rail lines and everything.
"We should show him our map," I whispered.
"I paid $6 for that map at REI," Dan hissed, folding the paper.
"He's not gonna eat it, babe. I'll just show him the railroads."
"Well, I guess he knows the railroads, or he wouldn't be sitting here now." Dan raised the paper up in front of his face. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised. We liked traveling together but I don't think we ever traveled for the same reasons.
The bum was now in a complicated conversation with the Southern Pacific man about where the line ran west out of Tucumcari. I watched him run his fingers through his matted hair and shake his head over imaginary lines the railroad man drew with a thick finger on the formica counter.
"I'll buy you a new map if he gets this one too dirty for you," I said, and leaned over to offer the map to the men. Before I could speak, the bum spun on his stool and fixed us with a crazy eye. I saw a familiar pained crease settle onto Dan's brow before he blocked me with the headlines again.
"I got to get to California," he wound up fresh for a new audience, "I rode out on that ten-o-five last night and didn't nobody tell me you got to switch to go west. Hell, that fella down here told me it's gonna snow. This is a goddamned mess, all right...."
I was the third leg of a triangle with the Albuquerque Journal and the bum's spit and rambling. I stared at my coffee cup. Okay, Dan, there are good reasons not to offer this man our map, but I get caught up in the romance of a situation. I stirred more whitener into my coffee and wished I were with a man who would laugh with me later in the car about this.
"...I damn near froze last night, but if it snows, an' I'm stuck here or up in that yard in Col'rado Springs, I'm in a hell of a fix, all right...."
Our food came, the waitress squeezing past him barking, "Hot plates!" He didn't stop talking. Dan put the paper down. We unrolled our silverware. We passed the salt and pepper. We squirmed in the vinyl seats. We moved our plates closer and waited.
"It's only right a man should be with his family. I don't know what the hell I'll do if I don't get straightened out here..."
Dan brought the paper back up in front of his face. Our eggs cooled.
"I got to get home 'n' see my daddy. It's fixing to be Christmas here soon. This thing sure has fouled me up. I never did have no trouble like this, riding that SP for 15 years...."
Dan lowered the Journal. "Today's the 23rd."
"What's that?" The bum looked at him blankly. "I got to get to Stockton, California."
"Today is the 23rd of December. That makes tomorrow Christmas Eve. The next day would be Christmas Day." Dan packed a lot of scorn into his short sentences and snapped the paper back up.
The man looked at me. "The 23rd a December?"
I nodded sheepishly, like I was sorry it was so, and he turned on his stool toward the counter.
Dan divided the cinnamon roll and put the bigger half on my plate. We buttered our sourdough biscuits and ate in silence. The waitress was behind the counter totaling checks again when a bell rang from the kitchen. She walked back to the order window and picked up a plate.
The cook had come out of a kitchen and stood surveying the dining room. He was as fat and jolly-looking as the man on the billboards, but no polka-dot tie. He was wearing a greasy white apron and smoking a cigarette. The waitress set the plate in front of the bum.
He looked up. "I... I cain't...," he sputtered.
"Y'eat eggs, don'cha?" She gave him a stingy little smile.
"I ain't got no money to pay for this, ma'am," he said softly.
"The cook sent it out," she said, tipping her head toward the kitchen while she fished for her pad in her pocket.
"Merry Christmas," the cook hollered.
The bum shook his head over the plate. "That's right. This fella here done told me it's Christmas Eve tomorrow."
"It'll sure sneak up on you," the waitress said. Two or three people along the counter nodded their heads over their coffee cups and grunted in agreement.
"Well, I thank you all," the bum said, looking around. It struck me then that he sounded a little like Dennis Hopper, playing a sincere derelict in some movie I'd seen. Then he bowed his head over the eggs and toast - I couldn't help noticing he didn't get any sourdough biscuits - and said a prayer. Nobody moved, except Dan who went right on eating. The bell rang from the kitchen, but the waitress stayed put until the man lifted his head and cut into his eggs.
We ate and left without buying any souvenirs. I'm not sure why I was mad at Dan. Except I was always mad at him for not seeing things the way I saw them.
I went back to the Club Cafe about four years later. I was driving to meet a friend in Shiprock and spend a few days in Navajo country. I'd been on the road since 5am and planned my stop in Santa Rosa as a sort of late-day oasis to fuel me up before I hit I-40 and drove on to an Albuquerque motel. I kept an eye out for the peeling billboards, but they were all gone on this stretch of 84.
We weren't together anymore, Dan and I. And Santa Rosa didn't look like I remembered it. The Club Cafe was so tricked out with Route 66 memorabilia, it was a caricature of itself. I went inside, past the "Mother Road of America" T-shirts and piñon incense hogans, and tried to remember which booth we'd sat in that December morning. I slid into what I thought was the right one, conjuring a mental geography of the past. The seat was sprung, collapsed in the center, and the table hit me in the middle of my chest. I felt like a child seated at a table sized for grown-ups.
I ordered coffee. The waitress said she had to brew some fresh, so I went in the souvenir shop and got a Club Cafe card to send Dan. I thought I'd write on the back: Too late in the day for biscuits. I just stopped in to say grace.
When I got back to my booth, my coffee was waiting in a smooth, thick Buffalo China cup, with a thumb-sized plastic container of real cream. n