Breakfast with Ghosts

Funny how things work out. Here I am in El Cajon, standing in a brisk morning breeze, waiting on Hank. It's eightish. I'm peckish.

We'd had this idea. An Iraqi breakfast! El Cajon's where most Chaldeans live, right? And Hank knew the perfect spot: Ali Baba's on Main.

Natch, not having wheels, I arrived first, aboard the #815 bus. Marched up to the elaborate entrance...Aaargh!

"Closed," said the sign.

Damnit. Too early. Find a pay phone. Call Hank. "No Iraqi brekky, dude. Not yet, anyway."

Hank makes an executive decision. "OK, well, we'll do it next week. Gotta go."

Jeez. Just like that. The guy's brutal. And now I'm stuck on the brink of starvation in the wilds of Big Box City.

I hike three blocks toward the single "Breakfast" sign in sight, only to find that the small print says "Saturdays and Sundays." That's when I turn down Magnolia and come across a real treasure in a little park. It has a white gazebo and this brown, olde-worlde clapboard house. "Knox House Museum 1876," it says. Turns out it's the last remnant of Amaziah Knox's hotel, which he built here where the mountain road from Julian met the valley road to San Diego, today's Magnolia and Main.

"In 1875, the bustling commerce of ore wagons, stage coaches, and other traffic of the times passed this spot to and from...San Diego and the Julian Gold Mines," reads a plaque. I like the whole historical feel here, because, honestly, usually when you think of El Cajon, you think wide, soulless, heat-cracked streets and car dealerships, period. But here you can imagine, well, lots of ghosts.

At the north end of this parklet I spot another li'l ol' brown building. This one huddles under a big ol' Canary Island palm.

"Somewhere Else Coffeehouse & Bookstore," says the sign on its wall.

Hey, maybe I can get breakfast here. The inside looks newly renovated, in an old-fashioned sort of way. Also, talk about ghosts -- something rings familiar. I see a little counter with maybe four stools, plus a sitting room with tables, soft chairs, and sofas surrounded by book-laden white shelves. Cool. It's all fresh-painted in browns, whites, with a terracotta tile floor, and carpet in the sitting room.

"Hi!" says this merry-faced woman. "I'm Carol."

"Hi," says this other gal, coming out from the kitchen. "I'm Maria."

Hey, now! Good vibes already. I hoist myself onto one of the stools. I recognize something about the close-quarter intimacy...but don't have time to rack the memory banks, because from the get-go we're yakking. Carol is a ball of energy. When she's not here, she runs a snack cart for kids at sports practices and writes family-fun-safety books like I Know Where My Kids Are. She comes here to help out Maria, the buddy she met at writing class.

Maria's an ex-cop. Used to work with the Harbor Police.

A blackboard on the wall says they have a zillion coffees and some breakfast items. Not a lot but enough.

I ask for a large coffee ($2.00) and check out the possibilities. They have toasted bagels. They have them with butter ($1.50), cream cheese ($1.85), peanut butter ($2.50), and -- the best-sounding one -- tomato and avocado ($3.00). A breakfast scramble with eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, and cheese is a pretty modest $3.50. The breakfast burrito (a wrapped scramble with guacamole and salsa) is $4.50. A panini (that same scramble grilled between two slices of bread) is $5.00. French toast or pancakes cost around five bucks, depending on how many slices you want. They also have sandwiches for around $6.00 and a $4.50 salad.

I go for the French toast, because it sounds the most filling. While Maria's making it, I wander around, thinking about all those cattle-drovers and gold-diggers who must have milled around right about here, 130 years ago. I see art on the walls. Wow. Brilliantly colored pictures made from actual pheasant feathers by a brilliantly named guy, Thoroughgood Wellbee.

Then I sit down to my six-piece French toast and three sausages. I'm still imagining the rattle-rattle of the stagecoach and the clop and snort of horses, teamsters yelling at their mule trains, miners clanking their picks and pans, drovers cracking whips at their mooing cattle, right here at -- who knew? -- Magnolia and Main, the, uh, main gathering point between San Diego and Gold Rush Julian.

But it's no gold rush for Maria. "I've got to make this business work," she says, a little desperately. "I have three kids aged between two and five to raise."

That's when I remember. I was here a few years ago when "B" (Bezuwork), the Ethiopian woman, also a single mom with kids, ran this place with Ethiopian food. She was a character.

"She worked hard for quite a few years, but her family was growing," says Maria. "She had to give it up."

Maria gave up police work for this. And yes, you can see she misses the rush of adrenaline. Soon she's telling us about the fight she had trying to cuff this giant fellow she was arresting. The picture of her riding his back like a jockey has us shaking with laughter. I tell her to start writing books like that other San Diego ex-cop, Joseph Wambaugh (remember Lines and Shadows?).

That's the thing about Maria's place. The coffee's great, and she does her level best to create interesting food in her microkitchen. But it's the company, and the conversation, and the one-on-one atmosphere that makes Somewhere Else something else again.

Thanks, Hank. I owe you, buddy.

[June 2009 Editor's Note: Somewhere Else is now an online bookstore only.]

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