What would we do without all these jerks anyway?/Besides, all our friends are here.
"Sunset Grill" by Don Henley
In June 1974, now confident after three years of running and managing the Alibi, which had been torn down, Mom took the sum total of the family savings ($10,000) and bought the Lincoln Cafe. It was a run-down little dive more or less on the intersection of Lincoln Street and Empire Avenue, by the exit from the Lockheed B-1 plant. Incredibly dirty and squalid, I marvel now at her boldness and determination, and the amount of cleaning and painting we put into the place before opening. We must have spread ten gallons of white enamel paint throughout the joint, making it fit to eat in. The process took us weeks. We carted literally gallons of scraped grease away from the place!
The very first thing we did after taking down and throwing out the greasy fish netting strung across the ceiling was to give the backroom sofa the heave-ho. The story told to us by the transitional clientiele was that the reigning waitress, a tough-looking old broad with tattoos, used to turn tricks in the back room on the sofa. (Indeed, for weeks after we bought the place we used to get phone calls from hopefuls: "Is Linda in?" "No, she's not here," I would reply. "Go look in the back room, maybe she's there!" "Look, we're the new owners. She doesn't work here or in the back room anymore!" "Oh. Geez." [Hangup].)
Naturally we painted the outside as well. We didn't paint it white, though. No, no. Beginning to fear the monetary consequences of what we were taking on, we economized instead by taking every can of paint we had sitting in the back yard and mixing it into a big plastic bucket. The resulting color you see here, a sort of lime green/chartreuse, was the result of mixing white, beige, light blue, light green and, of course, avocado in varying amounts to make enough paint for the exterior, an irreproducible color. The windows were painted half white in the timeless bar tradition of protecting customers' privacy and right to get slowly sloshed in the half-light of the outdoor world.
As you can see by the signs hanging in the window, we sold Coors - as well as Bud and Miller Light (then a novelty), both on tap and by the bottle. We transferred the Burbank beer and wine license from the previous owners, and fixed up and cleaned the grill so that we could sell food, too. (Mostly hamburgers and grilled sandwiches for the Lockheed lunch crowd.) I was the newly-graduated but unhappy short-order cook, and it was working with Mom at this place, under trying conditions, that, more than anything else, got me to enlist into the Marines four months later.
The story of the Lincoln Cafe is rife with tales, and a continuing drama of romance, one-night stands and alcoholism among Lockheed employees - a sort of blue-collar soap opera, in fact. Many was the time I wondered at the drunken behavior of our customers, and determined to find something better for myself. (Which I did, when I finally quit the maintenance job Dad arranged for me at Lockheed, after my stint in the Marines and went to college.) I'm convinced, however, that anyone who wants to fully experience all that life has to offer has to spend some time in a bar (sober, as an observer).
- One day an old woman, wrapped in a wool blanket, walked up to the bar and asked for a 7-Up. Stating, "Phew, it's hot today!" she unwrapped the blanket to reveal that she was wearing nothing underneath. Dad kindly suggested she leave.
- One guy, while shooting pool at the table we maintained, starting shouting good-natured racial epithets at his opponent. Misunderstanding the situation, Mom rushed from behind the bar and physically ousted him from the premises before I had a chance to intervene. The customers referred to Mom's shoving customers out the front door as being "86'ed," and was a matter of some conversational value. (One other matter of interest in the bar was putting a firecracker in a bowl of popcorn and sliding it in front of an unsuspecting victim.)
- Every Friday night, when I drove home for the weekend from Camp Pendleton, I used to have the same conversation with one of the drunken regulars: "Hey, Wes, how are ya?" "Fine, thank you." "Where you at, now?" "Camp Pendleton, in the Marines. Remember?" "Oh, yeah. You been there long?" Etc. It didn't vary significantly from this for years. He never had a wife or a family of his own, just a dog he called Meathead and Mom, who served him his beer. The poor guy died in his sleep during the 1980 Christmas break. He was dead in his room for five days when the neighbors finally called the police to complain of the smell. I used to wonder how he made his way home at night, staggering drunkenly to his car. Dad's comment was, "Hell, some of these guys can't get home without a six-pack in 'em!"
- The photo at left was taken on the occasion of the closing of the Alibi in Spring 1974. Mom had encouraged everyone to spraypaint farewell sentiments on the walls. That's Troy and Rusty Weaver with her. The fellow second from right is the fellow who had a hard time remembering conversations.
- The building was built in the mid 1920's and was a constant repair problem. Many of my Saturdays on weekend leave were spent looking for obsolete pipe fittings from a crusty old plumber up the road named Joe Haggerty. (We got to know each other pretty well, and, being assured of a free beer or two when he managed to save my mom some cash by coming up with a piece of iron that hadn't seen the light of day for a few decades, he was an occasional face around the bar as well.) The worst problem was with roofing leaks, due to the flat roof and the inevitable puddle of water that would collect. I used to call it "Lake Lincoln." Being subject to the same laws of gravity we all are, the water would soak through the plaster and cause big pieces of it to fall into the bar. Once, one of our customers (a nasty little man who Mom, for reasons of her own, nicknamed "Shirley Temple") was sitting at the bar when a big drip of water extinguished his cigarette. This resulted in general hilarity. (From that point on customers stuck under the hole in the plaster were offered an umbrella in rainy weather.)
- We used to unclog the drains every few weeks with a product called "Power," it was essentially a can of compressed air decorated with explosive orange and red graphic art. I recall the can describing the pressure exerted on the pipes as being 250 p.s.i. max, but this seems hard to believe. Anyway, the idea was to fill up a sink with water and fit the top of the can into the drain and press, an operation Dad called giving the drains a "zetz." (Click here for probable word origin.) This would release a high pressure burst of air that would dislodge any obstructions. "Powering" the drains was always a fun experience since Mom and Dad would have to post themselves at the other sinks, expectantly pressing down on the drains with wet dishrags. (This prevented water from escaping and maximized the air pressure brought to bear against the obstructions.) Being the home technologist I was always allowed the honor of doing the zetz, and I provided a countdown like a NASA launch. The first time we unclogged the drains in this fashion we memorably discovered a hitherto unknown passage for water to escape when dirty water and food remnants blew out of an overflow hole and spattered Mom and the kitchen. (My initial clue that something had gone wrong was a stream of loud obsenities.) Zetz! I imagine consumer advocate spoil-sports - the same people who banned lawn darts and modified cocking Daisy air rifles to make it impossible to fire dirt at neighborhood kids - had the product removed from grocery store shelves, since I haven't seen it for years. I can attest, however, that the thing not only worked great but also satisfied my mother's apparent need for extreme household products (described here). She also liked Salvo detergent tablets. Salvo! - I got a kick out of a detergent named after naval ordnance. My friends and I used to throw the undissolved tablets at each other, but I digress.
- Since the building was originally a residence, windows were everywhere you wouldn't normally want windows in a place of business. When the health inspector came by for his initial visit upon opening, he suggested that the window between the men's room and the eating area be closed. Mom, playing him along, innocently asked "Why?" "Well, sounds." was his only reply. He then congratulated us for the general clean-up and left, and Mom and I laughed long and hard.
- Mom made a long-standing and adamant practice of never letting a customer enter the men's room with a glass of beer. (Maybe she feared a particularly nasty practical joke.)
- In the twelve years Mom ran the place it must have been broken into at least twenty times; it was a rough neighborhood. The plunder was always the same: as many cases of beer and as many cartons of cigarettes as could be quickly removed. Once, the villains got into the bar and out again by crawling down a narrow gap between buildings and entering through a window. The rope they used to pull up the cases of beer was left on the roof, which enabled Burbank's Finest to solve that little riddle. I prevented this from ever happening again by installing thick metal bars across the window. Not only did this solve a security issue, it also gave the ladies restroom a certain 1950's chicks-in-prison film ambiance.
- That photo on the right is from the last days of the Alibi. This is Mom with the clientele she brought with her to the Lincoln Cafe.
- We used to get incredibly busy during the half-hour workers got for lunch, and I remember loading the grill with patties and serving them out as many as four times in twenty minutes or so. (Now that's cooking!) Normally Mom had exacting standards for food - the tomatoes and lettuce she used on the hamburgers were always fresh and the meat was the best she could find - but when we were doing all we could to get orders out quality sometimes slipped. I remember once we were so busy she dropped a hot dog on the floor. Rather than go through all the trouble of preparing a new one, she quickly wiped it off and served it!
- "Saturday Night Live" premiered in 1975, and unfortunately so did that Greek diner skit, the one where the help translates every order, no matter how different, into "Chee-burger, chee-burger, Pepsi, Pepsi!" Nothing I ever saw in the cafe could send Mom over the edge faster than the Lockheed wits coming in during our rushed half-hour, repeating this faddish new line.
- Mom and Dad used to argue and bicker endlessly at the bar and at home, and it became a kind of sport for the customers to make the situation worse by pointing out when one was doing something the other disapproved of. They got a big kick out of it but it used to irritate me no end. Nevertheless, many of the customers became part-members of our family, and I was amazed to see a very, very long line of cars after my dad's funeral service in 1983. They had shown up in respect for one of their own, in the noise of passing aircraft from the nearby airport.
Moving into our own place, we didn't need to worry about business. Mom, having loads of waitressing personality, took her Alibi clientiele with her and made new customers as well. The Lincoln Cafe was a goldmine, and we prospered. When we first opened, a glass of beer was only 35 cents, but the profit on tap beer was such that we always made money. Our most popular beer size came in a big flagon-like glass one of the customers called a "queenie," strictly for the stout of liver. Of course, we also sold tap beer by the pitcher, and when I turned 21 I could work behind the bar pouring beer with my dad, free at last from having to cook burgers at the grill, a greasy, and with Mom present, a tense job.
In her first year at the bar, Mom grossed over $50,000 - a healthy sum in those days - and in her best year she grossed over $80,000, a fair sum of money twenty years later! Mom squandered all this money on doll house miniatures, trips with Dad to Las Vegas, goofy things purchased at yard sales and other stuff, but that's another story. While she made money, she spent money, and some of it (never enough to do a really good job, of course) went into our home "improvements."
I revisited the place in 1994 and had a hamburger and a chat with the owner. He still has problems with the roof, but no holes in the plaster were apparent, and giving the drains a zetz is also now quite impossible. As you can see from this photo the front appears to be somewhat tidier and more presentable now, with the exterior painted a more describable color. The B-1 plant of Lockheed is no longer across the street; now there's a 40 acre vacant lot that presents, or so the state of California maintains, an environmental hazard of sorts. According to the people I've talked to, years of aircraft production have caused various types of chemicals to seep into the ground, causing a biohazard. They didn't need to tell me that. In 1980, when I worked there, it occurred to me, standing in some sort of yellowish chemical in a paint spray booth, my head cloudy from the methylethylketone fumes, that there had to be a better way to earn a living. I then struck out to Utah in search of fresh mountain air and an engineering degree - but that's another story entirely!
The Saber Room
I should mention a place on Empire Avenue down the street from the Lincoln Café and the Alibi. It was a dump called The Saber Room. I remember the sign: it was made with that dark green plastic wavy material that people used for privacy fencing around pools. The words "The Saber Room" were cut out of plywood and placed in front of the green plastic - very homemade.
Anyway, the place was in existence in 1972 when I used to walk by it to get to the Alibi to meet Mom and get the use of the car for the evening. I think it closed and the building was torn down a year or two afterwards. But the main thing I recall about this place was my Dad's account of how it was named by the proprietor, maybe true, maybe not. According to Dad, the owner came up with the name to honor that fine Lockheed Aircraft Corporation jet fighter, the F-100D Super Sabre (note the difference in spelling from the bar). Why not, and attract some Lockheed customers proud of their accomplishments? The only problem, as was probably pointed out to the owner numerous times, is that the F-100D Super Sabre was a product of North American, not Lockheed. Whoops.
Since North American ended production of the Super Sabre in 1959, the Saber Room could well have been founded before then.
I maintain that we were more exciting. (Especially when we had to give the pipes a zetz.)
Note - 17 March 2006: Last week I bought a can of Liquid-Plumr's new product "Power Jet Instant Clog Remover," based on a notification from Pittsburgh Joe, a reader of this website. We have a basement bathroom sink that's draining slowly and I figured that this would be a nice family activity, to give my kids an idea of what giving the Lincoln Cafe pipes a zetz was like. My filmmaking student daughter stood by with the camcorder to document the improvement, as I prepared the sink as directed. I had my other daughter stand on a towel on the shower drain, just in case. I then held the can down for the required three seconds. It made a rather quiet sound as whatever was in the can exited, not at all the explosive blast of pressure the old Power cans produced. It did dislodge whatever clog was in the pipes, however, or at least partially did - the drain drained somewhat better than before. But I miss the excitement of the older product which seemed to work better. Maybe I need another can of this stuff... (At $6 a can, this is an expensive zetz.)