I was born, raised, and lived most all of my life in Lancaster, CA, a town now transmogrifying into a city in the northernmost part of the mighty Mojave Desert. Currently, Lancaster has around 150,000 residents, and combined with the surrounding sprawl that includes Palmdale and Rosamond (an area known collectively as the Antelope Valley, where no one can remember seeing an antelope), there are nearly 400,000 people—and growing. Lancaster is the 10th fastest growing city in the U.S., and relatively cheap housing and abundant Section 8 vouchers make it a prime location for both commuters and other refugees from Los Angeles (or as we locals call it, “down below”. You know, like Hell). Consequently, Lancaster is also the 80th most dangerous city in the U.S., the 2nd most dangerous in California, and the most dangerous in Los Angeles County. We have a lot to be proud of.
But before all that, before the blight of carpetbaggers, developers, and the military-industrial complex that descended like a blanket of locusts, Lancaster was a great place to live. Originally a switchyard for the Southern Pacific railroad near the turn of the 20th Century, it became an actual town when it was discovered that you could actually grow a few things that would survive the scorching summers and frigid desert winters. Onions, garlic, and apples were all staples, but the big dog was alfalfa. Lancaster quickly became the alfalfa capital of the state, supplying most of California with feed and hay for their livestock and sprouts for their sandwiches. This crop was so important that the annual town fair (now called the AV Fair, where you can get knifed waiting for the tilt-a-whirl) was named the Alfalfa Festival.
What does this boring shit have to do with bars or liquor? Hold on, I’m getting there. So in 1963, a place called Brakke’s Inn was built. Built on Sierra Highway (a 424-mile long road that connects Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe), it was originally conceived as a bed & breakfast for weary travelers, and the occasional film crew attracted to the desolate and photogenic desert roads. It was owned and operated by a woman named Alice, who lived on the property, and her husband (whose name regrettably escapes me at the moment). He ran the bulk of the operation for many years, but when he passed away, Alice became the sole proprietor, innkeeper, bartender, waitress, and accountant. She ran the inn and restaurant portion of the business as long as she could, until she decided that just keeping the bar portion open was much easier. This is where we met.
I had just started drinking (legally), and spent nearly all of my free time and money at bars, mostly local redneck shitholes with interchangeable jukeboxes and lukewarm beer. I liked, and still like, those places very much, but then one night my roommate at the time Keri-Ann suggested that I come with her to this bar called Brakke’s. Though we were good friends, Keri-Ann and I ran in different circles: she was an artist and a little shy, and I was a drunk, and a little not shy. She liked places with older folks, turtle races, the occasional high-stakes game of shuffleboard; I liked drinking boilermakers to blackout and pissing on myself. Ebony and ivory, Donny and Marie, you get the idea. So though I was not thrilled about spending a night in the company of octogenarian thrill seekers and their fetishist friends, I had nothing better to do. And Keri-Ann was buying.
When we arrived, there were only a few people inside. A long table was set up by the door, decorated with party hats, pillars of paper plates and several crock pots bubbling with assorted variations on stroganoff. A woman wearing a red sequined dress sat at a piano, singing “Fly Me To The Moon” in a slightly strained falsetto. The walls were covered nearly from floor to ceiling with photographs, plaques, maps, signs, newspaper clippings, receipt tapes, Christmas lights and greeting cards; the accumulated memories of not only the building, but the town, the land, the people that came and went from within them. Some of the bottle behind the bar were dusty, and had labels I didn’t recognize. And then, there was Alice.
She was a small, older woman with a luminous smile and a sharp wit. The first time I sat at the bar, I ordered what Keri-Ann ordered: a screwdriver. I watched Alice move with a surprising agility as she prepared the drink (which later became famous amongst my friends and family because it was nearly eight ounces of vodka with a splash of orange juice) and garnished it neatly, as she did everything, with a maraschino cherry. She set it down in front of me, and asked, “Have you ever been here before?” I replied that I hadn’t, and Keri-Ann introduced us. She looked at me intently for a moment, and said, “We don’t get very many younger people here. We don’t want any trouble, you know?” I lied and said I wasn’t very much trouble. She smiled, and said, “I know you’re not, kiddo,” and smiled. I knew I liked her immediately.
Most nights Maureen (the piano player, an older woman with a staggering collection of evening gowns and wigs) would play and sing standards: everything from Cole Porter to Hank Williams, and rarely the same song twice. She had been a touring pianist with some of the greats: Dizzy Gillespie, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, and there were old posters of her gigs on the wall. Sometimes I would try to stump her, arrogantly thinking myself some sort of authority on music, and I never could. She would always meander a bit first on the keyboard with one hand, humming gently to herself, letting me think that I had her, and then she would say, “That goes something like this, doesn’t it?” before destroying my ego completely by playing the requested song, note-perfect. Often, other regulars would get up and sing songs with Maureen, or grab an instrument and play. There were tambourines, a washtub bass, some shakers—things anyone could pickup and play. Wives would sing to husbands, lonely widowers to young women at the bar, old soldiers to the ghosts in the wall. And everyone else listened, or sang along, or clapped politely at the end. That seemed to make Alice the happiest, when everyone was having a good time together.
From that first night on, I spent many, many hours at Brakke’s, which at that point was only open two days a week. I became a regular of sorts, at least trying to stop by and have a beer, even if I was busy. I took everyone I knew there, even my rowdy friends, with the assurance that we would all try to be on our best behavior. At a point in my life where I didn’t care much about what other people thought, I really didn’t want to disappoint Alice. As self-absorbed as I was, I knew that what she had and shared with other people was special. From the seemingly insignificant artifacts that crowded the bar to the monthly birthday parties that she threw for her regulars, it was important to Alice that people remembered—their common history, the simple comfort of the familiar, the pleasure of a stiff drink in good company. Her bar was more than just a bar; it was a place that existed out of time, free from the banal cruelties and meanness of the outside world, where folks could come together and not just be remembered, but remember others too.
As time went on, it became more difficult for Alice to run the bar. Her health was waning, and despite the joy that running Brakke’s brought her, it was becoming too much. The city had been trying for years to buy the property, which Alice had always adamantly resisted, but as she got older and unable to continue, she finally relented and closed the bar. Jennifer Snodgrass, another friend of Alice’s and loyal Brakke’s patron, remembers:
I was thinking about how Alice Brakke called me a while back and told me about her restaurant, Brakke’s Inn, finally shutting down. Opened in 1963 by her and her husband, the place ran strong for over 40 years… Sadly though, she’s not well enough to take care of it any more, and she finally gave in to the city’s harassment (I mean offer). She sold it to them last fall I believe, to build a park in its place. And now she’s in the final stages of removing all her beloved objects, trinkets, and memories…
She called me about two months ago and told me about how all the plumbing went wonky in the girl’s restroom and how they had to dig through the tiles and remove the pipes in the ground below. She reminisced about how the place looked when it first opened and how clean and beautiful it always was… And how filthy and covered in dirt the floor was then. It was heartbreaking to her. And she wanted them to have it in pristine condition when escrow closed… Only to have the wrecking ball tear down a huge chunk of Lancaster history….
The last time I saw Alice was, ironically, the last month before I moved out of Lancaster. I was working at a pharmacy, delivering prescription drugs, and I hadn’t seen Alice for some time. One day in July, when it was over 95 degrees outside and the asphalt was smoking, I saw her walking down Sierra Highway. I pulled over and rolled down my passenger window. She was sweating, and looked a bit disoriented. “Hey Alice,” I yelled.
She stopped and looked at me, and then started walking again. I called out again, “Hey Alice. It’s me, Dan. I used to come into your bar all the time.”
This time she stopped, and looked in the van, with the same smile that had greeted me so many times before. “Oh, hey kiddo. Whatcha doing?” She was a little out of breath, a little shaky. I told her that I was working, and asked where she was going. She said that she was going to the pharmacy where I worked, which was over two miles from Brakke’s.
“Hop in, “ I said. “I’m going there now. It’s too damn hot for you to be walking in this heat.”
“Nonsense, “ she said. “I’ve been walking to the pharmacy for years. I’m not too old to walk, you know.”
I insisted that she get in, but she was having none of it. She was walking down Sierra Highway, just like always, and no one—not the heat, the drug dealers outside the nearby liquor store, the mentally ill transients by the tracks, or me—was going to stop her. I gave up.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay?” I said, finally.
“I’m going to be fine, kiddo. Just fine. Now get going. Get on without me.” She smiled, weakly, and waved as I pulled away.
Six weeks ago, Keri-Ann got in touch with me to say that they bulldozed Brakke’s.
They will build a park, which may mean low-income housing, or even a Panda Express. Most likely, the land will be subsumed by the same ugly world that surrounds it, that has surrounded it for the past 30 years. This is what happens when a town becomes like every other town before it, and somewhere is suddenly nowhere—the ubiquitous nowhere that has swallowed countless places before it, replacing local geography with faceless consumerist landscapes and community with shopping malls.
But enough of the soapboxes—somewhere, there are still people who remember; not just my Brakke’s, but their Brakke’s too, or whatever place it is that reminds them of home, and that is what Alice would have wanted. So, Alice, this one (whatever this ‘one’ is, be it cheap beer, blended sour, or shitty piece of writing, all with cherry garnish) is for you. Indeed, we’re getting on without you, as one day folks will get on without us, but we still remember.
We always will.
[Photos by Jennifer Snodgrass]