“Fast, man,” I say. “Pull in here.”
My arm sweeps across the dash to point at the Santee Drive-in Theater. It’s Sunday, and my partner Scopes and I are going to church. We are sacrificing all traditional drive-in mythology by visiting these fantasy grounds during the day, hoping to discover some unrealized aspect of their character.
Earlier we visited San Diego’s only other drive-in, the South Bay, east of Imperial Beach. The South Bay is equidistant from the Pacific Ocean and Mexican border, which means if you stand atop the five-story high screen you can see either or both. Today the property was posing as a swap meet.
“Jesus, man,” Scopes said, beginning to sweat. “It’s damn crowded.”
I agreed, so we broke northeast.
The Santee is deserted and locked when we arrive.
“Hey,” I say, “the exit’s open, over there.”
Scopes swings a hard U-ey, parks the Wolfmobile next to a pair of discarded soapboxes, and we walk in.
Here at the Santee, dusty gravel and crackling speaker poles have been replaced by tarry blacktop and micro-local FM broadcasts. In sunlight this place becomes some galvanized Shinto shrine, or a great European cathedral turned inside out and sandblasted with American values. It’s like glimpsing a starlet in her dressing room, her reality entirely visible.
I point out things like the giant white screen, the low concession stand in the middle, the impossible waves of heat rising as asphalt mirages. Then the emptiness hits me.
“It’s postmodern,” I say.
“So disconnected,” Scopes continues. “It’s almost schizophrenic.”
“It’s like seeing a face without a personality,” I say.
“So much for Gloria Swanson.”
“It’s so–so–apocalyptic,” I say.
“It’s not what I expected,” he says.
“Maybe we should come back when the movies are playing.”
Thus spoke Zarathustra.
The Santee Drive-In is a stone’s throw from the San Diego River, off Highway 67 in East County. The South Bay is just off the 5 in Imperial Beach. Both still show first-run feature films, become swap meets on the weekend and should be preserved as historical landmarks.
This story first appeared in San Diego City Beat as “Holy Christ-There’s Only Two Of ‘Em Left”