A pause in Ferndale’s time machine

22 December 2011, from To the levee

The towns of Fortuna and Ferndale mark the point where I depart from the coast roads and head inwards across the forests to the Sacramento Valley. I’m hungry, and it’s a good stopping place, so I take the exit from Highway 101 and head across the fields to the little Victorian town of Ferndale.

I’ve always liked this town. Like the best settlements of the late 19th century, it holds its head high, refusing to be appropriated or extinguished by the marauding tourist hordes. Above the meandering gawkers lie nearly perfect archetypes of Victorian architecture, vying only with San Francisco in gaudy vernacular of gingerbread. Although most establishments clearly target the visiting tourist, selling hats and t-shirts, candles and ice cream, enough remains of the old, living town that makes it more than a simple Victorian Disneyland.

I take a stroll, and re-find my favorite shop: an emporium of old household goods, whose name I always forget. Most people, I think, come for the selection of new retro-styled hats in the front display, or some of the modern foodstuffs, or just to gawk at ancient packaging, but I always seem to walk out with something weirdly useful, like a fifty-year old jar of hair pomade, or a tin of shaving soap. I treat this place as a purveyor of rare & useful stuff, and it usually rewards me.

My lunchtime hunger leads me along the main road to find victuals. I stop in front of Poppa Joe’s, a little diner I’d noticed when I first arrived, but now seems strangely quiet and closed up. Maybe I’ve missed the lunch hour? But I push the door, it opens, and a couple of window-washers stare at my intrusion. Beyond them, the cafe is clearly open for business, even if from the outside it appears otherwise. As I’ve learned to do (thanks, Mom!) I settle myself in at the long bar, about half-way, quite near what turns out to be the cook herself, tending a large stove and a surprisingly small refrigerator of supplies.

Poppa Joe was Portuguese, I read in the back of the menu, and ran this place until 2004, when he died — peacefully, I’d gather; his unstressed face grins from the page. It’s two in the afternoon, but I order ‘Joe’s breakfast,’ which comes with my choice of eggs. I think to myself: ‘over easy,’ but ask ‘How did Joe like them?’ The waitress replies, after a slight pondering: ‘Over easy.’

The breakfast takes a long time to come. The cook carefully pulls real, whole eggs from the refrigerator, with a few handfuls of fresh sausage, and watches the hash browns brown. My plate arrives, and it is perfect, Joe’s breakfast brought to life, a Frankensteinian archetype of breakfast.

The two men in doorway continue to wash the windows with long squeegees. The waitress says, ‘I’ve never seen ‘em so clean!’ Perhaps this explains the lack of tourists in here: not that the windows are unattractive, but that the ancient grime has made this place invisible to the itinerants, who instead dine across the street at the nuevo-Mexican joint, or at the corner bakery.

As the window-washers finish, they put back all the signs they’d taken down, most of them now upside-down or backwards. It doesn’t matter much; most of the events the posters advertise have been over for weeks.

In the rear, four elderly men, adorned with with caps and the air of the fields & barns around them, intently play cards under one of those lamps you only see hovering over smokey poker tables. The men never look up. They have been here forever, and will be here forever, the eternal players at the longest game. A red-haired girl sits at the bar briefly, then leaves to go ‘upstairs,’ announcing she’s going to go play piano. Another man sits at the end of the bar, mostly silent. A pair sit at a table, eating pancakes and talking quietly; one of that pair orders peanut-butter to put on his pancakes. There is no question about this.