Bagdad Cafe, Newberry Springs, CA. It would be just another decrepit café sitting along a gone Route 66, sucking in dust, if it weren’t for the French tourists. God bless them.
The smell of griddle grease is like an old regular slouching around and noticeable as soon as we push open the door. The place is quiet and dirty, covered with layers of movie and tourist mementos, faded by the desert sun in stapled piles on the walls and ceiling. It’s gone beyond the level of kitsch.
One guy, standing behind the cash register takes our order from where he stands. Another guy, a toothless local hustles around us, shoving menus, a screenplay, some other memorabilia into our hands, all the while handing us our cheap domestic beers.
It’s quiet in there, the dust motes drifting as they do in a place where the past hangs in the air. We think the quiet and our qualification as objects of interest (women, breathing) account for the attention. Did we know that a famous movie was filmed at that very location? How about that people from all over the world come to visit because of that famous movie? It won an award in France, where it’s famous now. My friend and I take in the crumbling movie posters and sip our beers, planning our exit. These people are clearly delusional.
That’s when the tourist bus pulls up, spilling French tourists.
At the Bagdad Cafe they have their routine down. They bust out a few words in French, sell a few cold drinks, and maneuver everyone through a Route 66 tourist turnstile flat as an old soda. Each tourist stands behind the counter for a picture, taken with respective cameras and phones. Oh, the indignities of being a tourist in a faraway land. Is this the real America?Whether or not the Bagdad Café is a destination is up to you. To decide if a visit is in order, you might ask yourself these questions:
1) Are you currently on a tour bus in the Mojave Desert in California scheduled to stop at the café?
2) Are you a fan of the 1987 German comedy of the same name, filmed on location, set in a remote truck-stop café and motel and centering on two women who have recently separated from their husbands and the blossoming friendship that ensues?
3) Have you seen the California’s Gold episode where Huell Howser makes a seat of the pants visit to the Bagdad Café and catches everybody, except maybe General Bob, resident of the world, off guard?
If not, do yourself a favor.
4) Will you stop at any roadside attraction, no matter how dubious including but not limited to, miniature western towns, the world’s largest anything, historical markers, buildings shaped like shoes, spaceships, donuts, etc.?
The place is quiet again when the tourists leave. My friend and I are still reeling slightly from the spectacle. As with many places I visit, I came here out of nostalgia and curiosity. I didn’t find the past at the Bagdad Café. Instead I found a postmodern square dance, a place playing itself in a miniature drama re-enacted past the point of being worn out. It reminded me of that strange period in history, the Wild West shows, where the battles of the west were played out for entertainment by real cowboys, real American Indians, in the 1880s, just on the tailwind of the actual events.
The Bagdad Cafe is keeping alive the memory of Route 66, but it’s increasingly a memory built on top of myth, cracked pavement just beyond the strip mall highway. I wonder how long it’s been since they have sold a Buffalo burger, as they advertise or when the miniature western town in the parking lot was a part of the draw. It’s no matter to me, though. I fall into category 4. I will stop at any roadside attraction, no matter how dubious.Location: Newberry Springs, California