IF YOU WERE CONSIDERED A teenage weirdo in the late 1970s/early 1980s in Northern California’s suburban Diablo Valley, you could always find a place on Friday nights at an independent cinema-house in Walnut Creek, gathering with others of your tribe to enact the mythic and terrible rites associated with “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Aside from the ritualized viewing experience itself, this weekly event included standing in line hobnobbing with dozens of fellow viewers outside the El Rey Cinema for an hour or two before the film started at midnight. Some introductions: there was “Sputnik,” a punk-/New Wave-rocker and amateur filmmaker from Vallejo; “Ralfh,” who introduced me to DEVO and who invariably showed up at the theater bearing a big box of fried wings from his cook’s job at Tokyo Chicken in Lafayette; and “Garret,” a pasty and budding mad scientist with an encyclopedic knowledge of local abandoned buildings, hidden staircases, and errant chemistry.
We four were a pack-within-a-pack (Sputnik, Ralfh and I eventually became roommates, and Garret often insinuated himself into our apartment at inopportune moments); together, we must have seen RHPS at least a hundred times. I eventually got somewhat bored by it, but still arrived at the cinema around 10 p.m. just to hang out until the movie started. After everyone went in, I would hike a couple of blocks to Lyon’s, an all-night diner, to read science fiction novels and drink coffee until everyone else came out around 2 a.m.
As we all still lived with our respective mothers and/or fathers, our first post-movie task was deciding where to kibbitz for a few hours before slinking back home. One night, Garret suggested visiting a place that he called “the Twilight Zone:” the terminal at a local municipal airport. “They keep it open all night in case someone flies in and needs a place to refresh themselves,” Garret explained on the drive over. “There’s a guard in a pickup truck, but he’s not allowed to come inside the terminal. It’s well-lit, has snack and soda machines and clean bathrooms, and is the perfect place to hatch our plans for world domination before it’s time to go to bed.”
“Why do you call it the Twilight Zone?” we asked. The answer was apparent when we entered the terminal. To the right of the door was a nondescript but modern desk groaning under a pile of pilot-relevant bulletins, but to the left was a mise-en-scene worthy of Rod Serling: a vinyl-padded, brushed-aluminum couch, with matching table and chairs nearby; a wooden phone booth with a folding glass door, containing a payphone with separate slots for nickels, dimes and quarters; a big and loudly ticking Bulova wall clock; a hot-beverage machine that for 25 cents disgorged either coffee, cocoa or chicken soup; two snack machines offering an array of candy bars and cheese crackers; black-and-white-checkered floor tiles; a four-foot-tall standing ashtray; and a prominent poster warning about the spread of fruit-worms.
It was perfect. We each got a cup of soup and sat down to enjoy ourselves for the next couple of years.
When we three (and occasionally Garret) became roommates, we gradually stopped frequenting “the Zone.” After all, we could do all the hanging-out we wanted to in the happy privacy of our living room. Yet I still think of it with fondness. I find myself hoping some modern weirdos currently occupy it during the wee hours, and that, even now, the guard is never allowed to come inside.