It’s 5:35 a.m. on Arenas Road in downtown Palm Springs.
The short block of Arenas between Indian Canyon Drive and Calle Encilia—home primarily to gay bars and other LGBT-targeted businesses—is bustling with activity every afternoon and night. But at this hour, things are fairly calm. And just a little bit eerie.
A beer truck is parked between two bars, and the driver is unloading a pallet of beer and soda to wheel down the sidewalk to the Circle K. A leafblower can be heard in the distance. Even though Eddie’s Frozen Yogurt has been closed for hours, and won’t be open for hours, its outdoor music system is on—and the Village People’s “Go West” is blaring among the empty buildings.
In 25 minutes, this section of Arenas Road will formally begin its day. That’s when Score the Game Bar, at 301 E. Arenas Road, will open its doors.
According to California law, bars can’t serve liquor between 2 and 6 a.m.; the other hours of the day are fair game. Of course, most bars don’t open until much later than 6 a.m.; in fact, Score is the only bar in downtown Palm Springs to begin serving at the earliest possible hour.
That’s why I am here. I’ve been to Score many times—but never at opening time. I want to see it’s like.
Inside Score, Joe the bartender is busy getting ready for the day. I’m standing outside watching the goings-on when a young man approaches me. He’s an actor-singer-dancer, he says, and he’s trying to get down to Sunny Dunes Road, but a cab dropped him off here instead. He wants to use my phone to call another cab, you see.
He never blinks as he speaks to me.
I ask Joe, now in the process of bringing the patio bar stools outside, if he can tell me the number of a taxi company. He does, and I call for a cab.
As a man in a wheelchair rolls by, the actor-singer-dancer thanks me and asks for my card. Maybe he can write a review for my newspaper, he says. Against my better judgment, I give him one.
The actor-singer-dancer then asks if I know anybody in the local gay-porn industry. He’s interested in doing some porn, he says: “Amateur, like in my room, or whatever.” I tell him I do not.
It’s 5:54 a.m. “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band is playing inside Score.
I’m watching the clock above the bar, emblazoned with the O’Doul’s logo. It says 6:09. It’s 15 minutes fast.
Tommy, our photographer, comes in from the patio to tell me the taxi has just arrived to pick up the actor-singer-dancer. About 60 seconds later, however, the actor-singer-dancer walks into Score. He asks Joe if he can speak to the manager. His car was stolen, you see, and he doesn’t have any cash to give the taxi. However, he has a credit card.
The actor-singer-dancer then waves a tattered piece of paper up in the air. Apparently, he doesn’t actually have a credit card; he has the number for a credit card written on the piece of paper. Joe politely tells him he can’t help, because Score doesn’t take credit cards.
I figure my phone number is now on the taxi company’s do-not-pick-up list.
It’s 5:59 a.m. A woman wearing a Dodgers shirt walks in and greets Tommy and me.
“Nice hats!” she says. Tommy and I are both wearing Dodgers hats. I soon learn the woman’s name is Mary Beth.
Joe goes over and turns on the neon “Open” sign. At 6 a.m. on the dot, he delivers a drink to Mary Beth. She never tells him what drink she wants. Joe just knows.
Another customer—a middle-age man wearing some sort of work-identification card on a lanyard around his neck—walks in. He hears me talking to Joe, and retreats to the corner of the front patio. I presume he overheard I am a reporter, and he doesn’t want to talk.
Joe then comes up to Tommy and me, and asks if we want anything. I wasn’t intending on having a drink at this time of day, but, well, when in Rome …
I order a Bloody Mary, not too spicy. Tommy orders a Corona with lime and salt.
As we order, Mel, the owner of Score, emerges from the back, holding a cup of coffee. He nods at me, and Mary Beth politely shouts a hello. Across the bar, they briefly chat about a small earthquake that happened earlier that morning.
As Joe—Mel calls him “Ponytail”—delivers our drinks, I ask him about his time at Score. He’s worked there for three years, he says, and he opens Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. I ask him if he likes it.
“I love it,” he says. “You can start the day off at the bar any way you want. Everything’s fresh and new.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Joe’s a morning person.
“Even when I am not working, I get up at 4 or 4:30,” Joe says. “It’s easy to get stuff done.”
What kind of customers does he serve at this time of day? “It’s a wide range,” he says. “There are third-shifters. People who start work at 7. Some people just come in and drink coffee. There are a few who just start drinking (alcohol) in the morning and drink all day. Those are always fun.”
Does he ever have any problems with customers or passers-by?
“Usually not in the morning,” he says. “It’s the afternoon and evenings when shenanigans take place.”
I take a sip of my Bloody Mary. It’s fantastic.
It’s 6:11 a.m. I ask Mary Beth if I can ask her a few questions, and she happily agrees. Turns out she’s the morning bartender at Hair of the Dog, located several blocks away on Palm Canyon Drive. She opens that bar at 7 a.m., when it becomes the second bar to open in downtown Palm Springs.
Why does she come to Score? “I like everybody who works here. I like the owner,” she says.
She pauses for a moment. “I do get tired of looking at all the madness on the corner.”
She’s talking about the chaos that surrounds the Circle K, located at the corner of Arenas and Calle Encilia. (On the day before, a homeless man had been stabbed in front of the Circle K, allegedly by another homeless person. The incident is fresh in everybody’s minds.)
Mary Beth notes that most of the homeless folks in downtown Palm Springs aren’t bad people, and that many of them are older. The ones who do bother her are the “people who have been up all night, doing their stuff.”
When they’re around, she sometimes refuses to open the door at Hair at the Dog until they go away, she tells me.
It’s 6:25 p.m. I ask Mel the owner what makes Score special.
“It’s like Cheers on TV,” he says. “Everybody knows everybody’s name.”
Why does Score open at 6 a.m. every morning?
“When I bought it, it was called the Elbo Room,” Mel says. That was nine years ago. “It had people waiting at the door at 6 o’clock every morning. The Elbo Room was a straight bar. Well, they called it a straight bar.”
Mel didn’t change the formula when he turned the Elbo Room into Score. Does he do well, business-wise, this early in the morning?
“Not as well as I used to,” he says. I ask why he thinks that is. “Not as many people are working night shifts,” he says, adding that more young people are starting to call Palm Springs home—and young people don’t get up so early.
Mel then points to a picture of him, taken when he himself was a young person, hanging on the wall. He was a Merchant Marine, he says. He’s smiling.
It’s 6:32 a.m. Mel, Tommy and I have gone outside on the patio to watch the sunrise.
I spot the actor-singer-dancer just down the street, in front of Gay Mart USA. He’s talking to the man in the wheelchair who rolled by earlier. After the two have a brief discussion, the actor-singer-dancer gets behind the man in the wheelchair and begins to push him down the sidewalk. One can only guess where they’re going.
When I bemoan the fact that I am not usually up at this ungodly hour, Mel tells me he’s at the bar first thing every morning.
“People ask me what I do, and I tell them I clean the toilets and count the money,” he says with a smile.
I take the last sip of my Bloody Mary. Unlike Mel, I am not a morning person. It’s time for me to go home.