Scenes from Graffiti Night, 1979
It’s 40 years ago on a hot June night in Modesto, California, and the downtown streets are congested with cruising cars while a deejay pumps out rock ’n’ roll. The air is filled with a pungent combination of uncatalyzed exhaust and cheap perfume from droves of teenage girls. Rowdy boys react to the sights and smells by howling out the windows of their hot rods. This particular Graffiti Night, officially sanctioned by the city of Modesto, commemorates the film American Graffiti, which was set in this Central Valley town and directed by native son George Lucas. Much like Lucas, local newspaper photographer Al Golub realized the cultural importance of cruising as a social network in this part of California, far from the coastal cities.
A pack of local teens struts in front of cruising classic cars in 1979. This annual event paying homage to the 1973 film is traditionally held the weekend after graduation at Modesto’s Central Valley High School. “Those kids are grandpas and grandmas now,” says Golub, who still lives in the area.
On 10th Street in downtown Modesto, a dashing blond youth pops up out of a Chevy van, clearly a mobile party pad for him and his buddies. “The velour carpet and the tiger print showed how much ego these kids had,” Golub recalls. “Really, they were ranchers and farmers.” At the time, the Modesto area produced a fourth of the world’s peaches.
Golub describes the gang on top of the Winnebago as “Canal Bank Commandos” who would buy cases of beer, drive out to one of the Central Valley’s numerous irrigation canals, and get drunk. Looks like they brought the party to downtown Modesto on this night.
“The cars were cruising so slowly that you could walk in front of them,” says Golub. The photographer took advantage of the snail‘s pace to stare down the barrel of this odd trio—a Trans Am, a Rolls-Royce, and a Jeep.
“Everyone was there—young and old,” says Golub. No surprise, since Graffiti Night celebrated a movie released in 1973 but set in 1962. Many of Golub’s photographs were published in the Modesto Bee, where he eventually became chief photographer.
Many would say cruise nights just don’t look like this, anymore.