Olive Street came into its name around 1906, when streets between A and Sacramento were named after trees. One portion of Olive, a quiet cul-de-sac in North Park, has just 15 homes — 22 counting those off the alley. Here neighbors jog together, go to the movies in a pack, and check with others on Friday night to see who wants to order take-out. Weekend mornings, someone is sure to have a fresh pot of coffee brewing, and neighbors know they can pop in, pour themselves a hot cup, then go home without the requirement to sit and chat. When residents leave Olive Street for an extended trip, neighbors water their plants, cut their lawn, walk and feed their pets, and pay their bills. People barbecue together on holidays and other times linger until midnight over an impromptu potluck meal. They convene on front lawns on the north side of the street and, sharing a bottle of wine, watch the sun set over downtown San Diego. They support each other over the rocky patches and go along for the ride when the going is easy.
At first appearance the street looks humdrum, two lines of houses (most of them small) facing each other, the street split perpendicularly by an alley. But looks are deceiving. The neighborhood has three things that help to make it special. It has Ray’s, it has Rebecca’s, and it has a ghost.
Ray’s Liquor Center — known to locals as simply “Ray’s” — stands at the intersection of 30th and Redwood. Olive Street residents know that the convenience store opens early, closes late, and has just about whatever they might want whenever they might want it.
Pasted onto its faded butterscotch front are old signs offering a public fax machine, money orders, and California lottery tickets. A sign for “Refrigerated Milk” is next to one offering “Vodka Special (750 ml. of Fleischmann’s for $4.99).” On the street corner beyond Ray’s parking lot is a public telephone where, late into the night, men and women chat (and sometimes argue) with whoever is on the other end of the line. The intimate and mercilessly public aspect of this scene can be unnerving to those driving past.
How very different is Olive Street, just three blocks south. Quietly residential like many streets hereabouts, Olive Street has mostly single-family dwellings, with residents divided between owners with mortgages and renters who pay close to a thousand dollars per month for a two-bedroom. But because the area north toward University Avenue is strung with cheaper-priced rentals that attract low-income folks, Ray’s caters to the needs of a large and varied population. This Ray’s does with aplomb. Stepping inside, you discover one-stop shopping, a mall enclosed in a single building.
To the left of the door, eight refrigerated cases are crammed with different beers and iced liquors like Kamikaze. The back wall stretches perhaps 20 feet and holds varieties of rotgut wine as well as quality merlots and cabernet sauvignons. For the caffeine connoisseur, there is a machine for grinding roasted coffee beans; it stands next to a glass case with a dozen different Mexican cookies priced at four for a dollar. There are cell phones, electric shavers, watches, and calculators that sell for $12.99. Keys are made and Thai incense (“Black Love”) sold. There are Spanish novellas and local newspapers, and herbal energy tablets, including the “rave drink” called Screamin’ Energy for those who “want to feel like a million bucks.” Clove cigarettes sit next to Zig-Zag rolling paper. At Ray’s you can buy hard and soft candy, stamps, frozen foods, and motor oil. A display behind the cash register holds aspirin, decongestants, painkillers, and Listerine. There is deodorant, 24-inch by 36-inch framed prints of misty landscapes and country scenes, cigars, and devotional candles of the Sacred Heart whose Clairol-blond Jesus gazes at the devotee with eyes of an unsettling glacial blue. Cans of Vienna sausages and beans are not far from Brillo, Ajax, and washing powders. Potatoes, onions, and lettuce fill a cooler near the door. For a romantic gift, roses fashioned from synthetic fabric and wrapped in cellophane are grouped like a bouquet near the cash register. And for the parent, Ray’s offers all one might need for a child’s birthday party — inexpensive plastic toys (a beauty makeup kit, cars, and pistols), packages of pink and blue birthday candles, and Fritos, potato chips, ice cream, Pepsi, and Coke for refreshments.
Standing at the cash register, behind this immense and varied inventory, was Mike Bazzi. Since 1985, he has managed Ray’s with the help of his family. It was seven o’clock on Friday night and Bazzi was on duty with a nephew. In between helping customers, he stocked shelves and ran inventory. Bazzi, 41, neared the end of another 60-hour workweek. A Catholic who immigrated here from Iraq in 1978, Bazzi has blue eyes and black hair flecked with gray. He resembles Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, when the actor looked his best.
“Ray’s was here in the late ’40s, but we took it over 15 years ago,” said Bazzi. Customer traffic is always steady, but this was the first Friday night of the month and it was nonstop activity. Bazzi, who speaks Babylonian, Arabic, a little Spanish, and an accented English, talked to me while struggling to figure out that the young Latino couple (the woman very pregnant) wanted a bottle of cranberry juice. Next, a middle-aged man, just off work, paid for his Lotto ticket and Bazzi explained that soon the game was about to change, get a new name, and offer more prizes. (“I’ll let you know,” he promised.) A young African-American woman with a no-nonsense haircut lugged in a purse filled with $130 in quarters. Could she exchange her quarters for dollars? (“Whatever you’ve got, you bring it, we’ll change it,” Bazzi assured her.) Behind her was a lean young man who wanted a good cigar, he said, to smoke that evening on a date. “Go around the corner and see for yourself,” said Bazzi. An older man, his hair dyed auburn that went carrot-orange under the fluorescent lights, paid for cigarettes. The young man reappeared holding something nearly the size of a bologna. And so it went.