Tell me about your childhood in San Diego.
Well, I went to Grant School and then to Horace Mann, when I wasn't in Hawaii with my mother. I went to the University of Hawaii for a while, then came back here to go to San Diego State for two years. Then I went to Berkeley to get my BA. When I was a kid we would play capture the flag on hot summer nights. We had a fancy house on Presidio Drive. Right around the corner was my grandmother's house. My grandmother was very important in my life; my mother disappeared for some time. I went to stay with my grandmother for a while. I was angry and pissed off. I wrote a thing about my mother, and I realized at the time that I was really mad at her. She wanted to go to Tahiti, but she couldn't afford the trip, so we went to Hawaii. I went to this private school where I worked my ass off cleaning the chapel and washing pots. It was sort of a scholarship. And all the other boys who lived in town went home on the weekends.
What strikes you about your time as a child in San Diego? What was the city like?
It was not a very big city then. It had an awfully strong Navy presence. I remember getting on the number three streetcar and going all the way to the end of Fort Stockton Drive. Or I would take it to school, though sometimes I walked. But the streetcar would be waiting there and the conductor would be taking a leak or something. Well, the doors had little holes in them and I would stick a pencil in the door to get in. That's a realistic detail.
It is. It is. Also, I think during the 1920s that Mission Hills --
We lived in Mission Hills right above Old Town, and Old Town was where poor people lived. And there was a very great consciousness of being on the edge. And I don't remember if I felt that then or if I think I felt that, but I think I felt it.
You mean the feeling of being in the hills, suspended geographically above Old Town?
Yeah, and the tramps would come up from Old Town and ask for handouts, and we were very conscious of a class situation. Old Town was a terrific place to go down and get tamales and stuff like that. There was an olive factory. But that's also what the difference was.
In the 1920s Mission Hills went through a big building boom. I know that in 1925, for one year, there was a sort of mayor of Mission Hills. His name was R. W. Caldwell; he was this chamber of commerce guy who dubbed himself "the mayor of Mission Hills."
There was a lot of pride.
And nice big sturdy homes.
I have a story called "The Retaining Wall." It's about boys playing on a retaining wall between Mission Hills and Old Town.
Is that the kind of thing you did as a boy with your friends?
My best friend was a guy named "Hammy" -- Hamilton Edgar Montague III. He lived down the street from me.
Did you run around the canyons like Joe Bailey?
We went to the beach a lot. My mother had an old car called a Winton that had this hollow sort of aluminum body -- a very old car. She would take me and Hammy and some other friends off to Mission Beach. I remember the hamburgers still. My whole family went to Europe, and when we came back, for some reason, I wanted to go to Mission Beach and I brought my surfboard. My family watched and I actually managed to stand up on the board, though it's not a perfect place to surf. This was 1963. I wish I had more memories of San Diego for you.
Did you get downtown a lot?
I remember being downtown once barefoot and I cut my foot on a piece of glass. I had to go to the police station, where someone stitched me up. Balboa Park was always a big deal. Later on, when I was in college, I was a deliveryman. I was delivering to the back doors of houses that I was once welcomed in the front door of, and that had a bit of ironical intensity for me. I don't know how much people were aware of class differences, but there was a guy on the corner, Artie Wells, whose father was a banker. My father was a contractor, another man on the street owned a hardware store, and up the street was a very rich family. The way you figured out what was going on was by what kind of car they drove. One father had a Studebaker, the Montagues had a Hudson. And there were other telltale quirks.
Tell me more about the Winton your mother drove.
It was a great big car, and it didn't have any current class, but it had the class of being a classic even then. It had a place in the backseat to put a pot of flowers.
What kind of car did your father drive?
A Studebaker. My best friend's family had a Hudson. The Packard was the big car to have.
How did you become a deliveryman?
It was during college. I was working to maintain myself so I could take my girlfriend out to the dance. My cousin had this company called Western Parcel Service that delivered both packages and groceries. I was really good at it; I could do it with some style. I would set the brake in the car halfway and get out and the rear door would slide by right where I needed to take the packages out. I enjoyed it.
That sense of class, on the one hand it seems to have come from living in Mission Hills, and on the other it was sort of a common preoccupation of novelists writing in the '40s and '50s. Think about John O'Hara, for instance.