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I often feel in downtown Fallbrook that I have walked through a door into the past, the door I have been looking for all my life. It happens at Jerry’s Barber Shop most often. Jerry’s is on the corner of Main and Alvarado, and I take five-year-old Sam and three-year-old Hank there to have their bangs snipped into a straight, even line, to have the backs of their necks and the curves above their ears mown and clipped, to see their eyes once again, enormous and brown. They sit still in expectation of Dum Dums, small white-wrapped lollipops that taste of cherry, apple, grape, or lime.

Jerry’s is an ordinary place, archetypal in its particulars. The benches and chairs in the waiting area are upholstered in vinyl, and it’s old men, mostly, who sit waiting for their turn. The coffee table is strewn with fishing and golf magazines as worn as dollar bills. The plate-glass window casts the shadow of Jerry’s name on our legs. The backward clock tells time in reverse. Combs float in Barbicide. Behind us, stretching the length of the wall in an attitude of leaping, is a blue sailfish as shiny and hard as the linoleum under our feet. “Please do not pet,” a sign says.

The older customers tend to look at Sam and Hank and remember their own children, or themselves as children. Once, while Hank’s hair was falling to the floor like down and Sam was waiting his turn, a man in glasses and an ironed short-sleeved shirt looked approvingly at him. He started to tell Sam and me about his childhood summers, about growing up on a farm in the Northwest, where he climbed trees and fished. Every morning, he said, he and his brothers and sisters would sit at the table for breakfast. His mother would bring bowls of steaming oatmeal to each place. No one could start, though, until his grandfather had sat down and blessed the meal. His grandfather was a Lutheran, and he blessed everything. He prayed and prayed, and the children watched the steam rise up, each wisp thinner than the last. It had always stopped steaming before his grandfather stopped praying.

“My mother cut my hair with a bowl,” he told Sam. “The same bowl we used for that oatmeal.”

Outside the barbershop, the street is usually sunny. Cars stop for the light and move past us, windows down, arms resting on doors. As we wait I tend to think of what we’ll do after the haircuts. We could eat at the soda fountain across the street, in what used to be a drugstore but is now the Café des Artistes and a gallery. We could walk another hundred yards and ask the librarian if there are any new books about the Titanic. If the gem-and-mineral museum is open, we could step into the back room and ask the curator to turn on the black light so that all the fluorescent rocks glow green, orange, and yellow. There’s the Book Nook or Chubby Chix, which sells retro candy: Lemonheads, Neccos, and Charms. Slim pink bubble-gum cigarettes, the kind that leave powder on your fingertips.

But once Sam and Hank are both in barber’s chairs, I’m in no hurry to leave. I watch them the way the man in the ironed shirt watched the steam of his oatmeal all those years ago, willing it to keep rising.

“Look down,” Jerry says. “Now look up.” Sam holds still, and Jerry slowly, carefully cuts a straight line. “Good,” he says. “You’re doing good.”

Their blond hair mixes with the gray hair on the floor and I hold myself still between two red vinyl chairs on Main Street, willing it to go on a little longer, for the backwards clock to go forward and the forward clock to go backwards, so that we are always right here.

— Laura McNeal


Asked where I live in San Diego, I always say “beautiful Clairemont,” because I’m a smartass and because it’s the truth. I might qualify (place, not beauty) by adding “North Clairemont,” to distinguish our geographical locale. North Clairemont is almost paradise: our home rides a large coyoted canyon where ocean breeze and coastal fog are as backyard-regular as hummingbirds and red-tailed hawks. I like its tranquillity, despite the nearby barking dog, whose owners we’ve all complained about. But that’s the only rent in the carpet; otherwise, it’s immensely democratic — to one Joe, a retirement villa; to another, a middle-class boondock.

I cross the street, get my neighbor Becky Newhouse, and we head to our local Starbucks. At 51, Newhouse is a lifelong Clairemontian, a part-time substitute teacher at Marston Middle School, and an irrepressible factotum whose cheerful voice can be heard charging Saturday driveway talk with, as my grandmother used to call it, “sunny optimism.”

How might you define Clairemont? School-savvy Newhouse surprises me: “It’s a forgotten community,” she says. Clairemont is not “rich like La Jolla,” which is “affluent enough for the school board to grant them autonomy.” Not so on the mesa: “We don’t have the money to be a charter school, Mr. Bersin.” Though test scores are up, Newhouse struggles with a school system that no longer bonds the community. She figure-skates over her girlhood, when, after class, kids lolled their way through grassy lots to rec centers. Next-door kids were always buddies. Now Amber-alerted parents chauffeur children everywhere.

We chat, sip drinks; then Newhouse treads a new track. As one of San Diego’s hubs, Clairemont is supremely accessible, lying between I-5 and I-805/163, south of San Clemente Canyon and north of Mission Valley; it’s also supremely in-between. It’s near to but not the beach; it’s near to but not the condo-bracken of the Golden Triangle, the nerd-ridden campus of UCSD, the immigrant carnival of Kearny Mesa, the heat-seeking inlands. It’s near to but not Pacific Beach, where summer trash festers in the streets and multiunit-apartment density feels earthquake-ready.

I wonder whether this in-between reality of our burb explains our relationship. After we gossip for 40 minutes about children and work and college and spouses and elderly parents (one of hers living, both of mine dead) and the block party we’ve never had, I ask, “Why is it that, despite having lived across the street from each other for 13 years, we’re still not good friends?”

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