Draw an imaginary line down El Cajon Boulevard from Fairmount Avenue to 54th Street. Invisible as the line may be, it keeps the crackheads and prostitutes and the smog-belching oil leakers of Southeast San Diego out of Talmadge. Call one the good side and one the bad side if you want; I've lived on both. My parents rented a box with a roof just south of the Boulevard back in the 1950s; my grandparents owned a luxury home only minutes away on a balmy drive named Constance for one of the famous Talmadge sisters. The three sisters were silent screen stars whose money and fame were said to have fueled the original development called Talmadge Park Estates.
Anymore, the southeast side of the line is plain ugly. The air is redolent of taco joints and motor oil. It is a far, far different world from the one I grew up in. The Lutheran church of my childhood now houses an Ethiopian congregation. A block away, you can buy a live duck or chicken and have it slaughtered on the spot. As I walk past yards where I once played, I draw hard stares. Instinctively, I feel for the security of my wallet and my car keys.
On 49th Street, the windows of the shitbox my folks rented are boarded up. Some of the siding has busted off, revealing the little house's tarpapered bones. Two teenage boys sit out on the porch.
"You live here?" I realize too late how coplike that question must sound. For long seconds, neither of them speaks. The small one fixes me with uninhabited eyes and produces a stale hack.
"No one lives here."
The larger boy's hands are stuffed into a ridiculously heavy winter coat. It is maybe 85 degrees out.
"At least no one's 'sposed to. 'S'all close up. She 'sposed to be fixin' it up, but she never does nothin'." She being the landlord, he says. "I lived here when I was a little boy," I offer, standing on a square of dirt where a lawn should have been. The boys stare back at me as though I'm from another planet. Maybe I am. I am remembering my maternal grandfather, staying with us in there, gumming horrid soft-boiled eggs for breakfast.
Across the Boulevard, I see one of Talmadge's iron gates standing sentry at Monroe. I say good-bye and step off. The boys say nothing. They are experts at not talking.
From a distance, you can spot the pedicured home that my paternal grandparents occupied. Of the dozens of palm trees that run along the curbs up and down Constance Drive, some are missing. My grandfather killed both of his with massive doses of the fertilizers he deemed necessary to maintain his lawn. He accidentally killed off Doc's palms too, Doc being the neighbor from two doors down. The palms, I suppose, were Hollywood props, put in by whoever worked for the Talmadge sisters.
Whenever I visit the old streets, I want to regress. I want to be ten years old again. I want to hear my grandfather hush his dogs, to smell the black-eyed peas, meatloaf, and cigarette smoke of my grandmother's kitchen. I'd kill to have a ride in the neighbor's old white-on-aqua Metropolitan, still parked in the same spot as when I was a boy. If he's even alive, the neighbor's 85 if he's a day, still keeps a putting green for a front lawn, skinned back as short as a crew cut. I stand out front of his flagstone-encrusted home for long minutes. The drapes, ever closed, are disintegrating. But instead of breaking the spell and knocking on his door, I elect to leave the old man like a Proustian memory. Sitting alone in his den, dark and safe, he'll be surrounded by the glow of his television and the model airplanes he built, drink in hand, the highball glass leaving wet circles wherever he sets it down.