In 1954 I sat on the school bus every day next to my best friend, Mark Robson. The ride home from Montgomery Elementary School in Otay was a straight shot east on Main Street. The bus dropped off poor white and Mexican kids until we reached “the Hill,” where Mark and the other black children bounded off and ran up Sycamore Street to ramshackle houses with spacious yards of junked cars, chickens, cows, and pigs fattening in the dirt. Woodlawn Park was called “the Hill” by its residents. It was referred to as “Nigger Hill” by my dad and most other people in Otay.
The last four on the bus — my sister, me, and the two other kids who lived on Otay Ranch — squinched our noses as we soon passed the stench of the hog farm and Omar’s Rendering Plant, where carcasses of dead animals were melted down to a substance that was most likely bleached, hydrogenated, packed in round blue containers, and sold to the nation as Crisco.
At the southwest corner of the 29,000-acre ranch, Mrs. Stewart waited at the locked gate in her dull green Nash to pick up her two children, as well as my sister and me, and take us down the half-mile gravel road to the houses where we lived. Her husband, Dave Stewart, was a real Texan cowboy and foreman of the Otay Valley Farm, as we called the small cattle outpost. They lived in the big house. Our family of five lived in the little one-bedroom house, since my dad was a hired hand. For a boy of seven years with an imagination entranced by Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, horses, cattle, and the open range, it seemed that the Big Rancher in the Sky had heard my silent prayers. I still believe that those few months there were the happiest of my life.
At school I was attracted to Mark, as were all of us kids in Mrs. Eunice’s class. She was a wonderfully kind lady with silver hair. Mark could run faster, kick the ball farther, and beat up any other kid in second grade. Probably in the third and fourth grades as well. He was that strong, but my vague memory of Mark is that he didn’t use it, and a quiet friendliness was the source of his popularity.
In the fall of 2003, I ran down Mark Robson. After 49 years, his strength was still evident, although the muscles have been padded somewhat. I recognized his face immediately, especially the flared nose — a famous Sioux chief, Red Cloud, had the same nose; I’d memorized his face from a photo as a kid. That nose and Mark’s intense eyes returned to me like yesterday. His mouth smiled big with the same affability that made us friends back then.
Days later, Robson and I took a ride through our former town south of Chula Vista. We got off the 5 freeway at Main Street and headed east. Main is the major artery of Otay, as it was back then, but now the traffic congestion was immediate. It didn’t let up. I peppered Robson with questions at various landmarks, yet there wasn’t enough time for him to answer all my queries about the old establishments and buildings, many of them gone.
At the corner of Broadway and Main was what my dad and other ignorant bigots called the “Nigger Bar,” which once existed on a triangle of dirt. My father drank there, as he did in all the bars in town, but it was mostly a black clientele in the lively and raucous Uncle Sam’s Barbecue, owned by an African-American. Robson’s own father moonlighted there for a time as a bouncer, and one night during a planned attack on him, he was forced to shoot and kill one of two knife-wielding men. Eventually the thriving business was moved farther west on Main, but its doors closed forever when the new owner was fatally stabbed in the throat while breaking up a fight. As I said, it was lively and raucous.
We turned north on Broadway, and a few streets up, Robson pointed out where the infamous motel used to stand, discreetly tucked away on a side road. As a kid, I didn’t know about it, but Robson explained that it was a place of fleshly commerce in dark-skinned women. A smartly attired black man oversaw the affairs of the establishment. Robson chuckled in reverie remembering what his dad once told him: “Son, you’d be surprised who goes in there.”
Today’s Broadway Avenue was called National Avenue in the 1950s — a long thoroughfare that dropped down from National City. In Otay, Broadway’s now a hectic street of strip-mall outlets alternating with auto shops and fast-food eateries. Yet, up a bit farther from the former notorious motel still sits the Bayside Trailer Park. You have to look hard for it, since between the tiny exit and entrance is a discount tire shop. The park has shrunken to some 20 spaces, and the faded, timeworn trailers look like displays of a poor man’s museum.
Strange that I lived in that court several different times during my boyhood. The first in 1952, as a kindergartner attending Montgomery school. The next time was in 1956, and I remember a balmy summer night and the few black-and-white TVs in the court turned up loud, drawing us like moths to the sacred flame of Elvis Presley’s historic first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. I watched through a screen door at the marvel. Reportedly 50 million Americans — one-third of an entire nation — were also studying the lip-snarling Elvis the Pelvis.
A bit farther up on the other side of the avenue, where Broadway intersects Palomar, used to be another trailer park. I remember it as Las Flores Trailer Court. On my brother’s birth certificate of September 5, 1954, the address is 1301 National Avenue. From Mercy Hospital he was brought to his first home there, a trailer 8 feet wide and less than 20 feet long, which housed five of us, including my ten-year-old sister and me. The moldy odor of the showers in the public bathroom was forbidding to a seven-year-old, and I remember the adjacent tomato fields where Mexican men commandeered powerful horses that pulled plows through the soil. One day a couple of us kids stood watching, and the mustachioed brown man who spoke no English smiled and pointed at the thick-shanked beast. “Caballo,” he pronounced and we repeated. Our first word of Spanish.