Aaayyerroooomm.

Oops. That's just me, letting loose a crack-o'-dawn yawn. Sounds like a lion's mating call, now that I think about it. But I'm not feeling matey, just dog-tired. Need a catnap. Been up for two hours, and it's not even eight. Those all-night freight trains are still hootin' and hollerin' downtown, and now, right in front of me, a guy's making a heckuva noise emptying parking meters, click-kashook-clack, solving the city's budget woes one coin box at a time. Farther up India Street, folks huddle around the Mexican consulate's entrance. The morning visa line. Threading through are residents of this new, gussied-up Little Italy, dressed in, like, tan track suits and ivory-colored running shoes, purebred dogs trotting at their sides.

Sigh. That's what Little Italy's becoming -- LI. Like LA, only funkier.

But the real Little Italy hasn't quite disappeared. I'm standing outside Harbor Marine Supplies at Beech and India, waiting for Hank. sells anchors, port and starboard lights, and nets -- not to mention signs to hang in the wheelhouse that say things like "Wanted: A good woman who can clean, sew, cook fish, dig worms, and owns a boat and motor. Send photo of boat and motor."

Heehee. Just as well Carla's not here. She'd be straight inside, giving some hairy-chested fisherman the tongue-lashing of his sorry life.

So where is Hank, anyway? I've been pacing for 15 minutes. I'm sorely tempted to check out the coffee aromas coming from across the road, where a sign says "Dancing Dog." It's a little place outside Village Walk -- one of a rash of new apartment buildings -- with a couple of tables and a sandwich board outside. I count the colors the whole complex has been painted in. Purple, red, yellow, gray, cream. You know what? I approve. Why da heck are Anglo architects always so afraid of color?

So I crack. Cross over to this eatery that looks as though it's the social center of the neighborhood. A couple of families are gathered 'round a table, while a grandfather heads down the street, arms outstretched to a kid who's running toward him. Smart-dressed people from the consulate buzz in and out, ordering coffees and croissants. The sandwich board lists egg dishes, and even tamales, for breakfast. Garlic, coffee smells waft out. I waft in.

Vicky's up front delivering two-way bilingual conversations. April's at the back, toiling away making sandwiches. You'd never know she's the owner.

"Coffee," I croak.

"Strong?"

"How did you know?"

Vicky says nothing, but the look from the guy standing next to me all but shouts, "Have you seen a mirror lately, bro?"

I hand over $1.35, grab a menu, and make for a lazy Susan loaded with coffee urns. "Turn to 'Northwest Strong,' " Vicky suggests.

Outside, I plonk myself on a tall stool at a wavy table and slurp that first gulp of the nation's drug of choice. Ooh yes. Strong, but not bitter.

The sandwich board hawks specials like Scottish oatmeal ($2.95) and "Summer in the City" ($3.95) -- two eggs scrambled with tomatoes, mushrooms, and avocado -- and those tamales (pork, beef, chicken, or jalapeño with cheese) for $2.00 each.

I check the regular menu, which boasts "San Diego's best scrambles." Like "The Little Italian," green and red peppers with onions, tomatoes, and sweet Italian sausage, sprinkled with Asiago cheese, $6.95. "April's Scramble" ($6.95) has chili, cheddar cheese, and onions. And hey, I see "Summer in the City" is usually $5.95. So I'm saving two bucks on the special today. Well worth changing the season for.

'Course they have sandwiches and soups and salads too. "Classic Roast Beef," $6.95. (Ooh, that looks good, comes with sour cream, horseradish, and capers.) "Chicken Gone Nuts!" has walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, raisins. Plus there's a "Doghouse Dagwood" -- "our version of a classic." Three slices of bread with two meats, two cheeses, three bacon strips, and avocado with chipotle. I used to be addicted to Dagwood sandwiches at the high school café. What a beautiful mess they made.

But it's $8.95, and a bargain's a bargain.

"Summer in the City," I say, and hand over my $3.95.

"White, wheat, sourdough, rye, bagel, tortillas?"

"Uh, tortillas."

So now I'm heading out again toward another table when I notice the dawg. A two-foot-long rusty iron-carved basset hound that leans against the sandwich board. Good art! Someone's even given him a nose-bag. I do an about-face, looking for an explanation.

Man, guess they're serious about canines here. "Really," April says, "dogs are welcome. I have two, a lab and a shepherd." She points to a plate piled with things like "chicken bones" ($1.00), "Dog Lollypops" ($2.00), and "Bark Scotty," a $2.00 biscuit.

"It's like 'biscotti,' but for dogs," she explains when I give her the blank look.

Ten minutes later I'm sitting out on the sidewalk, eating "Summer in the City," and feeling -- if you want to know the truth -- a twinge of jealousy toward these people who live here in the center of things.

The food's good. But it's the whole social atmosphere that clinches it. You feel you're at a bona fide French -- okay, Italian -- café. Make that bona fido. Glad I ordered the tortillas. I get to wrap up the eggs and mushrooms and avo, and just sit, and watch. Aaargh! I see this face glowering at me from across the road. Looking like "Uh-huh. Great. This is friendship?"

Hank.

I signal him over. The man's bark is worse than his bite. I'll feed him a Bark Scotty. That'll put the muzzle on him.

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