I had taken eight or nine guided tours of San Diego in two weeks when a friend asked if I was tired of sightseeing. I had to say no. Being out on buses and boats and trolleys with tourists, I felt like a tourist too. On my mission to see San Diego as tourists see it, I was reminded of how pretty the pretty parts of the city are. And I never got bored because although most tours cover the same ground, guides tell the tourists different — sometimes contradictory — stories.
No one was more hilarious than George (not his real name), the driver/guide on the $29 Contactours city tour. George's audience that morning included African Americans, white Americans, Hispanics, a Chinese couple from Australia, and a sprinkling of Europeans. We filled about three-quarters of the 47-seat bus. It had huge tinted windows but lacked seatbelts or buttons for reclining. There were upper baggage compartments and overhead consoles for directing airflow and turning on reading lights. A bathroom had been built into the far rear of the vehicle, though George warned us, "It has standing water only, guys. Standing water only! That means it doesn't flush."
As George drove the bus south on Harbor Drive downtown, approaching the convention center, he pointed out condominiums across the street whose value "from the 13th floor up" was $15 million (or so he claimed, but a property agent said that was "ridiculous"; they average $1 to $1.5 million). "That's where the movers and shakers live," he said. The convention center, he continued, "was built with a nautical theme in mind." When he challenged us to guess what its curving glass windows might represent, one passenger ventured, "Waves," prompting George to cry out, "You're absolutely right. Tidal waves, guys. It represents tidal waves."
Soon we were passing through "what they call the barrio. The Barrio Logan. This is where a large concentration of the Hispanic culture resides. Now, incidentally, the Hispanic culture in San Diego accounts for about 32 percent of our total population of 1.2 million people," George informed us (he was close: 27 percent and 1.3 million, per SANDAG). He praised the beauty of Chicano Park's murals, "painted by amateur artists that live right here in this neighborhood." (Some murals were, though others were painted by professional artists from outside San Diego.) But we didn't tarry. We were heading for Coronado.
Coronado, George announced, is "the crown city," a term he deemed appropriate "because the prices here are fit for royals. Oh yeah! They're fit for royals, you guys. See, this is a sought-after area to live... If you want to live here, you must first submit your name to the homeowners' association [there's no such thing]. Then you can put a number in, and anytime a property becomes available, they hold a lottery. If you're lucky enough, they'll pull your name, and you can bid on the property. The property always starts at $1.5 million [another exaggeration]. One point five mil! And then when you buy your house, you don't get to live in it. You tear it down! Then you build something else!" All around me, people shook their heads and looked flabbergasted.
Out the left-hand side of the bus he directed our attention to the cottage at 1116 Third Street. The previous month it had sold for a bargain price, $1.2 million, according to George ($645,000, according to a realtor). But it "was the former summer cottage for a woman who made a movie here called Some Like It Hot. Her name was Marilyn Monroe. Yes!" ("No, it's absolutely not true," said the deputy director of the Coronado Historical Association.)
Despite the stratospheric prices, Coronadans had "a real laid-back attitude," George said. "You'll notice nobody's in a hurry." We passed a café on Orange Avenue. "You'll also notice that they sit outside to have their breakfast and lattes and read the paper. But with that comes a very strange mindset. It really does." George told us to notice the towering Norfolk Island pine tree surrounded by a little circle of grass just south of Tenth Street between Isabella and Orange. He announced that it was "the smallest state park in all of California." People guffawed at this, but George again gave no hint that he was making it up (he was). As further testimony to the attitudes of Coronado's residents, he mentioned a requirement that all building plans be submitted to the homeowners' association. "They will look your plans over and make sure your home does not resemble anybody else's. They have everybody else's plans on file, and if anything looks the same, they make you change it.
"This is hard to believe, isn't it?" he sympathized. But he offered more proof of the Coronadans' eccentricity. "All these plants are here because of something known as the plant police. They have a plant police!" he insisted. "You see, there are volunteers that are issued police cars by the Coronado Police Department. One of their functions is to drive the city of Coronado and look for structures that don't have plants outside. Yeah! If you don't have plants outside, you're gonna get a knock on your door, and there will be someone there to write you a ticket. It's a $50 fine, all right? It's a $50 fine to not have plants outside!" You could contest this in court, he added, but "they'll give you community service. And anybody want to guess what the community service is gonna be? Planting flowers! That's right. That's right."
George let the group disembark for a 15-minute bathroom and picture-taking break at the Hotel Del ("one of the last large all-wood structures that's still in operation"). Then he hustled us back onto the bus; we had a lot of ground to cover. On the way to the Gaslamp Quarter, he peppered us with more spicy tidbits, including the "fact" that "the serum for polio" was discovered here in San Diego. "Sure enough. In La Jolla!" (Although Jonas Salk established the Salk Institute here in the early '60s, he developed his polio vaccine in Pittsburgh in the '50s.) Entering lower Fifth Avenue, George assured us of the Gaslamp Quarter's extreme safety, then added that it "was actually started back in 1900 by a gentleman named Alonzo Horton." (Horton purchased his 800 acres downtown in 1867.)