George's sketch of Wyatt Earp's history in the Gaslamp was a classic example of tall-tale storytelling, including such highlights as the fact that Earp's common-law wife was known as "Big Nose Kate" for her propensity to meddle in other people's business (Big Nose Kate was not Earp's wife and was never in San Diego); that she was a prostitute who became the madam for a bordello Earp ran above a saloon, gambling hall, and oyster bar ("Do you people realize that oysters were the poor man's Viagra? Oh yeah! Oh yeah!"); that Earp himself had assumed the job of having sex with all his prostitutes to check their "quality"; and that Kate and another woman one day had a jealousy-inspired "knock-down, drag-out, rolling-around catfight" out in the middle of Fifth Avenue but then turned and together "whupped the living tar out of Wyatt Earp, right in front of everybody."
From downtown, we drove to Balboa Park, where George stopped the bus for a moment in front of the San Diego Museum of Art. He explained that the park's Spanish-style structures, built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, were all "supposed to be torn down by 1917. But San Diegans loved these buildings so much that we demanded they remain standing." However, the buildings had been assembled using "baling wire and chewing gum, so in the '60s, they were falling apart." But then an earthquake had saved all the buildings. "Yeah, you heard me right!" George declared. "An earthquake!" That 7.1-magnitude temblor had struck at 5:04 p.m. on October 17, 1989, he said, and though "it only lasted 15 seconds, guys, it almost leveled San Francisco! Well, when that happened, our governor and mayor mandated that all of our public buildings had to be able to withstand an earthquake of 7.1. So all these buildings had to be photographed. Taken down to the ground and rebuilt with steel I-beams." "Really!" someone on the bus exclaimed, impressed. (In fact, most of the 1915 Exposition buildings were temporary, and most were torn down after the exposition; of those left standing, some have been rebuilt in recent decades but not in response to the 1989 earthquake. The Museum of Art was built in 1927.)
Passing the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, George claimed, preposterously, that they had been used in the filming of the old television show Zorro. "Remember when Zorro was being chased by the soldiers and Sergeant Garcia? He'd be jumping from rooftop to rooftop. This was where it was done, gang. Right here! Now you can see how he was able to jump from rooftop to rooftop!"
Not all of George's outlandish statements were historical or cultural. When we headed for the freeway again, he directed our attention to some unkempt Washingtonia palms and told us there was a reason for their shaggy appearance. "They're more affectionately known as Samson palms," he said; like the biblical Samson, they suffered from any attempt to shear them. "If you cut those dead limbs away from the trunk of the tree, you know what happens? The tree weakens and dies, 'cause it loses all of its insulation." He mangled facts about geography ("Do you know that Interstate 5 is the longest freeway in the United States?") as well as local industry. When our bus passed a car carrier loaded with new Volkswagens, he announced, "All these cars are assembled in Tijuana. They put 'em on trucks like this and bring them back over...and some of them go into the yard, where they're put on big ships and shipped out to the rest of the country." (Actually, VWs are built in Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, and shipped from the Port of Veracruz to the Port of Brunswick, Georgia.)
Our next-to-last stop was La Jolla, "the living and playing area for sports figures, movie stars, playwrights, and entrepreneurs," according to George. Although we might think those structures up on Mt. Soledad were small hotels and motels, they were "actually single-family residences!" A small one-bedroom cottage built during the 1940s might run us about $995,000, he warned. "But count yourself lucky, because you could pay as much as $46 million for a home here." People were sucking in their breaths at that news, but George dropped a bigger bombshell when we motored past La Jolla Cove. "If you would like to get yourself a little bit of investment property while you're here quick, let me show you a couple of fixer-uppers right here on our left." He was indicating the historic Red Roost and Red Rest cottages, long deteriorated because of disagreements over their renovation. But in George's version, they were "on the market right now. They're running for 1.8 mil each." The petite Chinese Australian woman behind me blurted out, "No way!"
Dining in La Jolla made more sense than investing in its property, George advised. Especially on Prospect Street, we couldn't go wrong. "Wherever you decide you want to eat, it will be a fine, fine meal, because mediocrity has no place on Prospect Street." Old Town, too, offered gastronomic wonders about which George rhapsodized as he steered the bus onto Interstate 5 and headed for the historic state park. The steak burrito at Fred's was "a man's dish," he told us -- two and a half pounds of steak strips, guacamole, sour cream, beans, and other tasty ingredients. "It'll hurt you!" he said, in admiration. The chicken chingaderas, he continued, looked like a hockey puck, "and like they say on television, it's a mouthful of joy. Oh yes, it is." But we should be mindful that restaurants in Old Town all closed at 9:00 p.m., George advised.
The guides on two other bus tours, City Sightseeing San Diego and San Diego Scenic Tours, did not provide the flights of fancy proffered by George. The outstanding feature of the $23 City Sightseeing San Diego tour was its bright red double-decker bus. This company is a newcomer to the San Diego sightseeing scene, having begun operations in April. Its bus covers a circuit that runs roughly from downtown through the Gaslamp Quarter, up to Balboa Park, down to Old Town, then back downtown. Passengers can get on and off at any of the stops, hearing narration along the way from a guide who's not also driving the bus.