It is almost precisely equidistant, like the fulcrum of a scale or lever, between two imposing monuments to San Diego's vanity, its corruption, its detachment, and the city's characteristic insistence that All Is Well, America; we're the finest.
"It" is the 12th and Imperial Transfer Station for the city's Metropolitan Transit System. Twelfth & I is a windblown rail yard and bus stop over which tower the MTS administration floors in a kind of neo-Nazi box of architecture festooned with Disneyland, storybook-red embellishments and a clock tower visible from the Coronado Bay Bridge. A half-mile to the west is the $450 million Petco Park. A nearly identical reach east is Father Joe's Village, or Saint Vincent de Paul's homeless shelter. Consumers of both facilities pass each other as obliviously as possible at the trolley and bus stop, the convenience store, and the MTS cashier office. On any given day the station is an odd fusion of end-of-the-line travelers to and from Tijuana and a fair representation of the city's homeless residents or those hopeful of residency at "Vinnie's," with the sporadic current of East Village condo residents, a developer or three, real estate speculators, the steady stream of tourists wondering what went wrong on the charming red Tijuana Trolley that was supposed to be a kind of amusement park ride, wasn't it? And during baseball season, naturally, the fans: regular Joes in Hawaiian shirts, wives and kids, couples from Hillcrest, gang members from Southeast, chiropractors from Rancho Bernardo who sensibly parked at Horton Plaza, me and you. But always there are the loose leaf, the lost, the hustlers and the hustled, the hopeful and the hopeless, those who are hanging on to the side of the planet with suction cups. A look at 12th & I on three different holidays might show a pattern, a theme, an inchoate watercolor of faces and voices along the wind tunnel tracks to points east, south, and north in San Diego. Maybe not, but the following were among those to be found where you can leap from the ballpark to the border, change from the Orange Line to the Blue Line, commute from Vinnie's to Old Town or Fashion Valley.
THANKSGIVING DAY 2006
Dale Spurlis, 79, and his daughter-in-law Janet Nielson, 45, are from, respectively, Dallas and Minneapolis. Nielson's son, a seaman first class aboard the naval barge Pepeliu, has invited them to Thanksgiving dinner on board. "We're going back on the 27th of this month, her to Minneapolis and me to Dallas," Spurlis explains.
"That's four days for me, five days for Dad," says Nielson.
"Today we're going to take the trolley on this tour that takes us around," Spurlis adds. "This is the first trip to San Diego for me."
"Second for me."
"What do we think of it? Well, we haven't seen much of it. We're staying at the Navy Lodge, and today will be the first chance to get around."
"You are in a kind of unique spot here," I tell the man. "I don't know how representative it is. Maybe very representative."
"Kind of scary," Spurlis observes.
"We find the trolley patrons...very interesting," says Nielson.
The woman is looking around, smiling broadly, no doubt genuinely, but it reminds me of a psychological disorder I heard about among Japanese businessmen; it is a kind of nervous tick in the form of a smile that appears under stress, one that the victim cannot unsmile and is subsequently treated with muscle relaxants. "Last year," she says with visible nostalgia, "it was me and my husband and the kids and my mom and my sister."
Spurlis adds: "She usually spends her Thanksgiving with her sister in Minnesota and with her mother. But her mother is in one of those retirement kind of villages in Arizona now and...it's kind of a retirement village, right?"
"No. No..." And the smile is gone now. "It's not. My daughter's now in college, my son's in the Navy, and I'm divorced, so..." Nielson laughs heartily at what she clearly sees as a good joke.
"So, you're used to a classic, Midwestern family kind of Thanksgiving?" I offer.
"Yeah," says Spurlis. "In Dallas, I'm usually with my wife, my stepdaughter, her husband, and their two little children. We go all out with the turkeys and the pies, and we usually play cards or watch the ballgames." Spurlis is a retired car dealer. "I worked for the largest car dealership in the whole Southwest. We sold Rolls-Royce, Maserati, and we had three Mercedes dealerships, two Lexus dealerships. We were Park Place Motorcars."
Spurlis waxes nostalgic now, but I see a woman nearby I'd like to talk to, and I transition from a kind of wholesome Hallmark tableau tinged with the poignancy of passing years to a diminutive woman, also smiling at something inward and past, a recent nightmare that is not quite over.
"I arrived here in November, and I was waiting for shelter at Saint Vincent de Paul, and I was waiting and waiting." Diane Pasis is 54 years old. She is a bespectacled, plump, and elfin-looking woman bundled with an odd assortment of clean clothes from Vinnie's late thrift store (now closed in budget cuts), where she was given vouchers for her windbreaker, sweatpants, men's shoes, and child's sweater. "The security let me stay from bench to bench," she indicates concrete benches around the station, and she is referring to MTS security cops. "And that's how I made it to the present." Pasis lives on a single meal a day, lunch at Saint Vincent's, and ice cream, candy bars, and burritos from the convenience store.
"When I was on the benches and over there by those buildings [Wonder Bread Warehouse: I see no benches where she is gesturing], I kept perfectly still when the police came around. That block over there. When I had to go to the bathroom, there was no place to go. Feces came out, and urine came out. I was a big mess, my pants and shoes, and I was out in the cold. I'm a brave woman, and I don't like to complain." Pasis's manner as she speaks in a Hispanic accent, nodding almost happily, is that of a kindergarten teacher discussing her indignities as if they were new and interesting techniques for finger painting.