Editor's note: More than 600 San Diegans submitted stories for the Reader "My Neighborhood" writing contest. Ocean Beach led all communities with over 20 entries. Writers 10 to 87 years old sent pieces from as far north as Fallbrook and as far south as Tijuana and from most every neighborhood in between. A Marine lieutenant in Iraq wrote to us about the La Jolla neighborhood he misses. Over the next four weeks, 41 of the best neighborhood stories will appear in the Reader.
I look out the car window at the tacky little houses with gravel front yards. The streets are lined with parked trucks advertising hauling, mobile dog washing, drywall, mariachi bands. Inside an open garage, a bunch of men sit around a poker table drinking beer.
I miss La Jolla and tell the realtor. "Well, it's the cheapest neighborhood close to the beach," she says as we drive past a house covered in millions of old dishes, ceramic statuettes, Christmas ornaments, and plastic flowers.We're here because I can't afford to buy in La Jolla, the beautiful place I've come to love and call home, where my friends live and where I surf; the place I'd moved to four years before to get as far as I could from a bad divorce back East. Now, ready to settle in San Diego for good, I want to be as close to La Jolla as possible. This cheaper, uglier neighborhood will have to do.
The house I end up buying isn't bad. It's tiny, but the backyard is huge. Best part is I'm only eight minutes to La Jolla Shores. Worst part is I now live in the kind of neighborhood where people keep boats in the front yard and washing machines in the garage. Where I grew up, we called people like that trashy.
These people are my neighbors.
I meet Ron and Paula next door. They have matching Harleys and an Iwo Jima-sized American flag flying in the front yard. Ron tells me that the man who owned my house before me repaired lawn mowers in his backyard, and when business was good, you could see mountains of mowers crowning above the fence. "Did you mind that?" I ask. "Hell, no," Ron said, "cuz that was his business. But I did mind when he'd shoot stray cats with a shotgun." At least we have one thing in common.
The day after I move in, my washing machine overflows. Suds gush all over the unpacked boxes in the garage and down the driveway into the street. Suddenly, there's George, an older man with a pug, a walking stick, and a Scottish brogue. "Lass! Yurr need yurr dren snekked!" My dren snekked? It takes him two hours on his hands and knees, but George and his snake coddle my drain into submission. For free.
Then there is Ruth. In baseball cap and running shoes, 80-year-old Ruth strolls the block like she owns it, and in a sense she does, having lived here for over 40 years. Ruth calls everyone by name and wastes no time learning mine. She also wastes no time figuring me out. "Look at you, Alex, loading up that surfboard. You sure are in a hurry to get to that beach. Must be lots of good-looking men waiting down there for a pretty girl like you."
I meet Ruth's best buddy, Daniel, a first-grader she watches while his parents are at work. Like Ruth, Daniel's an ardent waver and never lets me pass his front yard without a good chat. He introduces me to his parents, his older brother, and his best friend, Tito.
Next door to Ruth are Don and Colleen. Ruth tells me they've been like a son and daughter, helping her and her husband live out the last years at home.
I try to stay aloof, reviling the collection of rusted-out Chevrolet Impalas down the street. I curse the breeze -- not scented by the sea but by hot Krispy Kreme donuts. My neighbors circle their wagons around me and pull in tighter.
It's true I've never felt so safe. Ron and Paula give me their phone number to keep by my bedside. "Call us anytime day or night," and they mean it. The renters Ward and John guard our street like vigilantes; John, to protect his beloved PT Cruiser and Ward guarding tools in his two work trucks. Neighbors are everywhere -- in garages, in the yard, walking dogs, shouting at each other through open screen doors. I am comforted by all this presence. Me! The snob who secretly has referred to a nice but scantily clad young mother with tattoos as Stripper Mom.
Here I am, the Wellesley College liberal, encircled by this fiercely independent bunch of strangers, immigrants, and Republicans, who somehow know I need a lesson in tolerance. Sure enough, as my mother always said, "Pretty is as pretty does." From the neighbors I once judged, now I find myself learning the small everyday courtesies of neighborliness: a friendly wave, a joke, a favor asked, a favor returned.
Ward and John give me fresh plums from their tree, and I take them a jar of homemade plum jam. When the teacher next door must fly to his father's deathbed and asks me to collect his mail, I surprise myself by feeling honored. No, I don't like Ron's Lindbergh Field-strength driveway light, which makes my backyard safe enough for a runway landing at night, but I admit I'm probably safer for it. I've even grown fond of the 100-foot palm tree decked with year-round Christmas lights -- sharing its front yard with a boat. My little house has begun to feel like home.
I sure miss Ruth, who died last year, especially when I see the new neighbor who always seems to be pushing a baby stroller while walking the dog while talking on his cell phone. Ruth could crack him with one smile, I know, but now it's my job.