With a sweep of his arm, Darrell gestures at the mess of items at our feet.
“See, this is like my history right here.” He points to a pile at his left. “I used to be in welding. That’s my welding jacket. I gave my son my welding hood and a few other things. There’s my welding bucket, to put my stuff in.”
He points out other piles of “hardware stuff” and “plumbing stuff” from jobs he’s done around the house.
“And this here is for knocking dents out of cars.” He points to what looks like a fishing tackle box full of rusty hand tools. “I just kind of accumulated that. I didn’t really knock any dents out.”
Darrell notices that he hasn’t seen Buddy for a while. He shouts the dog’s name twice, then excuses himself to go down the driveway and into the street. He calls out. I hear dogs bark next door. A minute later, Buddy and Darrell return. Buddy heads for the shed to lie down in the shade.
“I do a lot of gardening stuff.” Darrell indicates the hill behind the apartment building. “There’s a lot of weeds now, but I have greens growing back there. And grapes. I’m going to take my grapes with me. I’m going to dig them up and put the roots in a canvas bag and tie it off.”
When he arrives in Michigan, he’ll replant them.
“My sister’s going to get us a house out there. She’s expecting a big lump sum because she’s suing her dentist.”
He pushes Sugar off his lap and tells me the story of how his sister’s minor tooth extraction turned into spinal meningitis, which led to a coma, infection in her brain, and other complications. Every now and again, he touches his jaw. He looks somewhere over my shoulder and, in the telling, employs an affectless demeanor. His voice rises slightly at the end of his sentences, as if in question.
Overhead, City Heights songbirds whistle and chirp. Down the street, a dog barks. Under the shed, Buddy’s head perks up.
Darrell was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and came to San Diego with his family in 1964. He attended Johnson Elementary in Emerald Hills, Gompers Middle School in Chollas View, and graduated from Hoover High in City Heights. He was in the seventh grade when he got his first job, picking rocks out of the ground at the newly built Euclid Convalescent Center (now Brighton Place) for $1 an hour. He worked there in various capacities (gardening, dishwashing, maintenance) after school for the next five years, within which time his pay was raised to $2.20 per hour. Right before his 1974 high-school graduation, when his first daughter was born, he asked the owner for a raise.
“He said he couldn’t give me a raise, but if I could work to the end of the week, he wouldn’t stand in the way of my unemployment. I told my mother, ‘I went and asked for a raise and he fired me.’”
He flashes an ambiguous smile.
In 1975, Darrell joined the Coast Guard, which took him to Oregon, Italy, Philadelphia, and New Jersey. After eight years, he left the Coast Guard and brought his family back to San Diego. By then, he had three children.
“I knew I was going to be a single parent because my wife was no good. So, I had to raise my kids. She turned into a drug addict. She used to tell me stuff like, ‘You better take your daughter with you because I’m not going to take care of her.’ She’d give me all kinds of shit in the mornings. It made it hard to go to work not knowing what was going to happen with the kids while I was gone.”
Darrell maintains the affectlessness while he veers off and tells me a story about later years, when he and his wife were both on crack and crystal meth.
“I was still going to work every day and paying my bills, but she was steadily getting worse. She would go out and stay a week or two at a time. We used to go up the hill to dry the clothes, and she’d drive around four or five days with the clothes in the car still wet. I’d have to call my boss and say I couldn’t go to work, not only because I had no clothes, but also because I had nobody to take care of the kids.”
After the Coast Guard, Darrell worked for a year as an outside machinist in the San Diego shipyards. In 1984, he found a job — first in maintenance, then as an ironworker — at Ameron Pipe, where he stayed until the plant closed in 1990.
Even though he claims to have had a handle on his drug use, something his mother said made him feel bad about it.
“Just about everybody in the family was getting high on something or another, and my mother said that we had all turned out to be a bunch of junkies, and if she’d have known that, she wouldn’t have sacrificed all that she did to try to raise us.”
Two young black men in baggy jeans and baseball caps emerge from the same iron gate Darrell had come from. Darrell nods at them. Buddy and Sugar both run over and begin to follow the young men down the driveway. Darrell calls the dogs back.
“Those are my renters,” he says.
In 1988, Darrell went into rehab for a month. He hasn’t done crack or crystal meth since. By that time, he and his wife had been separated for a few years, but she lived down the street. When he came home from rehab, she went in.
“We did an exchange because we had insurance. But it didn’t work on her. It got ugly because she was getting welfare and having the checks go over to her auntie’s house. I was wondering how come, on the first of every month, she would disappear for a week, and then she’d come back stinking and crazy-looking and didn’t even have a nickel in her pocket.”