When my cell phone rang at 9:17 p.m., it was Officer Rohatan calling to tell me that he and a few colleagues were planning a surprise visit to our street. "Tomorrow night, between 7:00 and 8:00," he said. "I thought I'd give you the heads-up."
Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Bad House. When I introduce myself to neighbors and they ask where I live, I say, "Near the Crack House." I call it the "Crack House" because that sounds funnier than "Meth House," but really, when it's on your block, neither one is all that funny.
No one has ever asked me to be more specific. Even people blocks away know exactly which house I mean.
This is a storybook neighborhood. The streets are lined with shade trees, and homes are single family with large yards. On our sidewalks, children play and people of all ages come to walk their dogs. The gentle curve of the narrow streets makes it feel old-fashioned in a pleasant way. Dan, who owns a water store nearby, grew up here and never left. “There’s no place finer,” he says. “People have worked hard to keep the integrity of the place and keep developers out. It’s a real neighborhood.”
In this area, real estate prices are still at bubble heights. The houses are a hodgepodge of styles, from modest prewar bungalows to replacement mansions built up high enough to get a view of the water. All are proud and tidy, except one. It’s exactly where you’d imagine the drug dealers would live. Random, sprawling additions made long ago and now in deep disrepair make the house seem like an untreated cancer. The paint job is slapdash, and unidentifiable debris litters the roof. There is an ever-changing assortment of clunker cars and vans parked out front. Weeds the size of bushes landscape the front yard.
But what really sets this house apart is the traffic it generates. Stand on our street almost any hour of the day and you’ll see them coming from all directions. Hornets to the nest, singly or in swarms, guys with thuggish scowls and dirty backpacks swoop down the street on bikes into the Bad House driveway and through the gate to the backyard.
“Runners,” a New York City friend tells me.
At night, the runners are joined by an indigent subclass, wrapped in blankets, clutching handfuls of change. These unfortunates flap down our street in the dark like giant bats. Through the gate they go, night after night, to what neighbors have told me is a flophouse set up in the backyard. In the dark, you can hear the coins rattling in their hands as they struggle to open the gate.
“Crack House Camp Land,” my husband jokes.
One day soon after we’d moved in, my son came to visit. He unloaded his car, then locked it carefully. After two men rode past us on low, BMX-style bikes, he checked the locks again. “Tweakers,” he said.
“Tweaker” is one of those words that sound exactly like what they mean. A tweaker is an addict on methamphetamine or other form of speed who displays manic, obsessive-compulsive behavior. As the Urban Dictionary says, “The crackhead will steal your shit and bounce — the tweaker will steal your shit and then help you look for it.”
“Tweaker” is the word I’d been looking for. It explained things I hadn’t been able to figure out about the Bad House. Like, why the people banged on a rusted-out car motor nonstop for a day and a half with a big wrench. Or why they’d move huge piles of junk from one corner of the yard to the other and then back again. Or why the backyard gate opens and closes a hundred times a day and nobody in the house seems to mind the fingernail-on-chalkboard screech of its old hinges, while the rest of us up and down the street grit our teeth, wince, and bear it, especially in the dead of night.
“Tweaker” is just one of the many lessons I’ve received in San Diego urban culture since coming to this lovely neighborhood.
Cops and Tweakers
How to talk to police has been another learning experience. I’ve talked to seven different cops since we moved in. Cop #1 came our first week on the street.
We moved back to San Diego after a few years away and chose not to return to our old neighborhood where we’d owned a home. Renting would give us freedom to sample new parts of town, and our old friends were envious of our newfound mobility. But this, the first little house we’d rented, and the neighborhood around it, were charming, and we imagined living here for years.
I was unpacking boxes when I heard a woman screaming outside the Bad House. From the window, I could see her and her target. He had jumped into a car driven by a much younger woman. As the car sped away, the older woman stood in the middle of the street and bellowed. The spectacle of her public anger was positively Shakespearean, and it exploded the sleepy midday like a pipe bomb. She’d kill the guy, she shrieked. Torrents of profanity and murderous epithets rained up and down the empty block. Still yelling, she threw the man’s things into the street. Clothing, a guitar, a few bicycles. Anything she could find, she threw.
It wasn’t I who called the police. I’d never called the police for anything in my life, and at that point, I had no idea that the 911 phase of my life had just begun.
The policeman who answered the call, Cop #1, told me it was a “Bad House.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but after the woman’s performance, he almost didn’t have to. His look at me through the squad-car window made it clear that living within a mile of her house was a big mistake. “Own or rent?” Cop #1 asked. Renters, I said. “Good thing for you,” he said and drove off.