Bob McPhail 5:30 p.m., May 25
- Community Blog
For the first three decades of adulthood, the place where I grew up was a link to a world for which I held a lot of affection but little real connection. Brought up on a busy street not far from San Diego State, I was a curious kid who liked sitting on the limb of a tree in our front yard, wearing a cowboy hat or plastic army helmet while shooting my toy guns at passing cars and wondering where everyone was going in such a hurry. I grew into a moody teenager during the troubled late '60s to early '70s, with aptitude for a lot of things and a strong desire to do almost nothing. There was a lot of ambivalence in the child I was about the college kids that made their way up our street on their way to the campus every morning, the beatniks-cum-hippies who supposedly had a new and profound approach to life but in reality just made too much noise, left empty beer cans lying around, and were the all-around nuisances that college students--with astonishing consistency from one generation to the next--always are.
Thunderclouds of Watergate began to rumble, preparing eventually to destroy the Nixon Administration, and my high school class held its graduation ceremony at San Diego State's Aztec Bowl. Our family had moved to a quieter street in the same neighborhood some years before, within walking distance of the Jack in the Box next to the college campus, where I worked a graveyard shift the night before graduation. Existentially paralyzed, I knew nonetheless one thing with certainty: I didn't want to spend one more minute sitting at a desk in a classroom in any institution of higher learning. It wasn't an anti-intellectual kind of thing; I just needed a break. Growing up in San Diego from the mid fifties to early seventies was like growing up in Disneyland. Maybe it doesn't get much better than that, but there's a whole other world out there and I didn't want to wait another four-to-six years to see some of it.
A quarter century passed. I returned home for visits, and even lived in San Diego for a year or two at a time, between military service, graduate study, and teaching jobs abroad. I lived on four continents, learned languages, acquired property and possessions, and became a reasonably focused if somewhat eccentric adult. Finally in the late '90s, with the folks getting older and needing me around, I moved back to the area and carved out not-too-shabby a living about a mile from the old family home.
Life became pretty routine, or maybe I'm just getting old and boring. Yet last week there was one of those days that seems much more meaningful than the sum total of the really quite ordinary events. I had the day free to take care of business with only an evening class to teach, and it played out against the events of the past few weeks, contrasting and connecting in an almost poetic sort of way.
A dental appointment is pretty routine, and though personnel have changed over the years, I've used same dental group off and on since high school. I greeted and chatted a bit with my hygienist that morning at their offices on El Cajon Blvd., as I have once or twice a year since the mid '80s, initially while in town on vacation from far away lands. We have no other contact socially, but each appointment is a catchup on news and developments in our lives and it seems we have for a half hour or so a couple of times a year a special if one-dimensional relationship that makes life a little brighter. So it is on this day.
A few blocks from there, behind the site of the old Campus Drive-in, is the duplex I've rented out since fixing it up during my first year of ownership a decade ago. Back then, I used to enjoy sitting out on the front steps with a cup of coffee in the early morning, watching the daily routine of the neighborhood as I prepared for another day of painting and landscaping. Now I cruise by to see how it's faired in the recent storm. The weeds are growing back. The neighbor across the alley comes out to say hello; his daughter went to elementary school with my little sister, who is now 50 years old. He says the tenants seem like nice folks and that the place looks great since I came by a few weeks ago to do yard work. I'd neglected it a bit during an exceptionally busy semester at my two schools, but now all is good in that particular corner of the world for the time being.
Though I could just call, the company that manages the duplex for me is on the way to my next appointment, where I'm going for an oil change and service on the car. With my active input, these guys have handled tenant turnover, maintenance crises, and any number of unpleasantries for me. They feel at times like teammates in a particularly rough contact sport. We know each other well within our limited area of interaction, and they're glad to see me as I poke my head in the door and ask if they could hire their weed whacker guy to come out again and give the place the once over.
On to my buddy's Shell station, where he's busy as usual, his head ducked under the hood of an old car. He seems to work a lot harder than I do, but always stops what he's doing to pass the time a bit. I've known him since junior high, but we lost contact until about ten years ago when dad recommended his favorite mechanic and I recognized the guy's name. He says dad was by a few days ago, still jazzed about the red Jeep I picked out for him a little less than a year ago. I find a plastic chair in the shade around the side of the building, and grade student papers for a couple of hours while his crew takes care of oil, fluid, and filter changes.
The Home Depot in Lemon Grove isn't far away, and so becomes my logical next destination. I pick up some vinyl lathe for dad, who's had the worn out wooden lathework in the backyard of the family home removed. He'd put it up himself in 1966, but at 89 years old is really not up to doing it again without a little help. I'm glad to oblige.
Dad gets a kick out of driving around in his Jeep. He plays Scrabble every Friday, goes to a church function on the edge of the SDSU campus a couple of times a week, and seems more active and energetic than myself. As a kid, I used to follow him around with a toy toolkit while he did home improvement projects, getting underfoot until he'd yell at me to stay the heck out of the way. It's funny how the roles are reversed now.
I no longer travel the world, living in exotic, distant lands and meeting exciting, interesting people. Life's pretty routine. My rental properties here and in Arizona tie me down in some ways. Yet I enjoy the easygoing familiarity of dealing with people I've known and done business with for a long time. They're glad to see me in the limited context in which we interact, and we try to do right by each other. It seems like the way things ought to be.
For the past decade, I haven't traveled much aside for runs out to Arizona to take care of business, mixing in a little sightseeing and visits to old friends when the serious stuff is done. Last month, though, I decided to do something different and for the first time in five years boarded an airplane. Last summer, actually, laid the groundwork for it all, when I decided I was going to present at the big spring conference for my discipline in Boston. Though I hadn't done anything like that in awhile, I knew it would be approved because it was something I heartfully wanted to do.
Things tend to work out for me when I've made up my mind to do them. My two schools pitched in funding that covered the expenses, and I had an enjoyable four days in Boston with a little time afterwards to see the town for the first time in 35 years. In 1975, I was a soldier stationed in Washington DC and took a trip to see some of the East Coast, which I knew until then only from U.S. history and geography lessons during my school days in San Diego.
On a windy and cool late afternoon I took a train to Coolidge Corner, out toward Harvard University, and found the churchyard where I'd laid out my sleeping bag in the bushes during the three days I'd spent in town as a soldier on weekend pass with very little money half a lifetime before. It was a special feeling to think that I'd now returned as a somewhat accomplished adult attending a conference at a four-star hotel.
Then 24 hours later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was back home in San Diego. I caught the city bus from the airport and switched to the Number 7, hoping to catch the tail end of the Rolando Street Fair. Pausing only to throw my luggage through the front door of my little condo, I made my way up Alamo Drive from University Avenue to Rolando Boulevard.
Familiar faces greeted me as I made my way up to the "island" on Rolando. I apologized for not being available to set up the fair that morning, and all was forgiven. The evening before in Boston had been a nostalgic experience, and it seemed out of place somehow for me to be back in such a short time to the neighborhood I grew up in, among people I've known all my life. Just the same I embraced the moment with a happiness way out of proportion to its significance in and of itself, and knew that small things matter.