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The soul of San Diego

Kensington, Clairemont, College Heights, Talmadge? Not Hillcrest or North Park.

Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders.  - Image by David Diaz
Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders.

My mother was here visiting in the beginning of September. On the evening before she left, we went to Carlsbad State Beach and sat in the sand. A bank of low, blue gray clouds edged in from over the ocean. “It looks like rain,” my mother said. She is from the East and expects late-summer showers. I knew better; these were just the usual low evening clouds, and this I told her. The next morning I woke to a light rain. I was a bit put off by that. My own turf had thrown me a curve ball.

The rain brought back a memory of an afternoon in 1978, not long after I first came to San Diego. It was a Sunday, and I was driving along Adams Avenue toward my apartment in Kensington. Nora, the woman I was seeing, was sitting beside me. We were coming from the Big Bear market; our plans for an afternoon picnic had been rained out, and we decided to spend the remainder of the day in the kitchen, chopping garlic and shallots, sipping wine, and preparing a gourmet feast. The rain had temporarily stopped; the atmosphere was washed clean, and the air was fresh.

The view east on Adams Avenue was of a gargantuan formation of cumulonimbus clouds backed up against the mountains of East County, and Nora speculated about the magnificent thunderstorms there that probably spilled out over the desert. Nora loved theories, and she had one to explain why it rained so much on weekends during the winter of 1978. I don't recall the details, but the premise was that because pollution from industry and traffic poured into the atmosphere all during the workweek and then stopped abruptly on weekends, the atmosphere went into something akin to shock and tried to dump the pollutants back out on the weekends. Unscientific though I was, the theory still seemed suspect. But I knew better than to argue with Nora once she got an idea in her head.

Nora also believed that Hungarians were extraterrestrials. This she came upon in some reading she was doing on the history of the A-bomb. Nora had a strong, at times pathological, preoccupation with nuclear arms proliferation long before it became the cause célèbre it is today. In a piece she was reading on Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and the days at Los Alamos, Nora found an anecdote. There were many Hungarians, including Teller himself, working through the deep, miasmic possibilities of nuclear physics then, and it was jokingly put about that Hungarians possessed a superhuman intelligence. On top of that was a true-life fact; the Hungarian language is utterly and somewhat enigmatically unlike any of the other languages of nearby countries. A few of the physicists came up with the comic notion that therefore Hungarians were actually extraterrestrials who had crash-landed in what is now Hungary and had tried to hide their identity to avoid slaughter. Nora ignored the humorous side of the story. Instead, she took the theory in her arms with all her other theories, which she held like invisible bouquets, and it became gospel to her.

I had a theory myself. It was that each city has a soul. Not only a personality, which is outwardly reflected and much easier to see, but also a depth, a living heart. The cellular make-up of a city's soul consists of many things: latitude and longitude, primary industries, its nature, whether homogeneous or cosmopolitan, its age and history, culture, demographics. These tangibles combine to form an intangible entity — its soul. This was not an original theory. But I went a bit further with it. I also theorized that the soul had a geographic location in each city, that you could stand in one spot in any such city and declare that this was the place that gave the city its life. I had grown up near New York City and I was convinced I'd found its soul, it was Times Square. There was the sleaze and the squalor, the glitter and the wealth of the theater district, and, in the offices above, the humdrum of Everyman's everyday business life. From here these things flowed out on to the crossroads, like lifeblood through veins, to the rest of the city. And wasn't it from here, every New Year's Eve, that the ball fell from the top of the Allied Chemical tower and gave life to the year just ushered in?

Nora agreed that cities have souls but she theorized that the soul, like the human soul, was ethereal and could not be pinpointed on a map. “Where would it be?" she said to me, looking out the kitchen window. “Is it here? Is it Kensington?"

In one of Saul Bellow's books, there is a description of Southern California that goes like this: It was as if the United States had been tilted, and everything that wasn't screwed on tightly fell into Southern California. The screws and bolts that held my life together came loose in the summer of 1978. I was not a major trauma case: a long love affair, my first love, had fallen apart. I could not stay in New York, so I accepted the offer of a friend from college to come to San Diego and share an apartment with him. I didn't argue with the assertion made by other friends that I was simply running away. At the same time, I was convinced that it was the best possible move. I was not coming to California to “find myself.” I was coming for rest and relaxation, to pick the emotional shrapnel out of my body.

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I lived for a brief time in Clairemont, just off Park Rim. It was a residential neighborhood — lots of teenagers and pickup trucks with surfboards sticking out of the beds. Skateboards rattled over the pavement constantly. The motion all seemed to be going to or coming from the beach; it was back and forth, in and out again, like the surge of the surf itself. I liked the location and I thought it would be a good place to stay, but my friend Bud, with whom I was going to live, had found us an apartment in Kensington. It was September when we moved.

I came to California with very little in the way of material possessions and money. I had sold my faithful Volkswagen before I left the East, a tactical error I was to regret often over the next few years. Thus, my immediate need was for transportation; it took me no time to realize that life here is not possible without a car. I bought a ’66 Ford Falcon from a State College student. It was the beginning of my regrets over the Volkswagen. I had no desire at that point to put my college degree to work, so I took a job in a warehouse on Mission Gorge Road. I was on the evening shift, and that was fine with me. It would leave me the daylight hours to explore the city.

A Santa Ana condition had settled in that September and, in our top-floor apartment, one of two in an unattached unit behind a house on Kensington Drive, it was uncomfortably hot at night. Falling asleep was difficult for me even under the best conditions, but on this particular morning, when I would have been up already, I was still asleep at nine, having tossed and turned most of the night. A deep boom woke me. It was loud and shook the room. Half-asleep, I waited a moment for something to follow. Nothing did, and I went back to sleep. A few miles away, a jet had fallen out of the sky. Bud called from work a short time later, unsure just where the crash had occurred and anxious to know that everything was all right. Out on the balcony I stood and looked out over the rooftops and palm trees that separated North Park from Kensington. A column of black smoke rose up from the earth. Helicopters fluttered curiously around it. In the neighborhood below I could sec people in the streets talking quietly to each other and gazing at the dark plume. My downstairs neighbor called up to me. “I’ve always been afraid of that. That’s too close for me.”

My mind was at work and I wanted to talk about it, but I was afraid that what I had to say wouldn't make her feel any better. The forces of circumstance were at work here. These were the elements: the placement of the airport, the invisible corridor in the sky called a landing pattern, the instant of impact between two planes, and the glide path of the swan-diving airliner. All of these combined had determined which of the ground dwellers would die and who would escape with a close call. And in the end, the names and faces that were in the newspapers for the next few days were in reality only secondary to the event itself. It could have been anyone; tragedy and circumstance are random.

I started seeing Nora some weeks after the crash. It was still big news, and Nora, of course, had a theory of her own about it. That theory also held, she said, for all human tragedies and disasters. Nora believed that the Supreme Being (she never used the name “God’’) had it in mind to make certain that mankind never lost sight of its own limitations and vulnerability, its smallness in the cosmos. And so, to keep us humble, he sent earthquakes and floods, storms, epidemics, drought, volcanic eruptions. He sank ships and knocked planes from the sky. So it was that on a morning when there wasn’t a cloud to obscure vision, nothing but a universe of blue, he looked down and said. Thou shalt not see each other, and neither of those pilots did.

Kensington reminded me a bit of the town I’d grown up in, and this was comforting during my time of adjustment. At Nau’s pharmacy, the friendly middle-age women called me “young man” and gossiped warmly. Several of the tellers of the Home Federal branch knew me by name. The Kensington Hardware had an organized clutter to it that was like a country shop. Tucked away there was every trinket and gadget that had ever been made. If you could come up with a fair description of what you needed, in nouns like thingamajig and doohickey, they had it in stock. I bought pasta at the Western Market and cake, when the occasion warranted, at Hugh’s. The tiny hobby shop displayed the same models I had painstakingly assembled and then blown to bits with firecrackers when I was a kid. I went to the Ken often. On Sundays Bud and I threw a football around on the patch of lawn beside the library.

For a few bucks I got my hair cut at the Kensington Barber. This, too, was a flashback for me. When I was young, my mother took me to Nunzio’s Barber Shop. Nunzio was a short, gruff Italian, who cut hair with the delicacy of a mechanic. He handled the electric razor like a drill and twisted your head around as though he were turning a wrench. He spoke in short sentences that came out like bursts of machine-gun fire, and his hands, which held the comb and the scissors, flew wildly while he talked. There was a strong odor of hair tonic, and the smell of pizza from the parlor next door wafted in. Nunzio’s breath was stale with beer. He argued politics with the old men who came in to sit and read the paper. There was a lot of sports talk, and the phone in the back rang constantly. On Mondays men came in and paid Nunzio with wads of money. Every once in a while, the Mafia families in New York would go to war, and some of Nunzio’s regulars disappeared for a time. Still, it was a family barber shop, and all the mothers from the neighborhood brought in their kids. This memory came back to me from the Kensington Barber. There were no phone calls and no Mafia soldiers, but Sam, the older guy who cut my hair, spoke with a thick Italian accent and waved his hands as he did. There were old men reading the newspapers, and there was joking and laughter, and mothers with their kids.

Kensington had two bars in the central district. Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders. The woman behind the bar didn’t like my out-of-state license and insisted on holding it while we drank our beer. The Homestead, a few doors down, was more like what we were used to. Both Bud and I had grown up in middle-class neighborhoods that were adjacent to industrial areas. We had learned to drink in tough working-class bars and quaint neighborhood taverns that are at the heart of such places. The Homestead was closer to this, unpretentious and filled with the open, if somewhat strained, camaraderie that drinkers who are strangers can have with each other. There was a night or two you could smell a fistfight coming on, but we never had any trouble.

Nora was seriously involved with another man, and there was an element of the illicit about our relationship. If anything, this only intensified it. Once, while driving down Morena Boulevard, Nora swore she had seen her brother in a passing car. When we got back to my apartment, this tension transformed itself into a sexual energy that demanded immediate release. That led to many more afternoon drives and more sightings of her relatives.

Nora listened to my theory about the location of the soul of the city. As much as I liked Kensington, on the day that Nora stood looking out the kitchen window, asking me if this was where the soul of San Diego was, I had to tell her no. It wasn’t in Kensington. This much I knew.

Nor was it in Clairemont or College Heights or Talmadge. Not Hillcrest, either, or North Park. North Park and Hillcrest I eliminated after experiencing them through my friend Tom. Tom was looking for the soul of the city, too, though not in the same way as I. He chose to live in North Park because he believed that the transience of that neighborhood epitomized the transience of San Diego as a whole. But San Diego was becoming too big to reflect only the nature of the unsettled. People were coming and staying. It was as if it were a great secret, and now someone had leaked it to the rest of the country. And there was an unsavory side to the transient community that Tom struggled against. He wasn't happy in North Park. On top of that, the jet crash had upset him. He moved in with his girlfriend in Hillcrest. He was attracted by the energy, activism, and the rejuvenation he saw there. I spent time with him, and I saw what he saw, but we both also knew this was not the heart of San Diego.

I began to doubt my theory about there being a definite location for the city's soul, perhaps for any city’s soul. The thought of this was disquieting. Years earlier, when I'd stood at the crossroads in Times Square, there was nothing more important to me than being at the center of New York. Beneath the pavement the subway throbbed like a beating heart. The traffic and the pedestrians moved in pulses. Taxi horns blared, city buses snarled in protest as they pulled away from the curb. Vendors hawked hot dogs and pretzels to the passing crowd. I stood rooted to the heart of the city, I touched its life, and felt alive myself. When I came to San Diego I wanted that same feeling. I looked for the city’s soul so that I could plant my feet on it and take in lungfuls of its breath. Now I wasn't sure that there was such a place at all.

Yet Tom couldn't stay in San Diego. He loved the city, but it hadn't loved him in return. He had problems: drugs, the police, the wrong friends, the wrong girl. Circumstances were continually set against him, all of which would have seemed to say that a city does have a soul and that there are some people who cannot live symbiotically with it. Like Tom, who went away.

Transitions occurred. Bud went off to graduate school in Santa Barbara. Nora moved out of the state with her other man to see if there was something worth saving. I was going to do some post-graduate work at San Diego State, so I left Kensington and found an apartment in the College Heights section. I thought that living near the university might be like living in the small New England college town where I had gone to study. It was not. San Diego State seemed to have risen up out of the suburban skin like a blemish, although in truth, it was the surrounding area that had been guilty of the encroachment. Still, very little off-campus indicated that there was a university nearby, except of course the parked cars. There seemed to be an invisible curtain between the school and the adjacent community, although I decided that the problems they had were more along the lines of dermatology than urban planning.

The old Falcon went, but the Datsun I bought to replace it was no less of a headache. The one-bedroom apartment I lived in on College Avenue was unbearably hot and infested with cockroaches. Several apartments in the complex were broken into. My neighbors were young like me. We had the run of each other’s apartments, we threw parties, we ate breakfast together on Sundays.

Nora wove in and out of my life now and then over the next few years, but only for days at a time. I took a job driving a truck for a moving company, and so it was that I found myself experiencing all the different parts of San Diego, from the kingdom of La Jolla to the blight of East San Diego. I went everywhere, but nowhere did I find a place where the soul of the city could truly be said to reside. I stayed again in Clairemont after I left the college area, and in Talmadge. Talmadge, though just to the east of Kensington, was not like it. It had no central district, no focal point at all. I spent time in Pacific Beach, as well. The people who lived there said it was the only place to be. Perhaps true, in this climate, but it was still not at the heart of things.

I finally settled into a house in Mission Village, just above San Diego Stadium. I knew that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for there, but practicality was finally beginning to assert itself in my life. The place was affordable and convenient. Light planes from Montgomery Field buzzed overhead, and stadium traffic was an annoyance, but this, too, was not a bad place to live. Here I had time on my hands, time to think, to read, to write, and, again, to doubt.

There were more transitions. After Mission Village I became a true nomad. My possessions went into storage and I went to sea. I spent most of the next few years working with the navy, and most of that was overseas. I saw the city from still different angles. I once spent four days anchored off the entrance to the harbor. On one of those nights, there were fireworks in Seaport Village. We couldn’t hear them but we saw them arcing and bursting in the sky. It was as if an invisible hand were sketching on black paper with brightly colored crayons. I saw the city from the perspective of sailing away for what would be seven months, and I saw it welcome me back again. I came and I left, and little things changed all the time.

Nora called for the last time a couple of years ago. She said she wanted to get on with her life, so she was calling to say good-by. We talked for a little while, and then she said, “Well, good-by," and that was it.

She was right about the location of a city’s soul. I didn't think to mention it to her when we spoke that last time, but she was right-. There isn’t a place where the soul of something as big and diverse as a city ever stays. Perhaps once, a long time ago, when San Diego was small, there was such a place. There may have been a time when I was right about Times Square. That isn't true now. I've spent time on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn, and they are centers, too, in New York, and cannot be denied. No, the soul of New York and the soul of San Diego are the same in one respect: they are intangible. You cannot stand on them.

Not long ago I moved again. For the first time, the fact that I don't own very much struck a negative note with me. Somewhat sheepishly, I remarked to my friend Tim that I had moved myself, and that it had taken only two loads with a Honda hatchback. Tim had snickered, “And it wasn't even your Honda." Measured by my possessions, my seven years in San Diego have not amounted to very much. Luckily for my sanity and inner peace, my philosophy on this matter is of a somewhat Eastern nature. I think this is Nora's influence. I measure my accomplishment here not by what I've accumulated but by what I've gained in other respects: knowledge, friends, experience, loves, even pain. Measured by that stick, how can I have failed?

I've been living in North County of late. More and more, as if by continental drift, North County is moving away from San Diego. In the past half-dozen years alone, there has been a proliferation of malls and restaurants and the other attractions around which communities cluster.

People are finding fewer reasons to travel down to San Diego. I can see the day when North County will be its own metropolis, with its hub at Oceanside or perhaps Carlsbad. Carlsbad has been growing in quiet, giant leaps. Its downtown district is suited to the new, young wealth that will shepherd this evolution. And, of course, this new metropolis will grow its own soul, though like the soul of any city, you won't be able to find a street corner where it lives. It will be everywhere, covering all parts, like the evening clouds that my mother knew were full of rain.

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Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders.  - Image by David Diaz
Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders.

My mother was here visiting in the beginning of September. On the evening before she left, we went to Carlsbad State Beach and sat in the sand. A bank of low, blue gray clouds edged in from over the ocean. “It looks like rain,” my mother said. She is from the East and expects late-summer showers. I knew better; these were just the usual low evening clouds, and this I told her. The next morning I woke to a light rain. I was a bit put off by that. My own turf had thrown me a curve ball.

The rain brought back a memory of an afternoon in 1978, not long after I first came to San Diego. It was a Sunday, and I was driving along Adams Avenue toward my apartment in Kensington. Nora, the woman I was seeing, was sitting beside me. We were coming from the Big Bear market; our plans for an afternoon picnic had been rained out, and we decided to spend the remainder of the day in the kitchen, chopping garlic and shallots, sipping wine, and preparing a gourmet feast. The rain had temporarily stopped; the atmosphere was washed clean, and the air was fresh.

The view east on Adams Avenue was of a gargantuan formation of cumulonimbus clouds backed up against the mountains of East County, and Nora speculated about the magnificent thunderstorms there that probably spilled out over the desert. Nora loved theories, and she had one to explain why it rained so much on weekends during the winter of 1978. I don't recall the details, but the premise was that because pollution from industry and traffic poured into the atmosphere all during the workweek and then stopped abruptly on weekends, the atmosphere went into something akin to shock and tried to dump the pollutants back out on the weekends. Unscientific though I was, the theory still seemed suspect. But I knew better than to argue with Nora once she got an idea in her head.

Nora also believed that Hungarians were extraterrestrials. This she came upon in some reading she was doing on the history of the A-bomb. Nora had a strong, at times pathological, preoccupation with nuclear arms proliferation long before it became the cause célèbre it is today. In a piece she was reading on Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, and the days at Los Alamos, Nora found an anecdote. There were many Hungarians, including Teller himself, working through the deep, miasmic possibilities of nuclear physics then, and it was jokingly put about that Hungarians possessed a superhuman intelligence. On top of that was a true-life fact; the Hungarian language is utterly and somewhat enigmatically unlike any of the other languages of nearby countries. A few of the physicists came up with the comic notion that therefore Hungarians were actually extraterrestrials who had crash-landed in what is now Hungary and had tried to hide their identity to avoid slaughter. Nora ignored the humorous side of the story. Instead, she took the theory in her arms with all her other theories, which she held like invisible bouquets, and it became gospel to her.

I had a theory myself. It was that each city has a soul. Not only a personality, which is outwardly reflected and much easier to see, but also a depth, a living heart. The cellular make-up of a city's soul consists of many things: latitude and longitude, primary industries, its nature, whether homogeneous or cosmopolitan, its age and history, culture, demographics. These tangibles combine to form an intangible entity — its soul. This was not an original theory. But I went a bit further with it. I also theorized that the soul had a geographic location in each city, that you could stand in one spot in any such city and declare that this was the place that gave the city its life. I had grown up near New York City and I was convinced I'd found its soul, it was Times Square. There was the sleaze and the squalor, the glitter and the wealth of the theater district, and, in the offices above, the humdrum of Everyman's everyday business life. From here these things flowed out on to the crossroads, like lifeblood through veins, to the rest of the city. And wasn't it from here, every New Year's Eve, that the ball fell from the top of the Allied Chemical tower and gave life to the year just ushered in?

Nora agreed that cities have souls but she theorized that the soul, like the human soul, was ethereal and could not be pinpointed on a map. “Where would it be?" she said to me, looking out the kitchen window. “Is it here? Is it Kensington?"

In one of Saul Bellow's books, there is a description of Southern California that goes like this: It was as if the United States had been tilted, and everything that wasn't screwed on tightly fell into Southern California. The screws and bolts that held my life together came loose in the summer of 1978. I was not a major trauma case: a long love affair, my first love, had fallen apart. I could not stay in New York, so I accepted the offer of a friend from college to come to San Diego and share an apartment with him. I didn't argue with the assertion made by other friends that I was simply running away. At the same time, I was convinced that it was the best possible move. I was not coming to California to “find myself.” I was coming for rest and relaxation, to pick the emotional shrapnel out of my body.

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I lived for a brief time in Clairemont, just off Park Rim. It was a residential neighborhood — lots of teenagers and pickup trucks with surfboards sticking out of the beds. Skateboards rattled over the pavement constantly. The motion all seemed to be going to or coming from the beach; it was back and forth, in and out again, like the surge of the surf itself. I liked the location and I thought it would be a good place to stay, but my friend Bud, with whom I was going to live, had found us an apartment in Kensington. It was September when we moved.

I came to California with very little in the way of material possessions and money. I had sold my faithful Volkswagen before I left the East, a tactical error I was to regret often over the next few years. Thus, my immediate need was for transportation; it took me no time to realize that life here is not possible without a car. I bought a ’66 Ford Falcon from a State College student. It was the beginning of my regrets over the Volkswagen. I had no desire at that point to put my college degree to work, so I took a job in a warehouse on Mission Gorge Road. I was on the evening shift, and that was fine with me. It would leave me the daylight hours to explore the city.

A Santa Ana condition had settled in that September and, in our top-floor apartment, one of two in an unattached unit behind a house on Kensington Drive, it was uncomfortably hot at night. Falling asleep was difficult for me even under the best conditions, but on this particular morning, when I would have been up already, I was still asleep at nine, having tossed and turned most of the night. A deep boom woke me. It was loud and shook the room. Half-asleep, I waited a moment for something to follow. Nothing did, and I went back to sleep. A few miles away, a jet had fallen out of the sky. Bud called from work a short time later, unsure just where the crash had occurred and anxious to know that everything was all right. Out on the balcony I stood and looked out over the rooftops and palm trees that separated North Park from Kensington. A column of black smoke rose up from the earth. Helicopters fluttered curiously around it. In the neighborhood below I could sec people in the streets talking quietly to each other and gazing at the dark plume. My downstairs neighbor called up to me. “I’ve always been afraid of that. That’s too close for me.”

My mind was at work and I wanted to talk about it, but I was afraid that what I had to say wouldn't make her feel any better. The forces of circumstance were at work here. These were the elements: the placement of the airport, the invisible corridor in the sky called a landing pattern, the instant of impact between two planes, and the glide path of the swan-diving airliner. All of these combined had determined which of the ground dwellers would die and who would escape with a close call. And in the end, the names and faces that were in the newspapers for the next few days were in reality only secondary to the event itself. It could have been anyone; tragedy and circumstance are random.

I started seeing Nora some weeks after the crash. It was still big news, and Nora, of course, had a theory of her own about it. That theory also held, she said, for all human tragedies and disasters. Nora believed that the Supreme Being (she never used the name “God’’) had it in mind to make certain that mankind never lost sight of its own limitations and vulnerability, its smallness in the cosmos. And so, to keep us humble, he sent earthquakes and floods, storms, epidemics, drought, volcanic eruptions. He sank ships and knocked planes from the sky. So it was that on a morning when there wasn’t a cloud to obscure vision, nothing but a universe of blue, he looked down and said. Thou shalt not see each other, and neither of those pilots did.

Kensington reminded me a bit of the town I’d grown up in, and this was comforting during my time of adjustment. At Nau’s pharmacy, the friendly middle-age women called me “young man” and gossiped warmly. Several of the tellers of the Home Federal branch knew me by name. The Kensington Hardware had an organized clutter to it that was like a country shop. Tucked away there was every trinket and gadget that had ever been made. If you could come up with a fair description of what you needed, in nouns like thingamajig and doohickey, they had it in stock. I bought pasta at the Western Market and cake, when the occasion warranted, at Hugh’s. The tiny hobby shop displayed the same models I had painstakingly assembled and then blown to bits with firecrackers when I was a kid. I went to the Ken often. On Sundays Bud and I threw a football around on the patch of lawn beside the library.

For a few bucks I got my hair cut at the Kensington Barber. This, too, was a flashback for me. When I was young, my mother took me to Nunzio’s Barber Shop. Nunzio was a short, gruff Italian, who cut hair with the delicacy of a mechanic. He handled the electric razor like a drill and twisted your head around as though he were turning a wrench. He spoke in short sentences that came out like bursts of machine-gun fire, and his hands, which held the comb and the scissors, flew wildly while he talked. There was a strong odor of hair tonic, and the smell of pizza from the parlor next door wafted in. Nunzio’s breath was stale with beer. He argued politics with the old men who came in to sit and read the paper. There was a lot of sports talk, and the phone in the back rang constantly. On Mondays men came in and paid Nunzio with wads of money. Every once in a while, the Mafia families in New York would go to war, and some of Nunzio’s regulars disappeared for a time. Still, it was a family barber shop, and all the mothers from the neighborhood brought in their kids. This memory came back to me from the Kensington Barber. There were no phone calls and no Mafia soldiers, but Sam, the older guy who cut my hair, spoke with a thick Italian accent and waved his hands as he did. There were old men reading the newspapers, and there was joking and laughter, and mothers with their kids.

Kensington had two bars in the central district. Bud and I tried the Kensington Club, but on the night we were there, there was a small crowd that didn’t seem to welcome outsiders. The woman behind the bar didn’t like my out-of-state license and insisted on holding it while we drank our beer. The Homestead, a few doors down, was more like what we were used to. Both Bud and I had grown up in middle-class neighborhoods that were adjacent to industrial areas. We had learned to drink in tough working-class bars and quaint neighborhood taverns that are at the heart of such places. The Homestead was closer to this, unpretentious and filled with the open, if somewhat strained, camaraderie that drinkers who are strangers can have with each other. There was a night or two you could smell a fistfight coming on, but we never had any trouble.

Nora was seriously involved with another man, and there was an element of the illicit about our relationship. If anything, this only intensified it. Once, while driving down Morena Boulevard, Nora swore she had seen her brother in a passing car. When we got back to my apartment, this tension transformed itself into a sexual energy that demanded immediate release. That led to many more afternoon drives and more sightings of her relatives.

Nora listened to my theory about the location of the soul of the city. As much as I liked Kensington, on the day that Nora stood looking out the kitchen window, asking me if this was where the soul of San Diego was, I had to tell her no. It wasn’t in Kensington. This much I knew.

Nor was it in Clairemont or College Heights or Talmadge. Not Hillcrest, either, or North Park. North Park and Hillcrest I eliminated after experiencing them through my friend Tom. Tom was looking for the soul of the city, too, though not in the same way as I. He chose to live in North Park because he believed that the transience of that neighborhood epitomized the transience of San Diego as a whole. But San Diego was becoming too big to reflect only the nature of the unsettled. People were coming and staying. It was as if it were a great secret, and now someone had leaked it to the rest of the country. And there was an unsavory side to the transient community that Tom struggled against. He wasn't happy in North Park. On top of that, the jet crash had upset him. He moved in with his girlfriend in Hillcrest. He was attracted by the energy, activism, and the rejuvenation he saw there. I spent time with him, and I saw what he saw, but we both also knew this was not the heart of San Diego.

I began to doubt my theory about there being a definite location for the city's soul, perhaps for any city’s soul. The thought of this was disquieting. Years earlier, when I'd stood at the crossroads in Times Square, there was nothing more important to me than being at the center of New York. Beneath the pavement the subway throbbed like a beating heart. The traffic and the pedestrians moved in pulses. Taxi horns blared, city buses snarled in protest as they pulled away from the curb. Vendors hawked hot dogs and pretzels to the passing crowd. I stood rooted to the heart of the city, I touched its life, and felt alive myself. When I came to San Diego I wanted that same feeling. I looked for the city’s soul so that I could plant my feet on it and take in lungfuls of its breath. Now I wasn't sure that there was such a place at all.

Yet Tom couldn't stay in San Diego. He loved the city, but it hadn't loved him in return. He had problems: drugs, the police, the wrong friends, the wrong girl. Circumstances were continually set against him, all of which would have seemed to say that a city does have a soul and that there are some people who cannot live symbiotically with it. Like Tom, who went away.

Transitions occurred. Bud went off to graduate school in Santa Barbara. Nora moved out of the state with her other man to see if there was something worth saving. I was going to do some post-graduate work at San Diego State, so I left Kensington and found an apartment in the College Heights section. I thought that living near the university might be like living in the small New England college town where I had gone to study. It was not. San Diego State seemed to have risen up out of the suburban skin like a blemish, although in truth, it was the surrounding area that had been guilty of the encroachment. Still, very little off-campus indicated that there was a university nearby, except of course the parked cars. There seemed to be an invisible curtain between the school and the adjacent community, although I decided that the problems they had were more along the lines of dermatology than urban planning.

The old Falcon went, but the Datsun I bought to replace it was no less of a headache. The one-bedroom apartment I lived in on College Avenue was unbearably hot and infested with cockroaches. Several apartments in the complex were broken into. My neighbors were young like me. We had the run of each other’s apartments, we threw parties, we ate breakfast together on Sundays.

Nora wove in and out of my life now and then over the next few years, but only for days at a time. I took a job driving a truck for a moving company, and so it was that I found myself experiencing all the different parts of San Diego, from the kingdom of La Jolla to the blight of East San Diego. I went everywhere, but nowhere did I find a place where the soul of the city could truly be said to reside. I stayed again in Clairemont after I left the college area, and in Talmadge. Talmadge, though just to the east of Kensington, was not like it. It had no central district, no focal point at all. I spent time in Pacific Beach, as well. The people who lived there said it was the only place to be. Perhaps true, in this climate, but it was still not at the heart of things.

I finally settled into a house in Mission Village, just above San Diego Stadium. I knew that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for there, but practicality was finally beginning to assert itself in my life. The place was affordable and convenient. Light planes from Montgomery Field buzzed overhead, and stadium traffic was an annoyance, but this, too, was not a bad place to live. Here I had time on my hands, time to think, to read, to write, and, again, to doubt.

There were more transitions. After Mission Village I became a true nomad. My possessions went into storage and I went to sea. I spent most of the next few years working with the navy, and most of that was overseas. I saw the city from still different angles. I once spent four days anchored off the entrance to the harbor. On one of those nights, there were fireworks in Seaport Village. We couldn’t hear them but we saw them arcing and bursting in the sky. It was as if an invisible hand were sketching on black paper with brightly colored crayons. I saw the city from the perspective of sailing away for what would be seven months, and I saw it welcome me back again. I came and I left, and little things changed all the time.

Nora called for the last time a couple of years ago. She said she wanted to get on with her life, so she was calling to say good-by. We talked for a little while, and then she said, “Well, good-by," and that was it.

She was right about the location of a city’s soul. I didn't think to mention it to her when we spoke that last time, but she was right-. There isn’t a place where the soul of something as big and diverse as a city ever stays. Perhaps once, a long time ago, when San Diego was small, there was such a place. There may have been a time when I was right about Times Square. That isn't true now. I've spent time on the Upper West Side and in Brooklyn, and they are centers, too, in New York, and cannot be denied. No, the soul of New York and the soul of San Diego are the same in one respect: they are intangible. You cannot stand on them.

Not long ago I moved again. For the first time, the fact that I don't own very much struck a negative note with me. Somewhat sheepishly, I remarked to my friend Tim that I had moved myself, and that it had taken only two loads with a Honda hatchback. Tim had snickered, “And it wasn't even your Honda." Measured by my possessions, my seven years in San Diego have not amounted to very much. Luckily for my sanity and inner peace, my philosophy on this matter is of a somewhat Eastern nature. I think this is Nora's influence. I measure my accomplishment here not by what I've accumulated but by what I've gained in other respects: knowledge, friends, experience, loves, even pain. Measured by that stick, how can I have failed?

I've been living in North County of late. More and more, as if by continental drift, North County is moving away from San Diego. In the past half-dozen years alone, there has been a proliferation of malls and restaurants and the other attractions around which communities cluster.

People are finding fewer reasons to travel down to San Diego. I can see the day when North County will be its own metropolis, with its hub at Oceanside or perhaps Carlsbad. Carlsbad has been growing in quiet, giant leaps. Its downtown district is suited to the new, young wealth that will shepherd this evolution. And, of course, this new metropolis will grow its own soul, though like the soul of any city, you won't be able to find a street corner where it lives. It will be everywhere, covering all parts, like the evening clouds that my mother knew were full of rain.

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