Where the hell is San Diego? The San Diego of my youth exists only in memory. The San Diego of last week, likewise. Ours is a town of relentless mutations that never seem to improve upon the original, a town without city, its roots eroded, its unspectacular history trampled beneath the rush of new arrivals. Californian since nine o’clock. Is this any kind of place to carve out a life, an identity, a career as a writer?
San Diegan Since Okie Bob
In the face of shifting territories and disappearing landmarks, a San Diego writer needs a good memory. Recollections unalterable and enduring: I can rely on thousands from the late ’50s and early ’60s. Air-raid sirens blared every Monday at noon. My favorite San Diego television shows were Johnny Downs (who danced atop Golden Arrow milk bottles) and Okie Bob (who hosted cowboy movies on XETV). The local TV news was black and white and no-frills; Ray Wilson and Al Coupee and Doug Oliver, always in black suits, white shirts, and thin ties, dispensed the daily litany of national surprises and local monotonies. At the tiny ballpark, where now stands the uninviting Robinson’s bunker in Fashion Valley, I relished minor-league Padres games, cheering for my hero Chico Ruiz. The AFL Chargers used to play in Balboa Stadium; to watch my idols, Earl Faison and Ernie Ladd, and to witness strange events like Tobin Rote Day, during which the heralded quarterback circled the field in a convertible, I had to endure concrete seats without backs.
Journeys downtown were a treat, an adventure. KCBQ used to broadcast from a see-through studio on the corner of Seventh and Ash; I hoarded all their weekly four-page record surveys; photos of all your fave jocks encircled the station’s mythical mascot, an ugly duckling named Kasey B. Quack. At Thearle’s on Broadway, customers could listen to LPs in private booths before making a purchase. Tagging along behind my father, I haunted used bookstores for Mad magazines; I once possessed unctuous Kelly Freas depictions of Alfred E. Newman. Back then, the downtown library was a palace; I knew the secret of the mysterious front doors — all you had to do was hit that black button inside the handle with the heel of your hand, and all would be revealed.…
When I was young, San Diego was a glorious, sunny immensity. Back then, all I had to do was enjoy and explore. But nothing lasts very long here. Our only traditions are over-the-line, airport noise, and boring mayors.
Is That a Vagina or What?
As I grew a bit older, the need to create slowly replaced the joy of acceptance. Some of the greatest imaginative fun I had as a boy was gained through coloring books. We were 10, 11, 12 — still buying coloring books from the Rexall drugstore at the Big Bear shopping center in Serra Mesa. But no crayons for us. Instead, along with each coloring book, we purchased a good, thick rubber eraser and a black BIC pen. War coloring books were the best; yet we did some of our finest work in F Troop and Brady Bunch books also. The strategy: erase the lines carefully and redraw our own lines in black ink. Some marvelous alchemy occurred. Imagine the Bradys preparing for a camping trip, standing in the living room surrounded by rolled-up sleeping bags. Through careful and deft erasing, a skill developed through hours of work on Combat or Twelve O’Clock High coloring books (many destroyed when the erasing went through the paper); we transformed those sleeping bags into huge scrotums and anatomically incorrect labia. A Brady kid then stood in his revamped living room, a mighty pair of testicles drooping from his tight bell-bottom pants, his head reshaped and extended, his family a zany collection of mutants, microcephalics, monsters, all of them tripping over entangled, slithering penises. What fun. Change. Rearrange. Conjure up a more fascinating version of life.
In junior high school, the urge to improve upon reality continued. My best friend and I wrote original collaborative novels, satirizing James Bond. Our hero was Irving Klodd, so much more wacky and endearing than Maxwell Smart even. For days we labored over these creations during class time, ignoring instructors, forsaking homework — preferring to draw elaborate insignias, to create devious weapons of destruction from our Bic pens, to assassinate the math teacher while dreaming up another improbable adventure. Finally, we were caught, our latest manuscript confiscated. The dreaded math teacher looked it over, smiled, and handed it back. He never bothered us again.
In high school I glided through, learning next to nothing. I was a Kearny Komet who turned to drugs out of deadening boredom. LSD was more engaging than schoolwork. The Vietnam War was raging, draft lottery numbers were in the wind, and I waged a muddled longhaired unfocused protest. For refusing to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, I was sent to the principal’s office by my homeroom teacher, who was a graphic arts instructor and former cheer-boy at Mission Bay High. After a brief suspension, I returned, searching for this instructor to have my re-admittance papers signed. I discovered him behind the typesetting racks, bent over backward, with his head up against his crotch, demonstrating one of his old cheerleading contortions, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
My high school friends turned to social pursuits, while I played the role of court jester. All morning I crafted cartoons and poems and magazines, which I presented to a select group at lunchtime. My only goal was to make them laugh so hard they cried. I succeeded. That’s all I ever did in high school, and I still graduated.
From there I jumped from college to college, chasing the dream of becoming a writer. “Oh, yeah? Where are you from?” San Diego. “Oh.” I published a few stories in obscure little journals, but I spent most of my time cultivating the writer’s role, drinking with abandon, my jesting darker, my attitude bleaker. Not much fun to be around. San Diego was something to shed, something to excuse. Then it was the Army. Guns and liquor. I returned, rode out my GI Bill, wrote porno novels. (At my ten-year high school reunion, deranged by wine and magic mushrooms, I received an award for my unsavory publishing credits — a small ceramic cup decorated with the Kearny “K” and stuffed with pencils. Blind man’s bluff. More contortions.) Then I got a wild job rewriting paperbacks for reprinting. Every two weeks, I picked up a large brown envelope from the Greyhound depot downtown; inside were old pulp novels of all genres — mystery, detective, romance. My job was to edit thoroughly, on the fragile pages themselves, deleting anachronisms, changing dates, modernizing dialogue. I mailed these revamped books to a local typist, and a few days later, I received a load of manuscripts in return. The typist had instructions to transcribe only the first 25,000 words of the edited books, even if the books ran twice that long. The remainder of my job required that I add three raunchy sections near the beginning, middle, and end, before deftly cauterizing plot hemorrhages. That’s basically all I did while in graduate school, more than 75 of those makeovers. And I still got my degree.