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It is a humbling experience to return to the ghetto at night.

To expect a few inconveniences on the way back to paradise has become a doleful routine for any denizen who resides in Southeast San Diego. The proliferating “homeless” get bolder all the time; they no longer ask simply for spare change, they now want “two dollars for a couple of buhritas.” Teenage Mutant Guardian Angels march by with vain pride, oblivious to the fact that with their stupid red berets, no one is afraid of them.

After 10:00 p.m. Mayberry Diego downtown is so dull that going home and doing nothing is an exciting prospect. Before our metropolis was gentrified, I had a lot more fun: the displaced were mere bums; fat guys in red berets would be rolled; the transvestites were more amusing; and good old Jolar was on lower Broadway, so I never worried about dates.

Transit traveling is a drag, but the only recourse for minimum-or-nothing-wagers of color who want to get home in time for the continual free show of flotsam and jism hanging about everywhere, howling at the moon, or blasting noise from their cars is to walk several miles up Market, down to Imperial and Ocean View, accosted all the way by salivating PCP contras, putas, and mallates who don’t even have the courtesy to ask for buhrita money. The only other option is, of course, El Busso. And anyone who rides the number 11 heading toward “the barrio” (or “the ’hood,” or “the jungle,” or “shantytown”), at hours when white-people-of-leisure are just getting ready to drive off in search of nocturnal thrills, knows that all the blather about the “ethnic and cultural diversity” of living in a slum is honkyspeak for “they can’t afford to live anywhere else” or “Oh, I’m not going down there.”

Illustration of the American Flag

Illustration of the American Flag

Down here, after enduring packed freights of back-of-the-bus squatters arguing in rhythmic non sequiturs and brats of indeterminate origin who gurgle and expel cud while their mothers debate apartheid in Esperanto, there is a brief sense of relief to exit, finally, El Busso. That moment passes when you look at the vast auto junkyard called Otto Square, where an international assembly rusts; a four-wheel United Nations parked in a time warp.

To my left, as I walk, a ranting relative of Pol Pot who owns a Chinese food market specializing in Louisiana freshwater fish tests his English by screaming at one of San Diego’s bemused finest about some typically inscrutable incident he’d be better off detailing in his own tongue: “BAHTHA ME DAHMIT!!” Meanwhile, a raggedy van drives cautiously by as a familiar verse echoes down the avenue:

  • Without a gun in your back
  • What do you got?
  • Sucker in a uniform
  • Waiting to get shot

After I reject an oily Puerto Rican who never learned the foolhardiness of wearing saturated rags (NO MOTHERFUCKER I AIN’T GOT MONEY!), it occurs to me that the difference between your usual store owner and the ubiquitous Arab carpetbaggers who have appropriated virtually every mom-pop shop and liquor store is that Allah's disenfranchised are not amused, intimidated, interested, or even curious about the drunken, complaining, begging, pimping, bullshitting, yodeling werewolves who are drawn to store parking lots for impromptu poverty-level block parties. In fact, a friend told me a story a few years ago about an outraged homeboy who was dispensing generic threats to an Iranian grocer. With the precision of someone used to growing up where beheading is the automatic punishment for drunk driving, the grocer pulled out and pointed a sizeable pistol at the insulting cholo, hollered “ALLAH AKBAR” (meaning, I think, “God is cool”), and transformed one bad esé into his eternal status as a piece of carnitas roasting in hell.

San Diego’s moonlit compost heap does not compare to L.A.’s or Detroit’s or the Bedford Stuyvesant of Spike Lee, but a few irate Hispanic freedom-fighters torched the Iranian's modest dump in protest of — what else? Racism. Not even the burning structure, the fire trucks, the ready-set-go looters, the usual regiment of cops you never see until they are no longer needed, or the temporary loss of clientele affected the nearby Levantine merchants. These guys could not be wrenched from their television sets even if an earthquake rattled. If for nothing else, the new price-gaugers must be lauded for their mid-East stoicism.

The ghetto is an eyesore, but try as its Puerto Rican crew of graphic illustrators might, this ain’t no Whittier canvas. The spray paint tic-tac-toes you see everywhere around here look like a soused proofreader’s markings or Druidic runes. Every time I look out the window, my incorrigible neighbor has had her garage door repainted. The sunrise reveals a fresh set of incomprehensible letters just as hideous as the last but in different colors. The spray paint phantoms have no respect for propriety, but they are committed to keeping this neighborhood from looking decent. I must be the only person who applauded the scene in the movie Colors where the realistic cop character played by Sean Penn grabbed a spray can and glossed a dickheaded young vato’s face green. Thus far I’ve been denied the joy of such a civic duty.

For the most part, the only thing that makes this damn heap remotely like its counterparts to the north is that it is so visually ugly. An urban trashman’s nightmare. (That’s why they take their sweet time picking up the trash on Wednesdays: it must be the worst day of their week.) Yes, yes, walk around at night and you’ll see Crips, Bloods, and the Mickey Mouse Club driving around in circles, getting fucked up on crack, picking up ho’s where they can find them, and being pulled over by cops (who probably call them “homes” or “cuz,” much in the way that one gun-toting asshole stopped me and called me “Chico”). But isolated outbursts of flaunted “lawlessness” are endemic to any city that grows disproportionately.

If there is anything to disconcert those alien to this slice of Third World heaven, it is that English is rarely spoken here. So-called African-American argot is easily absorbed and understood, but whereas you once may have looked and listened to brown fools arguing about insignificant matters and would think “Ah, Chicanos,” you’ve now got streets, stores, one-bedroom houses stuffed with Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Central and South Americans who would be terrified if you asked them to enunciate “How Now Brown Cow.”

Ethnic diversity, my ass. It’s an awful feeling to be walking home at night with your ear cocked to the sounds of screaming and taunting, all in different accents, and realize that you are now a foreigner in the neighborhood you grew up in.

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