This week and next, we are presenting eight winning entries in the “My Neighborhood” writing contest. This week’s stories won honorable mention awards of $200; on April 11, the first- and second-prize winners will be published, along with notable excerpts from many of the remaining entries.
Amtmann's Carmel Valley neighborhood
'My Neighborhood” must have been an inspirational topic; 400 stories were submitted by deadline. The authors ranged from elementary school students to retirees; several were out-of-staters reminiscing about neighborhoods they left behind. Most writers favored the first-person, nonfiction essay approach, but a number of fiction entries and poems were submitted, including a few that described San Diego through the eyes of a cat, a tree, a coyote, a beer can, and a futuristic Terminator terrorizing National City. Even the county's fossil beds inspired a story. Nostalgia pieces were very popular — San Diego as it used to be, 50 years ago or only 5.
Some writers submitted cleverly formatted, illustrated, laser-printed entries; others ground 'em out in pencil on pages torn from spiral notebooks. The most unusual presentation came from Pam Baer Fulmer of Ocean Beach, who drew a page of pictures of her neighbors' houses, each inside a geometric border, then duplicated these borders and within each wrote a brief sketch of the most colorful people or events associated with that house.
We want to thank all entrants for their enthusiastic participation. In all, 93 different neighborhoods in San Diego County and Baja were praised, damned, or occasionally autopsied. The muses must hang out in Pacific Beach; 30 stories were set there, the most from any neighborhood. Ocean Beach inspired 23. North Park and downtown tied for third place with 21 stories each.
Oliver's roller rink turned AmVets
The remaining neighborhoods placed as follows: 16 stories about Hillcrest; 13 on Mission Beach; 11 each La Jolla, Clairemont, Encinitas, La Mesa; 10 Normal Heights; 9 Golden Hill, East San Diego; 8 Escondido; 7 Chula Vista; 6 Carlsbad, Point Loma; 5 Golden Triangle, Del Mar, Mira Mesa, El Cajon, Oceanside, Cardiff, Linda Vista; 4 Mission Hills, college area, City Heights, Encanto, Scripps Ranch, Spring Valley, University Heights; 3 Vista, Coronado, Santee, Borrego Springs; 2 Pine Valley, Lomita Village, Grantville, Balboa Park, Bonita, Logan Heights, Navajo, Alpine, Bay Park, Ramona, Tierrasanta, Rancho Peñasquitos, Mission Bay, Southeast San Diego, Shelltown, National City, San Marcos, Fallbrook, Lakeside, Old Town, Rancho Bernardo, Imperial Beach; 1 San Carlos, Skyline, Sunset Cliffs, North City West, Burlingame, Harmony Grove, Sherman Heights, University City, Rainbow, Mission Valley, Lemon Grove, Nestor, Del Cerro, Chollas Heights, Poway, Crown Point, Rancho San Diego, Francine Villas, La Playa, La Costa, Harbison Canyon, Bankers Hill, Rancho Santa Fe, Chula Vista Marina, Webster, Morena, Paradise Hills, Leucadia, Kearny Mesa.
Among the Baja entries were stories about Tijuana, Baja Malibu, San Telmo, Sierra Juarez, Playas de Tijuana, and Santa Rosalia. Fifteen entrants wrote about the general San Diego area or about more than one neighborhood, and nine entries fell into a miscellaneous category.
The Evidence of Her Sorrow
Back when I thought if you could “see” it, you could have it, I pictured myself warmly ensconced in a real California house. It was adobe, of course, with thick whitewashed walls. Tile floors stretched into unseen rooms, all facing a central patio where there was a fountain, much greenery and bougainvillea. I could hear birds, the fountain’s soft sounds, and some vague background murmuring of what might have been a family. There were no roads. There was no neighborhood. And there were no neighbors.
Well, IF you concede that a hacienda is no more indigenous to Southern California than the transplants that followed (see the Italian villa, the Cape Cod copy, and the imitation ranch — available in Montana Ranch, Taos Ranch, and Fairbanks Ranch), then you could, perhaps, also concede that I achieved a true California house. It’s a big concession.
In my personal compromise, the tile floors have become a tiled entry, the splash of the fountain is more likely my neighbor watering pots on his patio, and the thick whitewashed adobe has become three inches of the Pink Panther’s finest fluff between my walls and studs, with three more awesome inches to go before reaching my neighbor's wallboard. I live in a condo.
What was mere background and/or absent in my projection has become foreground in the present. There are roads, the I-5 freeway convergence for instance and yes, I do have neighbors. All that insulation muffles detail, but it doesn’t eliminate life's broader canvas, the oils of which flow without impedance through our ever-so-close windows and sliding glass doors. Life liberty, and the pursuit of happiness come right through
There are six of us gathered wagons-in-Indian-territory fashion, front doors out. back yards together (protecting our crops, I suppose). We’re close. You know you’re close when you think the San Diego Union hitting the door next door is your LA. Times. You know you’re close when you can hear both the outgoing message and the incoming calls on your neighbor’s answering machine. You know you’re close when the parrot wakes the baby and the baby wakes the parents and the parents, the baby, and the parrot all squawk together in the night while you try to decipher which is which and decide, based on content, that it doesn’t matter.
In the daytime, when we meet in the parking lot or by the mailboxes, we politely inquire after various housemates, tenants, lovers, children, perhaps refer to a safe condominium association topic such as dog droppings or escalating owners' fees. In our six, there is no dog and no one is comfortably off.
What we don’t talk about is anything personal. In the seven years of a combination of owner and renter occupancy, not one friendship has formed. But we are a neighborhood just the same. We’re a neighborhood of listeners, with occasional, mostly self-interest, interaction.
One unit has been almost constantly for sale. The original occupants were seldom seen but noted for sound wars with their opposites. Upper-story evening dialogue consisted of curses usually starting with "turn that damn thing down" and escalating rapidly. More than once Led Zeppelin went head to head with Wagner in an exciting duel lasting several hours. There was no clear winner.
We are two changes of characters down the line from then, and the current residents are a little ghostly. I have never officially met them but instead have rounded the corner into the parking lot after sundown to find a male and female practicing T’ai Chi in the dark, their eyes turned away, their bodies moving together in slow motion, faces without expression.
Next to them is a divorced lady with two grown daughters. I have met her but not the girls. I went over and introduced myself one afternoon because I knew the police were going to arrest one of her daughters for burgling my house, and I felt rather obligated to tell her first, because we were neighbors. It was an awkward conversation, strained and rambling, but we were able to find the bonds that constitute understanding. Our children had attended the same high school, we were both single, we even had some common acquaintances. Once this base was established, we could approach the problem together.
It seems her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend came down for a short visit. While she was at work and in broad daylight, they had climbed the fence and entered my place, walking out the front door with my stereo, my guitar, my children’s mostly junk jewelry, and my housemate’s boxed checks and business stationery. The stereo and guitar were pawned in Pacific Beach using the daughter’s signature and her driver’s license, a copy of which was made in the pawn shop. The checks and business stationery went with the boy and girl to San Francisco, where a letter was written on the stationery authorizing the bearer to cash checks on the business owner’s account. This worked for a short while at a checkcashing exchange, but a clerk became suspicious, phoned the number on the stationery, my housemate called the bank, and the play was over. The boy was arrested trying to cash yet another check. The girl was off and running.
So the mother and I sat in her quiet living room, identical to my quiet living room, and commiserated about the hazards of adolescence, the availability of drugs, the difficulty of single parenthood. And the weather. I believed her when she said she had no idea where her daughter was or how to find her. My belongings were returned with police assistance. The bank covered the check/money loss. We have not spoken of the event again.
Next to the mother is a grandmother. She is a vivacious woman with a busy social life and a job selling real estate. Her exchanges with me chiefly concern her blond moppet of a granddaughter who has grown in the past several years from a diaper-clad cooer to an active and verbal little girl. Life over there seems to be full.
Next to me is Sam. He was single for years with a divorce behind him of some bitterness, as one tapped into instantly when he stopped long enough to talk. All that is forgotten now because Sam is in love. His temper is sweet. His new wife is young and attractive, and they appear to be in perfect harmony. Though the sounds of their daily life come mostly through the patio, there has been an exception.
One evening, while we were having a small family birthday dinner for my 79-year-old mother, our conversation slowed and then stopped altogether when a dull, rhythmic banging began against the living room wall. As the thuds grew louder and faster, we glanced at each other in mutual recognition and finished the dinner with laughter. The next time I saw the couple together. I suggested that in order to keep their private moments more private, they move the bed frame a few inches from the wall. Sam has been referred to ever since privately, as Slammm’ Sam the happy man.
On the end and completing our circle once lived an incredibly handsome family. The father used to sit in the kitchen and play his guitar and sing folk songs to his two young daughters. The mother had the only bountiful, garden in our complex. But that was in good times... which ended when this man died in a car accident, creating a beautiful young widow who cried in the night. You could hear the evidence of her sorrow and loneliness through the upstairs bedroom window. The growing girls turned into teenagers and adopted white face makeup and wore mostly black. It became hard to tell them apart. There were parties and late-night arguments and lots of company. And lots of heavy metal.
There was also an old family friend who dropped by now and then. His presence brought a calmness that had been missing for a long time His visits became more frequent and lasted longer. One day he moved in and soon there was a wedding. And one late evening sometime later, a new baby was delivered in that same bedroom where the young widow had been so sad.
Three days after the birth. I passed the father on the walkway in front of our units. He had his newborn daughter in his arms and was talking softly to her. I stopped. The father was blissful, his child wide-eyed and silent. "I have her out here." he said, "to show her the night sky and the stars so she'll know how much more there is to her world than walls and ceilings. We named her Amelia, after Amelia Earhart, in hopes that she'll be healthy and strong and independent."
That starlit walk was about a year ago. The child is now a solid chunk with curly brown hair and a giggle that echoes through our neighborhood during the day when the rest of us are all at work and brings a smile when we pass by at dusk.
Unfortunately, the newly formed family is moving out. It would have been nice to watch Amelia grow up, but that is not to be The parents have been talking of more space and less traffic noise for some time and have finally found an old, run-down place in East County somewhere It has lots of land and no close neighbors, a dirt-road entrance, and needs lots of work. They can afford it, barely, and they are young and willing and resourceful and very enthusiastic about the potential of the house which is not adobe but is, no doubt, a real California house just the same
I asked them if they wouldn't miss the neighborhood a bit, thinking to myself how varied and dramatic their stay here had been, but all they could talk about was the openness and freedom their new life would bring and how they couldn't wait to be off.
Not me my friend. I like my house I like the sun in my bedroom in the morning and the cozy feel of my neighbors all living and loving around me. The compromises don't seem very big after all. I think I’ll stay.
Nineteen sixty-four, I’m three years old, waiting for Mom to come out of the Big Bear grocery store. Jim and I sit in the back of the ’55 Chevy, shaded by a tall metal sign standing on two curved, ’50s-era, space-age legs. In one more year I will be able to read the sign’s inscription, "WELCOME TO LOMITA VILLAGE,’’ and below in smaller script, "Jewel of the Hills.’’
That's what it was to, back in ’64; a gem of a community nestled atop a little hill. East of Encanto and west of Spring Valley.
Back then there were five service stations in the village. Real service stations — not pay-in-advance through the bulletproof-glass econo stations, but genuine stations with rubber ropes that when roiled upon dinged magically. A clean-cut guy in overalls with a patch on the breast that read Ed or Steve or Bud would trot up to Dad's driver-side window and beamingly ask, "Fill ’er up?"
Hanging m the window of the Texaco on the corner was a big stopwatch with a sweep-second hand. If the pump jockey didn’t hustle to our car in 15 seconds after the bell rang, we got two free gallons of gas.
The motor oil was held in racks at the center of the pump islands in long, thick green bottles with tin spouts. When emptied, the bottles’ insides were coated with a viscous, brown-green residue of Quaker State or Pennzoil.
Across the street, next to the roller-skating rink, was a burger stand called Humpty Dumpty's. In front, 20 feet up on a make-believe wall, sat a huge, smiling plastic egg with arms and legs and a great golden crown on his oval head. At night, light bulbs flashing in waves pointed the way to the drive-thru, where girls in knee-length skirts and guys with crewcuts sipped malts, their roller skates slung over their shoulders.
Lomita Village was the outer fringe of the city. Spring Valley, to the east, was very rural — canyons and fields of oatgrass, cactus, and wildflowers. My brother Jim (who is nine years older) and I would spend whole days of summer exploring those canyons and bringing home every snake, lizard, spider, and unusual insect we thought our mother would appreciate having in her living room.
Some hot summer mornings we hiked the half-mile through the canyon to the liquor store carrying a nickel and an empty Coke bottle Wed trade them for an almost frozen Coke reaching into the red-and-white cooler with the special chrome gizmo on the side where you hooked the bottle top and pried the lid off. The lid had cork inside which was good to scrape at with your front teeth. Sitting on the cool concrete in the shade of the liquor store porch, we listened to the loud, electric drone of summer insects rising from the open fields and canyons.
Jim and I took turns pressing the bottle beaded with condensation, to our foreheads. We had a lingo regarding the sharing of the Coke. There was a sip, a drink, and a gulp, each denoting a progressively larger quantity of consumption. I would ask, "Can I have a sip, Jimmy?” He’d say, "Yeah, just a sip, and don't backwash." I’d take a huge gulp, the carbonation burning at my throat and forcing its way back up through my nostrils. Jim would rap his knuckles on my skinny little biceps and tell me that’s what I get for being greedy. I’d promise to take only a sip, next time. We’d laugh till we got the hiccups.
About the time they stopped making silver money, I started noticing some changes in my neighborhood. The dimes and quarters of my youth suddenly looked different. There was a streak of brown metal down the knurled edge. My brother told me it was copper. He said it was less expensive than silver, but the money was still the same — a dime was a dime and a quarter was still a quarter. But I wondered, if the money cost less to make, how could it be worth as much? When Three Musketeers bars went up from a nickel to ten cents, I knew that I had been hoodwinked. Comic books went up too, from a nickel to seven cents.
I inspected my coins suspiciously, reading the inscriptions "In God We Trust" and "E Pluribus Unum,” and wondered why God was letting me down and if the mysterious "E Pluribus Unum” might be the cause.
Things began to steadily deteriorate in Lomita Village At first I noticed small changes. The cork inside the bottle caps disappeared. The glass oil bottles at the Gulf station were replaced by ugly cardboard cylinders you were supposed to just stupidly throw away when empty.
Then there was the Vietnam war on TV every night. Huntley and Brinkley would discuss how many soldiers were killed or wounded for the day. accompanied with pictures of soldiers sloshing around in rice paddies and muck and thousands of Vietnamese people in caravans trying to escape some smoking hell in the distance
I was glad the war wasn’t close to home in Lomita Village but there were signs of change and unrest. Three of the five service stations folded, their windows boarded up and pumps dismantled. Kentucky Fried Chicken’s giant, whirling bucket was erected on a pole across from the liquor store Humpty Dumpty’s faced Colonel Sanders in competition, hung on for a while then eventually fell.
Rasco’s closed — the five-and-dime where I think my brother Jim once lit a fire in the bedding section. Jim denied the deed, and I didn't actually see him light the fire but I know he did. I watched the flames crawl up the blankets to the ceiling, walked to the register by the front door, pointed and said, "Excuse me but there’s a fire" The lady with the beehive hairdo and cateye glasses screamed. Jim and I stayed outside and watched the fire truck come and drench the flames. The store manager rewarded us both with a free candy bar for reporting the fire. I chose an AbbaZabba and Jim chose an Almond Joy. Four years old, a fire truck, and a free candy bar — life was good.
It wasn’t long after the fire that Rasco’s quit business, replaced by a Salvation Army thrift store. The Texaco station finally gave up too — where it stood there’s a Yum-Yum doughnut shop. A U-Totem convenience store was snapped together where there was a Chevron. The Union and the Hancock stations were bulldozed into memories. The last remaining station, Gulf, sold out to some econo outfit that made you pay in advance for the gas. The Humpty Dumpty became a Cotija Taco Shop, where guys who couldn’t speak English served up five rolled tacos with guacamole pretty cheap, and the clatter of pins is no longer heard at the vacant bowling alley.
The roller-skating rink is now an AmVets thrift store Whenever I tread its hardwood floors, I remember the dimmed lights, the smells of fresh popcorn, roasted peanuts, and oiled roller-skates mingling in the swirling air. Whirling, mirrored globes hung from the ceiling, casting thousands of dancing reflections on the waxed and polished floor — my clothes — my friends’ faces. The guy on the P.A. would say, "For the next five minutes it will be couples only, that’s COUPLES ONLY in a counterclockwise direction!” and anybody lucky enough to find someone would pair up and join the flow. Now there is only the musty smell of discarded items, and a harsh fluorescent glare illuminates the dull and tarnished wood.
Excursions to Spring Valley were once epic adventures by bicycle through wild fields which later spawned dense-pack tracts of homogeneously bland "affordable homes." One of our favorite destinations was a field where 15 or 20 crumbly old houses sat on pilings, waiting to be sold and moved. They were said to be haunted, and we esteemed the bold explorer who’d enter through a window or a hole in the floor. Even if seconds later he’d run out, white faced and screaming about imaginary goblins breathing on the nape of his neck.
To the north of Lomita Village down Cardiff Street, was Lemon Grove. Cardiff passed through the center of Miller’s Dairy. On one side of the road were the younger cows and calves, not yet of milking age. On the other side, by a huge row of stacked hay bales, was the yard where the milkers ran with their bulging udders. A rustic, whitewashed rail fence encompassed each lot.
Always, great piles of manure ripened in the sun. The aroma was heavenly; of course this none of my brothers, sisters, or friends would admit. As we passed, we’d ail pinch our noses and pretend to be holding our breath. Secretly, we inhaled deeply, with a satisfaction only genuine smells like manure or roses or baking fudge can arouse.
My friend Tony and I knew the Millers, who let us feed the cows and clamber on the stacked hay. Our favorite pastime was trying to catch the wild kittens living in the tunnels and gaps between the bales in the huge pile The kittens, if caught, weren’t held for long. Five seconds of spitting, yowling, blood-letting fury was all your hand could take. This too was a sign of prowess, much like the haunted-house explorations.
Years later, the dairy was razed, despite many protests by local citizens. In its place stands Miller's Ranch, more nondescript urban density.
Farther north in Lemon Grove was the Ace Drive-in movie theater. The Ace charged by the person, rather than the carload. I can’t count how many times my sister Cindy and I hid in the trunk of the '55 Chevy, while in front rode Mom, Jim, Libby, and Howard. Cindy was always crying about carbon monoxide poisoning, and every time we crawled in that trunk, she had me convinced we were going to die. Being youngest in a family where the pecking order was militarily established, it was our duty to suffer, but no rule kept us from whining.
Now the Ace Drive-in is a tightly clustered pack of luxury townhomes renting for $800 to $1600 a month. My teenage memories of groping dates and pot-smoking excursions are buried beneath the Cape Cod blue and gray of the kitschy townhomes.
In the late ’60s, I really began to see the degradation of Lomita Village, Spring Valley, and Lemon Grove. The war in the jungle wouldn’t cease, and my brother Jim’s generation began to protest. Whether the draft or propaganda or peer pressure or actual belief fueled their resentment. I couldn’t discern.
I did know Dad and Mom worried about Jim. He had suddenly become rebellious and sullen. His school work was slipping. He was formerly an A student, president of his sixth grade class at Audubon Elementary, and an award winner in the San Diego Science Fair.
I first heard the word "POT" spoken by my mother, regarding Jim. Talking to Aunt Inez on the phone, she said, "He’s been using POT on the way to school in the mornings." I pictured Jim hiding in a gully at the bottom of a canyon on the way to Morse High School, performing some strange, mystic voodoo with a large kitchen pot. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was doing with the pot, but it sure looked evil in my imagination.
Jim and his friends began to grow their hair long. They were all into drugs. I'd pedal down to Audubon Park and watch as they sat in a circle, passing and toking on joints. I wondered what mysterious pleasure could compel them to do something that looked so stupid.
I would race home and give detailed reports to Mom, who relayed the message to Dad, who for a while tried beating the shit out of Jim. It didn’t work. By 1969 Jim was doing acid, along with all of his peers. Jim accused me of being a narc, and I lost my mentor and best friend.
In 1970 Jim departed to live in a commune in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. Our older brothers Howard and Chip were already there, eating macrobiotically, practicing prana yoga, and dropping acid. I stayed home, watching the streets of Lomita Village become filthy with trash and strewn with broken bottles.
Racial violence became a problem for me and my two sisters (closest to me in age of all my seven siblings), Cindy and Libby. Libby was beaten up frequently at Morse High and had to transfer to Hoover. Cindy got in fights at O’Farrell Junior High and was struck in the forehead by a rock that broke through her school bus window on the way home. I watched a gang of teen-age punks, who were passing around model glue in a brown paper sack, stuff a lit cigarette up the nose of my friend Mike, while they held his arms behind his back. In 1971 I was threatened with a switchblade by a teen-ager from a different part of the neighborhood.
On Sawtelle Avenue, our street, the evidence of "white flight" sprouted as FOR SALE signs on the lawns of our less stalwart neighbors. One family after another stowed their belongings aboard cavernous trucks and drove to other American dreams, abandoning those they perceived as spoiled in Lomita Village.
Brown-skinned residents came in their place. My father always welcomed them, letting them know there was a good neighbor who could be trusted and who expected reciprocal trust.
Now we are a white minority family in this neighborhood sometimes referred to as Barrio Lomita. Driving to school or work, I see daily reminders. The graffiti sprayed on the fences or directly on the walls of houses are spray-paint symbols of frustration, laid one atop the other by rival gangs: LOMA VILLA, SETENTAS, LV 70’S - SMILEY, SNAKE, CHAVO. All futile signs of unrest and alienation.
This frustration they feel is nothing new; I share in it with them, but it can’t be expressed with spray paint on walls. I wish there was some way I could show them — Smiley and Chavo, I wish I could tell them how things will fall apart — how dreams break down — how the money changes and the cork disappears and Humpty Dumpty takes a fall.
Soundsville is Gone
The whole idea of “a neighborhood” is an enchanting one. It elicits thoughts of comfort and familiarity, an unfaltering setting for the act of growing up. But when I tell people I grew up in Ocean Beach, they gasp and say, ‘‘I didn’t know anyone was from Ocean Beach.” I just know they’re envisioning that I was a child of hash-smoking parents living in a squalid shanty being warned of bad trips and the draft and that I’ve survived well that prison of alternative lifestyles. Not so. Not even close.
The southwest corner of Brighton Avenue and Venice in Ocean Beach was less a slice of my neighborhood than it was the pivot of my entire universe when I was growing up. Like other neighborhoods, we had a gang, but unlike the menacing neighborhood armies of today, our gang was devoted to bugging each other instead of other people.
At its peak, there were nine girls: me, my sister Gail, Lisa (who was always going to be my best friend), Janice (the tomboy), Cory (the old child), Michelle (who was forever practicing to be a cheerleader for Sacred Heart Academy), Joanie, and Holly and Vickie (who moved early on in the gang’s formation). There were also eight boys: my brothers Tim and Tom (the twins) and Ted, Mark and Steve who were brothers, another Mark, Stevie (who was Lisa’s little brother), and Tommy (Joanie’s little brother who had muscular dystrophy and could only come out on his good days).
There were more of us Griswolds than any other kids, and though there were the ongoing attempts at adolescent sarcasm and sibling violence, we tended to enjoy each other’s company. At the time when Griswolds ruled the neighborhood, in 1970, none of us was older than 14. And none of the kids in the gang lived farther than a block away.
We used to hang out at that corner in the summer, and in the evening during daylight savings time, and practice the most potent delinquency we could muster, which mostly included trying to inhale cigarettes in the Catalina canyon and stealing plums from Mrs. Thompson’s tree that hung over the alley.
In those days, there was a canyon that existed behind the houses along Venice and extended down to Catalina. The canyon was our private playground, with bike trails and gopher holes, and on the south end of the huge lot, there was a real live donkey in a rickety wooden pen.
We’d pick tar out of the repaired cracks of the white concrete streets and chew on it. If we weren't waiting for Mr. Lucas, the ice cream man with the Aloha shirts, we’d be sneaking off to Speedee Mart for a Slurpee and the collector’s button that came with it.
In 1970, my brothers put Rat Fink decals on their model cars, while my sister and I put Rikki-Tikki-Stikki daisies on everything.
All of this could’ve happened in Clairemont, for God’s sake. But it didn’t. It was in Ocean Beach.
Nineteen seventy was the year my father was elected president of the Ocean Beach Town Council. Shortly after gaining the post, he resigned from office. The reason, as quoted in the beach area’s semiweekly newspaper, The Peninsula, was his "five little demands." Specifically, me, my three brothers, and my sister. We were his five little demands that prevented him from taking reins of a simmering liberal community on the edge of boiling over into full radicalism.
The Griswolds (Gretchen with glasses), c. 1966
I was ten years old in 1970. My parents fully understood the responsibility of being parents to five children (ages 10, 11, 13, 13, and 14) in Ocean Beach at such an intense time and rose to the occasion — a rare blend of the Zappas and the Cleavers. They did volunteer work for the In-Between, a storefront outreach center on Newport Avenue for the refugees of the San Diego Nixon years — the strung out, the poor and pregnant, the unemployed, the homeless, and the battered. My parents led protests and risked getting arrested when the Army Corps of Engineers seized the part of the flood-control channel frequented by Ocean Beach families. (Families used to call it "The Mushy Place" where toddlers could play in the ocean far from the crush of the waves. The Army Corps of Engineers was sent to build a jetty to facilitate flood control, a problem that hasn't plagued this area in some time.)
My parents took us to walk precincts for the candidates who confirmed a sense of integrity and a grasp on human values. One of the candidates that my parents held up as a symbol of what could (at that time) be good with government was Maureen O'Connor, who demonstrated her sincerity by placing a single-digit ceiling on campaign donations. Another was Jack Walsh, continually called a "maverick" by the local press, which we thought was cool.
In that year, in 1970, our family took a trip up the coast in our camper to Canada. On the way, we stopped in San Francisco. I can remember my parents driving by the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic and yelling for us kids to look out the window, that this was a symbol of great history.
My parents were as devoted to raising responsible kids as they were to preserving a free society within the boundaries of Ocean Beach. Mom was a room mother for all five of us kids at one time or another. She was a volunteer at O.B. Elementary’s Learning Center. Among other offices, she was president of the PTA, which later earned her the equivalent of a PTA lifetime achievement award. She tutored slow readers and taught back-yard swim. Until we became brand-conscious and protested, Mom even made all of our clothes. (There’s a favorite picture of mine, my Dad took around 1966, when we're all dressed up in Mom-made clothes. The boys have their hair smoothed back in Brylcreem waves better than McGarrett ever had. Tom is harassing Ted, Tim is making a goofy face, and my sister, with her Gidget flip, is pretending she liked me. We’re in front of our house, and Mom looks a little flustered and a little amused. That’s how we always looked growing up, and even today in family pictures.)
Dad was on the founding committee of the Peninsula YMCA, principally started when the city denied Ocean Beach a municipal swimming pool and directed inquiries to the Plunge instead. He was a Little League coach who routinely pissed off parents with his democratic approach to managing the team (if John Cate, who tried really hard in right field, wanted to take a crack at pitching, then by all means, he should be given the chance). He used to take us to hear Sam Hinton sing, and we’d attend lectures by authors like Scott O’Dell at the downtown library. We went to Zoo classes every summer, and he even enrolled us all, for a time, in the Scripps Junior Oceanographic Corps.
I’m not sure why my parents pursued such an eclectic upbringing for us. It could be because they were both products of the beach area too and saw the potential for a perfect childhood there. Mom’s family moved to Ocean Beach from Michigan when she was four. She made her first Communion at Sacred Heart on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard, the same church where she and my Dad were married and where all of us kids were baptized, made our first Communion, and were confirmed. In 1970, there was a cool priest at Sacred Heart, Father Sproul from Wales, who chain smoked and spoke with a dreamy accent. With Father Sproul, anonymity during confession was out of the question because he knew us all by the sound of our voice We were busted with each sin, but then again, instead of assigning the parroting of prayers for penance he’d tell us to do something nice and thoughtful for someone in our family.
My Dad’s family came out from Chicago and moved to Mission Beach when he was less than two years old. He was a streetwise, skinny beach punk who was just the fodder to be one of the first members of OMBAC. He played peewee basketball at La Jolla High and dated older girls until my Mom came along.
How my parents met was an ordinary story, friends of friends, love at first sight, all at a bowling alley on Garnet in Pacific Beach. The important thing is they both held firmly to the white-picket-fence dream and were hell-bent on raising an outstanding, if not well-rounded, American family. That we were, and that we are still trying to be.
My parents moved the family to Ocean Beach in 1961, into a five-bedroom split-level house with a view to Mt. Soledad that cost them what they thought was a lifetime of fortunes: $18,000. It was on the south side of Brighton Avenue. It took me until 1970 to understand that when my Dad said we were going to "Sunny-Two-Thousand-Pounds," he meant we were going home to Brighton Avenue. They moved us to Ocean Beach because they wanted their kids to be exposed to a variety of people and ages, rather than the virtually identical families my mother said surrounded us in tract housing.
In our neighborhood, there was a house on our block where a purported suicide by hanging took place. We engaged a wide girth when we passed it. And two doors down from the hanging house was this great three-storied structure where crazy Old Lady May lived. We heard her husband was trying to sell the house and put her in a rest home. He locked her in the cellar when the real estate people came by for the papers to be signed. When he let her out, she went berserk and beat him so badly she broke his arm.
In 1970, my brothers dominated the Ocean Beach paper route circuit for blocks and blocks. They all had morning routes, so they got up at 5:30 to fold and deliver the papers on their Stingray bikes. On Christmas morning that year, Tim dressed up as Santa Claus, hoping to keep a fantasy alive for a few early-rising kids. He delivered his papers pulled behind him in a red wagon rather than on his Stingray. He only caught the eye of a few sleepy kids up on Santa Barbara Street, but there was one lady on Santa Monica who was charmed by his efforts and took his picture and gave him a good tip that month.
The next year, Tom and Ted traded their early paper routes for early-morning surfing, and Tim discovered his talent as a guitar player.
Meanwhile, Gail, who was the oldest, got a job working at the bakery next to Paras Book Shop. It was actually both a bar and grill and a bakery. Gail used to bring home a dozen of their wonderful Angel Cookies as a bribe to get me to clean her side of the room before Mom and Dad's frequent deadlines ran out. (The bakery is now a florist shop, and no one has been able to duplicate the recipe for the wonderful Angel Cookies.)
I inherited a few of Gail's babysitting jobs (with my Mom's rules: only on weekends, only during the day, and only if the kids were older than four), and I had a little money of my own. I remember the first big purchase I made with my hard-earned (50-cents-an-hour) money was Ray Stevens's album Everything Is Beautiful. I bought it at Soundsville Records, on the last block of Newport, where every album was $3.33. My brothers cursed Tower Records, which they claimed later drove Soundsville out of business. After Tower came to town, there was nowhere they were allowed to go alone, within Stingray distance, to get the latest Creedence albums. Curbed independence was a traumatic blow to kids in 1970.
Since then, the world scope of the five little demands has broadened far beyond where a Stingray might venture, as has the appeal of Ocean Beach.
Ocean Beach was once an area feared and ridiculed by the sadly ignorant who knew nothing of the rich, albeit motley, history and community within. Though the community has changed little — it’s still a haven for alternative lifestyles that are now just slightly more accepted and enjoyed by the mainstream — it’s slowly becoming a hip place to visit and live. In fact, who would’ve guessed that the O.B. Christmas Parade — a mid- '80s revival of O.B. pride that has become an annual occurrence — would become a media event?
The tide has turned. The same Point Loma kids whose parents wouldn’t allow them to go to the Strand Theater in high school are asking their parents for down payments on view lots in O.B.
All of us Griswold kids have moved out of the area, only to return shortly thereafter; Gail lived in Burlingame, near San Francisco; Tim lived in Los Angeles; Tom tried San Francisco and New York; Ted was in New Hampshire; and I lived in Palm Desert. We all moved back, to see the O.B. Christmas Parade (where the mail carriers get more appreciative applause than the Geriatric Surf and Drill Team), to see the O.B. Street Fair (where my sister always works one of the O.B. Elementary PTA game booths to show support for her two kids who attend school there), to walk on the pier (again) and see where my Grandma used to catch perch, to go to Paras Book Shop and Comet, and to eat at Nati's and Poma’s.
As I said. Soundsville is gone. So is the rolled taco place on Abbott Street and Walt’s Malts, across from the pier. The Black is still there — we used to be forbidden to go to the Black when we were kids. Now even my Mom goes there to buy beads and Christmas presents. Homer's has changed, but Comet hasn't, nor has George’s Shoe Hospital. Blue Pacific Aquarium is gone, and so are Lownes’s and Veda Moss, where my Grandma used to buy all her clothes. She lived in the same house on Santa Cruz for more than 40 years. She died last year at 90. but then, that’s another story.
Better in the Heat
How would you like to visit a faraway neighborhood that really isn’t very far? It’s an unconventional sort of place, but a closer look might surprise you with something familiar.
Borrego Springs intimates a distant post, despite its being less than two hours removed from San Diego’s busy populace. Cradled on three sides by the Santa Rosa and San Ysidro Mountains, exaggerated distance emerges from surrounding seclusion. Mount Toro, the big bruiser in the northwest corner, climbs to near 9000 feet and renders a striking contrast to the 500-foot desert floor. The eastern perimeter appears unobstructed, but along much of that gentle rise lingers the mudhills of the Borrego Badlands, a repetitive Grand Canyon in miniature. Adding a manmade partition. Anza Borrego State Park encircles the desert community. The isolation is complete, and the outside world diminishes to a vague apparition.
A local tout asserts that the sun spends the winter in Borrego, bathing the valley sanctuary in the luxury of 70-degree weather. During these mild months, it would not be unusual to experience the incongruous treat of a pool-side vantage backdropped by snowy peaks. Spring rain fetches a carpet of wildflowers, and the spindly ocotillo waves red blossoms from its thorny arms. A comfortably short walk into Palm Canyon reveals a rare grove of California palms. A jeep ride through Coyote Canyon produces desert surprises with the discovery of one of the Southland’s most consistent running streams.
Too bad that punishing perdition will reduce much of our visit’s enjoyment, or did I forget to mention that we’ll make this trip in August? The timing eliminates need of a map.
Low desert translates to hot, and from any San Diego road, we can follow the rising thermometer to our destination. If you are weak of hearty sweat, you may wish to reconsider. Old Sol may spend the winter in Borrego, but that doesn’t mean he takes a vacation in the summer. To the contrary, Old Sol probably lingers the winter because he is simply too tired to leave after his summer of excess. Midnight black and 90, but when the sun stands high, another 20 degrees can easily be added to the mercury. A blazing landscape of blanched tan, with only the scraggly creosote bush to maintain an element of green relief. Creosote abounds in Borrego, and during a summer shower, the escaping steam courses the air with the creosote s sharp scent. But scant chance that we'll see any rain today, which disposes a scent more in the order of scorched sand.
Are you ready to brave the alfresco and grab some rays? I’m going to pull off the road so we can get out and stretch, but first we should kill the air conditioner and start to get you acclimated. Prepare yourself, because in less than a minute the car's interior will attain utter brutality. Hey, don’t roll down the window. Are you crazy? The only thing that a blast of super-heated dry air might relieve you of is the skin from your face. Let me slow the car down; now you can cautiously crack the window. Feeling better? I know, I know, it's still hotter than a burning abyss, but at least we can breathe again. Quit your complaining and listen. Can you hear the strange echo? The sound of nothing rattling around in your fever-ridden head. Noise pollution is not a Borrego problem, particularly in the summertime. It is delicious and yet somehow bothersome. Your ears search for an intrusion, something, anything, even the nasty hiss of a locust or the rapid pitter-patter of little scorpion feet across the sand. Notice how the quiet complements the still air. What movement of air there is can’t be felt (distressing), but if you stand silent, you can hear a subtle wind playing its lonely lyric on the telephone wires.
Speaking of lonely, what kind of neighborhood is this, where are all the neighbors? Borrego residents come in two distinct varieties: part-time and full-time We won't see any of the first group at this time of the year. Snowbirds, and their specialized cousins the Golf Goonies, have taken flight for a more hospitable summer’s roost. Can you blame them; would you opt for the summer if you lived here only part of the year?
The real stuff of this place is the year-round resident, the Cactus People. It generally requires a stubborn tenacity to endure the desert’s middle months. Some do it by choice and others out of varying necessity or fate. The explanation behind my former claim to the title of Cactus Person is simple: Mom and Dad made me do it. My parents lived out their last 25 years in Borrego, and my younger brother still lives there. He has known no other home since age two, and therein lies his explanation. It is home.
The Cactus People once boasted uncommon character. I am out of touch with the present but do recall some personality from the past. Gilbert Rock looked a lot like an elderly Randolph Scott (early western film star). Time and the wide brim of his cowboy hat hadn’t stopped the sun from creasing his face, but a twinkle still shot from his friendly blue eyes. A slow walk and a fast smile well suited his firm wit and easy tone Rocky loved to play checkers, and he found the ideal counterpart in my dad. Both proclaimed to the game’s demanding skill and of their own cunning genius. What a pair they made Hours of gamesmanship and bantering, each staking claim to the world title while professing never to have met a more able opponent.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget Thanksgiving at Rocky’s. Time has perhaps dramatized the scene, but the reflection evokes an era from well before a November in the '60s. In the 1930s, Rocky claimed a 160-acre homestead adjacent to Clark’s Dry Lake. Reaching his patchwork cabin, sandwiched between Borrego Mountain and the Santa Rosas, required about ten miles of unpaved road — slow turns in the soft sand interspersed with stretches of bumpy washboard. Ageing possessions, long past their prime and purpose, surrounded the weathered structure that Rocky called home. A rickety porch with simple wooden chairs furnished the perfect spot for stories about cave drawings. Rocky once told me that he would show me the whereabouts of the drawings, but we never found the time I still wonder about their truth.
You should suspect stories about Borrego that originate from a nearby town. A primary route to Borrego passes through the hideously pined mountains of Julian, home to the Appleheads. Doubtful that you can find a parking place in Julian, but if you do, beware the accosting pie salesman. He spreads ugly rumors solely to blemish desert appeal and save the apple trade Backwoods capitalists who have spent most of their lives sucking too much hard cider and thin air are not reliable sources of information. I am intimately acquainted with the Applehead's hapless paranoia, having attended high school in Julian. Prior to 1966, Borrego didn’t have a high school, and we rode 30 miles to and from Julian for a higher education. Just another peculiarity of the time and the place.
I should have told you to wear a hat. You’re looking a little funny, and maybe we should find you some shade. Sure, there’s shade in Borrego. Look to the north of the valley and you’ll notice row upon row of tamarisk trees that once served as wind breaks for grape ranches (there were also lesser crops). The trees are still there, but the vineyards have gone south with the bracero labor.
When I was a teen-ager in Borrego, school may have spelled long bus rides, but summer vacation meant harvest time and the availability of plenty of jobs. I’ve picked grapes, packed melons, and pruned trees, every one of them an ordeal. You wouldn’t think that driving a truck through the vineyard roads would be too tough. But try it with the hot desert sun beating on a dark purple cab and only half a floorboard to block the engine heat. A blistering speed of three miles per hour didn’t help but was necessary to allow swampers time for their work. As the truck groaned through the field, one swamper walked in the truck’s dust and muscled 40-pound boxes of grapes to the truck, while a companion on the truck bed hoisted and hurried the cargo into neat stacks. A few thousand boxes per day will quickly strip the fat from under your burnt hide, put a few splinters under your fingertips, and culminate in great thirst.
Marines make men, but stoop labor in the desert makes animals — mean, lean drinking machines. Nothing tastes better in the heat than a cold brewski, and as an adolescent, I and my compatriots spent much of our free time validating that fact. Come to think of it, we didn’t always restrain our experiments to hot weather. I have no doubt that I consumed more alcohol before legal age than in the 20-plus years that have followed. I remember counting every can, always prepared for the night’s repeated question. How many have you had? If we couldn’t buy it or steal it, we’d make it (100 proof foul). Outside the school gym, parked in the vineyards, or on the open road to Mexicali, we roamed far and wide m search of sin and suds. What a sight we must have stirred on one border trip taken in an old blue Chrysler. I’m not sure that the blue wasn’t sun bleached black, but I am sure that the car looked better when it first appeared in a scene from Grapes of Wrath.
Special times and special friends, I wish that I had the space to introduce them all. But then, it is somewhat unnecessary. Look into that old neighborhood of yours and you will apprehend my sentiment. Nostalgia is a fickle emotion, a curious amalgam of warm and sad. Youthful adventure and dream is viewed back across a field of sobering realities. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well, “Every man beholds his human condition with a degree of melancholy. As a ship aground is battered by the waves, so man, imprisoned in mortal life, lies open to the mercy of coming events.’’ But, there also exists an opposing articulation, for in each dispiriting event. I can proceed to an earlier moment where lost friends and bliss are frozen in time.
Borrego Valley, unconventional as it may be, is for me that neighborhood that bears pertinence to youth. I hope you don’t mind if we hesitate just a while longer. The sun will set in red as if angry at retiring, but night will prevail, and desert nights can be magical. The overwhelming night sky performs with celestial theater, and the quiet day deepens with evening. Leisurely and pleasant hours when the world slows, almost stops, and begs you to listen and feel its heartbeat. How easy it now becomes to drift back into that warm neighborhood of special friends and special times. They live forever in a secret corner of my mind.
Don’t Cover the Blood
There is a half-painted wall in the alley between 46th Street and Menlo Avenue, just north of Polk Street.
Sunday mornings I walk to a nearby store to get a newspaper. I have lived near Polk and Menlo for three years, and I walk down the alley west of Menlo at least once a week. There is not much graffiti there.
On January 6, I saw “ESD Santos’’ sprayed on a garage door I see when I drive to work. "M&M" was sprayed on another door. I was looking at the graffiti and thinking, "How much would it cost to buy a couple gallons of paint and keep the alley clean?"
The sign on the door to the Dunn-Edwards at 46th and University read “No Bus Change" and "Closed," but I could see people near the registers and the flickering blue glow of a television set. Another sign on the window said they opened at 10:00 a.m., and it was 15 minutes past that. I pushed on the door. It opened and I went inside.
No one looked at me. There were six men sitting in a round kiosk that held four cash registers. All were staring at a football game showing on a color portable. The players had-ghosts, and the screen rolled slowly on the half minute.
One aerial rose from the set. A clod of aluminum foil wrapped around the end made a tail. The power cord stretched from the counter to a wall outlet without touching the ground.
One man looked at me, then looked back at the TV. I reached over and turned the closed sign over. The showroom was wide open. One-gallon paint cans were stacked in rows on shelves; five-gallon paint tubs were stacked two and three high, looking like yard-art pillars.
Grocery store pyramids of cans divided the room into rows. A sale display announcing a treasure chest of savings was built from wood and sand on the tiled floor. Sand seeped under the barricades, and people had kicked through it, leaving fingers of sand pointing toward the products.
A word I couldn’t read was spray-painted on the wall. Half of it was scrubbed away. A five-gallon paint tub filled with soapy water and a floating plastic sponge sat under the word. It was a demonstration for an anti-graffiti pre-treatment.
One or two of the clerks manning the television shouted “Yea!" They raised their arms in fists and leaned toward the screen as I looked up.
A young man with a pad and a pencil came out of a back room. He looked at the clerks and scowled. No one looked at him. He tapped cans in one section with his pencil eraser and made a mark on his pad. He saw me looking at him. He looked at the clerks, then he walked to me.
“Can I help you?” he asked. His badge said Store Manager.
“Yeah, I need some white paint, some thick, one-coat, no-frills white paint,” I said. “The cheapest stuff you got, I need to cover some graffiti.”
“We have lots of white paint, but for graffiti, you’ve gotta seal it back against the wall; otherwise it’ll just come right back through the paint. You can’t put up enough coats to keep it back," he said. “What color is the graffiti?”
“Red." I said.
“Yeah, you’ll need to primer it down," he said. “Come over here." He led me past the television to the back of the store “We got this stuff. It’s called Kilz. You can use it out of a can, or we got these spray cans. This is what we use We got kids sprayin’ our building all the time. We just go out there and spray this over what they painted. You just follow the strokes they made right over the top. Then you can paint it any color you want."
“I really didn't want to spend that much time on it,’’ I said. “What color is it?”
"White," he said.
"White white?” I asked.
He lifted his hands and shrugged; “It’s white."
“How come I can’t paint the whole wall with it?” I asked.
“You can," he said. "It’s kind of glossy; it smells bad.”
"Is it cheap; how much is it?” I asked.
“It's $17.99 for the gallon. $3.25 for the spray,” he said.
There were three spray cans there. "I’ll take three," I said. "You got any more?"
“I got another box in the back," he said.
“I’ll just take these three," I said.
He led me to the cash registers. “Hey. Victor, you take care of this guy for me?" he said. Victor nodded, said “Sure," took his feet off the counter, and spun around on his stool. He scribbled an invoice and touched some buttons on the register. He reached under the counter and pulled out a bag, then he put the spray cans in the bag and tossed in the receipt. I said, “Thanks." He said, “Sure," and spun around and dropped his heels on the counter again.
I went home and dropped off my newspaper and spent the next 20 minutes covering graffiti. With my $12 paint, I covered all the graffiti in the alley except for one wall and a swastika and an ”SS” near the north end of the alley.
Most of the graffitied buildings in my alley are white. This is my luck. One wall is an ivy green, and another set of garages is dark gray. Last July, a bunch of kids sprayed the south end of the alley with their gang marks: “Piru,” and “A slob looks better with a knife in his head."
Within a month, the owners of these had covered the graffiti. About three months later, the green wall was vandalized again. The owners had not gotten around to painting again, and there I was with paint in hand. The Kilz white obliterated the graffiti, but it left an ugly mark.
On Tuesday, I got up early and went to the paint store. I bought another spray can and this time a gallon of Kilz white with a brush. I borrowed their color book and matched the green of my neighbor’s house and had them make me a pint. I put the paint in my garage, grabbed the Kilz white spray, and started for work.
On the way, I stopped and covered the swastika and "SS.” A woman came out of her house and saw me. She smiled and thanked me for what I was doing. She told me about the time her garage was vandalized. She said she has lived in that house for 43 years.
City Heights sign
She said, "It’s really nice they let you out to clean the neighborhoods.”
I said. "I’m not a con, I just live here.”
She was embarrassed; I thought it was funny. I said, "There, you can hardly tell there was anything there before." We got in our cars and left.
I had been fighting the flu for days. Wednesday at noon, I went home with a fever. Mottled gray clouds covered the sky. I was thinking, "It’ll only take me an hour to paint that wall. It’s not like I'll be in the sun." I changed my clothes, grabbed the paint, and went to the alley at Polk.
The wall was cinderblock with a red-brick course across the top. The wall had never been painted, and it looks as if it has been standing at least 50 years. There was not much graffiti, and what there was I couldn’t read. I saw "619" and "San Dago.”
The paint went on smooth and covered easily. The white wall with its red-brick top course looked amazingly clean. I covered the entire south wall in 30 minutes. There is a wrought-iron gate in the middle of the wall. I skipped over it and began painting the north side.
At 1:30 p.m., a school must have let out. Cars, kids on bikes, parents walking with their children, all went by me — not all at once, not all the time, just now and then.
Some kids came by and grumbled. One boy said to me, "Hey, man, don’t cover the Blood.” They stopped. "You know it’s just gonna get painted again."
I said. "I know."
The boy was black, about 12 or 13. He said, "Why you doin’ it then?"
I said, "I think it looks better.”
He gave me an incredulous look.
I said. "If it gets painted, I’ll just come out and paint again. It’s kind of fun."
Once the wall was painted, new graffiti would be easy to cover. I still needed another gallon of paint to finish, and that would leave me with a half-gallon for the future — extra paint to make touch-ups on my Sunday morning newspaper walks.
Bending over with a fever gave me a splitting headache, but I had started. I didn’t want to leave with the wall half finished.
A woman walked by and said. "It’s nice to see someone doing something about this graffiti."
I said. "Thank you for saying so.”
A few minutes later, a gate opened behind me and three women came out. One of them said, "Did you paint my garage?”
I said, “Yes, last Sunday.”
She said, "Thank you very much." We talked while I painted. Then they took their smiles and went back inside. The one I spoke to came back right away and pressed $5 into my hand.
I said, "No, please; that’s really not necessary.”
She said. ”I insist.” I put the bill in my pocket. She smiled and went back inside.
The north wall was bigger. My head was pounding, so I took a break. Soon a man came up to me. He had a toddler in his arms. Two of his girls were on matching purple bikes with training wheels and plastic streamers hanging from the handle bars. They rode back and forth in front of the wall while their father and I talked.
"You live around here, man?" he asked.
"Not too far," I said. He nodded and adjusted his daughter in his arms. He called to another girl in Spanish. She turned around and walked back to him.
"This gang stuff is bad, man. I live a couple blocks up, and they paint our alley too." he said.
“I just see ’em around. They don’t bother me much," I said.
"That cost you much?" he asked.
"Not really. It’s fun. I meet my neighbors, do the community thing," I said.
A truck pulled into the alley from Polk, a construction pickup with an overhead rack and powdered drywall on the windshield. Tools and garbage rolled in the bed as it straightened and motored past. The girls clustered around their father. He had his hand on one girl’s shoulder. The girls on the bikes were stopped. He watched the truck leave.
The man nodded to me. "You’re doin’ good," he said.
"Thanks,” I said.
"You be careful," he said.
I smiled. "I will," I said. He waved and led his children up the alley.
I was down on one knee with the paint can tilted so I could wipe the last of the paint out of the can. I was thinking, "I’ll paint this whole alley Kilz white, if I have to." Someone yelled "Bah!" in my ear. I jumped so much I almost dropped the paint can.
I turned around to see a guy stepping back with a big smile on his face. "You jumped," he said.
"You scared me,” I said.
"What you doin’?" he said.
"Painting the wall," I said. He stepped back, looked at the ground, smiled, shook his head, and said ch all in one deft movement. I turned around and started painting again.
He said, "Wait right there; keep painting, I’m gonna go get my son."
That was cool. He was going to show me to his son. I was a model citizen doing good for the community. He came back around the corner. He was alone. The alley was empty. He held his right hand behind him, pressed into the small of his back. I looked at him and kept on painting.
"What you doin’?"
I looked back at him. He was gesturing with his left hand, but he kept his right hand behind his back. "I’m painting the wall."
"Why you paintin' the wall?”
I stopped painting and turned to face him. "I think it looks better. Don't you think it looks better?”
“No, I don’t think it looks better. Look at that.” He pointed to some red spray paint I was just covering. “Is that the color of your blood?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your blood on the wall, you think that look better?”
He was smiling, and for a moment I didn’t know how to take it. Then I realized he wasn’t just holding onto his belt. He was holding something out of my sight.
"How’d you like a bullet in your leg?”
I began shaking. “I don’t think I’d like that.” I said. I looked at him. I took two breaths. He stepped back, looked at the ground, smiled, shook his head, and said ch.
“Why you paintin’ the wall?”
I was imagining him pulling a gun from behind his back, a black revolver. He would take his eyes off my eyes and look at my leg. He would point the gun, and I would do nothing. I would not jump him and risk being thrown and risk having him shoot me in anger. I would see fire come out the end of the barrel. I would grab my thigh near the wound and fall to the ground. I would feel the warm blood wetting my hands. I would look up at him, and he would look at me. He would tell me not to paint anymore, and I would nod.
"I think it looks better.”
“Can you read what it says, man?”
I am a coward. "No, I can’t read any of it.”
He was smaller than me, about five foot six. He was about 25 years old. He was a black man and was wearing a green plaid shirt and gray Dockers. He was stocky, with a round face, full cheeks. He had short hair, maybe balding.
He wore a gold hoop earring in his right ear. The hoop was thick at the bottom, thin at the top where it went into the ear. He had a quick smile that kept me thinking he was going to laugh and slap me on the shoulder and tell me he was just messing with me and go away.
He was smiling when he asked me if I wanted a bullet in my leg. He took a deep breath, looked at the sky, and shifted his weight.
“Why you paintin’ the motherfuckin’ wall, man?" He spread his left arm out wide, bent over, and dipped his head to make the point. He kept his right hand stuck to his back. He changed his tone. It sounded like resignation: "Gi’me your money.”
“All I got is five dollars.” I pulled out the $5 bill and gave it to him.
"Come on, man.”
“That’s all I’ve got. I came here fo paint.”
“What’s in your other pocket?”
I brought a screwdriver, a paint stirrer, and my garage door opener. They were on the ground about ten feet away. ”I don’t have anything in my other pocket.” I pulled the linings of both front pockets out.
I was wearing shorts, and my back pockets have linings.
I pulled them out also.
He said: "You keep painting, man. Don’t watch me leave.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I watched him as he walked out the alley and west on Polk. When he turned around, he moved his right hand in front of him. I couldn’t tell if he had anything in it. He kept looking back over his shoulder at me.
I put the door opener and screwdriver in my pocket. I tilted the can and saw the paint run over the rippled bottom and gather at the lower edge I swished the brush in it and watched it run down again. There was paint on my forearm and on my hands. Kilz white was under my fingernails and running up the cuticle. It was going to be hard to clean. I threw the can in a nearby Dumpster.
I'd been outside a little more than an hour. I walked around two blocks before I went home to make sure no one was following me. My head was pounding.
There is a half-painted wall in the alley between 46th Street and Menlo Avenue just north of Polk Street.
Hung Up Thinking
It was our neighborhood only on technicality: we owned a piece of it. And even that was an accident, a combination of ’80s avarice and a little family infighting. It was supposed to be an investment, something that would stay in the background and look good on the bottom line. Sometimes, though, a place and the people in it just refuse to keep their distance.
See, we had this sister who was, as they say, “in transition" — recently divorced with a child in tow and in need of a place to regroup. We also had some money to invest, at a time when the prevailing financial dictum was I own, therefore I am. Those elements converged to put us in possession of a modest duplex deep in the heart of Clairemont.
It really wasn’t a half-bad little place. Like most of the houses in the area, it was older, built in the ’50s along low, boxy lines. There was only a little more yard and a few more windows than you’d get in a grade-school drawing, and nowhere near as much charm. But the vacant front unit looked out on the green lawn of a park, and there was a school and playground just down the block. The street was quiet; so was the couple who rented the rear unit. A main-route bus line stopped at the corner. The property seemed to suit everyone’s purposes, so we anted up and bought in.
While the ink was drying on the escrow papers, it occurred to our sister/tenant-to-be that having loved ones as landlords was a loaded situation, and she bowed out. We rolled our eyes, slapped our foreheads, and started drafting an ad for the "for rent” section. I cleared a day to sit by the phone and field calls. And not at all incidentally, to learn something about what makes up a neighborhood.
Lee Calvert phoned at 8:01 the morning the ad came out, hoping his call wasn't too early and he wasn’t too late to rent the front unit. He was young and polite, with a mild Midwest twang, excellent references, and a job as a photographer in a Clairemont studio. Owned his own furniture, had first and last months' rent up front, and could move in immediately. After some cordial conversation we agreed that he’d meet with my husband at the duplex that afternoon, to look it over and fill out a rental application. I hung up thinking, this property-management stuff is a cinch.
Linda Cisneros was my second caller, and the first in a long string of struggling single parents wanting to rent the place. Like everyone else who called that morning, she knew the area; Linda had graduated from Clairemont High. When I told her the address, she was willing to rent, sight unseen. "That's right on the park, oh, that would be perfect!"
Ms. Cisneros had her own furniture, a job as a medical receptionist, and a four-year-old son who needed room to run. She also had a lease to get out of, “--But I can work something out, please, just let me fill out an application and talk to you about this.” I thought about our daughter, not quite four yet, playing out under the big tree in our back yard. Well, yeah, Linda... c’mon down. We can talk, at least. Landlording was looking a little more complicated.
The phone seemed to ring every time I set it back in the receiver, and every time I picked it up someone on the other end told me how much better his life would be, or hers, or theirs, if we'd just rent to him or her or them. They all knew more about the duplex than I did, sitting fat-dumb-and-happy 20 miles away.
I heard about the Senior Center that was just down the street and how convenient the neighborhood was for shopping at Clairemont Square. Mrs. Cowles told me that when she called from Normal Heights. "I’ve been trying to get back to Clairemont for the last five years. My daughter and son-in-law are there, and I’d like to watch my granddaughter grow up." Mrs. Cowles told me she would be a very quiet tenant. "I’m disabled. I never have parties or any company." Any pets? "... No. — I do have some large potted plants, but I would be very careful with them." There was a moment of silence while I tried to imagine hassling a 68-year-old woman about where she put her geraniums.
I told Mrs. Cowles that we were getting lots of interested callers but that we'd be happy to take her application. I was eight calls into the morning and starting to hate the landlord biz.
Ed Johnson was a father of two little girls and knew a whole lot about the daycare options at the Clairemont Baptist Church. He’d had to find out real fast, after his wife called him at work one day to say she was checking herself into a drug-treatment center. Ed told me he grew up on Clairemont Mesa when it was the end of the line and University City was still coyotes and canyons. He’d bolted down burgers at the old Oscar’s drive-in, gone to dances at the Clairemont Bowl when Gary Puckett and the Union Gap played there. Ed’s folks still lived over near the library; they were going to help with the kids.
It was only a little after 10:00 a m. when Harold Carleton called, but I was already at the point of taking the phone off the hook or leaving the house. Maybe leaving town. I was ready to concede that I was hopelessly unfit as a landlord, even a prospective one. I didn’t want any more glimpses into any more lives. Talking with Harry Carleton didn’t help.
For 27 years Harold Carleton had owned a home in Clairemont overlooking the bay. He was recently retired, with two grown children and two still in school. One day his wife and kids asked him to leave. "They just all come in and told me things weren't any good and it’d be better all round if I moved out.” He had a low, gravelly voice and sounded like he was still surprised. "It’s rough, it’s very rough."
Mr. Carleton told me he was handy with repairs and could help a lot with upkeep at the duplex. He walked every evening along Mission Bay, doctor’s orders. Heart problems. "I’d kinda like to stay in the Clairemont area, near home" Then, surprised again, " ... I mean, what used to be home."
I decided to go out for a while. As I locked the front door I could hear the phone inside, ringing again.
The plan was to call my husband that afternoon to let him know what kind of response we’d had and who’d be coming by that afternoon to look things over and leave an application. Rob sounded jaunty and businesslike on the phone, and all of a sudden that irritated me.
"So, you get lots of calls?"
"Too many, it was crazy."
"Any good ones, though?"
"... What do you mean, ‘good’?"
"I mean, any likely prospects."
"How am I supposed to decide who’s a ’likely prospect’? They all think of themselves as likely prospects. Everyone I talked to today has a good reason for wanting to rent the damn duplex. You tell me who should live there!"
There was a long pause at the other end; I could picture Rob holding the receiver away from his ear and staring it. Then, elaborately casual, he asked, "... Is anything, ah, bothering you?"
I told him about the nonstop calls that morning and all the lives that were lining up for the dubious privilege of having us as landlords. He stopped me with his best let’s-be-rational-about-this pitch, saying, "Sweetheart, we’re looking for references and a security deposit, not somebody’s life story. Don’t get into all that. Just tell them they can come by and fill out an application "
"And then what?"
"Then we pick somebody and get h in there so we aren’t paying for an empty apartment."
We talked about some other things --work, and when we could schedule the car for a tune-up, and what to have for dinner. Before he hung up, Rob reminded me one more time: "If you g any more calls, just give them the address and tell them when I'll be then Don’t let people talk to you."
I set the phone down and it rang again. Someone named Cheryl. Soft-spoken but persistent. I told her she was at the end of a long line of would-be tenants, but she said she’d come out a look anyway. "Can you tell me, are the steps up to the front door, or is it a flat threshold?"
I tried to remember. .. a couple of concrete steps, I thought.
"Could we set up a ramp there? My husband’s a Vietnam veteran, and he’s in a wheelchair most of the time"
I decided to go out again. The hell with property management.
Rob came home late, with a dozen rental applications in a brand-new file folder. "You were right, a lot of people were really anxious to get in there. The rent we’re asking is probably a little low." He was going to settle in after dinner to go over the applications, but he’d already decided, he said, we should rent to Lee Calvert.
Lee Calvert... oh, yeah. That first call, way back this morning when things seemed simple.
"Well, he looks pretty good. He can be in right away. He’s a photographer at one of those family portrait studios, did he mention that? Maybe we should take Beth up there and get some new pictures for your folks."
"Yeah, but why pick him instead of some of these others?" I started shuffling through the applications, recognizing names. "She sounded good to me — ” I held out the paper Linda Cisneros had filled in.
Rob looked at the paper and shrugged a little. "I thought maybe a single mother might have a harder time making the rent. I mean, we want a stable tenant."
"Oh, well, mention the word ‘stability’ and the first thing that comes to my mind is a baby photographer!" I made it sound like the guy went door to door with a Polaroid and a painted donkey.
"What are you getting so upset about?”
"Look, it just seems to me like we could rent to somebody who really needs to be in that neighborhood — someone who can use the Senior Center, or the Boy’s Club, or ride the 41 bus down to the hospital.” I could see Rob's expression shifting from mildly pained to incredulous as I talked.
"Since when did you get to be such an expert on Clairemont?"
"Since when did you start writing people off just because they’ve had a few problems?" I wasn’t being fair here. Ask anybody, my husband is one of the last of the good guys, a prince — and I was acting like he’d signed up to become a slumlord. But in my mind I was still somewhere just south of Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, over near Genesee, trying to find room for everyone.
"I’m sorry, I just think we-"
The phone rang. Rob answered it and told someone out there the duplex had been rented. We were quiet for a few minutes, before he said, carefully, "I think you’re really looking at this the wrong way. I’m trying to keep this simple." He waved a hand at the pile of applications on the table. "Most of these people have to give notice or get out of a lease. A couple of them need time to come up with the full rent and deposit. One guy is out of work." My husband was being the soul of reason. I really hate that.
"So we're not even considering anyone whose life looks a little complicated."
"Well, you’re ready to throw out this guy’s application just because his life isn't complicated!’’ He gave me a half-hopeful look. "Listen, what do we know, maybe it’s hell being a baby photographer — would that make you feel better?"
"I’m just trying to be fair — ”
"Okay, great! Didn’t you tell me Lee Calvert was the first one who called this morning?"
... Well... yeah. I remembered how he apologized for calling so early. "Yes."
"So if we want to be fair, we should go with him: he’s qualified and he was the first one here.”
I thought about Mrs. Cowles and her houseplants and Ed Johnson’s little girls. I thought about Harold Carleton trying to stay somewhere near home. In Clairemont. Clairemont and a dozen people who wanted to live there had somehow become a puzzle that I couldn’t solve or quite put down.
"I don’t know how to call some of these people and tell them they have to look somewhere else"
Rob picked up the applications and tapped them into a neat stack, with the baby photographer’s paper on top. "No problem, I’ll take care of it. I’ll call this guy right now and then let the others know we’ve rented the place." He sat down by the phone, happy to have things settled, and started dialing. For the third time that day I decided I didn’t want to be near the phone.
I swung Beth up on my shoulders, and we walked out through the back yard. The last of the summer light was just about gone, just the faintest glow to the west. I pointed in that direction and told my kid that was where Clairemont was and that a lot of people lived there.