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“Everybody would pile in,” she said, taking count: 18 grandchildren, 3 aunts and their husbands, her parents, and her grandmother, the wife of the one-armed Norwegian. “Thirteen of the kids slept upstairs, where there were three cribs, two single beds, and four double beds. There were extra mattresses laid out on the screened-in porch. The adults were downstairs, where there were more cribs and two double beds. My grandmother had the only private room, and there was a double bed in there too. My mother and her three sisters would pack up and stay with us all summer, with my father and uncles coming up on weekends.”

Fargo was in junior high school before a shower was installed. While there had always been a toilet, there was no TV.

“We learned to entertain ourselves. There was lots of singing and we put on musicals. Looking back, you remember little things, singing in the evening and how delicious the well water was. We had a paddleboat, and sometimes we’d spend the whole day paddling up the Mississippi.”

The outdoor life appealed to Fargo who, as a Girl Scout, became a “First Class,” the equivalent of the boy’s Eagle Scout level. She undertook her first canoe trip when she was 13, and two years later, with a small group of Girl Scouts, she crossed great tracts of northern Minnesota wilderness in Voyageurs National Park, which has 341 square miles of lakes. The girls carried their boats and supplies between lakes (called “portage”). Fargo organized the Girl Scouts’ first winter camp-out in the area. One hundred girls camped outdoors, drilling through the ice for their water. A love of nature has defined the way she’s decorated her home.

“I’m pretty much a minimalist,” she said, referring to her walls naked of adornment and where the only color was the color of the walls themselves.

From 1983 to 1987, she taught color theory in the University of Minnesota’s applied design department while she earned her master’s degree in applied color design. For her, hue is important. She has let color gently define her environment rather than act as focus points. She painted the dining room a blue-gray, the kitchen a light yellow, and her bedroom coral. Sunlight on the living room walls brings out the subtlety of their sand color. As spring passes into summer and the days lengthen, sunlight stretches across the room to the bits of colored antique glass on the mantel, sending a magic light show over the walls.

“When I first saw the house, I loved the wood, the soft lines, the feeling of the rooms, the way they seemed to greet you at the doorway.” She pointed to the living room, and I looked, just as a tornado flew in. K.C., black and about the size of the Taco Bell Chihuahua, had escaped from the backyard, come in through the kitchen, and was now heading straight for me. Yapping, her swollen milk-filled teats jouncing, she leapt onto my lap and in the throes of a canine conniption, the doggy dervish twisted and turned. I might have petted her, but I could only think of blood and milk! Where on that small body was there a place not likely to leak?

“K.C.!” yelled Fargo, “Get down!” K.C. hit the floor and flew across the room, scampered onto the back of the couch, and settled there to peer out the front window. Fargo went on with her account of how she got to Olive Street.

In 1988, she rented a U-Haul van and, towing her Toyota Corolla, drove from Minnesota to San Diego, where she enrolled as a doctoral student in experimental psychology under Professor Robert Boyton at UCSD. She lived in graduate-student housing above the La Jolla cliffs, overlooking the ocean. Residents, she said, quickly bonded, forming close relationships. “Sometimes we’d be talking under the stars until late into the night. The sense of community we shared was pretty neat. And I’ve found it again here, on Olive Street.”

K.C. rose on all fours, a black fur collar at Fargo’s shoulders, as a white Honda Civic made the turn onto Olive Street and cut into the alley, passing the west windows of the living room. A minute later a knock on the back door sent the dog yapping into the kitchen.

“It’s me — !”

Kris Wackerli, 49 years old and blond, with a runner’s lean body, introduced herself, then sat and shared moments of her day. When she mentioned that she lived in a house just behind Fargo’s, I asked to see it. Her one-bedroom cottage was guarded by a growling puff of bluish fur. “Iris is Chihuahua mixed with monkey,” quipped Wackerli.

The proverbial all-bark-and-no-bite variety, Iris had long suture lines crossing her back in the shape of a Y. Wackerli explained that they were the scars left from an operation. She had come upon her while looking for a cat at the Chula Vista animal shelter on Otay Valley Road. Iris had been curled up on the cement floor.

“She had been in an accident and her leg was fractured and a hip dislocated; she had a crushed pelvis and contusions and abrasions. In addition, she had kennel cough. She was a real mess, and they were going to put her down. At the time I didn’t even want a dog — I was what you’d call a cat person — but the instant I saw her, I knew we were a match.”

Six months later (and with medical bills totaling nearly $3000), Iris was almost as good as new. “She had colitis and couldn’t keep anything down except boiled chicken, and now that’s the only thing she’ll eat.”

Boiled chicken twice a day, served in a house that was, as I looked around, quite simply fabulous. Lots of dead chickens in one beautiful Fabergé egg.

Kris Wackerli’s home could not have been more different from her neighbor’s. White walls served as a backdrop to her many bright treasures. A string of red paper roses festooned a handsome print of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. A life-size papier-mâché rendering of her deceased tabby cat Woodie, done in golden hues, sat on the floor. A bright yellow Formica and chrome table and chairs, ’50s vintage, defined the dining area. (“My friend got it when her grandmother from Nebraska died. When I bought it, it still had food smells.”)

This is the first of two parts. Read the second part.

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