Shopping needs are met at nearby University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard; movies and bookstores and eateries are close. In addition, Olive Street offers a bonus: Switzer Canyon.
  • Shopping needs are met at nearby University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard; movies and bookstores and eateries are close. In addition, Olive Street offers a bonus: Switzer Canyon.
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Part 1 of this story

Good neighborhoods require the right mix of place, time, and things, and the right people. But neighborhoods are not good simply because they are not bad, because rape and pillage are not going on at the end of the block and cops are not on permanent patrol. A good neighborhood is rare — clearly exceptional, fine-tuned and running well. Good neighborhoods are little secrets tucked away and known only to the few who live there. These portions of paradise have safe and attractive streets, and homes that are comfortable, but here also lifelong friendships bloom and those who move in often never want to leave. On a cul-de-sac in North Park, off 30th Street, quietly sits one such Shangri-la.

Janice and Rod Owlett with Sam, Tramp, and Opal. Taking the dogs to Grape Street for their run, Janice cut through the Olive Street alley and saw a real estate agent putting up a For Sale sign in front of a house.

Janice and Rod Owlett with Sam, Tramp, and Opal. Taking the dogs to Grape Street for their run, Janice cut through the Olive Street alley and saw a real estate agent putting up a For Sale sign in front of a house.

Olive Street is just ten minutes from downtown. Shopping needs are met at nearby University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard; movies and bookstores and eateries are close. In addition to these urban conveniences, Olive Street offers a bonus: Switzer Canyon.

Diep Huynh and Linda Kotcher with Casso. When he and Kotcher have paid off their education debts, he said, they are leaving for Los Angeles.

Diep Huynh and Linda Kotcher with Casso. When he and Kotcher have paid off their education debts, he said, they are leaving for Los Angeles.

Ephraim D. Switzer arrived in San Diego in 1868 and purchased five acres in the northeast section of the canyon, where he planted citrus trees. Today Olive Street lies on the northeast rim above where the Switzer farm once stood. The orange and lemon trees are gone, but in the canyon the Bewick’s wren sings, the orange-throated whiptail lizard suns itself.

Olive Street has a small-town sense.

Olive Street has a small-town sense.

Most of the homes on Olive Street are small bungalows, 1920s and 1930s Craftsman-style units. There are no parents raising young children here (the only kids are a pair of teenagers); adults’ ages range from early 30s to 80s. A two-bedroom bungalow on Olive Street rents for nearly $1000 a month. There are only two people of color. Among the 37 residents, one man crafts jewelry, another is an architect, and a third delivers packages for United Parcel Service. Gays hang out with grandparents; single women, Midwesterners, and folks from the East Coast have found their ways here.

Kris Wackerli and Iris. We walked up the canyon for 20 minutes, looking at the backs of houses, collecting pebbles, noticing wildflowers. “Now you know why I love it here,” said Wackerli.

Kris Wackerli and Iris. We walked up the canyon for 20 minutes, looking at the backs of houses, collecting pebbles, noticing wildflowers. “Now you know why I love it here,” said Wackerli.

Between 1903 and 1909, the trolley expanded into the area east of Balboa Park. Thirtieth Street became the route, and a bridge was built to extend the street across Switzer Canyon, from Laurel to Olive. With the trolley expansion, Salathiel Gurwell acquired property north of Date and Elm. Olive Street was part of the land included in Gurwell Heights when it was officially listed as a subdivision in 1906. The street got its name around 1900, when the streets between A and Sacramento were named alphabetically after trees. While in this historical account, Olive Street, sitting between Nutmeg and Palm, finds its roots deeply entwined in San Diego’s urban development, this matters little in the ongoing lives of those who currently live there.

“I knew what I wanted,” said Lee Fargo, 44-year-old UCSD professor of psychology, waving her arms wide to take in the living room, the rest of the two-bedroom house, and the street on which it sits. “When I went looking for a place to live, I wanted to be on a block where the houses were old, where there were lots of built-ins. I also wanted a community. This was really important.”

Fargo moved here in 1995 after receiving her doctoral degree and finding herself no longer eligible for UCSD graduate-student housing in La Jolla. There, students joined in late-night potlucks and moved easily in and out of each other’s apartments. “And I wanted some of that same feeling. I wanted neighbors who cared about one another and did things together,” she said.

On all counts, as it turned out, Olive Street fit the bill.

Fargo’s white cottage, trimmed in blue, was built in 1932. Like much of North Park, Olive Street offers a pre–World War II view of San Diego that is generally lost among the ongoing spread of housing developments and newer mall-communities.

“I knew the minute I saw the house and the street that they were right for me.”

When she learned that Olive Street maintains a roster of residents’ names, telephone numbers, and pets’ names, Fargo was excited. She signed her lease, waited for the paint to dry, then moved in.

At her back, afternoon sunlight filtered into the living room through a pair of Roman shades, heavy unbleached cotton with deep horizontal pleats. Dispersed light ignited the red highlights in Fargo’s shoulder-length auburn hair. She spoke of her grandmother, who came from England in 1920, and of her grandfather, a one-armed Norwegian who was twice elected mayor of Grand Forks, North Dakota. Fargo, a natural raconteur, talked about her father, Vern Fargo, who on a visit to San Diego from Minnesota a couple of years ago suddenly discovered that he’d been given 13 cents too much in change at the hardware store. “I was driving, and he ordered me to turn around so that he could return the money.” Here in a cozy living room on a quiet street with sunlight bathing the room, time feels suspended and a quaint tale of an old man and 13 cents takes on the vitality and relevance of an act of conscience.

Fargo’s warm, invitational tones work to put a visitor at ease. I had made for her couch, a jumble of cushions, its sage-green damask upholstery covered with sheets and towels, when she stopped me. “K.C. is spotting,” she explained, and I shouldn’t sit there. K.C., a friend’s miniature pinscher, was a new mom and still bleeding a little. Fargo was dog-sitting. “Maybe you should try one of those easy chairs.” K.C. was not allowed on them and there my clothes would be stain-safe.

Fargo’s childhood, as she described it, was much like her house — comfortable and pleasant. She grew up in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, but from the first day of summer vacation until Labor Day, she was in the woods of northern Minnesota at her maternal grandmother’s summer home on Lake Bemidji (an Ojibwa name). Fargo remembers how the yellow wooden structure peeked at them through tall pines as her father drove up. Built in the 1800s and fronting a clear lake fed by the slim beginnings of the Mississippi River, the house holds for Fargo recalled enchantment. Her home on Olive Street reminds her of that house and time.

“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.”)

Off the living room, the open door to the bedroom revealed a neo-Romantic print in burnt oranges of a maiden sleeping. Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June crackled like fire climbing the wall. In the small room she uses for a study, in a close to life-size poster, Mikhail Baryshnikov smiled impishly. Each object in her home sweetened the eye and appealed to the senses. The living room couch and the screen behind it were in muted tones, browns and grays, but the cashmere silk fabric begged to be touched. The air was fragrant with incense.

Though her home was different from Fargo’s, it had the same feeling of welcome and easy companionship. Wackerli grew up in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a potato-growing town of 35,000 on the banks of the Snake River. “There was no ethnic diversity, or any diversity of any kind. There was nothing but Nixon!”

Her parents met in 1932 at the Idaho Falls High School, where Kris would later be a popular student. The couple married after the war, and her father joined his uncle in the dry cleaning business. Kris was born in 1950, four years after her sister Robyn. On the wall were pictures of her parents as a youthful couple. Kris took after her mother while Robyn, with her darker hair, resembled her father.

“Let me show you my favorite photo.” Wackerli handed over a snapshot in a frame. The photograph, taken at the banks of the Snake River in 1956, showed a shapely woman in a one-piece bathing suit lying on a blanket. Her eyes covered by sunglasses, Kris’s mom had the glamour of a movie star — an impression that held even while two young girls, one playing in the sand and the other resting her head on the woman’s stomach, gave the scene an air of domesticity.

Both girls, Wackerli said, inherited her mother’s sense of style. Katie Wackerli liked to set a gardenia floating in a bowl of water, to have vases filled with fresh-cut flowers. “We always ate with cloth napkins because my dad would clean them.” After dinner, her mother burned incense to remove the smell of cooked food.

The sun brought Wackerli to California. In 1971, her parents moved to Denver, Colorado, where Robyn had earlier settled. Four years later, Wackerli, having married and divorced her high school sweetheart, followed. For the next ten years she called Denver home. “But those winters! After a while, I couldn’t stand it anymore.” In 1985 she moved to San Diego.

Wackerli invited me to view the garden and led me through the kitchen and study into a small courtyard between her home and Fargo’s. Blooming in profusion were calla lilies, gardenias, geraniums, bougainvillea, pansies. Here, she said, she came to sit and think of nothing. A bubbling fountain added to the restful feeling. “My neighbor, Diep, put it together. He and Linda are wonderful, and you’re sure to meet them,” she promised. Wackerli’s first apartment was in south Mission Beach, but after five years she was ready to move. “It got so crowded that the police blocked off the area on the Fourth of July and I had to show an ID just to get to my own home.”

She moved to Olive Street in 1990. Her first home was the one that Diep and Linda currently rent.

“I loved it there, but one day I came home from work and there was a Notice of Foreclosure tacked onto the door. I mean, it was already a done deal, and I was told I had 30 days to move. I just fell apart.”

She was out on her front porch a few days later when she got into a conversation with neighbors from across the street. She was miserable, she explained, because she had to move. “And then they told me they’d just found a home that they were buying and that their place was about to be for rent.” She raced over, looked around, and fell in love. It was this house.

“Would you like to see the canyon? It’s the best thing about the place,” Wackerli said. Switzer Canyon serves as a natural barrier between Olive Street and the area to the south known as Burlingame.

“I come here almost every day,” she said, leading the way down the path with Iris at our heels. Once at the bottom, the sense of city life lifted, and a feeling of privacy, of being in another world, descended. We walked up the canyon for 20 minutes, looking at the backs of houses, collecting pebbles, noticing wildflowers. “Now you know why I love it here,” said Wackerli.

We walked slowly, but too soon we found ourselves coming up a path to Palm and heading home down the Olive Street alley. The light was changing, the sky darkening with the first hints of evening. Lee Fargo stood chatting with a man and woman whose pair of massive dogs, as docile as sheep, hung close by.

In her first summer here, Fargo helped organize the street’s first block party. The road was barricaded off, and neighbors set up barbecues. With candles lit and dishes to share, the party went on until two in the morning. But Lee is the first to admit that the easy give-and-take that has since marked the various get-togethers has nothing to do with her. This was just life here on Olive Street, with its alley, its canyon, its cozy homes, and its residents.

Fargo saw us and waved. “Hey! I have somebody I want you to meet,” she called, and then laughed, a mix of pleasure and goodwill. I hurried forward.

Olive Street seems light-years from Buffalo, New York, and that suits Rod Owlett just fine. Born and raised in a small town in the middle of the state, Owlett, 47, spent most of his adulthood in Buffalo, where, he said, “I just got tired of fighting the winters.” For him, the winters of Upstate New York were cruel and ultimately unbearable. Not so for his wife, Janice. Thoughts of six-foot snowdrifts, whistling wind, and the below-zero wind-chill factor bring a fond smile to the pretty blonde. A native of Buffalo, 47-year-old Janice, like her husband, works at the San Diego Zoo, but while he supervises the elephant, koala, and camel areas, she is part of the staff that cares for the polar bears, creatures of the Arctic tundra. Like a mother testing the heat of her baby’s bath, she makes sure the temperature in her animals’ swimming water is never warmer than the inside of a refrigerator.

“I have no problem with the cold,” she said.

Buffalo is the home of a large population of Polish immigrants. All her family lives there and Janice misses them. But even with Buffalo’s weather no negative and her family a plus, wouldn’t she think twice about abandoning San Diego’s blue skies?

“If Rod got a position back East in the Buffalo Zoo where we used to work, I’d be ready. But you have to understand, we’d always come back here. If we had to leave, we’d rent out the house.” As she spoke, her Buffalo accent jangled consonants like silver bracelets. “But we’d never sell. We love our home and we love our friends and we love Olive Street. Maybe it’s too early to talk about retirement, but this is where we want to spend it.”

“I had three good reasons why I couldn’t really leave Buffalo,” said Rod. The dark-haired, stocky man was referring to his kids. When he was divorced from his first wife in 1979, his oldest child was 5, his youngest barely a year. Today, Bert is 26, Barbara is 24, and Adam is 22. “I wanted to hang around while they grew up.”

Janice has no children; instead, she and Rod, both 26 when they met, worked together to raise his. They bought a three-bedroom house on Parker Avenue in North Buffalo, not far from Rod’s ex-wife, so the children could move easily back and forth. The house also happened to be only four miles from Janice’s parents.

“We’d have the children for summers and weekends and anytime they wanted to just stay over,” said Janice. “And for Thanksgiving and other holidays, with my family, sometimes we’d have as many as 22 people in the house.” It worked out well. The children survived a broken marriage, Rod got along with his new in-laws, and now that part of their life and its responsibilities are behind them. In 1996, when Adam went off to college, Rod felt free to head for warmer climes. With its celebrated weather and its world-renowned zoo, San Diego was the first choice.

Rod goes back East once a year, and Janice returns for a week at least twice a year. She often speaks to her mother by phone, and when she visits, her mother serves the Polish dishes of her childhood — pierogi (noodle dough filled with cheese), Polish sausage called kielbasa, stuffed cabbage, and her mother’s cheesecake. “My family is wonderful,” she said simply. “And my neighbors on Olive Street are my second family.”

Rod and Janice Owlett freely indulge in their domesticity. After work, they settle on the couch in front of the television with Sam, their 125-pound French mastiff, laying his huge head in his mistress’s lap and Opal, a white boxer, collapsed on top of Rod. Tramp, a 22-year-old gray cat, slides about in the background.

“We’re not remarkable,” said Owlett.

“In fact, we’re boring,” his wife said, laughing.

Maybe, but it is also clear that they are happily married. (There are half a dozen married couples living on Olive Street.) His calm and her sweet transparency, the fact that they laugh a lot and listen appreciatively to each other, are clues as to what makes their 21-year relationship work. But a house also tells you about those who live there, and the visitor looks around their two-bedroom bungalow for a fuller picture. The living and dining rooms as well as the kitchen had been painted a restful linen color (Behr’s “Foamy Sand”). The white woodwork gleamed. Janice had put out her multicolored set of Fiesta Ware to brighten the kitchen. A handsome queen-size bed, done in dark birch, appeared to float against the bedroom walls (Glidden’s “Heavenly Blue”). The house was elegant and simple and had undergone changes since the afternoon when Janice first peeked through its windows.

In September 1996, Rod left Buffalo with the two dogs, driving the 2880 miles to San Diego, where he had a job with the zoo. (Today, he is a Team Area Lead, administering staff, and when necessary, stepping in to help train, say, an elephant.) Meanwhile, Janice remained on the East Coast for the next three months, settling things and packing. Then Rod came back and the pair drove west to stay with Patrick Butler, a friend and colleague at the zoo. Living in his home on nearby Palm Street introduced them to the North Park area.

“We wanted to buy around here but could not see anything we liked,” said Janice. “And besides, the prices were just out of this world!”

North Park’s neighborly feel and the fact that there was a fenced-in area on nearby Grape Street where dogs were allowed to run free appealed to them. But after searching for three months, they’d just about given up when one afternoon Janice, taking the dogs to Grape Street for their run, cut through the Olive Street alley and saw a real estate agent putting up a For Sale sign in front of a house.

“I peeked in the windows,” she said. “All the walls and ceilings, except for the kitchen, were painted Pepto-Bismol pink.”

But she liked the layout and the price was reasonable. She blushed as she confessed that she stole all the flyers the agent had left before she called Rod at work and urged him to come over quick. (“We worried that someone else would see it and grab it up.”) He dropped everything, rushed over and, like her, saw possibilities. The bungalow had been built in 1923 and was as sturdy as his camels at the zoo. Though its charms lay hidden, both glimpsed the beauty the house held. They called their own real estate agent, and he got them inside for a look. “And that same evening we put in an offer,” said Janice.

Olive Street has a small-town sense. It is a feeling that Rod was familiar with. He grew up in Addison, New York, a town of 1200 near the Pennsylvania border. There, he worked in a soda fountain, had a paper route, and mowed lawns. A member of a barbershop quartet, he played the trombone for 14 years and entered college as a music major. But when he married at 19, he said good-bye to the plans he had for a musical career and went to work for the Buffalo Zoo. (Today, his love of music is found in the more than 300 CDs that the couple owns.)

His teenage marriage was soon on the rocks, and during the course of a messy divorce, he threw himself into looking after the bison, elk, antelope, reindeer, and camels that roamed the 23 acres allotted to the zoo’s “hoof stock.”

“When I first started, working in zoos was like a job in a prison. It attracted all sorts of people. Now it is a respected job.”

Janice had also passed through an unhappy marriage and a messy divorce. A 21-year-old bride, she was a graduate of Buffalo’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy and a firm believer in marriage as a life partnership. Then after just four years, she found herself a divorcée. What neither of them expected was that the period of their disappointment and unhappiness also had a limit. They both recalled the date: Thursday, March 6, 1979.

Janice Maslowski was on the job. It was her fourth day, and it was cold. One of the members of her crew suggested they go get a cup of hot coffee in the nearby 7-Eleven. They hurried across Parkside Avenue that fronts the zoo and stepped inside. Rod Owlett, already there, had commandeered a stack of newspapers to sit on while he sipped his coffee. Janice’s coworker introduced him to the newest member of the team. Janice, he said, was there to help care for the elephants and bears.

“My divorce had just come through,” she recalled, “and I was ready for my freedom. But then I saw Rod and I remember telling myself, ‘Oh, no! There go all my plans!’ It happened that fast. I just knew.” As for Rod? “Oh, he was real nasty!” she went on. “I won’t tell you the language he used, but he asked me if I’d cleaned the stalls yet!”

“Listen,” said Owlett, begging for some slack, “I still wasn’t divorced and I was feeling pretty lousy, generally. And then I see this woman and, you know, I had to wonder if she could do the job. Yes, I was a jerk, but I have since learned that women can do the job as well as men. How about that?”

But, like her, did he hear bells going off?

“Oh, I thought she looked good, sure.” He smiled in recollection.

Janice, still with curves just this side of lush, had a sense of how deep their relationship might go, but she was nobody’s dummy. “I wouldn’t go out with him until his divorce was final,” she said, sounding a note that would make the nuns at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Academy proud.

Janice eventually quit the zoo and during the last ten years of their stay in Buffalo taught science courses in two inner-city high schools. She went into teaching, she said, because the crisis facing the environment and the animals living in nature were the product of human choice and action. “I wanted to go at the problem from the place of young people rather than caring for the animals.” Because she loved the work and her students loved her (to this day, she hears from some of them) she decided to continue in education when she came to San Diego.

“I was teaching biology and science technology for ninth graders at Carlsbad High School, but the experience wasn’t as fulfilling.” In 1998 she gave up her 40-mile commute to work at the zoo. She was there the afternoon I dropped by their home on Olive Street.

“What’s on the barbie?” I asked Rod, knowing that when they went back to Buffalo for Adam’s college graduation, they returned with 30 pounds of sausages that Rod meant to cook up for the folks on Olive Street. Outside on his back porch sat a colossal Coleman barbecue grill, built of iron, and called the Powerhouse Plus. On it, Rod can barbecue just about any day of the year, something unheard of in Buffalo. In the neighborhood he is known for doing some mean things to zucchini squash, potatoes, and portobello mushrooms. I was told he sears tuna to perfection. Now Rod, who makes his own sauce, grinned, his face that of a man who does not have to be asked twice. “I’ll take the dogs to Grape Street, and when I come back, let’s see. By then Janice will be home.”

I was willing to wait and checked my watch, unaware that at this same moment, Janice had already finished up her day after leading Bonnie out to the polar bear exhibition space. Of the four other bears that reside there, the oldest is 5, which leaves Bonnie, at 34, almost seven times older. (Forty-one years is the longest life span recorded for a polar bear. The oldest bear alive today, at 38, resides in the Lisbon, Portugal, zoo. Thirty-four-year-old Bonnie is the second-oldest polar bear in any zoo in the world, and perhaps the second oldest polar bear alive.)

“She’s lost her hearing and her eyesight isn’t great,” Janice had told me earlier. “We put her out after the others are back in their bedrooms. This way she can enjoy the exhibition space without having to deal with the younger bears.”

As staff members do with the other bears, Janice put dabs of peanut butter about, floated vegetables and released live fish in the pond, and stuck frozen fish in the rocks so Bonnie had to hunt and search. It’s good exercise, Janice said. The animals are trained to sit and stand up and stick out their tongues. This way, the staff can examine them, always keeping a barred iron door between themselves and the Ursus maritimus that can grow at adulthood to 1200 pounds.

“Polar bears,” said Janice, “are the only land carnivore that stalks humans for food.”

A light knock, and a woman’s figure could be seen through the mesh of the screen door. Opal and Sam hurled themselves against the screen. “Hi!” said Linda Kotcher, who lives across the street. She opened the screen door and stepped into the living room. She was here on a mission, she told Rod. Some of the people on the block didn’t feel like cooking and were going to order takeout. “You and Janice wanna join us? If you do, the big question is, what do we eat? Italian, Chinese, or Indian?”

I looked at Rod, who looked at me. I was watching my barbecue meal say good-bye when a dark blue Ford station wagon turned off 30th Street and parked in front of the house. The dogs went crazy.

“Guess who’s here,” said Linda, looking through the screen door.

Something funny had happened to Rod Owlett’s face. His mouth and the muscles at the corners of his eyes had gone loose, his expression blanked a little. Give a four-year-old boy an ice cream cone and he’ll look like this — the anticipation of pleasure wiping out all expression as he lifts the cone to his mouth for a first bite. In Rod’s case this fleeting look, the release of deep muscles, was also the anticipation of pleasure, of seeing his wife: his was the face of love. The dogs pressed close to the screen door, shaking and whimpering.

“Oh, hi!” said Janice, opening the door and stepping into her living room. She beamed a smile that took us all in. “I’m home.”

Last December Diep Huynh (pronounced “Deep Win,” with an aspirated w) hiked into Switzer Canyon, cut down the massive stalks of two century plants, and carried them home. Nearly 40 feet long, they weighed no more than 15 pounds each. Huynh easily maneuvered them into the two holes he had dug in his front yard and anchored them. Next, he wrapped one tall stalk in red lights and the other in green. With the century plants acting as 40-foot pylons, he passed strings of lights from his front porch to the homes of Lee Fargo and Rod and Janice Owlett across the street. Pulling the switch on New Year’s Eve, 4500 lights burst into twinkling life: Olive Street, all aglow, was ready for the Millennium.

Thirty people sat around tables, shielded from the rain by umbrellas. They drank wine, snacked on dip, and traded Y2K stories about the cataclysmic events predicted to occur. Rain fell and those playing Ping-Pong in the middle of the street simply lifted the hinged tabletop toward the middle so the water ran off in a stream. Then they went on with their game. “We weren’t going to let the rain ruin things,” said Huynh.

Diep Huynh and Linda Kotcher live together on Olive Street. Each is 34, and with their dark good looks, they could be actors dancing in a Gap commercial or gulping down a Coke and holding up the bottle for the camera, all smiles. Huynh cutting the lawn in front of their home and Kotcher playing with Casso, their white boxer, seem like a Norman Rockwell ad for a diverse America.

Thirty-seven people live on Olive Street. Each person brings something special to the neighborhood, but no couple brings more than Huynh and Kotcher. They give an edge to Olive Street. They give perspective.

Huynh was born in Saigon. His mother was Vietnamese, and his father was an Italian-American serviceman. Kotcher’s mother was Mexican and her American father was of Russian extraction. Born in Tijuana, Kotcher came to the United States when she was two years old. “Diep’s family and mine are mirror images of each other,” she explained.

Each is the second child in the family, with an older brother and a younger brother and sister. This, plus their crosscultural families and their foreign birthplaces, helped lay the foundation for their friendship 15 years ago when they met as journeymen clerks at Liquor Barn on 13th Street in Imperial Beach. At that time, Kotcher was engaged to be married.

In her freshman year at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, Linda Kotcher had been named Valentine’s Day Sweetheart. The next year, she met a senior who, the year after she met Huynh, she married. She was 20.

A bright student, she had grown up in a three-bedroom house on 14th Street in Imperial Beach. As a young girl she’d competed in gymnastics, pushing herself to do as well as she could, and she still wanted to stretch her limits. “But my husband and I, we had different dreams,” she told me. The marriage ended within a year, and in 1987, she and Huynh started dating. Both were students at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista and went on to San Diego State, where they graduated in 1993. “If it were not for Linda,” says Huynh, “I don’t think I would have finished college.” During the course of their college careers, the pair moved from San Ysidro to Chula Vista, into apartments on College Avenue, to Point Loma, and finally to a dark little place on Georgia Street in University Heights. “We were there less than a year,” recalled Kotcher.

One afternoon, they walked into Uptown Pets on University Avenue and spotted a nine-week-old boxer puppy with a white coat. Even though their lease on Georgia Street prohibited pets, they decided to take the puppy. “Well, I guess this means we’re moving,” said Huynh on their way home. That weekend they started looking at apartments. Having moved five times in six years, they were pros at finding a place to live. That first weekend they came upon the house on Olive Street. This would be, they said, their first real home.

Kotcher works as the regional sales manager for Health ’n Home, where she oversees staff and the delivery of home medical equipment from San Diego to San Francisco. It is a demanding job that brings in her training in business and marketing. When not on the phone talking through her headset, she is on an airplane flying up and down the coast meeting with clients and staff. Because she works hard, she relishes her canyon walks with neighbors, or stopping off for early-morning coffee and warm scones at Rebecca’s on Juniper Street. As the weekend approaches, it is often Kotcher who polls her neighbors. “Who wants to order takeout?” she asks, knocking on doors. Friday night, and across the street, Lee is home from teaching classes at UCSD, and Janice and Rod are back from their jobs at the zoo; next door, Sandy has just come from weight-training sessions with the girls on the softball team at Mesa College. To them, the all-important question is “Chinese, Thai, or Italian takeout?”

Sunday afternoons, Kotcher and Huynh drive to La Mesa, where they attend Ashtonga Yoga classes given by their friends Sabina and Alan Koehring. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, much harder than learning gymnastics,” she says. Later, after the class, as the couples prepare dinner together, everyone speaks only French. Kotcher would like to live in France one day.

“But for right now this is how it is,” she says, reflecting on her busy schedule. While she is working in middle-management with Health ’n Home, Huynh works full-time for United Parcel Service and does part-time design work (painting and landscaping). They are paying off debts accumulated in college.

Linda Kotcher is a practical woman. She finds there is little payoff in daydreaming, but I ask her to do so for a moment. What, I ask, if she had paid off all her debts and then discovered that she had only six months to live? What would she do? Her answer was immediate:

“First I’d quit my job, then I’d go to India and spend two months working with Pattabhi Jois, one of the founders of Ashtonga Yoga,” she said. “In yoga, you go inside and face who you are. Anyway, I’d spend two months with him in India, then I’d visit my friend Laurence in France for two months.”

She took out a photo album Huynh put together from their trip to France in August 1998. (While they were away, neighbors on Olive Street were parked on their front steps, taking care of Casso. “It would be evening time and the sky was changing color and we’d be sitting, drinking a glass of wine, and watching the sun set over the city,” said Lee Fargo. “And we’d say, ‘I wonder what Diep and Linda are doing right now?’ ”

As it turned out, on one of those days they were touring Versailles.) Huynh’s photographs of the Sun King’s vast gardens, which he intentionally overexposed, show grass and trees that are an unnaturally pale lime green, the buildings and alabaster sculptures tinted a golden color. In several photos stands a woman with tawny coloring and a reserved air. This is Laurence Durand, Kotcher’s friend. She faces the camera holding a child. “She has two children now,” said Kotcher, closing the album.

I asked Kotcher about the possibility of marriage and children.

“Diep and I have a successful partnership,” she said, choosing her words. “He is my best friend. I’ve already been married, and I know it’s a huge commitment. I’ve already had the certificate. I don’t need anyone else, or any institution, to give me proof of myself.”

Rather than mention the obvious — that their relationship had lasted 15 years, which is a lot longer than many marriages — I reminded her of her daydream: she’s had her two months in India and her two months in France. “Now you’ve just got those last two months,” I said. “How do you spend it?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Kotcher, smiling. “Right here on Olive Street.”

Their one-bedroom bungalow had been painted in cool shades except for the breakfast nook, which was a buttercup-yellow. (Behr’s “Honey Bee.”) Citing principles of feng-shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement, Huynh explained that the room is the site of fame and fortune and that a bright color is meant to be propitious. Huynh was an art major in college, and in the living room were several of his paintings. He painted a small Buddha in oranges and blue and placed it near the door. On another wall was a larger painting, a figure staring out among green lotus.

Nearly hidden in the corner near the bookcase was a small painting in rich blue, yellow, and red. In it, a dark figure floated on water while below the surface, with all the sudden terror of the shark in Jaws, a huge black bull rose upward, one of its long sharp horns about to pierce the body of the unsuspecting swimmer. Kris Wackerli, their neighbor, has one of Huynh’s paintings on her living room wall. Painted in thick strokes of red, black, and white, the naked figure of uncertain sex who stares out at the viewer has a dashed-off quality that makes it all the more powerful and arresting.

Huynh and I sat in his backyard, an idyllic spot constructed from brick and bamboo with a bubbling fountain in the corner, which he built after first carting off to the dump 80 jumbo plastic bags of garbage. Casso the boxer moved between the house and backyard, where he drank from his water bowl. Each time the dog drank, Huynh took a paper towel and wiped drool from his muzzle.

It was noon. Huynh, dressed for work in his United Parcel Service uniform of brown shirt and shorts, would leave for his ups run at 1:00. With just one hour, I hammered him with questions about his childhood in Vietnam, and with his answers, suddenly Vietnam and the war years that seemed so distant were here with us in this peaceful retreat.

Under wartime conditions, Huynh’s mother had been orphaned at 7 and was working full time by the age of 12. At 19, she met Huynh’s father, an American serviceman.

“We didn’t leave Saigon until I was nine, and while I was growing up, everything about the U.S. carried greater value, whether it was goods or people. If it came from the U.S., it was better.”

Huynh remembered studying the Sears catalogs, marveling at pictures of household appliances and goods. “It was all so unbelievable. My father told me about a vacuum cleaner, and I just couldn’t get it — a machine that sucked up dirt from a carpet! How did it do that?” The toy section of the catalog was his favorite. He gazed wonderingly at the bikes and skates.

He recalled the event of one afternoon just before Tet. “In Vietnam, Tet is a three-day celebration: Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, and Fourth of July all rolled into one.” It was the middle of the afternoon and Huynh and his brother were on the bed, drifting off into a nap while his mother prepared food for the holiday. An hour later, when the children awoke, they found that their mother had stepped out and left one of the traditional dishes simmering on the stove. “It was a stew with pork and all sorts of things. It cost a lot to make and took a lot of time.” Looking up at the pot, the three-year-old thought to help out. “I poured a box of soap into it,” he said.

Saigon was an old city, the streets worn down like the much-used Avenida Revolución in Tijuana. Huynh and his friends did not play in the roadway but rather scampered back and forth across the rusted tin rooftops that stretched from building to building. Kids ran from one end of the block to the other above the bustling thoroughfare below.

Saigon fell in April 1975, and two months later, the family packed for transport to the United States. Each family was allowed just one suitcase, and with four children — Huynh’s youngest brother was one month old — he remembered their suitcase was filled mostly with diapers and baby things. The family camped out at the airport for three days before boarding a plane for Manila, where they stayed for six weeks. Their next stop was a refugee camp on Wake Island, in the Pacific. After a month, they left for the mainland. When they arrived in Sacramento, it was nighttime.

“It happened to be early December, I think, and it was freezing,” he recalled. They had boarded the plane and left the sultry heat of the Pacific Islands dressed in shorts and light cotton shirts. “Now it was suddenly so cold one of the women fainted.”

In the course of their travels, Huynh had been outfitted with two shoes of different types. “I forget if it was a tennis shoe and a leather shoe. The point was that they fit.” In Sacramento, the children were given jackets, again the priority being size. Huynh got a girl’s coat with a frilly collar and fur around the wrists. He recalled that he looked a sight.

From Sacramento, they flew to San Antonio, Texas; but six months later they piled into a station wagon and headed west to San Diego. The family first lived in the Euclid area, where Huynh attended Darnall Elementary School. By the time he was ready for junior high school and the family had moved to a three-bedroom house near National City, Huynh had begun to set challenges for himself. He took up weight lifting at 13 and maintained a strict schedule for the next 20 years, not even drinking soda. Nicely bulked up, in his senior year at Samuel Morse High School, he ran for a student-body office.

“I decided to run for secretary and stood in front of the school and started to explain why they should vote for me. But I had a bad accent then, and I was nervous and raced through my speech.”

Between his accent and speed of delivery, kids were laughing and trying to make sense of what he’d said. Nobody, he recalled, understood a word.

Feeling humiliated, Huynh left the stage; but he won the election. The students had been impressed by his willingness to stand before them and talk.

“I keep setting challenges for myself,” he said. Perhaps his biggest challenge to date is his intention to make it as an actor.

He has appeared in local productions, including the Asian American Repertory Theatre’s production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. He has also designed sets for the Fault Line Theatre and acted in several productions there as well. Having had a speaking part in the cable network series Silk Stalkings, Huyhn is now eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild. He played a forensic expert comparing lab results and said one sentence, “It’s a match.”

When he and Kotcher have paid off their education debts, he said, they are leaving for Los Angeles. “I’ve talked about acting for a long time, and I think I had better do it soon if I’m going to do it at all. And the place for actors is L.A.”

Yet he was troubled at the thought of leaving Olive Street.

“Linda and I are happy here, and who knows what will happen? Still, it’s something I’ve got to do.” In the living room, stuck in the frame of a puppy photo of Casso, was a quote by Anaïs Nin: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” He often reminds himself of this, he said.

It was nearly 1:00 and I gathered my things. Reflecting on the effort Huynh has put into his home and on helping to make Olive Street what it is, Kotcher, when I later spoke to her about moving, was philosophical.

“There is no such thing as a coincidence. If we go to L.A., it means that we were meant to. And I believe our friends here will remain our friends.”

“It’s a match,” Huynh had said on TV, but it might have been a comment made about the relationship he and Kotcher have with Olive Street.

Huynh saw that Casso had water, then closed the house. At the street, Huynh and I said good-bye, and he jumped into his white compact, waved, and took a quick right onto 30th Street. At 1:00 in the afternoon, many of the residents of Olive Street were at work. The sun overhead was barely casting a shadow, and the houses and trees seemed flat and two-dimensional, like a false-front set for a motion picture about a sleepy, small-town neighborhood. Half a year ago, Olive Street was ablaze for the millennium. Now it seemed empty and a little unreal. How much emptier would it be, I wondered, when Kotcher and Huynh were gone?

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

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment