Asked where I live in San Diego, I always say “beautiful Clairemont,” because I’m a smartass and because it’s the truth. I might qualify (place, not beauty) by adding “North Clairemont,” to distinguish our geographical locale. North Clairemont is almost paradise: our home rides a large coyoted canyon where ocean breeze and coastal fog are as backyard-regular as hummingbirds and red-tailed hawks. I like its tranquillity, despite the nearby barking dog, whose owners we’ve all complained about. But that’s the only rent in the carpet; otherwise, it’s immensely democratic — to one Joe, a retirement villa; to another, a middle-class boondock.
I cross the street, get my neighbor Becky Newhouse, and we head to our local Starbucks. At 51, Newhouse is a lifelong Clairemontian, a part-time substitute teacher at Marston Middle School, and an irrepressible factotum whose cheerful voice can be heard charging Saturday driveway talk with, as my grandmother used to call it, “sunny optimism.”
How might you define Clairemont? School-savvy Newhouse surprises me: “It’s a forgotten community,” she says. Clairemont is not “rich like La Jolla,” which is “affluent enough for the school board to grant them autonomy.” Not so on the mesa: “We don’t have the money to be a charter school, Mr. Bersin.” Though test scores are up, Newhouse struggles with a school system that no longer bonds the community. She figure-skates over her girlhood, when, after class, kids lolled their way through grassy lots to rec centers. Next-door kids were always buddies. Now Amber-alerted parents chauffeur children everywhere.
We chat, sip drinks; then Newhouse treads a new track. As one of San Diego’s hubs, Clairemont is supremely accessible, lying between I-5 and I-805/163, south of San Clemente Canyon and north of Mission Valley; it’s also supremely in-between. It’s near to but not the beach; it’s near to but not the condo-bracken of the Golden Triangle, the nerd-ridden campus of UCSD, the immigrant carnival of Kearny Mesa, the heat-seeking inlands. It’s near to but not Pacific Beach, where summer trash festers in the streets and multiunit-apartment density feels earthquake-ready.
I wonder whether this in-between reality of our burb explains our relationship. After we gossip for 40 minutes about children and work and college and spouses and elderly parents (one of hers living, both of mine dead) and the block party we’ve never had, I ask, “Why is it that, despite having lived across the street from each other for 13 years, we’re still not good friends?”
“We may not be good friends,” she says, “but we’re good neighbors.” Through the nagging rasp of the coffee grinder, the phrase pings with wisdom.
“And being ‘good neighbors’ means?”
“If a neighbor needed a friend, the neighbor would be there.” I would too. It’s indisputable.
Newhouse and I are close without my knowing it, without my having thought of closeness in just this way. Up on the mesa, the pickets of our illusional fence widen once we admit we need each other, once we discover the purposeful in-between-ness of neighbors. That feels supremely Clairemont, a profound acquaintanceship we need elevate no higher than that.