I’ve watched a great many changes take place in Hillcrest over the years. At this point in my life it’s a neighborhood of ghosts. I’ve been through a few relationships there, and each had certain specific associations. One girlfriend and I used to love to eat at the Chicken Pie Shop on the corner of Robinson and Fifth, now a Starbucks. Every time I sip a latte there I recall the distinctive smell of chicken pies and the classic ’40s-style waitresses who served three-buck dinners. Across the street, in the middle of the block, is the ghost of Hammonds, one of San Diego’s strangest stores. They sold things like shaving brushes, thimbles, fuses, ladies’ compacts, and puzzles of all kinds. There’s the ghost of Quel Fromage, San Diego’s original coffeehouse, on University between Fifth and Sixth, and the ghost of the Guild Theater, now one of the area’s ubiquitous trendy furniture stores.
One by one, the mom-and-pop businesses have given way to chains and high-rent retail outlets. Rite Aid, Starbucks, and the Gap have crowded out some of Hillcrest’s unique charm. But some of the ghosts remain, like Pernicano’s Casa di Baffi, the mysterious empty restaurant that occupies nearly a full city block between Fifth and Sixth. And the wonderful Hillcrest Stationers on Fourth and Robinson, which apparently survived the onslaughts of Office Depot and Staples by proudly proclaiming on its front sign: “A Pencil’s a Pencil; the Difference Is Service.”
Of course, Hillcrest has its downside. Rents and home prices have spiraled out of control. Parking is always a hassle, the streets are usually littered and dirty, and homelessness persists. When you live here for a while, the homeless become your neighbors, and I recognized these unfortunate souls, many of whom used to hang out in the stairwell of the old Thackeray Gallery on Third and Robinson but who have since been driven from that oasis since Ace Hardware turned it into the strangest apartment complex in the city. Let me introduce some of these homeless folks; they’re a part of Hillcrest — and many other San Diego neighborhoods — we don’t much talk about:
- Each day on the way to work
- I pass the same homeless crowd —
- the young man with a large crucifix
- around his neck, pushing a shopping cart
- packed with everything he has. Today he
- points to a plastic Batman in the cart
- and shows off his new haircut.
- Near him, a hairy, ragged beast of a man
- sits cross-legged on the sidewalk,
- wrapped in the shards of a filthy blanket.
- Most of the time he sits on the edge
- of the bus-stop bench, head bowed in his hands,
- body hunched like a weeping Buddha, but today
- he’s sitting on the sidewalk, staring at the sky.
- Around the corner, though I haven’t seen her yet,
- will be the old woman, who sleeps sitting up
- in a potted plant. She comes prepared each night
- with a clean blanket and several bags of clothes, to find the
- only patch of dirt for blocks,
- a large half-barrel that holds a small tree
- between the stationery shop and the pharmacy.
- When she sleeps late, the young who buy office supplies
- and the old who buy medications pass her on their daily rounds.
- Then there’s the skinny woman with skin like a saddle
- who sips 7-Eleven coffee against a brick wall.
- She’s mostly wrapped in plastic, and sometimes she talks
- to passersby, but never asks for money, unlike the woman
- with scabs on her face who sleeps in the doorway of an
- abandoned restaurant and looks at you head-on with her
- hand outstretched, palm filled with pennies and nickels.
- Meet my neighbors; they’re probably yours as well.