IB? My friend Mark nailed it the other night. We had fallen into conversation outside Cow-A-Bunga, the ice cream and coffee place at the entrance to IB’s pier. It was getting dark. You could just see the teeth of the waves and hear them crack as they broke. “Right now,” he said, “this could be the old IB. Empty beach, dusty streets, no sidewalks, nobody to say, ‘Why’s your dog not on a leash?’ ”
He talked about when they had a pod of killer whales coming to scratch their backs against the pier legs. Or when he and his buddies stole down into the Tijuana River sloughs in the half-light of dawn. “You’d see least terns take to wing when the tide started coming in. The whole flock’d be white one moment, then turn and they’d be all black. So beautiful. They looked like money falling out of the sky.”
He was mourning something on the way to being lost, as if IB itself were on the endangered species list. And maybe he’s right. The last rough-hewn, working-class, Midwestern beach town on the coast looks all primed to be slicked up. The harbingers are the millionaires’ houses that are starting to block off IB’s oceanfront. How long before real money falls from the sky and low-rent, workaday IB is given the eviction notice?
IB has one protector: Tijuana River pollution. Just the thought of icky stuff in the ocean water after rains gives pause to La Jolla investors.
But that’s IB. It’s on the edge.
To understand IB, you’ve got to approach it from the border. Walk up, follow the shoreline, a time-honored illegal immigrants’ route. It becomes tense, unpredictable, silent, threatening, especially around Boca Rio, the mouth of the Tijuana River. Folks wading across risk their lives, from the holes and currents and the E. coli in the water. Add to that the sudden battering of chopper rotors and Border Patrol four-wheel drives swooping in, and it can feel like a war zone.
Then, between one sand dune and the next, the beach transforms. Lovers wander past. Kids play. Families picnic. The First House in America appears, a condo thrusting toward the beach. It’s the southernmost finger of IB, reaching down between the sloughs and the ocean. This place, IB, you realize, is a frontier town.
And you find the frontier people in Ye Olde Plank. It’s been here on the beach since 1886. Sundays, the Plank crowd is a slice of real IBithans. At the horseshoe bar you’ll sit next to off-duty Customs and Border Patrol guys, nurses, teachers, actors, trailer-park retirees, long-bearded musicians, eccentrics, and even the odd millionaire. But the flavor’s set by surfers and retired enlisted Navy, here with spouses for Sunday brunch. Among them, ex-UDT/SEALs (guys who trained up the road in Coronado but wouldn’t live there for a million bucks) can spin hair-raising yarns set in Asia and Central America.
And keeping them all in order was Babs. Sunday mornings, Babs cooked out on the beach-deck barbecue. The last time I was there, she handed me an eight-ounce steak, a five-egg omelet, home fries, and a Bloody Mary, all for around six bucks. She’s just left, but the breakfast deal continues. Al, the owner, says he keeps the price low because most of his customers are friends, regulars, IB lifers. It’s a club. Their cards, pictures, plaques cover the walls. Their puffer fish and diver’s helmets dangle over the bar. And together they often do good works, like going down to Honduras and building a clinic, or helping each other out with medical bills.
Of course, there’s no point in hiding IB’s other sides. The place has had its share of vigilantes, scam artists, racists, and toughs. The pier in the old days was where deals went down. The beach was for bonfire-keg parties that could erupt into big, brawling fistfights. One zonked-out girl named Suzie appeared here and had her baby in the women’s toilets. Later, someone threw her off the pier into the water, dead, murdered. It could be a rough, tough town.
And let’s face it, planned it is not. Palm Avenue’s the worst kind of strip. Just a wide road with miles of…what? Tire shops, fast-food franchises, car-repair joints. Yet it’s also the home of two of my favorite places: the Scoreboard, a bar where people rave about the once-a-month Maine lobster dinners, and Lydia’s Mexican eatery, where Lydia Pimentel’s 6 children, 26 grandchildren, and 44 great-grandchildren get everybody up and dancing, anything from line-dancing to merengue, ranchero, quebradita, and salsa in the evenings. ¡Qué noche! My one big regret? The Pawn Shop has gone, retreated to Chula Vista. Ron Krasner helped me out of financial pickles many a time. What started as a voyage of fear and shame became a kind of social occasion. They’d get to recognize the Fender Strat I brought in. I’d even make stupid offers for the moose on their walls. But Ron kept me under a roof when no bank would look my way.
The truth is, IB’s so uncool it’s cool. Even the surfing is kind of far out. Its secret treasure is Boca Rio. The mouth of the Tijuana River has always had, by legend, two things: a wave that trips over a bump outside the river’s entrance, and a friendly killer whale, Broken Fin, who’s said to have hung around there on and off for years. There are a lot of jokes about first-timers spotting that bent-over fin and paddling like hell for shore.
That’s exactly it. IB’s on the edge, between America and no-man’s-land. For sure, it’s mellowed. Sand-castle-building contests have taken over from the boozy beach keg parties. And they’ve upgraded the pier’s entrance with cute shops and eateries like Cow-A-Bunga. But that doesn’t mean the IBithans have all been tamed.
“Want to come down to the sloughs, tonight?” said Mark to me that evening as we finished our ice creams. “Got a boat. I could take you all through. No telling what we’ll see.”