It is almost precisely equidistant, like the fulcrum of a scale or lever, between two imposing monuments to San Diego's vanity, its corruption, its detachment, and the city's characteristic insistence that All Is Well, America; we're the finest.
"It" is the 12th and Imperial Transfer Station for the city's Metropolitan Transit System. Twelfth & I is a windblown rail yard and bus stop over which tower the MTS administration floors in a kind of neo-Nazi box of architecture festooned with Disneyland, storybook-red embellishments and a clock tower visible from the Coronado Bay Bridge. A half-mile to the west is the $450 million Petco Park. A nearly identical reach east is Father Joe's Village, or Saint Vincent de Paul's homeless shelter. Consumers of both facilities pass each other as obliviously as possible at the trolley and bus stop, the convenience store, and the MTS cashier office. On any given day the station is an odd fusion of end-of-the-line travelers to and from Tijuana and a fair representation of the city's homeless residents or those hopeful of residency at "Vinnie's," with the sporadic current of East Village condo residents, a developer or three, real estate speculators, the steady stream of tourists wondering what went wrong on the charming red Tijuana Trolley that was supposed to be a kind of amusement park ride, wasn't it? And during baseball season, naturally, the fans: regular Joes in Hawaiian shirts, wives and kids, couples from Hillcrest, gang members from Southeast, chiropractors from Rancho Bernardo who sensibly parked at Horton Plaza, me and you. But always there are the loose leaf, the lost, the hustlers and the hustled, the hopeful and the hopeless, those who are hanging on to the side of the planet with suction cups. A look at 12th & I on three different holidays might show a pattern, a theme, an inchoate watercolor of faces and voices along the wind tunnel tracks to points east, south, and north in San Diego. Maybe not, but the following were among those to be found where you can leap from the ballpark to the border, change from the Orange Line to the Blue Line, commute from Vinnie's to Old Town or Fashion Valley.
THANKSGIVING DAY 2006
Dale Spurlis, 79, and his daughter-in-law Janet Nielson, 45, are from, respectively, Dallas and Minneapolis. Nielson's son, a seaman first class aboard the naval barge Pepeliu, has invited them to Thanksgiving dinner on board. "We're going back on the 27th of this month, her to Minneapolis and me to Dallas," Spurlis explains.
"That's four days for me, five days for Dad," says Nielson.
"Today we're going to take the trolley on this tour that takes us around," Spurlis adds. "This is the first trip to San Diego for me."
"Second for me."
"What do we think of it? Well, we haven't seen much of it. We're staying at the Navy Lodge, and today will be the first chance to get around."
"You are in a kind of unique spot here," I tell the man. "I don't know how representative it is. Maybe very representative."
"Kind of scary," Spurlis observes.
"We find the trolley patrons...very interesting," says Nielson.
The woman is looking around, smiling broadly, no doubt genuinely, but it reminds me of a psychological disorder I heard about among Japanese businessmen; it is a kind of nervous tick in the form of a smile that appears under stress, one that the victim cannot unsmile and is subsequently treated with muscle relaxants. "Last year," she says with visible nostalgia, "it was me and my husband and the kids and my mom and my sister."
Spurlis adds: "She usually spends her Thanksgiving with her sister in Minnesota and with her mother. But her mother is in one of those retirement kind of villages in Arizona now and...it's kind of a retirement village, right?"
"No. No..." And the smile is gone now. "It's not. My daughter's now in college, my son's in the Navy, and I'm divorced, so..." Nielson laughs heartily at what she clearly sees as a good joke.
"So, you're used to a classic, Midwestern family kind of Thanksgiving?" I offer.
"Yeah," says Spurlis. "In Dallas, I'm usually with my wife, my stepdaughter, her husband, and their two little children. We go all out with the turkeys and the pies, and we usually play cards or watch the ballgames." Spurlis is a retired car dealer. "I worked for the largest car dealership in the whole Southwest. We sold Rolls-Royce, Maserati, and we had three Mercedes dealerships, two Lexus dealerships. We were Park Place Motorcars."
Spurlis waxes nostalgic now, but I see a woman nearby I'd like to talk to, and I transition from a kind of wholesome Hallmark tableau tinged with the poignancy of passing years to a diminutive woman, also smiling at something inward and past, a recent nightmare that is not quite over.
"I arrived here in November, and I was waiting for shelter at Saint Vincent de Paul, and I was waiting and waiting." Diane Pasis is 54 years old. She is a bespectacled, plump, and elfin-looking woman bundled with an odd assortment of clean clothes from Vinnie's late thrift store (now closed in budget cuts), where she was given vouchers for her windbreaker, sweatpants, men's shoes, and child's sweater. "The security let me stay from bench to bench," she indicates concrete benches around the station, and she is referring to MTS security cops. "And that's how I made it to the present." Pasis lives on a single meal a day, lunch at Saint Vincent's, and ice cream, candy bars, and burritos from the convenience store.
"When I was on the benches and over there by those buildings [Wonder Bread Warehouse: I see no benches where she is gesturing], I kept perfectly still when the police came around. That block over there. When I had to go to the bathroom, there was no place to go. Feces came out, and urine came out. I was a big mess, my pants and shoes, and I was out in the cold. I'm a brave woman, and I don't like to complain." Pasis's manner as she speaks in a Hispanic accent, nodding almost happily, is that of a kindergarten teacher discussing her indignities as if they were new and interesting techniques for finger painting.
"Over here, by the cab stand, I have been eating ice cream cones, candy bars, and burritos and a little bit from the Saint Vincent de Paul shelter. I do this alternately to have a little energy; otherwise, I would have landed at the hospital."
Does she have a medical condition?
"No, I don't. I just need calories to get around and go to the bathroom at the shelter when it's not locked up."
And what will she do for Thanksgiving dinner?
"At one o'clock I will be going to Saint Vincent de Paul's shelter, and I will be helping out in the kitchen."
Can I ask how she came to be homeless? "No, I'd rather not say." Apropos of nothing in particular, she tells me, "At church, I walk upon my knees many times to receive my Savior, and I say the Rosary. I pray to Saint Odelia many times."
Adam Mount, Corey Nowak, and Andrew Olson are Marines. "We're just kind of wandering around downtown, staying in the hotel all weekend, 'America's Best,' " Mount tells me. The Marines are, respectively, from Omaha, Nebraska; Chicago, Illinois; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. The young men will be going to Iraq "in a few months. We're training right now. Infantry training. We've all been in about six months now. We'll graduate in a couple of weeks and then go to the fleet." Mount is the spokesman for the most part, but Nowak and Olson contribute. When asked how they feel about going overseas, Olson says, "We're nervous, but we all knew what we were getting into going in." And this is a good thing we're doing there? Nowak doesn't hesitate: "Yeah."
The few and the proud list their priorities for the day as "Food, football, and women. We're always looking for a few good women."
A young Latino couple, Mark Morelos and "Just Marie," 36 and 32, found out two weeks ago that they were pregnant. "We don't know if it's a boy or a girl yet." They live in Chula Vista and have spent the morning at a casino in East County. Seated at one of the concrete benches waiting for the Orange Line home, they had been discussing their wedding plans. They have been a couple since April. Though invited to friends' for dinner, Marie says she expects it will just be the three of them for a quiet dinner at home. The three of them? "Isabella, I think," says Marie.
A man, who looks to be in his 50s, more or less my own age, is off by himself, his back to the tracks. He wears a baseball cap the old-fashioned way and has a small khaki backpack draped over one shoulder. He is reading a paperback novel, The Fourth Hand, by John Irving. He is civil and articulate but does not wish to be interviewed and does not give his name.
"How's the book?" I ask.
"Just started it. I picked it up because of the opening quote the guy uses. It's one of my favorites from Stuart Little."
The quote: "...a person who is looking for something doesn't travel very fast." -- E.B. White.
His plans: "None."
Nancy Heryla, descending in her motorized wheelchair from the wheelchair lift off the Orange Line train, is 54 years old. She has a couple fingers missing from her left hand and most of her legs have been amputated. She is to meet her friend David at the nearby Starbucks at Tenth and Market. I ask if I can join her; she agrees and accepts a cup of coffee. Her voice is constantly at the verge of breaking -- rising, crying. Her name and age are established, and the next thing that is later comprehensible on the interview tape is:
"I have a lot more operations comin'. I'm tired of the pain; I'm tired of the letdown. I have sutures comin' out. Go figure, three and a half years later. It oozes, lookit." She demonstrates by lifting an empty shirtsleeve, or possibly it's a pants leg; I'm looking with one eye, though I don't mean to.
Her friend David joins us and tells me that Heryla is "paying $450 a month for one room in a three-bedroom home which is an inappropriate place to be because there are activities in there..."
"No, don't talk about that," she tells the man. In his 70s, David Ross is known among the homeless in the area as "Motown" because of his Detroit origins or "the Waterman" because he distributes cases of bottled water nightly to those on the streets in "Skid Row," nearby, where there are no public water fountains within a dozen or more city blocks.
"She gets $800 a month from state disability," he says. "How do you get back and forth to hospitals? She has to get hooked up, some sort of accommodations from UCSD, a shuttle or something. The woman's immobile."
Heryla's mobility is only part of her physical problems. Her speech is somewhat distorted as a result of a form of toxic shock syndrome she incurred due, in large part, doctors speculate, to exposure and other unknown factors. For some time, a flesh-eating bacterium was suspected because the disease acted similarly on her face, limbs, and other body parts, leaving eroded holes that have since healed, though she needs plastic surgery and a mouth reconstruction that poses several technical difficulties. All of this is expensive and out of the question for this woman. These problems, stemming from homelessness, dated after a devastating fire that took the lives of both her sister and mother.
As I talked with Nancy Heryla while she waited for the Orange Line at the trolley station, it became clear that hers was a story requiring far more space than could be allowed here. When the train arrived, she boarded the wheelchair lift with practiced movements and was lifted onboard. When I asked her how she might pass the rest of the holidays, her answer was more or less along the lines of sitting or lying in her room and dreading the next need to use the bathroom down the hall, an effort that would leave her exhausted. Ross has since found a portable toilet for her that partially alleviates the situation but not entirely. "I can't even get out to see the Christmas lights," she said, and this precipitated another weary bout of tears. As the train headed south toward her home, such as it is, in Chula Vista, where she was recently beaten by a man who lived there (he was subsequently arrested), I was relieved.
"She told me she has no hope," I later told Ross by phone. "I do, but how do you extend that to somebody, and what kind of crappy Christmas present would that be anyway for her?" Ross had no answer.
This past Christmas was a day of record-breaking heat followed by a night cold enough to be seriously uncomfortable if you had to sleep outdoors -- a crime in San Diego. Not a problem for me; I have a pretty good apartment with heat, and I could smile along with the weather lunatic on "KyoooooSI," who cheerfully commented on that cold "breeeeeeze!" that makes for a cozy night's sleep for most of us here in town. James Brown died that day. I received an anthology of short stories from my son and a weekend visit. In the late afternoon, I was again at 12th and Imperial as the sun was staining the clock tower a white-gold and lemon.
Victor Freeman is a stagehand, originally from Las Vegas, now staying at Saint Vincent's. "I got arrested here in San Diego for letting my ten-year-old drive a car. I spent three months in jail. The court ordered parenting classes for me and, of course, staying sober." Freeman is 55, fit-looking, employable-looking, and amenable: a regular and pleasant Joe dealt a screwy hand by life but taking this weird crossroads in stride. "I was in the news for that. I had just come from a beach party, and I was kind of loaded. It was just about a few blocks home, so I let my son drive. That car was overheating, so it actually was a little dangerous. I'm doing shows here at the convention center in San Diego now, working with the Teamsters here.
"We had a sit-down breakfast at Saint Vincent's. It was great." Freeman has two sons in Carlsbad, the other aged 8. He is able to visit them with a disabled bus pass that the shelter helped him obtain. "They're helping me get back on track, like with my glasses. I lost 'em, and they helped me get new ones."
As for later, Christmas night, Freeman says, "I'm going to a 12-step meeting at Home Quest, downtown, 1010 Broadway."
"My name is Jim Roberts," he says. Like Victor Freeman, Roberts is from Las Vegas. He is 53 and "writing a novel. I've written and published one [Bancroft Press] already. It didn't go anywhere. Anyway, that's been my Christmas so far. I've spent it writing at Balboa Park. It's a mystery/suspense along the lines of a James Patterson novel."
Set in San Diego?
"Yeah, it's set in Saint Vincent's: Murder in the Shelter."
"Who did it?"
"You know better than that."
A seemingly late-middle-aged couple, both thin, weathered, the man visibly in need of dental work, the woman with jet-black hair nearly to her waist, possibly a wig, if not, then dyed, are waiting for the Blue Line train. She wears a black leather motorcycle-type jacket; he wears a similar jacket, only brown, and, like him, weathered. "We been at Vinnie's and tryin' to get inta the tent and..."
"He don't wanna know that," she interrupts the man, whose name is Billy, aged 50. "He just wants ta know what we done for Christmas." Both June and Billy have vaguely Southern accents, but to my ear they could be from Florida or Oklahoma, or southern Illinois, for that matter.
"Well, I don't know. Then you tell him."
"Is this a bad time?" I ask.
"We're just gettin' back together."
"Well, that's an upbeat, Christmas thing," I say, and think: O. Henry was right, there's a short story on every street corner, even in San Diego. Here we have "The Gift of the Magi." I'm guessing Billy sold their crack pipe to buy crack, and she sold the last of the crack to buy a new pipe for Billy. I'm hating myself. It's getting cold.
"We been separated," June says.
"And now you're back together for Christmas."
"More or less." June says she's 61 and from the San Joaquin Valley. Billy was born and raised in Texas, but "I've spent about 20 years in California, 10 in San Diego here."
As for plans for Christmas dinner, Billy begins to speak, and June cuts him off, "We're not doin' nothin'. We're just goin' to Denny's, and then we gotta get ready for work. I work out of La Jolla, out of Green's Hospital."
Billy senses his turn. "I'm with Labor Ready, you know? I'm lookin' for a full-time job."
On the whole, they would rate their Christmas how?
"I'd give it an eight," June supplies. "It wasn't that bad except for the movin'. You know, him movin' into my hotel room."
"We had better," Billy equivocates. "Christmas is my favorite holiday, and Thanksgiving and so on. Thanksgivin' we had dinner. I spent the day with Junie. I was doin' some construction work over ta El Cajon, so I came downtown to be with her."
Have they known each other long?
"Twenty-somethin' years," says June. "Married, goin' on ten."
Sonia Leahy is 41 and a kennel supervisor at Best Friends in Clairemont. "I feed them, I take them out, I do playtime, and I do cuddletime. I clean their kennels and make sure their kennels are sanitary. I treat 'em as if they were my own." She is wearing a Santa hat and reading an Anne Rice novel about witches. "We have 42 Best Friends across the country." Leahy speaks with pride, as an owner, but she is not.
"I'm on my way home. I've been working some extra shifts because I was needed. I'm in recovery. I've got seven months clean. I'm going home to spend time with my cats, write in my journal, and later go to a meeting. I don't have any family out here, so..." Leahy is from Virginia and Maryland. "I came out here 15 years ago for a six-week vacation and never left."
Nearby, Jose Kiney is waiting for his wife, who works at SeaWorld and gets off at eight o'clock. His daughter is in El Cajon with her cousins. "I'm just kind of roaming around, killing time until my wife gets off. We'll have dinner at home. We had the Christmas morning, the presents under the tree. We darn sure did. Then everybody went off to work except me. I was off. I was lucky." Kiney looks to me for all the world like an old comic actor from the 1940s named Jerry Colonna who used to make animated cameo appearances in the Warner Brothers Bugs Bunny cartoons. "My daughter is 19, sir. For dinner we have tamales and lumpia and little Filipino fried beans. I am not Filipino. I am Mexican American, sir. My father is Irish. It's a beautiful city. Have a nice Christmas, sir."
Speaking closely in the shadow of a concrete partition across the tracks is an African-American couple. The woman is taller, somewhat heavier than the man, and he is thin, well-dressed, and smoking a small, filtered cigar. "I'm Jonathan. This is my fiancée, Pamela. I cooked a big Christmas dinner. We don't drink. We don't do drugs. We went out on a holiday bus ride with some of our friends who are homeless. We're just tryin' to stay focused and live day by day, see how the new year is gonna come in.
"I hope they put the right people in office where they can really make a difference for the homeless people, get 'em in rehabs, better places, get 'em a future."
Finally Pamela speaks. "More focus on the homeless. My heart goes out to these people."
John Urzua and Loretta are from Santa Barbara and Houston, Texas. Their current residence is "the tent," they say in unison. "We're already in," says Loretta, "but if you don't follow the rules, you get thrown out." Someone behind me (a small group has gathered) says, "You should do a story on the tent."
"Yes, I should," I agree. The tent is at 16th and Newton, near Commercial Avenue and the shelter -- and the MTS tracks.
"Loretta and I are going for a walk to the Civic Center, again," Urzua tells me. "We had breakfast at Vinnie's. Actually, we're going over to the Methodist church first. Jose told us about it. But, yeah, we had breakfast at the shelter, lunch at the Civic Center, and then at the tent where David [Ross] is, we had dinner."
"Anybody ever tell you you look like Jerry Garcia?" I ask him.
"Yeah. That's what everybody calls me at the tent. At first I didn't know who he was, but everybody's calling me Jerry. I knew who the Grateful Dead were, but..."
"I used to get that all the time," I tell him, and then regale the small group with my Jerry Garcia story. Quite humorous, really. No idea if it's even true anymore. I was 19 years old and stoned at the time. "So there I was, it's 1969, and Jerry Garcia is bogarting this joint. Mister Natural, Mister Hip... haw haw." I was a riot.
Behind me is Steve Edwards, the guy who said I should do a story about the tent. "It's lonely being out here in California," he says. He is from Memphis, Tennessee, a lead singer and a veteran of VH1's Behind the Music with the band Total Satisfaction. His hair is past his shoulders; he's young and handsome, too young for his life to have permanently short-circuited. He has the air of a man just passing through, changing trains in San Diego, at the tent and Saint Vincent's and the 12th and Imperial Transfer Station.
NEW YEAR'S DAY 2007
It seems inevitable that I would see someone I know at 12th & I over the course of three holidays -- or any three days. On New Year's, about 3:30 in the afternoon, I see Rick Ortiz, a Puerto Rican drug and alcohol counselor I met at Rancho L'Abri some years ago. Ortiz is on his way home and says his New Year's was "fantabulous." He is a native New Yorker, "the Bronx," he says. "A San Diegan since 1979. Except for a few intervals back East. My New Year's Eve was excellent. A good friend gave me a massage and made me a good dinner. It was a safe, sober, healthy New Year's Eve. Thanksgiving and Christmas? The same could be said about them. I spent time with friends and family, and we indulged in Puerto Rican cuisine."
These days, Ortiz is a writer. "Currently I'm working on a book that's autobiographical, with alternating chapters that are a documentary about the heroin trade and its varying effects. I'm not an ex-cop, no. I've had some involvement with the subject, however, and I've done a lot of research.
"Heroin makes an incredible comeback every ten years, and one of my intentions is to disabuse people of the notion that there has been a war against its importation. There has not. If I sound like a conspiracy theorist, well..." he shrugs. "There has been no war against the importation of heroin."
Ortiz takes the trolley on occasion rather than driving because of the cost of gas and because he enjoys "socially engaging with the many characters I meet on the trolley."
Darlene Lewis, 66, is spending New Year's working at Black Angus as a waitress. She also worked Thanksgiving and Christmas. "I still have time for my family, though," she offers over her shoulder as she boards a southbound train.
A couple again, young: 18 and 19. Alexandra Casteneda and "Just Noriega" are homeless. "I'm a hustler and a squatter," says Noriega. "I panhandle change. I used to sell drugs, but I don't do that no more. Still smoke weed; that's why we came down here."
"Are you cops?" asks Casteneda. "I don't care if you are cops." She means Ortiz, me, and photographer Chris Woo. "Cops don't care about the weed. Today, New Year's? We're gonna smoke some weed, take a shower, and go to bed. Take a shower at a friend's house."
"We got to first find him," Noriega says.
"Or maybe my parents' motel room, but they don't really like him," Casteneda says.
"Our Thanksgiving and Christmas were great. This is the first time I've spent holidays with anybody in, like, nine years. I spent 'em with her. We've been to hell and back already, but we got each other. My New Year's resolution is to quit smokin' everything except weed. Hey, are we gonna be in the news and shit?"
Approaching a well-dressed, middle-aged couple, likely tourists, I ask if I might interview them, and while the white-haired woman smiles good-naturedly, her husband turns his back on me, and incidentally her, as he walks away. "Don't want any of what you're selling," he calls over his shoulder. If he thinks I am a miscreant, some sort of wrong number, then he has left his wife to fend for herself with whatever felonious intent I harbor. "Sorry," she says and moves on to join her husband.
A shriveled woman with a handcart for groceries is across the tracks waving a bent wire coat hanger at nothing, the air. She seems to be speaking, but again, to no one. Carmen Guzman is her name, and she is from Guatemala and has been riding this trolley, she says, for ten years. She speaks in hurried Central American Spanish, and my border Spanglish is not up to it. Luckily, Ortiz is still nearby with his Puerto Rican machine-gun español.
"She lives in Julian; no, San Diego; no, on Julian Street, La Calle Julian. She spent the holidays alone except for the spirits. The coat hanger is for very bad spirits. She uses that to give those spirits trouble. You've got to use it on this side. You see the way she has it formed and bent? If you use it the other way, it won't do anything to the spirits. She says God bless us, and may He continue to help us."
While she is speaking, Ortiz listening, I examine the contents, such as they are, in her handcart. Here is a dismembered doll, smudged, dirty, and hairless; an empty bottle of Urantia oil, whatever that is; some dusty clothes; a magazine -- or part of one; and a cheap clock. I look up at her and see that she is wearing glasses beneath a green woolen cap with a pattern I cannot make out: a bespectacled walnut with a kind of beanie. She is speaking for some time. Finally Ortiz turns to me and shrugs, "More of the same," he says. "About the spirits and coat-hanger technique."
Officer Andrea Huavaya is a transit cop, and she is 19 years old. She urges passengers to "be patient." She has been working through two of the three holidays, but mostly at the San Diego State station. The only real action worth mentioning is the volume of passengers returning from TJ this morning around 2:00 a.m. "No crime, at least on the Green Line at SDSU. I'm sure they had some activities downtown." For Christmas, Huavaya was in Washington State with her family. She is looking at a career in law enforcement and is going into the Army Reserve first. Eventually she hopes to go into "corrections."
"Like a prison or jail guard?"
Her observation on the holidays at 12th and Imperial Transfer is that "With the colder weather, we don't get much activity. We don't see them [the homeless or drug users] as much."
Given Officer Huavaya's youthful attractiveness, her dedication to law and order, and her powers of observation, it strikes me that one could do worse as a violator/perpetrator nabbed for possession or illegal lodging than ending up behind bars with this crime fighter standing watch.
New Year's Day has turned to twilight. A gibbous moon like a dollop of flan over the barrio appears larger than normal with the eye supplying its own mistaken perspective with the help of the transit station clock tower. So much for the objectivity of the human eye: Officer Huavaya's, yours, or mine. Tomorrow night, or the night after that, the moon will be full, and possibly then it will be a more fertile time to witness the human drama here. Of course, they won't be holidays; they'll just be regular days.