Author: Lane Tobias
Neighborhood: Ocean Beach
Occupation: Wildfire Relief Case Manager
I am a recent transplant from New Jersey living in Ocean Beach. I already know what locals or natives think of me. Another East Coaster, another poser, another person sucking the life out of the little slice of paradise left in California.
Believe me, I used to hate sitting on the subway in New York answering tourists’ questions about what stop to get off to get to a museum, what train to take to get to Brooklyn, blah, blah, blah. My favorite used to be when Boston Red Sox fans attempted to figure out how to get to Yankee Stadium from a hotel room in midtown. “Where the hell is the Bronx, anyway?” Take a right at your mom, and keep on going until your head is squarely up your ass.
San Diegans, particularly native San Diegans, probably feel the same. We live in America’s Finest City, and everyone wants to keep it that way. For the record, I am here for the same reason everyone else trekked out to California in the first place: The weather has been fantastic, and the living is surely easy.
Actually, I don’t know about easy (see: car accident last week that totaled my Honda, coupled with bank account hovering around three dollars). But at least I have the illusion of life being easier, and I live two blocks from the sand.
On the first night of recovery after a 72-hour stretch of weekend drinking, I found myself on laundry duty. With an impending trip to New York City coming in a few days, I wanted to be sure I had my whole repertoire of T-shirts and cargo shorts at my disposal in order to look as sharp as possible. So instead of using the wimpy washer/dryer at my apartment building, I decided to head down the street and utilize a Laundromat with industrial-size dryers to save time. Apparently they include industrial-size life lessons in the experience as well.
At first I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet and empty the place was. Wonderland Coin is fairly popular (although, unlike other coin laundries, they do not offer arcade games to kill time), and I was anticipating a gauntlet of people to try and get to an open dryer once the wash cycles ended. With a frivolity I have never felt when doing laundry, I threw the clothes in the dryer and exited to return upon the completion of the load.
Laundromats, unsupervised and open to the public as they are, can draw some interesting people after the later wave of customers finishes folding their clothes. Considering the proximity to the beach, I should have expected that this was the rule, not the exception. But for some odd reason I had made myself believe that it was my night with the Wonderland and that this would be the most simple laundry experience of my life.
Five minutes before the place closed, alone with literally every item my girlfriend and I own, I threw on some headphones and started folding. With my back turned to the door I was vulnerable to any kind of ninja or sneak attack, but the relaxing tunes of Wilco allowed me to float into a state of rumination, and I let my guard down. If a ninja wanted to chop me and steal some undergarments, then so be it. This was my time to decompress.
It was while gripping a pair of my lady’s pink, orange, and chartreuse panties that I heard a soft sound eerily similar to a male voice. I decided to ignore the sound at first, assuming it was some creepy effect Jeff Tweedy had pumped into the background. Unfortunately the sound did not dissipate, and I was forced to remove myself from a peaceful existence and slowly turn around.
What I found slouched before me was exactly the kind of person whom I was trying to avoid that evening: a particularly upset, middle-aged man who had stumbled in off the street and was mumbling to himself. Typical O.B., but even more typical for me: I finally get into a groove folding clothes, comfortable with my girlfriend’s panties in hand in a public place, and here comes someone who will obviously start spitting out his life story.
At first he just kept talking to himself. This isn’t comforting to most people, but I was elated at the turn of events. As I mentioned before, this was time for decompression. I think Dr. Phil might call it “me time.” Unfortunately, as I moved from panty stage to T-shirt stage, a blissful, almost Zen laundry experience reverted to its habitual, impersonal nature. I could no longer expect peace and quiet.
The man turned to me, surprised.
“Oh, I didn’t realize there was anyone else in here. I was just talking to myself,” he said. “My brother’s wife died today. Fifty-four years old. Cancer.”
Well, at that point I was sucked in. Of course, his life story followed. I listened intently as he ran down the six different addresses on Brighton Avenue he had lived at for a number of years before being drafted and sent to Vietnam. We chatted briefly about his time in the jungle but never actually got into the “meat.” We discussed how my father was a firefighter in the Air Force Reserves, and he talked about all the times them “flyboys” saved his life. I surely didn’t feel like bursting this guy’s bubble, so I didn’t tell him that my dad was not a “flyboy” during Vietnam.
The conversation revolved primarily around his extended family and not around his own life. His sister-in-law had left behind twin boys who were now in their 30s, one with a couple of children himself.
“Amazing kids, really great people.” Pausing for a second, he continued, “I guess the whole marriage thing was never for me, so I’m happy they’re out there carrying on my name. I was never able to keep a lady in my life. Kept offing those girls.” At which point he pointed gun-shaped fingers at his head and squeezed the “trigger.”
Did this man, in a state of emotional confusion, just admit that he had committed murder? Even more, did he admit that it was on several occasions?
Apparently I misinterpreted his intention. What he meant to infer was that somehow he had always messed up good relationships with stupidity, and it had led him to where he was today. But the thought of standing next to a serial killer was one part scary and two parts thrilling.
Either way, what came next changed the entire course of our tête-à-tête.
“You remember Chris Farley? That old skit about the guy who was livin’ in a van down by the river? Well, that’s me. I’m living in a van down by the beach.”
There are plenty of people who have chosen to live unconventionally, particularly in the beach communities. I am a firm believer in the rights of an individual to do so. As a case-manager working with families who have lost their homes in the wildfires, I have found that people seem to be comfortable with living in an RV so that in the event of a disaster they can just up and move everything they own. My initial assessment of this man was that for someone who had probably seen some really horrible things, he was doing all right. This could be why when he told me, bluntly, “I love my country, but I don’t trust it,” I responded with a surprisingly upbeat, “Could be a lot worse off than living by the beach in San Diego.”
He nodded, and we both went back to folding clothes. I could not determine if I had just offended him or if he had nodded in agreement. The elevator music that had been all up in my ear for the past 20 minutes seemed to fade. He broke the silence with a simple but important question: “So how did you — being from New York and all — find O.B.?”
At first I wondered whether or not I should just ignore him. I’m always being asked that question, and most of the time the inquisitor is not even looking for an answer. The question just seems to serve as a reminder that I am not native and that I should feel uncomfortable in a new place — a visitor. But despite the initial shock of thinking that he may have been a serial killer, this man was quite pleasant for someone who had just found out that his sister-in-law passed away. I owed this guy those pleasantries back and, without realizing it, had been more kind to him than most folks probably would have been in that very same situation. In regard to his question, I half-assed something about knowing someone who lived in San Diego in the 1970s.
The real question was how did I end up in the Wonderland Coin, in San Diego, with a man who lived in a van down by the ocean, talking about the Vietnam War, his now dearly departed sister-in-law’s grandchildren, and my new life in O.B.? Why did I place so much emphasis on the situation but couldn’t care less about the actual conversation? I didn’t even get the dude’s name!
It didn’t hit me right away, but on August 21, 2008, I reached Nirvana at the Wonderland Coin Laundromat on Abbott Street in Ocean Beach.
I’m here in San Diego because I want to be here. Of course I would love to have the ability to travel around the world and see it all without worrying about rent or car payments or the cost of soy milk. I have, nonetheless, through a series of avenues, chosen to get to where I am today.
What is most interesting is that although we differ in just about every imaginable manner, my situation is eerily similar to a man who has made the decision to live in a van down by the ocean. I cannot speak for all the bumps and bruises along the way, and I cannot tell whether or not he truly wants to be living this way. But is the question even worth asking? He and I are here, together, folding laundry, living the dream. His name, his goals, and the canker sore he just can’t get rid of — none of these things matter because we’re the same, he and I.
Guy from the Wonderland Coin Laundry, I’m looking for you. I want to thank you for putting everything in perspective. I want to apologize for thinking you are a murderer and that I was possibly victim number who-knows-what. Most of all, I want to get the whole story. I think you deserve to know mine as well, because I definitely held back during our time together. I would like to discuss in detail how you got to where you are today (and maybe get a little bit more information about all those girls you “offed”).
Taking a mundane event such as doing laundry and turning it into a revelation is a selling point for fad diets, fundamentalist Christianity, and crack addiction alike. At a time when gasoline costs more than beer (finally, a deterrent for drunk driving!), it is easy to forget that things can always get worse than they are already.
You could be living in a van down by a river. At least here in San Diego you always have the ocean.