“I’m an Obecian, and I want to go back. Right now, I’m stuck in City Heights, or ‘Shitty Heights,’ as I call it. From here, it takes an hour and a half to get to O.B. by two buses.”
That’s “Buddy” talking, an MBA from Harvard who finds himself living in a Section 8 apartment in City Heights. Buddy dreams small these days: an Ocean Beach flat where he can live on the cheap is his notion of Nirvana; a little place where he can soak up the neo-hippie vibe, tend to his books, and dispense small-scale, street-level philanthropy. Buddy, 61, who works as a security guard for $9 an hour, is one of San Diego’s severely underemployed, a member of a forlorn group that garners little empathy from the masses; though, he’s not seeking it.
His journey — geographical, psychic, pecuniary; the last, he reiterates, of only cursory interest — began in what he calls “the projects,” the hardscrabble of 1950s public housing in Boston. Long before he stepped onto the Wesleyan College campus in Middleborough, Connecticut, he’d been steeped in blue-collar, left-leaning populism, Rust Belt–style, which flows through his accent.
“I’m the black sheep of my family. I was born and raised in the city of Boston; actually, we lived in ‘the projects’ for two years, meaning the actual brick, multistory buildings for poor people. My dad was a postal worker and my mom was a pizza waitress when I was a kid. When I was two, we moved out to the suburbs — Stoughton, it’s about 20 miles south of Boston.”
Buddy graduated cum laude from Wesleyan in 1972 with a degree in sociology and Spanish. “I spent a semester in Madrid. I didn’t want to work for a corporation. To me, business was evil.”
Buddy joined the Department of Labor.
“It was a great job for a sociology major. We had the [expansion of the] War on Poverty under Richard Nixon, and a Democratic Congress. My title was Manpower Development Specialist. I was a real liberal Democratic type. I wanted to change the world, so being at Labor was a great place to start. I started out at $12,000, which was a good, professional salary — but I got disgusted with the bureaucracy.”
The next stop was Harvard.
“I remember someone saying to me, ‘Harvard Business School? Why the fuck would you want to go to Harvard Business School?’ I said, ‘Because I learned all about mismanagement at the federal government, and I want to learn about management.’ To me, it’s a high calling. When I was there, the stated mission of the school was ‘to produce analytical and responsible general managers.’ We called it the ‘West Point of Capitalism.’ Mitt Romney was about three years before me — G.W. Bush, about two.
“I knew I wanted to go to Latin America, so I went for the multinational corporations, the ones where it would be easiest to transfer overseas. I ended up with Norton Company in Worcester, Massachusetts. My salary was $21,000, on the low side for someone coming out of business school in 1977. But I soon found out that I couldn’t go to goddamned Argentina or Mexico, where they had plants. Norton had been there a long time — 1911, in the case of Mexico; the managers were all indigenous — they weren’t going to bring in some American to do marketing or run the plant. Going overseas had totally been part of my dream.” Buddy got transferred, all right — to Salt Lake City.
I asked him if he’d subscribed to the notion of “upward mobility.”
“Absolutely. I bought into it totally. When I was a teenager in the mid-’60s — [during] the ‘Great Society’ — it was still a time when the economy was humming along. The belief was: ‘You get a good education, a good job with a company, you could be set for life.’ IBM, or whatever; a big Fortune 500 company was the way to go. But I found, after ten years in corporate life and two layoffs, that I wasn’t cut out for it.
“In October of 1985, I was laid off for the first time in my life. I’d spent eight years — five departments, two divisions — with one Fortune 500 company. There was an oil-field bust, so they let go of 25 of us at once. I had $15,000 or so in savings. They gave us three months of ‘outplacement’ at an unused office near the Mormon temple downtown. They were supposed to teach us how to write résumés and look for jobs. One day, three of us were walking out of the office — this was in the heart of the temple square — when a friend of mine, Michael (he was a scientist, a Russian Jewish émigré), yelled at the top of his lungs [Buddy imitates a thick Russian accent], ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’ That’s the title of the book I’d like to write.
“I saw a want ad for Mitchell Publishing-Cordura. They wanted someone with an industrial-marketing background like me. I thought, What the fuck, I’ll send it. I came to San Diego for a week of informational interviews and met a guy with a little hole-in-the-wall manufacturing place in Kearny Mesa. He wasn’t much use as a contact. From the East Coast, originally. All he could tell me about San Diego was, ‘Can you believe there’s a place called Wienerschnitzel out here where [people] buy fucking hot dogs?’ Thank God Mitchell didn’t have an office in L.A. I would’ve hated it. My friends said, ‘You’re too sensitive to your environment — you’ll thrive in San Diego.’”
Buddy started at Mitchell in April ’86 as the product manager for new markets (heavy trucks), living at first on Sequoia Street in Crown Point a couple of blocks from Mission Bay.
“Then I smartened up,” he says, “and moved to O.B. in 1989, when I bought my condo on West Point Loma Boulevard — the Quigley building. I loved that place; even my parents, who had no sense of art, could see why I loved it. It had five levels, a skylight right over my shower on the third floor. It was written up in architecture magazines. I thought I could sell it in a minute. But it was the peak of the market, and after Mitchell laid me off in January, 1990, I lost everything — $17,000 I’d invested and $4000 my parents put in. I held out as long as I could but had to sell it in 1993.
“I lived at 5012½ Del Monte Avenue from 1994 to 1996. It was exactly one block from the cliffs, where I could sit on a bench, smoke a cigar, drink a beer, and watch the sun set, and two blocks from Newport Avenue — so I had it made. It was a little studio apartment. I paid $390 a month, all utilities included. People say, ‘You can’t afford San Diego; it’s too expensive.’ It’s not too expensive. I was living right by the beach. I spent all my weekends out on the pier in the sun, getting the New York Times, hangin’ out all day, drinking coffee, smoking cigars.
“In 1997, I moved out of O.B. when I went down to Mexico to become an ‘international social entrepreneur.’ It was actually a housesitting gig. At an art-gallery reception, I met this woman, Jane, who was building a house in Todos Santos; she already had a place in Cabo she was renting, properties in Northern California, and her own place in Bird Rock. She took me down there for a week, and I fell in love with the place. Todos Santos — town of 4000 — it’s near the Tropic of Cancer, about 50 kilometers north of Cabo. Not too hot, except for a couple of months in the summer, when some of the Caribbean humidity seeps up. But with the Pacific breeze, it’s like paradise.”
It was a life of poverty, and he loved it.
“I found 12 different jobs. I knew everybody. I learned how to swear in Mexican Spanish. I was doing marketing translation, tutoring Americans’ kids for 30 pesos an hour. Jane’s husband needed a gardener. He paid me eight pesos an hour. He was a cheap gabacho; sometimes I was paid in food. When I was a gardener, I had enough money to buy my caguama of Tecate, a little more than a quart, some limes, cucumbers, and two or three bolillos — delicious Mexican bread.
“I had the greatest time of my life, the greatest adventure for the least money. I’m very resilient, a cultural chameleon. I had the sunshine, the music, and the food, a rotation of three meals: rice and beans, tortillas, and pasta. I was in a rental house overlooking the Pacific, which roared like a freight train all night; out the front door was a 6000-foot mountain range and desert all around. But I didn’t know where the next peso was going to come from; I thought I might have to live on mangoes, which grew all over the place. Jane says that I was a ‘private Peace Corps’ — working with these great Mexicans down in Latin America, making a difference, helping these micro-enterprises grow. This was my dream, the peak — the colmo, as they say in Spanish, of my career. The experience. I was rich, a Bohemian living on his wits. It wasn’t the Harvard MBA training; it was just me, seeing if I could survive.
“After that, I lived in a chili shed with two other guys and their wives — we called it a ‘company store’ because it had a loom there where they made the blankets. Chili sheds are three-sided buildings open in front. We had a cold running tap across the way on a vacant property but no bathroom. That was okay, except I picked up Giardia and I got irritable bowel syndrome, which I still have.
“I was deported in April 1999 for selling Indian blankets on the roadside of the main highway. You don’t think they have immigration laws? There were 10,000 gabachos down there. The Mexican government started to crack down. The officers were nice guys. They let me go back to pick up my things and withdraw my savings, a couple of hundred dollars. I bought everybody some tacos, and I said, ‘I’m thirsty’ — so we stopped and I bought a six-pack. I asked the guy riding shotgun if he wanted a beer, and he took one. I asked the driver, and he took one, too.” At San Ysidro, the U.S. Customs guy laughed. ‘You were deported?’”
In June 2000, Buddy made his way back to New England — and homelessness. “I slept one night in the airport, but they kicked me out. I spent two nights in a park, Post Office Square in Boston, then a homeless shelter from late June 2001 to July 2002. I finally got Section 8 housing in Chelsea.”
During the early 2000s, Buddy — only a few miles from where Harvard had conferred his MBA — worked four hours a day in a shelter kitchen, warming up food and setting out plastic. Eventually, after dumbing down his résumé by omitting his master’s degree, he landed positions in small social-services organizations, helping street people find work. In January 2009, Buddy had “a certain falling out” with his boss. He asked her: “‘If you were to terminate me, would I be eligible for unemployment?’ ‘Of course,’ she said. It was a win-win. I got $400-a-week unemployment for 99 weeks. With the Great Recession and Obama, I picked the perfect time to become unemployed.”
Buddy also thought it would be the perfect time to snag a Peace Corps post.
“I started on the application. First, I had to pay $200 to have a goddamned Spanish oral-proficiency test that lasted all of 15 minutes. I aced it — got 8/10, which means I’m just below a native speaker. I had a great rapport with my interviewer, Jennifer. My business-development background was impeccable. I had it locked up. You can’t pick any countries out — they tell you where you’re going — but I knew it was Latin America, and that was enough to me, although I would’ve preferred Mexico.
“I spent $2000, half my savings, for dental work they demanded. The government isn’t going to pay for you to go overseas, even as a volunteer making a minimal stipend, if you’re gonna have your teeth falling out when you’re over there. They also said the medical board was gonna check me out, look at my records, so I had to be honest about the irritable bowel syndrome. They don’t want to risk people getting sick out in the field. I happened to pick the worst possible condition, the easiest one to rule me out. I kept insisting to them that I’d never missed work in ten years, was never late because of it — managed it — but they didn’t care. I went through three levels of appeals, but they wouldn’t give. I was devastated. Medically Disqualified.”
I asked Buddy why it was so difficult to secure a position as a low-paid third-world volunteer. He explained that, for some reason, there were always more than enough qualified people in the applicant pool, especially during tough economic times. I asked him about Peace Corps pay.
“I don’t care about anything like that. I care about the experience and about helping to change the world. This was my dream. They pay enough so you can live comfortably but not extravagantly — adequate to live in a house by yourself, maybe buy a few books here and there, but not have a TV or anything like that. I’d lived worse than that in Mexico.
“I remember the day — August 26, 2010 — when I stepped on the Amtrak to California with everything I could carry. CDs, DVDs, books. When I got out here, I couch-surfed with buddies in Leucadia and San Clemente while I looked for an apartment.”
Buddy was also looking for a way to kick a nagging Klonopin habit to the curb.
“It was an emergency. I ran out and didn’t know you had to have a scrip on special paper. I’d already jonesed it — cut down for the Peace Corps — from five pills to one a day, but when I tried to quit altogether, I went haywire. The withdrawal was so bad, I couldn’t leave the apartment. Couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t read. Withdrawal was attacking my brain. I went to urgent care, went to a homeless shelter, but no one would help. I incurred a huge hospital bill at Scripps. They wanted to keep me there because of my blood pressure: 190 over 157. ‘Oh, my God,’ they said, that’s basically a stroke.’ ‘Just give me my meds!,’ I said. They put me on an IV, kept me there for two hours, tortured me. Finally gave me a prescription.”
I asked Buddy about his Section 8 neighbors.
“Two are physically disabled. One guy has AIDS. Before that, there were some people of a certain race — an old man who could barely walk and his niece. They would sit and drink King Cobra all day. Other relatives would come over and you’d hear them arguing, fussing, and fighting. On the other side is Ray — disabled with a back problem — grossly overweight, but a liberal like me, so we have a lot in common. Across the way, there’s a woman with some real serious mental illness there. I just stay away. In the back, there’s Tommie, a great-great-grandmother who constantly asks me for money for cigarettes when her disability check runs out.
“It’s not dangerous. But I did hear a gunshot the first week I lived there, and footsteps — like a teenager was jumping over the fence. Someone said a guy had been shot in the alley. There’s constant over-circling of helicopters; the police are absolutely out of their minds over City Heights, especially after one of their own got killed at the end of a car chase on 39th. Also, some cat got stabbed about a year ago. Those are the only things I’ve heard of.”
Police pursuits aside, Buddy seems to enjoy the neighborhood’s polyglot nature.
“It’s the most diverse area of San Diego. I’d canvassed for the SDG&E ‘CARE’ program; I went door-to-door everywhere from 39th Street over to 52nd, and all the way down to Home Avenue. It’s about 3 percent East African, mainly Somalians; 30 percent Mexicans; 15 percent black; and another 10 percent Southeast Asian. The rest is plain old white people.”
Buddy, who beds down in a sleeping bag on the floor, doesn’t have a lot of stuff.
“I have a short list for Target. A pair of sandals, a polo shirt. I get all the books and CDs that I want from the library. But there’s no point in accumulating anything — if I move, I can’t rent a truck, since I don’t have a driver’s license.” But he’s less concerned with possessions than with symbolism. “It’s ironic,” he muses. “My new guard post is in the heart of the beast. I’m at the Union-Tribune — right-wing, conservative Republican power-broker — right there at 3350 Camino Del Rio South — your [the Reader’s] arch-competitor. It’s slow-paced — graveyard shift two days, swing shift another. Mostly, I check badges.”
Is he happy? Citing David Foster Wallace — literary suicide of footnote fame — Buddy tells me that in the posthumously published The Pale King, “Wallace said that happiness is paying attention to ‘second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.’” ■