It wasn't my neighbor, a single mom who occasionally asked my wife and I if we'd like to adopt her young asthmatic son, who drove us from Varrio Carlos to the sidewalk-averse streets of Del Mar. Nor was it her suicidal, tweaked-out boyfriend (whom she'd met at a recent NA meeting) presumably attempting the 13th and ultimate step, by doing his best to torch her half of the duplex using a pile of his 501s and himself as kindling. It would take more than that. More even than the bloodshot eye of another neighbor, a Sportster-straddling, single malt beverage enthusiast, sighting down across our "good neighbor" fence, along the stainless steel barrel of his H & K .308, at me as I push-mowed my Lilliputian patch of backyard turf.

This is not to imply that I didn't entertain more than fleeting thoughts of mayhem and extreme malice toward the aforementioned violators of neighborly decorum. Nor was my usually patient and understanding wife silent and demure when the occasional far-more-than-legally-drunk driver failed to negotiate the T-intersection in front of our home and mistook our front hedge for a drive-through.

To finally move us out of Carlsbad to just south of where the Turf Meets the Surf and west of where Heaven's Gate meets Hale-Bopp, it took my daughter's first kindergarten teacher. This woman had just returned from a long, unexplained leave of absence after teaching students twice my daughter's age. She had the unblinking, imperturbable, thousand-yard stare of a war zone survivor--a heavily sedated war zone survivor. One afternoon, volunteering as an aide, I noticed that she was handing out fifth-grade level reading worksheets to kids who could barely tie their shoes. After an hour of staring at these meaningless squiggles that were supposed to "have them reading by Christmas," the kids, boys especially, looked like constipated felons in solitary. I went up to her at recess and said, "You know, when I was in kindergarten I remember playing with blocks, finger painting, acting out 'Billy Goats Gruff.' Maybe these kids could use a little more movement."

She listened to me politely, staring somewhere beyond the back of my skull until I was done. She then replied, level and dry as the Bonneville Salt Flats, "When I think the children need to stretch, I have them stand at their desks and cut out paper dolls."

The next day I signed a lease agreement with the manager of the apartment complex then known as Casa Mango. Located on Mango Drive, it's tucked between Del Mar Hills Elementary and a Vons-anchored strip mall. A month later we put our duplex up for rent, and moved into a two-bedroom apartment overlooking (and overhearing) Interstate 5.

The complex was roomy with a large patch of well-manicured lawn between the building that held our apartment and the pool and laundry room. There were a slew of kids close to my daughter's age, so she was in heaven. Many of the parents were foreigners either teaching, completing doctorates, and/or conducting research at UCSD or the biotech firms along Torrey Pines Road. It was like a functional mini-U.N. There were Moroccans, Japanese, South Koreans, French, British, Iranians, Australians. The kids played hide-and-seek, freeze tag, king of the mountain from after school until bedtime. It was like I remembered growing up in the 50s and 60s, except not all lily-white and red-neck.

To top it off, my daughter's new kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Aposhian, was great. She did just enough pre-reading to keep the few anal and usually absentee parents who were already scouting out Ivy League colleges for their offspring.

But, no paradise forever remains untouched. Every year or two, three or four nameless and always changing men in white shirts and ties (one always carrying the obligatory clipboard) would tour the grounds. Within two months, we would receive a slick four-page newsletter from the new corporate owners that they were implementing changes that would make our "living experience" even more enjoyable. In English, that meant they would fire a gardener or two, move the manager off-site, and raise the rent as much and as quickly as possible. To keep the over-priced apartments filled, they started allowing more and more people who were less and less family-oriented into the two bedroom units and started allowing pets. The lawns became more litter boxes than playgrounds. By the time my daughter reached middle school almost all her friends had moved or returned to their native countries. It was time to move.

We now rent a house a couple of blocks away with a distant ocean view of Catalina and San Clemente Island. The neighbors are pleasant and seemingly harmless. But back in Carlsbad, when there was a break-in or someone drove through our hedge and fence, the same neighbor who had pointed his H & K at me, wouldn't hesitate to grab a shotgun and run out after the offender. Here, everyone seems more likely to dial 9-11 from the safety of their bedroom, then just email each other and start a Neighborhood Watch group. I guess life's a trade off, just like neighborhoods.

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ShawnMichel Nov. 17, 2008 @ 11:10 p.m.

Very true.

Imperial Beach isn't much better. Lots of crazies here. Lots of apathy. People watch each others' backs--provided their skin color is the correct hue and their religion is fundamentalist Christian.Oh, well.

Best to you and your blog.


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