It’s 7:15 a.m. near the Civic Center/Front Street exit on I-5 south; the airport and harbor spread out below to the right, the jagged downtown skyline of glass-and-cement high rises pokes up ahead. I leave the freeway and veer left at the Second Avenue/Front Street split, are over First Avenue and around the cylindrical Holiday Inn, sweep across Second, and arrive at the boulevard stop at Third. Already I have seen them, usually alone, sometimes in twos, filing down the avenues in the direction of downtown. Two of them cross in front of me — a man and a woman, both well dressed, the woman’s white jogging shoes in sharp contrast to her blue blazer and matching pleated skirt. I watch them pass, then turn left from Cedar onto Third and proceed down the three-lane, oneway avenue.
It has begun, the Monday-through-Friday Sisyphean ritual, the search for a parking space and the ensuing walk to work downtown.
When hired for my current job two years ago, I assumed that parking was included in the deal. After all, I’d worked downtown before and my previous employer had taken care of this need. So it came as a surprise that I now had the expense of paying to park the car, which costs anywhere from $50 to $125 or more monthly. The underground parking in the Security Pacific Building where I work is $105 a month. Outdoor lots near the building run about $125. The lower-priced versions are farther away, down by the railroad tracks, over around 12th Avenue below Broadway, or deep in the Gaslamp Quarter. Still, paying $600 to $1200 a year for parking isn’t pleasant, especially when many lots don’t offer reserved parking or in/out privileges. This means that you’re not guaranteed a spot, despite the fact that you paid for it.
So, many San Diegans who work downtown prefer to hunt down and secure a curbside space and walk for 15 minutes or so to the office. Popular spots are the area just north of downtown at the edge of Hillcrest and up near the El Cortez Hotel. From casual observation, most of my parking contemporaries are professional people, nicely dressed, carefully coiffed, whose discretionary income doesn’t allow for parking.
Along the bridge over I-5, cars are parked tightly in line on the left of the roadway, while the right is occupied by parking meters, which have the effect of Easy-Off on the parking insect. Driving over the bridge, I glance to the left in the vain hope of finding a spot here. No dice. I head uphill toward more tree streets — Elm, Fir, et cetera. The area between Elm and Fir occasionally — maybe once a week — yields a choice spot near the Roni Hicks building. Not today. Past Fir the territory is more fertile. Lots of room on both sides of Third, few red curbs or hydrants, not many driveway entrances — and today no spaces. Then I remember. It’s Wednesday, no-parking day along the east side of Sixth next to Balboa Park. No doubt most of that parking community has migrated west to snatch up my usual spots.
At Grape a left turn, heading west to Second. This area often proves fruitful: parallel parking on the left, angled parking to the right. But packed solid today, probably by those pesky people from Sixth Avenue. At Second another left again, heading back toward downtown, though this block seldom delivers; too many apartment buildings on the right, houses on the left, driveways, red curbs, even a bus stop. But up ahead, there on the left, the opposite side of the street, alone and free — a space! I slow to make a U-turn but before beginning the maneuver, a sinister-looking black Escort pulls around the corner and takes my spot. After a moment of frustration and a minor curse, I turn the car around and drive back to Grape, cross over, and head to Hawthorne. This is the border, the perimeter, the outer limits of my parking principality. To park beyond Hawthorne is defeat, failure, never a good way to begin the morning.
On this block, Second is bordered on the east by small apartments and on the west by a large excavation pit. Usually good pickings here, and indeed there’s a spacious little number behind a metallic, olive-green Maverick. I pull alongside the Maverick, put my car in reverse, angle back, around, and into the space. Sure, I could continue to drive around, as others do, hoping to find something closer to downtown, but I’d rather just end the whole ordeal.
I shut off the engine and start collecting my belongings: blazer, briefcase, gym bag. The bag contains gym clothes and related articles for the postwork bloodletting at the Holiday Spa, as well as my office shoes. I’m wearing gray-and-blue Nikes, practical and comfortable, appropriate for the hike ahead but clashing ferociously with my khaki pants. I bring all this to the office because leaving the bag in the hot interior of the car results in a lava flow of melted Speed Stick in the gym bag, glopping over the clothes in a blue, waxy goo that’s impossible to clean off.
As I’m preparing to get out of the car, a woman in a blue Isuzu pulls up. I try to ignore her. “Are you leaving?” she asks plaintively. “No,” I reply, smugly. “Just got here.” Her face drops and she guns the little car up the street. I get out, put on the coat, grab the briefcase and gym bag in one hand, close the door, and set the alarm, which registers with a reassuring but ironic double chirp. If the car were clean, I would also put on its cover, complete with locking cable. This would add another couple of minutes to the ritual and invite at least one more “Looky Lou” to stop and express interest in my curbside real estate. But the car isn’t clean enough to warrant such treatment today.
I’m about to start walking when the elderly man appears up ahead on the corner of Hawthorne and Second. I often see him in the afternoon upon returning to the car but rarely in the morning. He’s standing there, tall and lean, with short-cropped, bristly, white, white hair and stubbly white beard, leaning backward slightly from the waist, a shirttail hanging out of his pants, the end of his belt sticking forward from the buckle, a child’s metal lunchbox in his hand. He waits a bit longer, then shuffles across the street in short, laborious steps, and stops at the other side of the street. One afternoon while searching through my pockets for car keys, I turned around to find him standing behind me, just looking, his gaze both fascinated and unconnected. He had large facial features, especially the ears and nose, and a patch of black scabs on the side of his head. I smiled uncomfortably, found the keys in a hurry, and jumped into the car. As I drove away, he was staring at something on the ground.
I’ve been standing here watching him too long, so I turn and head south down the street, toward downtown, along with the other urban day crawlers making their way to work. Now, I am one of them.
The morning is warm, even at this early hour, and uncharacteristically muggy. I walk to Grape, turn left, continue to Third, and turn right, toward the city. At that moment, an extra-large jet, not a jumbo but a stretched something or other, a four-engine job, drops out of the powder-blue sky from the east, seconds away from a landing at Lindbergh Field. This is the Emery Express plane, a flying delivery truck, and it screams by so close I swear I can see the pilot. The plane is reassurance that I’m on time; if I were late, it would have passed over as I drove along 1-5 toward the downtown exit. Watching its large, red-striped tail disappear behind an apartment building, I wonder what this area will be like when, or if, a new airport is built and Lindbergh is closed. The motion, power, and noise of the planes are fascinating, although residents of this neighborhood might disagree. When the planes are gone, the walk will be a little less interesting.
Continuing on about halfway down the block, sure enough, there’s a parking space: big, beautiful, alone, like an attractive single woman in a bar. The woman in the Isuzu pulls up, stops, and slips into the spot.
I cross Fir and head downhill toward Elm, passing a day-care center where young parents are dropping off their children to join the kids already cavorting on the small playground. Mid-block sits a small brown garage, unattached to any other building. Until a couple of months ago, this garage had been used by four or five guys, dressed in jeans or shorts and T-shirts, who did restoration work on myriad odd objects. I would see them in the afternoon, around four, while walking back to the car. The door to the garage was always open, and I’d give a quick glance, just to see what was going on. Stacks of stuff, seemingly unrelated, were piled up —old radios, neon tubing, hubcaps, furniture, tools, and various items I couldn’t identify. In front of the garage, parked at the curb, was an old station wagon — perhaps a ’62 Plymouth or Dodge —replete with fins and chrome and a hand-painted, two-tone, lime-green finish. It usually bulged with its own assortment of curios. I had thought of asking these fellows what they did in that garage, but one day I walked by and it was empty; it’s been locked shut since.
I stop at Elm to let traffic pass and pause to admire the Jacaranda trees exploding in bursts of lavender on the other side of Third. I begin to cross the street when suddenly, there he is, steaming up the hill toward me on long, purposeful strides. He’s about my height, perhaps slightly taller, with long, scraggly, dishwater-colored hair protruding from a dirty baseball cap. Dark glasses hide what I presume to be fierce, evil eyes. This is The Curser, so named because whenever I see him, which is about once a week, he hurls the F-word at me, generally in the form of a command, accented by the expected finger. As we approach each other, I turn my head slightly to the right, away from him, and fumble with my bag, then a coat pocket, hoping he’ll just pass by silently. But when we’re within a few feet of each other, he raises both arms, folds his fingers quickly into the gesture, and aims them at me in a double-barreled barrage. He spits out the F command and passes. The first time this happened, I was startled, the second time angered, but now I’m just resigned to it. It’s not personal, he doesn’t single me out; once I saw him do it to a parked Buick.
I’m approaching the Third Avenue bridge crossing over 1-5; the time is 7:25. I see other walkers crossing over the freeway, its eight lanes of traffic snaking noisily underneath, blocking out all other sound except the Southwest Airlines 737 roaring behind us down to the airport. The freeway below, lined by cement retaining walls on either side, forms a large, wide trench, an automotive canal. How nice it would be if the freeway were a river. A young woman sits in a red Honda Civic, poring through yellow legal-sized papers and a large textbook, undoubtedly a student at the California Western School of Law on the next corner
At the other side of the bridge I’m met by sprays of red bristles popping out from a thick cluster of bottlebrush in a fenced area to the right. A torn piece of clothing — perhaps in better days it was a shirt — a Styrofoam cup, and some other debris identify this as a resting place for weary homeless. I’ve seen them here - before, climbing over the fence and out onto the sidewalk, picking leaves and twigs out of their hair. Except for the noise from the freeway below, it appears to be good refuge, well concealed yet not isolated. Next to this area is a small, plain, U-shaped building that houses legal offices. It, too, is a popular place for the homeless, some of whom are sleeping there now on cardboard or newspaper.
At the intersection of Cedar and Third — the same spot where I stopped earlier in the car and where others now stop and glance at me — I wait for the traffic to pass, shifting my bag to the other hand, my brow slightly damp from the humidity. A man in a white shirt, red foulard tie, and wire-rimmed glasses speaks into a cellular phone as he motors his silver Mercedes in hermetic, climate-controlled splendor through the intersection. No walking for this guy. He probably has a nice, dry, reserved spot in the cool basement of his office building. Probably takes it for granted, as I used to. Just get out of the car, walk to the elevator, and glide up to the sanctity of an upper-stratum suite, oblivious to the sensory assaults of the urban jungle.
I cross Cedar and proceed to Beech, passing a middle-aged nun fingering her rosary in front of the Joan of Arc Residence. Up ahead on the left is a parking lot, largely unused. There’s another one on the following block. I notice the red, boxy contraption standing guard at the lot’s entrance. This is the depository for the daily rent, a device that doesn’t affirm my faith in man’s ingenuity. On one side of its ugly metal exterior are tiny numbered slots corresponding with parking spaces. These slots are too small to accept folded bills, so the creators have provided a metal tongue depressor-like gizmo, which hangs from the box by a chain, for stuffing the recalcitrant fees into the slot. The amount is usually something and change, the operators of these lots know that most of us don’t have the exact amount and so must cough up more than is due or risk ticketing or towing.
As I approach A Street, today’s odyssey is nearing its end. The trip has been routine: the typical hassles, the simple epiphanies. I cross A and continue down the block, walk past the entrance to my building’s underground parking lot, past the entrance to the 11-story Community Concourse parking complex ($1.25 per half-hour, $9 per day), then take a right down a set of steps to the edge of the Security Pacific Plaza. This section of the plaza is somewhat secluded. The fragile scent of night-blooming jasmine mixes with the pungent odor of urine, which, along with the empty bottle of Night Train lying in one of the plaza’s planters, attests to the recent presence of transients.
Rounding the corner of the building, I head for the entrance to the lobby. The plaza extends out on my left to the Civic Theatre and in front to the Malcolm Leland fountain and Golden Hall. Catching a glimpse of myself in one of the mirrored windows on the right, I brush back my hair with my free hand and notice that my tie has flopped back ungraciously over my left shoulder. I fix the tie and enter the lobby, its conditioned air cooling the perspiration on my forehead. The doors to the elevator slide open and I step on, joining those who have come from the three parking levels below: pin-striped business types, buttoned-down and well pressed, with Gucci briefcases and Cole Haan oxfords. They wince at my Nikes, then move their gaze up to the gym bag, open blazer, and mussed hair. Muzak invades my consciousness, dissolving thoughts of today’s stroll, and we ascend together to the isolation of our respective floors.