If you're looking for the essence of the city, do not look for it at Fourth and Broadway. Drive toward downtown on I-5, yes, but when that Oz view of spires, glass, and jetcraft swings around the hillside at you, turn aside from it take the
exit to Washington Street. It is an uninteresting vein itself, but means of access to a crucial artery: University Avenue.
University runs through the heart of six geographically distinct regions and countless jumbled ethnic microclimates. No other San Diego thorough-fare (including El Cajon Boulevard, University’s fatter, more commercial sister to the north) can make that claim. Driving its length — which is ten miles, precisely, if you include the ramp from Washington Street —you may scan a core sample of raw, unprocessed San Diego. On a Wednesday afternoon at two o’clock, the drive takes 37 minutes. You travel east in a stream of cars changing character: mustachioed men in BMWs and trim moms in sport-utility vehicles or Volvo wagons mingle with small old folk in unwieldy sedans, cede places to Mexican laborers in trucks, to boys up-to-no-good in low-slung hatchbacks with mirrored windows and booming bass, then to boys up-to-no-good in big-wheeled pickup trucks, then to old folk arid moms again.
You take in views of ’30s stucco storefronts and ’70s convenience store strip malls, last night’s graffiti, two (or three? is she?) hookers, two car washes, women veiled head-to-toe in bright pink or turquoise, five supermarkets, two homeless men (it’s a chilly day), potholes, three black boys in Raiders jackets, hopeful immigrant storekeepers, embittered old-timers. The old-timers are embittered because they remember University Avenue’s glory years. But the glory they recall was largely manufactured in memory. University Avenue never fulfilled its initial promise.
The avenue was built during the real estate boom of the 1880s. USC planned a San Diego College of Arts, to be erected near Normal Street and Campus Avenue. The development of businesses and housing near the site became University Heights; the principal east-west artery serving the neighborhood was named University Avenue.
Three months after the land went on sale, values plummeted for lack of interest. The university abandoned its plans. The cable car company serving the district went bust as well (nevertheless, city ordinance continued to forbid hitching a horse anywhere along University Avenue). Later, housing and business districts developed and expanded along its length, especially during the World War II housing shortage. The prosperity didn’t last. Despite massive redevelopment in the late ’50s, by the ’60s, the avenue was dying. In 1962, 50 percent of the avenue’s storefronts stood empty. Twenty-five years ago, sporadic redevelopment efforts improved University’s prospects, at least in spots. Fifteen years ago, many of those efforts had failed. Now, a poorer class of entrepreneur has moved in. They manage to scrape together the capital to start small restaurants or retail shops in the decaying buildings built by their predecessors; the developers and their money have fled north along the I-15 corridor.
Populated with Dinosaurs Riddled with Time Warps
Washington Street to Park Boulevard/By John Brizzolara
I dreamed San Diego Bay rose hundreds of feet, crested the top of the Washington Street hill, and flowed down University drowning people and neon and cars; headlights moved beneath the waters in a ponderous current. When the waters receded, there was a mark on the Union Bank building and the Pac Bell building like a bathtub ring. People shook themselves like wet dogs and went on about their business as the trough beneath the bridge past Park became a waterfall that emptied into a small lake with Texas Street as its far shore.
I have no idea what the dream meant, if anything; and as I stand at the corner of Fifth and University on a Wednesday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., the air, the people, and the streets are dry, the scent of musk or patchouli is in the air, gay and lesbian couples walk hand-in-hand or arm-in-arm. You can tell the straight people because they are alone.
People sit in coffee shops and read or talk. Doesn’t anyone work? The bus stop is surreal, with a bum talking to himself and a transvestite talking to an elderly woman about Oprah Winfrey. A young man in a black leather motorcycle jacket, rasta locks, and Doc Marten shitkickers leans against the bus stop and plays pocket pool. I have seen all of these people often, but for the first time, it occurs to me: They are my neighbors.
I’ve lived in Hillcrest on and off for 15 years, within blocks of University Avenue. I’ve driven, ridden, walked, pedaled, and staggered maybe a thousand miles on this street. Each block holds a landscape of memories that must eclipse any historical society spiel, tour guide patter, or man-on-the-street commentaries I might offer here. Both barbershops, every other restaurant, the school, the pawnshop, and most street comers along this stretch of the avenue are freighted with my own, often confabulated snapshots. A considerable part of my life was lived along this street, and I’ve written pounds of prose about it and its characters both fictional and real.
With my back to San Diego Bay and Interstate 5, the sun over my right shoulder on this autumn afternoon, I remember when I first moved to San Diego a decade and a half ago, the same time of year, the nascent winter sun warm on my back like a promise sure to be broken. The amber-ale sunlight at a tired angle beneath cornflower skies reminds me of my first winter in Hillcrest, renovating a house on Curlew Street. The French Garden Shoppe at Goldfinch and University offers wrought-iron-framed beds, baskets, wooden apples, knickknacks, oversized sprinkling cans, Pierrot figures, and dried leaves on petrified branches in autumnal colors — for the most part, furnishings for the kind of household I have never lived in.
Walking east past Vons, where I have bought a dozen times my own weight in groceries, I wonder if the what the hell is that? smell that has been there for years still plagues the market’s meat aisle. A squad of homeless cart-jockeys convenes at the recycling machines in the parking lot, sorting bottles, cans, and old newspapers. They smoke generic cigarettes, massage their feet, and talk only sparingly with each other as they wait their turns at the vending devices that dispense survival a few coins at a time.
Two blocks inland and here’s the John D. Spreckels Masonic temple on my right, built in 1957.1 voted against Reagan twice in there. The alley behind it was known to my son and me as “Danger Alley.” The shortcut between our house and Florence Elementary School, where my son attended kindergarten and first grade, was populated with dinosaurs, riddled with time warps, and guarded by malevolent “Gobots.” It was dicey business getting to school.
Florence Elementary. His mother and I pulled the lad out of there and sent him to Grant in Mission Hills after he came home from school to announce what he had learned that day was how to sing “Ballin’ the Jack,” how to say “tu madre tambien, ” and that another word for girl was “bitch.” He also came home one day with a head full of lice.
Here is the shell of the old University Pharmacy, which filled the first AZT prescription in San Diego for an AIDS patient in May of 1987. They were overpriced anyway.
As the rush-hour alternate route between 805, 163, and 5 broadens past First Avenue from two lanes to three and four, new businesses are in evidence. The Hillcrest Gym, Chilango’s Mexican food, the AM-PM are all new, more or less; they have no real history to them yet. At least not for me. Passing Kickers and Hamburger Mary’s I get a nostalgic wave—more than a frisson but less than a pang — for the late Mandolin Wind.
For years a predominantly white blues bar with affordable drinks and a woody, crepuscular atmosphere, the Wind was home to acts like King Biscuit, die Mighty Penguins, the Chicago Bombers, Wasted Talent, and various combinations of the Beat Farmers and Comanche Moon. I worked as a bartender there in December of ’88, just as it was being bought by some gay guys in a limousine. After-hours, I would drink Becks and Cuervo with songwriters Paul Kamanski and Joey Harris, guitarist Troy Dante, and an ex-con cook, a relative of one of the Paladins, who taught me how to hotwire my own motorcycle. Nowadays, I gather you can get a good coconut burger or something in there.
I pass Schlotzsky’s Deli, where you can’t get a sandwich on normal bread, then a sterile, too-well-lit-looking Chinese restaurant at the corner of Fourth, where I’ve never eaten — no memories here. From this vantage I can see the Study Cafe, warm and filled with books and good coffee. There I interviewed a very funny guy, a local filmmaker, not long ago.
Here’s Ralph’s Hair Place: tonsorial chic for People in Black, the clinically insane, minions of the freaking moon.
The Escape: a sometime drag-queen bar with neighborhood old-timers, their ranks thinning, occasionally sitting up at the stools for drinks in the late afternoon. I interviewed an exhausted heart surgeon there once, after he had performed an eight-hour triple bypass. I later found out he thought I might have been a little light in the loafers because I chose that spot. Next door is Winn’s barbershop, where I would take my son. They cut his hair the day we discovered lice in it. A barbershop a block east wouldn’t take him. They’re out of business now; it’s a newsstand.
Across the street is La Tour Eiffel, a French restaurant that used to be Sammy’s Delicatessen ten years ago. You could get franks and beans and a celery soda in there for under $3 on special.
Moving on. The now-closed Donatello’s restaurant used to be an English pub called Piccadilly something. A noisy and seemingly doomed business location. The Gap is new and, as far as I’m concerned, welcome. I rarely need to go anywhere else for clothes. Little Tokyo, the sushi house at the corner of Fifth, is the site of a bizarre date one night last year with a Chinese woman doctor and her mother. Afterward, we saw Farewell, My Concubine on Fifth Avenue. Mother and daughter spoke in Cantonese through the whole movie, while the doctor had her hand inside my shirt.
Every other business and street corner is an anecdote, an association of one kind or another, poignant or mundane. I had a lot of curried rice and ginger chicken in Jimmy Wong’s dark, comfortable booths, where I would talk about writing with my old roommate. The pawnshop is still there between Fifth and Sixth, where I hocked a typewriter one Christmas to buy a video game for my son. At Quel Fromage I rekindled an old flame I hadn’t seen in years. At the City Delicatessen I once listened to Michael Reagan as he told me about the day his father was shot.
I had a fight with another girlfriend on the corner of Sixth, in front of the Baskin-Robbins. She stalked off into traffic against the light; I tossed my pistachio cone and bought a fifth of Jim Beam from the Israeli liquor lords in the mini-mall. That night I played electric guitar in my apartment until 2:00 a.m. and the police came.
Where there used to be a currency exchange next to a gloomy neighborhood bar, near the entrance to 163, we now have a 24-hour lingerie, body oil, and dildo shop next to a Thai restaurant. Says something, I guess.
The streetlight columns have announcements for lost dogs, yard sales, and gay performance art events above the ubiquitous Xerox poster that reads only “Radio-tainted Novocain,” a phrase so paranoid and dreamily grotesque it makes my teeth hurt.
Here’s Boney’s Market, whose clientele seems to consist largely of pale, aged hippies with a washed-out macrobiotic gaze.
Jack in the Box, however, has survived. Its sign, taken in quickly with that of Eli’s (European Car Repair) next door, appears to me, dyslexic-like, as “E-Coli in the Box.”
Cross 163. Into Uptown. The Ralphs District. And Chicago Coffee, where I buy hammerheads from a guy whose name I’m certain should be Crispin. He peers from behind the biscotti, smiling sensitively, with precious eyes like little yogurt-covered espresso beans.
At University and Vermont is an anonymous-looking building with no sign other than OPEN 24 HOURS. It is a gay bathhouse. Across the street are gay bars, a gay bookstore, another cappuccino mill frequented by mostly gay men and women, and a place called the Tea Garden. Farther along the block are furniture stores and liquor stores flanked by winos mumbling in doorways and at bus stops.
The Alibi Club has been at the corner of Richmond and University for decades. The oldest saloon in Hillcrest and the only straight one. An old-timers’ roost by day, the Star Wars bar by night.
Midnight Adult Video next door offers the safest sex in the neighborhood outside of my apartment. Pasta Time and Ichiban remind me of dates like dental work or job interviews. Montanas
American Grill? I’ll bet there aren’t a dozen eateries in the state of Montana like this smug yuppie asylum.
At University Avenue and Normal Street, a block from the Lesbian and Gay Men’s Center, is the site of San Diego’s first baseball stadium. Opened in 1891 on a cable car line, there were grandstands here and bleachers. People paid admission. Curve balls weren’t allowed, and in 1892 you could watch Fat Men’s Baseball for charity.
On the south side: University Avenue Furniture Company: boarded up. This & That Thrift Shop: history. Uptown Bargain Box: closed. Mattress World: closed. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon.
Footnote Books is a neighborhood resource, an oasis, a used-literature island between the archipelagos of Fifth Avenue and Adams Avenue.
Last month they were filming a movie on the top floor of the gaily painted Casa Grande Apartments. I’ve watched a spectrum of characters enter and leave that building, and I’m convinced the structure is a short-story anthology waiting to happen.
Finally at Park Boulevard, staring up at the Georgia Street overpass and down into the sooty pastel valley between Florida and Texas streets. San Diego High students are getting off buses, a few of them transferring to east- or westbound routes, some entering Boulevard Billiards for sodas, pool, or video games. My son will be in there this time of day. After school, senior year, late fall. This corner is a crossroads for him, a border turf between childhood— and all the rest of it.
Not All of Us Went Home
Park Boulevard to Interstate 805/ By Abe Opincar
“What other angel merchandise do you have?” asked middle-aged woman through the incense smoke permeating Controversial Bookstore, near the corner of 30th and University. “And I don’t want cherubs!”
It’s an odd request to be made in the down-at-heel mercantile normality of this stretch of University. But it somehow seems to fit.
Controversial Bookstore has changed since my mother introduced me to it some 25 years ago. There was a sense of moment then, of being brought into an unquestionably “subversive” place. I remember large portraits of Eldridge Cleaver and Angela Davis. Now the store deals mostly in new-age literature, in tarot cards, in crystals, in Native American “talking sticks” (whatever they are), in incense. Political literature is now consigned to two small shelves in the used-books section in a far corner of the store. Kneeling to see what’s offered, I spy a dog-eared copy of Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Oughta Be and Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.
The times they are a-changin’....
This ramrod-straight stretch of road, from Park Boulevard to 805, in its own way elaborates the strangeness of the American middle and lower-middle classes — their complex yearnings, their freedoms grasped for and obtained, and how these things have and have not changed. I should perhaps amend this and say the Southern Californian middle and lower-middle classes, because I think they hope for more; they at least grasp for more than do their counterparts in other American places.
A good marker of these freedoms grasped for and obtained is the busy F Street Bookstore just east of the Georgia Street Bridge and the Mustang Spa a few blocks farther east, at 2200 University Avenue. In broad daylight, strapping young men in their late 20s and 30s stream into and out of the F Street Bookstore, matter-of-factly stopping in to buy a nasty magazine or rent or watch a dirty movie. It’s a casual, fast-food kind of commerce, a monument to the normalization of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, of its commercialization. As is the Mustang Spa, a.k.a. the Mustang Health Club, a.k.a. the F Street Health Club, and a.k.a., from the 1960s to the early 1980s, the Jack LaLanne European Health Spa. The Mustang Spa, a spa particularly for men through its incarnations, shows how the physical culturism of the 1950s (remember trim and peppy Jack LaLanne performing jumping jacks on your black-and-white television screen?) translated into a more immediately gratifying physicality. That the Mustang Spa exists and operates as a staid fixture on this plain length of University Avenue says a great deal about how certain yearned-for freedoms have moved quietly into the mainstream.
There is, in fact, a great deal along this stretch of street that speaks to the peculiar combination of freedom and success that draws people to Southern California. North Park is once again in a “boom” mode, following a decade or so of a “decline” mode. Businesses open and close, and nowadays more are staying open, and there is a general feeling that things are “looking up.” There is a great deal about this boom/decline cycle, this mentality, the landmarks razed, the apartment blocks born, that explains why we have so much freedom in this part of the world; no one or no thing stays around long enough to pay attention to or keep track of our comings and goings, of what we citizens do. Conservatism, to a large degree, depends on permanence.
The North Park Theater, now dark and padlocked, “structurally unsound,” has had several heydays, most recently as the home to Calvary Chapel, a church that was an outgrowth of the Jesus-freak movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Once a small-time and funky operation attracting surfers, ex-druggies, young people “looking for themselves,” the church blossomed into a multimillion-dollar international ministry. Calvary Chapel, now Horizon Christian Fellowship, still serves a youngish, optimistic crowd, but in more suburban settings.
Even Govinda’s, the Krishna Consciousness restaurant, which stood by a Cape Cod-style furniture store blaring amplified elevator music onto the sidewalk from 1983 to 1989, has quietly gone away. The devotees stuck it out as long as they could, even sold the business to a member of their Pacific Beach temple toward the end. When you call the temple to ask about Govinda’s, the details you get aren’t clear, are reported as something that happened long, long ago.
“And anyway,” a polite, slightly distracted voice tells you, “it wasn’t a very godly neighborhood. Cars were broken into. The restaurant was broken into all the time. The owner moved back to India.”
They come, they go. More come. The young woman, head covered in a gold scarf, who works behind the counter at the Coalition of African Organizations Thrift Store will tell you that her business helps to aid and resettle all kinds of refugees. She herself is from Somalia, “But we help everyone we can,” she says. “Even refugees from Cuba.”
North Park Produce, at 3139 University, staffed by an extended Persian family, is another example of freedoms found. Well-dressed Iranians mill through the gleaming store, stocking up on cheeses, and beautiful olives, and crates of glistening Medjool dates. The store is crowded with smart-shopping oldsters, and cholas, and tiny, aged Asian women who squeeze the Fuji apples and pick through the slender Japanese eggplant.
The refugee theme continues, but not so literally, farther down the street at the Sav-On Drugs, where, several years ago, I ran into a young Iranian man to whom I had taught English at Crawford High School. I was buying cigarettes, he was buying, I think, tennis balls, and it had been many years since I had last seen him.
He tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I always wanted to thank you for teaching me English. I never told you that.”
He had become an engineer. He was going to marry an American girl. And yes, he said, he still missed Iran.
“But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back. Maybe my children will,” he said, a little stunned, trapped in this unexpected, self-reflective moment in a drugstore on University Avenue. “I never thought I’d be in America this long. But it’s good. I’m free. I can do what I want.”
And was he happy?
“Yes,” he said. “I’m happy.”
When I was a child, my mother would bring me to this Sav-On for ice cream cones. I remember the heat, the heat radiating from the parking lot asphalt, and the sticky streams of melted rocky road that coursed slowly down my knuckles. The drugstore is not far from Interstate 805, and its proximity leads to another hot-weather memory.
I cannot look at University Avenue as it crosses 805 without remembering September 25,1978. It was a sweltering morning. I was a brand-new sophomore at Crawford High School. We had been told that morning we might be let out early because the temperature was threatening to break 100 degrees before noon. We were sitting in English class when one of our classmates ran in and said he had just watched a jet crash in North Park while he was driving along 805 on his way to school from a doctor’s appointment.
“I saw it dive straight down,” he said excitedly. Let’s call him Billy.
Shortly after 9:00 a.m., PSA flight 182, loaded with 135 passengers, had collided with a single-engine Cessna, 2700 feet above El Cajon Boulevard, and had then fallen and plowed into Dwight Street in North Park at an estimated 310 miles an hour.
“We’re going down,” pilot James McFeron had radioed to Lindbergh Field just before impact.
Our teacher told us we weren’t to go near the crash site if we were let out of school early, which, it turns out, we were. Not all of us went home, I remember, but lingered outside our classroom in the shade, gabbing about the horror the PSA passengers must have felt as they plunged earthward.
The reason, I imagine, some of us weren’t eager to go home was because it was a time when those of us who came from families that weren’t already divorced were from parents in the process of divorcing. It was the last stages of the Great 1970s Divorce Binge. Many of us were emotionally fragile — coping with high school, coping with sex, coping with moms and dads perpetually at odds with each other — and I remember we treated one another, or tried to, with a kind of warmth and patience uncommon to teenagers.
We didn’t want to go home to talk about the PSA crash because there might not have been anyone at home, or if there had been, it would have been a parent with other kinds of disaster on his or her mind.
Stories about the crash circled desultorily through school the next day — stories of scattered limbs, of fiends pulling rings and watches from charred wrists and fingers. Billy enjoyed a short-lived social heyday among our classmates, being the only one who had actually seen the jet go down. He told and retold the story so vividly that we could all see in our minds the 727, its burning wing, soaring downward through the bright blue Santa Ana sky.
It was not long after that Billy announced his parents, too, were getting divorced. He was a sweet kid, very earnest. I had been to his Kensington home only once or twice, and I was intimidated by its plush and well-ordered silence, the football memorabilia arranged so neatly, and dust-free, on Billy’s bedroom’s shelves.
After school I saw him sitting alone, dejected-looking, on one of those beige public school benches that always scratched your knees or thighs with fiberglass slivers.
I asked Billy why his parents were getting divorced.
“It’s my mother,” he replied. “She wants to be free.”
A Call to Our Brothers to Raise Themselves from Hopelessness
Interstate 805 to Fairmount Avenue / By Linda Nevin
University narrows east of Boundary Street and the freeway gorge. It traces a tight S-curve uphill through a clash of off-ramps, on-ramps, Wabash, Lincoln, 34th, Laverne. Happy Daze Liquor clings to one corner, crumbling, rusting, exhaust-streaked. Adjacent is a sloping green wedge dubbed Wabash Park: a dozen fan palms, four clumps of bird-of-paradise and red-berried toyon, one galvanized trash can chained to a pepper tree, one bus bench. Across the street, a few men lounge or flap damp towels, waiting on this gray, blustery Wednesday afternoon for customers at the North Park Car Wash, which isn’t in North Park. It’s in City Heights.
City Heights appeared during the 1880s land boom, offering a city view and “absolutely no raw ocean winds so irritating to invalids.” In 1907 the University Avenue streetcar line brought more residents to the eastern burbs. The avenue was the Heights’ main commercial artery, a dirt road cleared by eight-mule plows through treeless farmland. Cottage homes fanned out north and south, along Polk, Orange, and Wightman.
In 1912 City Heights incorporated as the city of East San Diego. Population 4000. Nickname “The Golden Rule City,” after its motto. First laws: No sales or gifts of liquor. No dance halls, guns, gambling. Points of pride, “No jail, no arrests, no hoboes, no idle rich.” By 1920, no water. By ’23, no city. Annexed by San Diego.
The avenue still can boast of no idle rich. It’s a hive of individual enterprise. University evolved as a pedestrian-oriented, small-business street, unlike El Cajon Boulevard, a monument to the automobile. It’s the perfect funky strip for an eager retail entrepreneur. But this cold day, it’s mostly given over to cars; pedestrians are few.
SWIFT AVENUE: Once through the S-curve, at the top of the rise at Swift, University runs straight for miles, lined with one- and two-story stucco and billboards. At Swift, a huddle of dusty storefronts offers to repair whatever’s in disarray — your hair (Yesenia Beauty Salon & Nails), your clothes (Ann’s Alterations), your soul (Anchor Ministries and the Institute of Divine Metaphysical Research, Inc.). The institute’s goals are listed on a window sign, “...find and know Yaweh...investigate unexplained spirit law...extirpate current superstition....” Perhaps inspired by its neighbors, the nearby 99-cent store is named the Saving Corner, offering the usual jumble of plastic chairs, toys, tube socks, notebook paper, and cans of cleanser.
Across University is Alberto’s, one of four “-berto’s” in the 15 blocks from here to Fairmount, taco drive-throughs painted the obligatory yellow and red. Across Swift, an Asian family sells trays of gooey, all-American donuts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Until a year ago, Sunday mornings at Swift and University were a snarl of cars and pedestrians converging on Lily’s, a neighborhood tortillería in a tiny, dingy, unpromising store (now spruced up and converted into a knife-sharpening shop). Lily’s went big-time, moved down the avenue, and the block is quiet on Sundays again.
East of 35th is the House of Iron. Wrought iron, apparently. It’s a creaking, weary wooden bungalow held together with bougainvillea.
Perhaps half a century ago, “Wilson Block” was proudly embossed on the stucco storefronts that run east to Wilson Avenue. The name has been painted over but is still readable. Across University, the Iglesia de Dios Pentecostal says “Bienvenidos Todos,” if you haven’t already been snagged by Anchor Ministries. Another 99-cent store has just hung out its grand opening sign. The Asian owner stands, smiling hopefully, in the doorway.
The block between Wilson and 36th jumps when the weather’s warm. Lots of music and foot traffic. On the north side is the Star and Garter, a topless joint, done up in lavender and vile pink. Coming attraction: Jell-O wrestling. (“Your ATM welcome here!”) Adult video store conveniently nearby.
On the south side, past the coin laundry, is Chuy’s Produce— bags and bins and crates of fruit, vegetables, garlic, chilies — another retail trend spreading along the avenue. (Dozens of red net bags of oranges hang from the facade of a nearby frutería.) Crates of Latin tapes with smudgy covers are sometimes stacked outside, Tijuana-style.
Look in the window of DDL Records next door and you’ll see barber chairs. According to the wary young man tending shop while the owner’s out, they’ve been cutting hair for about three years and are now trying to “get something going” in their recording studio. Dr. Dre blasts from somewhere behind the displays of hats, T-shirts, records, and two arcade games. The back wall is stacked with cassettes. Something for everybody, including a job; “Barbers Wanted” says the sign in the window.
Nayar Cora Produce is next. Half a dozen cañas lean against a table of tomatoes and lemons. The seven-foot-tall sugar canes ($1.99 each) are green-gold, like fat bamboo. There’s a footballsized dusty green papaya. Chubby chartreuse fingers of plantains and lumpy golden quinces. In the back, tubs of dried chilies and hibiscus flowers, cones of raw brown sugar, and tunas, prickly pear cactus.
The blazing-white building that houses Carnecería Michoacán is custom painted with huge green and red and ocher fruits. (Muralist, J. Sanchez.) Two butchers patrol the sparkling meat cases and will cut to order. Today’s special, chunks of res de cocido, beef for simmering with onions and spices until it shreds into juicy strings, the filling for an honest burrito. Overhead droop garlands of chorizo and a cluster of crepe paper piñatas. Near the cash register, candy and small toys tempt the kids.
In the carnecería’s tiny parking lot, two husky citizens in jeans and slingshots have a skinny, rumpled wanderer jammed up for a little chat. He’s hemmed in by one guy who leans a beefy arm against the wall next to his ear and by the hood of a blue El Camino. The skinny man, hunched in a greasy jeans jacket, is very unhappy. He’s memorizing the tops of his scuffed boots. Mr. Beefy arcs his cigarette butt over the El Camino, into the gutter, and gives Greasy Jeans a squinty look that, roughly translated, says, “Well, what are we going to do about this situation, huh?”
A beeline across 36th Street, onto another block for eaters: chicken, ribs, and gyros at Canada Sub Shop; Selam East-African restaurant in a new Spanish-style building, two bright orange cabs in the parking lot; and Lee’s Garden, Chinese.
CHEROKEE AVENUE: More soul food. The Temple of Divine Prophecy New Holiness Church, the Riches of Christ Christian Fellowship. Wednesday services haven’t started yet.
Someone who grew up in this ’hood recommended a stop at “Mr. Queen’s place. I remember he used to go all through the neighborhood and pick up anything he could find and put it in his store. He didn’t like us kids because we used to snag toys off the back of his truck. But that was because he always got to the good stuff before we did.”
Mr. Queen is Joe Queen, of Joe and Barb’s Thrift Shop. The sign over the door is a hand-painted red, white, and blue flag motif glittering with shards of broken mirror. A soft-spoken, kind-faced man, Mr. Queen has been tending the store for 32 years, ever since he left his job at Rohr. “It was really my wife’s idea. She’s passed on now, but she got itchy to do something while I was at work, and she liked the idea of a thrift store, so we did it.”
The narrow, dark shop is haphazardly crammed floor-to-ceiling with...things. Unclassifiable things. A two-foot-wide path runs between towers of spice racks and table fans and records and dolls, vases, bookshelves, car parts, picture frames, lamps, dishes, kitchenware, chairs, a commemorative julep glass from the 1984 Kentucky Derby, a box of Monopoly money and “Get out of Jail Free” cards, a biography of Noel Coward, IBM typewriter ribbons still in their boxes, a brown suede hat, bike frames, two microwave ovens.... Just a few dollars nets a customer a serviceable kitchen scale and a cast-iron Belgian waffle maker, the kind you put on a stove burner. And that’s just what’s visible on the stacks. Who can imagine what’s at the bottom?
“Is there anything you don’t have in here, Mr. Queen?”
“Money.” But he’s smiling when he says it.
El Goloso is next to Joe and Barb’s. Good Mexican seafood and beer, their specialty. It’s one of three in the county. This one’s stucco and colorful tile inside, with stout, dark-stained tables and chairs. Mid-afternoon, heavy-booted construction workers tip back a Tecate or two, parents share plates of shrimp with their squirming kids. The jukebox blasts norteño crooners. And sometimes the music is live. Most polite waitresses in town.
Between 37th and 38th, the old Academy Theatre marquee has disappeared. A flashy red-and-black sign now reads MGM Amphitheaters. “That stands for Mercedes Glen Media,” says the dapper Mr. Cornist, managing partner in the company, once a business associate of Ike Turner, he says. He’s takin’ care of business in a trim-fitting, dull-gold suit and tie, tinted specs, pinky ring.
Over the decades, the forlorn Academy went from family movie house to porn pit to boarded-up flop for street teens who broke in, vandalized the property, and set fire to the stage curtains. MGM plans to renovate the 695-seat theater, offer Saturday cartoon shows ($1.00 for kids, their parents free), concerts, talent shows. A section of front seating will be removed to make a dance floor or kickboxing ring or room for banquet tables.
“You can pick up old single-screen theaters for not too much these days, but to make it work, you need a twist,” says Mr. Cornist. MGM’s twist is to offer a variety of events geared to the mixed Anglo, black, Asian, and Hispanic neighborhood. They’ve planned valet off-street parking, a “Walk of Stars” out front (you can buy a star, if you like), a “primping lounge” in the ladies’ room with lots of mirror space. Mr. Cornist reels off all the angles they’ve covered in their plans, from security to acoustics, until he has to go off to take another phone call.
Curious Crimes: In 1992, the manager of the Pizza Hut at 38th was assaulted by two young men who threw their fresh, hot pizza in his face and split without paying their tab. At the nearby McDonald’s, a car was carjacked out of the drive-through lane.
This McD’s is one of the few black-owned franchises in the chain, owned by a community-minded family named Lewis.
40TH STREET: By the most recent counts, 20,000 cars a day ply 40th (500 more than the stadium lot holds); 12,000 cruise University. In 1998, when its transformation to I-15 is done, 40th Street will likely make the network news. This 2-mile stretch through City Heights, bisected by University, is the last link in our web of interstate highways begun under President Eisenhower, 40 years and 42,500 miles ago. At the moment, two corner gas stations preside over dusty acres of temporarily abandoned digging and paving, relieved only by the City Heights Community Garden and its explosion of sunflowers every summer and the chorus line of grinning, painted-plywood carrots.
Gone from the southwest corner is another local landmark of sorts, the gaunt panhandler who regularly guilt-tripped wage-earners idling at the stoplight. Generic plea, marker on cardboard: “Vet, homeless, hungry, help me? God bless.” He’s now in a comfortable condo, spooning through the remains of a windfall insurance check. The ultimate junkie dream. That’s the word on the street, anyway.
This particular Wednesday, a son of Islam works that beat. Tall, trim, chin up, buttoned down. Shiny toast-colored suit, pumpkin-gold bow tie, handkerchief. Shirt (teeth!) white as meringue. He grips a stack of tabloids that riffle in the cold, sharp gusts, The Final Call. “A call to our brothers to raise themselves from hopelessness and dependence....” He shouts over the razz of bad mufflers. “Now in the time of the final call from Mohammed....” He smiles radiantly, as if the very thought is a warm blessing. He offers a paper, “Free.” Withdraws it coyly to his chest, cocks his head. “Have 50 cents?” He pockets two quarters and hands the white devil The Final Call, still smiling wide.
Pedestrians appear east of 40th. At this hour, it’s young mothers, toddlers in tow, each pushing what appears to be the same brand of collapsible stroller, the kind with the curved, umbrella-like handles. School’s almost out. They’re going to fetch their first-graders and walk them home. Someone made a killing on those strollers.
Two Vietnamese strip malls thrive at Marlborough. A beauty products shop, a video rental store, the Café Doré that once featured elaborate French pastries and piped-in Edith Piaf. The owner lived many years in Paris’s Vietnamese community. Bright, sunny Pho Bolsa restaurant, where local businessmen hunch over gleaming red Formica tables and huge bowls of savory chicken soup with noodles, cilantro, carrot, broccoli, cauliflower, and fat chunks of white chicken. Or egg rolls with fresh mint, cilantro, and lettuce leaves to wrap around the crisp fried packets and dip in spicy-sweet sauce.
Today, four Asian teens just released from the classroom dance through mid-block traffic on University, coats flapping, arms waving, bound for Burger King.
At the front door to the 92105 branch post office, a slim black man propped with one foot against the wall unfolds a clenched fist and releases a crucifix that swings on a thin chain. The gesture is like the punch line to a magic trick. “Like gold?” he murmurs. No takers.
Last fall, Lily Tortilleria moved into one of the strangest buildings on the avenue. An undulating one-story slab of sparkly white stucco faces University at Van Dyke, behind a high wrought-iron picket fence. The only door is clearly not a public entrance. To get into the shop, customers walk through the alley and find the front door at the back. For nearly six months, there was no sign on the street to identify the business, but Lily’s customers didn’t need one. They knew. The original businesses on University often had customer entrances facing away from the street. They served the locals, most of whom lived off the avenue and approached the stores from behind. The network of alleys in City Heights, such a headache for motorists and police, was also planned for convenience long ago.
In Lily’s narrow sales area, counter girls are kept hopping by a constant stream of customers carrying away sacks of masa, chips, sweet and fresh tortillas packed three dozen to the bag. Behind them, on the University side of the building, the tortilla-making machinery clanks and churrs. Trucks haul away cartons of tortillas to be sold in local markets. When the day’s stock is gone, around 2:00 p.m., the belts and rollers are shut down and the windows to University are opened. Pedestrians get a close-up view of the operation. By 2:30 p.m. the salesgirls collect sweaters and purses, chattering about their plans for the evening, and close up shop.
At the northeast corner of University and Van Dyke sits the building that once was the East San Diego City Hall and its Fire Department No. 1. The original, built in 1913, had a pillared portico on the Van Dyke side and a decorative stair-stepped roof line. Today it’s remodeled, freshly painted, squat and square. But if you duck into the drapery shop and look up, you can see the 20-foot ceilings and the original support pillars for what must have been a cavernous room, before the building was subdivided. One tenant is a combination Asian law office and gift shop. Next door is the City Heights Community Development Corporation, hub of activities for local business promotion and neighborhood improvement projects.
Too late for Gladys’s Trains & Toys, a 52-year fixture in the 4200 block. They’ve chugged on to Kearny Mesa. The dusty shop is empty, locked. One local remembers hanging out with his grade-school pals in the late ’70s at “The Train Store,” hoping to glimpse the owner, a real, live TV star. Channel 10 newsman Jack White.
FAIRMOUNT AVENUE: The traditional heart of East San Diego. Always a crunch of cars, buses, and pedestrians. From 1954 to 1968, an “East San Diego” sign across University marked the hub. Lucky, the only neighborhood supermarket, draws some of the crowd, as does Jack in the Box, full of smooching cholos and cholettes, Mexicano moms and pops and kids, sullen black teens, and old-timers meeting for their daily cup of reminiscence.
But better than a swig of franchised joe is a big container of Jamaica from Aliberto’s, across the street. The ruby, sweet-tart agua fresca made from dried hibiscus blossoms isn’t common this side of the border.
Aliberto’s, like a yellow-and-red-striped Humpty Dumpty, is barrel-shaped and claustrophobic. Three tiny tables and a freestanding, spiral, wrought-iron staircase leading somewhere too dark to be interesting. In an earlier incarnation, it was a Flower Barrel flower shop.
On Aliberto’s tiny patio, the air is filled with grit and noise from the out-of-school, off-the-day-shift, homebound traffic. A hodgepodge crew wearing Day-Glo orange vests over sweatshirts and Pendletons sweeps the sidewalks in exchange for General Relief checks.
A bony woman with a tangle of dark brown hair, who seems to be missing a block of front teeth, balances an infant on one out-thrust hip. She studies the menu next to the takeout window. Her three-year-old daughter giggles as she chases pigeons, pushing the baby’s collapsible stroller with the curved umbrella handles.
To no one in particular Mom suddenly yells, “Fuck, man! I hate this, man! Them wetbacks tryin’ to come up on us. Two dollars for a quesadilla? Fuck, man. Always tryin’ to come up on us. Well, fuck that. ¡Angelita! Ve tu, mija. ¡Ahorita!” She plops the baby in the stroller. They wander south on Fairmount.
King Solomon Is Still Living
Fairmount Avenue to 54th Street/ By Bill Manson
'”King Solomon...he had 777 wives,” he says. “Care for a 555?”
Uh, what was that again? “King Solomon. He had 777 wives. I know. He was from my country. My people. Would you care for a cigarette?”
He holds up the blue-and-yellow box: State Express 555. North Africa’s and Asia’s favorite cigarette.
“They say he’s still alive. That’s what we are told. King David lived for 100 years and Moses lived 418 years, but King Solomon, he is still living.”
He helps me out. “I’m from Ethiopia. My name is David. I am an Ethiopian Jew. From Axum. I have been here in America for four years and ten months, and I still don’t know where my family is...here? Ethiopia? Airlifted by the Israelis to Tel Aviv? They may be dead. As soon as I have enough money, I will go back and find out. But I can’t find any work here in San Diego. So I’m going to Las Vegas tomorrow to try and find a job.”
We’re in the Donut Star, a Cambodian-run joint on the corner of Fairmount and University. This is where my favorite stretch of University Avenue begins. Land of Somalis, Vietnamese, Latinos, Indians, Russians, Lao, Cambodians, Chinese...even a few lost-looking Anglos.
Like, there’s this guy counting out his pennies. Literally. Sixty of them to pay for six donut holes. His little toes poke out of his woven-leather shoes.
Behind him, a couple of lanky, middle-aged guys saunter in. There’s something oddly similar about them. Somebody asks, “Are you twins?”
“Yeah. I’m Ronny,” says the first.
“And I’m Donny,” says the second.
“We were born October 8, 1940. At the old Mercy Hospital,” says Ronny. “Donny’s older than me by a few minutes. The doctor didn’t expect me. He said he only heard one heartbeat.”
“We just lost our job,” says Donny. “We used to work at Taco Bell at Midway and Rosecrans. Ronny 9:00 a.m. to 12:00 noon, and me 12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m. Cleaning up. But I had a diabetic attack at the job, so we’re not working there anymore.”
“He’s married. I’m not,” says Ronny. “But we still get on.”
“Last time we had a fight,” says Donny, “was outside the MCRD. We were eight years old. I could show you the spot. Hasn’t changed. Not like University Avenue has.”
He points across the road to the crowded yellow-and-red USA Checks Cashed place. “That used to be the White Cross drugstore. We come here every Wednesday to have coffee with our friend from the police department. He’s a DA.” David is still thinking about Ethiopia. “You know what I miss most?” he says. “Injira.”
Injira is the great Ethiopian round bread with lamb and vegetables and rich sauces piled in the middle that you sit around cross-legged and pick ’n’ rip from.
“Ah yes. Injira, ” he says dreamily. “The injira and the honey wine. You can get injira here, except American flour has chemicals in it. That makes a bad taste. And besides, I don’t have a woman here, and only women make injira. ”
He sighs. “Al Haifrrfrr,” he says, approximately. “Life is hard.”
I wish him luck in Vegas and make my way out to the sidewalk. I look up and down this scuzzy street with all its leaks from the outside world — its rich tapestry of a soul that echoes all the way back to Da Nang, Battambang, Poipet, St. Petersburg, Canton, Luang Prabang, Asmara, Axum....
And I smell pizza.
It issues from Little Italy, a restaurant just east of Fairmount, decorated with a sea of straw-wrapped Chianti bottles and plastic grapes. A young mother comes in to buy a slice of pizza. “A dollar ten,” says Marcella. The young mom only has a dollar. “Okay. You can give it to me next time,” she says. “Buon appetite”
“This part of town is definitely changing,” says Marcella. “No one comes here anymore. Well, the cops often come. Sometimes they run in here with their guns drawn. They came in the other night looking for a gang member who had held up a place.”
“We’re open till two in the morning,” she says. “So we see things, okay? Streetwalkers and stuff. Sometimes we see people being beaten up in that alley across the road. You see lots of kids having kids around here. And lots of people living in fear.”
Next door, the USA Checks Cashed place is busy busy busy. Outside at the bus stop, an African-American mother with three kids holds forth. “At least they have a black culture back East, in New York and Philadelphia and Washington. Our people, our people! Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Haitians, black Cubanos. There’s a feeling of what we’re about back there. Here in San Diego, you’re not white, good-night! You are expendable, on the fringes. It’s a white man’s world over here. We don’t have our thing going. So hell yeah, I’m exploiting it. I’m going to City College, I want to go to UCSD. But I don’t have no illusions. They don’t give us the good jobs.”
The guy she is talking to nods. Behind him a little old Chinese woman waits patiently for the Number 7 bus.
“How you doing today, sir, all right?” says the guy at the recycling center at 44th and University. The Vietnamese man and his wife nod and empty bags and bags of aluminum cans into a small hopper. The husband sports a distinguished gray mustache that makes him look like South Vietnam’s one-time President Nguyen Cao Ky.
Jon, the place’s main man; sticks a couple of rubber plugs in his ears, switches on a noisy conveyer belt, and pokes with a stick at the cans so they shuffle through rubber tongues and start climbing up their final ride to the hopper. “You’ve got to keep the bottles and the plastic out, sir,” he shouts, as he leans in to pick out two beer bottles and a Campbell’s soup can. “Plus they’re wet, some still have beer in them, so it’ll be less cash for you.”
By the time the couple have finished, their cans weigh in at 33 pounds. “You’d get more if you emptied them,” says Jon from the payout counter. He hands the man $24.
“For a while, aluminum was getting nothing,” Jon says as he pays out to another family who have brought in $6.03 worth of cans. “That’s because when the Soviet Union broke up, they started dumping their aluminum on the world market. But Clinton persuaded them to cease and desist, so now the supply is down and prices are up again. Just as well. Lot of people around here depend on it.”
“¿Cobre?” ask two young Latinos. Jon doesn’t understand. They bring out a bucketful of copper tubing. “Ah, copper.” But he demands to see their California IDs before he’ll take the stuff. “Cops ask us to do this. People have been taking copper tubing out of derelict houses down along 40th Street, where they are putting the highway through. If it’s stolen, we have to put it back. So you’ve got to be careful.”
Their copper weighs in at 16.9 pounds. He pays them $6.75.
Farther East, near the San Diego Fukienese Association, Lu Tu and his wife Binh have been working all day together at Vanmoch Graphics and Printing. They have worked together since the day in 1975 when they left Da Nang. “We have learned printing, studied accounting, administration, electronics,” says Binh. “We bought this printing company from another Vietnamese. We had four kids. We were working 18 hours a day. I’d work here during the day, go home, cook dinner for my family, then go to General Dynamics to work the third shift, midnight to 7:00 a.m. Electronics technician. That’s how we paid for our printing equipment. Now we can print anything in Vietnamese, Lao, Khmer, Hmong, Spanish, English, Japanese, or Chinese.”
“Last year we took our second son back to Vietnam,” says Lu Tu. “To Da Nang. Pretty soon he wanted to come back to America. Our cousins, their life is so hard. Some are trading, some are farming. They wanted to come with us also. We send them money. But it is difficult because business this year in San Diego, not so good. They say economic recovery. Not here. We know because people can’t afford to get business brochures printed.” He shrugs. “I think we work harder than we ever did in Vietnam, but that’s the American Dream.”
One block up, at 45th Street, there’s a new, bright-green fruit shop. The Green Valley and Market. A couple of old Chinese women are poking around the cucumbers and the romaine lettuce. “Tell you what,” says the Palestinian owner, Sami, “I’ll give you the onions, because this is the first time you have been here.” Sami, who’s from Jerusalem, has just opened up here. His father, a stately man, sits at the cash register like a king as Sami weighs the vegetables, which the two old bas are handing him with severe expressions on their faces. Sami grins. “Chinese people. They try and make you come down in price. If they smile, it’s a weakness. But if you have good fresh produce, they come back.”
Sami’s father points to the necklaces and jewelry he makes and sells. “We all work,” he says. “But especially Sami.” “I have to,” says Sami. “If you are not at the market early, you don’t get the best vegetables and fruit. So I work three in the morning to 7:30 p.m. every day. Seven days.”
One block farther east I pass the temple of the Indochinese Association of San Diego, with its smell of incense wafting out and the sound of children inside chanting, learning Cantonese, keeping the culture of their parents alive. I pop in to see my friend Mr. Kim Long at Phnom Penh Video. He’s changed things around since I last saw him. He has lots more space for the dress section of his shop. Cold and pink dresses. Orange wedding dresses for $85. Traditional striped wrap skirts to wear on special religious occasions at the two Buddhist temples in this neighborhood. Dresses for Cambodian New Year and for weddings. That’s apart from the CDs of Khmer music and videos of Thai, Hong Kong, and Japanese movies translated into Khmer up in Long Beach.
“Actually,” says Mr. Long, “the videos are the most important. Because there are so many old people here who can’t speak English and don’t understand what they see on American TV. These videos are the only enjoyment they have.” I pop down the alley where I came once with the Indochinese storefront police. The signs are still there, territorial markings like in any jungle: OKB, OBS, Oriental Boys, TRG — Tiny Rascals Gang. Last time I was here, Jim Jarrett rolled up with his buddy Chris Sarot. They’re with the SDPD Gang Suppression Unit. “These guys have everything,” Jim said. “Nine-millimeters, revolvers, M-l carbines, AK-47s. Asian gangs buy guns by the case. Eighty-three percent of our nights involve an armed gang encounter.”
Yet here is a kid called Kosol, 14 years old, looks younger, telling me he’s with the Crazy Oriental Crips so he can be part of a “family” but that he feels bad because his mom doesn’t want him in with them. “Once in a while I stop, because of my mom. I feel torn between Mom and the others.”
He and the others talk about Horace Mann school. How tough English is. “I hate English,” says one kid, who shows a stab wound he got up in Modesto. “I don’t even got a grade. It’s kind of hard, especially when I have to help my mom shopping and stuff.”
“My dad’s Khmer Rouge,” says another kid. “I’m in the Crazy Oriental Crips. Gotta be down for whatever they have to do.”
Nearly opposite the pink Pussycat Theater building, I have to call in at my all-time favorite eatery. The Trieu Chau. Chinese-run, but favored by Cambodians in the morning and Laotians later in the day.
I walk into the room, sit down, order a ba mee haeng from Kathy, the Chinese girl brought up in Cambodia who runs the front of the restaurant. She brings the steaming soup plate out. Aah, that smell. Scenes from lazy days of my long-lost youth by the Mekong waft by. Ba mee haeng is dry egg noodles with hot spices and pork. I haul the stuff up with the chopsticks, loving the sweats as the spices kick in.
“Would you like your usual?” Kathy asks as I leave.
For a moment I blank. Then I see the little brown bottle from Thailand. Lipovitan-D. Elixir to make a man of you...crocodile blood and snake venom...that’s the impression you get from Thai advertising. Actually, the label tells you, it’s a vitamin supplement drink. One hundred percent of your Vitamin D and 250 percent of your Vitamin B RDAs. So I glug it down, wait for the energy rush, pay, and return outside to the world.
Two blocks and one entire civilization away, the Tower still stands, a landmark for most of the century, ever since it was a fire-watch tower in the days when a rail trolley used to come out here to the boonies on the edge of little San Diego, circa 1900.
It is also the last Anglo bastion in this sea of immigrant communities.
“Congratulations, ‘By The Way’ Jonnie Gail!” says a plaque near the darkened bar. “Thank you for your support, friendship and love.... From your Tower family and friends.”
That’s Jonnie sitting up at the bar now.
“This used to be a beautiful place,” says Jonnie, who has been a barmaid here a long time. “A family part of town. Nice people lived here. That all changed with the Vietnam War, 1975. People from war places started coming in, big-time. What gets us upset is the people who have come and bought property here, they have special rates of interest for each other. Four and a half percent! We can’t compete with that. That whole block opposite, that’s how it transferred hands.”
Jonnie has seen them come and go. “But the Tower still has people who care, who like each other.”
“And have the guts to come up here,” says Tim, another regular two stools away. “This is the Cheers of University Avenue, but it’s become a lot more dangerous. Overpopulation is what did it. My mom, Miss Kitty, she used to go to the Paddock. That was a bar kitty-corner to this. Then there was the Crystal Inn, Scottie’s, the Cuckoo...all gone. Only the Tower is left.”
Last big thing that happened here, it seems, was a car that crashed through the door in 1964. That’s when they stopped serving food. They put pool tables in where the dining room had been.
Jonnie is having another beer. “You know, I have been around here a long time. In ’64 it was great. It was safe around here. Plus I was young, beautiful, a little wild.”
“Jonnie! I don’t think you want to go on.” It’s the woman on the stool next to Jonnie. She leans over. “Mister, can I see your notes there? I’m not going to have people come in and take advantage of Jonnie here. She may have had a couple too many and trust you, and you’re going to blast her name all over the papers. We love her! She has been part of this place for 26 years! We know who she is. How do we know who the heck you are?”
Two minutes later I’m out, beer only half-finished. Wow! People of the Tower, they certainly look after one another.
At 52nd, I cross the street into Colina Park. Just slightly apprehensive about the gang meetings you keep hearing about up here at dusk. As I walk on in, I wonder what I’m doing in here this late in the day and, more important, how to get out. I hear a sound. Clunk! Laughter. Clunk! Voices. I know that sound. I spot a pool of light. I can’t believe it.
It is petanque. French bowls. Cambodian families cooking sate while the men yell and laugh and hurl advice to the guy tossing the metal boule.
I stay to chat and watch for a while, partly just to smell that sate, partly to get a whiff of the Gauloises cigarettes some are smoking, mostly just to soak in two of my favorite cultures — the Cambodian and the French.
In the shadows down by the soccer field, a couple of cops appear. They’re looking for someone. I take care not to surprise them. “Someone back on Euclid caught some kids tagging a wall,” says Officer Belz. “Kid pointed a gun at them. We thought he may have run up here, hidden in the bleachers.” Nearby, people — mostly Vietnamese, it seems — are playing tennis. Beyond are two casual games of basketball.
But all the shouts come from the handball court. It’s a scene straight out of West Side Story. The concrete walls, the ' hurricane fence, the Our Gang-type kids joshing and pushing and playing. Carlos and Julio and Danny and Jesus and Felipe, all around 11, 12, 14, 15 years old. There’s a game going on. Whupping that tennis ball against the shadowy wall with their open hands. “We’re the best!” says Felipe. He shows his ball-toughened palm. “Everything is in the flick of the wrist.”
“And who’s the best of the best?” I ask.
They shout and argue for a moment, then someone says “Okay! A world series! We’ll find out!”
They pair off and start whacking the ball and yelling and cheering and laughing. “We love Colina Park,” says Julio. “It’s a pride to us. It’s what we say, ‘We’re from Colina Park.’”
“Hey!” yells “Little Man” Carlos. He wants people to pay attention. He and Jesus are down to the final of finals against Julio and Celso. They whap that ball so it bounces back skinning the wall, killer shots just like the jai alai players. They hit it short, they send it sailing over the top. In the end, it’s “Little Man” Carlos and Jesus who are the world champs. Then in the singles it’s Julio. But pretty soon they’re fighting about that, too, and starting over. There’s something — maybe it’s the believing, the throwing everything into it — that rings bells, that calls to lost echoes.
I don’t stay. I’ve still got to get dinner. And up here, I know my dinner is still alive. I cross to the bottom of the park, to a Vietnamese shopping center that could be Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kota Baru. I hurry past the Pho 54 III restaurant to the Vien Dong (Far East) supermarket. I’m not the only European here. There are a few Jewish Russian Emigres here from the nearby retirement homes. They too come to find food more like the fresh-food markets of home.
And the variety here is spectacular. It suddenly makes Vons and Lucky look, well, drab. From exotic fresh fruit like Southeast Asia’s foot-long prickly Durians, which smell ghastly but taste terrific, to snails, clams, frogs’ legs, eel, sea cucumber, squid, baby octopus, and in the live tanks, Canada crab, a bunch of other crabs, sculpin, catfish, and tilapia swimming about in their doomed schools. The place tells you in one panoramic gaze what you’re missing most days.
Tam, a young Vietnamese guy in white overalls and waders, is picking out a dozen Canada crabs for two Korean ladies. He’s been here two years, after years in a refugee camp in the Philippines. His boat was attacked by pirates. It was the usual, terrible story. Women and girls being raped, killed, the powerlessness of the refugees.
The crabs resist. Their six-inch legs hanging on for dear life. In the struggle, Tam’s rubber gloves fill with water. His watch goes under too. He brings his hand out and folds one finger as if it had been bitten off. The ladies laugh.
Behind them, a military-looking Vietnamese man points out a tilapia fish he wants. Tam goes in with a net, flips the fish into the air. It lands with a smack onto the tile floor. As the pink-and-silver fish flaps away, Tam finds a wooden policeman’s truncheon and bonks it on the head. It shudders. He takes it to a chopping block. Cuts it open, guts it, scours off its scales with a round cookie cutter thing, washes it, and slings it into a bag. From living creature to fish meat in two minutes.
“Can I help you?” he asks, coming up to me. He waits for me to point out the fish I want. And yeah, I feel bad, but I still point to a tilapia swimming on the edge of the school. Flip, smack! Bonk! Scrape-scrape-scrape. He weighs the ex-creature, tosses it in a plastic bag, weighs it, and slaps the price label on. I know when I get home, my wife is going to give me that look and mutter, “Baby fish killer!”
I wander sentimentally back down the street, looking for a bus stop. By a chocolate-colored house with the sign “Coffees of the World,” a guy is leaning over the bus stop bench. John. John Smith. He has dreadlocks sprouting from his head like dark, leggy impatiens. At the end of each dreadlock is a little colored plastic clip. They clatter over his forehead. “Like to be myself, different,” John says. “I’m waiting for my girlfriend to pick me up.” His friends call from the other four corners of the street-crossing. They all converge, meeting in the middle of the road. Then they slap high-fives, and John comes back to the seat. “Yeah,” he says. “Lived here all my life. It’s the center. Great! There’s some kids get territorial, but all my friends are here. University? Wouldn’t be anywhere else. This is where it’s at.”
The Street’s Scale Here Booms
54th Street to College Avenue / By Mary Lang
University opens up at the intersection of 54th; suddenly it’s all sky and glaring concrete and stucco. At two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, kids schlep down the steep of 54th from Mann and Crawford, sit, lean, and kick at the covered bus stop on the north side of the street. Behind them, blue plastic banners waving on metal poles herald the renovation of an apartment complex, which is set back from the sidewalk up a landscaped rise. A skinny girl whose backpack looks more substantial than her body links her arms around one of the poles, leans backward, forward, backward, her mouth blank and her eyes staring east down the street — where is that Number 7 bus?
The street’s scale here booms. Lanes widen, a median strip appears; buildings sit farther back from the curb. A four-story, cement-coated bluff backs the intersection’s southwest corner; atop it is a residential neighborhood. Southeast, behind the gas station, a woman in Somali dress crosses, slow-hipped, the glaring acres of Kmart’s parking lot (barren as any desert in her past). Far behind her, the big red plastic K dominates the view. The kids at the bus stop are staring at that K, some of them, just like I used to do.
All this wide-open sky and grand-scale urban planning made me think of a movie Western. The K could have been some ranch’s brand. East from here, the bluffs north and south of University approach one another, narrowing in on what was once Chollas Creek’s bed — perfect scene for cattle rustling, ambush by hostile tribes or bad guys. The open sewer as which the creek functioned had been covered in a fit of ’50s optimism, covered and paved with all this glorious Kmart parking lot, and the hillsides coated with bumpy gray cement — an erosion preventative — until they looked like elephant hides. The cement slipped over time; weeds and scrub shot up and held the ground in place anyway.
It is not a landscape that invites pedestrians. On this brisk mid-afternoon, the only moving creatures in sight are a quartet of Somali women, their bright clothes billowing in the sharp breeze. A dirt gully and a cement wall separate them from Bates Street, two blocks of low-rent apartments with more than their share of domestic violence and murders. (In 1989, several of San Diego’s 30 robberies of pizza delivery drivers happened in the 5800 block of University Avenue. One driver was shot just a block away from 58th Street and University. A lot of robberies took place on Bates.)
Around the curve, where Chollas Parkway splits from University, a sweeping steep road leads up the north bluff to Hillside Hospital, a rotunda-like structure I once imagined/hoped was a glamorous private home. Near its base, Colina Veterinary Hospital still functions, the weird covered driveway to its rear parking lot (adjacent to a massage parlor also still functioning but no longer called, as it was in my day, Cloud Nine) suggesting drive-through service — also very ’50s, optimistic, grand. Perhaps some zealous planner imagined pooches handed through a sliding window to a smiling technician. (It would have helped. My visits here, over the years, with a kitten with failing kidneys, a cat with chronic eczema, remain most vivid for the struggle to get a cardboard pet carrier through the heavy door.)
Once you complete the curve east, pass the weedy, trashy field and bare hill to the south, you look ahead automatically to the beauty spot of the area, beyond the intersection of 55th: the fantastic neon sign marking Sheng Haw Low Restaurant. Featuring, it informs, “Chinese-American Food” and “Cocktails.” A narrow red pagoda soars upward, with the name in Chinese characters on it. Atop this, a girl with genie eyes, her adventure-slim body clad in exotic pajamas. A high black ponytail streams behind her, echoing the sinuations of the blue crane she rides through the sky. When our blue Pinto hatchback would arrive at that intersection (we, tired and irritable, just a block from home; the signal here so long) I lost myself in the Sheng Haw Low sign.
A few older ladies, similarly attired in flower-print polyester tunics and slacks, totter through the door in Sheng Haw Low’s imitation brick facade. Inside, the granddaughter of Tommy Sheng stands at the hostess’s lectern. She looks at the ladies with something like alarm, then asks, “Four for lunch?”
The older ladies, here for the seniors’ buffet luncheon, have asked for Mrs. Sheng, whom Miss Sheng has dutifully summoned from a back bar, where a television blares. The ladies greet her. “My husband,” one of them explains, “knew Tommy.” Mrs. Sheng smiles, inclines her head, as if this were an exceptional honor. Everyone, however, knew Tommy.
On the walls in the waiting area are framed group photos of newspapermen, cops, county employees, habitues of Tommy Sheng’s from its days downtown. Behind Miss Sheng’s lectern is a spotlighted portrait of Tommy Sheng. She has his mild face. “He passed on in 1986,” she tells me.
“But the family still runs the place?”
She blushes and lowers her chin. “Yes, the family still runs the place.”
The restaurant is dim and luxurious in a faded way. Facing the padded leather booth where I am seated, a fish tank affords a view of striped and shiny fins, a miniature Day-Glo orange castle. The menu still offers a battery of drinks that fascinated me as a child. Drinks with umbrellas. Drinks called Pink Squirrel and Chi-Chi.
The waiter reappears frequently. He calls me “dear,” as he serves me a sequence of heavily sauced, MSG-laden “Chinese-American” dishes. “People come in all the time, ask for Tommy. Everybody knew Tommy, dear.” That was why, I recall, my relatives, family of a retired cop, frequented the place during the ’60s. It was also perhaps why, when we found ourselves rootless and poor in the early ‘70s, we alighted directly across the street, at the Belle-view Gardens.
Sheng Haw Low corners what was once the Belleview Center, constructed in 1959. The 25-acre parcel was developed by the Belleview Center Company to offer 180,000 square feet of retail floor area. The Mayfair Market alone was 25,000 square feet. Its parking lot had spaces for 1600 cars. The hill behind the shopping center is surmounted by a water tower shiny and green as Oz. In 1964 the hillside was scraped and terraced and built into Belleview Estates, modest “ranch-style” tract homes bought cheaply by engineers, cops, Navy men, workers at General Dynamics and National Steel, and their young wives.
Cheaper housing was at the Belleview Gardens, now Hillside Gardens. This is on the north side of the street. The cinderblock and shingle complex’s 280 apartments and 20 duplexes are built two stories high; they weave back up the hill north of the avenue toward the back fence of Crawford High’s dirt outfield. The trees at Belleview-now-Hillside, 35 years on, are full and mature; the grass strips are green and well-clipped and free of litter, thanks to a $10.6 million upgrade in 1985.
At the corner of the development, a strapping black man, young, in an oversized T-shirt, lopes and bobs along the sidewalk. He eyes a car passing him in the opposite direction. His mouth is open now and he is yelling at the occupants of the car, which is a dark-blue luxury sedan, faded, buckled in at the fenders. The young man’s arms describe emphatic verticals. A bulky white guy in a golf cart speeds along the frontage road that services the units along University. He stops to watch the blue sedan execute an awkward five-point turn in the narrow intersection. The sedan pauses, the man in the big T-shirt quits waving his arms, walks over to the driver’s door, slaps his hands against the door frame. But he nods and laughs, and when the car peels out a moment later, he stands behind it in the street laughing and addresses to its occupants a Queen Elizabeth parade wave.
When we lived in what were then the Belleview Gardens Apartments, the floors were brown tile with speckles on it, except for the living room, which was carpeted in green shag. The place smelled of gas from the wall heater, and the refrigerator smelled rancid. We were on food commodities when we lived here, and the big tins of honey and peanut butter we left open on the kitchen table brought ants and cockroaches. Outside the kitchen window was a hillside with a dead bobcat on it. Its carcass was there the six months we stayed, before the theft of our Royce-Union bicycles and of our Himalayan Siamese kitten, Whispering Moon Cloud (this was the ’70s), sent us farther west, to 43rd Street.
At the time, most of the apartments were occupied by Navy and military-industrial workers. Downstairs was a Navy wife and her two daughters. The daughters fought over whether the Navy dad was coming back—the older one insisted he was not. We did not then realize the cruelty of this. The Navy wife had decorated the living room with painted plaster statuettes from Tijuana: girls in draperies, one bearing a flower basket atop her head, the other leaning on a pole she was using to do some kind of work. The woman used to say that she found the one leaning against the pole more beautiful, because she was doing honest hard work. The Navy wife also believed the Apollo moon landing was faked.
We played together but didn’t accomplish much. We spied through the windows of Madame Ruth’s up the street. Madame Ruth’s painted wooden sign, offering the services of spiritualist, psychic, and palm reader, is still there. On it, a pale hand proffers a crystal ball; behind it, a golden-orange horizon at sunset has sunk into cracks to show the grain of the wood. The Navy girls told us Madame Ruth wasn’t really a Gypsy or a card-reader but a “night lady.” We never found out for sure. The windows were obscured by plastic blinds, day and night. The Madame Ruth in business today may or may not be the same woman, but she is always, it seems, “in consultation.”
Today, next to Madame Ruth’s, the University Avenue Baptist Church’s glass marquee case offers, “The Word of God, Strait and true.”
We won a record of top hits from a radio station, practiced dances the older Navy girl knew to songs like “Venus” and “The Letter.” We knotted twine into loops to do magic tricks and to make cat’s cradles, crows’ feet, Jacob’s ladders. Once, on the skinny strip of dead grass separating the frontage road from the street, we found a crumpled paper card on which was written (in shaky old-fashioned handwriting) an account of a meeting with some religious celebrity —perhaps Mary Baker Eddy or Aimee Semple McPherson. Answering a question about beauty tips, the woman had said something like, “My only rouge is modesty.” We parodied this endlessly. “Charity is my concealing cream,” we might say. “Loyalty is my mascara.”
Today there are girls with babies stoop-sitting at the renovated Hillside Gardens. A Hispanic girl and a black girl and two tots planted on the cement steps. There is a child’s plastic tricycle on the strip of grass at the bottom of the steps, and a ball. The girls smoke cigarettes. A few doors away a man in an Army fatigue jacket strides out, shades his eyes, shouts, “Kehh-vuuhhn!” at some invisible miscreant child.
Across the street again, behind Sheng Haw Low, in the former Belleview Center, there was once a Cinerama theater. When the Cinerama opened in November 1962, with The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Barbara Eden and George Pal appeared at the opening, which was covered live on television. The Cinerama held 940 seats. Its mammoth screen was 75 feet wide and 31 feet high. Films were shown in the ultra-wide but terribly impractical Cinerama format. Three projectors ran simultaneously; often the picture was jerky. The Cinerama idea, along with wide-screen formats like Cinemascope and VistaVision, developed to compete with television, with which the modern-minded public was enraptured.
If you lived at the Belleview-now-Hillside Gardens, in the ’60s or ’70s, in one of the units facing University, your view was of the shopping center. In those days, it included the Mayfair Market and the Cinerama. All that bigness and optimism staring you in the face. When you had the money and the free time, you would head across the street to one or the other of these establishments. We sat way close up to the huge screen for a Hammer Dracula flick, got scared by the lone man sitting in the last row, directly behind us four giggling girls.
The Cinerama closed in May 1988, was torn down in short order. Along with it were toppled University Lanes, one of the largest bowling alleys in America, and its boozy appendage, the Red Coat Inn. They had drawn a large crowd from SDSU once, back in the days when a college crowd would frequent a bowling alley, play a tournament, eat a burger, drink and dance next door. The shopping center was redeveloped in 1991 into a neo-mission-style complex called University Square. Developer Douglas Alfred included a six-plex Pacific Theater in his plans (it now offers $2.50 bargain days twice a week), and a Megafoods (closed and boarded up), and a Drug Emporium (although if you want drugs, you can probably score from that beat-up van parked in a far space near a parking lot exit).
A man and a little boy walk up to the front of the Megafoods. Its windows are dirty and papered over. The man walks nearly to the doors, then turns to a security guard who is leaning against a stucco pillar watching them. “Megafoods closed a month ago,” says the guard, but only after the man has asked him. “A Eood-4-Less is coming in. Just got a firm contract.”
I follow a longhaired blond boy on a much-too-small bike (Did he steal it? I automatically wonder) toward the Boney’s at College Avenue. The boy hauls his baggy-jeaned legs up on the pedals, whizzes past the Genie car wash, the only original building left here besides Sheng Haw Low. He pulls up to Boney’s covered walkway, ditches the bike, runs in. Since the Megafoods closed, Boney’s gets all the foot-traffic food business. On the shelves are bottles of pricey ginkgo-biloba and L-lysine tablets, gourmet cheese. In the aisles are old Korean women, scruffy white guys, a shabbily dressed black woman struggling to control several small children.
High school kids straggle toward the Hometown Buffet, a massive chain-owned cafeteria in the center of the redeveloped mall. Along with the beauty supply store and Pyramid Books nearby, it does hopping business. “We get a lot of school kids here,” a friendly waitress tells me. “You pay your $5, you eat as much as you want. The football players from Lincoln High come here to bulk up.”
They haven’t arrived yet. At one table, a couple of old white people pick at plates heaped high with fried chicken, whitefish, au gratin potatoes, sauerkraut, and sausage; at another, a black man and a Mexican woman and a hyper toddler finish self-serve Cokes. The food is set out in metal dishes that fit into frames on thematic islands. There is an entreé island, a side dish island, a salad island, a taco-and-fixings island.
Norman Rockwell prints decorate the walls; a Muzak version of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” floats down from ceiling speakers. Everyone is friendly. They watch you as you come in, say hello when you sit down. I meander over to the side dish island to survey the offerings (corn, red potatoes, baked russet potatoes, mashed potatoes, vegetable medley, carrot coins, beets). An old black guy with a cataract on one eye helps himself to some lasagna. “I can’t eat like this at home,” he says to me and chuckles. “My wife won’t fix it for me! So I come here.”
“Soul Kitchen” is getting on my nerves. Back out in the lot, teens skulk near the movie theater, killing time, cavorting in the parking lot. A low sedan, packed with high school boys, cuts slow figure eights across the asphalt. When it nears, a whiff of pot smoke drifts out. Drug smokers like this lot because they can keep an eye on every entrance, can see in all directions if anyone is approaching. For the same reasons, I learned to drive a stick shift in this parking lot.
Today the movies are Jason’s Lyric, Little Giants, Interview with the Vampire, Pulp Fiction, Double Dragon, and The War.
“Hey, you got money for the movie?”
A black girl in bright purple T-shirt and shorts cavorts with a boy in huge gold baggy pants, baseball cap, hooded jacket. “Are you gonna pay for my ticket?” she asks him, directing a roundhouse at his abdomen. He dances away.
“Are you gonna pay for my candy?” he teases.
They suddenly bolt from the theater’s side wall, their feet hit the asphalt thud-thud-thud. They turn a big arc into the parking lot. At an ornamental tree in a concrete planter, over by the employee entrance of Sheng Haw Low, the boy catches the girl. He faces her, puts his hands on her hips just below her waist. His face darts toward hers. She shrugs her body sideways, looks pissed. Then the boy pulls a piece of paper from his jacket pocket and holds it in front of him; she leans forward to read it upside-down. She shuffles her weight from foot to foot. The boy steps up onto the cement edge of the planter next to her. They wait there together, inhabitants of an island oasis in a vast, vast sea of asphalt.
Keep Your Blond Hair Away from This Neighborhood
College Avenue to La Mesa Boulevard / By Larry Harmon
There aren’t too many college kids hanging out at the corner of University and College avenues. For some reason, SDSU students don’t bother to head south into this neighborhood except to drive through Taco Bell for 59-cent tacos. Keep your blond hair and No Fear shirts away from this neighborhood, mister.
This section of University cuts through the Rolando area of San Diego. East of College Avenue, there is an odd assortment of businesses set up in the houses that line the block. Denny Grimes Hair for Life (complete with before and after photos and a 24-hour “info line”) and Bud Conway’s Studio of Music would be indistinguishable from their residential neighbors without the signs in their front yards.
Faque Burgers, located next door to Alberto’s, gets almost as much action as the taco shop. Although they don’t advertise it on their marquee, Faque Burgers is a vegetarian fast-food restaurant that serves 100 percent soy burgers for approximately $1.30. The low price and lack of meat in the burger has made the place something of a punk rock hangout. It’s easy to tell which punk bands have blown through town by reading the band names carved in the outdoor tables. The restaurant is open late every night except Friday, when it closes at 4:00 p.m. and reopens after 7:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Most of the kids are confused by the strange hours, attributing the Friday closures to the owners’ “weird” religion. Obviously, the punks haven’t taken their world religion class at Grossmont College or they would know about the practices of the Seventh-day Adventists.
Half a block east is the Eastgate Building, home to the Madhouse, a bar with occasional live music, the East-gate Barber Shop, Discount Electronic, Alicia’s Mexican
Food, House of Fashion Tailoring, and Thrift Skills Center thrift store. The thrift store is the best in the neighborhood, featuring more broken dryers and rusty office desks than the Salvation Army, which is in a round building painted blue and red, just up the street.
Bill Frisbie, owner of Eastgate Barber Shop, points to the street and reminisces how University Avenue was a small, two-lane highway long before 1-8 was built and the only corridor to El Cajon. Frisbie purchased the barbershop in 1990 from the original owner, who opened the shop immediately after the building was completed in 1948. He named the shop Eastgate — the name of the neighborhood during the ’50s. Haircuts at Eastgate cost $3.50 and usually take less than 15 minutes. Frisbie has preserved his shop with the original furniture, including the barber chairs. But he has watched the neighborhood change through the large plate glass window in the shop’s front wall.
“This is probably the only original building on this street,” Frisbie says. “The new paint is probably the only difference. The Madhouse used to be a dance club when it first opened up. Before the [Thrift Skills Center], it was a Caesar Romero clothing store, and before that, it was a furniture store. There used to be a Piggly Wiggly grocery store across the street. Remember those? All the other buildings around here have changed.”
The people have also changed. “This used to be a Navy-oriented neighborhood, but now it’s a multitude of different minorities. The Navy families lived here because you could jump on the 94 and go right to the 32nd Street Naval Station in 15 minutes
“There’s a few transients, too. There’s one guy that walks everywhere. I’ve been watching him walk for years. He never bothered nobody, but he was fascinated by the barber pole. He came in one day to look at the barber pole, so I offered him some apples and oranges. He said, ‘Thank you,’ the only thing he ever said.”
Along with his furniture, Frisbie has preserved the tradition of barbers. “You know, the barber pole is the oldest fixture in the world. It was used in the 17th Century outside of barbershops, who were the doctors. The red signifies the blood, for blood-letting, the blue for cauterizing, and the white is for bandages. Those people at Fantastic Sam’s are not barbers, they are beauticians. A beautician is different, less difficult. To become a barber, you have to have 1800 hours of training. That’s 10 months at 40 hours. We have to know more than just how to wash and cut hair.
“I don’t do straight-razor shaves anymore, because there isn’t a demand, and they take 30 minutes. If you’ve never had a straight-razor shave, you haven’t lived.”
During the same afternoon, Jolar Cinema’s small parking lot is filled to capacity. There’s some affinity between pornography and people who drive big cars. Besides the usual overpriced, glossy adult mags with a money shot on every page, Jolar adds variety to the sometimes boring world of pornography by offering “LIVE EXOTIC DANCERS.”
The dancers are enclosed in glass, and viewers are only allowed to peek after they have dropped a couple bucks in tokens. The shade rises, and now it’s up to the woman to use her fully nude talent to coax tips out of the men. Sure, I’ll play with myself. No, I don’t mind pretending to be your abusive mother. Just keep the dollars flowing through the slot. Show’s over when the tokens are gone or orgasm is achieved. Don’t tell vice.
Past Rolando Boulevard, the north side of the street remains a collection of houses and business that were once houses, while most of the south side is the parking lot for the huge vacant Home Depot that moved farther east and now takes up an entire city block in Lemon Grove. Occasional mornings, men hang around under the trees looking for trabajo. Mid-afternoon, they’ve gotten it or given up.
As you near 70th Street, more commercial spaces appear. The number of auto body and repair shops becomes noticeable. A huge sign advertises “Camelot” with the words “Vietnamese Cuisine” beneath it. Either King Arthur was big in Indochina or the new owners didn’t want to bother changing a 25-foot-high sign.
Another local landmark, Wong’s Golden Palace, is at the foot of Massachusetts, where it meets University Avenue. It’s a Chinese restaurant with a bar, nestled next to a sooty-looking equipment rental company. The restaurant was designed with an extravagant yet kitschy Chinese exterior, big pagoda, neon. The bar joins the restaurant and is patronized by folks who like to talk about the happenings at the local VFW. Occasionally someone will take time out from their drink and drop some change in the karaoke machine, which makes a hell of a jukebox. Everyone smiles while an elderly gentleman with sad eyes but a friendly disposition finishes a classy rendition of Hank Williams, Jr.’s “Family Tradition.” TVs located in the corners above the bar allow everyone to follow along with the underage girls waiting for their moms, singing a way-off-key version of the B-52s’ “Love Shack.” Everyone claps and cheers when they finish.
Although all beer is served in bottles rather than on tap, there is one drink Wong can brag about, the Flaming Scorpion. It’s mostly rum mixed with citrus juice, but it is the presentation that makes it worth the $6.25. It’s served in a huge bowl with a flaming volcano in the center. Where is the scorpion? The 18-inch straw used to suck it down guarantees quality time with the locals.
Most of the neighborhood color begins to show up after you cross 70th Street, which is the natural boundary for the San Diego-La Mesa city border. Just as the automotive shops become more noticeable as one heads east into La Mesa, so do the acupressure and massage parlors, despite what seems like attempts to remain inconspicuous. Most of the parlors advertise with only a small sign near the street. The storefront usually consists of a dark-tinted window backed by a curtain and a red-and-blue OPEN sign. Seven acupressure and massage parlors are located between 70th Street and the 7700 block of University.
Despite the attempts to remain low-key, Yong Oriental Acupressure gained a lot of attention when the La Mesa Police Department raided it for prostitution in 1992. The parlor was owned by Dennis Hartman, a sheriff s sergeant at the time of the bust.
Hartman was convicted of attempting to pimp in April 1993 and sentenced to 180 days in a work-furlough facility, 200 hours of community service, along with the loss of his career. During sentencing, the judge said Hartman was spared a prison sentence because his wife was a quadriplegic and there would be no one else to care for her.
During the trial Hartman never denied that prostitution was occurring on the premises, only that he didn’t know about it. The prosecution successfully argued that a cop with Hartman’s experience would have been aware of any illegal activity. The prosecution also provided evidence that showed Hart-man used the police computer system to do background checks on the masseuses.
After crossing Yale Avenue, the north side of University becomes a more residential neighborhood, complete with a 7-Eleven. Scattered between the homes and the apartment buildings are office buildings, with one or more For Rent signs. Helix High School takes up a large portion of the south side of the street.
Although La Mesa city elders don’t like to admit it, they have lost their quiet-suburb image, and Helix High is proof of that. At one time it was considered a safe, quiet school. But now they have the same problems that San Diego high schools have. Racial tension, gangs, after-school brawls, it’s all here.
The school’s floodgates lift and release the students, who slowly filter into the neighborhood in small clumps. The smoking clique of Helix High doesn’t care about the race, gender, or social standing of their peers. Apparently nicotine crosses all social boundaries. At 2:30 p.m., a small group races to the front of a smoked-glass building next to the high school to take in a smoke, out of sight of school officials. The group’s size remains constant; as new people arrive, others crush their butts on the sidewalk and move on.
East of Helix, the area looks more and more like Mission Valley. Small strip malls line both sides of the street, featuring bright fast-food restaurants next to travel agencies and ATM machines.
Southern California architects have found a step between the strip mall and the shopping mall: the grocery store mall. It consists of a large grocery, usually a Vons or Lucky, with several shops located on an L-shaped perimeter, complete with rent-a-cops trolling for skateboarders.
The strip malls near the end of the avenue serve as a transition to La Mesa Springs, a grocery store mall located where La Mesa Boulevard begins to lasso the eastern end of University. The wooden-framed mall is always busy with shoppers darting in and out of Vons, Blockbuster Video, or the Postal Annex. But it also suffers a vacancy problem like other commercial spaces that share the address.
The pseudo-Mission Valley doesn’t last long. East County flavor begins again with downtown La Mesa. City hall, the fire department, and the La Mesa Public Library all are in the delta between University Avenue, Spring Street, and La Mesa Boulevard. Here La Mesa Boulevard begins to tighten the noose. The street quickly forks into Baltimore and University Avenue. A stoplight keeps drivers off of the trolley tracks. When the light turns green, University Avenue flows into downtown as La Mesa Boulevard.