Olive Street residents near 30th can't get much closer, part 1

A house and a tree spell contentment to me

By the time I turned onto Olive Street, it was well after ten and the street was quiet.
  • By the time I turned onto Olive Street, it was well after ten and the street was quiet.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Part 2 of this story

Olive Street came into its name around 1906, when streets between A and Sacramento were named after trees. One portion of Olive, a quiet cul-de-sac in North Park, has just 15 homes — 22 counting those off the alley. Here neighbors jog together, go to the movies in a pack, and check with others on Friday night to see who wants to order take-out. Weekend mornings, someone is sure to have a fresh pot of coffee brewing, and neighbors know they can pop in, pour themselves a hot cup, then go home without the requirement to sit and chat.

In 15 years, Bazzi has never been robbed, but Bazzi admitted that he kept behind the counter what he needed to defend himself. “Thank God I never had to use it."

In 15 years, Bazzi has never been robbed, but Bazzi admitted that he kept behind the counter what he needed to defend himself. “Thank God I never had to use it."

When residents leave Olive Street for an extended trip, neighbors water their plants, cut their lawn, walk and feed their pets, and pay their bills. People barbecue together on holidays and other times linger until midnight over an impromptu potluck meal. They convene on front lawns on the north side of the street and, sharing a bottle of wine, watch the sun set over downtown San Diego. They support each other over the rocky patches and go along for the ride when the going is easy.

Paul & Carol Brown own Canyon House, a bed-and-breakfast and the oldest building on Olive Street.

Paul & Carol Brown own Canyon House, a bed-and-breakfast and the oldest building on Olive Street.

At first appearance the street looks humdrum, two lines of houses (most of them small) facing each other, the street split perpendicularly by an alley. But looks are deceiving. The neighborhood has three things that help to make it special. It has Ray’s, it has Rebecca’s, and it has a ghost.

Original trestle bridge over Switzer Canyon, circa 1930s

Original trestle bridge over Switzer Canyon, circa 1930s

San Diego Historical Society photo

Ray’s Liquor Center — known to locals as simply “Ray’s” — stands at the intersection of 30th and Redwood. Olive Street residents know that the convenience store opens early, closes late, and has just about whatever they might want whenever they might want it.

Dedication of new bridge over Switzer Canyon, 1957

Dedication of new bridge over Switzer Canyon, 1957

San Diego Historical Society photo

Pasted onto its faded butterscotch front are old signs offering a public fax machine, money orders, and California lottery tickets. A sign for “Refrigerated Milk” is next to one offering “Vodka Special (750 ml. of Fleischmann’s for $4.99).” On the street corner beyond Ray’s parking lot is a public telephone where, late into the night, men and women chat (and sometimes argue) with whoever is on the other end of the line. The intimate and mercilessly public aspect of this scene can be unnerving to those driving past.

Sally van Haitsma: “You only had to put 10 percent down. I mean, I was getting a whole house for less than $8000.”

Sally van Haitsma: “You only had to put 10 percent down. I mean, I was getting a whole house for less than $8000.”

How very different is Olive Street, just three blocks south. Quietly residential like many streets hereabouts, Olive Street has mostly single-family dwellings, with residents divided between owners with mortgages and renters who pay close to a thousand dollars per month for a two-bedroom. But because the area north toward University Avenue is strung with cheaper-priced rentals that attract low-income folks, Ray’s caters to the needs of a large and varied population. This Ray’s does with aplomb. Stepping inside, you discover one-stop shopping, a mall enclosed in a single building.

Switzer Canyon is not just a deep trench out their back door. Without it, Olive Street would not be what it is.

Switzer Canyon is not just a deep trench out their back door. Without it, Olive Street would not be what it is.

To the left of the door, eight refrigerated cases are crammed with different beers and iced liquors like Kamikaze. The back wall stretches perhaps 20 feet and holds varieties of rotgut wine as well as quality merlots and cabernet sauvignons. For the caffeine connoisseur, there is a machine for grinding roasted coffee beans; it stands next to a glass case with a dozen different Mexican cookies priced at four for a dollar. There are cell phones, electric shavers, watches, and calculators that sell for $12.99. Keys are made and Thai incense (“Black Love”) sold. There are Spanish novellas and local newspapers, and herbal energy tablets, including the “rave drink” called Screamin’ Energy for those who “want to feel like a million bucks.” Clove cigarettes sit next to Zig-Zag rolling paper. At Ray’s you can buy hard and soft candy, stamps, frozen foods, and motor oil.

A display behind the cash register holds aspirin, decongestants, painkillers, and Listerine. There is deodorant, 24-inch by 36-inch framed prints of misty landscapes and country scenes, cigars, and devotional candles of the Sacred Heart whose Clairol-blond Jesus gazes at the devotee with eyes of an unsettling glacial blue. Cans of Vienna sausages and beans are not far from Brillo, Ajax, and washing powders. Potatoes, onions, and lettuce fill a cooler near the door. For a romantic gift, roses fashioned from synthetic fabric and wrapped in cellophane are grouped like a bouquet near the cash register. And for the parent, Ray’s offers all one might need for a child’s birthday party — inexpensive plastic toys (a beauty makeup kit, cars, and pistols), packages of pink and blue birthday candles, and Fritos, potato chips, ice cream, Pepsi, and Coke for refreshments.

Standing at the cash register, behind this immense and varied inventory, was Mike Bazzi. Since 1985, he has managed Ray’s with the help of his family. It was seven o’clock on Friday night and Bazzi was on duty with a nephew. In between helping customers, he stocked shelves and ran inventory. Bazzi, 41, neared the end of another 60-hour workweek. A Catholic who immigrated here from Iraq in 1978, Bazzi has blue eyes and black hair flecked with gray. He resembles Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II, when the actor looked his best.

“Ray’s was here in the late ’40s, but we took it over 15 years ago,” said Bazzi. Customer traffic is always steady, but this was the first Friday night of the month and it was nonstop activity. Bazzi, who speaks Babylonian, Arabic, a little Spanish, and an accented English, talked to me while struggling to figure out that the young Latino couple (the woman very pregnant) wanted a bottle of cranberry juice. Next, a middle-aged man, just off work, paid for his Lotto ticket and Bazzi explained that soon the game was about to change, get a new name, and offer more prizes. (“I’ll let you know,” he promised.) A young African-American woman with a no-nonsense haircut lugged in a purse filled with $130 in quarters. Could she exchange her quarters for dollars? (“Whatever you’ve got, you bring it, we’ll change it,” Bazzi assured her.) Behind her was a lean young man who wanted a good cigar, he said, to smoke that evening on a date. “Go around the corner and see for yourself,” said Bazzi. An older man, his hair dyed auburn that went carrot-orange under the fluorescent lights, paid for cigarettes. The young man reappeared holding something nearly the size of a bologna. And so it went.

“This is why I like it here,” said Bazzi, taking a ten-dollar bill and making change.

“There’s always something happening. I like the communication, the friendship. Here people talk, and we laugh.”

Bazzi has uncles and cousins in Baghdad who own a grocery store. Ray’s is very different, but the warm give-and-take between customers has a similar “old country” feel.

Behind the cash register hung an old calendar dated 1965, the year Ray’s underwent a major remodeling. Thirty-five years later, Bazzi felt it was time for another face-lift. He had plans to work on the inside as well as change the faded butterscotch color to something brighter. “But it’s still in the planning stages,” he said, and refused to give more details.

Suddenly a young man jumped the line and hurled himself against the counter, his head a mass of dreadlocks writhing like snakes. Cursing, he threw down money and demanded a bottle of brandy.

“I’ll give it to you,” Bazzi said, but he warned him about his language.

“Man, I’m in pain! My tooth is killing me! It’s tearing up my whole head! Hurry up with the brandy! MAN, HURRY UP!”

Bazzi suggested that the man take painkillers rather than brandy. “I took ’em,” he howled, “and they ain’t done SHIT! Man, hurry up with the goddam brandy!”

Bazzi gave him the brandy and the man rushed out of the store. A moment later we heard someone screaming at the top of his lungs. A woman stepped into the store and looked back over her shoulder. “There’s a guy on the phone outside,” she said, “and he’s going crazy.”

In 15 years, Bazzi has never been robbed. There are convenience stores in which the man at the cash register operates behind a cage and the customers pass their money through a slot. Not here, but Bazzi admitted that he kept behind the counter what he needed to defend himself. “Thank God I never had to use it,” he said.

While the man outside screamed on the phone, a customer suggested to Bazzi that the guy go to the emergency dental-care unit downtown. “They’ll take care of him,” he said. “The only thing is, it closes at eight on Fridays, I know that.”

When Bazzi recalled the weirdest moment at the store, strangely enough it concerned another man and his teeth.

“Maybe eight years ago,” said Bazzi, “this guy parks his car and comes in and leans over, spits out all this blood and teeth on the counter. It was a gang thing. Somebody must have shot him in the mouth with a BB gun because he spit out the BBs too.”

When the police arrived, they closed the shop for two hours while they investigated. Now Bazzi wondered if he should call the cops for the fellow outside. The cops, he said, would at least get him to a hospital. But he was not much inclined to make a phone call, and this turned out to be a good thing because five minutes later the man stepped inside the store. Clearly the painkillers and alcohol had kicked in. He leaned on the counter. “Give me another bottle of brandy,” he said, his features relaxed.

Bazzi told him about the emergency dental care, then looked over his shoulder to check the clock. It was now five minutes to eight.

“That’s okay, man, just give me the brandy.”

Bazzi shrugged, gave the man what he wanted, and took his money. The young man apologized for making an earlier disturbance, and in the course of his apology, as he described the pain of his abscessed tooth, he resorted once again to the kind of language that Bazzi had warned him about. But this time, Bazzi said nothing. Later he explained that the fellow’s pain was gone, and that was the main thing.

“You see what I mean? Always something happening,” he said and laughed.

Twelve hours later. Eight o’clock on Saturday morning and three blocks south of Olive Street — a distance defined in large part by the 30th Street overpass — the customers at Rebecca’s on Juniper Street were already lined up out the door. Most had the glazed stare and frayed aspect of those desperately in need of their morning caffeine fix. The line for service moved slowly, but there was nothing untoward here. Patience was the mantra; the smell of baking scones and freshly ground coffee (the superb Italian espresso called Illy Espresso) were a promise of what patience would in time bring. Ray’s is a convenience store, open on Saturdays until midnight for the catchall needs of a large and varied community. Residents of Olive Street shop there when they have forgotten something or perhaps wish to indulge in a late-night orgy of Häagen-Dazs and Oreos. Rebecca’s is different. It is a class act — and the woman who owns the coffee shop, and for whom it is named, cannot figure out how it happened.

“I fell in love with the building,” said Rebecca Zearling, speaking in the tiniest of voices. The 48-year-old blonde not only has the voice of a child but her blue eyes have a child’s clear depth. I leaned close to hear her. “People ask me if I did demographics before we opened. I didn’t. I just fell in love with the building and I wanted to do something here, in it.”

In the early 1900s, she said, the building had been a cracker factory, and more recently it was the home of the Mongols Motorcycle Club. Seek-N-Find, a thrift shop, was located on the corner when Rebecca moved in. Now there are renovations taking place across the street and shops nearby that offer pretty bibelots to those with the taste and cash for such things. Rebecca’s has brought the people. This corner is thriving.

At the time she first thought of opening, Zearling worked as a bookkeeper and secretary in Kearny Mesa. Today she works part-time for Bode Enterprises, a technical consultation service in Mission Valley.

“But baking was always a love of mine.”

She first went public in the sixth grade at Field Elementary School in Clairemont when she showed up one day with oatmeal-raisin bars baked with chocolate. They were a hit with her classmates, and though she did not know it, her future had just unfolded before her.

“My parents were strict,” she recalled, “and I was very shy and self-conscious. Baking was my way, I guess…” she said, trailing off. One of the bakers had run out to tell Rebecca that her scones were ready. She excused herself.

My table was set on a raised platform at the front of the building. From this vantage point I could see youngsters jumping out of Volvos and SUVs and hurrying inside with instructions from their mothers, who waited behind the wheel. A couple of runners, damp with sweat, had ended their run here. The outside tables were a free zone for smokers, who were reading the newspaper and having their first cup of coffee and cigarette. Customers leashing their dogs to the trees found bowls of water for the dogs to drink; and inside, Rebecca had baked dog biscuits that she gave away. Most of these dogs were big — models built along the lines of a golden retriever — but while Albert Boost’s eight-year-old shih tzu, Panda, was tiny by comparison, what she lacked in size she more than made up for in attitude. Dogs approaching for an introductory sniff were sent reeling backward. The chip on Panda’s shoulder may have had to do with the ribbons in her hair.

“She got them yesterday,” explained Boost. “Whenever she visits Susie’s Pet Clipet on Park Boulevard, she gets ribbons.”

Information of this sort, remarkable mostly for its being shared, feels right at Rebecca’s. Boost, a widower who lives in nearby Burlingame with his daughter, likes to include a coffee stop at Rebecca’s as part of his morning constitutional. Here conversation is easy and I learned that the widower, now in his 80s, worked after World War II as a geological engineer for the California Water Project, which brought water down from the northern portion of the state.

“And with more water there came more people. So after that I worked for Caltrans and that meant more people could get here easier.” He laughed and gathered up Panda. “You can blame me for California being so crowded.”

Rebecca returned and explained that she bakes raspberry and apricot muffins and chocolate chip, molasses, and ginger cookies, but scones remain most popular. “I can’t bake enough of them.”

As we sat in the morning sun and talked, Rebecca mentioned that a year ago she almost died.

“I had been hemorrhaging for months,” she said. When she finally underwent the hysterectomy and the surgeons removed her uterus, they washed it and showed it to her. “It weighed 13H pounds and was red and shiny like a balloon and looked to be full of golf balls. Those were the fibroid tumors.” She blushed and said it was a strange thing to be talking about. And it did seem strange on this beautiful morning.

While her doctor did not want to put odds on her surviving, miracles have come in multiples for Rebecca. She told me how, after her partner left, a customer overheard her speaking of money worries and loaned her the money to pay her bills. “Whoever heard of that?” she asked. But perhaps the story of how she got her home is the most amazing. She did not have the $10,000 required for a down payment, but again, a customer got wind of her trouble and offered to loan her the money. He was ill with aids, she said, and so they agreed that if he died, she would repay the loan to his caretaker. The man did indeed die and she repaid the loan. “But isn’t that unbelievable, I mean, people just appeared to make things happen…”

Rebecca’s is located on the edge of South Park and has both a large gay community as well as a growing number of men and women in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse. Rebecca likes to give jobs to people down on their luck.

“This is a place for everyone, that’s what’s so wonderful about it,” she said, and then offered a comparison with what she knows well, her scones. “At first I promised myself that I’d just bake the traditional scones, but people ask, and so I tried new things. Rebecca’s is like that, trying new things.”

Her English mother taught her how to bake scones. I asked what her most popular offering is. “Walnut scones,” she said. Is there, I asked, any secret to baking scones? “You have to learn not to touch them too much,” she said. “You have to learn to just let them alone.”

“The ghost appeared one evening.”

It was Sunday and the remark came as the sun was sinking into the Pacific, somewhere behind Coronado, the sky over our heads a lemon shade deepening into gold. I was in the backyard of Canyon House, a bed-and-breakfast and the oldest building on Olive Street. Painted in woodsy greens, the handsome two-story structure sits high on its foundation, on a slight crest, so that it helps to define the horizon line.

“Ruth, my daughter, saw the ghost,” said Carole Brown who, with her husband, owns Canyon House. Paul Brown grew up in North Park and graduated from Saint Augustine High School on nearby Nutmeg Street. They married, each for the second time, in 1986, and bought Canyon House two years later.

Paul Brown, at 54, has something of the poet that clings to him. For the last 26 years he has worked as an electronic digital control mechanic at the Naval Aviation Depot in North Island. Carole Brown, three years older than her husband (“And am I embarrassed about my age? No! I’ve earned every one of my years!”), has green eyes, flaxen hair, and a creamy complexion. She runs Canyon House because it gives her a chance to meet people, she says. Husband and wife have an easygoing attitude about their bed-and-breakfast endeavor. It is for them a fun hobby. But Carole Brown is one of those people who go about their hobbies in a big way. Take the garden where we were standing.

Here, at our feet, were strawberries and cabbages, onions, lettuce, and herbs (chives, basil, parsley, and dill), and next to the vegetable garden were geraniums, mums, gladioli, impatiens, daisies, and amaryllis. Because the Browns’ lot is three times larger than others on the block, their ample garden looked positively puny in it. The wide swatch of grass on the side was large enough to camp on, and the Safari Trek motor home parked beside it appeared to be about the size of a compact car. We looked up at the back of the house, with its handsome, sturdy lines. Paul, an outdoorsman, claims the backyard under the locust trees as his favorite spot. Stacked beside the steps were great pieces of wood, some of them already chopped for use in the fireplace. The tree, a deodar cedar, was 40 feet tall and 6 feet around at the base. I mentioned the ghost that Carole’s daughter saw.

“Yes,” she said, “she was on the street and saw it in one of the bedrooms on the second floor. I’ll show you.”

We entered the house through the back porch. On the mat we used to wipe our feet ran the green-thumb affirmation, “He who plants gardens plants happiness.”

The kitchen is the heart of Canyon House. A Wedgwood stove and refrigerator, circa 1930, both enameled in a pale yellow and in working order, speak of root beer and of Grandma baking cookies. The walls are hung with needlepoint adages that Carole has sewn. Some are funny, “Taste Makes Waist,” and some pleasingly sentimental, “A House and a Tree Spell ‘Contentment’ to Me.”

“When we bought the place, we knocked out a wall to open the space and make the breakfast nook roomier.” According to Paul, this was the only major renovation they undertook.

The house felt pleasantly private. Though they bought it in 1988, it took the couple ten years to open their home as a bed-and-breakfast. Since then, guests have been coming. “They’ve come from as far as Burma, Denmark, and Germany,” Carole said, opening a photo album filled with Polaroid snapshots of couples and families, all smiling and squinting a little in their first experience of the renowned California sunshine. While the Browns remember all their guests, they most vividly recall a 26-year-old man from Minnesota who came with his mother. Ill with Hodgkin’s disease, he spent much of his time in Tijuana, visiting clinics that offered alternative treatments for terminal cancer. After a weekend, they went back home.

“They were lovely,” said Carole, speaking quietly. She did not know if the young man survived.

When they first moved in, a swinging door led from the kitchen to the dining room. “And it would swing when nobody was there,” said Paul, making reference to ghosts again. “So I just removed it,” he said, pointing to the new no-swing door.

We made our way through the dining room, where Carole keeps her collection of kaleidoscopes and music boxes. “We also heard pacing back and forth on the porch,” said Paul, leading the way to the second floor. He set up a screen that kept the pigeons from nesting. “As soon as they were gone, we didn’t hear walking anymore.”

I figured that whatever made Linda Blair’s head swivel around in The Exorcist wouldn’t have had a chance with guys like Paul Brown around.

Upstairs, beyond the Browns’ bedroom, was the solarium. It had been made over into a children’s playroom because here, twice each week, Carole entertains her grandchildren. “This is my favorite room in the whole house,” she said.

They showed me into “Grandma’s Room,” a comfy rose-colored space warmed by mahogany furniture once owned by Amanda Groenbeck, Carole’s grandmother. Then they showed me the room in which the ghost was seen, and my first thought was that the ghost had good taste. Its place of haunting was done in tones of cool, pale green. A Murphy bed dropped down so that the sitting room doubled as a bedroom. I looked out the window. It was here, where I was standing, that Ruth Brewer, Carole’s daughter, spotted the ghost from the street below.

“She said she was wearing Victorian clothes.”

If I expected to see my breath fog and my teeth chatter with cold, I was disappointed. Of course the house had a definite presence, the accumulation of little things — the play of colored light from the rainbow kaleidoscopes in the dining room, the kids’ toys in the solarium, the needlepoint in the kitchen. The feeling here was warm and benevolent.

Early in the 20th Century, Dr. I.B. Hamilton came with his wife to San Diego from Phoenix, where he had worked for the Phelps Dodge Mining Company, owners of the largest copper mine in North America. Dr. Hamilton was not well at the time. They looked for someplace that might help restore his health.

According to records from the San Diego Historical Society, this part of North Park was known as Gurwell Heights. Salathiel Gurwell, who moved to San Diego in the early 1900s from Defiance, Ohio, acquired the property (officially listed in city records as a subdivision in 1906) during the course of the trolley expansion. He had prospective property buyers in mind. Between 1903 and 1909 the trolley expanded into the area east of Balboa Park. Thirtieth Street became the route, and a bridge was built to extend the street across Switzer Canyon. With 30th Street the only road connecting South Park to North Park, it was a natural place to build.

Doctor Hamilton designed his house, built in 1912, so that the family lived on the top floor; the patients (with easy access via the trolley system) were seen downstairs. According to city records, in 1937, after Hamilton died, Clara, his wife, sold the house for $10 to their daughter, Maryette Taylor. She lived in the house until 1973 when she sold the house to Alan and Diane Crittenden. Shortly afterward, Michael Pratt and his wife, Susan, bought the place. When Pratt, a serviceman, was transferred to Florida, he rented the house to actors from the Old Globe Theatre. By the time the Browns became the owners in 1988, a decade of actors and late-night parties had left neighbors affectionately calling it the “Martini House.”

“The Save Our Heritage Organisation may consider this a landmark,” said Paul. He showed me a print of the house standing alone on Olive Street. In the foreground, the trestle bridge crossed Switzer Canyon.

The couple walked me out to the front porch, which was, like their gazebo, a recent addition. They had also built a pergola, over which a cloud of purple wisteria trailed. Through that cloud, overhead, the sky had darkened, its rose color now stretched wide in the last moments of a spectacular sunset. On the front lawn, a young tree grew.

“It’s a jacaranda,” said Paul. He expected it to reach 30 feet at maturity. “You saw the big trunk in the back? It was planted at about the same time as the house was built, so that means the tree was nearly a hundred years old. We wanted to save it but couldn’t. So we cut it down and planted this. You see jacarandas downtown, along Sixth Avenue. They’re flowering trees that turn purple in the spring.”

I looked more closely at this sapling and noticed its hint of purple. Then it struck me that here — if there was any mystery to the ghost — was the source. I said good-bye and walked down the steps and out the gate. My mind was racing, and while I knew I was creating a fiction, what if, I told myself, at the time at which that first tree was the size of this one, a young woman appeared at Dr. Hamilton’s door. She had been abandoned by her lover. She was pregnant. She had taken the trolley that crossed 30th Street. Why? Because she was unwell, perhaps she was hemorrhaging in the course of having attempted to terminate the pregnancy herself. Or did she come here to Olive Street hoping to get help for the same thing? This was nearly 90 years ago. Her clothes would now appear old-fashioned, or, as Ruth Brewer described them, Victorian. As she made her way up the stairs and into the house, she looked back upon that young tree. It was the last thing she saw.

I felt eyes on my back. Were Paul and Carole Brown still on the porch and were they looking at me? I refused to turn around. There was a clear view of the street from the second-floor bedroom. Suppose I turned back and saw her, this woman betrayed and abandoned by a faithless lover? Had that old deodar cedar been her refuge until it was cut down, and did she wait for this new tree to grow, for its limbs to stretch forth strong enough to bear the weight of her grief, a tree with shade the color of springtime purple? My weekend began on Friday night at Ray’s, followed by a Saturday morning coffee break at Rebecca’s. It now ended here under a blaze of red nighttime sky. I crossed the street and got into my car. When I made my turn, I did not check my rear-view mirror. I left Olive Street to its mystery.

Plenty of San Diegans live on pleasant streets and have pleasant relationships with their neighbors. But on Olive Street, everyone gets a printout of the neighbors’ home and work telephone numbers. The list, often posted on refrigerators, offers a diagram of the block with each house and its residents clearly labeled. It includes a handy reminder that trash day is Wednesday and street sweeping is the first and third Tuesdays of the month. Recently, when on two consecutive days the city shut off the water on half the street for repairs, neighbors referred to their lists, made one or two urgent calls, and then tramped across the street, soap and towel in hand, bent on showers. Paul and Carole Brown, authors of the list, update it and tuck it into mailboxes when someone new moves onto the block. Olive Street has a noticeable scarcity of children — only one pair of teenagers — but there are plenty of pets, and these get on the list too. The residents are predominately dog lovers who have given their pooches names like Sam and Gracie and Calvin. Like new parents, neighbors share tips and books on puppy raising and training.

Kris Wackerli showed me the books she had used to train Iris, her Chihuahua. Janice Owlett, her neighbor, had given them to her. The Art of Raising a Puppy was written by the Monks of New Skete who, according to the jacket, “train their own beautiful dogs, and dogs of any breed, according to a unique program based on understanding canine behavior and enhancing the bond between dog and owner.” I turned to the first chapter, an account of Anka, a German shepherd, whelping her first litter. “As she pushes courageously, Anka lets out a scream that can only be described as primordial, her eyes like saucers as she is initiated mercilessly into motherhood.” Shuddering, I dropped that book and picked up the second, Carol Benjamin’s Mother Knows Best: The Natural Way to Train Your Dog. This how-to included cute drawings by the author and a chart indicating what “mother” was to do when “puppy is good” (“coo lovingly,” “pant”), very good (“take pup’s head in mouth”) and very, very good (“coo, lick, play, frolic”). There were also instructions for when “puppy is bad.”

I didn’t think of these books until weeks later when I was sitting on Sandy Gohres’s (pronounced “gores”) porch watching her deal with Bear, a playful seven-month-old black-and-tan rottweiler.

Firm? Friendly? Coaxing? Commanding? For the past ten minutes, Sandy — her green eyes flashing — had been trying every trick in every how-to book, and all to no avail. Popping up and down, leaving her seat and returning to it, first unwinding the chain to which Bear was attached and in which he’d wrapped himself, then pulling him back up over the wall from which he’d slipped. “If a car comes through,” said the 32-year-old, noting that the Olive Street alley was an active path for traffic, “this guy would be roadkill.” She sat down again but a minute later was on the grass removing a potted plant that had found its way into the puppy’s ever-widening gyre of play-space. As she returned to her seat, Bear followed and had to be made to retreat back down the front steps of the house. Next, Bear was scolded for being too rambunctious with Stormy, the four-year-old gray husky. Would the older dog lose patience, swat him, or give instead one of his hair-raising wolfish howls? Then Bear, in a display of unbridled affection, was about to trample Ling-Ling, the aged shih tzu that was nearly blind. Sandy ran down the steps again. “No, Bear! No!”

And on and on it went.

A little after ten o’clock on Saturday morning, and the springtime sky was alight, the day perfect. But for Sandy, who had agreed to puppy-sit Bear until a friend returned on Sunday evening, the weekend was going to be long indeed. Still, the easygoing blonde laughed. “You could say I’m already counting the hours,” she said.

An assistant softball coach at Mesa College, Sandy was used to handling what others might consider an unwieldy force.

“Bear! No!” she yelled, and then turned to me, smiling. “You have to remember that he’s just a puppy.”

Sandy Gohres grew up in Bay Park above Mission Bay, with a view overlooking Sea World and the ocean. The five-bedroom house held fond memories.

“It was a good childhood,” she said, her eye on the puppy.

When she was eight years old, she played her first girls’ softball game. Her team was part of the Bobby Sox League, and playing with them would be one of the great pleasures of her youth.

“I loved the smell of the grass, the sound of the ball cracking off the bat, the camaraderie of the teammates.” She was hooked.

Fourteen years ago, Sandy played third base and left field, on the Mesa College team. It was a time when women’s sports were not taken seriously. Women were under scrutiny, she suggested, and as a consequence felt themselves straitjacketed, their behavior closely monitored. Fearing to be labeled as “unladylike,” they could not throw themselves fully into the sport the way male players did. Women athletes were also dogged by questions about their sexuality. Now, after more than a decade, women feel they can relax. Sandy tells this to her young audiences at high school recruiting sessions. Her message is simple: “Come to Mesa College, get a top-notch education, have fun, and play college-level ball.”

“In the fall, we prepare for the spring games,” she said, returning once again to her seat after unwinding Bear’s chain. “We have weight lifting for strength and get the girls running. We work the students hard because they are in the sport to enjoy themselves, of course, but also to compete.”

Sandy does more than coach. She helps students pursue their academic goals. Last year, for example, one of her ballplayers, Erin Renning, who batted .510 overall and was voted most valuable player of the Pacific Coast Conference and an all-state player, wanted to go on to a four-year college. Sandy helped her complete the forms for academic scholarships and the applications for colleges where she could play ball. Renning, she said, is an example of how things have changed. “We’re doing catch-up. Men’s sports have a network for this kind of thing, and we’re in the process of building one too. It’s a very exciting time to be in women’s sports.”

Just then Lee Fargo opened her front door and crossed the street. Carrying a mug, she climbed the steps, sidestepped an eager Bear, said good morning, and spoke of the beauty of the spring day. From the front yard, we could see the gleaming spires of the Hyatt Regency and Symphony Towers.

“Coffee’s on the sideboard,” said Sandy. “Go help yourself.”

This Saturday, Sandy was designated to make coffee for the block. “Cream is in the refrigerator,” she called.

Her one-bedroom bungalow is attached to Diep and Linda’s home. (Both rent from Jim Sherman, who owns a number of properties throughout the city.) As it happened, this same weekend marked Sandy’s first year on Olive Street.

In 1995, her mother, suffering with lymphoma, died at Sharp Memorial; and last year, her father died from a staph infection at the VA Hospital in La Jolla. After Sandy and her two older brothers discussed it, they decided to sell the family home. “But it was really difficult,” she acknowledged. “I had lost my parents and then, even though we agreed to do it, losing our home was like a final blow. I mean, without ever putting it into words, I grew up thinking you can always go back home.”

Sandy had been adopted when she was six weeks old. Early on, her parents informed her of this, but she felt so fully loved by her adoptive family that she never had much of a desire to search for her biological parents. “But when the house was sold, my safe haven was gone. For the first time I felt like an orphan.”

She “lucked” upon her Olive Street place, she said. “It was a godsend. That feeling of not belonging anywhere left me as soon as I moved in.”

Lee Fargo stepped onto the porch just then. Sipping from her mug of coffee, she made her way down the steps and past Bear.

“That’s what I love about this place,” Sandy said laughing. “There’s always someplace to go for coffee on a Saturday morning.”

Just then I saw Steve Lowe across the street. He had turned into the alley and was making his way down toward his backyard. I told Sandy I’d see her later. By the time I reached Lowe, he had parked and was unloading his 1966 primer-gray Ford pickup.

It was an uncertain haul — molded plastic, wooden pieces, and iron parts of unclear function. A “picker,” Lowe scouts for antiques and collectibles at estate and garage sales, flea markets, and swap meets. Saturday mornings are his busiest time. Today he’d been up and out by 5:30 (“and I am not a morning person”), done his shopping, and now was back. To me most of what he’d retrieved didn’t look like much, but then I don’t have Lowe’s gift, his “eye.” For example, he sees a scarred mahogany headboard and knows what a difference a swipe of furniture polish will make. A plastic pint-sized reindeer, out of place in April, will get snapped up and find a happy home in December. An old iron hoe with a weathered oak handle will speak to the impassioned weekend gardener. Tanned and handsome, Lowe, 36, knows his business and takes pride in his work. He carries himself with the air of a ceo of a Fortune 500 business.

“I don’t try and get in anybody’s way,” he said, leaving unspoken the clear suggestion that by the same token he does not much like people getting in his.

Lowe is a native of San Diego. He grew up in Delta Heights, at Home and Euclid Avenues. His father died when he was eight, and his mother raised him and his brother, Mark. Lowe laughed when he tells how Mark was the first boy (and he was the second) to take home economics at Horace Mann Junior High School. “He did it to meet girls, and I did it to get easy credits.”

He took courses in floral design at Wright Brothers, a magnet high school (and worked in flower shops during the holidays). He is a graduate of Garfield High School at Oregon and Mead.

“If it was today, they would have listed me as ‘hyperactive,’ ” he said, carefully putting down a stack of Pyrex cookware. But Garfield had been set up as an independent learning center for students who did not fit into the traditional school setting, and it was perfect for him. “I was high energy and because I was openly gay 20 years ago, it was easier for everybody involved, I guess, for me to be at Garfield rather than trying to work things out in one of the other high schools.”

From 1988 to 1994, he ran his own travel agency in Hillcrest. It was on a trip to Tucson that he met Arnold Paul, an expert in glass and ceramics, and discovered his love for antiques and collectibles. Though his epiphany had come some years later than Sandy Gohres’s, who was eight when she recognized her love of softball, Lowe returned to San Diego, a confirmed “picker.”

In 1994, Lowe set up house, flying the multicolored gay-pride flag from his front porch. He leases his two-bedroom one-bath Craftsman-style house from a friend and has an option to buy. “I don’t ever want to leave here,” he said.

His home offers him the best of two worlds. From the front, onto 30th Street, he has a view of the city skyline. “I was standing out here the evening the lights went on at the old El Cortez Hotel. I’m looking and then, suddenly, there it was!” The number 2 bus passes by his door. This is convenient when Lowe wants to go downtown and doesn’t feel like hassling for a parking spot. “And I love to go out back, to the alley and Olive Street because there it’s quiet. I take a few steps and it’s like being in the country.”

Lowe has been HIV-positive for 17 years. Recently he received the good news that tests he took at the UCSD Medical Center in La Jolla showed his viral load had dropped to a near-undetectable amount. His physician was especially pleased, he said, because Lowe had been on the mix of retroviral drugs for only six months.

“We call them cocktails,” he said, his eyes bright, “and they sure seem to be doing their job.”

Across the street, Sandy Gohres was in all likelihood still struggling with Bear; by contrast, Lowe’s 13-year-old golden Labrador retriever was the soul of canine rectitude. Curled up on the floor of the study, Budweiser Hoffman barely deigned to raise his head when I followed his master inside.

“Just look at him,” said Lowe, looking down at his dog. “He reminds me that you have to learn to keep the little stuff from driving you crazy.”

His job as a picker encourages a laid-back mentality. Today, for example, he followed his usual plan of going early to the garage sales and checking them out. If the sale is taking place in a tract home or in a condo, or if he sees lots of “baby grab” (high chairs and kid toys), Lowe keeps moving. “At estate sales most dealers are inside the house. I head for the garage.”

Lowe loves “primitives,” he said, stuff that came out in the covered wagons. Accordingly, for him, the best buys are in Santee and Ramona, Escondido and Fallbrook. “Old oars and old watering cans, Grandma’s kettle and Aunt Ethel’s sewing stuff. Those are the things that touch me. They were used, they were a part of someone’s life.”

In his study, above Budweiser Hoffman’s unmoving body, Lowe has stowed one of his finds. A contraption made of fogged glass, rusted metal, and a couple of chewed-up red rubber balls. Lowe said it was a magician’s trick box from the late 1800s and assured me that it would sell well when it was cleaned up. But it was another of his finds, something called an Ellison Differential Draft Gage, that he was most excited about. It looked like an extended shoe box with a wooden handle, twin pipes, and a ruler encased in glass. He seldom keeps his finds, but this he will hold on to for a while, he said. I didn’t get it.

In a voice that was slightly thin and parched sounding, Lowe told of how, one morning in Tucson, when he first started picking, he came upon an elderly woman who had put out an Estate Sale sign. “There was nobody there, just me! And she had all this wonderful turn-of-the-century western stuff — plows, Indian pottery. I bought fifteen hundred dollars’ worth and sold it for twenty thousand.”

As it turned out, the money helped to pay for his subsequent therapy, for he’d walked into a moral dilemma.

“Let’s say a woman had a Roseville vase, a Ming Tree number 582, that retails for $140. For me the problem was, suppose she only wanted maybe five bucks for it? I don’t want to steal from anyone,” he said, “but in therapy I learned that if the five dollars made her feel like she got a good deal, then she was happy and, of course, I was too. I wasn’t in therapy long.”

Steve Lowe is the bad boy of Olive Street. His neighbors share tales. In the early spring, for example, gun-toting men stormed into his house. They wore yellow flak jackets with “Police” stenciled across the back and were from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. They handcuffed a young man who was staying there and took him away.

“Actually, it wasn’t quite that neat an operation.” Lowe corrected the gossip. “I was ready to go out to lunch, but they kept me sitting in my truck for two hours.”

As for the problem, he shrugged and explained that his friend had violated parole. The man was returned to jail, and the two have talked once or twice since then. However, Lowe appeared unperturbed by the incident; nor was he upset, as he candidly admitted, when in the course of an intimate rendezvous, his neighbors, with guests out on their back porch for a barbecue, could hear him. In fact, he seemed a little proud of the fact.

“Well, what can I say? The windows face on the back and we were making a lot of noise, I guess. We started off loud and kept getting louder and louder, and then afterwards, suddenly we heard this applause. It was funny.”

All his life, Lowe has been the odd man out, and his residency on Olive Street proves no exception. But despite a history of ongoing nonconformity, Lowe likes his neighbors and takes pains to show it. He shares the vegetables from his summer garden, full of zucchini, green beans, artichokes, and peppers.

“And last year I also had a beautiful fall garden. The beefsteak tomatoes were as big as softballs. I picked them and my cayenne peppers and made Christmas presents for my neighbors.” He thought the red and green colors nicely suited the holiday season. It was past noon and Lowe liked to take an afternoon nap.

“Give me an hour,” he said, letting the screen door bang after him. When he got up, he planned to drive to McDonald’s, he said, and buy ten of their 39-cent hamburgers. “I’ll eat six, save two for later, and give two to Budweiser Hoffman.”

Six hamburgers? I find it hard to imagine.

“Oh, they’re small, and you have to eat them fast, in the car.” Then he laughed and closed the door.

Every neighborhood needs boundaries, an edge to define itself, and on Olive Street — respectable and quiet — Steve Lowe, Bad Boy, serves as the designated Other. He likes that, I think.

Bear was still at it and Sandy was still at him when I made my U-turn. At the stop sign, I checked my rear-view mirror and saw her look up. She was wearing a cap of sunlight. I waved and she waved back, shooting one hand upward as if it was the bottom of the ninth and she’d just caught a line drive on third base. Against the blue springtime sky, she smiled and moved her arm side-to-side just once. Then she dropped her hand. I beeped my horn but she had already returned to the task of untangling Bear from his chain. I beeped again, and this time she looked up. I yelled it: “Happy Anniversary!”

Sally van Haitsma bought her home here in 1987, when 30th Street was the site of several drug, or crack, houses. Thirtieth Street has had a long and remarkable history. In 1909, a wood-and-iron bridge was built to span the canyon between Laurel and Olive Streets. The number two trolley rattled its way over the bridge until bus lines were put in. In 1957 an earth-fill bridge replaced the old wood-and-iron one, which had been the center of controversy for many years. According to reports, San Diego youths had seen the bridge timbers as a challenge and had often made the perilous climb. Eighty years later, 30th Street was still the site of youthful challenges, but this time it was drugs.

The city was auctioning Sally’s home, a two-bedroom bungalow that from roof to floor and front porch to back fence was a mess. She made a quick walk-through before the auction and saw what years of benign neglect had left behind and what might lie on the other side of a massive renovation. She never imagined the task as daunting because she is an optimist by nature and was also, at the time, just 25 years old.

“You only had to put 10 percent down. I mean, I was getting a whole house for less than $8000.”

The price included a fair share of headaches. During the next three years, while the police slowly closed down the crack houses, she was burglarized three times, always around the Christmas holidays. (After her third burglary, her insurance company dropped her.) The roof had to be replaced (with five layers of roofing material to tear off and cart away), the kitchen and bathroom redone, the garage and fence rebuilt. She went at matters inch by inch, room by room. She hammered and spackled and painted; she exchanged cheap contemporary fixtures for a ’30s ceramic sink from the Carnation Building downtown, a toilet with a ceiling tank that flushed with a pull on an overhead chain. She gutted the 1970s out of her 1920s bungalow, returning it to its early integrity. Today her home is pretty much an original, like Sally van Haitsma herself.

Six feet one inch tall, and blessed with thoroughbred lines, Sally stands a head over many men and most women. She is long familiar with the attention her height brings. Yeah, she says, and keeps going, literally taking the stares in stride. She likes to laugh, and when she does she throws her head back and laughs hard. Her eyes are of a hazel color and can gleam mischievously; her brown hair has been rinsed with a hue unknown to nature. She loves a good meal, likes to dance and stay out late. She is 39 years old, works in sales and marketing, and has had her heart broken a couple of times. Whatever she focuses on she cares deeply about, and at the moment she is focused on Switzer Canyon.

Switzer Canyon is critical to life on Olive Street. Sally’s neighbor, Lee Fargo, moved to Olive Street because the nearby canyon offered variety to the urban landscape and made her feel as if she were back in Minnesota, at her grandmother’s country home where she spent summers as a child. Kris Wackerli takes her dog, Iris, down into the canyon every afternoon for a walk. When Steve Lowe steps out of his backyard and looks down at the canyon, he experiences a sense of peace he feels has helped to keep his immune system in good working order for so long. Across the street, Diep Huynh hauled the 40-foot stalks of a pair of century plants from the canyon, painted them red and green, and strung lights from them for the Olive Street December 31 Millennium Party. Paul and Carole Brown named their bed-and-breakfast Canyon House. For everyone living on this block, Switzer Canyon is not just a deep trench out their back door. Without it, Olive Street would not be what it is. But the canyon, like others in the city, was facing trouble.

There are more than 40 canyons in San Diego. Decades ago when city workers first laid sewer lines, they used these canyons to take advantage of gravity, thereby eliminating the need to build and maintain private and public pumps. According to James Nagelvoort of the Water and Wastewater Facilities Division, of the 2850 miles of sewer in the city, 140 miles (and 2400 sewer manholes) are located in canyons and other “inaccessible” locations. While in much of the city the sewer infrastructure has been upgraded over the years, in the canyons it has not. From 1996 to 1999, according to statistics from the Metropolitan Wastewater Department, there were 279 sewage spills in the city’s canyons, an estimated 2,167,000 gallons. Sewage spills contaminate local waters, damage natural resources, endanger public health, and endanger local beach economies and communities. In order to replace and redirect the sewer lines, workers needed access to the canyons. A year ago, the water district proposed building permanent roads into the canyons. When word got out of the city’s plans to cut down trees and pour cement, community groups sprang into action. Sally van Haitsma was one of those who jumped.

“Wanna go to a meeting?” she asked me.

The year before, when she’d first gotten wind of the city’s plans for Switzer Canyon, those plans were already drawn up and about to be put into action. Sally liked neither what the city was intent on doing nor the fact that the decision had apparently been made without community input. “They were talking about coming into my backyard,” she said. If she was exaggerating a little to make a point, the matter was personal indeed. Like members of the Canyon Campaign Organizer, Switzer Canyon Task Force, and Friends of Mission Hills Canyons, Sally started collecting names to petition the city to put its plans on hold and review alternatives to those plans. Now a year later, she and a chorus of critics had created such a stir that the city was calling for a series of town hall meetings so that concerned citizens could be apprised of the critical nature of the problem and participate in finding solutions to it. April 26 was the first meeting.

When I told her I’d pick her up, she said I couldn’t miss her house because she’d just changed the trim from a faded Band-Aid pink to twin bands of avocado green and sunflower yellow. The colors were attractive, eye-catching, and indeed hard to miss. I drove up, parked, and knocked on the door. “Come in! I’m in the back!” she called. I stepped inside the house that, tidy and small, was like many of the other houses on Olive Street. Except for the fact that Sally had a driveway and a garage, otherwise the layout was the same: fireplace in the living room, dining room next to the kitchen, two bedrooms sharing a common bath. So much for comparisons. Inside, I was greeted with a tall mannequin dressed in a Peruvian alpaca poncho and topped by a black “Peg Bundy” (from the TV sitcom Married…With Children) wig and hat. From 1990 to 1994, Sally co-owned Altitude, a store for tall women in the Uptown District at Vermont Street and Cleveland. The mannequin came from there.

Hanging over the fireplace was a family heirloom, a framed print given to Sally’s grandmother at her wedding. At first the scene appeared tranquil enough, a misty island topped by Cypress trees. Upon closer inspection, though, the moody scene turned out to be a giant crypt and the woman approaching the island over water is seen to be bringing a casket. The print, Island of the Dead, was a weird wedding gift, I thought, just as unusual as the steer skull hanging over the couch, its bones whitened on the desert floor and a neat hole dead center in the bony brow where the bullet entered that ended the animal’s life. This was all gothic stuff, but it was meringue, light and meant to tickle. The living room walls were painted a frothy salmon and trimmed in a celery green. On the ceiling dandelions had been hand painted in gilt that Sally is happy to say makes people look up and notice the cracks. Strung over the front door was a wreath of oversized plastic chili peppers.

I crossed into the dining room where the charcoal gray wallpaper was crushing the space around the dining room table. Eating here might be a little like eating in a cave, but a posh cave, for the wallpaper, with its black-and-gold imprint, was a design copied from Radio City Music Hall in New York, the cathedral of Art Deco. On one wall hung an Eisenstadt print of an elegant woman standing on a fashionable New York street with two large leashed poodles.

“Hey! Where are you?”

“Coming!” I said.

On my way out, I peeked into her bedroom, where black lace curtains covered the window and a couple of postcards (Oscar Wilde and Louise Brooks with her dark cleft hair) were tucked into the mirror frame. In the galley-kitchen a parade of salt and pepper shakers ran along the top of a ’50s Western-Holly stove.

“That’s some house,” I said, stepping onto the back porch.

She was watering her plants while a gray cat played at her feet. Eight years ago, she picked up the alley cat in Rancho Santa Fe and named him Piquet after the Brazilian formula-one race-car driver Nelson Piquet. (At the time, she was dating a man who raced an Alfa-Romeo. Sally’s own car is a pewter-colored ’98 Neon.)

A local artist, James Brown, built the back gate, a surrealist venture of varied shapes with a lock system that requires a rocket scientist to operate. Sally painted her garage a delectable raspberry red and stained her fence in alternating panels of green and purple. “I was feeling bad about a boyfriend when I did that,” she quipped. She checked her watch. It was nearly seven, and the evening sky had rinsed out much of the blue. “Don’t you think we’d better go?”

She was wearing a yellow blouse and black skirt that fit low on the hips (both from the Laundry Boutique in SoHo, New York). Genes and her fashionable clunky shoes had put her nearly five inches over me. In the living room, Sally hit a light switch and her wreath of plastic chili peppers came to life. Then she closed her front door.

Outside, I smelled something subtle with a hint of clove. It was her perfume, called “especie,” she said. “I used to wear Samsara until I found out what it means,” she said, folding herself into the front seat. I asked its meaning. “It means ‘illusion,’ in the Buddhist sense, which is bad, not in the Hollywood sense, which is Hollywood.”

She laughed.

As I turned onto 30th Street, she pointed behind to a house on the corner. The woman who used to live there, she said, was working at some cosmetic counter when a couple approached her, stunned, they said, at how much she looked like their daughter. “And guess what? The woman found out that this other woman, the couple’s daughter, was her twin sister! They had been separated at birth!” Sally laughed. “They got on Oprah for that one!”

I made a left onto Redwood. Sally spoke of the 98-year-old woman who lived behind her when she first moved to Olive Street, who remembered the trolley that ran down 30th Street. There were other stories and Sally, an easy talker, included rich details in them and sometimes ended with a punch line. Somehow, she said, a skunk got into Rod and Janice Owlett’s house and sprayed the place so badly that they had to repaint much of the interior. But if that wasn’t bad enough, she went on, a guy high on amphetamines tore into Olive Street, abandoned his truck, then ran up onto their roof and was dancing there. “The police had to bring their dogs and get him out of a tree. He had jumped off the roof and was down in Switzer Canyon.”

I slipped into a space not far from the Casa del Prado in Balboa Park, where the town meeting was to be held.

“Urban canyons are critical to a neighborhood’s quality,” City Councilmember Christine Kehoe was quoted in the package of material I was handed when we entered the room. “We need to find a way to maintain sewer lines and make repairs when indicated and at the same time, be sure that sewer maintenance fully respects and protects our valuable canyons and their assets.”

Kehoe was not just stating the obvious but having it both ways. She seemed to be hedging her bets and putting her eggs, so to speak, in the baskets held by the homeowners. They, after all, vote.

In Room 101 of Casa del Prado, it was easy to distinguish the engineers and city personnel from the homeowners. The muni-folk were smiling warily. All the rest, the 50 or so men and women whose homes sat above these canyons and who came in toting briefcases and wearing suits because they’d come here directly from work, they were not smiling.

“There’s going to be a fight,” I whispered, looking around. We sat down near the back.

The city was responsible for sewage maintenance, and the 140 miles of sewer lines that ran through the city’s canyons were gravely in need of repair. The facts were simple. But for these folks it was as if they’d been sent home a note from the school principal notifying them that in response to the threat of ticks, on Monday the flesh was to be flayed off their children’s bodies. You should have seen their faces.

James Nagelvoort, from the city’s Water and Wastewater Facilities Division, took the podium to speak of the infrastructure, background, and maintenance challenge the canyons offered. While he talked, the audience hunkered down in their seats. Hands flew up with questions and what might have been demands for clarification, but these all went unanswered while Nagelvoort barreled along to his conclusion, which turned out to be an apology. The city, he said, had been remiss in presuming to act without taking into account the feelings of the communities involved. “Everyone needs to participate in creating, evaluating, and selecting the solutions and alternatives.”

You could have heard a pin drop.

These good people had won, and for a moment they sat quietly, not knowing what to do with themselves. Into that emotional vacuum stepped someone from the Audubon Society. At the podium, he spoke of the canyons’ fragile ecosystems, of the breeding and foraging of the coyote, the survival of the cactus wren, the habitat and shelter of the orange-throated whiptail lizard, the movement and dispersal of the California gnatcatcher. But who was listening? This guy was preaching to the choir. Someone else stepped forth with remarks on watershed preservation, of how canyons increase the quality of life and the value of land around them, of the canyons’ recreational and educational values. Who didn’t know this? What was important was that their city, San Diego, had acknowledged its error and was willing to make amends. The will of the people (that is, the not-inconspicuous clout of white middle-class homeowners who live in some of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods) had been heard. The canyons were safe, at least for a while. As the large group broke down into smaller groups for discussion, I suggested that we leave. Sally, who would continue to monitor the canyon issue, was up for a cup of coffee.

Claire de Lune in the Odd Fellows Building on University Avenue in the center of North Park is a favorite of hers. She calls it “magical,” and with its clerestory windows that gave you the feeling of being in a church, it was that evening. We each had a café latte and shared something chocolate. By the time I turned onto Olive Street, it was well after ten and the street was quiet. At the cusp of the cul-de-sac, a yellow welcome light was burning on the porch at Canyon House. Sandy Gohres and her neighbors, Diep Huynh and Linda Flores, both had their living room lights on and their front doors open to take advantage of the warm night air. Their dogs, Stormy and Casso, were at the screens, silent sentries smelling the nighttime scents. Across the street, Lee Fargo’s lights were out, and she may have already been in bed. Behind her, Kris Wackerli’s Christmas lights, a thousand of them strung through the bougainvillea that trailed over her porch, shone like fireflies. We could make out Janice Owlett in her living room, a black silhouette moving against an orange background.

“She must be cleaning her house,” said Sally, whispering. Rod, she said, was away on business and was coming back tomorrow. “He is?” I was whispering too. It was the hour, and that kind of night, for talking low. “I think I’ll stop in and tell her about the meeting.” Sally gripped the handle of the car door. “Thanks,” she said, “it was fun.” She pushed against the door and stepped out. Night air filled the car in a rush. She closed the door.

The poet Richard Wilbur writes that “piecemeal the summer dies,” but it also arrives the same way. April 26, but already in the night air was summer’s first hint, a sweet smell foretelling of fresh grass and bare feet and the rasping touch of cotton sheets warm from the milky sun. “Me too,” I said, leaning down to talk through the window glass, my head swimming a little. “I had a good time.”

Sally hurried up the steps and knocked while I made my U-turn. Janice’s two huge dogs, a boxer and a French mastiff, were at the door when she opened it. The screen door was unlatched and Sally stepped inside. Then the door closed. It took seconds, no more, but it was long enough to hear a snatch of music from Rod Owlett’s Bose stereo system. I’d heard Janice say it was her favorite piece, and just before I turned onto 30th Street, Stanley Turrentine’s haunting instrumental held ever so briefly, suspended in the hushed air. For a moment, “Pieces of Dreams” passed along the street, carried by a sudden breeze moving through the trees of Switzer Canyon. But even before I turned and was gone, it too was, and Olive Street was silent.

This is the second of a two part-story. Read the first part.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader