La Jolla Liberal Learns Tolerance from Clairemont Republicans

And Spring Valley rotation, transcendental Mira Mesa, Ramona hillbillies, Sapphire Street, Gringo in Tijuana

National City.  The De la Cerdas' house seemed foreign and pastoral to me. Then one day it very abruptly became a Quality Inn.
  • National City. The De la Cerdas' house seemed foreign and pastoral to me. Then one day it very abruptly became a Quality Inn.
  • Image by Alan Decker

Editor's note: More than 600 San Diegans submitted stories for the Reader "My Neighborhood" writing contest. Ocean Beach led all communities with over 20 entries. Writers 10 to 87 years old sent pieces from as far north as Fallbrook and as far south as Tijuana and from most every neighborhood in between. A Marine lieutenant in Iraq wrote to us about the La Jolla neighborhood he misses. Over the next four weeks, 41 of the best neighborhood stories will appear in the Reader.

Clairemont. I've even grown fond of the 100-foot palm tree decked with year-round Christmas lights.

Clairemont. I've even grown fond of the 100-foot palm tree decked with year-round Christmas lights.

I look out the car window at the tacky little houses with gravel front yards. The streets are lined with parked trucks advertising hauling, mobile dog washing, drywall, mariachi bands. Inside an open garage, a bunch of men sit around a poker table drinking beer.

I miss La Jolla and tell the realtor. "Well, it's the cheapest neighborhood close to the beach," she says as we drive past a house covered in millions of old dishes, ceramic statuettes, Christmas ornaments, and plastic flowers.We're here because I can't afford to buy in La Jolla, the beautiful place I've come to love and call home, where my friends live and where I surf; the place I'd moved to four years before to get as far as I could from a bad divorce back East. Now, ready to settle in San Diego for good, I want to be as close to La Jolla as possible. This cheaper, uglier neighborhood will have to do.

The house I end up buying isn't bad. It's tiny, but the backyard is huge. Best part is I'm only eight minutes to La Jolla Shores. Worst part is I now live in the kind of neighborhood where people keep boats in the front yard and washing machines in the garage. Where I grew up, we called people like that trashy.

These people are my neighbors.

I meet Ron and Paula next door. They have matching Harleys and an Iwo Jima-sized American flag flying in the front yard. Ron tells me that the man who owned my house before me repaired lawn mowers in his backyard, and when business was good, you could see mountains of mowers crowning above the fence. "Did you mind that?" I ask. "Hell, no," Ron said, "cuz that was his business. But I did mind when he'd shoot stray cats with a shotgun." At least we have one thing in common.

The day after I move in, my washing machine overflows. Suds gush all over the unpacked boxes in the garage and down the driveway into the street. Suddenly, there's George, an older man with a pug, a walking stick, and a Scottish brogue. "Lass! Yurr need yurr dren snekked!" My dren snekked? It takes him two hours on his hands and knees, but George and his snake coddle my drain into submission. For free.

Then there is Ruth. In baseball cap and running shoes, 80-year-old Ruth strolls the block like she owns it, and in a sense she does, having lived here for over 40 years. Ruth calls everyone by name and wastes no time learning mine. She also wastes no time figuring me out. "Look at you, Alex, loading up that surfboard. You sure are in a hurry to get to that beach. Must be lots of good-looking men waiting down there for a pretty girl like you."

I meet Ruth's best buddy, Daniel, a first-grader she watches while his parents are at work. Like Ruth, Daniel's an ardent waver and never lets me pass his front yard without a good chat. He introduces me to his parents, his older brother, and his best friend, Tito.

Next door to Ruth are Don and Colleen. Ruth tells me they've been like a son and daughter, helping her and her husband live out the last years at home.

I try to stay aloof, reviling the collection of rusted-out Chevrolet Impalas down the street. I curse the breeze -- not scented by the sea but by hot Krispy Kreme donuts. My neighbors circle their wagons around me and pull in tighter.

It's true I've never felt so safe. Ron and Paula give me their phone number to keep by my bedside. "Call us anytime day or night," and they mean it. The renters Ward and John guard our street like vigilantes; John, to protect his beloved PT Cruiser and Ward guarding tools in his two work trucks. Neighbors are everywhere -- in garages, in the yard, walking dogs, shouting at each other through open screen doors. I am comforted by all this presence. Me! The snob who secretly has referred to a nice but scantily clad young mother with tattoos as Stripper Mom.

Here I am, the Wellesley College liberal, encircled by this fiercely independent bunch of strangers, immigrants, and Republicans, who somehow know I need a lesson in tolerance. Sure enough, as my mother always said, "Pretty is as pretty does." From the neighbors I once judged, now I find myself learning the small everyday courtesies of neighborliness: a friendly wave, a joke, a favor asked, a favor returned.

Ward and John give me fresh plums from their tree, and I take them a jar of homemade plum jam. When the teacher next door must fly to his father's deathbed and asks me to collect his mail, I surprise myself by feeling honored. No, I don't like Ron's Lindbergh Field-strength driveway light, which makes my backyard safe enough for a runway landing at night, but I admit I'm probably safer for it. I've even grown fond of the 100-foot palm tree decked with year-round Christmas lights -- sharing its front yard with a boat. My little house has begun to feel like home.

I sure miss Ruth, who died last year, especially when I see the new neighbor who always seems to be pushing a baby stroller while walking the dog while talking on his cell phone. Ruth could crack him with one smile, I know, but now it's my job.

We're losing George, too. He's had a medical diagnosis that none of us can bear to call by name. We still wave and chat, but we keep an eye out when he walks his dog in case he loses his way. After all, we're his neighbors and the least we can do is help steer George home.

Welcome to North Clairemont, our neighborhood.

-- Alex Finlayson


NASTY CITY

Most people recall their first kiss with fondness and clarity. I cannot remember my first kiss. But there was so much kissing and so much groping going on in my neighborhood as a kid, we thought that was the reason people called National City "Nasty City." We wore that badge with pride, believing we had obviously earned it with our adroit, bold, precocious sexual experimentation. We didn't play Hide 'n' Seek -- we played Hide 'n' Go Get It! It wasn't until years later that I realized the term "Nasty City" was more often a slur on the socioeconomic condition of the town than the romantic antics of East 12th Street. Imagine my chagrin.

But when I think of Nasty City, I think of John Zamora.

It did not occur to me that 12 years old was a little young to contemplate losing my virginity. John Zamora was two years older than me, and he regularly contemplated it. His attempts to remove my panties at every possible opportunity usually occurred with DJ Tayari on radio station 92.5 playing in the background of a friend's garage. We were loyal to our soul music and oldies, especially "Always and Forever" by Heatwave or "Angel Baby" by Rosie and the Originals (themselves National City natives). Sometimes we would sneak into John's house. His parents had huge religious paintings all over the walls, and I could never shake the feeling of Jesus watching me getting felt up. Nothing sets the mood for love like a particularly bloody rendition of the Stations of the Cross.

I would curl my bangs with a curling iron, put on some unicorn-emblazoned top, and walk up 12th street to Ziggy's house. Ziggy's name was James, but we all knew him by his DJ name. Everybody and their brother was a DJ back then, or a breaker. "Breakdancer" was a term used only by the media and the uninitiated. You weren't worth your parachute pants or your square of linoleum if you used such a ridiculous word.

The garage and the radio were all we needed to get our mojo on when I was a kid. Two or three of us would be assigned the task of walking to the gas station "Mini Shop" on the corner of Plaza and Palm for provisions. We slow-danced with the lights off, a bunch of preteens armed with Funyuns, Mountain Dew, and a startling lack of parental supervision. It is astounding to me that I did not lose my virginity until I was 17 and that the lot of us didn't get pregnant in rapid succession that summer of 1983. In my diary, between ramblings about Duran Duran (I either "loved Simon" or "loved Nick" according to my mercurial whim), all I could write about was messing around with John Zamora. That's what we called it, "messing around."

I should draw a diagram of the neighborhood, that would be so Dave Eggers of me. I lived at the bottom of the block, next door to Mr. Bartlett, whose finely manicured and verdant front garden remains the visual highlight of the street. It was also the home of Toot, the evil Doberman Pinscher who bit me while I was roller-skating. Never leashed but meticulously trained, Toot did not ever, ever cross the seam in the concrete separating the end of his driveway from the sidewalk. So the day he bit me, I couldn't help but be impressed that he actually stuck his neck out over that line, so as to take a bite out of my Dove shorts while still maintaining his perfect record.

Next door to the Bartletts' was my best friend Eva's house, then Ziggy's house, up toward the end of what I suppose you would call a cul-de-sac. We certainly never referred to it as such, and to this day I feel some municipal code must surely forbid the use of the pretentious term cul-de-sac within National City limits. Down the other side of the street, before John Zamora's house, was an apartment building that played host to the most thrilling drama ever to unfold here, when a man shot himself and had to be LIFE-FLIGHTED OUT. The words in my trusty Hello Kitty diary feverishly recount that day in all caps, just like that: LIFE-FLIGHTED OUT.

There was also a huge undeveloped hill of land with just one house on it, home to our friends the de la Cerdas. My first experience with gentrification happened on that hill, when it was torn down to make room for a motel. I had envied the de la Cerdas, because I had never known anyone who lived so far away from the street, so far away from neighbors. It seemed foreign and pastoral to me, like Wyeth's painting Christina's World. Then one day it very abruptly became a Quality Inn.

Directly across the street from my house was Dr. Free, the dentist's office. So perfectly aligned with my front window was Dr. Free's that I cannot believe I never got caught messing around with John Zamora on the steps leading up to the dental X-ray rooms. The steps were covered in that bright, stiff Kelly green artificial turf that often left little scrapes on my elbows and back. By rights, my mother should have caught me almost in flagrante delicto on any number of nights if she'd only turned her head away from Dallas or Falcon Crest at the right moment. Actually, it must have been Quincy or the Rockford Files, because I would never miss Dallas. Not even John Zamora could come between me and my shows.

So although I don't remember my first kiss, I am fairly certain that the 2nd through the 78th came from him. Every one of them, in National City.

-- Jennifer C. Cooke


O.B. PARROTS LOVE BEAN BURRITOS

Half-past sleep, quarter to wake, my dreams are invaded by the noises of morning. The windows rattle with the passing garbage truck, beeps and whistles of nearby construction pierce the air, the thunder of the day's departing flights resounds low over the palm trees, and the screeching-squawking of the furious parrots puts a somnolent smile on my face. The parrots: transplants like the rest of us -- who can blame them? Waking up in Ocean Beach: the cacophony of my neighborhood in the mid-a.m.

I open my eyes. The weather will say "overcast" -- but all I see is silver lining.

A symphony such as this, what might be a headache for some, is for me a daily sacrament which gently stirs me from slumber. I sit, stand, stretch, a little downward-facing dog; I sing a little song for the plants -- and walking out among the birds, the breeze, and the local crazies, I remember once again why I call this town my home.

I say "my" home because Ocean Beach is mine. A part of it is mine, and I am an integral part of Ocean Beach. I am reminded of this fact as I meander down the street toward the plant-garlanded coffee shop, meeting friends I've seen for years without ever knowing their names.

The guy with the guitar, the iguana man, the wood-burning guy -- without them, a walk to coffee would not seem complete.

As I pass the window of my workplace, I think of how, tonight, the macabre darkness of this cave will become a carnival bazaar full of people, music, drinks, and friends -- with and without names.

"Don't give him any money," a stranger says as my friend and I pass a panhandler. "They only use it for drugs." I look at the homeless man -- he is sunburned, bearded, and sitting under an awning to avoid the blazing sun. I momentarily consider what the person says, but it's too late: I've already dropped my coffee change into his cup. The stranger, some elitist-type, shakes his head and walks away.

"To each his own," says my friend, and we continue down the street.

When we reach the beach, we practically fall over the wall and into the sand. We lumber along, saddling coffees, bags, and blankets, waving and smiling to various acquaintances, and finally meet our friends and pop-a-squat -- and not long after, taste our first delicious beer.

Almost immediately, a reddy-bearded Irishman with an enormous red satchel wanders over and introduces himself. Hand extended, blue eyes square on mine -- "Rick O'Shea!" -- he gently unfolds his sack. He tells us his story, revealing his past and his handmade crystal jewelry all at once. Rick O'Shea, noticing my friend Renee's peace-symbol tattoo, names her "Renegade, the Peace Warrior." The name sticks; it will be days before we realize his name is "Ricochet."

We walk along Newport, past shop windows, bars, and head shops -- we witness two parrots on a telephone wire who are obviously having sex; they are not being discreet about it in the least. We laugh and pretend not to watch them until they finish. One parrot squawks to the other, "So...this is awkward. I'll call you?"

I am secretly dreading going to work, and alas, before we know it, it's time. We sneak one last beer at the Pizza Place -- what the hell, we split a pitcher -- and I'm off to work the night shift.

The night begins easily enough; some friends come and go; I sneak into the back for refreshments; the patrons, though exclusively PBR drinkers, are good tippers. Nonetheless, I begin to realize I won't be walking with good money tonight.

There is a bar fight, someone is kicked out. Someone spills a cocktail, and I get to clean it up. Some asshole at the bar keeps flicking coasters at the customers. "Relax," I tell myself. "Only five more hours!"

Finally, it seems that the night is drawing to a close. I take a shot and start to think it was all a bad dream. I'm taking the final drink orders when I see a mean-looking man sitting with his ass inside the garbage can and talking on a cell phone. "Great," I think. "A drunk Sesame Street character."

"Excuse me," I say politely. "You can't sit in the trash, okay?"

"Hey, fuck you, Blondie!" he says, and resumes his conversation.

By now, I'm not only pissed but a little hurt. I get the doorman to kick him out, and after cleaning up some puke in the bathroom and counting my tips -- meager -- I'm out the door in a jacket-flap. What a night!

I wander through town. The shops are closing, the streets are clearing, everything is dark. My friends, by now, are all asleep. I had such high hopes this morning -- what happened to my perfect day? I can think of nothing more appropriate but to drown my sorrows in a bean burrito from El Rodeo. They understand me there, even if they don't speak English.

I walk, erm, stumble over to the taco-shop-slash-tattoo-parlor. I've just placed my order when I realize -- oh God, no! -- I've left my tips at work. "GOD IN MERCIFUL FUCKING HEAVEN," I cry in desperation. Looking around at the bums, the drunks, I ask myself: What am I doing with my life?

"Está bien," says a voice.

"What?" I lift my head to see the lady behind the counter handing me my burrito. "But I didn't pay ?"

She nods in the direction of the street. "He pay for you."

I turn towards the street just in time to see a man walking quickly away. Who the...? Then I realize who it is. It is the man from this morning, the "panhandler" to whom I'd given my coffee change. I smile, take my burrito, and thank the lady.

On the way home, I happen to see some parrots sitting on a telephone wire. One parrot squawks to the other, "Dude, I love bean burritos."

-- Kate Forsyth

and James Sims


ONE SPRING VALLEY ROTATION

This is a cyclical neighborhood -- one generation to the next follows the cycle -- one generation to the next moves one rotation.

  1. Henry moved into the neighborhood 60 years ago. Henry built his two-bedroom house with his own hands. At that time, the neighborhood was rural, empty space, and the quaint little Quaker chapel on the corner was a testament to a new Protestant sanctuary on the outskirts of San Diego. But Henry and his wife had watched the neighborhood change right before their eyes. Now the transients sip beer from cans disguised by brown bags as they lounge under the trees in front of the chapel. Kids walk in gangs down the street picking fights. Drug addicts, with only towels wrapped around their waists, hang out by the liquor store because they can't go in without shirts or shoes.

Henry often wonders how this could have happened and at what point the neighborhood took such a drastic turn from the rural days of the 1940s. He has always been an old farm boy. He has always loved horses. Nowadays, he can only watch horses on his color television. He watches old John Wayne movies on the DVD player his son hooked up for him. Since his wife died seven years ago, he spends most days and nights alone, with nothing but time to peek out of his windows and watch things change.

  1. Jonathan and his mom moved to the neighborhood when he was two years old. He was born in Kansas City, but he doesn't remember anything about it. Although his dad still lives there, Jonathan's never been allowed to visit him and his dad has never come to Spring Valley to see him either. His mom tells him that his dad doesn't want to see him, and Jonathan believes her because his dad never calls or sends him anything, not a letter or a picture or even a birthday card. To Jonathan, his father doesn't exist.

The Kenwood corridor is not an easy neighborhood for a kid. The mortality rate in the area is one of the highest in San Diego County, and a kid is forced to grow up in the neighborhood long before kids should. By eight years old, Jonathan was already getting into trouble, small things -- smoking cigarettes with his friends by the Dumpsters and stealing penny candy from the liquor store. Fourteen now, he has already been in trouble with the law. He and a friend broke into a neighbor's apartment for the thrill. They didn't steal anything, but the old man across the street witnessed everything from his window and called the police. Up to that point, to Jonathan, the old man and his old house had been but a dot one sees out of the corner of one's eye; now it was a distinct smudge. And it was generally known that something needed to be done about that old man who had nothing better to do than to watch out of his windows.

  1. It was a sweltering summer evening, the kind that catches you about the throat and holds you hostage all night. Jonathan sat on the sidewalk sipping Coca-Cola from a bottle and holding his cigarette low to the ground so no one would see. He was waiting to meet someone. Sweat poured from his forehead, and he wiped it with his bare arm and looked up to see T saunter through the crosswalk, hat low, hands in the pockets of baggy shorts that clung to his slim figure as though even the smallest breeze might blow them off. They acknowledged each other, and Jonathan got up and walked away from his bottle. T followed after him to the alley behind the old man's house. It was 6:00 p.m.

At midnight they still sat in the alley, motionless and quiet. All was silent and dark except for two or three streetlights that gave a mild light. The two boys quietly hopped the gate into the old man's backyard and clung close to the fence, making their way toward the house. They knew from days of surveillance that the old man always kept a window at the back of the house opened after he went to bed promptly at 9:00.

They cut out the screen, slid the window open quietly. T hoisted Jonathan up as he climbed through. For a moment, in the dark bathroom, Jonathan wondered what he was doing. He thought how easy it would be to back out -- but it was too late. He walked slowly forward, groping the walls as his eyes adjusted to the dark. The bathroom door was open to the hallway, and Jonathan stepped out. He could make out nothing but the shadowy shape of a desk to his right and an abyss of blackness to his left. He turned left and crept along the hallway, feeling for door knobs. When the smooth coolness of a round knob met his palm, he gripped it tightly. He turned the knob and pushed at the door. It creaked in a low moan. The moonlight shone through the window and uncovered the end of an old sagging bed. As he stood there in the doorway, Jonathan could hear the rough breathing of the old man. He had a gun in his pocket and he reached for it, and he pulled it out.

  1. Many years later Jonathan sits in the courtroom as the judge pronounces his son, Ben, guilty of possession, armed robbery, and a handful of misdemeanors. He realizes that his own guilt had paved the way for the guilt of his son and soon would pave the way for the guilt of his grandsons -- every generation, one Spring Valley rotation in the Spring Valley cycle.

-- Kelly Lopez


HISTORIC FLUKES

IN LA MESA

Wade is eight now, but he still looks like an angry jack-o'-lantern when he cries. He started crying on cue when he stepped in through the front security door. I'd picked that white security door from the screen-door carousel at Dixieline five years ago, the weekend we moved into this house. It's essentially a cage door. Its steel bars are spot-welded into a sunburst pattern over rolled steel mesh.

Boone and Cody's dad is just dumb!" Wade burbled through the tears.

Mike is short and I've only seen his bald scalp inside his living room. He usually wears a ball cap with his mechanical engineering company's logo. He's wiry, with a gruff voice. I hear him barking, "Listen to Coach!" when my son's Little League team practices in the same park as Boone and Cody's. Mike and I live on the same street in La Mesa, south of Interstate 8. We usually talk on the phone when one of our sons is missing after sundown. His sons both look like his wife, Carol, who is pinched, thin, and pale like her Norwegian ancestors.

My wife didn't like the steel sunburst security door when I took her out to see it lying flat in the bed of my old Ford.

Wade had gone down the street to play football with Boone and Cody and some other neighborhood boys on the long green rectangle of Mike's backyard. His front lawn is so lush it's almost tropical. My own front yard is a Sad Monument to a Lawn. The desert dirt is patched haphazardly with sun-bleached straws of Bermuda grass and other common weeds. The crappy sod job the previous owner threw down was already browning when I bought the place, because the hastily cobbled sprinkler system didn't fully water it.

"What did Boone and Cody's dad say to you?" I asked Wade.

"That Boone and Cody couldn't play with me anymore!" His voice and face filled with exaggerated sarcasm. "He said they couldn't trust me to not get Boone and Cody into trouble in the neighborhood."

Wade told me that he and the other boys had crossed the street to slide down a bank of ice plant, leaving a deep gouge in Mike's neighbor's land-scaping.

Mike always answers the phone with emphasis.

"Mike Shermerhorn!"

It's more of a statement than a greeting.

"Mike, it's Dan."

"Hello, Dan."

I asked him what had happened. He pretty much told me what Wade told me. In his version, though, he named Wade as the instigator.

Our tract neighborhood was named College Heights by the developer. The streets carry the names of Big Colleges. Our street is Purdue. The original trust deed to my property was signed in 1946. It specifies that "no persons of color may reside at said residence unless employed in a servant capacity." I wonder if Mike's mortgage documents include a copy of this, as do mine.

"So, 'instigator,' huh?" I said.

"Carol and I just feel that it would be a good idea for Wade to stay home for a while."

He said it like he was talking about the weather.

I come from poor-white-trash stock out of the mountains of upstate New York. This is the kind of story my grandmother told us about "those Darby people" late at night, with the old photos spread out across the table.

I said goodbye to Mike like I was thanking him for an order of fast food.

When my wife saw that security door, she started in talking about my backwards family. She said it looked like something they would have pulled out of the dump. Five years ago, we weren't having serious trouble yet. We'd rented a house farther down the canyon before we bought this one. The rental was on the corner of Princeton and Harbinson. Every Saturday morning, when the bars let out, drunks in muscle cars did time trials along the quarter-mile from Stanford to Colony. They were still ramping up when they went by our rented house. But my wife generally liked the neighborhood, and we both fell in love with the house on Purdue when we went to view it. You can see Cowles Mountain from the living room, framed by eucalyptus trees planted farther down the canyon. We bought the place on our first walk-through. But she didn't like that security door. She told me to leave it in my truck and made me promise to take it back.

She changed her mind the day after we met Gary. He was a Vietnam vet who played a lot of golf, smoked a fair amount of weed, and lived next door with his mom.

"We get the best breeze in La Mesa," he grinned, when he came over to welcome us to the neighborhood.

Then he told us a prowler had broken into a little old lady's house down the block the day before. The police came and everything.

After Gary went home, my wife told me I could install the security door after all after.

The break-in was a historic fluke. It's a quiet neighborhood. The guy who lives around the corner on Harvard coasts his Harley with the engine at low idle when he rumbles by my house at 4:00 a.m. Mike and the other dads down the street have cardboard signs ordering motorists to "Slow Down!" planted on their front lawns.

I lag-bolted that security door up the first weekend I owned the house. But I haven't locked either of my front doors since the wife left two years ago. I just make sure to close the security door when I leave the house.

Wade plays at home now. I haven't talked to Mike in a while. I wave when I see him out picking up bike helmets on his front lawn or taking off out of his driveway in the morning.

--Dan Dare


WALKING TRAIL CHECKPOINTS IN RANCHO SANTA FE

Without bridle trails, the Covenant is just another rich ghetto in North County. The trail system -- groomed with wood chips, tended with herbicides, increased by the Trails Committee, and guarded by the Rancho Santa Fe Patrol -- is a winding, ten-foot-wide, 50-mile ribbon through bucolic splendor.

For all the resources focused on the trails, I find them little used. Yes, ten o'clock Sunday morning, the trail around the golf course is a promenade of walkers, runners, dogs, and horses. But most hours, most days, most trails, you can find yourself with a little slice of paradise all to yourself. The air smells of sage, thickets of eucalyptus surround you, and the occasional glimpse of a coyote or rattlesnake keeps things interesting. I might as well be 100 miles away from anyone.

The Covenant is an area covered by a homeowners' association, like so many other condo complexes, neighborhoods, and gated communities in San Diego. The Covenant's homeowners' association just has the drill down a little better than other neighborhoods. Like Paris Hilton, it has celebrity down a little better than you or I.

The HOA's loyal representatives regulate what kinds of animals you may own, what types of trees you may plant or remove, what kind of storage you may build on your acreage (stucco finish and roofing style must match the main residence), and whether you may have a fence or lawn. At times it has appeared that the HOA would be choosing hair-color shades for the resident blondes.

Old-timers in the area game the system with unmatched satisfaction.

One summer Saturday around 7:00 a.m., I guided my two dogs onto the golf course bridle trail. A young man in his 20s, dressed in running clothes, ran toward me with an alarmed expression. "They're back there," he panted, "and they're trying to get people off the trail!"

He slowed to a jog and told me the police had asked him if he lived here. With a conspiratorial tone, he added that he had told them he was a personal trainer working with a woman in the neighborhood. Not implausible.

I rounded the trail's curve to find two men seated on folding chairs, with a folding table in front of them. I recognized their elaborate uniforms as those of the Ranch Patrol, the Covenant's private security force. On their table was a computer printout the approximate size and weight of The Doomsday Book. They turned toward me and said, "Wait there," gesturing to an area ten feet in advance of their roadblock. "Can we have your Association number?"

I flashed on the jokes I had made with my running partner. Maybe residents of the Covenant should have numbers tattooed on their foreheads.

"You mean my PO box number?" Covenant residents don't get mail delivery -- too intrusive. A lot runs off of your post office box number.

"Yes, yes," the rent-a-cop said with a smile.

I gave him my box number, and he made his way through the massive computer printout.

"Very good," he said, after verifying my name but not the names or parentage of my dogs. "Go ahead. And your dogs should be on a leash." Another smile.

Twenty feet around the next curve, I saw a group of runners, all young, unlikely to be homeowners in the neighborhood.

I tipped them off. "There's a checkpoint ahead. Run in the street for a few minutes and you'll be past them."

-- Ann Little


RAMONA HILLBILLIES

Anyone from Ramona who denies being a hillbilly is lying. Ramonians seem to believe that by virtue of being nestled on the outskirts of the county, we can still tell people we're from San Diego. I would go so far as to say we're from a different world. My neighborhood is not so much a community as it is a freak show. I often ask myself, "Where do these people come from?" and sadly I have to reply, "my own backyard."

Our neighborhood is drastically different from your San Diego County locale. Our roads are unpaved, the mailboxes are located about a half-mile down the road, and you would not believe where we direct our attention insofar as "neighborhood needs." Our first call to action during the rainy season involves grading the road. Some communities might have to hire someone to accomplish this task, but fortunately I can count five different men who own their own tractors (and no, not just one) on my street. They tend to the task the most practical way they can think of -- all at once -- a tractor rally if you will. Male bonding, yes, but also neighborhood bonding, which runs much deeper. You have never seen a group of men so pleased to be moving dirt.

This brings me to an experience I would like to highlight as being completely indicative of where I live. Driving quite slowly (so as to avoid a dust storm) down my street, I was flagged down by an older gentleman on his tractor. An elderly hillbilly who damn near approaches 400 pounds was waving at me. I rolled down my window and perked up my ears. "Do you think you could rescue my shoe?" he asked. That's right, he had somehow lost his shoe and was requesting that I get out of my car, trample back through the chaparral, and find what was probably a very large shoe to return to him. Without hesitation, I got out of my car and found that damn shoe and placed it into his hands. He smiled and was on his way...which brings me to several questions that I still cannot answer: 1. How does he get into the tractor in the first place, since apparently he cannot get out? and 2. How did he lose his shoe?

You might think that this gentleman is the pride and glory of my street -- but did I mention there's a man with a sniper rifle? This is probably an exaggeration, but there is a man who wears camouflage most days of the week, a man who has been known to hunt gophers with his Swiss Army knife and bare hands. The sniper rifle -- or pellet gun, call it what you will -- is utilized at night to shoot the rabbits who snack on the grass. He's pretty much your average commando.

I have spent time helping my neighbors rescue cows that have gotten lost. I have gone to neighborhood picnics at someone's man-made pond. We have also discussed how to keep the "druggies" from driving to the end of our street and having sex on old mattresses that have been dumped there. My neighbors may be a bit backwards but are some of the kindest people you would ever meet. And while we aren't inbred and still have most of our teeth, we are a far cry from the metropolis known as San Diego.

-- Keely Hedges


SAPPHIRE STREET SYMPHONY

IN NORTH PACIFIC BEACH

Power lines play tic-tac-toe underneath the San Diego sky as the Sapphire Street symphony begins. From his balcony, an amateur musician strums a guitar. Windows vibrate to the thumping bass of a stereo. Car alarms wail back and forth across the street. Shopping carts rattle and roll down the alley. In between the stopping and starting of the constant gardener's leaf blower, a man gives new meaning to the old term "party line" as he blabs into his cell phone. The conversation is interrupted by the pit bull, Zeus, growling at the endless parade of delivery trucks grinding their gears on Sapphire Street.

A gray-haired man skateboards toward Cass Street, laundry and barking black Labrador in tow. Tourists chuckle in amusement as they limp along sporting new beach shoes, and buried beneath lawn chairs, coolers, beach bags, and Boogie boards. An old drunk mumbles, searching for his next drink. He grins, perhaps, because his choices are endless: the Latitude, West End, Froggy's, or maybe even the VFW all offer what he so desperately seeks.

A Hispanic father and daughter sing as they pedal home from school. While Papa easily pedals along, effortlessly shouldering the weight of his daughter's yellow backpack, her tiny red and white sneakers struggle to push the bicycle pedals down Sapphire Street.

It is the first Wednesday of the month, street-sweeping day. The parking patrol silently issues tickets to residents and tourists alike. Wednesday's parking tickets, neatly tucked underneath windshield wipers, whisper a painful reminder that tomorrow is the first Thursday of the month, yet another street-sweeping day on Sapphire Street. God bless those of us who lose track of the days or are deaf to the cacophonous warning of the street sweeper mobile.

Cars crammed bumper to bumper announce the absence of parking spaces. Booming fireworks announce the closing of SeaWorld. A few hours later, babbling drunks announce the closing of bars, and the last nonsensical notes are played in the Sapphire Street Symphony.

-- Lori Kelsey


A GRINGO IN TIJUANA

My neighborhood is broken cars and shaking homeless kittens. It's three-legged dogs and taco stands. My neighborhood is Tijuana, and it's got a lot to love.

I laugh every time I drive home and am barely slowed at the Port of Entry, the rusty mass of steel that serves as my own ironic welcoming mat. I hit my brakes, rolling over the spikes that could so easily pop my tires if only I were trying to go the other way -- back to San Diego, where all the honking folks on the other side of the road impatiently head.

But I'm going home to Tijuana, and as long as the arbitrary stoplight gives me the green -- it always, by the way, gives me the green -- I'm approximately one minute and 11 seconds away from my house, or my casita, if you must.

On to the roundabout, I aggressively nose my way in, travel halfway round, then back out. I drive carefully across the well-trodden pedestrian path where retired couples and 19-year-olds make their way to the farmacias and bars of Revolución. I cruise past the turnstile gates -- past the incessant ca-clink, ca-clink, ca-clink that keeps me up when I've got things on my mind -- where the more experienced people, mostly Mexicans, push their way through on the way to stand in line for the small white cabs, not the big yellow ones. The yellow cabs, you see, are for the gringos.

Usually it's late, and I'm tired, but I park my car in front of my rusted, eight-foot-high gate and jump out to unlock and open it. I used to lock my car door behind me, even though my engine was running and I would be getting right back in, but I'm not as scared anymore. Tijuana has its reputation, but it's been pretty cool to me over the last year and change, so I've given it a bit of my trust.

But just a bit, though, 'cause I still lock the eight-foot gate behind me -- quickly -- both the handle and the tiny-but-sturdy silver padlock.

Greeting my neighbors usually comes in the form of asking them to move one of their beat-up cars, which is inevitably neatly parked in my spot. Somehow, my half-Spanish and their half-English equals one whole conversation, and nine times out of ten, it ends in smiles. One time, when I first moved to Tijuana, one of my neighbors paid my electricity bill when she realized I hadn't picked it up. She still pays my bill to this day. See, we've managed to work something out.

Two more gates and one more locked door and I'm in my tiny studio apartment, unloading my purse, laptop, and planner and darting through the dark to switch on the lamp beside my bed. I like that light best. It bounces off my orange walls and gives the place a cozy feeling, like the one I used to get when I'd come home for lunch during high school to the fresh-baked bread my mom threw together in the automatic bread machine before leaving for work. Salty and sweet, it was always so damn good.

Cucarachas scatter as I flick on the light, but I don't mind. I hunch over the hot plate that sits atop my microwave, and I cook something, usually beans and rice, while the intermittent sound of banda or norteño music plays in the makeshift parking lot outside my window. People are there waiting for friends or family to cross back from the other side. Sometimes they get bored and turn their music up loud, drowning out the "Hey, pretty lady, whatcha need?" calls of the men in white coats manning the row of pharmacies across the way.

I like all the noises. It makes me feel less alone.

After washing away the last sting of hot sauce from my lips by drinking straight from a jug of drinkable water, I usually try to go right to bed. Every now and then, I'll head out for a walk, stop by a bar for a drink, or simply stand on my front patio and watch the people watching the gate.

But mostly, I just lie down. I read and, if I'm lucky, fall asleep. If it's one of those nights, I lay awake, listening to the ca-clink, ca-clink of the turnstile gates and thinking about what it all means. I think about everything, not just the stupid politics surrounding that stupid gate.

And that's why I love my 'hood. It's alive and noisy and dirty and scary, but, at the very least, it makes me think.

-- A.L. Morlan


TRANSCENDENTAL MIRA MESA

My neighborhood inspires me, even though there is nothing initially remarkable about this section of Mira Mesa. At first glance, it appears to be as homogenized and serene as any American suburb in the early 21st Century. There's a Vons down the street and loads of chain restaurants a few blocks away.

But if you've just moved here after living 15 years in a small Southern town, Capricorn Way is an untrammeled desert paradise of tile and stucco, succulent gardens and, most joyous of all, beautiful ethnicity.

You have to understand -- I'm more accustomed to shuffling cowboys and dowdy women and Bible-thumping and Wal-Mart. I lived where humid summers melt and freeze into ugly winters, where people eat squirrel soup and worship NASCAR above all else. I wish I were making that up and that it didn't sound like I am coddling a stereotype. It's all true, and it's all behind me. I have retreated from the country and found my quietude in a more urban landscape. Walden in reverse, I suppose.

I now get to count Sikhs and Indians and Nigerians among my neighbors, and I smell their exotic, delicious dinners when I get home. There are several servicemen around, too, along with a few Mexican and Filipino families with their ever-smiling children. Two elderly Asian women walk up and down my section of the street in straw hats, collecting salvageable throwaways and flowers.

Down the block a ways is a Vietnamese restaurant. A real Vietnamese restaurant, with huge bowls of noodle soup and tons of interesting things you can add to it yourself. I have yet to try the Mexican market (yes, I know that's old hat around here), but I can't wait to see what's inside. In the most delightful display of culture-blending I've yet to see, there's Sanchez Tae Kwon Do just around the corner.

The winding maze of my apartment complex reveals doors decorated with American flags or little bells or paper cutouts. Some of the accoutrements remind me of Tibetan prayer flags, which I realize they very well could be. Beautiful silks are regularly draped over patio walls to dry, and more often than not, there is a delightful cacophony of music that echoes between the buildings at any given time. Between the music and the people and the extraordinary weather, this has been nearly the best three weeks of my life. I wonder if my neighbors hear my sighs of relief?

I am relieved because I am finally living, deliberately (thank you, Thoreau) and joyously, in a city that epitomizes sunshine. Anyways, how could I not be happy when I am surrounded by palm trees?

-- Jennifer Carney


SAN MARCOS SHANGRI-LA

Got up at eight o'clock because I had a full day of doing nothing to get on with. Started the coffee and walked down the driveway in my robe to get the papers. My wife Gerrie was putzing around in the front garden, waiting for Nina and Larry to go walking. Taking laps around the perimeter of the park is the sport de rigueur these days.

We exchange pleasantries with Bob and Wanda as they walk past the house. They're walking down the middle of the road. But here in the park, people have the same status as cows in India. Drive around them. Not hard to do at ten miles per hour. If it's a member driving, they'll probably stop to chat and tie up the rest of the road.

The road in front of our house comes down from the entrance of the park. As a monument to past efforts to ease the transition from the outside world, there are sharp speed bumps about every 20 yards. Occasionally, some kid piloting a FedEx truck, who is absolutely, positively unaware he has kidneys, will attempt to take the road at 30. They usually leave going a whole lot slower.

But most of the delivery drivers who stop by regularly are glad to slow down and enjoy the friendliness. Wave to people and feel welcome. Our mailman, Cory, is a prime example. Most of us consider Cory a member of the Park family.

Our neighbor, Ruth, is a fiercely independent woman in her late 80s. A couple of months ago Cory had to deliver a package to Ruth. When Ruth answered the door, she was having a mini-stroke and couldn't speak coherently. Cory recognized the symptoms and went to her friend Evelyn on the next block. Ruth was treated and her family notified. When was the last time your mailman did something like that?

By now, you're probably thinking I'm someone who gets the Reader by mail in Kansas. No, my neighborhood is right here in North County. Over 50 years ago, some free-spirited vegans used to camp up here, five miles north of Escondido. After a while, they bought some land so they could park their little travel trailers here permanently.

As some became ready to retire, they decided to form a stock cooperative and incorporate. There was and still are 32 memberships, couples or singles. Anyone who wishes to become a member must pass an interview with the board of directors. The trailers gave way to mobile homes, and now the mobile homes are giving way to manufactured houses. But everything is still the way it was laid out almost 50 years ago.

We have 19 acres in my neighborhood, with the homes in an 8-acre cluster. Starting at the entrance is a creek that runs along our eastern border and separates us from our good neighbor of 20 years, the Deer Springs Fire Department. Farther south is the leech field ringed by persimmon trees and the old barn.

Local urban myth holds the barn was a stop on the stage route. But we invited an archeologist friend over to look at it, and she said the nails were from about 1900. What fun is that? Just being an old barn. But it sure does hold a lot of stuff.

Looking south, we find the Merriam Mountains. Our property runs halfway up the first one. That land is pretty much in the state it was when the Indians lived on this spot 200 years ago. As a senior community, we don't organize too many climbs up there. Newcomers to the Park can't resist and go as high as they can. The following day, they are covered with scratches and the poison oak is beginning to surface. The mountain is safe.

Between the mountain and the homes is a large mowed meadow. In a new development, it would be called the Commons. But here it's "down by the creek," which runs along the southern edge of the meadow. Along the north edge is Oak Creek Road, unofficially known as Mary Lane, so named for the three ladies named Mary who live along the road and share a love of flowers. Their gardening efforts make this a special area.

That's my neighborhood, and it's actually better than it sounds. Everyone who lives here would like it to go on forever. And we will continue to enjoy our Shangri-la until overtaken by progress.

-- Joe Henchy


IMPERIAL BEACH NEEDS MORE GIRLS

My name is Annika Wallace. I am ten years old, and I live in the beautiful little town of Imperial Beach, IB for short. IB is a truly amazing town, with lots of little shops, gorgeous houses, and a magical ocean view. IB is not only a pretty town, it's also safe. Even if there is trouble (which there extremely rarely is, I might add). I know all of the neighbors and trust them to know what to do.

Like I said before, there are some very pretty houses here. I live in a white and navy-blue one-story house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Unfortunately, I have to share a room with my seven-year-old sister (blah), but we get along...well... interestingly. Never mind. Anyway, there are also two-story houses in our neighborhood. One of our neighbors just got their house remodeled to a two-story house. In fact, my mom and dad are thinking about going up a second story, too!

Shops here are great. We have quite a few of them! We have the normal ones of course, like Subway and McDonald's, but we also have lots of little unique cafes. My favorite is Imperial Beach Coffee and Books, down by the beach. The lady who owns the cafe is named Katie, so my family just calls the place "Katie's Cafe." When I grow up, I want to open a cafe just like that!

My neighborhood has lots of boys, but NO GIRLS! My older brother has lots of friends, as you can imagine, because of our neighborhood and because he goes to school, but not me! I homeschool, so my only classmates are my two-year-old brother and seven-year-old sister. Although, on the bright side, I don't have homework!

Another really good thing about IB is the size. It's only one mile long and one mile wide, so you can ride your bike just about anywhere. I like to visit Saltwater Magic, an awesome bike shop by the beach, Katie's Cafe, the library, and a donut shop a couple blocks away.

Another awesome thing about Imperial Beach is the beach. I like to walk there with my family, and play in the sand, make drip castles, go Boogie-boarding, surfing, wave-jumping, watching the sunset, walking home together, and just spending time with each other.

There are some good and bad things about Imperial Beach. But one of the best things is how you can walk outside, look around you, and feel the feeling of family, community, and joy. After all, that's what being a united town is all about, right?

-- Annika Wallace


BAY PARK'S FAMILY CIRCLE

In 1968, Balboa Avenue ended at Genesee, San Diego freeways were Caltrans dreams, and new home prices had escalated to an unprecedented $30,000. The amount was daunting, considering that mortgage companies at the time would only consider the husband's salary. However, believing that a family's reach should exceed its grasp, my wife Patti and I took the deep breath of debt and seized the American Dream: a 30-year mortgage on a house that would consume us physically and financially.

Like today, developers in the 1960s excavated all evidence of life from the land. They poured concrete pads, erected prefabricated walls and roofs, and left us Pennsylvania transplants wondering what ever happened to cellars and insulation and what, if anything, could possibly grow in adobe soil that early settlers had used to make bricks. Our developer was more generous than some. He included a sprinkler system -- but gave us nothing to sprinkle. Neither we, nor any of our new neighbors, had any knowledge of landscaping, home maintenance, or child-rearing, and we were mostly broke. These monumental challenges brought us together. Out of ignorance and poverty, our Bay Park neighborhood was born.

We developed a tradition of Saturday-evening barbecues in the cul-de-sac, where each family brought their own hot dogs, burgers, and beer. One couple often had steak and wine, which made the rest of us suspect that they might be floating in a larger financial boat. We shared our discoveries and pains, muscles, and rental equipment and cultivated our plots like reluctant farmers in a co-op. Digging and hauling rocks, building patio covers, and making drapes from fabrics bought in Newberry's basement, we gradually converted our moonscapes into garden oases. What little money we had went for garden hoses, trash cans, and furniture from discount stores like Fed Mart and White Front. Except for the steak-eaters, each family had only one car, and car-pooling was a necessity, not an environmental concern. In addition to landscaping and home-maintenance skills, we developed patience, lifetime friendships, and a beautiful neighborhood much like Mr. Rogers's place, but without the puppets and that annoying talking trolley. The only blemish on our image came from two people who took our "love thy neighbor" theme literally. When they got caught, they moved, probably to Peyton Place. But that's another story.

Together, we studied the art of parenting, that game with no rules, taught to us by our children. We had baby showers, babies, birthday parties, and eventually, that painful pleasure experienced by all good parents, recitals. Not only were we required to attend our own daughters' recitals but those of their friends as well. The kids played and grew together and walked unescorted a half mile to Toler Elementary School. They learned how to ride bicycles, circling in the cul-de-sac as panicked parents ran to keep up. Then came Marston Middle School, puberty, and that inevitable period psychologists call un-bonding but biologists might call the metamorphosis from fairy princess to Wicked Witch of the West. Once again, our neighborhood came together to address a new challenge. This time, it was parents quietly discussing teen rules and discipline, while teens secretly compared notes on rule-bending and effective parental button-pushing.

Eventually all witches either bloom into rational adults or melt. In our family, this transition occurred suddenly, when our daughter, Julie, completed orientation at UC Santa Barbara and we said goodbye. As she walked toward her new dorm, her new friends, and her new life, I realized that my responsibilities and our relationship had instantly graduated from parent/child to father/daughter.

"Take care of yourself," I whispered to myself.

More tears, emotions, and a sigh of relief erupted again three years later when our younger daughter, Cindy, enrolled at UC Santa Cruz. When we returned from her orientation, our neighbors threw a party to celebrate our empty nest, dry our tears, and remind us of the strength, security, and love within our extended family.

Much has changed in San Diego since 1968. As the city has grown, so have fear, crime, disrespect for others, and paranoia. Our neighborhood has changed too, but the friendships endure. We still care and share, borrow cups of sugar, talk about our kids' successes, and now, we argue over whose grandkids are the smartest (mine). We still practice those small-town habits we developed out of need back in 1968. Our yards are lush with the fruits of our collective labor, and we laugh when we reminisce about our struggle to make those unrelenting monthly mortgage payments. Ours was $202.01.

Last week, I found myself once again running in the cul-de-sac, chasing a young fairy princess who was riding her bicycle sans training wheels for the first time.

"Look, Grandpa, I can ride a whole circle."

"Indeed you can, Julie."

"Grandpa, my name is Sonja. Why did you call me by Mommy's name?"

I realized then where the bike ride had taken me.

"Grandpas do that sometimes, honey," I choked.

-- Bil Fuhrer

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So, the "Neighborhood Story" contest is over? Sorry I never saw a deadline for entries. I still have a dilly about 27 years in Escondido, the current anti-Latino City Council, and the non-existent "parking problem" they continue to pursue.

Here's a nutshell: The "Los Arboles" neighborhood (boundaries 2nd & 5th Avenues by Ash & Date) was the happy-happy/joy-joy recipient of a heavily tax-payer funded neighborhood renewal project less than a decade ago. We got sidewalks, streetlights, and water-gulping trees in what had been a hotbed of teen gang activity for years. However, those sidewalks eliminated the only off-street parking for both the renters & owners of numerous duplexes & triplexes that have existed since the 1950s.

Where city-approved expansions had eliminated the single-car garages in favor of an additional rental, only curbside parking remained. The many 2-3 bedroom triplexes suffered the same fate, but progress is worth it, right?

NOW, the rabidly anti-poor council wants to "eliminate" a parking problem the $49,000 study says does not exist. Like the landlords who were supposed to shoulder the burden of ridding Escondido of the "dreaded" Latinos, those of us who suffered through those two years of invasive & disruptive "improvements" are crying foul.

I hope someone will reply... ~jill

Jileen:

We've turned last year's neighborhood story contest into a monthly neighborhood blog contest. Here're more details: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2008/aug/01/neighborhood-blog-contest/

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