La Mesa's Anything-but-Normal Avenue

Normal Avenue in La Mesa doesn't have much in common with Normal Street in San Diego. That didn't stop the Hillcrest plumber that 1 called one year from phoning me back. He had a Russian accent, but there was no mistaking the irritation in his voice. I don't know what he was tripping about. I was the one with tree roots in my drainpipes.

My Normal is just off University Avenue, and extends from the Von's shopping center to die back parking lot of Helix High School. It's hard to see it from here, but we live in the shadow of the lofty heights of Mt. Helix. Nevertheless, we have been called "Ghetto Mesa," and worse, terms to which I take exception. A lot of people seem to think in black and white, literally. One day I'll hear that La Mesa is where only "rich white people" live and, the next, someone might say we're in "racist-redneck trailer-park East County," none of which is true, or fair. On Normal Avenue, people might hear some rap booming one day and decide that we have become an African-American enclave.

But if they drive by the next day, they are just as likely to hear rock'n'roll, salsa, oldies, norteno, or Anglo country. Like many communities in San Diego County, we who live on or near Normal Avenue live in a breathing, singing, playing, laughing human tapestry. There are several schools in the neighborhood, and every morning we have a friendly traffic jam of parents driving and walking kids of all ages to school. If you listen you will hear folks inquiring about homework and lunch money in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Farsi, and Somali. My neighborhood looks, sounds, and has the awesome cooking smells of 21st-century California.

I know something about this neighborhood. I have lived at three different addresses on the same 7000 block of Normal. At first, when it was all I could afford, I shared an apartment with a roommate. As I progressed, I was able to rent a cottage by myself. Then, when my elderly Mama became too ill to live by herself, I rented this house. I could probably afford to get into a condo, but I happen to have the coolest landlord in my whole life experience as a renter. I have a garden I've become attached to, and at night sometimes coyotes yap nearby. I'm content in this house and this neighborhood, so I don't see any point in starting over somewhere else.

Funny things happen on Normal. When I lived in that first apartment, it was an upstairs unit. One morning my neighbor Shelly and I were sitting at the top of the steps having a cup of coffee. Shelly is a pretty woman, but that morning she had on an old blue quilted housecoat and her morning hair tied securely back behind a bandana. It was early, and we were having a quiet moment together before starting our separate days. Three young girls passed by on the street within our view, on their way to school. They were dressed so much alike that at first glance I thought maybe they were cheerleaders. But the colors for Helix High are green and gold, and these young ladies were dressed alike in shades of a different color. We were just saying how cute they were when one of them stopped, glared up at Shelly, and said, real nasty, "Bitch, what the fuck you starin' at?" Shelly glanced at me, handed me her coffee cup real quick, and took off, barefoot, down the stairs after the girl. The would-be gangsta chick took off running back up Normal with Shelly in hot pursuit, while her friends just howled. I thought it was pretty funny, too. Shelly is well over 30, and has big kids of her own, which was kind of the point. She actually caught the girl, and even though they were half a block up the street you could hear her hollering: "Don't you have no respect? You can't see I'm grown?" Before Shelly could get to the part about "Let's go see your Momma," the girl apologized. That's the report I got. I did witness the girl walking back sheepishly, picking up her books and going on to school with her friends, who were, of course, still clowning her without mercy.

Shelly was the assistant manager of our apartments, and one late summer day she gave me a look and told me I was getting new neighbors on the other side. I didn't know why she gave me the look until I saw that it was the same formerly mouthy girl, her mother, her brother, and her baby sister moving in. I helped with some furniture, and they told me how grateful they were to Shelly. She had hooked them up when they needed a new place to live and were short on their deposit. I soon learned their names, of course, but the two big kids and I always called one another simply "Neighbor."

One evening I came home from a meeting to find my young lady "Neighbor" transformed into a princess via an elaborate new hairdo.

I told her she looked gorgeous, and she glowed like a bride. Later that evening, her same two cohorts and another girl showed up next door, all of them looking equally regal in their new hairstyles. A great buzz of excitement was going on, so I brought them some sodas. They were carrying on excitedly about boys and clothes. I was out of their loop so I couldn't understand why, on this night, they had all chosen to transform themselves so beautifully. "What's up?" I had to ask, "Are y'all going to be in a wedding or something?" "Naw, Neighbor," they told me patiently. "Schoolstarts tomorrow, and we need to look good.''

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