John Brizzolara returns to former home in Mission Hills; it's not the same

The spell of verticality on Curlew Street

In March of 1981, my small family and I moved into the house before which I now stand. We paid $60,000.
  • In March of 1981, my small family and I moved into the house before which I now stand. We paid $60,000.
  • Image by Red Nose Studios

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, Freud pointed out. He would never have said the same thing about a house. Certainly Carl Jung would not. In my case, as I approach my former address at the edge of Mission Hills, right where that neighborhood turns into Hillcrest, I am approaching a time machine as surely as if I were walking toward and lifting my hand to knock at the address of H.G. Wells’s Victorian scientist in the famous story from 1895. Actually, the house, built in 1883, predates that story by a dozen years. But the romance of the thing, the expected flush of sentiment and goodness, quickly becomes a jarring series of images, elbowing aside a fine nostalgia to focus on a sentence I remember repeating as I walked out this very front door in July of 1985: No matter what you do, you will regret it.

This front door, this very plate glass framed in stout chestnut, or possibly dark mahogany, replaces one I had smashed in a fit of rage at my infidelity. Another life.

Earlier, on the walk west on Robinson toward Curlew Street, from the open windows of passing cars I learned that 10,000 people each day are now losing their homes to foreclosure. Also, Americans have gained, on average, 360 million pounds over the past decade. There is something about news delivered from passing cars that lends it immediacy, conviction, and poignancy, just as the colors of the real world only seem “really real when you viddy them on the screen” (Alex, in A Clockwork Orange); that is, in Technicolor, rather than natural light. Yes, harsh times. In fact, at the moment, it is difficult to believe or recall that there ever was any other kind. But there were. There were.

In March of 1981, my small family and I moved into the house before which I now stand. We paid $60,000 for I don’t know how much square footage. Three bedrooms on the second floor, a guest room or study, and a rental unit in the basement. A “granny flat” we called it, and we entertained a string of very entertaining tenants down there. It is vacant at the moment but probably in better shape than it’s been in since it was built 145 years ago.

It is late September in 2008, and I still live in the neighborhood. I have been living maybe ten blocks east on Eighth Avenue, after breaking an ankle in December 2007; the proximity to Mercy Clinic became vital with the onset of infectious complications from that mundane mishap. Still, with digressions to North Park, La Jolla, Pacific Beach, and downtown, I have never managed to wander far. I moved once from an apartment in Mission Hills to Mexico for a good part of 1987, fled to Chicago on the heels of a bad love, lymphatic cancer, and a collapsed multi-novel deal, then back again, as a journalist, to within blocks of here, on Walnut. Since then, it has been a matter of relative lengths of thumb on a Thomas Bros. map that have demarcated “home.”

Stu Maltz, a 40ish, brown-haired man, answers the too-familiar door this Friday afternoon, a handsome, approachable, regular guy of a scientist. A biologist, sans traces of the nerd. In fact, within moments he is reminding me of the fictional Tim Taylor of television’s fictional “Tool Time,” with his enthusiasm for the considerable home improvements he has laid his hand to here. Before we enter the house, Maltz takes me on a brief tour of the surrounding yard, pointing out a hiding (none too successfully) African Sulcata, or African spurred tortoise, in amber/yellow earth tones. That would be “Speedy.”

Once inside, I notice that his raven-and-curly-haired six-year-old daughter Virginia is lounging on the sofa in an identical position, and in the same corner, where, over two decades ago, my son reigned as Lord of the Entertainment Center, his remote control, like Virginia’s, an unquestioned scepter. Maltz’s wife, Holly Burch, has not yet arrived home from her work with the Union-Tribune in computers. Here was a family not unlike my own not too long ago.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” (Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The lived-in quality that they have established with apparent ease since their residency, dating from 1997, bears remarkable similarities in taste with that of my former wife and me. Key words would be comfortable, unpretentious (well…in our case, maybe not so much, with our ostrich feathers and Art Nouveau wooden tarot cards on the walls), inexpensive, warming, familiar, colorful and welcoming decor, and items selected by the inch or foot, rather than the yard. Even my son’s once-upon-a-time riot of colorful plastic fantasy furnishings, toys, posters, and bedclothes are echoed in an upstairs bedroom.

The first noted difference is downstairs, ten paces west from the front door and into what during the 1980s had been the study, office, and/or library. Then, there were 1000 gaudy paperbacks and 900 hardcovers, first editions, book-club uncollectibles, The Compact Oxford English Dictionary in two 15-pound volumes, and anthropology texts; Kroeber, Le Guin, Meade, and Turnbull held court above science-fiction pulp magazines and matching volumes of Hammett, Chandler, and Cain. Anthony Burgess and Jack London had once scowled down upon the framed gaudy covers of genre anthologies, between which my wife and I had published our journeyman whimsies. The bulk of our fantasy fiction had been written that way, inspired by M.R. James and a busted water heater, or a lightning-felled pepper tree, which crashed onto a neighbor’s roof. Now the study (or however it may be considered by Stu, Holly, and Virginia) bears no trace of the fusty (dusty and musty as well) refuge of the prematurely middle-aged. Where once this room was a recreation of a Victorian fantasy, Dickensian — though with an IBM Selectric or an Apple II monstrosity and jabbering Brother daisy-wheel printer — a room dubbed by visiting workshop-writer friends from Los Angeles (some quite famous now: David Brin and Ray Feist, to drop two names) “THE BALLROOM,” after a sign retrieved from wreckage at the Hotel Del Coronado, it now seems subdued. It is certainly friendly, yet muted by contrast with the chamber in memory. It is as if the beasts of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s worlds could never have breathed here, and the fictions my wife and I spun must needs have evaporated, exposed to any light other than the one from that south window: the one that once looked out on a wild-enough bamboo grove and so gave birth to stories where The Lord of the Flies met Peter Pan and Alice once found her way not into Wonderland but the Heart of Darkness.

I am out of sync the whole time I am in the Maltz/Burch home. Maltz shows me his improvements in the kitchen: far better tiling, flooring, and counter-work than I ever managed (and I tried), and I am suddenly seeing my 300-pound dead mother standing on a footstool, hanging bluebell-patterned wallpaper at the edge of the ceiling. This would be 1981. She was exactly the age I am now, and in my imaginations she is smiling, still quite alive. In 1981, I was 30 and had outgrown performing rock and roll. I smoked a pipe, wrote fiction, and managed a bar for a respectable yacht club in the Coronado Cays. My mother seems terribly old to me on that stepladder, sizing dripping from folds of bluebells as she laughs, and her bulk sends the glue around the room like hawked-up loogies.

Maltz is saying, “I wanted to put a bathroom in here, and I didn’t know how to do it. I called a contractor…” He points to an entirely new but small, reinforced area of the house, just to the right of where I wrote several stories that now come flooding back to me. One of them, “The Coffin Rider,” was about murder and rock and roll. “There was this little sitting room you had here,” Maltz says, “and on the other side, that back porch where the refrigerator had been…” Meanwhile, my mind passes easily beyond that wall to the terribly canted porch area, where, indeed, we once had a refrigerator that defied the laws of tectonics and gravity. I watch the ghost of a gray mother cat walk over my feet (I suddenly seem to be wearing Frye boots, just like the ones I bought in the ’70s, and these are good and broken in — it must be 1982), a kitten in her jaws, the identical color. She brings out another, and another, settling them in a pile of paint rags, which I quickly replace with old but clean towels. I would name that cat Ashes because she looked as if she had rolled around in a fireplace. A year later, she would get run over on Curlew Street by one of the mad drunks who careered down the hill and along that curve. I got the news at the yacht club during happy hour, and I was crying behind the bar while couples in their 60s snake-danced around the dance floor to Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical” on the jukebox.

“This was wasted space, the wall was right here,” Maltz says. “What he [the contractor] ended up doing was tearing out the wall. We ended up getting an office and a bathroom here.” Indeed he had. A much more sensible and stable space it is now, and the view of what had been the bamboo stand is now a view of another kind of wild: somehow more a young girl’s perfect patch of imaginative wilderness à la The Secret Garden than a boy’s Neverland. “The way he did it is that he added more space. You had a little overhang over the patio.…”

“Yeah,” I say. “My father-in-law Duke and I did that. We did a lot of stuff. That overhang was all redwood. Termites, you know.…”

And my mind is on the late Cecil “Duke” Crowell, who died a few years ago, a man who was as much a father to me as my own, who’d died in 1968.

“I redid the floor down here.” Maltz is showing me the rental, the granny-flat basement. When I lived here, it had been a nightmare. I remember the pitch and the near complete lack of light. Enough, however, to expose a patch of wall that always seemed to shimmer, separate, scurry with the movement of a thousand cockroaches. Two women had rented this space for years in the 1970s, feminists, lesbians who apparently equated cleanliness, housecleaning, shaving (even facial hair), any type of personal hygiene and/or housekeeping with bondage to the oppressive patriarchy of chauvinist swine. “We didn’t want to change anything that was in here,” Maltz says, and he is, I dearly hope, referring to improvements my wife Diane, her father the Duke, and I and my young son (helping, helping, always helping, and doing a manly little job) had managed, I thought, pretty well. Our greatest contribution might have been the introduction of sunlight, with new windows, cleaner windows, mirrors, etc. The shimmed-up floor, to correct for something like a 20-degree angle downhill, was a stopgap measure that Maltz more finally corrected. “We had renters,” he says, “and they wanted a kitchen, so we said, ‘What the heck.’ ” Maltz gestures at many other improvements. I am struggling to keep my footing in the here and now.


Stevie Ray Vaughan, the Pretenders, Toots Thielemans and Bill Evans, and Bruce Springsteen provided the soundtrack to the renovation in those earlier years. Also Mink DeVille and Little Feat. The music dovetailed into my second novel, the first that would be published. The renovation was maddening. The insects alone: mosquitoes bred by a leaking water heater emptying down the canyon, cockroaches, spiders, and flies, of course — all conspired to create a pissy discontent, even paranoia, when I confronted my father-in-law (who’d lent us the down payment) and asked, “Are you unhappy with the progress we’re making? We’re doing the best we can, but I really don’t know what I’m doing, and I feel it’s all wrong. I sense you’re angry at me, and you think I’m an idiot.”

After a long pause, Duke said, “No. Not at all. You’re doing fine.”


Maltz says, “This is kind of a mess, and that kitchen area went all the way to the stairs…”

“Yeah,” I say. “That was kind of the edge of the world. Very unsafe, actually. I admire what you did.”

Maltz is 44 and works as a teacher at City College in biology. Formerly, he worked at the Evergreen State College in Washington. His background is in science. “When I bought this,” he says, “I was doing research at Scripps Oceanography. I wanted to move back to California, to San Diego, and I could see the market rising. I rented at first. This house was probably knocked down [in price] from, like, $850,000.”

Had this been true, I was certainly unaware of it. “Do you mind if I ask what you paid?”

“About $205,000, and I got $4000 back to do the electricity. I bought it from Diane in 1996. I got lucky. I understand she has a nice house herself.”

“Kind of similar in a lot of ways.”

“All these windows are original, but they’re more energy efficient. I like the old windows, of course.”

Maltz’s daughter enters the room. She has a toss of hair like jet coral. Energetic, elfin, my own son’s counterpart as he was 20-some years ago, minus the hair length.

We climb the main staircase, which remains unchanged, even to the glossy chocolate-brown enamel on the steps I painted two and a half decades ago. The banisters may have been replaced, though they are much like the ones I installed. The girl’s room is our old master bedroom, colorfully correct for a florid and wholesome imagination. A dream room for a girl. “You know.…” Maltz is staring, and I expect him to launch into some business about a child’s environment: education, mobiles, whatever. I forestall this by saying, “If I break down in an uncontrollable fit of weeping.…” My hand is raised. Maltz smiles and shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “I was going to say that all this electricity had to be redone. I couldn’t get insurance. Remember you had the glass fuses? All the switches were toggle switches and.…” Stu Maltz goes on quite knowledgably about the electrical nightmare I avoided for years. I suspect the house was built before wiring was commonplace in this part of town. One electrician Diane and I had in told us that while the work was old, the fixtures (crystal, for example) were probably far superior to whatever they might be replaced with. We used this logic to assuage our fear of fire and guilt at doing so little. Maltz had spent quite a bit to correct the ancient stuff, and I felt a pang of dodged responsibility.

He points out his improvements: “Three-prong plugs, three prong.” He points here and there as if he is stabbing me. “Three prong, three prong.”

I edge past him, changing the subject. “Hey, this was our guest room! Is this your guest room too?” I ask, as if I’ve just pointed out Halley’s Comet.

“Yes, as a matter of fact. Actually, I remember talking to your son. He was very sad to move. Of course, pretty much everyone is sad to move. I got the feeling he really liked the house.”

Touché.

I am now looking at a small bookshelf, the current family’s upstairs library wing, full of how-to manuals, some children’s books, and a Bible. And I am back in time again, having the house blessed. Can’t remember the minister’s name.

“We even had Santa Claus come in here that December,” I say. I doubt Maltz hears me, and no matter.

The subject of Doug Jacobs from the San Diego Repertory Theatre comes up. I bring it up, and I don’t know why, except that Doug was living in the house at the time my wife and I bought it. I remember his room became my son’s room. Jacobs had cinder-block bookshelves full of books, plays, manuscripts, novels, and reference works, and I remember thinking: Ah! kindred spirits. At the time, he lived with a woman named Judith Essex, who seemed as reluctant to leave (understandably) as later would my son.

Mark Spieller, who also lived in the house for a time (both before and after my residency), knew Jacobs and contacted me when he heard I was writing about the old homestead. In his email, he had this to say:

“The main story about the place was it was abandoned, dirty, the entrance area filled with mud, dirt, old leaves. A bunch of hippies found it, got in touch with the owner, and asked about renting. The hippies agreed to clean up the outside, the landlord would take care of the inside. The rent was $200 on the first. The minute it was late, the rent would double. The rent was never late, and the house was handed down from hippie to hippie, till Doug and his GF [Essex] took over the place. I moved in when the GF, best friend — the first female licensed for pyrotechnics in the US — moved to Washington DC to be an engineer for national radio. She was doing engineering at SDSU in the film department TV studio, and we became friends.

“I didn’t have much contact with the downstairs at all. Doug would know more about that.

“That’s the history on the place that I know.”

I was unable to reach Jacobs for comments. I was told he was no longer with the Rep. I expect mail if that source is wrong.


“My brother and I were the bottom renters when we first bought the place,” Maltz continues. “We rented out the top to three people from New Jersey. It turned out fine. They wanted some painting done and all that, but it wasn’t a big deal. So we had the same renters for a long time, but it was kind of a contrast in styles. We had the same tenants for basically five years.”

Here Maltz describes routine maintenance: leaks and repairs to ceilings and floors, and the kind of conflicts that would arise, sounding all too familiar. Maltz summarizes: “Which problem do you want?” Exactly the kind of thing memory eases out to make room for the new mundane in that area of the brain falling under the rubric of “Headache.”

The entire time I walked through the place, Maltz leading me along, the most pleasant of Virgils through an old Paradiso (rather than any kind of Inferno, even if at times…long ago now…at times…). I could not get the line from Dickinson out of my mind. Just prior to moving to San Diego, we lived in Brooklyn, New York, where my wife Diane and I were new parents and trying to pay for Pampers by writing for science fiction and fantasy magazines. In August of 1980, on the same day we sold two short stories: one of mine and a collaboration called “The Opposite House.” This story (not Dickinson’s poem) described a supernaturally dilapidating country home of a type we had to research. Neither of us had any empirical images to draw upon.


There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House

As lately as Today —

I know it, by the numb look

Such houses have alway —

— Emily Dickinson, “There’s Been a Death in the Opposite House”


Though we knew of no deaths personally (one would think it inevitable in nearly a century and a half), that we would encounter a house so eerily similar to the one we had jointly imagined and one that, in a way, spelled a kind of end to us could not be ignored. I’ve since spoken with other writers about this phenomenon. Author Richard Bowes (Minions of the Moon, There’s a Hole in the City), for one, did not hesitate to agree. He had recognized this (with 9/11 as one example) and did not even let me finish the question. This is some sort of faculty particular to fiction writing, accessing a part of the mind, just for argument’s sake, that dreaming may at other times. It is an experience I will always puzzle over without ascribing any particular mojo to it.


I visit my ex-wife’s husband at Scripps Mercy Hospital, where he is recovering from a liver transplant. A local wine expert who has been written about in that context several times, I will call him “Gordon” to avoid confusion; he was also the subject of a local feature on his transplant. Gordon is his middle name.

The patient — pale, atypically unmustached, and in good spirits, despite the two catheters depending from his side — sits up and tells me the following:

“It’s my favorite house that I’ve ever lived in. My early impressions of the house, long before I ever lived there…I shared an apartment with a friend down the street. I used to walk past it every day — this is in the early or mid-’70s — and I’d see the house. I always thought Curlew Street had a very interesting atmosphere. Once Robinson makes that curve and heads down the street, the temper of the thing changes completely. So it’s really a gateway to a whole other type of community. There’s a swell little community down in those canyons, like Dove Street down to Reynard, and along there. Then, actually, I met you [the author] when I worked at Wahrenbrock’s at the old location. You and Diane were in some Weird Tales collections, and you guys had a bunch of writers over at your house, those famous guys we still know. And you invited me to come over. We sat and drank Salignac, sitting in the front room and on the porch. That was the first time I was ever in the house. I really loved the place: the dark wood wainscoting and paneling. The very 19th Century, late-Victorian Arts and Crafts design elements. Old San Diego. It’s everything I love about this area, and this house had it.

“Then, of course, through all the events that occurred, I found myself back at Curlew Street, with Diane. I moved in and came under an instant spell: that verticality to the property, the yard. It struck me as somehow Lovecraftian [H.P. Lovecraft: ironically, perhaps, the most popular writer for Weird Tales in the 1920s and ’30s].

“Yes, the verticality of that house. It’s the only place that, well, it doesn’t leave that big of a footprint on the ground. And you had to go up to the second floor to use the bathroom. Then there was that wonderfully large closet off the office [used by the author for manuscript storage], which I used as a wine cellar. It had the perfect conditions. It was surrounded by heavy wood, and the climate was right there. Perfect for wine storage, without excessive refrigeration.”

He remembers something else. “It was rather like being on a sailing ship, because of the way it would sway with tremors. Imagine the earthquakes that place had weathered. Yes, it was the house I always wanted to live in. It had that Edgar Allan Poe thing about it.”

At this point, Gordon is interrupted for re-catheterization, and I speak with Diane Clark (née Brizzolara). She speaks of the owner we bought the house from, Michael Trant, a notable real-estate owner in Coronado and other interesting locations, and how our real-estate deal was among a few pioneering second trust deeds, with balloon payments, and our monthly mortgage was less than $300 (later raised to as much as $380), and some other nearly unheard-of-at-the-time features of our arrangement. She spoke of the gold smelter we found in the backyard, down the slope, a rusted seven-foot drum laden with ancient slag at its bottom, some of it so golden in appearance that it excited our son tremendously, who dealt with its realistic and eventual appraisal philosophically. The house, it had been said by Michael Trant and others, had been built by a tardy gold-rushing prospector. This, as far as I know, is unconfirmed, but it hardly seems unlikely. Some 100 years later, my six-year-old son and I knocked down the ostensible hazard to tenants with a combination of regret, manly self-congratulations, and childlike glee.

What we remember about Trant: a signature deposit of beer cans always nearby his chair and his habit of replacing spent television sets with new ones placed atop the preceding, defunct set. We agree that he was consistently fair with us, however, and often more than that. “I remember,” Diane says, “we had to drive the check to him in Coronado a few times. He was strict about that.”

Diane regrets that her father, Cecil “Duke” Crowell, had insisted on the sale of the house shortly before his death. In that hospital room, the three of us agree that Duke was certainly within his rights to do so, the emotional dregs being what they are.

“And then there was the 2:00 a.m. Club,” Diane remembers, smiling.

“Ah, yes, drunken car crashes.” I believe that was me. “Coming around that curve on weekend nights after the bars closed. How many cars do you think we had in our front yard, inches from the front door, feet away from the living room?”

“We used to have impromptu little parties out there,” Diane recalls. “The neighbors, the tenants, all gathered sometimes with wine to inspect the damage.”

I remember without pride one occasion when I threw open the front door to peer directly into the passenger side of a vehicle. A near-comatose woman was behind the wheel. I shouted, “What’s wrong with you?” But I’m afraid my first concern was not for her health. She had spilled several garbage cans across the road and into the front yard. These contained recently gutted fish the Duke and I had caught. The area smelled horrendous. We began throwing perfume and a dozen or more limes to kill the stink, laughing heartily once the woman had been taken away, drunk but unhurt. The limes were soon followed by tequila and salt, most of which was consumed at the curb.


That afternoon, visiting the old house with Stu Maltz, his daughter Holly Burch arrived home from work at the time most people arrive home from conventional jobs. Ms. Burch is attractive, seemingly in her 30s, but if she told me her age I’ve since forgotten, and so, apparently has the tape recorder. She asked if I could interview her by phone the next day, and I agreed. In the course of a brief and pleasant conversation, I asked her to give one descriptive, a single word that might encompass her feelings about the house. She gave it some thought, and after a moment came up with a word I sensed she used sparingly, and most likely only for family and/or loved ones, her husband, for example, or possibly her father.

“The house seems so…dependable,” she said. “That would be the word I’d use. Dependable.”

After 115 years, that word seems fine.

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Comments

Your story brought back some very fond memories for me. Starting back some 40 years ago, I jogged by your house for 25 years, five days a week, while working for the city of San Diego. I loved that whole area, especially Curlew street, which was my all time favorite street in of San Diego.

I live in South Texas now, but will never forget those daily jogs down Curlew Street and environs. Great article.

I'm so surprised that there aren't more comments for this story. What a great one it is! I literally took all day to read it, since 8AM this morning and I've done so in little parts throughout the day. Great read - I really enjoyed it! Thanks for sharing your memories of this house. It took me back to a place where I grew up in Pennsylvania and although it wasn't locally, it was just as memorable nonetheless. Thanks for taking us reminiscing with you.

-Nina

Dear John:

I so much enjoyed this essay. I have never, ever felt a connection to a place where I have lived. I used to think it was a California thing, since I was born and raised in that state. Folks from other places with a longer history might feel differently about the sense of "self" that a place can give.

The truth is you were building memories just as you added and tinkered and improved the house. You built it, and it built you, in a manner of speaking.

Faulkner's quote comes to mind: "The past's not dead. It's not even past."

Thinking of you, my friend, and extending best wishes.

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