When my cell phone rang at 9:17 p.m., it was Officer Rohatan calling to tell me that he and a few colleagues were planning a surprise visit to our street. "Tomorrow night, between 7:00 and 8:00," he said. "I thought I'd give you the heads-up."
Everyone in the neighborhood knows the Bad House. When I introduce myself to neighbors and they ask where I live, I say, "Near the Crack House." I call it the "Crack House" because that sounds funnier than "Meth House," but really, when it's on your block, neither one is all that funny.
No one has ever asked me to be more specific. Even people blocks away know exactly which house I mean.
This is a storybook neighborhood. The streets are lined with shade trees, and homes are single family with large yards. On our sidewalks, children play and people of all ages come to walk their dogs. The gentle curve of the narrow streets makes it feel old-fashioned in a pleasant way. Dan, who owns a water store nearby, grew up here and never left. “There’s no place finer,” he says. “People have worked hard to keep the integrity of the place and keep developers out. It’s a real neighborhood.”
In this area, real estate prices are still at bubble heights. The houses are a hodgepodge of styles, from modest prewar bungalows to replacement mansions built up high enough to get a view of the water. All are proud and tidy, except one. It’s exactly where you’d imagine the drug dealers would live. Random, sprawling additions made long ago and now in deep disrepair make the house seem like an untreated cancer. The paint job is slapdash, and unidentifiable debris litters the roof. There is an ever-changing assortment of clunker cars and vans parked out front. Weeds the size of bushes landscape the front yard.
But what really sets this house apart is the traffic it generates. Stand on our street almost any hour of the day and you’ll see them coming from all directions. Hornets to the nest, singly or in swarms, guys with thuggish scowls and dirty backpacks swoop down the street on bikes into the Bad House driveway and through the gate to the backyard.
“Runners,” a New York City friend tells me.
At night, the runners are joined by an indigent subclass, wrapped in blankets, clutching handfuls of change. These unfortunates flap down our street in the dark like giant bats. Through the gate they go, night after night, to what neighbors have told me is a flophouse set up in the backyard. In the dark, you can hear the coins rattling in their hands as they struggle to open the gate.
“Crack House Camp Land,” my husband jokes.
One day soon after we’d moved in, my son came to visit. He unloaded his car, then locked it carefully. After two men rode past us on low, BMX-style bikes, he checked the locks again. “Tweakers,” he said.
“Tweaker” is one of those words that sound exactly like what they mean. A tweaker is an addict on methamphetamine or other form of speed who displays manic, obsessive-compulsive behavior. As the Urban Dictionary says, “The crackhead will steal your shit and bounce — the tweaker will steal your shit and then help you look for it.”
“Tweaker” is the word I’d been looking for. It explained things I hadn’t been able to figure out about the Bad House. Like, why the people banged on a rusted-out car motor nonstop for a day and a half with a big wrench. Or why they’d move huge piles of junk from one corner of the yard to the other and then back again. Or why the backyard gate opens and closes a hundred times a day and nobody in the house seems to mind the fingernail-on-chalkboard screech of its old hinges, while the rest of us up and down the street grit our teeth, wince, and bear it, especially in the dead of night.
“Tweaker” is just one of the many lessons I’ve received in San Diego urban culture since coming to this lovely neighborhood.
Cops and Tweakers
How to talk to police has been another learning experience. I’ve talked to seven different cops since we moved in. Cop #1 came our first week on the street.
We moved back to San Diego after a few years away and chose not to return to our old neighborhood where we’d owned a home. Renting would give us freedom to sample new parts of town, and our old friends were envious of our newfound mobility. But this, the first little house we’d rented, and the neighborhood around it, were charming, and we imagined living here for years.
I was unpacking boxes when I heard a woman screaming outside the Bad House. From the window, I could see her and her target. He had jumped into a car driven by a much younger woman. As the car sped away, the older woman stood in the middle of the street and bellowed. The spectacle of her public anger was positively Shakespearean, and it exploded the sleepy midday like a pipe bomb. She’d kill the guy, she shrieked. Torrents of profanity and murderous epithets rained up and down the empty block. Still yelling, she threw the man’s things into the street. Clothing, a guitar, a few bicycles. Anything she could find, she threw.
It wasn’t I who called the police. I’d never called the police for anything in my life, and at that point, I had no idea that the 911 phase of my life had just begun.
The policeman who answered the call, Cop #1, told me it was a “Bad House.” He wouldn’t elaborate, but after the woman’s performance, he almost didn’t have to. His look at me through the squad-car window made it clear that living within a mile of her house was a big mistake. “Own or rent?” Cop #1 asked. Renters, I said. “Good thing for you,” he said and drove off.
A few weeks later, Cop #2 elaborated. He was on the scene for another disturbance. Cop #2 told me that the people in the Bad House were meth dealers. I almost looked around to see if I was being punked. Me talking to the police about meth-dealing neighbors? Wasn’t meth a hillbilly thing? Out in Oklahoma or Arkansas, places where people live in trailers and love Walmart? I’d heard there was a funny cable TV show about a meth dealer, but I can tell you, in real life, I wasn’t laughing.
“Are they making it there, in the house?” I asked, horrified. I had read about meth-lab explosions. “Who knows?” he said. “Don’t worry. If there’s a meth lab in there, the whole street will smell it.”
Cop #2 said I should keep an eye on things. Write down descriptions of the regulars and the license-plate numbers of cars that came and went. Note the times of activity and the busiest days of the week. Could I take some photos?
Maybe, I said. Maybe I could do some of those things. I asked Cop #2 about the woman who lived in the house.
“Her?” Cop #2 said. “She’s a sweetheart. She always helps us out.”
I had seen him and his partner outside the Bad House laughing with her, the woman who had stood in the street and vowed murder. I wanted to believe that underneath her hard-bitten exterior and pirate’s laugh she might have a heart of gold. But by now I’d gotten to know her well enough on the street, by sight and sound. My morning runs were jump-started by her husky voice barking orders to an assembled group of men. Rumor had it, this collective who clocked in every morning at the same time was there for the day’s briefing. By the time Cop #2 arrived, I knew from neighbors that the Bad House was a crime syndicate of varied activities, although no one had yet confirmed that meth dealing was one of them.
Under the circumstances, “sweetheart” seemed a bit of a stretch.
But what disturbed me more from chatting with Cop #2 was his use of the word “always,” as in, “She always helps us out.” Whereas “tweaker” and “Bad House” had given me names for what was wrong with our street, “always” brought a crystal-clear understanding of our prospects for remedy. “Always” is not the word you want to hear when the police talk about your meth-dealing neighbors.
My New York City friend told me to stop talking to the police and absolutely not do their surveillance work for them. He was convinced that the cops were on the take; otherwise, how could the Bad House stay in business so long?
He had a point.
Moms and Flying Monkeys
For the past four years, my neighbors have made regular phone calls to the San Diego police. That’s how long the Bad House has been bad.
An elderly neighbor, pleased to have company, cheerily told me how it started. The Bad House is owned by an Old Man, she said. Years ago, she ran into the Old Man at the grocery store. They’d been neighbors forever, since their kids were little, and he was glad to see her. He had big news. His son and his son’s girlfriend were moving in with him. The Old Man seemed really happy that his son was coming home. He hadn’t been able to care for the house properly since his wife had died.
That was the last time my neighbor saw the Old Man out in public. Her grown children have protected her from knowing what goes on in the Old Man’s house these days, but she worries about him nonetheless.
“I know it’s hard to tell, but that house used to be a showplace,” my neighbor said. “He’s a very nice man. A good father.”
I’m not sure which of the surly men is the Old Man’s son. It may have been he who was arrested by Cop #3. A middle-aged man was led out of the Bad House in handcuffs, while I and a few of my neighbors watched. Cop #3 told us that the man had been caught stealing a bicycle.
A tizzy ensued. Almost as soon as the squad car left, the Bad House flying monkeys scurried to and fro loading contraband from the backyard into an old truck. Piled willy-nilly with colorful bikes and bike parts, the old truck groaned slowly down the street. It couldn’t have gone far loaded like that, and it returned throughout the next few days to be reloaded. I had never imagined that middle-aged men and women stole bicycles. But the sheer number of bike frames that left the Bad House the week after the arrest makes it clear to me that bike theft is as much a part of the beach black market as fake IDs.
Soon we saw the arrested man back on the street. Things had been quieter while he was gone, but now the drug-runner traffic resumed full force. Craigslisters returned, too, for trial spins on what had now been confirmed officially as stolen bikes.
After this point, after three cops, one arrest, and no significant change in the Bad House activities, I did what I always do when I don’t know what to do. I went to the internet. I typed in “how to get rid of meth house on my street.”
There was plenty for me to learn. Meth is a crystalline powder cooked up from over-the-counter cold medications and household ingredients such as paint thinner or battery acid. Meth is injected, snorted, smoked, eaten, keistered. The rush is quick and long, the addiction brutal. It’s cheaper than cocaine or heroin. (Wikipedia, Meth-kills.org)
San Diego is the meth capital of the world. (Los Angeles Times)
“San Diego County is no longer the meth capital of the world,” says Supervisor Dianne Jacob. (KUSI)
Jacob based her statement on 2009 statistics, which include substantial declines in meth-lab seizures and in arrests for meth sales and possession. (Of course, it might be wise to consider these declines in police action alongside the recent deep cuts in funding and staffing. According to SANDAG, San Diego County has dropped to 1.27 officers per 1000 citizens, which is almost half the national average.)
Meth is the most abused hard drug on Earth, with 26 million addicts, which equals the combined number of cocaine and heroin users. For years the Mexican drug cartels used industrial-sized superlabs to control the world’s meth supply. When the Mexican government in 2009 banned pseudoephedrine decongestants — the most popular and potent precursor for meth-making — the cartels shifted some of their manufacturing to California, which officials believe produces more meth in the U.S. than the next five top-producing states combined. (PBS Frontline and the U.S. Department of Justice)
Recently, meth has taken a do-it-yourself turn. The popular new “one-pot,” or “shake and bake,” method requires only a two-liter soda bottle and someone desperate enough to shake up a bunch of unstable ingredients. In a story last November, this sassy headline said it all: “Micro Meth Labs Run Riot. Undermanned Police Play Whack-a-Mole.” (Wall Street Journal)
In the end, I found more questions than answers. There were no helpful tips for getting rid of meth houses and few explanations why meth has become such a nationwide scourge. Some say the boom is, like everything else, the economy’s fault (Bloomberg). But from what I see of the traffic going in and out of the Bad House, these runners, bike thieves, and flophousers were probably never on the upswing of any economy.
The meth-buying clientele who come to our street are a different story. There are collegiate young people on skateboards and bikes who come to buy. Cars full of rowdies ready to party, where one jumps out to make the purchase. Sometimes it’s a respectable middle-aged couple or a construction guy in a late-model truck. These types stroll up to the Bad House like visiting royalty.
And then there was Blue Minivan Lady. I was out for my morning run and spotted the blue minivan parked in the Bad House driveway. Always kept clear, the driveway is like a landing strip for the bike traffic that comes and goes through the backyard gate. I figured the minivan driver didn’t know the rules yet. Her head rested on the steering wheel, as if fallen in despair. From what I could see, she looked like the kind of mom who’s always early to pick up her kids from elementary school. She was wearing a jaunty little hat.
I watched for a few minutes. Blue Minivan Lady didn’t move. I thought about going inside to call 911, but instead, as inured as I’d become to the Bad House drama, I turned and walked the opposite way. At the end of the block, I looked back to see that Blue Minivan Lady had stepped from the car. She was a small woman, nicely dressed, and it seemed to take all her strength, moral and physical, to open the backyard gate with the squealing hinges.
How long before she joins the steady stream of twitching, hollow-eyed people with bad teeth and matted hair who chatter down the sidewalks of my life?
What the Neighbors Say
Some neighbors are resigned to the Bad House. Some don’t mind it at all. I’ve even heard once or twice that we’re safer living so close to it because “they won’t piss in their own backyard.” Of course, these same neighbors keep mean dogs and lock up their bikes with care. I wonder what might change their minds about the danger the rest of us feel. A meth-lab explosion? Overdose on the sidewalk? A visit from a Mexican drug cartel?
Okay. Forget the meth and bike stealing. How about public harmony? California state law defines a nuisance property as one that is “indecent or offensive” and that affects “the comfortable enjoyment of life or property” of a neighborhood. The Bad House crowd may not “piss in their own backyard,” but their customers have certainly pissed in the shrubbery of our front yards. Pissing figuratively in our neighborhood — that is, shooting up, snorting, smoking drugs in cars parked just around the corner or down the street from the Bad House because the desperate can’t wait — is a regular occurrence. More than once I’ve almost been mowed down by the kamikaze drug runners, especially at night.
For hard-working, intelligent homeowners to accept the presence of a house this bad takes the unofficial San Diego motto “It’s all good” to a new extreme. I think back to other cities and towns across America I’ve lived in and try to imagine my former neighbors not uniting against a Bad House, not fighting for the overall good of their neighborhoods. I can’t.
So I’m grateful for neighbors who care. For us, the activities of the Bad House control the mood and safety of the entire street. It’s like the anger, fear, confusion, and sadness generated within a family when one member is a drug addict. My neighbor Annabel (all names have been changed) tells me that her dog refuses to walk past the Bad House. Absolutely, positively refuses. That may sound silly to you, but to me it’s a reminder that sometimes dogs are smarter than people.
My neighbor Gloria believes that houses like the Bad House have another, more sinister effect. “It brings people to the street who ordinarily wouldn’t be here,” she says. “Once they’re here, they see what a nice, quiet place for crime it is.”
Gloria is the leader of our Neighborhood Watch group. One day she told me a story about a friend whose home was robbed. “The thieves wiped her out,” Gloria said. “The police said trucks must have been in the driveway for hours, but nobody thought to question what they were doing there. They took everything but the cat.”
This woman was going to sell her house, move to a different part of the city. “I told her that these things can happen anywhere,” said Gloria. “I told her she had to go out and meet every single one of her neighbors. If she’d known her neighbors, it’s possible that somebody would have noticed the trucks and called the police. Knowing your neighbors and watching out for each other is the best alarm system you can have.”
Recently, Gloria decided it was time for another meeting of our Neighborhood Watch group. She sent out emails, made phone calls, and told us that the police department had agreed to send officers to talk to us. That’s when I met Cops #4, #5, and #6.
A handful of us gathered in the park on that Sunday afternoon. The three officers who came were not familiar with our neighborhood nor the Bad House. They seemed like PR guys, well rehearsed in a variation of the familiar cop routine. We had Bad Cop, Good Cop, and Bumptious Young Cop. Bumptious and Bad lectured us sternly on the proper way to report a crime. They explained how hard it is to do their job, how much evidence you need to catch criminals, and how there’s really no point going after offenders who can’t be prosecuted successfully, i.e., bicycle thieves. We learned how understaffed they are, and again, how hard their job is.
And again, how hard their job is.
We were all sufficiently chastened except for my neighbor Sally, who is the kind of outspoken adult I want to be when I grow up. “Okay, we got it. Now, what are you going to do about these drug dealers?” Sally asked.
It was Good Cop’s turn. He joked with us. He listened to our stories, nodding and tsking. Sally spoke up again. She said that it would take only a day for an undercover cop to get all the evidence he needed to shut down the Bad House for good.
“That’d be great, but to be honest, it’s gotta be up to you guys,” Bumptious broke in. “You’re our eyes and ears on the street. Give us more to work with, and we’ll work with you.” I suggested dressing Sally up like a homeless ’60s Flower Chick with no teeth and sending her into the Bad House. Nobody laughed.
The cops handed out some departmental brochures, shook our hands, and off they went in their shiny black shoes. We did not feel better.
After that, I became one of the neighbors who looked the other way. I never walked past, or even drove past, the Bad House. I pretended that the drug runners and customers who came and went simply were not there. When I chatted with neighbors, I made it a point not to bring it up.
But I never stopped worrying about the Old Man, whom nobody had seen for months.
Sally was the one who told me we had a new cop on our beat. She and Gloria spread the word that any information could be fed directly to him. These two had been through a stack of cops, detectives, and supervisors over the past four years, but they still hadn’t given up.
Officer Rohatan is the seventh policeman I’ve talked to since I moved to the street, and from the beginning he was different. For one thing, he listened more than he talked. For another, he seemed interested in busting up the Bad House.
I halfheartedly left him a few messages when drug traffic seemed especially heavy. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. When Officer Rohatan did return my calls, it was a bit awkward. He often sounded harried, and I worried that my tips were too vague to be helpful to any of us.
To be honest, I hated being a spy. I hated that my newfound hope in Officer Rohatan meant I’d become more attuned than usual to the sordid goings-on at the Bad House. Driving home became an assignment for noting who and what was on our street that wasn’t supposed to be. My ears perked every time the backyard gate opened. Paying this much attention, I was outraged all over again by how brazen the 24-hour bike-thieving, meth-dealing, and flophousing was. As my son had said months before, “Mom, they’re tweakers. They don’t think about what they do. They just do it.”
Then the phone call came. Officer Rohatan said they’d be paying a surprise visit to the Bad House the following night. He warned me that the raid might cause a ruckus. People running from the house might flee through back and front yards along the street, which, to me, sounded delightful.
I reminded him to check on the Old Man. I wished him luck.
All afternoon the next day I was nervous, and I really can’t tell you why. What was I hoping for? Or was it that I expected so little? The evening hours crept by, and it was just a little after 8:00 p.m. when three squad cars raced up. I didn’t dare go outside to get a better look. Peeking from behind the draperies, I tried to see what was happening down the street, but it was too dark. The hinges squeaked as people went in and out of the Bad House gate. A woman on a bicycle rode away. I gave up and tried to watch the DVD we’d started, but it was hard to ignore the real drama taking place in the dark outside.
In less than an hour, Officer Rohatan phoned to say it was over. He thanked me for my help and said they’d arrested two people, one of whom was connected to a felony. The Old Man’s condition would be reported to social services. “The situation over there is definitely dangerous to him,” Officer Rohatan said.
That’s where it stands.
Not much has changed. In fact, the only concrete evidence of Officer Rohatan’s raid is a little purple flag on crimemapping.com, the interactive crime map used by the San Diego and Imperial counties’ Automated Regional Justice Information System (ARJIS). The idea is that you should be able to see how much and what kind of crime is in your neighborhood. Our block now sports a purple flag for a “drug/alcohol violation.” If I reset the date fields on the map for the past four years, I see 153 little flags in the half-mile radius around our block and wonder how many of these thefts and assaults are connected to the Bad House crime ring.
Officer Rohatan says he’ll keep the pressure on. He promises more visits and a continued crackdown, so word will spread that the Bad House is under police surveillance. If, as the Wall Street Journal says, busting meth houses is a national “whack-a-mole” problem, I’m grateful we finally have a neighborhood cop who’s willing to whack our mole.
But a few days ago, a neighbor told me he’d spotted goons arriving at the Bad House in a fancy car. Football players or gang members, he said they looked like, and he’s seen them drive up more than once. It was one thing to have tweaked-out knuckleheads dealing meth down the street, but the presence of what may be the real and violent power behind it all may be the game changer for me.
So what do you do when your home is not a sanctuary from the ugliness of other people’s lives? When the evil that men and women perpetrate on themselves and others plays a constant loop outside your windows, across your front yard, up and down your street?
You thank God you’re a renter.
You write about it. Then maybe you move on.
But then, maybe you think about Gloria’s friend who lost everything, even her family photo albums, to thieves. “These things can happen anywhere,” Gloria said.
You think about Jack, one of the good guys on the street. If you are in a jam, Jack is whom you call to fix your computer or feed your dog when you go out of town. Jack has a different view of the situation, in all the wisdom of his youth. “At least you know what they’re doing over there. Sometimes knowing the worst is better than not knowing anything,” he says. “You’re prepared.” Jack just bought a security camera to install outside his front door.
Maybe you think about the Bad House in Clairemont your hairdresser told you about. Her neighbors finally rallied against it because the starving children who lived there were caught climbing through the dog doors of neighboring homes to find food. The meth-dealer parents were brought down by Child Welfare Services.
Maybe you think about the Bad House in Bird Rock your girlfriend told you about. For 15 years, neighbors tried to get the homeowner to clean up his property. It was an eyesore and safety hazard of mythic proportions, and it operated on one of the busiest streets in one of San Diego’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Mountains of garbage in the yard brought rats and possums. Homeless people camped outside and inside the house. Drug use was open and rampant. The police raided regularly, and multiple arrests were made, including those involving felonies. The La Jolla Light reported it took the efforts of 18 neighbors working with their city councilwoman and county supervisor, local police, and other governmental agencies to see the job done. In the end, after 15 years, the man was legally forced to sell.
Maybe something can be done. Maybe you can find one of those Bird Rock or Clairemont neighbors and ask them how they did it.
Maybe you stay.