I first moved to Normal Heights in March of 1989, into a two bed/one bath apartment on a dull and cracked asphalt capillary called Ward Road, just off Cherokee, a block south of Adams Avenue and Vons supermarket. The twelve-unit apartment complex (soiled beige stucco with equally soiled fake stone accents) isn’t there anymore, though that brief stretch of Ward Road still is. Where the apartment building sat is now part of the new Normal Heights Elementary School. At least they didn’t bulldoze the place for a mini-mall or, worse, new condos that would’ve bankrupted any fools who bought during the real estate kaboombust. A school is much better, about as good as one could hope for. Seeing it there, where my old home once stood, I almost didn’t feel the tiny emptiness that churns in my stomach when a physical part of my past ceases to exist. Almost. I’m just nostalgic like that, over everything. I get misty when I have to get rid of an old shirt. It all goes back to childhood. And that’s no place to go back to here. (Shortly, but not here.)
A young man heading “east”, I was moving from a $350 a month studio in Mission Hills, where I’d lived in post-graduate bachelor solitude for six months. And yes, you read that rent correctly, less than four bills a month for a decent little place in Mission Hills, with a partial bay view, high above India just north of where Washington climbs the canyon toward the Goldfinch intersection business district. To be honest, by partial bay view I mean that I was partial, almost every day, to walking the fifty yards to see it, but it was always right there, and for that money it was more than a bargain.
But it wasn’t enough to keep me there. Normal Heights and a roommate, and – the clincher – even cheaper rent, beckoned. Almost a hundred dollars cheaper. Down to $262.50 a month. I still remember the amount exactly. Because cheap was all that mattered to a kid who held in his hand a fresh B.A. in Theatre – along with the requisite temp-service timecard issued with any degree in dramatic arts or other leotard-based disciplines. (I would’ve moved to LA, like any smart lad with the same education and scriptwriting aspirations would have, but I’d grown up in LA, in a jumbled mess of circumstances, my family still living there. And I was still at a time in my life when I simply had to keep my distance from that organization.)
The inner courtyard of the apartment building on Ward Road, as opposed to its dingy modernist exterior, was like an oasis on the urban mesa. The lanky palms and carnivorously huge bird of paradise plants and other flowering greens were healthy and colorful and well kept. Each individual upstairs apartment had its own stairway leading to it, as well as its own balcony, and the five stairways and balconies in the small courtyard pressed in on the space, adding to the quasi-jungle feel.
But Melrose Place it wasn’t, Ward Road it was. And those who lived there were as varied as the architecture of Normal Heights. The neighborhood had, and still has, Spanish colonial revivals next to atrocious four-plex boxes next to post-WWII bungalows next to nondescript apartments next to craftsman cottages. The complex had brawling lesbians next to mentally ill recluses next to single mothers on food stamps next to clueless college grads next to you can’t remember who (either because you never saw them or you never wanted to).
My roommate, J, was an old friend and fellow theatre major from UCSD (“drama fags” his stout Midwestern old man would good-naturedly tease us, bourbon Manhattan in his meaty hand, his other paw usually tending bratwurst on the grill, on those nights we’d get an always welcome free meal at his family’s suburban split-level in Del Cerro). J worked at the San Diego Tribune as a clerk, when the UT was still two separate papers, and a few months after we moved in I tried to get a job there, too. He’d put in the good word for me, and I even thought about cutting my long hair and buying a suit for the interview, but, as twenty-two year-old creatives (with inferiority complexes and OCD) are prone to do, I went to the interview with my hair pulled back “neatly” into a ponytail, wearing the best duds I had in my mostly empty closet, and when I sat down for the interview I could tell immediately that my appearance alone lost the gig for me. It was still the conservative UT, after all, and I should’ve just cut my hair, bought a nicer pair of slacks, and done the drill. I often wonder how different my life would’ve been had I gotten that job. Instead I became a blue-collar courier, and put 50,000 miles on my car in a year, wearing a uniform without a thread of natural fiber in it, that seemed to trap and intensify body odor better than a bath/shower phobia. When I complained to management, they told me they would get me a cotton uniform. A week later I received my new uniform, which was a whopping 5% cotton. Still 95% chafing and stink. A complete waste of time. I always hated uniforms.
So, as we began our year-and-a-half of living together, J had the real job in the house, employment befitting a college graduate, and he soon parlayed it into writing book reviews for the Sunday paper, which I envied. I had no desire at all to review books, what I envied were the byline and extra money. This was before I became a courier, when I was still working two jobs to scrape enough money together. In the mornings I worked at Encanto Elementary, an inner-city school, as a sort of roving writing tutor, a job that actually came with a sense of worth and importance, even if I was little more than a glorified part-time teacher’s assistant. It was education, I was a helping kids write, I was making my community a better place. Ahem.
In the afternoons, however, I made a “better” wage serving as the personal gopher for a shady talent agent whose office was in Point Loma. I went from an a.m. of working on essays with kids whose parents were drug addicts or in jail (or dead), to a p.m. of doing the obscenely alcoholic and calorie engorged grocery shopping for a tremendously overweight ten-percenter and her always fuming ex-cop husband/business partner. The grocery shopping lists they handed me went something like this (and I do not exaggerate, I saved a list):
3 lbs. butter 5 lbs bacon thick cut 4 packages chocolate Pinwheel cookies 2 packages Oreo Double Stuff 2 gallons Dryers French vanilla ice cream 2 dozen eggs 6 New York Steaks 5 lbs. each lamb and pork chops. 2 big bottles J&B Scotch 2 big bottles cheap Vodka 1 big bottle Tanqueray 4 bottles each bloody mary mix and tonic 2 lbs sharp cheddar cheese 1 large dry salami 3 boxes Club crackers 6 cans Chunky soup, beef and chicken 5 2-litre bottle of Pepsi 2 loaves white bread 1 loaf sourdough 3 lbs. sausage 4 cartons cigarettes (2 Pall Mall, 2 Virginia Slim 120 Menthol) 10 lbs potatoes Lots of salad stuff but no carrots (Don HATES carrots! Please remember! He gets mad if he sees them in the house) 2 bottles ranch salad dressing 1 bottle creamy Italian
Unbelievably, I went grocery shopping for them TWICE a week. The second trip would be for more and different meats and cheeses and cookies and boozes, more of everything, all the time. I found it absurdly funny at first, but increasingly, as my disturbing tenure at the agency wore on, I came to view it with revulsion.
After shopping, I’d take the food over to their rented house on the hill above Pacific Beach, and put it all away in their kitchen. One afternoon, as I crammed yet another box of Pinwheel cookies into the overstuffed pantry, I flipped on the television for some distraction, only to find myself watching a quite unique porn movie. It was an orgy featuring several dwarfs in elf attire, one of whom had a penis that he literally unfurled like a scroll until it hit the floor (I don’t know if it was a special effect, a real penis, or some kind of prosthetic, but the sight was truly remarkable). I’d been to the house when the agent and hubby were home, and they were always there watching TV and eating together. Now I thought of the two of them sitting in front of their new Sony – eating pounds of butter and pork, boxes of cookies, guzzling bottles of scotch as they smoked cartons of Pall Malls – watching elves having group sex, and I hoped that, like the humongously fat man in Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, they would soon eat a final cookie or strip of bacon (“just a wafer thin mint”) and simply explode, their guts festooning the room with Oreo plaster and sausage chunks soaked in gin. These people lived like conspicuous monarchs, and all from their talent agency, which never seemed to get their clients any acting jobs. It was quite strange at first. But I soon figured out that they were working the picture scam – steering the starry-eyed people who answered their want-ads to a favored photographer (themselves really) – and that getting jobs for clients didn’t matter. They were frauds. They deserved to explode.