By Jim Miller
In my first novel, Drift, there is a passage where the main character, Joe, is driving through City Heights pondering the poetry of the streets.
He notes the “funky majesty” of a store front church sandwiched between a pharmacy and a liquor store and revels in the cacophony of signs in Vietnamese, Spanish, English, and more while he loses himself in the street life passing by as “everything bled together seamlessly in the twilight and became part of the mystic fabric of impending night.”
Joe’s musings mix with music on the radio as he contemplates the “blue feeling” of minimarts to jazz and rolls by massage parlors, 99-cent stores, and the Tower Bar. When I read this passage back in 2007, I had the pleasure of being accompanied by Gilbert Castellanos on trumpet and his melancholy solo lent the perfect air of blues dignity to the piece. It was, of course, a love song to my old neighborhood and the present hard-edged marvel that is City Heights.
When I lived there in the early eighties, I shared a dilapidated apartment near the intersection of Winona and University with a couple of friends and a rotating door of strangers to whom we rented the extra bedroom. My friends and I were going to San Diego State and enjoying the $125 portion of the rent that was ours (hey, that’s how you roll when you’re living off student loans and the nightshift). We shared the other room with a musician, a pair of endlessly clubbing hair stylists, a bike racer, and a number of debauched characters who shall remain unnamed.
We had a constant infestation of cockroaches and there was a big hole in the floor between the toilet and the shower that the landlord never fixed. Thus when the drain got clogged while we showered the folks downstairs had the luxury of being rained on by our dirty tub water. They loved it. But the landlord’s response to our complaints was simple: move. We kept Drano in business instead.
Our neighbors included a single mother and her kids, a biker, a couple of party animal Navy dudes, and a weird old man whose apartment was exclusively decorated with black velvet paintings that hung over his beer keg, pool table, and organ (yes he played the organ). He rented his spare room to a never-ending parade of suspicious characters. Stimulants and unspeakable things were involved. Let’s just say that this was well before more recent efforts at gentrification.
After living there for a while, we got to know the lay of the land. It was very active gang turf and there was plenty of prostitution and drug dealing. I regularly got pulled over by the cops, sometimes more than once a night. The question was always the same: “Any drugs or weapons?” Having a banged up 1970 Plymouth Fury didn’t help, nor did my long hair, but the Black and Latino kids had it much worse on that front: they’d get pulled out of the car, lights in the face, the whole nine yards.
I would run into one of the women of the evening while I lived there and she would hit me up on my way to school and (when I politely declined) she’d always tell me that she could teach me a thing or two as well. “What you reading about? I’ll show you something that ain’t in no book, honey.” She was a tough woman with a rough sense of humor whose laughter was infused with anger and pain though her eyes were not dead yet. I’d just smile back at her and wish her well. I hope she is still alive somewhere and off the street for good.
The night I turned 21, I finished studying for my history test at midnight and walked down University to the Tower Bar alone and asked for a free beer (this was before the hipsters took over). When the bartender refused, the line of old barflies jumped to my defense. “Hey cheapskate, give the kid a fucking beer.” Eventually he grudgingly obliged, slamming it down and saying, “Only one, asshole.” Nobody sang me happy birthday. That’s how it was there before it got discovered and became a “cool dive bar.” The beers were only $1.25. Imagine that.
Rough edges and all, I came to love the neighborhood: the radical juxtapositions of beauty and grit—gorgeous Vietnamese robes adorning the staircase railings of crappy stucco apartments tagged with graffiti; Latino families headed to church in their Sunday best, gently guiding their children past homeless men splayed out on the street; kids joyfully weaving down the potholed avenues on bikes; tired old Somali women in traditional dress, lugging grocery bags with quiet dignity.
My buddy and I used to play basketball down the street at the park. We were always the only white guys on the court so we got the nicknames, Bird 1 and Bird 2. We all laughed about it and it was good. And afterwards, with bloody knees and bruised ribs, we ate cheaply and well at taco shops and storefront restaurants of all kinds—gorging on Pho, bean burritos, Cajun, Ethiopian, 5-dollar pizza, and happy hour hot dogs.
At night, we’d sit out on the back steps of our place, drink a few beers, and watch the helicopters circle the neighborhood. And the sound of the whirling chopper blades would mix with the distant strains of music–in Spanish, English, Vietnamese—and kids yelling, people fighting, laughing, and making love. It was an opera of humanity. We were at the peak of an incline so we could see over the roofs of houses and apartment complexes for several blocks. It gave us the sense that we could take the whole thing in–all of its chaos, misery, wonder, and love.
It was during this period that I first discovered Walt Whitman and one evening I sat up all night reading “Song of Myself” in its entirety before my morning class. I was stunned by it. Across the ocean of time he was speaking to me as I soared through his catalogues encountering the workingmen, artists, slaves, criminals, brides, opium eaters, presidents and prostitutes: “Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion.”
And all of their faces are the face of God, he told me, like the face of the guy pulling the night shift at Roberto’s and the woman buying candy for her sad little boy at the 7-11.
And the marriage of the sacred and profane is complete with the adult bookstore down the street from the Buddhist Temple, and the strip joint near the Mosque: “The meal is equally set, this is the meat for natural hunger/It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all.” Or, as the Buddhists would say: Roses and garbage inter-are, neither defiled nor immaculate.
When I was done reading, I walked outside to the back steps. It was raining very hard and the streets were coursing with streams of water as if the world was being cleansed and born anew. It was then I looked out over the rooftops of City Heights and thought about the people who lived and died there, struggled and triumphed, and I knew that “all of these tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them/And such as it is to be one of these more or less I am/And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.” And the next day, the roaches came back, the drain clogged, the neighbors were loud, and everybody’s story kept unfolding, warts and all, resisting anything better than their own diversity.
Note: this column was originally written for the San Diego Free Press’s City Heights focus back in the fall of 2013 but was put on hold for campaign coverage. But, as a man of my word, here it is Anna.