A compelling history of everyday life on the wild side of San Diego
By Jim Miller
This year’s San Diego City Works Press release is Tamara Johnson’s Not Far From Normal, a book that takes a unique look at our city. Just steps away from sponsored fun runs, endurance challenges, and ultra-marathons, in Johnson’s book San Diego’s hidden residents play games of survival side-by-side with official city events. However one feels about the rise of dark tourism, it has never been necessary to travel far to experience either the dangerous or the exotic.
Part poetry, part photo essay by Rachael Wenban, part field guide, Not Far From Normal relates the secret history of San Diego’s parks and missions as told by their current inhabitants. From the crash of PSA Flight#182 to the “I don’t like Mondays” school shooting and other dark episodes that don’t make it into San Diego’s official story, this book is a compelling history of everyday life on the wild side of Southern California.
What many readers might find the most engaging about Not Far From Normal is the way in which it takes them on unfamiliar journeys through otherwise known territory. As this excerpt from the introduction shows, Johnson is interested in uncovering lost traces of local history and looking at ordinary life and cityspace in San Diego from the margins in:
Near Normal Street, where I actually do live, systemic violence is expressed in the language of finance: foreclosure, repossession, redevelopment. Gentrification is complete, or nearly so. But the taproots of resentment are still very much in evidence. Those who have recently been inside the old teacher’s college (San Diego’s Normal School, predecessor to The University) tell me that the floor of the locked building is littered with bullet casings—likely the result of gun practice by school security. It’s easy to miss the nearby monument to principal Burton Wragg and custodian Mike Sucher, victims of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting; it’s less easy to miss the neon sign commemorating the end of the old trolley line, once the boundary between city and country. In the 1995 film Dead Man, a young Cleveland accountant by the name of William Blake responds to a letter, a job offer, from the town of Machine. As in old University Heights, Machine is the final rail stop, the place all passengers must disembark.
A short pedestrian bridge connects University Heights to Hillcrest, where much of the narrative portion of this book takes place. There, twin medical facilities share San Diego’s life-and-death traffic. Twin emergency rooms stagger patient deliveries by ambulance, but people arrive in all sorts of ways. Behind the old Mercy Hospital, on West Arbor Drive, a shuttle takes properly documented students, faculty, staff, and patients north to UCSD’s Research and Medical Facilities. This second destination, situated next to the famous Torrey Pines Golf Course, shares space with some of San Diego’s last remaining coastal forest: the facilities are literally on the cliffs of the Pacific. Without use of the shuttle service, or private car, a trip from Hillcrest to UCSD can take easily all day. City buses may be slower than walking speed, and the direct pedestrian route to The Coaster, San Diego’s commuter rail, is a parade of misery. With possessions in backpacks, shopping carts, wheelchairs, and strollers, the wounded ambulate—quickly or slowly—among joggers and dog-walkers. They dodge cyclists, cross-fit patrons, and the crowds of loitering foodies that are perennially huddled outside bars and restaurants. What good does it do, I sometimes wonder, to use state-of-the-art technologies to relieve human suffering only to discharge patients to nearby parks, riverbeds, and canyons?
To hear more from Tamara Johnson’s Not Far From Normal, come out this Friday, September 19th to The Glashaus Gallery at 1815 Main Street, Suite B, San Diego 92113. The event will start at 7:00 PM with delicious craft beer and food pairings followed by a book signing, music by Lion Cut and Normandie Wilson, and coffee by Divine Madman. Rachael Wenban’s photography and Hill Young’s art will be on display. And there will be a kids’ arts and crafts area.
If you’d like to join the bike parade to the reading, here are the details: Cyclists should meet at MJ’s Cyclery at 6 pm, on Friday the 19th, for a fun-ride starting Very Near Normal and ending at The Glashaus at 7 pm, guided by the whimsical Bruce Sometimes-Gaia Love.
Oh, and bring a book bag and cash or a check. A limited quantity of hand-numbered copies of Not Far From Normal will be available here only thanks to the good folks at City Works Press.
The author will be on hand to sign your copy, personally.
If you can’t make it to the reading, to buy a copy of Not Far From Normal, go to: City Works Press.