Editor’s Note: Bob wrote this article on October 30 and intended to finish it while in Sant Joan, Mallorca, where he unexpectedly died. Nat Krieger, a dear friend of Bob and SDFP contributor himself, was able to find the article on Bob’s computer and sent it to us, at Deb Dorn’s request. We are publishing it posthumously.
By Bob Dorn
The old man used to ride his wobbly old bike every day up to the market on Park Boulevard where he preferred to shop. On his way north he would dismount as he approached the Georgia Street overpass of University Avenue because the climb was steep enough to make him uncomfortable. In fact, he not very stable on the machine under any conditions, and it looked nearly as old as him and seemed to weigh half as much as he did. On his way back the filled-up basket of the bike rattled loudly, which alerted the few people along the way getting out of or into their cars.
On some days the people recognized him and waved, some pointing their thumbs upward toward the sky because they knew he would pretend to think they meant something was up there and he would look up at the morning clouds as if he were following their directions. They always laughed at that. Others would aim their garden hoses at him so they could share a different laugh.
When the economy turned down in what moneyed people called The Great Recession, he had saved just enough to buy a small condo on Upas Street near Roosevelt Middle School. The noise from other residents had been quieted by added insulation, and the building faced Balboa Park across the street which also eased the sense of crowding. He had thought San Diego was not the sort of city he could live in well when he took a job there all those years ago because it was too like an overgrown, one-purpose place, a navy and missiles place, like towns that brewed beer or designed electronics. But at the same time it was changing just enough to keep him from leaving.
Now that the bridge over University Avenue and the ramparts along its side were being repaired he could no longer ride his bike to the Sprouts market on Park Boulevard and instead drove his old Chevrolet van to get his groceries. It seemed wasteful to him to drive a van less than a mile just to buy some lettuce and carrots and fish and pasta; the van was meant to carry tools and people.
The work on the bridge over University Avenue never seemed to end, and neither did the replacement of ancient iron water mains deep beneath the streets in his neighborhood. He wondered what was worse, the noise or the dust. He came to think it was the dust because it made his eyes burn and drip with tears, and he sneezed and coughed without satisfaction or relief. He caught a bacteria because all the passages and tunnels in his head were so irritated they allowed germs to enter his body freely. An antibiotic from the doctor took care of the infection.
But when the dust returned he would start sneezing and coughing again. Like the bicycle he no longer rode to the market, his body was becoming as rusty as the water pipes that never seemed to get replaced.
He liked the cleaning lady he called Juana de Tijuana. She worked for younger, more highly employed owners in the condo complex, and now and then she would drop in and help the old man practice speaking his Spanish. She said it sounded like Italian some days and other days like French . He explained to her that he spoke both those languages when he was young.
“I cannot any longer finish a sentence using either of those languages but often they invade my head and spray a few words through it like pesticide on flies and my meaning becomes confused,” he would say.
“Pero, señor, yo puedo entenderte. Bien, bien,” she told him. “Por favor, digame algo en español,” she would ask him. Most often, it would be about food.
He enjoyed sharing some of his food with her when she happened by his condo on a day he’d cooked something. It was usually bacon and eggs, which she told him was not good for him.
“You must use vegetables when you cook,” she told him. “It is not hard to do. Use broccoli with your eggs, and spinach. You like sausage, no? Add them to other green things, like onions.”
“But onions are not green, Juana.” He knew she would laugh at that even if it wasn’t very funny.
On a morning he was not feeling very well he told Juana his head was strange and that he slept poorly because there was so much work in the streets surrounding his building. During the day it was the dust and the bell tones the trucks and earth movers made when they backed up. At night it was the clanging made by cars and buses running over the steel plates temporarily covering the openings made the day before.
Across the street a big company had been given perhaps 3,000 square feet of Balboa Park to store its dump truck and backhoe and earth mover. Piles of filler material were covered with tarps and he could not remember how long they had been there. The grasses had died from all the coming and going and dripping of machinery, which meant there was more dust in the air when even a slight breeze kicked up.
Across Florida Canyon and uphill at Alabama Street where there never was much grass, a kind of wild area bigger than the one across from the old man’s condo building had another storage yard, this one enclosed by another chain link fence which the contractor had tried to beautify by hanging plastic sheeting that was almost the color of pine trees. Soon, there was graffiti sprayed through the chain-link, and the city or the contractor would spray paint a different green over the graffiti. The cycle would start again, until the green screen became a mark of historical accidents.
“City Council has made of these jobs an investment fund for the big construction companies.” She wanted to know what he meant. He tried but could not explain to Juana in Spanish what exactly an investment fund might be.
“It means the city guarantees that the companies can take all the time they want to finish the work, ” he said to Juana, “And then the companies give back some of the money to the council members so they can run for reelection and that is why the companies do not work fast. Because when the jobs last a long time there is more money for the politicians and the companies.”
He thought she could not understand. He thought he might tell her that now the city was like Mexico under Porfirio Diaz, or Cuba under Batista, or Spain under Franco, or America under Trump, but he also thought not enough Americans understood this simple trick that made politicians rich.
“No te preocupe, Juana. Fa niente.” This time, the Italian had slipped in.
“No, no, señor, what you say means much to me. It is the same in Tijuana.”
Not long before he had looked for explanations of why the jobs were taking so long, and started by opening up the city’s official website. Under North Park it said:
Hipsters, young professionals and students hang out in trendy North
Park, where coffee shops, craft-beer bars and indie boutiques line
University Avenue. The restaurant scene is heavy on brunch spots,
upscale pubs, taquerias and sushi lounges, and nightlife often revolves
around the Observatory North Park, a 1929 theater that hosts rap, rock
It seemed to him to be language meant only to imitate a world but not describe it, much as the salad bar at a fancy supermarket might give names like Sorrento Sunrise and Fishermen’s Choice to tubs holding mixtures of canned salmon with Cappellini pasta and little black seeds with tags pronouncing how much they cost calculated by the ounce. Some of the North Park description contained words that seemed to deny association, like “hipsters” and “young professionals.” Other words he could not understand. What exactly were “indie boutiques”? He did not think they “line University Avenue.”
He wondered why the same city employee who wrote that blurb was not called in to give names like those of the salad bars’ to the unfinished jobs surrounding his area. Perhaps they could call the jobs Uptown Renaissance or Park Place Restoration when in fact a plumber would say they were “delayed maintenance,” and that the tubes that blocked the parking spaces were “rusted iron pipes more than one hundred years old,” forged in Cincinnati 40 years before he was born.
And so he decided to write his council member and ask him why the job was taking so long and why the park grasses had died under the weight of the backhoes and front loaders and the dump trucks and the tarp-covered materials behind the chain-link fences that he passed on his walks to the the cactus garden across from the Museum of Natural History.
So he wrote to council member Christopher Ward, asking when the jobs started and for how much longer it would take for them to be finished.
Some time went by; he was not sure how many weeks they were, but there were enough of them that he’d forgotten he’d written the letter. He was surprised when he received an email that was not from Council Member Ward, but from someone named Tyler who said he was “the North Park Community Representative for North Park and University Heights in Councilmember Ward’s office.”
The man (he assumed Tyler was a man’s name) thanked the old man “for reaching out” with his questions and said:
“The Georgia Street bridge construction began in July of 2016. All four
lanes to traffic will open in late- July 2018 and the full completion
is expected to be in Fall of this year.”
That confused the old man for a moment because Georgia Street did not have four lanes; it had two, and it was already October and he still could not ride his bike over University Avenue on the Georgia Street overpass. Then he realized the note meant that University Avenue would open “in Fall of this year,” which would be good because there was still two months of Fall within which University Avenue’s four lanes would be opened up.
But the old man was less impressed by the water main explanation, which said:
“…it will most likely take a few more weeks in the area you are at and
then they will move on to another section of the project. We
understand that these projects take a long time and can be a major
inconvenience for periods of time. These projects were approved, funded,
and contracted well before we were in office and we have learned many
lessons about these types of projects and contracts that the city awards. We
have collected complaints and feedback about these contractors and are
using them as evidence when we are looking at new contracted
It was now late October and the “few more weeks” had gone by and the chain-link fences were still up, the machinery still sat on park land across from the old man’s street and at the Eucalyptus grove at Alabama Street, and his nose and throat still itched and made him sneeze and cough.
He knew he sounded like the old man in the neighborhood, yelling at everybody to stop vomiting on his lawn, but he don’t even have one. He could only afford a condo.