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San Diego – Strange Place

February 9, 2017
All that's left of

All that’s left of “Little Italy” is a mural next to a yuppy overpriced beer joint

The downtown area is as sterile as Denver’s – no character whatsoever, just a lot of skyscrapers and overpriced condo apartments that look like they’ll collapse when the next earthquake hits…and it will. But aside from all that cement forced into the dredged harbor, it is a fascinating place, death ships – submarines, aircraft carriers and missile-carrying destroyers – aside.

We stayed at a cheap hotel “neat comfortable rooms” – which it was, and were surprised by Nancy’s sister, Carol who came down from Palo Alto to spend a few days with us. She was staying at the same motel. It was the last of the moderately priced motels on a strip that has been gentrified by high-priced hotels and condos. The motel next to us is now being taken down and ours, Marina Motel and Suites, is next to go.

The neighborhood is called “Little Italy” and today it is neither little nor Italian… gentrified up the kazoo, but there is Filippo’s, a remnant of times past,  – a small ungentrified looking local Italian restaurant that serves a huge and tasty antipasto salad. Little Italy must have been lovely “back in the day” when Italians actually lived and worked there. It was a fishing village just north of downtown. The fishing boats have been replaced by yachts and monster cruise ships, the fish markets,  living quarters of Italian fishermen long gone. Soon our motel will follow suit and there will be nothing working class Italian left but overpriced restaurants and wine bars.

I know, I know, we’re old cynics. We actually had a great time.

It started with a trip to Point Loma, and the Cabrillo National Monument where Juan Dominguez Cabrillo first touched land on California’s coast in 1542. There is no mention as to how he was greeted by the Kumayeey native folk who have left their mark everywhere. To get Cabrillo National Monument we took what in Denver is called the light rail but here is referred as a trolley and two buses. The last one took us through a big submarine base.We went there mostly to see the tide pools on the edge of the Pacific and timed our arrival – through some quirk of fate – just at low tide. A thoroughly enjoyable several hours.

brown-pelican-point-loma-caThe bird life is quite extraordinary there. Egrets, herons and a group of three brown pelicans scanning the shore line for food. They’d cover about a two mile area around the coast, flying in formation close to the water. A few times, they got close enough for a decent photo. Later at the natural history museum in Balboa Park I learned that brown pelicans suffered a near extinction experience in the 1950s and 1960s from DDT until it was banned. DDT ingested in their food supply attacked the egg shells of pelican embryos, making them thinner, destroying them and killing off the off the would-be birds. It was only after DDT was banned that the brown pelican made a come back.

On the bus route back, we stopped at “Mitch’s Seafood” which was excellent.

foot path to border customs

foot path to border customs

What’s happening to our country?

Yesterday we took the trolley to San  Ysidro on the border with Mexico. Conversed with two politically savvy homeless men on the way down, among the more most interesting San Diego-ans we’ve met so far. And we did see a fair number of homeless people, on the sidewalk, under interstate highway underpasses, in the parks.

Waiting for the first trolley a tall Black man sat down next me and started talking. He was carrying his worldly possessions in a black paper bag. He bemoaned the election of Donald Trump. “What’s happening to our country?” he asked, as if I could answer that question and went to ask if I knew what it was that Republicans had against healthcare and why they seemed to intent on “taking away what little that Obama had done for the country. He went on to note how the Republican Party had changed since the days of Lincoln, that it “wasn’t the grand old party anymore.”

Changing the subject to religion, he asked me, if really, I thought, when it comes right down to it, was any difference between Christianity, Judaism and Islam, noting that he didn’t think so as we’re all “human beans” – and people who make a big deal about religion are “nasty”.  He didn’t give me his name (I asked) but told me that he hailed from Shreveport, Louisiana, is 62 years of age, has forgotten how it was he wound up in San Diego and tries to keep himself informed by reading newspapers “that are not too old.” I liked him a lot and was kind of sorry that the trolley came ending our conversation…we’ll, ending his monologue. I didn’t say much.


As one moves from northern to central and then southern San Diego, the city changes dramatically. Many more people of color, homeless, poor people of all races and backgrounds. After changing from the green to the blue line for the trolley to San Ysidro, we sat down across from a man who…was obviously not a part of the 1%. He wore old dirty clothes, no socks and looked very, very poor and seemed to be asleep. We were looking out the trolley window; it was pretty clear that the two of us are tourists and didn’t know what we were looking at, when Robert, as if awakened from a long sleep, uninvited, began to talk.

Articulate, well-informed, well read, a Bernie Sanders supporter, Robert is a currently working homeless window washer whose tools were stolen a few days before. From Arizona and having lived in Tijuana, Mexico for fifteen years, Robert shared with us that he’s an alcoholic trying to get treatment but “there are so many on the list.” He was as good as any paid tourist guide, explaining everything that passed by between the 12th and Imperial and Beyer Blvd trolley stops.

Although we didn’t ask him about the current political right-wing jingoist national epidemic sweeping the country and beyond, Robert, trying to be “even-handed” – and even though he really liked Bernie – commented, “well it is the Republican’s turn, shouldn’t we give Trump a chance?” Nancy couldn’t let that one pass. It was about that time that Robert invited himself to be our guide at the San Ysidro border which he knew well. That was nice. I proceeded to un-invite him to share that particular experience with us, a rebuff which he took rather gracefully and then got off the train at Beyer Blvd. We could see the alcohol treatment center from the trolley.

San Ysidro

I wanted to see the border. Border towns are not particularly enticing places and San Ysidro fits the bill. Still there is something about seeing a place with one’s own eyes. Given Trump’s immigration directive, I just wanted to see the border, the “wall.”  The place was calm, business like. Cars were lined up coming into the U.S. on the Mexican side; far fewer were heading south from the U.S. side going into Mexico. There was a walkway for people to walk across the border with many people coming and going. Inside the customs’ building there were long lines. Let’s say, they didn’t look particularly rich. Many  who crossed into the U.S from Tijuana did so to go shopping at the town mall, and many returning to Mexico had filled shopping bags.A billboard at the border said that 8 million people crossed one way or another here. Maybe. The wall, or should I say, the fence, was everywhere…to the west, to the east.

We had our passports, but neither of us felt like waiting in line to cross into Tijuana. Maybe next time.

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