Sideways to California . . .

Trolley tracks at the Santee Mall, Santee Town centre (San Diego).

Back in the city, back in the cold . . .

Spent the holidays in sunny San Diego, which is sort of an anti-New York, though a city of strangers in its own right.

I’d never been out to California before, though I’m familiar with the urban model from growing up in western Canada. But for a few blocks downtown, San Diego is built almost entirely around the car. This isn’t news of course, but since I don’t drive, and have managed to live in cities where a car isn’t a necessity since my late teens, it’s always a bit of a culture shock to go back to the car world . . .

Big box malls abound. They are so numerous, so uniform, that one night we got lost getting back to the suburb where we were staying and literally had no idea where we were, since every mall was identical – same Target, Wal-Mart, Pizza Hut, Bed, Bath and Beyond (and so on). Even the houses seem built around the car – self-enclosed (often gated – they love their gated communities in San D.) The only neighboring stores or, God forbid, bars, in a strip mall built on a feeder road to a main highway. The sky, the colours are amazing – I saw colours I’d never seen before – and this entirely created, functional environment seemed an odd counterpart to the fantastic landscape. As I do whenever I go back to Western Canada, I thought that this was how space colonies will look like – functional adjuncts to the landscape around them.

Yet I got used to it. Even if you have to get into a car to get to them, the country, the beaches, are spectacular. Perhaps this sis a key to Western cities – they aren’t so much a suburb to a downtown, as suburbs to the land around them. Even the malls have a certain prosaic easiness. My local Starbucks – a half-hour bike ride down a busy semi-highway – was a quiet and cordial place to have coffee and write in the morning. Same people every morning, carving out their little bit of community. Hardly an cell phones – a lot more pleasant than the average ‘independent’ cafe in Brooklyn for example . . .

One afternoon when I caught the trolley right down to Tijuana. The trolley runs from the northern edge of the city to the border, curving through the highways, the valleys, skirting the ocean into downtown and beyond. Just off the pleasant colonial buildings, the twin streets lined with generic sports bars and ‘Irish’ pubs, comes streets of ragged, homeless men, white, black, Hispanic hanging out in front of vacant lots and boarded up storefronts. One guy stood up in full view of the trolley, pulling up his pants after crapping in a doorway.

Then beyond city centre, the navy base with lines of docked aircraft carriers, as tall as a Manhattan skyscraper, serviced by even taller cranes, lit up in the brilliant San Diego sunset by even more brilliant floodlights.

Then a bridge, curving up fifty, sixty stories, like a bridge into space.

Homeless encampment under bridge at Santee, just outside San Diego.

On past an ocean of trailer parks, non-descript main streets of motels, fast-food joints, auto-body shops, until the city of Tijuana appears, sprawling across a hillside and from a distance looking like any American city. A ferris wheel rises from a spot near the bottom of the packed-in buildings. A bridge extends over what I realized after a moment is a river seperating the two. Hundreds of Mexicans, looking reasonably well-dressed in jeans, embroidered work shirts or more generic ball caps and runners, streamed over the bridge, giving what seemed like a festive mood and at the bottom of the streetcar tracks is customs and immigration, the door yawning open as if changing countries was as easy as walking into a mall. American immigration officers on a break strolled back and forth, relaxed, joking with each other.

Odd to think then that 80 murders had taken place in Tijuana in December as rival drug gangs battle over turf, part of a narco-war engulfing and corrupting the entire country, giving Mexico, a local bartender told me later, a higher murder rate than Afghanistan.

Next post: Return to New York . . .


  1. extraordinary description of america in all its glory … the complexity of the sky’s colors and the cloned malls… striking and also loved the comment about not driving and the bike ride. Having received my license when I was 40 and only driving maybe a dozen times since in the last ten years I remembered the sense of travel when visiting my father in Thousand Oaks, CA and having to get everywhere by foot (he having totaled the car in his descent to old old age). Also your description of of outer-space reminded of my many years of being a constant “shot-gun” companion in the cars of others and floating through moonscapes.

    • Thanks CO – it is an odd feeling to be in a place where the car is taken for granted. Read a funny interview with Johnathon Lethem in the Guardian this weekend where he said NYers were lost when they went to the rest of the country – half of them couldn’t even drive! Well, it’s true – but then again – why should people have to drive?
      I would go back to California though . . . ‘California’s a funny place . . . ‘

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