American Sabbatical 053: 11/17/96

San Diego

11/17.. San Diego.

Trying to get out of Los Angeles along Rt5 south is an encounter with the endless suburb. America now lives in the burbs, and this is a glimpse of the future, 14 lanes of bumper-to-bumper at 75mph, for hours. When the malls and tract developments turn to tanktowns and refinery pipe-sculpture, the traffic eases and the old trucks have Mexican license plates. Then you pop out of industrial art and Spanish style ticky-tak into the dusty hills, with their seismic scars and chaparral. This is Marine Corps territory, cyclone fence and barbed wire esthetics. And those haunting traffic warning signs appear. Just the silhouette image in black, on an oversized yellow diamond, of a man, woman, and child fleeing hand-in-hand across the road, the kid being dragged by one arm. Aliens crossing. Pete Wilson country. The only roadsigns of comparable impact we’ve seen near LA are large orange billboards for a megastore chain, which show another stylized silhouette, of a package-laden shopper in full gallop, with the slogan “Primal Obsession.” The poles of a culture.

Farther along, somewhere by San Clemente, there is a double-scoop nuclear power plant on the ocean’s edge, and for just an instant of visual juxtaposition the frightened peasants are fleeing from modern technology. Meanwhile, in irrigated acres alongside the road, migrant workers are doing stoop labor to feed our faces.

We didn’t take a sidetrack to San Juan Capistrano to look for swallows, or at San Clemente to wallow in Nixonia, although we did make a pitstop overlooking the long sandy beach at San Onofre, and admired the bivouacked battalion tented around a mega-satellite-dish. 90-channel digital? Just a few good men by the beach. Across the interstate the Border Patrol was frisking the traffic at an ad hoc roadblock. Welcome to real life, south of Disney.

But suddenly it was June again, and you understand why even rednecked indignity and shop-til-you-drop euphoria may seem like harmless aberrations to a sun-starved New Englander in a SoCal “winter.” My lizard blood uncoils in this balm, and I begin to wonder about midlife migrations, and.. manana. Oop. Don’t doze at the wheel, Bryce. These Californios may be renowned for putting it off until tomorrow, but they want your lane RIGHT NOW.

Past Camp Pendleton the scorched and folded hills rise into mountains to eastward. Santa Annas, where the winds come from. The rumpled topology has fingers of the sea intruding into river mouths and occasional lagoons, palmy oases in the sear hills. The highway now runs a mile or so back of the beach, on higher ground, and we look down into, or over, the tileroofed haciendas of Uppercrust-by-sea, basking in the perpetual sigh. Then the condos and tracts start climbing up the foreground hills, and the hubbub of San Diego embraces you.

A cathedral vision lifts up beside the highway at Elvira, where the La Jolla road veers off. Like a cut-out Notre Dame, with twin towers in cement-gothic, this holy hallucination has no main aisle visible from the road. It seems two-dimensional. We are later told it is a Mormon tabernacle in a condo cul de sac. We fly by, and wiz into the freeway matrix of downtown.

This ultimate antipode is another city where you want to know how to get there before you drive. The signage is classic California afterthought, and, as our friends explained, the approved driving technique is to accelerate until you encounter an obstacle. We were the obstacle. It does feel like parting the Red Sea, though, to drive below 75 on the freeway, with everyone dodging around you.

Our friends John and Alyce, and their daughter Hannah, live in Encanto, a mixed lower-middle neighborhood five miles from the city center, on a half acre of swooping hillside. Some of their neighbors decorate with junk cars, or contractor vehicles, while others are spiffing their way up-class. A full rainbow of children can be seen cavorting on the ups and downs. There are flat, gridded sections near shore and downtown, but most of this metropolis is lasciviously lumpy and circuitous. Canyons slice through the landscape one way, and freeways drive through another, resulting in niches and pockets for everyone.. a navigating nightmare for strangers. John and Alyce are in a sunny dingle within roar of the 94, but the prospect is sparse-suburban backwater (with cactus and dust, eucalyptus and iceplant). Red Owl sighed to a halt atop their driveway, and we offloaded him until his shocks squeaked. Excuse us while we soak up some bennies. (Eat your hearts out, Yankees).

11/18-11/20... Encanto.

John and I met in second grade, where he was class clown and I was his apprentice. You know how sometimes two kids multiply each other’s capacity for mischief to outrageous proportions? We had that mad magic together in elementary school, and after. We kept up the fun with episodes of vacation mayhem after our homebases diverged, and both lit in NYC in the early 60’s as young adults, socalled. In that age of indulgence we dulged up to our necks, and laughed at the waves. When we stumbled ashore John was a gypsy contractor in San Diego and I was picking up periwinkles on the Maine coast. But, despite the time and distance, we still have the capacity to lure out the loon in one another.. encourage our childhood selves to come out and play.

A couple of years ago John and Alyce’s friends Pete Z. and Susan (and their son Zak) arrived in our dooryard in Bowdoinham and stayed for a week of mutual astonishment. Dr. Z is a second-generation anarchist, and Susan is still amused after a generation in his company. So our visit to Sybara by the Bay means caroming back and forth between two loony households. Dr. Z was an instigator in a recent media scam you may remember. Voice boxes were switched from GI Joe to Barbie, and vice versa, and planted in stores. Then they were purchased and given as Christmas gifts to Zak and Hannah, who were suitably indignant for the TV cameras. Barbie growled “OK men, lock and load,” while GI Joe minced “Let’s go shopping.” The nets picked it up, and the kids got their 15 minutes of fame.

Saturday night the two Diegan families and the Owl riders disrupted dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant, in a drive-by neighborhood, by acting out with strange spicy food and chopsticks. Sunday afternoon we joined a jovial crowd celebrating Zak’s birthday in a school playground. Croquet, ball games, swingsets, hot dips and tortilla chips, barbecued chicken with zingy garlic catsup, salsa-smothered dogs on sourdough buns, Mexican beer and microbrew ales. Sunday night we had lurid dreams, interrupted by runs on the bathroom.

And June kept busting out all over. Most of the adult picnickers were exiles from cooler climes, and they spent a lot of time recounting remembered horrors of November snow and sleet, with gleeful faces. They probably tell such tales to the kids as object lessons. This might happen to you, if you are bad and are sent BACK EAST. Everyone shivered and muttered about winter as the sun went down, and the temperature fell into the 50s. Jackets are a rude imposition down here. Peggy is humming most of the time and forgetting her shoes, but my Scots blood has me looking for the cloud to go with all this silver lining. Such a luxuriant atmosphere can’t be good for your character.

Some mornings a marine layer floats into the canyons and the misty cool is like a summer morning on Penobscot Bay. OK, here comes a lowery day, I smile. But by noon the California sun slices through and my lizard uncoils. Every eatery has outdoor seating (although the San Diegans are all inside shivering when it’s in the 60s), and the Mexican food is for real. The urge to bask after burritos makes me want to invest in a sombrero. Life has a Spanish accent here, as well it should seeing that the local trolley runs from Tijuana, and Mexican islands loom up offshore.

The sprawling neighborhoods of San Diego are generally nondescript in the extreme. There are astonishing vegetations and architectural amusements here and there, and some gridded enclaves are charming in their house-pride, but the greater urb shambles through the hills scattering faded bungalows and crumble-stuccoed boxes in its wake. The feeling is NJ Route 17, or any other attractive strip development. You are never far from a liquor store or an autoparts outlet, but never close enough to walk to the grocery. Drive you must, and every Ave merges into a freeway, so the least outing juices you with highway adrenalin. Glad we got the Owl’s brakes fixed (jammed caliper slides and sticking pistons from dust and overheating). “Dust and overheating” might be a definition of this desert roadscape, which leads me to an esthetic realization. I’d always assumed that pastel colors were favored in tropical climes because they contain more reflective white in the mix. Now I think they are simply bright hues mixed with desert dust and faded in the sun.

With such nondescript innerburbs, you’d expect downtown to be highrise sterile and concrete deadly. It’s not. Our first 0 mph view of the city center was a night-shot from across the bay in Coronado, and it’s a beauty. All the skyscrapers have their tops trimmed out in colored lights, like neon signs. With good reason: the final approach into San Diego International slants down National Avenue, between the buildings. From Coronado you watch the airliners hide-and-seeking behind the big hotels.

By night the lighted array of vertical urbanity is wonderfully diverse. All sorts of angles and planes, curves and clusters. The Marriot looks like a huge screwdriver blade in white stone, with the blade lit up, while a neighboring edifice is an illuminated glass Phillips-head driver. Once the toolbox image is realized you can see a cluster of hex wrenches trimmed in blue, and two hammer handles, butt up, with red oval outlines on the tops. This is very young skyline, and you have to admit there is such a thing as creative corporate imagination, at least on the outsides. A playful box of blocks.

Horton Plaza

By day downtown is even more attractive, decked out in gay pastel and colored glass. The new hotels along the resurrected waterfront may claim pride of altitude, but the lesser structures, old and new alike, are all eyemusic to do commerce to. Ornate deco facades vie with colorful prismatic constructs and palm plantations, while the red electric trolleys shush past. The Santa Fe Terminal, end of the line for a westering aspiration on rails, is a grandiose twin-towered Mission in red-tile and pink stucco, and the train hoots echo in the stone canyons. This is a midtown of a myriad details. Every nook and surface is embellished with ornate detail, and the pleasure of cruising or strolling isn’t spoiled by snarling traffic, between rush hours at least. We wondered why there was so much available metered parking, until we experienced the savage efficiency of the parking police on their motor-trikes. Everyone else was safely ensconced in garages. It takes us a while to get it. In California, we now learn, the big stores all have parkinglot agreements where you show a sales-slip on departure and can park for free, or reduced rates, in area lots. So we paid $25 for our further education.

Horton Plaza
While the meterman was playing with our wipers, we were feasting our eyes on the interior of the Horton Plaza, a 7-story in-city mall built around a serpentine courtyard. All the pastels in the palette went into this joyful jumble, and the architects had a gas: twisting pink pillars, cantilevering lemon balconies, trimming neon storefronts, and jutting thises thataway and thus. Macy’s, Victoria’s Secret, American Memorabilia, F.A.O. Schwartz, Nordstrom, Caldo Chili Traders. After teasing our pallets with samples of chili-garlic cactus salsa, we tried our hands at capturing the whole zing in ink and color. With hand and eye engaged our sense of time turns off, and metermen sneak up on you.

You may have noticed that staying in one place for a while slows down Chief Running Log. Part of me wants to just loll in the sun here, while the other wants to stuff it all in the Red Owl and get back on the road, back into the running rap and roll. We are getting all entangled in people-stuff here, and that can wear out the urge to talk. I feel oddly mute.. then again, you may not have noticed.

(Memo #46)


Who: many patrons and donors

What: "park" which has 11 museums, zoo, Japanese Friendship garden etc etc etc etc

Where: central San Diego

When: some built for the Panama California Exposition of 1915-16.

How: endless additions aqnd contributions from many patrons and organizations

Topics: public spaces, museums, urbanization, Japanese architecture, miniatures

Questions: What makes a great city park?

Balboa Park

Balboa Park is a 1400 acre cornucopia in the center of San Diego. In a week of repeat visits we’ve only seen a small part of the eleven museums, restaurants, international cottages, zoo attractions, arts productions, and plantings . There is something for everyone. The best approach is from the west, a drive by luscious lawns and across a long bridge to the bell tower arcade and through it to the main courtyard area surrounded by museums. Other car loops take you by the famous zoo and rose garden and into the park’s many small canyons. We have visited the model railroad museum, the small Timken art museum, the Japanese Friendship garden, some of the international cottages, and the United Nations gift shop (described below). We have heard an outdoor organ concert, a bagpipe player, Irish fiddlers, a troop of drummers, and individual musicians who set up along the many paths and concourses. We walked the Palm Canyon and the Mall and the Prado, and admired the huge goldfish pond with thousands of other strollers, joggers, skaters, sunbathers. On each visit we see one or more wedding parties (who get photographed in ornamented doorways). We visited the famous San Diego zoo in 1986. We are tantalized by the promises of the House of Charm, the Automotive Museum, the puppet theater, the Starlight Bowl, the botanical buildings, the square dance offerings, the Lawn Bowling garden (the players are all in flannels!).

The large structures in the park were built for the Panama California Exposition of 1915-16. They are ornately decorated Spanish style adobe buildings with endless courtyards and arcades, towers and arched entries, tiled roofs, fountains and gardens. There are plaster moldings and ironwork gates and Spanish tiles galore. A San Diego matron dedicated to gardening is apparently to be thanked for the trees and shrubs and flowers. It is a very beautiful park.

Japanese Tea House

The Japanese Friendship Garden (the “San-Ken-En” or Three Scenery garden of pastoral/water/mountains capes) is an ongoing project that will eventually cover eleven and a half acres in the park. The idea was to replace the Japanese Garden that was part of the 1915 exposition. The site today is an integrated whole of plants, stones, lanterns, sitting areas, pathways, gates, and hall. The attention to detail characteristic of Japanese art and architecture shows in everything from the sliding door pulls (hikite) handmade in Tsuyama City to the five types of bamboo fencing (Tokusa-gaki, Koetsu-gaki, kinkakuji-gaki, nakajima-gaki, nanako-gaki). The tsukabai is a stone washbasin that is part of the Japanese tea ceremony. Ritual ablutions using the special bamboo “ladle” are intended to purify the mind. Every plant and stone was consciously selected to incorporate Japanese garden values. Each bench and window has a finely conceived view. There is a sand and stone garden (sekitei) with each large boulder carefully chosen and placed and surrounded by meticulously raked and scored fine aggregate. The first building is an exhibit house in skuiya style (detached tea houses). It has copper shingles as well as clay tiles, shoji screens with mulberry tree paper and bamboo screen windows. There was a wonderful display of bright cloth squares which are used as all-purpose wrapping for presents and lunches and small objects. It is an art to tie these “scarves” in careful folds and knots. The plantings range from Japanese black pine to gingko and camphor bushes. There are many small stands of bamboo. We sat under the wisteria garden enjoying the gardens. The only discordant note was the carousel music from the organ concert nearby.

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum is housed in a basement in the Prado. It is a huge space broken into exhibits developed and maintained by model railroad clubs’ members (who are going quietly about their work as you visit). Each gauge (O Scale, HO, LGB) has its own huge display. Some exhibits reproduce in detail a specific railroad yard or station or engineering feat - my favorite was the scale model of the Carrisco Gorge Trestle Bridge in a realistic desert setting. Exhibits may be fifty feet long and fifteen wide, and contain roads and cars and villages small people and trees. One exhibit looks, from the outside, like a railroad car !! The small trains chug through tunnels and deep cuts and up long grades and across bridges. There was an exhibit of photographs of “Railroad Women” and a railroad safety exhibit. In the gift shop you can buy engineers overalls and railroad hats and decals or a model railroad car.

The Timken Art Museum of European and American Art has six small galleries around a rotunda hung with 4 Gobelin tapestries. It is a lovely, Intimate museum with (a point that concerns me) free entrance. The guards at the Timken were delighted to discuss the collection and there were excellent small texts throughout the museum. One gallery is devoted to icons, a single wall has ten parts of a single iconostasis from fifteenth century Novgorod. The rest of the collection has single examples of many famous artists (Breughel, Rembrandt, Rubens, Boucher, Cezanne, David, Clouet, Hans ). There were gems: a Breughel (“Parable of the Sower”) had a realistic peasant plowing scene backed by a gorgeous dreamy landscape in a blue haze. The Rembrandt “Saint Bartholomew” at a distance is a twentieth century portrait of bold brushstrokes and distinctive personality with a bright light on the face. The Rubens “Portrait of a Young Captain” is a finely rendered oil which captures the arrogance of a young gentleman. FitzHugh Lane’s oil of Castine, Maine, has a maritime sky which made us somewhat homesick and shows the focus and skill of the “luminist” school. The entrance hall has full length windows onto fine small gardenscapes.

A whole world culture course could be built around the sights and sounds and tastes of the wonderful International Cottages. Small one-story Spanish-style cottages (20 in all perhaps) surround a small green; each houses a collection (artifacts, maps, guidebooks, costumes, crafts) from a different country that is noted on a sign outside. Ethnic societies maintain and staff the cottages. The Scottish cottage has tartans and artifacts and pictures of the queen. Fresh shortbread and scones warm from the oven and free to visitors were being set out. A bagpiper performed outside. In the Ireland house fiddlers were accompanying a woman balladeer. In the German house beer tankards filled high shelves. In the China house a calligrapher would write visitors’ names in Chinese characters. In the Israel house cases displayed the crafts of the holy land as well as its turbulent history. A UN gift shop nearby sold an incredible variety of arts and crafts from around the world.

After Mantegna
The Adoration of the Magi

Balboa Park offers so much that we can merely sample its delights in a fortnight. It is on a par with the greatest parks we’ve seen (in Vancouver and San Francisco).

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