San Diego


"I write for those who have/ no comfort now and will never have any." -- A.R.Ammons


Well, here we are again, with my book in competition for the One Book One San Diego literary shindig.  How odd, to have one's hometown looking at the work.  Makes me pensive.


Although everybody knows--and publishers promote it--I was born in Tijuana.  But I was raised right in Sunny SD, between Logan Heights, National City and, finally, Clairemont.  That's why I write about it so much.  The whole middle of INTO THE BEAUTIFUL NORTH (the book in question) is about SD.  Oh yes, I know that Clairemont Drive, that Bay Theater, that Roxy, that La Jolla Cove, that Mission Bay, that Bay Park, that National Avenue, that Hillcrest, that Aztec Lanes, that Tu-Vu and Big Sky drive-in very well.  I've written about it in ACROSS THE WIRE and BY THE LAKE OF SLEEPING CHILDREN and in NOBODY'S SON.  Not to mention all those short stories.  (If you want to hear a pretty good, I think, National City story, go up to the carousel at the top of the main page and click over to Orion magazine.  I did an audio of a short story and you can hear it there. "The Southside Raza Image Federation Corps of Discovery." Kinda one of my best stories in a while, I think.)


I can't really believe that I am here now doing what I do.  Living outside Chicago in a big ol' house surrounded by giant trees.  I know you, dear Clairemont High fellow dreamers, can't believe it either.  That I get to write books and travel the country--and across the Pond--is stunning.  It's beyond strange.  My books have been chosen now by 36 colleges and cities for One Book programs in the last couple of years.  How did that happen?  I don't know.


I wanted to be saved from the dread I felt on National Avenue--why lie?  The sorrows of an unhappy family, of poverty thinking and ethnic strife.  When we moved to Claireomnt at the end of fourth grade, I remember thinking that white folks were all millionaires because they had lawns.  I had never seen big green lawns before.  (That's a scene you might recognize from B North, when the girls see Mission Bay for the first time and marvel at the grass.)  I didn't even realize I was white.  I had my TJ accent.  But one of the boys at Whittier Elementary School informed me I was a wetback greaser.  That was startling.  So startling that my dad's accent slipped away and my mom's took over.  I didn't plan for this to happen, but in Logan there was a sense of people not wanting me to live.  I was planning to survive, and my mind hit the reset button.  I was a one-kid CIA, working underground.


Oh, the joys of Marston Jr High and Clairemont High.  I was unleashed as the true beast I wanted to be.  Anarchy and art overtook me.  I had no hope, no money, no domestic peace whatsoever.  But I had a facadce that wouldn't quit.  And I wrote.  I sat up late at night and wrote.  Bob Dylan kept me company.  Until Jim Morrison did.  Pushed aside by Neil Young.  Replaced by Shawn Phillips.  Abetted by John Lennon.  Devastated by Leonard Cohen.  Music, and poems:  Charles Bukowski, Stephen Crane, Richard Brautigan.  Then I started putting words in notebooks.  Then I found love.


That, and the CHS drama department gave me the only hope I'd ever really known, and I think those heady moments of first flight have carried me all these years.  My dear friends.  My dear sweethearts--and everybody was my sweetheart, at least in my mind.  I was a soul-slut, I'll admit.  My soul was so big and yearning that I couldn't drive it.  It would take a Steve McQueen to drive that sucker.  Hope and magic and midnight torments of self-doubt and despair and lonesome traveling.  Oh, you know, many of you who see this post.  You know because you were there, in my back room, with my haunted self-rocking rocking chair and my used records scratching away.  It was all Bowie and Queen and T Rex and Roxy Music then.  And you.


And the heinous trudge down Clairemont Drive, helping my mom haul her crazy-old-lady grocery cart down the street, all veneer of cool stripped and my school chums mocking me as they drove past.  Thinking: someday, someday.  My friends were musicians, and I lived through their guitars.  I failed at romances and stood in my back yard at 3:00 am, naked, in some trance, among a family of skunks that swirled around my feet and did not spray me.  I thought I was some kind of mystic, some lost Beat saint damned but trying to have a beautiful soul as I went down in flames.


Who can judge what roots really mean?  I was like a coyote in a trap.  You who are dear to me remember how frantic I was to escape San Diego.  I would have gnawed off my leg.  I was blind with a panic to flee.  I told everyone I felt like one of my skunks trapped in somebody's kitchen just looking for an open window.  That was me.  That was all I wrote about.  I broke hearts, I confess, because I was more in love with escape than I was with anything around me, anyone.  I kept demanding: believe in me.  And when people did, I did not believe them.  The irony was, of course, that what I wanted to escape was myself.  Not my hometown.


Dude-- I went to Harvard!  Yass, yass, as Dean Moriarty says.  To teach writing.  WTF, my kids would say.  I do not know.  Grace, perhaps?  Grace, indeed.  I know it was Grace because when I got on tghat plane in June of 1982, Bo Diddley got on with me.  His jacket had rhinestones that spelled out ROCK N. ROLL.  It was a message from the angels.  It was The Revenge of the C Student.


When I finally moved back in 1991, I got one of my 10,000 "starts" at The Reader, which like all us kids, I had read religiously in the day to feel hip.  The rest, it seems to me, is obvious history.  I kept moving because I hadn't in any way healed my nomadic ways--they had become worse.  But I always came back.  All my family is there in SD.  And my lost loves.  And my suffering, the ghosts of my joys, the streets and beaches and classrooms and houses where I learned to have a soul.  All there.  The Cove.  Yo, how many of you played out your love torments and exultations at the Cove like me?  Wait, some of you were there with me!


So here, now, some kind of circle turns.  San Diego thinks about my book again.  I don't know whether I'll win this particular race or not.  It's OK--I have several towns and colleges to attend to in the Fall and the Spring.  Booked through to next July.  Who'da thunk it?  When I was the graveyard man at 7-11 on Clairemont Drive, who could have imagined it?  I think the woman in the old Winchell's donut shop next door believed it.  She thought I wrote "purty" poems.  But whether I am the One Book of my hometown or not, the shadows are stirring, the memories are present like small origami cranes lined up on my desk.  They want to be unfolded.  So I'm looking at them.  Thinking about you.  Thinking about how much I loved you, and how hard I tried to be good to you.  And I'm thankful, friends, for how very very good to me you have been.  Even if I can't kiss you anymore!  Inside, I am holding you close.

Voting is open for One Book, One San Diego through Aug. 5. Apparently, you can vote every day and on all your devices. I'd love to come back home. You can vote for Into the Beautiful North, by clicking here.


"I'm going to be a magic boy, come back and buy this town, buy this town, and put it all in my shoe....I might even give a piece to you."  Jimi Hendrix


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Book club members have been some of my most enthusiastic and careful readers. I’m thrilled to share my work with you, answer your questions and tell you some of the stories behind the stories. This is our spot, just for us. Here, we can chat:  If I’m nearby, I’ll come and visit your club. Otherwise, we can Skype, talk over the phone or email. Sometimes, I’ll send surprises or hold contests.

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