I’ve never been on one of those trolley-shaped tour busses you see cruising around, but no doubt they channel visitors between San Diego’s points of sanctioned interest: The Gaslamp Quarter, Balboa Park, Cabrillo Monument, Old Town and so forth. Those who live in tourist destinations take for granted the things the tourists come to see. I think the last time I saw the Cabrillo Monument, cell phones hadn’t been invented yet. And how many times did you visit Old Town last year? Yeah, me neither.
Ambivalence toward the tourist experience parallels resentment toward the tourist: Our stereotype of the pasty, ginormous-bodied midwesterner banging on the glass at the orangutan enclosure is not flattering. But not all of us locals hate on tourists; we’re glad they fuel our economic engine, and we smile and wave at the kids on the fake-trolley bus.
When friends come to town and want to be shown around, I’m more likely to take them right past SeaWorld into Ocean Beach, the bizarre counter-cultural enclave where I live, to experience the rowdy vibe of Newport Avenue, the awesomeness of enchiladas and beer at Rancho’s and a long walk out to the end of the West Coast’s longest and seediest pier. They can find the major attractions without my help. A savvy local should be able to take you to places and show you things that more established tours overlook. Can you imagine one of those trolleys rolling down Market Street and announcing that “this was the second site of the Skeleton Club, our first all-ages underground punk-rock nightclub, home in the late 1970s to police brutality and an infamous street riot”?
In San Francisco or Los Angeles, where the city’s identity is shaped by its strangeness, tours do include a degree of concern with unofficial elements, but they have been mainstreamed—think Haight Street for hippie-gazing or those intrusive tours of movie stars’ homes. San Diego, however, with its identity shaped almost exclusively by its “birthplace of California” and sunshine-paradise status, lacks attention to the offbeat. The closest we get are haunted houses like The Whaley House in Old Town and the Villa Montezuma Mansion at 25th and K. But every town has its haunted houses, and unless the ghosts show up when you do, they’re just houses. At least the Villa Montezuma is an architectural marvel.
When I moved to San Diego as a kid, I was drawn to the unusual, and as soon as I had a license to drive my dad’s old, beat-up 1974 hornet Sportabout, I began collecting sites of interest and conducting tours of San Diego’s weirdness for my friends.
The tour always included a visit to where the “trash lady” lived. We called her that because we were cruel. If you lived in San Diego in the early ’80s, you might remember her: She had several gigantic, decrepit, vintage 1950s hearses and ambulances that she’d filled with newspapers and other scraps of paper from floor to ceiling, with just a little space carved out for her to slide in and pilot the beasts around town at about 10 miles per hour. I never really got a good glimpse of her, but one of my friends found out where she lived, and on our nocturnal tours, we’d cruise up the winding road to see the spooky vehicles packed into her driveway and lining the street. The rumor was that the neighbors eventually ganged up and forced her to scale down on the rolling, dead-information morgues.Another highlight was the Jesus Tree in what is now East Village. I don’t know if it’s still there, but back then, the resident of a small house around 16th Street had carved and garishly painted on a palm tree a larger-than-life, crazy-looking Jesus.
A weird-tour lunch stop was the utterly ghetto-fabulous “Lending Library” on Adams Avenue, where you were welcome to borrow thrift-store-quality books or magazines and encouraged to donate some of your own. There, for around 75 cents, you could get a grilled-cheese sandwich, prepared with white bread and American cheese, smeared with margarine, wrapped in tinfoil and press-cooked on an ironing board with a hot clothes iron.
A more strenuous adventure might’ve included a trip out to the desert to hike up Ghost Mountain and visit the ruins of the Marshall South cabin. South was a mad nature lover and writer who, in the 1930s, forced his family to ditch society and live and dress like prehistoric Indians. Nobody knows exactly what happened out there, but it ended with South’s wife, Tanya, a Russian poet, divorcing him and leaving the desert. When his children grew up, they refused to talk about their childhood.
There were other destinations on those weird tours of San Diego more than 25 years ago, like the mythic / legendary “midget houses” of La Jolla and, of course, the eerie pentagram tower at Presidio Park. I’m sure my friends remember more.
I feel a little guilty for having transformed people’s quirks into spectacles: I’m sure the trash lady was mentally ill and I’m sorry I never knew her name or considered what must’ve been a tough situation for her family. And the guy who sculpted that ridiculous Jesus probably thought it was beautiful.
But within the lurid fascination with the strangest aspects of a city is a genuine appreciation for the strangeness of people, who remain tenaciously, lovably bizarre and unruly, even in a city like San Diego, where tours are only supposed to show you what’s nice and safe and normal.
Where would you take a visitor on a weird tour of San Diego in the year 2012?