Just off the southbound 805, through a cleft in the ramparts at Exit 17A, Adams Avenue, is Normal Heights, San Diego, Calif. A cab ride from the airport takes about 10 minutes, although the jets are close enough to fill the morning quiet here with Lindbergh Field’s beastly roar.
Normal Heights’ name comes from the State Normal School, SDSU’s predecessor in the early 20th century. The neighborhood is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, but history is more than precedent if you participate. You need to get close, and the best tour of anywhere is on foot. Perspectives on sounds, smells of old books, unflinching pawnbrokers’ eyes, pigeon shit and alley cats are all easily missed from a car.
Park on the west end, near Adams and Utah, then head over and shake hands with Lou Curtiss, proprietor and curator of Folk Arts Rare Records. Lou’s bottom line is the preservation and dissemination of his collection, and these records are time capsules, anchoring Normal Heights not only geographically, but also chronologically, the eldest echoing madmen at eternity’s door.
Tiddling east down Adams you cross the Roscoe E. Hazard bridge. Come the winter holidays this bridge is festooned with lights, and looking north from its span on a clear, cold morning you can see the roof of the seasonal fog blanketing Mission Valley below. Cross Roscoe at night and there’s the round Union 76 sign down on El Cajon Boulevard that passes in the eye’s corner as a great harvest moon rising oddly in the south.
Proceed left at 33rd. Street into the neighborhood, then right on North Mountain View to the 3300 block. There you find North Mountain View Mini-Park. This park is less than 1,500 square feet, including a placard, a mini-stand of flowers and an equally miniature view of Mission Valley through a flat-brushed green thicket. It’s a compact, lasting thrill.
Retrace your steps down 33rd to Adams, then stop and look to your right. In this block you can get pedicured, tattooed, reupholstered and mailed. That stoplight you see is usually covered with pigeons, and that means one thing, so watch those doo-rags, folks. Miles to the south down 33rd, jets cross the horizon in their landing pattern for Lindbergh.
Head east, past Casa Sanchez, where Damaso serves up bomb-ass chilequiles for the champagne brunch on Sundays. You are now circling the vortex of the Heights, as you can see by the neon landmark arching over Adams at Felton. Looking east down Adams from under this sign at the right time of day you can see Mt. Helix miles distant. At night the reflection of the sign in a car’s windshield is California poetry.
On the south side of Adams is Completely Video. Completely Video is one man, James, and if you are his customer he knows your name and circumstances, recognizable without condition, prompt or fame. Here in Normal Heights you are part of the process.
Walk east past The Ould Sod pub to hear conversations on the outside smoking bench like:
“What do you think about Jesus?”
“Don’t blame Christ-he’s gone.”
Continue down Adams and-wait, what’s that smell? Ribs and kabobs, kettle corn and fried everything. This is the Adams Avenue Street Fair, and, man, it’s bigger than bubblegum. One weekend each September this neighborhood opens up and throws down. Adams is closed, and you hear world-class music while a carnival spins in the Recreation Center field. The fair is in town, and people are struttin’.
They chase life here in Normal Heights. They are not the bowties of life; then again, maybe they are, polka dot instead of black silk. If Walt Whitman were 186 years old, he would write poetry about the bread man who rides up and down Adams on his bike selling fresh loaves from the Phoenician bakery.
Farther down Adams, stop for a scoop of coconut and, lately, pumpkin goodness at Mariposa Ice Cream, just west of Mansfield, made by Dick and Anna in the back of their shop, so good it’ll make the moon go blind.
At Mansfield take a left, then a quick right down the first alley. You might run across the entrepreneur collecting recyclables on an overloaded bicycle, his bare black body lithe and sinuous and muscularly cut as to make Bruce Lee look like a flabby sonofabitch. Cross 35th, still in the alley, and you come upon a chain-fenced back lot where, if you pass after dark, a half-dozen sets of yellow eyes clock you. This is their turf, true alley cats of all size, color, hair length and disposition, and no one can touch them. Keep walking, but beware Mona, the seemingly bloodthirsty Dalmatian who guards a miniscule yard facing the alley. Don’t fear Mona, she’s just doing her job.
They don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, but that’s Muskogee, and this ain’t. Whew, that was a big whiff for a San Diego alley, more like a New Orleans whiff, but Normal Heights is not the French Quarter, Haight Ashbury, Greenwich Village or Montparnasse. It is neither better nor worse, nor does it claim to be. That’s what sets it apart.
Chalk right from the alley at Wilson, then another quick right and head west on Adams. One block down is the Adams Avenue Bookstore, known as much for its pages as for its napping window cats, quiet as the stars.
On clear nights, the Avenue’s streetlights overpower all but the brightest stars in the sky, and never mistaken for those stars are the choppers that whump the air above. There are other sounds, too. There is the street peddler pushing his cart up the streets and down the alleys calling, “Tomatos y bananas!” You feel peace when you hear the bells ringing from St. Didacus at Felton and Collier, and you know distress when the rigs from Firehouse No. 18 are on a wailing run.
Once in a great while, when the air is still, you can hear a night train singing like a migrating whale, and if you stop to listen with the right kind of ears, the hum of the enormous freeway triangle that surrounds Normal Heights becomes the rush of a giant waterfall. On foggy nights, around 3 in the morning, you can’t hear it at all.
Snake oil salesmen, soapbox politicians and property values mean little when it comes to the contents of this neighborhood’s character. Spend a day on concrete duty and watch its lasting values emerge like a pyramid in the mist.
Here is a modesty at the expense of nothing, and in Normal Heights, San Diego, California, there is a place you can look west from your second-floor kitchen window on a cool September evening, hear the final screams of the Street Fair under a lavender sky, and watch a calico cat cross the roof in front of your window, quiet as the stars.
Normal Heights is located between the 8, 805 and 15 freeways about five miles northeast of downtown, and sleeps, parties, rents movies, eats ice cream, pets cats, eats chilequiles and looks out of second-floor windows.
This story first appeared in San Diego City Beat as “As Real As It Gets”…