I am in San Diego right now. We left steamy Maryland (where the heat index was 106 F yesterday), and we are enjoying ourselves. As one of my tennis partners put it, this is the world’s largest air conditioner. It’s around 75 F and breezy every day.
Three or four times a year we come here to be with our son’s family, and with our two grandchildren, a seven-year-old boy, and a five-year-old girl. We are lucky to be able to do this. We stay in a downtown condo near the Gaslamp Quarter, across from the Convention Center, where the waters of the bay gently caress the shore. It’s always vacation here, and we see the grandchildren every day. I write in the mornings, and then we are off to spend time with them.
They live in El Cajon, about 15 miles east, via the 94 and 125 freeways. The freeway is how you get around in Southern California, no matter where you go. For us, relaxed Marylanders, the local driving habits are akin to Michael Phelps swimming with the sharks. The cars move at 80 miles per hour and for a truck to cut across five lanes of traffic at a 45-degree angle is not unusual at all. But what doesn’t one do for the sake of grandkids? We look destiny in the eye for twenty minutes each way.
There are palm trees around our condo, and orange trees in our son’s back yard. There are sea gulls everywhere, and pelicans, and ducks. There are sand squirrels on the rocks in Coronado, and tiny lizards in the bushes of the Cabrillo National Park. One can buy fresh fish at Point Loma Seafood, and bask in the golden evening rays at Sunset Cliffs. If you walk north on State Street you make it to Little Italy in about ten minutes. Further up is the Old Town, charming, historic, and Mexican throughout. Fifth Avenue takes you to Hillcrest, skirting the celebrated Balboa Park. The Green and Orange Line trolleys pass in front of our building. Our grandchildren think trolleys are fun.
Everywhere you look, there are shiny cars that have never experienced the ravages of winter, with snow and salt.
And then there are the homeless, more than one can ever feel comfortable to see. They are humble, silent, and alone. Defeated. Dirty. I remember eating with friends at a nice restaurant in Little Italy at an outdoor table. The waitress had just brought us the elaborate pasta dish. On the sidewalk, not even five feet away, a homeless man was rummaging inside a garbage bin. I saw one begging on the sidewalk in front of Ralph’s supermarket downtown, as customers came out, their arms loaded with groceries. He was holding a cardboard sign. “Don’t hate me,” it said.
“It’s because of the weather,” our embarrassed California friends and family tell me every time I bring up the subject. “It’s the same in LA, and Seattle, and up and down the West Coast.” “Many of them are vets, from the military bases around here,” others explain. Our condominium association holds meetings on the subject, where experts come and talk. “Don’t give them money,” they say. “There is an injunction in San Diego, legal issues. The County cannot do anything.” I read in a recent article that the homeless population in this beautiful city exceeds 8,000 people. “It would take millions to build permanent housing for them,” the article said. I don’t remember how many millions, yet I remember that our president wants to build one or two new aircraft carriers, in addition to the ten nuclear powered fleet carriers we already have (China, France, India and Russia each operate one), to a tune of a few billion dollars (billion with a B).
Our grandchildren are in summer camp. We meet them after school. We play games, eat ice cream, walk to Seaport Village, read, swim in the pool. They like watching the trains: the noise, the colorful cars, the idea of space. We take our grandson on short trips — ‘adventures’ around town. His name is Alex, like mine. He is the oldest, and we dare. He is handsome and smart.
The other day we decided to surprise him and drove to Amaya trolley station to take the Green Line downtown. As I purchased the tickets, a homeless man approached us and asked for money. He was young and strong. I had several twenty dollar bills in my wallet, and two quarters. I didn’t want to hand him a twenty, so I gave him the change. He looked at the coins with disdain. “More,” he demanded. “I don’t have any more,” I lied. The train came.
The excitement of riding the trolley got the better of Alex, but he kept thinking of the homeless man and started asking me questions. I had nothing smart to say. How do you explain homelessness to a child who leads a privileged life? Luckily, we went into a tunnel and the excitement of the train ride took over again.
Later, he and I went to the pool. We talked about school. In the fall Alex is starting first grade. I told him he will have homework, and he said he was aware of it. We talked about moving from elementary to middle and high school, and about some children who were smart and skipped several grades at a time. “Some children make it to college at twelve,” I said. “Geniuses, you understand.” “What are geniuses?” he wanted to know. I tried to explain it to him, and told him about Mozart. He was surprised. “If you’re in college, you have to have a girlfriend,” I joked. “Then I don’t want to go to in college,” he said. I talked to him about opportunities and I mentioned the cliché about being able to become President of the United States. He looked very serious to me. “If I were the President, I’d give money to the homeless,” he said.
There is hope, after all.
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