Thanks largely to the gay contingent, the central city enclave known as Hillcrest has become a beacon of stylish urbanity. Kaleidoscopic storefronts, a street sign bearing the community's name that hearkens back to simpler, more communal American times, trendy boutique stores such as The Mint and Flashbacks-they all contribute to make Hillcrest one of San Diego's few tourist meccas without a beach.
Walk past Nami, the window-paneled sushi joint on the corner of Fifth and University, past the Afghan eatery Khyber Pass, then the round, rayon green facade of The Mint. Then Taste of Thai, the oh-so-New-York newsstand, the upscale diner on the corner-City Deli-which is a hearty welcome to commuters exiting Interstate 163 onto University Avenue.
Then, turn right onto Sixth Avenue and you encounter Pernicano's, a once-legendary Italian restaurant that has been shuttered and spackled with graffiti for 18 years. It's considered a gangrenous, hairy mole on the face of an otherwise gorgeous neighborhood-a leafy, STD fungus on Hillcrest's engorged metaphorical phallus of civic revitalization.
And dammit if it ain't on a precious piece of land-about 25,000 square feet, one third of the block-which residents and business owners alike see as an unseemly slum defiantly spitting in the face of renewal.
But I am here to say that all those civil beauticians who continually harp on poor old owner George Pernicano are just nagging elitists. They fail to see the genius of his fallen empire. They have mistaken a quirky, attractive cataract for an eyesore.
To appreciate the architectural splendor that is Pernicano's, one must only look to the wooden doors, which are bereft of such gaudy nonsense as handles. In their place are holes in all their perfectly round uselessness. The wood has recovered from its industrial raping, now flattened stumps of hardened pulp, sun-bleached like that old armoire you mistakenly put next to the window.
Plus, think of all the termites that Mr. Pernicano may be nurturing back to flourish-the oft-maligned, translucent insect that has been oppressed for far too long in this insectist society we've created. Surely, the gay community can empathize with the plight of the tiny wood eaters.
Those who bitch 'n' moan about Pernicano's should also be considered racists, I contend, since the building has become a canvas for that minority-dominated art form known as graffiti. Sure, the taggers who continually decorate Pernicano's doors, windows and signage are no Eric Haze, but that's the beauty-George Pernicano is supporting the little-known artist, the Basquiats of tomorrow. Go art!
And in the day of ubiquitous advertising for that devil's juice that is alcohol, Pernicano's takes a brave stand for sobriety. The once-blaring neon beer signs reading MILLER, BUDWEISER and STROH'S now hang unlit in the window, a silent protest against all that is evil and drunk in the world. As drivers gaze skyward in San Diego and see a myriad of Captain Morgan's billboards beckoning them to imbibe, all the sinners will get when they look to the dark windows of Pernicano's is a symbolic gesture that says, "Alcohol leads to a dark and unlit place."
Adjacent to the building is a large, unused parking lot, also owned by Pernicano. Many an elderly motorist, driven to early deaths due to the heart-valve-exploding experience of finding parking in Hillcrest, has bemoaned Pernicano for not allowing the community to use such space. But who cares if local businesses lose money because a would-be patron couldn't find a space to dock his SUV?
What is that compared to the value of Pernicano's statement, which seems to be: "Cars are evil-walk, bike or rollerblade!" He doesn't appear willing to contribute to the environmental travesty that is car culture, and therefore, George Pernicano must be considered an environmentalist, as well.
The parking lot lay unused, a pallid slab of unwashed asphalt. In the margins is piled what appears to be an unusable air conditioner, an unusable sink, more waylaid signage and other assorted junk. Then there's the large, plastic trashcan, so authentic with its dirt and large, drippy spray-painted letters that read "POPCORN."
How can one not be reminded of the good old days, when men with robust moustaches sold piping hot popcorn out of 30-gallon, spray-painted trash cans? Such olfactory nostalgia tickles the nose hairs of humanity.
And what about those memories? Pernicano's was once an illustrious joint. Jackie Gleason ate there every night for a week when in San Diego shooting a film. Broadway Joe Namath affectionately called the restaurant "Pork Chop Hill," dining there every time he was in town tossing the pigskin.
How could the residents of Hillcrest be so uncaring as to want to wipe out such memories for old George just because the graffiti on his windows seems to be written in some filmy mucous that resembles human semen? (Of course, judging by the large letters, we know that no man has the natural resources to fund such an effort in bodily art.)
Pernicano once told the Union-Tribune that "to sell it would be like selling my body. My body and soul are in there." Peering inside the windows, one can see Pernicano's soul: a rusty shopping cart, some misused vinyl seats, a dusty salad bar, a few half-empty bottles on the back bar.
Just because this man has a graffiti-marred soul that houses old shopping carts is no reason to clamor for him to clean up, reopen, lease or sell his 25,000-square-foot slice of fallen glory.
On the broken sign in the unused parking lot, there is a star over the "i" in Pernicano's. I contend that George Pernicano-local millionaire and one-time pork chop guru-is that star, a pillar of the community who stands brave in the face of urban-renewal zealotry.