Ocean Beach is a young person's hood. And summertime is a young person's season. All you need to do is find it, and the rest will find you. There's a beach you can drink on, a pier you can walk on, a main street where you can find whatever you're looking for, and 14,000 people who like to barbecue on their front lawns in their underwear.
O.B. is pot, beer, sun and lust-fueled madness.
There's more public drug hustling here than anywhere else in San Diego. Newport Avenue is just about the only place south of Haight Street where you could light up a joint, walk right down the sidewalk and most people wouldn't bat an eye. If you can't handle the dead-eyed runaways, drunken vets, arrogant surfers, tired hippies, lost punks, homeless drifters, starry-eyed pagans-the whole laid-back menagerie-then you won't like O.B. You'll take one look at its crusty layer of sandy, booze-soaked funk and never return. You'd have to be brave or insane to let your daughters grow up in O.B.
But if you can handle the decadence that pockets of freedom collect, you will find O.B. a joy, especially in the summer. An oddly isolated little slice of 1970s San Diego that progress seems to have forgotten. A place where people walk and ride bikes barefoot, where you don't have to do much to make a friend, earn some trust, get laid, get high or get away from the rat race. O.B. has more street festivals, pointless parades, bonfires, organic vegetables, music blaring from garages and random acts of kindness than anywhere else in San Diego, and I've lived all over this town. I love O.B. beyond reason, and these days I can hardly imagine living anywhere else.
When I was in junior high, my punk-rock friends and I used to hang out in O.B. in the summer. We liked Buford's 24-hour candy store. During the day, Buford and Bernice, the elderly couple who wore colorful matching western outfits, would run the store and sell wax lips and other old-school favorites for change. Bernice had been a trapeze artist in Ringling Brothers' circus, and they put up vintage circus posters all over the walls. At night it would turn into a sketchy convenience store, and the candy section would be closed and dark, but whatever surly graveyard character they had running the place overnight would always turn on the light and move the barrier and let us get at the candy at 2 a.m. That's what O.B. still means to me: youth, eccentricity, playful transgression.
But what does summer in O.B. mean when you've lived through 70 of them, when you can't see past the carnivalesque ugliness that has desecrated the quaint seaside hamlet you grew up in and circumstances force you to stay? Since the experience of a place is inevitably shaped by one's perceptions, I decided to revisit my chosen, beloved neighborhood through a radically different lens-through the eyes of someone who hates it but has no way out. What I learned from this revisiting of Ocean Beach is that there really is no place, no 'there'there. There is only the place as it is lived.
I recently spent a beautiful sunny spring afternoon sitting on a porch with an elderly man a lot less cheerful than Buford the Candyman. Living just a few blocks from the beach since the 1940s, this guy really hates it here. He lives in such fear of reprisal from locals that he wishes to remain completely anonymous. He consented to talking about Ocean Beach only if I removed enough clues to his identity to protect him from his perceived enemies, the young OBceans.
'The young kids around here have no respect,'he says. 'Three girls walking down the street the other day: One of them says, ‘I don't care what my parents say. I'll do whatever I want. I'll take whatever I want.''
Seven years ago, Mr. Island-this will be his moniker-had his property hideously vandalized (he has asked me to leave out the details) by unknown assailants, and he's never been the same. 'That's why I just sit here, minding my business, not talking to nobody.”
'Do you have any friends that live here?'I ask him.
'They're all gone now. Dead. The people I used to sit out here and talk with.”
'What do you like to do in O.B.? Are there places you like to eat? Things you like to do?”
'No. It's not safe anymore. Especially at night. It's crazy. I just stay home. There was a robbery this morning down the street. Cops were chasing them down the street. They caught one guy and took him back to jail, but the others got away.”
'You're just a couple blocks from the beach. Do you ever walk down and look at the ocean? Watch the sunset?”
'No. Not for the last 12 years.”
'What did you like about O.B. in the past that you think has changed?”
'Young people would have respect for their parents. They wouldn't run around yelling ‘F this' and ‘F that.' They'd get dressed up on Sunday and spend time with their families.”
'Does O.B. change in the summer?”
'Yeah, it gets wild, out of control. Stay away from down there,'he says, pointing toward the beach.
'What would you recommend to people who want to come to O.B. in the summer, to visit the beach and have fun?”
'I guess just come early. Have your fun on the beach and leave before it gets dark. Don't be out here at night.”
You can't change someone's perception of a place when it's so fixed in their mind. Where I still stubbornly perceive a scruffy but magical beach town stuck in the past, Mr. Island sees a lost paradise that can never be retrieved. He's chosen a retreat into lonely nostalgia right in the middle of all this life. He may never see another sunset over the ocean. And it's right down the street.