Sadly, to most of the world, San Diego is known for its impotent pandas, amiable killer whales and a conveniently located third-world neighbor where minors can imbibe. Ah, but there's so much more.
The Big Tangerine has all sort of nooks and crannies that the local tourism cabal doesn't want you to know about for fear they will blight the city's carefully honed image as paradise on earth. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them, because I can guarantee none of the following tourist sites will be inundated by out-of-towners during Super Bowl Week.
1. The Giant Shoe Tree (Morley Field Disc Golf Course, Pershing Drive near Redwood, San Diego. 619-692-3607)
Believe it or not, the frisbee golf course at Morley Field is one of the most popular in the United States. One of the reasons has to be the Giant Shoe Tree, which lords itself over hole No. 2. It's basically a dried-up, decrepit tree that has hundreds of old shoes clinging to its branches. The crusty assemblage of Nikes, Pumas, Adidas, Skechers and other, unnamed brands has a surrealistic quality that provides the perfect setting for a Kodak moment. In a perversely righteous world, the Giant Shoe Tree should be to San Diego what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris and the Opera House is to Sydney. Then again, I've always been a dreamer.
2. The “Bumfights” Parking Lot (Jackson Drive near Parkway Drive, La Mesa)
You didn't think San Diego was a cultural mecca? Well, besides being home to the Old Globe Theater and La Jolla Playhouse, there's another cultural landmark of sorts. Much of the action in the infamous “Bumfights” video (in which morally challenged filmmakers paid homeless individuals to beat the snot out of each other) took place in the parking lot of an abandoned Taco Bell near the corner of Jackson Drive and Parkway Drive in La Mesa. Although the parking lot has since been fenced, La Mesa locals who ingest large amounts of pharmaceuticals say that if you look through the fence at twilight, you can see the ghosts of the bums waltzing around like in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
3. Past life regression meetings at the Unarius Academy of Science (145 South Magnolia Ave., El Cajon. 619-444-7062.)
San Diego is best known for the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members hitched a cosmic ride on the Halle Bop comet by committing mass suicide (and whose lifeless footsies made for one hell of a Nike anti-promotion) back in 1997. But as their rich Rancho Santa Fe neighbors pointed out at the time, they were merely renters. For more than 30 years, the Unarius Academy of Science has been teaching how our past lives will affect us in future worlds (as well the current one). Members learn to “transceive” messages from their space brethren, but the Sunday and Wednesday night meetings are a chance for first-time guests to learn about their past lives and sing songs like “Daybreak,” “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the original Unarius hymn, “On The Inner Worlds Of Love.” Go ahead and snicker. But this stuff can save lives (past and future). At a recent meeting, a hairdresser named Dixie finally figured out why she always spilled hair dye and was basically a slob. During a past life regression back to ancient Egypt, Dixie transcieved that she was a former high priestess who led blood sacrifices.
4. South of O.B. Pier (Ocean Beach)
It's a shame that more tourists don't walk south of the Ocean Beach pier to the rocks of Sunset Cliffs. The miles of craggy coastline are populated by San Diego's craggiest denizens. Over centuries, nature has carved the sandstone rocks into intricate sculpture; and over decades, stoned hippie kids have carved intricate marijuana leafs into those same rocks. It's not just the scribbled-on sandstone that makes Sunset Cliffs a must-see; it's the zoned-out sleazeballs who stand around muttering “Crystal? Sid?” No, they're not mistaking you for a pal from a previous life... they're trying to sell you meth and LSD. Other grand photo opportunities often present themselves, like the little “Sk8tr rats” smoking joints and drinking wine coolers with a sailor who bought the booze at the 99 cent store.
Warning: Avoid any person with a musical instrument. There's a saying in Ocean Beach-“So many musicians, so little music”-that holds especially true on the Sunset Cliffs walk. Within the first 100 yards, you are bound to see wannabe college rock musicians striking open chords on untuned guitars while trying to make contact with passersby with this smug look like, Hey, I'm playing guitar. Hey, watch me strum. I'm playing guitar.
5. The Dirty Kitty (1730 Monroe Ave. Cats don't have phones)
It's a strange world indeed when a cat that rolls around in crankcase oil and grease before getting pet is a genuine tourist attraction. University Heights locals know The Dirty Kitty as the black-and-white cat that spends hours-days-under dirty, rusty old cars. This isn't because of abuse. The cat is regularly fed by locals and loves to be pet by the guests at the nearby AA meeting hall. Yet for reasons only explained by the Discovery Channel, this cat loves rolling around in car grease and oil for hours at a time, especially in the summer. The Dirty Kitty has earned itself legendary status among cat lovers and I personally know former residents of University Heights who have driven 30 miles just to pet the soiled pussy. Hey, it's their gas.
Of course, there are many other places in San Diego worth visiting, such as Dad's Cafe in Poway, where Brenda Van Dam met David Westerfield on the night of her daughter's murder. But as a fifth-generation San Diegan, I have to protect our most treasured cultural troves from getting in the hands of ‘Zonies or Raiders fans.