Escape To San Diego
Sometime in the next few months (I don’t remember exactly when) marks twenty years since I moved back from Northern California to San Diego.
by Ben Johnson
In the spring of ’92 I was broke, and many levels of drama had forced my eight roommates and myself to move out of our giant house built atop a massive stump in the tall trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains in the small town of Scott’s Valley, just up the curvy highway from Santa Cruz.
I didn’t have any money to my name, and my part time job at the deli wasn’t gonna allow me to save some. Santa Cruz, like many college towns has low-paying jobs and sky-high rent. If you’re not in school there’s really no reason for you to be there, especially if you’re not from there. And I wasn’t either of those things.
Quick money is rough. I didn’t want to sofa-surf anymore. Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve–I knew connections in Alaska. Years earlier, in another story entirely, I had lived with my aunt on a houseboat while working for a fish-buying company. Two houseboats over, a couple named Todd and Nancy did the same thing for a different company. I was 16 at the time. It was insanely cool.
I called my aunt in Seattle about any leads she might have regarding work in Alaska, and she told me Todd was in charge of hiring at a plant In Yakutat, Alaska. So north I went.
But this story isn’t about Alaska. Suffice to say that summer was nowhere near as cool as the one in ’86.
Anyway, the season finally closed, and I came back to Santa Cruz, and my brother who was still there. Problem was, he now lived with a ton Of people in a way smaller house. It was too small. So was Santa Cruz.
I had started to go out with my brother’s roommate. It worked out pretty well. She was also sick of Santa Cruz, and it was decided I would go up to San Francisco and find work and look for housing, maybe try to come back on the weekends. I had no car, and had blown the last of my Alaska money going to Ireland. By myself. In winter. Wound up staying with bona fide criminals. Another time for that one.
Anyhow, I waited for the AK unemployment, and tried to get an under-the-table job. That did not work. I ended up getting a temp job in a title insurance agency. Ugh. My one office job ever.
One thing became clear as crystal in SF; if I couldn’t afford it in Santa Cruz, there was no way I could survive in the city.
After looking for a while, we got a place in Oakland. By Oakland high school. In the winter of ’93. Uh…yeah.
The house was awesome. The yard and view were great, and everything off our block was extremely dangerous. So Colleen, me, my brother, and one other guy, who trailed me like a shadow, moved in.
Oakland in ’93 was crazy, and we were young and dumb. The day after we moved in, we were shopping for groceries. We didn’t have enough to cover the cost, so Colleen went across the street to use the ATM. when she hadn’t come back in a few minutes I went to look for her. She was outside, crying with a bloody head to the police officers taking the report about her mugging. Two dudes had demanded she take all our money out. She took out $20 and told them to fuck themselves, so they racked her head into the ATM and ran. Two dudes in black Raiders hoodies, just like half the Oaktown youth at that or any other time. The cops weren’t even gonna look.
It didn’t take long for my brother to split back to Santa Cruz for a hot minute, then back to San Diego. I wanted to go too, but there was Colleen and Josh, who I’d basically talked into this arrangement. It was gonna be impossible to get someone to move in.
I said as much to the one person I talked to regularly in my neighborhood; the liquor store owner whose store I bought libations in every single day of my living there. He suggested that he move in with his girlfriend. We had no other options.
So Shavali, the man from Afghanistan who owned the liquor store in Oakland, moved in with his extremely thin, hot Naomi Campbell lookalike girlfriend.
Josh was a twenty-one year old virgin until just before he hooked up with Pam, the tall model thin girlfriend of the guy who had a job where you almost certainly would have several guns. Shavali didn’t seem like the type who would be okay sharing his gf, either. At all.
Josh was freaking me out. He always had this shit-eating grin plastered on his face. I couldn’t blame the grin, but I told him he was gonna get us all fucking killed acting like that. Miraculously, Shavali hadn’t found out about it. We hoped.
The tension lasted for at least a month, but it’s hard to remember exactly.
In early September, the temperature shot down one day, and when I had taken the Bart to the bus and home, the house was freezing. I turned on the floor heater, and I could hear gas, but it wouldn’t ignite. The grate squeaked when I took it off to access the pilot light, and when I looked down I was surprised to see a balled up wonder bread bag wedged down next to the blown-out light.
When I unwrapped the bag, I was holding a rock of white powder larger than a softball.
I put it back. Slowly. Thinking. I wrapped it wrong on purpose. I wanted him to know I saw, but I certainly didn’t want him to think I took some. I’d been kind of raised around drug culture, and knew what drug came out of Afghanistan. The picture became clear; he was renting our room to stash the heroin that he sold out of the store.
I didn’t know what to do. I told Colleen we needed to go out that night. At the restaurant, I told her we had to leave. Immediately. Where would we go? I hated my job, and was over Northern California in general. All my friends were in Santa Cruz, which I had bled dry, Or back in San Diego. We decided wed try to get back to SD.
The next day, we prepared what to say to Pam and Shavali regarding our sudden move. When I got home from work, I screwed up my courage and knocked on their bedroom door, still reciting the words of my explanation in my head. The echo from my knock told me my words weren’t needed, and when I opened the door there was only a large clump of dust rolling around on the hardwood floor. They were gone, and we’d never see them again.
That night, we were to begin calling friends. The first one we called was our mutual great friend Natasha, who lived on spruce and India. The building next to her was a lesbian bar, and next to it, sandwiched between the bar and a transmission repair shop, was a house that had suddenly come up for rent. The affairs surrounding the sudden vacancy were as clandestine as those we were trying to escape.
But we needed that house. She called the landlord, then called us back. The place was ours.
The next day we rented a u-haul, put all our stuff and our cats in it, caught a miracle when the landlady even gave us back our deposit with one day notice, and split back to San Diego.
When we got to our new house, it was covered inside and out with wet dog hair carpet and had a massive beehive in the walls and floor.
We couldn’t have been happier.
**thanks for reading!!** -BJ
[Editor’s Note: Ben Johnson initially released this story in full on his Twitter @grammaticalb as a series of 140-character posts. He can be seen in an interview at the Youtube channel for THE SAN DIEGO REVIEWER (Reviewer.tv) or, it’s assumed, behind the bar at The Casbah when he is not playing in one of his bands.]