Friday, February 11, 2005 | After almost four years in this city, I still can’t find the city. Not a complaint this, but a lament-and a declaration of my share of the responsibility. I’m just like most folks who dwell here-transplanted, smug about the climate, still emitting loyalties to more eastern baseball jerseys and memories that bake in the foreign sun. I look at the Padres, but I remember the Reds and the Yankees and the snow and seasons and everything else that made me flee but does not flee from me.
Make no mistake: I think this city is filled with talent, laughter and sensitivity. It’s hard not to be affected by the sound of so many American dialects, the press of countless experienced hands, the texture of ocean-kissed tenderness, the breakthrough moments of stadiums and a new parkway, the dreams of a new library somewhere, the bittersweet tears of separation at Lindbergh Field, the joyous tears of brides and grooms, the satisfied weeping of parents blessing their children at holiday consecrations – the salty waters of human life that define even a tentative city much more than even the finest urban planning blueprint. But things still drift to “back home.”
San Diego is not a place where its citizens, generally, were born. It is a place where folks arrive, and where many good folks, who worked very hard in New York, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, have now come for anonymity.
When I talk to people in this city, they use a certain phrase quite often – “back home.” “I used to get that kind of a bagel back home, Rabbi.” “I’m going back home for Thanksgiving.” These are people who have lived and paid taxes here for decades. “Where are you from?” I like to ask people that I meet in this city. Here is a typical answer I have received: “We just came out from Brooklyn. We’ve been here 37 years.” We’re up against something when people think like that in a beautiful city that they are apparently visiting on a permanent basis.
This very real social phenomenon, unique to this region, makes it hard to galvanize some San Diegans into affiliation, loyalty, endowment, and a mutual relationship with communal institutions. For example, only 20-percent – maybe – of San Diego Jews, are members of an organized congregation. (Christian clergy have told me of similar issues). Evidently, with some 100,000 Jews scattered up and down the coast, from the sea, across the desert, and into the mountains, only 5,700 family units are on the combined membership roster of the seven major congregations. This is the arithmetic of leisure, this is the equation of distance, this is the geography of margins.
Perhaps more than in any other American community, folks in San Diego are truly driven by the invaluable yet haunting issue of memory. We live here physically, but we live somewhere else in terms of heritage and connection. We have a kind of spiritual nostalgia for the aromatic kitchen we left behind “back home,” for the neighborhoods whose smells, noises, nooks, and crannies are vivid coordinates of a life we left behind but have never truly departed.
I think people are naturally restless in this town of quiet weather and maritime views because we miss the immersion of home. We miss the walls, ceilings, doors, and windows of a place in our memory where everything and everyone came to be so individualized. No condominium achievement can truly replace, nor can any gated community keep out the powerful memory of things close at hand – linoleum and oilcloth, holiday candles and sizzling brisket, prayer books and Venetian blinds.
We knew each other back home, we knew who had the accent, which had the funny walk, which was belligerent and who was friendly, whose mother worked and whose father was dead. We somehow grasped how every family’s circumstances and problems set a distinctive course in their lives, and most people understood that along with wealth and ownership came moral currency and personal history.
We are tan in San Diego and well-exercised, but we appear to be a little homesick and the result is that we have an ethereal city and the unyielding memory of a city that smelled of things delicate and personal. The solution: Facing this, accepting the deficiency, and, like the message of the old Scripture, turning our dormant skills and considerable talents away from nostalgia and towards community. There are a lot of young people in San Diego County who are looking to read their own history and not one that was transferred by the van lines.
Ben Kamin, the author of four books, and long-time newspaper commentator, is founder of Reconciliation, a San Diego-based agency for conflict resolution and inclusive pastoral services.