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My SANiversary: Celebrating two decades in San Diego

Writer Mike Sager reflects on leaving the east coast to find paradise


Illustration by Lars Leetaru

Early this morning, working through my email, I was interrupted by a weird pair of shadows dancing across my computer screen.

Curious, I swiveled around in my chair. Through the translucent window shade I could see a couple of hummingbirds feeding on the brilliant orange flowers of the giant succulent that lives beside my office.

The species is named Aloe marlothii. Mine is about 12 feet tall. It never fails to make me think of Audrey II, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors. Native to South Africa—as are many of the thorny, sculptural desert plants you see around San Diego—its seasonal inflorescence is a woody stalk with many branches, covered with tiny fluted flowers called “racemes.” The pollen must be superlative to a target group of flying gourmands—whenever there are flowers, there’s always a crowd gathered around, small birds and bees and other flying insects, feeding ardently against the backdrop of the sky.

As the sun peeked over the houses on the adjacent ridge, sending shards of light across the canyon... as I marveled for the zillionth time at the peculiar methods of flight exhibited by the various species... it occurred to me that my aloe had been only three feet tall when I planted it, soon after my arrival in San Diego.

January will mark twenty years.

I first came to San Diego in a VW pop-top camper the summer after my senior year of college. All I remember is the zoo, the chickens walking free everywhere. I think we drove 11,000 miles in eight weeks. Most of it remains a blur.

Nearly two decades later, in 1994, I revisited more properly, as a journalist on assignment. Bill Clinton had just been elected president. One of his first actions was to institute the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on military service by gays, bisexuals, and lesbians. An unwieldy directive since abolished by President Barack Obama, it was a human rights breakthrough all the same. I was sent to San Diego to profile gay members of the military.

As it happened, the magazine put me up in a hotel in Pacific Beach. Arriving late in the afternoon, I moseyed over to a bar and restaurant called The Green Flash. I had no idea of its history as a classic beach joint. It was just there, hunkered next to the boardwalk, unpretentious, the roof sloping, the tables worn, the deck still radiant with the warmth of the afternoon.

At sunset, I was not disappointed. There it was—a green flash, unmistakable. I’ve always been drawn to the shoreline. I’ve traveled all over the world, seen a bunch of great sunsets, from Key West to the Marshall Islands to the Mekong River.

But none of those were the kind of places where I could actually live a semblance of the life I had chosen. I was a family man, a professional. I wasn’t looking to be that character from The Mosquito Coast. I needed FedEx, a decent school system, running water.

At the time, I owned a house in an area called Logan Circle in Washington, D.C. One mile northeast of the White House, the place had high ceilings and a couple of fireplaces. Outside, there were crack dealers on one corner, hookers on the other. They called it the Fourteenth Street Strip. Every weekend, and some nights during the week, cars circled round and round—johns looking for action, suburbanites looking for drugs, drunk revelers rubbernecking—touring the underbelly of the nation’s capital.

I suppose adjustment comes with any change of place, an inevitable difference in regional style. In the way of Southern California, I have learned to be more Zen. I rarely even change lanes on the freeway anymore.

Along with the house, I had a wife and a baby. We used to drive the three blocks to the playground—until we discovered a used syringe in the earthy mulch beneath the slide. That was when we knew for certain our days of chic urban pioneering were coming to a close. The blizzard of 1996 didn’t help. And neither did the incident in which I was attacked and beaten by several crackheads. Given the recession, and the financial prospects of the writing game, getting out was going to be a long shot. Halfheartedly, we contemplated the Maryland suburbs. I stalled for time.

Then, on the eve of my 40th birthday, good fortune struck. One after the other, two of my magazine stories were optioned for Hollywood movies.

At that point, it became a question of where.

I already had the answer.

In October of 1996 we came to San Diego to look for a house. The market was flooded with unsold properties. I had some windfall cash in hand; there were bargains to be had.

Of all the great physical attributes of life in America’s Finest City—the ocean, the weather, the easy airport access, the sweeping vistas—the thing that really sealed the deal was the kiddie playground at La Jolla Shores.

Coming as we had from D.C., from the playground with the syringes in the mulch beneath the slide, the notion that our kid could be romping in this perfectly accoutred sandy paradise (and that we could be doing our normal parental duties under these conditions) was sort of eye opening.

Given a choice, why would anyone live anywhere else?

On my third day in town I found the perfect house in one of those real estate magazines. On my fourth day I made an offer.

Over the years, trips to the Shores playground gave way to the big pile of sand bulldozed every winter to protect the lifeguard tower in Pacific Beach; the green expanse of Allen Field; the easy waves at Law Street; the big-guy waves at Marine Street; the outdoor basketball courts at UCSD; the trails at Torrey Pines State Beach; the summer evening bonfires at Windansea.

And meanwhile, the aloe outside the window of my office continued to grow. Somehow, twenty years have passed.

Never for one minute have I questioned our move. Okay, there were a few minutes there, when our plain-speaking, urbanite, racially diverse family first arrived in laid-back and lily-white La Jolla. But I suppose adjustment comes with any change of place, an inevitable difference in regional style. In the way of Southern California, I have learned to be more Zen. I rarely even change lanes on the freeway anymore.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that living in a nice place makes your existence a little sweeter. Life is difficult enough without the specter of shoveling three feet of snow off your roof. Even on a bad day, all I have to do is look around.

But of course, my love for living here isn’t just about the weather. It’s about choice. It’s about making your life what you want it to be.

Like my aloe, I have set down roots.

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