ALONG THE SAN DIEGO COAST — Erika Bertotti was sitting on a pipe, staring out to sea. She fiddled aimlessly with the ends of her curls. Her hair fell like rain, and the words came out almost melodiously.
"I think it's beautiful," she said. "I grew up here. I never want to leave. I'm drawn to it. I can't pull away."
Bertotti has come to the waters of Oceanside every morning for five years. As a 19-year-old graduate of Carlsbad High School, she has no plans to work or to attend college. She simply goes to the beach.
"It's so peaceful," she said beatifically. "It goes on forever. It's so powerful. For me, it's the best place to think--to be alone. And yet, somehow, it's never lonely."
The ocean is many things to many people, or perhaps all things to all people. For Bertotti it's a ritual, a compulsion to meditate and contemplate. For others, it's life. For still others, it is romance, intrigue, escape--the feeling that life goes on forever, that the world offers more than struggle and sacrifice.
The ocean is central to the life of San Diego County. Some may take it for granted, but no one can underestimate its value. It provides jobs, a reason for coming here, economic and spiritual revival. Even to those who live inland, it has meaning and magnitude. Who hasn't moved here from someplace else without naively thinking that, naturally, they, too, would end up at the beach?
It affects the weather of San Diego County, as well as the image, the reputation, the personality. It is, like the county it braces, full of diversity and, often, surprises. The life styles that play themselves out on or near its shores are as different as the millionaires of Del Mar are from the "illegals" huddled in the shadow of Tijuana's Bullring-by-the-Sea.
On a recent brisk morning, a reporter and photographer started at Oceanside at 8 in the morning, finding the serene beach almost eerily deserted. By nightfall, horsemen were mingling with the huddled illegals at Border Field State Park--at the southwestern tip of the United States. That scene was far removed from the Reeboks and designer swimwear of La Jolla Shores, where foreign visitors are of an entirely different kind.
Bertotti was the first person seen on a day offering nothing if not contrast and character. She rhapsodized about the peace and beauty of the water, while sounding fearful of what might happen.
"I dread the fear that one day they may put up oil wells and wreck it all," she said. "Then I won't know where to go."
Bertotti was one of a handful of people at Oceanside, where the beach is clear and pristine. Its shores are surprisingly uncrowded. Tim Doyle, a local police officer, said the reason is found in the word "transition."
"They're rebuilding this pier here," he said, pointing to a structure that used to be three times as long and, at 1,900 feet, was the longest pier on the entire West Coast. It was devastated by a storm a couple of years back. Its restoration should be complete by February, when, city officials hope, it will generate the income and foot traffic it once did.
"This is a real positive step," Doyle said. "They had let the pier run down, even before the storm, and all you had were transients and low-lifes sitting on the end of it, drinking beer and falling off. It should have never been a pier just for winos. Now it's coming back, but it's slow. God, is it ever!"
Jerry Weber, a hard-hatted worker for the firm Crowley Constructors, said putting the pier back together poses a strange set of problems. It's even harder, he said, than rebuilding the one at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro (which Crowley completed and thus qualified for this job with a bid of $5 million).
"Vandals took the dipstick out of that pumping device," he said, pointing to a large tractor embedded in sand. It looked like something Sigourney Weaver might have left behind in "Aliens."
"They also filled the radiator with soap," Weber said, talking about folks who in his mind might as well be aliens. "It's always something." He looked around quickly, apprehensively. "You know, I just wouldn't come here at night."
Gary Spring, a tanned vendor selling hot dogs and cola, said he wouldn't, either. He makes barely enough money to "pay costs." It seems the Oceanside beach is all but deserted, even in daylight.
"I've walked beaches at Santa Monica, Newport, Laguna and Long Beach," he said, "and they're packed, even at night. This beach here is beautiful, but nobody comes. OK, it is in transition, but it looks to me like an uphill fight."
Not far from Spring's frankfurter stand was a private resort called St. Malo. A tough, burly ex-Marine guards the entrance, with no one allowed through--unless, of course, the guard was on coffee break, which he apparently was on a recent cool morning. He later showed up, acting tough and burly.