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Life In A Southern California Cul-de-Sac

by Mary Camarillo

As usual the city where I’ve lived for almost thirty years, Huntington Beach, California, is in the news. The conservative majority of our city council managed to put voter id requirements and LGBTQ+ flag restrictions on the upcoming March 2024 ballot.

They’ve also set up a twelve-month program designed to be “free of identity politics and political agendas.” The new celebrations will honor the history of oil, railroads, aviation, surfing, aerospace, the military, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, and the “founding” pioneers of Huntington Beach.

February in most places is “Black History Month” but in Huntington Beach our city council majority decided otherwise. In Surf City USA, February is now “We Love Our Libraries Month.”

So how does Surf City show library love?

On February 7th, as part of the process also decreed by the conservative City Council majority, library staff began the task of re-cataloging some of the books in the children’s section and moving them to the adult section due to “sexual content.” No one under the age of 18 will be able to check out books deemed “harmful.”

One of my favorite children’s books “Everybody Poops” is now in the adult section.

The city council is in the process of creating a 21-member “parent advisory” board to review proposed acquisitions of children’s books for the Huntington Beach Library. Each of the seven members of the council can make three selections, although the three progressive members may decide not to take part.

There’s more on the horizon. According to an article in the Voice of OC, Huntington Beach leaders and city staff are considering privatizing the library. A company called Library Systems and Services is interested. LSS operates other public libraries in Southern California like Riverside County, Upland, Escondido and Palmdale. Past library takeovers have faced public pushback over concerns that the company saves money by lowering employees’ wages, getting rid of unionized employees, reducing services and hours, and narrowing the library collection to best sellers only.

I don’t find much to love in any of this. But in our cul-de-sac we don’t talk about these things.

“It’s another day in paradise,” my next-door neighbor who has throat cancer says in his raspy voice as he smokes a cigarette on his front porch. It’s his usual response whenever I tell him hello.

Huntington Beach can feel like a paradise. On clear days I can see Saddleback Mountain at the end of our cul-de-sac. We’re only three miles from the beach. Our neighborhood is quiet, peaceful, and full of citrus and avocado trees.

These houses were built in the mid 1960’s. There are 609 homes in the tract, seven in our cul-de-sac. Despite the large number of houses and residents, human encounters are mostly limited to driveways. Most neighbors tend to drive straight into their garages and lower the doors behind them. Most people seem to live in the backs of their houses, which can make the neighborhood feel like there is never anyone home.

Sometimes when I say hello to our smoking next-door neighbor, he turns his back on me. I tell myself he’s hard of hearing. We’ve had conversations over the years about how the world works. He’s of the mindset that people with problems simply need to pull themselves up with their own bootstraps. He doesn’t recognize that some folks don’t have boots, much less straps. These days our conversations center mostly around the weather.

We also used to be friendlier with the neighbor across the cul-de-sac before he put up a Trump flag. Up to that point no one in the cul-de-sac had ever displayed political banners.

We moved here in 1995. The price was affordable in those days for two postal workers, and the location was not too bad of a commute from where we worked, and not too far from our then aging parents. When we first moved in, most of the neighbors had young children or grandchildren. That may have made them suspicious of a childless couple like us, who brewed beer in their garage, planted vegetables in their front border, and painted one of their cinderblock walls Frida Kahlo blue.

We heard that one of our neighbors called us the fucking Mexicans behind our backs but he never said that to our faces. He seemed delighted when I gifted him a bell pepper one Thanksgiving morning after he’d walked across the cul-de-sac and asked me what the heck was I growing anyway.

Some of the neighbors already weren’t speaking to each other when we first moved in and they were happy to take us aside and explain why. Suburban neighborhoods might look like a community from a distance but there’s a lot of drama going on behind all of those closed doors. It’s excellent fodder for fiction.

Some of our neighbors only speak to each other on street sweeping days when someone forgets to move their cars from the curb. Street sweeping is on the first and third Thursdays of each month, which seems deliberately designed to be difficult to keep track of. The fine for leaving your car on the street is $46. We may not be the kind of neighbors who invite each other over for dinner but we don’t like seeing each other get tickets.

Parking is a problem in a cul-de-sac, especially when adult children never leave home, which is the case with three out of the seven houses in our circle of homes. Most Southern Californians are territorial about the curb space in front of their houses. We’re not, but we only have two cars and there is room for one in our garage. We also bring in our trash cans right away. We try to get along.

But we do invite our families over on holidays and we tell them to park wherever they can because some of them are elderly and/or not all that fit. We hope for forgiveness but even on Christmas and Thanksgiving our guests have been asked to move their cars. “You’re in my spot,” they are told. The young man next door writes up fake tickets when someone parks in what he feels is “his” parking place.

We try to laugh it off.

Our neighbors have other and better qualities, as most human beings do. One donated a kidney to his brother. One has a wicked sense of humor and loves talking about books, especially mine. We all redirect misdelivered mail and packages. On Fourth of July’s and New Year’s Eve’s some of us drag chairs out to the sidewalks and watch the explosions.

We usually let each other know when we’re leaving town. The center house neighbor diligently rakes up the pine needles that fill the cul-de-sac after a windstorm. Our neighbors are devoted dog lovers and grandparents. They’ve raised children who have grown into responsible adults with kids of their own. They’ve created extended tightly knit families.

Like us, our neighbors are aging and increasingly fragile. Besides the throat cancer next door, our neighbors have diabetes, brain injuries, and heart problems. They won’t be here forever. Eventually they’ll tent for termites, paint, and put up a “For Sale” sign. A house around the corner just sold for $1.8 million. We wonder who might move in next.

We’re retired now, parentless, and could also move someplace else but we have a beautiful garden and a comfortable home filled with books, music, and art. We’ve chosen to stay, for now anyway. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination or inertia or an over accumulation of possessions, or maybe it’s because we’ve built a decent and comfortable life here.


When the neighbor across the cul-de-sac put up his Trump flag in 2019, I stared at it for a long time from my upstairs office. It was a small garden flag but in my direct line of vision from the desk where I was finishing my first novel and contemplating my second. That flag was distracting and not conducive to creativity. I finally went online and ordered the exact same model but printed with Biden’s name. After I planted it directly in my neighbor’s line of vision, I felt better.

When Biden won in November of 2019, I took the flag down. I wanted to dance with it out in the middle of the cul-de-sac but I refrained. The next day my neighbor took his flag down too.

Small fragments of civilized behavior. Something to celebrate in these increasingly divided united states of America.


Mary Camarillo’s first novel The Lockhart Women, published in June 2021 by She Writes Press, won first place in the Next Generation Indie Awards for first fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as 166 Palms, The Sonora Review, Lunch Ticket, and The Ear. Her newest novel, Those People Behind Us, is out now out from She Writes Press. She lives in Huntington Beach, California.

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