“You can’t just drive to San Diego on the spur of the moment and expect to learn anything,” said two friends when I described my impulse to turn the weekend into a spontaneous research trip. “You have to call ahead, locate materials, reserve time in rare book rooms, look at old photographs.”
“I’ll take a chance,” I said, and left Orange County, California for San Diego before daylight. Stopping for coffee in a town off the freeway, I made a wrong turn and got lost. My friends are right, I thought. I should have made plans. I can’t even find San Diego.
No doubt the school where Agnes Smedley had taught business and typing from 1914 to 1916, almost a century earlier, would be gone. No one now living would remember it.
“Old Town,” said a freeway exit sign as I approached San Diego. Since “Old” was what I was looking for, I followed the off-ramp to a crooked street where I saw an old man walking an old dog.
“Excuse me, sir,” I called through the open car window. “Do you know where I can find the old normal school campus?”
The dog lay down in the grass beside the sidewalk. Dropping the leash, the old man came closer. “Normal, you say?” Reviewing the past century, his rheumy eyes rested on the redundant leash; that dog was never going to run again. “There’s a Normal Avenue about a mile up ahead.”
Normal Avenue! Probably named after the teachers’ normal school! I might be in the right place after all!
When I first met Agnes Smedley in the biography section of a small library in Washington State, she’d caught my attention, like an unplanned glance in a mirror. I’d read everything I could find about her and her world. In fact, my historical novel was a way of trying to be Agnes Smedley. I’d already followed her footsteps to her birthplace, Sullivan County, Missouri; to the mines in Colorado where her father found work; to New York City where she was politically radicalized; to Germany, Denmark, and China. But I hadn’t been to San Diego where, as a young woman, she’d taught in the normal school.
The crooked street finally emptied into Normal Avenue, just as the old man had said. By now it was nine o’clock in the morning and the sun was bathing both sides of the avenue in nostalgic pink. I approached a complex of modern brick buildings, the largest of which bore the sign, “San Diego Unified School District, Since 1854.”
I brightened. Compared to 1854, 1914 was only yesterday. But these buildings had been constructed years after 1914. As I scanned the acreage I saw, back behind the newer brick, a tall, dirty-white structure with columns and pediments, a whiskered old man among youngsters.
I wound my way back to the boarded-up building and parked on gravel behind the soiled back wall. Passing through dust stirred up by my tires, I began to circle the building until I reached the cornerstone beside the front steps and read the Roman numerals: MCMXIII. 1913.
This building was standing when Agnes Smedley taught here!
I imagined her climbing the steps to teach her classes, then descending them at the end of the day.
But where did she live? Probably nearby. She was too poor to own a car.
After spending a long moment considering the present as remnant of the past, I walked back to my car and set out looking for the neighborhood (no, a neighborhood) where she might have lived. For this, I had no facts. No address. This wasn’t research in the classic sense of the word, but terrain for the imagination to roam in.
I began driving randomly, un-research-like, no destination in mind. I now knew that the normal school where she had taught every week day from 1914 to 1916 was located on property near the San Diego Back Bay and that her workplace had smelled a little fishy, a little salty, and had often been a little damp and a little foggy, as it was today. Driving through the surrounding neighborhoods lined with wooden bungalows, I could surmise the kind of street and house where she’d lived.
Maybe I can write a scene, I thought, where her estranged husband finds her on one of these sagging porches, washing a window (I knew from my reading—classic research—that she was a demon worker), and where they sit in the old kitchen drinking cheap wine and discussing their failed marriage (a fact picked up in her autobiography), and where, in the bedroom, they try again—and fail—to make love because Agnes is terrified of sex. (There is much evidence to support this fact.)
That afternoon, floating back north along the freeway, Agnes Smedley’s months in San Diego came to life. I felt satisfied and a little smug: I’d learned exactly what I needed to know for my historical novel.