From the Desk of a Campo Santo Ombudsman
by Duncan Fyfe

REALLY, the Ombudsman had to admit, Rachel Medina was the one to thank for everything. “I don’t know if you’re the right person,” she had said, like everybody says, “I don’t actually know what you do.”

Well, the fact of the matter was that he did a great many things, as he told her, proceeding to explain with generic examples rather than induct her into the specific boredom of his workday. By the good grace of the City of San Diego did James Sallis serve as its Community and Customer Ombudsman, a noble position with no power. It was his job to listen to public complaints about the City – like those of Miss Medina, though a complaint could be about traffic fines, or a Nixon-era Council decision to transfer maintenance of a drainage easement on the San Bernardino Meridian to an unaccountable private operator – and bring those complaints to the appropriate City employee for rebuttal, and upon the Ombudsman presenting the facts of the matter and asking what could be done, the employee would generally put his feet up on his desk, smirk and say “Oh, whoops! We’ll do better next time,” which was the same thing as telling the Ombudsman to go fuck himself. In the opinion of the Ombudsman, anyway, which as it should be clear does not carry much water in the City of San Diego.

Sallis was the City’s first Ombudsman. When the chief operating officer created the post and appointed Sallis in ‘85, he’d said, “We must be great. The President spoke of a shining city on the hill. I want San Diego to be that city.” A week later he was fired for harassment. In the four years since, Sallis had languished without allies in a basement office where the community service juveniles stashed their jackets. This year he had taken to showing up for work in rumpled suits, no tie, and getting stoned in his Volvo 240 on lunch break, then rubbing his eyes even redder so it looked like he had been crying, making his co-workers too embarrassed to comment.

Walk-ins like Miss Medina tended to fill the Ombudsman with the most dismay: typically they were the ones who cared the most and the ones he could do the least for. Walk-ins were the type who’d found out that the whale at SeaWorld wasn’t the original Shamu from the sixties, just some no-name asshole they called Shamu, and wanted to know wasn’t that false advertising? “But that’s all private sector,” he’d apologize, and are you saying the Mayor of San Diego can’t do a thing about that and the Ombudsman would shake his head and say: no, private sector.

Rachel Medina announced herself as an activist and sat beside the Ombudsman’s desk. “I have a problem with Campo Santo.”

“What?” Discreetly he shifted in his chair and pried the underwear out of his crack.

“It’s – you know, the cemetery?”

“Yes, I mean, what’s the problem you have?”

Campo Santo was a small plot up in Old Town, about three, maybe four, miles north from the office. Officially known as El Campo Santo Cemetery, which literally translated to something like ‘the cemetery cemetery,’ but hey, whatever, it was named in the 1840s. It was for murderers and Catholics, mainly. Closed for burials, he wanted to say a hundred years ago? but still in business as a historical landmark. There was probably plenty there to complain about: vandalism, the noise on Dia de los Muertos, general upkeep… with budget cuts across the board, it wasn’t a priority to keep pristine the grave marker of a nineteenth century loser who was hanged for stealing a rowboat. That was it, usually: a distant descendant unhappy with the length of grass around a chipped and weathered gravestone.

“My problem is that you’re hiding dead bodies,” said Rachel Medina.

“Who is?”

“Twenty dead women and children – you are. Or the City is. Again, I don’t really know what you do.”

“I don’t understand,” and he didn’t.

So she explained. El Campo Santo, according to Rachel Medina anyway, used to be bigger, about a hundred years ago. In 1889, the City cut a path through the cemetery to make way for a streetcar line. And in 1942 – the years rolled without hesitation off her tongue; Ombudsman Sallis rubbed his eyes blearily – the City paved over that, making it part of San Diego Avenue. Only problem with that: the City built a road over a cemetery, graves included, destroying all the gravestones and grave markers in the process. So every day, said Medina, San Diego commuters drive over unmarked graves. Twenty at least, many of them for children.

“And the City won’t even acknowledge it,” she said. “You won’t even say that you did it. I know it’s just old bodies. But it isn’t right.”

“Who’d you talk to about this?”

“I talked to the Mayor’s office, three times, I talked to my Council member, I talked to four different people in the Park and Recreation department, I talked to the City Clerk’s office, and they all denied it, they all told me that I had my facts wrong. So now I’m talking to you.”

It was a new one, the Ombudsman had to give her that: the first time since the twelfth grade writing competition scandal that he’d been surprised by the job. There was something about this: it was so morbid, so inexplicable… and what did the City stand to gain by any of it, supposing it were true, which he was not yet ready to suppose…

“You won’t help either, I can tell.”

“But I haven’t even looked into it yet.”

“Still, you won’t.”

The Ombudsman promised he would check it out, though to his eye Rachel Medina left unconfident in his potential as a public advocate. It was noon, and he made the decision not to go to his car but up two floors to Records, where Angie and her assistants were out to lunch. Sitting down by a file cabinet with the Council minutes for… well, for all of 1942, she hadn’t been any more specific… he spent an hour searching a history of municipal minutiae for anything that might support Medina’s claims.

So the search began in January 1942, with a unanimous City Council vote to have the personnel department investigate the loyalty of all City employees with Japanese ancestry, followed by another unanimous resolution noting the numbers of enemy aliens in San Diego, many of them Japanese and many of them subversive, and petitioning the FBI to remove them. In February, the Council voted to make entry to the Fine Arts Gallery – including exhibitions – free to servicemen. A building the City sold off last month. March 1942, the Council formally noted the birth of Dean, a baby condor at the San Diego zoo. Forty years, thought the Ombudsman, Dean’s gotta be dead.

And there it was in August: Item 29, a City Council decision to commence road works near El Campo Santo Cemetery, paving over an obsolete streetcar route to extend San Diego Avenue so it ran parallel with Congress Street and connected with the avenue joining Arista, Conde, Harney and Twiggs. But not a unanimous decision this time: the motion passed over one ‘nay’ vote from a Councilman Montague, who had objections…

…objections nowhere to be seen here, because the rest of the page was blank, like it had been photocopied with half the page covered up. The minutes resumed overleaf with Item 30, regarding provision for the design and construction of a storm drain system on Landis Street, and the Ombudsman let this sink in for a good thirty seconds, and then thought: You’re fucking kidding me.

The rest of the day, the Ombudsman looked through everything he could, telling everyone who asked that he was investigating a confidential complaint about a golf course. Sallis looked at planning documents, surveyors’ maps, land titles, complaints histories, and especially the personnel records for reference to a Councilman Montague, of which there was none, and how could that, he wondered, even be possible? The effort continued in vain until he found, inexplicably filed in Transportation and Storm Water’s archives, a map. A map of El Campo Santo Cemetery, hand drawn by a man named Richard Marston in 1881 that appeared to show, in the lower left corner occupied in the present day by a stretch of San Diego Avenue… gravestones. Grave markers. Wooden crosses. There really are bodies there, the Ombudsman realized. After a moment, he grabbed the map, jumped, and ran up and down the stairwell punching the air until he doubled over with exhaustion.

The Ombudsman made two phone calls that evening. The first was to the Deputy Director of Park and Recreation to arrange an urgent appointment for ten a.m. the next day. The second was to Rachel Medina. “You were right,” he told her, and she unloaded a massive sigh.

“Thank you. I mean, what a relief to finally hear that.”

“I should be the one thanking you,” he said, and stopped himself there, for she couldn’t understand what it really meant.

“I was honestly ready to give up on it,” she said. “I didn’t expect you to even listen.”

“Of course I’d listen,” he said. “I’m an Ombudsman.”

He had Rachel Medina to thank for a lot, really. When he sat in the Deputy Director’s office the next morning – clean-shaven – it wasn’t like all the other times. He honestly had something here: a grievance for which someone could and must answer, and not with that smug “we’ll do better next time” bullshit, either. The Ombudsman was holding the sword of justice. Figuratively, anyway. Actually in his hands was a manila folder full of evidence: the edited Council minutes, Marston’s map, and a list of past councilmen that conspicuously made no mention of any Montague.

Around the office were framed photographs of the Deputy Director waving happily in front of San Diego parks. The Deputy Director himself was late, by three minutes now, almost four…

“Sorry to keep you waiting.” And it wasn’t the Deputy Director who strolled in, but someone else, new suit and a blue shirt with a white collar, who sat down on the desk in front of the Ombudsman – whose stomach sank.


“Sure is, cowboy,” said Bédard, clearing away the scattered papers on the Deputy Director’s desk. “Isn’t it funny how we always seem to meet in this way? Why don’t we try to break this habit? Perhaps one night you and I should go out to dinner. We can bring our wives. Are you married, James?”


“Ah. Well, neither am I, ha ha.”

Bédard was private sector: an Ombudsman with one of the downtown consulting firms that contracted premium mediation and ombudsman services on a per case basis. “Oh, James… what have you done? El Campo Santo? You’ve been a nosy little badger, haven’t you?”

“It’s none of your business.”

“I’m sorry to say, it is… after your telephone call last night, the Deputy Director decided that the Campo Santo matter called for a defter touch. Is this everything?” he said, lifting the manila folder out of the Ombudsman’s hands. “The map, too?”

“Hey,” protested the Ombudsman mildly.

“Now, James, don’t pout.” Bédard flipped through the contents of the folder. “I’ll give it the best investigation that money can buy.” Sallis stared dead ahead.

“Oh, and don’t worry about Miss Medina.” Bédard said on his way out the door. “I will make sure to look after her, too. Be good, James.”

The Ombudsman sat alone in the Deputy Director’s office until his assistant told him he had to get out. At lunch, the Ombudsman went outside to his car and afterwards he did not need to go into the bathroom.

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