How does La Jolla answer the question, who are we? A look at some of our favorite neighborsCOMMUNITY BEDROCK


By Will Carless

In a salute to the individuals who brighten lives and keep La Jolla smiling, the Light spoke to a number of local characters from the fields of commerce, sports, healthcare, hospitality and the arts. These people live among us but who rise above the norm. The bright sparks, the firecrackers, the wits and the wacky, they are all here.

Babajan Mirzai has what many would consider a boring job. He stands in a parking booth at the exit of the car park for Scripps Memorial Hospital, eight hours a day, five days a week. He collects money, stamps tickets, checks disabled parking badges.

But Mizrai is not boring. He is famous.

He has been interviewed by television channels and radio sations. He’s been featured in magazines and on training videos nationwide. Babajan Mirzai is the Thank You Man.

Even before he begins his interview, Mirzai’s “thank you” flood is flowing thick and fast, the phrase ending and beginning even the most mundane sentences.

“Thank you for parking.”

“Thank you for smiling.”

“Thank you for thanking me.”

It is impossible not to smile. And many of Mirzai’s customers feel the same. His boss says that the line to the Thank You Man’s booth is almost always the longest.

“Sometimes,” Mirzai said, “some people, they come and just make a U (turn) and say, ‘Thank you.’ I’ve got many, maybe four of five customers, they just come in regularly and make a U-turn and then come back and say, ‘I just came to say hello to the Thank You Man.’ ”

As the cars reel past Mirzai’s booth in a seemingly endless flow - the hospital brings in some 4,000 cars a day, - the Thank You Man drowns each customer in a sea of “thank yous.” The faces inside display confusion and amusement. Some of the drivers know what to expect, and they are ready with a quip and a grin. Other drivers are upset, pale or sick. Some are just in a bad mood.

“I had a customer come the other day,” said Mirzai, “and pull a ticket, and when I said ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ she said, ‘Shut up.’ I said, ‘Thank you for saying shut up.’ She looked at me, then she went to the doctor and came back two hours later on with a gift from Nordstrom. She gave me hug and cried and said, ‘I had a bad day. You made a big difference.’ ”

The thought of giving pain or heartache a back seat, if only for a few moments, is what the Thank You Man strives for with his quirky obsession. More than just a gimmick, he views his trademark as a means to alleviate some of the suffering that passes by the Perspex window of his booth.

“People are here, they’re sad, they’re angry or something like that. They go to the doctor, they’re sick. I try to make them so happy,” he said. “But, thank you for asking me.”

In the Village of La Jolla, there is an institution. It is an institution not made of brick or glass. It did not cost millions of dollars or come to the Jewel via an artist’s workshop or an architect’s drawing board. This institution is home-grown and exists in the form of three jovial ladies who have lived and worked in La Jolla for so long that they have become an important part of the community.

Ruth, Bettie and Clem are known to many of their customers jointly as The Burns Drugs Ladies. Ruth Mills is 84, Bettie Clifford is 83 and Clemence Bush, the baby of the bunch, is 82. Between them, the Burns Drugs Ladies have almost 250 years of life experience, and together they represent more than 60 years of serving La Jolla in one of Girard Avenue’s older stores.

While the three amusing octogenarians are great colleagues and friends, don’t try to imply they are interchangeable.

“We are all individuals,” asserted Clifford. “We’re all characters.”

Each lady has worked at Burns Drugs for more than 15 years. Mills has been there for twice that. They look and sound healthy as can be and seem far younger than their 80-something years.

The Burns Drugs Ladies attribute their youthfulness to staying active and adhering to a strong work ethic.

“That’s what keeps us young, is working,” said Bush.

“You have to get up and go to work,” chimed in Clifford.

In the time they have been here, the ladies have seen La Jolla change in a number of ways. Bigger stores have replaced smaller ones, Girard has become stuffed with brand names, where once family stores held sway. And computers have come into their working lives, whether they like it or not.

“I don’t even own a microwave,” said Bush.

Clifford does not have an answering machine and clearly doesn’t want one.

“Change doesn’t make you happy,” said Clifford as she described how La Jolla has turned from a small village into a bustling community and an essential stop on the tourist trail.

But, the people of La Jolla haven’t changed much, the ladies said, and the loyal customers of the independent store keep them coming back to work year in, year out.

“That’s why I stayed so many years,” said Mills, “the nice people, the people I worked with. It was more of a family set-up, rather than just going to work and then coming home. For years, it’s been something I look forward to.”

Clifford says that 90 percent of her customers are wonderful people, and she won’t give up her job for some time, despite the fact that she has two artificial hips. But, she has no time for complainers.

“These whiners that come to work these days,” she said, rolling her eyes, “saying ‘Oh, I’ve got such a headache.’ ”

La Jolla’s terrific weather makes outdoor sports, like soccer, a way of life for some. And there can’t be many soccer fans here who have not come across Brian McManus.

The sprightly Scotsman with the swept-back, gray hair has been one of the driving forces behind soccer in the Jewel since moving here in 1985. In his nearly 20 years of service with the UCSD Tritons and the La Jolla Nomads, McManus has built both teams into forces to be reckoned with.

Brian’s wife Sandra McManus has her own local history. Since moving to La Jolla with her husband and son, she has become a mainstay at the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club where she has worked as a waitress for 17 years.

With his easy manner and instant geniality, Brian McManus has taught thousands of La Jolla’s youngsters to enjoy the game of soccer, and has made many rise to fulfill their full potential.

While her husband works the fields of Torrey Pines, Sandra McManus has been busy serving, entertaining, meeting and making friends with those people she meets at the Beach and Tennis Club.

Sandra McManus has seen the rich, the famous and the everyday people of La Jolla come and go. She watches children grow up and bring their own children to the club. The hard-working Englishwoman, described by colleagues as a firecracker, has relished every moment in her adopted hometown.

What is so striking about the McManuses is their enthusiasm and their undying love of La Jolla and its people.

“Hey, you’re in heaven here,” said Brian McManus, who hails from southern Scotland. “Other places might be more moved to the Jewel from elsewhere and have made this their home. Through a combination of hard work, diligence and a devout compassion for their adopted hometown, they have become characters in their own right.

Peter Ballantyne has the look of a rocker come clean, a surfer-turned Samaritan, a party animal turned philanthropist. His long hair has gone and, these days, his beard has been reduced to a smallish soul patch, which adorns his bottom lip. A twinkle in his eye shows even a casual observer that his spirit is as fiery as ever.

“He’s always, in terms of the Firehouse, completely dedicated to this place, painting the walls and doing things he should probably hire people to do, he’s doing himself,” said Rachel Bell, a member of Ballantyne’s staff. “He’s really not afraid to be himself. You’ve got some guy in a suit walking in here, and Peter’s got his sweat pants on, painting and paint all over him. And he just couldn’t care less.”

In a little less than two years, Ballantyne and his staff have worked to completely transform the YMCA Firehouse on Herschel Avenue. Where once cobwebs and dust adorned the walls and floors of the 70-year-old building, now the walls glisten with fresh paint, and the doors gleam from new lacquer and careful cleaning.

“When I got here, there hadn’t been much activity except for a few random parties and the group fitness classes for two or three years. ...” said Ballantyne. “It really took five or six months to clean out the facility of things that weren’t needed and actually physically clean the place.”

As well as working tirelessly at the Firehouse, Ballantyne is seldom to be found loafing. He plays bass guitar in two bands, who perform “from Oceanside to Chula Vista.” He is president-elect of the Torrey Pines Kiwanis, helping to organize and raise money for a number of activities benefiting physically disabled San Diegans. He helps with the swim team at the local high school and, on top of all that, he coaches his son’s baseball team.

Ballantyne echoes the views of the McManuses, saying that La Jollans seem to have a very strong commitment to their community.

“I would definitely agree that there is a very good sense of community here. ...” said Ballantyne. “It’s a beautiful little seaside town, and I sense a stronger community knowledge and esprit de corps.”

Ballantyne moved to La Jolla two years ago with a plan. He saw enormous potential in the Firehouse building, and was determined to turn what was an ailing institution into a flagship center for the arts and entertainment. With his determination and his unique character, he has made his vision a reality.