A Spartan existence is a tiny cottage a block from the Imperial Beach pier doesn’t bother Dana Clark. Nor does the mattress on the floor that covers a third of his living space; he’s never cared much for beds anyway. His ironical self-description is an “educated derelict.”
Clark is a former city attorney for Imperial Beach. Now he’s helping to mobilize his fellow beachies to fight yet another round against the big developers, who have long cast eyes upon this funky-and-proud-of-it community that sits in the southwestern corner of the proletariat South Bay.
But saving the beach with his Stop High Rise Committee is not what he wants to talk about right now. Instead, he tells me how he became enamored of horse race betting. “It was about five years ago, when a friend asked me to accompany him to Las Vegas. It seems he had a foolproof roulette system he wanted to try out. After a few boring hours of watching him play, I drifted over to the race book. This was my first experience of horse racing, watching the races on the television monitors from all over the country. I became fascinated by the numbers flashing on the tot board, the disparities between the exact odds and the raw odds. I was hooked, and when I later learned how to handicap the horses, the hook went in deeper.” When Clark went back to the casino to check on his friend, the fellow had disappeared. “Vanished. Not in his room, not at the hospitals or police stations, nowhere. His daughter mounted a search for him with no success. Curious.”
A stack of Racing Forms is piled high in a corner. “I go through these all the time, doing research. The search for a winning method is the modern version of the knightly quest for the Holy Grail. I like the analogy; once, long ago, someone told me I’d make a good priest.”
Clark is currently unemployed. No problem, as he needs only $700 a month to survive and can return anytime to one of the telemarketing jobs he keeps to make enough to live on. This allows him the leisure to pursue a recent entrepreneurial concept, born of his short career as an attorney.
“A lot of paralegals are feeling the heat from attorneys,” he explains, “over what exactly is the ‘practice of law.’ My idea is to make a series of videotapes explaining in detail how to divorce a mate, sue a landlord, and the like. When the paralegal brings his client to this delicate point, he shoves my tape in the VCR. Good for the general public too.” The California Bar Association had him suspended from the practice of law for nonpayment of state bar dues in 1982, but he doesn’t think that’s a problem for the video enterprise.
Saving the public from the lawyers, however, has to wait for the outcome of the “Yes on F” campaign. Clark is one of the founders of an anti-development group that wants to limit building heights to a maximum of 40 feet.
“What to do with the beach in terms of land use has always been just about the only political issue of any importance in Imperial Beach. In the past six months the developers have been panting to build huge condo developments [at Ebony Avenue and Ocean Lane] and also a 13-story hotel [at Palm Avenue and Seacoast Drive]. This is the issue in this town. Fundamentally, it never changes.” As he speaks, a neighbor stops by to hunt around the clutter for a “Yes on F” poster. He tells her the supply is temporarily depleted.
Clark came to roost in Imperial Beach by way of a zigzag course through his home town of Los Angeles, where he was born 50 years ago. There was a stint in the Marine Corps, a degree in zoology from UCLA, and finally, at age 35, a law degree from Western State University. After practicing law for a few years in IB, he was urged by the city council to accept the post of city attorney. That was in 1980.
“I think I rubbed the city council the wrong way from the start. They thought I wanted to politicize everything. I was in the job less than a year when some issue came up – I can’t now remember what it was – but I told a Star News reporter that trying to talk to the city council was like talking to a bunch of grapes. At the next luncheon that all the city attorneys in the area used to go to, I was presented with the first Golden Grape award. And, of course, the city decided not to renew my contract.”
This was fine with Clark, because by this time the traditional pursuit of the American Dream was wearing a bit thin on him anyway. He savors time rather than the material things, and last summer when he made a big score at the Del Mar Racetrack, he stopped by St. Vincent de Paul on the way home and gave Father Joe Carroll most of his winnings.
Clark points out that he isn’t typical of his co-workers; he’s one of the few people active in the fight to limit development in the area who is not also a property owner. But he does allow that “the area around here probably has a high percentage of unreconstructed hippies from the ‘60s. Like me, most of them aren’t just looking at the familiar bottom line, the money issue. There are other values. But even on that level, no one talks about the need for more services – and thus more taxes – to pay for things like roads and sewage that more people create. And hotel development will probably close off a lot of the streets that lead right up to the beach, one of the things many visitors like most about IB. This beach belongs as much to people from Otay or La Mesa as it does to me.”