Bob McPhail 9:30 a.m., Sept. 3
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Tales of the Palms Hotel - Living in Downtown San Diego circa 1978 to 1982
Tales of the Palms Hotel - Living in Downtown San Diego circa 1978 to 1982
On arriving in SD in 1978, eighteen and on my own for the first time, I rented a room at the Palms Hotel on 12th and Island, which at the time was the floppiest of downtown flophouses.
Today, the Palms is an upscale, brightly-renovated dorm, across from condos, but back then it was a bleak and faded roach farm. I took below photos of the Palms 25 years apart – 1979, and 2004:
For $75 a month, I got a second-story broom closet just big enough to fit a twin size bed, with maybe 12 inches of clearance, on one side only --- to get out of bed, I had to push open the door and step into the hallway.
...until I ended up in the most prized room of all: a top floor corner wraparound “suite,” with an actual alcove bedroom (okay, a converted closet), an in-room sink (slash-toilet), multiple bay windows overlooking the Coronado bridge (and a DeTox center), and my own private balcony and exterior entrance (okay, it was just a fire escape, but I USED it as a balcony and alternate doorway).
This multi-part blog series TALES OF THE PALMS HOTEL is the story of both the (formerly grand) Hotel, as well as the people who came and went through this misbegotten Island of Misfit Toys during my time there (1978 – 1982) ----
Built by Pennsylvania oil and lumber magnate Joseph V. Collins, the three story wood structure was once known as the Bay View Hotel, referenced in an 1874 city directory.
Wyatt Earp and his third wife Josie reportedly stayed in a second floor corner suite at the Palms Hotel in 1887, while operating gambling saloons near 4th and Broadway. When builder Collins died in 1913, the Hotel was sold and renamed the Palms, for the giant Queen Palm trees breaking out of the perimeter sidewalks on all four sides of the building (the upper branches housing what sounded like half a billion noisy birds whose cacophonous chirping at sunrise and sunset could drown out a jackhammer).
In 1972, the Hotel was purchased for $200,000 by a consortium of developers, tho little if anything was done to improve or even upkeep the property.
When I first landed in that cavernous lobby circa 1978, the Hotel’s sweeping curved staircase, faded but still magnificent, rose from a decrepit entrance room so infested with roaches that you could hear them skittering around inside the lobby’s coffin-sized console television – even when the TV was on.
(Palms lobby 1979) The rooms, once good sized, were subdivided into many smaller units for maximum rentals; daily, weekly, and monthly. Bigger rooms came with their own semi-antique furniture, and a small handful even had those working sinks. I was greeted each morning by the smell of the bakery behind the hotel, where a lot of us scavenged still-eatables from the trash bins. For awhile, I was also greeted each morn by a stream of yellow urine raining down past my window. It seemed the guy in the room above me preferred to piss out his window rather than walk to the (frequently unspeakable) communal bathroom that all residents of each floor had to share.
(Aztec Theater on 5th & G in 1979 - I worked here and at the nearby Casino Theater while living at the Palms)
Beezley’s pub next door was one of those long-gone Dives of the Damned. It was a popular hangout for the homeless and destitute, thanks to a daily “happy hour” Swedish meatball buffet and lavish holiday spreads courtesy of some local volunteer group or other, maybe the Salvation Army or a church. I never really picked up the details – all I knew was that there were only so many things one could do with dry pinto beans and ketchup packets, so I was always hungry and always appreciative of Beezley’s buffet.
Beezley's was a very rough place, probably the seediest bar I've ever frequented - since I knew most everyone, I usually felt fairly safe, but it was NOT the kind of place a stranger would just drop into and relax. A lot of bikers openly did drug transactions there, and there were countless stolen cars, motorcycles, and even bicycles always being found in the parking lot between the Palms and the back of the bar. Back there, it was literally junkie central - dangerous to walk thru without getting mugged, stepping on needles or feces, and/or worse ----
In the movie, a junkie runs up the stairs and bangs on the door of room 31, screaming “Where’s my fix?!?”
The whole time I lived in that room, every single night, SOMEbody in the Hotel would pound on my door and scream that. Often several somebodys. I still hate that movie. But I’ll get to the day Chuck Norris visited the Palms later….
FIRST - SOME PEOPLE OF THE PALMS
Writer Guy: Okay, he was really more Reader Guy, always with paperbacks hanging out his pockets, even while already reading a hardcover in the downstairs TV lobby. He claimed he was a writer, and he certainly didn’t lack for instructional reference, since his room was essentially decorated, furnished, and all-but-built of books. Shelves and stacks of ‘em everywhere, just a mountain of literature, and almost nothing else in sight that wasn’t printed and bound. A big sci-fi fan – especially Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick - he rarely left the hotel.
During the 1979 earthquake, Writer Guy was almost crushed beneath his beloved books – at least that’s what he told me minutes after the tremor subsided, when he came across me standing in the parking lot of the DeTox center, completely nude. I was nude because I’d been sleeping undressed when the quake hit, and had jumped down my fire escape as-is ---------
Writer Guy’s detachment from the outside world was such that he never once seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, that I was naked. Or maybe that wasn’t uncommon in the DeTox lot ----
Matty, aka Old Guy With a Car: Must’ve been in his 70s, with a rickety old Volvo that he’d rent out for $20 per night. He’d lower it to $10 if you were willing to take him along for an epic array of errands, since he was no longer allowed to drive -----
Deke the (not-so-secretly-gay) biker, with his handlebar mustache, porn star/male prostitute roommate, and always with his pocketful of Quaaludes -----
There was also Norm, the mentally disabled guy who was also the legal ward of the woman who owned the hotel ---
Donald, the perpetually drunk but frequently fascinating raconteur and storyteller ---
Ace, the ex-con shoplifter with anger management issues and a room full of busted stolen property ---
Jerry the King of Cans (recycling), who was later one of the subjects of a Reader cover feature on homeless locals (not written by me – I just opened the paper one day, and there was Jerry, who I hadn’t heard from in 20 years) ---
And Tom the Drunk, aka “Other Tom,” who once shot a gun out his room window and ended up in critical condition from the beating cops subsequently gave him.
Honorable Mention must also be given to Chico, the Mexican guy who taught me all those recipes for pinto beans, which helped keep me alive some weeks. He didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish, but one night he caught a whiff of something or other that I was destroying on my hotplate. He knocked on my room door, and proceeded to change, enrich, and almost surely prolong my life, thanks to that homely bag of penny legumes he introduced me to ------
Chico was murdered in his room a year or so later, around 1981. His room on the second floor was one of the more enviable living spaces in the Hotel, but at first nobody wanted to move in. The murder was unsolved (and remains so, as far as I know), and there was still fingerprint dust on various spots all over the place. I was anxious to move up to a bigger room myself, so I ended up taking it ---
Another Hotel murder took place February 6th, 1982, downstairs on the ground floor in room 5. Arthur Casbere, age 52, was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed, dying of injuries to his head and torso.
Someone had poured a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes all over his bloody face – the empty box sat nearby.
I was contacted last year by a relative of Mr. Casbere looking into the murder. I’m not sure if I was much help to him.
I remember room 5 was on the first floor, immediately behind a stairwell with kind of a semi-private entrance because the door was in a cul-de-sac you wouldn't see unless you wandered behind the stairs for some reason (which few did, since it looked like a dead end wall).
In the late '70s, one of the Hotel employees lived in room 5, but I don't know about in 1982. It was a bit bigger than most rooms at the Palms, and I'm fairly sure it had the same sort of alcove/closet as I had in the third floor corner room.
The official account of the murder indicates the killer may have been a former Hotel resident who’d been recently evicted, but then let in after-hours by the night clerk, George Moore. According to Moore, the night visitor carried a baseball bat from the front lobby into room 5.
28 years later, I still have a couple of problems with this scenario ---
Y'see, the night clerk didn't really man the desk all night - most of the time, he was in a little room behind the desk, watching TV, or using the phone in the back of the lobby, out of sight of both the front and side entrance.
A small side entrance was on the same side of the hotel as the victim's room. The night manager only emerged if someone showed up thru the FRONT door and walked up to the desk and rang his bell – sometimes, it took a LOT of effort to get him to emerge! Sometimes, he never did --- who knows if he was even on the premises all night.
There were a ton of ways to enter the Palms besides the front door into the lobby, and any former resident would know this - numerous fire escapes opened onto each floor, and back then fire escapes went all the way to the street and were easy to climb from outside. There weren't even doors atop some of the fire escapes, just doorways wide open to the halls and room doors.
Hell, a lot of hotel residents came and went via those fire escapes more than they went thru the doors, especially when sneaking overnight guests in ----
I would think a former hotel resident -- entering the hotel with the INTENT of doing a crime --- could and would do so without going thru that big front lobby, let alone checking in first with an oft-elusive night clerk.
The fingerprints on the box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes belonged to a man named William Barry. Earlier on the eve of the murder, Barry had been taken by police to the DeTox center across from the Hotel. He’d been evicted from the Hotel a few nights earlier – after the murder, some of Barry’s belongings were found stored in room 5.
Later in 1982, former Hotel resident Barry -- along with an accomplice – pleaded “Guilty” to voluntary manslaughter in a plea-bargained deal. According to research done by the aforementioned relative of the victim, Barry served his time, but landed in prison again on other matters, before himself dying in March 1999.
The lives led by the many singular souls whose living ghosts haunted the Palms may never be chronicled anywhere, anytime, outside of maybe some old welfare records, or on the backs of old family photos that nobody in the family can identify any more. I’d like to rectify this to some extent with my own Tales of the Palms Hotel. Such as…
THE NIGHT “OTHER TOM” SHOT A GUN OUT HIS WINDOW
My roommate Tom and I, along with some friends, were visiting Other Tom in his double-wide batcave, up on the top floor. Everyone was watching a TV movie about the early days of the Beatles, when suddenly Other Tom, the one who lived in that room, the one who’d been drinking hard liquor for the better part of the day, took out a pistol and fired it out the hotel room window!
Shocked, we all jumped up and looked out the window – down on the street below, in front of the Detox Center next door, there was a police car, with a very upset looking cop kneeling down behind the vehicle and pointing a pistol straight up at us!!
We all ran around freaking out and bumping into each other like the cast of Benny Hill to “Yakety Sax,” with everyone yelling stuff at Other Tom, like “What the fck?!” and “Hide the gun!” and “What the fck, hide the gun!!”
This probably went on for a few moments, until suddenly the entire world outside the Hotel room seemed to be made of cop lights.
The Beatles movie blinked off the TV, and a news reporter was announcing that a sniper had taken a shot at police, from a third story room at the Palms Hotel. I looked out the window once again, to be greeted with the sight of a BUNCH of cops, all ducking down behind their vehicles and pointing a myriad of weaponry up at me.
I stopped looking out the window.
Instead, I watched TV, which showed police and S.W.A.T. methodically evacuating all the other rooms in the hotel. They were leaving the third floor, and then the room we were in, for last.
Other Tom was all but passed-out drunk. Someone had a bit of weed, and we smoked every last flake while we waited. What else could we do?
Finally came the dreaded knock, and one of us slowly – V-E-R-Y slowly – pulled open the door, the rest of us instinctively standing in chain-gang formation and holding our hands halfway to heaven…..
Looking back now, it seems comical to me, the way my memory conjures up hundreds of guns and gunners, stacked like firewood in all directions, up and down the halls and stairs, filling up every molecule of my vision.
There were probably only a dozen or so gunmen, but it seemed to me – and still seems – like an army of armament.
When police asked Roommate Tom his name, and he unwisely told them, they immediately thought HE was the shooter, having gotten Other Tom’s name from the night clerk. Poor guy was on the ground and smothered in cop before anybody could yell “No, not THAT Tom!”
His terrified shouts echoed down the hallway, as they dragged his still-struggling form out of our sight…
Luckily for Tom, once the actual shooter was in custody, he was eventually questioned downstairs and released. Bad luck/good luck, that was the story of Tom’s life.
Remember that glum old “World’s Worst Jinx” dude from the Li’l Abner cartoons, the one who always had a little black thundercloud following him everywhere? Tom was like that. He had the worst luck – and the BEST luck – of anyone I’ve ever known.
My first California roommate – heck, my first roomie anywhere, besides my brother at home – shared a studio apartment with me on Abbott Street, a block from Ocean Beach. It was 1979, both of us were fairly new to CA, and neither of us had a job.
But, somehow, we conned the morbidly obese and decidedly un-beach-like landlord into letting us move in. After fashioning makeshift furniture out of cloth-covered boxes and plentiful (and fanciful!) debris from the alleys of OB, we stocked up on paper plates and plastic utensils from the nearby Roberto’s and went out a-job-hunting.
At 24, Tom was about five years older than me. One of his favorite things to do was drop LSD. His VERY favorite thing to do was to give OTHER people LSD, ideally for the first time, and then guide them thru that first mind-expanding “trip.”
Now this may sound groovy and generous, and maybe even a bit shamanistic, at least for OB circa 1979; The Black, the Strand Theatre, Arcade Records, the OB Ranger, the Spaceman, the People’s Food Store, Dog Beach, Postmen in ponytails, Grunion orgies in the sand, and all that ----
But Tom only did it to completely f--ck with people’s minds.
He’d wait for the tripper – usually closer to my age than his – to be halfway past Saturn, to be one step away from melting into the cardboard furniture. Then, he’d put on this twisted Bloodrock song, “D.O.A.”, with a car accident victim screaming in pain for what seemed like hours of sonic agony, at least to Tom’s poor bummin’ buddies.
OR -- he’d pretend to break an egg over the tripper’s head, popping a handclap just behind their skull, and then dusting his victim’s ears with fluttering fingers, intended to feel like embryonic goo dripping down the sides of their tingly, trippin’ faces... you begin to see the pattern?
At least twice, he pulled out a starter pistol loaded with so-called blanks, and fired it inches from someone’s face. A LOT closer than the blank pistol that killed Brandon Lee…yeah, I know, “with friends like these….”
Tom’s frequent acts of psychedelic terrorism were always topped with percussive bursts of hysterical, maniacal laughter, which sounded for all the world like those old Disney cartoons where Goofy is falling off a cliff, or getting catapulted through the air, or being violently pulled by a rope right out of his water-skiing harness.
Now about that little black cloud; Tom was always narrowly escaping the most dire of circumstances.
Once, while tripping and driving, he rolled his car completely over, only to land back on the road, unscathed, still able to drive it. He said he was trying to avoid a rabbit (real or imagined, nobody can say – he was alone). The car doors were mostly inoperable, and the vehicle sagged on one side like an elephant had sat on it, but both he and car lived to tell.
Something about Tom was always ticking off cops. We were at an outdoor Elton John concert once, in the middle of the afternoon, standing in a nearly empty section of obstructed view seats, partway behind the stage. It was the Fourth of July, 1976, and we wanted to toss some firecrackers somewhere with no people around. We were both simultaneously lighting our respective munitions, literally holding flame to fuse, when alluvasudden two cops jumped on Tom and began dragging him up the stairs, toward a nearby tunnel exit!
Elton John Shaffer Stadium July 4, 1976
I just stood there, astonished, agape and aghast, as Tom and his cop captors vanished from view – I was probably still holding the lit lighter in one hand and the firecracker in the other. To this day, I’m dumbfounded as to how and why Tom got dragged off, while I was virtually ignored. His little black cloud.
And YET, a few hours later, he showed up back at our seats, down on the field, several bands into the multi-band show, but still in time to catch Elton dressed as the Statue of Liberty. They’d taken him off the property without arresting him, and he somehow (I was never clear on how) found his way back and re-entered the venue
One more example of Tom’s omnipresent personal thundercloud –
We had seats to the Richard Pryor concert in L.A. that was filmed for the later “Sunset Strip” movie. By most later accounts, it was one of the peak performances ever, by one of the most amazing comics of our time, returning to the stage after recovering from a devastating freebase cocaine explosion. We didn’t know where our seats were; we just piled into Tom’s car and headed up.
I won’t bother recounting all the obstacles we faced, with our favorite Psychedelic Sociopath in charge of transportation. Other than maybe comparing it to playing the old Rube Goldberg “Mousetrap” game, but minus half the moving parts needed to make that tiny cage drop onto the little mouse….suffice to say, the night was filled with typical Tom troubles.
When we finally walked into the Hollywood Palladium, Pryor was already onstage. The usher began leading us toward our seats, taking us closer and closer to the stage, until we found ourselves just a few rows from the great man himself! Happy happy, joy joy! Bad luck getting here, sher, but look at these effin seats!
Praise be whatever unlucky deity is charged with watching over fools such as we!!
We took off our coats, we sat down, we flashed each other grins of Cheshire Cat proportions, we began settling in…
…and Richard Pryor said goodnight.
Typical Tom trip. That cloud, don’tcha know.
Tom and I had trouble making the rent in OB. I was giving blood and plasma several times a week, all over town, scrubbing the fluorescent marks from my wrist each time to circumvent their attempt to keep me from bleeding too often. At only ten bucks a pop, the blood thing wasn’t helping much.
Without even money for razors, I was so unshaven, so thin, so full of holes in my arms, and so perpetually dizzy from loss of blood, people must have thought I was either a junkie or a badly diabetic Hassid.
I ended up moving out, to live at the Palms, as I had once before. Tom moved into a North Park place that eventually became Meth Central, for countless smelly and scabby roommates.
Tom’s bad luck with police eventually got him busted again, for dealing meth out of his apartment. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Then – LUCKily –they sent him to a fence-less federal prison in Boron, where the inmates lived in converted dorm buildings, often getting to leave for weekend furloughs.
Except – UNluckily – the prison was on the site of a former nuclear testing facility. Little black cloud.
Almost every time I think of Tom, I still picture it, hovering over his head, lightning bolts flashing down around his ears and framing his face, like the make-believe egg goo he’d pretend to drip onto unsuspecting trippers.
(More old Palms pics, plus a 1980 shot of the front window at long-gone Arcade Records, which used to be in the bottom floor of the Maryland Hotel – run by Dave Hakola and with another branch in OB for awhile, it’s where I first began building up an album collection that eventually topped out at over 7,000 LPs, taking up more space than the entire floor area of my first few rooms at the Palms.)
(The shot of me drinking with a young lady friend is from the photo booth at Funland, a game oasis once located on Broadway near the YMCA)
At the Palms, I wound up renting the same room the OTHER Tom shot his gun out of; he apparently got roughed up in jail and developed gangrene, among other ailments, passing away a few months later. Once again, nobody in the hotel wanted to live in a dead guy’s room. Except me. Never did believe in ghosts...
Besides, I was feeling lucky. Tom was no longer my roomie
THE DAY CHUCK NORRIS CAME TO THE PALMS (and Jennifer O’Neal, too!!)
‘Kay, so A Force of One is a Chuck Norris/Jennifer O’Neal thriller with Chuck kicking ass all over downtown San Diego, circa 1979. Some shots were done on
One notable scene was filmed at the Palms. Chuck and Jennifer walk into the lobby, and Chuck wants to do some tough talking at the front desk, at the bottom of the staircase. Jennifer instead applies a little charm (as much as the glacial Jennifer O'Neal can exude charm, anyway, which isn't a whole lotta).
The street level lobby – which was usually filled with senior citizens watching the already-ancient TV – was lit to highlight the dreadful worn-out walls AND some of the very same Hotel denizens, sitting on the couch benches (like converted bus benches), staring at the tube.
I remember there was quite a lot of residents who wanted the “role,” not so much to be in the movie but for the $50 fee. The old guy who used to rent me his car was in the scene – he used the $50 to get his OWN rent-to-own TV for his dinky third floor room, which needed a cleanup just to make room for set.
In the movie, Chuck and Jen then head up the grand staircase maze.
Note the poor wall "repairs," with masking tape over the cracks and red-painted in various colors that don't even come close to matching the wall paint. So, the duo makes their way into a room (later to be MY room)...
...and Chuck kicks some serious druggie ass.
On the day of the film shoot, Norris and O’Neal were seen walking around outside a lot, being very cordial to anyone who wanted to talk to them. Which wasn’t that many people – the majority of hotel residents seemed unaware or uncaring about who they were and what they were doing. They just grumbled about having to go in and out thru the back door and not having lobby access for the 15-or-so hour shoot.
The one hotel pay phone was in the lobby, and thus off limits all day – that was the real pisser for most of the residents --- that, and Beasely’s being closed to the public and used as a roach wagon for the film crew and talent instead.
When A Force of One came out in theaters, I went to my own beloved Casino Theater on 5th to see it with Jerry the King of Cans and old Donald the drinker, the only time I recall ever seeing Donald outside the Hotel other than going to and from Beasely’s.
We cheered like soccer hooligans during the Palms scene.
I didn’t remember another thing about the flick until screening the DVD recently, to pull screenshots for this blog ---
(Fritz Jensen of the band Collage Menage plays with my Etch-A-Sketch at the Palms, circa 1981 – the band is still together, and in fact they’re appearing at the Overheard and Famous in San Diego art gallery opening on March 29th…)
MORE TALES OF THE PALMS HOTEL TO BE CONTINUED……….
Related blog: “Before It Was the Gaslamp” includes my article “Last of the All Nighters,” an exhaustive account of working at those downtown all-night movie theaters in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s ---
"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" - Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters, for the owner of the Pussycat Theatre chain, Vince Miranda - this detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc.
More like this:
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- The History of Comic Books In San Diego: The ‘90s — Sept. 22, 2008
- Painting Rock Stars, plus Behind the Scenes: Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors — May 8, 2008
- Frank Zappa Comics And Stories, plus Top 5 Lists, Fallen Pinoy Idol — Nov. 10, 2007
- The Birth of Image Comics - An Illustrated History — Sept. 3, 2007