Walter Mencken 3:39 p.m., June 18
Tales of the Palms Hotel: Late '70s/early '80s Gaslamp, plus Local Website Review: CityVibz
Urban Entertainment Guide, plus "Humanure Art Show" inspired by Cattle Decapitation
TALES OF THE PALMS HOTEL - More Lost Gaslamp Tales, circa late '70s/early '80s
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) ----
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. 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, because 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 - this is where I worked while living at the Palms)
Beezeley’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 Beezeley’s buffet.
One room I lived in was used for a scene in the movie A Force of One, with Chuck Norris, filmed in SD. In the movie, a junkie runs up the stairs and bangs on the door of room 352, screaming “Where’s my fix?!?” The whole time I lived in that room, every night, SOMEbody in the Hotel would pound on my door and scream that. Often several somebodys. I still hate that movie.
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 ----
Chico, the Mexican guy who taught me all those recipes for pinto beans, which helped keep me alive some weeks, even after he was murdered in his room a year or so later. He didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak any Spanish, but one night he caught a whiff of something I was destroying on my hotplate, knocked on my room door, and proceeded to change, enrich, and almost surely prolong my life, thanks to the homely bag of penny legumes he introduced me to ------
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 Can Recycling, who was later one of the subjects of a Reader cover feature on homeless locals, and Tom the Drunk, who once shot a gun out his room window and ended up dying from the beating cops subsequently gave him (see story excerpt below). And many others. I’ve bumped into a few fellow Palm-ers over the years, and can provide a few updates on them -----
The lives led by many of these singular souls may never be chronicled anywhere, anytime, outside of maybe some old welfare records, a couple of family photos that nobody in the family can identify any more, and perhaps within my Tales of the Palms Hotel ---- such as this one:
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 up toward 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…
(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)
TALES OF THE PALMS HOTEL - PART TWO
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.
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.
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.
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. Nobody in the hotel wanted to live in a dead guy’s room. But I needed a place to live – a cheap place – pretty bad.
Besides, I was feeling lucky. Tom was no longer my roomie
(TO BE CONTINUED)
NEXT INSTALLMENT: “CHUCK NORRIS & JENNIFER O’NEIL VISIT THE PALMS TO SHOOT SCENES FOR ‘A FORCE OF ONE’”
URLwatching LOCAL WEBSITE REVIEW - CityViz<p>Cityvibz.com features "urban entertainment guides" with recreation and restaurant directories for about two dozen U.S. cities, including San Diego.
According to the mainpage, "CityVibz is about discovering the perfect nightclub or bar, something unique, or eclectic, or just up your neighborhood...[finding] a sightseeing tour that is all about you, discovering the arts including music, dance, theatre, and visual arts."
The project was launched by two "consulting industry" experts, Nirav Shah and Dale Pope, after the duo found few nightlife guides while working for firms in California. "We realized that people like to know what’s going on in their city. They want to know popular places to dance, to drink, to dine, to see live music, but they are also interested in looking for those unique, offbeat, and eclectic places that are hard to find."
Selecting a club category reveals a list of venues judged to fit broad definitions like college, Latin, pool hall, all ages, comedy, eclectic, pub crawl, Asian, live music, sports, brew pub, cruises, lounge, tavern, cabaret, dance club, cigar bar, gentlemen/adult, neighborhood pub, theme, dinner/dancing, Irish, offbeat, wine bar, house, dinner/music, karaoke and piano bar.
Browsing the "San Diego" section paints a surreal picture of the city's nightlife. Not necessarily inaccurate - just amusingly selective.
Clicking "after hours" results yields a sobering message reading "Sorry, no bars/clubs found of type after hours." Apparently, all those dusk till dawn raves you thought you attended were contact-high hallucinations due to close proximity to X-addled teenyboppers.
By the same token, our city also lacks any venues catagorizable as "gay," "lesbian," or featuring a "drag revue," which must come as some surprise to dozens of Hillcrest business owners and patrons. Someone in Toronto cybersluething in advance of a visit to our fair city would think us a dull lot indeed.
The site lists several clubs that are now closed – some for years. Another weird glitch happens when you click on “Music,” to open a page upcoming concert events. At this writing, all the concerts that pop up are happening at the House Of Blues…in Cleveland.
I know most HOBs are indistinguishable from each other...unless you're in Anaheim, which is now a heavy metal-free zone, by order of King Mouse...but is it possible those wacky webmeisters running this site don’t know the difference between San Diego and Cleveland?!?
TODAY'S COOL LOCAL VIDEO: Here's "Humanure: The Art Show," inspired by the veggies-no-meat music of our own Cattle Decapitation:
Like this blog? Here are some related links:
OVERHEARD IN SAN DIEGO - Several years' worth of this comic strip, which debuted in the Reader in 1996: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/overheard-san-diego/
FAMOUS FORMER NEIGHBORS - Over 100 comic strips online, with mini-bios of famous San Diegans: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/photos/galleries/famous-former-neighbors/
SAN DIEGO READER MUSIC MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/sandiegoreadermusic
JAY ALLEN SANFORD MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/jayallensanford