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South of Broadway: The Pigeons in Horton Plaza

Now there's an Issue the City Council could agree on

“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away. - Image by Alex Farnsley
“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away.

Oh, a few old ladies will always be scattering birdseed, but most of our voters realize that pigeons just don’t belong here. They simply aren’t San Diego. Did you ever see one on the beach, for instance, or in a suburban shopping center? Those bright pink feet, that officious waddle-preposterous!

Doc Webb’s special pride is a tattoo—a painting, really—he once did on a sailor’s back, an epic battle between a gigantic squid and an octopus.

A pigeon is a big-city, back-alleyway bird. Living on handouts. Not even a pretty song. A messy nuisance. Let's clean up Horton Plaza!

While we're at it, let's take a look at the human inhabitants-they're as bad as the pigeons, cluttering the area south of Broadway with their card rooms, two-buck hotels, porno bookstores. Let's clean them out, and make the area “harmonize" with beautiful downtown San Diego...

It’s only four o’clock, but already there’s a two-bit pool hustler at the rear table, looking tough, playing fast and hard-and inaccurately. He winces whenever the door is opened. Daylight hurts his eyes.

Down the block a clerk is leaning against the counter of the empty porno shop, chewing his cigar and glaring at the street. A black girl passes by, wearing an afro with a vivid orange strip angling back from her forehead. The clerk shouts something after her, and they both laugh -but as she turns away, her eyes are cold. Above their heads, the naked neon lady keeps blinking on and off.

No doubt about it, this isn’t a “nice” neighborhood.

South of Broadway on 4th and 5th Streets, Old Doc Webb’s is about the only place you’ll find much action on a Friday afternoon. When we get there Doc Webb is bending over a customer’s arm, wiping away the blood and ink. Underneath, a peacock is beginning to take shape over the faded old tattoo, and “the Doc” nods in satisfaction as he squeezes out his sponge in a sink of murky water. “We’ll color it in some now,” he says, switching to a blue needle.

He could hardly have a more enthusiastic customer than this bald little man. Parts of other tattoos are visible on his other arm and at his throat; Doc Webb did them all. “The Doc’s the only one I trust-did he tell you about his tattooing machine? Solid gold, see here? It’s the world’s finest. That thing is worth between four and five thousand dollars.’’

Doc Webb smiles with quiet pride. “Show them your other arm, Archie.’’

“Yeah-here’s one he did just this afternoon. It stopped bleeding so I took the bandage off.” Uh-doesn’t that hurt a little?

“Nah. This is where the fun comes in. Look close, now, and you’ll see the skin vibrate.’’

Another spectator, a shy kid with one pierced ear and a small gold cross for an earring, has crowded into the tiny shop. After looking over the hundreds of drawings on the wall, from modest hearts to six-inch serpents and sea monsters, he finally blurts out, “You got any swastikas?’’

“I dunno. Carol, do we have swastikas?”

Carol is evidently Mrs. Webb, a grandmotherly lady who’s been writing letters in one comer of the shop. “Oh, I’m sure we must - just a minute,” she says, readjusting her spectacles and going into the back room. She returns with a drawing of a swastika in red, outlined in black. It’s about the size of a fifty-cent piece. “How much?”

“Five dollars, honey, for this one?”

Doc Webb looks up from the peacock and nods, but the boy has gone. “Sometimes they get cold feet,” he shrugs.

What about your own tattoos—did you do them all yourself?

“I did all of ’em on my left arm and my legs, and most on my right arm. I’ve got 94, and I was only going to have one when I started.” His customer laughs, and so does Mrs. Webb. We wonder how many tattoos she’s got, but it doesn’t seem polite to ask. None of them are showing.

Doc Webb’s special pride is a tattoo—a painting, really—he once did on a sailor’s back, an epic battle between a gigantic squid and an octopus. We admire the photograph, but I can’t help adding that I hope the sailor never regrets it. “Regret it?” Mrs. Webb exclaims. “Why should he, a beautiful thing like that?”

Back in Horton Plaza, a man with three days’ worth of beard is staring intently into the fountain. Bright patterns from the sunlight on the water play across his face and his faded red sweater. He’s clutching the concrete rim of the fountain so tightly that I think he’s going to throw up, but he turns away instead and picks up a long piece of palm bark. Slowly and carefully, he probes the bottom of the pool with it. All I can see on the bottom are cigarette filters; the water is the color of weak tea, although a faint blue stripe around the surface indicates that the pool has once been painted.

“Hey—what are you doing?” asks a little girl. Her mother is waiting in line at the tourist information booth.

“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away, and he goes back to his probing. Soon he gives it up and drops the waterlogged bark into the fountain. He wanders off, not even a nickel richer.

“Aah, you shouldn’t pay any attention to those winos,” says Bob Johnson, owner of the Palace “Buffet,” a bar at 328 F Street. “They just sit in here all day and drink, waitin’ for their government checks.”

Bob Johnson has been in business south of Broadway since 1921, but he says not much has changed in the area “except the allmighty dollar. Back then, if you had a dollar in your pocket it was worth somethin’.” He used to own the Off-Broadway Theater next door, the last burlesque house on the West Coast, and “when it opened I paid $5 a week rent, and I took in $10 a night and thought it was good money. I paid the girls a dollar apiece, and put the rest in my pants pocket and took it home. Didn’t even have a safe. These days, goddamit, you need a bookkeeper to take care of your business, and the bookkeeper needs a bookkeeper.”

The walls of Johnson’s bar are covered with old photographs, hundreds of them, mostly autographed: movie stars, prizefighters, politicians, strippers, jockeys, baseball players. Dempsey with a punching bag in 1932; Dempsey with Gene Tunney in 1926. Sheba and her trained snake. Melody Lady riding a palomino, really bareback. Maureen Sills, the Governor’s daughter, in a review with Johnson’s daughter. “Maureen is coming to San Diego next week, and she always calls up and says hello.” The late afternoon sun reflects off the glass covering the pictures; dust dances in the air, and the faces seem to be staring out of another world. The bar is going to be affected by the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project, but Johnson is mostly concerned about his photographs. “I’ve got so many of them, I don’t know what I’ll do with them all,” he says, looking at his life up there on the walls. “So many pictures...”

There’s Johnson with Lili St. Cyr in 1948: “I gave her her first job as a stripper.” Chief Myers, a catcher for the N.Y. Giants in 1906—“He celebrated his 91st birthday last January, in that chair you’re sitting in.” Mildred Harrison and Lita Grey, Charlie Chaplin’s wives—“They didn’t do no strip, you understand. Just stood up and sang a few songs. That’s what burlesque was, mostly song and comedy routines. Nothin’ to it—it was all double entendre, you know, jokes with two meanings.”

Burlesque has been replaced by blue movies and bottomless dancers, and now “Johnny Carson and Dean Martin are using the same jokes on TV that we used on stage 40 years ago. It makes me sick.” Johnson doesn’t even approve of legitimate films anymore. “The last movie I saw, and I’m never gonna see another, was Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret.” I took my wife and daughter, and the first thing Liza Minnelli says is, ‘Do you want to get screwed?’ and then two minutes later she says, ‘Oh shit.’ Now, is that nice, or am I crazy?”

There’s a photograph of several hundred sailors waiting to buy tickets for the show in the late 40s, under a marquee reading “Vickie Evans-the girl in the Robert Mitchum case.” “That was when he got into trouble for dope, remember? No, of course you don’t—I’m old enough to be your grandfather.” Was there much dope in San Diego in those days? “No, I honestly don’t think so. Me, I still couldn’t tell you what a marijuana cigarette looks like, or whether heroin is a powder or a pill or what.”

Did his burlesque theater ever get in trouble with the law? “Nothin’ to speak of—oh, every once in a while the pasties might get a little too shriveled up. But it was nothin’ compared to what we’ve got on this street today.”

The street-level scene is familiar to any visiting sailor. The sleazy, slow-motion excitement of the card rooms. Hole-in-the-wall cafes with Jose Alfredo Jimenez on the juke box. Fundamentalists giving away checks from “The Bank of Eternal Life,” made out to Whosoever Believeth, and at least three shoe shine stands per block. After dark, the street bursts into neon, blinking and flashing, blinking and flashing, as garrish and overdone as an old whore’s makeup.

Above the blaze of signs, in two-dollar rooms with a sink in one comer and a long walk down the hall to the john, lonely men are spending another night staring at red and blue reflections on the ceiling. Golden West Hotel: the name itself is a mockery, a lurid joke…

The Golden West. At the edge of the continent, at the end of their lives, they've finally found it-in a room with a bare 60-watt bulb and dirty curtains flapping out the windows, in a strip of grey carpet, patterned with faint pink roses like vomit stains, and a lobby as drafty as a train station. Soon, the hotel will change and the city council's vision of the Golden West, complete with planted shrubs and sunken plazas, will replace it. But that's not a vision these men will be around to enjoy.

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“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away. - Image by Alex Farnsley
“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away.

Oh, a few old ladies will always be scattering birdseed, but most of our voters realize that pigeons just don’t belong here. They simply aren’t San Diego. Did you ever see one on the beach, for instance, or in a suburban shopping center? Those bright pink feet, that officious waddle-preposterous!

Doc Webb’s special pride is a tattoo—a painting, really—he once did on a sailor’s back, an epic battle between a gigantic squid and an octopus.

A pigeon is a big-city, back-alleyway bird. Living on handouts. Not even a pretty song. A messy nuisance. Let's clean up Horton Plaza!

While we're at it, let's take a look at the human inhabitants-they're as bad as the pigeons, cluttering the area south of Broadway with their card rooms, two-buck hotels, porno bookstores. Let's clean them out, and make the area “harmonize" with beautiful downtown San Diego...

It’s only four o’clock, but already there’s a two-bit pool hustler at the rear table, looking tough, playing fast and hard-and inaccurately. He winces whenever the door is opened. Daylight hurts his eyes.

Down the block a clerk is leaning against the counter of the empty porno shop, chewing his cigar and glaring at the street. A black girl passes by, wearing an afro with a vivid orange strip angling back from her forehead. The clerk shouts something after her, and they both laugh -but as she turns away, her eyes are cold. Above their heads, the naked neon lady keeps blinking on and off.

No doubt about it, this isn’t a “nice” neighborhood.

South of Broadway on 4th and 5th Streets, Old Doc Webb’s is about the only place you’ll find much action on a Friday afternoon. When we get there Doc Webb is bending over a customer’s arm, wiping away the blood and ink. Underneath, a peacock is beginning to take shape over the faded old tattoo, and “the Doc” nods in satisfaction as he squeezes out his sponge in a sink of murky water. “We’ll color it in some now,” he says, switching to a blue needle.

He could hardly have a more enthusiastic customer than this bald little man. Parts of other tattoos are visible on his other arm and at his throat; Doc Webb did them all. “The Doc’s the only one I trust-did he tell you about his tattooing machine? Solid gold, see here? It’s the world’s finest. That thing is worth between four and five thousand dollars.’’

Doc Webb smiles with quiet pride. “Show them your other arm, Archie.’’

“Yeah-here’s one he did just this afternoon. It stopped bleeding so I took the bandage off.” Uh-doesn’t that hurt a little?

“Nah. This is where the fun comes in. Look close, now, and you’ll see the skin vibrate.’’

Another spectator, a shy kid with one pierced ear and a small gold cross for an earring, has crowded into the tiny shop. After looking over the hundreds of drawings on the wall, from modest hearts to six-inch serpents and sea monsters, he finally blurts out, “You got any swastikas?’’

“I dunno. Carol, do we have swastikas?”

Carol is evidently Mrs. Webb, a grandmotherly lady who’s been writing letters in one comer of the shop. “Oh, I’m sure we must - just a minute,” she says, readjusting her spectacles and going into the back room. She returns with a drawing of a swastika in red, outlined in black. It’s about the size of a fifty-cent piece. “How much?”

“Five dollars, honey, for this one?”

Doc Webb looks up from the peacock and nods, but the boy has gone. “Sometimes they get cold feet,” he shrugs.

What about your own tattoos—did you do them all yourself?

“I did all of ’em on my left arm and my legs, and most on my right arm. I’ve got 94, and I was only going to have one when I started.” His customer laughs, and so does Mrs. Webb. We wonder how many tattoos she’s got, but it doesn’t seem polite to ask. None of them are showing.

Doc Webb’s special pride is a tattoo—a painting, really—he once did on a sailor’s back, an epic battle between a gigantic squid and an octopus. We admire the photograph, but I can’t help adding that I hope the sailor never regrets it. “Regret it?” Mrs. Webb exclaims. “Why should he, a beautiful thing like that?”

Back in Horton Plaza, a man with three days’ worth of beard is staring intently into the fountain. Bright patterns from the sunlight on the water play across his face and his faded red sweater. He’s clutching the concrete rim of the fountain so tightly that I think he’s going to throw up, but he turns away instead and picks up a long piece of palm bark. Slowly and carefully, he probes the bottom of the pool with it. All I can see on the bottom are cigarette filters; the water is the color of weak tea, although a faint blue stripe around the surface indicates that the pool has once been painted.

“Hey—what are you doing?” asks a little girl. Her mother is waiting in line at the tourist information booth.

“There’s money down there,” he answers gravely. The girl’s mother rushes up and yanks her away, and he goes back to his probing. Soon he gives it up and drops the waterlogged bark into the fountain. He wanders off, not even a nickel richer.

“Aah, you shouldn’t pay any attention to those winos,” says Bob Johnson, owner of the Palace “Buffet,” a bar at 328 F Street. “They just sit in here all day and drink, waitin’ for their government checks.”

Bob Johnson has been in business south of Broadway since 1921, but he says not much has changed in the area “except the allmighty dollar. Back then, if you had a dollar in your pocket it was worth somethin’.” He used to own the Off-Broadway Theater next door, the last burlesque house on the West Coast, and “when it opened I paid $5 a week rent, and I took in $10 a night and thought it was good money. I paid the girls a dollar apiece, and put the rest in my pants pocket and took it home. Didn’t even have a safe. These days, goddamit, you need a bookkeeper to take care of your business, and the bookkeeper needs a bookkeeper.”

The walls of Johnson’s bar are covered with old photographs, hundreds of them, mostly autographed: movie stars, prizefighters, politicians, strippers, jockeys, baseball players. Dempsey with a punching bag in 1932; Dempsey with Gene Tunney in 1926. Sheba and her trained snake. Melody Lady riding a palomino, really bareback. Maureen Sills, the Governor’s daughter, in a review with Johnson’s daughter. “Maureen is coming to San Diego next week, and she always calls up and says hello.” The late afternoon sun reflects off the glass covering the pictures; dust dances in the air, and the faces seem to be staring out of another world. The bar is going to be affected by the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project, but Johnson is mostly concerned about his photographs. “I’ve got so many of them, I don’t know what I’ll do with them all,” he says, looking at his life up there on the walls. “So many pictures...”

There’s Johnson with Lili St. Cyr in 1948: “I gave her her first job as a stripper.” Chief Myers, a catcher for the N.Y. Giants in 1906—“He celebrated his 91st birthday last January, in that chair you’re sitting in.” Mildred Harrison and Lita Grey, Charlie Chaplin’s wives—“They didn’t do no strip, you understand. Just stood up and sang a few songs. That’s what burlesque was, mostly song and comedy routines. Nothin’ to it—it was all double entendre, you know, jokes with two meanings.”

Burlesque has been replaced by blue movies and bottomless dancers, and now “Johnny Carson and Dean Martin are using the same jokes on TV that we used on stage 40 years ago. It makes me sick.” Johnson doesn’t even approve of legitimate films anymore. “The last movie I saw, and I’m never gonna see another, was Liza Minnelli in “Cabaret.” I took my wife and daughter, and the first thing Liza Minnelli says is, ‘Do you want to get screwed?’ and then two minutes later she says, ‘Oh shit.’ Now, is that nice, or am I crazy?”

There’s a photograph of several hundred sailors waiting to buy tickets for the show in the late 40s, under a marquee reading “Vickie Evans-the girl in the Robert Mitchum case.” “That was when he got into trouble for dope, remember? No, of course you don’t—I’m old enough to be your grandfather.” Was there much dope in San Diego in those days? “No, I honestly don’t think so. Me, I still couldn’t tell you what a marijuana cigarette looks like, or whether heroin is a powder or a pill or what.”

Did his burlesque theater ever get in trouble with the law? “Nothin’ to speak of—oh, every once in a while the pasties might get a little too shriveled up. But it was nothin’ compared to what we’ve got on this street today.”

The street-level scene is familiar to any visiting sailor. The sleazy, slow-motion excitement of the card rooms. Hole-in-the-wall cafes with Jose Alfredo Jimenez on the juke box. Fundamentalists giving away checks from “The Bank of Eternal Life,” made out to Whosoever Believeth, and at least three shoe shine stands per block. After dark, the street bursts into neon, blinking and flashing, blinking and flashing, as garrish and overdone as an old whore’s makeup.

Above the blaze of signs, in two-dollar rooms with a sink in one comer and a long walk down the hall to the john, lonely men are spending another night staring at red and blue reflections on the ceiling. Golden West Hotel: the name itself is a mockery, a lurid joke…

The Golden West. At the edge of the continent, at the end of their lives, they've finally found it-in a room with a bare 60-watt bulb and dirty curtains flapping out the windows, in a strip of grey carpet, patterned with faint pink roses like vomit stains, and a lobby as drafty as a train station. Soon, the hotel will change and the city council's vision of the Golden West, complete with planted shrubs and sunken plazas, will replace it. But that's not a vision these men will be around to enjoy.

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