Soon I will join the bulk of you in the suburbs. I can hardly wait. In my mind is a vision of provincial bliss, complete with the aroma of backyard barbecues wafting up tree-lined streets and the redundant melody of an approaching ice cream truck.
If I sound foolishly euphoric, let me assure you I never thought I’d actually look forward to a stucco apartment in suburbia. My yearning is symptomatic of a very common twentieth-century disease. Highly contagious, it afflicts people as well as inanimate objects: urban blight.
In the fall of 1976 I moved into a hotel located on Lower Broadway. (Lower Broadway is that part of San Diego that rests its bleary head at Horton Plaza and dangles its feet in the murky waters of San Diego Bay. I live close to the feet.) At that time I had a number of good reasons: proximity to work, a desperate need for any roof over my head, a desire to live alone, and a very, very tight budget. With such solid rationalizing, I convinced myself that it would be an interesting experiment in urban living.
But frankly I never planned on staying here this long, and in retrospect I can see that my reasons were not really good enough. I jumped into this neon-lit arena with a bundle of misconceptions.
For one thing, it simply isn’t possible in downtown San Diego to live by oneself — not exactly. Certainly one can rent a room, single occupancy; but that does not guarantee said individual will be alone. The high degree of privacy that most of us expect in our residence, and even take for granted, is not available here, not with the bathroom located half a city block down the hall, and not with the meager noise insulation provided by the walls and windows.
As for my emaciated wallet, living in an eight-by-twelve room, sans kitchen, didn't improve its condition. In fact, my failure to anticipate the high cost of eating out is one of the major factors contributing to my overlong exile on Lower Broadway. A few sharp raps from the proverbial “greasy spoon,” and my precarious budget, like a row of nickels and dimes balanced on edge, toppled over.
Once this area gets a grip on a body, it holds on with all the tenacity of an underfed cannibal. The minimum-wage job that lured me here in the first place provided little financial buoyancy — only enough to keep my nostrils an inch or two above the water line. I have found it impossible to save the funds required to move elsewhere (first and last months’ rent; gas and lights deposit; etc.), and have had to live week to week, paycheck to paycheck, like my elderly hotelmates on fixed incomes.
Had I been willing to go just a block or two south of Broadway, I could have lived a lot cheaper. I might have cut my expenses by as much as thirty percent. But I wasn't about to take another step down “desolation row,” not after a quick look at the hotels that line up there. I think I’d rather camp out in Balboa Park than confine myself to one of those hopeless cubbyholes. Instead. I satisfied myself with the Hotel San Diego.
Despite its age (built in the early 1900s by John D. Spreckels) and surroundings, the Hotel San Diego is a comparatively tenable abode. Upon entering the lobby one might even call the place “quaint.” In any case, the rooms don’t elicit severe depression or suicidal tendencies at first sight; the corridors aren’t littered with empty wine bottles; and while I wouldn't suggest eating off the floor, the building is patrolled by a veritable army of service personnel: clerks, bellmen, maids, janitors, and security guards.
My lodgings on the third floor boast many features that are not available in the flat, colorless apartments of prefab America. Consider: a high ceiling with heavy beams, semi-ornate molding along the top of each wall, an inoperable white-washed transom above the door, and above that a deep ledge (which I couldn't resist searching for hidden treasure — but alas, only dust, circa 1930), twin electric fixtures on the south wall that once burned gas, a built-in cabinet commonly referred to as a “hutch," and one small, heavy metal radiator, all silver and rust in the northeast corner of the room. This steam-fed contraption deserves mention if only for its early Industrial Revolution design, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it actually emits heat. One more relic is the original lock on my door, complete with classic peek-a-boo keyhole. This was plugged up and forgotten years ago. though, when a more advanced device was installed. Now, that too is obsolete.
The above-mentioned items captured my interest and stirred my curiosity. They lend the place a sense of history that a little library research confirms. In its heyday the Hotel San Diego was often referred to as “the Governor’s Southern Mansion." Many celebrities of international repute slept here before me. The building has survived scandals, murders, fires, and other disasters. More recently it played courthouse for this county's judicial system and evidence of this still exists in various parts of the hotel. So, former glories abound.
But there are no crown jewels secreted away in room 306, just a few pieces of resilient furniture. The overall decor is best described as Salvation Army Modern. This: A tan dresser, in which four uncooperative drawers stick firmly together: a swivel stand has been bolted to its top, and into that is locked a temperamental black-and-white TV. Next, a small but handy writing desk (with chair) shows a mysterious nickel-size hole through its lower left-hand surface. The center of the room is occupied by a queen-size box spring and mattress. mounted on a metal frame. West of her majesty’s headboard rests a three-way lamp (with a one-way sixty-watt bulb) on top of a brown nightstand. A hard, unyielding wooden chair serves mostly as a stool, and above it hangs a large mirror.