Wes Alvens was decked out like a cowboy long before you ever slid your tender feet into a pair of citified cowboy boots, and he’ll likely be tucking his riding gloves under his broad leather belt long after you’ve left those boots to rot in the closet beside your fancy cowboy hat. And Alvens has probably spent more time on the boardwalk at Mission Beach in the last five years than you ever will, though he isn’t out there to be cool; he’s out there to be what he is: a duded-up cowboy eager to befriend beach folk and content to savor sunsets.
Anyway, how could he be cool dressed in a suit and tie, with a shirt buttoned tight at his crinkled throat, wearing jodhpur riding boots and a heavy cowboy hat? “What’s hot to people here is cool to me,” explains the sixty-three-year-old Alvens, sitting on a piece of cardboard atop the concrete boardwalk wall at the end of Ventura Place. This Alvens’ spot, contested by no one, beside an old lamp post with new signs nixing dogs and bottles on the beach, windward of the withering Belmont Park roller coaster. Practically every day since the summer of 1977 Alvens has sat here at the vortex of San Diego Beach Life, while the nearly naked throngs have shifted to and fro before him on bare feet, polyethylene skate wheels, and balloon bicycle tires. And not once has entered the water, or shown up to claim his perch in a pair of shorts. “The heat doesn’t bother me,” he says in a not-so-faint New York accent. “When you’ve been around Texas and Oklahoma … and North Africa was hot, too.”
These days Alvens beds down in the Cecil Hotel at Sixth and C downtown. He pays $135 a month for a small room, forty dollars more than he paid when he moved in back in ’77. He survives on a veteran’s disability pension of $413 a month, the result of a bum left leg he says he’s had ever since shrapnel tore into it during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Alvens was in the Army then; he’d enlisted in New York City in 1938. He says his acquaintance with horses and riding began when he was assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment, which still rode horses then and was stationed at Ft. Bliss, Texas. Alvens was apparently a busy soldier. From the 7th Cavalry he went into the 36th Infantry Division and he says he eventually saw action in North Africa under General Patton as a machine gunner and radioman. While in Europe he says he was appointed to General Eisenhower’s staff as a combat photographer and communications officer. (He says he got a wartime commission.) He recalls being on the general’s flagship on D-Day, when Eisenhower directed the invasion of Normandy. He still wears the general’s eagle staff pin on the lapel of his cowboy suit.
In 1950 Alvens settled here and went to work as the track photographer at the Agua Caliente racetrack in Tijuana. He held that job for nearly twenty years, until John Alessio sold the track in the late 1960s. He took up with a Mexican girlfriend and lived in Rosarito Beach during that period. He’s worn cowboy garb ever since, and has tried to ride horses at Rosarito or La Jolla farms every chance he gets. He usually trades time in the saddle for a little work around the stables.
Back in ’77, after his last odd job with PSA up at Los Angeles International Airport, Alvens was bunked at the Cecil and despising downtown. “It’s harder than hell to make friends downtown,” he says. One day he was on a bus headed for the V.A. hospital when he impulsively decided to get off at the beach. He’s been catching the noon bus to Mission Beach from the corner of Sixth and Broadway almost every day since. “It was like it was intended for me,” he says from beneath a big denim cowboy hat with a pair of silver longhorns on the prow. “I’m strictly out here to make friends. You can never have too many of those. It’s a place to get away, a place to belong. The sun, the water, the people, the sunsets. I’m just a good guy who doesn’t cause no trouble and doesn’t get into no deals.”
Alvens, whom all the people know as Wes, eats more cheaply at the beach than he could downtown. His most expensive meal of the day is usually the one he has every morning at Albie’s, across from the hotel. He pays two dollars and twelve cents for scrambled eggs, two potato cakes, a sausage patty, English muffins, and coffee. After spending the afternoon at his spot on the boardwalk, he eats the ninety-nine cent Monday night special of fish and chips at the 756 Club on Ventura. On Tuesday he eats something at the Apartment Bar next door and watches one of the movies shown there on videotape. Wednesdays he’ll grab a sandwich from one of the stands along Ventura. Thursdays he’ll eat the one-dollar spaghetti dinner at the Surf Club, and Fridays he order up the half-pound hamburger and draught for $1.50 at the 756 Club. After dinner he moseys out back to his spot to watch the sun go down and swap stories with his friends.
As you might expect, and as the police obviously do, Alvens sees and hears much of what transpires along the boardwalk. He witnesses a lot of the dope dealing and trouble making, but he says he has a code of ethics: “I see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. I don’t tell nobody nothin’. I want to live a few more years, and the way to do it is to keep my mouth shut.” Hence, when the cops rested their suspicions that he was dealing himself, and in a roundabout way asked him if he would be willing to supply them with information, he flatly turned them down. The code of the West. Besides, one of his main ambitions is to see if there will ever be two Mission Beach sunsets that look the same.