"I go up to L.A. and I stay for five months. I clean a big house and take care of the kids, everything in the house, and they pay me $25 a week. My dad sent my brothers, and they said, ‘Maria, come back.’ So I come back again. with $200 and make a little store."
Jacumba, California, is a throwback. It's the last shitass 1953 Oklahoma town left along the San Diego County Interstate 8 corridor. First glance downtown is two blocks of empty storefronts, an abandoned hot springs, the burned hulk of an abandoned grand hotel, two markets, one thrift store, and a relic of a gas station.
Jane lives in a 12-foot trailer in Jacume with no plumbing, no electricity. Used to live in Jacumba but made strategic error of sharing her house with a reported nine goats.
Photo by Robert Burroughs
It is also an end-of-the-road town. It attracts people who stay in cheap motels, who lie on cheap beds underneath naked 100-watt light bulbs and study greasy road maps.
When you look at a map, Jacumba lies 70 miles from San Diego off I-8 on a spur that sits precisely on the U.S./Mexico border. It is, quite simply, as far as you can go.
This gateway to Mexico, like no other in California, has no through roads, no checkpoints, no customs, no cops, no officials of any kind.
Jacumba has one other thing that makes it unique. Because it sits on the border, it’s a gateway to Mexico. Except this gateway, like no other in California, has no through roads, no checkpoints, no customs, no cops, no officials of any kind. From the U.S. side, it’s a 200-yard walk from downtown Jacumba, past the community softball park, to a rusted, neglected, absurd four-foot-high wire fence.
Richard Spencer, Kirk Gilliam. That first night I am directed to my camper shell. I am given a tin can to pee in and shown my sleeping quarters. It’s perfect. Kirk has strung an electric line out, has installed a heater and reading light.
One walks through the decrepit “fence thing” as one walks into a neighbor’s pasture. Thirty yards into Mexico is Jesus’s house, a modem one-story ranchero, one of a dozen built directly across from the border. From there you can drive or walk the two dirt miles into Jacumé.
On Saturdays and Sundays starting about noon, 20 or so Mexican men gather at the fence. About half drive in from the U.S. side, half drive or walk in from the Mexican side. The weekend has begun. The men go to the fence, build a fire, drink beer.
Jacumé, Jacumba’s sister city, is a village, population maybe 200. Its 30, 40 houses range from slap-up adobe to cement block, and behind the houses, cattle scuffle and roosters crow. The town has a small zocolo, several tiendas, and a community hall for fiestas.
Maria's store. Maria is a Nuñez, the richest family in town, the hardest working as well. She owns the store, cleans houses, does laundry, has color television and a satellite dish on her own roof.
On weekends, on the dirt road next to the park, village men build a fire and drink tequila. There’s a Catholic church with no priest where on Christmas Eve locals gather to “put the baby Jesus to sleep.”
Mexican Jacumé shares at least one quality with U.S. Jacumba: Jacumé is also an end-of-the-road town. It’s 70 miles east of Tijuana along the Mexicali-Tijuana highway, and then 7 miles north on an unmarked dirt road. The town doesn’t appear on most maps. There are no tourists, Mexican or American. If you arrive in Jacumé from the Mexican side of the border, you get there because you have a reason.
“Well, listen, don’t say anything bad about the border patrol. We don’t want to make them angry. A lot of years ago they closed this down. People couldn’t go back and forth. Families would come out here, half sit on one side of the fence, half on the other, and talk, put their fingers through the fence and touch each other."
On weekends, on the dirt road next to the park, village m
Jacumé is an ejido, which means that each of the some 200 families in Jacumé individually owns 50 acres of land; the remaining 70,000 acres surrounding the village are owned in common. The ejido was a government experiment in communal farming. It was also an idea that never quite worked in Jacumé. Old-timers speak of green fields and year-round crops, but that was 30 years ago. Now, land around the village lies fallow.
Patti’s wedding in Jacumé. We’re all standing outside church, the whole village, at least 200 people. The priest from Tecate is late.
There is almost no agriculture; there are no bronzed and noble peasants working in fields for the betterment of all. The ejido’s single monument is a chicken ranch on the outskirts of town.
Every day, village residents drive or walk from Jacumé to the U.S. border, stroll past the four-foot fence and continue into Jacumba. Some Jacumé children, those with proper papers, attend Jacumba’s elementary school. Other Jacumé residents come to check their mail in the U.S. Post Office and shop at one of the two American general stores (toilet paper is cheaper in the States). Many buy beer (Jacumé is formally dry); a few find work, either at the motel or at an odd job.
It’s been going on for two generations. This single spot on the California-Mexico border, where human traffic goes back and forth unimpeded, has attracted only occasional outbreaks of officialdom. Once in a while Mexican or U.S. authorities struggle out to the fence and park official trucks and provide official presence, but it never lasts long. Luck, distance, habit, and the fact that the U.S. Border Patrol has to make a 45-mile run into Tecate every time they apprehend an illegal immigrant soon puts a stop to close supervision.
It was a sunny, warm winter day when I drove my rusted-in-hood-and-roof rent-a-Dodge Colt into the bombed-out wreckage that is Jacumba, California. One is struck by how ugly, how uncared-for, how depressingly unloved the town is.
It wasn’t always this way. When the swank Jacumba Hotel opened in 1925, the town became a destination point. With first-class hotel, racetrack, tennis courts, dance pavilion, and movie theater, Jacumba was quickly discovered by “the Hollywood set,” as well as Imperial Valley worthies. Rich valley farmers took their families to Jacumba to find relief from summer heat and to bob about in the natural mineral hot springs. At its peak, during the ’20s and ’30s, the town claimed 15,000 residents and was the largest resort in the Southwest.
What killed that prosperity was air-conditioning (which put a hammer on summertime Imperial Valley tourist traffic) and, in the 1970s, the completion of I-8. Why stop in Jacumba when San Diego’s beaches were 50 minutes further down the road? The grand hotel burned in the early ’80s and was never rebuilt. It was also never tom down; it sits there like a bad habit. A few of what once were scores of cabins built for farmhands remain, but others have been leveled, their rubble left to oversee the valley and to frame the mood of the town.
To get started in a town, I usually go to the local bar, which in Jacumba is simple since there’s only one. It’s the International Beer Bar located in the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Motel.
The last thing you expect is to meet Germans.
They own the town.
Jacumba has always had owners. It has always been a plantation town. It’s a pretty straight line from Bert Vaughan, who built the resort in the ’20s, to Henry LaZare, who purchased the town from Vaughan, to a Chicago German group who, in 1986, bought the town, bought most of the main street, bought in fact, more than 200 acres of urban Jacumba.
Currently the town is owned by this German group from Chicago, whose representative is 55-year-old Felix Bachmeier, a stocky, square-jawed German immigrant who with his wife Lisa manages the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Motel.
Bachmeier had never set foot in Jacumba until one day in 1987, putt-putting along in his rent-a-car, he spotted his new home for the first time and thought: Dear God, what have I done?
“I got out of the car and saw the dust and tumbleweed blowing through town and almost dropped dead from a heart attack. It wasn’t the quaint little place I envisioned. It was a nightmare.”
One adapts over time. Bachmeier brought in reinforcements — a German chef plus a constant stream of German visitors, German girlfriends, German boyfriends, German partners, assorted sons and daughters.
I’m standing in the foyer of the renowned Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Motel. Tb my left is the bar. Now what’ Walk into the bar, order a Bud, look around, see who my barmates are. We have kneedeep locals. Four men, two beards. Cumulative IQ 120.
The bar mistress is in her mid- 20s. She’s a heavy-set lady who is gone. Cannot tell if it is booze drugs, or genetic engineering, but she is not of or on this planet. Talks slow, more a series of disconnected pauses than talk. When actually talking, rolls her eyes way back inside her skull like the lead creature in Allied Pictures’ drive-in smash hit, Death Zombies Invade Middle-Class Living Rooms.
A man named George arrives at the bar. Maybe 60, George is in excellent shape, has a full head of close-cropped gray hair, clean ruddy face. George owns a ranch on the other side, has for more than 20 years. We make an appointment to meet at the fence.
At one the next afternoon I am at the border waiting for George as he creeps up in his blindingly orange VW wreck. I pick one of a dozen holes and walk through the fence, getting that adrenalin jolt that comes from doing something illegal. We take a cruise around town, what there is of it. Jacumé is a poor town. There’s an elementary school, a large, new town park filled with rows of young, delicate trees. On one side of the park is a small tienda. We go inside and order pop. Our hostess is Maria Nuñez, a pretty, energetic 40-year-old woman. Maria cannot stand still; bustles into the back room, comes back, moves behind the counter, takes up a broom, sets it down, lifts boxes off the floor, puts boxes on the shelf, goes to the cooler, restocks pop, always moving.
I ask about her family. She is married and has four children. I attempt to set up an interview. Maria dodges, weaves, paces around the store. No, not tomorrow, she has to clean a house. Of course, tomorrow is laundry day too. The next day she doesn’t know, she might have to help her brother. The following day it’s hard to tell.
George and I head outside. He’s going back to San Diego, gives me a ride to the fence. I ask if any other gringos live on the Mexican side. He says yes, there’s Jane the goat lady and an oddball pair, Richard and Kirk. Two guys: one is old, maybe 70, the other young, maybe 30. They share a house in town. Strange.
Next morning I’m back in Jacumé at Maria’s store.
We talk as she moves about. She can’t look me in the eye. Here’s a big, tall gringo, stranger guy. She might get one in here every year or two. Better to keep moving, keep your eyes down.
I walk outside. There’s four children playing in the street. I say, “Hola. ¿Donde es dos gringos, Richard y Kirk? ”
The kids laugh.
I query again. “Richard y Kirk. Dos gringos. ¿Donde es casa?”
The kids laugh again but this time they point down to the next block and then east.
I pull up in front of the Richard/Kirk hacienda. I knock on the door. I hear a voice, “Somebody’s out there and he’s smoking.”
Richard Spencer comes to the door. He’s 5’8”, has short, sandy hair, is clean shaven. He’s smiling. What stands out are calm, compassionate, bright eyes and how relaxed he appears to be inside his body.
He doesn’t blink. “Come in.”
Richard and Kirk share an adobe home: cement floors, sloping ceilings whose ancient one-by-six slats hold the sky out, more or less. There’s a bedroom, living room with brick fireplace, kitchen, two work rooms. They have two camper shells, now grounded in the rear of their lot next to the neighbor’s cattle and chickens.
We go into the kitchen, where Richard makes hot water on the Detroit Jewel gas stove. He reaches up to the shelf, takes down a tiny jar of Folger’s instant coffee for me, a jar of Sanka for himself. On the portable radio is one of those cretinous, right-wing screamer talk shows out of L.A.
We chat. I am interviewed. I am gracious. I announce my needs, primarily, a place to stay. Richard allows that one backyard camper could be rigged up as a place to stay; in fact, I could stay there.
The sun is going down, giving that fantastic, brown, high-desert glow. The wind picks up a bit. A chill settles in.
That first night I am directed to my camper shell. I am given a tin can to pee in and shown my sleeping quarters. It’s perfect. Kirk has strung an electric line out, has installed a heater and reading light. I have a writing table, a double bed. Ten feet away, the neighbor’s cattle and chickens shuffle. Mexican music plays on stereos, coming from several directions at once The night sky is full; dripping stars. I can’t remember when I’ve seen so many. The night is deep, deep dark, broken by shafts of Halloween-orange light radiating out from small, thick windows of nearby houses. Kids are laughing — can’t place where A fence surrounds Richard and Kirk’s property, sort of a fence anyway: sheets of corrugated tin laid end to end. On the fence’s perimeter stands one leafless tree with one filthy yellowed plastic bag ensnarled in its limbs.
We develop a pattern. I get up around 8 a.m., go to the main house, make coffee, go back to the camper, and write until 11 or 11:30. Richard reads and writes. Kirk welds together the bolts and brads and wingnuts that are the medium of his art. By noon the three of us gather get in the disgusting rented car and drive the bump oil-pan-killing dirt road over to the fence, park in front of Jesus’s house. We walk past the border then 300 more yards to downtown Jacumba, eat lunch, read the newspaper.
Afternoons I wander both sides of the border. Day one began sitting in the dust outside Jacumé with Marcella, a.k.a. Jane the goat lady. She’s 70-plus, lived in Mexico the last six years. She’s stocky with deep, deep lines and canyon wrinkles on her face. She lives in a 12-foot trailer - no plumbing, no electricity. Used to live in Jacumba but made strategic error of sharing her house with a reported nine goats.
Over time this caused considerable "relationship” problems with neighbors and assorted county officials. She moved across the border into a house that she instantly shared with several dozen dogs, countless cats. The arrangement quickly became too much for her Mexican landlord. There was a parting of ways; Jane, two burros, 30 dogs, cats, the entire circus moved next door We sit on rusted metal chairs in the sun listening to the invasion of Panama on a transistorized radio strapped to the back of her red Honda ATV.
“What do you think, Jane? Should we start a Manuel Noriega defense fund?”
Jane allows it’s very hard to take care of these animals.
Then there was the energetic pub crawl with Debb, a stunning — I think the word is “luscious” — 40-year-old blonde retired bump-and-grind dancer. We took an R&R from Jacumba, drove down the hill, and began at the Owl Cafe in El Centro and quickly charged into the night until we hit 2 a.m. Brawley. Debby is a success story, one of the colony of welfare recipients who live in Jacumba, which is a feat of note. Rents are cheap, dirt cheap. Not long ago houses could be bought for $15,000. In feet local belief system holds that the San Diego Welfare Department tells its clients to move to Jacumba because of its cheap rents.
Young Debby started out in topless clubs in San Francisco, New York, Cleveland, Houston. It was a good living, but towards the end of her career she started working dives. “That’s when they make you sit with the customers during breaks.” Finally, in Denver, on what was to be her last job, she became pregnant and sure enough, the man was no good and eventually evaporated from her life.
One day she found herself looking at a road map, spotted a town called Jacumba. When Debby arrived, saw how low the rents were, she moved. Over time, she was able to buy her own house and more importantly, she raised a splendid daughter Faye, now nine.
It is the perfect success story except... except every once in a while, when the moon is full and Debby drinks too much, the old Debby comes out the one that is cynical and hurtful and loud and swears so much even locals duck. I mentioned that unfortunate habit to Richard Spencer saying that if Debby could just figure out that when it’s time to get fucked up, it was also time to get out of town. If she could just figure that, she’d have it absolutely 100 percent made.
Richard is sitting over the kitchen sink in his roll-away office chair wearing brown Playtex gloves, doing dishes meticulously. One. At. A. Time. Studying a day coffee cup, he ponders his response, “Hell, figure that out and you can be president of the United States.”
On Saturdays and Sundays starting about noon, 20 or so Mexican men gather at the fence. About half drive in from the U.S. side, half drive or walk in from the Mexican side. The weekend has begun. The men go to the fence, build a fire, drink beer and bullshit. I wander up to the group that’s standing around a burning tire, put a case of beer down, point to it and declaim, “Cerveza, everybody.”
It’s starting to get dark now. Fabio Sanchez is next to me, and we begin to chat. By this time the whole valley, on both sides of the border, knows I’m writing a story.
Fabio says, “Well, listen, don’t say anything bad about the border patrol. We don’t want to make them angry. A lot of years ago they closed this down. People couldn’t go back and forth. Families would come out here, half sit on one side of the fence, half on the other, and talk, put their fingers through the fence and touch each other. It was like the fucking Berlin Wall. Now it’s good. We come out here, we don’t bother nobody, we visit.”
It’s dark now. Fifteen of us stand around the burning tire. I ask where everybody is from. Murmurs of L.A., San Francisco, Modesto, even a fellow from Oregon. It’s Christmas and they’re all home to be with family. Everyone’s working up north. They’re all shit jobs, except Manuel’s; he’s a teamster and pulls down a union wage. But whatever jobs they have, they’re making a fortune compared to those that stayed behind.
Fabio got his papers early, was born to one of the founding families of Jacumé, and went to high school on the U.S. side in Campo. I ask how he liked it.
“I hated it. I couldn’t speak English very well, and they all made fun of me. None of the girls would speak to me. The boys would pick fights. It took me years to understand what was going on.”
Fabio takes a pull on his beer “I’m a worker. I always work. My dad and I worked building the San Diego trolley line. We made ten dollars an hour saved every cent we could. We lived in this scary neighborhood downtown; we had a room in a cheap hotel. In the alley outside our window there were always syringes and broken bottles. It scared me, man. We used to pay one guy five dollars a week just so nobody would bother us”
Fabio is now living, legally, in San Diego. I ask about village life. “In many ways it’s better in the States. I have a wife and three kids and I can put meat on the table three four nights a week. Over there (Jacumé) it’s always beans for supper, if you’re lucky. But the people in San Diego, they’re not friendly; I get tired of feeling their bullshit. I miss my family, my town. That’s why it’s really good to be able to come here and visit."
Maria is a Nuñez, the richest family in town, the hardest working as well. This is not U.S. rich, this is Mexican rich. Being rich here means she owns the store, cleans houses, does laundry, has color television and a satellite dish on her own roof.
We’re in Richard and Kirk’s kitchen. Maria is sitting straight up, her hands placed uneasily on her lap, holding herself with the kind of uncomfortable discipline usually reserved for courtroom appearances
“I born in Mexicali. Lived there six years. Moved here in house with two little rooms more little than those Richard and Kirk have here. And all them rooms was leaking water and they no good. You know; my mom live there now. Instead of two old rooms now there’s a big house.
“When I was 12 years old, I started going to school over the line in Jacumba. I liked school. I live over there with friends go to school during the week, come back home Friday afternoon, stay Saturday, and then go back Sunday night for another week. I go two years in Jacumba and one over in Campo.”
“When I was 15, I come home here. My dad didn’t allow no more school. One night he gathered all my brothers and they all sit around the table. He asks them one at a time if I should go to school. I’m crying because I want to go but he say, ‘No, no, no.’
"My dad say no because he knew a whole bunch of girls from here, you know, who are going to school over there and then they do nothing; they only go around with boyfriends and parties and everything, and my dad said, ‘No more, not you.’ So I stay in the house and help my mom, wash clothes, clean the house, and take care of babies, because my mom is still having babies and babies.”
I ask Maria if she’s ever worked up north. “Oh yes, when I left school, I had my passport and pretty soon crossed at the border in Tecate. My big brother took me over there. I go up to L.A. and I stay for five months. I clean a big house and take care of the kids, everything in the house, cooking, you know; and they pay me $25 a week.
"I like there. When I came back here, well, I miss something, you know I miss especially the house. It’s a real pretty house there and not cold and here it’s different. I didn’t want to come back, but my dad sent my brothers, and they said, ‘Maria, come back.’ So I come back again. But when I come back, I keep my money. I come back with $200.
"My dad, he don’t let me work any place. He wants me to stay in the house and help my mom, and I say, ‘Well, if you don’t want me to work anywhere, I spend my money and make a little store.’ And I did. I make the store in town. I was almost 18 years old. Nobody else make any business here.
“By the time I opened the store we’d been here eight or ten years, everything was different. My dad was working on the house and it was a little bit bigger and my brothers go to work in the States and stay there, come back every six or seven months, but I can’t because they don’t let me. My parents are afraid that I’ll have a boyfriend or do something bad and then I won’t come home.”
Maria keeps looking out the kitchen window moves her neck like a big bird who hasn’t eaten all day. She’s looking for help, any reason to move her body, the very body that has been sitting in one place for the last miserable 20 minutes.
"My husband born here in Jacumé, lived in a little house two blocks from my house. I’m three years older than him. Before we were married, I had three or four boyfriends. For me it was real hard. For other girls they had permission to see their boyfriends, but I didn’t have none of that. I’m always hiding, you know, meet the boy outside the house or some place my dad couldn’t see.
“One, López, he wanted to marry to me, and my dad said no because that guy came from Tijuana and they bring up people here to cross the line, you know, people that don’t have papers. So my dad said, ‘You marry that guy and every time you look around he’ll go to jail because you know they’re illegal people that he’s crossing. Anyway, there’s another guy you’re supposed to get married to.’ But I really like López, you know and we write letters and he came up here from Tijuana to visit me and we write letters back and forth. And one time the police catch him, and he didn’t write me any more letters. He was in jail for a year and lost my address. I said, ‘Forget it’
"At the time, Manuel, who was to be my husband, was my boyfriend. We go around about a year and I’m real jealous, you know when my boyfriend go around with a strange girl. I’m real mean, you know I see him and he’s with the other girl, and oh, I’m mean and I cry and make a big deal of it. Then Manuel comes around in about three months, tries to tell me he didn’t do no wrong. I said, ‘Forget it. I don’t want none with you, nothing.’ Well, then he come around in six months, and I said, ‘Well, okay.’ So we go around for a year and six months, and then we get married.
“Before I got married, my dad was drunk for a whole month. He didn’t want to see me leave, but I got married and everything was fine, you know. But every time my husband and I have problems, I go to my dad’s house, and he says, ‘What’s wrong? I told you, I tried to stop you.’ ”
I break in, “Maria, what’s your day like?”
“I wash every day. Sometime you can’t wash for three or four days in a row, like when it’s cold and windy and dust and everything, you know. You can’t do it. If you wash the clothes and leave it on the line, the dust and wind they go like that and the clothes drop on the ground.
“I have a lot of problems with my kids. They don’t want to help me. My children are different than when I was a little one. I say to my daughter Louise, ‘You never clean the house’ Louise says, ‘Okay, Mom, I’ll do it.’
“I say, ‘Okay, Louise do it.’ And she does something else and never do it. They’re like American kids. They sit and drink coffee like that. They sit there on the couch for an hour, and I sit and eat about five minutes a day.”
"Maria, how did you meet Richard and Kirk?”
“Richard and Kirk moved into town, and they stay here for six months, but they don’t know nothing. But one day Mercado, she comes to my house and says, ‘Maria, why don't you come with me and meet these guys. They’re some real good guys.’ They’re friends, real nice people. Kirk, he real quiet, plays with the little people. I play a lot with him. I say, ‘How come you never find a girlfriend? Go ahead! Go ahead! Go to the dance and ask her to dance.’ And he says, Oh, I will.’ Then I say, ‘Well, you get embarrassed all the time when you have to say hello.’
“A lot of girls, they dance at our dances. I never dance. I go over there and sit. There’s a lot of girls. I tell Kirk if you ask the girls, ‘Dance with me,’ they do it because they like to dance. The girls around here don’t want to dance with people that get drunk. Richard and Kirk don’t get drunk. I hate the people that get drunk and make deals when they arrive, fighting and everything.”
Maria squirms on the chair. I ask, “Do you think your kids will stay in Jacumé?”
“I own three houses because I want to make a house for each kid. Here, most of the people, the boys and girls, they get married. They don’t have no house. The special guy comes along and he really like her, you know, like my mom says, ‘They move the water back and forth.’ The first night when they get married they want to stay alone, and then they go on and have a whole bunch of kids and they live with their parents. I don’t want that. My kids get married, it’s, Okay, get out of here. Go in your house and that’s it.’ And I see to it they have their own house.
“Three of my kids were born in the United States. The first time, I had a friend who gave me a ride to the hospital. I go over and I stay with them for a month before my baby was born. For the second, well, I was real fat. When you’re real fat, the border patrol never let you cross. But that time I had my passport and my brother gave me a ride to Los Angeles. The third time my brother said, ‘Come and tell me.’ The pain started about one o’clock. By that time I take a bath and everything, you know. My brother comes about eight o’clock or seven o’clock, he said, ‘Well, are you ready? I’m almost dead. I said, ‘Okay.’ Well, we cross. My brother and my sister-in-law took me over to El Cajon, and before we get to the hospital, you know, I think the baby was born. But they get us to the hospital and in five minutes it was born.
“I got to go now.” Maria is already out of the room. I look after her and think, all right, Maria. If I lived next door to the magic kingdom, the one that drips money from every orifice, I’d make damn sure I had a way figured out to get my kids the keys to the front door.
Richard and Kirk are partners in the old, traditional sense of the term. In the mountain man, Gold Rush sense. Somebody, as they say, “to cross the river with.” Someone, when you’re exploring strange, empty territory, whom you go with, whom you can count on, whom you can turn your back on. Somebody who won’t quit.
Richard, Kirk, and I took a night off. The three of us had driven up to the Mexicali highway to have dinner at Maria Espinoza’s Loncheria restaurant and through the courtesy of her grandson, who acted as guide, drove on into Tecate to find a quiet bar. The three of us are sitting in a booth sipping beers.
Richard begins, “I moved to California in 1954 and went to work for the Washington National Life Insurance Company, collecting weekly insurance premiums in Compton and Long Beach. My customers were overwhelmingly black, maybe ten percent Filipino. It was a ripoff; it’s the worst, most expensive policy you can buy.
“That takes a toll on you. I’d been feeling bad and went to the doctor, who told me I’d better try something else because I was in bad shape, which lead, eventually, to the most important event in my life. I went into analysis.
“My therapist was Edgar Daniels, a Long Beach psychoanalyst who trained under Freud. My analyst got me a job at an office supply company, and after a couple years, I went to work for the California Nursing Home Association. I ended up as executive director. They had far too many people on the staff, and I fired a bunch of guys, retired Army colonels who were making too much money, and I raised the salary of the only woman who knew anything. They just didn’t like my arrogant ways, so they fired me. This was 1972.
“When I got fired from there, one of the members of the nursing home association, Peter Simmons, owned this locked facility, a ‘nursing home.’ It was the only locked nursing home in Orange County, I think the only one in California, and the minute I got fired, he got in touch with me.
“I went to work for him, and the first morning I asked. ‘What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘I want you to run the place, but first of all, I want you to get to know the patients,’ which is probably the greatest experience of my life because they had 100 patients locked in this facility and I got to know them all. And that’s when Kirk came to work for me.”
Kirk leans into the table. “I had been best friends with his son for a few years before Richard and I got close. When I got out of high school in ’73, I spent the summer hanging out with my girlfriend, and then my dad kept saying, ‘When are you going to get a job?’ By that time Richard had gone over to the nursing home. That’s when I came on as a janitor.” Richard looks into his glass. “At that time I’m starting to get to know people seeing how things worked. I’ll never forget, it was during this period that I once said to the boss — in front of other people potential witnesses —‘Peter, a lot of these people should leave. They’re ready to leave. They don’t belong here’ and he said, ‘Meet me in my office’ When I got to his office and closed the door, I noticed that he’d taken the ‘management position’ behind his desk. He announced, ‘Don’t ever talk about dismissing anybody from this place unless you have someone else to replace him.’
"I thought to myself, ‘There should be a better way to do it.’ Actually, what happened was Kirk and I went on vacation to Baja for an unauthorized three or four days, and Peter wouldn’t pay for those three or four days, and I said to Kirk, ‘Let’s start our own place.’ And that’s how it started.
“I knew I could do therapy. I knew I was good at it and I knew that 99 percent of most therapy is horseshit.
“I went to Kirk’s dad — we didn’t have any money — and to my CPA and to a psychiatrist who was excited by the idea. They each put up $5000.
“Technically, our facility was located in Santa Ana, in the heart of Orange County. We called it Colonial Lodge. It had these big columns out in front that looked just perfect, like a big colonial mansion. And it was empty. It was owned by a real estate lady and a car dealer and another real estate salesman. Total price was $850,000, and we got it for 1000 bucks down. It was a big, 100-bed, ancient nursing home with a huge living room and a big kitchen, and we told this lady we’d buy it at her price.
“It took about four months after we left the nursing home to open our place There were four staff members: me Kirk, Johnnie Rauscher, and my daughter Nelsie who was 17. Nelsie had had her wisdom teeth out and didn’t have any place to go and came to stay for a while and got involved. That was ‘the staff,’ although we always said there wasn’t any staff. The whole point was you can’t have staff and patients, you can’t have the good guys and the bad guys.
“We had 60 people. The patients ranged from the age of 16 to 75 or 80. Most of the people were rejects who couldn’t be handled in some other place; they’d been violent or they’d been in jail, and they didn’t have any place to go, they didn’t have any income, and we’d get them qualified for general relief, which is 80 bucks a week, or they weren’t qualified at all — we didn’t turn anybody down. And they just came, the word was out. The state, the courts, the county, everybody began sending people to us if they didn’t know what else to do with them.”
Kirk orders another round. “We had veterans who were getting $600 a month — good money. We had two or three of them out of our 60 people. Two hundred sixty dollars was an average SSI check. Our nut was about $2500 a month. But none of us took any salaries because we didn’t have it. There was no income for that” Richard smiles, “After a year we were out of dough. I went back to my investors and said, ‘We need more money.’ And they all said, ‘Sorry,’ except Kirk’s dad, who said, ‘If you can go to the bank and get it. I’ll co-sign.’ I talked Manufacturers Bank into loaning us $20,000 without a financial statement, which also increased our payments by 900 a month.
“Money was always a hassle, but every day, the kids would go — actually the kitchen committee and the shopping committee — they would go to the supermarket on the comer and buy with a check, with a Colonial Lodge check, that day’s food. Because the most important thing, ahead of everything else, is to buy decent food.
“In many ways it was like a commune It was run by committees and everybody shared, and if you wanted something you put a memo up before a certain committee and they’d approve or disapprove it. We had a governing council that met every night. People would put their bitches in writing, and we’d sit there and discuss them. We had a chairman of the governing council who ran the show. We had a maintenance committee, a rooming committee, kitchen committee, night security committee. People just volunteered. It worked.
"There was one basic rule: no Violence. We also had a rule about no drugs or booze, and we were always fighting that At one point we had 10, 11 guys who had been on junk; some of them were using it, stealing things, and we cleaned them up. By the end of the last year those people were gone or they were clean, and the only real problem were drinkers. We had a few real alcoholics who were harder to deal with than the junkies. Booze is the worst drug, without any question.
“A psychiatrist came in every week, a young guy by the name of David Holms. When I first met him I said, ‘If you’ll come and see the residents, anybody who needs to see you, every week, I’ll pay right on the spot.’ He was a good diagnostician, really good. He was very careful about prescribing drugs. He didn’t just drug people out.
"We had group therapy three times a week. Each group consisted of ten people, and that included the staff. We started at noon and went until eight at night. We had one group called the loco group, and you’d walk by the room and it was like a goddamn hen house; it was the craziest people we had.
“If you didn’t want to get up to eat you didn’t have to. You starved. If you wanted breakfast, you got up and cooked your breakfast, and that’s where we got in trouble with the state "A bureaucrat, a Nurse Ratched, came to Colonial Lodge, found Fred Louches in the kitchen, the dishes piled up, just like in a regular house with kids. And just like in a regular house, no one wanted to do the dishes, and the guy that’s supposed to do them is gone. Then we’d have a governing council meeting and there’d be a big fucking discussion about who didn’t do the dishes. Also, we had ten dogs. You’re not allowed to have dogs; you can’t be emotionally ill and have a dog in the facility, you know. Nurse Ratched couldn’t stand this kind of stuff. Seeing people break rules was making her crazy.
"The first six months was wonderful in terms of the lodge and how it was working. It was just impossible from an official standpoint. The state came in. They made it so hard; it was terrorism from above. They’d come in, and if the bed wasn’t made or there weren’t new sheets on a bed or a curtain was torn in a room, they cited us for all this shit.
“In Superior Court you have to go through their procedure. They wanted to shut us down. They came up with 183 counts, violations of our contract like dogs in the kitchen, no pillowcases. Nothing to do with patient welfare.
I answered every goddamn complaint, every fucking one of them. Every one. The judge looked at my answers and said, ‘Well, I can’t make any decision.’ So they didn’t shut us down, but we were running out of money.
“Colonial Lodge was bought on a lease-option. We got in a big argument with the real estate lady over whether we were making our payments, which basically we weren’t. We had a lot of people staying there, but only half were paying. Our monthly nut was now four grand, and we were taking in two. We were buying food every day; we just weren’t paying the rent. We had an attorney, Carl Roach, who asked me once, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I said, ‘I want you to buy us all the time you can get because it’s obvious we’re not going to make it.’
“The thing that actually threw us out was the electric company. The Edison people threatened to cut our power because, frankly, we weren’t paying our bills. So I called up the head of Edison, and I said, ‘Are you just going to put these poor people out in the dark?’ and all this shit. Well, they held off for a couple weeks, and then they said, ‘Screw that,’ and the Edison guys came along with clippers and all the residents are standing outside and watching and it’s raining and it’s dark and it’s Christmas time and the whole place goes dark.
“We got a nonunion electrician who brought a generator over. We had this thing running, went back inside. Still had 60 pretty frail people with us. Towards the very end of that December we were saying to everybody, ‘Okay, now anybody who wants to go, go,’ but, of course, the health department couldn’t find any place for them to live.
"They would come in and say, ‘You got to move them all out of there.’ And we’d say, fine. Where? And they said they didn’t know where, just get them out of Colonial Lodge. There was no place for these people to go, nothing.
“Some of them were very sick. Frank Wright was out of it. He was hallucinating every day most of the time, hallucinating demons. He spent most of the time mumbling, thundering biblical gloom-and-doom stuff. The thing is Frank Wright looked like he was a mountain man. He looked terrifying. We never told him to cut his hair or his beard, so be had this huge beard, and he talks in this deep gruff voice. That's what God teaches, and you’re all going to get it. If you’re a normal person, he was scary. But after you got to know him, you’d say, ‘Oh, Frank, for Christ’s sake, calm down. Cool it.’ And it worked.
“I’m just thinking of Gary Summers. He stabbed his mother with a knife He was another guy nobody knew what the hell to do with. He’d been in a New York mental hospital for years, and I said when he came into group, ‘Gary, why were you in the hospital?’ He said, ‘Well, I was a surgeon.’ And I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ The long and the short of it was Gary’s first psychological defense was that he was a surgeon because he had stabbed his mother. Eventually in group he admitted he had stabbed his mother like 16 times, but she didn’t die. My guess is that Gary’s all right now. Finally, Gary wasn’t frightened anymore.
“We had Hank Anderson, who never spoke a fucking word. Right at the end, he did say one word: Nelsie. The only real bad downside was it was very tough when we lost Craig Townsend. He was 21, just on the verge of being an artist. He was a very creative guy, and Craig was fighting drugs. We also lost Henry Frank, who overdosed on heroin. So we lost 2 overdoses out of 300, and that’s real bad. So everlasting sad.
“We could see the graffiti on the wall; we realized we were gonna have to move. Kirk and I went to Aguana, which is out in Riverside County; it’s the back side of Mount Palomar, and we found this piece of property, but there was nothing on it, just desert. We figured, ‘Okay, we bought this property, same old routine, nothing down, catch me when you can.’ Then we figured out who was going to go. We had six cars and 43 people to take care of. We told our people, ‘We have no choice, anybody that wants to go someplace else, you go.’ We had our committees running everything. We were able to say, ‘Right. This committee is gonna be the moving committee,’ and everybody got their notebooks, and we all decided, ‘All right, Johnnie’s gonna take Sherry. Lisa is gonna take Andy the dog and Jerome. Rick is going to take mama cat and Paul.’ They figured it all out.
“We went to K Mart and bought little battery-operated lamps, bought long underwear, bought a bunch of sleeping bags, and it was January and we gathered up the halt, the lame, and blind, and we moved out of Colonial Lodge.”
Richard glances over to his partner. “We had schizophrenics, manic-depressives, substance abusers. “We had a girl named Frances Nichols, who was somewhat retarded. Actually she was not retarded, she just had a very flat affect. Out there in the desert, Frances developed an inability to walk. We had group therapy out there just the way we had group at the lodge, and Frances complains, 'I can’t walk,’ and I said, ‘You fucking crawl, Frances.’ It turned out, even though that’s not the medically expedient way to handle it, I just happened to be right because eventually that whole thing left her”
Richard fingers his glass. “I remember getting up every day out on that 40 acres seeing blue sky. We had to do something, so we decided to build an A-frame We told everybody, ‘We’re going to build a big clubhouse.’ And we did, at least we started. Went to the hardware store, bought shovels, saws, got wood. We dug holes in the ground in the hill. We put up a huge A-frame.
“We still had our shrink too. He was coming out and seeing everybody on the hood of his BMW. Sitting there with a little pink clipboard.
“We were still fighting the state. The health department went to the department of buildings and safety in Riverside and said, ‘Nail these guys. You’ve got Mansons. You’ve got a Manson group coming into your community. These guys are like Charles Manson.’ All our neighbors were freaked out. The state came out and interviewed all the people around our 40 acres. Just stirred the pot, stirred the trouble. They even flew planes overhead and took pictures of us in our sleeping bags.
“That first night Jesse Lincoln cut a manzanita. We told him not to, but he cut the whole fucking tree down and lit it. It was the biggest fucking bonfire in the history of Riverside. People begin digging in. Greg Fulton found a spot in the hill where he dug in like a bucket. He had tarps up over the edge. You couldn’t even tell he was there. People made their own little spots. That’s how we came to call our 40 acres Las Cuevas, 4 the Caves.’
“We had a bivouac cooking area that evolved over a couple months. The group therapy was going on —the group therapy never stopped the whole time we were there. We needed it, we wanted to have it.
“We were in Aguana till May. By that time the Riverside building department was coming down on us again, and we ended up out on the road. We just started moving. At first we moved ten miles up to Oak Grove, a federal government park. See in a federal park nobody can touch you. We were out of the jurisdiction of the state.
“We kept on moving from one park to the next, the state always yowling on our back — I mean we were pursued. We went up to Mount Palomar, by the observatory, and stayed up there. It was beautiful. It’s summertime now, at 6000 feet, just gorgeous.
“It was the Long March. Santa Ana... Aguana... Oak Grove... Ojai... back to Mount Palomar... Mount Laguna... Indian Flats. We were down to 15 people by August."
Kirk looks at his bottle and says, “The Long March was romantic, it was awful, it was pressure-filled. It was my first country experience. I had my pup tent. There was a kangaroo mouse that used to come into my tent at night. Every night he’d come around to eat sunflower seeds from my hand. I remember another night on top of this hill in Aguana, it snowed like a motherfucker, and all I had was a sleeping bag and a cheap rubber tarp I put over it, and it snowed and snowed. And I was looking around and I’m thinking, ‘This is insane.’ ”
Richard breaks in. “Indian Flats was wonderful, seven miles in on dirt road. We stayed until November. By then it was cold. Slowly but surely, people dropped off.
"We went into the Garden Grove and found an apartment house. We rented an apartment for everyone that was left. After almost a year of camping out, we moved the people back into town and we opened an outpatient clinic. We still had Holms, our young shrink. When we moved back to town we said, ‘Now listen everybody, it’s not the end of the world,’ and really everybody finally got it. People started working for Manpower, and some of these guys started getting jobs, bringing in their own money. It was incredible. It worked.
“How did it stop? It just sort of happened, really. I think Holms our psychiatrist was one reason. He was always notorious for not making appointments on time. He stopped coming, and then there was a lull. Suddenly there wasn’t anybody left. I never thought about it, but it really was sort of a successful termination.
“Holms moved on. He called me up one night two years later. He was a little drunk and said that the time with us was ‘the most magic, most amazing thing that ever happened to me.’
“We didn’t have any money. Kirk and I went to work for Manpower to get enough money to stay alive. We both started meeting Mexicans. I really liked the Mexicans I met on these jobs. They were so cool. That was what initiated us into heading this way, towards the border.
“We were looking for a new place to live. It was summer. We remembered Boulevard and Jacumba from the Long March. Finding Jacumé was almost a mistake. We were in Jacumba camping and happened to see the church steeple. And I said, ‘Hey, there’s a town over there.’ That was 1984.”
It wasn’t easy to move into a Mexican town. When Richard and Kirk moved into Jacumé, they had a dog. It was a spring night. One of the village men returned from a hunt with a deer he had killed and, according to local custom, dragged the carcass into the town park to skin and cook the beast. That night, as a thousand nights before it, the men gathered and built a fire, a little bit bigger this time because there was venison. The custom is to roast all night, drink all night, and have a feast early in the morning, around seven.
Next morning, a small boy knocked on Richard and Kirk’s door. The boy was crying; he had news about their dog. Richard and the boy walked up to the village park, and in the gray-brown light they spotted the dog, who was spread-eagle on wooden stakes, drawn and quartered. Richard untied his pet, carried it outside of town, and told the young boy, "I don’t want to know who did it.”
The boy was one of Richard and Kirk’s new friends. The pair have been feeding the same four or five Mexican teenage boys for the last five years. That was never planned. When Richard and Kirk moved in, some neighborhood boys came over to their house, curious to see who they were, and hung around until dinnertime. Food was offered, food was shared. Over time the Colonial Lodge rules were conveyed. ‘No violence but you can say what you want.’ The rules were tested: ‘I can say anything I want,’ 'Suck my cock, gringo.’ And finally, with endless patience the rules were incorporated.
And now, almost every day as it’s been for five years, the boys come over to the $2000 hacienda, play music on the stereo, drape themselves on the living room couch, talk with each other casually, occasionally talk to Richard and Kirk, and then help themselves to dinner. Kirk, especially, is a genius with these kids. One evening we were talking in the kitchen and Rico enters the room. He hands over four dollars as partial payment on some jeans that Kirk had recently bought for him. The kid said that his dad was working in Yuma and might be drinking this week, so it might take a little bit longer to pay off his debt. Kirk thanks him while beaming with pleasure that the kid even remembered. You can see the boy take on pride, stand a bit straighter as he leaves the kitchen.
I had heard about Bob Mitchell — by this time I had heard about everyone in Jacumba and was starting to get to know people’s mayor appliances. Bob Mitchell owns or used to own or by this printing may again own the local newspaper, The Plain Speaker, which is an uneven piece of work given to Jacumba boosterism, cooking up a steady gruel of “Jacumba on the Move” articles. But the paper redeems itself by competently covering local issues and politics.
Of course, it was inevitable our meeting would take place at the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Motel’s beer bar. Mitchell is six feet tall, 46 years old, looks 10 years younger. He wears glasses, has burning, dark eyes, and speaks with a controlled, wiry voice There’s a bit of the carny about him (which I liked immediately).
There’s also the realization that you are up against a man with capabilities. Mitchell is a businessman in the grand sense: he was born to be a dealmaker.
We sit at the bar. Mitchell orders cranberry juice. He looks into the smoky room. “My first business began in kindergarten up in Seattle. Milk cost 15 cents. I traded kids nickels for dimes because nickels were bigger.
“When TV came out that was one of my great businesses. My family had the only TV in our neighborhood. Every Saturday I used to sell TV time to the kids. ‘Watch it all day for a quarter.’
“I never associated with my peer group. I always looked to the older people. That’s where the action was. They had money, power, freedom. I was always working. I worked for King Records when I was in high school and also had three other jobs. At King Records I was a stock boy, eventually moved up to an A&R producer. I was 16. I had a 1957 Jaguar and was making kick-ass money. Christ, I wore a suit to school in 1958. My classmates were not thrilled with me.
“Then I started my own record company. I read a bio about Colonel Tom Parker, Presley’s manager. He just amazed me. So I’m in the club one night — I mean I got into all the bars when I was 15, 16. I find this singer, his name is Woody Carr. I got him on 50-year contract for 50 percent. I started my own record label,
Trojan Label Records, because the first song we did was ‘Have Love Will Travel.’ It was good. In those days a big cutting session was a 16-track session. You could spend $250 and produce a hit record. And I worked the numbers, got into it, figured it out, and said, ‘Well, fuck this, I can do this. Did it a year and a half. I was 19.
“Then I got together with these guys from Montana. Easy Mike, Dave, and Eddie. They were vacuum cleaner salesmen. At that time they sold vacuum cleaners for $300 — it cost them 50 bucks. They marched door to door. Some guys sold cookware. Another guy sold sewing machines. Same thing. Well, these guys get together and said, ‘Fuck it, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll sell people all three items for $300. Package marketing.’ So I got together with them and said, ‘Well, listen, let’s get real smart here, guys.’ I put some new wrinkles in this schtick and invented a sales approach to it. So we weren’t selling things anymore, we were giving them away. We’re market testing them. This thing grew from nothing to a $100 million corporation in two and one-half years. Then we bought a shell on the New York Stock Exchange for five cents a share and converted it over. It opened at five cents and closed at $26 dollars on the same day. I had a small equity position and was vice president of marketing and sales.
“We formed finance companies and imported materials from Japan. We built the first hotels on the Kona Coast in 1965. Then I started an airline. I found a flaw in the airline regulations. You’ve got different kinds of licenses to operate airlines. Commercial carriers you know about. But the most valuable air license in the world is the Supplemental Air Carriers License. But you see, with these babies you could operate a commercial air carrier and you didn’t have to have schedules and you didn’t have to stop in those loser cities; you didn’t have to go through any of the bullshit of flight. You could always fly full. If you didn’t sell all your seats, you say, ‘There’s not enough people on this plane. We ain’t flying.’
“I tried to get one of those licenses and couldn’t. But in the research I found out how it works. Under FAA regulations there’s a thing called Part 1-51, which says there’s another way you could do airlines and that’s if you were a common denominator group, if you had a club. So, we started the World Travel Club, made everybody a member.
“Then I went and cut this deal. I get these Mormons to finance the airplanes and we called it Temple Airways, and we’re going to fly Mormons to the Temple because if you’re a Mormon, you can’t get to heaven unless you go to the Temple. At the time there was only one temple in the whole country, at Salt Lake City. So, the Mormons finance the airplanes, and three days a week we fly to the temple, four days a week we fly to Vegas, baby.
“It’s hot, we’re flying full. We’re flying a round-trip package selling for $155. We provide your rooms, your air fare, food, drinks, the whole McGillicuddy. Well, hell, the air fare alone to Vegas on a commercial carrier was $250.
“When that gig ended, I got put out of business by the big guys because I got this contract to fly students to Europe. That was my mistake. That was the end for me. I was only fucking with a couple of carriers flying out of Seattle. And they were not happy about it, but there was nothing they could do. But the minute I started fucking with the big guys, then suddenly the FAA and the CAB get together and my planes need special inspections. Like you got a plane with 300 people on it to go to Europe. The man taps you on the shoulder, ‘Oh, we re grounding this plane.’ I say, Wait, I just had an airworthiness certificate on it five days ago.’
“ ‘I know, but this is special.’
“ ‘What do I do with these people?’
“ ‘I guess you’ll have to put them on a commercial carrier.’
“That just took me out. They couldn’t plug the hole under which I was operating, but the big guys are big, and somebody says to somebody, ‘Well, this is a problem. Take care of it’ So, I’m out of that, and at the same time I’m done with being married, and a guy who used to work for me calls up and says he just bought a license to work with some collection agency back East and am I interested in checking it out.
“So, I go to Philadelphia and get this gig going. I invented this concept in accounts receivable management, which is now used in every business in the modem world. It becomes the biggest accounts receivable management company around. We collected for the city of New York. We caused the government to change the rules for the student loan program. The name of the firm was Trans National Corporation. We started up in 1969. I went in as CEO. I walked right out in 1976, sold my interest, and left.
“At the same time I owned six restaurants. I had an interest in a Broadway play, I was doing TV, I was doing whatever struck my fancy. I was working 100 hours a week, traveling half a million miles a year, and I was getting myself fried.
“After I left Trans National, I invented the investment grade diamond market. That was a popsicle ride. That was awesome. That was really the biggest roll. Extraordinary amounts of money, hundreds of millions of dollars. You get billions. At first you’re amazed and then you’re numb. Somebody has $100 million dollars on the table, big deal. ‘That’s all you got, you only brought your small change.’ We were moving billions of dollars’ worth of diamonds.
“That lasted a couple years. Ended in January ’81, the day silver went from $50 to $16; the day gold went from $800 to $300. That’s the day it ended for everybody in the world. There were no more conditions.
“I’m quite happy to be out of it. I guess it’s when you begin to realize, it sounds trite almost, that the price you’re paying isn’t worth what you’re getting out of it. It’s also the end when you’re not prepared to play anymore — in other words, you know you can make a deal and all you gotta do is dance the thing through. But you look at this fucker across the table from you and you say, ‘Fuck this shit. I’m gonna tell this piece of shit what I really think of him.’ You do that two or three times, and the board of directors begins to get some feeling about your approach to things.
“In 1978 I was introduced to a young artist named David Baze, extraordinary photorealist. I was very taken by his work, so I began to compile his stuff. I was living in Newport Beach. Baze calls me up in the middle of 1980 and says, ‘Hey, I’m down here in Jacumba. There’s this, real estate hustler here. He’s hustling a deal to sell this town. Man, this is you.’
“So I came down, I came down here to buy the town. At the time the whole town was for sale. I took a suite at the old hotel, this was before it burned down, and I stayed for some months.
“Baze was running the old hotel, and he was treating it like an arts project. He knew a lot of artists around the country, and he started calling them up. I mean it was a gas. We had all these people from Hollywood — Jack Nicholson, all these kinds of people would come down. This place was very obscure. Baze had the old hotel fixed up really cool. They used to do bizarre things like serve bacon and eggs with a dozen little quail eggs. Little eggs about as big as your thumb.
“I’m trying to get the deal consummated to buy the town, and I’m having terrible difficulties. It’s not happening, and I’m trying to figure out what’s wrong. So I start investigating the owners and find out this estate is set up as a tax shelter. General partnership though. That was a mistake. Because in a general partnership, a partner can be held liable for the consequences and actions of the partnership. I did more investigating, and they had failed to make the appropriate repairs in the water system and so on. and I figured out they probably could be nailed for a few million bucks. I made one of the principals aware of this knowledge and got his proxy vote and went to their meeting. And I kind of disclosed a lot of stuff at the meeting, which subsequently started unraveling that group, causing the deal to be thrown back to the original owner, who was Henry LaZare.
“LaZare has owned the town since the ’50s. His basic attitude about Jacumba was. ‘If it costs me money, I’ll knock it down or cut it down.’ The drive from the airport to town was like going through a tunnel: giant poplar trees on both sides of the road all the way in. He cut them all down because of insurance problems.
“Anyway, I began negotiating with LaZare's family — one son is a chiropractor. So the chiropractor had a real hard ass, which didn’t make anything easier because the title has like three or four hundred clouds on it. It’s a mess. Everybody that ever lived has got a lien on this property because over the years the old guy said, ‘Well, fuck it I’ll do what I want.’ So I made him an offer for the town of, I think, one million bucks. That was represented to me as 300 acres. So we begin the process of cleaning up this mess, so we can get it clean enough to be able to buy. This goes on for seven or eight months. And finally we’re down to two major issues, which involve actions that were placed against the title of the property surrounding the lake, very valuable parcels.
"At that point the chiropractor became intransigent, and he said, ‘Screw you, if you want it take it the way it is,’ and so on and so forth. So I can’t do that, so I figure, ‘Well, I’ll just throw it out on the street,’ knowing full well that no one in their right mind is going to buy it with three situations existing. Well, along comes through town a Yugoslavian real estate hustler from Chicago. The fucker goes and snaps up my deal. The Yugoslav, he doesn’t have a fucking dime, he’s just a cheap-ass hustler. He goes back and gets this guy he hustled ten years ago on some deal, and he says. Listen, we got the 300 acres, we can own this whole town, everything is wonderful, and so on and so forth. You and I will be partners. I’ll put my share of the money in next week.’
“So his mark puts up the money and a year goes by — the hustler still has no money. They finally paid him off for a hundred grand. Nuisance value.
“But the Germans own the town. Essentially, this town’s entire history is made up of three owners. Bert Vaughan started it. I got a copy of the San Diego Union, May 17, 1925, announcing the opening of the Jacumba resort, the finest resort in the Southwest. That’s a news story as opposed to an ad. So Vaughan owns it all. It’s been in his family through the end of World War II. And then LaZare buys it and then, of course, my short venture of seven or eight months and now these guys.
“The German group that bought this town are terrible stewards. They behave as though ignorance and arrogance were a virtue. And when they’re told about Jacumba, they’re given a rather different picture of the town than what it actually is. So usually there’s a little cycle that takes place, we’ve got it down pat as locals. The first three months in town they’re in just an absolute rage at being here, and the next three months they’re starting to be participants, they’re trying to be participants, if you will. And then after a year they’re pretty well into the groove. They become one of the entertainment values.”
Mitchell cases the bar. I wonder how he lives here after the high-performance life he’d run.
“Well, we don’t have cable TV out here, but we do have our tourists. It’s a much nicer lifestyle than Manhattan or major metropolitan environments. I have friends who come out from New York, look around and say, Are you okay?’ Real legitimate concern. Usually that lasts for the first two days. If they stay for the third day, I take them out to the country. I like to do technical rock climbing, and there’s some world-class climbing out here. So I take them out, run them around, and by then it’s ‘Can you find me a little piece of land around here?’ ”
It’s easy to find Creature, billed as Jacumba’s only homeless person. Pick a bombed-out building in Jacumba and walk one block to the shell of what looks like an abandoned gas station. It’s Nimby’s mechanic shop.
Creature doesn’t actually work there — that is, he’s not exactly on the payroll. He “helps out” the employed fella, a man named Hershal whose wife owns the business. Hershal is about 45 years old, with a deep, life-long tan. He came to Jacumba in 1965 from Kansas. He’s never been over the border.
It was two o'clock when I walked on to the Nimby shop grounds. Hershal and Creature are on vigil, sitting on plastic buckets in the open doorway of a car-repair bay. I walk up, place my day pack against the bay door frame, sit down, and lean back facing the warm sun. Across the street a very dull chain saw is chewing a downed chunk of cottonwood.
From our sunny bunker position we can see all the nonstop action that is downtown Jacumba.
Creature is decked out in a greasy red baseball cap and blue mechanic’s bib with long red-blond hair popping out from various sections of cloth. Hershal, Creature, and I survey the civic hubbub, which consists of an automobile chugging down the main street every ten minutes or so.
An old white Rambler heads down the highway, east. Hershal mumbles to the driver. “Hey, Frank, why don’t you look at us?” After a further interval, a Greyhound bus passes. Hershal says, “Here comes the bus.” Creature adds, "Sell him a headlight.”
After a while, a ’65 white Chrysler pulls up, black wall tires, enormous rearview mirror. The male driver allows, "I'm just running around being nosy. I just got jumped on by Francis. I didn’t stop by Elmer’s memorial service.” Creature says, "Sell you a good cheap car. Seen it on the river bottom.”
In the back of the mechanic’s bay is a police band radio. The guys keep it on in case there’s a wreck on the freeway. Good wrecks mean good tow charges. A cop voice comes on air from Chula Vista. “I need help with narcotics.”
Dispatcher responds, “How much?”
“My understanding is over 100 kilos.”
Pause, static; dispatcher comes back. “Wow. All right.”
The next hour was highlighted by a kid who puts air in his bicycle tire. Then Hershal’s wife walks over and invites Creature to dinner. Another car comes down Main Street. Creature stands up. He’s going to get a Pepsi at the market, asks Hershal if he wants one.
“Pepsi? Shit if you're buying, get me a beer”
On the way back from the market, Creature passes three women, all in bright, bright-colored pants, all in their mid- 20s, all with very large pot bellies.
Hershal takes the beer, looks at one of the women, nods to Creature and says, “She wants your dick.”
I asked Creature how he got here. It started eight years ago when Creature was in jail in Ohio. He’d been released and, due to the magic of modern-day travel, found himself in a park in El Cajon drinking beer. Someone said he should go to Jacumba.
Occasionally life is very simple. He’d worked at Benny’s Garage in Boulevard for a while and had the habit of going over to lunch at a nearby restaurant, coming in with his hair and hands soiled with oil and grit. The staff began calling him "Hairy Creature” The abbreviated version stuck. Now and then he stays with friends, stays on the ground of the bombed-out spa, and in general gets by. He likes it here: clean air, no traffic, no noise. A pickup truck drives by. Creature says, “They’re looking for you, Hershal. Out-of-state plates.” It’s five p.m. The sun is going down, the evening chill begins. I get up and stretch. Got a nice little touch of sunburn. The three of us shuffle around, hand-push cars from the apron into the mechanic bay, getting everything bedded down for the night.
“Well, fellas, thanks a lot” I pick up my day pack, put it on, and ask, “Creature, do you ever think you’ll leave here?”
"No place to go.”
Christ, what else? No time for Don Weaver. Hell of a guy, maybe 70. Lived in Jacumé in the '50s, the only white U.S. citizen I ran into that has. He absolutely knows everybody in Jacumé, knows them in the Mexican way, which is every mother’s son, daughter, cousin, uncle, and aunt by name. Talked with Don at Patti’s wedding in Jacumé. We’re all standing outside church, the whole village, at least 200 people. Besides Weaver, the only Anglos present are Kirk and me and Bob Mitchell. The priest from Tecate is late. While we wait, everyone approaches Weaver and greets him, and in turn, Weaver inquires, by name, about the health of each family member. Finally during a break he sighs, "I must be getting old. Even my enemies are nice to me today."
No time for the bridal shower. The town’s women gather in the Jacumé civic building. Kirk and I attend as photographers. Fifty local women sit on metal chairs. Patti, the bride-to-be, sits at the head of the room in a folding chair. Behind her is a table stacked with presents. Patti is 15, the correct age, headed directly into life as wife. The women are here to send her off into that deep, dark cycle of kids, housework, and submission.
They have a game. Colored balloons are attached to the ceiling. Behind each chair is a piece of tape with a number on it. The mistress of ceremonies goes around and chooses a woman from the crowd. The choosee gets the number from her chair, walks to the center of the hall, and pops a balloon. Inside is a piece of paper with instructions. She is to dance.
Another is to pretend to fight Patti. Another is to show us "what married couples do on their wedding night.” When a task is announced, all the women break out in embarrassed laughter. The choosee stands in the room’s center and puts both hands against her mouth and cheeks.
Patti sits with her hands folded across her lap. She looks radiant, the very first blossoming of womanhood. Kirk and I take a zillion pictures. Maria Nuñez is there, slyly removing the number from behind her chair before she is called upon. After the games, Patti opens presents one by one, holding them up, now laughing, now putting her eyes to the ground, now laughing, now eyes to the ground.
No, no time. Basically, there’s only time for one thing and that’s to get out of here. I’d begun to feel I’d spent most of my adult life in Jacumba (that realization occurred two weeks ago). I’d snapped early this morning at the esteemed Jacumba Hot Springs Spa and Motel. I was sitting in the restaurant when I heard a crack in my head. I sat straight up and thought, “Fuck it, that’s it"
Immediate retreat across the border, back to my trailer, clean out my shit toss it in the car. First lousy day since I got here. Flat-out cold, snowing for God’s sake, rained all last night. Will my hideous rent-a-car make the dirt road all the way out to the Mexicali Highway?
I say goodbye to Richard and Kirk. I look around one last time. The cows are chewing, the neighbor’s chickens are crowing, Mexican music plays on an unseen radio, and the faded yellow plastic bag is still hanging on our yard tree.