Hotel San Diego lobby. Biggers pointed out a huge, bricked-up hole in the back wall of the hotel that had connected the lobby to a bar called the Silver Dollar.
“You know about Mr. Miranda?” asked Biggers. I knew something, but not enough. I’d come all the way from Atlanta to write about the Hotel San Diego. Miranda had once owned it. I was the tourist; Biggers was the hotel manager; better to let him be helpful; no need to pretend I was ignorant. I shrugged; Biggers smiled: he liked filling in the blanks. “You know about the Pussycat Cinemas?” he asked. I nodded. “They showed dirty movies, and Miranda owned them.”
Eleven bellmen, dressed in double-breasted blazers, six brass buttons down their fronts. “See the one, fifth from the left? That’s Mr. Miranda.”
“Miranda and his partner,” Biggers corrected me. “They owned 50 maybe 70 of them, all the way up the coast, from here to LA.” “Miranda had a partner?” I asked. “More than a partner, you might say,” Said Biggers. That I hadn’t heard. The idea of two gays getting rich selling heterosexual fantasies had never occurred to me. All I knew was how to read a map: to me San Diego looked like the end of the line; the regional equivalent of Homer, Alaska, the last outpost; an ocean to the west, a desert to the east, a little city, crushed between LA and Mexico. I knew I knew nothing.
José, in front of Miranda's room. "José used to clean the floor there. That was his job, just the floor."
I nodded at Biggers again, meek and mild. Biggers continued. “They started buying property, stuff that was next to their theaters, run-down parts of town, has-been commercial real estate. They bought it cheap and held it. Just in time for urban renewal. They made out like bandits.” He grinned. “Which is how Miranda came to own this place?” I asked. "You bet,” said Biggers. “Bought it at a bankruptcy."
Dr. Glass, who bought the hotel from Miranda's partner: “This place was done up like a New Orleans bordello. It was a glorified flophouse full of antiques."
Biggers was 20 years younger than me; not so much handsome as cute. A college baseball jock who’d torn a muscle and given it all up to sell computers, until a buddy of his told him about hotels. He was a young man of the ’80s, tanned and terrific, sitting behind his own desk, ready for the next decade.
“Koll Center, 21 stories, $160 million budget; Emerald-Shapery, 30 stories, $132 million budget; Great American Plaza, 33 stories, $200 million budget. Were right in the middle of the action."
He leaned back and put his hands behind his head. “Yeah,” he said. “Miranda bought this place and fixed it up. Very fancy. Lots of red velvet wallpaper, etched glass, big chandeliers. Antiques from all over the world. Like the phone booth in the lobby — that used to be a confessional. He got it from Spain. Some kind of a joke. And that big window over the front door, that came from a church in Scotland.
Vince Miranda. “Mr. Miranda was strange sometime.” I couldn't imagine how else to describe a millionaire homosexual pornographer.
"The hotel bar — he did it up like it was a place from World War II, lots of Betty Grable posters and newspaper headlines. He even had photos of himself and his partner — I think it was his partner — dressed up like sailors, which is what they were when they met." “Jesus," I said. “Oh, yeah,” said Biggers. “This place was his baby. I guess it was because he started out here.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “He started out here?” Biggers pitched forward and leaned his elbows on his desk. He folded his hands under his chin and looked me in the eyes. He must have sold a lot of computers in his day. “You didn’t know that?” he said. I shook my head. I’d been in town less than 12 hours.
In the basement of Miranda’s Hotel San Diego, Wortman did "a terrific production of Cabaret. He did Fiddler on the Roof; he did Sound of Music; he did South Pacific.
“Oh, yeah,” Biggers said. “Miranda used to be a bellman in this place.” I was surprised and looked it. Biggers was pleased and showed it. “See — that’s why what’s happened is so natural,” he said. “Miranda started out here; he put so much of himself into this place. So when he died, it just made sense he’d come back.”
"The phone booth in the lobby — that used to be a confessional. He got it from Spain. Some kind of a joke."
I’d heard of Miranda’s ghost. To write about that was a good reason to visit San Diego, but Biggers had just made the story even better: “Gay Bellman Haunts Hotel/Homosexual, Millionaire Pornographer Returns To The Place He Loved.” I asked Biggers the next question. “Have you ever seen him?” Biggers pretended to be surprised. “Not me — but Fabian, the head housekeeper, he’s seen him. Fabian’s been here for years. You ought to talk to him.” Biggers stood up. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour. Then I’ll take you down and introduce you.”
The bathroom, Suite 264. "They went back to 264. Maria refused to go inside with them. By then, the front desk had called hotel security. Maria had become hysterical."
We walked through the lobby, turned down a corridor, past a guard at a desk. "What’s with the guard?” I asked. “Not so loud,” Biggers said. “Court’s in session.” I thought he was joking. He pointed down the hall. “All these rooms, they used to be meeting rooms. Now we rent them to the Superior Court. The county’s got more cases than courtrooms. So we rent ’em space, here and upstairs. Downstairs is the Municipal Court; they rent space. They’ve even got payroll and personnel records over here.” “Blind Justice In A Haunted Hotel,” I thought.
Biggers turned his head to the guard at the desk. “He works for us. The courts have their own.” The guard looked up at us. “As a matter of fact,” said Biggers, “one of the guys who works for us — he was on duty here a couple of weeks ago and he saw Mr. Miranda. He looked up and there he was. It was just before the earthquake. He’s someone else you ought to meet. A former border patrolman. Very trustworthy guy. Anyway — ” Biggers turned to face the corridor. “Come over here and look at this” We stopped in front of a large black-and-white photograph, framed and mounted on the wall outside one of the courtrooms. Eleven bellmen, dressed in double-breasted blazers, six brass buttons down their fronts; grey trousers, black shoes, white shirts and dark ties; the men standing at ease, hands behind their backs, posed in front of the elevators in the lobby. I looked at them and asked, “Late ’40s?” Biggers didn’t answer me. “See the one, fifth from the left?" he said. I nodded. "That’s Mr. Miranda.” I looked at the face: sharp features, high forehead. Slim and serious. I thought of the last frame in a Kubrick movie called The Shining: Jack Nicholson, grinning, dressed in a tux, standing in the foreground of a photograph made 50 years before he and his family ever came to spend the winter at the Overlook Hotel. “The ghost in uniform,” I thought. “If I see him. I’ll know how to recognize him.”
“Let’s go,” said Biggers. “I’ll show you the rest, then I got a meeting with the comptroller.” We took the elevator to the sixth floor and walked down, floor by floor, Biggers opening various rooms and suites with his pass key, stopping now and then to deliver a little speech or point out a view from a window. In a front room on the fifth floor, he showed me where vice squad detectives stood, once a month, to survey the pimps and hustlers who did business in front of Cindy’s Topless across the street; from a rear window on the fourth floor, Biggers pointed out a huge, bricked-up hole in the back wall of the hotel that had connected the lobby to a bar called the Silver Dollar.
“When you talk with Fabian,” Biggers said, “see if you can meet his friend José. José used to clean the floor there. That was his job, just the floor, but from what I hear, he needed a mop and a shovel.” “That bad?” I asked. Biggers didn’t bother to answer. “It used to be, people from the bar could walk into the lobby and check in.” “Brief stays?” I asked. “As long as they liked,” Biggers said. “What happened to the bar?” I asked. “Torn down,” Biggers answered.
“Torn down” or some variation on those words was how Biggers answered many of my questions. The hotel was full of past tenses, bricked-up doorways, sealed elevator shafts, and stairways that had once led somewhere but now stopped at ceilings. There were trap doors to tunnels and crawl spaces that no one used anymore; horizontal air shafts whose purpose no one quite understood; and gutted rooms that had been fitted with new doors and locks but hadn’t been occupied by anything but mice for years. The hotel was nearly 80 years old; it seemed to have survived so many owners, to have been redecorated then neglected, rehabbed then abandoned, patched, rebuilt and rearranged in so many cycles of competence and incompetence that — as Biggers locked and unlocked one room after another — I began to think of the place as a cross between the Winchester House and some ancient city, a ruin built on a ruin built on a ruin, full of dead ends, sealed chambers, and abandoned passageways, a place full of negative space, perfect for ghosts.
By the time we reached the third floor, it occurred to me that we hadn’t seen a single piece of red velvet wallpaper. Instead, every wall seemed to have been sprayed beige, white, grey, or a shade of pink that lingerie manufacturers call salmon. Biggers told me that there were 220 rooms in 39 configurations, but the pink, beige, and grey, offset with blue-green upholstery and floral bedspreads, kept appearing with such regularity that the rooms began to look the same to me. I leaned up against a wall and took a close look: the beige had flecks of pink and squiggles of blue in it. I ran my fingers over it: the surface was slightly textured, but it was as hard and glossy as enamel. I tapped it. “What is this stuff?" I asked. “Zolotone,” Biggers said. “What a great name,” I answered. Biggers wasn’t sure if I was serious. “It’s a three-color palette with nine possible variations, based on machine settings. It won’t chip. It’ll stick to anything. We sprayed the whole place, updated the whole decor, top to bottorn." “Great," I said. I’d seen a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida, and a Best Western in Columbus, Ohio, coated with the same stuff, done up in the same colors. Zolotone seemed to be the hospitality industry’s mid-priced version of Dr. Seuss’s Ublick, the green gunk that fell from the sky and coated everything. No matter that Miranda’s confessional phone booth still stood in the lobby, every room in the current Hotel San Diego now looked the way a microwave dinner tasted.
“This wasn’t your idea?” I asked Biggers as we reached the lobby. “Me? No. I’ve been here only a year. It was Dr. Glass, I think." “Dr. Glass?” I asked. “He’s the owner," said Biggers. “What kind of a doctor is he?" I asked. “A plastic surgeon,” said Biggers. The headlines kept coming: “Plastic Surgeon Announces Face-Lift for City’s Grand Old Lady" Biggers shook my hand. “I have to go," he said. He looked at his watch. “You lucked out,” he said. “Go downstairs through the unmarked door. That’s housekeeping. Fabian’ll be having lunch in his office."
Fabian was eating at his desk, his telephone next to his two-way radio. There were boxes of toilet paper and mildew remover in one comer. Across from him, another man sat at another desk. Fabian was a large man, in his late 20s, still young enough to be fleshy instead of fat. He was a light-skinned Mexican, his face unlined and open. He stood up when I introduced myself. Biggers had told him to expect me. He introduced me to the man at the other desk. "My friend, José.”
“Ah, José," I said. “Mr. Biggers told me a story about you." José was in his late 40s, well built and alert. He looked at me thoughtfully. “Oh, yes?" he said. “Mr. Biggers said you worked at the Silver Dollar. He said you cleaned the floors." José cocked his head as if he’d heard a sound he couldn’t identify. In clear, unaccented English, he said, "No. That I never did. Mr. Biggers said I cleaned the floors there?” I nodded. José just shook his head. I turned to Fabian. “And Fabian," I said, “Mr. Biggers said you’d seen Mr. Miranda — his ghost, I mean.” Fabian gave me a wonderful, bright smile. His accent was more pronounced but his answer was nearly the same as José’s. "No," he said. “Not me. I never seen his ghost. Other things, but I never seen his ghost." I sat down and grinned. Being ignorant had its uses. “Mr. Biggers has been telling me stories. I guess you’d better set me straight.” Fabian raised his hands, palms out to me. "Sure," he said. “I’ll tell you; I can tell you. But I never seen him." “You’ve been here a while though, haven’t you?" Fabian looked at the ceiling, then at José. "How long, José? Ten years?" José nodded. “Ten years," said Fabian. “So you knew Mr. Miranda when he was alive?" Fabian nodded. “When did he die?” I asked. Fabian looked at the ceiling again. “I think ’85, but I knew him before that." "Yeah," I said. “Tell me about him." For the next hour, Fabian did, occasionally looking at the ceiling or at José when he wasn’t quite sure of how one event had followed the other.
It was Maria Cisneros, a housekeeper the others called Mamacita because she’d worked so long at the hotel, who’d seen Mr. Miranda's ghost. She was cleaning his room. “His room?” I asked. Fabian nodded. “Oh, yes. He Had a room.” “He lived here?" I asked. "Sometime," Fabian said. "Not all the time. He had a big house in LA. But he had a room here. We called it the Miranda Suite." "What was it like?” I asked. “It was a suite. It was fancy. It had a bed with a mirror; it had a tiger skin; it had four big posts twisted with gold." After Miranda died and even before, the hotel rented it to special guests. “Like who?" I asked. Fabian paused to think. He began to count them on his fingers: David Copperfield, the magician; Amelia Mendoza, the singer; Ron Jeremy, the movie star. “Ron Jeremy?” I said. "He was a porn star." Fabian shrugged. I apologized
“Sorry I interrupted. Tell me about Maria Cisneros." Fabian continued: Maria Cisneros had gone to clean the room. Inside, in front of the door to the room, was a partition fitted with an etched glass window that blocked the view. People had to step around the partition to see what was on the other side. When Maria did that, she saw Mr. Miranda. Only half of him, though. Just the upper half. That half was dressed in a grey suit. He had his arms outstretched to her. He had money clenched in his fists. He called her name. She ran away so fast, she sprained her wrist on the partition. She ran screaming down the hall. Fabian, his wife, and another man were cleaning other rooms on the floor. “Which floor was this?" I asked. "Second," said Fabian. “What room?” “Room 264." “That was Mr. Miranda's room?" Fabian nodded. I said nothing. Fabian continued: Maria Cisneros ran in and told them what she’d seen. They went back to 264. Maria refused to go inside with them. By then, the front desk had called hotel security. Maria had become hysterical. A guard came and stayed with her. Fabian, his wife, and the other man began to search the suite. Fabian went into the bathroom. It was a big room with a long marble counter. As he walked in, the door shut behind him. He thought it was his wife, playing a joke. He turned and opened the door, but no one was there. His wife and the other man were at the other end of the suite. “That’s it?” I asked. Fabian nodded. "Anything else?” “Oh yes,” said Fabian.
Once he was walking down the stairs between the third and fourth floors. There were no lights. He heard someone behind him. He thought it was a guest or a guard. He stopped. The person stopped. He took a few steps. The person took a few steps. He stopped; the person stopped. He walked; the person walked. On the third floor landing, he stopped, but the steps didn’t. He looked behind him. No one was there, but the steps kept coming. He felt a slight breeze as if someone had passed him and stirred the air. It was a cool breeze, but the air was empty. Fabian looked at me. “What else?” I asked.
“This happened before he died," said Fabian. “Mr. Miranda was strange sometime.” I couldn't imagine how else to describe a millionaire homosexual pornographer. “How so?" I asked. Fabian explained: Fabian was on a ladder, changing a light bulb. The ladder was rickety. As he changed the bulb, he felt the ladder steady, as if someone had taken hold of it. He looked down. There was Mr. Miranda. They said hello to each other. Fabian looked back up at what he was doing. When he looked down again, Mr. Miranda was gone. After he put the ladder away, he asked at the front desk. No one had seen Mr. Miranda in the hotel. The manager said he’d spoken with him by phone. Miranda was at home in LA. “Whew," said Fabian and shook his hand like a fan.
“You mean you saw Miranda in the hotel while he was still in LA?" “Oh, yes,” said Fabian and looked to José. “That’s what Fabian told me,” said José. “And Fabian is an honest person." I looked from José to Fabian. “You’re telling me you think Miranda was in two places at once?” Fabian nodded. "Fabian,” I said, “correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t witches supposed to do those sorts of things?” “Yeah, I guess," he said. “What do you call them?" I asked. Fabian frowned and shrugged. “Don’t you call them brujos?” I said. Fabian shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Did Miranda die here?” I asked. “No,” said Fabian. “Mr. Miranda died in the hospital in LA. He had some kind of cancer or maybe he had AIDS. I don’t know." “Did anyone else ever die in this hotel?" “Many people,” Fabian said. He didn’t have to use his fingers to count them. First there was a Marine who thought he could fly: he'd gone out a window on the second floor yelling, “Nothing can kill me!" Fabian had heard him hit the street, head first. Then there was a housekeeper whose boyfriend had deserted him: he came to work and drank a bottle of mildew remover. “Blood was coming out his mouth and everything,” said Fabian. The rest were women: one butchered in a bathtub; one cut up, stuffed in a garbage bag, and left in a closet; one beaten to death with a baseball bat; one thrown off a fire escape. Fabian had cleaned up after all of them.
“Lots of dead women, Fabian,” I said. “How come?" Fabian arched his eyebrows and looked at José. "Maybe they tried to take the men’s money," said José. “Maybe more than what they agreed.” “You mean they were whores?" I asked. Fabian nodded solemnly. “Has anyone seen any ghosts who were women?" I asked. “No," said Fabian. “But José and me, we both heard children once. Down here in the basement. Only when we looked, there weren’t any children." “What do you mean you heard children?”
“Children playing," said José. “And once, up on the third floor, there was a group of dancers from Mexico." "Ghosts?" I asked. “No. Guests," said Fabian. “They said they heard horses.” “Horses?” I said. “Galloping up and down the hall." “What were horses doing up on the third floor?” Fabian shrugged and shook his head. “Children, horses, and dead women,” I said. “Anything else?” Neither man spoke for a bit. Then Fabian slapped his desk. “Sure," he said. “I remember. Mr. Miranda’s friend.” “His friend?" I asked. “I think," said Fabian. "He was his friend from the Navy. They were on the ship together. The USS Mississippi.” "This was his friend, not his business partner?” "Yes. You know — his personal friend.” “And — they were in the Navy?” I asked. Fabian nodded. “I think. I remember from Mr. Miranda’s obituary.” “No,” said José. “Mr. Miranda was in the Coast Guard.” “You got the obituary?” I asked. “I don’t know where it is,” said Fabian. “What about his friend?” I asked. “He was the resident manager. He died here; maybe he was murdered. I think it was about drugs. He died up in room 264. That’s where he lived.” “You sure?” I asked. Fabian nodded. “But 264 was the Miranda Suite.” “That’s right,” said Fabian. “But this resident manager lived there?” “That’s right," said Fabian. “Sounds like a lot of people lived in 264.” Fabian and José both laughed. I wasn’t trying to be funny.
All I knew about ghosts was what I’d seen in the movies. According to Hollywood, it should have been the ghost of the resident manager and not Mr. Miranda that Maria Cisneros saw from the waist up. The resident manager or one of the prostitutes. I didn’t know what to do with the children and the horses.
"Fabian," I said. “I’m very confused. Mr. Biggers said one thing, then you said something else. I need to talk to more people. Besides you, who’s been here the longest?” Fabian looked at José; José looked at Fabian. "Consuelo,” said Fabian. "She’s been here four years. She’s at the front desk. And Alice, the housekeeper. She’s part-time now, but she used to be full-time. She’s been here 16 years, but she won’t talk to you. Consuelo will, but Alice, she doesn’t like to talk to people. She knows all about Mr. Miranda, though. She knows everything. You should go up and talk to Consuelo. Her brother-in-law was Mr. Miranda’s driver. She can talk to you.”
I knew who Consuelo was: she was the beautiful, dark-haired woman behind the front desk. I’d seen her the moment I’d entered the hotel. I went to lunch, then came back and introduced myself. “Sure,” she said. "I got a break at 3:00. We can talk then.” At 3:00 she came out from behind her desk. She wore a beige skirt and a cream-colored satin blouse. She had long legs. We sat on a couch in a corner of the lobby. According to Consuelo, Mr. Miranda was a wonderful boss: her brother-in-law drove him everywhere. He even had his own bedroom in Mr. Miranda’s house. When Mr. Miranda came to San Diego, if someone at the hotel was sick or hadn't come to work, Mr. Miranda would roll up his sleeves and take their place. “He’d go in the kitchen and cook. He loved to cook. That’s how he got his start. He told my brother-in-law. Up in San Francisco. He was a Portuguese. He redecorated the whole hotel. He loved this hotel.”
“And,” I said, “he lived up in 264?” “Yes,” said Consuelo. “When he was here. What about the resident manager?” “She lived on the sixth floor.” That startled me. "She?” I said. “Fabian said the manager was a man and he lived in the Miranda Suite.” Consuelo looked puzzled. “No, no,” she said. “She lived upstairs. She and Mr. Miranda used to drink together. That’s why they liked each other. They drank.” “There was no resident manager who died in 264?” I asked. “I never heard of that,” Consuelo said. We sat and looked at the lobby for a while. Finding out about the living was as confusing as finding out about the dead.
“Consuelo,” I said, "Fabian and José and Mr. Biggers have been telling me ghost stories. Do you know any?" She smiled a perfect smile. “Sure,” she said. Two things had happened since she’d been at the hotel. Both had to do with room 264. The first happened during a comic book convention. “A what?” I said. Consuelo repeated herself: a comic book convention. “They come here every year,” she said. I could imagine the lobby full of people dressed in capes and tights. “They trade and they talk,” said Consuelo.
The last morning of the convention, three of them came down to the front desk. They told Consuelo they’d seen something strange the night before. They were returning to their suite, room 242. They were a little drunk, but they weren’t loaded. They heard some noises; then, as they rounded the corner, they saw a man dressed in a bathrobe, walking down the hall, away from them. As they watched, he walked into room 264. What was strange was that his feet didn’t touch the floor. "Did he open the door or walk through it?” I asked.
“They didn’t say,” said Consuelo. “When was this?” I asked. “Nineteen eighty-eight,” said Consuelo.
“And the second?” “That was also 1988. It was two rich people.” They’d checked into the hotel and were shown to the Miranda Suite. Consuelo described it as Fabian had but added a large-screen TV, a carved upright piano, and a built-in mahogany bar. The couple unpacked and rested. They made plans to go to dinner. The man dressed and went down to the lobby to wait for his wife. She went into the bathroom to apply her make-up. As she sat at the counter, looking at herself in the mirror, she saw someone pass behind her. She was surprised: she thought her husband had left already. She went into the living room to see who it was. As she turned the corner into the room, to her right was the piano with a lamp on it. As she passed, the lamp turned off then on, then off and on again. She fainted.
Her husband grew impatient, waiting for her in the lobby. When he came up to the room, he found her on the floor. He called the front desk; the front desk called an ambulance. The woman spent the night in the hospital. The doctors found nothing wrong with her. The next day, when she was released, she refused to return to the room or the hotel. “Did any of these people — the couple or the conventioneers — did any of them know anything about 264?” I asked. “Did anyone joke with them or tell them a little story?” “Oh, no," said Consuelo. “That wouldn’t be good for business.”
I looked at my watch. “Consuelo,” I said, “what are the chances of us taking a look at 264? Is there anyone staying there now?” Consuelo’s eyes widened. "I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll have to ask security.” She walked back to the front desk and used a two-way radio to call a guard. The same man who’d been sitting at his post when Biggers showed me Miranda’s bellman photograph met us at the front desk. “I dunno,” he said. “I think court’s adjourned for the day.” I didn’t understand what court had to do with the Miranda Suite, but I decided not to ask. The guard led us back to his post, then up the stairs, the same stairs where Biggers had said another guard, the ex-border patrolman, had seen Mr. Miranda just before an earthquake shook the building. We walked up one flight to a landing, then up another. At the head of the stairs, we turned left, and the guard stopped in front of a door. "This is it,” he said. Biggers hadn’t included 264 on his tour. The guard knocked. “There’s no one in there,” he said and unlocked the door.
Directly inside was the etched glass partition that had sprained Maria Cisneros’s wrist. I walked around it, expecting to see the carved piano and the big TV that Consuelo had described. Instead, the room was bare. To the left was the built-in mahogany bar. It divided the room in half. On the other side of it was a big rectangular table, draped with a white linen cloth. Twelve steel office chairs were drawn up around it. Polystyrene cups and cheap glass ashtrays were the only decorations. I turned to Consuelo, who stood several feet behind me. “What’s happened?” I said. "What is this place?” “It’s a jury deliberation room,” said the guard. "The Miranda Suite?" I said. “Yep,” said the guard. “It’s just a coincidence about the name?" I asked. “You mean the Miranda Suite and the Miranda case?” “Yeah,” I said. The guard grinned. "Just a coincidence."
I turned to Consuelo again. “Everyone said this place was so fancy.” I walked into the bathroom: it was big and marble, but it was as cold and bare as a public toilet. I walked into the bedroom. There was no evidence that a four-poster with a mirror above it had ever been there. The place was eerie only because it was so empty. “What happened to all the furniture?” I asked. “It was auctioned," said Consuelo. "It all got sold.” I wondered if the juries knew where they were deliberating. “Who sold it?” I asked. “Dr. Glass,” said Consuelo. “He sold everything."
The next day, I made an appointment to have lunch with Dr. Glass. We met by the front desk. “Lenny Glass,” he said as he smiled and shook my hand, "just like the window.” He was a trim, dapper, middle-aged man, dressed not for business or medicine but for golf. "Is this your day off?” I asked. “Oh, no,” he said as we walked across the lobby to the hotel restaurant. “I haven’t practiced medicine for years. Retired, burnt-out. I gave it all up back in ’82. Got out at the top; peaked, you might say.” We settled into a booth. Glass studied the menu. The waitress came a minute later. “I’ll have the usual,” he said, “tuna fish on whole wheat, no mayonnaise, water to drink.” I ordered a chicken fajita and some iced tea.
Glass looked at me sternly. “What’s your blood cholesterol?” he asked. Fortunately, I’d just had a physical. “Two-oh-one,” I said. “Once a doctor, always a doctor,” I thought. Glass shook his head. “How old are you?” “Forty-five," I said. “You better watch it, Mike. You can’t be too careful. My ex-wife always made fun of me, but I’ve had mine down for years.” “Middle-aged men comparing their HDLs,” I thought. I couldn’t resist. “What’s yours?” I asked. Glass beamed. “One sixty-seven and I’m ten years older than you." I was tempted to ask him about his prostate, but then I thought, “Let him win.” “Congratulations,” I said. Glass beamed and settled back in the booth. “So, Mike,” he said, “how can I help you?” "Dr. Glass," I said, "I’m curious how a plastic surgeon such as yourself ended up owning a landmark hotel like this one.”
Glass’s answer lasted all through lunch and into the afternoon. He’d started out poor but ambitious. He was only the second Jew to come out of Johns Hopkins, trained in vascular and thoracic surgery. "That was my specialty. Very demanding stuff.” His medical education wasn’t free; he had his debts and his obligations. He played it safe and went into the Army. The Army made him an officer and put him in a MASH unit, 70 kilometers west of Saigon. “Forty-fifth MASH," he said, “at Tay Ninh, right on the Cambodian border. We served 50 small combat units. With Medevac, what we got was everyone’s nightmares 15 minutes after they happened." Everyone he saw was 18; everyone he saw was blown in half.
Sometime in early 1967, he was sitting in a leaking tent, thinking that the last thing he’d ever wanted to do was exactly what he’d ended up doing. “I wasn’t thinking too clearly,” he said. “All I could see, for the rest of my life, were horror stories. I didn’t realize that once I got back to the States, most of what I’d be doing would be gall bladders and appendixes. All I could think about were blown-up bodies. That’s when I decided to go into plastic surgery. There’s no life and death there."
When he came home, he apprenticed himself to a master surgeon at the University of Michigan. "He was the real thing, classically trained, a great maxillofacial surgeon. He was tough, but what I learned was worth its weight in gold.” I soon understood that Glass wasn’t just using a figure of speech. He first post was with an HMO in LA. From there he joined the practice of — to use his words — “a psychotic Beverly Hills plastic surgeon. Of course, that’s a tautology, isn’t it?” He lasted a year.
With $1500, a wife, and kids, he moved to San Diego and began visiting hospital emergency rooms. “Who do you call,” he’d say, “when you need a maxillofacial surgeon in the middle of the night?” “No one,” people would answer. “No one?” Glass would say. “That’s right,” they’d answer. “No one, because no one’ll come.” That’s when Glass would give them his card. “I’ll come," he’d say. “You call and I’ll come." By 1979, he was working 100-hour weeks. Later, after Glass and I left the restaurant, he took me up to his business office in the hotel. On his wall was an aerial photograph of what looked like a small resort. “That’s the home I built for my family," he said. He’d grown rich, very, very rich. “But it cost me," he said. “I didn’t know when to stop. My work cost me my family.”
He got a divorce, sold his practice, and began making investments. “I liked the action,” he said. In 1982, he and a partner built a hotel. A year later, Glass’s partner bought him out. “I made $1 million.” Glass snapped his fingers. “I thought the hotel business couldn’t be easier. Boy, was I wrong.” He formed another partnership and started buying more hotels. Within four years, Glass, his partner, and others owned or had management contracts for hotels all over California and Arizona. “I thought the hotel business was inflation-proof: if my costs went up, all I had to do was raise my rates. I was right about that. What I hadn’t anticipated was deflation: if you have fixed costs — like borrowed money — but if you have too many rooms chasing too few guests, then you get caught. You have to lower your rates, but you still have the same overhead. What you have is trouble.”
Vincent Miranda died in 1985. Glass bought the Hotel San Diego from Miranda's partner in 1987. The hotel “plus a 99-year ground lease for the whole block,” said Glass. “That ground lease is very important." By this point in the story, we had finished lunch and were sitting in Glass's office. “What’s so important about a ground lease?" I asked. Glass’s eyes sparkled. "The hotel’s on the Historic Register. We’re stuck with it. Miranda and his partner paid $1.4 million for it back in 74. We bought the building plus the ground lease for $6 million. Why do you think we’d do something like that?” I was going to guess maybe he loved old buildings, but Glass answered his own question. “Development,” he said. He pulled a map out of his desk and handed it to me.
The hotel was marked with an X. All around it were stars. Glass began naming the stars. “Koll Center, 21 stories, $160 million budget; Emerald-Shapery, 30 stories, $132 million budget; Great American Plaza, 33 stories, $200 million budget. Were right in the middle of the action, Mike. We’ve got two back parking lots and a two-story building we lease to some bail bondsmen and lawyers. All that can go when the time is right. The land alone is worth $8 million. We can leave the hotel as is and build a 100,000-square-foot mixed-use commercial space directly behind it." I started thinking about Monopoly. Glass hadn’t bought a hotel — he’d bought a square on Boardwalk. Still, he did own the Hotel San Diego.
“I understand you did some redecoration when you bought this place," I said. “Redecoration is an understatement,” he said. “This place was done up like a New Orleans bordello. It was a glorified flophouse full of antiques. We put in a new computer, a new phone system, new carpeting, new furniture, new plumbing, a new heating and cooling plant, we repainted the place inside and out — then we sold all the junk." “The antiques?” I said. “If that’s what you want to call them. Miranda’s partner said they spent $2 million on all the couches and chandeliers and bric-a-brac. Maybe the IRS believed them, but I don’t. We got rid of it all — except the phone booth and the window in the lobby.”
“So — how’s business?” I asked. Glass’s face fell. “Mike,” he said, "do you know anything about our convention center?" “A little,” I said. “You know it’s the biggest financial and planning boondoggle this city has ever indulged in?” “I’d heard something like that.” Glass’s voice grew quieter. "The city called us all in. They told us to get ready for a bonanza. Everyone started building, getting ready for the new tourists. We’ve got a total of 35,000 hotel rooms now; there’re more coming on-line every month. We’ve got a city-wide occupancy rate of 70 percent. And it’s falling fast.” “What’s yours?” I asked. Glass’s voice grew even quieter. “Last Friday, we were 25 percent occupied. Year-round we’re at 50 percent. We were going after families, bus tours, people on pensions, retired military. With the convention center, we were targeting the people who manned the exhibits, not the convention-goers. We had a marketing strategy, but my God, everyone’s been lowering their rates. We’re between a rock and a hard place.” I looked at the map Glass had handed me. Nearly all the places he’d named had plans for 200- or 300- or 400-room hotels.
“We’ve had some cash-flow problems, Mike, but we have solutions.” “Like what?” I asked. “Did you see that Burger King downstairs?" I nodded. “We lease that space to them. The liquor store on the corner?” I nodded again. “We lease that. We lease the gift shop. That used to be ours. Now we lease it. The same for the restaurant and the bar. Employee salaries were pan of our overhead. Now we lease the service operations; we let someone else hire and fire; we let someone else worry about salaries and benefits. We went from 110 employees to 40, and a lot of them at part-time. We got lean. We got flexible. Plus the courts. They lease space too. We’ve spun off parts of the hotel. We’ve become a commercial real estate operation. We’ve had to to survive."
I kept staring at the map he’d handed me. The hotel had become a chip in a poker game, but the longer Glass sat at the table, the less his markers were worth. I looked up at him. He no longer looked as debonair as he did at lunch. “Dr. Glass,” I said. “I appreciate you being so candid with me, so I’ll level with you.” Glass’s face became somber. “Yes, Mike,” he said. “Dr. Glass, I’ve been hearing a lot of stories from different people here in the hotel.” "What sort of stories, Mike?" “Ghost stories, Dr. Glass. People who work here say this place is haunted. They keep talking about Mr. Miranda. They say he never left the place.” Glass’s face lit up. He laughed. “I’ve heard all that," he said. “I’m sure you have," I answered. “But — you're in the hotel business and I’m a writer. I didn’t come all the way from Atlanta to make trouble for you. But people have been telling me stories, and I just might have to write about them. Do you want to tell me your side of things?”
Glass smiled and settled back in his chair. “Mike," he said. “I’ve been a doctor for nearly 30 years now. I’ve been in Vietnam; I’ve been in private practice; I’ve been in business, and one thing I’ve learned is, if people want to believe something like this, there’s no way I can stop them. If they want to believe the earth is flat or the moon is made of green cheese, I can reason with them all day, but if they want to believe it, there’s nothing I can say or do to change their minds. People are superstitious, and there’s nothing I can do to prevent that. So — if you want to write about Vince Miranda’s ghost, you go right ahead." “That’s very enlightened of you, Dr. Glass,” I said. He laughed again. “In fact," he said, ‘‘I’ve got a story of my own for you. This is just to show you how some people think.”
Glass said it took him months to negotiate an option/purchase agreement with Miranda’s partner, a man called George. “It was nerve-wracking,” said Glass. “George was such an eccentric guy, plus he was a very shrewd businessman.” The final agreement gave Glass and his partners an option to purchase the hotel. That option — which cost $50,000 — gave them time to raise the money to buy the place.
At the end of the option, if they still hadn’t raised the money, the agreement gave them the right to pay another $50,000 to extend the option — to buy more time to raise the cash to purchase the hotel. At the end of the first option, Glass and his partners still didn’t have the money to buy the place, so Glass wrote George a check for another $50,000 and sent it off to him. George sent the check back. Glass called George’s lawyer. "What is this?" Glass asked. “George sent back the check. He can’t do that. We have an agreement. He has to accept it.” “I know, I know,” said the lawyer, "but you know how George is.” "I know how George is, but he still has to abide by the agreement. What’s the problem?” “The problem,” said the lawyer, “is that George just talked with his partner, and his partner told him not to sell.” “His partner?” said Glass. “Miranda’s been dead for months.” “I know,” said the lawyer. “But according to George, Vince showed up one night. He made it very plain to George. He said, ‘George, whatever you do, don’t sell the hotel. Whatever you do — don’t sell it.’ ”
Glass looked at me and laughed. “There you go, Mike. That’s my story. George finally did take the money. He even helped us finance the deal, but,” Glass’s eyes twinkled, “his partner nearly spooked it.” “This guy ought to be on TV,” I thought. I stood up and we shook hands. “Thanks for everything, Dr. Glass,” I said. By then it was nearly dinnertime. I walked down to Anthony’s and ordered some fried squid. I thought it might help my cholesterol.
I took a long walk after that, trying to make sense of everything I’d heard: the horses, the porn star, and the dead resident manager, maybe a he, maybe a she; Miranda being in two places at once, then giving business advice from beyond the grave. Whatever had happened — if it had happened — had centered around 264, but 264 had become a jury deliberation room, and the whole hotel had been either Zolotoned into respectability or leased to Burger King. It was after sundown when I walked back into the lobby. Consuelo was still on duty. An old woman dressed in a housekeeper’s uniform was leaning against the front desk as if it were a bar. She was smoking a cigarette and talking with Consuelo. Consuelo gave me one of her smiles; the old lady turned and looked at me as if I were in the wrong place.
“Oh, Mr. Lesy,” said Consuelo, “I want you to meet someone.” She turned to the old lady. The old woman had hair like a scouring pad. Her face had lines in it that might have been cut with a wood chisel. “This is Alice Faye," said Consuelo. As I came close I caught a whiff of her: she smelled like an ashtray. Alice looked at me and nodded. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. From the front, she looked like a leprechaun. "Alice,” I said. “I'm very glad to meet you. Fabian’s told me a little about you.” Alice frowned when she heard Fabian’s name. “He said you knew Mr. Miranda.” Alice watched me through the smoke of her cigarette. "He also said that you didn’t like to talk to people.” "It depends who they are and what they want,” she said. “I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m here to write about this hotel. I’m not here to get anyone in trouble. If you want to talk to me, fine. If not, not.”
Consuelo turned to take an incoming call. Alice kept looking at me through her cigarette smoke. Then she started coughing — the thick, phlegmy coughs of someone with chronic bronchitis. She bent double, came up for air, bent double again, came up, then went down once more. By the time the coughing had stopped, her face had turned red then white. “You OK?” I asked. “What’s it look like?” she said. I waited. She put out her cigarette and took a long look at me. “So you want to know about Vince Miranda?" she said. “A couple of things," I answered. She cocked her head and gave me a wink. She looked even more like a leprechaun. “OK,” she said. We walked over to the same couch where Consuelo and I had sat.
“First of all,” I said, “I understand that Mr. Miranda had a house in LA?" “That he did,” said Alice and lit another cigarette. “But that, when he was in San Diego, he always stayed in 264.” “He didn’t start doing that,” said Alice, “until after Don Wortman died. Wortman lived in 264. Mr. Miranda stayed up on the sixth floor. In room 666." I’d never heard of Wortman, and Miranda’s room number was straight out of the book of Revelation. I didn’t know what question to ask first.
“Don who?” I said. "Wortman,” said Alice. “Two sixty-four was his home. You should have seen it: theater posters, leopard skins, stuffed animals, you couldn’t hardly walk, the place was so full. He did it all. He decorated it. He decorated the whole hotel. All the antiques, the restaurant, everything." She looked across the lobby at the phone booth. “The confessional, the stained glass windows. He even put pictures of himself and Mr. Miranda up behind the bar. He had taste, though. He chose all the stuff, did all the work. He made this place look like something special.” “I thought Mr. Miranda was the one who did it all,” I said. “No,” said Alice. “Wortman did. Mr. Miranda paid for it, but this whole hotel — the way it looked — Wortman did that. Mr. Miranda just wrote the checks.”
“So much for what Consuelo and Biggers told me,” I thought. “This Wortman,” I said, “was he a resident manager?” Alice shook her head. “No. He was a theater director. That’s what he did. Mr. Miranda owned movie houses and theaters. Wortman was a theater director and an interior decorator. He worked for Mr. Miranda. But they were friends.” “And he lived in 264?” I asked. “I just told you, didn’t I? Wortman lived in 264. After he got killed, Mr. Miranda moved downstairs. He started staying there when he came to town. Used to have parties there.” “Fabian’s story was half-accurate," I thought. “Someone had been murdered. But he wasn’t the hotel manager.”
“How did Wortman die?” I asked. “From what I hear,” said Alice, "he went up to San Bernardino to visit his family. This was in ’81. It was New Year’s. He went out for a drink, picked up a guy in a bar. Wortman and Mr. Miranda were both faggots. Mr. Miranda used to pick up Marines. Used to introduce them to people as his nephews. Mr. Miranda had lots of nephews. Anyway — Wortman picked up some guy and took him home. Back to his sister’s house is what I heard. Can you imagine? His sister comes home and finds her brother between the bed and the wall with his neck broke. You talk about rough trade.” Alice looked at me and cackled. Then she started coughing again.
Once she recovered, I asked, "Did they ever catch the guy?” “Oh yeah. They caught him, but they didn’t have enough to convict him." “So — Wortman didn’t die in the hotel?" Alice gave me a hard look. “Don’t you listen? I thought writers were supposed to be smart. I just told you: he died up in San Bernardino.” “Sorry,” I said. “What happened to his room after he died?" “The hotel turned it into a guest suite.” “And Mr. Miranda?" “He never liked that 666 upstairs. He was superstitious. He said the number was a bad number. So he moved into 264. Plus, he redid the hotel bar. Got rid of those pictures of himself and Wortman. Like I said, he was superstitious.” “But he never lived in 264?” Alice looked exasperated. “Are you some kind of dummy? I told you. Mr. Miranda had a mansion in LA. Why should he want to live in a hotel?”
I apologized again. “I really am sorry,” I said. “I’m just confused. People have been telling me all sorts of stories.” "Who’s been telling you?” “Fabian,” I said. Alice made a face. “Don’t believe anything that bean eater tells you.” “That what?” I said. “Bean eater. Bean eater" said Alice. “Where are you from, anyway?” When I told her, she snorted.
“Who else has been telling you stuff?” “Mr. Biggers,” I said. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “What’s babyface been saying?” “He said Mr. Miranda started out here as a bellman.” Alice looked like someone had just shot her in the back. She started to guffaw, then she began to chortle, then she cackled, then she started coughing. Once she could breathe again, she said, “That’s the goddamn funniest thing I ever heard. He said Mr. Miranda was a bellman? Here? Biggers’s been here less than a year. He don’t know shit.” “But he showed me Mr. Miranda’s picture.” Alice looked at me like I’d just said I could fly. "He did, did he?” I nodded. She stood up. “Why don’t you just show it to me.”
I led her down the hall to the bellman photograph. I pointed to the man Biggers had pointed out. “Impossible,” said Alice. "Biggers is just telling you shit cause he wants publicity for this place. He wants it to be like the Horton Grand.” I didn’t know what that was, but I decided not to interrupt. “Mr. Miranda was never a bellman,” said Alice. “Not here or anywhere. He started out as a cook. When he was in the Navy. In Hawaii. He never worked in this place till he bought it. Then he pitched in along with everyone else. He was a great guy.”
“So much for what I learned in the past two days,” I thought. The hotel did have a mythology, and 264 remained an important part in it, but Miranda seemed less and less likely to be the ghost who haunted it. If there was a ghost, it belonged to Wortman. Whoever he was. Alice and I walked back to the lobby. She lit another cigarette. So far I hadn't said anything about ghosts, and neither had she. "Alice,” I said. “Let me get this straight: Wortman died in 1981?” “Yeah,” she said. “Then Mr. Miranda died. In 1985?” “That’s right,” she said. “What killed him?” Alice waved her cigarette at me. "Throat cancer,” she said. “He smoked like a chimney. He didn’t like dying." "No one does," I said. “Which is why, I guess, it makes sense what everyone says about him coming back to haunt this place."
Alice looked me in the eye. In a cool, calm, level voice, she said, "Someone’s been jerking you around, bright boy." “I thought that might be the case," I said, “but I wanted to ask your opinion." "There aren’t no ghosts in this place," said Alice. “I ought to know. I’ve been here, day and night, on and off, since 1973. I would’ve seen ’em. Who’s been telling you this shit?" "Aaron Biggers,” I said. Alice made a farting noise with her mouth. "Fabian," I said. Alice made the same noise. “Consuelo." Alice didn’t make a sound. "Consuelo’s a lovely girl,” said Alice, "but she’s a little short on experience. Biggers is just trying to get you to write something to bring in the tourists. And Fabian — all those bean eaters, they’re just lazy. They make up ghost stories just so they won’t have to clean rooms. Don’t you believe a one of ’em.”
Alice sighed and stood up to leave. She was so sure of herself and her prejudices, so crude and so explicit that, besides Glass, she was the most believable person I’d met. “Alice,” I said, “if there was a ghost....’’ She looked at me as if I were dumb and crazy. I continued. “If there was one and the choice was between Wortman and Mr. Miranda — who would it be?" Alice snorted. “Wortman,” she said. "He was more of a faggot. Mr. Miranda owned this place, but Wortman loved it. It was like he was playing house." I was going to say something else, but she waved me off and walked away.
I spent the next day on the phone, talking to newspaper reporters. Whether or not Wortman or Miranda were ghosts, they seemed to have been the principal actors in the hotel just before it became a square on a Monopoly board. All I knew about them was gossip, full of contradictions. What newspaper reporters could tell me was a different kind of hearsay, but at least reporters had professional pretensions to accuracy. The first man I talked to had started out as a city-planning bureaucrat during the redevelopment controversies in the 70s. He had met Miranda then because Miranda and his partner — as Biggers had told me — owned parts of what eventually became the site of Horton Plaza shopping center. The reporter didn’t want to be quoted for attribution. “I’ll give you background,” he said. “You take it from there." “Agreed,” I said, and in the well-modulated voice of someone who knew the price of everything, the reporter told me his version of events.
"Those guys were outlaws,” he said. “Outsiders. They had a fundamentally different take on what a city was and what it was supposed to be and do than the people who ran city hall. They took on the Establishment and tweaked its nose. The big guys wanted everything squeaky clean; a nice, safe place for them and their friends to make money. Vince liked the old stuff. He thought it had character. So he ended up on the side of the preservationists."
“But Miranda was a pornographer," I said. “He and the preservationists must have made strange bedfellows." “That’s an odd choice of words." said the reporter, “but you’re right. A lot of people assumed that Vince and his partner were connected with the Mob. Not that they were major players, just local reps for the people in LA. Porn wasn’t exactly legal, but it wasn’t exactly illegal either. Plus, it was a cash business. It generated a lot of cash and — if you needed to — you could flush a lot of money through it from a lot of different sources. After Miranda died, I tried to find out the provisions of his will, but they’d done a good job of keeping things hidden. I think everything ended up in the hands of his partner.”
"What about Miranda himself?” I asked. “What kind of a guy was he?" “He talked like a crook,” said the reporter. “He looked like a crook; he acted like a crook. He drank too much; smoked too much. Drove a Rolls and a Bentley. Drove them himself.” (“So much for Consuelo’s brother-in-law” I thought to myself.) “He wasn’t a big guy, but he came on tough, like a Damon Runyon character.” “And Wortman?” I asked.
“A coarse, rough-edged guy,” said the reporter. “Dark eyes and a beard. Used to load this old Cadillac full of furniture he’d buy at estate sales. He had a great eye. He had an amazing collection of old show biz posters up in his apartment in the hotel.” The reporter paused to think. “That’s who you ought to talk to,” he said. “Welton Jones. Jones knew both those guys. Call Jones. He can tell you a lot more than I can." I said I didn’t know who Jones was. Saying that in San Diego was like someone in New York wondering out loud what the Statue of Liberty was. “Welton Jones!" said the reporter. "You don’t know who Welton Jones is? He’s a San Diego institution! He’s the theater critic for the Union! ”
When I called Jones, I discovered that trying to interview a local institution —who knew he was a local institution — was different from talking to an ordinary civilian. Not that Jones wouldn’t speak with me. As soon as I told him I was trying to find out about Don Wortman and Vince Miranda, the man wouldn’t stop talking. The problem came early on, when I tried to interrupt to ask a question. “Let me speak, goddamn it," he snapped. “Let me finish. If you say one more goddamn word to me, if you interrupt me once more, I’m going to hang up! You just keep your mouth shut and your ears open and you might learn something.” Since he was a local version of a great man, and I was still almost as ignorant as I’d been when I’d first spoken with Aaron Biggers, I did as he ordered. For the next 90 minutes, the words came out of Jones like water from a high-pressure hose. Opinions he declared as facts; facts he pronounced like edicts. Occasionally, I’d venture a timid question, but only to let him know what a fool I was.
“Miranda came from Northern California somewhere,” said Jones. "During the Second War, he served as a cook in the Coast Guard in Hawaii.” How he got started selling pornography, Jones didn’t know, but sometime in the early 70s, he bought an old theater at Third and F, called the Hollywood Burlesque. He renamed it the Off-Broadway. He ran it as a legitimate theater. “No tits and ass,” said Jones. “Musical comedy.” Miranda didn’t produce anything himself: he leased the theater to people who did. He functioned as a landlord/impresario: under his ownership, producers staged Anything Goes and Guys and Dolls; the road company of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown performed there. The shows were so good that the Chamber of Commerce presented Miranda with a key to the city — not for showing dirty movies, but for fostering theater downtown.
In ‘73, Miranda leased the theater to a man named Hartzog. Hartzog hired Don Wortman as his producer. “And that was the beginning of a love/hate relationship,” said Jones. “Between Miranda and Hartzog?" I asked. “No! No!" said Jones. “Between Miranda and Wortman! Miranda was a restless guy. He’d flit from one project to another. Wortman was always one step ahead of him. He always had a project waiting — a project he knew Vince would like. And a project that Don wanted to do. They were very catty about each other — very bitchy — but they worked well together.”
“Tell me about Wortman,” I said. “I was about to, if you’d only keep your mouth shut,” said Jones. “His father was a German Jew; his mother a Syrian one. Talk about a combination,” said Jones. “You just know that couldn’t last.” The father left early; the mother doted on her son; the boy had a voice; the mother took him to auditions; Donny became a kid actor. After high school, he got a job with a department store in San Bernardino as an interior decorator. Then he left for New York. He met Josh Logan there. “Who was he?” I asked. "Christ!" said Jones. “Josh Logan was the original producer of South Pacific. That’s how Wortman got his start: he fucked his way up the ladder. He started out as an under-age chorus boy. He had a nice ass. He got the role of the professor. That show made him. It was his career show. He stayed with it until it closed on Broadway.”
Then The King and I opened. Wortman heard about auditions for a road company. He shaved his head, bought the wardrobe, and got the part of the king, but it was a road-show part. It was a step down from South Pacific. He burnt out, came back to New York, and started his own agency. His big-name client was Shirley Jones — the original Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. He specialized in what he called his “ladies” — film actresses who had begun to fade after 20 years in front of the cameras — Hollywood stars like Lana Turner, Dorothy Lamour, Ann Miller, at one point, even Lauren Bacall. He got them stage roles in summer stock. He booked them all over the country. He became known as the King of Summer Stock. He did well: he had 15 people working for him; he moved from a brownstone in Greenwich Village to a penthouse on the East Side.
Then he got restless — he wanted to produce. He did one show. ‘‘I don’t know what it was,” said Jones. "All I know is, he took it to New Zealand — where it died.” He went broke. He spent a month lying on a beach in Hawaii wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Then the Famous Agency called him from Hollywood: would he be interested in doing the same thing for them as he did in New York? He moved into a bungalow in Beverly Hills and became the King of Summer Stock — West. But he got bored again. Which is why he ended up in San Diego, producing for the man who leased the Off-Broadway from Miranda.
In ‘75 Miranda closed the Off-Broadway and turned it into the Pussycat Cinema. Wortman talked him into staging one last live production before Deep Throat began. "I think it was called Take It Off,” said Jones. “It featured Georgina Spellman, who had starred — if you want to call it that — in The Devil in Miss Jones. To give you some idea: she was backed by a chorus line of boys in jockstraps. Leather jockstraps. It was dreadful. It brought out the worst in everyone."
On Halloween night 1975 (“Why Halloween?” I wondered), Wortman opened the Broadway Dinner Theater in the Continental Room in the basement of Miranda’s Hotel San Diego. ‘‘Don did a terrific production of Cabaret,” said Jones. He did Fiddler on the Roof; he did Sound of Music; he did South Pacific. He did ten shows in all. The room sat 400. It served food and liquor. Miranda closed it in 1977 — the same year he opened the Backstage Restaurant in the Commodore Hotel, next door to the Pussycat Cinema.
Wortman took the repertory company from the Broadway and recast them in a revue called Toppers at the Backstage. “It was cute,” said Jones. “Singing waiters and waitresses. They’d be serving you drinks one minute and be up on stage the next." The Backstage became a political hangout. "It became the place to be for city hall and newspaper people. It didn’t hurt that to get to the restroom, you had to walk through the lobby of the Pussycat. People used to joke about guys taking 40-minute pisses.” Miranda lost interest in the place in 79. (“Every two years,” I thought to myself.)
“Meanwhile — Wortman was living in the Hotel San Diego?” I asked. “Of course he was!” said Jones. “He redid the whole hotel. Where else would he live?" I could think of other answers, but instead I asked a question. “What was his apartment like?” I asked. It was the only time Jones was at a loss for words. “I can’t describe it,” he said. “It was — a whore’s dream. No. Better than that — it was like an upscale Beverly Hills antique shop. When MGM auctioned off its props from Culver City, Don bought a lot of their stuff. His bed came from there. He said it came from the set of Cleopatra. He was always buying things, changing things, rearranging things. He redecorated the whole hotel, room by room. Every room was different. The lobby alone — the chandeliers came from an old Hollywood movie theater. The front desk came from a pharmacy in Spain. The bar was straight out of World War II. He even had four packs of wartime Lucky Strike Greens framed on the wall.”
I interrupted. I couldn’t let the moment pass: “I understand he also had some framed photos of himself and Miranda in naval uniforms." “Who the hell ever told you that?” Jones said. “Miranda never was in the Navy. And that picture of Wortman was from South Pacific.” I knew I was taking a chance, but I kept going: “The whole place sounds so theatrical," I said, “like a collection of props and stage sets: a bed from Cleopatra, chandeliers from a movie house, a publicity still from a Broadway show, a bar out of World War II inside a hotel that was built in 1911."
Jones exploded. ”Jesus Christ!” he said. “Who in the hell did you say you were working for?" I told him. “No wonder!" he said. “You’re so typical with your bullshit ideas. ‘Stage set!’ You don’t know what you’re talking about. Have you ever heard of the Horton Grand?” I had, but I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t know what it was. “Yes,” I said. "Well, then," he said. “That’s your stage set. That’s a bastard piece of architectural make-believe if there ever was one. They tore down the original hotel and put the facade in crates. Then they tore down another building and put that façade in crates. Then they built a whole new building, stuck the old facades on the outside of it, and had the gall to call it the Horton Grand. It’s no more the Horton Grand than Main Street in Disneyland was once a road. It’s a hoax. It’s a Laura Ashley fake. It’s a complete stage set. They even claim they’ve got a ghost! Talk about a fake!”
Jones took a few breaths. “I’m sorry," I said. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” He exploded again. “Upset!” he said. “I’ve had just about enough of your goddamn condescension. Do you know anything at all about this city? Have you ever heard of the Del Coronado?" “Yes," I said. “That’s real,” said Jones. “That’s authentic. That’s a truly grand hotel. Don was trying for that. Of course he couldn’t succeed. There was no way he could succeed. But he tried. The Hotel San Diego was as real as the Coronado. The Coronado was for outsiders. It was and it is. It’s for tourists. But the Hotel San Diego was where everyone in town of any consequence had their meetings and luncheons. It’s where lawyers met; it’s where people did business. It was the city's hotel. It was a civic institution. A meeting place. The Coronado was where the tourists came. The Hotel San Diego was for the people who lived here.”
Jones’s voice grew quieter. "Those guys were so alive,” he said. “Wortman was amazing, covered with tattoos, smoking a cigarette, those dark eyes drilling into you. Those guys really had balls. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not gay, but I felt something for the two of them. Don got murdered; Vince died of cancer, and the hotel got sold. I went to one of the last auctions. I was standing there looking at a lamp. I remembered when Don had bought it. One of the auctioneers came up. ‘You know anything about this stuff?’ he said. I lied. ‘No,’ I said. ‘It all belonged to the guy who used to own this hotel.’ ‘Really,’ I said. ‘Yeah,’ said the auctioneer. ‘In fact, he started out as a bellman here.’ I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I walked away. It was as if everything those two guys had done, everything they’d tried to do, even who they were, had all vanished into thin air.” I didn’t have the heart to tell Jones what had happened to Wortman’s apartment. I asked him if he could recommend anyone else I might talk to. He mentioned a few names and said good-bye.
One of the people he mentioned was Charlie Combs, a member of the repertory company that Wortman had carried with him from the Broadway in the basement of the hotel to the Backstage next to the Pussycat. When I called Combs to ask about Wortman, he answered with the even, affable voice of an announcer, the no-problem-have-a-n ice-day voice of a tenor that must have made him a most agreeable singing bartender — which is what he’d been during his time in Wortman’s Toppers.
“Those days,” he said, "those days were the best times of my life. I can remember standing backstage between scenes, looking up at the ceiling, just thanking my lucky stars for the chance to have been there.” He’d met and married his wife in that show; ten other cast members had met and married as well. “Don was magic,” Combs said. “He could do it. He could make things happen. He had the power to make you believe, just for a moment, just before the curtain went up, just before you went out there, that what you were doing was real, that it wasn’t just an illusion, that you really were who you were pretending to be.”
“It’s funny you should use the word magic,” I said, “because I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about Wortman making — how shalt I say — some recent guest appearances at the hotel.” “You mean, like, Don as a ghost?” “That’s exactly what I mean.” "Well,” said Combs, “I’m not surprised.” “You’re the first person I’ve talked to who’s said that.” “Well,” he said, “I’m not surprised at all. Don believed in all that stuff. He used to hold seances — up in his apartment and over at the Off-Broadway. Did anyone ever tell you about that pack of Lucky Strike Greens?” “All I heard was that he had four packs of them framed behind the bar in the hotel.” Combs laughed. "Those?” he said. “Those were fakes. He painted those. They weren’t real.” (“So,” I thought, “maybe I was right about the hotel as a stage set.”) “No,” Combs continued, “the pack I’m talking about was so real, it was spooky.
“I can’t remember if it was during or just after a performance of Gypsy, but a pack of Luckies came floating down from the fly loft onto the stage. Shook people up. Lucky Greens hadn’t been produced since the ’40s. Don held a seance in the theater after that. He was sure it was haunted. And he always said the hotel was spooked. ‘Spooked’ was his word. Sometimes he’d get really scared. His friend Holly used to tell me.
“Holly was his oldest friend. They grew up together. She was part of the company at the Broadway. After performances, she used to stay upstairs, in the hotel. She used to tell me: Don would call her room in the middle of the night. ‘Holly,’ he’d say. ‘Come down quick, I’m dying. I’m going to die. I don’t want to die alone.’ She was the only one with a key to his apartment. She’d rush down and let herself in. He’d tell her for the 100th time where he’d hidden his jewelry, where he’d hidden this, where he’d hidden that. She’d sit with him and tell him he was being silly and calm him down until he fell asleep, then she’d go back upstairs to bed.”
“Tell me what he was like, physically," I said. “Don wasn’t a big man," said Combs, “but he had a presence. He was stocky, but he had broad shoulders. Receding hair, but he had a full beard. Dark hair, dark eyes. He had plastic surgery on his eyes." “On his eyes?” I said. “Yeah. He said they were too baggy. So he had ’em tucked. By the same guy who worked on Ann-Margret’s legs after her traffic accident.” (“Wortman must not have known about Dr. Glass,” I thought.) “What did he usually wear?” I asked. “Levis and a black-and-white striped, short-sleeve shirt. Black was his color. He had a black robe with gold piping he used to wear at home. On opening nights he’d dress up.” “How so?” “Like a banker. Very well cut suits. French cuffs. Very class looking.”
“And Miranda?” I asked. “Oh,” said Combs. “I don’t have anything good to say about him. He never showed respect for any of us, so we never showed respect for him. He used to sign the checks, but we all worked for Don. Miranda would come in and order Campari and soda. He’d drink until closing time, then pour himself into his Rolls. I don’t know what he was like at other times in his life, but when I knew him, he was just an unhappy, sour drunk.” “And Wortman’s apartment?” I asked. “An amazing place," said Combs. “It was his lair. It was sort of enchanted.” “How’d you like to see it now?” I asked. “Sure,” said Combs. “Great,” I said. “I’ll meet you by the front desk of the hotel in 30 minutes.”
Combs wasn’t as well groomed as his voice. He ran a silkscreen business and had come from work. He looked around at the beige-and-white color scheme of the lobby. “This place has changed a little since I was here,” he said. "Wait until you see Wortman’s room,” I said. We walked down the hall to the guard post at the foot of the stairs. A man I hadn't seen before was on duty. He gave us a professionally blank look. “Can I help you gentlemen?” he said. I explained who I was and what I was doing. I mentioned Biggers and Glass for references. “Say again what you’re doing?” asked the guard. I explained once more. "Right,” he said. “Just a minute.”
He keyed his radio and called the front desk. The front desk called Biggers. Biggers was out of town. Glass wasn’t in his office. “Look,” I said. “All we want to do is get a look at the Miranda Suite. Can you open it up?” The guard gave me an even blanker look. “I can’t do that, sir. Court’s in session.” Combs looked as puzzled as I’d been when I’d first heard that line. “They turned Wortman’s apartment into a jury deliberation room,” I said. “A what?” Combs said. “A jury deliberation room,” I said. “They stripped it to the walls.” “If I was Don, I’d be a little pissed,” said Combs. “I’ll bet he’s rolling over in his grave.”
The guard listened as Combs spoke. I looked up the stairs. “So — Wortman’s room was up there on the second floor,” I said. “Yeah,” said Combs. “And the Broadway Dinner Theater — where was that?” I asked. Combs nodded at the descending staircase behind the guard’s desk. “Right down those stairs in the basement. All Don had to do was walk down two flights to get to work.” I asked the guard if it was OK to go down the stairs. His face wasn’t as blank as it had been. “Sure, go ahead,” he said. Combs and I walked down. There was another guard post at the foot of the stairs. "San Diego Court House Annex/Municipal Court,” read the sign. “These are all courtrooms,” I said. Combs looked bemused. “All this used to be open space,” he said. "The bar was over there. The stage was through those walls. Everything’s changed. It’s strange.” “I’ll bet,” I said.
We walked back up the stairs, past the guard. "It’s so different,” Combs said. We shook hands. The guard looked on. “Thanks for coming,” I said. “Do you want me to walk you out?” “No. That’s still the same.” As Combs walked away, I thought, “Maybe Wortman’s not just rolling over in his grave. I guess I’d be upset too. Upset enough, maybe, to come back every once in a while to let people know what they’d done.”
"Excuse me, sir” said the guard. I’d been standing in the hall, watching Combs walk away, thinking about ghostly revenge. I looked over at the guard. “Are you the writer who’s been asking people about Mr. Miranda’s ghost?" "Sort of,” I said. “I don’t know if it’s him or not, but you’re right: I’m the writer who’s been asking people questions.” “You should have said so,” said the guard. “I’m John Bouis. I saw him while I was on duty.” "You?” I said. “It was right before the earthquake.” “Are you the former border patrolman?” I asked. Bouis nodded. “Mr. Biggers mentioned that you’d seen something.” “I sure did.” “Go ahead and tell me.” Bouis nodded again.
“Like I said, it was just before the earthquake. I was sitting right here, and I felt this prickly feeling on the back of my neck, like someone was looking at me.” “Uh-huh,” I said. “So I looked up and I saw this old guy standing up there.” Bouis pointed at the landing of the stairs. “He was standing there, looking at me. I looked down at my desk, then I looked back up at him, but — he was gone. He’d just,” Bouis snapped his fingers, “disappeared. I can remember thinking to myself, ‘How could he have moved so fast?’ ’Cause it looked like he was headed down, but then he wasn’t there. It was like two beats — boom-boom — and he was gone. Then, all of a sudden, everyone started running out of the courtrooms. In a panic. I thought they’d seen the ghost.”
“You mean the old man you’d just seen?” “Yeah,” said Bouis. “Only they hadn’t. It was an earthquake. Where I was sitting, I hadn’t felt it, but it had started the chandeliers shaking and everything. So everyone ran." Bouis looked at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Now tell me again about this person you saw. He was an old man?" “Not old old," said Bouis. “Middle-aged." (“Wortman had been in his 40s when he’d been killed,” I remembered.) “What did he look like?" I asked. “White-haired. Going bald.” “Any beard?” I asked. “Clean shaven.” (“So much for Wortman” I thought. “Unless he died then went to a barber.”) “Height?” I asked. “Average," said Bouis. “Fat? Thin?" “Sort of stocky.” “Dressed?” “Dark grey suit.” Bouis looked at me again. “Thanks,” I said. We nodded to each other. I walked back to the lobby. I looked at the floor and thought.
“Whoever Bouis saw,” I thought, “it wasn’t Wortman and it wasn’t Miranda. It would have been great if it had been Wortman — commuting to work. But it wasn’t. So — what the hell is going on?” "Mr. Lesy?” someone said. I looked up. It was Consuelo. “Good morning, Consuelo,” I said. “I have a message here for you, Mr. Lesy. Alice asked me to give this to you.” “Thank you very much, Consuelo.” I unfolded the call slip. "Clarence," it read, then a phone number. “Consuelo,” I said. “Do you know anything about this?” I handed the note back to her. She read it.
“ ‘Clarence?’ ” she said. “The only Clarence I know is the Clarence who used to work here. Alice knows him. He was here a long time.” She handed the note back to me. “What the hell," I thought. “I’ll call Clarence. I don’t know what else to do.”
I went to a pay phone and made the call. A woman answered. I introduced myself. I said Alice had told me to call. The woman didn’t say anything. She put the phone down, and a few seconds later a man answered. “Yeah?” he said. "I’m calling Clarence,” I said. "You got him,” he answered. He had the gravelly voice of a blues singer.
“Clarence,” I said. “I don’t know who you are, but I got a note from Alice at the Hotel San Diego to call you.” "Yeah, I know,” he said. “What you want?” I thought for a second. “I don’t know, Clarence. I’d like to find out a little about you. Then I want to ask you about the hotel. I understand you worked there a long time.” “Twenty-five years,” he said. “What did you do?” I asked. “A little of this and a little of that. I did everything that needed to be done.” “Were you a bellman?” “You don’t need to know,” he said. “You don’t need to know nothing about me. You don’t even need to know my name.” “It is Clarence, isn’t it?" “It’ll do,” he said. “What I’m going to tell you, it don’t matter.” "Fine,” I said. “What do you want to tell me?”
Clarence didn’t say anything for a bit. Then he said, “What I want to tell you is, don’t believe anything those assholes tell you. There ain’t no ghosts there. That’s just something they cooked up after Miranda died. Those guys — they don’t know what they’re doing. They ain’t running a hotel. They’re just running something to make themselves money. They’re not running a hotel.” “And why is that?” I asked. “ ’Cause after they bought the place,” he said, "they just fired everyone. There was more than 100 people working there. People who had been there a long time. And they just fired everyone.” "Did they fire you?" I asked. "They didn’t have the guts,” he said. “They put me part-time in the gift shop. A man can’t make a living working part-time in no gift shop I quit.”
“Is there anyone left from before?” “No one but Alice," he said, “and they got her on part-time. They fired everyone. They fired everyone or they quit ’cause those people just don’t care about the place. All they care about is their pocketbooks.”
Clarence kept talking about the assholes who’d fired him, but I stopped listening. Not because what he said was a long, bitter complaint. I’d heard more than one bitter complaint since I’d started asking questions about the hotel. I stopped listening because I suddenly realized where the ghosts had come from. I waited for Clarence to take a breath, then I thanked him and said goodbye. I hung up the phone, sat in the booth, and stared at the opposite wall.
“They fired everyone,” I thought. They weren’t villains, but they’d fired everyone. They’d cored the place out. Economic necessity. The Convention Center. The bottom line. Cash flow problems. Overcapacity. All that, so they’d fired everyone. Everyone who had any memory of the place. Any memory of the place before they’d bought it and any memory of the place before Miranda and his partner had bought it. They’d fired the collective memory of the hotel. That’s what those 110 people were, the staff of the gift shop, the restaurant, the bar and the liquor store, the housekeepers, the bellmen, the laundry workers, and the kitchen crew, all those people — they’d purged the collective memory of the hotel. Lobotornized it. Emptied it and reamed it. Zolotoned and sublet it.
Then they hired new people. There were still a few old-timers left: Alice, Fabian, maybe a few others. The new people asked the old people, “What is this place?" The old people told them. Then some of the new ones were fired. Fired or quit. And more new people came. They asked the ones who remained, “What is this place?” And the ones who remained told them. But what they told them was only a part of the whole story, only a fraction of the whole truth. As one group of employees succeeded another, the story of the place, its true history, was told and retold; but with each retelling, the story grew more and more remote from the original facts. It was like a child’s game of telephone: 20 kids stand in line; the first kid whispers a word into the ear of the second kid. “Apple,” says the first kid. By the time the last kid hears it, whispered into her ear, it sounds like “antler.”
That was pan of it, then: stories were distorted in transmission. But there was more: the ghost stories weren’t just the result of poor communication. The hotel had been stripped of its special identity. It had become a barren place. Interchangeable with a thousand others. Question: if human beings are confined to barren places, cells or stalls or cubicles, what do they do? Answer: they scribble on the walls. That’s what those ghost stories were: they were graffiti. They were the natural reaction of human imaginations to the pastel walls of an empty place. The ghost stories were decorations. They were efforts to transform the emptiness. And what better materials to use than the reputations of two such men as Miranda and Wortman? Both were sexual outlaws. Both were people who traded in illusions. Wortman made plays and stage sets; Miranda sold sexual arousal made from pictures.
Combs said Wortman had “magic.” Welton Jones had spoken of both men as being “so alive.” In fact they were so alive, they were so “magical,” they were so charged with illicit energy that when they died, their reputations survived them. The memories of these men became the colors that the people who worked in the hotel used to spray-paint the walls of a place that had become a square in a game board.
Finally: no matter what the new owners did, the hotel remained the hotel. It had a past — an immediate past embodied in men like Miranda and Wortman, and a more distant past, connected with a time when all the important people in the city of San Diego came and went through its lobby. Miranda was no preservationist, and Wortman was no historian of the decorative arts. They were both opportunists and fabricators. Counterfeiters. But they’d paid more attention to the past than Dr. Glass and his limited partners. The new owners were intent only on the future. Just like the rest of the city. If there were any ghosts in the hotel, they were rumors of its past. What haunted the place was ignorance of its own history.
I stood up from the phone booth and walked back to the lobby. I'd spent ten days and ten nights in the hotel and hadn’t seen a single ghost. Consuelo was still behind the desk. She looked at me and smiled. “I wonder if she’s doing anything after work,” I thought.