Think of these essays as acts of preservation.
These are places that deserve, if not your patronage, at least your respect. While not stylish, they embody a certain solid style. They are stubborn totems of our city's pre-suburban past. These are scenes where Raymond Chandler would have lingered, a Southern California James M. Cain would have written home to Baltimore about. These are not simple pleasures.
The Chee-Chee Club
"It's crazy, crazy! Boyly girls. Girly boys!" wheezes Gummo. "Come here an’ see. I'll be here. I'll be here." The geezer drifts over, stool by stool, furtively closing in on some youngish knob.
Guess I'm to blame for my predicament. I listened to him. Answered a question or two. Even let him punctuate a sentence by punching my arm. Now he’s starting to drool.
Chee-Chee's at 3:00 p.m. Self-hatred, failure, perversion line the old queers' faces. They're all here. Sailors who never left port. Scraggly hustlers trading butt for drugs. A couple middle-aged fatties sporting that perversely youthful, corrupt, no-chin visage that is normally seen on actors playing Nero or on extras in Fellini's Roman epics. One of them, in fact, wears a polyester shirt with "La Dolce Vita" printed in script all over it. The entire Chee-Chee clientele is burrowing away from the accusing eye of the San Diego sun.
It's a game: taking in the scene while avoiding the greedy glances of the regulars.
"Drink! Drink!" Gummo hollers, slamming his glass on the counter. The shrunken barkeep, spine wasting from disease, yells back, drifts off. "Ah sonofabitch!" grumbles Gummo.
Two shambling kids rack up the billiard balls, make like they're masturbating their cue sticks.
"Gamflimma shmurtnagoo ranee ranee," Gummo rasps, as he attempts my seduction in nonsense syllables uttered sotto voce.
Looking nervous, constantly checking out his back, a 50ish black businessman in penny loafers and suit whispers into a pockmarked tweaker's ear.
Barkeep sets the gin and tonic down in front of me, fetches change, shouts back at a whining Gummo. "Shut up, just shut up!" he snaps. Gummo sags, deflated. 'Nnnot a nice guy, Nono."
Something oily floats on top of my drink. The tonic does not overwhelm the rotgut. I glug, Gummo approves: "Yes, yes. Frimflup!"
La Dolce Vita and friends hog the view at the front window, eyeing the foot traffic on Broadway. A teen-age Farrakhanite wearing an Africa medallion peers into the bar and suddenly presses his lips and tongue to the windowglass. The Popeyes whinny appreciatively.
Baseball on the 19-inch TV provokes another outburst from Gummo.
"Went to the game. Padres, yeah. Padres. Fags. Yeah. Went to the game. Frimflup! You go to games? Fags?"
Sign above the bar reads WE DO NOT SERVE MINORS.
Gummo's rancid breath hits me like a diseased monsoon. I shake off his paw and, screwing up my courage, take my first good look at his face. One side is permanently twisted up into a leer. All the teeth are gone, parched septuagenarian lips drawn over the gums. Rheumy, cataract-clouded eyes are partially hidden by the brim of a baseball cap. "Mmmphhh Ha-ha. Senior citizens ... senior citizens, you know. Senior citizens, we know what to do. WE KNOW WHAT TO DO!"
"What is it you know what to do?" I ask.
"Sonofabitch, you SONOFABITCH, don't fuck with me, you sonofabitch, SONOFABITCH!"
La Dolce Vita darts a glance. Wattles shaking, he attempts to lock eyes.
Outside there is light. Never before had I felt so fond of the sun.
San Diego County Courthouse
No smoking, of course, in the county courthouse, so outside the 220 West Broadway entrance, smokers (looking like gargoyles) crowd shoulder to shoulder, spines pressed against the stone wall. Two lines form at the front doors. Uniformed marshals - smiling - usher lawyers gripping briefcases and cops and courthouse employees through the first line. Everyone else must toss purses or paper sacks or whatever they carry down onto a table and then walk empty-handed through a metal detector. A trio of marshals, hands sheathed in Latex gloves, stands behind the table. They chat with one another while their encapsulated fingers grub disinterestedly through lipsticks and balled tissue and keys. (Usually, marshals find nothing. But one afternoon, while rummaging the purse of a juror in the trial of the man accused of murdering a San Diego policeman, a marshal pulled out a bag of white powder, a straw, and several razor blades. The juror was arrested.)
The courthouse's vast lobby rises up several stories. In 1961, when the building opened, its spaciousness might have suggested tribute to an ample Justice. But that was 30 years ago, and now a Greyhound bus station, gray socialist grime, and shabbiness dominate. The air smells of stale sweat, floor wax, disinfectant.
From the information desk, a marshal with the look of night manager for a fleabag hotel watches backslappers who smell of breakfast bacon howdy each other. Watches lawyers handshake with clients. Watches the bag ladies who sit sleepily reading newspapers, the wretched old nomadic men who wash themselves in the bathrooms. Watches cops come to testify. Watches the toothless, drooling black woman drop an empty pop can into her plastic garbage bag. Hears the can clank against other cans. Watches the white-satin-gowned bride-to-be grasp her future husband's hand before they push open the door into the county clerk's office. Watches a Jack Ruby-type (a trial junkie, crime-and-violence buff, a gun-and-uniform-and-jackboot enthusiast) head up the escalator.
All this action appears shaky, like a black-and-white movie projected onto a bedsheet. So that maybe this morning the watching marshal remembers Jack Ruby's dark suit, gray fedora, brim shadowing the ardent eyes? The snub-nose .38 coming out. Oswald grimacing, gripping his belly, leaning over.
Stepping off the escalator onto the second floor, the Jack Ruby-type, right hand in trouser pocket, strides across scuffed tiles, down the bench-lined, block-long hallway that opens onto courtrooms. He narrows his eyes and studies the gray-haired woman who fumbles a pocketed rosary and mouths prayers. Studies the pale, stunted, almost dwarfish man who sits next her, rocking steadily and rubbing grizzled cheeks. Ten feet on, he nods at two uniformed San Diego policemen who stand in front of windows that look down onto the barred jailhouse. Then the Jack Ruby-type bows slightly, almost reverently, as marshals lead past him a string of male prisoners shackled together at the waist. Immediately behind the male prisoners are two more marshals, escorting four women in wrist chains. Full breasts and high buttocks fill out the jail blue pants and faded sweatshirts. The women carry an odor as rank as the reek of caged tigers. The tallest of the quartet, a black woman whose braided hair is bleached copper, winks at the Ruby-type. A smile plays across his face. He takes his hand from his pocket, touches his genitals.
As on seven hills was Rome built, so was Dago built on many mesas. The centralmost of these has no name, for it was surveyed and settled long before the tract-house boys began to divvy up land and give their holdings the names of press barons and forgotten generals and Mexican concubines (Scripps, Kearny, Mira). Stretching for miles east of 30th Street, the Mid-City mesa has for decades been a Gasoline Alley wasteland of car washes, card parlors, dinky pink bungalows: low-rent neighborhoods whose continuing obscurity is secured by their distance from the freeway off-ramps.
Welcome to Little Saigon, an area of a dozen blocks near Hoover High School on El Cajon Boulevard. Drive slowly or you'll miss it, camouflaged as it is among the strip malls and lube shops. Vietnamese are still a new group in the Land of the Free, and they haven't yet twigged to the Big Bucks to be made by turning their turf into tourist bait.
"Say, pal," the out-of-towner may someday ask the Vietnamese cabbie, "where's the best place to get cafe Sue Da?"
Right now it's Cafe Tuyet, a tiny (20-by-20-foot) storefront at 4469 El Cajon.
Unspoiled by tourists, this dimly lit java shop is not for the fainthearted lone traveler. All eyes are upon you as you enter. Bring a conversational companion with you or the tension will be unbearable.
Tuyet makes no concessions to the non-Vietnamese. No Indochinese tschotchkes or English-language menus at the window beckon the outsider. The regulars know what the joint sells: coffee and cigarettes and a place to conspire for hours to the strains of Viet soft rock.
Cafe Sue Da, by the way, is the specialty. A complicated concoction of high-octane French roast and condensed milk. You pour hot water into your individual drip pot and then dump the drippings over a tall glass of ice. Cheapest rush in town and safer than crank.
Soon you are high and chatty and glad to be alive. "What gentle, handsome, wonderful people these Vietnamese folk are," you think, sneaking a look over your shoulder.
You missed the '60s in steamy Saigon, but that far away time isn't hard to imagine: all you need now are some rowdy grunts outside talking football and pissing hamburger-and-beer-flavored urine against a wall.
Next stop is down the street at Xuan Thanh (4575 El Cajon), a Vietnamese billiard parlor in a strip mall. Stand at the shop window and take a gander. An odd game, this French-Indochinese pool variant. Tables of green baize, but no pockets and only three balls, two white and one red. They call it BiDa. All tables are taken, and, to judge from the crowd up against the wall by the tiny refreshment counter, they'll be booked all night.
The patrons are looking at you. What do you want? You smile your Ugly American smile. ("Like some gum?") They don't smile back. This is their country, not yours.
As you drive back down El Cajon Boulevard, you promise yourself you'll learn BiDa real soon and return to Xuan Thanh with your photographer friend Nguyen. This time you won't stare.
You drive out past the dead boys in Fort Rosecrans and pay your three bucks. Park between the rented sedans of Japanese tourists, sailors entertaining Mom and Pop, tubby Midwesterners on vacation. If you know where you're going, you can plow between the groups grunting up to the lighthouse and head straight for the road that veers down and east just before the crest of the hill. There's a sign: Bayside Trail, 2 miles round trip. You can see the trail wriggling like a snake at the bottom of the slope you’re starting down.
The top quarter of the trail is paved road. A van marked Security hauls by. Scrubby eucalyptus, chaparral, and buckwheat spill down on your left; beyond it, San Diego Bay glitters like a dime-store wedding ring. Jets scream off the glaring cement of North Island in the distance. On the crest of the slope getting higher over your right shoulder is a fenced-off area, Navy property jutting antennas and dishes. On a clear day you can see Mexico ahead of you. Dream of cerveza on a beach if you ever get out of this place.
There are a lot of posted warnings to stay on the trail. Bare patches in the brush mark where people ignored the warnings, for whatever reasons people have. The road twists every 50 yards, so you don't know who’s ahead of you - or behind you. But you sometimes glimpse the trail farther down, peeking around the curves below you. Two specks, men in windbreakers, waving their arms. If the wind's right, it'll snatch their words up the hill to you. But mostly it's quiet. Maybe too quiet. Just the crunch of gravel under your shoes.
The road levels out. The wind over the point blasts you where the road curves west out from the shelter of the balding sandstone hillside. You get a clear view of the bay to your left. Pleasure-crafters, fishing boats. You turn east onto a half-gone military road. You have to - more signs. Over trees at the south end of the road you were requested to leave, you see more antennas and a white sphere on thin legs. Military secrets. Another sign, half-hanging off the open gate, says the trail closes at 4:15, but the park service knows most tourists don't even go this far. People come down here to be alone. For whatever reasons it is that people want to be alone. The rotted road east tilts down toward the water.
Tired grey and green bushes rustle on both sides of the trail. No one is around. It’s just you and the lizards and the rattlesnakes. Most of the squirrels and ravens are up top, getting fat on the white-bread crusts from tourists' picnics. You clear a corner of sandstone cliff a few hundred yards later, and the road switches back west again. There’s downtown, winking in the smog, skyscrapers looking puny and pretentious in the squat urban sprawl.
Another switchback in the trail and a sudden patch of shadow. Perfect spot for an ambush. Spindly trees and scrub on your right meet the cliff on your left. Set into the cliff are two tall green doors, padlocked, with two nubs of steel track sticking out underneath. The Army hid a searchlight in there during World War II. Now it's empty. They say. Farther on is a bunker with barred windows. Another nice new padlock.
The cactus and buckwheat are tall here, dense thickets against the curves of sandstone cliff. Sage pricks your nostrils. The trail narrows and levels out. You can see a lone figure far ahead of you on another curve around the cliffs, coming in your direction. You're in luck. The best place to cross paths is just ahead, where the tourists up top might stop gawking at the local version of historical grandeur long enough to look down and see you - if you made enough noise. You can hear waves breaking below but can't see them. You're still a couple hundred feet above the water.
Thai-Chinese Food and Coffee Shop
A private eye would hang out here. He'd be a lean guy in his mid-50s, masked in a scrap of a smile and a striped tie and a few vague remarks. A guy who smoked too much (Camels) and came here because they let him light up and because he'd been coming here, off and on, since the day Nick Radovich's cook flopped the first T-bone on the grill. That would have been sometime in December 1960, not long before the then-new courthouse opened up across Union.
"Here" is far back in the Radovich building's first floor, the old Counsel Coffee Shop, now the Thai-Chinese Food and Coffee Shop. A windowless room, the day's heat never even gets in the door. There's the smell of coffee, pungent soy sauce; there’s refrigerator hum, stir-fry and burger sizzle, and from the street, honks and shouts muffled by the building's brick and glass.
He wouldn't sit on one of the row of a dozen low stools you see when you first walk in. He'd sit in back at a table, spine plastered to the wall, so he can see who comes in and who goes out. He'd smoke his Camels and drop the burned matches in the ashtray. He'd know well enough to say hello to a few of the lawyers drinking coffee, joyless fellows who patch together a living out of cheap divorces and a few wills, drunk drivings and some petty personal injuries.
But he wouldn't know anyone else.
He'd remember the woman. 1969. A big redhead with one of those mouths you wanted to bite. She'd sat down two tables off from him, crossed her legs at the knee. Ordered coffee. Wept, quietly. He was supposed to be tough, but there was something about the woman that got to him. He offered his handkerchief. Her charm bracelet jangled when she took it. She'd just come from divorce court, and she told him her story. Ten years later, he was the one who did the crying when he came home to the little apartment in Pacific Beach and it didn't look anymore like a place where anyone lived. She'd left him a note. Good-bye.
Back in the old days, when George cooked for Nick, they had some of the best food in town here. Lobster for $1.75, prime rib. Judges would come in for lunch. George would fix them lamb shanks, thick steaks. They had three waitresses working. Nick one time put pedometers on them. The gals who waited tables in the back registered 17 to 22 miles in a day. The waitress who served the counter, she logged in 10. They used to really run.
Nick opened up at six in the morning and closed at five. Weekends, the cafe shut down. So if he were in town on a Saturday or Sunday, or at night, late, he'd go over to Johnny's Cafe, on Broadway across from the Hotel San Diego. The only all-night cafe right downtown. But that was gone now. Torn down last month. Dee Binder, he owned Johnny's. His wife Jeanette made good vegetable soup.
Everything he knew was going: Funland Arcade up on the north side of Broadway was gone. So was Tiger Jimmy's Tattoos and the topless dancers' joint. All going to become a parking lot and then another high-rise throwing its long shadows across the street.
Back in '87, after George died, Nick Radovich tried to get other people in to run the place. He leased it out to an Iranian, but he didn't last the year. Then Nick sold the lease to a Thai family. They have it now. Gook food mostly is what it is. Better for your heart. He doesn't care about his heart. He still cares about the redhead. He eats the Counsel Burger with cheese and the skinny fries.
— Judith Moore
Garden in Golden Hill
On a rise in Golden Hill, caught between the nastier parts of downtown and the park, is a big Victorian house gone to seed, a remnant of some century-ago family man's dream. The house's two stories, topped with cupola, with peeling white paint, loom above a stone wall. At every window, cracked plastic shades are drawn down. The house looks tight-lipped, secretive.
An overgrown garden, deep in shadow, stretches up toward and almost hides the house. Bushes push against the stone wall, press into the house. At the corners of the lot, shaggy brown yuccas burst above bulky pillars. Two queen palms jut past the roof. A huge tree - branches thick enough to support a heavyweight boxer - shields half the house’s facade.
Moldy armchairs, collapsed cardboard boxes, aloe vera gone wild litter the front and west sides of the house. In back, leaves clog a crumbling cement bird bath. You can smell fruit fallen off the plum trees and gone into a purple rot, you can smell dog shit. Your toe touches the carcass of a rat, perhaps the kill of the mangy cat that stares fiercely at you from behind a fern and then disappears.
In San Francisco it's Top of the Mark, in New York it's Top of the Sixes, and in San Diego it's Mr. A's for panoramic city views in a fine-dining atmosphere. But Mr. A's is both more and less than a Windows on Dago. It's not high in the sky - only 12 stories up, though its Fifth and Laurel site gives it a magnificent vantage over downtown, Balboa Park, and the bay. From this eyrie, our tacky Sun Belt boomtown looks like a Real City.
Yes, Mr. A's makes you proud to be a San Diegan.
Mr. A's was brand new in 1965 — year of Goldfinger and What's New, Pussycat? and Jackie de Shannon singing "What the World Needs Now (Is Love, Sweet Love)." The ambience has remained intact. Close your eyes and imagine: Hypertrophied T-birds. Muscle cars with red upholstery. Particular People smoke Pall Mall ("Pell Mell"). White words in a red disk, things go better with Coke.
Red is the color of Mr. A's - a rich, dark, Fellini-esque red, the red of bordellos and casinos. Red-and-white glass candle-lamps on the red-and-black "marble" Formica tabletops. Heavy blood-clot-red curtains hung operatically at the windows. The waitresses (they are all tall and tan and blond, like 1960s United Airlines stews) wear scarlet togas draped from one shoulder. Even the ciggie machine is red-lit.
A generation of red-cummerbunded high school boys have taken their prom dates here for the pre-dance dinner. Mr. A's is sooo grown up, the kind of place you imagined your parents going to those nights they hired the babysitter. Someday, kids, all this will be yours. Drinking, smoking, adultery. Carousing till the wee small hours of the morning. Spotting old pols and retired mobsters (in San Diego they're often the same guys) over at the next table. Knowing all the words to all the songs Sinatra sings.
Thursdays through Saturdays Mr. Merrill Moore, a San Diego institution, is at the piano in his red-plaid jacket. Tony Edwards plays the other nights. Both are happy to take your requests. Be a sport and ask for a mid-'60s tune. "The Shadow of Your Smile," "The Look of Love," "Strangers in the Night."
Forget the 1940s. No period understood the noir sensibility better than the years of Jack Paar, Jack Vdenti, Joe Pyne, Joe Valachi, Faith Domergue, Ann Blyth, and Ida Lupino couldn't hold a candle to real-life sirens Judith Campbell Exner, Christine Keeler, and Madame Nhu.
Sixties noir is waiting for you at Mr. A's. Catch it before the tourists da (And gentlemen: please wear jackets!)
Oriental Massage Garden
Dingy bungalow, way out east on University. Fading Xmas light bulbs clickclickclick around the MASSAGE YES WE'RE OPEN placard.
Dreary in the high-noon haze, utterly devoid of the come-hither blandishments of Eros, this Hooverville of sin draws to it the occasional desperate gimp, the paranoid weirdo, the grossly unappetizing simp who needs must spill his genetic slop near a womanly vessel of degradation.
"Oriental Massage Garden." What is the faded allure of this ubiquitous signified The manifestation, perhaps, of some grunt's wet dream from the War in the Pacific? A weird and ultimately depressing sexual , psychodrama — gook chink chattel gash wriggling on the 16-inch cannons of Manifest Destiny....
Front door creaks open revealing a closet-sized waiting area. Blighted sign missing crucial information reads, cryptically, "Bubble." "Half n half," "45 min."
A vacuum cleaner whines from the inner sanctum. Loud, persistent knocks, and the inner door unlocks. In the dim red hallway appears a frowning, middle-aged Oriental woman. She should be at home, paddling out meals from a rice cooker. Her blouse-sized T-shirt reads "COOL" in block letters and "hot" in smaller type below. Black "satin" pants, sandals complete the fallen woman’s déshabillé.
"Massage!" she shouts.
"Massage?" she shouts once more, finally inflecting the word as a question.
"Thirty minute? Hour?"
"Thirty minutes. Where are the girls?"
"Girls? What mean you? Me girl."
"Oh, yes, you girl, of course."
"Go into room, take clothes off, lie down."
"Forty-five dollar first."
"Lie down. I be minute."
I toss my clothes into a pile and lie facedown on the terry cloth-covered table, expecting to feel sloppy secretions. In front of me I see the spines of two Fortune magazines beside the red lamp and abject art prints, perhaps cut out of an old Saturday Evening Post, taped to the wall.
Black children chatter outside the dense brush of the tiny room's window. Can they see me, bare ass to the air? Oriental woman bustles in, shuts window, draws blind.
“Hot?" she asks.
She switches on a table fan, recirculating the fetid air. Shakes a bottle of talc or baby powder on her rough, knobby hands, applies it to my back tentatively, gingerly, as if flouring a chicken.
"Um. Oh. Uh, yeah."
The desultory powdering is alternated with a few scrapes of my thigh with her ring, causing me to shudder with unease.
"Turn over, preese."
Flipping a small towel on my crotch, she prepares me for the fry pan. I hope that further negotiations for "suckee" or "fuckee" are never broached. My balls crawl into the pit of my stomach, raising the question whether sex is possible under the duress of a severe mind/body schism.
"Do you mind if I ask your name, where you're from?"
"What!" she snaps.
"Where, what area, do you live?"
"Beachy. Beachy very nice. You see beachy?" She punctuates the query by divoting flesh with her ring. "Finished now."
Throwing on my clothes, I pray that I can get to my car without attracting the prying eyes of passersby. Prayers of the sinner go unheeded. Outside, I immediately catch the eye of a drunk malingerer.
"Feel good?" he barks, palm extended for alms.
— Adam Parfrey
Royal Food Mart
In one form or another, the Royal Food Mart has existed at the corner of First Avenue and Upas Street since 1914. It started out as an open-air greengrocer's and still has a concrete slab floor, testimony to the time when the shop floor was just an extension of the pavement outside.
'Round about 1938, the shop entered the Moderne era. A new owner extended the premises into the shoemaker's that had stood next door, added a solid front with round Bauhaus windows, and tricked it out with a Deco-ish neon sign.
Several proprietors later, the Royal is still stuck in the '30s. And not the nice Fred-and-Ginger '30s but the kitchen-sink '30s - the '30s of privation and class struggle and bad graphic design. From the archaic produce scales to the dark-wood ceiling fans and the sparsely appointed grocery shelves, the Royal is a living museum of grocery shopping the way it was when Harry Hopkins was in the headlines.
Walk into this drab and dim market and you enter another era. "7up - You Like It/It Likes You," proclaim the green-and-red placards near the ceiling, as garish today as they were 50-odd years ago. Near the canned goods lies an ancient horse racing magazine. Old black-and-white photos from Agua Caliente and cigarette ads from advertising's Social Register period ("Mrs. Alison Boyer — another Camel enthusiast") round out the decor.
None of this, to be sure, is accidental. Current owner Joe Leshen has done his best to give you a grocery shop that you’ll never mistake for the 7-Eleven or Ralphs. Joe has lovingly preserved most of the archaic fittings that came with the store when be took possession in 1982. When he’s brought new pieces in — for example, the old deli case, dragged up from Old Town — be has tried to avoid anachronism. And Joe will never ask you, "Paper or plastic?"
— Margot Sheehan
The "turf" in the Turf Club (a.k.a. Turf Supper Club) doesn't refer to the public golf course nearby but to thoroughbred racing. Note the horseshoe-and-riding-crop emblem on the club's sign. A curious device, you might think - the nearest racetrack is 20 miles away.
The horsey motif evokes an old San Diego, circa 1950 — a wide-open border town run by Sheldon Leonard toughs in padded suits. Guys who hung out at Caesar's in Tijuana and Sanford Adler's Del Mar Hotel. They went down to Caliente to meet Tony and Rizzo and talk business - narcotics, numbers, B-girls... shaking down the pansy bars and tattoo parlors... paying off John Law.
Racetracks evoked glamour, the allure of power. Thus, it would seem, the Turf Club.
One of the barkeeps has a simpler explanation for the title. Curly, the founder, "was a horse fiend. Lost a lot of money at the track."
With its windowless facade and garish xenon signage, the Turf Club looks pretty sinister. A shabby curtain hangs in the doorway, hiding the goings-on from curious outsiders. One expects the worst - minor gangsters huddled at a table, sordid sailor-and-whore scenes a la Paul Cadmus, boys dressed as girls (or vice versa), ambient videos of snuff films, autographed photos of Tony Martin.
Inside, alas, we find just a seedy neighborhood tavern. Old guys watching the game on a Technicolor TV. Doughy middle-aged couples ordering dinner in red-Leatherette booths.
The racing motif can be found here and there for those who look hard: horse paintings on the walls, old 8-by-10 glossies of Del Mar champs hanging above the bar.
Vintage '50s jukeboxes decorate the bar, but they don't play music. Someone's stuck typewritten aphorisms into the old record label slots. Instead of Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney hits we read:
- Debt is the slavery of the free.
- A good sport has to lose to prove it.
- The chip on one's shoulder is often nothing but bark.
And suchlike profundities.
In the evening the Turf Club gets hot. There's a big grill in the center of the dining area. They'll cook you a steak while-u-watch.
— Margot Sheehan
Golden Hill Pawnbrokers
When that Lost Weekend rolls around and you haven't got the jack to buy Thunderbird or Glenlivet, pack up your Smith-Corona and turn it in at Golden Hill Pawnbrokers (1038 25th Street), just down the street from the Turf Club (q.v.)
You may not get more than 20 bucks - a pawnshop, remember, makes loans on collateral rather than buying your stuff outright - but your typewriter will find lots of old Underwoods and Remingtons to keep it company. And when you're feeling flush, you can take your ticket in and go back to writing the Great American Novel. The typewriter will still be there. No one ever, ever, ever, buys a typewriter at a pawnshop.
You say you use a word processor, a PC? No problem. Golden Hill Pawnbrokers takes them too. Also cameras, lenses, garden tools, circular saws, motorcycle helmets, dictation equipment, kitchen appliances, home electrolysis kits, telephones, answering machines, and your old videotape copy of Bob le Flambeur. Just don't pawn your TV or VCR - they'll be snapped up in days by sharp-eyed Mexicans looking for bargains.
The Golden Hill is a shop more of cruddy dreams than broken ones. Merchandise is not only second-hand but second-rate, bought by people who apparently didn't know any better. There are old Chinon and Pentax cameras, but no Nikons; 1980-vintage Apple II computers, but no Macintoshes or anything by IBM. The stained and soda-pop-sticky typewriters probably belonged to some State College student pounding out a midnight paper on Drosophila genes rather than to a budding Hart Crane.
Golden Hill Pawnbrokers takes its calling seriously, lb the left of the entrance is a magnificent, old-fashioned banker's cage where the attendant appraises your goods and writes your ticket. The wail behind is placarded with caveats: "All Items Sold As Is."
Conversation at the cage:
Customer (40ish unshaven white man in visored "gimme" cap): Five bucks? Can't you make it ten? That watch belonged to my grandmother.
Attendant (20ish Mexican girl): No. It's old watch.
Customer: But it works. (Shakes watch.)
Attendant: You gotta wind it, it's no good. Five bucks.
Customer: Granma's gonna be pissed.
Where To, Pal?
Among the worries nagging the film noir enthusiast - not by nature a happy-go-lucky breed to begin with - are the questions of how and in what form the genre could survive after several of the major planks in its definition had been pried up and pitched onto the cinematic bonfire.
How, for one thing, would noir survive the passing of black-and-white (never mind the retroactive colorization of the likes of Out of the Past, D.O.A., The Killers)? What, to put it more confrontingly, would noir look like in color? The cover art on the latest line of Raymond Chandler paperback reprints would furnish some ideas, including the resistible suggestion that the hard-boiled detective novelist stands nearer to somebody like Garcia Marquez than to somebody like Hemingway. Nineteen Seventy-Five's Farewell, My Lovely (Mitchum as Marlowe) carried out one such idea to the farthest reaches of jukebox and pinball-machine baroque. But what about the ice-castle urbanscape of Point Blank, Bullitt, Klute? Or would that need a new name? Film froid, perhaps.
Then there's the demise, to all intents and purposes, of the B-movie as an institution, and along with it the second-class citizenship that jibed so well with a subversive view of the surrounding society.
And then there's the post-TV shift from the old boxy screen to the barn-broad oblong, which is so tempting to link up with larger shifts in the culture: from downtown to the suburbs, from skyscraper to shopping mall, from New York as the emblematic urban center to L.A. as that, from vertical, in sum, to horizontal. And let's not now get dragged into the accompanying behavioral evolution: the handshake to the high-five, etc.
A closed-in, claustrophobic topography -not to mention, or get dragged into, a tight-lipped, laconic comportment - was as hostile to what's effervescently called the American spirit as it was fundamental to the film noir. That was the point, or a point. (And little wonder that these movies took so much of their visual style, as well as so many of their actual directors and cameramen, from the Europeans.) Noir, after all, was always a great nay-sayer, a counterblast of doubt, despair, guilt, and unworth in response to the tub-thumping of the American Dream.
Always, that is, while it lasted: roughly from the end of the Second World War through-the middle of the next decade. It addressed and articulated a particular dark outlook on life - the expectation that any dream, not exclusively the American one, would turn bad, that any promise would go broken, that any piece of gift-wrap would conceal a time-bomb - which wouldn't die away just because a film fashion died away, or because no other fashion came along to address and articulate it so directly. It figures, then, that noir is something the enthusiast will carry around with him, look for elsewhere (especially elsewhere than in current movies), and superimpose on things intended for other purposes. Rain. Neon. Debussy's String Quartet. A deck of cards. A pack of Lucky Strike.
The Peachtree Inn - "Single Room Apartments" - looks more peach and turquoise than usual in flat June glare. It's the marine layer does this. Ninth and F looks greasier, whores wearier; smells of homeless-piss and decaying garbage hang closer to the ground.
The Peachtree's a quick slam on the accelerator away from I-5 and 163. They let rooms by the week. And while the desk man may look at you hard when you walk in, he won't ask questions. (But the crack dealers by the door say hello and ask, "Who are you?") All the desk man wants is picture ID and a $55 deposit.
Someone new in town, no name, no face, takes a while to feel out the scene. The Peachtree's a place to hang your hat, light a fag, and let chips fall where they may.
Heavy metal hardwood front doors are locked, psycho-ward style. A handwritten sign says, "Knock if you don't have a key." The desk man buzzes you in.
Behind the desk, a bank of TV cameras watches the hallways of the inn's four floors. The cameras flip from one angle to another. Occasionally, they catch a shot of a hunched-over man striding fast around a hallway corner.
The man at the desk hands you a magnetized card for the door to your room. He points you through another door, this one inlaid with wire-reinforced glass and a metal push bar. On the other side is a "game room" - pool table, video games, a machine that dispenses hot coffee. Windows look out onto an interior courtyard, where a Hispanic man, head in hands, sits at a white metal table.
The elevator's jerky. Stains on its pinky-beige carpet are brown and gray.
Third floor. When the doors slide back, there's a turn and then another psycho ward door. Another turn and a sign with room numbers and arrows. The corridors are narrow and painted battleship gray. The aroma of disinfectant over vomit stings your nose. A trio of men talking low round the corner and pull up short, brush past. "But when someone sells you out like that - " "— I say, let it rest." "Hey, it's cool, man, it's cool."
Room 348. Slide the card through the door slot. A green light. Quick footsteps down the hall. As fast as you can, you shut the door behind you.
The room's an eight-by-ten-foot sound chamber for downtown streets. Traffic noise bounces off walls. From somewhere a radio plays, "Baby, I neeeed your lovin'...." A stale breeze rattles the Venetian blind at the window. A recess in the wall shelters a shower and toilet. They're exposed to the rest of the room, as in a jail cell.
A stubby double bed with lime-green spread takes up most of what's left. Grey tiles cover the 18 inches of floor between bed and shelves that serve as desk-closet-kitchen-entertainment center. Scuffs, fingerprints, and remnants of previous tenants' alcohol lunches stain the pale pink walls. These are the only signs of habitation except for scrape marks around bolts that hold a microwave and television.
Flop onto the white molded plastic chair squeezed between the foot of the bed and window. Outside, the city waits for you. You can see the back end of the post office, where you can rent a box and give the Peachtree as your permanent address. Club Arirang, promising liquid liberation from the pink walls and gray hallways, is behind a parking lot across the street.