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University Avenue nocturne

Is Hillcrest afraid of the dark?

Security guard at Thrifty Drug Store, Robinson Avenue. Heider mentions two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty? - Image by Erik C. Hanson
Security guard at Thrifty Drug Store, Robinson Avenue. Heider mentions two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty?

NIGHTCRAWL

By 4:17 p.m. on a weekday in January, the sun has disappeared behind the rack of microwave relay dishes — or whatever they are — on the roof of the Pac Bell building between Robinson and University. As I stand with my back to the Alibi Lounge at Richmond Street, the last-chance straight bar in Hillcrest if you’re heading west, the avenue looks much like any urban thoroughfare in Southern California at rush hour.

Shop on Fifth. "I live on Fifth. These two Latino guys approached me and asked me if I had any change. I said ‘No,’ and one of them grabbed me and the other one pulled out a razor knife and slit my arm."

A homeless man (let’s call him Bill) with a filthy, wide-brimmed canvas hat that was once white, or at least beige, sidles up to me, follows my line of sight upward, and tells me that the CIA broadcasts “emmanations” from the rooftop devices. These transmissions, he says, can only be decoded if you’ve been treated by government dentists with “tainted novocaine.”

A lot of the merchants don’t like the homeless people around their stores.

Bill extends a palm toward me and smiles through ruined dentistry that could only be the work of a government dentist. “Got any spare change?”

“No,” I say, but smiling because of the CIA thing. “Actually, I don’t.” “Welcome to the problem,” Bill says. “It’s gettin’ bigger all the time,” and he moves off toward McDonald’s, muttering.

A handout accepted at Thrifty Drug Store

The next day when I called Pac Bell, just to verify that the rooftop structures were indeed microwave relay stations, I was told that was “proprietary information.” — Do you really know your dentist?

San Diego Dream Girls performer readies in the Brass Rail men's room. The Brass Rail is not that much different from any cocktail lounge in El Cajon.

REWIND

A month earlier, in December, again just around sunset, I had seen Bill along with two other “street people” — a middle-aged, florid-faced, American Indian-looking woman and a black man with matted hair — reclining on the sidewalk with their backs to the dirty yellow facade of Servall Market. The woman and the black man were all but embalmed with malt liquor. One of two private cops from Excelsior Security, hired by the Hillcrest Business Association, asked Bill, “You wanna move along now?”

Sixth and University avenues, looking west. The last traces of sunset are an orange smear like a gaudy mirage hovering above University Avenue's pavement to the west.

Bill, happily folding and refolding a newspaper on top of the wastebasket in front of the store, seemed sober if pixilated, but since he was hardly in a coma, the guards, named Strong and Lamar, trained their attention on him. Bill nodded and shuffled west, leaving the rent-a-cops to ponder methods for removing the two hammered winos who flanked the entrance to the Iraqi liquor store with less animation than the Thackeray Gallery gargoyles at Robinson and Third.

“Who do you guys work for?” I asked the uniformed men. They told me, “The Hillcrest Association.”

“Well,” I suggested, “You probably could hang out at this spot all night. Dinner and a show, one low price.” Tony Lamar and Ebb Strong laughed. They spoke into their hand radios, presumably for advice on how to proceed with loitering and illegal lodging with intent to snore.

I saw the two Excelsior guards around the neighborhood over the next few weeks and then after the first of the year, I didn’t.

Warren Simon, director of the Hillcrest Association, explained: “We hired them on a three-month basis, from October to December. Their last day was Christmas Eve. They’re not on the streets now because it was a pilot program. We [the Hillcrest Association] used our own funds for that, and we could only afford a three-month period. Now we have questionnaires going out to the merchants to see how many of them are willing to put in so much money a month to keep the service going.”

Simon said the association paid Excelsior $300 per week. The commercial patrolmen started their shift at 2:00 p.m. and would go off the clock each night at 8:00 p.m.

The last time I saw former military policeman Ebb Strong and his partner Tony Lamar (who boasts a PC832, or Police Officer’s Orientation Training) was just before Christmas {when they were passing two men holding hands in front of City Deli. The black [Strong] and Hispanic [Lamar] security partners walked past, and the affectionate couple began French-kissing behind the guards’ backs. Strong and Lamar were oblivious when one of the lovers broke from his oral embrace, cocked his head, and crooned to the patrolmen’s backs, sotto voce, the theme from the TV show Cops: “Bad boys, bad boys...whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you, bad boys....”

FAST FORWARD: NICHTCRAWL

In the quickening chill of mid-January’s sunset, I walk west, past the Citizen’s Patrol storefront office and police substation in the Ralphs Uptown Shopping Center. No one home. The door is locked, but there is a phone number taped to the window for reporting incidents. The unoccupied interior might indicate that things have improved since December 13,1991, when 17-year-old John Robert Wear was stabbed to death at Vermont and Essex streets because someone thought he was homosexual.

After all, the Union Tribune's “Night & Day” section, dated December 2, 1993, headlined, “What’s Shakin’ in Hillcrest,” depicted one of the zany waitresses from the Corvette Diner on the cover. The Corvette was described as a place where “...families are awash with nostalgia,” and at the Escape, with its audience of gays and straights, the “cabaret format...is alive and rollicking.... There’s country-western hell-raisin,’ Hillcrest-style at Kicker’s (next door to Hamburger Mary’s); techno dancing at Rich’s on Thursday nights....” Maybe a highball or two — and a Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple for the youngins — at the Brass Rail to catch the San Diego Dream Girls Revue. Why not pack up the station wagon and bring the kids? It's only 15 minutes from La Mesa, 20 from El Cajon, a little longer from Rancho Bernardo, of course, but...

What the promotional feature failed to mention is that most of these places are a tad off the traditional, family-oriented track. They are, for the most part, strictly adult entertainment houses of a very specific kind, their appeal firmly rooted in the (increasingly mainstream) culture of the gay ’90s.

What is also omitted is that much of the community in Hillcrest — patrons and business owners, residents and habitues — are a little nervous about the shadowed aspects of the neighborhood’s nightlife.

In other words, the answer to the U-Ts rhetorical what's shakin' in Hillcrest is, very often — the people who live there.

The sun almost down now, Nick’s, a gay bar, is open, but Rich’s, the gay disco where the Citizen’s Patrol held their first meeting in December of 1991, is still closed. A handful of caffeine-jumped hepsters in black Levi’s, Doc Marten shitkickers, pinwheel mocha java eyes, and multiple earrings are discussing Camus, Morrissey, maybe body piercing, or the generational tragedy of media cafard behind the glass at Soho and Euphoria.

Like Water for Chocolate seems to have been playing at the Guild since 1986, but ticketholders are still gathered, browsing at the Blue Door Bookstore where Tom Stoup, owner and proprietor, presides behind the cash register, drawing on his pipe. Stoup was president of the Hillcrest Association in 1993. He is still on the board and a trustee of the organization.

“Yeah, we hired those guys (from Excelsior), and it’s controversial in that we’ve gotta decide now if we want them back. That is, if the merchants are willing to pay to have them back or what. Mostly, it’s that a lot of the merchants don’t like the homeless people around their stores. Also, there was this boy named John Wear a few years back, who was, I guess, on his way to Soho for coffee, and he was killed because somebody thought he was gay, but he wasn’t. It was definitely a hate crime, and out of that came — I can’t call it a vigilante group, but a group of mostly gay people who have set up a security force of their own. And they’re still doin’ it every night, just about. They’ve got that storefront that cooperates with SDPD, and that’s separate from those two guys that the association hired mostly just to move homeless people around.”

I walk a few paces across the street and talk with bookseller Garrick Ryan at 5th Avenue Books. “Crime?” He asks. “In Hillcrest? Hey, big time. Just the other night two guys jumped a woman on the corner.”

Unwittingly playing straight man, I ask, “What happened?”

“It was horrible, man. Horrible. One guy held her down and the other guy did her hair.”

CRIME? WHAT CRIME?

Suzanne Babbitz, president of the Hillcrest Business Association, says of the area in question, “I’m not aware there has been any crime lately on Fifth and University. We didn’t hire [the Excelsior guards] because of that. We hired them because we compete with regional malls. And the big attraction of the regional malls is that they have security guards, and they’ve always advertised themselves as secure and clean. We did it as a pilot program to see what effect it would have and if the merchants liked it and if it would help with some of the aggressive panhandlers. We wanted them to establish a presence, to be eyes and ears. They were not armed and they were very benign.”

In February, the Hillcrest Business Association reached a consensus not to rehire the security guards.

Bob Heider, a volunteer director at the Citizen’s Patrol Office, sits behind his desk in the locked storefront office at sundown on a weeknight. He is the sole occupant of the room and is speaking on the phone. Two pamphlets are displayed prominently on the counter, which looks not unlike a miniature precinct sergeant’s desk. The brochures are tided: “PUT A STOP TO VIOLENT CRIME; YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE,” and MAKING SAN DIEGO A SAFER PLACE TO LIVE: CITIZEN’S PATROL.”

Waiting to speak to Heider presents an opportunity to peruse the literature. The Citizen’s Patrol pamphlet defines the organization some have called a “a gay vigilante group,” though this turns out to be less than accurate.

“On various nights of the week, volunteers patrol the streets, in pairs, in their own vehicles. When they see suspicious activity, they contact police using portable phones that have been donated by Pacific Bell Cellular. During San Diego Police-led training sessions, patrollers are encouraged not to physically intervene; they understand it’s best if they take notes, get good descriptions, and relay that information to the proper authorities. It’s a simple task really, yet one that is proving itself to be effective in making the streets of our community safer. Citizens and businesses are feeling good about what we are doing every week. The patrols make it a win-win situation for everyone but the criminals. When citizens feel safer, they are more likely to walk about town and patronize neighborhood establishments. Pride in the community grows stronger...."

The brochure also includes “Prevention Tips While You Are Out.”

-Try not to go out at night alone.

-Don’t respond to comments from strangers on the street.

-Cross the street if you see someone suspicious following you.

-Watch your surroundings. Be alert for suspicious persons especially around banks, stores, streets, and your car or home

-If you are alone at work before or after normal business hours, keep the door locked if possible.

-Always keep your doors locked and, when possible, put up your windows.

-When walking in a group, have the person whose car is nearest drive you and the others to your cars.

-Be aware: some people may try to steal your car while you are in it! Keep doors locked and windows up when possible.

Bob Heider is a slim, well-buffed man in his late 30s or early 40s with a clean-cut, almost military haircut and bearing. He looks so much like a policeman, it is surprising to find that he is not. “No,” he says, “just a citizen.”

Heider boasts almost immediately of seven recent arrests, the direct result, he says, of the Citizens Patrol efforts in North Park and Hillcrest. Muggers? Perpetrators of hate crimes against the gay and lesbian community? Car thieves? Rapists?

No. “Taggers,” Heider announces, leaning back in his chair with great satisfaction. “Saturday night was our seventh tagger arrest. We decided, since we’re out there anyway, we might as well be alert to everything that’s going on, and it paid off.”

What about more serious crimes like the Wear beating, which fostered the organization of Citizens Patrol in the first place?

“Crime is way down in Hillcrest,” Heider says quickly. “Especially the assaults on gays. That’s way down. I have here in this set of books,” he indicates a set of plastic binders, “the daily incident logs on what’s going on. We get ’em every day from the police department.” Heider leafs through a recent series of reports. “You might find one or two a month where someone will say something like, ‘Ya faggot, ya queer,’ or something while they assault them, but not like before. In the last six months of ’91 we had 55 some assaults in the Hillcrest/North Park area, and the police have identified at least 35 of those as hate crimes. We’re down significantly from there.”

Is the Citizen's Patrol primarily a gay and lesbian community watch organization?

“We’ve been operating two years now,” Heider is squinting through the storefront glass at the shadows falling along University Avenue. He seems momentarily uncertain of the answer. “I would say in the last six months, the majority of volunteers we’re getting are from the straight community. But in the first year, the vast majority was gay or lesbian. We have a good mixture of both.”

NICHTCRAWL: REPRISE

A few minutes after 5:00 p.m., the Hillcrest sign comes on, followed by Jimmy Wong’s neon dragon. A few businesses have left Christmas lights mounted in windows or above shops. The last traces of sunset are an orange smear like a gaudy mirage hovering above University Avenue's pavement to the west.

In order to establish if Hillcrest is afraid of the dark or not, why not ask those who might have reason to look over their shoulders after sundown?

The Brass Rail at happy hour is dimly lit and sparsely patronized. The day bartender, Dave, is a burly, 30ish man with a goatee and a breezy manner. He is going off shift at 6:00 and will be replaced by Michael, a thin man with shoulder-length hair and two medium-sized earrings that look silver. One guy in drag (blond wig, sparkle eye makeup, and tight dress — a size 42, possibly) is sitting next to another cross-dressing performer who is not in drag at the moment. He wears a black beret and black motorcycle jacket; the only indication of his quirks of haberdashery are his eyebrows, which are plucked or shaved, and traces of mascara around his eyes.

The Brass Rail is dark enough inside so that it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the lighting, even if you enter at night. The room has an ambient rose, womb-like glow. Popcorn and pretzels are laid out at each bar stool along with flyers for San Diego Dream Girls Revue” (the drag show) and “Sunday: Beer Bust & Burgers.” With a few exceptions (high, ersatz schoolgirlish laughter, the occasional man dressed like a woman, and the odd physical display of affection between men who, at first glance, would appear to be more at home on a football field than at a Judy Garland retrospective), the Brass Rail is not that much different — at least at happy hour on a weeknight — from any cocktail lounge in El Cajon.

Dave is talking about how the gay community is much more “aware,” how “the kids are drinking less and looking out for each other these days.” Dave — who also tends bar at night at Bourbon Street, a gay bar on Park Boulevard — seems to agree with many of Hillcrest’s public relations-oriented spokespersons; in other words. Maybe there used to be a problem, but we fixed it.

A customer named Ray waits for Dave to finish. He interjects with his own story of being attacked recently in broad daylight on First Avenue. Ray is a frail man wearing a brown jacket that seems to engulf him. A similarly colored baseball cap perches loosely on his head. His eyes are owl-like behind rimless glasses.

“I was walking home from the grocery store on First. I live on Fifth. These two Latino guys approached me and asked me if I had any change. I said ‘No,’ and one of them grabbed me and the other one pulled out a razor knife and slit my arm. It was a clear cut right down to the bone.” Here Ray lifts his sleeve to expose a scar that would indeed have been a bad cut some time ago.

When did this occur?

“This is three o’clock in the afternoon. They took off running so I ran home, grabbed a rag, and put it around my arm. Then I drove up to Mercy, and they asked me there if I had come with anyone, and I said ‘No.’ So they asked me how I was planning to get home afterwards under anesthetic. I said, 'I don’t know. I’m driving.’ That was my mistake. They said they couldn’t treat me until I brought someone with me.

“I got back in my car and got a friend of mine who was playing tennis at Mira Mesa. He took me to UCSD, where I spent about six hours. They sewed me up and called the police. Then they said, ‘You can’t leave here until they come.’ Well, three hours went by and the police never showed up. I asked them to call the police back and ask them to please come. I was feeling very weak. I’m HIV positive, and I have been for ten years. Well, they did call back, but the police never arrived. I decided I was too cold, hungry, and traumatized so I just left. They told me someone from the police department would contact me. Well, it’s been five weeks now, and no one has contacted me. I’ve called them, I’ve gone to Citizen’s Patrol, and I’ve talked to police officers who are out on the beat asking them who to contact. The police department has not responded. So I’ve given up.

“I hope those guys got some of my blood on them and they catch the disease I have. It would serve them right, they’re so stupid. I don’t have as much anger toward those people as I do the police. They just don’t do their job. It’s as simple as that. Every year our tax dollars go up, and these guys sit out in front of the 7-Eleven [at Robinson and Fourth). I see four [squad] cars out there at a time. They’re just drinkin’ coffee and bullshittin’, whatever. I’ve seen people murdered in Balboa Park.”

Ray moved to San Diego from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area famous for violence and crime. When asked if Ray considers Hillcrest a dangerous area, he says, “It’s a bad area. A bad area. Hillcrest five years ago was a beautiful area to live in. Now...Hillcrest is going to the dogs.

“But it’s the Citizen’s Patrol that has cleaned up Hillcrest — if it’s been cleaned up at all. Not the police department. The police might put up their big old trailers and lights so it looks like they’re doin’ something. But they ain’t doing Jack Diddly-do, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ray does indeed seem impassioned on the subject. The genteel, tired manner of speech with which he began his story has become reminiscent of a pissed-off New York cabbie. But the scar on his forearm, near his elbow, is not the compelling visual corroboration it might be. The scar seems much older than the five weeks Ray says has elapsed since the attack.

Michael, the night bartender with the shoulder-length hair and earrings, comes on at 6:00 and talks about the night he closed the Brass Rail at 2:30 a.m., got into his car he had parked around the corner on Fifth, across from the taxi stand, and was nearly dragged from it by two Hispanic males. “At least, they were speaking Spanish,” says Michael. The night barman turned the tables on that situation by hitting the gas pedal and dragging his would-be assailants. They let go of the car after several feet.

“About a year and a half ago,” says Michael, “we had a customer who insisted on fighting in here, and we had a hard time getting him under control. I called 911 and they called back about 45 minutes later and asked if we still needed them. At that point we said ‘No,’ because we didn’t anymore. But all that time we were out in front on the street with this guy, and a police officer had driven past without seeing anything, apparently.”

When asked if Michael feels the SDPD is simply not attentive or responsive to his needs, he is more generous than his customer Ray. “I’m not saying everyone, but yeah, some of them are just not gonna respond.”

Does he feel at least reasonably confident that he can call the police and say, “Hi, this is Mike at the Brass Rail, and I have a problem here and need some help,” with an expectation that they’ll be here?

“No, I can’t,” he shakes his head. “I’ve just had a few incidents and...no.”

One of the cross-dressing performers mentions a recent stabbing nearby. The two bartenders and two other customers nod in agreement; they’ve heard of this. Everyone seems to agree that it was recent, nearby, and that the victim was stabbed exactly five times. But no one knows where this took place, exactly when, to whom, or whether or not the stabbing was fatal.

CRIME? WHAT CRIME?: PART II

Ken Hofer, the community relations officer from Western Division, keeps a desk at the storefront Citizen’s Patrol office on University Avenue.

“No,” Hofer certainly hasn’t heard of any recent stabbing. “In fact, Hillcrest and North Park have been especially quiet in the past few weeks in terms of street robberies and assaults.”

As to the other issues discussed at the Brass Rail —

“I think both sides [police and the gay community] have worked very hard to maintain a partnership. I think overall our relationship with them is excellent.”

When asked about 911 response time and Ray and Michael’s stories, Hofer says, “We look at those on an individual basis. By and large what we see happening is that there’s a miscommunication between the victim and us. There’s a whole host of reasons. One of the common things we hear is that ‘The police never showed up.’ Well, we ask, ‘How do you know the police never showed up?’ They’ll say, ‘Well, I waited 20 minutes, then I left the corner.’ Well, yeah. Sometimes the response is delayed, but by and large I think it’s pretty good.”

As far as Hillcrest crime since the death of John Robert Wear goes, Hofer says, “1 think the awareness level is at an all-time high. We [Citizen’s Patrol] have trained, since May of’93, something like 700 Hillcrest/North Park/University Heights citizens. They’re not just Citizen’s Patrol classes, they’re geared toward crime prevention, awareness. You don’t have to join Citizen’s Patrol to come to the classes and get that training.”

NICHTCRAWL III: CRUISING FOR CREEPS

It is a Saturday night at 9:30 at the Citizens Patrol Office. Bob Heider is handing out cellular phones to the seven citizens about to patrol the three “beats” in Hillcrest and North Park between 10 p.m. and midnight. The volunteers do indeed seem to be a mixed bunch: an elderly couple, two women with severe haircuts and serious expressions, 36-year-old Fred Schroeder, an importer/exporter from North Park, and 76-year-old Bill Stack, a retired Army Colonel also from North Park. I will patrol beat number 1 with Schroeder and Stack. This area includes Washington to Upas and Park Boulevard to First Avenue.

Heider advises patrolees of recent “incident reports.” He mentions a black male on Fourth and “...on December 31st, two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone in Hillcrest on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty? — Anyway, they’re 5'8"or 5'10", older teens on foot. The other black male was in a red Honda Civic...” Heider also advises that there have been reports of a camper parked on Essex Street and Vermont. “When people walked by the camper, the people in the camper were chasing them and hollering at them. They did not, however, give us a description of that camper with a license number.”

Dispatched into respective cars (ours is Schroeder’s Jeep Wrangler), we make a loop down University to First, over to Washington, right on Normal, and park in front of the gay and lesbian center. The mild-looking, bespectacled Schroeder explains, “We try to cruise by the hot spots where there has been trouble. Bars or restaurants, businesses, what have you. For example. Shooters bar on 30th Street in North Park has had some problems with people passing by, opening the door, and yelling out, ‘Hey, you faggots!’ or something. And then someone threw a beer bottle in there. The Gay and Lesbian Center has had a few, I guess not attacks, but there’ve been a few people who’ve opened the doors and screamed something inside. A few homophobic comments made. So they ask us to come by every Friday and Saturday night about 10:00 just to make sure everybody gets out of the building okay.”

As we cruise through the darkened side streets of Hillcrest, it becomes obvious that crime detection after dark could well be a problem. The streets are often more shadow than light. The low-intensity city streetlights are sparse and ineffective, and Stack keeps up a running criticism of homeowners’ lack of porch lighting or lawn lights, saying things like, “Now that's a good set of lights!” or “Look at that, no lights at all!” or “Useless!” The impression is that Stack would like to see Kleig lights every few feet banishing every possible shadow.

I ask if it is illegal to open a barroom door and shout homophobic comments, “I mean, unless you’re threatening someone — possibly, even if you are — it’s not actually against the law, is it?”

Schroeder is unsure. He mentions the Flame, the lesbian bar on Park Boulevard, which has had similar problems. “We’ll cruise by there too, to see how Bear is doing.” Bear, he explains, is the Flame’s head of security or chief bouncer. Schroeder points her out as we drive by, and the origin of her nickname is very clear. “She once subdued a guy who was in there causing problems. Got him on the ground, I understand. I don’t remember what the situation was, exactly.”

We pass the seventh billboard I’ve seen in the neighborhood advertising “The Club,” the one where the uniformed cop brandishes the car-lock device in one hand, points a finger at you, and glowers hatefully as if to say, Lock your car with this thing, or I'll shove it up your ass!

I keep thinking about areas in San Diego like Logan Heights, East San Diego, the South Bay, where people are killing themselves and each other routinely with drugs and guns. I wonder about policing gay establishments in response to what sounds to me like the ’90s equivalent of teenagers in the ’50s and ’60s opening up old man Weissberg’s drugstore entrance and shouting, “Hey! You got Prince Albert in a can? Hah hah!” What would Hillcrest do if it had real problems?

“We’re probably not going to see anything tonight. It’s rare. You just don’t ever see a 7-Eleven getting knocked over or anything.” Schroeder and Stack did witness a burglary and had the police cruising along behind them at the time. They were also instrumental in busting a transvestite who was mugging his/her johns. But on the whole, Schroeder observes, “...crime just doesn’t roll out at you from some swinging saloon doors in an old western.”

After being dropped off back at the storefront, I walk the neighborhood for a few blocks back to my apartment. The night is chilly for San Diego, the crowds on University are sparse and well-behaved for a Saturday night, and the shadows are menacing — for Hillcrest.

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Security guard at Thrifty Drug Store, Robinson Avenue. Heider mentions two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty? - Image by Erik C. Hanson
Security guard at Thrifty Drug Store, Robinson Avenue. Heider mentions two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty?

NIGHTCRAWL

By 4:17 p.m. on a weekday in January, the sun has disappeared behind the rack of microwave relay dishes — or whatever they are — on the roof of the Pac Bell building between Robinson and University. As I stand with my back to the Alibi Lounge at Richmond Street, the last-chance straight bar in Hillcrest if you’re heading west, the avenue looks much like any urban thoroughfare in Southern California at rush hour.

Shop on Fifth. "I live on Fifth. These two Latino guys approached me and asked me if I had any change. I said ‘No,’ and one of them grabbed me and the other one pulled out a razor knife and slit my arm."

A homeless man (let’s call him Bill) with a filthy, wide-brimmed canvas hat that was once white, or at least beige, sidles up to me, follows my line of sight upward, and tells me that the CIA broadcasts “emmanations” from the rooftop devices. These transmissions, he says, can only be decoded if you’ve been treated by government dentists with “tainted novocaine.”

A lot of the merchants don’t like the homeless people around their stores.

Bill extends a palm toward me and smiles through ruined dentistry that could only be the work of a government dentist. “Got any spare change?”

“No,” I say, but smiling because of the CIA thing. “Actually, I don’t.” “Welcome to the problem,” Bill says. “It’s gettin’ bigger all the time,” and he moves off toward McDonald’s, muttering.

A handout accepted at Thrifty Drug Store

The next day when I called Pac Bell, just to verify that the rooftop structures were indeed microwave relay stations, I was told that was “proprietary information.” — Do you really know your dentist?

San Diego Dream Girls performer readies in the Brass Rail men's room. The Brass Rail is not that much different from any cocktail lounge in El Cajon.

REWIND

A month earlier, in December, again just around sunset, I had seen Bill along with two other “street people” — a middle-aged, florid-faced, American Indian-looking woman and a black man with matted hair — reclining on the sidewalk with their backs to the dirty yellow facade of Servall Market. The woman and the black man were all but embalmed with malt liquor. One of two private cops from Excelsior Security, hired by the Hillcrest Business Association, asked Bill, “You wanna move along now?”

Sixth and University avenues, looking west. The last traces of sunset are an orange smear like a gaudy mirage hovering above University Avenue's pavement to the west.

Bill, happily folding and refolding a newspaper on top of the wastebasket in front of the store, seemed sober if pixilated, but since he was hardly in a coma, the guards, named Strong and Lamar, trained their attention on him. Bill nodded and shuffled west, leaving the rent-a-cops to ponder methods for removing the two hammered winos who flanked the entrance to the Iraqi liquor store with less animation than the Thackeray Gallery gargoyles at Robinson and Third.

“Who do you guys work for?” I asked the uniformed men. They told me, “The Hillcrest Association.”

“Well,” I suggested, “You probably could hang out at this spot all night. Dinner and a show, one low price.” Tony Lamar and Ebb Strong laughed. They spoke into their hand radios, presumably for advice on how to proceed with loitering and illegal lodging with intent to snore.

I saw the two Excelsior guards around the neighborhood over the next few weeks and then after the first of the year, I didn’t.

Warren Simon, director of the Hillcrest Association, explained: “We hired them on a three-month basis, from October to December. Their last day was Christmas Eve. They’re not on the streets now because it was a pilot program. We [the Hillcrest Association] used our own funds for that, and we could only afford a three-month period. Now we have questionnaires going out to the merchants to see how many of them are willing to put in so much money a month to keep the service going.”

Simon said the association paid Excelsior $300 per week. The commercial patrolmen started their shift at 2:00 p.m. and would go off the clock each night at 8:00 p.m.

The last time I saw former military policeman Ebb Strong and his partner Tony Lamar (who boasts a PC832, or Police Officer’s Orientation Training) was just before Christmas {when they were passing two men holding hands in front of City Deli. The black [Strong] and Hispanic [Lamar] security partners walked past, and the affectionate couple began French-kissing behind the guards’ backs. Strong and Lamar were oblivious when one of the lovers broke from his oral embrace, cocked his head, and crooned to the patrolmen’s backs, sotto voce, the theme from the TV show Cops: “Bad boys, bad boys...whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when they come for you, bad boys....”

FAST FORWARD: NICHTCRAWL

In the quickening chill of mid-January’s sunset, I walk west, past the Citizen’s Patrol storefront office and police substation in the Ralphs Uptown Shopping Center. No one home. The door is locked, but there is a phone number taped to the window for reporting incidents. The unoccupied interior might indicate that things have improved since December 13,1991, when 17-year-old John Robert Wear was stabbed to death at Vermont and Essex streets because someone thought he was homosexual.

After all, the Union Tribune's “Night & Day” section, dated December 2, 1993, headlined, “What’s Shakin’ in Hillcrest,” depicted one of the zany waitresses from the Corvette Diner on the cover. The Corvette was described as a place where “...families are awash with nostalgia,” and at the Escape, with its audience of gays and straights, the “cabaret format...is alive and rollicking.... There’s country-western hell-raisin,’ Hillcrest-style at Kicker’s (next door to Hamburger Mary’s); techno dancing at Rich’s on Thursday nights....” Maybe a highball or two — and a Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple for the youngins — at the Brass Rail to catch the San Diego Dream Girls Revue. Why not pack up the station wagon and bring the kids? It's only 15 minutes from La Mesa, 20 from El Cajon, a little longer from Rancho Bernardo, of course, but...

What the promotional feature failed to mention is that most of these places are a tad off the traditional, family-oriented track. They are, for the most part, strictly adult entertainment houses of a very specific kind, their appeal firmly rooted in the (increasingly mainstream) culture of the gay ’90s.

What is also omitted is that much of the community in Hillcrest — patrons and business owners, residents and habitues — are a little nervous about the shadowed aspects of the neighborhood’s nightlife.

In other words, the answer to the U-Ts rhetorical what's shakin' in Hillcrest is, very often — the people who live there.

The sun almost down now, Nick’s, a gay bar, is open, but Rich’s, the gay disco where the Citizen’s Patrol held their first meeting in December of 1991, is still closed. A handful of caffeine-jumped hepsters in black Levi’s, Doc Marten shitkickers, pinwheel mocha java eyes, and multiple earrings are discussing Camus, Morrissey, maybe body piercing, or the generational tragedy of media cafard behind the glass at Soho and Euphoria.

Like Water for Chocolate seems to have been playing at the Guild since 1986, but ticketholders are still gathered, browsing at the Blue Door Bookstore where Tom Stoup, owner and proprietor, presides behind the cash register, drawing on his pipe. Stoup was president of the Hillcrest Association in 1993. He is still on the board and a trustee of the organization.

“Yeah, we hired those guys (from Excelsior), and it’s controversial in that we’ve gotta decide now if we want them back. That is, if the merchants are willing to pay to have them back or what. Mostly, it’s that a lot of the merchants don’t like the homeless people around their stores. Also, there was this boy named John Wear a few years back, who was, I guess, on his way to Soho for coffee, and he was killed because somebody thought he was gay, but he wasn’t. It was definitely a hate crime, and out of that came — I can’t call it a vigilante group, but a group of mostly gay people who have set up a security force of their own. And they’re still doin’ it every night, just about. They’ve got that storefront that cooperates with SDPD, and that’s separate from those two guys that the association hired mostly just to move homeless people around.”

I walk a few paces across the street and talk with bookseller Garrick Ryan at 5th Avenue Books. “Crime?” He asks. “In Hillcrest? Hey, big time. Just the other night two guys jumped a woman on the corner.”

Unwittingly playing straight man, I ask, “What happened?”

“It was horrible, man. Horrible. One guy held her down and the other guy did her hair.”

CRIME? WHAT CRIME?

Suzanne Babbitz, president of the Hillcrest Business Association, says of the area in question, “I’m not aware there has been any crime lately on Fifth and University. We didn’t hire [the Excelsior guards] because of that. We hired them because we compete with regional malls. And the big attraction of the regional malls is that they have security guards, and they’ve always advertised themselves as secure and clean. We did it as a pilot program to see what effect it would have and if the merchants liked it and if it would help with some of the aggressive panhandlers. We wanted them to establish a presence, to be eyes and ears. They were not armed and they were very benign.”

In February, the Hillcrest Business Association reached a consensus not to rehire the security guards.

Bob Heider, a volunteer director at the Citizen’s Patrol Office, sits behind his desk in the locked storefront office at sundown on a weeknight. He is the sole occupant of the room and is speaking on the phone. Two pamphlets are displayed prominently on the counter, which looks not unlike a miniature precinct sergeant’s desk. The brochures are tided: “PUT A STOP TO VIOLENT CRIME; YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE,” and MAKING SAN DIEGO A SAFER PLACE TO LIVE: CITIZEN’S PATROL.”

Waiting to speak to Heider presents an opportunity to peruse the literature. The Citizen’s Patrol pamphlet defines the organization some have called a “a gay vigilante group,” though this turns out to be less than accurate.

“On various nights of the week, volunteers patrol the streets, in pairs, in their own vehicles. When they see suspicious activity, they contact police using portable phones that have been donated by Pacific Bell Cellular. During San Diego Police-led training sessions, patrollers are encouraged not to physically intervene; they understand it’s best if they take notes, get good descriptions, and relay that information to the proper authorities. It’s a simple task really, yet one that is proving itself to be effective in making the streets of our community safer. Citizens and businesses are feeling good about what we are doing every week. The patrols make it a win-win situation for everyone but the criminals. When citizens feel safer, they are more likely to walk about town and patronize neighborhood establishments. Pride in the community grows stronger...."

The brochure also includes “Prevention Tips While You Are Out.”

-Try not to go out at night alone.

-Don’t respond to comments from strangers on the street.

-Cross the street if you see someone suspicious following you.

-Watch your surroundings. Be alert for suspicious persons especially around banks, stores, streets, and your car or home

-If you are alone at work before or after normal business hours, keep the door locked if possible.

-Always keep your doors locked and, when possible, put up your windows.

-When walking in a group, have the person whose car is nearest drive you and the others to your cars.

-Be aware: some people may try to steal your car while you are in it! Keep doors locked and windows up when possible.

Bob Heider is a slim, well-buffed man in his late 30s or early 40s with a clean-cut, almost military haircut and bearing. He looks so much like a policeman, it is surprising to find that he is not. “No,” he says, “just a citizen.”

Heider boasts almost immediately of seven recent arrests, the direct result, he says, of the Citizens Patrol efforts in North Park and Hillcrest. Muggers? Perpetrators of hate crimes against the gay and lesbian community? Car thieves? Rapists?

No. “Taggers,” Heider announces, leaning back in his chair with great satisfaction. “Saturday night was our seventh tagger arrest. We decided, since we’re out there anyway, we might as well be alert to everything that’s going on, and it paid off.”

What about more serious crimes like the Wear beating, which fostered the organization of Citizens Patrol in the first place?

“Crime is way down in Hillcrest,” Heider says quickly. “Especially the assaults on gays. That’s way down. I have here in this set of books,” he indicates a set of plastic binders, “the daily incident logs on what’s going on. We get ’em every day from the police department.” Heider leafs through a recent series of reports. “You might find one or two a month where someone will say something like, ‘Ya faggot, ya queer,’ or something while they assault them, but not like before. In the last six months of ’91 we had 55 some assaults in the Hillcrest/North Park area, and the police have identified at least 35 of those as hate crimes. We’re down significantly from there.”

Is the Citizen's Patrol primarily a gay and lesbian community watch organization?

“We’ve been operating two years now,” Heider is squinting through the storefront glass at the shadows falling along University Avenue. He seems momentarily uncertain of the answer. “I would say in the last six months, the majority of volunteers we’re getting are from the straight community. But in the first year, the vast majority was gay or lesbian. We have a good mixture of both.”

NICHTCRAWL: REPRISE

A few minutes after 5:00 p.m., the Hillcrest sign comes on, followed by Jimmy Wong’s neon dragon. A few businesses have left Christmas lights mounted in windows or above shops. The last traces of sunset are an orange smear like a gaudy mirage hovering above University Avenue's pavement to the west.

In order to establish if Hillcrest is afraid of the dark or not, why not ask those who might have reason to look over their shoulders after sundown?

The Brass Rail at happy hour is dimly lit and sparsely patronized. The day bartender, Dave, is a burly, 30ish man with a goatee and a breezy manner. He is going off shift at 6:00 and will be replaced by Michael, a thin man with shoulder-length hair and two medium-sized earrings that look silver. One guy in drag (blond wig, sparkle eye makeup, and tight dress — a size 42, possibly) is sitting next to another cross-dressing performer who is not in drag at the moment. He wears a black beret and black motorcycle jacket; the only indication of his quirks of haberdashery are his eyebrows, which are plucked or shaved, and traces of mascara around his eyes.

The Brass Rail is dark enough inside so that it takes a moment for your eyes to adjust to the lighting, even if you enter at night. The room has an ambient rose, womb-like glow. Popcorn and pretzels are laid out at each bar stool along with flyers for San Diego Dream Girls Revue” (the drag show) and “Sunday: Beer Bust & Burgers.” With a few exceptions (high, ersatz schoolgirlish laughter, the occasional man dressed like a woman, and the odd physical display of affection between men who, at first glance, would appear to be more at home on a football field than at a Judy Garland retrospective), the Brass Rail is not that much different — at least at happy hour on a weeknight — from any cocktail lounge in El Cajon.

Dave is talking about how the gay community is much more “aware,” how “the kids are drinking less and looking out for each other these days.” Dave — who also tends bar at night at Bourbon Street, a gay bar on Park Boulevard — seems to agree with many of Hillcrest’s public relations-oriented spokespersons; in other words. Maybe there used to be a problem, but we fixed it.

A customer named Ray waits for Dave to finish. He interjects with his own story of being attacked recently in broad daylight on First Avenue. Ray is a frail man wearing a brown jacket that seems to engulf him. A similarly colored baseball cap perches loosely on his head. His eyes are owl-like behind rimless glasses.

“I was walking home from the grocery store on First. I live on Fifth. These two Latino guys approached me and asked me if I had any change. I said ‘No,’ and one of them grabbed me and the other one pulled out a razor knife and slit my arm. It was a clear cut right down to the bone.” Here Ray lifts his sleeve to expose a scar that would indeed have been a bad cut some time ago.

When did this occur?

“This is three o’clock in the afternoon. They took off running so I ran home, grabbed a rag, and put it around my arm. Then I drove up to Mercy, and they asked me there if I had come with anyone, and I said ‘No.’ So they asked me how I was planning to get home afterwards under anesthetic. I said, 'I don’t know. I’m driving.’ That was my mistake. They said they couldn’t treat me until I brought someone with me.

“I got back in my car and got a friend of mine who was playing tennis at Mira Mesa. He took me to UCSD, where I spent about six hours. They sewed me up and called the police. Then they said, ‘You can’t leave here until they come.’ Well, three hours went by and the police never showed up. I asked them to call the police back and ask them to please come. I was feeling very weak. I’m HIV positive, and I have been for ten years. Well, they did call back, but the police never arrived. I decided I was too cold, hungry, and traumatized so I just left. They told me someone from the police department would contact me. Well, it’s been five weeks now, and no one has contacted me. I’ve called them, I’ve gone to Citizen’s Patrol, and I’ve talked to police officers who are out on the beat asking them who to contact. The police department has not responded. So I’ve given up.

“I hope those guys got some of my blood on them and they catch the disease I have. It would serve them right, they’re so stupid. I don’t have as much anger toward those people as I do the police. They just don’t do their job. It’s as simple as that. Every year our tax dollars go up, and these guys sit out in front of the 7-Eleven [at Robinson and Fourth). I see four [squad] cars out there at a time. They’re just drinkin’ coffee and bullshittin’, whatever. I’ve seen people murdered in Balboa Park.”

Ray moved to San Diego from Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area famous for violence and crime. When asked if Ray considers Hillcrest a dangerous area, he says, “It’s a bad area. A bad area. Hillcrest five years ago was a beautiful area to live in. Now...Hillcrest is going to the dogs.

“But it’s the Citizen’s Patrol that has cleaned up Hillcrest — if it’s been cleaned up at all. Not the police department. The police might put up their big old trailers and lights so it looks like they’re doin’ something. But they ain’t doing Jack Diddly-do, as far as I’m concerned.”

Ray does indeed seem impassioned on the subject. The genteel, tired manner of speech with which he began his story has become reminiscent of a pissed-off New York cabbie. But the scar on his forearm, near his elbow, is not the compelling visual corroboration it might be. The scar seems much older than the five weeks Ray says has elapsed since the attack.

Michael, the night bartender with the shoulder-length hair and earrings, comes on at 6:00 and talks about the night he closed the Brass Rail at 2:30 a.m., got into his car he had parked around the corner on Fifth, across from the taxi stand, and was nearly dragged from it by two Hispanic males. “At least, they were speaking Spanish,” says Michael. The night barman turned the tables on that situation by hitting the gas pedal and dragging his would-be assailants. They let go of the car after several feet.

“About a year and a half ago,” says Michael, “we had a customer who insisted on fighting in here, and we had a hard time getting him under control. I called 911 and they called back about 45 minutes later and asked if we still needed them. At that point we said ‘No,’ because we didn’t anymore. But all that time we were out in front on the street with this guy, and a police officer had driven past without seeing anything, apparently.”

When asked if Michael feels the SDPD is simply not attentive or responsive to his needs, he is more generous than his customer Ray. “I’m not saying everyone, but yeah, some of them are just not gonna respond.”

Does he feel at least reasonably confident that he can call the police and say, “Hi, this is Mike at the Brass Rail, and I have a problem here and need some help,” with an expectation that they’ll be here?

“No, I can’t,” he shakes his head. “I’ve just had a few incidents and...no.”

One of the cross-dressing performers mentions a recent stabbing nearby. The two bartenders and two other customers nod in agreement; they’ve heard of this. Everyone seems to agree that it was recent, nearby, and that the victim was stabbed exactly five times. But no one knows where this took place, exactly when, to whom, or whether or not the stabbing was fatal.

CRIME? WHAT CRIME?: PART II

Ken Hofer, the community relations officer from Western Division, keeps a desk at the storefront Citizen’s Patrol office on University Avenue.

“No,” Hofer certainly hasn’t heard of any recent stabbing. “In fact, Hillcrest and North Park have been especially quiet in the past few weeks in terms of street robberies and assaults.”

As to the other issues discussed at the Brass Rail —

“I think both sides [police and the gay community] have worked very hard to maintain a partnership. I think overall our relationship with them is excellent.”

When asked about 911 response time and Ray and Michael’s stories, Hofer says, “We look at those on an individual basis. By and large what we see happening is that there’s a miscommunication between the victim and us. There’s a whole host of reasons. One of the common things we hear is that ‘The police never showed up.’ Well, we ask, ‘How do you know the police never showed up?’ They’ll say, ‘Well, I waited 20 minutes, then I left the corner.’ Well, yeah. Sometimes the response is delayed, but by and large I think it’s pretty good.”

As far as Hillcrest crime since the death of John Robert Wear goes, Hofer says, “1 think the awareness level is at an all-time high. We [Citizen’s Patrol] have trained, since May of’93, something like 700 Hillcrest/North Park/University Heights citizens. They’re not just Citizen’s Patrol classes, they’re geared toward crime prevention, awareness. You don’t have to join Citizen’s Patrol to come to the classes and get that training.”

NICHTCRAWL III: CRUISING FOR CREEPS

It is a Saturday night at 9:30 at the Citizens Patrol Office. Bob Heider is handing out cellular phones to the seven citizens about to patrol the three “beats” in Hillcrest and North Park between 10 p.m. and midnight. The volunteers do indeed seem to be a mixed bunch: an elderly couple, two women with severe haircuts and serious expressions, 36-year-old Fred Schroeder, an importer/exporter from North Park, and 76-year-old Bill Stack, a retired Army Colonel also from North Park. I will patrol beat number 1 with Schroeder and Stack. This area includes Washington to Upas and Park Boulevard to First Avenue.

Heider advises patrolees of recent “incident reports.” He mentions a black male on Fourth and “...on December 31st, two black males of the same general description trying to roll someone in Hillcrest on the 500 block of Evans Place. Is that that short street behind Thrifty? — Anyway, they’re 5'8"or 5'10", older teens on foot. The other black male was in a red Honda Civic...” Heider also advises that there have been reports of a camper parked on Essex Street and Vermont. “When people walked by the camper, the people in the camper were chasing them and hollering at them. They did not, however, give us a description of that camper with a license number.”

Dispatched into respective cars (ours is Schroeder’s Jeep Wrangler), we make a loop down University to First, over to Washington, right on Normal, and park in front of the gay and lesbian center. The mild-looking, bespectacled Schroeder explains, “We try to cruise by the hot spots where there has been trouble. Bars or restaurants, businesses, what have you. For example. Shooters bar on 30th Street in North Park has had some problems with people passing by, opening the door, and yelling out, ‘Hey, you faggots!’ or something. And then someone threw a beer bottle in there. The Gay and Lesbian Center has had a few, I guess not attacks, but there’ve been a few people who’ve opened the doors and screamed something inside. A few homophobic comments made. So they ask us to come by every Friday and Saturday night about 10:00 just to make sure everybody gets out of the building okay.”

As we cruise through the darkened side streets of Hillcrest, it becomes obvious that crime detection after dark could well be a problem. The streets are often more shadow than light. The low-intensity city streetlights are sparse and ineffective, and Stack keeps up a running criticism of homeowners’ lack of porch lighting or lawn lights, saying things like, “Now that's a good set of lights!” or “Look at that, no lights at all!” or “Useless!” The impression is that Stack would like to see Kleig lights every few feet banishing every possible shadow.

I ask if it is illegal to open a barroom door and shout homophobic comments, “I mean, unless you’re threatening someone — possibly, even if you are — it’s not actually against the law, is it?”

Schroeder is unsure. He mentions the Flame, the lesbian bar on Park Boulevard, which has had similar problems. “We’ll cruise by there too, to see how Bear is doing.” Bear, he explains, is the Flame’s head of security or chief bouncer. Schroeder points her out as we drive by, and the origin of her nickname is very clear. “She once subdued a guy who was in there causing problems. Got him on the ground, I understand. I don’t remember what the situation was, exactly.”

We pass the seventh billboard I’ve seen in the neighborhood advertising “The Club,” the one where the uniformed cop brandishes the car-lock device in one hand, points a finger at you, and glowers hatefully as if to say, Lock your car with this thing, or I'll shove it up your ass!

I keep thinking about areas in San Diego like Logan Heights, East San Diego, the South Bay, where people are killing themselves and each other routinely with drugs and guns. I wonder about policing gay establishments in response to what sounds to me like the ’90s equivalent of teenagers in the ’50s and ’60s opening up old man Weissberg’s drugstore entrance and shouting, “Hey! You got Prince Albert in a can? Hah hah!” What would Hillcrest do if it had real problems?

“We’re probably not going to see anything tonight. It’s rare. You just don’t ever see a 7-Eleven getting knocked over or anything.” Schroeder and Stack did witness a burglary and had the police cruising along behind them at the time. They were also instrumental in busting a transvestite who was mugging his/her johns. But on the whole, Schroeder observes, “...crime just doesn’t roll out at you from some swinging saloon doors in an old western.”

After being dropped off back at the storefront, I walk the neighborhood for a few blocks back to my apartment. The night is chilly for San Diego, the crowds on University are sparse and well-behaved for a Saturday night, and the shadows are menacing — for Hillcrest.

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