Call it blind loyalty, if you like. For a place to tell me his story, Clark Waters chose the Denny’s restaurant at the corner of Pacific Highway and Hawthorn Street. Only days earlier, he had been picketing the Denny’s on West Point Loma Boulevard. The sign he held? “Warning: My vehicle was towed while I ate at Denny’s.”
Waters, who is 82, tells me he’s been eating at the West Point Loma Denny’s for ten years, sometimes as often as three times a week. And during every visit, he insists, his motor home sat in the same parking place. It’s a spot where large vehicles park while their owners, including many out-of-town travelers, visit the restaurant.
At about 8:00 p.m. on June 3, Waters pulled into his usual spot. He tells me that a friend planned to meet him at the restaurant. The friend had taken him to a doctor’s appointment several weeks earlier. In return, Waters wanted to buy a dinner the two could share.
Waters came early so he could use the bathroom in his motor home. He must stay close to a bathroom due to two colon surgeries he underwent last year. “For three months afterwards,” he tells me, “I had to wear a colostomy bag. It was the worst three months of my life. I was finally able to have the bag removed. Now I’m doing everything I can to keep from getting cancer in that part of my colon. Unfortunately, part of it means frequent and long stays in the bathroom.”
After a half-hour stay inside, Waters says he heard a loud and violent banging on the back door that continued while he made his way to open it. What ensued was a raucous shouting match with a Heritage Security Services guard who patrols the parking lot of the Midway Towne Center at the corner of West Point Loma and Midway Drive. Besides Denny’s, the center is home to Wachovia bank, Longs drugstore, and Souplantation, as well as 10 or 12 smaller retail stores.
Waters greeted the guard at his door with a hostile “What are you doing banging so hard on my door?” He stepped out of his motor home and onto the pavement. The guard was demanding that Waters get his vehicle off the property, saying he had no right to camp out there. The men attacked each other verbally, says Waters, each of them slinging copious “f* yous.” The altercation lasted a good ten minutes.
A buddy was visiting the guard, and in Waters’s opinion, the guard was trying to impress the friend with “how macho he could be. He was acting like Rambo but was really just saving face,” says Waters, who announced his intention to go into the Denny’s, “as is my usual practice. ‘No, you’re not,’ the guard yelled, ‘and if you do, I’ll have your vehicle towed,’ ” he said, according to Waters.
Perhaps counting on protection from Denny’s, Waters defied the threat. He went into the restaurant, ordered coffee, and waited for his friend. “After about half an hour,” Waters tells me, “I looked outside and saw that a tow truck already had my motor home hooked up. I quickly paid my bill and ran out.”
It’s bad enough to see your car in such straits, but unless Waters could be persuasive, he was about to witness his home rolling away. Where would he sleep? He recently gave up an apartment and now stays nights in the motor home on a piece of private property owned by a friend. He is a retired swimming- pool construction worker and says he lives on $1000 a month.
“When I got to the tow truck,” says Waters, “I asked the driver if there was anything I could do to hold on to my motor home that night.” The answer, after the driver’s supervisor showed up from Coastal Pride Towing, was $235 on the spot. At the scene, Waters overheard the security guard explaining his action by saying the motor home had been parked for four hours.
Waters withdrew money from a nearby ATM, retrieved his vehicle, and left. The next day, he went back to Denny’s. The manager, Waters says, expressed outrage at what happened and promised to call him after checking out whether the company could do anything to help get his money back.
After not hearing back, Waters called Denny’s and found that the manager in question had gone on vacation. So over the weekend, he returned with his sign blaming Denny’s and picketed for hours each day. He came back several more times. Each day that he picketed, he says, people would walk up to hear his story. Finally, a different store manager came out and told Waters he was hurting business and that she would call the police unless he left. “Haven’t you ever heard of the First Amendment?” Waters says he told her. “I’m on the sidewalk, and that’s public property.”
Meanwhile, Waters called Coastal Pride Towing, Heritage Security, and Jim Bernard, the property manager for Midway Towne Center. It’s not surprising that none of them was willing to eat the $235. Waters says that Bernard was the most sympathetic but in the end maintained that he could do nothing.
By phone, I find that Bernard did feel sorry about what happened. But he tells me that several eyewitnesses reported that Waters was extremely combative during his confrontation with the Heritage Security guard. “Then [Waters] goes into the Denny’s for coffee to make it all look good.”
The friend whose dinner Waters intended to buy that night had been gambling at the Barona Casino and did not arrive at Denny’s until after ten o’clock. In support of a subsequent effort by Waters to recover his $235, the friend has filed an affidavit in small claims court that the dinner was the men’s plan for the evening.
The bigger picture, says Bernard, is that “we’ve been having trouble recently with people who park their motor homes in the shopping center for long periods of time. Some of them have even emptied their waste onto the pavement.”
How long had Waters been parking behind the Denny’s before the security guard banged on his door? Based on a hazy recollection of Heritage Security’s report, Bernard thought it had been “several hours,” a softening of the guard’s four hours. Waters, however, had shown me receipts that put him at the Ralphs store a half mile away on Sports Arena Boulevard less than 45 minutes before the guard began banging on his door.
“Yes, Waters told me that,” says Bernard, who believes the specific amount of time is not relevant. State law, he says, permits “property owners to have vehicles removed after as little as five minutes.” Bernard thinks that on the night of the Waters incident, the security company was “just being very strict with motor homes.” Signs in the parking lot proclaim, “Unauthorized or improperly parked vehicles will be impounded 24 hours a day at owner’s risk and expense.”
Is Heritage Security satisfied with its guard’s treatment of Waters? I call the company. A woman gives me the voice mail of the company’s president. “He’s the one who will want to speak with you,” she says. For starters, I leave one question: How long do you understand Waters to have been in the parking lot behind the Denny’s? After several hours and no response, I call back and ask for the president. “He went home for the weekend,” the woman tells me. What about my message? “Oh, he calls back if he’s interested.”