Illustration by Jay Allen Sanford
Once a nurse’s dorm for the nearby hospital, by the turn of the 21st century it had devolved into the most fleabitten of fleabag hotels.
The untold stories about Hillcrest’s Friendship Hotel would probably read like William Burroughs’ dream journal. Once a nurse’s dorm for the nearby hospital, by the turn of the 21st century the two buildings across the street from each other on 8th Avenue had devolved into the most fleabitten of fleabag hotels.
For most residents, whether passing through or permanent, it was a last potential offramp on the road to oblivion. Twenty bucks a day, plus an equal and unadvertised room deposit (and ten more bucks for the key deposit, if the operator found you shifty) got you the most minimally outfitted room. The entire floor shared one (frequently unspeakable) bathroom.
A while back, I posted an autobiographical article called Chuck Norris vs. Wyatt Earp, about living in the late ’70s at the storied Palms Hotel, a palace-turned-flophouse sprawling across half a block at 12th and Island downtown. As it turned out, exactly 20 years later, I found myself once again homeless and hotel shopping, though still with a modest income from publishing assets, freelance writing, and drawing the weekly Overheard in San Diego comic strips. When I noticed the Friendship Hotel was practically next door to a Kinko’s where I was already renting computer time and using photocopiers to complete my paying work, I walked into the Hotel cold and requested a room.
I should be upfront here and tell you that I was strung out. In full addiction mode and frankly looking forward to getting into my room and feeding that addiction. I daresay one could tell from looking at me, a guy with sunken Uncle Fester eyes wearing long unwashed duds, and whose only luggage was a backpack.
Notwithstanding the fact that I looked like Sid Vicious checking into the Chelsea Hotel just before Nancy arrived with a big-ass knife in her purse, the operator, a short gruff guy who got angrier and angrier over the next few weeks, like some kind of slow-mo werewolf transformation, took me right to my room, across the street from the main building and on the second floor. Minus that extra ten dollar key deposit.
It took me only a few moments alone in my room to do my drug of choice, and then I was bouncing back out my new door to go put my few remaining dollars toward more drugs. I noticed that my door had a huge gap between it and the frame, big enough to nearly wiggle fingers through, and I made a mental note to drape a blanket over the door from the inside when I got back.
The first person I came across was standing just outside the building, a very pretty young woman, probably in her early 20s. She was on the steps and said hi, so I said hi and noticed she seemed to want to say more. I figured this might be worth holding off on the drugs, at least for a moment.
She looked around awkwardly and then back at me. “Look, I just got here and I don’t know anybody, so let me just come out and ask you. Do you know where, uh, working girls go around here? Like, is there a track where guys go to find a date?”
I told my new neighbor about how nearby El Cajon Boulevard transformed at night into a hooker parade, all the way up to the Subway shop. And then we took off in opposite directions, though we did cross paths later that night on the Boulevard. She thanked me and said she was going to be able to afford a much better hotel now. I wasn’t so lucky. She was out there earning, I was out there spending.
The next time I left my room was the next day, moments after my drugs were again used up. As soon as I opened the door, there was the little gruff guy who’d rented me the room, standing almost in the door jamb. The door jamb I’d covered from inside with a sheet. I was startled. “What’s up, is there a problem?”
He looked guilty. “Uh, I’m just keeping an eye on a tenant. I think he’s up to something, and I want to find out what it is.”
He was standing in my doorway while saying this, so I assumed that the suspicious tenant was me. I was indeed suspicious, but I knew that I’d just used up all my drugs, and that there wasn’t so much as a piece of paraphernalia left in my room. So I just chirped, “Well, good luck with that then, hope you catch the guy,” and walked downstairs and out the door.
Photo by Jay Allen Sanford
When I got to the Jack in the Box parking lot next door, I looked up at the Hotel window closest to my room on the second floor. There was the hotel operator, opening my room door and walking in. As I got to know other residents, both semi-permanent and occasional like myself, they often told me the guy had keys to every room, and wasn’t at all shy about walking into anyone’s hidey-hole.
Some people lived there full time, but they still had to leave for one night every month, to avoid local occupancy laws or something. There was a lady who walked her cat on a leash who said she’d been there four years, and who had only good things to say about hotel management. A family on the first floor was said to have been there for even more years, and they too seemed happy, although they avoided interaction with almost everyone who hadn’t been there as long.
In fact, once the sun went down, the family was locked in as tight as the peasants of Dracula’s village. I never once saw them emerge after dark.
The operator’s lover (who I never talked to but who is best described physically as what Poseidon Adventure-era Ernest Borgnine might see in the mirror after a week without sleep), seemed to have free reign of any unoccupied room he wanted to use for open door hotel parties.
More than once, he and others tried to lure me into those parties as I walked by, promising me everything from sex to drugs to things I couldn’t comprehend then or now. He and his fellow partiers were using code words that greatly amused them, but completely baffled me.
One night, I had a female overnight guest who didn’t know about my drug use. So, after she fell asleep, I got high in the dark, in the corner of my room, very quietly and very furtively. When I silently stood and opened the door to go out for the bathroom, the door hit a guy standing right there in the hallway, bent over like a cartoon kid peering into a key-shaped peephole. Wearing nothing but a towel.
The guy was so shocked when I opened the door that he leapt backwards and shouted out loud, “Oh my!” I felt like I’d fallen into an outtake from The Birdcage.
The guy apologized with a bunch of babble about “I thought this was someone else’s room,” but it was obvious he’d been peeking through that huge door crack. That was when I started calling it the Looky-Loo Hotel. When I said that to another resident, he told me “Man, you don’t know how right you are!”
Photo by Jay Allen Sanford
According to this guy, who’d been living there off and on — we’ll call him “Max” — there were peep holes in the ceilings of every room on the second floor of the secondary building. Sure enough, I soon spotted the operator going up a weird set of stairs into an attic looking room, and then hearing his footsteps up there, going back and forth. According to Max, that’s where the peepholes were.
One day, the operator was coming down from the “attic” just as I walked by, and I took the opportunity to ask “Hey, what’s up there? You don’t have any artist lofts with a view to rent, do you?”
The guy looked at me strange and grunted “nothing but storage up there.” Why a semi-residential hotel operator needed to go climb into an attic storage room multiple times each day — never carting anything in or out of that storage room that looked related to storage — went (and remains) unaddressed.
I mentioned this to Max, and he took me into the communal kitchen and showed me something really strange. A big plywood sheet was placed over what looked like a hole in one wall, mostly hidden behind appliances. If you moved the fridge a bit, you could see that the fridge was the only thing holding the plywood in place. It wasn’t nailed or anything. The hole behind the plywood was just big enough to bend over and walk into.
Looking into the hole, you could see a sort of hallway that seemed to wend all the way down the length of the building, situated just behind what would have been the back wall of the rental rooms. Max said the hole had just appeared, and that he hadn’t seen any workmen or heard about any wiring or plumbing problems. He then theorized that somebody was drilling holes looking into all those rooms, this time from eye level instead of overhead. I never entered the “secret” hall behind the plywood, it was too creepy and closed-in and looked way too spider-y, and I never saw anything that looked like peepholes drilled back there.
However, the next day, there was a brand new wall completely plastered over where the hole had been the day before. You would never have guessed the hole had been there if you hadn’t seen it.
Around the same time, I walked around another corner just in time to hear the operator talking to a guy who was wearing some kind of worker coveralls and saying “You can’t put cameras there or someone will see it.” They stopped talking immediately, completely, upon catching sight of me. This got me wondering, so, when I next saw the operator, I said “Glad to hear you’re installing surveillance cameras, everyone will feel a lot safer.”
The guy looked at me like I’d just described his mother’s vagina. “I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, we ain’t putting in no cameras.”
Photo by Jay Allen Sanford
That was actually a friendly chat for the operator of the Friendship Hotel. The guy yelled almost everything he ever said. He seemed particularly eager to charge his bully batteries by yelling at anyone invading the handful of available — and expensive — parking spots in the hotel lot. And heaven forbid you park at Jack in the Box next door, even just to go knock on someone’s room door and take them away. He’d pounce right onto parking violators like a starving werewolf spotting a fat guy with a limp.
One time, my friend didn’t even get out of the car. He just pulled into a Jack in the Box slot before I saw him from upstairs, ran down, and jumped into the passenger seat.
Suddenly, the hotel operator was there and rapping on my friend’s car window so hard with his giant ring on his giant finger that my friend said he thought the guy tried to smash a rock though the car window. He yelled so loudly at my buddy that it was incomprehensible, more howl than human, at least to my admittedly strung-out ears.
After a few months of on-and-off again residency at the Friendship Hotel, I spent my last night there sometime around summer 2002, just before I finally got myself clean and back into an actual home again.
A guy on the same floor who sometimes sold me drugs was stabbed that night and almost died, resulting in the arrest of another tenant. The paper later said it was a fight over liquor. I didn’t know him very well and didn’t even know it had happened until told by Max, just before I checked out for good. I’d been on the Boulevard scoring drugs when it all went down.
But I wasn’t surprised to hear about it. It’s not like anything friendly had ever happened during my time at the Friendship Hotel.