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Chuck Norris VS Wyatt Earp: Legends of the Palms Hotel @12th & Island

The Reader has been running my Tales of the Palms Hotel in chapters over the past few years, covering the bizarre history of the largely unchronicled palace-turned-flophouse still lumbering over 12th and Island downtown, built in 1869 and currently the oldest continually-operating hotel in San Diego.

The articles have included my first-person accounts of the insolvent years I lived there, back in the Stones' age of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

This all-new final chapter features a photo essay RE my own recent return visit to the Palms, my first time stepping though its doors in over 27 years.

Earlier chapters are compiled from my journal accounts of The Day Chuck Norris Filmed a Movie at the Palms and The Night Other Tommy Got Us Busted by S.W.A.T. Additional historical info concerning the building’s construction, onetime resident Wyatt Earp, and a couple of murders that took place on the premises, is presented here for the first time in this complete compendium --



On arriving in San Diego in 1978, eighteen and on my own for the first time, I rented a room at the Palms Hotel on 12th and Island, which at the time was the floppiest of downtown flophouses.

Today, the old Victorian building is a brightly-renovated multi-family dorm, across from condos at an address now haughtily known as 509 Park Boulevard. But back then, long before the Trolley line and the City’s obsessive eminent domain-driven campaign to obliterate the Gaslamp District’s sailors-on-shore-leave legacy, the Palms Hotel was a bleak and faded roach farm, hosting some of the most down and out denizens ever seen this side of the DeTox center that once operated just across the street, on Island.

I took below photos of the Palms twenty-five years apart, 1979 and 2004:

For $75 a month, I got a second-story broom closet just big enough to fit a twin size bed, with maybe twelve inches of clearance, on one side only.

It was so small, to get out of bed, I had to push open the door and step into the hallway.

Over my next four years of underemployment, I eventually moved my way up the Palms waiting list, room by room...

...each a bit larger with each relocation...

...until I ended up in the most prized room of all: a top floor corner wraparound “suite,” with an actual alcove bedroom (okay, a converted closet), an in-room sink (slash-toilet), multiple bay windows overlooking the Coronado bridge (and the DeTox center), and my own private balcony and exterior entrance (okay, it was just a fire escape, but I USED it as both balcony and doorway).

This is the story of both the (formerly grand) Hotel, as well as the people who came and went through this misbegotten Island of Misfit Toys during my time there (1978 – 1982) --

The land on which the Hotel sits was originally occupied by the Bay View Hotel. According to a San Diego Tribune article dated February 28, 1938, it was “One of San Diego’s first hotels, built soon after Father Horton came here in 1868…it was the social center for the young city in its day, the scene of many parties, the terminal for the stage [transportation] lines.” The structure is first referenced in an 1874 city directory, though it was reportedly already built in 1869.

In the 1870s, the Bay View was literally on the outskirts of town, with very little around it other than Matthew Sherman’s house in what became known as Sherman Heights. You can just about make out the Hotel in the background of this photo.

When Pennsylvania oil, hotel, and lumber magnate Joseph V. Collins arrived in San Diego in 1886, he purchased the Bay View Hotel from owners Jones and Dillingham. His ad campaigns attempting to attract guests touted its locale as “the most sightly and healthiest part of town.”

Wyatt Earp and his third wife Josie reportedly stayed in a second floor corner suite at the Palms Hotel in 1886 and 1887, while operating gambling saloons near 4th and Broadway. There are still several bullet holes in the ancient wood above the original reception desk that are credited to one of Earp’s indoor shooting sprees.

During his time at the Palms, Earp listed himself in city records as a “capitalist,” leasing concessions at several gambling halls, operating the Oyster Bar in the Louis Bank Building at 837 5th Avenue, buying some land in Hillcrest, hanging out at the Tivoli Bar on 6th and Island, and turning up around town at various boxing matches, some of which he reportedly refereed.

The Hotel was rebuilt in 1889, or rather built-over, resulting in the additional floors, though elements of the original building remained within the interior. Here’s a photo of the original Bay View building:

And the remake:

Those two towers were later added atop the Hotel’s southwest side, including a widow’s walkway, only to later be later deconstructed, leaving only a flat tarpapered rooftop.

“What you see on the outside is the 1889 Hotel, within it is the 1869 Hotel,” SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons told the KPBS show San Diego Historic Places in an October 2009 episode. “In 1889, they jacked it up, put it on the second floor, and put a dining room underneath it.”

The original entrance to the 1869 Hotel can still be seen in an inside hallway, an open doorway flanked by the original glass side panels. “That would have been the front entrance that’s now on the second floor,” says Coons. “It was down on the street originally.”

Another hallway has a section of the original exterior wall uncovered, with its original wood siding and window frames (now blocked off). “There would have been six over six window sash in these window openings at the time. You can still see when you look out this window [at the end of the hallway] and see the rest of the Hotel that extends out the back of the 1889 Hotel.”

In competition with the U.S. Grant Hotel, the Bay View was one of main social centers of early San Diego, THE place to go for locals of affluence who enjoyed the ornate décor, lavish top floor views, or who wanted to rent a horse and buggy at the nearby carriage house or eat mint-soaked lamb and calf’s tongue at a high falutin’ eatery within spittoon-hitting distance of the Bay View’s expansive wraparound porchfront.

When builder Collins died in 1913, the Hotel was sold and rechristened the Palms, named after the giant Queen Palm trees already breaking out of the perimeter sidewalks on all four sides of the building.

By the 1970s, as I can personally attest, the upper branches of those palm trees housed what sounded like half a billion noisy birds, whose cacophonous chirping at sunrise and sunset could drown out planes landing at the nearby airport!

In 1972, the Hotel was purchased for $200,000 by a consortium of developers, tho little if anything was done to improve or even upkeep the property. It was later owned by Bill Reed, a retired San Diego fire captain.

When I first landed in that cavernous lobby circa 1978, the Hotel’s sweeping curved staircase, faded but still magnificent, rose from a decrepit entrance room. The decaying lobby was so infested with roaches that you could hear them skittering around inside the coffin-sized console television. Even when the TV was on.

(Palms lobby in 1979)

The lobby was pretty much unchanged from the days of Wyatt Earp. Behind the TV was the original cast iron and slate fireplace, with its original stenciling and redwood.

The reception desk was still lavishly outfitted in tiger stripe redwood, including the old mailbox center with dozens of cubbyhole slots framed in wood and brass, no longer functional but still visible.

The three floors of rooms, once good sized, were subdivided into around seventy smaller units for maximum rentals; daily, weekly, and monthly. Bigger rooms came with their own semi-antique furniture, and a small handful even had working sinks. I’m guessing around a hundred people were living there at the time, as only a few of rooms offered enough space for multiple tenants.

I was greeted each morning by the delicious smells emanating from the Bohemian Bakery behind the Hotel, where a lot of us scavenged still-eatables from the trash bins. For awhile, I was also greeted each morn by a stream of yellow urine raining down past my window.

It seemed the guy in the room above me preferred to take a leak out his window rather than walk to the (frequently unspeakable) communal bathroom that all residents of each floor had to share.

A set of House Rules posted in the lobby specified that no visitors were allowed upstairs after sunset, nobody was to hog the pay phone in the lobby, no leaving clothes unwatched in the laundry room, no unauthorized roommates, no bare feet in the lobby, and several other somewhat archaic but understandable edicts clearly intended to keep druggies, drunks, and deadbeats from further lowering the Hotel’s disposition from mildly disreputable to decidedly felonious.

Beezley’s pub next door was one of those long-gone Dives of the Damned that used to stain downtown’s darker corners. It was a popular hangout for the homeless and destitute, thanks to a daily “happy hour” Swedish meatball buffet.

The bar was also famous among Hotel dwellers for its lavish holiday feasts, provided courtesy of some local volunteer group or other, maybe the Salvation Army or a church. I never really picked up the details; all I knew was that there were only so many things one could do with dry pinto beans and ketchup packets, so I was always hungry and always looking forward to those mouthwatering holiday spreads, like a prisoner counting down to parole.

Beezley's was a pretty rough place, probably the seediest bar I've ever frequented. Since I knew most everyone likely to belly up to the rail, I usually felt fairly safe, but it was NOT the kind of joint where a stranger would just drop into and relax. A lot of bikers openly did drug transactions there, and there were countless stolen cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and even the occasional murder victim found in the parking lot between the Palms and the bar. Back there, it was literally junkie central; dangerous to walk thru without getting mugged, stepping on needles or feces, and/or worse ----

The DeTox center across the street often coughed up wayward people who immediately wandered into the Hotel. There were very few single-night room rentals, tho. It was 95% residential, with weekly to monthly tenants. And even when there WERE rare nightly rooms available, the clerks would lie about this to anyone wandering in looking too strung out.

The Palms’ large flat rooftop – easily accessible from a somewhat-hidden interior stairwell and several exterior fire escapes – was a popular hangout for smokers, drinkers, and other partiers who wanted to enjoy the sweeping panoramic view from the Coronado Bridge to Harbor Drive, Point Loma, the bay, just north of Broadway, and all the way up Golden Hill and partway down Imperial Avenue.

The nearby building that had once housed a bustling horse and buggy operation for the city’s elite was occupied by an elevator factory.

One Palms room I lived in was used for a scene in the 1979 Chuck Norris movie A Force of One, filmed in San Diego.

In the movie, a junkie runs up the stairs and bangs on the door of room #31, screaming “Where’s my fix?!?”

The whole time I lived in that room, every single night, SOMEbody in the Hotel would pound on my door and scream that. Often several somebodys. I still hate that movie. But I’ll get to the day Chuck Norris visited the Palms later…

(One of my more fondly-remembered rooms at the Palms)

SOME PEOPLE OF THE PALMS

The lives led by many of the living ghosts who haunted the Palms may never be chronicled anywhere, anytime, outside of maybe some old welfare records, or on the backs of old family photos that nobody in the family can identify any more. I’d like to rectify this to some extent.

Stanley Stadnick, aka Writer Guy: Okay, he was really more Reader Guy, always with paperbacks hanging out his pockets, even while already reading a hardcover in the downstairs TV lobby. He claimed he was a writer, and he certainly didn’t lack for instructional reference, since his room was essentially decorated, furnished, and all-but-built of books. Shelves and stacks of ‘em everywhere, just a mountain of literature, and almost nothing else in sight that wasn’t printed and bound. A big sci-fi fan, especially Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick, he rarely left the hotel.

During the August 1979 earthquake, Writer Guy was almost crushed beneath his beloved books. At least, that’s what he told me minutes after the tremor subsided, when he came across me standing in the parking lot of the DeTox center, completely nude. I was nude because I’d been sleeping undressed when the quake hit, and had jumped down my fire escape as-is ---------

Writer Guy’s detachment from the outside world was such that he never once seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, that I was naked. Or maybe that wasn’t uncommon in the DeTox lot.

The Invisible Woman, a middle aged lady who lived alone on the first floor that everybody knew of but few had actually seen, even though she’d been living there for as long as anyone could remember. Sightings of her were so scarce that she became a sort of urban legend, with much speculation over when and how she did her laundry, obtained supplies and food, and what her bathroom routine might be since none of the individual rooms had their own toilet facilities, only (at most) a small running sink ---

Matty, aka Old Guy With a Car: Must’ve been in his 70s, with a rickety old Volvo that he’d rent out for $20 per night. He’d lower it to $10 if you were willing to take him along for an epic array of errands, since he was no longer allowed to drive ---

Donald Dodd, aka Bear, the perpetually drunk but frequently fascinating raconteur and storyteller (and devotional Santana fan) who kept a lit-up Christmas tree in his bear-decorated room all year long. He was (quite sincerely) convinced that the tree’s festive appearance would bring good cheer to all who gazed upon it ---

Deke the (not-so-secretly) gay biker, with his handlebar mustache, porn star/male prostitute roommate, and always with his pocketful of Quaaludes that he handed out like Halloween candy ---

There was also Mikey, the mentally disabled guy who was also the legal ward of the woman who owned the hotel ---

Ace, the ex-con shoplifter with anger management issues and a room full of busted stolen property ---

Jerry Taylor (pictured on the right, with me in the middle), the King of Cans (recycling), who many years later was featured in a Reader cover article on homeless locals (not written by me: I just opened the paper one day, and there was Jerry, who I hadn’t heard from in over a decade) ---

And Tom the Drunk, aka “Other Tom,” who once shot a gun out his room window and ended up in critical condition from the beating cops subsequently gave him.

Honorable Mention must also be given to Chico, the Mexican guy with a dangling cross earring who taught me over a dozen DIY recipes for pinto beans, which helped keep me alive some weeks. He didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak Spanish, but one night he caught a whiff of something or other that I was destroying on my hotplate. He knocked on my room door, and proceeded to change, enrich, and almost surely prolong my life, thanks to that homely bag of penny legumes he introduced me to ---

Chico was murdered in his room in November 1979, strangled by a towel. However, a full week went by before anybody realized. It was only after his beloved black dog’s howling and the stink of decomposition became too much to ignore that police were summoned.

His room #53 on the second floor was one of the more enviable living spaces in the Hotel, but at first nobody wanted to move in. The murder was unsolved (and remains, so far as I know), and there was still fingerprint dust all over the place.

I was anxious to move up to a bigger room, so I ended up taking it. For $110 monthly, I now had a fridge, a sink, and the only room in the Hotel with freshly painted walls and doors, thanks to the fingerprint dust being impossible to merely wash off.

(My new room!)

(Most of the decor came courtesy of the many thrift shops along 12th Ave - I still have that metal belt!)

Another Hotel murder took place February 6th, 1982, downstairs on the ground floor in room #5. Arthur Casbere, age 52, was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed, dying of injuries to his head and torso.

Someone had poured a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes all over his bloody face. The empty box sat nearby.

I was contacted last year by a relative of Mr. Casbere looking into the murder. I’m not sure if I was much help to him. I remember room #5 was on the first floor, immediately behind a stairwell with a kind of semi-private entrance, because the door was in a cul-de-sac you wouldn't see unless you wandered behind the stairs for some reason (which few did, since it looked like a dead end wall).

In the late '70s, one of the Hotel employees, night manager Harry, lived in room #5, but I don't know about in 1982. It was a bit bigger than most rooms at the Palms, and I'm fairly sure it had the same sort of alcove/closet as I had in my third floor corner room.

The official account of the murder indicates the killer may have been a former Hotel resident who’d been recently evicted, but then let in after-hours by then-night clerk George Moore. Moore told police that the killer carried a baseball bat from the front lobby into room #5.

28 years later, I still have a couple of problems with this scenario ---

Y'see, the night clerk didn't really man the desk all night. Most of the time, he was in a little room behind the desk, watching TV, or using the phone in the back of the lobby, out of sight of both the front and side entrance.

(Palms desk clerk as portrayed in the film A Force of One)

A small side entrance was on the same side of the hotel as the victim's room. The manager only emerged if someone showed up thru the FRONT door and walked up to the desk and rang his bell. Sometimes, it took a LOT of effort to get him to emerge! Sometimes, he never did: who knows if he was even on the premises all night.

In addition, there were a ton of ways to enter the Palms besides the front lobby door, and any former resident would know this.

Numerous fire escapes opened onto each floor, and back then fire escapes went all the way to the street and were easy to climb from outside. There weren't even doors atop some of the fire escapes, just doorways wide open to the hallways.

Hell, a lot of hotel residents came and went via those fire escapes more than they went thru the front doors, especially when sneaking overnight guests in.

I would think a former hotel resident, entering the hotel with the INTENT of committing a crime, could and would do so without going thru that big front lobby. Let alone checking in first with an oft-elusive night clerk.

The fingerprints on the box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes belonged to a man named William Barry. Earlier on the eve of the murder, Barry had been taken by police to the DeTox center across from the Hotel. He’d been evicted from the Hotel a few nights earlier.

After the murder, some of Barry’s belongings were found in room #5.

Later in 1982, former Hotel resident Barry, along with an accomplice, pleaded “guilty” to voluntary manslaughter in a plea-bargained deal. According to research done by the aforementioned relative of the victim, Barry served his time, but landed in prison again on other matters, before himself dying in March 1999.

Speaking of crime at the Hotel…

THE NIGHT “OTHER TOM” SHOT A GUN OUT HIS WINDOW AND GOT US BUSTED BY S.W.A.T.

Late November 1979: My old roommate Tom and I, along with some friends, were visiting Other Tom in his double-wide batcave, up on the top floor. Everyone was watching a TV movie about the early days of the Beatles, when suddenly Other Tom, the one who lived in that room, the one who’d been drinking hard liquor for the better part of the day, took out a pistol and fired it out the hotel room window!

Shocked, we all jumped up and looked out the window. Down on the street below, in front of the DeTox Center, there was a police car, with a very upset looking cop kneeling down behind the vehicle and pointing a gun straight up at us!!

We all ran around freaking out and bumping into each other like the cast of Benny Hill to “Yakety Sax,” with everyone yelling stuff at Other Tom, like “What the fck?!” and “Hide the gun!” and “What the fck, hide the gun!!”

This probably went on for a few moments, until suddenly the entire world outside the Hotel seemed to be made of cop lights.

The Beatles movie blinked off the TV, and a news reporter was announcing that a sniper had taken a shot at police, from a third story room at the Palms Hotel.

I looked out the window once again, to be greeted with the sight of a BUNCH of cops, all ducking down behind their vehicles and pointing a myriad of weaponry up at me.

I stopped looking out the window.

Instead, I watched the TV, which showed police and S.W.A.T. methodically evacuating all the other rooms in the hotel. They were leaving the third floor, and then the room we were in, for last.

Other Tom was all but passed-out drunk. Someone had a bit of weed, and we smoked every last flake while we waited. What else could we do?

Finally came the dreaded knock, and one of us slowly – V-E-R-Y slowly – pulled open the door, the rest of us instinctively standing in chain-gang formation and holding our hands halfway to heaven…..

Looking back now, it seems comical to me, the way my memory conjures up hundreds of guns and gunners, stacked like firewood in all directions, up and down the halls and stairs, filling up every molecule of my vision.

There were probably only a dozen or so gunmen, but it seemed to me -- and still seems -- like an army of armament.

When police asked Roommate Tom his name, and he unwisely told them, they immediately thought HE was the shooter, having gotten Other Tom’s name from the night clerk. Poor guy was on the ground and smothered in cop before anybody could yell “No, not THAT Tom!”

His terrified shouts echoed down the hallway, as they dragged his still-struggling form out of our sight…

Luckily for Tom, once the actual shooter was in custody, he was eventually questioned downstairs and released. Bad luck/good luck, that was the story of Tom’s life.

Remember that glum old “World’s Worst Jinx” dude from the Li’l Abner cartoons, the one who always had a little black thundercloud following him everywhere? Tom was like that. He had the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever known.

My first California roommate – heck, my first roomie anywhere, besides my brother at home – shared a studio apartment with me on Abbott Street, a block from Ocean Beach. It was 1978, both of us were fairly new to CA, and neither of us had a job.

But, somehow, we conned the morbidly obese and decidedly un-beach-like landlord into letting us move in. After fashioning makeshift furniture out of cloth-covered boxes and plentiful (and fanciful!) debris from the alleys of OB, we stocked up on paper plates and plastic utensils from the nearby Roberto’s and went out job hunting.

At 24, Tom was about five years older than me. One of his favorite things to do was drop LSD. His VERY favorite thing to do was to give OTHER people LSD, ideally for the first time, and then guide them thru that first mind-expanding “trip.”

Now this may sound groovy and generous, and maybe even a bit shamanistic, at least for OB circa 1978; The Black, the Strand Theatre, Arcade Records, the OB Ranger, the Spaceman, the People’s Food Store, Dog Beach, Postmen in ponytails, Grunion orgies in the sand, and all that ---

But Tom only did it to completely f--ck with people’s minds.

He’d wait for the tripper, usually closer to my age than his, to be halfway past Saturn, to be one step away from melting into the cardboard furniture. Then, he’d put on this twisted Bloodrock song, “D.O.A.”, with a car accident victim screaming in pain for what seemed like hours of sonic agony, at least to Tom’s poor bummin’ buddies.

He ESPECIALLY liked to play “D.O.A.” to trippers peaking in his CAR, while he sped crazily all over the road, driving like Mr. Magoo on the Autobahn.

OR: he’d pretend to break an egg over the tripper’s head, popping a handclap just behind their skull, and then dusting his victim’s ears with fluttering fingers, intended to feel like embryonic goo dripping down the sides of their tingly, trippin’ faces...you begin to see the pattern?

At least twice, he pulled out a starter pistol loaded with so-called blanks, and fired it inches from someone’s face. A LOT closer than the blank pistol that killed Brandon Lee…yeah, I know, “with friends like these…”

Tom’s frequent acts of psychedelic terrorism were always topped with percussive bursts of hysterical, maniacal laughter, which sounded for all the world like those old Disney cartoons where Goofy is falling off a cliff, or getting catapulted through the air, or being violently pulled by a rope right out of his water-skiing pants.

So Tom had a bit of Psychedelic De Sade in him. Never desirable in a roommate. Never mind his Leary-like advocacy of hallucinogens.

Tom and I had trouble making the rent in OB. I was giving blood and plasma several times a week, all over town, scrubbing the fluorescent marks from my wrist each time to circumvent their attempt to keep me from bleeding too often.

At only ten bucks a pop, the blood thing wasn’t helping much.

Without even money for razors, I was so unshaven, so thin, so full of holes in my arms, and so perpetually dizzy from blood loss, people must have thought I was either a junkie or a diabetic Hassid.

(At night, due to Hotel rules, I had to smuggle lady friends like this up to my room via the Palms fire escape)

I ended up living back at the Palms. Tom moved into a North Park place that eventually became Meth Central for countless smelly and scabby roommates. His bad luck (and stupid decisions) eventually got him busted again, for dealing meth out of his apartment, earning him five years in prison.

At the Palms, I wound up renting the same room where OTHER Tom shot his gun out the window. He apparently got roughed up in jail and developed gangrene, among other ailments, passing away a few months later. Once again, nobody in the Hotel wanted to live in a dead guy’s room. Except me. Eh. Never did believe in ghosts.

Besides, I was feeling lucky. The Psychedelic De Sade was no longer my roomie.

(More old Palms pics, plus a 1980 shot of the front window at long-gone Arcade Records store downtown. The shot of me drinking with my Palms roomie Jeannie is from the photo booth at Funland, a seedy game oasis once located on Broadway near the YMCA)

Back at the Palms, I was living with a 17 year-old runaway girl named Jeannie Setzer whose boyfriend was in jail back in her home state, so she’d hitchhiked to San Diego for reasons I was never clear on. I met her in PB at the free Sunday feast they threw at the Hare Krishna temple, and she came back to the Hotel with me and stayed, off and on, ever the next few months.

We were both broke, so we spent a lot of time sneaking into movie theaters, drive-ins, and the Zoo, until I began attending graphic arts school out on Midway Drive and she returned home, presumably to marry her just-released sweetheart.

Unfortunately, Jeannie just missed being there on…

THE DAY CHUCK NORRIS CAME TO THE PALMS (and Jennifer O’Neal, too!!)

‘Kay, so A Force of One is a Chuck Norris/Jennifer O’Neal thriller with Chuck kicking ass all over downtown San Diego, circa 1979. Some shots were done on 5th Avenue, at the all-night grindhouse theaters where I was working at the time, the Casino and the Aztec.

(Above and below: screenshots from A Force of One showing a foot chase in front of the Casino and Aztec theaters)

One notable scene was filmed at the Palms. Chuck and Jennifer walk into the lobby, and Chuck wants to do some tough talking at the front desk, at the bottom of the staircase. Jennifer instead applies a little charm (as much as glacial Jennifer O'Neal can exude charm, anyway, IE not a whole lotta).

The street level lobby, usually filled with senior citizens watching the already-ancient TV, was lit to highlight the dreadful worn-out walls and some of those very same Hotel denizens, sitting on the couch benches (like converted bus benches), pretending to stare at the tube.

I remember a lot of residents coveted the movie “roles,” not so much to be in the film but for the $50 fee. The old guy who used to rent me his car was in the scene: he used the $$ to pickup a rent-to-own TV for his dinky second floor room, which needed a cleanup just to make room for set.

In the movie, Chuck and Jen then head up the grand staircase maze.

Note the poor wall "repairs," with masking tape over the cracks and painted in various colors that don't even come close to matching the wall paint. So, the duo makes their way into a room (later to be MY room)...

...and Chuck kicks some serious druggie ass.

On the day of the film shoot, Norris and O’Neal were seen walking around outside a lot, being very cordial to anyone who wanted to talk to them. Which wasn’t that many people. The majority of Hotel residents seemed unaware or uncaring about who they were and what they were doing. They just grumbled about having to go in and out thru the back door, and not having lobby access for the 15-or-so hour shoot.

The one hotel pay phone was in the lobby, and thus off limits all day. That was the REAL pisser for most of the residents. That, and Beezely’s being closed to the public, to instead serve as a Kraft Services roach wagon for the film crew and talent.

When A Force of One came out in theaters, I went to my own beloved Casino Theater on 5th to see it with Jerry the King of Cans and old Donald the Bear, the only time I recall ever seeing Donald outside the Hotel (other than going to and from Beezley’s).

We cheered like soccer hooligans during the Palms scene.

I didn’t remember another thing about the flick until screening the DVD recently, to pull screenshots for this blog ---

(Fritz Jensen of the local band Collage Menage plays with my Etch-A-Sketch at the Palms, circa 1981 – the band is still together!)

I ended up leaving the Palms for a short while in 1981, returning to my hometown of Niantic Connecticut and convincing my good friend Scotty Gibson to pack up and move out to San Diego with me. On my return to SD, we landed at the Palms, where I not only managed to score my old room back but one of the managers actually let me pick some cool furniture from the storage room, including a closet-sized portable wooden wardrobe and a funky antique writing desk where I essentially began my career as a scribe.

(Back at the Palms with new roomie Scotty)

This was the period when I worked at the downtown all-night grindhouse theaters (the Aztec, Casino, and Bijou on 5th, the Cabrillo and Plaza at Horton Plaza, the Balboa and the Pussycat on 4th, etc.), as I chronicled in a Reader cover feature called Before It Was the Gaslamp ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/jul/23/before-it-was-the-gaslamp-now-with-50-more-content ).

In early 1982, I was walking home from work at about 5a.m., when someone I couldn’t see clearly leapt out from behind a parked car and struck me on the back of my head with something hard and heavy. I woke up in an ambulance, my wallet still in my back pocket with some $40 or so tucked into it.

Earlier that evening, at the Casino Theater, I’d bounced a surly teen customer, I forget over what but I’ve always assumed the guy was my assailant. After I took a few stitches to my head, I caught a cab back to the theater and gave the day manager my notice. He asked me to work one more week before quitting, and I may have said yes, but I don’t think I ever went back, not even to pick up my final paycheck.

I moved back to the east coast, staying a little over a year. When I returned to San Diego in March 1983, I was accompanied by another emigrant from my Connecticut hometown, a high school sweetheart named Heather who would end up becoming my common law wife and spending over fifteen years with me.

Shortly after we arrived in CA, I took Heather to visit the Hotel with me, to introduce her to the People of the Palms I’d been telling her about. It was a hurdle getting past the new live-in manager Angel Garrett, who had only known me during my last couple of months at the Hotel and was reluctant to let me go upstairs.

I finally talked him into checking with Jerry Taylor up on the third floor, who was expecting us, though he made me go up and bring Jerry back down rather than walking up all those stairs himself, essentially holding Heather hostage until my promised return to the lobby.

Jerry didn’t endear himself to either of us, tho, when he began rambling on to Heather about all the times I was supposedly caught sneaking women (okay, girls) up to my various rooms, using every conceivable ruse from unlocking the back entrance by the laundry room to smuggling them up fire escapes, or even disguising them an anonymous male tenants.

I was surprised to find the Hotel now had a few female residents. The whole time I’d been there, the Invisible Woman was the only woman I can recall ever getting accepted into a room. In 1983, there were even a couple of families, some with children, which was a REALLY unexpected turn for me. I’d never, ever seen – or even heard of – any children of the Palms.

Old Donald the Bear had scored my old palatial digs in the corner suite overlooking the DeTox center, but he was in a foul mood that day.

Deke the biker was there, but he was schizing out on some bad speed and babbling about some porn star who supposedly wanted to kill him and being haunted by the ghost of the murdered Mexican guy Chico. Probably my first friend ever to go totally tweaker on me…

Donald was bumming me out too. He kept mistaking me for my old Palms roommate Scotty, with whom he’d had some kind of altercation over a stereo system Scotty had sold him.

Now, realize that Donald had always been the guy telling me that the one thing I needed to do in life was ‘find a good woman.’ So I was disappointed that he not only didn’t appear to appreciate the jackpot I’d hit with Heather, but he also seemed to be holding a grudge against me over something I knew nothing about! He was convinced that I was Scotty, or that Scotty was me, and nothing I could do or say would disabuse his notion that I had somehow become his sworn enemy.

I think Donald would have pushed things into a physical fight, had I not herded Heather back down the stairs, out the door, and walked away from the Palms Hotel and toward our new life together, first in North Park and then Ramona, La Mesa, and beyond.

It would be 27 years before I again walked into the Palms Hotel…………

After the Trolley went up 12th Avenue, I rarely found myself stopping anywhere near that part of town. Over the next two decades, I vaguely recall driving past the Palms a few times and marveling at how the place still stood its moldy ground, lording over the entire half block.

Every few years, I’d catch fleeting glimpses of the Hotel, popping up in my lifepath like some kind of Gaslamp Brigadoon, an architectural anachronism is a rapidly changing neighborhood rushing headlong from soup kitchen to skyscraper.

In May 1985, L.A. attorney Robert Ballantyne, representing financier Robert O. Peterson, paid around $1 million in behalf of a trust for most of a block at 12th and Island. One of Ballantyne’s partners in the development of a downtown seniors tower called San Diego Square, Mavourneen O'Connor (twin sister of Mayor Maureen O'Connor), was also reported by the Union-Tribune as a frequent Palms visitor, sparking speculation that the building might be converted into senior citizen housing.

However, by July 1986, plans were instead implemented to upgrade the Palms and raise rents from an average of $200 to more than twice that amount, with around two dozen eviction notices being served to longstanding tenants.

“They’ll literally turn it into a true hotel,” San Diego attorney Stephen Huggard told the Union-Tribune (7-24-86), representing the owners. By the end of the year, the building was undergoing a major renovation, from repainting to consolidating rooms, replacing common areas with additional rooms installed with private fixtures, and putting up real drapes over all the huge vertical Victorian bay windows previously covered only by cheap paper windowshades.

By 1991, very few rooms at the Palms would have been considered priced for “low income” residents. There were, however, a few exceptions on the second floor, thanks to a program initiated by Episcopal Community Services, a non-profit agency that administered a 6-month Palms residency program for chronically homeless individuals with both mental health problems and addiction issues.

The program, Friend to Friend, was operated under a contract with the county mental health department. Clients shared seven rooms and a community area, though the program apparently only operated for a few years before funding ran out.

As of 1996, a woman named Glydia and her son Dave were running the Palms, which was getting $400 or more monthly for the more stately rooms where I had dwelled with Jeannie, Scotty, et al for (at most) $110 per month.

Fast forward to 2009, when the Hotel’s owner, Mission Federal Bank in partnership with John Cook, put the Palms up for sale. According to its real estate listing at the time:

“The Historic Palms Hotel is a walkup three story building consisting of seventy-five single room occupancy (SRO) units and five ground level retail units. Of the seventy-five units there are two units with bathrooms, one unit with a Kitchenette, and five studios (Bathrooms & Kitchenettes). Upgrades include the common area bathrooms on all three levels, common area kitchen, outdoor patio area, most of the interior rooms, exterior professional paint and new roof.”

In October 2009, Sandor W. Shapery, a board member of SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization) a group dedicated to preserving and restoring historic architecture around the city, announced his plan to purchase the Palms Hotel via his company Shapery Enterprises. It appeared that he intended to maintain its SRO/single room occupancy status.

FINAL CHAPTER: MY RETURN TO THE PALMS HOTEL

March 30, 2010: I decided to accept an invitation to go downtown for a backstage tour of the remodeled/restored Balboa Theater, which I hadn’t been inside since I last worked there in the early ‘80s. I’d been writing these Tales of the Palms Hotel for the Reader for around three years.

So I figured, what the Hell, I should finish off this project with a return visit to the funky old Palms, to see what it’s like 27 years later.

I parked on 5th and walked my old “end-of-shift” route circa ‘79/’80, from the Casino and Aztec theaters to the Hotel, spotting only a few of the urban reference points that used to mark my daily commute. Approaching 12th and Island, although spiffily painted compared to the old tan cover-all, the Palms already looked to me like a place out of time, with all the trolley rigging, concrete, and plexiglass that had gone up in front of the place since my Gaslamp dayz.

Most of the Hotel’s wraparound porch, as well as the left/north facing wall, has been leased out in remodeled blocks to retailers and concessions. A fashion shop, knick-knack boutique, thrift store, tattoo parlor, and remnants of others that have apparently come and gone.

Walking into the lobby was a straight-out 8-track flashback from the WayBack Machine: other than the color of the wall paint and far more polish and sheen to the fixtures (desk, stairwell, fireplace, etc), I could have been stumbling in from a Dead Kennedys show at the Skeleton Club!

I was greeted warmly by leasing manager James McLaughlin, who was already familiar with my Tales of the Palms Hotel articles for the Reader. Though I hadn’t notified him of my intent to finish the series with an actual return visit, he was perfectly willing to give me a brief unscheduled tour.

Most all the rooms have been renumbered, combined, and/or reconfigured into spaces where the communal kitchens once were. There were a couple of rooms being offered for monthly rentals, but the majority were occupied.

As it happened, one of my old rooms was vacant and being fixed up. Walking in, I was awash in nostalgia, looking around at the huge ceiling, faux fireplace mantle, and gazing out the floor-to-ceiling window alcove.

I thought to myself: That’s where I first sat and played Pink Floyd: the Wall in December 1979, where I painted my first rock and roll poster (at least the first one I completed!), featuring Pink Floyd, and where I broke in countless bongs and cracked innumerable Coors (an exotic treat for someone from Connecticut, where delicious vices like Coors and tacos were all but unheard of).

Of course, UNlike my CT digs, no open Coors at the Palms was safe from roaches using the pulltab as a diving board into your beer. I shudder to recall how many of my drinks (and meals!) got hijacked by the little buggers.

I had paid $110 monthly for that room. McLaughlin said it was listing at $675.

(My old room getting fixed up in 2010 - note can of bug spray and what looks like TWO can caps...)

Walking up the stairs and down the halls, I kept reliving scattered memories I haven’t dredged up in years, not even while doing these articles.

Oh, look, that’s where Walter was passed out naked on the floor in front of his room all night.

That’s the bathroom where that girl from the welfare office OD’d.

There’s the secret stairwell going directly to the roof from inside the third floor.

That’s where Scotty punched out that dude he caught leaving our room with Scott’s Poloroid camera hidden under his army coat.

What happened to the communal kitchen where Chico taught me the wonders of pinto beans? It’s in a rental room now?

Huh, that old hallway is completely gone, or at least blocked off. We used to sneak in girls through a fire escape down there, before I got the top floor corner suite with its OWN fire escape.

As we walked along one hallway, McLaughlin suddenly reached out and slapped a cashew-sized roach off the wall. Casual, almost nonchalant, like it was little more than a reflex.

Yep, déjà vu all over again!

It was odd seeing kids and families around the place. Back in the day, it was all single males, with no guests allowed after 10pm (hence so much sneaking in and out thru the outer doors and fire escapes).

I was amazed to find out the Invisible Woman was apparently still there!! By my figuring, she’d be nearly 80 by now.

Back downstairs at the reception desk, as I chatted with McLaughlin about old Hotel guests, owners, and ghost stories, he asked what my favorite room had been.

I told him #53. To my surprise, he went into the office just behind the old (still visible) post office box cubbyholes, and came out with two brass letters from the old numbering on the doors, a 5 and a 3. Well, they might not be actual brass. Let’s say brass-colored. It WAS the Palms, after all, and I’m guessing that valuable fixtures like that would have vanished long before my misbegotten tenure at the Palms Hotel.

Nonetheless, they were of HUGE value to me! I was immensely grateful, and the brass(like) #53 now graces the door of my home office.

I shook the property manager’s hand, took one last sweeping look around at the cavernous womb of the Palms Hotel, and walked out the doors and back into today.

Let me tell you, friends and foes, I stood on that porch a SERIOUSLY long moment, contemplating whether I should RENT my old Hotel room, right now. If only for awhile. Maybe use it as a temporary satellite studio. Or as a writer’s retreat. Perhaps I could find my muse there once again, like when I first started writing and painting in that selfsame room, maybe dig in and finally finish one of the books I’m contracted to turn in over the coming year.

Yeah, right.

Unfortunately, it’s true what they say. You can’t go home again.

And, even if you do, the roaches will still be there.

A few months after my Return to the Palms Hotel, the San Diego office of Cushman & Wakefield announced that the 16,717 square-foot, 79-unit Hotel, including its ground floor retail spaces, had sold for $3,600,000. The seller, Mission Federal Credit Union, was represented by Tim Mills of Cushman & Wakefield. The buyer, 12th & "A" Hotel Partners, LP, represented buyer Shapery Enterprises.

I found these current photos posted in an online tenant pitch.

It's amazing how the "under new management" Palms manages to look so cozy! I think the photos mainly show communal areas, not individual rooms, and note the laundry room now appears to be outdoors. Current rentals run $550 to $900 monthly.

Unfortunately, in a January 22, 2011 Union-Tribune article, the Palms Hotel is listed among eleven “Foreclosed Hotels in San Diego County.”

I truly hope the Palms survives.

But, sometimes, not even Chuck Norris can save the day.


RELATED ARTICLES:

"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa’s Last Stand" -- Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters. This detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc., including interviews with operators, vintage local movie ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/jul/23/before-it-was-the-gaslamp-now-with-50-more-content/

"Pussycat Theaters: When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Company head Vince Miranda owned and lived part time at the Hotel San Diego, operating several other local theaters downtown and in Oceanside, Escondido, etc. Told by those who actually ran the theaters, with a complete theater-by-theater encyclopedia covering every Pussycat that ever screened in CA -- http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2010/jun/29/pussycat-theaters-a-comprehensive-history-of-a-cal/

"Field Of Screens" -- Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including interviews with operators and attendees, dozens of rare and unpublished photos, vintage local theater ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/aug/01/drive-in-theaters-in-san-diego-complete-illustrate/

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Dr. Colin Meurk seeks to save ancient New Zealand

Frogs that go back to the Jurassic era.

The Reader has been running my Tales of the Palms Hotel in chapters over the past few years, covering the bizarre history of the largely unchronicled palace-turned-flophouse still lumbering over 12th and Island downtown, built in 1869 and currently the oldest continually-operating hotel in San Diego.

The articles have included my first-person accounts of the insolvent years I lived there, back in the Stones' age of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

This all-new final chapter features a photo essay RE my own recent return visit to the Palms, my first time stepping though its doors in over 27 years.

Earlier chapters are compiled from my journal accounts of The Day Chuck Norris Filmed a Movie at the Palms and The Night Other Tommy Got Us Busted by S.W.A.T. Additional historical info concerning the building’s construction, onetime resident Wyatt Earp, and a couple of murders that took place on the premises, is presented here for the first time in this complete compendium --



On arriving in San Diego in 1978, eighteen and on my own for the first time, I rented a room at the Palms Hotel on 12th and Island, which at the time was the floppiest of downtown flophouses.

Today, the old Victorian building is a brightly-renovated multi-family dorm, across from condos at an address now haughtily known as 509 Park Boulevard. But back then, long before the Trolley line and the City’s obsessive eminent domain-driven campaign to obliterate the Gaslamp District’s sailors-on-shore-leave legacy, the Palms Hotel was a bleak and faded roach farm, hosting some of the most down and out denizens ever seen this side of the DeTox center that once operated just across the street, on Island.

I took below photos of the Palms twenty-five years apart, 1979 and 2004:

For $75 a month, I got a second-story broom closet just big enough to fit a twin size bed, with maybe twelve inches of clearance, on one side only.

It was so small, to get out of bed, I had to push open the door and step into the hallway.

Over my next four years of underemployment, I eventually moved my way up the Palms waiting list, room by room...

...each a bit larger with each relocation...

...until I ended up in the most prized room of all: a top floor corner wraparound “suite,” with an actual alcove bedroom (okay, a converted closet), an in-room sink (slash-toilet), multiple bay windows overlooking the Coronado bridge (and the DeTox center), and my own private balcony and exterior entrance (okay, it was just a fire escape, but I USED it as both balcony and doorway).

This is the story of both the (formerly grand) Hotel, as well as the people who came and went through this misbegotten Island of Misfit Toys during my time there (1978 – 1982) --

The land on which the Hotel sits was originally occupied by the Bay View Hotel. According to a San Diego Tribune article dated February 28, 1938, it was “One of San Diego’s first hotels, built soon after Father Horton came here in 1868…it was the social center for the young city in its day, the scene of many parties, the terminal for the stage [transportation] lines.” The structure is first referenced in an 1874 city directory, though it was reportedly already built in 1869.

In the 1870s, the Bay View was literally on the outskirts of town, with very little around it other than Matthew Sherman’s house in what became known as Sherman Heights. You can just about make out the Hotel in the background of this photo.

When Pennsylvania oil, hotel, and lumber magnate Joseph V. Collins arrived in San Diego in 1886, he purchased the Bay View Hotel from owners Jones and Dillingham. His ad campaigns attempting to attract guests touted its locale as “the most sightly and healthiest part of town.”

Wyatt Earp and his third wife Josie reportedly stayed in a second floor corner suite at the Palms Hotel in 1886 and 1887, while operating gambling saloons near 4th and Broadway. There are still several bullet holes in the ancient wood above the original reception desk that are credited to one of Earp’s indoor shooting sprees.

During his time at the Palms, Earp listed himself in city records as a “capitalist,” leasing concessions at several gambling halls, operating the Oyster Bar in the Louis Bank Building at 837 5th Avenue, buying some land in Hillcrest, hanging out at the Tivoli Bar on 6th and Island, and turning up around town at various boxing matches, some of which he reportedly refereed.

The Hotel was rebuilt in 1889, or rather built-over, resulting in the additional floors, though elements of the original building remained within the interior. Here’s a photo of the original Bay View building:

And the remake:

Those two towers were later added atop the Hotel’s southwest side, including a widow’s walkway, only to later be later deconstructed, leaving only a flat tarpapered rooftop.

“What you see on the outside is the 1889 Hotel, within it is the 1869 Hotel,” SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons told the KPBS show San Diego Historic Places in an October 2009 episode. “In 1889, they jacked it up, put it on the second floor, and put a dining room underneath it.”

The original entrance to the 1869 Hotel can still be seen in an inside hallway, an open doorway flanked by the original glass side panels. “That would have been the front entrance that’s now on the second floor,” says Coons. “It was down on the street originally.”

Another hallway has a section of the original exterior wall uncovered, with its original wood siding and window frames (now blocked off). “There would have been six over six window sash in these window openings at the time. You can still see when you look out this window [at the end of the hallway] and see the rest of the Hotel that extends out the back of the 1889 Hotel.”

In competition with the U.S. Grant Hotel, the Bay View was one of main social centers of early San Diego, THE place to go for locals of affluence who enjoyed the ornate décor, lavish top floor views, or who wanted to rent a horse and buggy at the nearby carriage house or eat mint-soaked lamb and calf’s tongue at a high falutin’ eatery within spittoon-hitting distance of the Bay View’s expansive wraparound porchfront.

When builder Collins died in 1913, the Hotel was sold and rechristened the Palms, named after the giant Queen Palm trees already breaking out of the perimeter sidewalks on all four sides of the building.

By the 1970s, as I can personally attest, the upper branches of those palm trees housed what sounded like half a billion noisy birds, whose cacophonous chirping at sunrise and sunset could drown out planes landing at the nearby airport!

In 1972, the Hotel was purchased for $200,000 by a consortium of developers, tho little if anything was done to improve or even upkeep the property. It was later owned by Bill Reed, a retired San Diego fire captain.

When I first landed in that cavernous lobby circa 1978, the Hotel’s sweeping curved staircase, faded but still magnificent, rose from a decrepit entrance room. The decaying lobby was so infested with roaches that you could hear them skittering around inside the coffin-sized console television. Even when the TV was on.

(Palms lobby in 1979)

The lobby was pretty much unchanged from the days of Wyatt Earp. Behind the TV was the original cast iron and slate fireplace, with its original stenciling and redwood.

The reception desk was still lavishly outfitted in tiger stripe redwood, including the old mailbox center with dozens of cubbyhole slots framed in wood and brass, no longer functional but still visible.

The three floors of rooms, once good sized, were subdivided into around seventy smaller units for maximum rentals; daily, weekly, and monthly. Bigger rooms came with their own semi-antique furniture, and a small handful even had working sinks. I’m guessing around a hundred people were living there at the time, as only a few of rooms offered enough space for multiple tenants.

I was greeted each morning by the delicious smells emanating from the Bohemian Bakery behind the Hotel, where a lot of us scavenged still-eatables from the trash bins. For awhile, I was also greeted each morn by a stream of yellow urine raining down past my window.

It seemed the guy in the room above me preferred to take a leak out his window rather than walk to the (frequently unspeakable) communal bathroom that all residents of each floor had to share.

A set of House Rules posted in the lobby specified that no visitors were allowed upstairs after sunset, nobody was to hog the pay phone in the lobby, no leaving clothes unwatched in the laundry room, no unauthorized roommates, no bare feet in the lobby, and several other somewhat archaic but understandable edicts clearly intended to keep druggies, drunks, and deadbeats from further lowering the Hotel’s disposition from mildly disreputable to decidedly felonious.

Beezley’s pub next door was one of those long-gone Dives of the Damned that used to stain downtown’s darker corners. It was a popular hangout for the homeless and destitute, thanks to a daily “happy hour” Swedish meatball buffet.

The bar was also famous among Hotel dwellers for its lavish holiday feasts, provided courtesy of some local volunteer group or other, maybe the Salvation Army or a church. I never really picked up the details; all I knew was that there were only so many things one could do with dry pinto beans and ketchup packets, so I was always hungry and always looking forward to those mouthwatering holiday spreads, like a prisoner counting down to parole.

Beezley's was a pretty rough place, probably the seediest bar I've ever frequented. Since I knew most everyone likely to belly up to the rail, I usually felt fairly safe, but it was NOT the kind of joint where a stranger would just drop into and relax. A lot of bikers openly did drug transactions there, and there were countless stolen cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and even the occasional murder victim found in the parking lot between the Palms and the bar. Back there, it was literally junkie central; dangerous to walk thru without getting mugged, stepping on needles or feces, and/or worse ----

The DeTox center across the street often coughed up wayward people who immediately wandered into the Hotel. There were very few single-night room rentals, tho. It was 95% residential, with weekly to monthly tenants. And even when there WERE rare nightly rooms available, the clerks would lie about this to anyone wandering in looking too strung out.

The Palms’ large flat rooftop – easily accessible from a somewhat-hidden interior stairwell and several exterior fire escapes – was a popular hangout for smokers, drinkers, and other partiers who wanted to enjoy the sweeping panoramic view from the Coronado Bridge to Harbor Drive, Point Loma, the bay, just north of Broadway, and all the way up Golden Hill and partway down Imperial Avenue.

The nearby building that had once housed a bustling horse and buggy operation for the city’s elite was occupied by an elevator factory.

One Palms room I lived in was used for a scene in the 1979 Chuck Norris movie A Force of One, filmed in San Diego.

In the movie, a junkie runs up the stairs and bangs on the door of room #31, screaming “Where’s my fix?!?”

The whole time I lived in that room, every single night, SOMEbody in the Hotel would pound on my door and scream that. Often several somebodys. I still hate that movie. But I’ll get to the day Chuck Norris visited the Palms later…

(One of my more fondly-remembered rooms at the Palms)

SOME PEOPLE OF THE PALMS

The lives led by many of the living ghosts who haunted the Palms may never be chronicled anywhere, anytime, outside of maybe some old welfare records, or on the backs of old family photos that nobody in the family can identify any more. I’d like to rectify this to some extent.

Stanley Stadnick, aka Writer Guy: Okay, he was really more Reader Guy, always with paperbacks hanging out his pockets, even while already reading a hardcover in the downstairs TV lobby. He claimed he was a writer, and he certainly didn’t lack for instructional reference, since his room was essentially decorated, furnished, and all-but-built of books. Shelves and stacks of ‘em everywhere, just a mountain of literature, and almost nothing else in sight that wasn’t printed and bound. A big sci-fi fan, especially Roger Zelazny and Philip K. Dick, he rarely left the hotel.

During the August 1979 earthquake, Writer Guy was almost crushed beneath his beloved books. At least, that’s what he told me minutes after the tremor subsided, when he came across me standing in the parking lot of the DeTox center, completely nude. I was nude because I’d been sleeping undressed when the quake hit, and had jumped down my fire escape as-is ---------

Writer Guy’s detachment from the outside world was such that he never once seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, that I was naked. Or maybe that wasn’t uncommon in the DeTox lot.

The Invisible Woman, a middle aged lady who lived alone on the first floor that everybody knew of but few had actually seen, even though she’d been living there for as long as anyone could remember. Sightings of her were so scarce that she became a sort of urban legend, with much speculation over when and how she did her laundry, obtained supplies and food, and what her bathroom routine might be since none of the individual rooms had their own toilet facilities, only (at most) a small running sink ---

Matty, aka Old Guy With a Car: Must’ve been in his 70s, with a rickety old Volvo that he’d rent out for $20 per night. He’d lower it to $10 if you were willing to take him along for an epic array of errands, since he was no longer allowed to drive ---

Donald Dodd, aka Bear, the perpetually drunk but frequently fascinating raconteur and storyteller (and devotional Santana fan) who kept a lit-up Christmas tree in his bear-decorated room all year long. He was (quite sincerely) convinced that the tree’s festive appearance would bring good cheer to all who gazed upon it ---

Deke the (not-so-secretly) gay biker, with his handlebar mustache, porn star/male prostitute roommate, and always with his pocketful of Quaaludes that he handed out like Halloween candy ---

There was also Mikey, the mentally disabled guy who was also the legal ward of the woman who owned the hotel ---

Ace, the ex-con shoplifter with anger management issues and a room full of busted stolen property ---

Jerry Taylor (pictured on the right, with me in the middle), the King of Cans (recycling), who many years later was featured in a Reader cover article on homeless locals (not written by me: I just opened the paper one day, and there was Jerry, who I hadn’t heard from in over a decade) ---

And Tom the Drunk, aka “Other Tom,” who once shot a gun out his room window and ended up in critical condition from the beating cops subsequently gave him.

Honorable Mention must also be given to Chico, the Mexican guy with a dangling cross earring who taught me over a dozen DIY recipes for pinto beans, which helped keep me alive some weeks. He didn’t speak any English, and I didn’t speak Spanish, but one night he caught a whiff of something or other that I was destroying on my hotplate. He knocked on my room door, and proceeded to change, enrich, and almost surely prolong my life, thanks to that homely bag of penny legumes he introduced me to ---

Chico was murdered in his room in November 1979, strangled by a towel. However, a full week went by before anybody realized. It was only after his beloved black dog’s howling and the stink of decomposition became too much to ignore that police were summoned.

His room #53 on the second floor was one of the more enviable living spaces in the Hotel, but at first nobody wanted to move in. The murder was unsolved (and remains, so far as I know), and there was still fingerprint dust all over the place.

I was anxious to move up to a bigger room, so I ended up taking it. For $110 monthly, I now had a fridge, a sink, and the only room in the Hotel with freshly painted walls and doors, thanks to the fingerprint dust being impossible to merely wash off.

(My new room!)

(Most of the decor came courtesy of the many thrift shops along 12th Ave - I still have that metal belt!)

Another Hotel murder took place February 6th, 1982, downstairs on the ground floor in room #5. Arthur Casbere, age 52, was beaten with a baseball bat and stabbed, dying of injuries to his head and torso.

Someone had poured a box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes all over his bloody face. The empty box sat nearby.

I was contacted last year by a relative of Mr. Casbere looking into the murder. I’m not sure if I was much help to him. I remember room #5 was on the first floor, immediately behind a stairwell with a kind of semi-private entrance, because the door was in a cul-de-sac you wouldn't see unless you wandered behind the stairs for some reason (which few did, since it looked like a dead end wall).

In the late '70s, one of the Hotel employees, night manager Harry, lived in room #5, but I don't know about in 1982. It was a bit bigger than most rooms at the Palms, and I'm fairly sure it had the same sort of alcove/closet as I had in my third floor corner room.

The official account of the murder indicates the killer may have been a former Hotel resident who’d been recently evicted, but then let in after-hours by then-night clerk George Moore. Moore told police that the killer carried a baseball bat from the front lobby into room #5.

28 years later, I still have a couple of problems with this scenario ---

Y'see, the night clerk didn't really man the desk all night. Most of the time, he was in a little room behind the desk, watching TV, or using the phone in the back of the lobby, out of sight of both the front and side entrance.

(Palms desk clerk as portrayed in the film A Force of One)

A small side entrance was on the same side of the hotel as the victim's room. The manager only emerged if someone showed up thru the FRONT door and walked up to the desk and rang his bell. Sometimes, it took a LOT of effort to get him to emerge! Sometimes, he never did: who knows if he was even on the premises all night.

In addition, there were a ton of ways to enter the Palms besides the front lobby door, and any former resident would know this.

Numerous fire escapes opened onto each floor, and back then fire escapes went all the way to the street and were easy to climb from outside. There weren't even doors atop some of the fire escapes, just doorways wide open to the hallways.

Hell, a lot of hotel residents came and went via those fire escapes more than they went thru the front doors, especially when sneaking overnight guests in.

I would think a former hotel resident, entering the hotel with the INTENT of committing a crime, could and would do so without going thru that big front lobby. Let alone checking in first with an oft-elusive night clerk.

The fingerprints on the box of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes belonged to a man named William Barry. Earlier on the eve of the murder, Barry had been taken by police to the DeTox center across from the Hotel. He’d been evicted from the Hotel a few nights earlier.

After the murder, some of Barry’s belongings were found in room #5.

Later in 1982, former Hotel resident Barry, along with an accomplice, pleaded “guilty” to voluntary manslaughter in a plea-bargained deal. According to research done by the aforementioned relative of the victim, Barry served his time, but landed in prison again on other matters, before himself dying in March 1999.

Speaking of crime at the Hotel…

THE NIGHT “OTHER TOM” SHOT A GUN OUT HIS WINDOW AND GOT US BUSTED BY S.W.A.T.

Late November 1979: My old roommate Tom and I, along with some friends, were visiting Other Tom in his double-wide batcave, up on the top floor. Everyone was watching a TV movie about the early days of the Beatles, when suddenly Other Tom, the one who lived in that room, the one who’d been drinking hard liquor for the better part of the day, took out a pistol and fired it out the hotel room window!

Shocked, we all jumped up and looked out the window. Down on the street below, in front of the DeTox Center, there was a police car, with a very upset looking cop kneeling down behind the vehicle and pointing a gun straight up at us!!

We all ran around freaking out and bumping into each other like the cast of Benny Hill to “Yakety Sax,” with everyone yelling stuff at Other Tom, like “What the fck?!” and “Hide the gun!” and “What the fck, hide the gun!!”

This probably went on for a few moments, until suddenly the entire world outside the Hotel seemed to be made of cop lights.

The Beatles movie blinked off the TV, and a news reporter was announcing that a sniper had taken a shot at police, from a third story room at the Palms Hotel.

I looked out the window once again, to be greeted with the sight of a BUNCH of cops, all ducking down behind their vehicles and pointing a myriad of weaponry up at me.

I stopped looking out the window.

Instead, I watched the TV, which showed police and S.W.A.T. methodically evacuating all the other rooms in the hotel. They were leaving the third floor, and then the room we were in, for last.

Other Tom was all but passed-out drunk. Someone had a bit of weed, and we smoked every last flake while we waited. What else could we do?

Finally came the dreaded knock, and one of us slowly – V-E-R-Y slowly – pulled open the door, the rest of us instinctively standing in chain-gang formation and holding our hands halfway to heaven…..

Looking back now, it seems comical to me, the way my memory conjures up hundreds of guns and gunners, stacked like firewood in all directions, up and down the halls and stairs, filling up every molecule of my vision.

There were probably only a dozen or so gunmen, but it seemed to me -- and still seems -- like an army of armament.

When police asked Roommate Tom his name, and he unwisely told them, they immediately thought HE was the shooter, having gotten Other Tom’s name from the night clerk. Poor guy was on the ground and smothered in cop before anybody could yell “No, not THAT Tom!”

His terrified shouts echoed down the hallway, as they dragged his still-struggling form out of our sight…

Luckily for Tom, once the actual shooter was in custody, he was eventually questioned downstairs and released. Bad luck/good luck, that was the story of Tom’s life.

Remember that glum old “World’s Worst Jinx” dude from the Li’l Abner cartoons, the one who always had a little black thundercloud following him everywhere? Tom was like that. He had the worst luck of anyone I’ve ever known.

My first California roommate – heck, my first roomie anywhere, besides my brother at home – shared a studio apartment with me on Abbott Street, a block from Ocean Beach. It was 1978, both of us were fairly new to CA, and neither of us had a job.

But, somehow, we conned the morbidly obese and decidedly un-beach-like landlord into letting us move in. After fashioning makeshift furniture out of cloth-covered boxes and plentiful (and fanciful!) debris from the alleys of OB, we stocked up on paper plates and plastic utensils from the nearby Roberto’s and went out job hunting.

At 24, Tom was about five years older than me. One of his favorite things to do was drop LSD. His VERY favorite thing to do was to give OTHER people LSD, ideally for the first time, and then guide them thru that first mind-expanding “trip.”

Now this may sound groovy and generous, and maybe even a bit shamanistic, at least for OB circa 1978; The Black, the Strand Theatre, Arcade Records, the OB Ranger, the Spaceman, the People’s Food Store, Dog Beach, Postmen in ponytails, Grunion orgies in the sand, and all that ---

But Tom only did it to completely f--ck with people’s minds.

He’d wait for the tripper, usually closer to my age than his, to be halfway past Saturn, to be one step away from melting into the cardboard furniture. Then, he’d put on this twisted Bloodrock song, “D.O.A.”, with a car accident victim screaming in pain for what seemed like hours of sonic agony, at least to Tom’s poor bummin’ buddies.

He ESPECIALLY liked to play “D.O.A.” to trippers peaking in his CAR, while he sped crazily all over the road, driving like Mr. Magoo on the Autobahn.

OR: he’d pretend to break an egg over the tripper’s head, popping a handclap just behind their skull, and then dusting his victim’s ears with fluttering fingers, intended to feel like embryonic goo dripping down the sides of their tingly, trippin’ faces...you begin to see the pattern?

At least twice, he pulled out a starter pistol loaded with so-called blanks, and fired it inches from someone’s face. A LOT closer than the blank pistol that killed Brandon Lee…yeah, I know, “with friends like these…”

Tom’s frequent acts of psychedelic terrorism were always topped with percussive bursts of hysterical, maniacal laughter, which sounded for all the world like those old Disney cartoons where Goofy is falling off a cliff, or getting catapulted through the air, or being violently pulled by a rope right out of his water-skiing pants.

So Tom had a bit of Psychedelic De Sade in him. Never desirable in a roommate. Never mind his Leary-like advocacy of hallucinogens.

Tom and I had trouble making the rent in OB. I was giving blood and plasma several times a week, all over town, scrubbing the fluorescent marks from my wrist each time to circumvent their attempt to keep me from bleeding too often.

At only ten bucks a pop, the blood thing wasn’t helping much.

Without even money for razors, I was so unshaven, so thin, so full of holes in my arms, and so perpetually dizzy from blood loss, people must have thought I was either a junkie or a diabetic Hassid.

(At night, due to Hotel rules, I had to smuggle lady friends like this up to my room via the Palms fire escape)

I ended up living back at the Palms. Tom moved into a North Park place that eventually became Meth Central for countless smelly and scabby roommates. His bad luck (and stupid decisions) eventually got him busted again, for dealing meth out of his apartment, earning him five years in prison.

At the Palms, I wound up renting the same room where OTHER Tom shot his gun out the window. He apparently got roughed up in jail and developed gangrene, among other ailments, passing away a few months later. Once again, nobody in the Hotel wanted to live in a dead guy’s room. Except me. Eh. Never did believe in ghosts.

Besides, I was feeling lucky. The Psychedelic De Sade was no longer my roomie.

(More old Palms pics, plus a 1980 shot of the front window at long-gone Arcade Records store downtown. The shot of me drinking with my Palms roomie Jeannie is from the photo booth at Funland, a seedy game oasis once located on Broadway near the YMCA)

Back at the Palms, I was living with a 17 year-old runaway girl named Jeannie Setzer whose boyfriend was in jail back in her home state, so she’d hitchhiked to San Diego for reasons I was never clear on. I met her in PB at the free Sunday feast they threw at the Hare Krishna temple, and she came back to the Hotel with me and stayed, off and on, ever the next few months.

We were both broke, so we spent a lot of time sneaking into movie theaters, drive-ins, and the Zoo, until I began attending graphic arts school out on Midway Drive and she returned home, presumably to marry her just-released sweetheart.

Unfortunately, Jeannie just missed being there on…

THE DAY CHUCK NORRIS CAME TO THE PALMS (and Jennifer O’Neal, too!!)

‘Kay, so A Force of One is a Chuck Norris/Jennifer O’Neal thriller with Chuck kicking ass all over downtown San Diego, circa 1979. Some shots were done on 5th Avenue, at the all-night grindhouse theaters where I was working at the time, the Casino and the Aztec.

(Above and below: screenshots from A Force of One showing a foot chase in front of the Casino and Aztec theaters)

One notable scene was filmed at the Palms. Chuck and Jennifer walk into the lobby, and Chuck wants to do some tough talking at the front desk, at the bottom of the staircase. Jennifer instead applies a little charm (as much as glacial Jennifer O'Neal can exude charm, anyway, IE not a whole lotta).

The street level lobby, usually filled with senior citizens watching the already-ancient TV, was lit to highlight the dreadful worn-out walls and some of those very same Hotel denizens, sitting on the couch benches (like converted bus benches), pretending to stare at the tube.

I remember a lot of residents coveted the movie “roles,” not so much to be in the film but for the $50 fee. The old guy who used to rent me his car was in the scene: he used the $$ to pickup a rent-to-own TV for his dinky second floor room, which needed a cleanup just to make room for set.

In the movie, Chuck and Jen then head up the grand staircase maze.

Note the poor wall "repairs," with masking tape over the cracks and painted in various colors that don't even come close to matching the wall paint. So, the duo makes their way into a room (later to be MY room)...

...and Chuck kicks some serious druggie ass.

On the day of the film shoot, Norris and O’Neal were seen walking around outside a lot, being very cordial to anyone who wanted to talk to them. Which wasn’t that many people. The majority of Hotel residents seemed unaware or uncaring about who they were and what they were doing. They just grumbled about having to go in and out thru the back door, and not having lobby access for the 15-or-so hour shoot.

The one hotel pay phone was in the lobby, and thus off limits all day. That was the REAL pisser for most of the residents. That, and Beezely’s being closed to the public, to instead serve as a Kraft Services roach wagon for the film crew and talent.

When A Force of One came out in theaters, I went to my own beloved Casino Theater on 5th to see it with Jerry the King of Cans and old Donald the Bear, the only time I recall ever seeing Donald outside the Hotel (other than going to and from Beezley’s).

We cheered like soccer hooligans during the Palms scene.

I didn’t remember another thing about the flick until screening the DVD recently, to pull screenshots for this blog ---

(Fritz Jensen of the local band Collage Menage plays with my Etch-A-Sketch at the Palms, circa 1981 – the band is still together!)

I ended up leaving the Palms for a short while in 1981, returning to my hometown of Niantic Connecticut and convincing my good friend Scotty Gibson to pack up and move out to San Diego with me. On my return to SD, we landed at the Palms, where I not only managed to score my old room back but one of the managers actually let me pick some cool furniture from the storage room, including a closet-sized portable wooden wardrobe and a funky antique writing desk where I essentially began my career as a scribe.

(Back at the Palms with new roomie Scotty)

This was the period when I worked at the downtown all-night grindhouse theaters (the Aztec, Casino, and Bijou on 5th, the Cabrillo and Plaza at Horton Plaza, the Balboa and the Pussycat on 4th, etc.), as I chronicled in a Reader cover feature called Before It Was the Gaslamp ( http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/jul/23/before-it-was-the-gaslamp-now-with-50-more-content ).

In early 1982, I was walking home from work at about 5a.m., when someone I couldn’t see clearly leapt out from behind a parked car and struck me on the back of my head with something hard and heavy. I woke up in an ambulance, my wallet still in my back pocket with some $40 or so tucked into it.

Earlier that evening, at the Casino Theater, I’d bounced a surly teen customer, I forget over what but I’ve always assumed the guy was my assailant. After I took a few stitches to my head, I caught a cab back to the theater and gave the day manager my notice. He asked me to work one more week before quitting, and I may have said yes, but I don’t think I ever went back, not even to pick up my final paycheck.

I moved back to the east coast, staying a little over a year. When I returned to San Diego in March 1983, I was accompanied by another emigrant from my Connecticut hometown, a high school sweetheart named Heather who would end up becoming my common law wife and spending over fifteen years with me.

Shortly after we arrived in CA, I took Heather to visit the Hotel with me, to introduce her to the People of the Palms I’d been telling her about. It was a hurdle getting past the new live-in manager Angel Garrett, who had only known me during my last couple of months at the Hotel and was reluctant to let me go upstairs.

I finally talked him into checking with Jerry Taylor up on the third floor, who was expecting us, though he made me go up and bring Jerry back down rather than walking up all those stairs himself, essentially holding Heather hostage until my promised return to the lobby.

Jerry didn’t endear himself to either of us, tho, when he began rambling on to Heather about all the times I was supposedly caught sneaking women (okay, girls) up to my various rooms, using every conceivable ruse from unlocking the back entrance by the laundry room to smuggling them up fire escapes, or even disguising them an anonymous male tenants.

I was surprised to find the Hotel now had a few female residents. The whole time I’d been there, the Invisible Woman was the only woman I can recall ever getting accepted into a room. In 1983, there were even a couple of families, some with children, which was a REALLY unexpected turn for me. I’d never, ever seen – or even heard of – any children of the Palms.

Old Donald the Bear had scored my old palatial digs in the corner suite overlooking the DeTox center, but he was in a foul mood that day.

Deke the biker was there, but he was schizing out on some bad speed and babbling about some porn star who supposedly wanted to kill him and being haunted by the ghost of the murdered Mexican guy Chico. Probably my first friend ever to go totally tweaker on me…

Donald was bumming me out too. He kept mistaking me for my old Palms roommate Scotty, with whom he’d had some kind of altercation over a stereo system Scotty had sold him.

Now, realize that Donald had always been the guy telling me that the one thing I needed to do in life was ‘find a good woman.’ So I was disappointed that he not only didn’t appear to appreciate the jackpot I’d hit with Heather, but he also seemed to be holding a grudge against me over something I knew nothing about! He was convinced that I was Scotty, or that Scotty was me, and nothing I could do or say would disabuse his notion that I had somehow become his sworn enemy.

I think Donald would have pushed things into a physical fight, had I not herded Heather back down the stairs, out the door, and walked away from the Palms Hotel and toward our new life together, first in North Park and then Ramona, La Mesa, and beyond.

It would be 27 years before I again walked into the Palms Hotel…………

After the Trolley went up 12th Avenue, I rarely found myself stopping anywhere near that part of town. Over the next two decades, I vaguely recall driving past the Palms a few times and marveling at how the place still stood its moldy ground, lording over the entire half block.

Every few years, I’d catch fleeting glimpses of the Hotel, popping up in my lifepath like some kind of Gaslamp Brigadoon, an architectural anachronism is a rapidly changing neighborhood rushing headlong from soup kitchen to skyscraper.

In May 1985, L.A. attorney Robert Ballantyne, representing financier Robert O. Peterson, paid around $1 million in behalf of a trust for most of a block at 12th and Island. One of Ballantyne’s partners in the development of a downtown seniors tower called San Diego Square, Mavourneen O'Connor (twin sister of Mayor Maureen O'Connor), was also reported by the Union-Tribune as a frequent Palms visitor, sparking speculation that the building might be converted into senior citizen housing.

However, by July 1986, plans were instead implemented to upgrade the Palms and raise rents from an average of $200 to more than twice that amount, with around two dozen eviction notices being served to longstanding tenants.

“They’ll literally turn it into a true hotel,” San Diego attorney Stephen Huggard told the Union-Tribune (7-24-86), representing the owners. By the end of the year, the building was undergoing a major renovation, from repainting to consolidating rooms, replacing common areas with additional rooms installed with private fixtures, and putting up real drapes over all the huge vertical Victorian bay windows previously covered only by cheap paper windowshades.

By 1991, very few rooms at the Palms would have been considered priced for “low income” residents. There were, however, a few exceptions on the second floor, thanks to a program initiated by Episcopal Community Services, a non-profit agency that administered a 6-month Palms residency program for chronically homeless individuals with both mental health problems and addiction issues.

The program, Friend to Friend, was operated under a contract with the county mental health department. Clients shared seven rooms and a community area, though the program apparently only operated for a few years before funding ran out.

As of 1996, a woman named Glydia and her son Dave were running the Palms, which was getting $400 or more monthly for the more stately rooms where I had dwelled with Jeannie, Scotty, et al for (at most) $110 per month.

Fast forward to 2009, when the Hotel’s owner, Mission Federal Bank in partnership with John Cook, put the Palms up for sale. According to its real estate listing at the time:

“The Historic Palms Hotel is a walkup three story building consisting of seventy-five single room occupancy (SRO) units and five ground level retail units. Of the seventy-five units there are two units with bathrooms, one unit with a Kitchenette, and five studios (Bathrooms & Kitchenettes). Upgrades include the common area bathrooms on all three levels, common area kitchen, outdoor patio area, most of the interior rooms, exterior professional paint and new roof.”

In October 2009, Sandor W. Shapery, a board member of SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organization) a group dedicated to preserving and restoring historic architecture around the city, announced his plan to purchase the Palms Hotel via his company Shapery Enterprises. It appeared that he intended to maintain its SRO/single room occupancy status.

FINAL CHAPTER: MY RETURN TO THE PALMS HOTEL

March 30, 2010: I decided to accept an invitation to go downtown for a backstage tour of the remodeled/restored Balboa Theater, which I hadn’t been inside since I last worked there in the early ‘80s. I’d been writing these Tales of the Palms Hotel for the Reader for around three years.

So I figured, what the Hell, I should finish off this project with a return visit to the funky old Palms, to see what it’s like 27 years later.

I parked on 5th and walked my old “end-of-shift” route circa ‘79/’80, from the Casino and Aztec theaters to the Hotel, spotting only a few of the urban reference points that used to mark my daily commute. Approaching 12th and Island, although spiffily painted compared to the old tan cover-all, the Palms already looked to me like a place out of time, with all the trolley rigging, concrete, and plexiglass that had gone up in front of the place since my Gaslamp dayz.

Most of the Hotel’s wraparound porch, as well as the left/north facing wall, has been leased out in remodeled blocks to retailers and concessions. A fashion shop, knick-knack boutique, thrift store, tattoo parlor, and remnants of others that have apparently come and gone.

Walking into the lobby was a straight-out 8-track flashback from the WayBack Machine: other than the color of the wall paint and far more polish and sheen to the fixtures (desk, stairwell, fireplace, etc), I could have been stumbling in from a Dead Kennedys show at the Skeleton Club!

I was greeted warmly by leasing manager James McLaughlin, who was already familiar with my Tales of the Palms Hotel articles for the Reader. Though I hadn’t notified him of my intent to finish the series with an actual return visit, he was perfectly willing to give me a brief unscheduled tour.

Most all the rooms have been renumbered, combined, and/or reconfigured into spaces where the communal kitchens once were. There were a couple of rooms being offered for monthly rentals, but the majority were occupied.

As it happened, one of my old rooms was vacant and being fixed up. Walking in, I was awash in nostalgia, looking around at the huge ceiling, faux fireplace mantle, and gazing out the floor-to-ceiling window alcove.

I thought to myself: That’s where I first sat and played Pink Floyd: the Wall in December 1979, where I painted my first rock and roll poster (at least the first one I completed!), featuring Pink Floyd, and where I broke in countless bongs and cracked innumerable Coors (an exotic treat for someone from Connecticut, where delicious vices like Coors and tacos were all but unheard of).

Of course, UNlike my CT digs, no open Coors at the Palms was safe from roaches using the pulltab as a diving board into your beer. I shudder to recall how many of my drinks (and meals!) got hijacked by the little buggers.

I had paid $110 monthly for that room. McLaughlin said it was listing at $675.

(My old room getting fixed up in 2010 - note can of bug spray and what looks like TWO can caps...)

Walking up the stairs and down the halls, I kept reliving scattered memories I haven’t dredged up in years, not even while doing these articles.

Oh, look, that’s where Walter was passed out naked on the floor in front of his room all night.

That’s the bathroom where that girl from the welfare office OD’d.

There’s the secret stairwell going directly to the roof from inside the third floor.

That’s where Scotty punched out that dude he caught leaving our room with Scott’s Poloroid camera hidden under his army coat.

What happened to the communal kitchen where Chico taught me the wonders of pinto beans? It’s in a rental room now?

Huh, that old hallway is completely gone, or at least blocked off. We used to sneak in girls through a fire escape down there, before I got the top floor corner suite with its OWN fire escape.

As we walked along one hallway, McLaughlin suddenly reached out and slapped a cashew-sized roach off the wall. Casual, almost nonchalant, like it was little more than a reflex.

Yep, déjà vu all over again!

It was odd seeing kids and families around the place. Back in the day, it was all single males, with no guests allowed after 10pm (hence so much sneaking in and out thru the outer doors and fire escapes).

I was amazed to find out the Invisible Woman was apparently still there!! By my figuring, she’d be nearly 80 by now.

Back downstairs at the reception desk, as I chatted with McLaughlin about old Hotel guests, owners, and ghost stories, he asked what my favorite room had been.

I told him #53. To my surprise, he went into the office just behind the old (still visible) post office box cubbyholes, and came out with two brass letters from the old numbering on the doors, a 5 and a 3. Well, they might not be actual brass. Let’s say brass-colored. It WAS the Palms, after all, and I’m guessing that valuable fixtures like that would have vanished long before my misbegotten tenure at the Palms Hotel.

Nonetheless, they were of HUGE value to me! I was immensely grateful, and the brass(like) #53 now graces the door of my home office.

I shook the property manager’s hand, took one last sweeping look around at the cavernous womb of the Palms Hotel, and walked out the doors and back into today.

Let me tell you, friends and foes, I stood on that porch a SERIOUSLY long moment, contemplating whether I should RENT my old Hotel room, right now. If only for awhile. Maybe use it as a temporary satellite studio. Or as a writer’s retreat. Perhaps I could find my muse there once again, like when I first started writing and painting in that selfsame room, maybe dig in and finally finish one of the books I’m contracted to turn in over the coming year.

Yeah, right.

Unfortunately, it’s true what they say. You can’t go home again.

And, even if you do, the roaches will still be there.

A few months after my Return to the Palms Hotel, the San Diego office of Cushman & Wakefield announced that the 16,717 square-foot, 79-unit Hotel, including its ground floor retail spaces, had sold for $3,600,000. The seller, Mission Federal Credit Union, was represented by Tim Mills of Cushman & Wakefield. The buyer, 12th & "A" Hotel Partners, LP, represented buyer Shapery Enterprises.

I found these current photos posted in an online tenant pitch.

It's amazing how the "under new management" Palms manages to look so cozy! I think the photos mainly show communal areas, not individual rooms, and note the laundry room now appears to be outdoors. Current rentals run $550 to $900 monthly.

Unfortunately, in a January 22, 2011 Union-Tribune article, the Palms Hotel is listed among eleven “Foreclosed Hotels in San Diego County.”

I truly hope the Palms survives.

But, sometimes, not even Chuck Norris can save the day.


RELATED ARTICLES:

"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa’s Last Stand" -- Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters. This detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc., including interviews with operators, vintage local movie ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/jul/23/before-it-was-the-gaslamp-now-with-50-more-content/

"Pussycat Theaters: When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Company head Vince Miranda owned and lived part time at the Hotel San Diego, operating several other local theaters downtown and in Oceanside, Escondido, etc. Told by those who actually ran the theaters, with a complete theater-by-theater encyclopedia covering every Pussycat that ever screened in CA -- http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2010/jun/29/pussycat-theaters-a-comprehensive-history-of-a-cal/

"Field Of Screens" -- Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including interviews with operators and attendees, dozens of rare and unpublished photos, vintage local theater ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/bands/2008/aug/01/drive-in-theaters-in-san-diego-complete-illustrate/

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