Inside the Armed Services Y.M.C.A.: a hotel, an old swimming pool, a coffee shop, a television room, family counseling, a friendly game of eight ball, chaperoned dances, the largest servicemen's center in the world, more than 130 million visitors. Outside the Armed Services Y.M.C.A.: prostitutes, winos, drifters, pushers, con men, and muggers.
Since it was built in 1924. the Armed Services Y.M.C.A. has never locked its doors. Legend has it that, shortly after the structure was completed, a sailor was ordered to transport the key to the front doors out to the Pacific Ocean, where he gave it a deep-six. Whether or not the legend is true — and several veteran staff members of the Y doubt the tale — the fact remains that the doors have always been open, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for the last fifty-six years.
During those years, more than 130 million people, mostly military personnel, have passed through the doors — the first being a young Marine named Fred Carnes, who still resides in San Diego. But with the plans for redeveloping the downtown area, in particular the proposed convention center and the upcoming referendum that will determine its fate, the wrecking ball looms ambivalently over the seven-story building located at 500 West Broadway between India and Columbia streets.
And while its future is still uncertain, the time may be right to take a look at the old lifeboat of lower Broadway — and at the waters that surround it.
Where the Hotel del Coronado and the La Valencia overlook scenic bays and coves, the Armed Services Y.M.C.A. gazes down on a vastly different scene, for which over the years it has sought to provide an alternative, a shelter from the massage parlors, topless bars (which advertise “hypno-sexism”), tattoo shops, porno bookstores and theaters (one of which promised “hardcore to the max”), and the drifters, pimps, and pushers — the parasitic subculture that follows the military the way a remora fish clings to a shark.
Many call this place the “real world.” But my own experience outside the Y has convinced me otherwise. Lower Broadway is a surrealistic locale, governed by restless energy, more loneliness than one chart can graph, and desperation. It is an endless parade, mostly at night, of unfettered appetite.
In the morning, the street is sparsely populated, though in front of the Y, on bus benches and down both sides of Broadway, coveys of street ambassadors await new arrivals to the Y. Coni — her name is inscribed, in purple ink, on her left wrist — is one of them. “Sombody must’ve stuck a pin in his doll,” she says after a sailor has rebuked her overtures, which were obvious and very impersonal come-ons (“New in town? Looking for a little excitement?”). She comes back to the bus bench in front of the building, where I have been sitting and where the solar heat of the morning sun gathers in a pocket of stuffy air, baking the pavement and instilling the urge to move on.
A sailor walks by, wearing cut-off Levis. Coni rises from the bench and approaches him. “Hey! You with the sexy legs. Could you spare a cigarette?” He draws out a Salem Light from a depleted pack and hands it to her. She tears off the filter, and as he lights it for her, she says, “I don’t want to embarrass you, but you got sexy legs.”
Embarrassed, the guy walks off quickly. And Coni sits back down. She is wearing tight Levis, a sleeveless pink T-shirt, and boots. Her hair is brown, of medium length. She shakes it into place with two rapid twists of the head. Beneath her eyes, amber half-moons suggest sleepless nights. She also has a tattoo on her left forearm — a small snake about to bite its tail. She notices I’m observing the design, “You like snakes?” she asks.
‘‘Not really. Nothing personal, you understand.”
‘That’s okay. Some do, some don’t. I do.”
“Even if they ’re trying to chew off their tails?”
“That’s not what it’s doing. It’s . . . well . . . symbolical symbolism or whatever. Has a special meaning to me. Like, I mean, it’s a circle. Or almost one. To me it’s a halo made by the snake in the Garden of Eden. Has to do with good and evil and all that. It’s very complicated. . .”
An old blue Buick drives by. From inside, four young men in uniform assault her verbally with the impassioned howls of an aroused coyote. Coni quickly responds in kind. The middle finger of her left hand rockets upward — a sign that echoes the thoughts of the men in the car, though not necessarily the way they had in mind. “Go chase your fat ass,” she shouts, half angered, half delighted. Coni sits down again as the Buick speeds off, and after a short pause I begin my inquiry anew. “You like San Diego?”
“Naw. San Diego sucks. There’s plenty to do here but nothing but trouble. Today’s my birthday. I’m nineteen. Wish I had a hundred to blow. Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I guess. Why did you come here to this spot?”
“The Y’s here, dummy. Men are here. I don’t want to talk to you any more. You ask too damn many questions. Later for you!"
A short time later an old man drunk to his eye-teeth comes wavering up Broadway on what looks to be an extended journey, given his condition. Like a sailboat, he tacks from lamppost to parking meter to bus bench, a slow, zigzagging course into the gums of a mild Santa Ana wind. He stops momentarily at each harbor, where he marshals his energies, gets his bearings, and mutters. “Got to get up there, and I’m gonna damn well do it, too . . .this time!”
Another old man, in a fairly similar state, watches me observe the halting traveler, then approaches. He almost makes me seasick as he rocks back and forth, and he has enough alcohol on his breath to disinfect most of lower Broadway. Referring to the other voyager, he says, “They ought to m-make a m-movie outta that old coot. C-call it Around the B-Block in Eighty Days."
A man in his early twenties, with short, sand-colored hair, a thin mustache, and gray eyes, comes down the stairs from the building and sits on the bus bench. He closes his eyes and tilts his head back to catch the rays of the afternoon sun. Though clearly in the military, he appears more comfortable than most of his peers, in civilian attire — in his case Levis, a plaid shirt, and tennis shoes. And unlike many new visitors to the area — whose eyes, like mine, dart constantly here and there, both looking and on the lookout — he seems almost unfazed by the sights, sounds, and occasional furies of the street. A bus pulls up. Others climb aboard. He and I do not. His name is Robert. A sailor stationed at the Thirty-second Street Base, he will soon be discharged from the service because his feet are allergic to leather shoes (“They make my feet turn purple”). His future plans are uncertain: he’d like either to open up a new bar in New York or a pizza parlor in Japan (“They’re starved for pizza in Japan”). After we exchange our basic information, he complains about a lack of things to do in San Diego. “You ever hear of the Ritz? The old nightcldb in the Village on Eleventh Street?”
"In New York?”
“Yeah. They renovated the place in the last year. I went there on a dead night — like on a Wednesday — and they had over 2500 people there; 4500 people show up on a weekend. Place is crazy, really open, and the drinks are good. There’s nothing like it in San Diego. The only place that comes close is Foggy’s Notion, across from the Sports Arena.”
“What about Broadway? It reminds me of New York sometimes, especially at night.”
“The street is pretty torn up, like back home. But to me this place is definitely more mellow. Everybody says to watch yourself out here — and it’s true — but there is nothing like Forty-second Street in this town. Nothing. Man, that place’ll blow you away. To me, Broadway is quiet; everything moves at a lot slower pace than in New York. They got the worst over there. Someday try walking down Forty-second Street, from Seventh to Eighth Avenue. at 3:00 a. m. without a gun or a knife. That’s bad news over there. They’ll kill you for a dollar. Guy 'll come up to you and say, I need money; I need food. And bam! Down you go.
“The only place I’ve ever seen that’s like New York — and I’ve been three-fourths around the world — is Olangopo City, in the Philippines. That’s bad over there, too. First time I walked out the gate at the base I turned around and went back. Saw three guys’ wallets taken and a guy get thrown in the bay. I said, 'Man, this is too much like home!’ ”
A mild commotion begins down the street. A small crowd gathers around an undecipherable object. I notice the event. Robert does too, briefly, and then turns his profile to the sun. “Naw,” he continues, “San Diego is like for when I get older — to come out and relax. This place is a lot cleaner than most of the places I’ve seen. . .’’
Before he could swing into another story, sprinkled with another dash of Big Apple chauvinism, I excuse myself and tell him I am going to see what’s happening down the street. “Okay,’’ he says. “Listen. All you gotta do around here is walk quick and stay near the curb. You’ll be okay. Catch ya. . .”
A block and a half down Broadway the crowd is thinning out. Some people stay, arrested by the sight, while others take a brief glance and walk away, giving it no second look. The object of the mixed reactions is a small heap of dusty rags: the wizened body of an old man. His skin is a jaundiced pallor; a trickle of blood trails from his right ear. “That man just paid for the farm,’’ says a young sailor, somewhat smugly, as he walks past me.
“How’d it happen?”
Almost defiantly, a man with close-cropped gray hair covers the body with his coat and stands, like a sentry, with his back to it — his feet spread apart, his arms folded across his chest. He says nothing. The few stray observers surrounding the remnants of a life react variously. As she leaves, a woman whispers to herself, “He’s only drunk or asleep. Keep thinking that. Only asleep.” A serviceman dressed as a cowboy asks, “Does anyone know who he is?” When no one replies to his question, he moves off, saying, “Someone should call his mother; she should know about this. . .”
Suddenly a wild-eyed man with a straggly beard and immensely long fingers, who had been peering into the window of an empty store, comes forward. In a high-pitched voice and with his head nodding at every word, he shouts, “He had taken his eyes off Chee-zus! He failed to call on the Lord — who stood in that square in Jerusalem and had his back split open so that you might be healed!” As he continues in this vein, the remaining crowd, except for the sentry, dissolves into the motion of the street.
At night the street explodes with movement. People seem to emerge from nowhere. The noise is ceaseless — “like in a jail,” a local said to me — as waves of people flow down the streets looking and, according to several I talked to, finding whatever it is they’re looking for, “short of the fountain of youth, that is.”
The man who spoke those words was of an indeterminate age. He was probably in his early forties, but he looked as if he had lived every year twice. I was standing next to a parking meter across from the Y, before an empty storefront where the legendary Angel Baby’s, a brothel euphemistically called a massage parlor, used to do a rousing business. “I wouldn’t stand right there,” he said.
“Oh? How come?” Under normal circumstances, if there are such things in this part of town, I would have simply moved on. But the man had a kindly, though very hoarse voice, so I made the inquiry.
“That’s Cappy’s night spot you’re standing on. He’ll be here in a bit. People know better than to stand there.” His eyes, streaked with brownish veins, had a yellow, filmy quality to them. He had a high forehead. The rest of his features were gathered below the equator of his head — eyes, nose, and mouth packed together toward the bottom of his face. An overcoat, also of indeterminate age, covered the rest of him, save for his shoes — two leather slabs that had seen better days and had been worn, at one time, by other, larger feet.
“Who’s Cappy?” I asked.
“A gnarly old rat who thinks it’s his street. He’s got seniority down here so he gets to pick his spot. We’d better move on. Here he comes.”
A scrawny man of medium height turned the comer on Columbia Street and headed our way. He had a semblance of a beard, in the middle of which was a row of black teeth.
“I agree,” I said. “Want a cup of coffee? I’ll buy you one at the Y’s coffee shop.”
“I’d love a cup of Joe, but I don’t think they’ll let me in there. They’ve been cracking down on us lately.”
‘I'II escort you. How’s that?”
“Fine,” he said. “Let’s be moving. Cappy’s spot is a matter of life and death with him.”
The coffee shop is located inside the front doors of the Armed Services Y.M.C.A., to the left of the registration desk, where hotel manager Jim Baker keeps a watchful eye on the lobby. Baker, who retired after twenty-eight years in the Navy, told me that a portion of his job is the unenviable task of “drawing the line” between the paying and nonpaying customers at the Y. “It has to be done,” Baker said after he had to run out a sorry-looking transient on crutches. “Otherwise the place would become a flophouse in no time at all.”
Open to the public, the coffee shop was recently painted orange, which prompted Rick Givney, locker manager at the Y, to say, “I like orange, no matter what color it is.” The original shop had only three stools in 1924. Now it has around fifteen, and several booths. For every three stools at the counter, there is a mini-jukebox, which offers a fairly complete collection of contemporary music; among the selections is Pat Benatar’s esoteric song “My Clone Sleeps Alone.” There are also fifteen phone booths at the west end of the large room, in one of which a dude calling himself Rasty Nasty set up shop last November. He tried to run a phony raffle scam and coerced a couple of sailors into collecting the proceeds. He said he would meet them on the front steps of the Y, where he would give them a commission for their efforts. Jim Baker and others, however, detected the scam before the man could accomplish his aims. And Rasty Nasty split — some say — to Hawaii.
“What’s your name?” I asked my companion as we sat at the farthest end of the counter of the coffee shop.
“Just call me Alias. I’ve changed my name so many times over the years I can’t remember the real one.”
“Oh, come on, now,” I said. “Wait just a pair of minutes. . .”
“It’s a fact. And anyway, 1 don’t put much stock in names anymore. One of the things you can live without, I’m thinking.”
Operating, as I do, under the assumption that one’s name or nickname represents a part of one’s personal identity, for good or ill, I wasn’t buying his notion completely. But I didn’t press the point, since he seemed to like being called Alias and since he never asked for my name. “Tell me about Cappy and his spot,” I ventured.
“The streets have their phony chains of command, just like any place else. And there’s like a ladder out there. Certain people have their spots and you don't want to fool with that if you’re smart.”
“Dumb question. They say Cappy has a butterfly knife. Know what that is?”
“In the Philippines — or somewhere — they got these knifes, see? Sharp like a razor on both sides? And the handles cover the blade on both sides. With one flick the thing is open. Guys that know how to use ’em can do it in one flick. The two sides fall back and form a handle. Do a lot of damage. Named after a man or woman who cheats on their wife or husband. That’s a bad deal when they pull out that knife.”
“And Cappy’s got one of them?”
“So they say. No need to find that out. Let him sit or sleep where he wants. He’ll get the best part of you otherwise.”
Alias cradled the coffee cup in his two hands, feeling its warmth and treating it as if it were some mysterious elixir. I slurped mine solely out of habit — and addiction. To me it was merely another cup of coffee. To Alias, it seemed a lot more. Most of the people I talked to on Broadway were reticent to speak at all, wary, defensive, extremely cautious. Or they would counter whatever I said with a line of their own, verbally frisking my private desires. But Alias was surprisingly forthcoming, possibly because of the bribe: a free cup of coffee in a warm, well-lit room. At one point he asked me if refills cost extra. When I said they didn’t, he proudly pointed at the empty bottom of his cup as the waitress passed by.
At first he was nervous, uneasy in the coffee shop. He later confessed that he had been kicked out of the building, a while back, when he was caught sleeping behind the stage curtains in Davidson Hall, a large, multipurpose room at the north end of the building. This is why, he said, he wanted to sit in the comer of the counter: to keep one eye on the entrance. I asked him about the life he lived, a world with which 1 am very unfamiliar. And gradually he warmed to his subject. He told me that transients are a lot like "rich people” in that they go south for the winter, usually to San Diego or Florida, though not all of them make it that far. Some have themselves systematically arrested for drunkenness, he said, until they build up a record and have to be put in jail for three or four months — in the winter, of course. He also talked about the heated rivalries, often verging on a civil war, that can occur between the mobile transients and the locals, those who have made a place their own. year round. “How come you want to know all this anyway?” he asked.
“How come you’re so willing to answer?”
“Ya got me there.”
My question was one of four he refused to answer in any detail. The other three concerned his past, his present, and his future. He much preferred, instead, to give advice, which he did on another occasion, though I failed to heed it.
The old building, if it had ears, would have heard millions of these conversations over the nearly fifty-seven years of its existence. In 1944 alone, almost eight million people came through the front doors. According to Bob Schmidt, executive director of the Armed Services Y, there were days when the always-open doors never shut — literally — as a continual flow of humanity, 22.000 per day, filed through them. “They say it was a sea of white hats,” adds Barbara Keeney, assistant program director, “and you couldn’t even walk through the building. The story goes that a young woman came from out of town looking for her boyfriend. She couldn’t even get inside the doors to find him, so she just sat on the front steps and cried.”
It all began in 1920, when the Army and Navy took over the War Activities Club at 940 First Street and renamed it an “official Army and Navy Y.M.C.A.” By September of that year, however, the first executive director, Omo Tyler, chose to switch the facilities to the San Remo Hotel, at State and E streets, since the original building was inadequate to house the rapid expansion of the military in San Diego — a growth that soon rendered the San Remo Hotel obsolete. A new structure became imperative.
A steering committee was formed, according to Fahey O. Johnson’s monograph 500 West Broadway – the Story of a Building, and an “all-star team of San Diego civic leaders went to work to establish a permanent Army and Navy Y.M.C.A. building.” George W. Marston and G. Aubrey Davidson headed the committee, among whose other members were Colonel Ed Fletcher, George Stone, William Kettner, Jay Gould, Milton Heller. J.W. Sefton, and Herbert Holmes. The function of the committee was to find a site for the new structure. They discovered three adjoining lots, facing Broadway, between India and Columbia streets.
“After several weeks of discussion,” continues Johnson, “a final meeting of the committee was called to take definite action. The hour of the meeting arrived, but the committee didn’t. The only ones in attendance were Marston, Davidson, and Fletcher. Then, as Colonel Fletcher recalled in his memoirs, ‘More as a joke than anything else, I made the motion that the purchase be authorized and we raise the money. Davidson seconded the motion, and it was unanimously carried by the three of us. I was then instructed to write a letter to each member of -the committee about the action taken by those present and asking if they would acquiesce. Several members responded favorably. The others did not reply.’ ” Neither Fletcher nor Johnson offers reasons for the silence of the others.
“An architect, Lincoln Rogers, was engaged to draw the plans for the new structure. and bids for construction were called for,” Johnson writes. “Nine construction Firms responded, and the closed bids were opened on 5 September 1923 in the board room of the Southern Trust and Commerce Bank. There was a wide variance of bids, ranging from a high of $621,000, with a 400-day completion date, to $557,000 with a 350-day completion date, submitted by the Campbell Building Company. The Campbell Company was awarded the bid, and ground-breaking ceremonies took place on Monday morning, 8 October 1923.” The building was dedicated, “amid the atmosphere of a Roman holiday,” November 7, 1924.
Johnson, who frequently refers to the building as a ship, admits that it did not always experience smooth sailing. There were many deficiencies in the original construction — balconies were not properly cemented, the roof grading did not allow for proper drainage, and the windows on the lower level were not installed correctly. Also, the plaster soon began to crack, and the front and rear of the building, it turned out, had been painted different colors. “These corrections were made by the contractor,” says Johnson, “but dissension arose between the committee and architect Rogers — and while he was eventually paid in full for his services some four years later, he never gave the committee the complete and final set of blueprints of the building. Over the ensuing years this caused considerable frustration as the plans on hand do not include the changes and deletions which were made during the construction period.”
Though designed as off-base housing for servicemen, a large portion of the Armed Services Y’s function is to provide programs and services for military personnel in the area. In 1930, with the cooperation of Fleet Chaplain John N. Brady, a comprehensive survey was made regarding the kinds of activities servicemen wanted at the Y. Some of the suggestions, according to Johnson, were 1) Allow the swimming pool to be patronized by civilians as well as sailors. Sailors like to mingle with the civilians. 2) Employ ex-servicemen because they understand servicemen. 3) Should have talking motion pictures. 4) Young lady employees should not act as if they despise the sailor when they are waiting on him. 5) Should have frequent dances, with girls properly vouched for. This last request was fairly long in coming. As late as 1939 women were still forbidden in the building, except for clerical help and waitresses. But a young, intrepid Fahey O. Johnson, risking his new job — a low administrative position — at the Y, changed all that.
“One weekend in the early part of 1939, the entire administrative staff were in attendance at a conference in Santa Maria. Being the newest member of the staff, I was left in charge of the building. The executive director’s secretary, Eleanor Wilson, had come in to complete a few stenographic chores. Over a coffee break the two of us decided to defy the establishment and hold a dance in the building. Realizing that we were violating all tradition and that our jobs could very well be in jeopardy, we nonetheless contacted the Navy Mothers Club and asked if their members could provide us with fifteen girls — daughters, granddaughters, and friends — for a dance that evening in the Armed Services Y.M.C.A. They agreed. The only space available for the little affair was in the second-floor dormitory. So Miss Wilson and I stacked the beds in one comer, sprinkled some dance wax on the floor, and set up an old, beat-up, wind-up phonograph. We then purchased a supply of dance records — all hits of the day: ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips,’ ‘My Blue Heaven,’ ‘I’m Looking at the World through Rose-Colored Glasses.’
“That evening,” Johnson continues, “all fifteen girls arrived, and well supervised they were. A chaperone for each girl! We sneaked them up the back alley, through the gym, up a back stairway to the dormitory. A selected group of thirty-five servicemen were waiting. The affair was a spectacular success.
“Then came the day of reckoning — as we knew it would. Early Monday morning we were called into the office of the executive secretary to explain what happened on Saturday night. So we told him. We stuttered, but we told him. I still have a vivid mental picture of him — chewing at the end of a lead pencil. Then after what seemed an eternity he said, ‘Maybe we’ve got something here.’ ”
Since Fahey O. Johnson’s daring gamble in 1939, the Armed Services Y has sponsored countless dances and a like number of programs, ranging from bus trips to various points of interest to the Thanksgiving Home Hospitality Program (which placed 402 servicemen in San Diego homes last fall) and the Family Outreach Program. This latter program sends three women — Nancy Koehler, Patricia McCoy, and Cindy Moore (who drives the “Funmobile” and who met her husband when they were both young volunteers at the Y) — to the military housing units in the area. They not only develop recreational activities but also provide counseling services for the parents, and in particular, the women. “We do more than doughnuts and dances,” says Carol Kramer, director of activities and services. “Over the years the Y has been able to adapt to the changing needs of the times. The movement in programming has shifted from in-building to outreach in the last five years. Although we still maintain a large number of in-building programs, the shift has been toward women in the military community and the isolation they often experience in that situation. Now forty-five percent of the Y work in the nation is with women.”
Inside the building itself, the Y offers a wide variety of activities. In 1965 it closed its physical departments, a gymnasium on the main floor and the swimming pool in the basement — the pool, twenty-five meters in length, is ringed by elegant patterns of blue-and-white tile mosaic, and it is ringed as well by dust and excess items from the basement’s storage department (the latter being a treasure-trove of bizarre objects: strange costumes, a four-foot-tall porcelain cobra, a mammoth bronze piggy bank, items from all over the world placed in the basement for safekeeping). The gym. used for years as a game room and slot-car track, was sandblasted recently and, if the wrecking ball is waylaid, could be functioning again in the near future.
The lobby of the building, its walls lined with brochures of the points of interest in San Diego, leads past a twenty-four-hour barber shop, and a television room named after Fahey O. Johnson, to Davidson Hall.
Built in 1942 and named after G. Aubrey Davidson, the hall is a large, ballroomlike structure with a high ceiling and a fully equipped stage (during the Thirties and Forties, all the major bands played here). It is the site for Friday-night dances as well as the many special programs — October-fest. Las Vegas night, to name but two — offered by the Y. Adjoining Davidson Hall are a piano room and a library, in which the Sunday Morning Alternative, a program combining religious and educational services, takes place.
Davidson Hall is always the first place Skinny goes when he comes to the Y. Skinny, a black sailor from New Jersey who wants to become a corpsman, first came to the building in 1978 to participate in a marathon dance contest in Davidson Hall. “I came with two women who were Y Ambassadors — women who do volunteer work here. I was a mess that night. Had a crush on one of the women. The other one had a crush on me. She and I entered the marathon, and man, was she strong. I kept falling down and she kept pulling me up.”
“Did you win the marathon?”
“No. I faded near the end. She could have kept on going.”
“What happened to the woman you had a crush on?”
“She danced with someone else.” “And you return here in hopes of seeing her?”
“Naw. She got married. No. I come to this room because it’s so big. Ya see, I work on a submarine.”
Just inside the building to the right is a pool room, with eight bar-sized, quarter-a-game tables and. against the east and west walls, many of those computerized games that are making pinball machines archaic. Instead of the sounds of jiggling bells, games like Moon Cresta, Night Bomber, Sonic Fighter, and Galaxian — a devious package of electronic paranoia — echo their noises, which sound like tinny calliopes, through the room.
Greg Johnson, an eighteen-year-old Seaman E3 from Little Rock. Arkansas, often comes to the Y to play pool, which he does fairly well, using an extended-thumb bridge, and to retreat from lower Broadway. As I was shooting some straight pool with Greg. I asked him about being a sailor in San Diego. “One guy told me.” I said, “that you get as much attention as a movie star, only it's the wrong kind. Six ball, cross-side.”
“Nice shot. That’s true.” Johnson replied. "Outside, people hit on you about two or three times on every block. You can pick out a serviceman with no problem. People come up to you trying to sell you anything and everything. But if I wanted something. I d go into the store and ask for it.”
The seven-story building has 274 rooms and more than 300 beds. The rooms, most of which are individual units, range in price from eleven to fourteen dollars (with a two-dollar deposit); the higher price is for rooms with a television. The original rate, established in 1925. was four dollars a week. There are also three dormitories, one for men. one for women, and one for the American Youth Hostel program, which is for travelers from all over the world. The dorms go for $3.50 per night and would make one’s sense of Spartan seem opulent; there are merely beds, in an empty room, with no linen. The individual rooms are tiny, an almost cellular eighf-by-ten. and many are in bad shape, since the administration is unsure at present whether they should be renovated — the wrecking ball may turn renovation into a needless expense. With the exception of the rooms facing Broadway, where street sounds rise like steam, the upstairs is surprisingly quiet.
It is decidedly less quiet in the activities office, located on the main floor, where Monty Jordan, assistant program director, has put in many a twelve-hour day. Jordan, a balding, mustachioed man in his middle thirties, is also a professional comedian. "I’m from Colorado.” he told me. “Right in the middle of where it’s really happening — about half way between New York and L.A.” I followed him on his.“day off,” a fourteen-hour tour that included a presentation about the services of the Y held deep inside the metallic guts of the Kitty Hawk, stationed at the North Island Naval Base (in a John Wayne voice. Jordan announced solemnly, “The Kitty Hawk was commissioned in 1961. Only nineteen years old. Still a minor”), several counseling sessions, meetings with the volunteer staff, preparations for upcoming events, and. finally, a comedy routine for forty patients at Balboa Naval Hospital, where he introduced Debbie Wilson, Y.M C A. director of recreation at the hospital who had set up the show, as “my future ex-wife.”
At ten-thirty, fourteen hours after his day off began. I requested Jordan’s permission to abandon ship. On the ride back to the building. Jordan reacted to the image an outsider has of the building. “Most people think it is just a gym. When they drive by out front they see winos. space cases, and servicemen coming off a two-day drunk. They connect this picture with what they think is inside. Actually, this is the largest servicemen’s center in the world. The place goes through incredible pains to give these guys — excuse the expression — a viable alternative to the other situations downtown.”
“With only few exceptions,” I said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more pervasive feeling of loneliness than I have around here. And on the other hand, the staff seems almost unreal — like a M.A.S.H. unit — in its eagerness to help. They’re incredibly cheery, and yet I hear they don’t make all that much money.”
“The first thing people think,” Jordan replied, “is that the staff is not for real. That’s a pretty pervasive impression. But the people who work at the Y do so for other than financial reasons. This is a Christian organization.”
“That’s the first time I’ve heard that mentioned,” I said.
“We are, only we don’t like to lay the heavy line on people. The staff is motivated by Christian values.” In keeping with the philosophy of the organization. Jordan resisted the opportunity to swing into a sermon.
The administration exercises a similar restraint regarding the future of the building itself. The prevailing attitude is stoicism. Bob Schmidt, executive director of the Armed Services Y, said, “We don’t know how soon or if the wrecking ball will hit, but we are supportive of downtown redevelopment and we fully expect at this point that we are going to be moving. We have to relocate in the downtown area. That’s the key.”
Phyllis Mondoc, who has been an administrative assistant at the Y for the last thirty-eight years, also reflects the stoical response of the staff. “It’s sad, but I’m not going to cry over it,” she said. “It’s an old building, with many memories, but a new one would be more desirable. If they would move into a new one, though, I wouldn’t go with it. I guess the person who would be hurt the most by the move is George. This is his home.”
A veteran of the First World War and a member of the Army Corps of Engineers that dredged San Diego Harbor, eighty-six-year-old George Latimer has lived in the building, except for a couple of years, since the Thirties. Several members of the staff asked me not to speak to him because he takes literally what everyone says to him. Someone once told him, for example, not to walk on a certain spot just inside the main entranceway. “It’s just been mopped,” the man told George. That was five years ago, and George has avoided the spot ever since. And in 1971 someone told him that it was dangerous outside of the building. George has not left the premises in the last ten years.
A few evenings after our first talk, I met with Alias again. We sat on a small pyramid of steps at the west end of the building, facing Broadway. The steps once led to a doorway; now they lead up to a wall. He began by announcing. "I've got a few things to say.” His cough, a low, mucilaginous rumble deep in his chest, was bad that night. After clearing his throat, he said, “I just got two thing to say, is all. The first thing is don’t feel sorry for nothing or nobody — not anytime. That all's just doodling. What puts you here” — he indicated the neon-lit street before us — “is that you pick up a habit you can’t shake. Could be the booze, dime bags, women, or just three-card-Molly games. Could be anything. Some say society is at fault. Which could be true, but not the way they’re thinking. Jimmy Garcia’s a friend of mine. Former friend; he got killed up in Portland. And his whole life was trying to fit in and not bein’ able. Kept saying he was just one good job away from success. Only he never got the job.”
“He was Mexican, you know. Maybe that did him in. Maybe it was that damned woman of his. Thing that done him in, I’m thinking, is that he wanted too hard to succeed. That's where society gets ya. He bought the . . . watcha call it? The Big Dream. You know — two Cadillacs in your garage, big Frigidairc full of chops ’n steaks, job, kids. I heard that song and dance thirty years ago. I’m free of that now. Thing about being on the streets is most people out here still believe in the Dream — that's what drives ’em silly. You gotta get yourself free of all that. You gotta rid it out of your mind. Or you end up like Cappy or Garcia. Cappy thinks he’s like the president of this end of town. Got his big executive’s office right there. There’s a lot of that out here. Success . . . suck-cess!”
After a pause. I asked Alias about the second point he wanted to make.
“Okay. This and then I gotta head out of here.”
“Can’t say for sure. Somewhere away from here. This ocean air’ll rot your pipes. Okay. Listen up but good. If you’re going to hang around here and all doing your story, remember this: the first rule is, when some guy is vomiting in his shoes, don’t look him in the eye. The second rule is, never for one single minute believe you're standing on the same ground they’re standing on.”
“I don’t follow that.”
“Look. You may be talkin’ to somebody and thinkin* to yourself. This guy’s on the level.' Don’t ever. Never. Not for one second. ’Cause no matter where you think you are, they 'realways lower— way lower down than you. That’s how they live. So never trust them people. They’re slicker 'n snot.”
“How about you. Should 1 trust you?” “Me, about half the time. So long, son.”
So long, old man. Would I had heeded your advice with sharper ears.
About a week later I was in a coffee shop across the street from the Armed Services Y building. I began talking with a man, about thirty, wearing black, faded jeans, boots, a black T-shirt (with no advertising on it), and a dark-brown cotton jacket. He had a thin, reddish-brown beard, a high forehead, and brown eyes. About five-feet-eight and no more than 140 pounds, the man had auburn-colored hair, a suntanned face, and an overdose of nervous energy.
He told me he was headed for Tucson in the morning and claimed he could never stay long in any one town. “Places get small after a while, like they close up on you. It’s sort of like seeing the same flick over and over. Sure, if it’s a good one. you’ll see new things, but you know how the thing’s gonna turn out. Once you get to that point in a town, it’s time to move on.”
I asked him if the road itself didn’t become tiresome.
“A lot of people on the road are just changin’ jails, running from one place to the next. The difference is that they look forward to the next place and we look forward to leaving the last one and getting back on the road itself. Gettin’ out. Man, the freeway is the free way! It’d be great if you didn’t have to stop — ever. My name’s Danny, by the way.”
Two sailors went by outside the coffee shop. One shouted, “Man, tonight. I learned the real meaning of liber-teeee!”
“Tits on a bull,” mumbled Danny. “He probably spent a few seconds with a drugged hooker on cheap sheets.”
For about an hour Danny and I compared impressions of towns and states and shared our personal experiences from the road. As we passed in memory through South Dakota, Danny spoke proudly about Harrison’s con. “Outside of Rapid City, near Little America and the Badlands, I worked the con, starting there and going all the way on to Minnesota.”
“Who was Harrison?”
“Nobody knows. Probably like Kilroy — like in ’Kilroy slept here’? People say the guy used to go from town to town, just the outskirts, with a girlfriend. And they’d work this con guaranteed to make up to a hundred dollars a crack, no questions asked. It works; believe me, it works. The woman I’m with gets dressed up real nice. And she’s got a nice car — that’s the one trouble with the con; you’ve got to start by looking like you got more than you do. She’s got nice clothes and a nice car, and she pulls into a gas station. And she’s wearing this diamond ring. Now it ain’t really diamonds, but it looks close enough. So while the attendant’s pumping gas, she makes sure he sees the ring. Then she goes into the john. When she cones out, see, she can’t find the ring. She says to the attendant she’ll pay $350 for the ring if he can find it. Gives him a phone number in the next town, just in case. Then I show up later that day and find the ring (near the gas pump where she was standing). I show it to the attendant, say I’m short of cash, and ask if he wants to buy it. I say it looks like about a five- or six-hundred-dollar ring. Say I could take it back into town and hock it, but I’m heading in the other direction. Nine times out of ten he’ll buy the ring for at least a hundred, hundred-fifty, thinking he’s still gonna make another 200 off the woman free and clear. So he buys the ring and phones the number the woman left. No answer. Harrison’s con, pure and simple.” After about an hour. Danny left (“Nice meetin’ you, Jeff”). I stayed in the shop for another forty-five minutes or so. Then I headed for my car, which was parked at the north end of the block on India Street. The block had barriers at each end — closed to through traffic due to the new trolley tracks going in. The street was empty and dark. As I was walking on the right side, about half way up the block, two men came out of the shadows of an entry way: one in front of me. one behind. The one before me — thin, short, white, and unbelievably calm — smiled wryly as the one behind me said, almost inaudibly, he wanted to check the contents of my wallet. The voice was somewhat familiar, but I was in no mood to turn and confirm who it was after a round, metallic object was pressed against my back — a terrifying feeling that can send a whole film festival of brutal scenarios through your brain in a split second.
My mind split into three overlapping impulses, all governed by the shock of the situation: a horrifying fear of being struck on the head — or worse; a profound sense of violation, of something trespassing all over my being; and a rage, based on fear, an urge to rip the flesh from the faces of my assailants. These impulses coalesced into a strange, brief dialogue that took place somewhere inside me. "Have you fulfilled your purpose?” the first voice said.
"I don’t think so.” said a second voice.
“Then you'd better stick around and do what they ask,” cautioned the first voice.
"Say,” the second voice began, “just what is my pur ...”
“Your wallet!” the man behind me demanded. punctuating the remark with a metallic thrust into my kidneys.
“All I have is seven dollars,” I replied. “I don’t bring much money when 1 come down here. No wallet, no credit cards, no checkbook . . .”1 told the truth, though I wishcd at the time that I had more cash, assuming that the lump on the head would decrease in proportion to the size of the take. From my left pocket I extracted the bills and held them over my left shoulder. When the man behind me reached for them, I glanced around. “Danny!”
“Right you are. Nothing personal, you understand.” He grabbed the back of my neck and jerked my head forward. As he frisked me, Danny kept muttering, “Seven measly dollars.” Then he cuffed me hard across the head with the back of his hand. And it was over.
“Follow us and you ’re a dead man,’ ’ the creep in front boasted as they fled down the street into the shadows. I remained still, my bravado button firmly on hold.
For the last fifty-six years the Armed Services Y.M.C.A. has offered people an alternative — and a refuge — from the environment that surrounds it. As has surely been the case for countless others, it was the first place I headed after the incident. And I was glad as hell that those doors are always open.