The liveliest street in San Diego

Ventura Place teaches survival

  • Image by David Covey

People say that once you discover Ventura Place, you keep coming back. Some say it's because this street across from Belmont Park in Mission Beach has the most beautiful sunsets in the world. Others think it's the most alive street in San Diego.

Ventura Place is a tiny street populated by artists, poets, itinerant day laborers, musicians, tourists, merchants, big drinkers, sailors and Marines, tide watchers and people watchers, millionaires and trashpickers, aging winos in doorways underneath the “No Loitering" signs, narcotics agents and suspects, and policemen on bicycles — all claiming the same sunset, all magnetized by the mysterious ocean. Seagulls and pigeons hover, too, and eventually no one is exempt from their democratized splatterings.

Harry Bushling has been everyone's pal, they say, for more than forty years.

Harry Bushling has been everyone's pal, they say, for more than forty years.

Sooner or later everyone who hangs out on Ventura Place long enough is swept into the same metaphorical waterbed.

“Ventura Place has the vitality of Venice but it's all compressed into one street." says airbrush artist Paul Vauchelet, who now works as business director for Hamel 's Cyclery and Surf Shop and who's lived in the area for nine years. “It's not unusual here to see a kid on a bicycle leap over the hood of a taxi. It happened just the other day," he says.

It’s an ageless street. Teenagers and young mothers carrying infants mingle comfortably with the old-timers. Tom Miller rides by on his bicycle every day, and even in brisk November weather he wears shorts.

At eighty-three, he does a little bicycle repairing but when he doesn't have access to all the parts or the project is too complex, he turns it over to Ray and Dan Hamel’s bike shop. Another one of the older regulars who's been living in one of the apartments over Johnny's Surf Club since 1968 works as an efficiency expert and logs every stray penny he finds. Observers say that the old-timers are teaching the young everything they know about the economy and about fishing, for instance, and about how to get along on the street.

There are three Mexican eateries, two of which are twenty-four-hour places, and a pizza-by-the-slice place, a Hawaiian shaved-ice stand, and an Oriental place called the Samurai that specializes in chicken and steak tempura, but which also serves tacos and burritos. The Big Olaf ice cream stall has a compact car parked in front with license plates that read “TNY OLAF." There is the shop owned by the Hamel brothers, which is considered by many to be the locus of activity on Ventura Place. There are two T-shirt shops, and there’s a rowdy bar with live music, mostly rock, called the Coaster Saloon. A big bouncer who insists on calling himself a doorman bebops to the music in the doorway wearing a pair of sweat pants and sandals. “They call me Fat Boy," he grins. When pressed, he admits sheepishly to the name Richard. He bebops out into the street and keeps on moving while he talks to several people at once.

The old customers still call the Coaster Saloon the 756 Club because that’s what it was called since 1956, when it was built by a fellow named Jack Turnipseed. After running the saloon for more than twenty years, he leased it to a compact, fortyish-looking woman named Nancy Nichols, who lives just around the corner on Island Court. Nancy ran the 756 for five years. She brought in live music and hot food, and she made chicken dinners for the boys on Monday nights. Some of them would be over at her place around the corner on Sundays to watch the Charger games with her father and her son. When they were hungry, she’d feed them, and when any of the guys got into trouble, it was Nancy who would bail them out of jail. “After five years the place just got too big for me. It was too much." she says, so she bought a quieter place on Kettner Street downtown called the Waterfront. When she was tending bar at the 756 Club, Nancy says, she used to meet people from around the world. “It’s really an international street," she says. “People from all over the world come. They’ve heard of Ventura Place in Europe and sooner or later everyone winds up on Ventura Place.”

Last May when out-of-towner John Renna leased the 756 Club, he changed the name to the Coaster Saloon. He boarded up the iron patio fence with wooden trellises so you can’t see inside, and he took down the famous sign that read, “Welcome to the Mission Beach Zoo. Please Don’t Feed the Animals.” The new owner says he’s trying to change the image and attract a younger crowd from South Mission. The old-timers grumble that it’s not the same anymore, but they come (reluctantly, they say) every day out of habit.

Some of them turn up at the saloon at night on bicycles or on skates or skateboards. “I’m here four or five times a week to skate, sing, play guitar, and to rescue maidens,” says a part-time student/cab driver from National City.

A few doors east there’s a lesbian bar called the Apartment, which used to be called the Doll Room. Today it’s run by two women named Sam and Diney, who characterize their place as a “chit-chat” bar. It has an aquarium, a free-standing fireplace, electronic games, a bulletin board, a juke box, stacks of gay and feminist publications, and “Maureen O’Connor for Mayor” signs along with politicized bumper stickers and a monthly cultural calendar that features free films and parties. It draws gays from all over San Diego. Customers shoot pool and watch football telecasts. A sign next to a

Harry Budding poster of Quentin Crisp advertises the “Charger Game Special,” which is a glass of Mimosa and a slice of quiche.

To the west is Johnny’s Surf Club. It’s a subdued Forties type of place that’s been around since the early days of Ventura Place and hasn’t changed much. What it offers is stability, continuity, escape from the rapid changes that are taking place outside. The Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, Nat King Cole are on the juke box. Weekends mean Bloody Mary brunches, and Thursday nights bring one-dollar spaghetti dinners. The sign over the inside of the front door reads, “These Characters Are Purely Fictional. Any Resemblance to Human Beings Living or Dead Is Absolutely Ridiculous.”

All three bars have pool tables but are otherwise distinctly different in style, music, and clientele. Yet they’ve been coexisting peaceably, each doing a lively business, on the same little street for years. Dan Hamel admits that there’s economic jealousy on the street. “Everyone’s competing for the same business,” he says. “But when there’s an emergency,” he continues, “we all come together like a family.” After spending thirty years in the neighborhood and seventeen years owning the bicycle shop, the Hamel brothers have currently organized a collection of twenty dollars from each of the merchants in order to buy surveillance equipment for the police to spot the drug dealers on the street.

"There’s no reason to have an ocean on one side, a bay on the other, and a combat zone in between,” says Dan, who remembers the time not so long ago when the storekeepers walked around with concealed weapons.

The street’s lighthearted, outwardly transient appearance is deceptive. The small apartments on top of the stores and bars and restaurants have had the same tenants for decades. They stay not only for the ocean’s magical context but because a studio apartment on top of La Cantina, for instance, still rents for only ninety-five dollars per month. The rents on the one- and two-bedroom apartments are proportionately anachronistic.

Ventura Place’s inner life, the life only the residents experience, is another matter. This pint-size street is as rich in human landmarks as it is in natural and historic sites. Some of the characters have been around even longer than the places where they assemble. Harry Bushling has been everyone's pal, they say, for more than forty years. His wife Ruth says he's the father of Ventura Place, and Harry claims he’s the informal godfather to more than a hundred kids in the neighborhood. Harry first saw Ventura Place when he was passing through town in 1917 while in the military. This was even before the famous amusement park existed, and qualifies Harry as chief witness to the changes on the street. Harry’s as old as the century and has seen the century change.

Born in a small coal-mining town in Pennsylvania, Harry raised and educated himself and then started seeing America.

After the First World War he discovered Hollywood, where he became an actor. He was in two films — Under Two Flags, a silent film that took Harry on location to the Mojave Desert, and Foolish Wives, directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

During the down-and-out days of the Great Depression, Harry remembers bitter cold winter nights sleeping on New York City park benches covered only with newspapers, trying to keep the blustery winds from blowing him away. When times were better he was an eighteen-dollar-a-week doorman at the Palace Theater, where he met George Burns and Grade Allen and the other vaudeville greats who played the Palace. Eventually he married a woman who sang with the big bands, and although they had no children together, Harry became father to her four youngsters by a previous marriage. After her death he kept the promise he had made to his dying wife to take care of the children forever.

In 1941, just before World War II broke out, Harry and family returned to San Diego to set up a grocery store called Harry 's Market on the northwest comer of Mission Boulevard and Ventura Place. It immediately became a community center because of Harry’s activities in community projects. He was involved, for instance, in organizing San Diego’s very first COMBO auction, which was held in 1941 in the Mission Beach Ballroom across the street.

Harry’s Market was more than a neighborhood grocery store. People who have been around the neighborhood long enough remember the oddball building with the cloud and bird mural painted on the side by a local artist named Steve Flores, and they remember Harry’s prolific homemade signs and slogans like the one that said, “Stay Friends ... Do Not Ask for Credit,” and they remember Harry’s homemade sandwiches that started out costing a nickel and then went up to a quarter and then a little higher. Open from 7:00 a.m. until midnight seven days a week for more than four decades, Harry’s Market was a place where you could get free advice or buy a dress for a couple of dollars, or suntan lotion, or steaks and chops at the butcher counter, or you could come in to show off your Halloween costume just like everyone else in the neighborhood every Halloween. If you were just passing through and you were out of money, Harry would recognize the hunger right away and he'd feed you and try to find you some work. “Thirty percent of them stuck around long enough to pay me back,” Harry says. He even remembers when coffee cost a nickel a cup, but in those days he’d just give it away. He was always good for free coffee. “Harry was a father confessor to the neighborhood,” says Ruth, his present wife. “He knew everyone and he knew their problems and he always helped out.”

Today, when he’s not driving his beat-up yellow Pinto, Harry walks around with a cane, although until a few months ago, when he ran into a problem with his leg, he was playing tennis. He smokes a lot of cigarettes and he drinks in the afternoon. He’s in good spirits and fine health, which he attributes to good genes. Harry looks younger than his eight-plus decades.

Coffee at Harry’s Market is still a bargain today at twenty cents a cup. Harry doesn’t run the place anymore, although he comes down there quite a bit because he owns the building and because it’s hard to let go of forty years of your life. In 1975 the old building on the corner that housed Harry’s Market and Sam’s Cheesecake was sold by sealed bid to the people who own Hanna’s Market on Mission, two doors north of Ventura Place. That's when Harry bought the building around the corner on Ventura Place where the old card room used to be, and he moved his store there. “Harry always said they'd have to carry him out in an ambulance before he’d leave that store,” says Ruth, but when the time came, Harry made the move.

It wasn’t the same, though, and in 1980 when Harry turned 80 years old, he leased the store to Mel Gorham. Gorham used to own a racquetball club in Pacific Beach, and he was head of a construction company and ran for city council a few years ago.

In Mel’s lease there’s a provision for keeping the name Harry's Market intact. “That’s because I want people to know that I'm still out here.” Harry says. Although the place has a different flavor than when Harry was running it — the handmade signs are gone and the nickel sandwiches now cost a dollar — Mel maintains Harry’s forty-year tradition of feeding the hungry and coming down to the sea wall to watch the sunset just like everyone else.

Harry misses the past. He and his wife Ruth live in a small Pacific Beach apartment crowded with memorabilia, including a change box given to him in 1955 by the conductor of the last streetcar to run in Mission Beach. Harry remembers when Sam the Cheesecake Man began making cheesecakes in the little storefront with just an eggbeater. When Sam killed himself about ten years ago on the night before he was supposed to get married, Harry knew why he did it. Harry remembers Ray Smith, who owned the drug store and the patent medicines, and he knew everyone in Belmont Park, and he misses all the old-timers who aren’t around anymore.

There are still one or two old-timers who sit in doorways all day long, beer in hand, greeting waterfront America. When the sun goes down on Ventura Place, they walk over to the sea wall and spin yarns with the others who are doing the same thing — looking at the ocean and drinking beer. Willie Willingham was one of those who sat in a doorway every day, year after year after year. A retired Navy guy with tanned, leathery skin and a gigantic beer belly, Willie was the resident manager of the nine apartments on top of La Cantina. All day he would sit in front of the building, drinking a beer, and he said that was what he wanted to do every day until he died. One day he didn’t show up in his chair in front of the building. People got to wondering about him, so they went upstairs to his apartment and they found Willie dead.

Rene is a drummer by profession, a housepainter by trade, and an observer/philosopher who spent the first twenty years of his life in Cuba. He left just before the Castro takeover. “Once people come to this street,” says Rene, “they don’t want to leave. When they do, it’s sometimes mysterious. They jus’ disappear and no one ever knows why, but there are always rumors. See that sea wall over there?" He points westward. "That wall's seen a lotta blood," he says, but he's reluctant to discuss details of the fatal stabbings and shootings that happened in the parking lot across the street and on the beach. In fact, no one on the street remembers exactly what happened, and they refer to the street fights and the violence as distant historical events. Rene says he’s publishing a book he's written about his life and his adventures on Ventura Place and the people he's met in the street. It’s comfortable for him being black on a white street, he says. “I never had any trouble here.

"It’s kinda dead right now," Rene laments, stroking the few gray hairs in his beard, "but during the summer this street was really jumpin’. Last summer we were makin’ music all day long and all night, jammin’ by the sea wall and then on the beach. . . . When they get the roller coaster goin’ again, things'll liven up jus’ like it used to be."

Russ is an ageless Hemingway lost generation type who has been living in one of the apartments on top of the 756 Club for seven of the twenty-seven years he's lived in Mission Beach. He could be in his late forties, maybe fifty. He’s downstairs at the Coaster Saloon every morning, where he reads the paper, and he’s there on a bar stool every night until he retires for the evening. Russ drives a Yellow cab.

He tells people he’s a retired stockbroker and maybe he is, but no one here cares what anyone used to do. "There’s no pressure down here,” 1 he explains. "You don’t have to be anybody because there aren’t any Joneses around here to keep up with. We’re all Smiths,” he grins. "Most of the guys have old ladies who show up on Sundays and they just sit around having breakfast. Me? I do what I want. During the day I’m out driving a Yellow cab around the prettiest city in the world, and when I'm through, 1 walk down to the old market near the bay and get me a swordfish steak and some vegetables and then I come in here and sit around until it’s time to go to bed and then all I have to do is walk upstairs. Beats drivin’ and gettin' a 502. Beats the shit outta havin’ an ole lady upstairs hollerin’ at me — 'Hey, you had two beers. That’s enough.

You c’mon upstairs now, y'hear? You help me do the dishes now, y’hear?’

"Most people wind up here by accident," he continues. "Before y’know it, days are months and months are years, and it’s a lifetime."

Women wearing shorts wander in and out of the Coaster. One of them has tattoos on her calves, knees, and thighs. Some carry plastic laundry baskets filled with laundry, and one laundry basket has a pifiata on top of a heap of clothes. Happy hour at the Coaster Saloon is from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. for the early risers. Then there’s an afternoon drinking crowd, and at night when the music starts, the crowd changes, especially when a new rock group introduces itself. "Hi. We're Johnny Cadillac and Ace, but if you forget our names," says Johnny Cadillac, "jus’ remember, we’re the two black guys."

Johnny and Kitty Cardinal came from Cleveland to Ventura Place in the Forties. Kitty worked as a cashier at the Belmont Park roller coaster from 1946 to 1950, and she knew everyone in the park. In 1949 the Cardinals bought the bar across the street, called the Breakers, and changed the name to Johnny’s Surf Club. Every morning for thirty-three years Kitty has been there at 6:00 a.m. to open, and every night at 2:00 a.m. Johnny has been there to close the place. "I’ve seen 'em all come and go," Kitty says. "I've seen them eat out of trash cans in the alley and deal in the doorways and sleep in the stairwells in the back. The people who come and sit in here have at least a twenty-dollar-a-day habit," Kitty says as she lights a cigarette. "It’s not like it was in the old days, when the bars closed at midnight and you could walk along the beach late at night and feel safe. Not any more. Still," she shrugs, "there’s just so much gardening and there's just so much traveling you can do. No, I've got no plans to retire."

Predictability is one of the club’s comforts. What they say about Whitey Weitelmann is that you can set your watch by him — that if he’s not in Johnny’s Surf Club every afternoon by 5:00 p.m., that means he’s dead. Whitey amends that to either he’s dead or there's a game at the stadium. Baseball has been Whitey’s whole life, ever since he began as bat boy on the team Jim Thorpe played on. “I started coming to Ventura Place in 1949 when I was across the street from Johnny’s Surf Club. She covers herself with newspapers to keep warm, the same way Harry Bushlingdid on park benches in New York during the Depression half a century ago.)

Much of Grizzly’s time, though, is spent watching the free entertainment provided by the passing scenes. “Hey, the dog’s prettier’n you,’’ he and his pals call to two young girls walking by with a dog on a leash.

“They call us low life,’’ chuckles Jim, one of Grizzly’s gang. Jim was working on the oil rigs in the east Texas oil fields, but because there’s no work there for him right now, he says, he headed West. “Oil trash they called us,’’ he says. “Believe it or not, I graduated from the University of Iowa in 1973 with a B.A. in general studies.’’ He takes a clean pair of Levi’s from a black nylon sports bag and puts them on over his shorts right in the middle of the street as soon as it begins to grow dark — and he apologizes for the holes in his shoes.

Most of the local entertainment begins when the sun sets. Two winos are in the back of a police car on their way downtown. Passers-by wave. One of the winos is asleep. The other returns the greeting with only his middle finger. A sleek white limo with license plates that read XKUZ ME starts cruising up and down the street at five miles per hour. The driver is a young lady wearing a pink sweater. The two young men in the back seat have very short hair. They stop and call to the sweet thing in a raincoat who is resting against the sea wall and smoking a cigarette. She comes over to the limousine and speaks briefly to the driver and then to the two young men and then walks back to the sea wall. The limousine cruises around the block again and then comes back. The young girl in the raincoat approaches, looking sad, and gets into the back seat with the two young men, and then the limousine drives away at normal speed. Five minutes later two policemen ride up on bicycles. “Ventura Place has tamed way down,’’ says one of the police officers. “Every time there was a big drug roundup in Ocean Beach, the very next day all the action was here in the parking lot.’’

By this time Grizzly and three other middle-age companions are sitting on the curb when a black limousine pulls up next to them. A young lady in a standard chauffeur’s black uniform and cap opens the door and out steps Mel Gorham, proprietor of Harry’s Market, dressed in formal attire. He walks across the street to his own market to pick up a few things and then gets back into the rented limousine. Off it goes, leaving Grizzly and his pals on the curb soaking up the divertissement.

Dick Leslie walks around and watches. Sometimes he rides his bicycle down from Pacific Beach. Other times he runs along the beach, stopping to talk boxing with the Hamel brothers. Although Dick is a busy attorney with a successful practice in Mission Valley, he’s been visiting Ventura Place regularly during the dozen years he and his family have been living in San Diego. Because he grew up in Brooklyn, Dick feels a kinship to street life on Ventura Place, as if it were the Coney Island of his youth. “If I were unemployed,” he says, “this is where I'd stay. This street teaches survival.” About six or seven years ago, when Harpo had his tiny health food store and restaurant, Dick showed up every day and he and Harpo became great personal friends. “No matter where I was. I'd come in every day for a Harpoburger and a smoothie. I can still taste those Harpoburgers.” He points to Tom Marino’s Hawaiian Shaved Ice stand, where Harpo’s used to be. “Cooking was Harpo's religion. He was zealous about it, and when customers were in a hurry, he shrugged and gave them directions to Jack-in-the-Box. Harpo was like everyone else on the street. He put people up in his apartment above the store, he fed them, he got them jobs, and he got them out of trouble,”

Dick remembers. “But one day Harpo got religion. Real religion. It was about that time that his lease expired — and it wasn’t renewed. So Harpo left and went up north. No one’s heard from him since then,” says Dick. “I still keep coming back, though. Mostly to people watch. Mostly to see those mean motherfucker drifters and biker types and the chicks with the tattoos assimilate with the tourists. Everyone melts into the street.”

Sunday morning still brings families to Ventura Place. The families are different from those Tom Marino remembers when he used to take the bus out here with his parents during the war. From across the street in the parking lot you can see a young mother in jeans and long, straight, thick chestnut hair that hangs past her hips standing in front of a tan building next to La Cantina. She’s got babies in her arms. “Marvin, come on out,“ she yells, but there’s no sound coming from the apartment. She repeats the demand several times, each time her voice growing louder and more insistent. “C’mon out, Marvin! Your kids are here to see you! Your kids are waiting, Marvin!” Still no Marvin. By this time a small group has gathered. They seem to be interested in the results. Will Marvin come out or won’t he? Is he really inside? Is he with another woman? Everyone wants to know. It’s the Sunday-morning soaps live from Ventura Place.

“Marvin, are you coming out?” yells the young mother with the long chestnut hair and her arms filled with babies. “Marvin!” she yells in a tone expressive of an ultimatum. A bare-chested young man emerges from an apartment. There’s a discussion between them, but from across the way it’s impossible to tell if the man with the bare chest is the one she wants. Tune in tomorrow, or come back next Sunday for more. Meanwhile, fly a kite, or shoot a few games of pool. Mooch a cigarette. Learn about the stars and the moon and the tides. Meet a surfer from New Zealand. Dance to the new rock band at the Coaster Saloon. And have a beer or two and stay to see the most beautiful sunset in the world.

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