It’s Thursday night, and Margaret is sitting alone in her room, looking at the wall. The only part of her body that moves is her arm, lethargically guiding a cigarette to and from her mouth. Her stare is distant, to another room, another city, another state of mind. She’s forty and “mentally disabled,” as she calls herself. Margaret lives in the three-story Coast Hotel with her forty-four-year-old sister, Rosie. Outside, Rosie sips a can of Budweiser. The conversation turns toward Margaret, who “ain’t been the same since ’68.” Rosie says her sister stole a police car, and for that police officers beat her. Since then she’s done little more than stare.
Margaret and Rosie have lived in the fifty-four-room Coast since they were evicted from a government-subsidized apartment at Thirty-second and Webster in Southeast San Diego last November. Their story typifies the drama and despair at Coast, located at downtown’s appropriately desperate comer of Seventh and Island avenues. The Coast is for the “working class,” as a co-owner of the hotel, Lee Howard Jr., likes to say. Others compare it to fly paper. Still others say it merely provides a stopping off for misfits, who for a brief time form their own class, with their own ethics, laws, and traditions.
City records estimate the building was constructed about 1898, back when Island Avenue was known as I Street. The Coast was first called the Clermont House and later the Clermont Hotel, but it’s not known when it received its present name. A photograph at the San Diego Historical Society shows the hotel once wore sculpted eaves, quite decorative, along with other ornate fixtures not found on buildings today. Now plain fascia and a ring of cheap tile cling to the top of the building. At night, prisonlike floodlights illuminate it, draping eerie shadows on the smooth stucco surface. Darkness puts a bile tint on the yellow building, increasing its menace. The filth obvious by day is lost in the darkness.
The Coast is a “single-room occupancy” hotel, an SRO. Like the other 64 SROs located downtown, it’s endangered by redevelopment. In fact, the city council last December 15 passed a one-year emergency ordinance that prevents any SRO from being razed unless it’s replaced with another. City planning department officials say San Diego has lost 1247 such rooms since 1976, which makes affordable housing more difficult to find for low-income folks. The emergency ordinance could become a permanent one December 8 when the city council considers a package of housing recommendations, assuming it clears several city committees.
Most of the Coast’s rooms rent for sixty-five dollars a week, with the large ones on either end priced at $75. Each tenant receives one roll of toilet paper a week as well as a set of clean sheets. Four common baths are on each of the three floors, but only two per floor contain showers. Accommodations are far from luxurious for the $260 to $300 they cost each month, but co-owner Howard says, “They’re actually a little low. They could go up a little more. But I’m not one to leap out and raise the rents. It’s almost full, and we don’t have any problems. It’s not making me a lot of money, but it’s making some.”
City assessor records indicate that H&H Properties — a partnership between Lee Howard Jr., his father, and his brother Jack — bought the Coast in 1977. Howard, who says he makes his living from property investments and their management, recalls paying about $300,000 for it when “it was one of the toughest hotels in the city. Police would be there six times a night,” Howard says. “We haven’t had any problems there in a long time,” he says from his office in the Great American building at Sixth Avenue and B Street. Howard describes the hotel as a hangout for “undesirables” but says that they were cleaned out when the hotel was closed for repairs in 1979. The partnership spent about $600,000 on the renovation, he says: new electrical wiring, heating system, paint, windows, floors, ceilings, sprinkler system, and new furniture.
Howard may not see many problems in his hotel, but the tenants seem to have more than their fair share of them. The mattresses in a typical room are stained, and the chairs are ripped or broken. Dirt is also included with the rooms, as is a mass-produced painting of a lighthouse guiding lost souls through the fog.
But the depressing furnishings are only a small part of the overall problems. While the tenants are often strangers to each other, everything that happens at the Coast is nonetheless intermeshed. This causes that, and that causes this, which causes something else, and you end up with a gross distortion — or a gross extension — of what you started out with. In fact, about thirty minutes after Howard declared his hotel problem-free, at 1:45 p.m. on a Friday last August, a brown van full of San Diego police officers — the ultimate problem solvers at the Coast — pulled up to the hotel. The van’s sliding side door swept open, and out streamed a half-dozen undercover police officers, one carrying a black steel battering ram. They sprinted up three flights of stairs to room 302 and broke open the door. Two young men, illegal aliens who were not expecting company that day, were sitting in the messy room. Police arrested them on a charge of possession of cocaine for sale.
In an attempt to deal with drug trafficking as well as prostitution, Coast management imposed a “visitors’ fee,” although it recently was discontinued. The manager was supposed to collect money from all nonresidents who entered. A sign that hung on the front door indicated the fee from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. was five dollars, and from 10:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. was $10.70. Another sign, which was also recently removed, said no visitors are allowed after 10:00 p.m. The new visitor policy is no one after 6:00 p.m.
None of the rooms has cooking facilities, so the residents use varying amounts of creativity during mealtime. Most eat at one of the nearby greasy spoons. Others have fry pans or hot plates in their rooms, although that’s illegal according to city safety codes. A few years ago, someone saw smoke billowing out of the windows of the hotel, big white clouds of smoke. The fire department responded and fire fighters ran up the stairs to the smoky room, only to find a man and a woman happily barbecuing ribs.
“This place is a nut house,” says Lorenzo, a former manager of the Coast who, with his wife Cindy, moved back to the hotel after having left once. Although he also refers to the hotel as a “pigsty,” Lorenzo and his wife are rather fond of the people who live there, they say. While they were still managers, a woman with two children moved in; the mother slept on the couch, the children in the bed. Lorenzo and Cindy had been talking for months about buying a new mattress and box spring. They dreamed about it and saved for it, and finally they bought it. The day they picked it up, Lorenzo realized this newly-arrived mother was sleeping on the couch, so he gave her this most coveted mattress. Cindy says she was mad at first but later understood. “We have to help each other,” she says.
Lorenzo and Cindy have a few stories to tell about their days as managers. “We just returned from the Laundromat and were sitting here folding clothes,” says Cindy. They hadn’t done the wash in a while, and there was so much it was piled everywhere, including the couch. “So here comes this woman,” Lorenzo continues. She walked right into their first-floor office, and they noticed she was wearing a man’s shirt that barely covered her bottom. The woman wanted to talk, Lorenzo says, and she “sat on the couch — on the clean laundry! With no underpants! No pants! Nothing! I couldn’t believe it! Just a man’s shirt!” Lorenzo is excited and laughing hysterically. “That was disgusting!” Cindy says, but she, too, is laughing. They asked the woman to leave, and she did, but a few minutes later, her boyfriend came knocking on the door. He was retracing her footsteps, looking for her pants — and whoever, if anyone, helped her out of them.
Most Coast residents seem to be there because of some misfortune, some giant detour in their lives. Margaret is at the Coast because she was evicted from her last place, and she was evicted because something crazy happened, and something crazy happened probably because she is “mentally disabled,” and she is disabled because, Rosie says, the cops stomped her. Margaret tells an abbreviated version of her misfortunes. In 1968 she was driving a car on Interstate 5 when she was pulled over by a San Diego police officer. The officer ordered Margaret out of her car and into the back seat of his car. Instead of a key, in the ignition of her car was a screwdriver. While the cop fumbled with the screwdriver, Margaret got into the front seat of the squad car, strapped on a white crash helmet, and took off, red lights flashing, leaving one San Diego police officer hopping mad on the side of the road. She cruised north on I-5, and near Oceanside a number of officers caught up to her. (Her sister Rosie says there were twenty of them, just like in the Blues Brothers movie.) The officers forced her to pull over but Margaret says they never beat her. (Apparently Rosie just likes to add a little flavor to the story.) “I was messed up on junk,” she says with a weird smile on her face.
The official version of Margaret’s story, found in the basement of the county courthouse, varies slightly from Margaret’s story. For instance, the car she was driving on February 22, 1968, was a stolen 1957 Oldsmobile. She was cruising on Interstate 5 at about eighty miles per hour; the cop notified headquarters by telephone that his car was stolen, and when other officers caught up with her near Oceanside, Margaret was clocked at 115 miles per hour. She was finally stopped near the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, where she missed a curve and crashed the vehicle into the center divider. The cops asked the obvious question: Why? She was in a hurry to get to L.A., she said.
Unlike Margaret, who is tall with a large round belly and long black hair that is graying, Rosie is short and thin with shorter, grayer hair. When Rosie talks, her upper lip bunches up under her nose, exposing her teeth and gums and producing a nasal tone of voice. Rosie joins her sister in their room. Margaret sits in the same chair as always, smoking a cigarette as always, looking at the wall as always. Rosie lies down on her bed. “There’s another cockroach,” she yells, ordering Margaret to “Kill it! Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!” Margaret grabs a book of matches and just misses squashing the ugly little creature, which scurries under the dresser. “Every time I see one of those suckers, I kill ’em,” Rosie says with ghoulish relish.
“I’ve been a junkie my whole life,” Rosie says. “When I smoke a joint, I like to smoke a joint. I got it under control. I don’t let it control me. I’ve been getting high since I was thirteen.” Her upper lip is scrunched up more than ever. Tonight she doesn’t have any dope, just a beer. “I don’t drink nothin’ but Budweiser. Vodka’ll kill ya.” She mentions Wanda and how vodka caused this and that.
For Wanda it started on the Fourth of July this year, when Billy, a friend of hers, was in his third-floor room with a few friends. He begins talking about The End. “He said he was going to kill himself,” recalls a young buddy. But no one believed Billy would do it. After all, he had talked of such things in the past and never followed through. Billy had an easy-going personality and was well liked by other Coast residents. He was always willing to lend a hand. He carried groceries up to the second or third floor for other residents when on the rare occasion they bought more than one meal at a time. Billy and his girlfriend, Betty, lived in the Coast for about six months in room 310. Although they got along well, once in a while things would get wild. The two would argue until Billy would finally order Betty into the hallway, where she would sit until she calmed down. Then he’d let her back in.
About July 4 — it’s difficult to keep track of dates at the Coast — Betty disappeared without a word. It had happened before, but for some reason, this time it thrust Billy into a deep depression. “He said he was going to the rest room but never came back,” his friend Brad said. The next day, on July 5, Betty returned, but Billy was long gone. She asked everyone if they knew where he was. No one knew.
Billy on that day was at 1425 C Street, a 14-unit apartment house across from City College. He was dead in the doorway. It was a month before authorities were able to establish Billy’s identity through fingerprints and notify Betty. His cause of death has since been established by the coroner’s office as an accidental drug overdose.
After she was told of his death, Betty found comfort in the company of two new friends, Wanda and Dennis. The three drank, laughed, ate, napped together, and passed out together. “What am I going to do without my Billy?” Betty would say to Dennis and Wanda. “What am I going to do without him?” They took turns going to Gaslamp Liquor when the bottles ran dry. It went on for about a week. Drunk almost every waking hour. With every swig of vodka, Billy’s death seemed a little further away.
On August 5, at 7:08 p.m., Wanda Alves was pronounced dead. The coroner’s office says she died of alcohol poisoning. “I just want to put some roses on my woman’s grave,” Dennis says today. “She was an alcoholic. Her mother was an alcoholic.” They met six years ago in a detox center back home, in Providence, Rhode Island. Been together ever since, he says. “She used to wake up shaking,” Dennis says, waving his hand wildly in the air. “She was alcoholic.” Dennis explains that her drinking began in 1978, when her husband was killed in a construction accident. “That’s when she lost it,” he says. She began drinking and lost two of her children to the state of Rhode Island (a third is now living with Wanda’s mother, Dennis says).
Since the death of his woman, Dennis says, he’s had a tough time. “What am I going to do? I’m pretty lost without her.” He says that he’s been drinking pretty heavily since Wanda died. “I’m an alcoholic. I’m trying to drink myself to death. I guess I’m not doing a very good job.”