El Cajon Boulevard originates abruptly, in the shadows of the Genghis Khan Furniture building, amid the rattling of plastic flags surrounding a corner used-car dealership For seven miles, the boulevard splits the gut of San Diego and opens a raw seam of commerce, all the way from Park Boulevard in the west, before disappearing into Interstate 8 East on the desultory fringes of La Mesa.
A stream of stores, shops, rooms, lots, and offices replicates itself mile after mile, stoplight after stoplight, like the recurring background in an animated cartoon. Easy-credit furniture stores, check-cashing dens, and all-you-can-eat restaurants. Card rooms, ethnic mini-malls. and dozens of taco shops. Banks, car lots, thrift stores, cleaners, exterminators, coin laundries, and tire stores. Balloon-pet-wig-flower-music-doughnut-body-futon-barber-yogurt shops. Religious supply outlets, martial arts schools, and bartender colleges. Mom-and-pop taverns, private clinics, supermarkets, motels, yoga schools, video rentals, chapels, churches, mortuaries.
The Hitching Post Motel lies close to the end of the line, within easy walking distance of the freeway on-ramp that serves as El Cajon Boulevard’s easternmost limit. The terminus. Not far from St. Martin of Tours Catholic church and Los Panchos taco shop, the Hitching Post is buffered from the main drag by a wedge-shaped parking lot. The motel is bordered on one side by a ranch-style ophthalmology clinic and on the other by a one-room realty and mortgage outfit with heavily tinted windows. The Hitching Post would be mistaken for just another seen-better-days apartment complex if not for three obvious touches, a faded brown strip of metal and green neon tubing that spans the tarpaper shingle roof. Hitching Post Motel”; an eye-level, white-and-black plastic sign containing a bank of fluorescent lights. MOTEL CABLE TV; and a hand-painted wooden sign on the corner shaded by tract-home-style eaves. “Furnished, air conditioned, studios. 1/2 bdrm., day, week, motel.” At night, the neon sign glows green, while naked bars of intense white light burn above the doorway to each room.
The roof of the Hitching Post is brick red, the doors to all the rooms are orange, and the walls are beige and fading. Inside most of the dozen or so units facing the boulevard, the drapes are drawn. A new U-Haul step-van sits out front, parallel to the row of parking slots that separates the ground floor from the street. Garish depictions of Formula 1 racecars adorn the side of the van. The perspective is bad. The two-dimensional racecars careen in silence toward an unseen finish line and these small block letters: Number One Family Mover. On the second floor, a man tilts back on his chair, leaning against the wall, waiting for the coals to heat up in his hibachi.
The short side of the motel lies on Guava Street, facing a glass company warehouse and supply yard. The Hitching Post office is hidden inside, next to the cramped laundry room and across from a lean stretch of courtyard. A red CLOSED sign hangs in the door of the office; the wooden window shades are lowered. Suddenly, from inside, the manager’s voice breaks the calm. A panel of blinds rises up, the window slides open; the manager is revealed and calls out once again. Eye contact. A friendly salutation. The manager disappears without a reply behind a cascade of blinds.
Above the courtyard, thin palms provide a meager canopy. A pay phone booth and a Pepsi machine sandwich a strip of chain-link fence — an inner barrier to the outer snaggle-toothed parking strip of two-deep cars and trucks. Many of these vehicles are in the middle of repairs. A few bear out-of-state plates — Washington. Illinois. Texas. Some display out-of-town license frames or identifying bumper stickers —Anaheim; Sacramento; Yo (heart) a Michoacan.
Out front, above the staircase leading to the second floor, charged voices erupt over the low rumble of traffic noises. “I want my fucking shit, and I want it A-S-A-P!” Seconds later, a tall, bearded man leaps down the steps. A red bandana dangles from his back pocket, nervously, he runs his hand over dirty, slicked-back hair. Clad in a white tank-top, engineer boots, and jeans, with a thick leather belt and button-down knife sheath taut around his waist, the man vanishes behind the U-Haul van, headed toward the freeway.
A lime-green station wagon with no hub caps idles outside the open door of a unit on the far end of the building. Three black men in long, heavy coats climb inside, along with a white woman wearing oversize glasses. She clutches a big purse and sits down carefully in the back seat. A few minutes later, a heavyset bearded man drops into the driver's seat. The station wagon eases out of the parking lot. The car’s body glides perilously low to the asphalt. Sluggish, listing, it halts at the stop sign on Guava Street. No cross-traffic. They wait, longer than necessary. Bodies shift inside, sinking down, leaning back. The green car lurches forward, absorbed by the flow of traffic on the boulevard, heading west.
Moments later, two cars arrive together — a shiny purple Camaro and a black El Camino. Both drivers conceal cans of beer. The Camaro driver attaches a bulky theft-lock bar to his steering wheel before slipping out into the parking lot. He enters a room on the lower level and exits less than a minute later. Sipping from his beer, he unlocks his purple car and drives away slowly.
The El Camino driver reappears and strikes up a conversation with a fat man who has emerged from his street-level unit. Leaning in his doorway, the fat man wears nothing more than a pair of old Levis. His swollen belly protrudes beneath a beard that covers his nipples. After a few jokes, the two men step inside together.
From behind the step-van, a lanky black teenager appears wearing a Raiders baseball cap. Quietly, he ascends the stairs, carrying a plastic bag from the Alpha Beta store across the street. The bag contains one item: a plastic tube of Pillsbury cookie dough. The door to his unit is ajar; he glides into the open space, out of sight.
It’s 11:30 in the morning, a blustery spring day — the air is clean, the sky is mottled gray and blue. A taut stillness pervades the parking area. Now, nothing is happening. Even the promise of something happening seems to be out of reach.
Gordon Wilson and his retired grandmother, Dorothy Verkey, live in the middle unit on the ground floor, a few steps from where the El Camino is parked. Gordon is on disability: Dorothy’s only income is Social Security. Together they spend most of their time in this small motel room, watching television. The room is close and disheveled. The one bed is taken over by Gordon. He is severely obese, wrapped in the sheet, his paunch spilling out beneath the covers. One foot protrudes over the side of the bed; his toes are twisted, florid; his ankle is swollen. A long plastic tube lies on the carpet encircling the bed. connected to a medical machine in the corner. Gordon s large eyes are ringed with dark circles, attesting to the continual strain of his heaviness. His hair is unwashed and his beard shaggy. Yet he speaks thoughtfully and clearly.
After sizing things up. Gordon takes the initiative. He begins at the beginning. “I was born in New Jersey,” Gordon says. ”My mom was diabetic, and my dad was an independent milkman. He had some financial trouble during a milk war, so for a while we bounced up and down the East Coast. We spent a little time in Florida and didn’t head out this way until around 1963. We first came out just to visit an aunt in Anaheim. Since then, we’ve lived all over San Diego.”
A noticeable sparkle enters his voice when he recalls some former neighbors, a trio of All-Pro San Diego Chargers. “I guess it was back around 1967.’’ he says, propped up on one elbow. “We lived just down the street from Sam Gruneisen. Garry Garrison, and Leslie Duncan.” (Duncan was popularly called “Speedy.” but Gordon prefers to speak formally.) A litany of precise addresses and former neighborhoods follows. Redwood Street. 54th Street, Streamview. Winona. Santee, the Desert Inn. The Hitching Post is not the first motel Gordon and his grandmother have occupied for an extended period of time.
The walls of their studio unit are adorned with typical motel art — matching semi-abstract renderings of Venice canal-scapes in dark blue, black, and brown — along with overlapping personal touches: a small nudie calendar tacked above Gordon’s bed. a winged baseball cap hanging on the corner of a painting, a VCR resting atop the bolted-down television. On screen, a young Michael Douglas negotiates the streets of San Francisco, in silence.
Gordon and Dorothy have been living here since December, when Gordon was last released from the hospital. “I guess we’re just playing a waiting game.” Gordon says. He shifts his huge body on the bed, unabashedly, tugging at the sheet. “What I’m really looking for is a nice home. Not one of these apartment or condo setups, but a house with a Jaccuzzi and maybe a pool, for my legs. I’d like a yard of my own, some horseshoe pits, a barbecue. I always like to have people around. Here in this place, you just can’t get out that much. It’s like confinement. I won’t be able to get back on top, you know, unless I can do some yard work, get some exercise.”
Before responding to a question about goals and aspirations, Gordon shifts around again, hauling himself into a more comfortable position on his side. ”1 did have some goals... back when I was younger... but right now just a house would be nice. Health-wise, life’s not too easy.” As if sensing too much futility in his voice, Gordon brightens up slightly. “I’d really like to try my hand at photography” he adds, then fades again. “I did it for a while... weddings and stuff... then worked in construction ... plastics... ” Dorothy saves Gordon from drifting and reminds him about three different cars he helped build while in high school years ago. She is practiced in turning the direction of her grandson’s thoughts.
Dorothy’s blue sleeveless blouse seems to absorb all the light in the room. She is thin, fair-skinned, and speaks with a reserved sharpness, in marked contrast to the expansiveness of her grandson. As Gordon describes his success building a kit-car — a sporty shell that fit over a Volkswagen or Porsche chassis — Dorothy is quick to add: "You won a prize for that, remember? At the Del Mar Fair.
While Gordon recalls more details, Dorothy quietly extracts a photograph album from the desktop beneath the wall-mounted television. Plastic pages hold neat arrangements of old family snapshots, six per page, along with an occasional newspaper clipping and wallet-size studio shots of a younger Gordon in suit and tie She examines the entire album, patiently, unable to find what she was after. “I guess it’s in the other one.,” she concedes. Dorothy replaces the album on the desk, where it lies surrounded by a slew of knickknacks: a black dragon s head mug with vicious white teeth, a Garfield doll, an unautographed baseball on a plastic stand, a sand-wave toy, a small wooden sign that reads BE PATIENT - GOD ISN’T FINISHED WITH ME YET.
As if to compensate for her inability to locate the Del Mar Fair photo. Dorothy offers candy from a large box of liqueur-filled chocolates. Each chunky piece is wrapped in colorful foil, identified with black block letters: Bourbon, Creme de Menthe, Rum. “Pretty trippy, eh?” Gordon asks.
At that moment, tires squeal out on the boulevard. Conversation ceases in that hush before the inevitable crunch and crash. It comes. Metal on metal. Richard, a friend who helps out with rides and errands, pokes his head inside the front doorway. “Hey, look at that. Two Cadillacs, man, a big one and a little one. Head on.”
Gordon nods politely and continues speaking. “But rents in San Diego are just too high. All these landlords want first and last, a security deposit, a cleaning deposit. Plus. I’ve been having some transportation problems.” As Gordon once again readjusts his position on the bed, Dorothy mentions that her grandson's pickup truck was stolen recently. ‘We’ve really been handicapped since then,” she says.
“The taxi ride to his doctor in Spring Valley costs us $40, round trip. I heard the new trolley stops close by, but I’m not sure where. I don’t get around that much, since I broke my hip.” Dorothy reaches for another candy, concealing the oversize blister on top of her right little finger. “But Richard found Gordon another truck,” she continues. “It still needs some work, though, before we can drive it.”
After twisting and pushing himself upright. Gordon withdraws into the bathroom just one step from the side of his bed Dorothy uses his absence as an opportunity to tell more of her story. "I worked for a long time as an accountant in New Jersey for Allied Chemical. It’s Allied Signal now. A lot of people think New Jersey isn’t such a nice place but there is plenty of beautiful farmland and open space back there. It’s not called the Garden State for no reason. The bus system is a lot better in New Jersey too. From here in La Mesa, just to get over to El Cajon I have to change buses three times.’' Dorothy pauses, takes a short breath. Glancing toward the bathroom, she settles her hands on the edge of the table and resumes. “One good thing about this Hitching Post, it's close to the Alpha Beta. I can’t walk so far anymore. For groceries I pull along my little cart and only have to cross one street. Another thing, the management here is very, very nice. I can't say enough good things about the management.’’
The bathroom door bangs shut, opens, bangs shut again. “Hey, are you all right?’’ Dorothy calls out. No answer. She tries again, stepping up close to the bathroom. Gordon shouts back, “It’s just the wind. It’s OK.” Returning to the table, Dorothy says quietly. “You know, he’d really like to live more out in the country. We’ve been here going on four months now ... you know, one family upstairs was here for two years... and another couple, they had six kids. Six little kids.”
“That’s right,” Gordon says, squeezing out from the bathroom doorway to flop back down onto the bed. "All of them knee biters.”
Dorothy shakes her head. “These places just aren't set up for eight people in one room. How they did it. I’ll never know."
“This town’s not getting any smaller," Gordon sighs. “We’ve got too much urban sprawl, and the inner city’s moving out. It’s typical of the whole country. Neighborhoods are expanding into new territory, overlapping "
Dorothy cuts in. “The main problem is too many foreigners coming here. We’re just too close to the border. Something has to be done.’’
“Yes,” Gordon says, rising up, straining to pull the sheet out from beneath his haunches. “But we’ve got to learn to live with it. We've got to learn to live together.”
Richard returns, grinning. “So, Big Guy, still making speeches, I see. You want a burger?" Gordon declines. Without much ceremony, Richard cranks up the gas stove at the other end of the studio and begins frying a meat patty on high heat. The sound of spattering grease fills the tiny room.
As Richard begins a story about Dorothy's cooking prowess. Gordon retakes control of the conversation. Staring into the television, he says.
“These new shows coming out are just no good. Like this Doogie Howser. Do they really expect me to believe that? I mean, Alf is one thing, but fantasy is fantasy.”
Dorothy nods in agreement. “If you ask me.” she says, “these new shows just don’t make sense anymore.”
“Nothing but a wasteland,” Gordon adds. “The roaring silence of television.” He pauses, savoring the sound of his words. “You know, I used to be a tutor at Monte Vista. If it wasn't for Proposition 13, I’d probably still be teaching there.”
In the parking strip outside the motel office, a gangling, tired-looking man with a downturned brush of a mustache forages inside the trunk of his immobilized red Firebird. The front of the car rests on risers. The fenders are smudged with oil and grease. Wiping his hands on the edges of his Pendleton shirt, the man nods a somber hello. He works with grim persistence. Among the other stalled and broken vehicles lined up m surrounding parking spaces — all having attained this foregone destination — the Firebird looks strangely appropriate.
Behind the office, at the rear of the building, the chain-link fence is ringed with panels of bamboo. Within this enclosure sits a large German shepherd. He stares out stupidly, his black nose poking through a silver diamond of fence.
Up on the second story, from an open bathroom window cut through overlapping planks of faded siding, a man and a woman argue. Then they laugh. Then silence. The argument begins again — staccato bursts of fierce language — with long pauses in between.
Beneath their apartment, and near the walkway leading to the courtyard, a middle-aged woman and her younger helper drag mounds of dirty curtains into the rear of a large truck Blue lettering on the side identifies their business, a mobile drapery cleaning service. Inside the truck, a standard-size washer and dryer are installed hard against the cab. The woman and her assistant work in silence. The mounds of clean and unwashed drapes are indistinguishable.
The Pepsi machine next to the laundry room is forever empty. Red lights glimmer next to each unavailable selection. The red-white-and-blue machine faces the Hitching Post patio, which lies between the two long buildings that make up the U-shaped motel. The southern side, removed from the street, is reserved for long-term residents, to include the live-m managers. The opposite side is for transients.
The courtyard is quiet and pleasant. Large planters enclose geraniums and palms. Noises from the street don't reach this far inside. Between the office entrance and a stucco staircase, five teenagers — four girls, one boy — sit in a circle, talking and laughing. They are affable, sociable. A chair is offered; the circle widens.
Three of the kids are tenants. The other two are friends from school, visiting. All of them are 13, students at La Mesa Middle School, except for the boy, the oldest, a student at Helix High. Today is his 15th birthday. He speaks easily and proudly of improvements around the place, pointing out the clean red-brick flooring and an ambitious planter at the far end of the patio — all new since they moved in more than a year ago.
Without hesitation, the boy sketches in details of his life: “I’ve lived in San Diego, mostly. Here, and Lemon Grove. But Palm Springs too. I’ve still got lots of friends out there. This place has changed an awful lot. It used to be worse.’’ The girls all nod their heads.
A small rivalry begins. The boy's twin sisters vie for equal time. "Sometimes it’s hard, though, living here, you know? Like, we can’t get phone calls till after seven."
Shaking his head, the boy regains the floor. "We do get to meet a lot of interesting people, though. There was this one guy, when he checked in. he asked me to help carry his luggage. He stood there and talked to me about Albert Einstein for about two hours. Two hours! And we were still out in .the parking lot. He wasn’t here very long, though. He had asthma and couldn’t handle all the dust. He told me he was just staying here long enough to find an apartment somewhere else — one with hardwood floors." They speak of other tenants, referring to them only as numbers: "Number 16’s been here the longest." "No, Number 14 has." "No way! Number 31's been here since before we were."
One of the twins chimes in as her brother rolls his eyes. Playfully, yet with determination, the siblings tug back and forth on the conversation. Not until the boy reasserts the fact that it’s his birthday do the twins relent. The boy admits that he does some writing —poems and stories and stuff. Eventually, he wants to attend a trade school for carpenters, if his heavy-metal band doesn’t succeed first. "I sing vocals.,” he says. "And my friends in Palm Springs play the guitars and stuff."
“I want to go to college with my boyfriend Rudy and my girlfriend Melissa.” blurts one of the twins. "I want to get into modeling," adds the other one.
"But what I really want to do." the boy maintains, "is join the Air Force. I’ve got pretty good grades, and the Air Force only takes the top two percent."
"You should join the Navy." his sister advises. "They only take the best." The other sister shakes her head and says. "No, the Navy’ll take anyone. Don’t join the Navy."
The scrambling for attention gets out of hand. The four girls lapse into giggling, grabbing at a tube of red cake frosting. The boy rolls his eyes again and says. “There used to be a lot more kids around here. But that’s OK. I guess. Now, mostly we get people either looking for a home or taking a vacation or wanting to go to truck-driving school. Things like that."
Everyone stops talking when the manager steps outside. From a distance, he asks what's going on before returning to the office. He reappears a few moments later. “This has to stop.” he says. The children disappear. The manager continues: "How do I know you’re who you say you are? This place used to be pretty bad, and I don't need the wrong kind of people around here anymore. This is a crazy world, and I don’t know what you’re looking for." He adds the standard warning — about getting off the property, about calling the police.
Out front, on the street, two barefoot teenagers play tag among the cars and pickups. Extending their hands as pistols, they shout out strained imitations of explosions and ricochets. All the while, traffic streams heavily both ways down El Cajon Boulevard.