By Andrew D. Blechman
Behind Closed Doors at a Strip of Inns, Reformed Addicts, the Down-and-Out and Others Try to Create Normal Lives.
Lindsay Fleischer surveyed the littered asphalt parking lot at the Meta Motel on Ventura's Thompson Boulevard. It was her ninth birthday. "I wish I had more room to play," she said. "I wish I had a playground."
Almost a mile away, at the City Center Motel, ex-convict Tim Connor played Nintendo while his pregnant girlfriend, Andrea Hardy, watched. They are trying to stay off drugs, they said. "We don't deal anymore," Connor said. "But now we're surrounded by it all over again. All night it's dope deliveries. In and out. In and out."
And at the White Caps Motel along the same stretch of boulevard, single father Gary Reuter took a break from changing diapers and preparing formula for his 9-month-old baby. He is an on-again, off-again drug addict, he said, and the Ventura County Mental Health Services Department is paying for his dingy room until better housing can be found. "This is no place for a baby to live," Reuter said. "But what can I do?"
It was another Friday night along the winding stretch of cheap motels that line Thompson Boulevard in downtown Ventura—another night of strange existence for those who live behind the closed motel room doors. "Driving by on the street, you don't see it," Connor said. "But when you jump in . . . you notice the things that go on in these places. Hookers, pimps, people spooked on dope. It's a whole other world behind these doors."
About half a dozen motels catering to the down-and-out are scattered along the stretch of Thompson Boulevard between Santa Rosa and Figueroa streets that runs through central Ventura. While such motels on the boulevard as the Vagabond Inn and Best Western Inn of Ventura survive on tourist dollars, others often end up serving Ventura's seamier, sadder side.
Most nights, these Beaver Cleaver-era motels are filled, but their parking lots are nearly always empty: no campers; no out-of-state plates; no weary tourists unloading their luggage. The rooms are often rented by long-term residents, with local charities paying the nightly tab of $35 or so until more permanent housing can be found.
"About 50% or so of our customers are long-term," said James Kallusky, who owns the Topper Motel with his wife, Peggy. "Couple of them been there a couple of years. Most of them are really nice people, just have mental problems is all."
Catholic Charities sends 10 to 15 people a week to the motels for temporary housing, spokeswoman Mary Ann Decaen said. The Salvation Army sends a few more, and county Mental Health sends 10 to 25 people a month, said Vikki Smith, who heads the department's emergency shelter program. "There aren't many housing options," Decaen said. "At least the motels are better than sleeping inside a doorway."
But the manager of one motel said staying there is no picnic. "I've been in the business for 25 years and this is the worst I've seen. The clientele is mostly drunks and drug addicts who break and steal things. It's nerve-racking just to work here. Would you stay here?"
Residents who live there by choice -- as opposed to those assigned there by charities—either receive government assistance or work minimum-wage jobs. They are there because they cannot afford to live anywhere better. "Living at the motels isn't cheap," Decaen said. "But these people don't have the money for deposits, furniture or utility hookups."
It's not the best neighborhood, but police insist the motels are no worse than the rest of downtown Ventura. "We make busts and arrest people for drugs and prostitution, but generally the residents take care of their own business," said Officer John (J.D.) Dean of the Ventura Police Department. "It's like the inmates run the asylum."
Sitting on the edge of a mushy double bed at the City Center, Tim Connor played Super Mario Brothers on his newly acquired Nintendo while Andrea Hardy complained about her nausea, a result of her pregnancy. The machine had come courtesy of a next-door neighbor just one day earlier.
Across the cramped room were the remnants of two sunny-side-up eggs on a makeshift griddle. The eggs were from next door, too. "They just busted my friend for dealing crank next door," Hardy said. "I told her to move before they find her, but she got greedy. So we ended up with her Nintendo and some groceries." It was the second bust in two days, Hardy said.
Connor and Hardy prefer living out of their van, parked outside, they said. But Hardy wants government assistance for her baby. To get it they needed an address. So they are stuck in the City Center until the county finds them more permanent housing, she said. "It's disgusting in here and loud all night," Hardy complained. Morning sickness keeps her a prisoner in the room.
Connor spends the days walking the beach and performing odd jobs. They are both just out of jail for dealing, they said. Connor freezes the game and lists the caliber of the guns he used to carry like lottery numbers: .25, .32, .357, .44 and .9mm.
"Tim had a habit of chasing people with loaded guns," Hardy said, sinking farther into the mattress, rubbing her slightly swollen belly. "I broke people's kneecaps with baseball bats."
"Takes too long," Connor countered.
Since moving into the City Center, Connor said, he and Hardy keep running into old drug connections. It has made their life at the motel a kind of whacked-out trip down memory lane. "All our old friends are like we used to be: spooked out on speed, inside all day like vampires getting tweaked," Connor said. "It ain't no way to live. But it's like we can't get away from it."
Outside, it looked as if the Beverly Hillbillies had just moved in. A big old flatbed truck sagged under the weight of a massive hodgepodge of old tires, stereo equipment, furniture and old clothes -- piled 10 feet high and ready to spill.
Suzan Leigh and Randy Hurst, both 38, said they were forced out of their Ojai Valley rentals by the floods and have lived in motels since February. Along the way, they said, they met and fell in love.
They stayed at the Ocean View, but Leigh had arguments with the manager over toilet paper rationing, cockroaches and fights outside. They moved from there to a Motel 6, but were tossed out after about three weeks for ruining a towel, she said.
They average two weeks to a motel. By the time they arrived at the City Center, they had learned how to make life a bit easier on themselves. "Rule No. 1: Don't talk to your neighbors and lay low," said Hurst, who works odd jobs during the day while Leigh organizes their mountain of belongings. "We've learned to pretty much stay to ourselves."
Meals are Doritos, Taco Bell or some of Leigh's "famous" mashed potatoes if there is a kitchenette. "I'm dying for lobster," she said. But they won't live this life forever, Hurst adds. They have a plan. They want to somehow put together $5,000 in savings and move to Colorado.
A Place to Stop
Thompson Avenue used to be Ventura's main drag. Any car driving from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles drove straight through town on Thompson. It was a natural place to stop for the night, and just a short walk to the beach.
The architecture along the boulevard is post-World War II whimsy: curving lines, trapezoidal facades and aging neon signs. These motels were built in an age of optimism, when Americans flocked to powerful, roomy cars and cruised across the American landscape. At night, they needed a place to sleep, catapulting motels to their present status as American icons.
The motels along Thompson were nicely kept establishments, said Bill Peterson, who owns the Best Western on Thompson. He grew up at the City Center Motel when his parents owned it in the 1950s. Everything started to change when the Ventura Freeway was completed in 1962, Peterson said. Cars whizzed past the boulevard on four smooth lanes of elevated asphalt. "Business started drying up once 101 was finished," Peterson said. "The bigger chain motels started popping up beside the freeway on more expensive land. The competition was too much."
Many of the Thompson Avenue motels began catering to a different clientele, rapidly changing owners and falling into disrepair, Peterson said. "Frankly, I'm surprised some of those motels are still standing."
City residents living on Thompson are split on whether the motels are a problem. Pete Lopez, 55, lives next door to the Meta Motel. "Bums drink outside my house all night long and prostitutes hail cars," he said. "That's not something I want my daughters to see."
George Creveling of Marion's Pastrami Express agreed. "I'd like to see it bulldozed down or made into a police substation," he said pointing across the street at the Meta. "The police are there so much anyway."
But Violet Stoneman, who has lived beside three motels on Thompson since 1952, insisted they are good neighbors. "No noise, no fights, no nothing," she said.
'It's All We Got'
Back at the White Caps Motel, Gary Reuter busily changed his baby Lindsey's diapers while explaining that the child's mother is in jail for possession of methamphetamine. "It's not the same as having our own home," said Reuter, 41, pointing to the cramped quarters made even smaller by baby paraphernalia. "But it's all we got for now."
Baby bottles and Gerber food rested on a fridge jammed into a closet; a baby chair was fastened to the coffee table, and a crib and stroller took up the rest of the room. Dirty clothes lay on the brown, stained shag carpet.
He and baby Lindsey will soon move into the Topper Motel into even more cramped quarters because it's cheaper. Lindsey Reuter is one of the few children residing in the Thompson motels at any time. Lindsay Fleischer at the Meta Motel is another.
She celebrated her ninth birthday with a small group of relatives on the parking lot outside the small double room she shares with her father, mother and two other adults.
And later that night, she was still playing on the broken pavement in her bare feet as Don Chilton, 39, a family friend, arrived on his bicycle to visit her parents.
Lindsay looked into his face—as wrinkled and parched as the river bottom he used to camp on—as he leaned heavily on his handlebars, his knotted hair obscuring his eyes. "I'm in a rut," he said, words slurring. "I need to start living among the living again."
Lindsay's father, Tom Fleischer, joined the crowd, expressing concern for his daughter. "Lindsay needs a home with her own room," he said. "She needs a place to grow roots. But dumpster diving and disability doesn't bring in all that much money." Fleischer, a former mechanic, said he cannot find work because his back is seriously injured.
Just then, a man across the parking lot raced out his door toward Lindsay, striking a martial arts pose and pronouncing himself a black belt karate master. Lindsay ran inside and her father cast an angry glance at his neighbor. "I worry about Lindsay everyday we live here," Fleischer said. "That's a prime example why."
Over at the Topper Motel, Dennis Silva reclined on his bed enjoying a cigarette, explaining that he is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Three teddy bears lay across his pillow. "Basically everyone here is from the mental hospital or jail," he said. "You rarely find anybody who just checks in here for the night."
Earl Robinson, 40, is one of Silva's neighbors. He lives next door at the Ocean View with several close friends. He insists his name is Nancy. "I'm a hermaphrodite," he said. "I'll get an operation eventually."
He lives with Trudy Satterly, 39, in a room they have rented for six months. "We're both schizophrenic," Satterly said matter-of-factly. "Nancy's manic-depressive as well. He's confused."
Next door, Stasha Summers, 41, lives with her rabbit Winka. On her bathroom floor is Winka's food: Cheetos, popcorn, Lucky Charms, M &M's, oatmeal and flowers from outside. It is like one big family at the motel, Summers said. "We share cigarettes and coffee and sometimes beer. And we go for walks together to shop at Vons."
Stephen Stockdill from next door wanted to say hello, too. He brought over one of his paintings of the Beatles. His nearby room is full of paintings of dinosaurs, astronauts and the Fab Four. One wall is a makeshift tool shop. Saws, wrenches, hammers and vise grips are neatly nailed to it. "I'm peaceful and nonviolent," Stockdill said.
Early the next morning, the sun began to burn through a light mist covering downtown. "Nancy," still wearing last night's clothes, swigged milk from a carton outside a convenience store. "I always get up early and drink my milk," he said.
A car stopped and Gary Reuter jumped out, agitated. His fingers thumped against his legs. He was sweating, his skin crawling with energy. He had been up all night cranked up on methamphetamine and whatever else was around, he said. Left Lindsey with a neighbor. Said the baby's mother was out of jail for a day and got busted again. Said he is heartbroken. "Suicide would be so painless," he said. "But I got to take care of Lindsey."