SAN YSIDRO — "Hey, the survivors!"
This big guy with a beer belly splats in through the screen door of a San Ysidro Boulevard speak-easy. He goes over to an older man on a stool. Throws his arm around his neck.
"You're looking at survivors, man!"
He jerks his thumb across the road.
"The only two people to come out of there alive!"
"Yeah. See? Right across the road. Under the pine tree. The Hilton of the South! The Hotel San Ysidro!"
You can make it out, through the red fluorescent "BUD" sign in the milky window. An old building across San Ysidro Boulevard, two-storied, gabled, angular, well-settled under a huge old pine tree. In the midst of scrubby low-rise San Ysidro body shops, it's a soft-focused flashback to a pioneer's Midwest. Grant Wood's "American Gothic." You know, the farmer and his pitch fork and his wife in front of that steep-gabled house that looks like it's been compressed in a funny mirror.
The sign's there, hand-painted just above the veranda: "Hotel San Ysidro."
It is one of those houses that always seemed to have a face. Two window-eyes above, and a sort of mouth-nose veranda-door below. On this mouth-veranda right now, a couple of cowboy hats nod behind two pairs of boots strutted up on the balcony railing. Two old boys sitting out the sundown, watching the world they once ran in go by. You probably passed the scene a thousand times and never noticed it in your hurry to get to the border.
"Serious," the guy says. He introduces himself as Phil Benson. Vietnam Navy veteran.
"Usually, you check in there, and when you leave, it's on the coroner's stretcher. That's what it is. A place where old men live out their last days. Go across and see. You'll never see a vacancy sign up there. I checked out because I figured I still got some living to do."
Across the road. The door creaks open, just like in the movies. The floors squeak like mice in the gloom. It feels like the kind of farmhouse where you visited your grandma in early, fearful childhood. The house and the venerable pine tree sheltering it vie for the honor of being oldest. The tree makes it feel country, too, even though it's right out there, fronting onto the roaring rivers of border-bound traffic.
Silence Fills the Room
Back in the kitchen, a group of faces looks up. They're sitting around a big solid farmhouse table, underneath an old Brierley's bottle ad. Chewing the fat. They're mostly Spanish-speaking, but now the place falls silent. It's going to take time. These guys are used to not offering strangers information that might get them in trouble.
Then, Jesus Payan relaxes. Opens up. He has spent 40 years in San Ysidro, working the fields, raising a family. Now, he's 63 and poor, and has spent seven years here in room No. 1. Well, half a room. They have all been divided into two.
"Here, come up and look."
Up the creaking stairs to a sloping lime-green passage, to his small trolley car-size room with more green walls, a dresser, a TV, a straight-back chair and a bed. Todo.
The hotel has its drawbacks--like a communal bathroom. But it is home, and it has its veranda where you can sit in the sun evenings. Jesse Rios in No. 2 lives on Social Security as well. He's mostly Indian, spent his life picking potatoes and onions, been here four years. Yeah. It's OK. But he hopes authorities will come up with a low-income home for him.
Gabriel Avalos lives downstairs next to the kitchen. Philosophical like the rest of them. Getting old with the hotel. He's a gentle old man, with that resigned look of the elderly who have seen the best days, and just hope the rest won't get too bad too soon.
"My father was a vaquero," he says. "We lived in the country in Colima state (in Mexico). I grew up on a horse. With my shoulder, I couldn't even get on one now. But my father died in 1937. I started looking for something better.
"But I didn't get to the United States till 1952. I was naturalized the next year. A better life? Well, I have worked in factories--mostly electrical shops--ever since then. It has more . . . prestige living up here.
Mother Lived to 102
"I married in Los Angeles. We had six children, then divorced. That's really all there is to tell. Except my mother, she came as far north as Tijuana, and she died last year, 102. She lived to be 102 years old. I think that's not bad. I don't see much of my family now. They don't come down to see me. They live around their mother. I sometimes see my brother in Chula Vista. . . .
"There are 16 of us here in the hotel," Avalos continues. "All men, getting old. Most of our stories are the same. We talk at this table, but we're separate. We each have our own food. We sometimes worry about others stealing our supplies from that refrigerator. We live our own lives, just . . . quietly. People are quite private in here.