Dale Berghart and his buddies were out having a few beers, when the subject of a ban on drinking on city beaches crept into the conversation like an unwanted intruder.
Berghart scrunched up his face. He scowled. He muttered obscenities. Then he said what he really thought.
"I'm a Vietnam vet--I fought for this beachhead!" he said, referring to Ocean Beach.
Berghart's geography notwithstanding, he left no doubt that he was angry. He saw the enemy behind every can of Miller High Life stacked on the boardwalk wall.
Equally outraged were Mark Finley and James Locascio and all the others who surrounded Berghart.
"O.B." is where these men drink. The ban would extend to all city beaches, between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The San Diego City Council is expected to pass the measure at its meeting Monday.
Residents in beach communities want the law to combat vandalism and diminished property values caused by "rowdies." Police favor the measure because it will give them greater leverage in fighting a growing problem.
Some critics say existing laws cover the crisis and that the city can ill afford beefed-up police patrols to enforce new regulations.
Berghart sees it as nothing less than a violation of civil liberties.
"This is where we meet our friends," he said, wiping the suds off his beard. "What would they rather we do? Slam heroin or snort cocaine? It's like drinking is all of a sudden this federal crime."
The crowd at Ocean Beach invoked the dignity of the Constitution in saying they should be allowed to drink whenever and wherever they please.
"It's just not right," said Mark Finley, 31, who said he works as a cook at a local restaurant. "A lot of these people at O.B. have no home to go to. What is society doing about these people? We're not fighting, harassing, shooting or maiming. We're just drinkers sittin' on our butts, not hurtin' anybody."
Finley belched and said, "This disturbs me. I have a job. I'm a taxpayer. It isn't right for someone to tell me I can't stand on this here beach sand and drink a brewski. This town is so damn up-tight."
Helen Duffy, president of the Mission Beach Town Council, which favors the ban and has lobbied tirelessly on its behalf, did not resist the description. She said "up-tight" was a fair and warranted adjective, for good reason.
"It's very disturbing to go to work at 7 in the morning and find that the puddle of liquid by your mailbox is not water but some drinker's urine," she said. "It's really disgusting, and it ought to stop."
Duffy lives on Mission Boulevard, not far from the roller coaster at Mission Beach.
"The ban is being sought because there are problems in the late evenings associated with drinking at the beaches, and the beaches are residential as well as recreational areas," she said. "A lot of activities permissible during the day really interfere with residential living at night. Drinkers are frequently loud and boisterous, they leave lots of trash and show disregard for basic hygienic respect."
'Getting Out of Hand'
Jim Moore, president of the Pacific Beach Town Council, said his group endorses the ban.
"The drinking is getting quite out of hand," he said. "The longer it goes on, the harder it is for cops to quiet it down. Many people wanted a complete ban on alcohol on the beaches, but we see this as a better compromise. It allows people to drink until a reasonable hour, and then put it away. I know of people who've spent anywhere from $250,000 to $1 million for an oceanfront condo or house, then have to put up with this. It's just not worth it.
"It seems like everybody turned loose by the mental health department is down at the beach at night, drinking. All the psychos, freaks and weirdos are down there. Sooner or later, the city has to do something about the homeless problem. The homeless are invading the beaches and drinking at night."
Moore and Duffy said the quality of life has eroded in residential areas near the beaches and that the California fantasy of living on or near the water has become, in Duffy's words, "the definitive mixed blessing."
"Mission Beach is still an absolute delight to go home to," she said. "Even now, the water is still warm. You can go body-surfing at night. The water smells good, it feels good, but at the same time, you deal with these characters out carousing, these good-time Charlies who forget that the rest of the world just isn't on vacation."
If the ban is approved, critics suggest enforcement might be a problem. During the summer, police make beach patrols a high priority, when the size of the staff doubles from 8 to 16 officers. On a recent weeknight, between 8 o'clock and midnight, no police officers were spotted during a random survey of Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach and Mission Beach.