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An Ignored Theater of the Absurd : City Life: A mostly unnoticed drama is played out daily by down-and-outers who frequent Horton Plaza Park. Downtown workers avert their eyes as they scurry past the park that the city hopes to reclaim by removing benches and grass.

October 30, 1990|MAGGIE LOCKE

SAN DIEGO — The Broadway steps of Robinson's downtown department store are front-row seats to live theater.

The stage is historic, palm-lined Horton Plaza Park, but the play is not a popular one with its themes of despair, desperation, violence, addiction and homelessness. The would-be audience of office workers and shoppers hardly glances at the show. They skirt around it as though it were not there.

Many wish it were not. City officials and downtown business interests are taking steps to ensure that the production will soon end its long run in city center.

The San Diego City Council voted Oct. 8 to remove benches from the historic site and replace the grass with shrubs and flowers to discourage loitering.

"It's an experiment, a tall order," admitted Ted Medina, a district manager with the San Diego Park and Recreation Department. "And, if it doesn't work, if it doesn't make Horton Plaza more attractive and more accessible to the general public, everything will be put back the way it is now."

The following portrait of Horton Plaza Park comes from a day spent on the front row and inside the production that plays only to itself:

9 a.m.--The Victorian fountain, centerpiece of the small plaza, glimmers in the strong morning sun of a Santa Ana day. Its soothing spray of water muffles the steady traffic on Broadway. A husky park employee with a no-nonsense attitude, keys jangling at her side and a walkie-talkie stuffed in her back trouser pocket, hoses down the tile walkway that crisscrosses the small plaza.

About 25 people lounge on the benches that ring the park and line the walkways that join at the fountain. Each of the 18 benches is occupied, mostly by men who are either sleeping or sitting quietly. Nobody is on the grass. The men hardly shift their positions as the park employee directs the jet of water from her hose under their feet. Only one barefoot man, in dirty black polo shirt and trousers, stands out, animatedly talking and gesturing to himself, oblivious to his surroundings. The mood is desultory, static, a sharp contrast to the city bustle.

Stylish men and women, apparently late for work, rush around the plaza to reach their jobs. Within an hour, only two actually cross through the plaza itself. Each assiduously avoids the faces of the bench-warmers.

10 a.m.--Robinson's opens for business. Women shoppers begin to stream up the steps. Two men with long beards and long hair, looking like down-and-out cowboys in their flannel shirts, denim jeans, vests and hats, are arguing. They look to be in their early 40s. One suddenly jumps up and screams a string of epithets that carries to the Robinson's steps. Nobody pays attention to the outburst, and the man sits down again, taking a swig from a bottle in a brown bag.

Two spit-shined police officers with crew cuts stroll into the plaza from the western end. They seem relaxed and accustomed to patrolling this beat. One of them spends 15 minutes talking to a man with close-cropped gray hair and dressed in white shorts and T-shirt. The officer finally hands him a pink slip, apparently a citation for drinking in public, pours out the remains from a beer can and tosses it in the trash. The police do the same with the cowboys sitting at the eastern end of the park. They ignore those who are sleeping, banter casually with those awake.

The procedure has a familiar, routine air. The park occupants take no more notice of the police than they do of the pigeons that are still the only ones on the grass.

11 a.m.--The park employee continues to clean the plaza, scrubbing walkways, planters and benches with a long-handled bristle broom. It is a morning-long job. Everyone moves out of her industrious path this time; no more than 20 remain in the park. Three men are on the grass, one sleeping, one lounging with his head propped in his hand and another sitting on a plastic bag against one of the willowy palms, studying a newspaper.

Like a prima donna commanding a stage, a woman in a lace wedding gown with a long red scarf draped around her neck enters from the west, striding slowly across the plaza. Her black skin is covered with a white substance, giving her face a gray aspect. Her discolored skin and strange, slow walk at first make her seem like a very old woman, but watching her more closely reveals she is hardly middle age.

Nobody pays attention to her entrance. They ignore her as she gestures with her fingers to her lips to indicate she wants a cigarette. She does not speak.

Failing to cadge a smoke, she stops beside one of the planter urns that sprout dwarf palms and removes a pair of black trousers from under her floor-length dress. She slings them over her shoulder and continues her promenade and pantomime requests for a cigarette. When someone finally gives her one, she nods her head and slowly makes her way back into the city streets from the east end of the park.

Her costume is the most dramatic, but many wear them.

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