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He Can Check Out Any Time He Likes but May Never Leave

September 12, 1997|DANA PARSONS

Jim Chase followed the ponies out to California in the early 1950s, taking his winnings from Eastern racetracks and bringing them to Santa Anita. In those days, he made his living at the track and, although he was a native Easterner, he found Southern California to his liking. "I didn't have to have a hand-warmer to play the horses," he says, grinning.

In the early afternoon of another scorcher this week, Chase, 73, shirtless and wearing a beret at just the right angle, was hosing down the parking lot of a cluster of 13 cottages along Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach. He's the manager there and the tenant in No. 8. I had remembered from some time back that at least some of the tenants there were semi-permanent and had always wondered what it would be like to live in a motel year-round.

The cottage complex has a name, but Chase isn't looking to advertise it or the affordability of the rates. For one thing, the waiting list to get in is always 50 names long--prospects lured by a life that is much shrunken from the kind most of us live in the hurly-burly of everyday Orange County existence. Tenants stay an average of one to two years. Some stay as long as four to six. Chase has been there for 15.

Oddly enough, many of the residents over the years have been writers. One man was a former college professor who translated Nobelist Pablo Neruda's writings, Chase said. Another was a Wild West chronicler once employed by Hollywood because of his knowledge of people such as Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. Others have been aspiring pulp-fiction writers who found both quiet and inspiration from living, albeit humbly, only a couple hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

"I think to some extent it has been a getaway," Chase says in response to my question. "Some of the tenants have used it as sort of a retreat."

That seems hard to believe, what with the ever-present buzz of PCH traffic in our ears, but Chase says the sound can be shut off inside the cottages. "That highway is sort of the dividing line," he says. "Over here is solitude and the rhythm of the ocean."

He refers to the cottage complex as an "inner community" within the larger community of Sunset Beach. By contemporary Orange County standards, Sunset Beach is definitely retro, and that's just the way people like it.

"We're pretty cohesive here," Chase says of his cottage mates, noting that one night this week one of the residents cooked Swiss steak for everyone else. "Another one of the guys here is the cook on a tuna boat, and he'll bring in 50, 100 pounds of fish and we'll have a barbecue for the tenants."

I ask if this is how he pictured his life. "Yeah. I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and spent a lot of time on Chesapeake Bay. Every summer I was there and I've always had an affinity for the water. I've just become, I guess, very comfortable with these surroundings. I've thought of what I'd do if I hit a million- or $3-million walking-around lottery money, and I couldn't think of any more ideal circumstances than this."

Thirty to 40 years ago, when he was married and living in Huntington Beach, the area was so sparsely populated that coyotes would roam around PCH and Warner Avenue.

"They'd pack in, maybe 70 to 80 feet from the house, they'd come in around dusk and the leader would sit in the center and he'd give a certain yip. He'd take off, and they'd all follow for the hunt. There were a lot of rabbits around, and, of course, they'd catch any cat, chicken or goose on the loose at the time."

To Orange County newcomers, stories like that sound like something from 100 years ago, not just 30 or 40. "It's startling to me," Chase says, "how rapidly it evolved around me. There were no supermarkets in Huntington Beach when we first moved there. Just a little grocery store--a little market and trailer court. Then, the first one I recall was a Stater Bros. up by Westminster.

"This sounds strange," he says, "but for an evening's excitement back then, sometimes my wife and I would sit on the porch and see where the lights were. We'd follow the searchlights to see what was opening up. Sometimes it'd be a pizza parlor, sometimes a supermarket."

I suspect that's why this quaint cottage has remained his home for the last 15 years. He can bicycle to the grocery store or post office. He can walk on the beach. "I expected to be here a month," Chase says. "I dropped an anchor and 15 years later, I'm still here."

Can a roadside inn on Pacific Coast Highway be considered as off the beaten path? Frankly, it's the kind of place that, in this day and age, you'd have expected long ago to have been sold and razed--as have other cottages over the years.

"There's been lots of people who wanted to buy it," Chase says, "but the owner holds on to it." As if to explain further, he says, "She grew up around here."

I ask Chase if he'll ever leave.

"I have a camper, and I might get wanderlust again and start exploring," he says. "But at the present time--and for 15 years--I've been pretty comfortable."


Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at the Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to

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