Grand Hotel Illusions
When Tom Webb finishes reading a book in his room at the New Windsor Hotel, he sets it down carefully and precisely so the book's spine is exactly flush with the edge of the shelf on his wooden night table.
His own spine is straight, too. And he makes sure you get his name correct. "Webb," he says. "Wilco. Easy. Baker. Baker."
A former paratrooper and civil engineer who looks young for his 67 years, Webb proudly points out that he has "the longest service" of any current New Windsor guest. Others come and go and then come back and then go again. Webb started living there full-time in 1976.
But thirteen years is a minute in the history of the New Windsor. The three-story building at Sixth Avenue and Adams has been a hotel continuously since it was built in 1893. It's one of only a handful of buildings in the city that survived the Victorian Age. Now it is one of the last havens for the elderly poor in downtown Phoenix; most of its guests would not make it in the homeless shelter or Tent City. The New Windsor Hotel is like your favorite old shirt. All the original starch and sizing have long since been worn out of it, and most people would say it's no longer stylish. It's threadbare in some places and patched-up in others. But you keep it clean, and it's usable. Doesn't make sense to throw it away.
The year the hotel opened, Phoenix had more pool halls than lawyers. The farming town had fewer than 5,000 people but huge ambitions even then. A freshly dug canal system in place, Phoenix had recently wrested the territorial capitol from Prescott and had convinced lawmakers to spend $100,000 on a new insane asylum. Phoenix was getting ready to grow.
There must have been a lot of dreamers at the hotel in those days. And there still are.
Evelyn Dodd, a gregarious desk clerk who is the in-house social butterfly, is planning her sixth marriage. Chuck Craig, one of the youngest guests, tries to dream of becoming a mechanic, but his nightmares from battle shock keep getting in the way. Vic Shephard, one of the many guests who come and go, describes himself as a "burned-out" Lothario. In his bitterness, he still dreams about finding an ancient temple in Central America. It would be nice to know what guest Kenny Styer is thinking. But as Evelyn Dodd says, "Kenny's a wonderful person, only you can't understand him when he talks. He still lives in 1946."
It's not that sad. There are a lot of busted dreams these days in the business offices of the Camelback Corridor, too.
And Tom Webb's inspired vision burns brightly from the New Windsor. He's spent the past two decades reading library books full-time in pursuit of his dream. He doesn't need money to unleash his imagination. And when you don't have to talk about practical things, you have a chance of finding out what's really on people's minds.
One summer morning, Webb happened to be checking into two books: biographies of Dracula, prince of darkness, and Benazir Bhutto, princess of Pakistan.
"Yeah, man!" Webb says of Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth-century subject of the Douglas Myles book Prince Dracula. "He was bad-ass! Attila the Hun was in 450--many years before that--and he had a bad reputation, but not that bad! Imagine, sticking a guy on a pole--still alive, too! Now, back in the Thirties, I heard about this Frankenstein and Dracula, and I went to those horror movies. And now I find out that this guy Dracula's real!"
Webb's bent is biography and history, mostly military and political, ranging from Barbara Tuchman's stories of old conflicts to Neil Sheehan's Vietnam saga A Bright Shining Lie.
Webb has his own military history. He survived Pearl Harbor as a third-class petty officer on the West Virginia. After six years in the Navy, he got an engineering degree from the Virginia Military Institute. Then came a six-year hitch in the Army, where he learned to jump out of airplanes and went to Germany as a platoon leader.
He taught tank gunnery at Fort Knox for three years, but he finally couldn't stand the senseless routine of the peacetime Army. One of the last straws was when he got scolded for not keeping the inside of a toaster clean.
He wound up in San Jose, California, where he worked as a civil engineer handling construction contracts in the county government bureaucracy.
Now Webb reads about "Dur-RACK-ula!" That's the way the word comes out in his rich baritone and captivating cadence. A hell of a talker, and a good listener.
Two decades ago, he gave up his job, lied to his family about "going to law school to become a patent attorney" and moved to Phoenix. He needed to study. He walks almost every day to the Phoenix Public Library, where he reads for hours about current and past events. He tries to understand what makes leaders tick. Thirteen years ago, he moved into the New Windsor. Because of his long tenure, Webb has a choice room on the second floor, shielded from the afternoon sun. It's the New Windsor version of a suite: a room with its own bathroom. Webb's peaceful, but he doesn't hang out with the other guests.
"I do my thing and let them do theirs," he says, "as long as they don't mess with me. And nobody bothers me."
And what is his thing?
"That is not known as yet," he says. "I'm in training. Not really physical training, but mental training. Mental training is read books and talk to people and learn. And then if I get my turn, I'll be ready to bat.
"Somebody's got to do something about the shape the world's in. Bastards are running around killing all the women and children, and I don't like it. There are wars on all over the world, and it's all because of one thing: man's inhumanity to man. His ego!"
Tom Webb is converting a storehouse of book knowledge into a sort of science-fiction movie that constantly plays in his head. It's a little unsettling when you realize that no one else on Earth has seen this particular film. It will take a trip to the public library--Tom Webb's "office"--to understand what it's all about.
"IF YOU HAVE A PLACE and you don't have any rules, you don't have too much of a place," says Ernestine Holland, manager of the New Windsor. She has been asked if she is tough. "I don't care wherever you are or whatever you do, you've got to have something to go by, some kind of standards. If you don't, you've got nothing. I don't know what they call `tough.' Who told you I was tough?
"I'm fair. That's what I call myself. Fair."
The absentee owners are descendants of Harry Dolins, who managed the hotel forty years ago. In 1983, they sent Ernestine Holland from Chicago to Phoenix to manage the place.
The building originally was a two-story brick Victorian called, with no imagination at all, the Sixth Avenue Hotel. It went through several names before settling on the Windsor in the mid-Twenties. A decade later, it got a third story and a Moderne face-lift. Around midcentury, it was renamed the New Windsor. But it's essentially the old one.
What's happened to other old buildings in Phoenix? The 1895 Rosson House in Heritage Square is now a Victorian tourist trap. And the 1893 Evans House on West Washington Street was turned into a playpen for state tourism officials. The 1912 Corpstein Duplex at Fifth Avenue and Roosevelt was remodeled into headquarters for state arts bureaucrats.
But old hotels like the New Windsor don't get gentrified; they get torn down. The ancient Apache Hotel on Central Avenue is now a parking lot for nobody. Since the mid-Sixties, more than thirty rooming houses and affordable hotels for transients have been cleared out of downtown Phoenix. Unlike some of its five or six remaining competitors, the New Windsor hasn't subdivided its small rooms into warrens. The rates are about $17 a night, $61 a week or $200 a month.
Some of the 85 rooms have their own refrigerators. No hot plates allowed. No outside visitors in the rooms. Practically all the guests are men from their forties on up; many are regulars who live there seasonally. Some are mentally ill or otherwise disabled; many are simply old and alone with their thoughts and feelings. You see few women, and there aren't any rooms big enough for families. The place is full in the winter and half-full in the summer.
People speak respectfully about Ernestine Holland. She screens out the scumbags. And she hasn't allowed the ritzy Grand Prix fans to displace her guests, even though she probably could collect some real quick cash in return for a bird's-eye view of the course from the upper rooms. The New Windsor is no palace, but lots of whitewash has been splashed around to try to spruce it up. There's a lobby with a TV; it's used as a parlor where guests can vegetate by themselves or with visitors. The linoleum on the floors is just about worn out, but it's clean. Shabby? Yes. Grungy? No.
When you walk into the New Windsor, you'll see a cheapo dayglo-on-velvet "picture" on the wall of the foyer. But if you step a little farther inside, into the lobby-turned-TV-room, you'll see a fine old sepiatone photo of Arizona cowboys, the kind who probably used to stay there.
Rumor has it that the New Windsor used to be a whorehouse. There once was a lot of trouble. It's safe now, the guests say. "Before--I don't know--but they said that every time you looked around, there was the cops here and all that," says Ernestine Holland. "But I don't have that. No place that I work do I have that."
You don't see young drifters here--they bring too much trouble with them. And Ernestine Holland has no sympathy for young, able-bodied men who aren't working. She's not a social worker.
"Some of the homeless don't want to be nothing but that way, I say, because if you want to work, you can find a job," she says. "No job's going to fall in your lap.
"When they get the job, they're always complaining, this that and the other. If you want a job, you'll do what they want you to do. They want to go in and run the place, which is not right! And if you want a job, you can find a job. That's right! But no job's going to walk up to you and say, `Come work on me.'"
She's been in this line of work for forty years, most of the time in Chicago and not always at seedy hotels. "You know the old Edgewater Beach?" she says. "Beautiful, fabulous. I was the first black supervisor there."
Ernestine Holland likes to banter. But she's developed a personal rule: "Don't argue with anybody. Tell 'em what you're going to say, and keep walking. I have a sign that says, `If two people are arguing, nobody knows who the fool is.' That's right."
CHUCK CRAIG NEEDS the New Windsor the way a person with a queasy stomach needs unbuttered toast. He's lived there off and on, mostly off, for the past six years. He's trying to get something together. In the meantime, he survives on disability payments, deeply bruised and confused by spending the late Sixties in Vietnam.
"You've gotta have transportation to work," he says. "And after Iran hit and all that garbage, I just give it up. The ayatollah. They started burning flags over there. That was just over my head. I just got away from it."
He's taking correspondence courses to become a certified mechanic. And hehas a hazy notion that back in his El Paso home base, there's a "people's revolution" involving Castro and Christianity. "They don't want it covered," he says. "I can only tell you so much." Sitting in the lobby, with the TV blaring and other guests talking, Craig, 42, starts recalling Vietnam. "Used to be, I couldn't sit down in a room," he says. "If anybody was talking around me, I couldn't stand it."
What happened in Vietnam? "I was on guard duty one night. The company I was in, we had a bunker, and the bunker south of us got a direct hit one night. I had just got off guard. I just dozed off, and they got a direct hit, the bunker south of us. Blew the guy out of it. And he was fine. It didn't touch us.
"I mean, you think about it, you know, going to sleep, being tired anyway, going to sleep, and all of a sudden, I was up like that, looking at the guy blown out of the bunker. You can't explain it. And the guy's all right, you know.
"My wife and I had some problems, after I got home. She's working for the El Paso Police Department now. Last time I saw her, when I was staying at the YMCA there downtown, I was walking down the street. She didn't notice me."
IF DESK CLERK EVELYN DODD doesn't have a family around her, she'll improvise. Take, for instance, Marge.
"My daughter-in-law Marge is not a daughter-in-law--she's a daughter," says Dodd, 59. "I mean, she was a daughter when she married my son. They've been divorced over sixteen years, and she's still my daughter. She loves me, and I love her, and she does for me, and I do for her."
Marge, who works as a maid and part-time desk clerk, walks by while Evelyn is on duty, and they chat. Kind of. You see, Marge has been at the dentist. "You'll have to excuse me for chewing gum," says Marge. "I'm wearing my top plate for the first time."
Evelyn says: "She's very nice. Like I said, when she married my son, she became my daughter."
The New Windsor's rules suit Evelyn Dodd fine, and she says she's become great friends with her boss, Ernestine Holland. The life is familiar; she's been living in hotels like the New Windsor for decades.
Evelyn Dodd swears she wouldn't live at a fancier hotel, say, the Hyatt. "I wouldn't," she says. "I'm me, 24 hours a day. Every day the same. I could not put airs on. When you live in a place like that, I mean your hair has to be just right, and everything like that. This is a family.
"At the Hyatt, the atmosphere is different. You act different. You are more quiet."
And she is not a loner. She may go with friends to the nearby Legion hall for some good lunch: "Their clam chowder on Friday, if you like clam chowder, you can't get no better clam chowder." A fun night out would be at Jerry's restaurant at 35th Avenue and Van Buren: "We sit there and tell jokes and laugh. Sometimes we go in there and we're as quiet as mice because we don't have that feeling of being noisy. But if we want to be, we can be, you know. Well, you go to the Hyatt, you start giggling and laughing, they're stretchin' their neck to see what you're doin'."
It looks as if Evelyn Dodd's life is getting ready to change again. She's got a boyfriend. "We're thinking about getting married," she says. And they would move to Massachusetts. "I'm saving all my money and giving it to Ernestine. And if it doesn't work out, I'll just tell her to send me the money to come home on. I got it all figured out."
She's been married five times, so it doesn't faze her. "Well," she says with a laugh, "I said I was going to be married seven times before I die, so I guess it's going to work out."
CRIPPLED BY ARTHRITIS and neuritis, Vic Shephard can't stand the cold. It makes his bad feet worse. He's an in-and-outer at the New Windsor.
"I go to Mexico, down in the mountains. I can only stand these people here just so long," he says. "I blow my cork and `adios.'"
Somehow, he hangs on to a vision. "There's a dream down there, something I've been following for years," he says. "There's a big temple down there. Nobody knows where it's at. Most people don't even know it exists. It's an ancient one, before the Indians. And the man that finds that sucker--it's not a temple, it's a mint--he'll be the richest damn man on Earth."
Sounds good. Where is it?
It's in Chiapas, in southern Mexico near the Guatemalan border. He's studied maps, memorized them and torn them up, taken the bus all the way down there and then trudged up and down the mountains looking for it. The guy can barely walk. While talking, Shephard wanders off on tangents--women and deadly snakes. To him, those two subjects are similar.
Married three times, he lives alone now. "You get 65 years old, you're burned out at fifty, you don't want no goddam woman." He laughs.
This makes sense when you look at pictures of Vic Shephard as a sailor in the Forties. A real lady-killer with thick, black hair. A handsome devil.
"Women," he says. "I was one of them lovers. Christ, I was in the Navy. When I was a young man, I went down to the San Diego area. For a long time, I thought I was one of them Mexicans. And then I went to the Orient. My God, I've had everything in the Orient, the finest Chinese, Japanese, Korean--oh, my God. And I never tired of it in those days.
"Sex. Love 'em and leave 'em. Try to love one of 'em and they'd try to screw you out of every goddam dime. The finest. I had the finest. And then I married a beautiful woman, the mother of my two sons, and that woman doesn't know the word `no.' To me, she would never say no. Well, hell. Man, I thought I was perfectly normal till we'd broken up and went up home, both of us, I to Minnesota and her over to Wisconsin. And I got to talking to my mother about sex. Like, how many times people have sex. I said, `Well, six times a day.' She said, `Six times a day?!' I says, `Well, she got down to three, I told her to get a goddam divorce. I thought she was burnt out.' My mother says, `Well, two or three times a week is all you're supposed to.' I says, `Shit, they got a goddam lover on the side somewhere.' Who's kidding who, you know. . . . Well, that's the way it goes. I could never get enough sex. But, hell, I find out today the doctors have changed their whole way of thinking. They think that's the way it's supposed to be. But next year, hell, they'll change the other way."
His bitterness is overwhelming, but he's got a great guffaw.
"Now that I'm so old and changed, why, what the hell would I want a woman for?" he says. "In the summer, people here go visit `home'--or what was home, to see people and stay awhile. I actually despise my family. When I die, there won't be a goddam one of them there. And you know something? I don't care! I told my brother one time, I says, `Hell, don't bother to come.' I says, `I came into this world alone and, by God, that's the way I'd just as soon go out.'"
Vic Shephard recalls he was his family's "whipping boy" as a youngster in his hometown of Wabash, Indiana, and later in Red Bank, Minnesota. "But I kept climbing and improving my mind all my life, and when I left Wabash, I was the head of the class, the class president. And by God, I can still go back there and lift my head high and have every friend in town, rich or poor. Then we moved up to Minnesota, and I don't think there was a boy in that school that liked me or wasn't jealous of me. But I could have had any girl in that school. And I did--the queen.
"You know what she is today? A mother superior, a Carmelite nun. We were engaged to get married, and I couldn't see that life, you know, 'cause I'm a rowdy, I fucked everything, I drank, I'd fight. I knew this woman worshiped me. I knew that I'd ruin her life, and they told me that if you marry her or her sister, we'll give you the home farm. Well, that's a million dollars right there." No regrets, Shephard says. "No, I didn't make any goddam mistakes."
TOM WEBB WALKS with a purpose through the Phoenix Public Library. Dressed neatly in gray slacks, tennis shoes and a light-blue guayabera that matches his eyes, he's not sweating after a two-mile stroll from the New Windsor in 100-degree heat. His face is unlined. He appears to be in great health.
And he knows that even a sharp-minded reader occasionally gets snookered. Reader's Digest, for instance, has fallen out of his favor. He calls it "the training manual for the mass mind." But he adds, "They suck me in terribly!"
There's something more on his mind. He has a system, a theory, a mission.
It starts with that catch phrase "man's inhumanity to man," and he wants to explain it: "The good Lord who made us--you call him God--had to make it that way because otherwise we would be just a bunch of robots, so to speak. People strive! There has to be violence, to a degree, for progress. But it should be controlled violence."
Technological progress results from this striving and conflict, he believes, but the killing is getting out of hand. The weapons are too powerful, and they're in the hands of "Big Money" who pull the politicians' strings. And this phase has to stop.
"My theory," he says, "and this is based on a lot of thinking and a lot of inner help that I get, is this: These various solar systems are set up in galaxies, and the one you call God or Allah is up there. There's no doubt about that. And he's controlling the whole thing. So what he does is in a progression. Like, perhaps a millennium apart, a solar system in one place develops to a certain point, and then they are, shall we say, taken into the `club' by the people from the system one jump ahead of 'em."
We may be next.
"Now this guy you call God, some call Allah--I call him Godamering--he and I are on speaking terms. Now you can't really believe this, but it's true."
Tom Webb was 44 years old, working for the county engineer in San Jose, California, when this voice told him to "get thee hence to Phoenix and study."
When this first happened, he thought he was cracking up.
"I still do not know how he talked me into it," Webb says. "But I agreed because I want something--I suppose everybody does--I want something with a real future to it. I want to actually accomplish something! I don't really care what it is. If it's inventing something new, I'd settle for that. Like if there was a new product, like the wheel, for example. If we didn't have wheels, now that would please me if I was the guy that invented the wheel."
But Tom Webb believes he'll get more than the wheel. He'll be the big wheel.
"Well, I will be commander in chief of all armies, Planet Earth." His armament, far superior to anything thought of on this planet, will be delivered to him by spacecraft. And it will be the ultimate deterrent. All the nations will be allowed to keep only rifles for internal policing. Wars immediately will end after Tom Webb unleashes a benign, but awesome, show of power.
Maybe it'll be like the scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still when alien Michael Rennie, trying to make our nations stop fighting, stopped all motors on the planet for one hour. Tom Webb hasn't seen the movie, but he says he could envision something along those lines.
In Webb's scenario, all weapons mightier than rifles will be melted down and recycled into industrial products. He will be the conduit for this divinely inspired and enforced global peace.
He does not normally broadcast this theory. And he's not even sure he'll be the one to carry out this mission. If he isn't, he adds, "I'll just say, okay, I missed the boat, that's all."
In the meantime, he's contemplating and reading. At least he's not dreaming about building a subdivision.
"Well, it's not hurting anybody else, and it's not hurting me," he says. "When the thing first started, I thought, by George, I must be drunk, or something like that. But knew I wasn't because I hadn't had anything to drink. Or I thought something might have slipped a cog in my brain. But I know that when that happens to anybody, there's all sorts of physical manifestations of it. He becomes `out of it,' and it's obvious that he has lost a screw or slipped a cog or something happened. But I proceed normally--no changes."
He admits that this dream is not something the practical Tom Webb of more than 22 years ago would have embraced. "But it progressed. I'm not stuck with it! I can leave it any time I want, but this little guy who talks to me all the time won't go away. So I might as well stay here and let him work on it until the time comes."
He's sacrificed family and friends for this vision. He moved to a strange city and settled down in a forgotten hotel. Now he's impatient. "Knowledge is a great thing," says Tom Webb, "and I'm all for it, but it's no good until you put it to work.
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