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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy