Westbury Hotel, San Francisco, 1974: This guy was robbing the downtown hotels, always late evening. He’d hit the Cartwright twice. It was a simple robbery, just walking up to the front desk, and, with a pistol, requesting the cash.
Two blocks away, at the Westbury we were talking it over. Mr. Slocum, the Security Cheif, worked nights along with me (the desk clerk), Henry So the night auditor, and Manuel R. the night manager.
Slocum liked working nights. He was a portly, well-spoken, bald fellow who wore three-piece dark suits, belonged to one of the old San Francisco clubs, and in fact lived in a room at the Press Club. He found working the nights restful.
Henry So, lately of Hong Kong, was the regular night auditor. I filled in on the audit two nights a week. In theory, it would be me or Henry So who got robbed when our time came.
“But so far, so good,” said Mr. Slocum. “All we’ve had was the wierdo.”
We knew who he meant. Two nights before, the wierdo had been reading in the lobby half the evening. He got up and was walking over to the desk just as Mr. Slocum stepped out from behind his desk, and the fellow made an abrupt left turn to the telephones. Later, when he’d gone, he’d stolen one of the phone books. This annoyed Mr. Slocum, who took security duties seriously.
We were talking it over because the lobby tonight was filled with beefy guys reading newspapers. Three or four burly policemen in sport coats, sprinkled around the lobby, looking inconspicuous, like cats at a goldfish convention.
They read those newspapers all night, but no villain, rats!
Some nights I rode the bus to work; other nights Earnest the janitor picked me up. He had been standing on the street during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and saw telephone poles bending over almost to touch the ground. And tonight, as we drew near, looking at the lobby windows, we gawked. “Uh-oh,” he said.
Because of the bullet-holes in the glass.
We’d missed the action. Sure enough, the hotel robber had come. As it turned out, it was Manuel the night manager behind the desk. He’d looked at the pistol, looked at the robber, and gone to the cash drawer. That was when the cops sang out.
But the robber, with the vast boldness of the deeply stupid, had turned and started firing. Sure enough, he hit one of the four cops, but was shot up pretty good before he made it to the door. Ambulances had come to haul his sorry carcass, and the cop, to the hospital. The cop was fine. The robber fared less well. Apparently a drug habit had eaten him up.
Manuel was all a-twitter. It was he who filled us in. But now he had a problem. “When the police called out, I hid behind the desk,” he said, “That’s what they’d told me to do.”
I said that sounded like a good idea. But he was troubled.
“The problem is,” he said, “I have to write up a report, and I don’t want to sound like a coward.” He was Argentine, and not sure in English how to say it so that he wouldn’t sound wimpy. I told him what to say.
“I hit the floor,” he said, trying it on for practice. “I hit the floor. I like that!”
Mr. Slocum identified the robber; it was the wierdo. In retrospect, it was clear that he’d headed toward robbery that previous night, but the sudden sight of the security officer had chilled him. I asked Slocum why the wierdo had stolen the telephone book. Mr. Slocum grinned.
“He’d come to steal something,” he laughed, “And by golly he did!”
We all laughed. With the exception of the wierdo-robber, a good time was had by all.