By Maria Garcia
Paul “Paulie” Torres is a retired longshoreman who attended Neighborhood House from 1947 to 1954. His family moved to Logan Heights from the Little Italy area of San Diego. Paulie says there was a little barrio located in the Little Italy area with several Mexican families living there. Little Italy was in the proximity of the canneries and as far as Mexicans could live in the downtown vicinity–Point Loma to the north was the dividing line where whites and ethnic Europeans lived.
Like many others, Paulie had heard stories about the Logan Heights guys and felt intimidated when he first moved there. Within a short period of time, Paulie fit right in with the other boys who called Neighborhood House their other home. He states in a straightforward manner that the reason everyone called it Neighborhood House was because everyone in the neighborhood went there. He recalls the boys sitting there on the steps, talking, laughing, hanging out for as long as they could.
Sports was Paulie’s big love and as a young boy he played as many of them as he could at Neighborhood House. Basketball was his favorite sport. Paulie, like the all the others I have interviewed, had nothing but positive comments about Coach Merlin Pinkerton who was director of boys’ activities at Neighborhood House from 1943 to 1970. Coach Pinkerton was very patient, and as he put it, with a bunch of guys that would be considered trouble makers by anybody’s standards. He remembers attending a tribute to Coach Pinkerton held at the Grant Hotel.
There was more to Neighborhood House than athletic activities. Paulie learned to make his favorite cake (chocolate) there. Cooking class students were asked to bring shortening and two eggs. Neighborhood House supplied the other ingredients. He says the kitchen with the big oven was the ideal place to learn to cook. While attending cooking class he saw many of the adults taking classes they needed. The boys were also guilty of looking to see what the girls were doing in their classes. The girls, unlike the boys, did not hang around Neighborhood House. They were expected to take classes there and return home.
Even though the Coronet Theater was one of their local hangouts, the other being the steps in front of Neighborhood House, they did not ‘pick up’ Neighborhood House girls there.
Paulie shares the memory of so many others I have interviewed of swimming at Caquita beach, named for its location near a sewage outfall behind Sun Harbor and Westgate Cannery. He remembers that there was an abandoned Navy ship that they used as a bathroom facility. He also remembers swimming there with Salvador “Queso” Torres.
Paulie provides insight into the insecurities of adolescence. He remembers how a group of guys walking to school would avoid walking in front of the girls. He says the girls would giggle or laugh and they all were sure they were laughing at them. He actually remembers the name of several of the girls that were in the group: Norma Rodriguez, Aurora, and Bertha. He didn’t date girls from Neighborhood House because he didn’t feel he had a chance with them.
Even though the Coronet Theater was one of their local hangouts, the other being the steps in front of Neighborhood House, they did not ‘pick up’ Neighborhood House girls there. That activity was reserved for the Fox Theater. A couple of guys would sit behind a couple of girls and start a conversation in hopes of being invited to sit next to the girls. If you were really lucky you would steal a kiss. Sadly enough he didn’t attend the dances at Neighborhood House because he felt his clothes were not nice enough to go dancing. He does remember peeking through the windows at the other kids dancing.
Paulie’s love for sports was evident at Neighborhood House and carried over to Memorial Junior High. He had added wrestling to the sports he enjoyed. At the end of 9th grade he was given a physical. Prior to promoting to San Diego High School all students were required to have the physical. This was considered routine and “no big this.” At his physical, the doctor discovered that Paulie had a heart murmur and would not allow him to participate in high school sports. His mother took him to Rees- Stealey Clinic and the response was the same: “no sports”.
One of the players on the Neighborhood House team was Floyd Robinson who went on to play for the Chicago White Sox.
This was a man who played sports from sun up to sun down and was now being told that he would no longer be allowed to do what he loved the most. Even today at the age of 80 the emotion in his voice is evident when he tells the story. Coach Frank Crosby from San Diego High School told him he was the best athlete and then talked to him about why he couldn’t participate on any of the teams.
When he played baseball at Neighborhood House there was a championship game played at Lane Field. They played against the group of boys from Little Italy. One of the players on the Neighborhood House team was Floyd Robinson who went on to play for the Chicago White Sox. The championship was for boys fourteen and under and as Paulie remembers it: “They stomped us!” The pitcher for the Little Italy team was Rudy Venzor who pitched a mean knuckle ball. Even though they lost the game, the Neighborhood House boys were thrilled to play at Lane field.
As Paulie put it,”A lot of us had brothers in the pen or in jail.” They also figured that if they had not been in trouble they would soon be in trouble and it seemed fitting that they would play this game.
The Neighborhood House boys also had figured out a way to watch the professional baseball games at Lane Field. The first way was to climb one of the trees and watch the games as they perched on a tree limb. The second method was to sneak in. The boys had removed a couple of the planks from the fence, they would sneak in and then replace the planks as if they had never been removed.
The boys also devised their own games. Oscar Torres describes the belt game in his interview. Paulie remembers a game that was born at Neighborhood House called “penitentiary.” Hearing the rationale behind this game saddened me. The boys in the neighborhood were constantly harassed by the cops. They would stop them, and search them without any thoughts of their civil rights. Paulie was very clear that this was an accepted process and of course no complaints were ever filed. As Paulie put it,”A lot of us had brothers in the pen or in jail.” They also figured that if they had not been in trouble they would soon be in trouble and it seemed fitting that they would play this game.
Depending on the number of guys available to play penitentiary, three boys were selected to be cops. The jail was located near the basketball courts. The remainder of the boys would hide and wait to be arrested. Once you had been arrested the cops took you to jail. This usually involved being tied with your hands behind your back to one of the poles in the basketball area. The cops would then take a basketball and hit you in the stomach or use their fist and hit you all over your body. The cops would then question you as to the location of the other guys. The goal of this game was not to be a snitch. There was great pride in not being known as a snitch.
Years later, Paulie was caught with a “little bit of weed” and taken to the police station and put in a room for questioning. The big question was “Where did you buy the weed?” Paulie made it very clear he would not snitch. As he said, “I had been well-trained. I didn’t snitch.” His brother had continued to return to hang out with his old friends in Little Italy and was not trained by playing penitentiary.
Paulie puts it this way “he sang like a Caruso.” Sixty five years later he still take great pride in the fact that he was not a snitch, and that when he was allowed to return to Logan Heights he was able to go tell the guys to get rid of whatever they were holding, adding that he was not a rat.
Long term friendships were formed at Neighborhood House. One of his best friends from those days was Chicky (Alex) Rodriguez, the son of Laura Rodriguez. According to Paulie, Chicky was a great athlete and known as an excellent fighter. Paulie describes him as the nicest guy that could whip anybody. Chicky became a war hero for his hand-to-hand combat during the Korean War. Paulie remembers going to play with Chicky at his house and being chased out by Laura for some mischief they had managed to get into. He also remembers they would return back to the same house the very next day to hang out with his friend.
Paulie followed in his fathers’ footsteps, as well as his maternal grandfather’s footsteps and became a longshoreman.The Longshoreman’s Union (ILWU) was located near Lane Field. At that time being a ballplayer did not pay very well. Several of the Padres earned extra money by working as longshoremen. Paulie’s mother would say about her husband working as a longshoreman “he’s a long shot, not a longshoreman.” Paulie went on to be president of the union.
As a longshoreman he returned to play his beloved basketball and played on their team in the Municipal Gym. About ten years ago he discovered an unknown talent. His longtime friend Queso brought him a rock and a small file which he used to work on his first sculpture. He now sculpts beautiful figures out of rock.
The complete series of the History of Neighborhood House is available here.