El Cortez, Gomez, Baja and humbug: : The bottom line is enough to tax anyone

I drove down to San Diego the other morning to meet my friend Romulo Gomez, who owns the land our house stands on in Baja California.

My wife and I hadn't been down to the house since Thanksgiving more than a year ago, and I wanted to be reassured, for one thing, that it was still there.

"Where shall we meet?" I had asked him.

He said, "What about the El Cortez Hotel?"

"The El Cortez? Isn't that closed?"

I had always liked the El Cortez; but I seemed to remember that two or three years ago, being unable to compete, evidently, with the new chain hotels and their look-alike lobbies and look-alike services, it had given up.

"No, no." Gomez assured me. "It is all right."

We agreed to meet at noon.

I saw the El Cortez from the freeway. It still stood out, looking like an airport tower on the high side of downtown, with its slender, glassed-in upper stories. The sign was as big and as red as ever: El Cortez Hotel .

There were two cars parked in the driveway, but no doorman. I drove around the block and parked on the street. It was 12:10.

I climbed the steps and pushed through the big glass door and came into utter desolation. The great lobby was empty. Not a stick of furniture. Nothing but a vacuum cleaner, untended, with a long cord coiling back across the carpet to some distant wall plug.

The registration desk was unattended and bare. At the far end of the lobby, near the mural of the Conquistador, a door opened into an office, and I saw a woman working at a desk.

I walked in. She looked up.

"How long has the hotel been closed?" I asked.

"Since 1981," she said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I always liked this hotel."

"It's in the process of being sold."

"For a hotel?"

"Yes. It's going to be renovated. It's going to be a grand hotel again."

"I'm supposed to meet a friend here," I said.

She smiled. "It's still a lobby."

"I went through boot camp here," I told her, "and when I got out, my wife came down and met me and we stayed here. That was during the war."

"This hotel has a lot of memories," the woman said.

"Yes," I said. "Thank you."

I waited in front. Romulo turned up at 1 o'clock. We went into a snack bar on the corner for lunch. I had hoped to have lunch in the sky room, watching the pretty destroyers glide in and out of the bay. Maybe if we had, I wouldn't have been in such a cheerless mood.

"I think we're going to have to sell the house," I told him.

He laughed. "Sell the house?" He had once told me I would be living in that house 500 years from now.

I explained about my heart attack, and the long drive to the house, and the distance from medical care.

He shrugged. "You should get away. Come down to Bocana. Relax," he said.

All the same, I wanted to talk about it. I dreaded talking business with Romulo. I was never quite sure what we had agreed on. We talked about how much we could get for the house.

"It isn't just money," I told him. "We put a lot of our lives into that house."

Of course it had paid us back. It had given us many hours of exasperation, but many of beauty and serenity, too. It had given us another life to escape to, away from the city, away from America, away from the telephone and all our safety nets. It had brought us our friendship with Romulo and his wife, Delia, and with another culture. It had slowed us down and made us wiser.

"Anyway, if we sell it," I said, "we'll probably have to pay half of it in taxes."

Romulo couldn't believe it. "You don't have to tell 'em," he said. "Why pay taxes on your house in Mexico?"

"No, Romulo," I told him. "There's no way to avoid it."

Then I asked, "By the way, how much do we owe you?"

Romulo would never ask for money. You had to ask if you owed him anything.

He slid a napkin across the table and took out his pen and wrote down some figures and added them up.

"There it is," he said, turning it for me to read. "Sixty dollars for the window . . . . "

I had forgotten about the window. Someone had broken the big picture window in the main bedroom to get into the house. Well, $60 was cheap enough for a big window. It would surely have cost $300 or more in Los Angeles.

He went on: "And $180 for the water . . . . "

"That's a joke, Romulo," I said. "Every time we go down there we run out of water."

Romulo laughed as if I had made a big joke. "You got plenty of water," he said.

I had insisted that we pay him for the water, so we could count on it. But the service hadn't gotten much better. The only difference was that now we were paying for no water, instead of getting it free.

"And the taxes are $365," he said. "Every year, they go up."

On the way back I saw two Marine helicopters chasing each other like butterflies over fields of mustard grass. All my life I had been paying taxes for weapons, I realized, and altogether I hadn't contributed enough to pay for just one of those helicopters.

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