'I get a lot of joy out of this'

Times staff writer

Downtown Sam is his name. Walking is his game. In the past five years, the jovial, weather-beaten man, who's real name is Sam Minsker, figures he has logged about 5,000 miles, pounding the pavement of the streets of downtown San Diego. Twice a week and on an occasional holiday, Minsker leads groups on casual, three-hour walks--along the waterfront, through the Gaslamp District, in and out of old buildings and pubs. The 62-year-old Hillcrest resident is a volunteer for Walkabout International, the largest walking club in the country. Although WI leads several groups each month all over the county, Minsker never leaves downtown. Times staff writer Caroline Lemke interviewed Downtown Sam, and Vince Compagnone photographed him.

We have about 1,100 members in Walkabout. Most of the people are over 60, and a lot of them are retired. A third of the walkers are tourists, a third are regular members and the rest are people from around town.

My walks are kind of guided tours. My Saturday walks always start at the foot of Broadway near Harbor Drive. We walk very slow, and I tell the newcomers about some of the buildings and some of the developments.

My Monday walks always have a theme. One Monday the theme was fire stations, so we visited the very first fire station. We walked to the city operation center, which is the headquarters for the city Fire Department. We went down below Market Street; around 17th and K there's one of the few active fire stations downtown.

Another theme walk was where we went into all the buildings that don't have a 13th floor. About half the buildings downtown don't list a 13th floor. I've also led basement walks.

I got interested in downtown when I got a job with a parking company. I was working the All Right parking lot on 5th Avenue near Broadway in what is now the Horton Park Plaza Hotel. People would ask me, "Where's this building?" "Where's this store?" and I'd start locating things, and I kind of got interested in the old buildings.

One day my manager told me, "I want you to go all over downtown, and I want you to make me a map of all the parking lots and all the vacant lots where a parking lot could be located."

It took me a week on my bicycle. I went from 12th Avenue to Pacific Highway and north to Cedar. It was really an experience.

I started to do a lot of walking on my own, just to learn about downtown. I went on a couple of walks with Walkabout, including downtown, and discovered I knew more about it then the leader did. So I began leading walks downtown.

Saturday is a good day for a walk. A lot of people want to get out and do something different, so I adapted my Saturday format. It's been very, very successful.

And then there's my celebrity walk. It features famous people, present and past, who are living, working, entertaining or who have just stayed overnight downtown. For instance, I walk by the U.S. Grant Hotel and say: "This is where George Bush stayed. This is where Sidney Poitier stayed."

We walk by Horton Plaza, and I tell them that the great baseball player Ted Williams' mother belonged to the Salvation Army, and this is one of the places they used to have band concerts, and she'd pass the tambourine around. And then I show them where one of Wyatt Earp's gambling places was, and where Liberace played piano before he was famous.

I get a lot of joy out of this. It's good exercise, for one thing, especially if you've got arthritis in your big toes like I do. I meet such interesting people, and they all seem to enjoy themselves so much, it's a challenge to me to come up with different ideas for walks.

I've always liked walking, but Walkabout provided a new dimension. A lot of people don't walk because it's too much like exercise, but when you get together with people you like, and you meet new people, it's fun.

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