Hotel residents: Are they really nonpeople, invisible thousands of men and women fleeing the responsibilities of family and property?
That’s the role assigned them by public architects and urban planners who perceived them as a cultural threat for half a century — roughly 1930 to 1980. And when these denizens of dowr town emerged from the shadows, as they sometimes did in newspaper headlines and imaginative literature, they were nearly always unsavory characters.
Whether they lived in palatial hotels or in the cubicle “dives” of major cities, they appeared as playboys and prostitutes, junkies and drunks, down-at-heel artists and itinerant crooks. The one thing they had in common was their failure to buy the American Dream.
"The great advantage of a hotel," says a character in one of George Bernard Shaw’s plays, “is that it’s a refuge from home life.”
To investigate this faceless segment of the population, I spent ten days at the Maryland Hotel, 630 F Street, just outside the eastern border of the Gaslamp District. Two essays by Paul Groth helped fill in the background. Groth is associate professor of architecture history at the University of California-Berkeley and author of Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States.
The book is billed as “the first comprehensive social and cultural history of life in American residential hotels.” Groth analyzes the objections to hotel households and the efforts to eliminate them. He argues that the destruction of such units since 1960 is a significant factor in urban homelessness.
From my home in Seattle, the Maryland was only a phone call away. Angie, the desk clerk, was pleasant and businesslike. Yes, she could give me a room with full bath, and no, I didn’t need to send a deposit. Angie explained that the restaurant and coffee shop had closed down and that the hotel was no longer exclusively for seniors, although many of them had stayed on. The price was something of a shock — $ 195 for ten days — less than an overnight stay in many Seattle hotels. The promised brochure arrived promptly, with a rate card showing weekly and monthly discounts, including a spring special: private room, full bath, from $375 a month.
That brings the cost down to $12.50 a night.
Once one of San Diego’s premier hotels, the Maryland dates back to 1913. Over the years, it declined with the neighborhood until it became a rather seedy retreat for seniors on fixed incomes. Pension, social security, and disability checks couldn’t keep pace with the sizable deposits, plus first- and last-month rents demanded by apartment owners. The SRO, single room occupancy hotel, came to the rescue of those determined not to relinquish their independence to a nursing home.
After a series of fires, some caused by careless smokers using beds and trash barrels for ash trays, and at least two set by disgruntled or demented residents, the Maryland has installed sprinklers and new smoke detectors to safeguard tenants. Uniformed security guards are on duty around the clock, and trash rooms are locked from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Even so, the large number of residents and high turnover common to SROs make close monitoring of residents virtually impossible. The clientele has broadened to include young people working downtown, the occasional tourist, hard-luck drifters and dreamers, and a few well-heeled eccentrics. I met only one couple during my stay, and they were German tourists.
Feeling somewhat eccentric myself, I step from the airport cab into a rundown neighborhood where sidewalks need paving. Panhandlers and hard-looking characters loiter in doorways. The homeless comb nearby parking lots for discarded bottles and aluminum cans. A large sign displayed in the hotel window advertises rooms starting at $16.95 a night, and more than once, from my chair in the nonsmoking corner of the lobby, I will see passersby drawn in by the legend.
Inside, the lobby is spacious and well lighted, its sofas, easy chairs, and lamps presenting a brave appearance. One or two wheelchairs at the margins. The adjective one finds most often in descriptions of the Maryland is “respectable.” To appreciate the word, you have only to compare this hotel to the nearby olden West, which may he West but is definitely not Golden, photographs of the Maryland along the walls reveal a proud history, and a few of the guests actually express awe of its architectural grandeur.
Joining the line at the desk, watch large stacks of bills change hands as tenants pay for the month ahead. When my turn comes, Angie seems reluctant to accept a check, so I produce my Visa. She hands me a receipt, stores one of my bags behind the desk, gives me keys for two rooms, and points to the elevators.
“You’ll probably want the one on six,” she says, “but you can look at three and take your pick.”
To the left of the elevator, the coffee shop has been fitted out with automats for snacking and a big-screen TV. Sports fans crowd the room, blue with smoke. The elevator arrives. and an overweight man with a boom box hoisted on one shoulder gets off. Even with the volume discreetly adjusted, the scratch and static are so dense that he'd need ear filters to strain out a bar of music. Frankly, though, I’m relieved to find a radio-active resident in this TV maelstrom. With a little help from cryonics, he can expect a half-life of 150 years.
The third-floor room differs from the sixth mainly in substituting a shower for a tub. The top floor, with only birds and aircraft overhead, will be more quiet. I return the third-floor key, reclaim my luggage, and go to reconnoiter and unpack.
Two elevators (capacity: 14) make the critical difference in the ability of many to live here. Passengers board on foot, on crutches, with canes, on manually propelled wheelchairs, and even, in one case, on a motorized golf cart. When I complain to Jim, one of the more articulate tenants, about the timing of the lifts, he informs me that “some of these jokers press all four buttons.” That’s two ups and two downs — enough to trigger elevator accidie, a.k.a. the noonday devil, more recently known as sloth. Accidie is the Latin form (the English “acedia” now obsolete or archaic), which I prefer because it starts out like an accident. While I was in the convent, accidie was paradoxically alive and well as a term for the mental prostration of recluses brought on by fasting and other physical rigors. In particular, I remember reading of a monk intending to clean his cell. But he sat on the floor all day, unable to rouse himself sufficiently to get the broom and make a clean sweep. Is that welfare woman, sitting in the lobby for hours, immovable as Whistler’s Mother, suffering from accidie? It’s possible.
The day one elevator goes on strike, traffic in the Maryland tapers to a sluggish pace. Trapped in their rooms or waiting for the lone elevator, tenants do the next best thing: indulge the opportunity to complain. I refuse to be grounded by the mechanical monster. There’s nothing to stop me from using the stairs, nothing wrong with my lungs, my legs, my heart.
At the last landing before the main floor something stops me. Paint buckets, ladders, tarps. I’ll have to walk down the second-floor hall to the stairs at the far end. The Maryland’s floor plan must resemble that of Dante’s Inferno. Now I understand why the woman on the elevator said, “Oh! That’s a nice floor,” when I said that I lived on six. Two is clearly not a nice floor. The carpet is grubby, the light dimmer. It must be the men’s floor. Not another woman in sight! Halfway down the hall, a middle-aged man wearing dentures that don’t fit very well stands in shirtsleeves with arms extended on both sides, as if he were a guardrail at a dangerous train crossing. He’s facing a younger man who is trying to get by and return to his room. The crossing guard is saying in urgent tones, “I want you, I want you!” This with attempted laying on of hands that has nothing to do with evangelism. As the guard seesaws from side to side to block his quarry, I play the Artful Dodger. I’ve got to find the other stairway.
Barefoot and wearing a short robe, a young man comes dripping from the shower, towel over his shoulder.
“The stairs! Where’s the other stairway?”
He stops and looks at me. Then he turns and points down the hall.
“See that little projection in the wall? I think that’s where you’ll find the stairs." I thank him and disappear. You never know what’s coming out of the closet at the Maryland.
Next to the lobby, the elevators are probably the most important social setting in the Maryland, the protracted ride several times a day forcing passengers into a proximity that favors basic communication. One of the regulars on this trip has a stranglehold on the neck of a bottle concealed in a plain brown bag. His efforts to be inconspicuous are doomed.
“I’m bringing my coffee mug down to your room this evening.” The loud voice is that of a big-breasted woman wearing dark glasses and an uneven tan. Her words set off general hilarity — the wavering index of a subliminal camaraderie. We’re all in this together, even though one wary tenant confides to me later, “I pick and choose the people I talk to.”
Room 634 opens to the first turn of my key. I step over the threshold, bolt the door, slip the security chain into place, and look around. No peephole in the door. I will open at my own risk. The bath is actually two rooms. The smaller, to the left, contains a sink, a toilet, a mirrored medicine cabinet, and a towel rack. Plastic tumblers remind me that in hotels, glass means class. No counter. No electrical outlet.
A slightly larger room to the right boasts a freestanding white porcelain tub scrubbed an abrasive yellow. Above it a small ledge with a chainless rubber stopper and space for a few toiletries. A rack with two bath towels (Bravado: Made in USA), measuring 20 by 37 inches, sheer and white as kitchen curtains. No bath mat. One electrical outlet. On the plus side, there’s hot water, even on the sixth floor. And the Mexican maids do a good job — service once a week, Angie said — but I gather evidence of more frequent visits.
On the elevator with two of these young women working even on a Sunday, I ask whether they live in. They nod assent. The younger one holds a stack of one-dollar bills in her left hand. She counts them aloud, peeling them off into her right hand with great satisfaction. When she reaches 15, she slaps the stack against her left hand and steps off the elevator, leaving me to speculate on what the bills represent. Probably not tips. At least one disabled resident hires a maid to do his laundry, but $ 15 would be too much for that. Wages? I don’t even want to think about that, so I let go of the question.
The bedroom itself is large and light. Its single wide screenless window offers a spectacular view of...the parking lot on the other side of F Street. Exterior paint surrounding the window looks prehistoric. To the right is an old-fashioned steam radiator. No thermostat, no fan, no air conditioning. The heat comes on, morning and evening, with a knocking of steam pipes that I at first mistake for something more sinister.
Furniture consists of twin beds, each with a clean, though faded, spread; sheets that must be nearly as old as the hotel; and soft mattresses. There’s a chest of drawers, a nightstand, two sturdy oak armchairs, upholstered in leather; a night lamp; and a TV so heavy on its stand that it would take a forklift to steal it. Angie has promised not to charge me for the TV, which I can’t turn on anyway because I rent a cube refrigerator ($12 a week) that has to be plugged into the TV outlet and placed between the arms of one chair. What I miss most is a desk — a place to write — but this activity has a low priority at the Maryland. Not even the lobby sports the luxury of a desk where one can dash off postcards to family and friends. Books, too, are noticeably absent. The one I carry everywhere marks me like a scarlet letter.
Because I’ve misunderstood Angie about the telephone, I assume that it isn’t connected. All calls, even the local ones, are routed through the front desk unless you use the pay phone in the lobby. Given the fact that I am on the floor where most of the fires have started, and assuming that I have no way to reach the desk except to descend five floors, the first few days are a bit anxious. I find myself studying fire drill charts posted by the elevators and rehearsing contingency plans for random assaults in the halls and on the elevators. When I realize that I’ve been connected to the front desk all along, I feel relieved and foolish.
Fiction, so often more revealing than lifeless fact, has contributed to our perception of hotel living. In her novel Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick captures the ambience of one New York residential hotel:
“The Hotel Schuyler is gone now. Uncertain elevators, dusty ‘penthouse’ suites, the greasy, smoking ovens of housekeeping units,’ the lumpy armchairs — a distracted life, near the Harvard Club, The New York Times, the old Hotel Astor, the Algonquin, Brentano’s. In the halls you would sometimes hear a baby crying — child of a transient — and it was a sound from another world. The irregular tenants were most pitiful when they received visits from relatives, from their ex-wives, their grown children. They walked about sheepishly then, as if they had met with an accident. Soon the disappointed sons and daughters left, wives went back home, and at the Schuyler, free once again, our people returned to their debaucheries, their bills, and that stain of life-giving paranoia — limited, intact — each one wore like a tattoo.”
Limited paranoia might save the sufferer from the fate of William Henry Hart, the 77-year-old Maryland Hotel resident who landed in prison hospital after his second brush with the law. Hart set fire to his room because someone reportedly threw away his dentures. Federal prosecutors had agreed earlier to drop charges for Hart’s wheelchair bank robbery of $70 to buy heart medicine, provided that he stayed out of trouble for a year.
In the name of vigilance, intact paranoia could help the defeated and the elderly to sidestep scheming relatives and con artists. It might prevent the near-catatonic withdrawal one sometimes observes in nursing home patients. But most of all, it could reduce the steady erosion of personality that makes one completely anonymous. It’s this particular rejuvenating aspect of suspicion that I see as a factor in some of the more memorable characters I met at the Maryland.
There are two of us on the elevator when a large-nosed man, astride a motorized golf cart, charges through the doors like a rodeo rider. He’s wearing Levi’s, a jeans jacket, a Stetson, and black-framed glasses. His mount displays black-and-silver stick-on letters in 72-point Gothic: HOT ROD.
“Hot rod,” I say appraisingly, “...with built-in ashtray....”
“You’d better believe it,” he says. “I’ve been smoking for 60 years, and there’s nothing wrong with me.”
“I cuss out my doctor every time he tries to get me to stop. And anybody else who doesn’t like my smoking.” The belligerent tone dares me to object. So his lungs are okay? What about his heart? Why does he need indoor transportation? I doubt that he’s on his way to a golf tournament. What if I challenged him and picked up some new swear words for my fiction?
“You must have good genes,” I say as the broncobuster barrels off at the next floor.
Smoking is endemic at the Maryland. My room has two ashtrays and lingering evidence of their recent use. The brochure advertises nonsmoking rooms, but I didn’t ask for one, and a private bath is higher on my priority list than pristine air, given the omnipresence of a- tobacco elsewhere in the iT establishment, jp Remembering that smoking dulls the appetite for food, a I begin to wonder whether the Maryland residents are inhaling their meals. Most of them don’t look like paragons of health. Hot Rod’s contentions notwithstanding. Where do these people, especially those who can barely walk, get their meals? I decide to ask a pale young woman sitting quietly by the window.
Everything about her is colorless: skin, hair, clothing.
“Excuse me,” I say, “but in the brochure they sent me, it says something....”
She cuts me off in midsentence, her face contorted. Robert “I didn’t read it, I don’t know anything...."
I’m horrified to discover that all her front teeth are missing, and her whole manner discourages any further attempt to communicate.
The next time I see the Pale One, she’s engaged in animated conversation with Hot Rod and another tenant. Hot Rod pontificates with his usual vigor.
“The day they start telling me what I can and can’t do in my room,” he says, “that’ll be the day. The laws should stay out of our personal lives.”
“I smoke in my room,” the Pale One says, “but I don’t smoke in bed, and I never put paper in the ashtray.” These snippets of dialogue are like appetizers in the box seats near the elevator, where the action is. Easy chairs on both sides of a standing ashtray give an unobstructed view of the TV room screen as well as the ups and downs of the residents.
Smoking on the ancient elevators is prohibited, but I ride from the basement to the fifth floor with one absent-minded smoker who discovered an empty washer and is on his way to gather his dirty clothes to fill it. At other times, I enter a smoke-filled elevator and note butts ground out on the floor, perhaps for my benefit. Some tenants have mouths like pierced ears: openings must be plugged with foreign objects they forget until they’re missing.
The next time I see Hot Rod, he’s smoking with two male cronies. One of them has just opened a package of cookies.
“They’re all stuck together,” says the cookie man.
“Yeah, that’s the way it is,” Hot Rod agrees, “just one big cookie, and they all stick together. A whole row of stores, and they’re all owned by the same person. There’s the 99-cent store and the one next to that, and the one....”
The hotel worker who brings the refrigerator eases it into an armchair and plugs it in. He says it’s brand-new, one of three the hotel rents to visitors like me. I plan to buy morning and evening snacks from the Farmers Market at Horton Plaza to store in the refrigerator. I’ll have a substantial late lunch in one of the plaza cafes. And of course, I’ve brought my travel coffeemaker. This arrangement will keep me off the streets after dark.
Unpacking my clothes, I’m relieved that the Maryland doesn’t have those irritating, locked-to-the-rod hangers. Instead, it provides an assortment of plastic and wire. I’ve brought a few hangers in my garment bag, and the closet shelves and wall hooks will help. Not bad for starters!
After freshening up, I set out for a walk, sleuthing the food chain. Next door, the Hub market sells staples and coffee. Around the corner, a grimy-looking deli looks permanently closed. After lunch at the plaza, I get lost in its mazes and return to the hotel after several hours. An acrid odor fills my room — something so corrosive that it must surely peel away the lining of my throat. I feel nauseated and know that I have to get out of there.
On the elevator I announce to seven or eight passengers that there’s a terrible smell in my room.
“They’ve sprayed for roaches,” says a barrel-shaped, bearded man, barefoot and wearing Clorox-treated jeans.
The man on desk duty asks the security guard to go upstairs with me and open my window. I read his name tag — A. Walker — and introduce myself. The guard is a very tall African-American with one earring. His bulk shrinks the elevator to a phone booth.
“Name’s Tony,” the guard says. I unlock my door, and he opens the window about two feet to let in fresh air. I wait for him to leave, then prepare to follow. It will take some time for this room to become habitable. Later I’ll read a recent story about a 35-year-old woman who suffered multiple broken bones and internal injuries in a six-story fall, either from a window or from the roof. She was conscious when police found her on the sidewalk and took her to a hospital. For anyone with a subliminal death wish, a severe case of acrophobia, or one drink too many, falling from these wide windows would be easy.
The window I want to leap from opens onto the secret life of this old hotel: the seethe and jolt of its traffic. I feel like a census taker. It’s time to dive in. A young black woman is talking to an older man in a wheelchair. As I walk toward them, they look expectantly in my direction.
“I’m Madeline,” I say.
“And I’m Patricia. And this is Frank.” Luck is with me. She’s an extrovert. Patricia has been here two nights. She’s from Clinton country — Little Rock. She left her kids with her mother and came out to look for a job. Could have had two interviews but didn’t have money for the phone calls. Her ambition is to land a spot as a fry cook.
Frank, 73, is a burly retired tuna fisherman of Portuguese descent. He has a prominent nose, gray-green eyes, and a space between his front teeth. His upper torso is disproportionately developed — a legacy from years at sea and the muscular exertion of the wheelchair years that followed. The hair on Frank’s chest and arms is thick and graying. Conversation reveals him as a decent, generous man — remarkably sensitive in some respects — who seldom complains of severe arthritis in his knees.
Lately, his hips, too, are affected. On certain days, one of Frank’s eyes is completely closed, possibly indicating some neurological problem. That may he the reason he gets my name right one time in three. At First I try a tactful correction (“So I said to myself, ‘Madeline, you have to consult the map before you go looking for the church’ ”). It works for a few seconds, then we’re hack to Marilyn and Marlene — movie stars so famous that it would he silly to object. I never ask Frank about the eye because I sense that I’d be transgressing personal boundaries. This is, after all, the man who wears a baseball cap through all his waking hours — no doubt to hide the bald crown I glimpse only once when he adjusts the elastic band.
After a high school hurdle-jumping accident that sent him to the hospital, Frank dropped out of school and apprenticed himself to his uncle, a fisherman. He is vaguely apologetic about his economic status. His wife’s final illness was expensive. He considers the property settlement that followed the sale of the family home a raw deal. And if he did, indeed, bear the expense of his “separated” (possibly divorced?) wife’s hospital bills, he may be right. The letter of the law is not always fair and humane. In any case, the married daughter and adopted stepson split the proceeds, paid heavy taxes, and left Frank in the lurch. As a consequence, he has cut off contact with the son-in-law he blames and the adopted stepson. He still phones his daughter occasionally, and he exchanges visits with a brother and sister-in-law. Mostly he’s alone in the world, except for his cohort Robert, another “wheelie” whose initial greeting after the introductions is, “I have Alzheimer’s.”
Robert, who never discloses his age, is Frank’s opposite in almost every respect. Thin and hawk-nosed, with white, shoulder-length hair, he dresses in tasteful colors, favoring white or pale pastel shirts, a dark coat, and gray or camel slacks. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan, owner of a publishing company that distributes periodicals to senior citizens. His voice is so faint that long conversations are a strain for the listener as well as the speaker. He thinks that his vocal cords may have been damaged during an upper GI (gastrointestinal) endoscopy..
Robert has also had a stroke, which accounts for the dangling left hand and arm and, perhaps, the repetitious fixation on a granddaughter in Alberta. One morning when he is nattily dressed, I say, “You look just great this morning!”
“Well, I feel crummy,” he says. “I’ve been up since four o’clock. It took me an hour and 45 to get dressed.” It’s not unusual for stroke victims to have trouble dressing, but is Robert’s task complicated by having to use a shared bathroom? Instead of asking, I try to break through the gloom by validating his feelings. Sure enough, the next day, he has regained his equanimity.
“My granddaughter called me last night,” he says, smiling broadly. “I was worried about her, and she was worried about me.”
Sometimes, reentering the lobby after an absence, I think I’ve stumbled into the Special Olympics. Wheelchairs rear up on every side — not only those of my friends Frank and Robert, but others I’m seeing for the first time. A mother unable to keep pace with a four-year-old who skips upstairs to the mezzanine, swings from the banisters, calls excitedly across the distance. He’s clearly at home in the hotel, the focus of attention, affectionately greeted on every side. Hardwick was right: In this setting his cries are a sound from another world.
In the world of my childhood, I memorized reams of Longfellow, resenting every line because I believed I was being brainwashed with Great Lessons for Little Americans. With one exception. I loved reciting the opening stanza of one Longfellow classic:
- Between the dark and the daylight,
- When the night is beginning to lower,
- Comes a pause in the day’s occupations
- That is known as the Children’s Hour.
What excited me was not the picture of parents spending quality time with their kids, but the pride of knowing that Night was not coming down like an elevator (“lower” rhymes with “slower”). Night was scowling, “beginning to lower” (rhymes with “power”). That superior knowledge allowed a respite from the taunts of my farmboy classmates who ridiculed my failure to recognize the distinction between a bull and a heifer. They were all just cows to me.
Late one evening in my room (midnight beginning to lower), dead air at my headboard quickens with children’s clatter and prattle. Grave Alice and laughing Allegra, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, cavort next door. Their antics reveal the thinness of the walls. Sometime later, when the small fry are tucked in, comes a rouse in the night’s orchestrations that is known as the Lovers’ Hour. By the time it sighs to a close, it’s 1:00 a.m., and 2:00 by the time I fall asleep.
At five I’m jolted awake for the Children’s Quarter-hour. I can’t believe that they are up again for the few minutes it takes them to wash and dress. Then I hear them being hustled out and down the hall. Later I call the front desk to report a quarrel between the adults. He’s demanding “my $12.” She swears that she doesn’t have it. He threatens to camp outside her door all day if necessary, until she comes through.
They are out in the hall, their voices growing louder, their paranoia too limited. Apparently they do not know that the reason we say walls have ears is that Catherine de Medici, the suspicious queen, had them constructed that way in order to listen in on state secrets and plots. I’m listening. At the first sound of the elevator, they are back in the room, even though she’s been saying that she can’t let him back in. By the time the security guard — not Tony this time — knocks on my door, a truce has been struck.
“What’s the problem?” The guard is obviously disturbed by the hysteria of white women reporting domestic disturbances.
“I was afraid.he might be hitting her,” I say. “He was demanding money, and she said she didn’t have it.”
“Well..." the guard says, his lip curling with contempt, “she’s laughin’ now.”
That afternoon I take time to assure the desk clerk that I wasn’t crying wolf when I called. I tell the story of my sleepless night. He checks the register and says there should be only two persons in that room. Were the kids smuggled in to avoid the $8 per person for extra guests? If so, how did they escape without being detected by the front desk or setting off the fire alarm? Another of the Maryland’s unsolved mysteries.
"Marilyn, have you ever used a dishwasher?” Frank I asks, and I recognize the prelude to another riveting recital of domestic chaos. I’m tempted to say, “No, Fred, I just trundle my clay bowls to the river bank and let the current take over.” Or, “My house-husband takes care of all that while I work to put food on the table.” But of course, I encourage Frank to go on. The minute he says that his wife was in the hospital, I know the rest. Frank put regular detergent, not Cascade, in the dishwasher. The overflow of suds looked like a photographic cliche of Monroe: mountains of soap bubbles in all the vital spots. It must be his unconscious calling me Marilyn. But I manage a convincing mirth before pleading fatigue and returning to my room.
The next day I’m boarding the elevator on the lobby floor when I hear Frank’s voice, “Madeline!” Prescription on his lap, he’s turning the chair around to board backwards. The smaller front wheels catch on any irregular surface like the slight rise or drop from floor to elevator. I barely avoid ALARM trying for DOOR OPEN. For once, the elevator is too fast, and I rise far above Frank. The door opens on three, long enough for me to see the Pale One sitting in a chair, glaring defiantly into outer space. On six, a fat woman boards. Everyone else has gotten off.
“Up or down?” I ask.
“Down.” She doesn’t question my question.
“I guess there’s no other way to go,” I say. “I’ve just left a wheelchair waiting in the lobby.” For once I’m grateful to the other elevator — the slow one. Frank’s still waiting. I hold DOOR OPEN as he squeaks through the narrow entrance.
“Five. Marlene, would you like to come to my room for coffee and cookies?”
I take a rain check. We arrange to meet in the lobby, Sunday at three.
At the appointed time, we take the elevator to Frank’s floor. His room is one of three in a small alcove. It’s about a third of the size of mine — too narrow, really, for a bed. In place of one, he has a chaise lounge — possibly a poor man’s version of a hospital bed. Sinusitis and arthritis may necessitate sleeping with head elevated. But not being able to turn over at night? I count the minor mercies.
Frank does have two luxuries: an automatic coffeemaker and a toaster. A drop-leaf table is piled high with everything that won’t fit in the minimal storage space available. All those years on the tuna boat must have prepared him for these cramped quarters. Frank has bought chocolate-striped shortbread cookies and chocolate cupcakes. He takes a large pair of scissors and cuts the plastic containers apart, arranging them with half a package of cookies on a paper plate. I’m a coffee freak, and the brew isn’t bad. I have two cookies and a second cup of coffee as we chat. When it’s time for me to leave, he prepares to accompany me to the lobby.
“I can wait. Don’t you want to put things away?” I’m thinking of the roaches and my own meticulous care not to feed them. When the trash room is locked, I put my garbage in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. But Frank says he can do it later, so we leave the rest of the party for the cockroach brigade.
The next morning in the lobby, I’m reading Thomas Merton when a man with a bay window and a strident voice interrupts me.
“Ma’am, I’m the loudmouth who said those two bad words. I apologize.”
“I didn’t hear them. I was reading.”
“That’s good! I’ll never do it again.”
This may be one of the two men who complimented me on my teeth. Because I have the kind of teeth that could support an orthodontist for a lifetime, I’m surprised at first. Then light dawns. “You have pretty teeth” means: I have all of them, and they’re mine.
On the elevator, everyone is going up, but the cage takes us down to the basement, then starts its painful climb to 1...2...3...I’ve stopped watching the lighted digits because it makes a slow trip even slower.
“Maybe we’re going to get some good weather now,” a black woman says.
“It’s sure nice out there today.” She coughs.
“Yeah...a lot of people have colds and flu when it keeps changing like this,” says a good-looking 30-ish man. “But you know what’s the best thing for it? Garlic. You put it in your salads and things. In Italy they eat all those high-fat cheeses, and they don’t have cholesterol problems. It’s the garlic."
“Well, I’m 53 years old,” the cougher says, “and you learn something every day. I think I have heard that, but I don’t cook anymore.” She gets off on three.
“This sure is a nice place to stay,” says the garlic man.
I think of the cockroach I killed yesterday and the one today, even after that lethal spray. “The maids do a good job,” I say.
“Yeah, those little Mexican gals really work hard.”
“Have you been here long?”
“Well, I was here about a month before, but I just came back,” he says.
“I sure wish I’d just stayed here....” He gets off on five. I spend the next few seconds filling in the gap between the man’s two hotel stays, and before I know it. I’m on my floor.
Several days later, the garlic man needs an elevator just as I’ve pushed the up button — both of them. Today, he looks glum.
“Sooner or later," he says.
“Probably later.” We get on, just the two of us.
“I’ve got a new name for San Diego,” he says.
“Bullshit. That’s what they oughtta call it. Bullshit. It’s getting just like every other big city. New York. Chicago. L.A.” “Whaddya mean?” I insist.
“Ah! All they wanta do is hurt you. Hurt people. It’s all bullshit.... Well, have a good day,” he says, getting off on five.
I conclude that he must have been dealing with social service agencies, but there’s no chance to confirm or deny my guess.
When I see the Pale One socializing with my friend Robert and a large woman with shoulder-length gray hair and horn-rimmed glasses, I recognize opportunity. Steam pipes and security guards aren’t the only characters that knock. Sure enough, a little devious conversation — mostly paying elaborate attention to Robert — produces her name: Fawn.
Without preamble, Fawn blurts out, “I was raped. By a security guard in the mall!” The others in the group react as if she’d made a comment on a soap opera or the weather. They must have heard this story before.
“How awful!” I say, knowing that whether or not it’s true, the effect is almost the same.
“Wearing a Pendleton jacket,” Fawn adds bitterly, aiming the remark at me. She wants me to appreciate the enormity of this wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“The police are still looking for him,” she continues, embroidering on her theme for my benefit. She says it was early in the morning, before the stores had opened. She was wearing loose garments.
“I told him I didn’t have a nice figure,” she says angrily. “I had it covered up because I’d had a baby.”
Outside our small circle, hotel residents pursue their rounds. No one shows the slightest curiosity.
If the fantasies and delusions of certain hotel residents surprise us, we have only to examine our own. “Humankind,” as Eliot says, “cannot bear very much reality." Wallace Stevens has this to say on the subject:
- We keep coming back and coming back
- To the real: to the hotel instead of the hymns
- That fall upon it out of the wind....
The lines are from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven.” If literal and metaphoric terms are interchangeable, and if metaphor is transferable from one poem to another, we might paraphrase Eliot by saying, “Humankind cannot bear very much hotel.” Stevens equates the hotel with reality. It is a metaphor for Time as opposed to hymns, a figure for the unreality of Eternity.
And the name of the city is perfect: the New haven is Time, the here and now. The Old haven is Heaven, illusory Eternity. And the reader experiences the same shock of delight Stevens must have felt, recalling Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem for a nun taking the veil and titled “Heaven-Haven.” All that said, one must make allowances for the poem’s way of straddling contradictions. The alert reader, especially if religious, will recall the voice of God answering Job from the whirlwind and go back to the hotel where another poet waits, doing whatever poets do as they sit in the lobby of the Maryland.
Barbara is 72, but she shields this vital statistic from public scrutiny with one hand cupped round her lips and a discreetly lowered voice. She’s had a stroke and still suffers from aphasia and a slight limp. She’s a widow, a native of Norfolk, Virginia, who later lived in Kentucky. Barbara moved to the Maryland from the Hotel St. James several years ago when they were remodeling.
Is DeFrees a French name, she asks — prelude to a schoolgirl French salad. Parlez-vous Francais? she says, pleased that her French retrieval system works so well. Then: Sairta-mah (Certainement). And there’s more where that came from. Frere Jacques...not sung but spoken. Suddenly she recognizes the absurdity of her pretense. '
“Of course, everybody knows that,” she concludes lamely.
Barbara has returned to reality just as I’ve left it. I’m back in the Dalles, Oregon, teaching high school, my classroom divided from another nun’s by sliding doors. Sister Christine Mary and I open the doors when one of us needs a rest break or a cup of coffee. We arrange in French, spoken aloud, for the other to take over supervision of both classes. When our respective vocabularies are unequal to the message, we insert Frenchified English. Linguistic superiority, or the pretense of it, must be a near-universal form of elitism.
Barbara tells me that she writes poems, so I ask whether she can show me some. She recites a long light verse with terminal rhymes. Reasonably adroit, but not really a poem. I ask whether she can give me a copy. She invites me to her third-floor room.
Her room is almost a duplicate of mine except that it bears her personal stamp. Plants thrive along one wall. Family photographs line the top of the chest of drawers. There’s even a small bookcase with a dictionary, a Bible, a Steinbeck novel, and various other titles I recognize. While Barbara rummages through her closet, I study the portraits.
“Who’s this?” pointing to a beautiful young woman. “That’s me," Barbara says. I study the face in the photo and the face in the flesh, trying to connect them. Those “three squares” she mentioned when I asked about residents’ meal habits and she mentioned Wendy’s are part of the story. The comfortable stretch pants she wears don’t disguise it. A tune, with words in tow, takes over my head:
“They’re either too young or too old / They’re either too gray or too grassy green....” But because all my tunes are highly inaccurate, I find myself in the middle of “I’ll String Along with You." “They’re either too fat or too kan”? That’s true of the Maryland tenants, but is it true to the lyric? Or is the subliminal Word Wizard writing a parody? The line, I learn later, is rhyme-induced. But “lean” does figure in the song. After green, it’s “The pickin’s are poor / And the crops are lean....”
Barbara has given up on finding the poem but says she’ll write it out for me. What looks like a companion portrait to the young Barbara shows a man in Navy dress whites, photographed against the flag.
She studies the photo for a long minute.
“It’s either my brother or my son,” she says. “I forget.” But my distractions have shut down Barbara’s retrieval system, and she can’t get beyond the first quatrain. I try for several minutes to talk her into letting me have four lines. It’s better than nothing. I can keep it with my picture of her as a souvenir. But the magic moment has passed.
“What good would four lines be without the rest of it?” Barbara demands. The friendly face and voice have turned hostile. She suspects me of plagiarism!
“You could take those four lines and make another poem,” she says.
This is my exit line. Time to clear out! There, where our paranoias meet in mid-air, I mumble my thanks and leave the room.
Shade is sometimes a metaphor for suspicion. Away from the sun, the light, deeds of darkness flourish. Like plagiarism. And there, jabbing all four elevator buttons is a shady character — a dark, very drunk man wearing a sombrero. If you follow the word far enough, you will find an Oriental umbrella, a form of shade, cousin to the shade of suspicion that now crosses my gaze as I look at the companion drunk, sprawled in a chair waiting to be transported.
Their conversation is of mis-sent checks and changes of residence and the unreliability of the mails. “They owe me $1700,” Sombrero tells the man in the chair. To me, he says, “I know all about these elevators. I used to work here.”
At this point, I’m considering the stairs, but Sombrero beats me to it. He shouts his friend out of the chair and down the hall. Fine! “Wheresoever thou goest, I shall not go,” to work a variation on Ruth. Like the man waiting for his $12, I don’t care if it takes all day. Eventually the elevator will find me.
Harking back to the rich social life of the laundromat during my years of apartment living, I decide to explore the basement. Maybe I’ll find a different crowd there. I walk down the broad marble staircase to the white tiled floor, bordered with a black Greek meander. With two choices, my unerring instinct leads me to a dead end: Employees Only. I retrace my steps to make the other choice when I’m intercepted by a very bald 50-ish man wearing T-shirt and chinos.
“Where you wanta go?” he asks, and when I say, “The laundry room,” he points down the hall. I follow the direction of his index finger.
“No! No!” he calls after me. I turn — warily now — remembering signs in the laundry room of an urban campus dorm, “These machines for residents only.” There we had security cards for the elevators, but they didn’t keep thugs from wandering in off the street to board the elevator with card-carrying students.
“Do you live here?” I ask. He nods, catches up with me, and leads the way to the very spot I was already headed for.
The room is barely big enough to hold two washers, one of them marked OUT OF ORDER (for the entire length of my stay), and two dryers. The only working washer is doing its thing.
“The washers take two quarters,” my guide says, as if I couldn’t read. His speech is a little slurred. He may be retarded.
“My name’s Madeline,” I say, having learned to pursue any opening.
“How long have you lived here?”
“Since ’86,” he says.
“I’ve been wondering what people do about meals here.” A resident is filling a plastic gallon jug from the drinking fountain.
Steve ignores my question like an interviewee with his own agenda.
“Carol — upstairs,” he begins, “knocked on my door and said, ‘Somebody in the hall tried to grab me again.’ I took her back to her room. Later, someone told me, ‘You better be careful. Maybe somebody did try to grab her.’ ”
Steve shakes his head in disbelief. “But she’s 70 years old. No, I don’t think so...unless there’s something seriously wrong with him.”
Suddenly I feel safer...unless there’s something seriously wrong with Steve.
“Yes, there’s a laundromat right next door to the Golden West,” says Jim, the jumpy Navy veteran, in answer to my question. Before I carry my mountain of clothes to Mahomet, I want to check out the prospects.
Just past the hotel I set one foot gingerly inside the open door and decide that nothing could come out of this place cleaner than it goes in. The next morning I mail my unwashed clothes back to Seattle.
And Steve? I never see him again. For all I know, he may spend his life playing Virgil to itinerant poets in the lowest circle of the Maryland Inferno. Or taking little old ladies, up for grabs, back to their rooms.