This is exactly the room I’ve been afraid of all my life. A place where I have landed in middle age. Somehow I have failed, this time thoroughly. I find myself on a hard mattress with unnamable stains. It is covered with a tattered and faded Crayola-green polyester bedspread. I stare up at a stark, too-bright light fixture, breathe the diesel fumes from city buses and the incense from the Magic/Zen shoe-shine stand three floors below that waft through the windows. They must remain open because of the heat. Listen to the traffic on Broadway. Listen to the conversations of the taxi drivers in front of the Greyhound station hustling low-budget travelers from L.A. and Phoenix and Boise. I try to avoid looking at the pitted, nicotine-stained walls set with roach traps (I count six) along the cornice work. I ask myself repeatedly… What am I doing here?
The answer, I know, in part, is facing down that nightmare, confronting that fear. I remind myself that this is temporary; I will leave at the end of the week. The other tenants are also on the way from somewhere to elsewhere; kids from Europe with backpacks or pensioners between a 35-year dead-end job and death.
I get up and walk to the small table by the window that opens onto a view of a neighbor’s room. He has a stack of paperback best-sellers on the windowsill, and his television is never turned off. He begins his day every morning at seven with a coughing fit and a cigarette. He makes instant coffee in a cup he never washes and keeps on the windowsill next to the books. This morning I see he has added John Grisham’s Street Lawyer to the pile of finished novels. I imagine the old guy, always in a white T-shirt and suspenders, to be a disbarred lawyer or defrocked priest, possibly an unscrupulous, alcoholic doctor, ruined after a botched abortion. More likely he is a retired tool-and-die manufacturer from Gary, Indiana, whose San Diego retirement dream has become a rotted orange, The Day of the Locust.
I look at the lined pages of the legal pad I began filling last night. I had written: “Pickwick Hotel San Diego. What am I doing here? The end result of a lifelong inability to behave in ways that women would prefer I behave.” I wonder what I meant by that. And then it comes back to me. I groan and cross out that line — both awkward and glib. I see I had written more, but I can barely read my handwriting. I was very tired.
“…saw Pontiac today. He shined my walking shoes. Changed name of shoe stand from ‘Zen’ to ‘Magic.’ Talked about coincidence, it being a signpost to spiritual progress.” That’s sort of interesting. I’ll talk to him some more about that. Nothing else to do except write or read — get Roots of Coincidence by Koestler? and Prophecy.
I have hidden my six-year-old laptop computer beneath copies of The Conscience of the King by Alfred Duggan, A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester, and The Anatomy of Love by W.T.H. Jackson; research material. I figured that if the maid came in to case the room she would not look past the dull literature to the expensive-looking hardware beneath it. She could hock the thing for maybe $100 to feed, I imagine, her junkie boyfriend’s chiva habit for a couple of days. It turns out I needn’t have worried. The maid knocks only once the whole week and I send her away and she leaves me and my gathering squalor alone.
I have a view across Broadway of the Pac Bell building, which houses the Washington Mutual Bank and the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter offices. A little park is at the corner. An upscale sandwich-and-gourmet-coffee lunch spot hosts a lot of phone company employees, accountants, bank clerks, lawyers and court stenographers, paralegals and legal secretaries wearing great clothes and eating interesting sandwiches washed down with gourmet coffees and Snapple. After commuter hours at night, the park is pretty much empty. Even the homeless, the inebriated, and the insane are repelled by the impotent whining of Kenny G and other wallpaper-jazz Muzak products issuing from hidden speakers around the buildings and park. This strikes me as diabolically ingenious: an echoey, acoustical Raid or Black Flag warding off street undesirables, potential vandals, defecators, vomiters, muggers, and dealers. I think of the kind of twisted soul who could loiter in this little parkette at night and suffer the onslaught of this musical Velveeta cheese and I shudder. Of course, I hear it all night long. I’m grateful to the jukebox in the bar downstairs, the Piccadilly Room, for its wealth of R&B and rock that drown out the crap from across the street. But around ten at night, the jukebox shuts down, leaving a weird audio mélange of cabdriver conversations, arguing drunks, trailing off into the night, families with sleepy, crying children arriving on south-of-midnight buses, and sporadic traffic sounds always punctuated by Harley engines trundling sleepless amphetamine-wired losers on a Broadway quest for some elusive redemption.
In the mornings, I grab my Thermos and a book, walk down to Bruegger’s Bagels, and stand in line with the city’s workforce and kids from Germany and Japan with friendship bracelets and Sony Walkmans clamped onto their heads mainlining Alanis Morissette or Smashing Pumpkins. I order the large coffee for $1.29, sip half of it while I read and wake up, then dump the other half into the Thermos. I then order a refill for 65 cents and top off the Thermos. This, along with a $2.50 packet of Metabolife herbal appetite suppressant purchased at Horton Plaza, keeps my nutritional needs for the day down to a minimum. Wendy’s is diagonally across the street from the Pickwick, and they have cheap lunch specials. Also, there is the Ralphs two blocks away, open 24 hours, and a source of predawn awe with its wealth of fine food selections and roaming, feral gangs of tattooed potheads foraging for Snack-Wells, baloney, yogurt, and, for the heroin and meth freaks, emulsified, cellophane-wrapped brownies or tapioca pudding.