“Everybody in the hotel read The Little Dog Laughed, everybody; a story to make you die holding the page and it wasn’t about a dog, either; a clever story, screaming poetry…Mrs. Hargraves read it and I was a different man in her eyes thereafter. I got to stay on in that hotel, not shoved out in the cold, only often it was in the heat, on account of The Little Dog Laughed. Mrs. Grainger in 345, a Christian Scientist (wonderful hips, but kinda old) from Battle Creek, Michigan, sitting in the lobby waiting to die, and The Little Dog Laughed brought her back to earth, and that look in her eyes made me know it was right and I was right, but I was hoping she would ask about my finances, how I was getting along, and then I thought why not ask her to lend you a five spot, but I didn’t and I walked away snapping my fingers in disgust.
“The hotel was called the Alta Loma…” — excerpt from Ask the Dust, by John Fante
The above was written in 1939 by Fante, a major influence on cult poet and novelist Charles Bukowski. Several times I have been compared, by casual acquaintances, to Bukowski, and I think they mean well, but I do not necessarily consider this a compliment. I read Ask the Dust in a hotel room here in San Diego not unlike the one he describes in Los Angeles, only mine was in the Friendship Hotel on Eighth Avenue in Hillcrest, a historical Landmark and over 100 years old. I was on the second floor at first, overlooking Eighth, then later moved to a room downstairs ironically called “Escape from L.A.” with no room number. I had moved in March to be near Mercy Hospital after surgery for a broken ankle. The only room available was up a flight of stairs, but soon I was given ELA, with air-conditioning and a back porch overlooking a garden and shaded by bird of paradise.
Unlike Fante’s character, no one had likely read anything of mine and there was no Mrs. Grainger. Still, I thought, this was a fine place for a writer, in the tradition of Nathanael West (though he was a night clerk, not a guest, at a place not unlike the Friendship but in L.A.), Cornell Woolrich (who wrote Rear Window, etc., from a hotel room he shared with his mother in New York), the fictional Barton Fink, and, I suppose, Bukowski. French mystery novelist Simenon would write his slim detective novels only in hotel rooms, usually rented over a weekend, at various locations in Europe. But out on my deck, seated in the vinyl easy chair — atop a rendering of a zaftig, white-haired, middle-aged woman I have named “Zondra,” painted by a regional artist — and in the shade of tropical plants, I might think of Hemingway in Key West or Conrad on some exotic colonial island.
The Friendship is distinguished for several items, one being its mural on the west wing (two buildings, across the street from each other, make up the hotel) of a woman’s profile stretching from ground level to the roof. It is in the Art Nouveau style popular many decades ago, one that enjoyed resurgence in the 1960s. It is a style I have always been fond of and probably betrays a cornball romanticism and artiness I won’t always admit to, but here is a fine example.
When one walks up the short flight of steps to the front desk (no lobby) and turns immediately to the left, an old black-and-white photo is displayed. It is a photocopy of a photo, in fact, and the original may have been faded, but it is clearly the building across the street from 3942, the western side. The caption reads:
“1906: Saint Joseph’s Training School for Nurses opens, graduating its first 10 students on May 31, 1906. Building that housed the student nurses still exists on Eighth Avenue north of University.” Only the building is recognizable now, none of the faces. More primitive, almost Wild Western, and with a vintage jalopy in the shot, there is no mistaking it.
Within several weeks at the Friendship, I began to hear, coming from upstairs (the second of three floors), accomplished trumpet being rehearsed with a mute over its bell. I soon met Saint-John, a handsome, professional musician who often plays at Humphrey’s and other “legitimate” venues around San Diego. Legitimate, with my quotation marks, denotes a possibly out-of-fashion musician’s term for “standards” — popular music that is not necessarily current. Saint-John seems more than a little familiar with the jazz of Miles or Louis Armstrong, and his facility with his instrument lends a deliciously appropriate noir background to 1930s and ’40s fantasies starring me as George Orwell in Paris, or Norman Mailer in the Manhattan of the 1940s and ’50s, or William Faulkner in the Hollywood of that same era.
Another musician, Charlie Morrison, a 40ish punk rocker and smart songwriter with the group provocatively named Anarcock, lives upstairs. I had already heard of him. I introduced myself (began to sing a song of his I had heard from another musician), and he later knocked on my door with a copy of the summer issue of SLINGSHOT, a Berkeley free-press publication in the underground tradition. We stood in my doorway for a while talking about where we lived, where we had been, and what we wanted out of an environment. Part of this conversation must have been telepathic, because Charlie does not say much. For a moment, I was in the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street in New York again. I had, in fact, spent time in that hotel, though I had never lived there. The Friendship would have to be its closest equivalent in San Diego, only very much smaller and without Sid Vicious and Leonard Cohen — though we had our own versions. I wondered if Tom Waits had ever lived here at the Friendship in his San Diego period. I would be greatly surprised to learn he had not.