For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself — Romans 14:7
Back when I was younger, and our family was a group of four, we would sometimes go out for dinner at night. Afterward if the restaurant was somewhere near downtown, my sister and I would ask our dad if we could drive down Broadway on our way home. San Diego didn’t have what most people would call a very large or active downtown area, but Broadway was the heart of it and at that time it was the brightest and most exciting street that my sister and I had ever seen. It was our first choice every time. We would even ask to show it to our grandmother after picking her up from the airport every Christmas season.
We would start at the foot of Broadway, against the harbor, then drive past the train station and the first block, which consisted of small vinyl-boothed and chrome-seated coffee-shops on each corner, a couple of bars, and an old theater. The YMCA occupied the entire second block and was what my sister and I then considered to be the beginning of the main attraction — the two or three blocks on the left side of the street which consisted of the Y, a game arcade, the topless bars, and the tattoo parlors. That was where the lights were the brightest, the neon lights and signs, some that flashed and some that had half of their letters missing. Those two blocks of Broadway also had the first intersection with steam escaping from manhole covers in the street. And the people. Always some sailors; more so on a weekend. Sometimes we would see a prostitute gently tug on a sailor’s arm as he stood on a street corner. My sister and I would giggle, and wonder.
The Y always had people gathered in front of it. People on the stairs and people on the sidewalk. And although there was always a lot of activity on the other blocks along Broadway, there were never as many people gathered together in a single spot as there was at the Y. The street in front of the Y had taxis parked along the curb, and radios, and voices, and sometimes the air smelled of cigarettes.
I remember looking up at the building, at the lights shining in the different rooms, thinking that each light was a separate person. I always wondered, and sometimes I asked, “Who stays there? What’s it like inside?”
My room at the Y was on the top floor, the sixth, room #643. It was a small and clean room, about ten feet by ten feet, I think. I walked it off once by counting one foot in front of the other. The room had a linoleum floor and walls which were covered by a thick coat of paint. It was as if the paint was on the walls not so much for decoration but rather for the maintenance of the room, to protect the room as well as to cover up what had been there before. The surface of the walls underneath the paint was cement; the roughness, the valleys of cracks and spackled patches — all these were visible, yet when I’d look at the walls, or touch them, I couldn’t help but feel that the cement of the walls was far below the layers of hard enamel. This enamel of the walls reflected any light that fell on them. I can t seem to remember what color the walls were. I’m sure that they were not a bright white; they could have been an off-white or maybe even a light gray.
I remember almost everything else about that room. The ceiling was gray in color, that I’m sure of, and at least a couple of shades lighter than the walls. The paint on the ceiling was continued down on each wall to form a margin three to five inches wide. There was a margin along the floor of each wall as well. It was about the same width, and was painted a dark black enamel. There was a light in the center of the ceiling and the fixture was covered by a glass cover that was fastened by a turn screw in the center. The fixture had two sockets but only one light bulb.
The bed was to the left as you went through the door. The bed ran more than half the length of the left side wall; the small wooden headboard was against the wall that contained the door. There was a picture on the wall above the side of the bed, a still-life scene from an old country kitchen, complete with a ceramic bowl, a jug, and a tin watering can. It hung in a wooden frame with a glass cover. The bed, too, was in a wooden frame, with rollers, and you had to be careful when you sat on it or it would roll against the wall. The bed itself was small but comfortable and, before I slept in it my first night, had been tightly and well made. The sheets were a hard white color, covered by a dark, warm, rough cotton blanket and a heavy bedspread. The pillow never lost its full shape no matter how much I reclined on it. I don't mean to say that it was uncomfortable, but just that it was firm.
The third wall, the wall directly across from the door, was the wall that received most of my attention. This wall was the one that had my window. Windows have an importance, a prominence in any room; more so in a small room. From the window hung a pair of drapes that had the same heavy texture as the bedspread. The window had a wooden sill, and glass which could be raised and opened to the outside — a view of downtown and Broadway below.