Something made me feel good about meeting people at the Y. They were strangers when I got there, and are strangers to me still.
For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself — Romans 14:7
Room #643 was a small and clean room, about ten feet by ten feet.
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.
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.
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.
It’s just that I want to take a picture of you. A picture of a guy in his room.
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.
Sounds like you’re from the South. I’ve never been there — maybe you'll tell me about it. About the people, the smells, the hot steam that’d come off the yards after a summer rain.
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?”
In my mind, as I looked toward the entrance to the showers, I saw a man standing naked with a smile on his face.
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.
Please, let me take your picture. Let me take your picture! I want to see what you think of yourself.
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.
People upstairs and people downstairs. People in the halls, people in the bathrooms. People playing pool and people watching television.
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.
Underneath the window, just above the floor, was a steam heater consisting of a dozen coils painted over with a heavy, silver-colored enamel. A long silver pipe ran up the length of the wall in the right-hand corner.
The wall across from and parallel to the bed stood behind the rest of the room’s furniture. At the end, toward the back wall and near the steam heater, was a bureau made of green sheet metal. It contained a small closet with a shelf and a few hangers, and a dresser that had a flat area on top, a mirror, and several drawers below. Next to the bureau was a small desk about waist high and maybe three feet long. It had stainless steel legs and a table top made of a urethane-covered type of plywood. A single shallow drawer was directly below the top. The chair that accompanied the desk was a hard plastic shell, orange in color. Its shape was one continuous piece. A flat back, a flat bottom, curved under along the edges, and curved where the bottom and back met. Its simple shape suggested that the four legs could just as well have been attached to its back, with the same end result. The night I first entered my room there were several items that had been set on the desk. The Gideon’s Bible, a small clear glass ashtray, and a thin pink bar of soap that had been placed in the ashtray. The ashtray sat atop a tissue for shining shoes.
A white towel always hung on the slim steel rod that was attached to the back of the wooden door. The round doorknob seemed to be as old as the door, and was made of black metal with a slender shaft. The knob was polished and smoothed from other hands. Below the doorknob was a skeleton-key lock that no longer worked. Above the doorknob was a dead bolt. Above the dead bolt, a sliding chain. The door was opened and closed not so much by turning the doorknob, but instead by locking or unlocking the dead bolt.
Just to the right side of the chain lock, on the wall and above the bed, was a small square metal box that housed two electrical outlets and the light switch. The whole unit was covered with the same enamel as the walls. I wish I could remember the color of the walls.
I spent quite a bit of time in my room. To anyone who stays at the Y for more than a couple of days or so, their room must become very important and personal to them. Mine did. You share everything else. Towels are shared, though washed and cleaned first. A new one is given to you every two days or so. You share the sinks in the bathroom. You share views of each other on the toilets and in the showers. At the lunch counter downstairs, the plates and utensils are shared as well as the three jams — the marmalade, strawberry, and the apple butter, which are passed between the diners sitting at the counter.
In the two lounge rooms set aside for watching television, the newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, and the television itself are all shared. For a price your room is your own. A maid may come in every other day. She’ll change the sheets, empty the wastebasket, leave a new towel and a bar of soap. But she doesn’t seem to touch or rearrange any item that you may have placed in the room, whether it be shoes, books, playing cards, papers, or a suitcase. All are found in the same position in which they were left, and the character of the room remains the same. If the room was left messy enough, she wouldn’t come in at all.
The hours spent in my room were never hours spent isolated from the rest of the building. I didn’t want them to be. The sounds and voices of both the street below and the rooms around me were never far away. The sirens, a bus, voices and radios on the sidewalk, a hammer hitting metal; these sounds were outside my window. There were other sounds just beyond my door and walls.
The television set two doors down, which stayed on most of the day. The footsteps and closing of doors outside my room. The almost silent click of the door across the hall, or the forceful slam from the room three doors down and on the right. The footsteps of the man who in the morning would walk down the hall, past my room, knock on his friend’s door to wake him, and then tell him the time: 6:30. The man with the wrenching cough who walked late at night. A deep, thick type of cough that, when started, led to another, and another. The old man who some mornings would walk to the utility sink at the corner of the hall, walking in almost a shuffle, his feet seldom losing contact with the ground. At the sink, getting water in his wastebasket to do his laundry.
The room next to me gave off a different type of music every Friday night. Once jazz. Music from a small room on a Friday evening; a young man, a young black man from the sound of his voice, singing. Perhaps that’s a definition of jazz. Could be he was just sitting on his bed, singing with the radio. I hope not. I like to think that it was his first night in town and that he was getting ready to go out. He had chosen what to wear with almost no hesitation. There was a favorite set of clothes he wore for going out on a Friday night. The shoes, the pants, the shirt, maybe even a tie; they had all been worn together before and had been proven to work.
Looking back now, the singing would stop and the door would open and close, so maybe at that moment before, while he was still singing, maybe he was in front of his mirror adjusting his tie, or maybe he was checking his cigarettes, or if it was to be an important enough night, putting on some aftershave.
Another Friday night, classical music. The next Friday, country. A different music, a different person.
At night I would lie on my bed with my room dark. I could never go right to sleep. I didn’t really mind, though.
Outside my window, down and over a couple of streets, was a bus station. At night the speaker would call out the departures and destinations of the buses. As I lay on my bed, I would follow the buses to each town. El Cajon, El Centro, Yuma, Tucson, Albuquerque, El Paso, St. Louis. From my bed, as I looked out through my window, I could see a large sign which sat atop a building. The sign was red neon at night. It almost seemed to float, not only above the building on which it stood, but it appeared to be much closer to my window than the building itself. This occurred only when the sign was red neon. Lying on my pillow, looking out and slightly turning my head, the drape of the window would cut through different parts of the sign.
At night the steam heater below my window would start working. The silver coils would begin to heat my room while giving off a soft hissing noise. Sometimes water from the steam would gather at the valve, fall on the hot metal of the coils, and make a soft yet harsher noise. My room was very warm.
The first night in my room, the two locks on my door were the dearest objects in the world to me. As I lay on my bed with the lights off, listening to the voices and footsteps that passed in the hail and wondering to whom they belonged, those locks were my security. From what?
The next morning, after waiting for the hall outside to become quiet and for the footsteps to cease, I gathered my things and went to shower. I wore a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and took my towel and soap. I was barefooted. When I reached the bathroom, down the hall and around the corner, an old man stood in the doorway. He had come from the room across the hall. It was the first time I had seen him, but the door to the room was open, the bed unmade, light shining through the window onto the sheets, and a small radio on his table. He wasn’t blocking the entrance to the bathroom; he was leaning through the doorway, the door resting against the side of his body. He was getting a cup of water from the sink. The sink was just the other side of the door, on the corner to the left.
He wore only underwear, made of a thin yellow material styled after a pair of loose-fitting Bermuda shorts. The skin on his back was a pale white, the only hint of a darker pigment being a few moles and several red blotches. The skin on his body was loosely hung, the only exception being his head, which, when compared to the rest of his frame, seemed to be rather large. The skin was tighter but was not any darker, as if his head had not received any more light than the rest of his body.
As I tilted the door and slipped by him, he made every effort to keep from being seen. His body hugged tightly against the doorway, his face lowered against his chest. He rinsed his cup several times, at last filled it, then went across the hall to his room. As he hurried, some of the water from his cup spilled on the floor.
The shower area was separated from the rest of the bathroom by a tiled wall, which went from ceiling to floor and had a single walk-through entrance. Inside the area there were three shower heads and three soap dishes, which were filled with the cold soapy water from previous showers. All the walls were tiled, a single glass-encased light on the ceiling and a drain on the floor. There were a few wooden pegs for hanging clothes and towels, on the outside of the wall to the left of the entrance. A small wooden bench sat below. If you entered the bathroom within fifteen minutes or so of the last shower, the shower area would be filled with steam and it would be drifting out through the opening of the partition, and onto the mirrors and the rest of the bathroom.
The entire bathroom was clean and well kept, and it had a smell that reminded me of my grandfather and the bathroom at his house, a combination of cleanser, aftershave, and standing water or mildew. The bathroom had three large windows that, when opened, gave a clear view of the harbor. You could look out and watch the airplanes landing at Lindbergh Field.
The bathroom was empty now and I started to undress. I folded my pants and laid them on the wooden bench. My shirt and towel I placed on the wooden pegs. I walked through the partition and into the shower area. I turned on the water and it quickly became hot; then the steam began to fill the room.
As I washed, then rinsed my hair, I kept my eyes tightly shut and they began to hurt. I showered very fast. As my eyes were closed I felt the water running over my face, my heart beating, and myself feeling that I wished I were stronger. Physically stronger. My chest threw out a bit, my shoulders slid back, I stood a little straighter. A picture began to form in my mind. I saw myself standing under the shower and opening my eyes. In my mind, as I looked toward the entrance to the showers, I saw a man standing naked with a smile on his face. Not a friendly smile, but a smile that scared me.
The whole time I was at the Y I never had another person walk in and use the shower alongside me. By the time I left the Y, I was even taking enough time to rinse all the soap off and to dry the center of my back.
One Friday night someone killed himself. I heard about it the next morning while I was having breakfast in the coffeeshop downstairs. They said that it had happened early in the morning, before dawn. He had been a young law student who had checked in just that night. He jumped from the window of his room on the sixth floor. My room was on the sixth floor, and I never heard a thing. While I was sleeping, somebody down the hall was jumping out a window. I wondered if I had seen him or walked by him the night before.
The sixth floor? When I had first gotten my room, I had walked over to the window, lifted it, and had looked down. The question had crossed my mind, if a person wanted to do it, if this would be high enough to kill yourself by jumping. It had seemed to me, though, that a person wouldn’t be quite sure whether he'd kill himself or just get badly hurt, maybe cripple himself. You'd have to plan it out a little bit, to land pretty much on your head. That would do it. You could go up to the roof; that would put you about another floor and a half higher. But if you did that, you'd have to think about it on your way up there and you might change your mind. It’d lose its spontaneity, its impulse. That'd be my problem. I'd think about it too much. I wonder what he thought about. While he was opening the window, while he climbed through the window, or maybe he just ran and jumped through it. That way you wouldn't have to look down to the street below. You'd be committed. I wonder what he thought of as he was falling. Was he smiling, was he at last peaceful? I hope so. I hate to think that he had changed his mind. How long did it take? Could he see the ground rushing toward him? Were the lights of downtown flashing by him in a blur? The street lights, the headlights, a light in a room on the fourth floor. When he hit the ground, could he feel that? Is that when it all stopped? Or were death and the fall not quite synchronized — and he had to lie on the sidewalk a couple of minutes to let death catch up. Maybe you just jump out a window and die.
People upstairs and people downstairs. People in the halls, people in the bathrooms. People playing pool and people watching television. There were people out on the street, not just on the street, but a part of the street; and people in the coffeeshop. There are people who stay at the Y for only one night, and people who call it home. The Y is open twenty-four hours and has never closed its doors in more than forty years. There wouldn’t be a YMCA on Broadway without people. Therefore, it is about people.
At the Y there is a beauty, and I’ll even say that there is a type of magic. For when two strangers meet over a cup of coffee or a game of pool, and talk and share their ideas and even dreams, then that’s close enough to magic for me.
Something made me feel good about meeting people at the Y. They were strangers when I got there, and are strangers to me still. There are a few people I think about quite often and would be glad to meet again some other time. I would shake their hand strongly and would want to hear how they were, where they had been, and what they had seen. This is a feeling that does not grow out of a long friendship, but one that forms from being strangers, talking and sharing a few things. It is as dear as many friendships. These people told me of places and events I had neither seen nor heard. They made me think and wonder, and I feel better for having had the chance to have met them.
I didn’t talk to every person I saw. Probably just as well. Some people you simply nod your head to, say hello, and go on. Maybe you do it once or twice a day. That’s good enough. You both have made sure that the other person is alive and at least aware. It’s better than walking around in a trance with your eyes focused on the ground.
“Hey, you wanna shoot a game of pool?" It’s a Saturday night, you’ve got a Navy uniform on, and your face has no smile. You don’t look twenty-one, so you can’t go to a bar. What are you thinking about? A girl? Your mom? Or your car back home that your younger brother is driving now. Spent all summer working just to buy that car. Then all of a sudden it was the first September in your life that you didn’t have to go back to school. A couple of high school buddies had enlisted in the Army, even though you had sworn a few years before that you’d never be caught dead in the military. Mom and dad kept asking what you were going to do with your life; Navy pays good, and here you are.
I heard you ask someone for a cigarette earlier; sounds like you’re from the South. I’ve never been there — maybe you'll tell me about it. About the people, the smells, the hot steam that’d come off the yards after a summer rain. Tell me about how you’d wash your girlfriend’s hair after you had gone swimming in the pond. What color was her hair?
Besides, I’ve spent seventy-five cents, banging the last three quarters’ worth of balls in by myself. Grab a cue. I don’t give a damn who wins. I’ve had enough coffee already and pool beats the hell out of television. “What's your name?"
“Have you got a quarter, maybe forty cents that I could borrow? You see I...” You don't need to tell me the story. It most likely isn’t true anyway. I’d give you a quarter without the story. I'd give you the money even if I listened to your story and afterward you told me it was a lie.
You see, I can’t imagine what it would be like for me to be you, to have to ask a stranger for a quarter. I just can't picture it. I don’t want to picture it. I always seem to have more change than I know what to do with. Quarters and dimes aren't so bad — it’s those pennies and nickels that drive me crazy. But that’s a privilege, isn't it? I've always had enough, more than enough. Who knows, though, maybe some day I’ll end up where you are. If you need to ask. I'll give it to you. If you ask me again tomorrow. I’ll give you a quarter then, too. The day after that also. That’s when I draw the line, though. After that it is going to cost you. I’ll give you the quarter but you'll have to sit and spend some time with me. You'll have to talk to me for a while. You’ll tell me where you stay each night and what you eat. You must eat something because there’s food caught in your teeth and stains on the front of your shirt. You’ll tell me about the places you’ve seen and if there was once a wife and children. I don’t think you’re a drunk. I just think that things didn't work out quite the way you planned. You don’t know this, but I’m getting the best of this deal. What you will tell me is priceless. I wouldn’t dare put a price on it. “Sure. Here's fifty cents.“
“Would you like to share an order of French fries with me? I'll buy. Maybe we'll get some chocolate ice cream afterward.'' You see it’s my eighty-second birthday today and, well, you seem to be a nice enough young man. We’ve had a few conversations at this lunch counter. Some over breakfast, some over dinner. You almost always have that camera with you, too. I’ve watched you. You’ll be sitting, eating, then all of a sudden you get up, walk over with your camera, and take a picture of a guy and a gal over by the jukebox. Makes me smile every time. Looks like fun. You don't just listen, but you talk. You help me remember the past, when I was young; and you help me forget about the future.
I’ve only taken you back as far as when I was in the Navy. I was a lieutenant on a Naval LST. A real fine ship. I married while I was in the Navy, and when I got out my wife and I opened and operated a small drugstore in the Midwest. I put in a soda fountain and everything. I worked real hard in that store — both day and night. I worked hard as hell. Not so much to make money and be rich; but I was just real proud of that little place. It was my own, and I figured what little extra I did make I could keep around for my retirement. Well, I didn’t make too much extra. My wife died and I moved in with my younger sister. We shared a little house up until about a year ago. Then she started to get a little senile, and she just up and decided to go move in with her son and his family. I feel sorry for her son. Myself, I couldn’t afford the rent of the house on just my own Social Security, so here I am. It isn’t so bad. It’s a real nice place. Rooms are nice. Food is good. People are friendly. Especially down here in the coffeeshop. That one cook, for example. Oh, I know he wears an earring and he acts a little funny, you know, but I think he’s getting better.
You’ve probably noticed that I only have one change of clothes. My dark suit here, dark-blue sweater underneath. A shirt and my tie, too. My sweater has some stains down the front of it. That’s because I drool sometimes when I eat. Oh, I know you’ve seen me do it. It’s due to my dentures. They don’t fit quite right. Sometimes I’ll be chewing and the food and spit will just fall out. Sometimes on my sweater, sometimes on the floor. Yeah, I’m sure you’ve seen it. But it doesn’t seem to bother you like it does the others. I thank you for that. It wasn’t always like this. When I was younger, maybe twenty-five or so and looking forward to getting older, I never thought I’d be living at a YMCA. I guess I never really expected to make it to eighty-two, either. But here I am. "Here, you eat the large fries and I’ll eat the small ones. These dentures are hurting a little today."
"Excuse me, would you mind if I took your picture?"
If I knew the answer to that, I swear I’d tell you. But I don’t, so I’ll just tell you that I’m staying here at the Y for a while and that I just like taking pictures of people and the places I go. It’s for myself. I’m not a cop, an FBI agent, or a private detective. You sound like the guys out on the sidewalk. They’ve watched too much television and they think that they’re more important and dangerous than they really are. But they’ve got me fooled because I think they’re pretty tough, too. It’s just that I want to take a picture of you. A picture of a guy in his room. A picture of anybody. Because, you see, I just want to see what’s out there. And taking pictures gives me an excuse to go out and see and to look. To see what places are like. These places in my head, that I have never seen before. This camera is just an excuse to walk up to you, to get close enough so that you have to acknowledge me; close enough so that I can smell you and see the lines in your eyes. If I just walked up and told you all that, you’d think I was crazy, and I probably wouldn’t argue it. But it’s a good enough excuse for me so it’s gonna have to be good enough for you.
So please, let me take your picture. Let me take your picture! I want to see what you think of yourself. If you’re proud and sure, you’ll look right at me. If you’re scared and are wishing to hell that I would leave you alone, that I’d let you live in your shell and not have to be looked at or asked a question or an opinion, then you’ll turn away. You’ll turn and you’ll laugh. Because you feel that I’m taking something away from you. I’m stealing something, that when somebody looks at that picture, they’ll see past that front that you’ve worked so damn hard to perfect. The one we all work on, from the time we first look in a mirror till the time we die. It’s only a damn picture, I know that. It’s only a fraction of a second and both you and I know how many fractions of a second there are in a lifetime. The picture I take is worth nothing compared to what you’ve been through, what we’ve all been through. A photograph isn’t worth a damn compared to the guts and soul that have gone into your life or anybody else’s. I know that. What this camera is going to see is nothing that any other person hasn’t seen before. The light, the expression, even that so-called emotion that drips out of a picture that makes me lie awake at night. It’s all been seen before; it’s seen every day. It’s just that when I look at you, what you’re wearing, at the way you stand, the look on your face, the way you move: What are you doing here? Don’t you know that everything in your life has led you right to here?
If you say no. I’ll just turn around and never ask you again. What right do I have to ask you, anyway? You’ve got your own world. Why should I come busting in on it? It’s my problem, not yours. You know it seems that sometimes I can’t even take pictures of the people I know. There’s a bond there when strangers start to become close—you’re here and I’m here, let’s talk, show each other that we’re still alive—but don’t get too close, don’t ask too much, because we’re each gonna go our own ways, life gets rough enough at times, let alone trying to carry a load of memories, "I've been afraid too long -I'm trying to make my life as easy as I can. So please, don't ask to take my picture. Just talk.”
So either say yes or no. Better yet, don’t say anything right now. Just nod your head or something. Don’t ask me who I am or what I’m doing. Right now I don’t know. I'm just here because I wondered what it was like inside the Y and wanted to see for myself. You don’t know how important it is for me to see things for myself. Don’t ask me what kind of camera it is or what film I use. This is the only camera I own and the only film I’ve ever used. And please, stay as still as you can, because right now my hands are shaking and my heart is trying to get through to my fingers. I just want to hide behind my camera and look at you for a second. It makes me feel so alive. And you don’t know it, but you’ve never been more alive than when I take your picture. So stay still. I’ll forget what I saw as soon as I push the shutter. I always do.