Sonia: "Even guys who usually swear will say when they hear someone cussing, ’Watch your tongue. There’s a baby around here.’"
State Hotel Deli, E & State, Saturday morning, handsome, middle-aged Carlos—who doesn’t live at the State Hotel anymore but comes by the deli on weekends to drink coffee, read the paper, then have a beer—commandeers the counter’s end seat. “So, where’s Mama Sofia this morning? Out shopping?”
State Hotel. "The State’s a magnet, it draws people back. If I’m away for two weeks, I’m miserable."
“Shopping,” he’s told. “Mama Sofia’s shopping.” The red-nosed man who tells him lives upstairs on the third floor. This morning, as always, on the counter before him, “red-nose” spreads the Racing Form.
Next to his Form, he has Camels—“hump-backs.” Shakes the pack, says to the woman one stool over, who complains she’s left her cigarettes in her room, “Wanna bum a hump-back?”
“Thanks,” she does. “Upstairs,” she points to the ceiling, “everybody’s sleeping.”
Two stools down, trembling Jimmy drinks a Bud: "From Bernardino," he observes, to no one in particular. "Just came from Bernardino. Had my head caved in there. Metaphorically." Jimmy’s scuffed boot kicks rhythmically at an Army-green backpack by his stool.
Deli. Through the deli’s wide plate-glass window, across E, shadow darkens the backside of Hotel San Diego’s six stories.
He’d once read, Jimmy goes on, "every page of The Egyptian Book of the Dead. I had time in that stage of my life I was in a confined quarters, was a captured audience.”
"Mmm," says Carlos, not glancing up from the Union B section, which covers his brown face.
Through the deli’s wide plate-glass window, across E, shadow darkens the backside of Hotel San Diego’s six stories. A woman’s face looks down from a top-floor window onto E Street, where people pass. People busy making a living, bringing up children, paying off mortgages. Not one of them peeks beneath the State Hotel’s DELI sign, into the open door.
Outside view. "Is a nice place. Is a nice hotel. Right, Sofia?"
There is no long oak bar here, just off the entrance foyer, with a man behind it polishing glasses. But the floors have been scrubbed, the robin's-egg-blue formica counter swabbed, and early this morning, Mama Sofia, the State Hotel and State Hotel Deli’s seventy-seven-year-old owner (who took over the half-block complex in the late Seventies after her sister died), made sure that the potted wandering jew (a pink plastic rose stuck in its soil) got water.
Baby Abram Isaac. "They treat her a lot different because of the baby ’n’ all."
"So, where’d you say you come from?" the woman who bummed a hump-back asks Jimmy.
"Bernardino. Had to get away. I loved Harry Truman, and I loved his grandson. But he was getting flaky on me. So I give him money to go back"
"What ya wanna hear on the juke?" somebody nobody knows asks.
"No juke here," he's told.
"Your eyes are what color?" the woman questions Jimmy.
"When things are chaotic for me, pell mell, helter skelter, my eyes turn green. But I’ve been treatin' myself good since the government paid me some of the money they owed me."
Mama Sofia with Abram Isaac. "Mama Sofia’s helped me ever since. When I go back to the cleaner’s Monday, I’m going to have to hit her up for two dollars."
"Is a nice place. Is a nice hotel. Right, Sofia? Nice hotel." Carlos addresses his rhetorical question to Mama Sofia's daughter, also named Sofia, a pale woman in middle age who speaks little English. The daughter Sofia has traveled from Greece, where she was born, to help her mother. Behind the counter, next to the plate-glass window, daughter Sofia sits on — inhabits — a straight chair, a sheet she is mending spread over the lap of her print cotton housedress. To catch the midmorning light, she has set the chair at a right angle to the counter, an arrangement that has her facing Carlos.
Behind her, a sign on the wall offers:
- Tall Can Beer $1.25
- Can Pop $1.00
- White Port Wine $2.50
- Red " " $2.50
Christening day. "They moved the christening party to a McDonald’s, ate breakfast there, visited for a long time."
"I've just done the country, from the East coast to the West." Jimmy, no longer trembling, drains his beer.
"Things are really terrible. It’s a squeeze play. Ronnie knocked her up the first time, the first lady. It's humorous to me, the first lady"
"What’s more humorous than that," Carlos lifts out the sports section, "is that not many people know that Ronald Reagan’s grandfather was an illegal alien. He came in from Canada. That’s no big deal, you know. People put too much emphasis on things that don’t have any significance."
Jimmy slides down from his stool, shoulders his backpack, hurries across E toward Broadway. Nobody says good-bye.
Steps from the second and third floors (on which there are perhaps fifty rooms) lead down to an interior door that opens into the deli. Walk in and you see first the twenty-stool lunch counter. Past that, along the east wall, a cash register and glass coffee pot. Farther into the room stands a glass-doored cooler, stocked with beer, wine, pop, milk. Beyond that, where sun never comes, are tables and chairs, a television set. Mama Sofia’s kitchen — stove, refrigerator, deep sink — takes up the southwest corner. In an alcove on the west wall are displayed a tall crucifix and two framed portraits of Jesus. The smaller shows him as the youthful, longhaired carpenter’s son. In the larger, he has garnered his crown of thorns.
Short hair wet from a shower in one of the upstairs hall bathrooms, freckle-faced Chris hoists herself onto a stool, straddles it with sturdy legs clad in loose jeans. Her plaid shirt buttons over breasts whose soft curve lends poignant contrast to the squared shoulders straining plaid. "Carlos, even though he moved, he comes back here. Don’t you, Carlos?"
Carlos nods agreement. "So how’s Sonia doing?" he asks Chris. "How’s her baby? When’s it coming home from the hospital?"
The baby, Carlos explains, was born here — "premature" — in an upstairs bathroom. Weighed only two pounds, four ounces. Chris, in her room that morning, heard Sonia’s calls for help, ran to the bathroom, and found Sonia holding a baby. Chris pulled a sheet off a bed in which to wrap the tiny, almost fleshless infant. Someone dialed 911 on the pay phone. Another tenant held the infant, comforted Sonia while she delivered the placenta.
"Soon, the baby’s comin’ home soon" Chris lights a cigarette, notes in her husky drawl that the baby, yesterday, weighed maybe three pounds, that he’s in intermediary care.
Chris, thirty-six, is a presser at a dry cleaner’s. "Hot work. One thing I can say I'm good at, I’m a good presser."
Since 1979, Chris has known the hotel’s owner, Mama Sofia. "I was working at the Seven Seas [a laundry/dry cleaners once quartered in the Hotel San Diego]. I saw Mama one day, she was sweeping the sidewalk. I waved at her. She waved back."
Mama Sofia, born in Turkey in 1912, is Greek. A widow, she has four sons (at least two of whom live in San Diego) and the one daughter, her namesake, the pale Sofia, and grandchildren. Mama has an apartment on the hotel’s bottom floor.
In 1980, Chris and her girlfriend moved in upstairs, lived here a few months, then moved to O.B. In 1982, Chris, by herself, moved back. "Mama Sofia’s helped me ever since. When I go back to the cleaner’s Monday, I’m going to have to hit her up for two dollars. To get to work. I’ll pay her when I get my check. She knows it.”
About herself, Chris allows she’s been all over. Born in Indiana, raised on a Tennessee farm. Eleven sisters and brothers. "She didn’t waste no time, did she?" says Chris about her mother. "My dad’s an alcoholic. I haven’t seen him in ten years. Don’t even know if he’s alive."
Carlos winces in sympathy.
"But you know, I don’t even care. I got a nice room. Have ever’thing I need, right here" She gives the counter a good smack.
This hotel, Chris and Carlos agree, has "been a pretty popular place," and it’s usually almost full. Chris: "People who lived here four or five years ago still pop in. 'Hey, Chris, you still here?' they’ll ask me. ‘Sure,’ I say, ‘sure’ People who stayed here tend to come back."
"It’s the people," says Carlos.
"The State’s a magnet, it draws people back. If I’m away for two weeks," Chris draws her lipstickless mouth into a pout, "I’m miserable"
Carlos says it again: "It’s the people."
"She’s reasonable here. It’s a drinking place, but you can eat " Chris nods toward the doorway, through which a smiling, moon-faced Hispanic woman — bosom crisscrossed with charm-studded necklaces — shuffles, pushing a cart. Chris explains that the woman, who gets a monthly check, is housed and fed by Mama Sofia — as are many hotel residents. "And Mama's one hell of a cook! Makes a hell of a spaghetti dinner!"
Chris pauses for a moment. "I’m a heavy drinker," she says forthrightly. "Mama’s always here for me. Always. Gets mad at me. ’Sum-peech,’ she’ll say to me. Then, after a little bit, she’ll turn around and giggle, start laughing.
“But if you say anything against Jesus, she’ll tell you to get out." Chris points toward the crucifix, the portraits of Jesus, "If Jesus ever had a sister, it would have been Mama. That’s how close she is to him.
"She don’t miss a thing. She knows everybody who comes through that door. Some of the crazies," Chris exhales a thin spume of smoke, coughs, rattling phlegm deep in her chest, "they get her upset. She’ll throw ’em out if she has to, with her broom. And she’s got muscles!”
Carlos stacks his newspaper, lights a cigarette; its smokestream joins Chris’s, drifting out the door. "Mama takes the bus, goes to the market. Walks. Hauls back fifty, sixty pounds of groceries."
"An’ I’ll pick up those same groceries,” Chris stands down off her stool, mimes lifting up shopping bags, then lets her shoulders fall, as if dragged down. "I’ll go over like this. An' she’s just a little bitty thing. When I put my arm around her, she’s way down here." Chris’s hand indicates a height reaching not far above her own shirt pocket.
From a ledge near the coffee pot, the moon-faced woman, necklaces jangling, takes a box of corn flakes, shakes the flakes into a bowl, pours milk. She sits — heavily — on a chair, bowl under her chin, and spoons cereal.
Patty — dark haired, short, wiry — slips through the door on the arm of a man in jeans and shirt who has the morning paper under his free arm.
“Patty don’t live here," says Chris by way of introduction, "but she comes here."
After Patty has poured coffee for herself and the man, she pulls herself up onto a stool next to Chris, who asks.
"You gonna buy me a wine?"
Patty’s friend Jack — ("From Boston. Been out here fifteen years") — offers to buy white port, hands Chris three ones. Chris pays Sofia’s daughter, lifts a bottle from the cooler, then rushes toward the door. She looks back, grinning. “See you guys later" she teases.
Chris and Patty cut their port with water. Chris swallows, grimaces.
"I’m not a port drinker," notes Patty. "I’m a whiskey drinker. Whiskey or rum Coke."
A dark-haired, dark-eyed man, neat jean jacket and jeans swathing his compact frame, pours himself coffee. "Hey, Bobby," Chris waves. Bobby — who, Chris explains, drives a cab — takes a table in the back and is joined by Carlos.
The two women, who have been friends "lots of years," talk about a night when they got to "screaming and yelling.”
"We didn’t hit each other. It was all verbal. But she," Chris indicates Patty (who giggles), "called the cops on me and told ’em I had a knife. The cops came down. An’ she was leanin’ on that meter over there," Chris points through the window to a parking meter on E, "and I’m bein’ frisked for somethin’ I didn’t have — a knife"
"I was goin’ inside to have another drink." Patty laughs. "An’ the cops ended up takin’ me to detox."
"We didn’t speak for a week. But it was funny. Really funny”
"That’s the first time I ever called the police on anyone in my life." Patty lights a cigarette from the pack Jack’s laid between them. "We really are a pretty tight family unit down here"
"At Christmas," says Chris, "if I can get Leo, Mama Sofia’s boy, to get a Christmas tree, we put it over here — by the cash register."
For Mama’s birthday, the hotel’s tenants used to take up a collection. The most they ever gathered was $120. "We got her a nice sweater. She likes pizza. So we got her a pizza and a cake with her name on it in Greek. But two years ago," Chris frowns, "a certain person put a hand in there and drew out all the money."
Chris motions toward the woman who, having eaten her corn flakes, takes from the cart at her side a puzzle magazine and a pencil. She licks the pencil and, humming, begins to fill in empty squares. "If it weren’t for Mama, people like her would be on the street.
"Everybody here," Chris offers, "calls Sofia Mama.’ All us people here are her kids. If somebody gets sick, she’s always there. Run out of your job and you don’t pay your rent for a month? She’ll feed you without getting paid for it. She’ll trust you for it. Some people complain about the place. But there’re always those.”
"So, how’s Sonia?" asks Patty. "How’s her baby?"
Chris gives the news. The baby’s "comin’ home soon."
Talk turns to a woman living here who cries out in the night. "Sometimes she doesn’t let you sleep five, six nights in a row," says Chris. "Some mornings, she’s my alarm clock. And I appreciate it. Because about the time she hollers, I should get up anyway. Shower."
"Somebody, back somewhere," Patty stubs out her cigarette, "sure fucked her over."
"Everybody’s got problems. Some go insane. Others drink like me," suggests Chris.
Patty’s dreamed about her oldest child, now twenty-two years old.
"I wish I was still back in those days," and having said that, Chris looks down at the counter, frowns.
The mailman stands by the cash register and hands over mail to the daughter Sofia. Chris jumps up, sorts through the letters, slips back — empty-handed — onto her stool. "You know those ads, with the pictures of the kids on them?" asks Chris. "The ads that say, under the picture of a kid, ‘Have you seen me?’ We get lots of those. 'Have you seen me?’ ” Chris repeats the question, grows quiet.
"Full-grown adult orphans," says Patty, "that’s what we are"
The daughter Sofia adjusts her seat to the near-noon, sharper slant of light angling down through the top of the plate-glass window. From the room’s dark far edges, near the young carpenter Jesus, Carlos and Bobby’s murmurous talk drifts.
"Do me a favor until Friday?" Chris, her voice tight, asks Jack. "Two-fifty? For a wine? You know I pay my bills" Jack hands the cash to Chris, who takes a notebook from her shirt pocket, writes. "I get paid Friday, Jack. If I don’t see you, I’ll give it to Patty."
"Then I’ll never see it," Jack laughs.
Patty jumps up. "Here comes Mama Sofia."
She stands, outlined in the door: a gnome of a woman. Shopping bags, brown sacks, weigh her down. Gray hair. Aquiline nose. Pin-point dark irises rapidly travel the room.
Carlos, Bobby, Chris, daughter Sofia, lift bags out of her grasp, draw sacks from the crook of an arm. Empty-handed, she straightens. The soles of her too-large brown slippers scuffing the floor in her hurry, she zigzags — long skirt flying — around tables, disappears into the kitchen.
Having set Mama's packages on a shelf by the refrigerator, Chris and Patty return to the counter. Patty takes from her purse a package of cinnamon Red Hots, rips it, pops several in her mouth, pushes the package toward Chris.
From the kitchen, Mama Sofia’s voice pours out a torrent, a cataract of Greek-accented English, then only Greek. Her daughter Sofia answers, alto to her mother’s shrill treble. Their duet rises, falls, rises again, ebbs, accompanied by the refrigerator opening, closing, by pan lids clashing atop pans. These are the sounds of a kitchen whose windows look out onto hills on whose incline rise olives, figs, lemon trees, and vines.
"After a while," Chris confides, letting wine trickle into her glass, "you get so you can understand her English. And talk about your great stories! I don’t even pick up a drink, listening to Mama, when she gets in the mood to talk."
Next morning, Sunday, the Union lies scattered across the counter. The daughter Sofia, at the counter’s far end, studies Lotto tickets, speaks — in Greek — with her mother, who, perched next to the cash register, studies the room’s occupants. So short that her feet dangle far above the floor. Mama wears men’s dark socks and a pink petticoat whose edge falls an inch past her dress’s hem. Bobby pins hold a twist of gray hair at the back of her head. Saying her legs ache, she puts her feet up on the stool closest to her. Pulls up the pink slip, housedress, displaying her knotted varicose veins, and with hands as knotted as the legs, she sighs, massages her calves.
The necklaced woman, cart beside her, licks her pencil, fills blanks in an Add-A-Word puzzle magazine. Chris with one hand holds her forehead, with the other hand, a cup. Carlos, at a table, sips wine from a Coors can, watches a football game on TV. At Carlos’s usual stool, by the front door, drinking coffee, sits white-bearded, heavyset Johnny, whose open-necked shirt reveals, growing out of florid skin, a V of white curls.
Around the counter’s corner is Mike. Hair crewcut, profile sharp, thin black mustache, arms burn-scarred, Mike grasps a coffee cup. He mutters: "I’m not tootin’ my own horn. I was executed for the crime of the century to steal my three twin boys. Goebbels was cooperating with Hitler. Oh," he gazes, in apparent despair, to the pot of wandering jew, touches its pink plastic rose. "I’m not a genius, but the cheapskates in La Jolla, California, don’t care. Beauty cries of the might-have-been things and the may-be-still. I’ll use a Hollywood buyer"
Only Johnny watches Mike — whose scarred hands mold, in air, elusive figures. "Even the whores of Fifth and Broadway give their babies to the nuns. And the Augustinian Fathers and an Apostolic delegate will teach. But business is business, and so goes the law of the land. La Jolla, California, sometimes your stupidity is only exceeded by your profundity." He lights a cigarette, exhales a stream of smoke out the open door. "Envy the sailor. But not so much of the days of yesteryear as opposed to the days when we cried mañana! A faggot could not do what I have done to protect La Jolla, California."
"Watch your language. It’s Sunday,” Johnny admonishes.
"That was Hitler’s favorite day," Mike answers pleasantly, without looking Johnny’s way. "My language is beautiful compared to what goes on in my mind. Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep?" He lifts his scarred arms. Tips back his head, rolls his dark eyes to the ceiling. "See what I got from disobeying the Fuhrer. My legs were much, much worse after Vietnam. Rabbis and priests selling rosaries outside Lourdes. And outside Denmark."
"Did you go there for a sex change?" Johnny chuckles.
"Not yet." Again, he raises his arms. "You see what I got, for disobeying the Fuhrer! Oooooh! It might take me twenty-one years to find my innocence.
"Trying to run the Jews out of Germany. It always ends in far worse catastrophe Let alone three twin boys, supposedly alive.
"I want a theologian to tell me why I'm breathing.
"Business is business, without seeing the children. Business is business, without seeing the wonders of the world. Now we are invited by the royalty of Rome." Mike slips off his seat. "Well, back to business," he says and rushes out to the street where he stands beneath late morning’s vast sunshine, hands raised to sky.
What happened to Mike, says Johnny, who’s moved to a back table near the kitchen, happened in a hospital in Vietnam. He was in an oxygen tent that blew up, and his body was "burnt up, scarred." Army doctors performed skin grafts. "Now," says Johnny, "he’s had difficulty with the government, trying to get money. Because you can’t sue the government.” Mike, says Johnny, has had trouble "trying to adjust, trying to make both ends meet. He did live here, at the hotel, off and on, but now he doesn’t.”
About the "three twin boys," Johnny explains: "Claims he had triplets. That somebody took them from him. People think he’s crazy. But he’s far from crazy. He’s damned smart. But most people, smartness, they don’t understand. Smartness is having money in their pocket. You can be Einstein, but if you’re penniless, that means you’re ignorant. Life. As long as you have money in your pocket, you’re smart...
"Mama." Johnny calls out, "what you going to have for lunch?"
"Nothing," Sofia shouts, continuing to rub her legs.
"Nothing." Johnny shakes his big head, lets his arms rest on the shelf his belly makes. "Nothing. For lunch.”
Connecticut, originally, Johnny came from. Drove truck for years. Decided one day he’d better quit shoveling snow. Threw his snow shovel away, his skid chains, settled in San Diego.
"Was working in the moving industry. Hurt my leg. Got disability for a couple of years, then got onto social security. Been retired, now, ten years. No family. No brothers. No sisters"
He’s ended up at the State, says Johnny, on four or five occasions. As long as ten years ago, when Mama Sofia’s sister owned the hotel, was the first time he stayed here.
"Her sister was a businesswoman. Her sister who passed away. She owned this place. Owned a lot of property. Best dress she owned, she probably paid thirty-five cents in the Salvation Army for. But she made it. Made it big. She was a smart businesswoman. Everything she invested in, the city wound up buying. She had the Shaw Hotel across the street, where they built Columbia Towers. When they wanted to build Columbia Towers, I don’t know what she got. Probably a million. Yup, Sofia’s sister got a big price for that hotel. What happened to all the money? Probably got it in the mattresses somewhere.”
Used to be. Johnny was a big drinker. He’s "more or less" quit. "Financially strapped, and too sick to be drinkin’ day in and day out. Sixty-eight years old. It’s just too much for me.
"The reason I come here, I was stayin’ in a place on the other side of town. All they speak is Mexican. I had three congestive heart failures, and I couldn’t get them to call the paramedics because they couldn’t understand English. So that made it a bad deal. So I got out of that, got out of the hospital, came down here. Because at least they speak English down here." He chuckles. "Well, some." He adds, looking across the room at Mama Sofia and her daughter. "They understand a lot more English than they pretend."
He’s been here, this time, two weeks. "My room, it’s eight-by-twelve at the most. When I checked in, I took a small room — sixty-five a week. There was a bed in it, a table, no chest of drawers, no closet. Not as large as a jail cell. You clean your own room. They do give you sheets, towels, but no soap. When I picked up my stuff to bring over here, I couldn’t even fit it in that room. So I had to pay an extra ten dollars to get more room. An’ view? You’re lookin’ inside somebody else’s window. Even these front rooms up here, on E, they look into the back of the Hotel San Diego.
"I’m gettin’ out. I can’t handle it. I don’t need the aggravation. I’m in a room next to a woman who’s a mental case. Screams all night. I know she’s sick. She can’t help it. But the rest of them come down here, drink wine, they get just as crazy, if not crazier.
"One of these girls told me, ’I wish you dropped dead. I wished you died while you were in the hospital.’ What kinda talk is that?
"Another one says. 'If I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t leave here. I love this place.’ She hasn’t paid her rent. Why wouldn’t she love the place? If I didn’t have to pay rent, I’d love this place too.
"But it’s a hornet’s nest. Fights all the time. Screaming. General chaos. But Sofia — the old lady — likes it because people are buyin' beer and wine. Six-pack of beer here costs seven dollars and fifty cents. You buy the same six-pack uptown — four dollars. She’s got a wrapped-in clientele. Nothin’ we can do. If you’re out of money, she gives you credit so you can spend more money"
"Is a funny situation, this place." says Gloria, an attractive thirtyish Latina who’s sat down opposite Johnny. Gloria has lived here for two weeks and, like Johnny, has lived here several times before. "I know what it’s like. He tells the truth. Some way or another, someone here always ruin your day. But you know, I’m not used to being entertained anyway.’"
Mama Sofia and daughter Sofia’s high-pitched talk rises as Mama Sofia looks toward Johnny. He isn’t tops, he guesses, on Mama Sofia’s list of favorites. "She used to like to have me in here. But at one time I was a big drinker. So she figured when I came back this trip, I’d be the same way, but I haven’t been."
And Johnny doesn’t like Patty, who sits, this morning, at the counter next to Chris. He wouldn’t, he says, "take that one, Patty, to a dog fight." Chris, he allows, "when she’s sober, she’s a good kid.
"Sonia, she's a nice girl. Her little baby, he's going to be christened soon. I’m hopin’ the ceremony won’t be until after the first, so I’ll have the money to buy the baby something.
"Sonia might tell you she likes it here. They treat her a lot different because of the baby ’n’ all. They let her use the kitchen. If I went in there, they'd toss me right out. This is gonna be my last week here. Like I say, 'How do you know you’re not in hell now?’ ”
Out of doors, all around the hotel — on the federal courthouse steps, from the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s barred windows, from Columbia Towers and the condominiums across State Street, from the Hotel San Diego’s service entrance where janitors stand, smoking, and the Hotel Lamon, next door — a Sunday afternoon drowsiness prevails.
Carlos keeps one eye on the football game, listens, across the table, to dark-eyed Greek Bobby, the cab driver. "For this town that used to be so quiet....” Bobby shakes his head, sighs. "Not before, it did not scare me to drive a cab. But now. If I say ’No, I am not scared,’ that means I don’t care for my safety." Bobby, thirty-seven, has lived upstairs for about a year. He thinks he looks older than his age because of hard times he’s been through. "Hard times like every other survivor would go through, just life"
"Last night," says Carlos, "I was thinking about people I've met down here. There’s for instance this one guy, he owns a nice house somewhere around town. He comes down here, rents a room for a week or two weeks, drinks, sobers up, then goes home.”
Bobby nods, lights one of Carlos’s cigarettes. "I’ve met a few alcoholics down here. They go somewhere just to get smashed. They make sure they’re dry when they go home. But that kind of person who drinks day after day. drink after drink, week after week, for them, drink becomes a disease. The big question is the thing that causes this — this need to drink.
"For her," Bobby indicates at the counter a woman who complains loudly of a hangover, "I don’t think it’s any hope. It’s a question of help."
“She has to want that help," Carlos says.
“My mama used to say what's very common-sense Greek philosophy. 'If you sleep with a blind person, it is a very strong possibility you will get up blind.' “
Bobby's mother died young. "Very young. That is why she also believed, ‘The good ones go first.' " He takes a deep drag on his cigarette. "She has been blessed by God. She was a good mama."
Bobby has been married. His marriage, he says, "is not something that would make me happy to talk about. You try to give that particularity of your own life to the wrong person. There can be pain at the end of it.”
Thin as a stick, a white-haired man totters past backs bent over the counter, all seats taken now, toward Mama Sofia. Reaching her, he hunches, sobs. "My glasses are broken, broken, broken." He raises his hands, clenches, unclenches them. "Don’t have any money, any money to pay my room."
Eyes turn. Watch. The old man covers his face. His shoulders rise and fall convulsively. He keens, his sobbing operatic. In tones too low to be heard by others, who now all have turned eyes upon the scene, Mama Sofia speaks to him. He nods, thanks her. Then, stiffly, with her daughter’s aid, Mama stands down off her stool. The old man slips out the door.
"If you are being burned alive with a loaded pistol in your hand," says a bearded man at the counter, lifting his beer can high, “it’s hard to see how anyone can look down on you for pulling the trigger. Bang." He laughs, riotously, drains his beer, crushes the can in his hand.
Mama Sofia, on her way to the kitchen, squeezes Bobby’s arm. “Bobby, he’s nice people."
Bobby scolds her. "Mama, you must sometimes say ‘No.’ ’’
" ‘I’m hungry,’ they say. What can I do?" Mama imitates. " ’Oh, my money, no money, all gone. No money, Mama.’ So," she shrugs, "I give him some credit. I’m watching him. He'll cry this week. Next week he’ll pay."
Mama disappears inside her kitchen. "That kind of human being doesn’t allow hate inside of her for another human being," says Bobby. "But you have to tell her all the time, ‘With some people, if you keep saying, "Yes, yes," you can make the situation worse.’ I hope that I’m wrong, but I know I’m not. You’ve got to say no sometimes.”
"Sonia," Carlos calls out to a pale, slender woman in lavender overalls. This is the Sonia who gave birth upstairs. Sonia is pouring coffee into a cup. Turns, waves.
"I’d like to know that somebody will be out there to help Sonia,’’ says Bobby.
Sonia joins Bobby and Carlos. They talk about the weeping man. "He came here," Sonia says, her voice sweet, low, "got the cheapest room he could get, then spent his money on drinking maybe.”
Carlos has turned toward the television screen, cheers on a player. Bobby has gone out to his cab, driven away.
Sonia tosses her long, straight brown hair back over her shoulders. Lights a cigarette. "Because she’s from Greece, where people take care of each other" is Sonia’s explanation for Mama’s laxness with overdue rent, giving free meals. "But some people take advantage. Some people owe her two months’ rent. As soon as they get money, they leave.
"The rent’s about as cheap as you can get. Between fifty-five and eighty-five a week. Some people here have problems. One woman, she’s on SSI. Every month when she gets her check, she goes out in a cab and gets everything she needs for the month, then goes back to her room, and mostly stays there until the next month. Sometimes, during the day, she comes down, sits at a table. Never talks to anybody.
“There are quite a few old people here. One older guy didn't want to go to an old folks’ home, and so he moved here. Then he broke his hip. He didn’t want to go to the hospital, because he was afraid he’d get carried off to a home once his leg got better. One of the girls here finally took him to the hospital, and she had to take his clothes so he wouldn’t run off."
Twenty-four, Sonia came from Northern California to San Diego six years ago. She studied accounting, worked as a waitress. She had other children, twins and an infant boy. They were kidnapped, explains Sonia, eyes watering. “This woman thought she could sell them.”
At the time of the kidnapping, Sonia lived in an apartment on the outskirts of El Cajon. "I freaked out, literally. So I moved from the apartment to the hotel next door to this one."
From the kitchen, where Mama Sofia and her daughter chop onions, the smell of frying hamburger drifts. At the counter someone whoops, "Lunch!”
“Hopefully," says Sonia, plaintive, looking at her long fingers, "my children, the twins and my other boy, they’ll be returned."
When she lived next door, at the Lamon, Sonia would come in to the State to eat. When she became pregnant with her most recent child, she moved here. “If I ran out of money, Mama would say, ‘Okay, okay.’ She waited on the rent five weeks once”
Her pregnancy wasn’t difficult. “The worst I got was back pressure. Every night I would make a hot bath and sit in it” By the time Sonia was six months pregnant, she had gained about fifteen pounds. Bobby, she remembers, asked her then how far along she was. When she told him, he thought she was joking. "Because I wasn't showing that much. I was still wearing regular clothes."
One morning when she wasn't quite seven months along, Sonia awakened, feeling "some pressure.” But she didn’t think what she felt were labor pains. "I was only about this big." She puts a long, narrow hand several inches from her stomach. "I didn’t think I was ready. I just stayed in bed, put on a candle to relax, and watched TV. But the pressure kept building up, I thought I had to go to the bathroom.”
In the bathroom, when she realized she was giving birth, she wasn't scared. "I was just shocked that he was so little, just about twelve inches long." The paramedics arrived, took Sonia and the baby to the hospital. "Two pounds, four ounces he weighed. He had tubes stuck in him, monitors on him." Sonia returned to the hotel the day after she gave birth. Every day she went to the hospital, expressed her milk, so that the baby — Abram Isaac — would have breast milk. He gained weight steadily, then caught pneumonia, then recovered from that, began gaining weight again. "He is so tiny. Someone told me I could dress him in Cabbage Patch doll clothes," says Sonia.
She takes from her purse a photograph album. Shows snapshots. The baby, a week after birth. Face wizened. Tubes running from his arms. Sonia and her sister (who lives in Clairemont) and the baby. The baby's father and the baby. (He lives in another downtown hotel.) Baby's father, paternal grandmother in a wheelchair, the baby.
Sonia is in contact with her parents, who live in Hayward, gives them, she says, "a weekly report" on the baby and herself by telephone. Soon, the baby will be out of the hospital. Sonia won't go to Hayward. She’ll remain in San Diego. She says nothing of living or not living with the baby’s father. If she stays at the State, she figures it will be only for a few weeks. AFDC, she thinks, would pay for an apartment for herself and Abram Isaac. She doesn’t think it will be difficult, taking care of him. She flips slowly through .he album, examining photographs, smiles. "Wherever you go, he goes.”
Several weeks have passed. A Wednesday after noon, hot. Half the stools at the State Hotel Deli are taken. Talk is quiet, desultory. Mama Sofia perches on her stool near the cash register, her daughter — mending again — in her chair by the window. No one's seen Carlos lately. Chris is at work. Bobby’s driving. Johnny, who hasn’t yet moved from the State, and Sonia, with her six-pound, three-month-old infant asleep in his portable bassinet beside her, share a table near the crucifix, the portraits of Jesus. Sonia lifts aside the receiving blanket, revealing Abram Isaac, of newborn size but with a face that’s older.
“He’s just a little doll, idn’t he?” says Johnny, who notes that twice, since the baby came home, he’s held him. ”I write a letter to someone, and it’s half about the baby."
Sonia’s decided not to move to an apartment. "If something happened to Abram, if he needed CPR or something, I’d be able to call out to someone, and they’d be here, right away, to help me.”
Patty slips off her stool at the counter, walks over to Sonia, points down at the baby: “He’s the king of the State Hotel, that baby. We aren’t gonna let anything happen to him here!”
Carrying the bassinet, Sonia edges up the stairs to her room. Along the second floor hallway, open doorways let what breeze there is flow through. In one room, two men and a woman chat in low voices. In another, a country ballad drifts from KSON. Sonia motions to a bathroom at the hall’s end. That’s where she delivered the baby. She gently sets the bassinet on the floor, unlocks her door. Abram’s eyes flutter.
A large double bed, neatly made up with a green spread, takes up most of the room. Next to the bed, Sonia has Abram's crib and the monitor, which, attached to his chest, would wake her if he stopped breathing. In one corner is a sink, a drape-covered closet. Near the bed is a small TV, an alarm clock. “Premaine” Pampers, for premature babies, stand against a wall. On the dresser, atop a lace doily, are medicine containers, baby bottles.
He’s doin’ good, the baby is.” She carefully lays the baby out on the bed. sits down next to him. His hands, newborn size like his body, flail, his eyes open wide. He sucks hard on a pacifier. “The visiting nurse comes every week. She says he carries most three months’ behaviors. He follows you around a room with his head.
“He gets spoiled around here. They even watch their language.” Sonia laughs. "Even guys who usually swear will say when they hear someone cussing, ’Watch your tongue. There’s a baby around here.’ " They’re not joking, either, she says.
This weekend, Abram Isaac will be christened in a Catholic church. Sonia’s mother and little brother will come from Hayward, her sister and sister’s husband from Clairemont, the baby’s father, his mother. Sonia hopes people from the hotel — Mama Sofia, her daughter, Carlos, Johnny, Crazy Eddie, Chris, John the Greek, Patty, Bobby, and others — will come to the christening.
Several weeks later, waiting for Sonia to come down from her room to the pay phone at the bottom of State Hotel's stairs, Mama Sofia's Greek-accented English, what sounds like “a crazy” raving, perhaps Chris's husky chitchat, all drift through the earpiece. After a few minutes, a weary-sounding Sonia answers. Yes, the baby is well, growing. The visiting nurse had just been by. No, nobody from the hotel got to the christening. Afterwards, her family and the baby's father and paternal grandmother intended to go to Denny’s, but it was packed. They moved the christening party to a McDonald’s, ate breakfast there, visited for a long time, let Abram Isaac’s maternal and paternal families get acquainted. Sonia and the baby didn’t get back home to the hotel until evening.
We say good-bye. It was a long while ago, someone wrote, that the words "God be with you” were swallowed up in "good-bye,” but every now and again, you hope some trace of that old blessing still clings to the word.