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A brief stay at downtown San Diego's Pickwick Hotel

The Zen of flop

Outside Pickwick Hotel - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Outside Pickwick Hotel

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.

View from Pickwick Hotel

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.

Pontiac shines a customer’s shoes

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.

The blocks between Fourth and Second are a gauntlet of panhandlers,

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.

Back in my room, I go to work by nine or ten, if I’m lucky. I am immersed in characters in Sixth-Century Britain. I chose this era because no one knows much about what went on then, and as long as I avoid gross anachronisms, what I say goes. Who is going to call me on the presence of Africans in a Roman ruin outside London or the strumming of musical instruments indigenous to the Middle East and undocumented until two centuries later? I rub my hands with nerdish glee at what I am getting away with while three floors below, Greyhound runaways are panhandling for “spange” or spare change.

The blocks between Fourth and Second are a gauntlet of panhandlers, and to some you must pay tribute. One I call “The Troll.” He is a black guy about my age, but he could be much younger, with an Afro stuffed into a Navy watch cap; a cowl of shadow. Every day he sits in front of the travel agency and worries passersby with his demonic stare. To avoid the curse of the evil eye I make a ritual of giving him my coffee change. It has to be the same amount every day. Fifty-four cents. If I give him more, he comes to expect it, and if shortchanged he will curse me with his not-quite-burnt-out charcoal eyes. The curse is silent, but it is there: I will get no work done that day or only mediocre work. I will get a backache or be distracted all morning with thoughts of John Goodman’s thighs or the cursor will stick on my screen. No no. It is well worth the money.

For four of my seven days at the Pickwick, work has its own satisfactory pace. I will be among the Saxons or the Welsh barbarians until, say, noon. By that time, I sense subliminally a fine grit of diesel exhaust around my eyes and the desiccated body ash of transients-past clinging to my skin, though I sleep on the bedspread almost fully clothed. I have enough in my budget to walk down two blocks to the ymca where, if I show them my Pickwick Hotel key, I can use the gym for the day for only $6.

I could, theoretically, swim all day in the indoor pool, lounging in the bleachers or broasting in the sauna during the seniors’ or children’s swim classes, but I choose to use the weight rooms and benches, where I tone my body mercilessly, sometimes for minutes. In a kind of fervor of the flesh, I will punish myself, feel the cleansing burn, often using weights with double digits until I collapse, cough-wracked, knowing that I am freeing up nicotine and burnt tobacco from the lining of my lungs. A satisfactory pain will wash over me after as many as nine repetitions of the three exercise routines. I take a long steam, then shower. I am purged.

Knowing that early afternoon is rarely a productive time for me, I will grab a 99-cent Burger King or Wendy’s special and visit with my friend Pontiac at the shoe-shine stand between the entrances to the Pickwick and the Piccadilly Club bar.

When I first arrived at the Pickwick, Pontiac asked why I was staying there. I said I didn’t know and he said, “Yes, you do.”

Pontiac was born and named in 1951 when his parents didn’t quite make it to the hospital near their Oceanside home and the lad came into the world in the family car. Possibly because of this fact, he exhibits both a keen awareness and an amused roadside detachment to life’s vagaries and brief, flashing spectacle.

The handsome Mexican/Native American former musician wears a satanic goatee and an angelic smile. His eyes constantly squint with some inner delight behind thick-framed glasses. Today he is shining the tasseled loafers of a thirtyish man in a medium-priced suit. The man wears his blond hair long in a ponytail and over his eyes wraparound shades. He reads the newspaper while Pontiac is discussing the Atlanta Braves and the Mets with the homeless and odoriferous Bam Bam. He interrupts their conversation to greet me.

“Did you read that book?” Pontiac asks me.

“No,” I tell him. “I haven’t gotten around to it yet.” He is talking about The Celestine Prophecy, a book he recommended and I resist reading for no other reason, I suppose, than its wild popularity a few years back. Always a suspect quality in literature, mass appeal.

“You will,” he tells me with patience and surety.

I promise him I’ll pick up a copy at Wahrenbrock’s today. “Whatever,” he says, shrugging.

I say hello to Bam Bam (short for Alabama, where he is from) and give him some money. He once told me that if he doesn’t get a drink around this time of day he starts shaking and throwing up — I don’t want that shit on my conscience if I can do anything about it. Bam Bam will tell you in the first several minutes of conversation that he has had seven duis in four different states. He has spent a total of 14 days in jail in his whole life and he began his drinking career 11 years ago when his wife died. “And then,” he told me, “14 other friends and family members died on me the year after that. One of them died right here on my shoulder.”

Bam Bam walks with a cane because of a badly swollen ankle and poor circulation. “It’s swollen up thanks to a cop,” Bam Bam insists. “I fell asleep on one of those concretes. Cop come along, tried to wake me up, but I was sleepin’ hard. He walked up and kicked me in that foot.”

He reaches into his windbreaker pocket as if he has suddenly remembered something. “Look what I got,” he says, and produces a half-smoked cigar with a white plastic filter tip. “I’ve got another one for later too, if I want it.”

After an exchange regarding the Burger King special vis-à-vis the Wendy’s lunch, Bam Bam tips his ’96 Olympics baseball cap (“Somebody offered me $5 for this,” Bam Bam says, but Pontiac urges him to hold out for the “true collector’s value”) and he limps east on Broadway, his world in order.

Pontiac is busy this afternoon and we don’t get a chance to renew our conversation about coincidence. I wanted to bring up Colin Wilson’s novel, The Philosopher’s Stone. Instead, I go back up to my room on the fourth floor and stare at the television for a while with the sound off until I fall asleep. I dream about all the people who might have been in this room before me.

I dream I am a man like the neighbor I view through my window. I am 20 years older than my actual age. My fixed income allows me small pleasures that I guard jealously, such as buying only new paperbacks, never used. Beyond this, I have no real indulgences. My hobby is selecting newspaper clippings from my trunk and stapling them to the walls of my room. Here is one in a trade paper from 1963. I am pictured accepting an employee-of-the-month award from my boss at the plant in Ohio. Here is another of my daughter’s wedding. Here is the headline from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in November of the same year: KENNEDY SHOT IN DALLAS. I seem to have a collection of clippings about murders and death. EIGHT STUDENT NURSES SLAIN IN CHICAGO: POLICE SEEK DRIFTER. I seem to be inhabiting someone else’s dreams, someone else’s life. It is all very convincing with numerous details that have nothing to do with me. When I awake, I wonder if the room isn’t haunted.

About three o’clock, I get up and walk to Wahrenbrock’s to find a copy of The Celestine Prophecy so I can discuss it with Pontiac. On the way, I pass a 99-cent store and form some reason to go in, not looking for anything in particular. I find a wonderful T-shirt: black with a reproduction of the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine from the ’40s. STARTLING STORIES, with a buxom brunette holding a martini or glass of champagne. The illustration is for a story by Leigh Brackett. I buy the shirt for $1.07.

At the bookstore, I find what I’m looking for and also a book club edition of Julian Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I wonder what Pontiac will make of this. I read much of the book years ago and then lost my copy.

An impressively pretentious title, Origin… had an intriguing idea. To put it simply, probably too simply, Jaynes suggests that until 2000 years ago more or less, the human internal monologue, the thought process, was often mistaken for the voices of gods. As a kid, I thought I was the only being in existence who had this ongoing conversation in my head. Other people seemed so assured, confident, when they spoke that it appeared they could not possibly labor under incessant contradictions, the noise of a committee debating in the mind. It was reading books — almost any books — that eventually assuaged my paranoia. Writers seemed to share this awkward malaise, and authors like Salinger and, of all people, Terry Southern (I smuggled the hilarious and pornographic Candy into my bedroom at age 13) led me to Faulkner and Céline and God Bless Mr. Vonnegut. If I was mad, they were at least half mad.

Jaynes’s painstaking treatise seemed to be an academic clarification of what the daft and brilliant science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was writing about in many of his works. Ostensibly geared to nerdishly bright, solipsistic 15-year-olds and bearing titles like Clans of the Alphane Moon or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the fascinating hack work was really addressing the landscape of the right and left brain as reality, with geography and the body itself as malleable phantoms. I always knew he had something, and the literary world, if they noticed him at all, knew he was nuts. When Dick, in A Scanner Darkly, began writing about the function of the corpus callosum, that fleshy clot in the brain stem that introduces both sides of the brain to each other, he had stepped into the same area as Jaynes. Unbeknownst to each other, they would be equally embraced by academia and popular consciousness. That is to say, they are, to this day, perceived as laughable anomalies. Ignored and worse, except for cult followers in science fiction and amateur anthropologists.

Cackling to myself, I clutch the books and retreat down Broadway. To passersby I mutter, “They drummed me out of the academy, the fools!”

I wave to Pontiac on my way into the Pickwick, stop and hand him the Jaynes book. “I’m curious about your theories of coincidence. Take this book home, open it anywhere, at random, and give me your impressions tomorrow.”

Pontiac’s grin widens, and I didn’t think that was possible. “Okay.” He sets the book next to his shoe-shine equipment, thinks again, then takes it inside to the barbershop where it will be safer. He seems undaunted by the title and, in fact, eager to engage in this little experiment. He sees that I am carrying The Celestine Prophecy and he approves. “And you tell me what you think of that. But start at the beginning because it’s a story.”

“Right. I’m going upstairs to read it now.”

Back in room 349, I crack open a warm diet Coke and stretch out on the cheesy bedspread. It is rush hour and buses and cabs are approaching and departing below me. Exhaust fumes and the traces of Pontiac’s extinguished incense climb through the window. I have left the television on, and the phosphor-dot image of Marty Levine stutters silently through hiccuping scanning lines on the cigarette-burned set.

The book, I think, is ridiculous. Not bad at first, but not good either. I see what Pontiac is talking about with the inexplicable oddities sometimes associated with coincidence, though the author here contrives more of them in a few pages than you would find in a shelf of Victorian novels. Despite a developing plotline that, at one point, resembles one of those mercenary series novels by guys with names like Dirk Buckrod (author of Body Bag Buddies #4: Dinky Dau Death on the Mekong Delta), I find myself intrigued with a bizarre left-hand turn the writer takes into pure lsd country — something I can relate to.

I have just read passages with lines such as: “I saw a lone soldier, fifty yards away, raise his rifle toward the huge man, who was struggling to his feet. Before I could utter a warning, the soldier fired. The man’s chest exploded as bullets tore through from the rear, splattering me with blood. An echo of rifle fire filled the air.”

Wow.

After drifting off to sleep to the sounds of Booker T. and the MG’s from the jukebox downstairs at the Piccadilly and some limp lament from Kenny G radiating from the Pac Bell building across the street, I awake at about 3:00 a.m. No idea why. So I continue to read.

Here’s the psychedelic passage I mentioned above — after that A-team stuff. Now this is only two pages later and the narrator hasn’t been shot or anything so this is not a description of a near-death, out-of-body, head-for-the-white-light-and-say-hello-to-Uncle-Bernie-and-God kind of thing. So I wasn’t ready for this.

Here’s the narrator on a mountaintop in Peru.

“As I reached up toward the sky, I noticed something different about the way my body felt. My arms had glided upward with incredible ease and I was holding my back, neck, and head perfectly straight with absolutely no effort. From my position — sitting cross-legged — I stood up without using my arms and stretched. The feeling was one of total lightness.

“Looking at the distant mountains, I noticed that a daytime moon had been out and was about to set. It looked to be about a quarter full and hung over the horizon like an inverted bowl. Instantly I understood why it had that shape. The sun, millions of miles directly above me, was shining only on the top of the sinking moon. I could perceive the exact line between the sun and the lunar surface, and this recognition somehow extended my consciousness outward even further.

“…For the first time in my life, I knew the earth’s roundness not as an intellectual concept but as an actual sensation.

“…[what] I wanted to do was immerse myself in the feeling of being suspended, floating, amid a space that existed in all directions.… I now felt as though I was held up by some inner buoyancy, as though I was filled like a balloon with just enough helium to hover over the ground.…

“…I perceived everything to be somehow part of me. As I sat on the peak of the mountain looking out at the landscape falling away from me in all directions, it felt exactly as if what I had always known as my physical body was only the head of a much larger body.…

“…My mind raced backward in time.…

“…I watched as the first matter exploded into the universe.…

“…I observed the hydrogen atoms begin to gravitate together…into elements of a higher vibration.

“…these first stars aged and finally blew themselves up and spewed the remaining hydrogen and the newly created elements out into the universe…

“…the earth cooled… forming water vapor, and the great rains came.…

“And in the shallow pools and basins, amid the great lightning storms…the animals filled the oceans in the great age of fishes…

“…Then matter leaped forward again into reptiles and covered the earth in the great period of the dinosaurs.… Finally, the progression ended. There at the pinnacle stood humankind.”

I have condensed the above pages I read that night — or early morning — in order to offer an explanation for what happened next. On the one hand I was exhilarated by this stuff, as I could remember similar experiences while whacked on acid (although I’d had the sense that the earth was round much earlier on), but on the other hand, I hardly felt I stood at the pinnacle of anything. I was lying in a flophouse in my boxer briefs and a Startling Stories T-shirt at 3:25 in the morning under a harsh overhead light fixture, listening to a woman argue with a cabdriver on the street beneath my window, and breathing carbon monoxide.

This is what happens:

I get up, walk to the window, and see the woman climb into an Orange Cab, argument resolved. I breathe in the exhaust and burning rubber from that same cab as the driver guns the engine angrily west on Broadway. I hear the strains of “I Will Always Love You” — an instrumental light-jazz version, probably Kenny G again, although Kenny himself might be hard put to tell you whether or not it’s him. The arrangement and production of the song has scientifically eliminated any identifying characteristics. The computer/engineer has digitally compressed, remastered, and strained the qualities or trace elements of any human inflection or emotion from the mix.

I turn to the right and see the fire escape just feet away. Presumably it goes all the way to the roof of the seven-story hotel. The access must be that door adjacent to mine on the left. It is.

I step out onto the fourth-floor grated landing and look up three more floors. Nothing could prevent me from getting all the way up there. The roof of the Pickwick Hotel could be my Peruvian mountaintop. I could experience what that author experienced. After all, if he is right about coincidence, this could certainly be seen as one: a mountain, a hotel roof; both writers with a need for meaning, flailing desperately in a culture devoid of spirituality, morally bankrupt; in a way, each of us at the ends of the earth for whatever reasons that have taken us there. I begin to climb.

Despite the hot summer day, the night has cooled and the metal stairway is chill and slick with dew. I retreat to my room and pull on my cowboy boots because I can get them on quicker than lacing up my walking shoes. I begin my climb again.

Yes, I can feel something in the air awaiting me above. One foot in front of the other, hand over hand I make my ascent. One story, two stories. On the sixth-floor landing I see a small book. It is a few yellowed pages, curled and dimpled by dewy nights like this one. It has no cover. A total of maybe 50 pages from a poorly bound paperback.

Talk about coincidence! This is not unlike how the author of The Celestine Prophecy would encounter one segment of the manuscript of the Ten Visions or Ten Prophecies or something — one at a time, in the strangest places, like bread crumbs on the trail to enlightenment.

Crouching on the landing, I lift the pages, fragile with age. The first is labeled simply CHAPTER TWO and I see that it is page 23. Mysterious. Where is CHAPTER ONE? Is it for me to find perhaps on the roof? Or maybe, like a souvenir hunt, the clues to the rest of the text are here, in my hands, leading me to Peru or Tibet or El Monte. The lighting is not good, but I angle the pages toward the streetlights below and I can read.

“Fifteen-and-a-half-year-old Shirley Turney wrung her hands and anxiously looked back over her shoulder, expecting other applicants for the job to show up at any time. She didn’t expect anyone to be inside the E-Z Burger Drive-In at this time of the morning and she was apparently correct in this. But at any minute other girls would come for this job she needed so badly, and if she wasn’t the best-looking applicant, at least she’d be the first one in line.”

Possibly this is a parable. I leaf at random through the rest of the pages:

“Ron broke the kiss and fell back on the bed, taking her with him. The room spun about as he rolled about with her on the bed laughing and touching her everywhere, it seemed, while she panted and writhed with him and clung to him all she could.… There was no possible way in the world it could ever fit inside her when it was such a size …the welts on her ass cheeks where he had spanked her with his engorged manhood already rose like angry donuts.…”

I set the book down. I was wrong. There is nothing here for me, though I make a mental note to maybe pick it back up on the way down. I continue my climb and stand at the final landing of the fire escape.

Looking out on the city is exhilarating from this aerie. A line from a Tom Waits song occurs to me: “Broadway’s like a serpent pulling shiny top-down cars.” I don’t see any convertibles, but still.

I decide to sit cross-legged on the landing like the guy in the book — The Celestine Prophecy, not the other one.

I sit and raise my arms to the sky. It is overcast and lit from below by SDG&E. The moon is a cataract eye peering from behind the cloud cover. I try to be the moon, see through that single milky lens to all of creation below. I imagine myself floating above my body, looking down at it. I stand, using only my legs for leverage, and I am surprised to find I can do this easily. Probably because I work out.

I ignore the cold dampness on the seat of my underwear and consider stripping naked to the stars. But there are no stars, and jail is not an option tonight.

I see Coronado and the bridge. I believe I can see Mexico beyond. Squinting at the curdled moon I see with my mind’s eye the nocturnal lights of North County, Anaheim, Los Angeles. My arms are extended to embrace the curvature of the earth. I sense the sunrise over the great plains of the Midwest and happy hour in Lahaina at the Pioneer Inn on Maui…those planter’s punches they make with the cherries and the little umbrellas, maybe a dish of macadamia nuts and a well-tanned blond schoolteacher on vacation at the next barstool and…I visualize myself sinking through the very planet, becoming one with day and night, mountain and valley, earth and sky, the molten core and fertile crust of the mother world. Beneath my physical feet, my astral feet are standing on the shores of Mauritarus, an island off Madagascar on precisely the opposite side of the globe from San Diego. Venus and Mars pass by in a stately, swirling pavane. I wave my astral arms at my planetary sisters, their moons and secret lives and…I hear a voice echoing around me.

“Hey! Whatsyername!”

I open my eyes and strain my ears for the voice again. “Hey, you! Whatsyername up there!”

The voice echoes in the night. It comes from behind me and before me, from below me, it surrounds me. I want to call out, “Yes. I’m here,” but I remember my physical body is standing in my underwear on top of a hotel in downtown San Diego at four o’clock in the morning and I would wake sleeping residents. Once again, the voice comes to me.

“Yeah, you.” It is quieter now, as if it has read my very thoughts. The voice seems to be coming from the park across the street, but I realize that that is its echo. I look directly below to the sidewalk in front of the long-closed Piccadilly Club. “You got any papers?”

It is a man with a beard, in flowing robes or, no, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. I wonder what he means. Papers? Papers? Identification? Newspapers?

“You got any rolling papers?”

I look down at him and shake my head from side to side.

“Got any beers?” Again I shake my head. “You’re boring, man,” he says, and proceeds west down the street.

Fully in the here and now, I think to myself, “Boring? What do you mean boring? I’m standing on the roof of a hotel at four o’clock in the morning in my underwear, a Startling Stories T-shirt, and my cowboy boots. You rouse me from cosmic consciousness and you call that fucking boring?”

Back in my room I try to resume sleep but I cannot. It takes me only minutes to get over the insult from the false prophet below, but now I am dwelling on the room itself. The hotel was built in August 1926, which makes it 73 years old. One year older than my mother. We have just put her in a room on the ninth floor of a retirement home in Chicago. The room is bigger than this one and the home is brand new. She has a wonderful view of the city and its Slavic, Catholic spires, but it is a room like this one nonetheless. The guilt hangs around me with the old cigarette smoke.

While moving her stuff from her home in the Illinois countryside to her new room in the city, I found all the things I had sent her over the years, all the evidence of any accomplishments in my life strewn in a corner, crushed, crumpled, rusted, shattered, bent, yellowed. I was reminded, in case I had forgotten or become “snooty,” that I was an irresponsible disappointment just as she had predicted all along.

On my return from Chicago, after vicious fighting with my siblings, frustrated and anguished over my mother’s deterioration, thoroughly depressed, I behaved badly. My girlfriend should not have to abide it. And I agreed. I agreed.

And so, I am here, maybe in the same room that once housed the old Mutual Radio Theater in the ’40s. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I am sufficiently sorry for myself and the world that I fall asleep.

A knock at the door wakes me around 10:00 a.m. Probably the maid. I get up and answer the door, still in my underwear. It is a young girl, maybe 18, probably younger. She has a pierced tongue and nostril. She is wearing a flannel shirt, a crucifix around her neck, layers of makeup, and her hair coloring is unfocused.

“Oh, I guess I got the wrong room.”

“That’s okay,” and I begin to close the door.

“Wait a minute. Can I use your bathroom?”

“Uh.” How can I refuse someone a simple request like that? My hesitation shames me. “Sure. Yeah.”

She is inside the bathroom for only moments, while I go through contortions of paranoia. She is obviously casing the joint…her boyfriend/pimp/accomplice will burst in here in a minute and put a knife to my throat… She will come out of the bathroom and threaten to yell “RAPE!” if I don’t give her my money and my computer… She is leaving deadly venereal spores of unthinkable effluvia on the toilet seat, towels, and sink…

I have already concocted a story for her that I’m an undercover cop staking out the bank across the street: “It’s an inside job, see. One of the tellers is passing bearer bonds to a guy that comes around every Thursday at this time dressed like a Pac Bell hard-hat worker. I’ve been on his trail for months.”

What happens is: she comes out, thanks me, I open the door for her, and she throws her arms around me, hugs me, and kind of skips down the hall. I never see her again.

A lot of my time is spent in the library that day. Among the stacks I find middle-aged men like me: alone, bookish, graying, wearing clothes, like mine, that look slept in, searching the shelves for something misplaced — solace, salvation, some proof that, after all, they might not have failed.

I am perched on one of two high customer chairs at the Magic shoe-shine stand. Pontiac is working on my boots with focus and diligence. He tells me, “I opened the book at random, like you said, and I found the part about oracles. I didn’t really know about them.”

“Maybe you’re a kind of street oracle,” I suggest. He likes the idea. He talks about an oracle in a recent Keanu Reeves science fiction movie. “I saw that with my son,” I tell him. “The old black woman is the oracle and tells the guy what he thinks he knows so his own doubt will lead him to the truth.”

“Right. Right.”

I notice a book he has next to his shoe-shine kit. It is called Breaking the Cycle of Birth and Death.

“Yeah, every once in a while someone will bring a new influence to me.”

“A few weeks ago I was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by this guy Rinpoche from Tibet. Really interesting.”

“This,” Pontiac inclines his head toward his book, “is this gentleman’s version of that. Everybody comes to me with these things for my opinion, and I only have so much… I can’t get to everything. It seems to be an intellectual’s Celestine Prophecy as well. You might be interested.”

I start laughing to myself as Pontiac works liquid dye over the trim of my soles. The guy is shining shoes on Broadway, having conversations with homeless burnouts on Atlanta’s season, he doesn’t live anywhere in particular that he wants to tell you about, and he sounds like a senior editor at Random House. I don’t have time to get to all the material submitted.

Pontiac sees me laughing and laughs too. Just for the hell of it. He doesn’t need to know what’s funny — he already pretty much knows. I read out loud from Pontiac’s book:

“The only belief system that has any validity is one that is constantly changing.” Pontiac nods, smiling. Always smiling. I’ve never seen him not smile.

I read another one to myself. “If one were adept at the English language and knew every single word, it would still not be possible to explain even one spiritual experience or even one encounter with the unlimited that the word God is used for.” This reminds me of a trip on synthetic mescaline I took in 1968 during which I was convinced, and still am, that I experienced, for quite some time, “…the unlimited that the word God is used for.”

“This stuff is very hard to talk about without sounding like a blathering idiot or, in my case, a brain-burned old acid head,” I say.

“You take a staple,” Pontiac says. “You live it, feel it, but it might not be someone else’s staple. Then you have to understand what is their staple.”

At first I’m not sure if he’s saying “staple” or “statement,” and I decide he is saying “staple” and that it is a good word.

He asks how the old creativity is flowing and I tell him I’ve had a few days there where I felt incredibly creative and elated, “Even in this funky hotel.”

“That’s great,” he says. “Just be careful of the dragon.”

“What do you mean?”

“The dragon, the serpent, the other side of that creative rush. It can turn on you, you know?”

I’m not sure what to say to that, so I ask Pontiac his impressions of the hotel itself. “It’s a living organism,” he says. “Everything about downtown has been renovated except this building, this block. It’s a microcosm.”

“What about the people that have lived here for a long time? The residents. You must know a lot of them? How would you characterize them?”

“Well,” he shrugs. “You’re one right now. I believe that we are all the equivalency of what we attract. The people that have come to me here are exactly the same kind of people that have always come to me in my life. There are those who are down on their luck. There are those who are just happy to connect with someone who is free-spirited. There are flirtations and those who just want somebody to say hi, acknowledge them, get the sunshine in.”

The sun is, in fact, reflecting off the toes of my boots now.

“But you’re going to have a different experience with the people in this hotel than, say, at the Hotel Del Coronado, right?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t see it.” He is quiet for a moment. The Commodores are on his portable radio. He looks past traffic, to the park across the street. Nothing is going on there, but he is studying it anyway. After a while he says, “No. You can’t say Picasso couldn’t bring the same significance and dimension as Michelangelo or that Michelangelo couldn’t have been as abstract.” He says this exactly as if I had asked him a completely different question and I am, for a minute, puzzled into silence as he continues buffing my boots. But this is not uncommon during a conversation with Pontiac.

I ask if he meditates and he says, “Yeah, but not in the orthodox way. I used to when I was learning. Now shining shoes is like a prayer to me. I’m like an old monk with prayer beads. When I shine shoes I’m putting a lot of myself into it.”

Back in my room I try to think of the letters and keys on the laptop as prayer beads, but that is impossible. I walk down to the embarcadero, look out onto the bay: hazy, overcast sky now and the waves seem greasy and slow. I think of the lines from Gottfried’s Tristan, the version on which Wagner based his opera. I had just read it in The Anatomy of Love that morning.

“ ‘What is disturbing you? What do you know?’

“ ‘It is what I know that disturbs me, what I see causes me sorrow: the sky and sea weary me; my person, my existence annoy me.’ ”

You’ve gotta love the Germans.

I feel like having a drink, but that would certainly get that serpent Pontiac was talking about right out of the basket.

Instead, I return to the room and make a surprising discovery while watching one of the few stations the television offers. I would share it with you, but it is ineffable and transcends language. I can only suggest that perhaps, like me, if you were to watch the Three Stooges in Spanish, you too might find it.

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Keeping Up With Commander Cody

“He poured a much-too-large line on my hand”
Outside Pickwick Hotel - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Outside Pickwick Hotel

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.

View from Pickwick Hotel

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.

Pontiac shines a customer’s shoes

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.

The blocks between Fourth and Second are a gauntlet of panhandlers,

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.

Back in my room, I go to work by nine or ten, if I’m lucky. I am immersed in characters in Sixth-Century Britain. I chose this era because no one knows much about what went on then, and as long as I avoid gross anachronisms, what I say goes. Who is going to call me on the presence of Africans in a Roman ruin outside London or the strumming of musical instruments indigenous to the Middle East and undocumented until two centuries later? I rub my hands with nerdish glee at what I am getting away with while three floors below, Greyhound runaways are panhandling for “spange” or spare change.

The blocks between Fourth and Second are a gauntlet of panhandlers, and to some you must pay tribute. One I call “The Troll.” He is a black guy about my age, but he could be much younger, with an Afro stuffed into a Navy watch cap; a cowl of shadow. Every day he sits in front of the travel agency and worries passersby with his demonic stare. To avoid the curse of the evil eye I make a ritual of giving him my coffee change. It has to be the same amount every day. Fifty-four cents. If I give him more, he comes to expect it, and if shortchanged he will curse me with his not-quite-burnt-out charcoal eyes. The curse is silent, but it is there: I will get no work done that day or only mediocre work. I will get a backache or be distracted all morning with thoughts of John Goodman’s thighs or the cursor will stick on my screen. No no. It is well worth the money.

For four of my seven days at the Pickwick, work has its own satisfactory pace. I will be among the Saxons or the Welsh barbarians until, say, noon. By that time, I sense subliminally a fine grit of diesel exhaust around my eyes and the desiccated body ash of transients-past clinging to my skin, though I sleep on the bedspread almost fully clothed. I have enough in my budget to walk down two blocks to the ymca where, if I show them my Pickwick Hotel key, I can use the gym for the day for only $6.

I could, theoretically, swim all day in the indoor pool, lounging in the bleachers or broasting in the sauna during the seniors’ or children’s swim classes, but I choose to use the weight rooms and benches, where I tone my body mercilessly, sometimes for minutes. In a kind of fervor of the flesh, I will punish myself, feel the cleansing burn, often using weights with double digits until I collapse, cough-wracked, knowing that I am freeing up nicotine and burnt tobacco from the lining of my lungs. A satisfactory pain will wash over me after as many as nine repetitions of the three exercise routines. I take a long steam, then shower. I am purged.

Knowing that early afternoon is rarely a productive time for me, I will grab a 99-cent Burger King or Wendy’s special and visit with my friend Pontiac at the shoe-shine stand between the entrances to the Pickwick and the Piccadilly Club bar.

When I first arrived at the Pickwick, Pontiac asked why I was staying there. I said I didn’t know and he said, “Yes, you do.”

Pontiac was born and named in 1951 when his parents didn’t quite make it to the hospital near their Oceanside home and the lad came into the world in the family car. Possibly because of this fact, he exhibits both a keen awareness and an amused roadside detachment to life’s vagaries and brief, flashing spectacle.

The handsome Mexican/Native American former musician wears a satanic goatee and an angelic smile. His eyes constantly squint with some inner delight behind thick-framed glasses. Today he is shining the tasseled loafers of a thirtyish man in a medium-priced suit. The man wears his blond hair long in a ponytail and over his eyes wraparound shades. He reads the newspaper while Pontiac is discussing the Atlanta Braves and the Mets with the homeless and odoriferous Bam Bam. He interrupts their conversation to greet me.

“Did you read that book?” Pontiac asks me.

“No,” I tell him. “I haven’t gotten around to it yet.” He is talking about The Celestine Prophecy, a book he recommended and I resist reading for no other reason, I suppose, than its wild popularity a few years back. Always a suspect quality in literature, mass appeal.

“You will,” he tells me with patience and surety.

I promise him I’ll pick up a copy at Wahrenbrock’s today. “Whatever,” he says, shrugging.

I say hello to Bam Bam (short for Alabama, where he is from) and give him some money. He once told me that if he doesn’t get a drink around this time of day he starts shaking and throwing up — I don’t want that shit on my conscience if I can do anything about it. Bam Bam will tell you in the first several minutes of conversation that he has had seven duis in four different states. He has spent a total of 14 days in jail in his whole life and he began his drinking career 11 years ago when his wife died. “And then,” he told me, “14 other friends and family members died on me the year after that. One of them died right here on my shoulder.”

Bam Bam walks with a cane because of a badly swollen ankle and poor circulation. “It’s swollen up thanks to a cop,” Bam Bam insists. “I fell asleep on one of those concretes. Cop come along, tried to wake me up, but I was sleepin’ hard. He walked up and kicked me in that foot.”

He reaches into his windbreaker pocket as if he has suddenly remembered something. “Look what I got,” he says, and produces a half-smoked cigar with a white plastic filter tip. “I’ve got another one for later too, if I want it.”

After an exchange regarding the Burger King special vis-à-vis the Wendy’s lunch, Bam Bam tips his ’96 Olympics baseball cap (“Somebody offered me $5 for this,” Bam Bam says, but Pontiac urges him to hold out for the “true collector’s value”) and he limps east on Broadway, his world in order.

Pontiac is busy this afternoon and we don’t get a chance to renew our conversation about coincidence. I wanted to bring up Colin Wilson’s novel, The Philosopher’s Stone. Instead, I go back up to my room on the fourth floor and stare at the television for a while with the sound off until I fall asleep. I dream about all the people who might have been in this room before me.

I dream I am a man like the neighbor I view through my window. I am 20 years older than my actual age. My fixed income allows me small pleasures that I guard jealously, such as buying only new paperbacks, never used. Beyond this, I have no real indulgences. My hobby is selecting newspaper clippings from my trunk and stapling them to the walls of my room. Here is one in a trade paper from 1963. I am pictured accepting an employee-of-the-month award from my boss at the plant in Ohio. Here is another of my daughter’s wedding. Here is the headline from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in November of the same year: KENNEDY SHOT IN DALLAS. I seem to have a collection of clippings about murders and death. EIGHT STUDENT NURSES SLAIN IN CHICAGO: POLICE SEEK DRIFTER. I seem to be inhabiting someone else’s dreams, someone else’s life. It is all very convincing with numerous details that have nothing to do with me. When I awake, I wonder if the room isn’t haunted.

About three o’clock, I get up and walk to Wahrenbrock’s to find a copy of The Celestine Prophecy so I can discuss it with Pontiac. On the way, I pass a 99-cent store and form some reason to go in, not looking for anything in particular. I find a wonderful T-shirt: black with a reproduction of the cover of a science fiction pulp magazine from the ’40s. STARTLING STORIES, with a buxom brunette holding a martini or glass of champagne. The illustration is for a story by Leigh Brackett. I buy the shirt for $1.07.

At the bookstore, I find what I’m looking for and also a book club edition of Julian Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I wonder what Pontiac will make of this. I read much of the book years ago and then lost my copy.

An impressively pretentious title, Origin… had an intriguing idea. To put it simply, probably too simply, Jaynes suggests that until 2000 years ago more or less, the human internal monologue, the thought process, was often mistaken for the voices of gods. As a kid, I thought I was the only being in existence who had this ongoing conversation in my head. Other people seemed so assured, confident, when they spoke that it appeared they could not possibly labor under incessant contradictions, the noise of a committee debating in the mind. It was reading books — almost any books — that eventually assuaged my paranoia. Writers seemed to share this awkward malaise, and authors like Salinger and, of all people, Terry Southern (I smuggled the hilarious and pornographic Candy into my bedroom at age 13) led me to Faulkner and Céline and God Bless Mr. Vonnegut. If I was mad, they were at least half mad.

Jaynes’s painstaking treatise seemed to be an academic clarification of what the daft and brilliant science fiction writer Philip K. Dick was writing about in many of his works. Ostensibly geared to nerdishly bright, solipsistic 15-year-olds and bearing titles like Clans of the Alphane Moon or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the fascinating hack work was really addressing the landscape of the right and left brain as reality, with geography and the body itself as malleable phantoms. I always knew he had something, and the literary world, if they noticed him at all, knew he was nuts. When Dick, in A Scanner Darkly, began writing about the function of the corpus callosum, that fleshy clot in the brain stem that introduces both sides of the brain to each other, he had stepped into the same area as Jaynes. Unbeknownst to each other, they would be equally embraced by academia and popular consciousness. That is to say, they are, to this day, perceived as laughable anomalies. Ignored and worse, except for cult followers in science fiction and amateur anthropologists.

Cackling to myself, I clutch the books and retreat down Broadway. To passersby I mutter, “They drummed me out of the academy, the fools!”

I wave to Pontiac on my way into the Pickwick, stop and hand him the Jaynes book. “I’m curious about your theories of coincidence. Take this book home, open it anywhere, at random, and give me your impressions tomorrow.”

Pontiac’s grin widens, and I didn’t think that was possible. “Okay.” He sets the book next to his shoe-shine equipment, thinks again, then takes it inside to the barbershop where it will be safer. He seems undaunted by the title and, in fact, eager to engage in this little experiment. He sees that I am carrying The Celestine Prophecy and he approves. “And you tell me what you think of that. But start at the beginning because it’s a story.”

“Right. I’m going upstairs to read it now.”

Back in room 349, I crack open a warm diet Coke and stretch out on the cheesy bedspread. It is rush hour and buses and cabs are approaching and departing below me. Exhaust fumes and the traces of Pontiac’s extinguished incense climb through the window. I have left the television on, and the phosphor-dot image of Marty Levine stutters silently through hiccuping scanning lines on the cigarette-burned set.

The book, I think, is ridiculous. Not bad at first, but not good either. I see what Pontiac is talking about with the inexplicable oddities sometimes associated with coincidence, though the author here contrives more of them in a few pages than you would find in a shelf of Victorian novels. Despite a developing plotline that, at one point, resembles one of those mercenary series novels by guys with names like Dirk Buckrod (author of Body Bag Buddies #4: Dinky Dau Death on the Mekong Delta), I find myself intrigued with a bizarre left-hand turn the writer takes into pure lsd country — something I can relate to.

I have just read passages with lines such as: “I saw a lone soldier, fifty yards away, raise his rifle toward the huge man, who was struggling to his feet. Before I could utter a warning, the soldier fired. The man’s chest exploded as bullets tore through from the rear, splattering me with blood. An echo of rifle fire filled the air.”

Wow.

After drifting off to sleep to the sounds of Booker T. and the MG’s from the jukebox downstairs at the Piccadilly and some limp lament from Kenny G radiating from the Pac Bell building across the street, I awake at about 3:00 a.m. No idea why. So I continue to read.

Here’s the psychedelic passage I mentioned above — after that A-team stuff. Now this is only two pages later and the narrator hasn’t been shot or anything so this is not a description of a near-death, out-of-body, head-for-the-white-light-and-say-hello-to-Uncle-Bernie-and-God kind of thing. So I wasn’t ready for this.

Here’s the narrator on a mountaintop in Peru.

“As I reached up toward the sky, I noticed something different about the way my body felt. My arms had glided upward with incredible ease and I was holding my back, neck, and head perfectly straight with absolutely no effort. From my position — sitting cross-legged — I stood up without using my arms and stretched. The feeling was one of total lightness.

“Looking at the distant mountains, I noticed that a daytime moon had been out and was about to set. It looked to be about a quarter full and hung over the horizon like an inverted bowl. Instantly I understood why it had that shape. The sun, millions of miles directly above me, was shining only on the top of the sinking moon. I could perceive the exact line between the sun and the lunar surface, and this recognition somehow extended my consciousness outward even further.

“…For the first time in my life, I knew the earth’s roundness not as an intellectual concept but as an actual sensation.

“…[what] I wanted to do was immerse myself in the feeling of being suspended, floating, amid a space that existed in all directions.… I now felt as though I was held up by some inner buoyancy, as though I was filled like a balloon with just enough helium to hover over the ground.…

“…I perceived everything to be somehow part of me. As I sat on the peak of the mountain looking out at the landscape falling away from me in all directions, it felt exactly as if what I had always known as my physical body was only the head of a much larger body.…

“…My mind raced backward in time.…

“…I watched as the first matter exploded into the universe.…

“…I observed the hydrogen atoms begin to gravitate together…into elements of a higher vibration.

“…these first stars aged and finally blew themselves up and spewed the remaining hydrogen and the newly created elements out into the universe…

“…the earth cooled… forming water vapor, and the great rains came.…

“And in the shallow pools and basins, amid the great lightning storms…the animals filled the oceans in the great age of fishes…

“…Then matter leaped forward again into reptiles and covered the earth in the great period of the dinosaurs.… Finally, the progression ended. There at the pinnacle stood humankind.”

I have condensed the above pages I read that night — or early morning — in order to offer an explanation for what happened next. On the one hand I was exhilarated by this stuff, as I could remember similar experiences while whacked on acid (although I’d had the sense that the earth was round much earlier on), but on the other hand, I hardly felt I stood at the pinnacle of anything. I was lying in a flophouse in my boxer briefs and a Startling Stories T-shirt at 3:25 in the morning under a harsh overhead light fixture, listening to a woman argue with a cabdriver on the street beneath my window, and breathing carbon monoxide.

This is what happens:

I get up, walk to the window, and see the woman climb into an Orange Cab, argument resolved. I breathe in the exhaust and burning rubber from that same cab as the driver guns the engine angrily west on Broadway. I hear the strains of “I Will Always Love You” — an instrumental light-jazz version, probably Kenny G again, although Kenny himself might be hard put to tell you whether or not it’s him. The arrangement and production of the song has scientifically eliminated any identifying characteristics. The computer/engineer has digitally compressed, remastered, and strained the qualities or trace elements of any human inflection or emotion from the mix.

I turn to the right and see the fire escape just feet away. Presumably it goes all the way to the roof of the seven-story hotel. The access must be that door adjacent to mine on the left. It is.

I step out onto the fourth-floor grated landing and look up three more floors. Nothing could prevent me from getting all the way up there. The roof of the Pickwick Hotel could be my Peruvian mountaintop. I could experience what that author experienced. After all, if he is right about coincidence, this could certainly be seen as one: a mountain, a hotel roof; both writers with a need for meaning, flailing desperately in a culture devoid of spirituality, morally bankrupt; in a way, each of us at the ends of the earth for whatever reasons that have taken us there. I begin to climb.

Despite the hot summer day, the night has cooled and the metal stairway is chill and slick with dew. I retreat to my room and pull on my cowboy boots because I can get them on quicker than lacing up my walking shoes. I begin my climb again.

Yes, I can feel something in the air awaiting me above. One foot in front of the other, hand over hand I make my ascent. One story, two stories. On the sixth-floor landing I see a small book. It is a few yellowed pages, curled and dimpled by dewy nights like this one. It has no cover. A total of maybe 50 pages from a poorly bound paperback.

Talk about coincidence! This is not unlike how the author of The Celestine Prophecy would encounter one segment of the manuscript of the Ten Visions or Ten Prophecies or something — one at a time, in the strangest places, like bread crumbs on the trail to enlightenment.

Crouching on the landing, I lift the pages, fragile with age. The first is labeled simply CHAPTER TWO and I see that it is page 23. Mysterious. Where is CHAPTER ONE? Is it for me to find perhaps on the roof? Or maybe, like a souvenir hunt, the clues to the rest of the text are here, in my hands, leading me to Peru or Tibet or El Monte. The lighting is not good, but I angle the pages toward the streetlights below and I can read.

“Fifteen-and-a-half-year-old Shirley Turney wrung her hands and anxiously looked back over her shoulder, expecting other applicants for the job to show up at any time. She didn’t expect anyone to be inside the E-Z Burger Drive-In at this time of the morning and she was apparently correct in this. But at any minute other girls would come for this job she needed so badly, and if she wasn’t the best-looking applicant, at least she’d be the first one in line.”

Possibly this is a parable. I leaf at random through the rest of the pages:

“Ron broke the kiss and fell back on the bed, taking her with him. The room spun about as he rolled about with her on the bed laughing and touching her everywhere, it seemed, while she panted and writhed with him and clung to him all she could.… There was no possible way in the world it could ever fit inside her when it was such a size …the welts on her ass cheeks where he had spanked her with his engorged manhood already rose like angry donuts.…”

I set the book down. I was wrong. There is nothing here for me, though I make a mental note to maybe pick it back up on the way down. I continue my climb and stand at the final landing of the fire escape.

Looking out on the city is exhilarating from this aerie. A line from a Tom Waits song occurs to me: “Broadway’s like a serpent pulling shiny top-down cars.” I don’t see any convertibles, but still.

I decide to sit cross-legged on the landing like the guy in the book — The Celestine Prophecy, not the other one.

I sit and raise my arms to the sky. It is overcast and lit from below by SDG&E. The moon is a cataract eye peering from behind the cloud cover. I try to be the moon, see through that single milky lens to all of creation below. I imagine myself floating above my body, looking down at it. I stand, using only my legs for leverage, and I am surprised to find I can do this easily. Probably because I work out.

I ignore the cold dampness on the seat of my underwear and consider stripping naked to the stars. But there are no stars, and jail is not an option tonight.

I see Coronado and the bridge. I believe I can see Mexico beyond. Squinting at the curdled moon I see with my mind’s eye the nocturnal lights of North County, Anaheim, Los Angeles. My arms are extended to embrace the curvature of the earth. I sense the sunrise over the great plains of the Midwest and happy hour in Lahaina at the Pioneer Inn on Maui…those planter’s punches they make with the cherries and the little umbrellas, maybe a dish of macadamia nuts and a well-tanned blond schoolteacher on vacation at the next barstool and…I visualize myself sinking through the very planet, becoming one with day and night, mountain and valley, earth and sky, the molten core and fertile crust of the mother world. Beneath my physical feet, my astral feet are standing on the shores of Mauritarus, an island off Madagascar on precisely the opposite side of the globe from San Diego. Venus and Mars pass by in a stately, swirling pavane. I wave my astral arms at my planetary sisters, their moons and secret lives and…I hear a voice echoing around me.

“Hey! Whatsyername!”

I open my eyes and strain my ears for the voice again. “Hey, you! Whatsyername up there!”

The voice echoes in the night. It comes from behind me and before me, from below me, it surrounds me. I want to call out, “Yes. I’m here,” but I remember my physical body is standing in my underwear on top of a hotel in downtown San Diego at four o’clock in the morning and I would wake sleeping residents. Once again, the voice comes to me.

“Yeah, you.” It is quieter now, as if it has read my very thoughts. The voice seems to be coming from the park across the street, but I realize that that is its echo. I look directly below to the sidewalk in front of the long-closed Piccadilly Club. “You got any papers?”

It is a man with a beard, in flowing robes or, no, a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. I wonder what he means. Papers? Papers? Identification? Newspapers?

“You got any rolling papers?”

I look down at him and shake my head from side to side.

“Got any beers?” Again I shake my head. “You’re boring, man,” he says, and proceeds west down the street.

Fully in the here and now, I think to myself, “Boring? What do you mean boring? I’m standing on the roof of a hotel at four o’clock in the morning in my underwear, a Startling Stories T-shirt, and my cowboy boots. You rouse me from cosmic consciousness and you call that fucking boring?”

Back in my room I try to resume sleep but I cannot. It takes me only minutes to get over the insult from the false prophet below, but now I am dwelling on the room itself. The hotel was built in August 1926, which makes it 73 years old. One year older than my mother. We have just put her in a room on the ninth floor of a retirement home in Chicago. The room is bigger than this one and the home is brand new. She has a wonderful view of the city and its Slavic, Catholic spires, but it is a room like this one nonetheless. The guilt hangs around me with the old cigarette smoke.

While moving her stuff from her home in the Illinois countryside to her new room in the city, I found all the things I had sent her over the years, all the evidence of any accomplishments in my life strewn in a corner, crushed, crumpled, rusted, shattered, bent, yellowed. I was reminded, in case I had forgotten or become “snooty,” that I was an irresponsible disappointment just as she had predicted all along.

On my return from Chicago, after vicious fighting with my siblings, frustrated and anguished over my mother’s deterioration, thoroughly depressed, I behaved badly. My girlfriend should not have to abide it. And I agreed. I agreed.

And so, I am here, maybe in the same room that once housed the old Mutual Radio Theater in the ’40s. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I am sufficiently sorry for myself and the world that I fall asleep.

A knock at the door wakes me around 10:00 a.m. Probably the maid. I get up and answer the door, still in my underwear. It is a young girl, maybe 18, probably younger. She has a pierced tongue and nostril. She is wearing a flannel shirt, a crucifix around her neck, layers of makeup, and her hair coloring is unfocused.

“Oh, I guess I got the wrong room.”

“That’s okay,” and I begin to close the door.

“Wait a minute. Can I use your bathroom?”

“Uh.” How can I refuse someone a simple request like that? My hesitation shames me. “Sure. Yeah.”

She is inside the bathroom for only moments, while I go through contortions of paranoia. She is obviously casing the joint…her boyfriend/pimp/accomplice will burst in here in a minute and put a knife to my throat… She will come out of the bathroom and threaten to yell “RAPE!” if I don’t give her my money and my computer… She is leaving deadly venereal spores of unthinkable effluvia on the toilet seat, towels, and sink…

I have already concocted a story for her that I’m an undercover cop staking out the bank across the street: “It’s an inside job, see. One of the tellers is passing bearer bonds to a guy that comes around every Thursday at this time dressed like a Pac Bell hard-hat worker. I’ve been on his trail for months.”

What happens is: she comes out, thanks me, I open the door for her, and she throws her arms around me, hugs me, and kind of skips down the hall. I never see her again.

A lot of my time is spent in the library that day. Among the stacks I find middle-aged men like me: alone, bookish, graying, wearing clothes, like mine, that look slept in, searching the shelves for something misplaced — solace, salvation, some proof that, after all, they might not have failed.

I am perched on one of two high customer chairs at the Magic shoe-shine stand. Pontiac is working on my boots with focus and diligence. He tells me, “I opened the book at random, like you said, and I found the part about oracles. I didn’t really know about them.”

“Maybe you’re a kind of street oracle,” I suggest. He likes the idea. He talks about an oracle in a recent Keanu Reeves science fiction movie. “I saw that with my son,” I tell him. “The old black woman is the oracle and tells the guy what he thinks he knows so his own doubt will lead him to the truth.”

“Right. Right.”

I notice a book he has next to his shoe-shine kit. It is called Breaking the Cycle of Birth and Death.

“Yeah, every once in a while someone will bring a new influence to me.”

“A few weeks ago I was reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by this guy Rinpoche from Tibet. Really interesting.”

“This,” Pontiac inclines his head toward his book, “is this gentleman’s version of that. Everybody comes to me with these things for my opinion, and I only have so much… I can’t get to everything. It seems to be an intellectual’s Celestine Prophecy as well. You might be interested.”

I start laughing to myself as Pontiac works liquid dye over the trim of my soles. The guy is shining shoes on Broadway, having conversations with homeless burnouts on Atlanta’s season, he doesn’t live anywhere in particular that he wants to tell you about, and he sounds like a senior editor at Random House. I don’t have time to get to all the material submitted.

Pontiac sees me laughing and laughs too. Just for the hell of it. He doesn’t need to know what’s funny — he already pretty much knows. I read out loud from Pontiac’s book:

“The only belief system that has any validity is one that is constantly changing.” Pontiac nods, smiling. Always smiling. I’ve never seen him not smile.

I read another one to myself. “If one were adept at the English language and knew every single word, it would still not be possible to explain even one spiritual experience or even one encounter with the unlimited that the word God is used for.” This reminds me of a trip on synthetic mescaline I took in 1968 during which I was convinced, and still am, that I experienced, for quite some time, “…the unlimited that the word God is used for.”

“This stuff is very hard to talk about without sounding like a blathering idiot or, in my case, a brain-burned old acid head,” I say.

“You take a staple,” Pontiac says. “You live it, feel it, but it might not be someone else’s staple. Then you have to understand what is their staple.”

At first I’m not sure if he’s saying “staple” or “statement,” and I decide he is saying “staple” and that it is a good word.

He asks how the old creativity is flowing and I tell him I’ve had a few days there where I felt incredibly creative and elated, “Even in this funky hotel.”

“That’s great,” he says. “Just be careful of the dragon.”

“What do you mean?”

“The dragon, the serpent, the other side of that creative rush. It can turn on you, you know?”

I’m not sure what to say to that, so I ask Pontiac his impressions of the hotel itself. “It’s a living organism,” he says. “Everything about downtown has been renovated except this building, this block. It’s a microcosm.”

“What about the people that have lived here for a long time? The residents. You must know a lot of them? How would you characterize them?”

“Well,” he shrugs. “You’re one right now. I believe that we are all the equivalency of what we attract. The people that have come to me here are exactly the same kind of people that have always come to me in my life. There are those who are down on their luck. There are those who are just happy to connect with someone who is free-spirited. There are flirtations and those who just want somebody to say hi, acknowledge them, get the sunshine in.”

The sun is, in fact, reflecting off the toes of my boots now.

“But you’re going to have a different experience with the people in this hotel than, say, at the Hotel Del Coronado, right?”

He shakes his head. “I don’t see it.” He is quiet for a moment. The Commodores are on his portable radio. He looks past traffic, to the park across the street. Nothing is going on there, but he is studying it anyway. After a while he says, “No. You can’t say Picasso couldn’t bring the same significance and dimension as Michelangelo or that Michelangelo couldn’t have been as abstract.” He says this exactly as if I had asked him a completely different question and I am, for a minute, puzzled into silence as he continues buffing my boots. But this is not uncommon during a conversation with Pontiac.

I ask if he meditates and he says, “Yeah, but not in the orthodox way. I used to when I was learning. Now shining shoes is like a prayer to me. I’m like an old monk with prayer beads. When I shine shoes I’m putting a lot of myself into it.”

Back in my room I try to think of the letters and keys on the laptop as prayer beads, but that is impossible. I walk down to the embarcadero, look out onto the bay: hazy, overcast sky now and the waves seem greasy and slow. I think of the lines from Gottfried’s Tristan, the version on which Wagner based his opera. I had just read it in The Anatomy of Love that morning.

“ ‘What is disturbing you? What do you know?’

“ ‘It is what I know that disturbs me, what I see causes me sorrow: the sky and sea weary me; my person, my existence annoy me.’ ”

You’ve gotta love the Germans.

I feel like having a drink, but that would certainly get that serpent Pontiac was talking about right out of the basket.

Instead, I return to the room and make a surprising discovery while watching one of the few stations the television offers. I would share it with you, but it is ineffable and transcends language. I can only suggest that perhaps, like me, if you were to watch the Three Stooges in Spanish, you too might find it.

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