Quality of Life on the Installment Plan
Before I lived in the building that I am now in, I lived in what in this town is referred to as a piss-in-the-sink hotel, only this one didn’t have a sink in the room to piss in – only a mildew encrusted toilet down the hall. From the smell of my room, however, that hadn’t deterred the former residents from using the corner by the door as a makeshift urinal or maybe the errant crackhead had once again been busy marking his territory in hopes of charting a new frontier.
The hotel itself, a large blue and white painted blight of a building, was hung with a misnomer of a name – The Soma Inn; and even by Folsom Street standards its bedraggled populace of dope fiends, hookers and petty thieves made it stand out amongst the small businesses and trendy night spots of the South of Market area. Next door was a popular all night rave whose sound system’s constant thud coupled with the random flickering of my room’s twin four foot long florescent lights up on the ceiling made sleep at night somewhat torturous if not impossible. Most evenings around 3:00am with my head pounding in tandem with the bass, I’d go outside and push my way through the partying throngs of inebriated club goers and wander over to All Night Donuts on Fourth Street and hang out in its calm gray formica and stainless steel environment. Mindlessly ingesting sickly sweet crumb donuts washed down with past-dated cartons of chocolate milk or overdosing on some soggy vegetables mired in an industrial type teriyaki sauce served on a bed and I do mean a bed of sticky overcooked white rice.
Usually by four in the morning the place would be deserted and in desperation for some companionship I’d flirt with the woman who worked behind the counter. She was a bit older than me, but she was still very beautiful, crazy insane, but beautiful. After we dispensed with the customary pleasantries, she would usually tell me about what it was like when she took the boat across the Pacific Ocean to this country and then our conversation would somehow always degenerate into talk of opium and she’d get this dreamy look on her face, one that I could relate too and we’d kind of sit in silence, both of us, sort of with our own thoughts as the clock on the wall flipped its numbers from seconds to minutes and then I’d have to change the subject and talk about anything else that I could think of. I’m sure she sensed that it really wasn’t a healthy subject for me to dwell on and while attempting a different conversation she’d grab her cup of tea and come sit with me at one of the tiny tables that were in front of the glass donut case where we’d try talking about the weather or old movies that we’d seen. We had a strange connection of sorts and I guess that’s why she’d confide in me about her past or maybe it was that universal junkie attitude that all former addicts share, but still it was somewhat profound and a tad bit intimate and at the time our moments together were about the only somewhat healthy human contact that I had going in my life.
Living back at the hotel was insane. I was trying to keep it together, stay out of trouble and somewhat make it and apparently I was the only person there who had those kinda of high end goals and who wasn’t on general assistance, the FBI’s most wanted list or busy putting a needle in their veins. It would be an understatement to say there was a deeply entrenched vortex of lowlifes that made up the small community of tenants, and everyday it was glaringly obvious that I wasn’t planning on joining in and becoming a part of it.
After the sun set unbelievable feminine looking trans-sexual hookers appeared roaming the dark corridors and between tricks would hang out in the downstairs lobby applying their makeup. This one tall blonde in particular would make kissy noises anytime I walked by, much to the disapproval of her prison tattooed boyfriend who gave me mad dog looks that I ignored. In the room directly next door to mine was the building’s aspiring speed dealer. He constantly played bad techno music in competition to the drone of the neighboring nightclub while it seemed every other resident pounded on his door at all hours to buy more of his product.
Across the hall was an elderly black woman who was still plying her trade on the streets and when she wasn’t would be out in the hall leaning against her room’s doorframe dressed in a sheer black semi-see-through slip drinking gin and moaning about the loss of her babies while Marvin Gaye accompanied her lament from the stereo speakers on her bureau – the battered faux wood grain one in the corner covered with cigarette burns and empty liquor bottles. After propositioning me at least ten times a night she’d pass out with her legs sprawled on the floor of the hall so that we would all have to step over her on our way out or to the bathroom, or as was much more the case, impeding the flow of jittery people intent on buying more speed from the sweaty gentleman next door to me.
On particularly busy nights, like on the weekends, my upstairs neighbor would try and sell parking spaces to the club goers outside by the curb in front of the hotel and I never really understood how that worked or why in hell someone would pay him for the privilege to park their own car on the street. One night I came home and pulled my tattered Honda into a spot right in front of the hotel and stumbling toward me in a vodka infused mutation, he demanded money for me to park there. I kind of stared at him with my sideways slit-eyed approach as I slowly closed my door and locked it until he realized it was me and there wasn’t much future in trying to get some money out of the situation. I don’t know how much longer I would have lasted living there before going all the way insane, but just as it was really getting to me, a friend of mine called and said there was a vacancy in her building and that if I didn’t take it she would personally come over and after smacking me in the head, she would move me out herself! Consequently one afternoon, before I had to go to work, I packed what little clothes I had, my laptop and my box of books and moved and thankfully never went back.
Now I live in a somewhat better environment only because there are miles of brightly lit hallways to wander, no shared bathrooms and a security guard at the front desk who sleeps at night while all the derelicts attempt to gain access. Not only that but I actually tend to know some of my neighbors and most of them aren’t trying to get me to pay for sex, just give them money for drugs, and when called on actually act in a sociable way when doing so.
These glaringly obvious differences are now only atrocious memories but none the less I am still rudely awoken out of my thoughts when Natasha knocks on my door uninvited, a walking poster child to eating disorders, she glides herself into my apartment. Her perpetual “I’m about to cry because life sucks so bad” expression is on her face as she folds her impossibly skinny body onto my bed and turns her head and pouts. At twenty-three she feels that there really isn’t much excitement that life has to offer her and I keep telling her that she’s right. This is it! This is as good as it gets! This is reality and we are all stuck with it, but I don’t think it has settled in yet. She continually looks for ways out, like drugs and alcohol and screaming at the moon all night until the sun comes up in the morning, but to no avail. She is stuck, just like I told her and no matter how many nights she waitresses down at the Hard Rock Café, drinks herself into a slurring stupor or spends hours looking at little shiny objects, life and all that that entails is not going to change.
We talk awhile; it’s all about her therapist, her anxiety, her boyfriend, her work and, of course, how hard her life is. She’s under a lot of stress. From what? I do not know? But she says she is and that is why she can’t eat! She’s nauseous, she’s tired, her neighbors make too much noise and work has gotten way too stressful. After awhile there are sudden awkward moments of silence as we are starting to run out of conversation because we are starting to run out of things about Natasha to talk about and she senses this and it is time to go, besides, her boyfriend is waiting in her room down the hall, she just needed to get out and talk to someone who understands just how hard it is out here in the real world. Bye-bye, miss you, kiss in the air and the door closes and I wonder how I became that compassionate person that understands so well. Last time I checked I wasn’t that understanding, but hell I guess things have changed.
In her wake I can see the encroaching nebula of dust that’s constantly coming under my door from the hallway and it’s close to impossible to sweep it up as the flow is non-stop. I’ve tried and it pretty much drove me crazy, to the point where I just opened the door and swept all the dirt back out into the hallway. Of course this was just as the building’s super was walking by and before I could get the door closed his leg attached to a big black work boot blocked it open. What in hell was I doing he wanted to know, and you know, I’d seen other tenants doorways with their little piles of dust just sitting there and thought how crude they were. This was of course before I’d really lived here for any length of time in my building and I really didn’t know what to tell him. Saying that everyone else did it didn’t seem to really be the answer; after all, they probably had the brains not to do it during the day when he’d be around lurking in the hallways. Just admitting that I was cleanliness challenged was not, I was sure, what he was looking for. So, I just acted dumb, mumbled something about not being able to find my trash can and getting to it later and he went away, putting my name on some list at the front desk no doubt. That list tallying up all the black marks against a tenant so that the next time they purge the building of no goods my name will be at the top highlighted:
The phone rings and I know its Stephan in his apartment upstairs pacing in an unemployed frenzy. We’re gonna head out into the city and see what’s out there today. Anything’s preferable to sitting here in the obsequies of my neighbor’s stereo even the rejection of the girls we’ll try and pick up. And the fact that I tend to feel that this small room is home no matter the surrounding populace or the deafening audio barrage is somewhat comforting, otherwise I’d be hard pressed to think that there really was any change at all in where I live.