Hotel of the damned

In this second excerpt from her journal, Aggie Max describes life at the dead end of the system.

By Aggie Max

Published July 14, 1997 5:41PM (EDT)

Pepsi | Children are almost never seen in the hotel. Once I heard a baby crying on my floor, the fourth floor, for about a week. But I never saw the baby. Perhaps there are kids here, but we don't see or hear them. There is a rule in the Social Services Department that children aren't to live in a place where there are no cooking facilities. A child who lived here would have to be unknown to Welfare and Children's Services. Can you train a two-year-old to be silent and invisible? People do.

But one day right after Xmas I come downstairs and see a child in the lobby. The child is four or five years old, a little girl, black, wearing dirty little overalls and a happy face T-shirt, baby Reeboks with no socks, and a big green ribbon in her hair. She is sitting on one end of the cardboard couch, alone, staring at the TV. Several of the Doomed, also staring at the tube, seem unaware of her presence.

I go out to get my coffee, read the Trib amongst the Trib writers, walk over to Sherlock's to look at the books, then walk back to the hotel. The kid is still sitting there staring at the tube.

I go upstairs, take a shower, do some laundry and hang the clothes up in the window to dry, then go down to get my mail. The kid is still there, staring at the TV.

"You letting kids move in here now?" I ask the Desk Guy. He shrugs.

This is extremely dangerous, I think. If I approach the child, someone will think I'm a cop. A welfare cop, or a child molester. A baby seller or a baby-stealer. A social worker baby-stealer. A welfare cop family breakup artist. Fuck it.

I buy a Coke from the Coke machine, sit down next to the kid. The kid stares at the tube. The kid is stiff with terror. I should take the hint. Whatever the kid is afraid of is not something to mess with. (It occurs to me later that maybe the kid was afraid of me.) The poor little fucker.

"Coke?" I say, offering the Coke to the kid. The kid stares at the tube.

"Would you like a Coke? I got you a Coke," I say.

The kid stares at the tube.

"You speak English?" I ask, emboldened by the fact that nobody has leaped for my throat yet from some hidden recess of the lobby.

The kid gives a tiny little nod, staring at the tube.

Response! I push the can of Coke at the child. "It's for you. You must be thirsty. Coke."

"Pepsi," says the kid, staring at the tube.

"Coke," I repeat, stupidly.

"I don't like Coke. I like Pepsi," says the kid, staring at the ...

"But we don't have a Pepsi machine here. We just got a Coke machine."

"Pepsi," says the kid.

"Are you hungry?" I ask. "Want some cheez-its? Food? Where's your mommy?"

The kid stares at the tube. A tear, just one, has left a track down the dirty cheek. "Fuck you," the kid whispers. "Fuck Coke. Pepsi. Pepsi. Go away."

The Room | The hotel room is average-sized, maybe twelve by fourteen feet. The head of the bed, against which I sit while reading or writing, is against the east wall of the room and a bit right of center. The bed itself is an ordinary double bed, not uncomfortable, mattress and box spring resting on a heavy wooden platform which is impossible to move (and, I suppose, to steal). It has a heavy, solid wood headboard, to which I've attached my reading lamp, but no footboard.

Between the headboard and the wall, in the northeast corner, is a brown-painted wooden night stand with one small drawer. In the drawer are Dudley's I.D. and other papers, pocket calculator, pen, and flashlight. On top of the stand sits Dudley's clock, ashtray and cigarettes, and a couple of half-burned candles for power failures. Against the north wall, between the stand and the door of the room, an armless chair with brass-colored metal frame and green plastic seat and back.

To my left as I sit against the headboard facing into the room, set into the south wall of the room, a nice-sized window perhaps four feet by five with the sill at knee-level. The window is propped open about eighteen inches from the bottom with half a metal curtain rod wedged
into the groove of the frame on either side. A more or less permanent arrangement made by Dudley, who says that the window is extremely heavy to lift due to the counterweights inside the frame being broken off. The lower pane of the window is cracked all the way across and the upper pane cracked across one corner. The cracks have been taped with masking tape, now dry and crumbling. A set of lightweight white curtains hang to the floor, and behind them a plastic window shade on a roller. Between the floor and the windowsill, at the lower right corner of the window, is an old wrought-iron radiator with the adjustment valve taken off and capped.

In the southwestern corner of the room, opposite the foot of the bed on the left, is a shallow niche containing a sink and wooden medicine cabinet with bleary mirror, above which is a light fixture with bare bulb and the only electrical outlet in the room, into which is plugged the extension cord for my reading lamp. The sink's faucets are the kind with springs inside which turn them off when you let go of the handles. Only the cold water works. To the right of this, a tiled shower stall with wooden door, sheet tin nailed on the inside. When turned on, the shower head emits a trickle of water which alternates with alarming frequency between icy cold and blistering hot (when there is hot water at all). To the right of this another door opens into a closet about four feet by five, with shelves along one side. At right angle to the closet is the corridor door on the north wall.

Across from the hall door, on the south wall, stands a rickety wooden dresser with three of its seven knobs missing. On the dresser sits Dudley's old black-and-white TV set, also plugged into the extension cord.

The ceiling height is about ten feet. The ceiling and walls are painted light gray and several cracks run at angles across the ceiling, spackled but not painted. The floor is covered with carpeting of a dark brown, napless indoor-outdoor fiber. There is a hardened, black circular patch between the bed and the window, probably a burn from a hot plate.

The one peculiarity which stands out in my perception of this room is a fuzzy black splotch on the wall about a foot to the right of the door frame. This discoloration is about a foot in diameter, darker at the center and fading out at the edges. After a few days of getting used to the room and its little irregularities -- the walled-over outline behind the dresser, which must have once been the door to another room, the lighter patch in the paint of the northeast corner where another piece of furniture must have stood, the cracks in the windows and ceiling hastily and unprofessionally repaired (a banner across the front of the building reads "Grand Opening" and claims a complete renovation since the 1989 earthquake; Dudley says the banner has been there for six months, and it will remain for another six months until shredded by a windstorm in December) -- my attention is increasingly drawn to this blotch on the wall. I measure myself against it and see that the center of the blotch is at the approximate height of the center of my head. I note that when the room door is opened inward and I stand behind the opened door, the back of my head is centered within the stain. However, when I stand with my head aligned within the blot, the doorknob of the closed door is more than a foot beyond my reach. Also, that the stain is not a one-time deal, like the bloodstain in the hall toilet. Someone with dirty, greasy hair spent a lot of time standing pressed against the wall in just this position, behind the opened door of the hotel room.

I picture myself as this person, standing behind the door. I'm holding a gun. My partner or roommate is conducting some kind of shady deal in the doorway. Whoever my partner is doing the deal with knows that someone is standing behind the door with a gun. There are no bullet holes in the walls or ceiling.

I explain this scenario to my daughter.

"You've started watching TV again," Jessy says, pleased.

"Take a good look at it." I gesture toward the blot.

Jessy studies the goddamned thing for ten minutes. She studies the door, the doorknob, the ceiling, the walls, the window. She walks to the splotch and stands with her back to the wall. From this position she studies the whole room again. "Jesus," she finally says.

Dudley never notices the spot. He is not terribly perceptive.

Nevertheless, the spot seems to haunt the room. A Mystery Spot.

Money and a Room |If one has no money, one can't very well expect to have a room of one's own, can one? Maybe if one has a BIT of money one can spend it all on rent in order to have a room ... but then it would be just the room, you see, and no ... OK. What kind of money are we talking about here, and what kind of room? Define your terms. No? OK then, how about just money? A room of one's own without money can only be a trap. How can one create anything within a trap that will not be born entrapped?

The animal trapped by the foot will chew off the foot to escape. What about the one who is trapped by the mind? The mind in a trap can't create, it can only stumble around trying to find a way out. And on freeing oneself from one trap, one may find oneself in another, larger trap. Freedom is relative. The bars of the cage may become harder to define. May become impossible to define.

Journal Entry |Went to Martinez today, to the housing authority there, to try to expedite my application for subsidized housing. Another ordeal which could have just as easily been taken care of by mail.

I left the hotel at eleven a.m. and was still fifteen minutes late for my two o'clock appointment. I had enough trouble just trying to find out how to get to the place on BART and bus. People out there don't take buses. They don't understand that it takes an hour on the bus to get someplace that would take ten minutes in a car.

The lady at the housing authority tells me that I need to provide proof that I'm homeless.

"How do you prove that you're homeless?"

The clerk looks up with a puzzled little smile from the pile of paperwork which is supposed to document my financial status, marital status, family status, social status, legal status, educational status, vehicular status, employment status, and the level I have reached in the criminal justice system.

I sense that I'm not going to get a helpful answer. I don't suppose they could just take my word for it.

"I mean," I continue, "All these years I've always had to prove that I lived somewhere. Rent receipts, utility bills, you know. They even come to your place and check, count your kids, the whole bit. I've never had to prove that I didn't live anywhere."

"That's a good question," she says, laughing a little.

"So what do other people do for proof of homelessness?" I'll sign an affidavit. I'll swear to HUD.

"I don't know. We don't have many homeless people in Contra Costa County."

"What would you suggest, then?"

"It's up to you to get proof. I just process paperwork. Perhaps a form from a shelter."

"I don't live in a shelter."

She is beginning to show symptoms of exasperation. "Just go in and ask for the form. Surely they'll let you have one."

"I just need the form for the shelter," I say to the woman at the desk at the shelter referral service.

"What form?"

"The form you give someone when you send them to the shelter."

She gives me a funny look. "You want to go to the shelter? There's a waiting list, you know."

"I just want the form that says ..." I am beginning to sweat all over my laboriously washed sweatshirt. "The referral form."

"You want me to refer you to the shelter."

"That's right."

"Are you homeless?"

"That's right."

"You told me that you are living in the Cracksmoke Hotel on San Pablo."

"I'm getting evicted."

"Where's your eviction notice?"

"I forgot."

"You'll need to bring it in."

"I just want the fu ... the form. The form."

"What do you want the form for?"

"I don't want it. The Contra Costa Housing Authority does."

"What for?"

"Proof that I'm homeless."

"Proof of homelessness? That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard."

"It isn't my idea!"

"Look. I don't know what your scam is, but there are people with real problems waiting ..."

I get up and walk out of the office, crying and formless. Unable to handle going back to my loathsome hotel and my unspeakable room, I find myself sitting in the BART plaza on Fourteenth and Broadway at one o'clock in the morning. Lots of homeless bastards wandering around with filthy blankets wrapped around their shoulders in the shadow of the soaring new American Presidents Lines building. Obviously couldn't do the paperwork necessary to get off the street. How could they if I, with fourteen years of college, can't figure it out?

Copyright © 1997 by Aggie Max. Used with permission by Chronicle Books.

Aggie Max


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Children Family Motherhood