The Ajax Motor Hotel

"You can stay as long as you pay,"
she said."Daily, weekly, monthly."

I grew up in Seattle, but I'd had enough of living the expected life. My girlfriend had dumped me, and I hated my job. I had only a few friends, and a yearning for something unexpected.

So I sold or gave away or dumpstered almost everything I owned, then packed what little was left into my van. 

With a few thousand dollars up saved by living poor, I drove to California, and eventually landed in San Francisco. That's not where I was headed, though. Could've sworn I was moving to Los Angeles. Swimming pools. Movie stars.

Spent a couple of weeks in L.A., sleeping in my van but renting a hotel room every third night for the shower. The City of Angels vexed me, though. The sprawling hugeness of it was daunting, and there were no neighborhoods with the very cheap housing I wanted. Pretty soon I shrugged, and decided if Los Angeles didn't want me, then screw the place.

Retreating over a minor mountain, I stopped for breakfast at Pappy's Coffee Shop in Bakersfield, a hundred miles north of L.A. The omelet was great, and halfway through the hash browns, I decided to settle in Bakersfield. 

From room-for-rent listings in the paper, Bakersfield housing seemed about 50% off from Los Angeles. To find rents even cheaper, I drove around the city's worst neighborhoods, looking for a "room for rent" sign.

In an area where half of the homes were boarded up and the others had rusted beaters on blocks in the front yard, I turned a corner and found what I'd been looking for.

The sign said, "Ajax Motor Hotel," a smaller sign underneath said, "Vacancy," and a third, even smaller sign listed the rates: $9 nightly, $50 weekly, $175 monthly. That was damned cheap even then, and less than I'd hoped to pay.

The Ajax was a long, very old one-story building, behind a blistered parking lot. It was so run down and dilapidated, for a moment I wondered whether it was abandoned. 

No, a few people were smoking cigs and talking in front of their rooms. They looked Mexican, which was AOK by me. The more they spoke Spanish, the less they'd speak to me, and I prefer the quiet.

So I parked, got out, and heat bouncing off the ancient asphalt melted me. Bakersfield is a sweaty place. I opened the door and walked into the manager's office, which was air conditioned, thank cripes. 

An old white lady was reading a newspaper at the desk, but she put it down and smiled at me. We traded good mornings, and I said, "I've never stayed in a hotel with weekly rates, so how does that work?"

"You can stay as long as you pay," she said. "Daily, weekly, monthly." 

"Can I see a room?"

"Sure, sugar," she said, and I liked her already. She turned to a row of slots on the wall behind her. Most held mail, but a few of the slots had only a key inside. She grabbed one, announced "Eleven," handed me that key and pointed south.

It was a hot day and a long walk to the door with '11' on it, so I got into my van again, started the engine and especially the a/c, and drove to the room. 

Turning the key and opening the door, cockroaches were the first thing I noticed. A dozen were visible as I walked inside.

A very old air conditioner was in the window, and I turned it on. It blew out air that stank of mildew, but it was cool, refreshing mildew.

Looking around the room, I splattered a roach on the wall, which hurt my hand. Holy moly, the walls were made of concrete! No amount of huffing and puffing could blow the place down, which seemed reassuring, this being earthquake territory.

The room had a bed that sagged and squeaked, a single wooden chair, and a small linoleum table that soon became my writing desk. 

There was no kitchen, but I found a counter with an outlet, just right for my microwave and mini-fridge. I don't cook, so who needs a kitchen?

The bathroom was ridiculously gigantic — a sink, toilet, and shower, spread across a space almost as big as the bedroom. I'm not a party guy, but one person could've sat on the toilet while another shaved at the sink and a third was in the shower, and none of them would've felt crowded.

The a/c worked well, making the place almost comfortable within minutes, the neighborhood was largely abandoned so it ought to be quiet, and I'd lived with roaches before, so everything seemed fine to me. I hauled in a box of books from my van, left it in the bedroom to mark my turf, and returned to the manager's office.

Told the lady I'd take it, and she asked only, "Daily, weekly, or monthly?"

"Monthly," I said, and slid cash across the counter. She pushed a registration book toward me, and I signed it, making the Ajax Motor Hotel my home.

Never lived in a hotel before, so I asked, "Is there maid service?"

She smiled but did not chuckle. "This ain't that kind of hotel, toots."

I said thanks, and while walking back to my new room, it occurred to me that I could've signed in as Toots. I could've been Toots Tooterson — she hadn't asked to see any identification. No references, no background check, no employment verification. "You can stay as long as you pay," and that's all they asked.

She also hadn't bored me with any ominous rules, so yeah, I knew I'd like the place.

And I did. Liked it a lot. It was my first residential hotel, and unlike the bum hotels I later stayed at in San Francisco, my bathroom was all mine at the Ajax.

And that bathroom was so preposterously oversized, I pushed the bed into it. This left the bedroom as mostly storage and wasted space, and gave me the great luxury of being able to literally roll out of bed and into the shower or onto the toilet in about two footsteps.

Where I'm living now, it's 28 dang steps to the toilet, and I envy the memory of living in that ginormous john at the Ajax.

With the motor hotel's concrete walls, I could kill roaches with my hammer. "Oh if I had a hammer" — blam! — "I'd hammer in the morning" — blam!  Many roaches were splattered to the rhythm of that song, and their corpses stayed on the wall as decorations.

My first instincts about the manager proved true — she was a delightful old broad, always friendly but never asking too many questions. Marge, was her name. She's still the only rez hotel worker I ever saw who wasn't named Patel.

She subscribed to the local newspaper, cleverly called The Californian, but she rarely bothered to get it from wherever the paperboy had tossed it. When I walked around the grounds, I would pick that day's paper off the asphalt, bring it to Marge in the office, and we'd talk for a few minutes.

Other than ordering burgers at the drive-through and arguing with someone at a grocery store once, Marge was the only person I had any conversations with in Bakersfield. I loved her non-nosiness. She never asked where I was from, or how long I was staying, and never asked me to accompany her to church. Bless you, Marge, wherever you are now.

After just a few weeks, though, I knew I'd be moving on. Marge and the roachy Ajax were great, but Bakersfield was unbearably hot — 109°, the day I decided I was leaving.

Also, the city is repressive, with the meanest cops I've seen anywhere. You'd see police at the side of the road hassling someone, and of course, it was always someone Mexican or Hispanic or black. In my month in Bakersfield, I must've seen forty people being hassled by cops, and none of them were white.

There were also police helicopter patrols, overnight. It was Blade Runner, or a nightmare. A chopper would hover over the neighborhood, shining a high-power spotlight down, illuminating one street, one alley at a time, like a manhunt for an escaped convict — except it happened almost every night I was there. My concrete walls blotted out most of the helicopter noise, but Bakersfield wasn't America, and I couldn't stay.

Before leaving, I thoughtfully wiped hundreds of splattered roaches off the wall. Then I said goodbye to Marge, dropped off the key, and stopped for one last breakfast at Pappy's.

Even then, San Francisco wasn't in my sights. Thought I'd try living in Fresno, maybe, or Sacramento, but a San Francisco Chronicle was in an empty booth at Pappy's. Eating my omelet and coffee, I skimmed the news and sports, and then flipped to the arts & entertainment section.

The paper had ads for several San Francisco theaters showing old movies, and I love old movies. And that's when I finally had the thought I should've started with, when I'd decided to leave Seattle.

San Francisco is famously weird, and I was absolutely a weirdo, so why not try it? By sunset I was there, the next day I'd found a room, and it wasn't long until San Francisco became part of me.

Republished 4/10/2024   


  1. Good stuff this morning!

  2. This is awesome, like a lost preface to Pathetic Life ...

    1. Huh. I hadn't seen it until you said it, but yeah.

  3. Great story. Bakersfield also had some kind of rancher who branded his cows with a swastika. His twin granddaughters eventually became, under the influence of their Nazi stage mom, the pre-teen "Nazi pop twins" that would sing songs they barely understood about killing South African demonstrators and such. And even more eventually they grew up, went to school, got stoned, hate their mom and became normal. Bakersfield, man.

    1. Ah, the mellow sounds of Prussian Blue. I hadn't been aware they were from Bakersfield, but it fits.

      The twins are a classic case of severe child abuse, and they'll never really recover. Every memory they have from their formative years is white supremacy and Holocaust denial. I am never a CPS cheerleader, but were were they when the kids needed them?

    2. Great piece of writing, Doug...I felt like I was right there in the Ajax Motor Hotel, with you! But then you squashed me.

      - Ezekiel J. Kafka-Krahlin

    3. That's a Metamorphosis cockroach joke, right? Even a few months ago I wouldn't have gotten it, but I've been reading some Kafka and eddicatin' myself on such cultural things. :)

  4. Man I have seen Bakersfield and I'm glad you made it out alive. Truly I believe if youd stayed you would not be you now.

    I wonder what happed to Marge, and to the hotel.


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