“This ain’t that kind of hotel, toots.”

Toward the end of my sentence in Seattle, I lived in a dilapidated house near the University, run by a slumlord, where every tenant rented a room and we all shared the kitchen. I was in my 30s by then, so clearly a loser to be living in what was basically student & stoner housing, but it was surprisingly quiet, and three blocks from a repertory cinema that showed a different old-time double feature every day. Excellent!

It was cheap, but still too expensive, so I moved out and lived in my van for a year and a half or so, completely eliminating rent from the budget. Toward the end, I rented a parking space at a trailer park with shower facilities. Still lots less expensive than renting a room, though.

Finally, with a few thousand dollars and very few possessions, I packed the van and drove to California. I ended up in San Francisco, of course, but that's not where I was headed. 

I was moving to Los Angeles. Swimming pools. Movie stars. I only spent a couple of weeks there, though, staying in cheap hotels some nights, usually sleeping in my van. I was daunted by the sprawling hugeness of L.A., and couldn’t find any neighborhoods with the super-cheap housing I wanted — something like my crappy shared house from Seattle. Well, if L.A. didn't want me, screw Los Angeles. 

Retreating over a minor mountain, I came to Bakersfield, California, a hundred miles north of L.A., and stopped for breakfast at Pappy’s Coffee Shop. I loved the omelet, and decided I’d be living in Bakersfield. 

From room-for-rent listings in the paper, Bakersfield was about 50% discounted from L.A. I wanted rents even cheaper, though, so 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 other half had twenty-year-old beaters on blocks in the front yard, I found something I hadn’t expected. It was exactly what I’d been looking for, though. "Ajax Motor Hotel."

There were three long, very old one-story buildings laid out in a U-shape, with parking right in front of each unit, and a “Manager” shack in the middle. Above the shack, under the weathered paint that barely said, “Ajax Motor Hotel,” were the rates — $9 nightly, $39 weekly, $99 monthly. This wasn’t merely in line with my budget; it was less than I’d expected to pay.

All the cars parked at the Ajax were at least ten years old. The hotel was run-down, which was fine with me. Judging from a few people smoking cigs and talking in front of their rooms, the occupants were mostly Mexicans, which was also fine with me. If they all spoke Spanish, maybe they wouldn't be talking to me, and I do prefer the quiet.

I opened the squeaky door and walked into the manager's shack. “I’ve never stayed in a hotel with weekly rates,” I said to her, “so how does this work?”

“You can stay as long as you pay,” she said, but kindly. “Daily, weekly, monthly.” 

“Can I see the room?” She turned around to a row of mail slots. Several had keys inside, and she said “Eleven,” handed me that key and pointed south. I could see the door with ‘11’ on it, but it was a hot day and it looked like a long walk, so I got back into my van and drove there. 

Turning the key and opening the door, the cockroaches were the first thing I noticed. They were dots on the walls, but the dots were moving. A dozen roaches were visible as I walked inside, closed the door, and wandered around.

The room was furnished, with a bed that squeaked, a single wooden chair, and a small linoleum table that soon became my desk. The bedroom was spacious, and the bathroom was huge — a sink, toilet, and shower, spread across a space almost as big as the bedroom. I could do jumping jacks without arms or legs touching anything but the floor, if I was a jumping jacks guy. One person could theoretically poop, while another guy could shave at the sink, and a third person could be in the shower, and none of them would’ve felt crowded.

There was no kitchen, just a counter where I could plug in my microwave. Good enough for me; I don't cook.

When I splattered my first roach on the wall, it hurt my hand, because the walls were made of concrete — very thick concrete.

There was air conditioning, and when I turned it on, it was loud and blew out air that stank of mildew. It was cool, refreshing mildew, though, and Bakersfield in summer is hot.

The neighborhood was half-abandoned, so I thought it would be quiet. And I’d lived with roaches before — not so many as this place had, but I knew I'd get used to it. I brought a box of books in from my van, and left it in the bedroom to claim my territory, then walked to the manager’s shack to check in.

She only asked, “Daily, weekly, or monthly?”, but again, she said it nicely. She was an old woman whose hair should've been gray but was jet black. Dye job. Gotta respect the vanity, and I had good vibes about her, and the hotel.

I said, “Monthly,” and slid five twenties across the counter. She pushed a registration book toward me, and I signed in. 

“Is there maid service?” I asked, and she smiled but did not chuckle. 

“This ain’t that kind of hotel, toots.”

I said thanks, walked to my new home, and it occurred to me that I could’ve signed in as Toots. I could've been Toots Tooterson — she hadn’t asked to see my identification. No references required, no background check, no employment verification, just “You can stay as long as you pay.” She also hadn't bored me with any ominous rules, so yeah, I was thinking I'd like the place.

It was my first residential hotel, and I liked it a lot. Unlike the ones I later stayed at in San Francisco, the Ajax gave me a private bathroom. Totally posh! 

And that bathroom was so ridiculously oversized, I saved some footsteps by pushing the bed into the bathroom, and setting up my TV in there, too. 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. Where I'm living now, it's eleven damned steps to the toilet, and I envy the memory of living in the john.

Killing roaches became my new hobby, and it was endless entertainment. I'd be reading a zine or making a sandwich, and a roach would poke its ugly antenna up, and the chase was on. If you don't let yourself get grossed out, it's seriously fun, and no matter how many roaches I killed, there were always more.

Best of all, because of the concrete, I could kill roaches with my hammer, and it didn't damage the walls. I'd sing, "Oh if I had a hammer" — blam! — "I'd hammer in the morning..." — blam! — splatter them to the rhythm, and leave their corpses stuck to the wall as decorations. With Post-It notes, I added cartoon captions for the roaches’ dying words — “Ouch!” and curse words mostly, but some said, “Why?” and “What did I ever do to you?

The manager was a delightful old broad, never nosy but always friendly. Marge, was her name. She was the only rez hotel worker I ever saw who wasn’t named Patel.

She subscribed to the local newspaper, but she rarely bothered to pick it up from wherever the paperboy had tossed it. When I walked around the grounds, I would pick up that day’s paper, and maybe the previous day’s, and bring them to Marge in the shack, 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, and she never asked where I was from, or how long I was staying, and she never asked me to accompany her to church. Bless you, Marge, wherever you are now.

I didn't pay the next month’s rent, though. After just a few weeks, I knew I’d be moving on. Marge and the roachy Ajax were great, but Bakersfield was unbearably hot — 112°, the day I decided I was leaving.

Also, the city was truly repressive, with the meanest cops I've seen anywhere. Everywhere I went in the city, if they weren't eating donuts you'd see police at the side of the road, hassling someone, and it was almost always someone Mexican or Hispanic. Saw a few blacks getting hassled, too, but never once a white guy, and the cops were eternally going after the Mexicans.

There were also police helicopter patrols, overnight. It was like Blade Runner or a nightmare — every ten or fifteen minutes, a chopper would hover over my neighborhood, shining a high-power spotlight down, lighting up one street, one alley at a time. It was what you’d expect if there was a manhunt for an escaped convict, only it happened all night, every night I was there. The concrete walls blotted out most of the noise, but still, Bakersfield wasn’t America, and I couldn’t stay.

Before saying adios, I thoughtfully wiped the roaches off the wall, and counted them. Can’t remember the exact number all these years later, but it was in the low four-hundreds, and I’d run out of Post-It notes. I said goodbye to Marge, dropped off the key, and drove north, but first I 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. At Pappy’s, though, I found a San Francisco Chronicle in an empty booth. Over my omelet and coffee, I skimmed the news and sports, and then flipped to the arts & entertainment section.

Hey, San Francisco had several theaters showing old movies. I love old movies. Maybe I should move to San Francisco?

I'd read Tales of the City, and it seemed too sociable for me, but the overriding theme was 'weirdos are welcome here', and I was a weirdo. I checked the classified ads, and rooms-for-rent were more expensive than Bakersfield, but less expensive than Los Angeles. I figured, maybe I could find a cheap residential hotel there, like the Ajax.

Yeah, why not try San Francisco?, I asked myself. And the next day, I was there.



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  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.


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