View from the veranda

When I came to San Francisco in autumn of 1991, I didn't know the town, or anyone in it. All I knew was, I wanted a cheap place near a subway station, so getting around would be quick and easy. I'd come in a van, but permanently parked it far away, with no intention of driving it again (and I never did).

With an hour on BART and MUNI, I briefly peeked at the neighborhoods near the stations. The area that seemed most alive and interesting was the north Mission District, near the 16th @ Mission BART station. Tellingly, the close runner-up was the station at 24th @ Mission. I went with 16th over 24th, because at 16th there's the Roxie, a theater that shows nothing but old movies.

Took the first low-rent room I looked at, a roach- and rat-infested cave in a residential hotel on Mission Street almost overlooking the BART station. Lived happily in that hellhole until I found a slightly better rez hotel half a block away. 

Being an idiot, I didn't know how good I had it in the Mission, so eventually I moved to a rez hotel downtown, near where I was working. Later I moved into a Mission apartment with Pike, a guy I barely knew who turned out to be a perpetually-unemployed drug addict with a live-in moocher girlfriend who drove me nuts.

Judith read about Pike in the zine, and offered me safe refuge in Berkeley, sharing a flat with her and her husband and their friends, Cy and Joe. And there I was, until the landlord noticed there were too many of us, and Cy and Joe and I were told to go.

That's the story so far.

Giving it all as little thought as possible, I've decided that my first choice was the right choice — the Mission is where I ought to be. So after typing this, I'll BART into the city, to find a cheap room in a rez hotel, somewhere near the 16th @ Mission subway station. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

At the first rez hotel I walked into, an Indian woman in a shawl told me their cheapest room was $125 a week. I said thanks and turned around. That's far pricier than I'd expected.

At the next hotel, an Indian woman in a shawl told me I'd have to talk to her husband about renting a room, and he'd be out all day. I said thanks and turned around. There are plenty of other rez hotels in the neighborhood, and I didn't want to take a number and stand in line.

At a third place, an Indian woman in a shawl answered a few of my questions, and told me rooms started at $90 a week. That's reasonable, and I might've taken that place, but her gaze fell to the pin on my windbreaker — "He is your God, they are your rules, you burn in Hell" — and suddenly they had no vacancies. I said thanks and turned around, and slipped the pin into my pocket.

At the next rez hotel, an Indian woman in a shawl showed me a room for $80 a week — tiny room, tiny bed, working but rusted sink. Perfectly adequate. I was ready to move in, but as we walked back to the office to have me sign a book and fork over four twenties, a tattooed hooker in the hall — she looked about 14 — started screaming obscenities at her 'date'.

Ah, no thanks. I've lived in a whorehouse before, and the sound of sex coming through the walls can be fun, sure, but there are endless arguments about money, and about what she will and won't do, and it gets repetitive and it's always too loud. 

Each of these places had a sign posted on the wall by the office — "No visitors after 10:00," or 9:00, or 8. At the next rez hotel, the rule was even simpler: "No visitors," period, and I like that. It ought to make the place quieter, with no-one for the lowlife and lunatic residents to argue with except ourselves.

There's nobody I'd want to have over. I don't have many friends, and wouldn't subject them to the rez hotel experience. And generally, I prefer to be alone anyway. Nothing personal, but you're not invited.

The Indian woman in a shawl told me to wait for her husband, and psychically I knew he'd be a Mr Patel. I don't know if they're closely related, but every rez hotel in San Francisco is run by an Indian immigrant named Patel.

And indeed, before too long, Ben Kingsley as Gandhi waddled and limped down the hall toward the office. He introduced himself — "I'm Mr Patel" — and told me the rent was $85 a week.

I shrugged and said, "Sounds good," and he handed me a key.

"The room is on the fourth floor," he said, "third door on the left." He hadn't asked my name, I hadn't given him any money, and he wasn't going to accompany me up the stairs to show the room.

"Elevator?" I asked, hopefully, pointing to the old-style lift with a latticed gate, directly across from the office door.

"Sorry," he said like I knew he would, "it's out of order."

"Does it ever work?" I asked, but Mr Patel's English or earpiece wasn't very good, or he pretended not to hear.

I climbed the stairs, sixteen per floor, then turned the key.

As in every rez hotel room, there's a sink, a rickety chair, a wobbling table, and a bed with sheets and blankets. The bedspread was clean but dotted with cigarette burns, and I used it to wipe the sweat off my forehead, from climbing sixty-four steps.

Tried the window, and it opened, with an extremely non-postcard view of the littered fire escapes, trash cans, and back doors of two other rez hotels.

Took a pee in the john, which of course is down the hall, shared with everyone else who lives on the fourth floor. It was as clean as any average public restroom.

I'd brought a few necessities in my backpack, so returning to what was almost my room by then, I took out a plastic cup and filled it with water from the sink. It looked and tasted like water.

And I noticed that the sink is just the right height for peeing into. I'm not gonna get dressed and walk down the hall every time I gotta pee.

Then I stood and listened, and heard no arguments or screaming. That might've been only the luck of the moment, but I'd made the decision: It'll do, so I walked down four flights of stairs and paid the first week's rent. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

The hotel has peeling paint, lots of colorful muck smudges on the walls, and the two fellow residents I've passed in the hall seemed sane.

The carpet is somewhat green, with garish orange blotches of an origin I'd rather not know.

There's a large cupboard that won't open, and a very small closet that does.

There was even a small black-and-white TV atop the flimsy dresser, but I unplugged it and stashed it in the closet.

As for the dresser, one of the drawers is missing.

There's roachshit around the floorboards, but I haven't seen a roach yet.

The only decor is a calendar on the wall, with a picture of Christ above the month of Marzo, and an advertisement in Spanish for a taqueria on Valencia Street — the implication being, Jesus Himself eats at SuperTaco.

It's your basic wino hotel, but there's a grocery store across the street, a used bookstore at the next corner, and plenty of movie theaters — the Roxie is a few blocks one way, the Tower a few blocks the other, and the #33 bus goes directly to the Castro and Red Victorian.

The building, while old, seems sturdy enough to stand through an earthquake, and the fire escapes at both ends of the hallway are not locked.

From the nearest fire escape, there's a nice view of the street, the traffic, and the bums drunks and derelicts below. I anticipate making sandwiches in my room but eating them on what I'll call the veranda. 

Something smells fishy, though. There's a seafood store on the hotel's first floor, selling live and dead salmon and cod and clams.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Having rented a room, I walked to the offices of Black Sheets, and worked my normal Monday shift with Bill and Steve, and some pretty young woman they've hired.

It's a porn publisher, so they get incoming smut of every persuasion in the mail. Bill gave me a stack of leftover nudie and fuck magazines, so after work I came back to the hotel and christened the sheets, thinking of my new co-worker.

Then I BARTed to the old place in Berkeley, and came back with my typewriter, and some pants and towels and ramen (the essentials).

Wrote up the day, christened the sheets again, and now I'm trying to sleep while the guy in the next room watches a soap opera in Spanish. His room originally adjoined mine, and even though the connecting door has been boarded over, when he sneezes I want to say "Bless you" and when I fart I'm sure he can smell it.

This is my home, sweet home: Room 403 at the Hotel McMillan. I think I'll like it here.

From Pathetic Life #23
Monday, April 1, 1996

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.


  1. Ah, I have many fond and not-so-fond memories of the McMillan. Your description of Mr. Patel is spot-on, of course.

    I have one anecdote that I want to tell, but it involves using the real name of the hotel - is that accepptable at this far-removed date?

    1. I don't remember the Hotel McMillan's real name, so please tell a story!

    2. It was the Crown Hotel.

      You and I were either coming in, or going out, I forget which. The only phone in the whole fucking place was a payphone right at the check-in desk. It rang while we were there, maybe paying rent, whatever. I answered the pay phone.

      "Hello? What? Sure, I guess this is the Crown Plaza Hotel."

      Both you and Mr Patel started laughing and waved me off. The Crowne Plaza is apparently a swanky-ass hotel, that is next to the Crown in the phone book (or was, 27 years ago). You both had seen this happen before, and stopped me before I got into some shit with the caller.

    3. That's a good one, completely forgotten by me. Our hotel was definitely there first; the Crowne Plaza was just poseurs.

      When are you checking in at the Crown McMillan, across the hall but down one floor?

    4. Yes, exactly, one floor down, across the hall. So many fucking stairs, though. For me with my leg issues, I almost couldn't do it now.

    5. Hop on, man, and I'll take you up piggy-back.

      There was nothing wrong with the elevator, was there? Mr Patel just wanted to save on electricity, and (perhaps correctly) thought some of the residents would poop pee or fornicate in the elevator if given a chance.

    6. In public school in NJ, every grade had a homeroom of Patels where every variation of India-based family had a representative. In the '80s, there were always a few who were culturally very different from their U.S.-based peers, and they wore clothes that were considered painfully unhip. Then there would be those who were half-in to the NJ culture and usually had hairstyles there looked like they'd observed their U.S. counterparts. And finally there were a very few who assimilated completely into the culture and acted as dumb and arrogant as any US teen overdosed on MTV in that era.

      A decade later, the Indian girls were very stylish, complete with belly button rings and Tommy Hilfiger everything. Very weird.

      We had a very nice family named Patel live next to use for a handful of years. It always smelled of curry and other spices and made me hungry. Their kids were gorgeous. The boy looked a bit like Elvis or something and the sister was a knockout. Both became doctors. -- Arden

    7. Were your Patels in the hotel business?

      I find your entire comment here very interesting, but I don't have the brainpower to say anything tonight...

    8. In my time, the whites, blacks, Asians, and random minorities were mingling nicely at elementary school, but the unassimilated minorities were shunned and laughed at. Must've been rough for the kids whose families literally came off the boat, or didn't speak much English, or brought stinky ethnic lunches. They were all as unwelcome as me, maybe more so.

      I believe I've been treated by your neighbor, Dr Knockout.

    9. My former neighbors, the Patels, ran the local gas station/convenience store and even expanded to own the liquor store, too, in the same complex. Then they sold it very quickly and moved to Chicago to be with their kids. (Their kids are probably not thrilled with that. Dad was the kind of guy who liked to tell them how to do everything.)

      It's a cliche around here that Indian families own convenience stores, but I assume it's like Greeks with diners (there's a Nick and Peter Pappas in every county in the Northeast, at least) where the secrets of the trade are taught to each generation and to each new arrival from the old country. Also, I assume that their relatives bank them as an investment. -- Arden

    10. Statistically, I think it rounds off to *all* Greek restaurants are owned by someone named Nick. There's one in Madison, and at the Seattle gyro place I've mentioned, I called the guy Nick once, and he said, "Do you know me?"

      No, man, I only know that the gyros are good, so you must be Nick.

      I'd like to be adopted by an Indian family that runs a buffet here in Seattle.

      Got curious enough to Google, and came up with this article about the Patel lodging legacy.


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