I wasn’t due back at my job until Monday, so Stephanie and I had a three-day weekend in the Mission District, our new home. It was the closest we came to having a honeymoon, but not being the romantic sort, I had nothing planned, except helping her get acclimated in San Francisco.
On one of those early days, Steph and I were walking across an open plaza. In my memory it seems we were in or near Frisco’s financial district, but it could’ve been anywhere. I’m only certain it was far from our neighborhood, and that it was fairly early in the morning. The plaza was between buildings, and it was all paved or concrete, a 1960’s architect’s idea of “open space,” at once eerie and beautiful – and clean. That’s how I know it wasn’t our neighborhood. The Mission has its charms, but nobody would accuse it of being clean.
Nothing happened while we were out that morning, but we were in love and that was nice. She was cold and I gave her my jacket. It doesn’t often or really get cold in San Francisco, but it was still December and goose bumps were a danger.
What I remember so vividly about that morning in that now-unknown plaza is that we talked about our plans for the future – she’d get a job, and we’d get an apartment, and move out of the residential hotel. And that, my friend, was the extent of our plans for the future, so our dreams were not excessive, but the thought that our dreams might start coming true that very day would’ve seemed crazy. And indeed, what happened that afternoon was a bit crazy and came completely out of the blue.
We bused back to our neighborhood, ate lunch, and probably did some other stuff long since forgotten. Stephanie and I were walking along Mission Street between somewhere and somewhere else, when she slowed and stopped in front of a rez hotel that wasn’t ours, and didn’t look like ours.
Most of the city’s rez hotels are bare-bones affairs; the front door is just an ordinary wooden door, with the words “Such-and-Such Hotel” painted by stencil. But this place had double doors, which seemed much more welcoming, more like a business than literally a hole in the wall. It had three windows looking into a small lobby with a couch, and I’d never seen a rez hotel with a lobby, let alone windows at the street level. The name of the hotel had been painted on the glass – Wallaby Hotel, a ridiculous name – along with weekly rates which seemed reasonable.
“That’s less that we’re paying at our hotel, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Looks like a nicer place, too.”
“Yes it does.” I looked at her, and saw wheels turning behind her eyes. I opened the right-side door, and motioned for Stephanie to step inside. As we entered, someone exited – the double-doors meant someone could enter at the same time someone else was leaving, without waiting, which struck me as a luxury in itself.
Once inside, I noticed an elevator, with a sign that said “Sorry, out of order.” In my experience, rez hotels in San Francisco are always several stories tall, always have an elevator, and the elevator is always, always out of order. But I’d never seen a sign apologizing for the elevator being out of order.
While that thought was brewing, Stephanie crossed the lobby without me. The lobby – this place had a lobby, with furniture that was old but looked comfortable. A gray-haired gentleman was sitting in a recliner and reading a magazine, and he didn’t look at all scary. He seemed perfectly normal. There were more magazines in a pouch on the wall, next to the pay phone. The carpet wasn’t new and hadn’t been new for a long while, but it also wasn’t threadbare.
When I reached the counter, Stephanie asked the day clerk, “Do you have any vacancies?”
He was a youngish black man, and he said, “Certainly, ma’am.” I remember those words distinctly, because while I hadn’t particularly noticed it until that moment, none of the Patels had ever called me “Sir” or Stephanie “Ma’am.” I’m not sure they’d ever called either of us anything but “Hey.”
“Nightly or weekly?,” the clerk asked.
“Uh, weekly,” Steph replied.
“We have smaller rooms at $95 p/week, and larger rooms at $115.”
“Double occupancy,” Steph said. “There’s two of us.”
“Same room, same rates, whether there’s one of you or two.”
“Really?” I asked, sort of stupidly and shocked. I was still agog over the lobby, and the clerk’s politeness, and now this? Who’s ever heard of a hotel – rez or otherwise – that charges the same for two people as for one? A few weeks earlier, when I had told Mr Patel that my wife would be moving in, he had tried to double the rent. I had negotiated the price down to a little less than doubled, and thought that was a reasonably good deal. But if this hotel had “larger rooms” at $115 weekly, we’d be saving so much money it would be ridiculous not to move here.
I thought I’d been thinking the preceding paragraph, but from the amused look on Stephanie’s face it seems I’d said most or all of it out loud. She motioned me to the side, and we excused ourselves from the clerk and stepped in to the lobby. I was still flabbergasted that there was a lobby.
“Would you object to moving here?”
“I would absolutely and so very much not object.”
“You don’t seem to have a lot of things we’d have to move,” Stephanie said. “Correct me if I’m wrong?”
“I’m a minimalist. Everything I own is in our room.”
“So if we moved to this hotel, it wouldn’t be a huge hassle?”
“It would barely qualify as moving. We’re only two or three blocks away. We’d need a few boxes to pack my zines and clothes and dishes. That’s about it.”
“Is that something you’d want to do?,” she asked me. “I don’t want to consider this unless we agree.”
“Let’s look at the rooms before deciding, but right now I’d say the answer is yes. A whole lot of yes. Between the lobby and the better vibe this place gives off, just – yes.”
We approached the office again, and Stephanie asked, “Can we see one of the rooms?”
“Absolutely,” the clerk said. “I’ll show you the basic and the deluxe rooms. And my name is Mike.” We introduced ourselves, and he locked the office and led us down a hallway, and we continued to like what we saw. This was an old building but not dilapidated, and some of the doors had pictures or signs posted. “Jimmy’s Room,” said one sign. Another just announced, “Brent.” The effect was homey, and I’d never seen such signs at our rez hotel.
A guy walked past us, and said “Excuse me,” but he said it nice and normal, not rudely or weirdly. Even little things like that seemed to announce that this place was different.
I was also impressed that we were still on the first floor. Most rez hotels don’t have a first floor; from the sidewalk, you immediately ascend a flight of stairs to the hotel. This place had its lobby and multiple rooms on the street level, and I was already thinking how nice it might be to come home with a couple of sacks of groceries and not climb a flight of stairs.
What really blew my mind (to use genuine San Francisco vernacular) was that there was a fountain, or pond, at one corner of the hallway. It was dry and empty, of course, but it wasn’t gross. I can’t decide which was more surprising – that at some time, generations earlier, someone had taken the trouble and expense to install a fountain or pond in the hallway of this hotel, or that in the years after the fountain had been shut off, it hadn’t been allowed to rust or rot.
Mike pulled a set of keys from his pocket and unlocked a room, then ushered us in. “This is the basic room.” It was about the same size as the room in our rez hotel, but the bed looked sturdier, and a sturdy bed is no small concern when you’re as large a man as me. It was also wider than the beds in our rez hotel – a double or queen-sized bed, not a bed built for one.
“Can we see the deluxe room?”
“Absolutely, sir,” Mike said, and he continued making easy chit-chat as we walked down a different corridor, and passed some stairs but didn’t climb them. “Let’s try room 12,” he said, unlocking another door and leading us into a space that was substantially larger, and brighter, than where I’d been living for the past few years, and Steph for the past few days. The window was bigger and at a better angle, letting more light bounce into the room. There was a sink, a chair, a small desk, a dresser, and a bed that looked comfy, big enough for two, and robust enough to bear my weight. Actually, all of the furniture looked less flimsy and less cheapskate than the furniture our old hotel had provided.
Stephanie asked about the bathrooms, and here’s where I knew I’d fallen asleep and was dreaming. Mike showed us rooms marked “Ladies Showers” and “Men’s Showers,” each of which had a few showers, and then took us to rooms marked “Ladies’ Restroom” and “Men’s Restroom,” that each had a few toilets and sinks. At our old hotel – and by that moment, it was already our “old hotel” – there were only “Ladies” and “Men’s” rooms. Each room had both showers and toilets, which meant you might hear someone showering while you were sitting on the throne, or worse, you could smell some stranger pooping while you took a shower.
I was also slack-jawed at the general cleanliness of the showers and restrooms. The tile was faded and stained, but it looked like someone scrubbed it on a fairly regular basis, and while the room full of toilets didn’t smell particularly clean, it also didn’t particularly smell. Which was another nice step up in quality, from our old hotel.
“I don’t think we need to talk about it, do we, Steph?”
“Yeah,” Steph said, “we want to rent a room.”
“The larger room,” I said.
“That’ll be excellent,” Mike replied. “Welcome to the Wallaby.”
“Are there any, um, strange rules we need to know about?,” Stephanie asked.
“Strange? Well, let’s see.” We were walking back toward the lobby. “Nothing strange comes to mind. We ask guests to treat other guests with respect, and to keep it quiet after 10PM. There are some other rules posted in the lobby, but it’s all common sense, and keeping it quiet is the main rule we care about. That, and the rent is due in advance.” He unlocked the office, went inside, and put a clipboard on the counter. “I just need you to write your names and a permanent address. If the permanent address is a problem, you can use the hotel’s. But I will need to see some ID.”
While I struggled to get my driver’s license from my wallet, Stephanie said, “What’s the rule on cooking?”
“There are no kitchens, but hot plates, toasters, and microwaves are allowed. All we ask is that you don’t burn the building down.” He looked at Stephanie and gently smiled, “You won’t burn the building down, will you, ma’am?”
So we wouldn’t be breaking the rules if we baked a pizza! “You have my word,” Steph said, and raised her hand like she was taking an oath in court. “I will not burn the building down.”
“We come with some baggage,” I said. “Seven or eight boxes of her stuff, and about as many boxes of my stuff. Is that a problem?”
“No, sir, that’s certainly not a problem,” Mike replied, as if he didn’t quite understand the question but he’d be polite with the guests, even with guests who ask dumb questions.
“I’ll also bring some chairs, and a table, and a TV set,” Stephanie said.
“Well, if you folks need help carrying anything, just ask at the front desk. I’m happy to help, and if I’m not on duty Marge or Raheem can help.”
Is this acid flashback?, I wondered internally. Did the front desk guy at a rez hotel just volunteer to help us move in? At the old hotel, I had seen the Patels help people move out, but only for evictions. I’d sure as heck never seen them help people move in.
Mike handed each of us a key, and I’m sure I shook my head, because this place seemed like a rez hotel on Sesame Street. I needed to test this new reality with another stupid question:
“Can I ask, are we allowed to sit in the lobby?”
“Allowed? Yes sir, our couch and easy chair are intended for guests and their visitors. Just keep it low-key, quiet, and you’re welcome to enjoy the lobby any time you wish.”
We shook hands, and I said “Thank you, Mr Mike.” In our time at that hotel, I never called him Mike; it was always Mr Mike, and Stephanie took to calling him Mr Mike, too. Not sure why. Maybe it was our natural response to someone calling us “Sir” and “Ma’am.”
We decided to move Stephanie into the room first, to see whether there would be, as promised, no hassle about bringing numerous boxes and a few small pieces of furniture. We bused to the U-Haul place and rented a truck for the afternoon, and carried all of Steph’s boxes and furniture into the hotel, with no scolding from the management. Our only hassle was maneuvering the truck in city traffic, and finding a place to park near the hotel.
Then we returned the truck, and moved all of my stuff via four trips with my handcart, down three blocks of Mission Street. I had expected some resistance from whichever Patel was on duty, but it was Mrs Patel, and she seemed happy to see us moving out. She refunded our pre-paid rent in cash, without any fee, surcharge, or argument. We never saw anyone from the Patel family again.
It was about 1:00 when Stephanie stopped in front of our new hotel and we’d first gone inside, and by 7:00 that evening we lived there. We’d talked in the plaza about three things we’d wanted to accomplish – she’d get a job, and we’d get an apartment, and move out of the residential hotel. Well, last things first, we had moved out of the godawful rez hotel, and into a much better one.
When we’d finished carrying boxes and arranging the furniture in our room, we sat on the couch in the lobby, just because the hotel had a lobby, and we could. Mr Mike had gone home for the evening, and the office was now staffed by an older woman who seemed just as nice as Mike had been. We introduced ourselves, and made a few minutes of meaningless but not unpleasant conversation.
“I have a question,” Stephanie said. “I’ve only been in San Francisco for a few days, but I haven’t seen any wallabies. Why is this place called the Wallaby Hotel?”
“The owner is Australian.”
My gaze again fell to the magazines in a pouch on the wall, and I noticed that the pouch was a bit furry and vaguely marsupial. Imitation, I hoped, and still do.
More about Stephanie.