Ecstatic but exhausted, Stephanie and I had arrived in San Francisco. Not the San Francisco of Full House on TV, but the real city, and a particularly grungy neighborhood, near the corner of 16th and Mission Street, where I’d been living. I liked the location because a BART station was only footsteps away, but the hotel itself was exactly like hundreds of other residential hotels in the city. It was sixteen steps up from the sidewalk, but one step up from homelessness.
The formal term is “single room occupancy,” or SRO. They’re generally ramshackle old buildings from an earlier era, constructed as working class housing for single people, but now used exclusively by the poorest people in the city. An SRO or rez hotel might have dozens of residents, and each has a room with a bed and a dresser and a sink, and that’s all. There are shared toilets and showers down the hall.
Here’s a picture I just snagged off the internet; it’s not the rez hotel where I lived, but it’s similar and probably close by. There are shops and restaurants on the street level, and behind a nondescript, unlocked door, up the stairs and behind the windows, that’s where poor people live.
The rez hotel was a rather rough place to live, in a decidedly sketchy neighborhood. I was worried about Stephanie living there – the notion of her navigating from the sidewalk up the stairs and down the hall to our room, was cause for concern. I’d given her a canister of mace, and asked her to keep it handy when I wasn’t around.
There should have been a sign: “Drunks and drug addicts welcome.” I was probably the only person in the building who had a job. Everyone else seemed to be on Welfare, or Section Eight, or other government assistance or charity programs. Well, not everyone – Joe, the friend who came to visit me in Madison after Stephanie died – lived in the building for a while, and he had a normal job working at a video store. But by the time I met Stephanie, Joe had already met and married Shawna, and they’d moved into an ordinary apartment.
I lived there for the super-cheap rent, and also, of course, because I was an idiot. Everyone else in the building lived there because they had no place else to go. The occupants were virtually all single men, who seemed about half a welfare check from being homeless. Very few women lived in the building, and it goes without saying that there were no children – that wasn’t a rule, it was just common sense. Seeing a kid walk into the building would’ve been reason enough to call Child Protective Services.
None of the rooms came with a kitchen; all came with roaches and mice. Cable TV and the nascent internet were not options, since the slums were not wired for such services. You could have a phone, if you paid for installation and paid the monthly bill, but most of the residents didn’t have that kind of spending money. I could’ve afforded a phone, but I’d never seen the need. There was a phone booth in the building, with a posted ten-minute limit on conversations. Another sign said “No Visitors,” but that rule wasn’t enforced, unless your visitor seemed particularly distressed or distressing.
There’s no guessing how old the hotel was, but it was in poor repair. There were cracks in the walls, funky smells in the hallway, and in the hallway you could see through the carpet. Loud arguments could often be heard – residents arguing with each other, or with themselves. Once in a while you’d find a needle in the hallway. We had a view of the dumpster out my window, though the scent only reached us on very sunny days.
The landlords were married immigrants, last name Patel, first names never mentioned. They ran the hotel with their two sons, Ramesh and Saju, both of whom were born and raised in America. Any of the four Patels might be working the front desk during the day, but at night they all went home to the suburbs, leaving only a phone number posted on the locked door to the office.
I was on good terms with the Patels, or thought I was. They kept the shared toilets and showers reasonably clean, and I paid my rent on time or early. I even called 9-1-1 a few times when I smelled fire, and the Patels thanked me for it. See, once in a while someone in the building fell asleep while smoking a cigarette in bed, which singed the walls and made for some overnight excitement. In several years at that hotel, I called 9-1-1 in the middle of the night three times, and then stood on the sidewalk while the firefighters did what firefighters do.
So me and the Patels weren’t pals, but we would smile and say hello in the hallway. I wished them a happy Diwali every October, and they wished me a merry Christmas each December. Twice they had asked me to be the big guy on their side when they were having problems with a tenant, and they gave me half-off on the next week’s rent for my trouble. I’ve never been tough, but for a lot of years I’ve been big, and big can be almost as useful as tough in such situations.
My point in telling all this, is that I was the ideal tenant for a rez hotel. I certainly never had any problems with the Patels – until Stephanie moved in, or tried to.
On our first afternoon in the city, we had rented and mostly filled a unit at a storage facility, so the truck was empty except for the things we were bringing to the hotel – several boxes of Stephanie’s books and zines and clothes and kitchen stuff, a box of sheets and blankets, a coffee table, a few chairs, and Steph’s TV. When we parked the truck in front of the building, Ramesh Patel was smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. He eyeballed us suspiciously, and when we started carrying stuff from the truck toward the hotel door, he reacted as if we were smuggling in bombs.
“What’s going on? What are you doing?”
“We’re moving my wife in, like I told you.” I had already cleared it with Ramesh and his father a few weeks earlier.
“Well, you didn’t tell me she’d be moving a truck full of stuff into the room!”
“It’s not a truck full of stuff. We’ve already put most of Stephanie’s things into storage. This is just a few boxes and chairs and –”
“No!,” he said, emphatically. “You can’t do this.”
“What do you mean? We’ve talked about this, you and me and your dad. We’ve arranged this. We’ve paid for this.” I had paid the rent two weeks in advance – the new rent that was almost double the old rent, since Steph was moving into my room.
“No! You never told me she was moving all this stuff in to the hotel. That changes everything. That isn’t allowed.”
“What do you mean, ‘all this stuff’? We’re not homesteading. It’s eight cardboard boxes, two chairs, an end table, and a TV set. Everything else is in storage, and we’ll never bring it here. I’ve already told you, we’ll be moving out in a few weeks or months.”
“No, no, you don’t understand.”
Stephanie put down the box she’d been carrying, and approached Ramesh, and joined the conversation. “You’re right, we don’t understand,” she said, in a calm tone of voice. “We’re not trying to make things difficult, we’re just trying to move me in. I don’t understand what the problem is.”
Ramesh took a breath and sighed. He was trying to remain calm; we all were. “The problem is, this is an SRO hotel. People who stay here bring a duffel bag or a box or two. Nobody moves in like they’re moving into a home or an apartment. Nobody comes with a moving van. You can’t bring that much stuff into the hotel. I won’t allow it.”
And he meant it. Ramesh wouldn’t allow it. There was no yelling, no cursing, nobody even raised their voices, but there was also no budging. This was years ago, and I’ll probably mangle the legal details, so let’s not put the rest of the conversation in quotation marks. The gist of it was that the Patels wanted us to be hotel customers, not tenants. Tenants – someone renting an apartment, for example – have certain rights under law in the City of San Francisco, which makes tenants difficult to evict, so the Patels were adamant that none of the hotel’s customers could legally claim to be tenants. If we carried eight boxes of Stephanie’s stuff up the stairs, and some furniture and a TV set, the Patels were worried that it might legally make us tenants, instead of hotel customers.
Stephanie took the lead in negotiating with Ramesh, and he agreed that we could bring three boxes up the stairs and into the room – but no more than three boxes, and no furniture, and no TV set. She feigned crying and went back to the truck, but inside the truck she re-arranged the contents of the boxes so that her toaster oven was inside a box that looked like it was full of books. Thus, we carried up three boxes of stuff as agreed, and now we had a toaster oven on top of the dresser, alongside my hot plate and microwave. All prohibited, of course, but Ramesh didn’t inspect the boxes we brought up, so we got away with our crime.
Tuckered and frustrated, we drove the truck back to the storage facility, and unloaded the rest of Stephanie’s stuff. Then we drove it to a U-Haul shop, took care of some paperwork and said goodbye to the truck, and took a #14 bus back to the hotel.
We picked up a few groceries at a neighborhood bodega, then cooked some frozen mini-pizzas in the toaster oven, in violation of the rules. Then we watched some TV on my tiny black-and-white boob tube, and Steph wished she had her magnificent 21-inch set.
Between the last of the driving, unpacking the truck, and the argument with Ramesh, we were ready to turn in. When Steph had visited five months earlier, she’d had her own room at the hotel, so this was the first time we had spent the night in my tiny bed. It was definitely a one-person bed – single-size or twin, I think it’s called. “This is the same size as the bed in my room, at the house where I grew up,” she said, “and in that bed I was almost always alone.” So our first night’s sleep at the rez hotel was a tight fit indeed, for a very fat man who snores, and a woman who wasn’t petite.
The next day I spoke with Ramesh’s mother at the front desk, and for an extra $10 per week we agreed that she would supply us with a second bed. The hotel didn’t have any doubles, queens, or king-size beds, so for the remainder of our time at that hotel we slept in separate beds, but side-by-side sharing a blanket. The rest of our time at that hotel, though, was only a few days.
More about Stephanie.