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After a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. Photo by Stacey Warde

After a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. Photo by Stacey Warde

by Greg West

Sarah had called the town a poor man’s Monterey but Joe moved there anyway, thinking, “I’ll live in poor man’s Monterey and Sarah can live where she lives and we’ll both be happier.” He loaded his belongings into the back of his Ford Ranger and drove to the little town, bought a newspaper and answered an ad for a studio apartment at four-hundred a month, plus a fifty dollar deposit. The apartments weren’t good. They were a poor man’s apartments—a row of sickly blue huts out in front of a splintered two-story in the back.

Joe knocked on the office door. Inside he could hear the audio of a pornographic movie being turned down. Out in front of the sickly huts two police cars pulled up and a red-faced drunk was handcuffed while two red-faced women yelled at him from separate doorways. A skinny bearded man stood in another doorway with a can of beer. He had a tall cactus plant and a lawn chair on his porch. “Sarah’s right,” Joe thought. “It’s not Monterey, but it’s still nice, this town.”

A man came to the door and introduced himself as Yolo, the manager. He was a jittery, lisping man with no front teeth, a head of oily flaking hair, and a long purple nose seeded with enormous blackheads.

“It’s zero-t-tolerance here” he told Joe, leading him up the stairwell of the two-story, words whistling off his gums. “What I mean is, it’s strict. No drugs, no hookers, no dealing, and, and, if you’re a cop, you have to let us know, legally.”

Each stair was about to give, from unevenness or decay, but as Joe and Yolo reached the top, Joe knew he was going to take the place. Through a tangle of cable wires he could already see a bit of ocean and part of the massive volcanic rock the town was known for. He’d have to shut out the courtyard of weeds and jalopies below, and the pride of diseased cats over by the overflowing dumpster—and the noise—it was the middle of the day but people were home. Joe could smell marijuana smoke and hear dramatic debates coming from the units. A woman in a housecoat and slippers was weaving around the courtyard looking lost and distraught. Joe and Yolo stopped at a roll of carpet and some paint cans that were out on the walkway. They looked into the apartment that was for rent.

“This is it,” Yolo said to Joe. “And this here’s Ron. He’s the maintenance.”

Ron the maintenance man was at the top of a folding ladder, painting the ceiling a dark brown. The apartment was tiny—big enough for a bed and a table maybe, but Joe kept thinking about the walkway. He believed it was wide enough for a chair and maybe a TV tray. He saw himself sitting out there with a beer or a cup of coffee and watching sunsets through the cable wires. He could take his phone out there and call Sarah and tell her about his poor man’s view. If he could shut out that squalor below—the jalopies and the arguing and the flea-ridden cats—he’d have himself a little taste of affluence at four-hundred dollars a month.

Ron the maintenance man set his paint brush in a paint tray and climbed off the ladder. He was shirtless and pot-bellied and had a few strands of hair on each side of his head. His teeth worked a billowing Camel.

“Did you tell him about the no tolerance?” he asked Yolo.

Yolo moved his feet and looked away. “I told him. H-he said he’d abide.”

“And you told him no bullshit? No drugs? No sellin’ pussy, no grab-ass? You told him how strict it is here?”

“I told him,” said Yolo.

Ron tugged at jeans that were trying to slide off his assless trunk, and stepped over what looked like a puddle of dried paint but was in fact the dried blood of a man named Eldon Creel, who three days earlier had killed himself in Joe’s new apartment. Ron stopped near the doorway and the three men looked down at the hardened glossy pool.

“He was just another one of those guys,” Ron said. “That came and went. Grocery store, video store, he had his groceries and his videos and that was all he wanted. Never said nothing to no one. We figure he sat about right here…”

Ron dropped to the floor and sat against the wall. “…We figured he sat about here and said, ‘to hell with it,’ and went, ‘one…two…three…’”

Ron fitted two fingers under his chin, pulled a thumb-hammer.


Yolo jumped and shuddered. A flurry of flakes fell to his shoulders. “We gotta tell you,” he said to Joe. “By law, we have to tell you.”

Ron got to his feet, pulled up on his jeans, and began running the flat of his hand along a roughened section of door frame. He pulled out a pocketknife and stuck the point of it into the door frame then showed Joe and Yolo what he’d dug out. Against the silver of the blade it looked like chipped tooth on a dentist’s utensil.

“We’re still finding ‘em,” he said.

“Brain fragments,” said Yolo.

“Skull fragments,” Ron said. “We already got all the brains.”

“That-that’s what I mean,” said Yolo. “Sk-sk-skull fragments. W-we’re still finding ‘em. Everywhere.”

Joe unloaded his Ford Ranger and settled into the apartment and began a daily routine. In the mornings he’d walk down to the ocean and in the evenings he’d sit on his poor man’s balcony and eat TV dinners and watch sunsets. Or, if it was too foggy and there was a fight or arrest below, he’d watch that. The one time he’d called Sarah she’d hung up on him.

Once or twice a month he’d find one of Eldon Creel’s skull fragments in his wall or ceiling and pluck it out with scissors or nail clippers or whatever was around, and after a year in poor man’s Monterey he couldn’t tell if he was any happier or not. Gradually, he spent less time watching sunsets and more time watching the feral cats over by the dumpster. He’d sit out there until dark sometimes, watching them fight and fuck and hunt, and lick their matted coats in the prickling fog. §

Greg West lives in a hole-in-the-wall motel in Nevada where he writes in his spare time between jobs.


(Summer Travel Tips from Ben Leroux)

Tip #1: “Don’t Be a Comedian”

IMG_0956Are you funny? When you’re in a hotel lobby, do you feel a calling—no, an obligation—to entertain those present with your comedic stylings? Well, this summer, as you and your family check into your favorite hotel, motel, or B&B, in your favorite vacation town, you might want to consider leaving your act in the car. What you consider funny, and brightening up the shift of a dreary-eyed frontdesk clerk, may in fact be having the opposite effect, and causing you more harm than good. Unless your objective is to turn that frontdesk clerk against you, for the duration of your stay, and perhaps for life, you might want to consider keeping your puns, riddles, one-liners, and double-entendres where they belong—inside your unimaginative, unoriginal, untalented brain and resist the temptation of acting like Ted Blankenship of Woodland Hills, California (standard double-queen, three nights, on an American Express, party of four). I’d barely pulled his arrival slip when he’d spotted the “No Pets Allowed” sign.

“Uh-oh,” he said, a cocksure golf-vested man of carefully parted hair.

“What is it, honey?” said a featureless woman of middle age, moving up next to him.

“Looks like you’re going to have to sleep in the car.”

“In the car? Why?”

Blankenship pointed to the sign. “No pets allowed,” he said.

A girl and a boy, 11 and 12 maybe, cupped their hands over their mouths to muffle their laughter. Soon Mrs. Blankenship caught the giggles and they were all laughing.

“Oh, Ted!” said Mrs. Blankenship.

“Daddy!” lisped the brace-toothed daughter. “You’re crazy!”

“He’s at it again!” said the crackle-voiced boy. “Yeah!”

Mrs. Blankenship stepped up to the counter, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sorry you have to deal with us. He’s like this everywhere we go.”

“It’s okay” I said. “Now, if I could just see a major credit card, I’ll get you checked into your—”

See?” said Blankenship. He had his AmEx out, holding it up from a distance, showing it to me.

“Ted, leave the poor man alone!” laughed Mrs. Blankenship.

“What? He said he wanted to see a credit card, so I’m letting him see one. Isn’t that what you asked for, Ben, to see a credit card? I’m sorry, Ben. I’m just kidding you.”

The AmEx came skidding across the counter. I caught it just before it fell and in one motion turned and swiped it through the credit card reader. I wanted to get Blankenship out of the lobby. Twice already I’d shot him my “look,” a look that was about ninety percent effective with lobby comics but hadn’t phased him in the slightest. The credit card machine was old and slow, giving Blankenship more stage time.

“Yeah, go ahead and run the card, Ben. It doesn’t have any money on it, but go ahead and run it. I found it in the parking lot.”

“My god, Ted!” said Mrs. Blankenship.

“He’s really on a roll!” lisped the Blankenship girl.

“I think it’s HILARIOUS!” said the beaming boy.

Mrs. Blankenship caught her breath and stepped forward. “You poor guy! We’re such a weird family!”

The AmEx cleared. I placed it on the counter, next to a pen for Shecky Greene to sign with.

“You’re alright, Ben,” Blankenship said. “You’re alright.”

He began signing his name in exaggerated cursive that filled the entire receipt. Each curve and loop drew little squeaks from the girl. When it came time to dot his “i,” Blankenship lifted the pen about a foot over the slip and let it drop, point first, like a falling dart. The ink hit the mark and the pen fell to the side. “There y’go, Ben. Want a DNA sample, now?”

That got the boy going, which got the mother and daughter going again, and I had to wait for them to quiet down before moving onto the amenities.  Few people listened to the amenities and even fewer remembered them, but hotel lobby comedians loved them. Each one was a potential laugh. I got as far as the hot tub with Blankenship.

“Clothing optional, I hope,” he interrupted. “My wife likes to skinny dip.”

“Ted!” gasped Mrs. Blankenship.

“Daddy!” spat the girl.

“He does it again!” beamed Junior. “Awesome!”

The man of the moment leaned over. In a confidential tone he said: “It’s true, Ben. She sees a hot tub, and off come the clothes.”

“Is that right?” I said.

“‘Is that right?’ Ben says.” Blankenship slapped the counter, took a couple steps away, returned. “Is that right. Ben, you’re priceless. I like you, Ben.”

“Thanks,” I said.

There wasn’t an amenity Blankenship didn’t have a cute little rhyme or wordplay for. He had cracks about the continental breakfast and the free movies, the microwavable popcorn and hot chocolate we provided in the rooms. I somehow got the Blankenships onto the elevator and up to their room, 206, though both 209 and 211 were vacant due to cancellations and identical to 206 except that their balconies didn’t face a fifty-foot crane from the boatyard across the street. Unfortunately, with his decision to be a hotel lobby comedian, Blankenship had set in motion certain frontdesk realities that were not reversible. I entered the Blankenships’ information on the computer, filed their registration slip, and went outside.

I leaned against a pillar and watched a sunset flatten behind the sandspit. The autumn air was coated with woodsmoke and sauteed onions from the seafood joints.  Life smelled good. It was my first night alone at my latest gig—Diggarinni’s Waterview Inn, a 24-roomer at the south end of the Embarcadero. It was no accident I’d ended up here. It was at my first hotel job, ten years ago, a job I’d hated immediately, and had only taken as a last resort, that I’d gotten my first taste of a thing called “downtime.”

CITY LIFE.DESK CLERKThis downtime, or “boredom” as it was also known, was a big problem for many frontdesk clerks, driving many of them to quit. I however, found I liked downtime quite well, and that it could be filled with the only activity I cared about in life, which was writing. Apparently, during these downtimes, hotels still needed people manning frontdesks in case there was a room to sell or a toilet to unplug. As I tasted more and more of this downtime, I began to formulate a mathematical theory that the smaller the hotel was, the less activity there would be, and therefore, more downtime, and I theorized that if I was patient, and kept an eye on Craigslist, that one day soon, I’d find a frontdesk job that was not only bearable, but enjoyable, one where I could finish my novel, Squeegee Road, a piece of work that was going to one day make the literary world forget it had ever heard of Jack Kerouac.

It took some time to work my way down. I worked 300- 100-, and 50-room hotels, and when the ad for Diggarinni’s Waterview Inn came up on Craigslist it was almost as if it had been written specifically for me. For some reason, I had a hard time getting an interview, but I didn’t let it deter me, and I kept going back until I got the job. After just a few moments at the tranquil little inn, consisting of only two floors of rooms,  I could tell that by reporting there five nights a week, I would finish it before the end of my first year, and now, after a week’s training, I was alone for the first time, taking advantage of my downtime. I sat at the little back desk, in front of my cheap laptop, and got to work. I was converting the thirty or so 5,000-word stories I’d had published in a local mag, into manageable 2,000-word chapters. It wasn’t that easy.  There was a lot of hunting and cutting to do, but there were so few interruptions that it was almost like working at home. Around 7:30 p.m., the Blankenship boy called, crackling and giggling about room service, then few minutes later asking what floor the casino was on, the old man coaching him in the background, but after that the only interruptions were the remaining arrivals, all of which were, like most hotel guests, decent, respectful, and cooperative, and since it was a slow night in October, they all received free upgrades to bigger, nicer rooms with better views. Around 9 p.m., I started the night audit—a major affair at most hotels, it took about ten keystrokes and fifteen minutes at the Waterview. I printed the results, locked up the lobby and hopped on my bike. On the way home, I stopped at Sixpacker Liquor for a bottle. By eleven I was on my couch in time for the start of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.  I’d somehow scored a great apartment too—a writer’s apartment with a view of the Pacific. My luck was turning.

The next day I went in early. For the first time since my interview I was going to sit down and talk with my new boss, Brenda Fonee.  I liked her. She’d impressed me immediately with her calm confidence and personable, professional speech and appearance. She’d done it right, as far as I was concerned, working fifteen years at a sweet, manageable property like the Waterview. Let the stress-loving whackos work the monster hotels. I wanted to please this Brenda Fonee. I wanted her to think highly of me.

We started with small talk, getting to know each other, then Brenda began explaining to me why I’d had such difficulty getting an interview.  She’d wanted to hire me on the spot, but the other two frontdesk clerks, Lauren and Jenni-Jo, had fought her. They were in their twenties and uncomfortable with the idea of having a man in his forties on the staff.  Well, I guess I could understand it, but I wouldn’t turn my back on those two again. Throughout my training they’d both told me repeatedly how they’d lobbied to get me hired over Brenda’s reluctance. You just never knew. Next came Carl, the maintenance man. I’d already had my suspicions about him. He was an odd cookie. Brenda filled me in. He had “mental problems,”  was a liar, and anytime he didn’t get his way he ran to the owners to get her in trouble. The owners. They were another story. Howard and Goldie Diggarinni. Well, the hotel hadn’t been the same since Goldie, or “The Queen,” as Brenda called her, had taken over. Together, Carl and The Queen were making her life a living hell and driving her into early retirement. She was no longer allowed to manage like she wanted to, she could no longer take time off when she needed, and Carl wouldn’t listen to her. At times she felt like The Queen’s “nigger-bitch.”  It shouldn’t have been a big shock to me. Once you looked inside a place, no matter how tranquil it seemed on the outside, there was always dirt, somewhere.

Still, considering the asylums I’d worked in, the Waterview Inn would be ridiculously easy duty, and the faster I got at my job, the more downtime I’d earn for myself.  I was glad I’d come in early to talk to Brenda Fonee. She’d cut to the chase, let me know how things were. She ended our talk by promising me that she’d always protect me from Lauren and Jenni-Jo, and that she’d always protect me, Lauren, and Jenni-Jo from Carl and The Queen. When the talk was over, she asked me how my first night alone had gone.

“Smooth,” I said. “Except for the guy in 206—Blankenship. The comedian.”

“Oh, yes. I met him this morning. Some people just think they’re funny, don’t they? You know who’s funny? Glenn Beck.”

“Boy is he ever,” I said, glad to be sharing a light moment with my new boss. “In fact, without Glenn Beck, I don’t think Jon Stewart would even have a show. Half his material is just rolling tape of the guy. Did you see him crying the other day? Yeah, I can’t get enough of Beck.”

I was chuckling delightedly but they were chuckles I’d soon swallow, and it would be three years before I’d feel the full ramifications of the dizzying turn of events that was about to take place.  All I knew at the moment was that something was wrong. Brenda Fonee’s round maternal face was slackening, and her mouth was dropping ajar. A trap had been set, I’d tripped it, and the steel jaws were clamped tightly around my ankle and digging into bone. I wanted to shake it off. But just then, Carl the maintenance man came down the back stairwell, stepped into the office, and saw Brenda’s face.

“What?” he said.

Brenda was pointing at me, moving her lips, but nothing was coming out.

“What’s wrong?” said Carl. “What the hell’s going on?”

“He… he’s…” Brenda said, “H-he’s…a…Dem.

The first thing I saw was Squeegee Road flash before my eyesnot my job, or life, but Squeegee Road. I knew how much longer it would take to finish it, working a job with no downtime, and unless I did something quick, it was all over. I could tell by Brenda and Carl’s faces that this was a big deal. The two of them were on me like  a couple of mobsters.

“Howard and Goldie hate Dems,” Carl said.

“You wouldn’t have been hired if they’d known,” said Brenda.

“No,” said Carl. “You better not let them find out.”

The phone rang and I had to get up and take it. It was a reservation. While I was on the phone booking it, I could hear them behind me, keeping their voices low. I needed to get back there to straighten things up, explain that I was no Dem—that I was in fact nothing, nothing but a marginal small-town writer looking for a peaceful job with lots of downtime. But then an arrival came in, and then a walk-in, and then the UPS man, and by the time I got away from the counter, Carl and Brenda had gone home for the day, and I was left alone with a gnawing fear festering in the pit of my stomach.

I went outside to my pillar and leaned. Morro Rock was being outlined in pink fire, but I didn’t find it pretty.  I always failed to see traps until my foot was all the way in. Why was it that everywhere you went, someone was always pushing you into one camp or the other? If it wasn’t politics it was cliques, or sports teams.  Life wasn’t much different from prison. Even at little places like the Waterview you had to choose a gang.

I watched the sun fade, trying to sort things out. As the bay went inky I’d come to a couple conclusions. One was that these Diggarinnis were serious about politics and probably saw Jon Stewart, and anyone who watched him as a degenerate, treasonous enemy of the United States, and by extension, Morro Bay, which made the second conclusion easy: I was finished at the Waterview. Oh, I could probably stick it out for a year or so, but sooner or later shit would come down on me. Just like Blankenship, with one little wisecrack, I’d set in motion a little chain of realities that could not be undone, and Squeegee Road would have to go on the back burner again. I’d give Brenda my notice in the morning.

I went back in and sat down at the laptop. I had two weeks of downtime left and I wasn’t going to waste them. I could still get a a few stories converted.

But my fingers wouldn’t move. My brain was heating up with anger.

For starters, wasn’t over half the damn country Dem?

And unless we’d gone back in time, people who owned businesses no longer owned the people who worked in them. There was also a little thing called “symbiosis,” where people like me needed the Diggarinnis for their money and downtime, but people like the Diggarinnis needed people like me to sell their rooms and put up with people like Blankenship.

No, goddammit, I was not giving up my job at Diggarinni’s Waterfront Inn, with all its delicious downtime! Besides, I’d hardly see these people. Nobody wanted to be anywhere near a hotel after five o’clock, not even frontdesk clerks, which was why they were so valuable.  The Waterview and I were made for each other! And I suppose that if push came to shove, and my hand was forced by the Diggarinnis, I could stage a public conversion to the Right. Why not?  Last time I checked, the Dems weren’t paying my rent.

Suddenly my fingers were moving, laptop keys clacking and smoking. All a writer needed was a little peace, a little time. The cheap laptop could barely keep up with me! A short story was coming out. Lots of them were going to come out with all this downtime. Soon, I’d make people forget they’d ever read a Raymond Carver short. I typed and hammered. The only interruptions were the three or four remaining arrivals, all good docile guests, and around nine o’clock, a phone call.

“Thank you for calling Diggarinni’s Waterview Inn,” I answered. “This is Ben. How can I help you?”

Delivery?” It was a man’s voice, choppy.

“No,” I said “Diggarinni’s. Diggarinni’s Waterview Inn. May I help you?”

“Not delivery?”

“No, Diggarinni’s.”

“If it’’s not delivery, it must be DiGiorno.”

In the background, a female passenger was overcome with hysterical laughter, and the caller had begun laughing so hard he was now stuttering.

“W-we’ll t-take a pep-pep-pepperoni—ah, god, man, I can’t keep it up. Hey, this is Steve. Steve and Wendy? The Corbins?  We stay there all the time, usually in room—”

“Hey, Steve. Could I put you on hold for a second?”

“Sure, man, sure.”

Steve was going to be on hold a lot longer than a second.

There simply had to be consequences. By the sound of the connection, he’d be losing his signal any moment, and that time in the dark, winding mountains of the Central Coast would give him and Wendy time to think about their pizza prank. Besides, I couldn’t talk to babbling fools. Out the window, in the moonlight, I could see billows of fog nesting around the masts of sailboats, and another one circling Morro Rock like a gauzy porkpie hat. Harbor seals were barking themselves to sleep. I wasn’t going anywhere, baby. They’d have to fire me then physically remove me.

The next time I looked at the phone console, Steve and Wendy’s line was no longer lit up, which was a good thing that in the long run would make them better people. It was time for me to start closing.

But then I saw Blankenship and his boy getting off the elevator. They were on their way into the lobby with reddened, mischievous faces. Probably they’d been playing with elevator buttons on the way down. It was a popular father/son activity. Blankenship went over to our  pamphlet rack and the kid came to the counter by himself. He asked me for the catalog of our DVD movies. He leafed through a couple pages then asked me, with no fear whatsoever: “Do you have insomnia?” From the pamphlet rack, Blankenship snorted.

From what you’ve learned thus far, about hotel lobby comedians, from the perspective of a former frontdesk clerk, you can probably guess what the Blankenship boy was up to. Certain titles had double meanings if phrased a certain way, and if you asked someone if they had one of these titles, like “Insomnia,” “Doubt,” or “Sixteen Candles,” any answer could be used for further shenanigans. It was the kind of shit that entertained people like the Blankenships for hours on end and turned hotel frontdesk clerks against them. I even tried my “look” on the kid, but his affliction was hereditary. An adulthood of bad hotel rooms and overall sub-par service awaited him and his family to be. The problem that Abbot & Costello had was that they really had come down to select movies, for the family to watch over popcorn and hot chocolate, the perfect ending to a Morro Bay day of beachcombing and shopping, and they now had to rely on a frontdesk clerk that they’d tried to use for a goof, to issue them those DVDs. I took no pleasure in denying them their selections. I did not enjoy falsely apologizing that the movies had been checked out by other guests, and I received no satisfaction in watching Martin & Lewis walk sadly to the elevator with their two very bad movies from the 1990s. Part of me even wanted to run them down and give them the DVDs they’d asked for.

But sometimes it was just too late to go back. It was too late for Blankenship to go back to the moment he’d walked into the lobby as Henny Youngman, and it was too late for me to go back to the moments right before I’d stepped into Brenda’s Fonee’s trap, baited with a fresh steaming hunk of Glenn Beck.

That’s why it’s important, for any hotel guest this summer, and for future excursions as well, to keep in mind that no matter how funny you may find yourself, resisting the temptation of being a hotel lobby comedian may be the smartest decision you make. Before you make that first crack, stop and ask yourself if the few giggles you are about to receive are worth having your  DVD selection limited. Or whether a cute phone prank is worth being put on hold over, never be heard from again. Is being the center of attention for a brief moment worth being assigned to the only room in the hotel facing a fifty-foot crane?

You never know what kind of person might be greeting you from behind that frontdesk, welcoming you to their hotel. He or she could be perfectly stable, or recently driven crazy by hotel work, suffering from too much, or not enough, downtime, and been through things in the past 24 hours that you may not understand, things that have warped and bruised their senses of humor into rotting, acerbic callouses. Remember, too, that no frontdesk clerk is very highly paid.

Pedaling away from the Waterview that night, I saw who had to be Steve and Wendy Corbin, rolling down Embarcadero Street in their sportscar. They’d just spotted the darkened lobby and the NO VACANCY sign. I can’t tell you if they’d  miscalculated their travel time, or if they’d forgotten that their favorite hotel closed at ten, but I can tell you that they were no longer laughing. §

Ben Leroux keeps a low profile and works only those jobs that feed his writing habit.