Sunday, June 4, 2017

Excerpt from Chapter 11: Hotel California


‘Walter’s beat up van pulled discreetly into a parking lot adjacent to a low-rise apartment building on Lander’s Street, in Southwest San Francisco. One block north of the San Francisco Mission, perpendicular to Market, Lander’s runs between 14th and 16th.

   It was almost 6 am. According to our guidebook, Jan (who’d earned the right to take full charge of mapping our hostel stays) figured we were close to one mile from the hostel. Abiding by hostel procedures firmly outlined in the book, we’d have to wait until 5 pm before check in.

   Carole kindly offered her apartment to anyone needing a place to crash for a few hours or wash up. Everybody, including Walter, took Carole up on her offer. Alongside capable Snowmaker at the wheel, our first mate had been instrumental in aiding our group to safety, not once complaining about fatigue, hunger or requiring a pee break. Despite Walter's traps, we were grateful for our quick thinking cohorts.

   Small and sparse, otherwise, the apartment was clean and cozy. Following a short introduction to Carole's roommate and lover, Willow, a tall Hispanic woman in her late thirties, rolling out our sleeping bags on the living room floor, Jan and I attempted to grab some shuteye. Others snatched vacant couches and chairs scattered about the room. Stretching out after crunching into cramped quarters dreaming up ways to avoid Walter’s hulking, threatening form was a luxury. Neither one of us wanted to go through that again. Especially Jan.

   Slumber was short-lived. Shortly after laying down our heads, sunlight crept through the blinds, casting its scope along the surface of the floor. Illuminating tiny dust particles floating in front of a picture window, its span engulfed the entire room. Yielding to the morning radiance, despite having spent more than eighteen hours with a bunch of people in a rusty van, surprisingly, I felt rested.

   Members of our grungy group took turns using the bathroom for a quick whiz, crap, and scrub up. Thanking Carole and Willow for their hospitality, Jan and I bade our fellow road warriors goodbye. Soon, we would disperse in different directions, vanishing from sight, as if the entire journey was an apparition. With more gall than brains, Walter asked Jan to stay in touch, telling her she’d be welcome to crash at his buddy’s place whenever she returned to Vancouver. Practically pushing me out the door of Carole’s apartment, my friend couldn’t get away fast enough. Stepping out onto the brilliant concrete sidewalk, we considered how to play the day.

   First priority was to find something to eat. Since dining on a turkey feast and all the trimmings in Aldergrove 48-hours before, Jan and I hadn’t consumed anything other than Nanaimo bars, pop and candy. Jane’s meal felt like a lifetime away.

   Needing to get our bearings, looking around, I stared down at the beat up pavement, a platform for damaged, overstuffed garbage containers. Graffiti-laden brick walls barely disguised grubby buildings. I began to panic. Maybe having a wild hair about travelling to the Golden State had been in haste.

   Having been away from home eight weeks, to date, we hadn’t dealt with anything insurmountable. A couple of close calls were the extent of it. However, morning light has a way of throwing a beacon on cracks often overlooked after dusk. Had our trip to San Francisco been less complicated, we’d have felt more optimistic. There was no point dwelling on the past. Jan and I were BIG girls – new to a city upheld by its reputation for liberal attitudes. From what we could tell in a very small window of time, San Francisco surely had verve. Hoping to attach ourselves to that free spirited fiber, excitement awaited around every corner.

   Though sunny and warm, a hard wind blew in off the bay, motivating us to dig sweaters out of our packs – just in case. Finding a grocery-gas station, we cashed in two $20 traveller’s cheques and picked out a couple of bagels at the adjoining breakfast bar. Packs secured on our backs, Jan and I walked over to Mission Delores Park to collect our thoughts. According to Jan’s guidebook, the green space was one of several parks scattered throughout San Francisco, Golden Gate being the largest. At one point or another, we’d try to visit them all.

Sitting on the grass mid-morning, eyes darting everywhere, we were struck by the sedate atmosphere. Overhead, smeared across a sapphire blue sky, jet streams created an impression of flecks on glass. Other than enjoy the pulsating sunshine and spring foliage, people didn’t appear to have anything pressing. Several feet away on the flattened grass, catching winks, slouched a pair of drunks. To our immediate left, an African American couple played peek-a-boo with a toddler. This was Tuesday morning. Late April. Not an official holiday. Why weren’t people at work? Around us, men, women and children engaged in varying groups: eating, snoozing, reading, as if time had stopped. Having been raised in an environment wherein the pace of the status quo often eclipses the simpler elements of life, I wasn’t used to this.

   Leaving Mission Delores Park, lugging our packs like storm troopers for the better part of the afternoon, cautiously, Jan and I roved the neighbourhood, people-watching, window shopping, making mental observations about the rougher brand of hippies, freaks and greasers loitering outside of storefronts, greasy spoons and head shops. Marching up and down the hilly San Francisco streets, doggedness in my steps, we sampled treats in Just Desserts, assessed the frontage at Modern Times Book Shop on 24thStreet, and purchased food items from Safeway. Despite being whipped by raw, relentless wind gusts off the bay, my jeans and plaid flannel shirt kept me comfortable. Mid-afternoon, winds calmed. Filling our nostrils with an intermingling sample of salt and ocean fish blowing in from Fisherman’s Wharf, the balmy sea breeze reaffirmed why we’d travelled to California.

   Jan and I returned to Delores Park. In one hour, we would head over to 101 Steiner Street. Check in at The Holy Order of MANS youth hostel. Having read rave reviews about the place in our guidebook, according to Jan, a maven in her field, the hostel came highly touted. Disregarding the questionable neighbourhood and unfamiliar name for the place, the residence we’d assumed, was some kind of holy monastery doubling as a shelter for travelling youths. After six weeks living at the Y, anything would be an improvement.

   Besides, reviews don’t lie.

   Charting our map of San Francisco, close to 5:30 pm, Jan and I found ourselves at the foot of a narrow, Victorian style, four-story turreted structure painted grey. A couple of fan palms and a single Maple tree stood on opposite sides of the residence. 101 Steiner Street was the correct address; yet the building didn’t appear to represent a youth hostel – more like somebody’s private home. Adjacent to Duboce Park in the lower Haight district, The Holy Order of MANS Youth Hostel was stationed in a locale my parents would consider a less than desirable part of the city. On the outside at least, the joint looked A-Okay.

   Climbing the front steps toward the porch, putting nebulous first impressions aside, Jan rang the buzzer. We waited. Appearing from inside the vestibule, a mild-faced young woman wearing long brunette hair parted in the middle and fastened at the back of her head, pulled open the screen door. She introduced herself as Reverend Mary. Appearing at her side in bushy beard and dark, horn-rimmed glasses stood a late-twenties dead ringer for a priest. His name was Brother Bruce. Both were outfitted in traditional Catholic style clergy garb. I studied the couple’s attire more closely. Fastened with a woven jute belt, Mary’s powder blue tunic covered everything from her neck to her ankles. Her counterpart, a white clerical collar creasing his chin, was dressed neatly, in jet-black shirt and black pants. Hand-carved wooden crosses attached to leather cords fell at their midsections. Possessing enormously translucent eyes, Mary and Bruce beamed like a pair of godly Caucasians.

   Believing for a moment that we’d trespassed into some sort of hard line Holy Roller church rather than the folksy peace and love communal envisaged from the name of the hostel, I hoped there wouldn’t be reason to leave. It had been an exhausting last couple of days.

   “We’re looking for a youth hostel.” Jan piped up. “Are we at the right address?” Reaching out to squeeze our hands, an assurance that we had not made an error, Mary beckoned the two of us inside. Apparent by their bemusement, our hosts were used to confounded guests.'

Tapes from California: Teenage Road Tripping, 1976 © 2017 Jill C. Nelson