I’ll admit I was down-and-out. I was borderline Fun Bunch. But these things are subjective. One man’s pith is another’s drivel. I was in the Humboldt Squeeze: watching my job dry up quicker than the atmosphere at a poetry reading, all the usual expenses mounting. Thus imperiled, I applied for work at Arcata’s landmark of cheap, shoddy housing, the Colony Inn.
My first morning I arrived eager to master the tools and techniques. My first task, to remove a four-foot by eight-foot sheet of plywood from a splintered door frame. Someone had kicked the door in during some crisis. There was other damage in the room, or, as I came to think of them, cell. Magic-marker scrawl on the drywall, cigarette butts in the carpet, scum on the linoleum and body hairs on the windowsill. I began to examine more closely. Roaches where the wainscotting should be. Ants on the divan. Fingerprints of either blood or ketchup which could only have been made by someone standing on their head or tied to the ceiling… to sort out the mysteries of even one such room would baffle your favorite detective.
I spent a whole day shoring up the door frame. I wedged a piece of wood in to replace the splintered section and carefully surveyed the anatomy of a door frame, where and how to place the hardware so that everything would work smoothly again, then how to spackle, putty and paint over the signs of my work. As I considered the age of the building and the quantity of paint and spackle stored in the Maintenance room, I began to perceive the enormity of what I would go on to confirm in detail and take more than a small hand in — the patching and painting over hazards, flaws, discrepancies and engineering deficiencies as a matter of business.
If you begin an argument with a flawed premise, your argument is bound to flail in the light of full discourse. Business is designed to expose flaws, the monetary system is pretended to correct them, and we exist in the uneasy tension between.
Flawed premises take on a whole new meaning if your premises happen to be one of 200 studio apartments squatting on the hard cement resting on old sediment which may or may not be at the precise elevation of the mean tide line.
For one thing, water doesn’t flow away from such a place when it rains, it flows in. Drains are hopelessly plugged with decades of sediment. Ground-floor kitchens are protected during heavy storms by sandbags on the dank, shaded patios.
Working there inevitably brings one into contact with the full flower of humanity. Every sort of transient soul ends up in a place like that, where housing is a business and personal needs are sublimated to the good of the ceremonial title-holding figurehead, the landlord. In this case, the landlord is an entity called Dalton Realty, which has offices in Palo Alto.
Of course, the rumors about who “really” owns the Colony are thick as the flea eggs on your untidy neighbor’s dog. The favorite, most sinister story is that the place is owned by the CIA, presumably as a way of keeping track of something. Possibly the CIA’s interest is strictly monetary. The place must be a virtual pipeline of cash for someone. The owners I met would fly in once or twice a year to inspect the place. My first summer there I was still in the gung-ho optimistic phase, when I worked all day, even spent considerable energy finding jobs that needed doing there and doing them. Rick looked like the kind of guy who passes you at 70 cruise-controlled miles an hour in his rented Mercedes, a breeze toying with his hair as you sit congested with rush-hour plebes cubicle-bound. He seemed to remember me from time to time, but I couldn’t get a fix on him. I know he was impressed the first time he inspected my work, because it wasn’t long before I was at the top of the pay scale. Seven-fifty an hour doesn’t sound like much. In fact, it isn’t. However, Rick and I had a professional relationship, sanctioned and ordained by theory, practice and convention.
I was a motivated worker for at least the first six months. Needless to say, the Squeeze was till on. However, I was working full-time at the Colony, part-time on the census and cutting firewood in my spare time, so I felt affluent, an example of what hard work could do for you. True, I was still just patching one hole after another at the Colony. Some days I might get to roll up a rancid carpet or unplug a hepatitis victim’s surging toilet, yet these exotic duties were commonplace next to the way people can absorb your attention by doing what comes most natural to them.
It seems the poorer in spirit a person is, the more degraded, deranged and out-of-adjustment they are, the greater is their need to go on about their precise difficulties, be they work-related or be they threats to entitlements. A great many people these days eke out tedious dependencies on benefits of one sort or another. The one thing they have in common is low, regulated income. They live at the Colony like so many pensioners in a Fellini epic, complaining to anyone who will stand still. Woe to the one compelled to fix their doorknob as they sit in a bathrobe watching cartoons at three in the afternoon. unshaved and unlettered. They complain bitterly of this and that. Sometimes, bless their hearts, they will share more than their problems.
Somehow, through all this. life goes on at the Colony. Tonight, dozens of innocent students from around the world sit in close contact with dozens like and yet so unlike them, and Rick sits in Palo Alto counting their money.
Jan will send George out barefoot to quell the hippie uprising which breaks out in the television room. Whoever has the laundry hanging off their broken balcony rail, the one with two missing uprights and three that look like they’re attached but are in fact rusted through, will have to take it in.
They can dry it in the morning. Nine o’clock. Too bad if you have an eight o’clock class.
Business being what it is, you pay more than you can afford for less than you expect. The walls are thin, the bathtub leaks, the smokers live downstairs and the nonsmokers above them. The hired help is cynical, more so in relation to their time served and the overall level of ineptitude. You may or may not get your toilet unplugged.