The Bad Hotel Part 2

Bad HotelPart One

(The names have been changed to protect both innocent and guilty)

As I’m sitting there, staring at the holes in the screen, in comes Bob, the proprietor. He has gray white hair and a severely receding hairline and walks with a spry step. Brown eyes peer through wire rimmed glasses. Bob has a bag from the grocery store, in which he’s brought a bottle of Sunny Delight and a bunch of bananas. He says hello. He is the owner, who my husband remembers from a visit to the guest house right after college.

Yes, that’s why we’re staying here: Leo thought it would be a good idea because he stayed here years ago with his college buddies and they thought it was a great place. Bob is now 74 years of age, and he’s been doing this guest house thing a while.

He asks me about myself, praises my profession, though when he says “teachers are heroes” I’m not sure how much he means it. He doesn’t look like the type that ever really needed a teacher. Asked whether he’s a native of the city, he says no, that he lives here because it’s home to his wife. Her family is Spanish Creole, he says proudly, with a background from the Canary Islands. These people are from the original settlement of New Orleans and are called Islenos.

I suppress my question: “All of them? That was 200 years ago.”

He complains about money and how hard it is to come by; I ask him why he doesn’t put the Guest House on VRBO or AirBNB to get more business– I noticed that we were the only people staying in the second house, the home for pregnant runaway nuns—but he seems unsure. “Most of my clients are what we called ‘allocentric,’ he says. “As opposed to psychocentric.”

Allocentric people, it would seem, don’t care if the room has no TV and they don’t go on the internet to find lodging.

Anyway, he doesn’t like the internet. He expresses a concern that the whole digital nature of things is getting away from people in this country, and from him specifically. Of course one might add that his guests were likely to be budget minded. We certainly were.

I tell him that the kids in the room upstairs are upset about the lack of the internet.

“I asked the guys from Comcast who were out here and they said it should work.” He looks away as he says this. Why?

I think about the internet at home, where we have good wifi in the kitchen but you can’t get a reliable connection in my bedroom. “Those internet people, yeah. You’ve got to call the main number and complain. And sometimes it takes an hour of arguing before they will do anything.”

But Bob just wishes the internet would go away, I think. He says it’s hard to use.

“Find a kid who can help you.” I suggest. But as I say it I know he’ll do no such thing.

As I walk back up to the room, across a small courtyard between the main building of the Guest House and the Pregnant Nuns building, I have to step over a dead cockroach in the downstairs hall. This hotel is not exactly working out, I reflect. My interview with Bob has left me uneasy. Why did he insist that my husband give him the money up front, and stipulate no refunds? I should have trusted that review that said this place wasn’t up to scratch.  But the cheapness of the rate combined with my husband’s claim that he went here 25 years ago and it was “just fine” convinced me. I should have known. Leo … well when I met him his bedroom was three inches deep in clothing.

I get the other three out of bed; we take the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue and spend the morning tramping around the French Quarter, getting lost somewhere between Bourbon Street, Canal Street, Decatur and Orleans Streets. Things between me and Leo are tense. There’s massive construction on Bourbon and we have to walk down a sidewalk alley five or six feet wide, between construction scaffolds and the buildings themselves, and then without warning the walkway under the scaffolds dead-ends. People are piling up behind us, and we have to push our way backwards through them.

“Can I see the map?” I ask. Of course there’s only one map.

Leo gets testy, he doesn’t want to give it to me. “It’s not like I could have foreseen that there would be a dead-end! It’s a construction zone!” His voice is rising and we’re surrounded by many tourists, people in floppy hats and Bermuda shorts carrying large handbags and cell phones.

I am mad at him. It’s true, he could not have seen the dead-end coming. But the cockroaches, he should have known about them.

In my mind the inadequacies of the hotel are his fault. I told him we could go to New Orleans for four days, but it had to cost $1000 or less. Staying in the _____ Guest House was his idea of a good economy, and what’s a little cockroach or two? We can better spend the cash on food or entertainment. But for me and the kids, we’re not just unhappy, we’re angry. What does he think we are, street people? I mean, a campground would be preferable.

Coming around the corner of Decatur St. by the river, we pause the argument for the moment and have beignets at Café du Monde and they’re delicious, the crunchy crust, the mounds of powdered sugar. The coffee au lait with chicory is superb, the romance of sitting on one side of the dike with the Mississippi rolling by on the other makes me feel I’m connected to all the great artists of New Orleans – Kate Chopin, the writer; Degas, the artist, Tennessee Williams, the playwright. But that doesn’t mean the kids and I are not mad. The waitress tries to overcharge us. Leo catches her and pays the correct amount. We go off to the 1800’s House, a museum of the way middle class people lived in the post-Civil-War. It’s fascinating, but the experience is marred by the fact that we have to go back to what the kids and I have secretly renamed The Roach Motel.

In the afternoon, we come tramping in and I’m hoping that the hotel will somehow miraculously be converted into a cleaner place. At the very least that dead roach at the bottom of the stairs better be gone. But it’s not. It’s been joined by a second roach, also dead, also with its feet pointing up at the sky, also at the foot of the stairs. “Don’t they clean this place ever?” I wonder. We go up, tired, to take a nap before dinner.

It’s after dinner at Mother’s Restaurant, a local icon, that the crisis occurs. The kids wait until their dad leaves the table. They look at me and both say together “You’ve got to get us moved to a different hotel!”

Now this is more problematic than it seems, because we can’t get a refund. Boy do I fee dumb. If we bail, we’ll have to spend a lot on the new hotel because it’s too late to get a discount. And Leo won’t want to switch because if he we do, we’ll go over the $1000 budget. His claim was we could go to New Orleans for five days for $1000. He won’t want to admit that was wrong.

You can see why the tension is rising.

We come back from dinner and the kids go into the smaller room to try to use their phones to stream the internet using 4G. I decide to ask the fateful question, “Don’t you think we should move to another hotel?” I know this is going to take more than a minute, and that it’s about to get unpleasant, but I’ve made up my mind. We are going to have to take a soaking, give up the money we spent, and pay for something better.

“How are we going to move to another hotel, we don’t have any more money,” he says.

“We could take it out of savings.”

“Oh come on, there’s nothing really wrong with this hotel.” He folds his arms, and there’s your denial: It’s not just a river in Egypt. I look behind him, at the holes in the stained wallpaper. Does the health department know about this place? Again tonight, like last night, we’re apparently the only guests in this building. It’s positively creepy, with those holes which someone could be looking through …

“Leo are you blind? Look at this place! And there’s roaches, not just one … “

“What do you mean am I blind? You know I can see. Stop being insulting.”

The kids must be able to hear this. But they don’t say anything from the other side of the wall. Not a spring creaks from their beds, as if they are frozen, still. I try again. “I feel uncomfortable here, I just don’t think I can enjoy the vacation in this kind of room. I don’t feel safe.”

“I’m not sure you’d feel safe no matter where we stayed.” Now that’s just stupid. We stayed in the Hilton last winter and I was fine.

I try another tack. “And the kids, they want a place with wifi. They need bandwidth, they’re complaining.”

Eyeroll. “I don’t know why we bought them those stupid phones in the first place.”

This was not going well. I should have tried to be nice. That’s what he always says after these fights are over, ‘if you’d just tried be nice, we wouldn’t argue.’ But I did, he just doesn’t remember.

“Leo this place is horrible, I’d rather sleep in the car.”

“Well then go do it.” He’s glancing down at the floor at something but I don’t notice at first.

Trying again. “Okay, in the morning, I’ll just go and get another hotel for myself and the kids, and you can stay here.”

He’s about to argue back, when I see him stop. He’s standing across the room, by the wall, and he looks down at his foot.

“What is it?” I lean forward and see it moving up.

“It’s a roach!” he admits. “Quick, get me a shoe.”

I get a shoe but not fast enough. “Oh my God, it’s under the dresser!” he yells, swatting the shoe on the ground futilely.

At this point we hear the sound of laughter and bedsprings creaking and one of the two children falls out of the bed. They open the door. They stare out.

“What is going on?” they ask, although they know.

“A roach!” I say. “It’s under the dresser. You’ve got to kill it Leo, I can’t sleep in here knowing it’s still alive crawling around.”

Teenaged son snorts. “What, you think that killing one of them will protect you from the rest?”

Together he and Leo move the dresser all the way to one side. “There he is!” My son shouts. “There, by the ancient decrepit electrical outlet! Get him Papa!”

One final swat. It’s the end of the roach, the end of the argument.

My Writing Nemesis

Example_of_copyedited_manuscript smallI was intrigued by a blog post by Ann Kroeker in which she suggested we name our writing nemesis.  At the same time, I was returning to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way to re-cover Chapter Three and found “Recovering a Sense of Power.”  As in, getting over feelings of powerlessness and shame about writing.

Cameron goes into quite a bit of detail on the effect of personal experiences of shame on your art.  It did bring up some memories.  When I was first starting to write, I wrote a novel manuscript of which I was quite proud.  Back in those days, manuscripts were generally still paper and as I was working on it, I brought it with me to my in-laws house and left it on the dresser.

I came back after being out and my mother in law said “I read that novel you wrote. It wasn’t very good.”

Although I knew her opinion was almost certainly of little critical value, I was mortified that my personal thoughts and feelings had been read in entirety by this woman who had been mean and unkind from the get-go. Shame is a perfect description of my feeling.  True to my birth family’s practices, I didn’t show my feelings however.  Doing would have let her know I was hurt.  It was just this year (2017) that I first recognized a practice of mine which goes back to childhood:  when hurt, I will refuse to react.  This is a way of maintaining your composure and sense of autonomy when family interactions can be by turns warm and generous, and then brutal.  It can be very confusing to friends, but it’s a good way to deal with enemies.

Later, I voluntarily shared the same manuscript with my two brothers and my father and mother.  Now I look back and think “was that really wise?”  But I couldn’t think of anywhere else to find potential test readers.

My two brothers both read it and said they liked it.  I should have been happy just with that.  My mother was also basically complimentary, as was my father at first, but he didn’t like the ending.  In fact, it made him angry.

It seems that he had misinterpreted my intention with the story, and thought I was somehow addressing events that happened in his marriage to my mother, instead of responding to novels were were reading in the English department at the university.  And he was mad.  Well, that was the second profoundly negative response I got and it was enough.  I didn’t write another novel for fifteen years.

At the same time, my essays got more positive responses, and shame about them was largely absent, and so I continued writing essays and magazine features.  But after the shaming regarding that novel, I was careful about who and what I showed people.  I wonder now what would have happened had I somehow gotten supportive and appropriate critiques back then instead of scathing criticisms or genial approval.  But then, as my husband says, life is an experiment that can only be done once.  So I’ll never know how much shame, my writer’s nemesis, has cost me.

Ann Kroaker — Your Writer’s Nemesis


The Bad Hotel

Bad Hotel(the names have been changed to protect both guilty and innocent)

It’s late when we see the cockroach in our hotel room. It’s in the bathroom. I tell my husband: Leo! Roach! He runs in with a shoe, ready to kill but it escapes through a crack in the wall. The kids come out of their bedroom, looking over our shoulders.

“Roach?” says Andrew, our son, the younger of the two.

“I’m not surprised,” says Joline, our daughter, soon to be a high school senior.

“This place is no good!” they both say in unison.

I concur with them. “I knew we should have trusted that online review that said this place was not clean enough.”

“But that review was five years ago,” said Leo. “And it was only one review.”

But we already know that things are not right. This is nothing like the New Orleans tour brochures we’ve seen. There are holes in the worn wallpaper where pictures or gas lights used to be hung before they were moved. The lock on the door seems decidedly flimsy. The air conditioning isn’t really adequate. We try to open the door to the balcony and let in some fresh air. But all that comes in is the humidity of the swamp, and a view of how the floor of the balcony slopes gently downhill from the threshold. The balcony railing is all of two and a half feet high. We shut the balcony door and lie down and try to go to sleep. As I look at the ceiling fan dimly churning the damp air in the dark, I remember the desk clerk who brought us in here, a young skinny man with long hair. When I asked what the house was for originally he said “A home for runaway pregnant nuns.” In the ensuing hours I have returned again and again to the thought: did they run away and get pregnant, or did they run away because they were pregnant?

A box air conditioner in the window hums, yet it is not quite cool. In the dark, people kick off their blankets and then the sheets.

* * *

The next morning, in the breakfast room I write in my diary: “Welcome to the _____ Guest House, one of the last hostels in America which doesn’t offer online booking.” A continental breakfast is laid out. Coffee is brewing, packages of muffins are in a serving dish, a toaster and margarine await, but there is no one there in the sun room. Outside is the swimming pool where ferns and palms seem to have sprung from the cracks between the boards. In pictures it might look fine, but up close you will see that the screens have holes in them, the carpet is from the 70’s or maybe the 60’s, and the breakfast itself – bread in bread bags, tiny jars of jam, muffins in sacks and oranges that don’t look completely fresh – could have been here all week. The breakfast—like the house—dwells in a moment in which it’s too valuable to throw away, but not valuable enough to be attractive.


“The Water Come Up,” a Harvey reflection


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Storm repair efforts underway near my home.

The water came up higher on Sunday.  On the third day of the hurricane, a Monday morning of stalled rain, we drove out of town over roads which were running with water.  The county website urged those who were evacuating to leave town before four p.m., as they said roads were flooding and closing and in late afternoon it would no longer be possible to leave town.  They were right.  It was barely possible to leave at 11 a.m.


It’s terrifying when it rains that much that fast, when roads are closed and more rain is falling.

Before I experienced this hurricane, I had always wondered about floods, why they were so scary, why they were so devastating.  It occurred to me after Harvey that when you think about it, a flood seems simultaneously natural and preposterously unnatural.

The definitive phrase you hear when discussing flooding is “the water rose.” If you haven’t experienced it, you can’t quite understand how scary it can be, the threat implied when water, which always runs downhill, suddenly decides to rise instead.

It puts one in mind of Noah and the original deluge.  Forty days and forty nights.  Houston had about four feet of rain in four days; with the biblical rain, at that speed it would have been 40 feet.  Well, that would be enough to put everything under …

After we came home, after the storm moved on to Arkansas, we went on a walk to survey the neighborhood.  I wanted to see if there was flood damage right here and there was.  Water had come as high as two to three feet deep in houses within our subdivision, though it didn’t enter our house.  I looked at the piles of ruined carpet, drywall and Pergo flooring on the curb.  You have no words when you see this.  At least I don’t.  A shocked silence reigns.  This is high ground, but at a certain point, high ground is not high enough.

The colloquial way it is said in speech here is “The water come up.”  Yes, the water come up.  You can’t quite believe it ’till you see it.  And once you’ve seen it, your neighborhood with streets like rivers, you never want to see water on the ground again.

All the things I’m afraid of … All right, almost all

  1.  The school principal coming in my classroom when the class is misbehaving.
  2. Car crashes
  3. Drowning
  4. Snake bite
  5. Going rock climbing and putting you hand in a crevice to pull yourself up and a snake is in the hole and it bites you.  (This actually happened to a boss I had back in California)
  6. AIDS.  (This one is a little outdated.  My kids told me that AIDS is no longer considered a legitimate paranoia.  That’s because they don’t remember the 80’s.)
  7. Hospitals
  8. Health checkups or blood tests of any type.
  9. Deep holes filled with water.
  10. Riding on airplanes.
  11. Falling into a reservoir and being sucked into the spillway and dying.
  12. Other James Bond Movie type deaths too numerous to count.
  13. Falling off my horse and dying, even though I realize that this would be a pretty picturesque way to check out.
  14. Having people come to my house when it’s not clean enough.
  15. That someone I’m involved with is having an affair.  This one goes way way back.
  16. That my child might be not just a little sick but seriously ill.
  17. Cancer of any type.
  18. Death, of any kind. This encompasses myself and my children.
  19. Being abandoned.


What I’m not afraid of:

  1. God.  When I find out there are people who are afraid to die because they’re afraid of God, I’m always confused.  I mean, I’m afraid of dying because I don’t want to die, I figure God forgives me.
  2. Riding horses. This is weird but though I’m afraid to ride the horse as an abstraction, I don’t experience fear while I’m doing it.
  3. Being ill dressed when I stop at the drug store right after going to feed the horse in stable clothes and pink spotted rain boots. I just tell myself “I won’t see anyone I know.” I’m usually right.
  4. Moving to another country.  Done that twice.  I should have been scared.
  5. Heart failure.  Because I’ve had a few EKG’s I no longer believe that’s a problem.
  6. Taking tests.  I figure I’ll do all right.
  7. Having dental work.  I’ve had so much now, I’ve become desensitized.

How Motherhood took books away … and then they came back again

2a0d80607ba23328a204d6a22d1e4f8a--mothers-love-mother-and-childA quick lifetime report on reading, and motherhood’s effects …

Well, when I was young I read a lot of books about horses … C.W. Anderson and Walter Farley.  And general interest fiction such as the Boxcar Children and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Later I read Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Gone with the Wind, a number of plays including Our Town from my father’s library.  Then I read women’s fiction, such as Danielle Steelle’s Princess Daisy, which I loved despite recognizing its shortcomings.  I read magazines about horses and Time magazine.  Later I read U.S. News and World Report, and the Los Angeles Times.  In college, I read many canonical writers.  The most influential to me were T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Hemingway. Of the older authors, my favorites were Alexander Pope and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  And Homer.  I studied Greek to try to read Homer and the Bible in the original language.  I respected but was troubled by Robert Frost.

At home with my young children I read a few more self-selected books, including Sigurd Undset’s Kristen Lavransdatter, and Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina as well as the Brothers Karamazoff, all recommended by my father, a Russian translator and scholar.  But then in the mid-90’s I had my fourth child and I almost stopped reading for 1o years. Except Garrison Keillor, which I read over and over and over.  Motherhood washed over me like a wave and I couldn’t concentrate.

After my youngest turned 5 or 6, I noticed I was reading again.  I read Hemingway’s Moveable Feast and re-read War and Peace.  I began reading Agatha Christie, hoping to learn the mystery writer’s craft for my own dreamed-of writing.  I entered graduate school and read a lot of material about how teachers should teach reading.  And then I discovered the Bronte sisters.  But more on them later.  The good news is that, yes, it came back: and when I saw that I could lose myself in books as I had in my early years, it was like getting part of my childhood back.