(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.