By Dan Valentine
SUCH GOES LIFE, PART ONE
The manager of the Ensenada Backpacker Hostel is Gabriella. Everyone calls her Gabby. She lives upstairs. She also teaches school. One of her classes is creative writing.
She once said to me, “You ‘used’ to be a writer.” Used-to-be! “What should I tell my students? What is most important thing about writing?”
“Have something to say.”
“Where to start?”
“Write a million words and toss ‘em! You’re ready to begin.”
Gabby works into the wee hours. Most think teaching is an easy way to make a living. Two or three classes a day, two or three times a week. Summers off. But for every hour spent in class teaching, four or more hours every night, including weekends and holidays, are spent preparing for lectures, grading papers and tests (and creating ‘em), answering e-mails, and so much more. Summers, if not spent teaching summer classes, are spent preparing for the Fall. All for little pay and little or no recognition.
Add to that a full-time job managing a hostel–with me as one of the guests!
Gabby calls me buddy. Good morning, buddy. Good afternoon, buddy. Once, she called me secretary. A trio of guests had arrived, looking to check-in. I told them, “Uno momento. I’ll get the manager.” Afterward, passing each other on the veranda, she said, “Hi, secretary.”
She bid me goodnight one evening, as she walked upstairs to her living space, after locking up and making sure the place was secure, saying, “Goodnight, honey.”
(Funny, she just walked by this very moment, as I’m writing, and said, “Hi, babe!” and went on her way. I like her.)
Buddy. Secretary. Honey. Babe. She’s called me all four. She also calls me: to task. Not once, not twice, but three or four times now. And counting.
As does Salzador, the young gentleman who works the mid-afternoon/night shift. He was born in Spain. Says it all. He’s a nice guy. Young. Handsome. Dark movie-star hair. Visiting women simply adore him. All the male visitors love him, too, because all the women simply adore him.
I think he sees himself as a Latin Lover. If I were him, I would. Beats being a plumber. We all have a an inner view of ourselves. I look upon myself as a writer, not a used-to-be. My bestest friend looks upon herself as a swimmer, not a university professor. Dick Cheney, I’m sure, sees himself as the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being you’ve ever known in your life. (Or was that Raymond Shaw? Google the name.)
Upon checking in, Salzador asked me, “Do you drink?” I said, “I’ve had a sip or two in my life.” He smiled. “We go drinking tonight.” I told him, “Sorry, I drink for my health now. At home, far away from the bars. A beer, one night. A glass of wine, another.” Unless I’m under substantial stress.
When I first arrived, Gabby got on my case for leaving half-filled cups of coffee, haphazardly, all around the hostel grounds–on the floor by the computer, by a chair on the veranda, on a counter top in the kitchen. Guilty as charged! When I’m writing, I drink cup after cup and if I’ve misplaced it while pacing, I pour myself another, without thinking, throughout the day and evening and midnight hours.
I’ve stopped doing that. Here. For now.
Another time, when I first arrived, I was standing outside the hostel, having a smoke (a package of Pall Malls is all of some two dollars and change down her below the border), when Gabby happened to walk out. She saw strewn butts on the ground below and around my feet and said, very politely, “Please pick up your cigarette butts!”
My immediate first thought was: They’re not mine. Look-see. I smoke Pall Malls. White filters. The butts on the ground have light-brown filters. (I lived the last five years with a non-smoker and soon learned to douse my butts and place them in the garbage in the garage.) My second thought was: What the hell! I gathered up the butts and disposed of them.
A few minutes later, I passed her in the hall. She said, “Hi, buddy!” Lesson learned: Don’t take everything personally. Carlos, the owner, is out of town, in Switzerland. Managing a hostel is a huge, demanding responsibility.
But, then, again …
Last night, she waved for me to follow her into the kitchen. She opened the fridge door and pointed to the spilled contents on the bottom shelf from an open Pepsi on the top shelf. “We would appreciate very much if you would wipe clean when you spill.” That’s a fair request. But I said, and it was the truth, “It’s not my Pepsi.” I drink Coke and, when I drink a Coke, I tend to finish it. I’m not in the habit of placing a half-filled can in the fridge, so as to take a later sip of flat soda.
Still, it’s a hostel. It’s inexpensive. You get to meet the many, assorted peoples of the world. She’s a nice person. So, I wiped up the spilled soda. What the hell!
Just the other morning, she said, “Were you the last to use the coffee pot?” In my hand was a coffee cup, but it was filled with Mango juice, with a shot of vodka in it. I’m feeling stressed. “Please,” she said, not waiting for a reply, “turn off the ‘on’ button.” And she demonstrated how. Tip of a finger. Click! She picked up the empty pot and showed me its scorched bottom. It had third-degree burns. But it’s not like the pot is brand-new. It is mucho in years. I think it first belonged to Pancho Villa. And it wasn’t the first time someone had left it percolating, empty, in the morning. And I may have been guilty of it in the past, but not this morning.
Where am I going with this? I’m a guest here, for Christmas sakes!
I think it’s because I’m not out cruising the strip bars or taking in the sites. So there must be something wrong with me. Keep an eye on him! And he’s old. What’s with that?!
One mid-afternoon, I’m in the kitchen, spreading strawberry jam on a slice of bread, when Salzador sees my misdeed and says, “That is for breakfast only!”
“I didn’t have breakfast!” I continued to spread the jam.
It could be because, most of the time, I’m the only one in the hostel. So I must be the guilty party for whatever there is to be guilty of. The brochure advertises jam and bread for breakfast. So, your honor, I plead not guilty. Sort of. I was hungry. I hadn’t had breakfast, hadn’t had lunch.
There’s nobody happier on the face of the earth or any other planet, for that matter, than Salzador when there are many, many guests in the hostel, the majority of ‘em women. He loves to escort the ladies at night. You can see it on his face. He beams! There is nobody sadder on the face of the earth or any other planet in the heavens than Salzador when the hostel has only one guest. And it’s me! You can see it on his face. He is down in the dumps.
The only thing worst for him is having to wash the toilets. “I do not know how to wash toilets.” I have heard him say this many times, mumbling aloud to himself. I can feel for him. I had to scrub toilets and urinals my first year or so in the Navy. And Salzador is not too keen about mopping, either, another evening chore. I can sympathize. I had to sweep, swab, and buff corridors in the Navy, too, for a year or so. Mission accomplished, I would ask the boatswain’s mate, standing supervising (which consisted of taking a sip or two of coffee): “What now?” The boatswain’s mate would reply, “Sweep, swab, and buff it again!”
One night, when I first arrived in Ensenada, Salzador had just mopped the floor to my room. I needed something. Can’t remember what. But I needed it right then and there. He said, “Twenty minutes.”
So, I waited. One minute. Two minutes. Then: “I’m not waiting twenty goddamn minutes.” And I proceeded to tip-toe over his freshly mopped floor to get what I needed. When I returned, he said, “O-h-h-h, look what you have done?”–pointing to my toe-prints.
“Gimme the mop!” I said.
“Gimme the mop!!” I repeated.
“GIMME THE GODDAMN MOP!!!”
I grabbed it from him, walked to my room, and working backwards mopped the floor. I then handed the mop back, but he refused to take it. He was sulking, as only a Latin Lover can. I’m sure it works with a certain type of woman, with a hankering for Latin lovers. I let the handle drop to the floor and went on my way.
Later that night I apologized. He accepted my apology. A little later, he said, “Dani’el”–he calls me Dani’el–”do you what a burrito? I bought three.” And he gave me one.
Looking back, I don’t know what got into me. Another ugly-American story to be told and repeated and embellished on. And, for the life of me, I can’t remember what I so desperately needed that I couldn’t wait 20 minutes. No doubt, a cigarette or my lighter or both. Shame on you, Dani’el.
Such goes life, ever-so-often.