I’d been In for a week, and things were beginning to look considerably less grim.
I wasn’t dying, which was one positive thing. The people at ER had confirmed that I didn’t have pneumonia, despite symptoms to the contrary, and that my lungs were clear and strong and fine, and they’d refilled the prescription for my albuterol inhaler and given me an order for three days bed rest and sent me home.
Home, already, I was calling it. I couldn’t decide whether this was a sad indication of a delusionary state, or a sign that I was adapting better than I’d thought I would, but I took it for what it was. I’d been determined not to let myself settle in or get attached, not to let myself become a part of the shelter, not to be drawn into its dramas and eccentricities, but for the time being, it looked like that was precisely what was about to happen. As alarmingly easily as it happening, I decided that it must be healthier than I’d thought it would be, so I cautiously decided to let it run its natural course.
Lark-Inn was apparently one of the less terrible shelters in the city, and after a brief period of culture shock, I was ready to accept this as truth. The anecdotes of the loonies scrawling poignant poetry in feces across the walls of certain other city shelters didn’t precisely appeal to my sense of culture; a bit exotic, even for my progressive tastes.
Here, the staunch, even draconian measures of cleanliness the staff took to ensure our health came off only briefly as an annoyance, and after a second of serious thought, as extremely comforting, even as they stuck my worn and feverish corpse on a stiff cot in a drafty loft during Fumigation Friday. This was a weekly ritual in which they locked off the dorms, made us seal all our belongings in plastic bags, and cheerfully obliterated anything resembling wildlife that may have been dragged in and proliferating in the manky-smelling dorms.
There were other rules, such as never going barefoot off of our bunks, washing our laundry and having the staff feel it up while it was still warm to ensure we were actually doing what we said, and so forth, but these things I didn’t much mind. What I did mind was the tendency of anything you weren’t directly staring at to make like Houdini and disappear. There were people in here who would vanish your toothbrush, useless as it was to them, just to fuck with your head.
Of course, we were all provided with vast lockers in which to store our crap, but to get inside we had to track down a staff member to unlock them for us. Being the forgetful sort, I would invariably tend to either leave shit in that I needed to get out, leave shit out that needed to be put away, or some combination of the two every single time. Redfaced and frustrated, I’d have to track down a staff member two or three times in the space of a few minutes, and while they would constantly profusely excuse my forgetfulness, encouraging me to get them as many times as I needed, it was nonetheless inconvenient for all parties. In my paranoia, I was sure I could see maniacally cheerful irritation playing at the corners of their eyes, like those endlessly patient Mormon missionaries after being asked to explain for the thousandth time what it was that magical underwear really had to do with anything. You’re certain that one day, they will indeed crack, and you’re not at all sure whether you want to be around to see it when it happens, but you know it sure will be something.
Within days I’d concluded that the only way to survive this was to get my own lock. The world breathed a bit easier now that I could access my own belongings at a whim as many times as I needed to without embarassing myself. They’d said I could get my own lock as long as I gave staff a copy of the combination or key to keep on file. Being the fiercely territorial sort, I took it a step further. Not only did I get a new lock for my locker, but I got a metal lockbox from Cliff’s, as well as a bike chain to attach it to the inside of the metal drawer provided in my bunk. After spending an afternoon memorizing all these combinations and attaching the key to the lockbox firmly to my hemp necklace, I gave a copy of the key and all the combinations, along with a written explanation, in an envelope to the staff to keep on file. I liked the idea of having a small lockable piece of real estate right by my bed, where I could charge my phone without it being stolen for the third time this week and keep also my small bare essentials, should I choose to leave in the wee morning hours and be unable to get to my locker (in a room only unlocked at 7am, an unbearably late hour for an early riser like myself.) It made me feel more secure just to have a tiny piece of the world completely to myself and under my own control, a piece that hadn’t been passed around between countless mad teens, even if it had cost a little more than I’d wanted. It was a point of reference that was well worth it for me and a tiny axis around which the insanity of this place could orbit.
There were other simple things that one needed to adjust to in shelter life. Showering was a ritual that evolved, out of necessity, entirely differently from what one would expect after a life of showering at home, especially being one of alternative anatomy expected to shower in the men’s room. Inside the shower stall, one is provided with two hooks, a small surface on which to balance your shampoo, soap, and toothbrush, and an invariably soaking wet bench. You are expected to enter fully clothed, with a full set of clean clothing, and your showering accoutrements, as well as a dish cloth for drying yourself, and leave reclothed, clean, and dry without having dropped any of these things in the ankle deep standing water that you must at ALL times account for being there. It is the sort of juggling act that is indescribable without video and pornographic in nature, so I’ll leave it to your imagination to work it out. Think about it for about a solid week and it’ll come to you, and I’ll tell you, I DO have it figured out. Bow taken; applause accepted.
Having surmounted these inconveniences, and my back having adjusted to the stiff mattress, things have finally, as I’ve said, begun to look less grim. I have yet to register any complaints with the three wonderful meals a day. I always supplement my dinner with a heaping bowl of salad; as much of a carnivore as I am, I am also a firm believer that ones’ health depends strongly on the amount of vegetables one can shovel down their gullet, and will eat my salad and steamed vegetables first, running the risk at not having the space in my stomach for all of the main entree. There’s always a healthy amount of salad left on the counter and I’m continuously surprised more of the people here haven’t caught on that they’re getting a free pass at a healthy diet and instead passing it by for hamburger helper.
At any point that I think things are bad here, I smile and think of the Third Reich. Auschwitz this is not.
There was something about this place that, for reasons I still haven’t worked out, was making me connect more strongly with my English heritage than ever before. It helped that one of the books from the main room’s “library” (a shelf of dusty computer user manuals, disused travel guidebooks, outdated encyclopedias missing tomes and the occasional library rejected paperback) was indeed a bit of gold, a volume of Douglas Adams’ that I hadn’t previously been aware of called “Last Chance To See.” (Douglas Adams, if you didn’t know, was a critically acclaimed British comedy and science fiction author known for his brilliantly nuanced work on such novels as his “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” trilogy, a five book adventure that I’d guffawed my way through countless times in my teens. His notoriously dry and singularly British humor had defined my tastes during formative years and I’d never be quite so un-strange for it.)
“Last Chance To See” was a surprisingly thin book about endangered species, a topic that, at first blush, most anyone would pass up in favor of the exciting topic of indoor plumbing, but it was written in his usual endlessly entertaining style and I was honestly a bit insulted for him that it had wound up in a place like this. Indeed, the man probably could write about the complete history of indoor plumbing in a way that would cause anyone to forget how boring pipes, drains and shit really are. I was lucky anyway that he’d written about a typically boring topic, because it was a book that took me a good full week to get through, and his dry humor took me straight out of my sick misory and made me feel right at home.
Here, too, there was an endless supply of tea. A hot steamy drink paired with the gentle prodding of caffeine (a known bronchiodialator) was one of the few things that would stave off the need to use my inhaler, which I prefer to use only when I truly have no other choice. There was something about sitting in the main room, watching ineffable conflicts unfold through the shroud of tea steam, and smirking distantly at the endless supply of human drama before me, that kept me centered and reminded me that things really weren’t as bad as they all seemed. I felt that if I fell here and became one of the hoodrats, I’d be lost forever, but if I kept reminding myself that first and foremost, I was an Englishman at heart, I’d make it out alive.
Last afternoon, after the daze of my cough syrup had worn off and the sounds of the place stopped echoing through cotton, I took out the time to get more intimately acquainted with my bunk. Up until this point I’d regarded it with a sort of sullen acceptance, like a mother-in-law who you can’t in good conscience call “evil” but who nonetheless sets you on edge with her neurotically friendly ways. Now that I’d survived my first week with it, I was determined to embrace it as the place I’d be spending fully a third of this coming year and the first mentionworthy chapter of my life in San Francisco. It was time to claim my territory.
The dorms echoed with bustling, vibrant drama that I continued, in my English way, to fiercely ignore. I started to hang my tatted “Keep Calm and Carry On” napkin on the wall above my bunk to personalize the place just a little (not to mention brighten it with a tiny tasteful splash of red), but my bunkmate was quick to inform me that this was an infraction of policy. I didn’t remember this being outlined for me in the rules, but he said things changed so quickly around here that it was the best we could do to try and keep up, so I announced that I would simply keep the sentiment forever in my heart, and the room burst into chuckles and trailed out. Good. I could use a moment to myself.
I lay on the bare mattress and closed my eyes. My laundry was tumbling in the dryer and most of my belongings were still tied up in plastic bags from fumigation, so the bunk was bare and clear of confusing energies. I stared at the ceiling at the head of my bunk- the place where the wall met the ceiling ended directly over the center of my bed, where it cut down sharply into the dorm’s dividing wall that did not meet the ceiling. This setup effectively made the entire dormitory section of Lark-Inn a jumble of living cubicles, and I couldn’t decide whether it would be more untruthful to say that I sleep in a small room with eight men, or in a large room with forty people.
I decided that I much liked the evenly divided assymetry of architecture over my bed, that it suited me, and the creation of a nice sharp line between shadow and light for me to comtemplate was altogether my cup of tea. These are the sorts of things you have to decide for yourself in situations such as these in order to maintain sanity. I wasn’t at all happy with the healthy, gloppy brown smudge on the ceiling to the right, as it threw off the clean landscape and made me think all too much of the feces poetry in those other shelters, but it made me smile to think it was over the bed of someone who regularly irritated me, and should it happen to drop off the ceiling in the night, I wasn’t the one it would land on.
I could feel my energy rooting to this tiny place on this spinning pile, and it wasn’t all that bad. I wasn’t the sort to throw down deep roots anywhere, but to develop shallow ones in many places; for instance, I had a particular fondness for a specific spot on the ground in Harvey Milk Plaza I’d had to lay on in order to get just the right shot of the gay flag on the first day I’d gotten here. I had a favorite table and chair at the Posh Bagel on Castro Street where I’d had a rather pleasant breakfast, and a bench I was altogether attached to in my favorite Muni station where nobody ever really seemed to sit, and so on. But this was a special attachment. Somehow I felt that claiming my ground and taking a stand for it would be integral to my survival here.
I took it into my identity and contemplated it a bit- I was in the “B” dorm. The obvious attachment to that was that B stood for Boys, but that was too simplistic for me. I’d always had a fondness for the letter B in that, when you divide the curvy bits from the staff by just a bit, you get the letter 13, which not only was my birthday, but a number I always had a certain luck with.
Also, I’d been assigned bunk number 4. It puzzled me a bit how it had arrived at that assignment; there were four bunks lining the left wall, four bunks lining the right, and bunk number four was the second one down the wall on the left. I started doing complex mathematical equations in my head, thinking that by any means it really should have been either bunk 2, 3, 6 or 7, and concluded that the only way they could have arrived at 4 was by starting at the top and counting from right to left in a uniquely Japanese manner. I commented on this to the only roommate in the room, who stared at me oddly for a second and asked if I studied Japanese. I muttered that I’d picked up a thing or two here and there from anime subcultures and realized too late that bunks weren’t numbered by the dorm, but numbered throughout the entire complex, and there were two bunks in the first dorm, meaning that the first bunk in the room was number 3. I sputtered this out a bit ungracefully and my bunkmate nodded slowly and smiled somewhat sarcastically at me (but it was his way, I’d found, to do just about everything with a measure of sarcasm, having refined it to an art form, and that was a quality about him that I simply adored, so it didn’t bother me as much as make me unfittingly happy inside.)
Having solved the mystery rather more simply than I’d been making it out to be, and feeling a bit cowed at that, my mind continued to explore the Japanese association with the number four. The word for “four” in Japanese, though I can’t recall it at the moment, also means “death”, and I liked that quite a lot. They have a similar relationship with the number four in Japan as we in the West have with the number 13, in that when planning a building, they will often just skip labeling the fourth floor and pretend it doesn’t exist (particularly in hospitals) out of superstition, tact, or some combination of the two.
I realized that this was the only bunk numbered four in the entire complex, that if we were on the other side of the world, it would be probably not exist (or technically it would, but it would be labeled bunk five), and somehow I felt honored and serendipitous to have been assigned to it, and in dorm B (or to my mind, 13) no less.
I felt very, very lucky indeed.
I turned to my bunkmate and asked him a question. “I’ve been here now for a full week. Tell me, does it get easier, or harder?”
He eyed me thoughtfully. “Depends on how you deal with people.”
I shrugged. “I’m the sort who, unless someone’s personality specifically appeals to me, I generally keep to myself.”
He looked pointedly at me. “Then you’ll do fine.”
-Tom, Lark-Inn Resident, Dorm B, Bunk/Locker #4