A Dark and Stormy Night

The design of this little hotel is interesting. The ground floor is for the cars, and the motel above is turned inside-out, with the doors opening onto a central court, lit by skylights. The rafters over the court are covered with spikes to convince our feathered friends that what would otherwise be an ideal nesting place is off-limits. The building is older, with those little signs of decay that are hard to pinpoint but add up to a feeling that of a place that wasn’t that well-built to start with and has seen better days.

I chose to stay in, and I spent the evening reading and eating snack food. The wind whipped around the building and drummed on the roof. It was downright chilly, so I turned on the heater—one of those gas-fired wall units, about five feet high, the enamel darkened near the top from years of use, the kind that emits carbon monoxide if it’s not adjusted properly. I read until I started nodding off, then turned out the light and fell quickly to sleep.

Quickly, but not for long. I awoke to a series of low, resonant clanging sounds noises coming from the heater. They slowed down over the next couple of minutes and eventually stopped. The metal of the heater was contracting, I guessed, after the thermostat had reached temperature and shut it off. I listened to the rain come in squalls, fierce yet brief, hammering the roof and the tin chimney of my heater. The storm was playing the metal pipe like a musical instrument—no, a band, with percussion and woodwinds. Heavy drops rattled and pinged off the metal while the wind resonated in the pipe with low moans and higher whistles. The whole was punctuated by the periodic smack from the bathroom as the vent louvers opened and slapped back closed with the shifting winds.

I lay in the darkness, having just finished one Pulitzer prize-winning novel and started another, and thought of graceful and floral ways to describe the night. This morning I can’t remember any of them. They sure seemed good at the time, though.

Twice more last night I awoke to the clunk-clunk-clunk of the heater as it expanded or contracted. By the numbers, it was not a great night of sleep, but this morning I feel refreshed, perhaps because I decided not to drive today. That’s right, I’ll be returning to the same place tonight.


4:30 p.m.

As I write this I’m wondering if I can slip out the window. I’m sitting in a cheap hotel room that has Internet access, and outside my door are two girls, one ten and the other eleven years old. They are bored. I talked to them. “You look like you would be fun to hang out with,” the younger one said. So much for ‘don’t talk to strangers’. They are out there, waiting to pounce. I’m hungry.

I stopped here for two reasons. First, the name Ritzville was such an obvious misnomer I just had to become an active participant in the non-ritziness. (I am far from a stylish and suave sort of guy.) Somewhere nearby is the Historic Center of Town, which is likely to be a far cry from ritz but potentially a good place to find my sort of bar. I’m sure I’ll have more to report later.

* * *

6:30 p.m.

Downtown Ritzville!

Ah, the incremental blog episode! I have wandered the Historic City Center and I can say that it’s pretty close to exactly what I expected, although based on the signage the area enjoyed a brief renaissance in the 1960’s. I was looking for a pizza place that had left a flyer in my room. They name their options after ammunition. Although Kate’s favorite cartridge in Dark War is the .40 Smith and Wesson, I was going to opt for the simpler .357 Magnum. Unfortunately, I could not find the pizza place. Considering that there really isn’t much of anywhere to hide, I suspect R2J2 is defunct. It’s hard to stay funct these days.

Instead I am at the legendary (just ask ’em) Circle-T Inn, a comfortable diner-like place; it’s easy to imagine that this restaurant hasn’t changed since the oldies playing on the radio were hits. I ordered pure Americana — an open faced roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes piled on top. I was just digging into it when the next set of customers arrived and I thought about the price one pays for a regular diet of this stuff. (One lady ordered a 12-ounce New York steak, baked potato with extra sour cream, and a diet coke.) After seeing them, I felt my waistline expanding with every bite I took. Every yummy, gravy-coated bite, until my plate was clean. This was no goo. This was food. The price was reasonable as well, even for the Alaskan Amber I washed it down with.

* * *

9 p.m.

“You want another?” Dave the bartender asked.

“Yes, I do,” I said, “but I’m not going to have one.” And so I departed the Whisperin’ Palms. As I looked back on the sign, I though it an odd Tex-tropics hybrid of a name to find in a small town in central Washington. In the bar there are no palms, and there is certainly no whisperin’.

There’s a difference between loud and boisterous — boisterous implies a certain joy of being loud. I was approaching the bar and I heard the voices inside, along with loud laughter that spilled into the deserted street. I hesitated, then walked in. The place is fairly large, but the booths were all empty. All the action was around the central bar, a squished horseshoe with the tender in the middle and the ragged assortment of drinkers arrayed around.

Downtown Ritzville!

I say ragged and perhaps that’s not fair, it’s not like the partons were grungy or dirty, hell, I was probably the only one there who hadn’t showered that morning. But there was something of the ragged about them, a feeling that these folks could make a little go a long way, a feeling that ‘used’ is synonymous with ‘broken in’. Probably I’m just romanticizing. Anyway, I walked in.

“Excuse me,” called out one of the regulars (they’re all regulars in places like that — except for the flies), “we’ll have to check your backpack.” There was general laughter. I wasn’t ready for this sort of welcome, usually the locals are happy to ignore me. Of course, now I know what I should have said. “Oh, you don’t want to know what’s in here,” I should have said. I just laughed along with the others and took my seat on the opposite side of the horseshoe. “We got a warrant,” another guy said. More laughter. “You got rolling paper, at least?” asked another. My hair has gotten long again. I’m a hippie.

I pulled out my pen and paper; the laptop I thought would have been too dissonant in that place. A guy pulling his hair out as he scratches with a ballpoint is a curiosity, a guy with a laptop is (at least in his own mind) doing important work. Whisperin’ Palms is no place to be doing important work.

Don’t ask what I’m drinking as I write this, and I won’t have to lie to you. The bartender asked what I wanted, and I knew that I was in Rome and I thought I’d roll with whatever the Romans brought me. “Beer,” I said. That was not good enough. “What kind?” Dave asked. “What you got?” “Well, Coors Light, Bud and Bud Light on tap, pretty much everything in bottles.” I allowed myself to hope. “Do you have anything like Sierra Nevada?” “No.” I did not order Bud Light, but beyond that I will plead the fifth. I had more than one.

A regular punched some buttons on the juke box, and music blasted forth with all due loudness. This was a bar for people who like to be inside the music as it replaces the air in the place. There was singin’ along. There were requests to turn up the volume. There was good happy loudness. As I write this, all the tunes have been ones I like. A song just came on that is our song (it doesn’t matter who ‘we’ are), and it’s probably a good thing that my phone could get no signal. Nations have been bankrupted by their monarchs getting a couple of beers in their bellies and picking up the phone.

“You drive up from California?” the cook just asked me. California plates parked outside, strange face, the math is easy. “What are you writing about, over there — if you don’t mind my asking?” “Playing around with a short story,” I said, which at the moment was true. “Are we in it?” “Not yet, but you might be.” He laughed. “As long as it’s not a murder mystery.” Big laugh from all, including me. I didn’t mention the above paragraphs I’d already written, and I felt a little dishonest about that, but I didn’t want to put a stink in the good atmosphere of the place. I liked it there. I liked the acceptance they offered me.

There are lots of Jerry’s in Ritzville. I met two of them tonight. One of them was particularly outgoing and accommodating. “You know, you should write about Ritzville,” he said. I’ve heard worse ideas, but I think I’d just end up doing another Centennial. Someone else is going to have to pick up the ball there. When the next Jerry arrived, First Jerry told me he knew all about the history of the town.

I was pretty much done with the place when First Jerry came over to my stool. I wasn’t ready for a sustained conversation, but just then Johnny Cash started singing about the Battle of New Orleans. I started to spew Battle of New Orleans trivia, and First Jerry stopped me. “Can I just listen to the song?”

I shut up. I’m glad he stopped me. Often enough I’ve wanted to say the same thing to the people around me. Our conversation (never sparkling) did not recover, and First Jerry moved on. It was time to go.

A Day at the Races

I had thought to stay at Amy’s last night. I was sitting quietly while she was a work (B.B. King and Dr. John at Humphrey’s), just kicking back and writing. The phone rang. It was Amy. New Boyfriend was in town early and she waned to know if she could have the house to herself. Well, duh. It’s her house, and there are several places in town that I can stay. I hit the road with confidence.

The one catch: it was already pretty late. I headed out, but actually the idea of a hotel room appealed to me. The thing about being a guest is that you put a burden on your host. The morning before, Amy had missed her morning TV because she didn’t want to bother me. Not that she minded terribly much (I think), but people have routines, and I don’t like to disrupt them. Some days I like to live free of the burden I place on others. So a hotel seemed like the right idea.

Note to investors: owning a hotel in San Diego in the summer is a friggin slam-dunk sellout. It’s crazy. There were a couple of places with rooms in Mira Mesa, but they were $150 and up. Mira Mesa. Rather than range north, this time I headed south to Hotel Circle. Amazingly, there are lots of hotels there. Not on Hotel Circle, but not too far away, is the Padre Trail Inn. It’s a dump. Until last night I assumed that the only way it stayed in business was because of the military inductees, who sleep their last night as civillians there before they are swept away to basic training. We used to go to the PTI’s lounge after playing softball across the street. The lounge is awesome only because of Melissa. She is an institution there, an icon in tight jeans and low-cut top, a figure that makes it work, and pure Jersey attitude.

I did not see Melissa last night. By the time I got there the lounge was closed. Also, the hotel was full. Padre friggin’ trail was full, and by the look of the parking lot it wasn’t all MEPS. Out of curiosity I asked, “How much would it have been if you had a room?” The answer: $130 plus all the taxes imposed on hotel rooms in San Diego. (This seems to be the one tax the locals are willing to accept.) Wow. A year ago, this was a place the truckers stayed. Sure, it’s near old town, but still.

PTI aside, I had to find a place to sleep. It was getting very late. I tried a couple of places on Hotel Circle, and at the second one the desk lady suggested I try driving out to Chula Vista. That was a long way away. At that point I was considering calling Amy and telling her that I had nowhere else to go. There was no one else I could call by then. I drove east to get on the freeway. Toward Chula Vista.

I passed the King’s Inn and almost didn’t stop. I kind of liked the look of the place, though, and I thought since it wasn’t a big chain perhaps it would have a room. Bingo. The room seemed cheap compared to the other places I had checked, and it was more than adequate. Any idea I had about using the privacy for writing was lost in the bliss of sweet, sweet, sleep. I slept from the moment I hit the pillow, and I nursed it as long as I could in the morning, and then a little longer. I emerged from the room in a magnificent mood.

It was race day. And Cake day. Cake is a band, and they were playing after the races were over. I like Cake.

I was late to Mikie’s place because I stopped at Waffle King forf breakfast, even though I could see that they were busy. I’m glad I did. There was nothing worth reporting here, but there were archetypes at work. Something I saw there will show up somewhere.

While I was sitting there, it occurred to me that the Tabasco boys should make an extra-hot version. Hot hot hot sauces are all the rage these days, but there is no brand with the power of Tabasco. Just a thought. As I ate, Amy called. Her boyfriend hadn’t come over after all. It didn’t matter. I was feeling cheery. Amy had bought a new hat and was drinking a margarita.

Breakfast chowed, running late, I headed to Mikie’s folk’s place, where my car would rest while Mikie, Mike, Kendra and I made our erratic (Mikie was driving) way up the concrete to the place where, as Bing put it, the surf meets the turf. We pulled into the parking log to be greeted my a big flashing sighn reading “No alcohol in any parking lot.” So much for tailgating. Mikie and Kendra had done a masterful job disguising the alcohol anyway, so we loaded up chairs and cooler and headed inside. Not long after that Kim, Ben and Michelle joined us.

It was a great day to be at the racetrack. The sun was shining, the sunscreen was abundant, there was a good crowd that steadily grew as the day wore on, and for the first half of the day the right horses were winning. Mike Sr. and I paid a lot more attention to the numbers, and I had fun sitting by him comparing notes. After a while, though, as the alcohol started to take effect (Nothing close to the effect it was having on Kendra, however), my diligence waned and so did my fortunes. No matter—I was having a good time. Over the day I lost more on overpriced beer than on horses.

The Cake concert was short (what do you want for nothin’?) but excellent. Maybe it wasn’t that short after all, we spent the first part of it in the beer line. It gave me plenty of time to see that the beertenders were not very efficient, but I didn’t make any recommendations when I got to the front of the line. Since the only limit to their business was the rate they could serve customers, I expect they could have made thousands of dollars more if they could have kept their customers adequately beered. No matter—I was having a good time.

Cake played, and played well. The crowd was large but not pushy, and there was plenty of quality people-watching. I ended up dancing to the music, something I don’t do spontaneously at concerts very often. After the show we made our way back to the truck. I went back to the homestead with Mike Sr. while the others, not content to let the party stop, took off to Michelle’s house, teetotaller Ben behind the wheel. The couch was already made up for me when I got back to the homestead, and I crashed with the TV on, just in time to see the last out in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Padre’s latest loss. I’ve got to leave town so they can start winning again. No matter—I’m having a good time.

So very, very tired

Location: Hampton Inn, Temecula, CA
Miles: 8459.5

What the hell am I doing here? The day seemed so simple. Float back to the mainland. Hop in the car and drive back to San Diego. Crash at Amy’s place. If Amy wasn’t available, find another place. If it got late, get a hotel.

I never hooked up with Amy. It got late, and I didn’t want to call someone to crash at their place after a certain hour. OK, hotel.

Bzzzt! Wrong answer; try again. There are no hotel rooms in San Diego tonight. Comicon is raging, and apparently it’s bigger than ever this year. Escondido has no rooms. At 1:30 a.m. I’m not calling anyone. The only question becomes “how far am I willing to drive and how much will I pay to not sleep in my car?” The answers: A long way and a lot of money.

There’s more, but honestly I’m just too damn tired now. There are other things to write about: Gilligan, the final chapter and ruminations about my pants. Those will have to wait until after my slumber.

I would post this now, but my ethernet cables are all in the car, and that is such a long, long way away.