When you are afoot you run into people and have to interact with them, which is why people avoid it at all costs.
I got into Santa Rosa around ten p.m. and figured I would take a taxi to my shabby hotel. I stood outside the Snoopy Airport and there were no taxis. The smart people, all young, hung out at the curb for a couple of minutes before Lyft scooped them up. Uber doesn’t have a permit in Santa Rosa, I was told.
All of the people shivering on the curb in the taxi zone waiting for the non-taxis were either foreigners or old or both. A rental car dude took pity and gave us a list of taxi companies. None of them answered except for Super Taxi and Best Taxi.
“Be right out,” they said.
After twenty minutes the airport was shuttered. Super Taxi came up and the old people started arguing over whose cab it was. The cabbie didn’t care. “You all cram in there or you gonna walk ten miles,” he snarled. They shut up and squeezed in, gloating at me as they lumbered away in their K-Car.
Best Taxi came up in a rickety, rusted out Dodge van. “Where the other people?” he asked, bummed that it was just me.
“They all went off with your competitor,” I said.
“Dat bastard, he know he can’t do dat.” The cabbie looked for some luggage to fling into his trunk, but it was just me and my tiny knapsack and I was too big to fling.
We didn’t go far but it cost $25 bucks, more than a rental car. The young woman at Extended Stay America had a shaved head. “You the guy who called asking if we had a shuttle?” she said.
She rolled her eyes. “Here’s your key.”
“Is there anywhere around here to eat?”
“Vending machines. Next to the laundry room.”
“I mean like a restaurant?”
This was an even crazier request than the shuttle bus, apparently. “How would I know?” she snapped. “I don’t live around here.”
I let myself into my non-smoking room, which I hadn’t requested because all that “non-smoking” means at my price point is “room where smokers think they can smoke in a room that hasn’t been smoked in as much as a smoking room.”
I never pay any attention to hotels when I book. If it’s cheap I take it, but even I was unprepared for this joint. It stank, which was fine, and the place was rattier than anything I’d seen in China, which was fine, and the room was bone cold, which was fine. What wasn’t fine is that it was now eleven, I hadn’t eaten, and I didn’t have a car.
So like bad boys everywhere I went to bed without any supper, figuring I’d rise early and walk to breakfast, wherever that was.
I forgot to bring pajamas so I slept in my jeans and sweater and sport coat. The heating didn’t work even though I had cranked it to 75, and the blankets were thinner than a cyclist’s excuse as to why he got dropped. I awoke at six-thirty, ran my hand through my hair, put on my shoes, and left.
As I left the room I realized why it was so cold. The heater vents were pointed directly into the open window.
Outside it was in the 30s and my breath made huge white puffs. I walked over a long overpass in the dark. The tips of my fingers tingled from the cold. My phone had died and I’d forgotten to bring a charger, so before leaving I had checked out a map on my laptop, memorized the general area, and decided to make for the Piner Cafe. I was pining, all right. For some food.
I’d found a McDonald’s on the map before I left and figured I would use it as a landmark to get to the Piner diner, but there was no McDonald’s. I walked for a long way. A guy in warm clothing and a backpack passed me, then looked back suspiciously. He was obviously going to work, but his look said, “What’s your excuse?”
He was kind of right. It was still dark, cold. I was walking. Normal people don’t walk, especially in car-land. If you are walking you are poor. Period.
I saw a 24-Hour Fitness and figured they could direct me to the McDonald’s and from there I’d find the Piner diner. As I crossed the parking lot a guy was leaving, having wrapped up his early morning sesh of staring at himself in the mirror.
“Excuse me,” I said.
He put his head down and kept walking.
“Hey, excuse me,” I said.
He walked faster.
Then I realized, of course, emaciated man trawling the parking lot at dawn begging for spare change. Right.
I pushed the doors to the fitness club, which was rocking. A greasy and nice young man who looked about as fit as my grandfather’s droopy testicle eyed me. “Yes?” he said.
“Where’s the McDonald’s?” I asked.
“You realize you just walked into a fitness club asking where to find junk food, right?”
“Who’d know better? I’m on foot, and lost, and hungry.”
He laughed, then ignored the “I’m on foot” part and gave me the longest, most complicated directions imaginable. It sounded like it was east of Calcutta somewhere. “Thanks,” I said, and left.
Now I was frozen and I found myself in an area of warehouses and business parks. A man on the other side of the street was walking a giant Husky, whose back was doubled as it pressed out a giant Husky dump of such proportions that I could see the steam from across the street, in the dark. “Excuse me,” I hollered.
The guy jerked towards me and the dog growled. Then the man pulled out his phone and began talking. “Ahhh, fuck you,” I thought. But I wasn’t brave enough to say it because, Husky. And how could I argue? I was walking, and if you are walking you are poor.
I walked along and froze some more. Pretty soon I figured I’d need to give up and try to retrace my steps, as the Piner diner wasn’t in my immediate future. Then I got to the next intersection, which was, miraculously, Piner Street.
I guessed left and after walking forever I found the diner. Now until you have been wandering strange streets in the pre-dawn, frozen to the core, scorned by all living things, stomach so empty it hurts, you will never know the joy of a lit-up family diner with a little signboard that says “Coffee” and “Come on in!” My body started warming at the mere sight of it.
I pushed open the door and it was so warm, the warmest I’d been in 24 hours. A nice waitress was bustling around, a handful of tables were taken by regulars, and of course, of course, of course, she called me “hon.” “Have a seat, hon!”
I sat at the bar wordlessly as she poured me the coffee she knew I wanted without asking. “Cream, hon?”
“Yes, please.” The hot thin coffee, as many cups as you want for $1.50, warmed my throat and my guts and my hands as I cradled the cup. Funny how you aren’t real fucking picky about your coffee when you are frozen to the bone, exhausted, hungry, and lost.
I ordered a Denver omelette and looked around. There were all kinds of homey signs posted on the walls. “Before you quit, think about why you started,” and “Craziness isn’t a requirement to work here; we’ll train you.”
I chatted with the waitress and told her about my peregrinations. She didn’t look surprised, as if she’d known people before who didn’t have cars, or money, or who weren’t always geared up with the latest Italian carbon frame made in Taiwan. “Warm yourself up, hon,” she said, refilling my cup.
The omelette came and proved the adage, “Hunger is the best sauce.” I ate it with the attack mode that good waitresses and cooks like to see. The owner came over and the waitress told her my story again. She nodded.
“You’d never find that McDonald’s; it burned down in the fire. Surprised they didn’t tell you. Where you staying?” I told her. “Oh, goodness. Everything around that burned. Right up to your hotel. You’ll see it in the daylight. Don’t you have a coat or a hat, hon? You are going to freeze once you leave here.”
I paid and headed back to Hotel Meth, but wasn’t cold at all.