I got a call from Hosterman–tenant at the Glover Hotel. Damn elevator is out again, he says. It has gotten unbearable. Manager says it needs a goddamned part.
“I can’t go to buy groceries, I can’t walk my dog; I’m missing doctor’s appointments.”
Hosterman lives on the 7th floor, has COPD, hip problems.
“That’s just part of the problem” he continues. “The building manager doesn’t give a damn. Nothing works in this place.”
Hosterman’s a nice guy, one of those guys who looks mean until you talk to him–like that old pro wrestler Baron Von Raschke—that tall guy with the bald head, green teeth and hairy chest–stomping his feet across the ring in rain boots giving a heil Hitler salute to a chorus of boos—and booze.
He asks me to come down to the Glover to talk to the building manager about the elevator. It wouldn’t be my first trip to the Glover—also known as The Glove—a residential hotel on 6th Street, the city’s skid row. An old building built in the Jack Dempsey days, made of brick and covered with a fire escape facade partially covered in rust and pigeon shit. The word Glover was fading, having been painted long ago with the R almost completely faded leaving the word Glove. From a distance it looks a bit like the book depository where Oswald—for those who believe the lone gunman theory—sat perched, waiting while the grassy knoll crowd sat in the greenness of a sunny Dallas afternoon waiting for the fireworks to begin.
Hosterman had a host of problems. Part of the problem was his working many years at state and county fairs. He assembled and disassembled roller coasters, putting a strain on his body. He knew the parts of roller coasters, with the ability to assemble them with his eyes closed. Then his spine began to curve like those tracks and the pain surged through his body in straight lines and loops. He finally stopped working, getting permanent disability, sitting it out on skid row, looking out of his 7th floor window, his view partially blocked by a billboard that read: God loves you.
I get him on the phone. His voice sounds distant. In the background is his dog Oboe, a source of companionship and bickering.
“How long has the elevator been out?” I ask
“Aw jeeze, so long I can’t keep track” Hosterman answers
“Did you complain to the manager?”
“The manager? He’s more like a mangler. He wouldn’t know an elevator from a coffee pot. But I can’t get downstairs to talk to him and he doesn’t answer his phone.”
I hear a bark, followed by more barking.
“Hold on” Hosterman says. I hear his voice, somewhat muffled:
“Damnit Oboe, will you get off my back!”
“I know, I know! You think I’m stupid?”
“Keep it up and I’ll flush your kibble down the toilet!”
“Oh yeah? Well you fix the fuckin’ elevator then!”
Hosterman comes back.
“Well, anyway, I really need your help. Lots of tenants can’t get out because of the elevator. Part of me wants to punch that damn building manager but I have a pinched nerve. Can you drop by?”
“Yes, I can” I reply
“When?” Hosterman asks
“But you need to put in a complaint with the manager.”
“I tried that. It’s the same blah blah blah. I got a note on my door saying it’s going to take time to get the elevator fixed. It’s the damn part he says. They have to order it. It’s some rare part that needs to be custom made by some elevator company.”
“Some outfit called Shklovsky Elevator.”
I jot in my calendar: See Hosterman at the Glover tomorrow afternoon.
I shuffle through my paperwork—intake forms—phone numbers notes scribbled on scraps of paper. My stack of notes is stained with soy sauce from a take-out sushi lunch—the stain spread in the shape of an insignificant island on the fringes of the earth. I am an SRO tenant organizer which to me is filled with irony. I am an organizer yet I am barely able to organize my socks. I guess what I have is empathy and the ability to listen to others’ problems without seeming bored. But often I am. The phone rings incessantly with calls from SRO tenants—single room occupancy—about harassment from neighbors, leaky faucets, roaches, non-working showers, toilets that won’t flush etc.
Once I was called by a tenant at the Mission Hotel, the biggest SRO hotel in the city.
“Hey, you need to come quick, there’s a creature in my sink” the tenant said.
“A creature, what kind of creature?” I asked
“I don’t know, but it’s in my sink and I don’t know what to do.”
“Sit tight, I’ll be there.” I said
“I’m in unit 402.” He said, then hung up.
I signed in with the unfriendly desk clerk then went up to the 4th floor. The door was partially open. I walked in.
“It’s over there.” the man said, pointing to the sink in the corner.
I walked to the sink, one of those old fashioned types.
“Do you see it?” the man asked
“See what?” I answered
“The two eyes” He said
“Where?” I asked
“In the gap.”
I looked into the grating, the opening in the sink under the faucet. Yes, I saw two spots that looked like eyes.
“You know” I began, “I can see where you think you see two eyes, but from what I can see, seeing with the two eyes that I possess, what you think are two eyes are actually two water spots. Come and look.”
“The man came and leaned down. He looked at the two water spots then looked at me.”
“Did you see that!” the man cried
“It winked!” he yelled, backing up towards the corner.
“It’s only shadows” I said. “When you move to the left, it looks like its winking, see?”
We both move our heads to the left in unison, slow as if performing Tai Chi. We did this for a few minutes.
“Look man” he said, “I’m not crazy…I mean, I thought that was some kind of animal in there.”
“I understand” I said, raising my hands as if in surrender. “I would have thought the same thing. You were right to call me.”
I shook the man’s hand and left. I shook my head as I went down the elevator and out the front door. SRO Hotels—also known as poor people housing.
Part of me was—I suppose—being led into this kind of work by some invisible hand guiding me, not pushing, but inching me along. I’d worked other jobs that fell flat. I thought I’d give plumbing a try, getting a job as a drain cleaning specialist. The problem was that I wasn’t good with my hands. I was dispatched to Marin County to unclog a few drains in a spacious house. I got there and was told by the homeowner that the water wouldn’t go down. So I climbed up to the vent stack on the roof.
I found that leaves had fallen through the stack, causing a partial obstruction in air flow, causing the water to back up. I cleared it and decided to run the snake one more time for good measure. It was disastrous. The snake hit a T-joint, made a sharp turn, travelled partially upward and came out through the toilet. I heard the shattering of porcelain and the owner’s cold scream, Stop, stop!
I scurried off the roof to find the toilet in shambles. I spent a good part of the day searching for a replacement toilet; the owner insisting that it be the original color, Mexican Sand. After much driving I found the Mexican sand toilet, installed it and took the broken one as a souvenir. I dropped it off at the plumbing company where my boss laughed in my face. Next time I saw the bowl it was in the driveway filled with soil with a lone sunflower reaching for the heavens. I decided that that was one toilet flush too many.
I bounced around as a temp for a while before ending up at a life insurance company. I helped process applications, following up on applicant’s medical records etc. But it wore me down—starting at 7am, fielding calls from the east coast and the requirement of making 70 outbound calls a day. I came to hate the telephone. I eventually got fired, tired of demanding life insurance agents, their anti-depression medication induced smiles and plastic faces beaming under the glow of florescent lights. Even the bagels they gave out once a week began acquire a fake taste. After 7 years I was let go in less than 7 minutes. I walked out of the office for the last time.
I walked with nowhere to go. I found myself on 6th Street walking past places that I ignored on my way to other places. I felt like the long lost salmon heading home. I looked at the faces around me. People seemed familiar. They weren’t outfitted with an imposed cleanliness or dignity; no anti-depressant masking. They were the people I had seen all my life; only I hadn’t seen them lately, being under the florescent glow of that office. They were out here, only they were older, sleeping or selling their last belongings on sidewalks–displaying styles long since out of style, half-filled bottles of cologne, record albums riddled with scratches or warped by the elements–on flattened cardboard, or if lucky, worn down rugs. And when there was nothing to sell and cardboard remained, it was sold as a biodegradable yoga mat to the affluent who flew into the neighborhood with messianic missions whose tableaus sought iconic meanings through poses while the locals tried to maintain their smiles. I continued walking and stopped in front of a pawn shop and looked at the jewelry and musical instruments waiting for a sound. It was on the ground floor in front of the Glover Hotel.
Next day I got to the Glover. It was a gloomy day, a pigeon colored sky loomed. In front of the hotel was a van with the words Shklovsky Elevator company written on the side. I enter the hotel. I approach the desk clerk.
The clerk is a black woman behind a mesh wire screen. There is a small space to slip an ID through.
“I’m here to see the manager.”
“Manager ain’t here”
“When will he be available?”
“Hell if I know.”
I slip my ID under the small space as if slipping a cracker to a bird.
“I’m gonna go up to see Hosterman.” I say
I sign the guest book and slip it into the space.
“Elevator still out?” I ask
“You ever heard of stairs?”
I shove the pen under the mesh screen and walk down the dimly lit hall.
I walk towards the stairs past the elevator when I hear the elevator door open. I look. Inside is a bald man. He looks strangely like the wrestler George The Animal Steele. The elevator looks different, as if it had been replaced.
I walk closer. The man stands before a three legged chopping block. In one hand he holds a cleaver; in the other is a fish. The man looks at me. He does not smile.
“Come inside.” He says
“No, I’ll take the stairs” I answer
“Stairs no work” he answers, “Come…come.” He says.
I walk inside the elevator. The door eases shut.
“Who are you?” I ask
“Viktor” the man answers.
“Are you the elevator attendant?”
“Yes, part time.”
“Is the elevator working?” I ask “This elevator doesn’t look familiar.”
“Perhaps it is you that is not familiar” he answers.
I look around the at the elevator walls. Fish entrails, scales, tails and fins are strewn about. I look at Viktor who is now scaling a big fish.
“What kind of fish is that?” I ask
“Good big fish” he answers, finally smiling.
“Look, I need to go to the 7th floor” I say, looking for the elevator buttons.
Viktor raises his cleaver and chops the head off the fish in one clean blow. He puts the fish head in his pocket.
“Press button” he says.
The elevator panel is not familiar either. Instead of buttons there is a human eye, a nose, a pair of lips, a piece of sushi, a human toe, an ice cube and a bed bug.
“None of this looks familiar” I say. “What kind of crazy elevator is this?”
“What is familiar?” Viktor replies. “It is elevator…goes up…down.”
“And sideways” I suppose
“I thought this elevator would be fixed. It doesn’t look like an elevator at all. It looks like a fish market. What happened to the elevator company who was supposed have the part, to fix it.”
“I am elevator company” replied Viktor. “Shklovsky Elevator and Seafood Company.”
He smiled then chopped the head off another fish.
“Push button” he says
“Which one?” I ask
I look at the buttons. The sushi button looks interesting.
“I like sushi” I say, looking at Viktor.
“Yes, yes…I know” he replies. “Push button”
I push the sushi button and the door eases partially open. Viktor gives it a kick and the door widens. I step into what looks like an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet.
“I will return in a while”
“Wait, when are you going—“, I begin as the door shuts.
I walk around a rather large room, dimly lit. On the wall are the words: Mount Wasabi Sushi Buffet. Around me are tables filled with familiar sushi, some are floating on small boats in a scaled down version of a Venice canal.
“Eat, eat!” A voice calls out. “Eat to overflowing!”
I don’t see a face. I look around. The voice is coming from above, from large speakers like in a concert. It sounds like that goddamned part-time elevator attendant.
There is sushi everywhere. I walk around not knowing where to begin. I grab a plate. I stack the sushi high, a small mountain—tuna, eel, urchin, squid; there’s even whale! I take my plate to a table and sit down. I mix some soy sauce and wasabi. I take a pair of chopsticks and lift a piece of eel to my mouth. I could die here and feel good about myself, I think. I place the sushi in my mouth and chew. It tastes like nothing. I spit it out. I look at it. It’s fake sushi! That plastic sushi you see in the display windows of Japanese restaurants.
“Ha ha ha ha ha!” I hear from the speakers above.
“Hey Shklovsky” I say, “That’s pretty goddamned funny. You’re in the elevator chopping the heads off fish and the only thing you can offer me is fake sushi?”
“Is it not familiar?” the voice answers. “Can you not taste it?”
“Yeah, I can taste it alright; it tastes like the fossilized remains of a dead cat.”
To this he laughs again: Ha ha ha ha ha!
“Can you just get me out of here?”
I see the elevator door appear near the head of the fake sushi buffet. The door opens. I enter.
Shklovsky raises his cleaver, chops the head off another smiling fish.
I’m back in the elevator.
“Look Shklovsky” I say, “I know you’re having a ball but I have to see Hosterman. Can you just get me to the 7th floor?”
“Push button” Shklovsky answers, this time pulling a fish out of his ear.
“Oh god” I say
I look to the panel and push the ice cube.
“Cube ice” Shklovsky says, “Good choice”
The elevator door opens. I look out. It looks like a desert.
“Hey Shklovsky, this is the wrong floor. I ain’t going out there.”
Shklovsky takes a fish—a bigger one this time—whacks me in the back of the head and plants a firm kick into my ass, causing me to lurch forward.
“Go, go…explore! He says as the elevator door closes.
I look around. The sun is beating down and it is hot, very hot; sand all over, a roller coaster of sand with peaks and dips. I hear music in the distance. It is a mariachi band 100 or so yards away. I see the musicians approach, closer and closer. I begin to get very thirsty.
“Hermano” I say to the guitar player, “Agua por favor?”
“Oh, you want some water?” he says
“You speak English?”
“Where am I?” I ask
I look around; nothing but sand.
The guitarist pulls out a bottle, hands it to me. I put it to my lips, tilt it. Sand comes out. I cough and spit.
“Are you crazy? I yell. “This is sand!”
“Well” The guitarist says, “The border is 100 miles that way. If you leave now you might get to the river in 2 days.”
I look that the other musicians, they point that way in unison. I stand in the sun for a few minutes. I pour all of the sand out of the bottle. I am sweating and my throat feels like cracked leaves.
“Shklovsky!” I yell
The mariachi band departs—leaving me with 12 bottles of sand.
The elevator drops down from the sky like in some bad outer space movie. The door opens. I see Shklovsky’s smiling face.
“Water, Shklovsky, I need water” I cry
He picks up a steel bucket and hands it to me. It tastes vaguely of fish but I don’t care. Shklovsky continues to chop fish. He cleans them and drops them into the steel bucket.
I look at Shklovsky, grateful for the water but, at the same time wanting to kill him. I want to take that cleaver and do a fish job on him. The cleaver is on the chopping block as he reaches for another fish.
“If you’re going to do it” he says, “Do it. If you are not, then push button.”
I look at the panel. The bedbug or the eye?
I thrust my finger into the eye, at which Shklovsky lets out a scream.
“Wrong button, wrong button!” he cries out. “Push bedbug, bedbug!”
“This is the weirdest elevator I’ve ever been on. Is it fixed, did they get the part?”
“I am part” Shlovsky says.
I push the bedbug and the door opens. I walk out. I hear a dog. It’s the 7th floor. I see Hosterman’s room, the door is open partially. I approach.
“Hey, good to see a familiar face” Hosterman says, approaching with a limp. “Those stairs are a bitch.”
“Yeah, I know” I reply, “But I can use the exercise.
I sit on a lawn chair at the foot of Hosterman’s bed. His dog Oboe comes over, tail fluttering, licks my hand.
“We need to write a letter to the building owner” I say. I can help you with it.
We sit and exchange ideas about what to write.
“I need a few things from the store. I can’t get down those stairs with my bad leg.” Hosterman says.
“No problem” I answer. I’ll take the elevator down and get a few things for you.” I say
“The elevator don’t work”
“Oh, that’s right” I say. “I’ll take the stairs.”
“It’s gonna take then forever to get the part” he says.
“Yeah, familiar story” I answer
I reach into my pocket for a pen. I feel something cold and slimy. I pull it out. It is a fish head smiling.
“What on God’s earth?” Hosterman says.
“Long story” I answer.
We sit in his small room writing a letter as the light comes through, partially blocked by the billboard that reads: God Loves you
© Tony Robles 2021