Post Office Days, Bierhall Nights and Hotel Rooms
by Jeff T. Johnson
illustration by David Wilson
I SPENT most of November living in the Boca Raton Renaissance, Florida, a resort hotel in a wealth-infused wasteland. When I was offered a job measuring and drawing a resort hotel, I snapped it up. I’d try to focus on the building while beautiful women reclined in every available spot of sun like purring cats, and after I’d had enough of that for the day, I’d take a few steps and be on the sand with nothing but the sea—and maybe a few more beautiful women lounging under umbrellas reading big books—between me and the horizon. In my free time I’d wrestle alligators in the Everglades and figure out what jai-alai is. I’d laugh about Miami Vice stereotypes and learn about the real Florida. It would be a paid vacation.
It was more like a paid ontological crisis. I lost my sense of reality as I spent days at a time without leaving the hotel grounds, except to seek my oasis among the countless strip-mall islands surrounding the Renaissance: University Commons, site of Whole Foods. This collection of mammoth facades also fronted Barnes & Noble, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Circuit City, all of which shared a parking lot with its own zip code. These cyborg dinosaurs reared up over tables on their mutual promenade, where the sun-altered oldsters you’d expect to see in Florida marinated with poignantly pasty, disaffected teens, bionic babes and semi-sleazy smoking dudes. Water was a mirage on the highway through town.
When I wasn’t escaping to Whole Foods for overpriced comfort food and beer restock, I was in my room drafting on the computer, or wheeling the computer through the halls of the Renaissance on a gimpy, filthy old room service cart I found out behind the hotel. The folks at the front desk could hear my approach as I pushed the thumping and screaming monstrosity all the way down the 162-foot hall on my way to the lobby. I felt heavily misshapen, inevitably shaken by my ride down in the all-mirrored, scalp-spotlighting elevator.
This had happened to me before, so I should have known that work is work and vacation is expensive. Between my junior and senior years of college, over 10 years ago now, I wrote for the Berkeley Guides. At the time, it seemed like a great way to fund travel while on the road, and in all honesty travel writing is probably about as close to that ideal as I’ve discovered, even if I can’t necessarily recommend it (not that Berkeley Guides exists anymore). Despite the fact that Berkeley Guides imagined itself to be catering to the enlightened collegiate traveller, the manner in which I raced across my allotment of land provided me little sense of the people, places and cultures blurring past me.
I traveled to Salzburg, Austria and its surrounding region, as well as parts of Bavaria, including Munich, where, after my sophomore year of college, I’d done a month-long language intensive program before spending five months at the University of Salzburg. I had taken four years of German in high school and learned nothing, so I started over at Cal. Reading Kafka and Rilke in the father tongue, I realized how bad my German instruction was in high school.
Just as I’d followed a girl to college, I followed her to Austria, dropping out for a semester to do an independent program (the girl did a yearlong program, switching from Salzburg to London for her second semester shortly before I arrived—I suppose I realized in some part of my mind, the part that would serve me better when I began to heed its entreaties, that she was avoiding me).
After picking up some German my first two years of college, I arrived in Munich, learned some more German, then went to Salzburg, only to discover Plattdeutsch, which roughly translates as Low German. Most American universities teach Hochdeutsch, or High German, which is to say that studying German in Salzburg, Austria is like studying the Queen’s English in Glasgow, Scotland. Or, as several Austrians told me, “We speak Austrian, not German, and have no kangaroos.”
At least I learned to drink good beer—in Germany, anyway. Munich’s beer was to Salzburg’s beer what Hochdeutsch was to Plattdeutsch for an American studying German. Which is to say that my German was no better, and in fact somewhat garbled, after studying abroad, and that the language was a significant barrier to my travel writing that summer between my junior and senior years of college. Not that I did much writing for the Berkeley Guides. Mostly I fact-checked listings on a ridiculously tight itinerary (and a string budget, natch—BG’s tagline was “…on a shoestring budget,” and I suppose Fodor’s, who bankrolled BG, did its readers a service by poorly paying its writers). All the while, I practiced my pantomime routine and wrestled over the phone with the German language and semi-patient pensioners, sometimes traveling to multiple towns in a day. Each night I’d find a Bierhall, bar or pub, and drink beer while averting my eyes from fellow travelers who might tempt me to abandon my schedule and climb out of my solitary pit of despair.
Epistolary Philosophy for Tight-Asses
Also, I wrote letters to friends. Each morning I’d spend between 10 and 20 dollars on postage. I should have been writing a travel guide to post offices. I knew them as well as I knew each town’s museums, and I knew them better than anything else I ostensibly wrote about but actually fact-checked. I knew each post office better than every place in every town except for the Bierhalls, bars and pubs I found (or anyway, my tabletop at each of these places). In fact, my original contributions to the Berkeley Guides were fairly limited to the Bierhalls, bars and pubs I added to each section of the book.
This was not a settled life, and my literal detachment from humanity was not much mediated by my one-way epistolary connection to friends back home. I wrote the sort of tractates one imagines writing as one approaches the end of college and faces the abyss of real life, which is to say that I spent a lot of time considering the notion of reality and the existence of myself and others. I thought (and wrote) about place and time and love and the nonexistence of empathy and objectivity. I wondered about the possible simultaneous existence of subjectivity and truth. I lusted after others to whom I could not speak, and I set against each other my love and hate for myself. I wondered if I was going mad, nurturing romantic notions of madness I was beginning to outgrow. I wrote lots of fucking letters, and the handful of recipients enjoyed my notes from outlying regions while worrying that I was suffering all alone in my lonesome tight philosophical asshole.
I had a miserable time. So why did I go back to travel writing after my senior year, when I was even closer to the brink of the more or less real abyss? To jump in, of course. Or to see if I recognized the view. Can you stand on a brink from which you have already leapt? Every time I left my room in the Boca Raton Renaissance, I turned on the air conditioning, and when I came back to the room with that night’s six-pack, I turned it off so my puffy eyes could rest. The rooms heated up almost immediately, so in order not to shrivel up and hit the final position on the floor, I’d have to get some air on before long, but the registers seemed always to be pointed directly at my left eye, which appeared to bulge a bit, held in only by the swelling around it. I looked about eight years older while I was there; even my hair was getting into it, compressing over my shiny forehead at about three-quarter strength. Also, I was probably losing my mind. Not for fun this time, but because I didn’t know where I was and I desperately wanted to be back in Oakland. Home is never what you think it is, of course, but when you’re away it’s everything you need.
Don’t Date Boxers, Don’t Argue With Spoken Word Artists
In my room, pouring over the drawing, I’d listen to music through my iPod connected to the computer, travel headphones on. These headphones are somewhere between an outsized studio set and an old-school, band-over-the-head, noninvasive pair. Because of the way they fold into themselves, they press against my outer ear in a down-and-in manner that wears on me after a few hours. I developed cauliflower ear, which made me increasingly disposed to the ESPN classic specials on Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake Lamotta. I was there forever, and the room still seems to shrink when I wear headphones. Deeper into the project, the walls scaled down around me as I rendered more of the rooms in my drawing. When I tried to annotate them, I realized how cramped the bathrooms were, and how much dead space there could be in a room closing in on me.
I spent the last few days downstairs, checking and adding to the entry level plans. Upstairs in the hallways it was me and the cleaning ladies, who spoke a language I admired but couldn’t identify, and who were cordial and more deferential than would have made me comfortable. On the entry level the hotel workers were living a different life, conversing in shades of boredom and camaraderie. I’d met one girl on the first few days of the project when I was led to her office so she could make me a name tag. She had on a V-neck sweater that displayed her heavily scarred right breast. Showed it off, actually, and spectacularly. Another girl at the counter studied jazz standards on late shifts and gave me her first name in a hallway niche. She was normal-hot in a town of inflated, sun-basted beauties.
Only my friends, the ones I wrote to, really know what happened that second year in Austria and Germany, except that their memories have surely faded, and they’ve probably tossed the documentary evidence. I remember I spent eight weeks in Berlin, the Black Forest, the Bavarian Forest, Saxony Anhalt, and Mecklenburg, and I returned to Salzburg to check my own fact-checking, and I remember returning to Berlin for a week at the end of my assignment, spending all the money I’d managed to squirrel away during my assignment, and I remember I wrote a lot of letters, and I remember
I came home.
I came home from the Boca Raton Renaissance, and I went back again to finish the job, though my main goal those weeks in F-L-A was to not return. To Boca Raton, that is. You can never go back, and you can never return. Each avenue heads out of town, but some are more direct. I went back to a different hotel, one without me. I was a temporary ghost, like every other guest, while clerks and bellhops, waiters and bartenders seemed insubstantial to us because we didn’t bother to fill them in. I saw the normal-hot girl again, who said “hi,” and that was pretty much it. Mostly I looked at the ceiling, then down at pages on the cart, which I’d brought back from the yard after a storm drenched it in my absence.
1 OK, this has nothing to do with the essay. I just wanted to pull you aside to say how much fun I’ve had writing for and editing Kitchen Sink, and working with such sweetheart geniuses. Also, the subhead is good advice.
2 For the sake of this essay, and with reservations, I asked one friend for copies of the letters I sent her that summer, and after sending me copies of every letter I ever wrote to her, which was perhaps understandably mortifying for both of us, she told me that I didn’t write to her that summer.
Jeff T. Johnson is a senior editor and founding member of Kitchen Sink. He’s probably listening to music right now.