There was a blurry line when staying in a hotel became living in a hotel, somewhere around the time when the hotel staff stopped cleaning my room everyday and asked if I wanted extra coffee filters as I glided by the front desk. Or maybe it was the moment when I realized that I had a parking spot everyone left for me and I always entered through the dirty concrete back stairs. There were two big beds in my room, one strewn with papers, the other messy with white sheets hard to the touch. I was in trouble once the staff started to include me in their gossips, “Did you hear about Ricky?”

The strange Christmas tree display went up and came back down: Christmas Trees of the World with shellacked red Chinese good-luck charms and the Puerto Rican flag on a stick. I started to worry.

I lived in a hotel for about six months straight that year. I was a union organizer, out on the road with the lunch ladies on their path to justice. It is a crazy thing to live in a hotel for six months. Everything about it is too much: working 14 hours a day, drinking too many bottles of wine, eating too many fast-food salads, driving too many miles on Route 78 and too fast. It made me smoke again, late at night on the back streets in winter. I wore boots and put my head back to watch the smoke puff out of my mouth. I have terrible asthma.

There is no place more alone than a hotel room by the airport in Baltimore. It is an absurd stretch of road that loops and curls in on-and-off-ramps like a pavement rice terrace.

In 2010 austerity was “word of the year,” according to Merriam-Webster.“ What we look for…are the words that have spikes that strike us very much as an anomaly for their regular behavior,” said John Morse, President of Merriam-Webster. Runners up in 2010 included “moratorium,” “socialism,” and “shellacking.”

2010 brought a spike of austerity measures in Greece, Spain and Britain: drastic cuts in government spending and unemployment to curb a major debt crisis. The European plazas raged with out-of-work civil servants. Austerity might regularly pull its thin graying hairs into a tight bun and die quietly of consumption, pain, suffering and long moorish winters.

My best friend joked with me that I needed to impose some austerity measures, short-term unemployment to reduce emotional deficits in the long-term. I do not intend to equate my privileged life to the laid-off workers of Greece, but I decided to impose my own version of budget cuts. Boom or bust, we need to conserve money and emotional resources. Conservation can be imposed or we can choose to save some for ourselves. In America vacations happen in short one-week spurts, lying flat on a beach in St. John or by a lake in Michigan drunk on fruity rum drinks, even more stressed upon the shock of return. I was a union organizer and worked 100 hours per week (of my own volition), fighting capitalism with working people so they could have some time for repose, some time to take their sons to little league. Most of the lunch ladies worked two or three jobs, picking up catering gigs on holidays, tucking their kids into bed, then leaving to tend bar. I didn’t know how to shut it off myself even though I should have. In Europe, even the lunch ladies get six weeks off. What if we self-imposed federal measures on our days? I might declare myself a disaster area. 2010 was at the same time an overabundance and also profoundly not enough.

Eventually I went to my boss’s office in New York City on the 18th floor of a building near the Holland Tunnel. Patrick O’Brien is a tall balding man who drinks Jameson until morning, covers the windows in his office with butcher paper to keep it dim, loves country music and always wanted to tell me about his cats. He is a fantastic union organizer. The best. He let me do as I pleased, sent me out on the road and didn’t ask questions as long as I kept the strike lines going. I told him I needed to take some time off. He said we don’t do that. I said, I quit. He said okay, take two months off. I bought a plane ticket to China that evening. I spent the next two days at the passport office and the Chinese embassy getting an express visa. The guy in front of me paid in wrinkled cash and ended up one dollar short. I handed him a dollar bill. The passport agent was a big-busted, dyed-blonde eastern European bombshell. She blushed and smiled at me, “That was so sweet.”

The first couple of days in Beijing, I didn’t speak. It was December and zero degrees outside. Nowhere was warm. The hotel had an indoor courtyard like a greenhouse with icicles. Back in a hotel, but different this time, with bright red hanging lanterns and cascading plant life, steaming noodle soup for breakfast. Few people spoke English and my Chinese was inside a yellow Rosetta Stone box in my living room in Brooklyn. The city smelled like wood stoves and cold cigarette smoke. All the buildings were the same slate gray and mostly low. There was soot on everything. Suddenly, I found bursts of color: neon lights, red lanterns, fluttery flags, huge television screens in Tiananmen Square. Mostly people ignored me, except the occasional someone who would come close to my face with a wide smile and say, “HELLO!” I walked all day long until my hips hurt. I had to make myself stop. I walked because it was too hard to negotiate a cab fare. I barely ate. I quit drinking. I stopped talking.

I discovered that I could use Google Maps on my phone to find public bus routes. I took a public bus all the way to The Great Wall of China and engaged in a complex negotiation about seats via hand gestures. Are you going to sit there? Not me, I get off at the next stop, you take it. Oh, thank you so much. A couple hours into the ride a flamboyant man stood up and gave a long speech in Chinese that had the bus roaring with laughter. I couldn’t understand a word. I think he was a tour guide. When we parked I got out by myself and walked up a tall mountain on the brick road of The Great Wall. I wasn’t dressed warmly enough, the wind whipped through my windbreaker. It was hard to know where to stop, and the wall just kept going.

Maybe I had it all wrong and what I needed was a bailout. I needed the water removed from my sinking vessel with a teacup. One teacup at a time.

Back in New York, I didn’t return to my job as promised. Patrick O’Brien bought me a tuna sandwich at the famous Eisenberg’s Deli on Broadway with egg creams and hot pastrami. He insulted me. You’re weak, he said, and a coward. He begged me to stay. You’re one of the best I’ve ever known. I can’t. I’d thrown up that morning, heaving retched food into the toilet bowl.

It was the week before Valentine’s Day. I love how on Valentine’s Day everyone walks around the city with their arms full of flowers. Teenagers carry single roses; men are barely able to see over their tulip bouquets as they step off the subway. My close friend bought me a ticket for the opera and we went to see “La Traviata.” I was there under the lights with my fanciest shoes on and my friend wishing I was with someone else, my mother, that girl, a minister, wishing that I was somewhere else, China, New Mexico, the Olympic Peninsula. Everyone in their tuxedos and glitter, we sat up near the top of the tiered theater and looked down over the thousands of people.

What would happen if the place filled with water?

 

 

 

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© Jan Bindas-Tenney