Tag: San Francisco

Confessions of a vagabond reporter

Guido Michelini smashed his fist into a bathroom mirror in San Francisco. He didn’t like what he saw. A middle-aged man who was unemployable. This was due to his “erratic trajectory,” according to Johnny O, a newspaper editor who once gave him a job. “You may have dug your own grave.”

Johnny O was his hero, someone he would like to have been. Guido told him this once in a drunken phone call from the lobby of a $120-a-week hotel in Times Square. Drunks and madmen circled the lobby. 

He was “between jobs,” as the saying goes, walking along Fifth Avenue watching for his unpublished novel to miraculously appear in bookstore windows. Reality had no place on Fifth Avenue

But it did in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District when he rolled into a stale room at another weekly-rate hotel. He looked in the bathroom mirror. The mirror was the mouthy kind: Let’s face it, hotshot, who’s going to hire a vagabond reporter who worked a couple of years in
Detroit, ten months in Chicago, six months in Miami, three months in Las Vegas, and four hours at the L.A. Herald Examiner? Just because you are losing your nerve now and decide you want a steady paycheck and medical coverage and all the rest of it is not going to make up for all the great opportunities you squandered. You had every chance and you blew it, time after time
. This is the damn mirror blabbing away.

GREAT STORIES

But listen, Guido tells the mirror, I wrote some great stories in those places, exceptional in some. Even the four hours at the L.A. Herald Examiner produced a Front Page murder story, above the fold, goddamnit. I started work at eight and by noon on my first day the paper was running my story above the fold, man. I won a writing award in Detroit. You have to be damn good just to get a newspaper job in Chicago. This is what he’s telling the mirror in a hotel bathroom in San Francisco.

But the mirror sneers and snarls and Guido thinks it’s going to spit at him. It despises him. So he lashes out. He gives it a right cross to it’s ugly mug. Bam! A broken man. Glass and blood all over the place. He had to beat up on it out of self defense, but he had to agree with it. He did have a problem in the workplace. It wasn’t a drinking problem, although he did down many a gin-and-tonic. It wasn’t a drug problem, although he did pop many a Valium. It was a problem of psychotic restlessness and a fixation on becoming a novelist; being a reporter wasn’t good enough for him.

Going from town to town would have been fine if he’d been in a rock band. The jobs were all gigs to him. His typewriter was a guitar. His hair was long and he was having a great and grisly time, spending money like a rock star, boozing and bedding women every chance he got. For ten years he bummed around America in this manner. It was all a glorious pub-crawl with the Eagles belting out “Take It To The Limit” over and over.

ON THE ROAD

Even between jobs, he had op-ed pieces published in the New York Times and L.A. Times. He was a bicoastal op-ed writer. He was a hot vagabond and the best dressed bum in town. They’d have to carry him out in a body bag before he’d give that up.

One of the quickest ways to sober up and face reality is to smash your fist into a mirror. The glass flies back in your face and blood squirts from deep cuts in your hand and your face. You grab a towel and soon it’s soaked with blood. It looks like there has been a murder in the place. You leave the broken glass all over the sink and the floor. You think that if you start picking up the pieces one might find its way to your throat. You have, after all, seen the light and it is black.

Guido went from Bal Harbour to Friday Harbor looking for a steady writing job. He travelled in planes, buses and ferries. He saw a lot of hopeless, doomed, crazy, lost people out there. A battered young woman and her baby going as far as $59 would take them on a Greyhound bus; a young man in heavy boots still going to Alaska to chase a dream; a wild-eyed old man running away from his wife in Bakersfield to go fishing in British Columbia; a teenage girl with a tattoo of an eagle on her bare shoulder bumming with a boyfriend named Duke. “Here it is, Duke, our new home,” she said excitedly as the Greyhound rolled into Seattle. Duke was asleep with an Oakland A’s baseball cap over his eyes.

FAILED MISSION

Guido thought at the time that all these people were worse off than him, because at least he had an American Express credit card — thanks to Susan, who he left behind in Miami Beach. But then he realized, seeing the Seattle skyline rise out of the mist and thinking beyond into British Columbia and Alaska, that these people still had dreams; even the old guy had some kind of half-assed dream. Guido had a gold card but he was all out of dreams.

He was on the road to six weeks, calling up editors, dropping off newspaper clips, racking up bills in hotel rooms, waiting for callbacks, eating alone, mapping out his next campaign like an over-the-hill general who should have died in the trenches

It was a failed mission. The night he smashed his fist into the mirror he slipped out of the Tenderloin District and jammed one more flight on the credit card. The red-eye carried him back to Miami. The plane touched down at noon and he took the airport bus up Collins Avenue to Susan’s apartment and let himself in with his key. Susan was at work. Guido lay down on the bed. There was a big gold S on the wall over the bed.

He waited for S to come home. S for Sanity, S for Security, S for Savior, S for Sex, S for Shoot yourself in the head.

The Art of Homelessness

NEW YORK—Rainbow Johnson lives in a room in the Cavalier Hotel on 34th Street. The bathroom is down the hall. He has a hot plate for boiling water for tea. He eats his meals in the coffee shop downstairs.

Before moving into the Cavalier Hotel, he was homeless in several cities across America.

He was a multicoastal bum, from east to west and north to south. He rated the cities in terms of his experience. New York was a killer; Miami Beach was survivable; Chicago was brutal; Los Angeles was tolerable; Boston was a bastard; and San Francisco was miserable.

It was chiefly a question of climate, both meteorological and sociological. Miami Beach, according to Rainbow, with its sun, beaches and flotsam and jetsam personality, was the best place to be homeless.

“You don’t need much clothing and you can use the showers on the beach that are put there for swimmers. Every day you can scoop up enough change left on the tops of bars to buy something to eat. The bar owners and customers don’t mind.”

Depending on his take from the bars, he could buy a Macdonald’s hamburger or a Subway sandwich with all the veggies, sufficient nourishment for a lean man of no means.

“I managed fairly well in Miami Beach,” he said. “In New York City I nearly fucking died.”

But New York is home to him, and when he received a small annuity from a distant uncle, he came back home. The sum he received allows him to live frugally at the Cavalier Hotel. What would be a lousy life to many people is a sanctuary to a man who hasn’t had a permanent roof over his head for fifteen years.

In that room, on several legal pads, he wrote “The Art of Homelessness,” a slim volume of reflections that was published in New York to good reviews and modest sales.

Appearance is the first order of business for a homeless person, the book begins.

Beg, borrow or steal a decent set of clothes, he advises — another reason favoring warm cities like Miami and L.A., where you don’t need as much clothing as in New York or Chicago or San Francisco.

“An old school friend who became a stockbroker gave me a designer suit he had grown too fat for,” he said. “I wear that suit everywhere I go in New York City. Man, let me tell you, I’m the best dressed bum in town.”

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