Chuckles in the Flophouse
The boutique hotel used to be a flophouse. And now it was a boutique hotel. The transformation from flophouse to boutique hotel was not a gradual process. One moment it was a flophouse, the next it was a boutique hotel. For the same amount of money that could buy you a night in a perfectly ordinary hotel, you could have the experience of staying in a former flophouse. Roland Garnier liked the idea of this. Or at least, he liked the idea of staying in a boutique hotel. Only so that he could say to people, ‘I stayed in a boutique hotel’. He didn’t really like the idea of staying in a flophouse.
There’s something about the word ‘flophouse’. It’s the ‘flop’ part of the word. One could imagine a weary soul trudging the streets of manhattan in search of work and ‘flopping’ into his tiny cabin for the night, tired, aching and hungry. But there were other connotations, too. For too long, the word ‘flop’ had been predominant in the career of Roland Garnier and it just see,es plain insulting that he should now be staying in a house for those who flop. His last solo show had been a flop and so had his collection of poetry. The only thing he didn’t flop at was flopping. This is why he preferred the term ’boutique hotel ‘. It implied a certain distinction.
At regular intervals, the man in the boutique hotel cabin next to his kept chuckling to himself. Roland hopes that the man wasn’t doing what he thought he might be doing. The walls of the boutique hotel cabins were as thin as cardboard and Roland could hear every noise that his neighbour was making. It must have been like this, too, for the original inhabitants of yen boutique hotel, back in the days when it was a flophouse. Or actually, maybe not. There wasn’t much to chuckle about in those days, in spite of Laurel and Hardy. The whole place could probably have done with a bit of a laugh.
Maybe he wasn’t wanking at all. Maybe Chuckles just liked comedy. In which case, Roland thought about knocking on his door and telling him that he was performing that very weekend, headlining at the famous Duplex Cabaret right in the heart of New York’s gay village, bringing his own brand of whimsical comedic nonsense to the Big Apple. But Roland tended to shy away from this kind of impulsive human interaction, and in any case, at the back of his mind was the thought that Chuckles probably was just a prolific masturbator.
That morning, as he had the previous mornings, Roland had gone for a walk two blocks to a branch of Starbucks for a morning coffee and a breakfast roll. Roland had had no idea that they also had Starbucks in the USA and it had been something of a fortunate surprise to discover something so homely in this scary metropolitan city. The man at the reception desk of the boutique hotel had wished him not a pleasant day, but merely, ‘Be careful’. And this is what he’d also said the morning before. Roland really didn’t care for the implications of the young man’s tone, hinting, as he understood it, that he saw Roland as being too naive or trusting to understand the dangers of walking alone in the former skid row district, a district yet to be fully gentrified even with the transformation of the former flophouse into a boutique hotel. Roland lived in Devon, and there were certain areas of Newton Abbot that one simply wouldn’t walk alone, so he was not immune to the dangers of the lower east side, or any built up urban environment. Maybe the receptionist was worried that the death of one of his guests would reflect badly on the next Trip Adviser review.
The thing with the USA is that it’s like a whole different country. As Roland walked along the pavement, which in the USA is called the sidewalk, but still maintains the function and appearance of a pavement, he felt a kind of weird displacement within him that the culture and infrastructure around him was easily recognisable and navigable and yet by turns completely wacko. The number plates of the cars were all different and so were the buses. And the trucks. Goodness knows what was going on with the trucks. They were big and brutal and they looked like they meant business and it all felt rather unnecessary. The inside of the Starbucks, however, seemed like the inside of any Starbucks. It was almost as if they had modelled it on an English one, because it had a counter and a till and a coffee machine and tables just like the good old fashioned English Starbucksies. And the process was just the same. You bought a coffee, sat down and drank it. It’s just like these things are the same all over the world. Travel is likely to make philosophers of us all.
Roland sipped his coffee and looked out at the traffic. He was a little sad that the young lady at the counter had not even flinched, let alone make a comment, when she had heard his accent. And he’d gone to great lengths to emphasise his Englishness when he’d ordered his coffee. ‘Hello there! And a most pleasant morning to You! I would very much like to purchase a cup of your finest coffee, if I might be so bold! I do hope you might accommodate me in this matter!’, he had said, to which he had replied,
And then he had slipped back within himself, sitting at the table in the very corner and looking out at a busy intersection, the trucks and the buses and the hubbub of a major city as it wakes and busies itself for another day.
‘Hi. Excuse me?’
Roland looks up. A young man is standing next to him, a cup of coffee in one hand and a plate with a Danish pastry on it in the other. He’s wearing a T-shirt, shorts and a bum bag.
‘Is anyone sitting there?’
The chair next to him was empty. As were most of the chairs in the place. Roland wondered why he would want to sit there when there were so many other empty chairs in the place. He thought that coming to the USA, he might be immune to the various eccentrics and weirdos who populate Devon, but apparently not.
‘No’, Roland says.
‘Hey, you’re . . Let me guess . . Scottish?’
‘Damn, so close. I’m usually good with accents. I met an Estonian once and guessed his accent immediately.’
‘You here on business?’
‘Kind of. I’m here for . . Work’.
‘Oh? What’s that?”
‘I work in the . . Entertainment industry’.
Bum Bag Man sits down and starts drinking his coffee. He then picks at the Danish pastry and feeds bits of it into his mouth, wiping his fingertips on a paper napkin. He doesn’t say anything for a long time and Roland hopes that this is the end of it. But then he says,
‘I’m from Idaho’.
‘So I’m not used to this, you know, we have cities in Idaho, but it’s mostly rural, I’m from a rural community, we got lots of cows where I’m from, dairy you see, that’s why I have milk in my coffee because, you know, you got to support the farmers.’
‘I don’t know much about Idaho’.
‘Not much to tell’.
‘And what do you do?”
‘Me? Well sir, I’m a punch hole salesman’.
‘Sure. For office supplies’.
‘Oh, you mean holepunch?’
Bum Bag Man kind of makes a grimace.
‘That’s a brand name. There’s an actual company called Hole Punch. Hole Punch Inc. I work for Stevenson’s. We actually invented the punch hole back in the 1800s. Our founder says that the idea came to him as if from god, he just prayed one night, and woke the next morning with the Punch Hole clearly defined in his brain. You know, sir, he fell out with his brother, and it was he who started up the Hole Punch Company. But I’m proud to admit, I have a passion for Stevenson’s products that you can only guess at.’
‘And what happened before the hole Punch . . I mean, the Punch Hole was invented’.
‘I guess people just didn’t have holes in their paper’.
‘Each year we have a ceremony at the factory, to mark the occasion that our founder, Ichabod J. Stevenson, had that vision from god. And they bring out the first Punch hole. It’s kept in a museum, you see, because it’s the size of a small car, this thing, steam powered, and it has to be kept under tight security ever since it killed that chap a few years back. Since then, of course, we’ve all been told not to wear ties or scarves around it’.
‘And this is in Idaho?’
Bum Bag Man goes to put a piece of Danish pastry in his mouth but misses and it goes on the floor.
‘So, are you on holiday, here in New York?’
‘Well, sure, kind of. You see, I just broke up with my girlfriend’.
‘Oh, I’m sorry to hear that’.
‘We were in the mall. There’s this mall near our town, it’s only a two hour drive away, I’d gone to buy a new phone but when I got there, they only had it in pink. And she laughed, can you believe that? She didn’t feel sorry for me or anything. She just laughed. So there we are in this mall in a suburb of Boise, and she’s just laughing because the phone I wanted was only available in pink. So I ended it. That’s a kind of toxic relationship right there, isn’t it? And I’m any case, she never cared for punch holes. She was a receptionist at a dental surgery’.
‘And you’re here to get over it?’
‘No sir, I’m here to find a new girlfriend. It’s a city of sin, that’s what my pastor says. So if I can find someone, turn them away from sin and towards the wholeness and goodness and purity of Ichabod J. Stevenson, then maybe I’ll be a happier man’.
‘Good luck ‘.
‘I’ll need it. At the moment I’m in my hotel room every night, sobbing.’
‘Oh, yes sir. But I know my time will come. It has to. There’s someone out there for everyone’.
Roland imagined this strange lone figure, miles from his Idaho rural community in a busy city, beaten down by life and lonely, and he started to feel sorry for him. Indeed, if it weren’t for a few subtle differences here and there, they could almost be the same person. Roland had long ago given up hope of finding love himself, and the love that he sought was really no different to that of Bum Bag Man. The only real difference, as far as he could make out, was that Bum Bag Man was wearing a Bum Bag, or fanny pack, as the Americans tended to call them. How could anyone truly be respected if they’re walking around wearing a fanny pack?
Roland looked down at his black coffee. It was starting to go cold. The street outside was as busy as ever. The ability of some people to overshare always made him somewhat uncomfortable and he decided that it was time to move the conversation on to himself.
‘Well, I suppose I had better be going. I’ve got a show tomorrow night and I need to rehearse. Because when you’re headlining at the Duplex, you’ve got to be on top of your game’.
Thus leaving the door open for an inquiry from Bum Bag Man. How could anyone resist such an invitation?
It doesn’t work.
‘Nice to meet you’.
Bum Bag Man hops down off his stool and goes over to the corner where a young lady is working on her laptop.
‘Hey’, Roland hears him say, ‘Is anyone sitting here?’
Two lone souls in a city of infinite busyness, instant forgetting, a machine bigger than any one person, millions of lives, millions of stories, aspirations and dreams. The present moment is but fleeting because the city never stays still, it’s streets smoothed by centuries of souls vibrant one moment and vanished the next. How many others will come and go, how many others will visit this pounding metropolis only to disappear to their own lives once more? Chewed up, spat out, forgotten?
Roland walks back to the boutique hotel and he thinks of Bum Bag Man, and then he thinks of the ex soldiers and sailors who populated the flophouses of skid row, their lives in tatters, destitute and miserable. He gives the receptionist a weary smile as he passes by, climbs the stairs and feels the undercurrent of misery on which the city has been built, the bones of those who did not succeed the foundations on which every other layer has been placed, individuals blinked out never again to be remembered.
He sits on the bed in his cabin and lets out a deep, deep sigh. It all seems so pointless. Not just the present moment and his reasons for being in manhattan, but everything. History is created the second that a moment has passed. He has anticipated the gig at the Duplex for so, so long, but now it was finally close and the anticipation had mutated, changed to a realisation that everything will be forgotten. The generations pass and they never look back. History is an inexorable dance. How else might he approach each day, but with the sense that he will vanish one day, and nobody will ever notice.
The world is a place of misery and hopelessness.
And then Chuckles starts laughing quietly, to himself. And this makes Roland laugh. And then he thinks about hole punchers and he laughs some more. And soon the two of them are laughing, and then the man in the cubicle next to his starts laughing too. And the lady across the corridor. And another lady. And soon, oh yes, within seconds, everyone is laughing.