1984 was a busy year. I changed residences no less than six times. After living out of cardboard boxes for a year, I found a place to land…
I’d spent time at the homestead in Sandy, lived in Forest Grove with the ex-wife (what I called the Six-Day War) and spent about three months at The Kingston. In October, I moved in with my mistress, Blondie.
She was a sweet girl, but wild. I was uncomfortable being one of many partners, and starting to fall for her a little. She was tired of my unemployed drunk ass, and it was time to go. Not shy about using public financing in my adventures, I’d heard about Section 8 housing and looked into it.
Halloween rolled around, and I was kickin’ it with a pint of whiskey and a quart of beer when she came home. She put on a sexy witch costume, and tossed a baggie onto the coffee table. “Trick or treat! Help yourself.” It was an ounce of psilocybin cubensis.
I wasn’t as experienced with ‘shrooms as I was with LSD. I knew what to expect, but not how much to eat. Since there were two of us, I should eat half, right?
Maybe not the brightest idea.
A half-hour later, I was talking to ghosts and seeing thrity-foot long alligators in the living room. I watched the walls and ceiling morph, like a living breathing tattoo. Afraid to move, I laid on the couch until well after midnight, when Blondie came home. She’d been next door, drinking with the neighbor and handing out candy. She was none to happy with the mushroom depletion. (“I was going to sell most of that…”) I apologized, and was forgiven quickly after describing what I was going through. We took my warm beer and went back next door. I don’t remember going home.
The next morning, Blondie woke me. “There’s a message from a hotel manager on the machine. If it’s a chance to move, you should take it.” She left.
I felt awful, the bleached-soul feeling one gets after a long binge. I’d worn out my welcome with Blondie. I had about three dollars, enough for cigarettes and a quart of malt liquor. My ass was about to become homeless.
I checked out the message. I was to come to the Biltmore Hotel in Old Town at 10 AM, if I wanted to apply for a room opening up. Shit. Bus fare. I now had enough money for Top rolling tobacco and a quart of malt liquor.
I took the bus to Sixth and Everett. Old men dotted the sidewalk. Drunk people slept. Others screamed and yelled to no one in particular. I peeked into the hotel lobby. About twenty scruffy looking men and one woman were waiting to be interviewed. My hopes dashed. I’ll be sleeping under a bridge tonight.
Ron Van Rheen, (RIP) the manager who’d left the phone message, offered a hand. He looked and sounded like Andy Griffith rode hard and put away wet. “We have a room that will be ready in two days. It’s not much, and it costs thirty percent of your income. Do you work?”
“Social security, unemployment or welfare?”
“Sounds like you’ll have free rent. You’ll need to come down and meet with the lady once a month, signing forms stating you have no income. That’s what everyone here is doing. Follow me.”
We went up a long flight of stairs, which led to another flight of stairs. On the second floor, he pointed to an open kitchen area. “You are expected to clean up after yourself. If you don’t, you will be evicted. Bathrooms and showers are down to the left. There are single use toilets on the third floor, but you may have to wait if you rely on those. There are twenty-two rooms on your wing.”
We ascended the next flight of stairs, and took a left. We went to room 309. Great, right across from the manager’s room…
The door opened. My suite! An 8 X 12 room with a window overlooking the air shaft and my neighbor, a black dude named Jerry. (“Hi!” “Yeah…”) No sink, mini-fridge. A single Hollywood bed, a single kitchen chair and small table filled the room. There was space to walk, and that was all.
“If you don’t like the bed, you can switch out with any mattresses you find near the stairs. It’s all first-come, first-serve, so if you see it, take it.”
We went downstairs, signed papers, and the place was mine, starting the next day. There were some final maintenance issues to be dealt with. I had to sign a form stating I wouldn’t eat paint chips off the window sill. It was a lead-based paint issue. (“We have some crazy fuckers here. You have to cover every detail…”) I was given a key and a welcome aboard.
I hurried right back upstairs, tore the Hollywood bed apart, and switched it for the two double mattresses that looked like they’d seen better days. The kitchen chair went as well. I would scavenge an overstuffed easy chair from somewhere.
The next morning, I arrived with my cardboard boxes and set up camp.
I had food stamps and plasma donations for necessities. (Food, beer and cigarettes.) Looking for a job would be counter-productive, now that I had this free gig near downtown. How would I pay for cheap matinees, tunes and other distractions?
I’d kill two birds with one stone.
A close friend’s uncle had a pot growing operation, and he would sell me the leaves (keeping the buds) for $100 a pound. I would find about half an ounce of buds in that, and split up the rest, selling it for $20 an ounce. At sixteen ounces per pound, it paid for itself in no time.
Better yet, a few of my friends and neighbors who had trouble accumulating twenty bucks would buy eighth-ounces for five bucks. It wasn’t Miami Vice, but it kept me in fun.
And what fun I had! My neighbors were an eclectic bunch. Lots of old guys. The kitchen dwellers were WC Fields and Junior Samples look-alikes. My next-door neighbor on one side resembled Bub from Day of the Dead, and the neighbor on the other side looked like a gingerbread man.
Across the hall was Roosevelt.(RIP.) He was a Muddy Waters look-alike, and when the urge hit he would charge like a buffalo down the hall to the bathroom, with his enormous utensil flapping in the breeze. You learned to look the other way when you heard the thunder.
There were girls, but not many. Out of 78 rooms, three or four were female-occupied. They had a corner of the building with their own large bathroom. Over the course of time, I became quite familiar with a couple of the girls, and got to shower in the girls’ room. (It was invite-exclusive; only women and managers had keys to it.) I’d be standing in the shower with my ‘date’ when one of the other gals would come in. At first I was mortified, but they were cool with it, so I didn’t abuse the privilege. Not everyone at The Biltmore got to shower in the girls’ room!
There was a large hippie contingent. A follower of the Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. A Deadhead. A Rajneesh-Deadhead. (RIP.) A computer nerd. (In 1984, there weren’t as many.) There were ex-cons, guys down on their luck, and, as Ron so delicately put it, “A lot of crazy fuckers.”
One of my pot customers had a literal open-door policy. He’d buy an ounce at a time, and sell joints for a dollar. If his door was open, the hallway would stink like weed and he would welcome anyone “cool.” I would go down and we’d watch Late Night with David Letterman, bringing my own joint of course. After I would burn mine, he would smoke about five more with me and whoever wandered in.
I don’t remember if Dave really was funny, but I recall laughing a lot.
I partied with others. There was a crazy fucker named Tom, (RIPieces) who said he was ex-Marine, but in reality was a military washout. I quickly adopted a jailhouse mentality, standing up to bullying, and he left me alone. We’d share a quart of beer on occasion.
There was Eddie, the quiet guy who baked cookies in the community kitchen and handed them out to his neighbors. He liked to watch TV in the lobby late at night.
One night I went to the bar, closed it down and returned home about 3 AM. Drunk and starving, I made an omelet in the community kitchen, then went up and passed out.
The next morning I hear voices in the hallway. It’s Ron, the manager, talking to Bub. “Yeah, it’s a good thing I didn’t return the carpet cleaner early!”
I stumbled out to the bathroom, and saw Ron. “You’re up early. What’s going on?”
Ron said, “Eddie killed Tom in the lobby last night.”
“No shit? When?”
“About 3 AM,” Ron said.
“I was in the kitchen about then. How did he do it?”
“Shot him fourteen times with a .22 rifle. I just steamed up about a gallon of blood.”
“Wow. I drank a beer with him about 7 PM. What happened?”
“Eddie was watching TV. Tom came downstairs, acting like a dick and changed the channel. Eddie said something, and Tom pulled out a steak knife and said he was gonna cut him. Eddie calmly got up, went upstairs, got his gun and came back, shooting as he came down the stairs. He hit him fourteen times. Tom made it to the door, but not out of it.”
Eventually Eddie was acquitted, but he was evicted, as it was against hotel rules to kill thy neighbors, even if they are assholes. Several tenants testified for Eddie. Nobody missed Tom, except maybe me.
I lived there almost three years. People came and went. A lot have died. (RIP.) I see them in the obits, or hear through the grapevine. Most are alcohol, drug or AIDS-related. (Though my money’s on the paint chips.) Occasionally when I’m walking downtown I’ll run into a familiar face. We say hi, shake hands, relieved to know we aren’t the sole survivor of those days.
There are too many tales to cram into one story, so I will continue another time. But every time I hear Old Town, Everett Street or think of the 80s, I think of The Biltmore.
My favorite Cosby Show moment? One night as we were watching and consuming party favors, Cliff Huxtable invites Claire to a kid-free evening of swank and luxury at The Biltmore. This hotel was also featured in the movie Hannibal. It’s the house where Mason Verger lived.
We howled with laughter. Definitely not the same Biltmore.
I’ll bet mine still smells like homegrown and government cheese.