Years ago I was at one of the community theaters in Baltimore waiting for the play to start. In the lobby was an exhibition of abstract paintings. The paintings represented all the hotel rooms the artist had lived in. One I liked so much that I got out my note pad and sketched it, with the intention of painting a copy for myself. I went as far as to buy a canvas when I got home. The paints I already had. After all, I am my mother’s daughter.
Though I never painted that painting, it got me to thinking about the rooms that I had passed through. Many times over the years, I have thought back to those paintings, and reflected on the effect all the transient accommodations had on who I have become. I haven’t written about it before, unless some forgotten passage from one of my novels put the ideas into the head of one of my characters.
One of the last things I ever wanted to do was have a normal life. Now, even if I should change my mind about that, it is too late. Because of the path I chose I have found myself living in a series of rooms. I know, everyone lives in rooms, but the rooms I lived in for so much of my life have been transient rooms. Even when I owned a home with rooms of my own, much of my life was spent away from home in temporary rooms.
It is funny because, as a child, I hated spending the night at other people’s houses. I wanted to be in my room, in my home. I think I might have gone to one slumber party, which I hated. A strange room filled with girls I really didn’t like was a particular sort of hell for me.
Surprisingly when I got to college, I felt at home in my dorm room. I had a great roommate. Later when she went off to the army, and I got another roommate I lucked out again. Both women are still my friends. I was over the moon, when I was allowed to leave the dorm, and move on to the training ship. I lived in two different rooms on the ship during the school years, and two other rooms during the summer cruises.
I missed the first summer, which should have been my first cruise, because I was kicked out of school for low grades. I had partied too hardy that first year. I didn’t want to lose touch with my fellow cadets, so after spending the summer with my mother, I went back to Galveston and enrolled in the local Junior College for the year. This meant that I had some of the same math and science teachers, who taught at the academy, and only fell a semester behind my classmates.
I rented an apartment which was nothing more than an enclosed second story porch on one of the old three story houses, which had once been single family homes. There was a small kitchen, but the bathroom was down the hall. After that I lived in a similar house, which hadn’t been divided up with a much older boyfriend. I moved out from there when the man in question suddenly developed a wife. Then it was back to another apartment in a former mansion. Yes, all these places are as bad as you might imagine. I was so glad when the academy let me back in. I never let my grades drop again.
I first moved onto the T/S Texas Clipper, for a summer cruise. Somehow things got mixed up and I was assigned to be roommates with the female medical student who was to assist the ship’s doctor that year. The young woman had been assured that she would have a private room, and was more than a little pissed off. Since it turned out that the other medical student was her boyfriend, she moved into his room.
I was the only sophomore to have a private room that summer. I might have been the only cadet with a private room. In retrospect, it probable wasn’t a good thing. I was on a deck far from the other cadets, and I really didn’t make any friends that summer. The only friend I had up until then was off to the Army.
My first room during a school year was what they called a veranda room; one of four rooms around a seating area with large exterior windows. This is when my very dear friend and I became roommates. We weren’t what you would call fast friends at school, but over the years our friendship has deepened to the point were I include her in my five friends list.
My junior cruse I wasn’t on the training ship. I shipped out commercial. I should have known the minute I showed up that it wasn’t going to be a a good voyage, when I found the cadet room decorated with pink curtains and little fuzzy pink rugs. I was so glad when the ship had to have an emergency ship yard and I was kicked off because the company didn’t want cadets on the ship in the yard. I couldn’t go home right away, so I booked into a residential hotel quite close to the shipyard. It was the first, but not the last musty old flop house I have lived in.
I was actually fascinated by the place. It was all old wood. The elevator had a expanding grate door, just like I had seen in the movies. You had to operate a lever to get it to go up and down. The room was very narrow, had no TV, or AC. There was a transom window over the door. There was a diner, which reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting, down on the corner, where I could get some of the burgers and fries I have ever had.
My friend and I remained roommates on the veranda, until my senior cruise when I was put into the veranda on the other side of the ship, with two other girls. What I remember most about that room was the secret compartment under the builtin desk. where we hid our bottles of booze.
When the school year rolled around, I managed to get a private room as senior. The room I had was the old hospital room. There was an interconnecting door to the other hospital room. A guy was in that room. I suspect that he kept his door bolted as tightly on the inside as I did. We didn’t like each other. It might have been fun to have had a nice guy over on that side. There was a small chamber between the two doors, that held an old autoclave. I found that to be a little creepy for some reason.
While I was in college, when I went to visit my mother, the rooms in her rented houses never felt like mine, though one of my sisters complained that Mother had them set up as shrines to me. After I graduated from the academy, and a short visit home to my Mom’s to celebrate my graduation, I headed back to Galveston to look for a ship. (There was no graduation ceremony for me, because I finished college in December. When the ceremony was held in the spring, I was off on a ship.)
I stayed with a friend in his room on the training ship for a few days until I found I could rent a room for cheep in the Seawall Hotel. The Seawall Hotel was another musty old hotel, which had once been a grand hotel. The lobby was all dark woods, brass and marble. My room was more of an apartment, than a hotel room. It had a tiny bedroom with a single bed, a little sitting room and a tiny kitchen.
At that time the Seawall Hotel’s claim to fame was a popular disco on the roof. I sometimes went up there to let friends buy me drinks. Quite a few of the kids who were still in school came there. I knew that the residential hotel was favored by the gay community, at the time, but it just went over my head that the guys I ran into at the disco were gay. It was 1980, and not a lot of guys nor girls were out.
I was really broke. Back in those days, the full book union members sucked up all the best night mating jobs and left the ones no one wanted, because they were too short of too low paying, to the applicants. I was on the bottom of the pecking order even among the applicants. Even those jobs were few and far between. By the time I became a full book member, rules were in place to keep that from happening.
I remember that I ate as much as I could on the ships I was working, but when there was a lull between jobs, I ate a lot of Kraft Mac and Cheese. When I had a little extra money I would buy a Stouffers Spinach souffle. The room had a little gas stove that seemed to date back to the 1930s. I was afraid of it, but hunger drove me to use it. Funny that now the blue box mac and cheese and the boxed souffles are comfort food for me.
Finally, I caught a ship and didn’t return to live in Galveston. After that first ship I found myself living in a motel south of Jacksonville, Florida, which had the claim to fame that it was a hot bed for gay prostitution. Like the Seawall Hotel, it was a great place for me. The men who lived there looked after me and made sure no one messed with me. Eventually one of the older guys in the union, asked me if I wanted to rent a room in his house. He said, it would be doing him a favor, as it would keep his wife company while he was at sea. I should have stayed at the motel. I was never happy hanging out with his wife.
When my Mom moved to Jacksonville to be with me, we rented a conveniently located apartment. Those were good years. The union hall was close by, and the guys in Jacksonville made sure I got enough night mating jobs. I had landed a great job on the tanker Overseas Joyce, which was a full contract ship. That ship was quickly followed by a job on the S/S Puerto Rico for a short assignment.
Then the shipping industry took a turn for the worst I joined the Coast Guard. It was actually a lot of fun. I could have done much worse. At the time I made myself miserable as much as possible because my shipping career had tanked. Mother had a good job and was able to keep the apartment in Jacksonville, while I was off having fun (when I wasn’t playing the martyr.)
The Coast Guard gave me some more interesting rooms. In boot camp there was one big room with bunks lined up with lockers at the end. It was in the barracks where I found that I really hated people who shove their religion down your craw. We were only given five hours a night to sleep in boot camp, and a bunch of girls would have a long noisy prayer meeting after lights out. The complaints by the rest of the girls were met with horror that we would want to interfere with someone’s religious beliefs.
Wouldn’t you know it, after boot camp, I found my pretty little room at the search and rescue unit half occupied by one of the holly rollers. Eventually we were given separate rooms, after she charged me with being a racist. The charges were dropped when my boyfriend came to the hearing and showed the station commander a photo of his mother, and pointed out that dating him was a rather funny thing for a racist to be doing.
Before long I was accepted into a training program with the Navy and headed down to Florida to find myself roommates with my best friend from boot camp. There were other girls in our room, but they didn’t really matter to us. It was only a few weeks, but going through that with her was a blast. With my training finished, I was over qualified for the SAR station, so I was sent to one of the large cutters.
There I found myself in a room with nine other women, and one bathroom. It was a rather fun time. Our bunks had curtains, so when you were tired of the others, you could climb in and pull the curtain. It was a hard and fast rule that you didn’t bother someone behind the curtain. We had a sitting room just outside the door which we shared with several other berthing compartments.
When I was reassigned to headquarters, the Coast Guard gave me an apartment, so I was able to move my mother to live with me. That started an almost normal time in my life. I worked in an office and went home to have dinner with mother nearly every night. When I got out of the Guard, mother went with me to Georgia, where I had enrolled in graduate school. Not long after we moved there I as married to a guy I found in the office that processed my discharge papers. Those were good fun years.
When I first went back into the union I had no intention to go back to sea for the long run. My major professor in graduate school had written a book on longshoremen. He wanted me to do my master’s theses on the other side of the rail, and cover cargo operations from the ship’s view point. Times were tough for getting ships then, so my theses turned out to be a participant observation of life in a merchant marine hiring hall. While I was doing my research I lived in the room over my aunt and uncle’s garage.
It was a great setup. My aunt and uncle didn’t mind that I held up in the room most of the time when I was there, working. I spent the whole day at the union hall noticing the social interactions between the officers. Nights and weekends when I wasn’t night mating I worked on my theses. My cousins liked to call me the strange woman who lived in the attic.
One night as I was eating dinner on the Jean Lykes, the captain came in and asked me if I had a second mate’s license. I told him no, and he posed the same question to the ship’s third mate who was having dinner with me. The third mate did. The captain asked me, “How fast can you get your seabag down here?” I said, 45 minutes. He looked at the third mate, and said. “The second mate is just broke his leg coming up the gangway. You are second mate, take over the cargo watch from the night mate. Sam you are now third mate, go get your seabag and I will sign you one when you get back. “
The ship sailed to France, before the union halls opened up again, so I couldn’t be replace by at full book member. Since I was only going to be on the ship until it got back to the US, the third mate didn’t want to move into the second mate’s room. My uncle who was a submariner in the Navy visited the ship when it came back in port and was amazed at how huge my room was.
When my husband saw how much money I had cleared from just 26 days at sea, he was eager that I go back to sea. Don’t worry, even though I went back to sea, I was at a point in my theses that I was able to finish it while on board ships. I had gone native, and blew off getting my PHD.
I was working mainly out of Charleston, but sometimes would go as far as Seattle to find a ship. This meant that I lived in a lot of hotel rooms. The days of the old residential hotels were over. Companies were filling the gap for transient workers with places like Inn Town Suites and Extended Stay. I have spent as much as eight months in temporary rooms, while looking for a ship. There were times when there was no money for a room, no nearby friends to couch surf with, nor any relatives with extra rooms. Of all my accommodations, sleeping in the camper of my truck was the worst. One day I am going to have to write a post about those adventures.
Of course even when I was on a ship, I was living in a room that was just temporary. My assignments were from 120 days to about 140 days. I guess I was only home about four months a year back then. Actually probably even less, since I had to keep going away for training classes. The union school became like a second home. I was there so often, for so long, the last time I was there, the staff didn’t believe me that it was going to be the last time. It wasn’t too much of a problem because my husband was still in the Coast Guard stationed on an ice breaker. He made sure to take all his vacations when I wasn’t on a ship. Mom took care of the house in Georgia and the cats.
After, I had to finally admit that I wasn’t cut out to be married, even to such a nice guy, I headed off to live in Hawaii. Mom was settled into her own place by that time, so the going was easier than it might have been. The nice thing about Honolulu, was that I no longer had travel around the US looking for ships. I was a book member and could settle down and wait until a good job went on the board in the Honolulu union hall.
The first few years I lived in a room in my best friend’s basement. We were very lucky that our friendship weathered that. My next place in Honolulu was a 225 square food room, which cost me $1,000 USD a month. It sounds like a bad deal, but it wasn’t. The room was nice, had a private bath, and a little kitchen on one wall. The best thing was I got to use the garden and the pool. It was very lux.
Buying a condo was the third worse idea I have ever had. I can’t talk about the worst one because it is still wrapped up in legal issues and the other one might sue me for pain and suffering. Not long after buying the condo, I became a marine surveyor. That meant that I was gone half the year at sea, and a good part of the rest of the year I was going all over the world doing marine survey. There were two years running, when I was only home for two weeks strait each year. The rest of the time, it was only a few days between jobs.
I did have fun, but it would have been better not have been paying for that expensive place, which I wasn’t using. During this time there were more rooms on ships and a lot of very nice hotel rooms, which my clients put me up in. My dear friend let me live in her spare room, called the pillow room because of all the pillows on the bed, whenever I passed through town. (She is the one I still stay with between trips overseas.) The ships I served on out of Honolulu had far better rooms than the ones I served on on the east coast. All in all those years were a lot of very nice rooms, not the least bit remanence of the residential hotels.
Then last year it was all over. No more going to sea. No more waiting for a ship. No more flying off to survey something interesting. It was time for me to become a nomad of a different sort. I was asked, by an acquaintance; How are you going to be able to stand living in Airbnbs all year? I laughed.