Stranger than Fiction: Hostel-hopping in ’90s America

A writer looks back at his youthful adventures in the America of the past, across its grimy but pocket-friendly hostels.

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There is more to San Francisco than its iconic Golden Gate Bridge. For instance, the North Beach area, was in the late ’90s, dotted with bars that once served as old beatnik hangouts. Photo by: Andrew Zarivny/shutterstock

My suspicions should have been aroused on the stairs which, despite the red carpet, had an air of shabbiness combined with the odour of stale beer. The receptionist wanted to be paid for a week straight-up, but I was just glad to have somewhere to crash; it was midnight, and shady characters hung outside the cocktail bar on the corner. My hostel was centrally located in San Francisco’s seedy North Beach area, which was, in the late ’90s, dotted with bars that once served as old beatnik hangouts—there’s even a Kerouac Street named after the famous ’50s’ vagabond writer—but now doubled as porn clubs that attracted a whole different clientele.

The night manager reeled off rules, handed me a bed sheet and directed me to the third floor, last door. But it’d have sufficed if he’d told me to follow my nose. Despite the window being wide open with flapping curtains, the room was filled with the bitterest cannabis fumes I’d ever smelled. A tattooed Australian with drooping moustache leered: “A newcomer.”

I thought for 10 seconds whether to stay or leave. But I was writing a travel book and needed to justify the publishing advance, and the scene was priceless. Besides, he probably did not mean to sound malicious, I thought, as the five lads were busy drugging themselves—smoking, snorting, drinking… being happy.


Zac's USA piece

Backpacking (right) through ’90s American underbelly threw up a host of eccentric characters, whether in Las Vegas or New York City (left). Photos by: Remy P/shutterstock (market) Twinsterphoto/shutterstock (man)


Three bunkbeds were squeezed in along the walls. Someone had marked the coarsely shaped planks with a felt-tip pen: All the names rhymed with “-unky”. The empty one was “Funky” and I claimed it by placing my rucksack on the pillow, and went out to eat. A block away, I found a diner. While masticating cheese-smothered meatloaf on rye I planned my moves and, accordingly, went to the nearest all-night drugstore and bought a flagon of cheap Chablis. But when I returned the lights were out; the smoke had cleared and everybody was asleep except for a Chinese chap. I offered him wine and he told me they’d all come to San Francisco to work illegally. The ones labouring in the docks started at 6 a.m., but he worked in a laundry and earned extra by dealing drugs at the hostel.

In the evenings when I returned from excursions, the guys sat drinking Bass bought on the way from work. A guy called Spunky said he was a “semi-professional boxer” who’d been sacked from his bouncer’s job. He’d then reported the reputed restaurant chain for paying him in black money. He was hoping to get a reward, which was apparently common. The Australian kept telling him to take a running jump headfirst out of the window. Seemingly, Spunky’s weirdness was due to a drug called crystal meth. The Australian, nicknamed Junky, compared it to “shoving a welding torch up your a**” as he took a drag on his joint.

On Sunday, Junky boozed at various bars all day. At night he was in a bad hangover mood. And when Spunky didn’t flush the toilet he hollered: “For God’s sake, stupid druggy, why can’t you mind your stinking shit!”

Spunky grinned: “I forgot.”

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San Francisco (bottom) is home to gritty hangouts such as Kerouac Street (top), an erstwhile beatnik hub now catering to a seedier clientele. Photos by: David Tonelson/shutterstock (Kerouac Street), Eddie Hernandez Photos/shutterstock (lane)

“Like hell you did! Can’t you start using decent drugs?”

“You want me to show I can kick ass?” Spunky threatened.

“Did you say lick?” the Australian sneered. “Christ, I’ve got to get to work in four hours!”

He gave Spunky a punch. The others sniggered. I assumed they’d watched this before and were curious to see how things progressed. Then the Australian slammed Spunky’s nose so hard he stumbled backwards—and out through the open window with the cannabis clouds.

I’d been backpacking around the US for months in the summer of 1997, and by this point nothing surprised me anymore. I’d become travel-hardened. America is one of the few countries that lives up to its stereotypes, its cinematic version being a Xerox of its realities—unlike, say, Bollywood, that’s an exaggerated representation of India. Which was great fodder for a book, I thought as a fledgling writer. With the naïve exuberance of youth, I’d decided to take on all of the US as subject matter, and wanted to see as much as was financially possible. My total budget was tiny—about `1.8 lakh in today’s money, which obviously didn’t translate into a five-star vacation if I were to cross the country from NYC via the southern states to California and back the northern route to Boston. I could afford $10/ Rs740 per night. And although at thirty I felt too old for youth hostels, they turned out to have no age bar—at some, I even met aunties in their ’50s. Besides, access to a common kitchen cut costs and their lounges were centres for information about how to get by on the cheap. What’s the worst that could happen?

Actually, nothing bad happened. But I collected plenty of curious encounters that could belong in movies, and which I wouldn’t have experienced had I booked hotels. Right before San Francisco, I’d stayed at a hostel in Los Angeles that was the only cheapie on Hollywood Boulevard, within sight of the Hollywood sign and across from the iconic Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It turned out to be refuge for aspiring—no prize for guessing—directors (boys) and actresses (girls) and since I was older, everybody thought I was working for the other side, talent-scouting, so I received offers from women who wished to be casting-couched, which I prudently turned down. One shaggy Frenchman wore a “Hollywood” t-shirt, I never saw him change it, and mostly sat around in the common room. One day he said, “I’m in show business, yeah. Heard you’re a producer.”

“Actually, a writer.”

“Screenwriter, yeah?”

“More of a travel writer.”

“Oh.” He sounded deflated.

But he saw a chance to get immortalised in my book. “I’m in fact finalising a sci-fi film deal, yeah. So only staying here temporarily. Once the production starts, I’ll move in with my girlfriend. She’s an actress and lives in a thousand-dollar-a-month apartment, blue eyes, long blond hair, very Hollywood. If I get a blockbuster, I’ll make millions.” I was impressed by his advanced planning—he’d invest his millions in an action studio for Europe. Building a new one cost $500 million, but MGM was for sale according to him for $100 million; he’d just dismantle and ship everything to Europe. “That’s a bargain, yeah. Hey, buy me a beer?”


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In Las Vegas, the casinos are open 24/7, so no need to rent a room if one is the type who keeps going on the freely flowing cocktails while chasing the American dream of becoming rich. Photo by: randy andy/shutterstock


I thought of him every day when I walked on the boulevard outside and saw a beggar polishing those brass stars embedded in the sidewalk and asking passers-by for donations towards detergent.

Before that I’d been in Las Vegas, where the casinos are open 24/7, so no need to rent a room if one is the type that keeps going on the freely flowing cocktails while chasing the American dream of becoming rich. Besides, the casino meals were cheap, especially the ubiquitous $2-midnight steak offers and buffets, and if one gambled all night and lost almost everything one could still afford the all-American breakfast at $2:13. Though after losing $100 in a night, I thought it wiser to catch the Greyhound out of town.

Already when I first set foot in America, I had a book-worthy experience in NYC. At an off-Broadway hostel which had been converted from the once-grand Hotel Belleclaire, two bunk beds filled the miniscule room I shared with three Israelis who’d come to make it big in the Big Apple. They sang great disco covers all night in a mix of Hebrew and English, and seemed to be sustaining on chips and Coca-Cola which they drank from 2-litre bottles—their dances of joy in the tiny room were an impressive feat. They also earned thrice as much as in Jerusalem by selling shoes. The Israeli storekeeper they worked for, illegally of course, had offered them to sleep in the showroom and since they worked 7-day-weeks late into nights, it made sense to move. But the problem was, no beds. When I returned one evening, their mattresses were gone. They must’ve squeezed them through the tiny eighth-floor window on their way out I figured, as I glanced down at the backyard full of junked TVs. They’d left mine behind, luckily. The manager interrogated me, but as I hadn’t checked in at the same time as them, I didn’t end up in police custody.


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In San Francisco’s vagabond quarters, the author, then an aspiring novelist, scoured budget hostels for accommodation (top left) and inspiration; Chance encounters in the seedier pockets of Las Vegas (top right and bottom left), and New York (bottom right) unveiled a different side of America to the young drifter on a quest. Photos by: Jeffery Edwards/shutterstock (stairway), Ivanovich Oleg/shutterstock (Casino), S-F/shutterstock (Las Vegas signboard), rblfmr/shutterstock (Facade)


Later, I read a tabloid report in which a scurrilous broadsheet placed an undercover journalist at the same disreputable hostel: “They save up their money for months and months and leave their homes in Sweden, Australia and South Africa for the down-and-dirty youth hostels of glittering Manhattan. Our reporter tags along with the knapsack tourists, who would rather get trashed and flirt outrageously than visit the city’s institutions of high culture.” In my mind, the reporter had got it all wrong. We had fun, but by and large we were all chasing our own bite, a taste as it were, of America.

Never mind the bad-if-free coffee of the hostel world, but going hosteling was the best crash course imaginable. No guided heritage walks could have brought me closer to the soul of the States.

Oh, you’re still wondering what happened to Spunky? Despite being doped out of his mind, the strong-armed Australian docker grabbed hold of his feet so the knees folded over the windowsill, and Spunky had to beg before he was pulled back in. He collapsed onto his bunk and didn’t move a muscle until everyone was snoring. He then sprayed deodorant under his arms and noticing that I was awake, asked: “Hey Funky, wanna come clubbing? I’ve got meth.”


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  • Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).


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