STRANGER THAN FICTION
National Geographic Traveller India|November 2020
A writer looks back at his youthful adventures in 1990s America through its grimy but pocket-friendly hostels
ZAC O’YEAH

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.

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 ass? 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.”

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

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

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