The Hospitality Club
The worst thing about the disaster was that it had all been my fault.
I had been in Athens for months, not working, just spending my money on expensive things; clothes for my girlfriend, expensive dinners, drugs, alcohol.
I didn’t care about money because I was in love. When you are in love you stop caring about practicalities, you become foolish and irrational. When you are in love you spend all your money.
I just spent money and partied and was in a kind of emotional slumber. I was in limbo, neither here nor there, indecisive about what I would do. My emotions were infantile; when I was hungry, I would eat, when I was thirsty, I drank, when I sought pleasure, I found a woman. Once these very basic instincts had been satisfied, I moved on, never thinking of the future, living only in the present, in the now.
I had no one to blame. Self inflicted wounds always run the deepest.
The meeting was going to be at eight o’clock. I hadn’t been a member of The Club for long; I had only joined a few days ago, at the advice of a friend.
The Club was an organization of people who volunteered to host travelers in their homes. I had heard about it in a bar. As soon as I signed up I received a ‘bulletin’ explaining there was to be a ‘meet n’ greet’ and that if I was interested, I should come, meet people.
It was good timing.
In one day everything had changed-a reversal of fortunes in which everything that had come easy had been taken away. The life I had wanted for myself in Greece vanished before it had a chance to take form. The writing job I had been offered fell through. My girlfriend was bitterly angry with me – I hadn’t heard from her in days. I was running out of money. I had no plane ticket home. I was stranded in a fucked up city, far away from home with no friends.
I just sat and watched it all happen; oblivious, numb. I felt out of control of my own fate. I couldn’t make the girl accept my phone calls, I couldn’t force the paper to give me a job, I couldn’t will money into my bank account.
The trajectory my life had taken on – with its rapid succession of unexpected occurrences, the small tragedies, the instability – frightened me. The only constant was that dull, far away feeling of disaster looming in the distance, torturing me with its steadily encroaching inevitability.
Everything became unhinged and disconnected. It all seemed too neat and sudden, like a side-plot in a stage play. I felt unable to reverse it and as if it wasn’t happening to me, like I was living in another, less fortunate man’s life.
I just rode with it; after all, I had little choice. I denied reality and convinced myself that things would be OK. I knew that somehow, someway, I would land on my feet because that’s what I’d always done.
I said things out-loud to make myself feel better; “look at Orwell,” I scoffed to a girl whom I met on the rooftop of a hostel. “He was ‘down and out’ in Paris and London and look how fun he made it seem.”
I was being delusional. I had once been home-less and knew what it entailed.
When you have no money you are forced to beg and steal or do demeaning work for people that consider you to be beneath them. Poor people have no human rights. It is never fun to be poor, no matter where you are.
I surrounded myself with people because it made me forget, temporarily, the severity of my situation. I became frantically busy, doing things, going places, making notes, taking pictures. It was as if activity would stave off poverty and hunger.
I began to drink heavily, slowly unleashing the slumbering demon of repressed alcoholism.
When I was alone I would reflect upon my situation and begin to panic. It was growing colder with each passing day. I had no idea how I would get home and was too proud to ask for money from family or the few friends I had in my life.
Sometimes I sat in the park and assessed my situation. “It’ll be an adventure” I would say because at that time I still had money. I could sleep indoors and eat. It is never an ‘adventure’ when you have to sleep in the park or steal food. The only people who don’t care about money are people who have it.
I arrived a little after eight.
Before I went inside I stopped at a store and bought a small bottle to drink so I would be braver when I had be face-to-face with people. I wanted to be talkative and seem interesting so people would let me stay in their houses for free.
It began to rain.
I stood in front of the shop under a green-and-white striped rain awning, watching cats rummage through garbage. Rainwater pooled along the lip of the canvas awning, collectively falling down in one chubby, shimmering dollop onto the muddy pavement.
Across from the shop was the building where The Meeting was to take place. The restaurant sign was tasteful and implied money; black, wrought iron letters, tall, sleek and angular sat regally upon a bed of blue neon. Below the sign a small, noisy river of rainwater carried garbage awkwardly down the hilly pathway.
Lamps led the way up a dark stairwell. At the top were heavy, tall iron doors. The grandeur of the place made me uneasy. I thought about my diminishing bank account. I quickly put it out of my mind, rationalizing the expenditure as some kind of “investment.” If I found a free place to sleep, the money I spent would be worth it.
I gazed up at the four story restaurant. The building was clean and white with oval windows and dark lighting. I listened to the rain falling down around me and realized my money would hold out for exactly 20 more days.
The meeting was on the 3rd floor. I didn’t know anyone from The Club and hadn’t officially “signed up” to attend. I just heard about it and went.
A waitress greeted me in the restaurant lobby. I asked her where the group was meeting. She pointed at the back, towards the bar, under a wall of TV sets with blue screens.
In the center of the dance floor were two girls doing a slow, two-step dance routine to a reggae song. They stood face to face and mirrored each others movements.
Gimme little bass, make me wine up me waist
Gimme little bass, make me wine up me waist
One of them was wearing an olive green fur parka with black and white checkered ‘slip on’ Vans. Greek hipsters. The girls moved in slow motion, eyes closed, swaying perfectly in sync with each other and the music, oblivious to all else around them.
Nah pop no style…a strictly roots
Nah pop no style…a strictly roots
I walked up to the group. People sitting on stools, chattering. They were well dressed and wearing nametags. I introduced myself to them. Someone handed me a sharpie pen and a small, square nametag sticker upon which I had to write my “screen name.’
Everyone was nice in that, “you are welcome, no need to feel weird, we are interested in you,” kind of way. Every few minutes someone would approach me, look me dead in the eye and with earnest sincerity, introduce themselves, ask my name and tell me how nice it was to meet me.
Someone handed me a large piece of paper upon which I was supposed to write my ‘real name’ and e-mail address. I looked down the line: Canadians, Latvians, Slovenians, French people, Bosnians, Greeks, Turks. I was the only American.
I sat next to a Canadian couple and they asked me where I was from.
I said, “The United States” and the woman got a pinched look on her round face and said, “well, it must be very difficult to travel, you know, as an American.”
She was wearing a sweatshirt with a pinned on patch that read: “war is UNHEALTHY for children and OTHER LIVING THINGS.” Next to the writing was a stick figure drawing of a little girl holding a flower. From the neck up she looked normal but when I looked at her body I realized she was obese.
“No. Not at all actually,” I said cheerfully, holding my temper. “Actually the only time I ever had problems is when I meet Canadians and Europeans.”
She shot her husband a concerned look. He smiled nervously and let out a tidy snort.
“What do you do?” she asked tightly.
“At home? I worked for a fuckin…magazine and sold pot.”
“I work with homeless women,” she quickly said with a tinge of spite. People who do jobs like that only ask you what you do so that can tell you what they do. They want to impress you with how self-less and moral they are.
I left them and walked around the group, stopping and talking to people, continually being asked if it “was difficult for me, you know, traveling as an American?”
Hanging around European back-packers made me feel as if I was some kind of cripple being patronized by schoolteachers.
I eavesdropped on various conversations.
“So, what do you think of Habermas,” one girl said to a man sitting opposite from her. She was wearing a black beret with a little nub at the top that reminded me of the stem on a hot pepper.
“Hamermas is shit. Too liberal,” came the reply. “The fat man sitting in the cafe, ho ho ho, this is Habermas.”
“Who do you like, for theory,” I asked him.
“Foucault,” he said quickly, looking at me wearily.
“Yeah man, but Foucault is a clichÃ© though, you know?” I said. “A symbol. It’s like saying you like Cornell West or Judith Butler. It’s just a way to show people how radical and cutting edge you are. I like the way Foucault writes but his ideology is crap.”
“If you don’t like Foucault, then who do you prefer,” the girl in the beret asked incredulously. “For theory.”
“I don’t,” I said. “The fuck I need a ‘theory’ for? I get more out of reading literature then I do from theory. Too much theory makes you…weird. But…if I had to pick,” I stared into the yellowy depth of my beer. Tiny bubbles swam to the top in a squiggly ascent.
“I like old school American sociologists. Park, Mills. I like Goffman…”
They gave me a puzzled, confused look.
“Irving Goffman. You know, front-stage/back-stage personality? Presentation of self? Stigma?”
They both nodded in a vague way that indicated they had no idea who I was talking about.
“Yeah, him and Veblen. Weber too. Hundred pages of Max Weber is worth more than a thousand of pages of Foucault. I am into macrosociology. Wallerstein, Braudel. Randall Collins.”
“Well, then this is bullshit,” the guy said, slamming his palms on the table. He was Swedish.
“Maybe, but you wanna know what’s not bullshit?” I asked.
“Knut Hamsun,” I said. “He is a writer from your way, not Sweden but Norway. Close enough. Read him. He wrote this great novel called Hunger. An easy afternoon and better then that academic shit. About a writer who is struggling and starving and having hallucinations. It’s like Notes from the Underground. But Norweigian.”
“Hamsun, you say?” he asked suspiciously, scribbling the name in his little book.
“Hamsun won a Nobel Prize for literature,” I said, nodding.
I remembered sitting in a crowded bar in Hawaii reading that book. I sat and read through the whole thing, just ignored everything around me and read right through it.
The girl walked away.
“Best book you will read this year. Guarantee,” I told him as I watched the girl’s ass. Her long hair came halfway down her back.
That was my great skill in life, making people go away.
Soon I found myself sitting alone in a booth, staring up the silent television sets placed on the walls. I was eating popcorn out of a black glass bowl.
Every few minutes I watched the group, carefully studying how people interacted without looking bored or hostile. Leaning in, smiling often, laughing boisterously, nodding enthusiastically, making eye contact. I realized I had learned to be intimidating as a defense mechanism and I had never learned how to turn it off. I felt angry at lacking the simple ability to engage in small talk.
I walked over to the group of people and sat at an empty stool and engaged in small talk. I told the story of my poverty in a humorous, wacky style. People laughed and listened to me intently. I looked at the girls in the group and made mental calculations about who I wanted to sleep with.
There are times in life where sex becomes a kind of revenge, something that dulls the pain of your situation, making you forget the ordeals of life.
As soon as I began to be sociable I knew my problems were over. All I had to do was find a woman and be nice to her, tell her things she wanted to hear, be charming and funny. All I had to do, in other words, was take on the personality of a free-loading sexual predator.
Her apartment was close by, a 20 minute walk in the rain. She lived in the Bohemian district of Athens. Expensive and pretensions, her neighborhood was filled with dimly lit cafes, noisy bars and cramped cinemas.
Her apartment was an austere, spartan affair on the bottom floor of a brick building that had been built on a hill. When you entered the door there was a small kitchen with an antique, waist high refrigerator. Next to that was a bathroom and a long, narrow hallway that led past two bedrooms to the living room.
She lived with a roommate, a homosexual photographer and a dog she had rescued from the street.
The only luxury I could see were the stacks of books in the corners and along the walls. Although I couldn’t make out the Greek characters, I understood the iconography displayed on the book covers: Hammer and Sickle, Mao, Mediterranean looking men in black and white photos, some in what looked to be a court of law, while others were depicted leading processions of people. Some of the books were in English. I recognized bell hooks and Paolo Freier, the Brazilian writer. While I looked at the books she explained she was a Communist. She used to be an anarchist but had since become a communist.
She was plain looking; shoulder length black hair, olive skin, neither pretty nor ugly. Everything about her was unremarkable and unmemorable. She was much shorter then me and wore glasses. I didn’t want to have sex with her but I knew I would, because I was out of control in that way.
“Before, I lived in the countryside, with my boyfriend,” she told me. “We were trying to make some, you know, country house, gardens and books…anyone could stay there for free. It was a project,” she wistfully recalled; “our project.”
“But, too many people were coming and just living from us. Not contributing, just sleeping all day, watching film,” she made a dismissive wave with her hand. The tip of the cigarette she was holding made an orange trace in the dark air.
The dog was hyper, barking and jumping up onto me, wagging its tail strenuously. Her skinny rump swayed from side to side. “Terrier and street dog,” she said. It had sparse white and black hair that sat in thick, loose curls near its small, black eyes. The dog ran up and down the long dark hallway, its overgrown nails tapping loudly on the wood floor.
I looked at the dog and realized I wasn’t much different; a runaway that needed help.
She stooped down and stroked the dog vigorously. “I found her outside. She was bleeding from fighting the other dogs…I brought her some fod and she’s been here ever since.”
She showed me to her room and began to arrange a little bed for me on the floor. “I don’t mind,” she explained when I told her I felt awkward staying in her home. “Stay one week, one month. No problem.”
It amazed me how life is like that; one day things seems awful and irreversible then something else happens and everything changes, just like that. Someone comes along and saves you. The hard times that seemed so unstoppable wither and evaporate into a faded memory, receding back into the murky depths of reality as quickly as they arrived.
Earlier that night, while I was walking to the meeting I crafted a short story about a guy that joins The Club solely to fuck women. He had money but joined the club anyway because he is greedy and manipulative. The man from the story perpetuates legitimacy to manipulate the system of hospitality in this very vulgar, selfish way.
I realized that the character in the story was me. I had injected myself into what I was writing to a point where I could no longer tell where my writing ended and my actual life began.