"Naomi! Hey, Naomi!" yelped the pink-faced drunk who buzzed me into the hotel's dusty foyer after I managed to elude several winos and sidewalk bouncers. "Where is that broad, anyway?"
"She's gone home, Rusty. What's all the fuss?" a bearded man grumbled back, glaring down at us from a second-floor landing.
"Man here says he wants a room. Why the hell I gotta do everything around here what with my glands acting up and doctor saying I gotta cut down the juice? Damn, I just . . ."
This was the entryway to the Edison Hotel in Baltimore, four stories of crumbling brick and creaking lumber smack between a go-go bar and a liquor store on The Block. To get there, one had to negotiate past sidewalk-straddling show bar bouncers who tapped men on their shoulders and bellowed such enticements as "Show's on Fire!" and "Naked Young Girls!"
As far as a bum was concerned, hotels such as the Edison were fun-houses compared to the mission, and whenever my peers came across a little cash they immediately checked into the joint for a day or two of real living. Here, they could drink in the hallways, flirt with women, go in and out at night to savor The Block, and sleep much later than they could at the Helping-Up Mission, where everyone was awakened and booted out the door at 5:30 every-morning.
I now had money from my work as a hardhat and paper carrier, and I elected to stay at the Edison, an establishment that had received many a rave review from my compatriots at the mission.
The bearded man, who later introduced himself to me as George, loped down the narrow staircase, warned Rusty to shut up or he would slap his glands, then opened a loose-leaf notebook and asked how long I planned to stay.
"Just a night, I think."
"Let's see, I never did read too good . . . We got monthly, weekly . . . hourly rates," he replied, thumbing through several pages. I don't see nightly, ain't that something? Naomi keeps the books here, but she's gone home."
So George and I went next door to the Oasis Show Bar to consult his boss, the proprietor of the hotel, who also owned the Oasis.
"Rate's $10.80, George," his boss said, separating 10s from 20s at a cash register while a naked middle-aged woman swayed her hips in front of two bored customers. "Give him 214, then get back here and work the door, got it? We got more bitches in here than men."
I paid for the room and returned next door. George pointed his finger upstairs and said, "Follow the steps to the second floor. It's really the third floor but we call it the second floor because the first floor's kind of bombed-out. When you come to that stack of rugs and furniture, hang a left. It's the second one on the right, next to the bathroom.
"If you want anything," he concluded with a grin, "come back to the bar. I'm the bouncer there. Hook you up, you know?"
With that I felt my way up a narrow, dark squeaking staircase and, after snaking a well-worn path through mounds of dirt and dust, came to Room 214, which actually was Room 24 because the "1" was absent. I shoved open the door, which creaked in protest, and made my way through a maze of acrid-smelling must to a shadeless table lamp, which I flicked on to gauge my surroundings.
It was a bad as I feared. Room 214 was 80 square feet of slimy green and beige linoleum so eroded that patches of bare floorboard could be seen in a half-dozen spots.
In one corner, next to a chipped marble sink that doubled as an ashtray, a splintered dresser squatted on three legs. The dresser's bottom drawer was missing: a faded green curtain was stuffed into its place. Above this dresser was a lonesome window which served very little purpose because the only view was of a brick wall several feet away. Still a previous tenant for one reason or another, had tacked up a 1976 sheet of Baltimore Sun for privacy.
My eyes followed a path of cigarette stubs, candle drippings, an empty tube of lipstick and a wrinkled condom to the centerpiece of Room 214, the bed. It was a lopsided hulk of rusty springs and feather stuffing all slouched against a far wall under a yellowed Texaco calendar, from which a rosy-cheeked service station attendant beamed, gas hose in hand.
Satisfied that everything was in its right place, I ventured into the hallway and went next door to use the bathroom.
"Don't flush the toilet, bud, the pipes are screwed up," a craggy-faced man in pajamas hollered from a room across the way. "Been upchucking all week and nobody fixed it yet."
After seeing the urine and feces splattered on the bathroom floor, I headed downstairs for air. Rusty, the foyer drunk, gave me the lowdown on the Edison when I encountered him muttering in semidarkness in the stair well.
"My glands? Well, doc says the juice done messed 'em all up," said he, after I inquired about his illness. "Actually, it's this pit that's messing me up."
"Well, there's Billy up on the second floor. You probably seen him. He got the Baltimore T-shirt on. He goes into rooms stealing radios and stuff. gMy nerves are screwed up worrying about getting robbed. Then them women on the third floor come in with all them crabs. It's enough to make anybody sick."
"How many women are there?"
"Three full-timers and a few who come in off the streets now and then using the same room. If you're sleeping on the second floor you'll hear 'em, sure nuff, what with all that groaning and bumping and carryin' on. But don't go up there unless you plan to pay for it, or Jeanie'll club you one good."
"Yeah," he muttered, crawling his way up the staircase, "She's the one that got that eyelash tattoo on her [breast]. Jeanie keeps a sledgehammer behind the door."
I left Rusty and wormed my way downstairs to see what The Block was like after dark.
"Hey, hey everything you want, more than you can stand!" barked George, the bearded bouncer-hotel clerk, as he pounded the pavement back and forth in front of the Oasis Show Bar. George was a 31-year-old Baltimore native and Vietnam veteran who had worked as a Block bouncer for the better part of six years, hoarsely growling out slogans and ads, politely opening doors for customers, and breaking up occasional show bar quarrels by unleashing the six-inch Army keepsake knife he carried in the rear pocket, of his jeans.
Until recently George worked at the Paradise Show Bar, which was shut down by the city's Liquor Control Board for license violations. What happened, George said, was an LCB inspector slipped by him one night and entered the bar where one of the dancers solicited him.
"I can usually spot those turkeys a mile away," George said. "All of 'em wear these thick black glasses and wear wing-tip shoes on their feet."
George was working the door at the Oasis until the other show bar reopened, and sleeping at the Edison, where he had lived for about four years. He was a temperamental man -- once, when another bouncer across the street persuaded two men to enter his show bar, instead of the Oasis, George angrily pulled out his knife and waved it at the bouncer -- but he was also extremely sentimental. He was in love.
"I wanna marry one of the girls inside the hotel."
"Jeanie?" I asked.
"No, hell no, not that bitch.Another one. I asked her to marry me twice, but she just said she'd think about it. I figure she'll say yes, you know?
"Here," he said, opening the show bar door, "take a look. She's dancing now."
I peered inside and noticed a thickset woman squirming on the stage behind the bar, while a juke box blared "County Roads."
"Something, aint she?" boasted George. "She's 39, older than me, but hell -- she needs somebody to look after her, you know? She'll come around. You don't stay young forever, I always say."
George told me of a number of show bars on The Block to take in that night, and I left him there outside the Oasis. Every now and then, after calling out a slogan or two, he'd briefly glance inside the show bar, then turn back with a satisfied smile.
(A few weeks later, when I was in Washington, I learned of a homocide-suicide that occurred early one morning at the Oasis. According to the Baltimore city police report a jealous lover shot and killed George's girl in a back room at the show bar, then turned the weapon on himself. Police said they were the second and third violent deaths to occur on The Block in the current year, which was then about six weeks old).
There were more than a dozen show bars on The Block, with flashy titles such as The Circus, the Villa-Nova, the Gayety and the Pleasure Club. All of them had tiny stages, glittering lights and mirrors. All of them had juke boxes, and all of them had women.
But the physical and professional attributes of the women, and the decor varied remarkable from place to place, depending on what a customer was looking for -- black women, white women, large breasts, or slinky legs, for example. No one knew this better than the two grammar school-aged shoeshine boys who polished my boots that night outside a peep-show.
"Well, depends on what you want, bro," replied the brush boy, a stocky little kid, as he wiped a little polish and spat on my boot. "If you're after [women] you can go to any of 'em. But if you got money and a little class, you know, and you want to take in a good show, just for entertainment, go over to the Two O'Clock. It's like $5 to get in, but Kellie Everts is there."
The boy held out his hand and said, "Two bucks, home."
"Whaddya mean, two bucks? You said 35 cents."
"Information," the boy replied, "costs more."
That was another thing one had to understand about The Block -- the one meaningful constant here was money. It passed from hand to hand faster than a customer's mind could tabulate. I didn't have quite enough money for the Kellie Everts Show, so I sauntered over to the Foxy Lady, Peeper's joint. Peeper was a withered geezer who sat on a barstool outside the Foxy Lady from opening time to closing time, with three stocking caps atop his curly head, wheezing the best advertisements on The Block. He never shouted his slogans, just fired them off in a rapid rhythmic rattle -- the kind of sound that forced passersby to stop in their tracks with amazed looks on their faces.
"Naked little promiscuous girls, friend, nice to see, better to touch," gasped Peeper, holding the door open as I entered.
Actually, the Foxy Lady was probably the most unexciting show on The Block.
Earlier that night I wandered into another show bar up the street and was flabbergasted by the superb dancing abilities of the six women who took turns shaking their bodies on stage. One woman appeared to be as young as 17, while the oldest was clearly pushing 40, considering the prominent stretch marks on her buttocks, but all of them were veritable athletes, arching their backs, twisting their pelvises and rotating their hips in such a way that the rest of their bodies didn't budge.
The Foxy Lady was a different case entirely. No sooner had I sat down in the show bar and laid down $2.25 for a glass of beer, than a lady, with limpid phenobarbital eyes, descended upon me.
"Want some company, baby?" the skinny, gaunt-faced brunette woman asked, pushing her barstool up close to mine and quickly introducing herself as Tanya. "First, off you can give me a cigarette. Then you can buy me a drink."
I glanced around the bar and noticed several other hardened painted ladies lounging about the room and gabbing about how frugal and kinky some man named "Harry" was.
An old Beatles tune whined from the music box, the lights behind the finger-smudged mirror flashed, but no one performed. In the Foxy Lady, it seemed, business meant something other than dancing.
"I just want to watch the show, you know?"
"What'sa matter," Tanya replied, after a brief wide-eyed silence. "Don't you want it?"
"No, honey, upstairs," she answered. "We have private rooms."
"How much is it?"
"Twenty to 40" she said, placing a veiny hand on my knee, "but if you want something special, we can go upstairs and talk about it." I didn't want to hurt the woman's feelings, so I told her I had an ailment that precluded my having sex. This remark prompted a response that was the opposite of what I intended.
She scoffed, cursed at me, said I smelled bad, then swaggered to the other side of the bar and proceeded to tell her colleagues all about me. They, of course, glared at me and shook their heads in disgust. There were several other men in the Foxy Lady at this time who appeared to enjoy the personal service. But then a fight erupted among the women over quite a bit of cash that was discovered missing from their purses behind the cash register.
Business was set aside a moment while the women totaled up their earnings. Then they banded together and approached their boss, a bald-headed bartender, and the poor man had to put up with a number of unkind remarks.
"Look," said one, "I only got three tricks the last three days. That ain't hardly enough to pay the rent. Now there's forty bucks gone from my purse."
"Charlie," said another. "You're supposed to watch our money. I damn near broke my head for that twenty, know what I mean?"
As I left the Foxy Lady and headed back to the Edison Hotel, Charlie was raising his arms to quiet the women, murmuring "please, Ruthie, hold it Tanya" and "we'll find it, I promise," while, outside, Peeper called out, "Hot Girls! Hot Girls!"
Rusty was right. Back in my second floor room at the Edison I heard the "bumping and groaning" of the third-floor women and their customers all night long.
Earlier, as I made my way through darkness up the stairwell, a rotund middle-aged woman wearing skin-tight green pants and a short artificial fur coat, bounded up the stairs past me with a slender gentleman in tow, grousing gruffly, "go up or go down, but don't just stand there."
That was all I ever saw of Jeanie, though I heard her screech intermittently throughout the night in the room above mine. I also heard an unstoppable leak of water from the faucet in my sink, and the splashing sounds of men urinating occasionally outside the bathroom window because the toilet didn't work.
Late that night, while I waited for the last man to conclude a last sexual release, I prayed that no one in this 20-room shack went to sleep with a cigarette burning. The joint seemed to be a pile of very dry timber waiting to ignite.
The following afternoon I hitched a ride down the Parkway with a kindly little man who, after lecturing about Catholicism and celibacy, let me off near Rte. 1 in Laurel, smack between Baltimore and Washington in the Maryland suburbs.
Darkness had arrived and I found myself in a suburban neon purgatory. Endless waves of Arby's, McDonald's, Denny's and other apostrophied eateries flowed along the highway to the horizon. In the dead of winter, as this was, suburbia was a bum's nightmare. There were no soup kitchens, no missions, nowhere after dark to retreat to. But there was one hope.
I followed Rte. 1 to the Laurel City Police Department, dropped my plastic bag on the lobby floor and asked a brown-eyed radio dispatcher, "Is there any room in jail tonight?"