Americas Hilton -- Houston
The worst part about cancer is that this voice inside of my head says, "this is so unfair........and there's nothing you can do about it." Nothing goes more deeply against the grain of my personal nature than to have to sit back and put up with victimization, do nothing, say nothing, take it, put up with it. I've always admired resistance and resisters, freedom fighters, warriors for the good. And with cancer, aside from listening to the doctors and doing what they say, there's really no way of fighting against the cosmic injustice of it.
I came to Houston this weekend to have a CT Scan and to meet with the oncologist here to make sure that she thinks my current thinking about treatment (which will begin next Thursday) seems reasonable. I left Thursday night in order to be here in time for my 7:15 am blood tests Friday morning.
I'm beginning to understand that a trip to Houston spells doom, so it should not have surprised me when I was detained by the Transportation Security Authority at the Atlanta airport Thursday evening. After waiting in the security line (the longest line I have ever seen, by the way) for the better part of an hour, I became enraged when I noticed that a bunch of 15-16-year-oldish airport employees were cutting in line in front of everyone at the metal detectors. I asked one of them what he was doing and he said, "we're airport employees." "So what," I asked. He scurried through the line and I saw him talking to the TSA guard. I couldn't make out what he said but I saw him look back at me and I heard the word "harass."
As I walked through the metal detector and handed my boarding pass to someone I would later come to know as "Leticia," I said, "why are you letting all of these people cut in front of us when we've been standing in line for nearly an hour?" "They're airport employees," said Leticia. "Yeah," I said, "but they're not like pilots or anything, they're just going off to McDonalds or something and you're letting them cut in front of us when we have planes to catch." "Look," she shot back, "I can let anyone through this line whenever I want." "I don't really think you can," I replied.
At this point, Leticia ordered me to step inside the detention booth. You've all seen these. They're little glass fishbowl hallways next to the security screening areas. It's where they send people who have set off the metal detectors or created some other airport security crisis to be frisked, magic-wanded, searched, etc. "I didn't set off the metal detector," I said. "It doesn't matter," replied Leticia, drunk on her own power. "You'll stay where I tell you to for as long as I tell you to." "I want your name and badge number," I told her. "You can have that later," she yelled.
Then, while I stood in the glass room like a circus exhibit, and while Leticia continued screening other wide-eyed, interested passengers, something like the following came out of her mouth: "some white boy thinks he's gonna tell me how to let people through this line when I can let them through who's going to go first, I show him, YOU AIN'T GOIN' NOWHERE TODAY I CAN TELL YOU THAT, we'll see how many questions you got once you get outta there, tell me how to do my job we'll see who's gonna go through the line....." And so on.
A lot of things went through my mind. I should demand that they formally arrest me for something. I should demand to speak to a supervisor. I should say something like, "hey Leticia, are you going to send me to Guantanamo Bay later? You gonna water-board me, Private Lyndie?" But thankfully the rational part of my brain prevailed. I figured that I was no longer in the realm of reason with Leticia, if I ever was, so I better just stay quiet, at least until I got out of the glass bowl.
Finally, "Eddie" came over to frisk me. When he was done I demanded to know Leticia's last name and badge number. "We don't have to give you that information," said Eddie. "Eddie," I said, my voice now quivering a bit, "some of us know the rules. I want her name and badge number now." Just then, here comes Leticia. "My last name is Zondo," she said, "do you want me to spell it for you?" "If I did," I replied, "I'm not quite sure you'd be able." And then I left. I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell her what an authoritarian, horrible bitch she was. I wanted to tell her that she was part of a trend toward un-freedom in our country and that if she had any sense of justice about her she'd quit her job. I wanted to call the ACLU. But then I thought, as I walked down the escalator, contemplating the phonetic similarity between the words Zondo and Sondercommando, I'm starting to get used to this: "this is unfair.....and there's nothing you can do about it."
Thursday night I was on my own in Houston, which I don't like. Houston scares me. I feel at war here even when I have company, but even more so when I'm by myself. So I went to Brasil, my favorite Houston cafe, had a few glasses of wine and numbness, drafted a letter of complaint to the Transportation Safety Authority, and then went back to the hotel for bed.
Friday I had my scans and Carla arrived. We met at our Hotel, the "Americas Hilton" (no apostrophe). Carla decided that rather than staying in the "Medical City" where MD Anderson is, that we should stay in downtown Houston, and boy was she right! We had a much better time than my previous visits. Our hotel was great (more below). We ate fantastic food. And I've actually softened on Houston a bit. If you have the right guide (Carla), there are fun places to go and eat, and I almost forgot, several times, that I was here for cancer shit. We had great sushi at a place called Azara. We went to some terrific museums, including the Houston Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Menil Gallery Museum. The Houston Museum of Contemporary Art had a great exhibit called "Black Voices, White Light," which included a house made of 8-track tapes, all black mo-town artists on the outside, and white artists on the inside (symbolism not lost). The Menil has a great collection of modern and surrealist art, including some Japer Johns pieces I had never seen. The Mark Rothko chapel is directly next door, and we enjoyed a serene moment there. Carla and I also went to a few movies (Mighty Heart, and 1408, the former good, the latter bad). We were going to go to the Cyndi Lauper concert, but decided at the last minute that it was too far of a drive, and I too tired.
By far the best time Carla and I had was on the 24th floor terrace of our hotel. This was Carla's idea. She spied it when we were driving back to the hotel Friday night and we decided to check it out. Carla decided that the terrace was "our place," even though, as I reminded her, everything, including the plastic cups we drank our $13/glass wine out of, were owned by Paris Hilton, ostrich-face, jail-bird, and hooker. "It's not fair," said Carla. "But there's nothing you can do about it," I lamented. We sat up there looking out at the lights of Houston stretching into infinity, and we eavesdropped on the mating ritual of a wealthy-but-homely American man and the 17ish-year-old Asian Geisha-boy he'd clearly bought from some kind of illegal website.
In fact, Carla and I saw quite a lot of interesting things at Americas Hilton. I've decided it would be quite fun to write an ethnography of hotels -- not necessarily of the low-end Super 8s, nor of the high-end Waldorf's of New York, but precisely of hotels like Americas Hilton, where one sees mixed together, as Carla and I did, Asian boy prostitutes and their "handsome American benefactors," American female would-be prostitutes who dress up as beauty queens, struggling American ladder climbers who try to act one class above their actual station (betraying their actual worth by wearing their cell phones clipped to their belts), and wrestling fans!
The first thing one notices when walking into the lobby of Americas Hilton is the enormous Dale Chihouly chandelier (shown above). I'm not even a fan of blown glass, but this chandelier immediately tells its onlooker, "you are somewhere special......you are special." This message is seconded by the marble floors, dark woodwork, deep red and purple textiles, and of course, the obsequious staff.
Playing unremittingly over the loudspeakers one hears the works of Vivaldi, Pachelbel, and Mozart (never Beethoven, Schumann, or Brahms). These works, like the marble and fine blown glass, tell their listener that he/she is a refined person, a person of taste and significance, an important and special person.
While you listen to this music, everything you consume in the hotel will cost you three-times as much as any reasonable person should pay for it: a glass of cheap wine, $13, a small cup of coffee, $2.50, a little cup of fruit, $2.00, the breakfast buffet, $20, parking overnight, $14 (yes, powdered eggs and overcooked bacon costs more than parking...it's true). All of these exorbitant prices whisper to you: "it's okay, you can afford it, because you are special."
And while you listen to The Four Seasons, and the Canon in D over and over and over and over again, you will be greeted by the permanent and overdone smiles of the staff. They will tilt their heads ever so slightly, smile, and say, "hello, sir." Or, if you need a car, they'll get it for you. They'll help you with a bag, or provide you with directions to a suburban movie theater. And, if you so needed, I'd imagine they'd tell you where to purchase a sex-worker for the evening, and then recommend that you take him or her to dinner at the terrace lounge, and all for a small tip. All the while, you can think to yourself, "I've finally made it. I'm a very special person."
In fact, everything about hotels like Americas Hilton is devised to trick the socially insignificant and politically/economically powerless classes into thinking that they are more important than they are. This becomes apparent to the astute observer when one considers the fact that these hotels, for all their finery and for the feudal-subservience of the staff, have a rather rigid system of rules in place, precisely to ensure that their customers do not become too disobedient, nor too empowered by all the shiny trickery.
The first rule Carla and I discovered is that adult glasses are not allowed on the terrace. We paid $13 for our wine, which we then had to drink from plastic cups. Even a bottle of water must first be poured into Dixie picnic-wear before being taken out to Le Terrace. Much to the chagrin of Carla and me, the terrace closes promptly at 10pm, at which point friendly security guards (with guns) come out to apologize for the inconvenience and then escort everyone back into the hotel. Breakfast will not be served even one minute past 11am at Americas Hilton, and if you try to take a glass of wine out of one of the bars into the lobby area so that you can admire to the Chihouly glass, you will set off some sort of silent alarm system that rings in the brains of the cyborg lobby attendants, who will then come and (very courteously) escort you back into the "bar area."
So there are many many many rules at Americas Hilton because the owners of this establishment have to pull off a rather tricky trick. They have to convince people in economically disadvantaged classes that they are not economically disadvantaged. Then they have to convince them that they actually have way more money than they do which can be conspicuously and foolishly spent on all of the wares the hotel hocks in the restaurants, coffee bars, and news shops to help this class of people ape their social superiors. All of this requires putting all of the props in place to convince this class of people that they are wealthy uppers. BUT, at the same time, the Hiltons are afraid of this class and believe deep down that it doesn't know how to behave itself and so installs a byzantine lattice work of rules to ensure order, stability, and passivity.
That's why the Vivaldi is played so loudly -- it's crowd control. Beethoven might inspire revolution -- Vivaldi inspires a nap.
Aside from the invisible regulations that organize and control life at Americas Hilton, the charade also begins to fall apart once one truly examines the guests. One night, after a rather long and trying day, Carla, her friend Kate, and I were headed toward the elevators through the infinite lobby. It was not yet too late, but nonetheless late enough for people to have gotten a few drinks in them, and there were a lot of people in the lobby area and its surrounding bars. As we walked, I heard behind me....giggling. I picked up on it the way a predator picks up on the sound of prey -- it was unconscious to me and registered less like an actual sound and more like a slight irritation in the base of my spine.
Giggle. Giggle. Giggle. It got louder. It was unmistakably self-satisfied. I also began to hear another sound which, like giggling, sets me on edge: the sound of high heels clicking. Click, click, click. Giggle, giggle, giggle.
Finally, Carla, Kate, and I arrived at the elevators and walked into one. By this time the giggling was thousands of decibels loud and I had a splitting headache. I walked into an elevator and turned around to confront the source of my irritation: a giggling gaggle of beauty queens. They each wore a black dress with a sash reading the name of their origin: Germany, South Dakota, and Des Moines were ones I noticed most immediately. These sashes didn't say anything else, like the prize they had won, or who was ugliest, of what they hoped their future careers after prostitution would be, only where they were from. It felt like there were 9 thousand of them; the giggling and heel clicking felt like explosions inside of my skull. They were demonic.
Oh yeah, and each one of them wore tiaras that, as far as I could tell, were made of plastic.
Just as this horde of "women" began to board my elevator, one or all of them must have seen my face. As many of you know, my face often betrays my innermost feelings in ways that I am unable to control. I'm sure most of you have seen the particular face I was making: head cocked, eyes rolled and staring up toward the ceiling, a look of disgust settling around the general nose and mouth area, and an exasperated sigh confirming the latter. While I can never really control these expressions, what I could probably have controlled was what came out of my mouth, which was some kind of admixture of "oh good God" and "ugh, Wow," and "ohh nooo," which while slightly unintelligible I think nonetheless conveyed my disdain for the beauty queens. I say this because of the look that then came over their faces, which Carla described as "hurt." They were so shocked, in fact, that they stopped dead in their high heels right at the precipice of the elevator. One of them (Ms. South Dakota?) sort of gasped, and then they all just stopped, completely immobilized by the skinny, wan looking man who didn't appreciate their peacockish "beauty," who didn't like the sound of their giggling mating-call, and who was not only unimpressed by them, but actually revolted. I think it had never occurred to them that there were members of the human species with penises who did not like them, who might even hate them. The elevator doors closed without the beauty queens getting on.
So what do the beauty queens have to do with the social class puzzles at Americas Hilton? Well, underneath the giggling of these young "women" was a rather sad tale. They view themselves as glamorous, as someone. The click of their heels on marble floors sounds like success to their ears. Pretty soon, they think, they'll be just as wonderfully famous and glamorous as the person who owns the hotel: Paris, who elevates whorishness to the level of the sacred. But in reality none of these young "women" will ever have the fame or fortune of the worthless and talentless Paris. Americas Hilton helped offer them the illusion of self-importance for that one, special night, a night where they could be tricked into thinking that their looks would get them somewhere in the hierarchy, that they were special, and that they had arrived in the promised land. But once their hotel visit is over, they will either continue trying to advance their station in life with their beauty by becoming authentic hookers (which I really hope would involve keeping those tiaras), or they'll downshift into the lives of wives-and-mommies that society destines them for. They'll drive mini-vans, vote republican, and forget how to talk about anything but their children. Some day, years from now, after many babies and with desperation buried underneath the craggy face wrinkles of a valium-induced smile, their overweight husbands will take them on a long-awaited and saved-for (or charged) vacation to a hotel like Americas Hilton, which they'll take photographs of while reminiscing about the good old pageant days. They'll sense the sadness in it all, but will not quite be able to comprehend or make sense of it.
To prove that Americas Hilton had nothing to do with glamor or real money, around Saturday night, the wrestling fans began showing up. I wondered to myself if there had been any encounters between the beauty queens and the fans. I could imagine the queens being quite appalled by the fans, since the latter remove, by the sheer weight of their presence, any believable notion that Americas Hilton is for the wealthy, famous, and important. And I could imagine the fans wanting to rape (if male) or grind up and eat (if female) the beauty queens. The conflict that would ensue at such a meeting would mask the underlying sameness of each group.
Most of the wrestling fans have dyed hair and piercings. They wear things like big silver chains around their necks. All of them are overweight, having grazed on the working class diets of those who need lots of caloric intake. And all of them don t-shirts advertising this or that hyper-steroidal, puffy, male wrestler. Masculinity, long the badge of honor of the working class American male (a substitute for real power), is transformed by these individuals into sparkly, sacred iconography. So total is this transformation that wrestler-masculinity begins to get a bit blurry with its adornments and take on the appearance of homosexuality. None of the fans realize this, of course, and I didn't have the heart (or guts) to point it out to them.
Saturday night, after being booted off of the terrace, Carla and I snuck our drinks into the lobby. We sat and watched fan after fan file by after the wrestling match ended (it was being held in the auditorium next door). We noticed that many of them were carrying chairs, which seemed very odd. Finally I called a young woman with pink hair and acne (the anti-beauty-queen) over and inquired about her chair. I was very polite and curious-sounding: "we saw all of these people carrying chairs and were wondering what they were."
The chairs I'm speaking of were folding chairs, like the kind you save five or so of in your garage for that rare occasion when you have a picnic in the backyard and run out of the "good" outdoor seating. Usually these folding chairs are strictly metal (aluminum?, tin?). But the fans' chairs were padded! And the padding was done in life-like images of their favorite wrestler and the official logo of the WWE!
Our wrestling fan explained to Carla and me that she had paid $200 for her chair, and that as soon as she got it up to her room she planned on wrapping the seat (the part where your ass goes and also the place where the wrestler's picture resides) in plastic!
To preserve it!
"For when it becomes valuable!"
I told her that this seemed like an awful lot of money to spend on a chair, and she explained that it entitled her to a sort-of front row seating assignment at the match. She complained about how, even after spending all this money, she still couldn't see anything. She seemed very disappointed by the whole ordeal. "All my vacation money," she lamented. She also lamented that wrestling had become "less of a real contest" and "more about drama." "It's all fake, you know," and then she wandered off to her room....to shrink-wrap her chair. I felt sorry for her.
Carla went upstairs. I decided to stay for another drink. The staff and the extra police force (no joke) who had been hired to control the wrestling fans were so busy with their duties, they didn't notice me take my wine out of the bar area and into the lobby.
I sat down and looked at the whole scene, at the mess of it. I thought about all of the cruelties and savagery contained within the marble walls and blown glass of the Americas Hilton lobby, all of the false hopes and silliness it offers people, of the fact that during the time I had my conversation with the wrestling fan who had spent all of her vacation money on a folding chair, Paris Hilton, the owner of this establishment, and hero of the empty headed beauty queens I had insulted the night before, had probably banked another couple of million dollars.
I thought about Leticia. Even though I hated her, what, I wondered, had happened in her life to make her so thirsty for revenge and empty displays of power? Had she detained anyone else? Did she make enough at her homeland security job to feed her children?
I thought about the people staying at the Waldorf Astoria, the real rich people, who were probably drinking out of real glasses on a terrace well after 10pm with no armed guards (or wrestling fans or beauty queens) in sight. What sort of gulag would Leticia end up in if she detained one of them?
And I thought about cancer.
"It's not fair," I thought, "and there's nothing you can do about it."
Then, I saw the child of one of the wrestling fans swimming in the lobby's reflecting pool as his father tossed pennies at him. I smiled to myself, finished my wine, and went upstairs to bed.