KEN AND MARISA are hardly the pair you would expect to find passing a wintry Saturday afternoon sharing a blanket on a Capitol Hill porch.>"/>
KEN AND MARISA are hardly the pair you would expect to find passing a wintry Saturday afternoon sharing a blanket on a Capitol Hill porch. Marisa is a breathtaking university student from Heidelberg with limited English; Ken is a runny-eyed Philadelphia native in his forties without car, job, or home. Marisa is commencing a monthlong visit to America on $40 per day. She's in town for the music—people tell her the Crocodile Cafe is good at night. Ken arrived to look for work, he tells me, after careers in pro hockey, football, baseball, and motorcycle racing were successively interrupted by an incredible run of injuries.
What the two have in common, however, is very little money, which explains why both find themselves at the American Backpacker's Hostel, huddled together on a blue velour bench seat salvaged from the stern of a van. American Backpacker's is located in a house accessible by an alley that runs off Broadway, and advertises itself in hostel guides with the following headlines: "Free Breakfast with Vegemite . . . Free Keg Night . . . Jimi Hendrix, Bruce & Brandon Lee's Graves, Kurt Cobain's House . . . $14-$16 per night."
Happily, I uncovered no evidence of Vegemite—a revolting black spread that Commonwealth citizens pretend to enjoy spread on toast. But the lodging part proved true enough—$14 buys you a pillow, bedsheet, ratty blanket, and bunk in a 14-person dorm. The rooms are large enough, and possess a certain disheveled charm, but the odds are pretty high that one of your 14 roommates is going to be a master snorer, and—let's face it—American jingoism about European hygiene is largely accurate.
The rule is that if you haven't paid for the next night's stay by 10am, they'll sell your bed to someone else. But if you keep paying your money, you may stay for up to three weeks. (Though this is only a guideline; many guests stay longer.) There is no hint that Ken and Marisa are a couple of any sort. Marisa, at any rate, seems blissfully unaware of any such suggestion. (Two nights later, in fact, I enter the TV room to find her smooching with a blond American on the couch and Ken shooting pool in the next room.) Promiscuous cuddling is a function of the roughly communistic ethos observed by hostel dwellers. Two strangers who find themselves on a wintry porch simply burrow together under a borrowed blanket, even if language barriers rule out much in the way of conversation. That's just how hostels, and hostelers, operate.
Most Americans either haven't heard of hostels or they associate them with youth travel in Europe, and thus are surprised to learn that there are hostels in every large American city—at least six in the Seattle area, containing approximately 500 beds, and many more in Vancouver. There are hostels outside of Disneyland in Anaheim, near ski towns in Utah, and even in a town with fewer than 1,000 residents hidden in Alaska's Inside Passage. American hostels draw an odd mix of long-haul international travelers, visiting students, low-income families on the move, poorly funded businessmen, and unemployed drifters. Many cash-poor Americans hear about hostels from bulletin boards in the Greyhound and Amtrak stations. Others learn about them while bumming around Europe, or from friends who have, or from international exchange students encountered in college or high school. Ken tells me he learned about hostels when he asked the cabbie driving him from the bus station about the cheapest place to stay. International travelers find them on the Web, or in budget guidebooks like Rough Guide, Lonely Planet, and the yellow-backed Let's Go (full disclosure: where I once worked).
IKE OMORUWI IS a perfect example of the long-haul career traveler. He left his native Nigeria three years ago on a solo trip that took him to Singapore, Korea, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, London, and—a year ago—Seattle. He travels until he runs out of money for hostels and food, then works for a while to rebuild his savings. Ike is trained in what he calls "nautical science," and often travels between continents as an officer on a freighter. Sometimes he is able to save money on hostels by calling on people he has met during his travels. Making friends among fellow travelers "depends upon how polite and collected you are," he tells me. For instance, you meet an Alaskan in the TV room of a London hostel, exchange phone numbers and addresses, and "before you know it, it's a friendship." It is understood that when Ike reaches Alaska he'll save money by staying with his new friend. He is a winsome fellow-well-met, and it's not hard to see why people are happy to take him into their homes.
Soon, Ike plans to leave Seattle for New Zealand, where he will re-enter school to study for his captain's exams and return to shipping full-time. Right now, he has a free room at American Backpacker's in return for working at the check-in desk and helping to manage the place. During the week or two when I visited, Ike and Ben Danielsen—a soft-spoken Norwegian who's been on the road for two years—were alternately in charge while the owner was away traveling (in New Zealand again).
Ben, in particular, is vastly overqualified for working in a ramshackle 36-bed hostel, since he has a degree in hotel management and worked for a few years as a fancy-pants conference organizer in Norway before hitting the road. But for now he's traveling around on $30 a day—pretty Spartan even by most international travelers' standards—and he can hardly afford not to take the free room. Ben has been running the hostel's desk for six months, and will probably have pushed off for Costa Rica by the time this article is published.
Most smaller hostels around the world are run under these sorts of informal arrangements, wherein guests become management until a replenished bank account or pure boredom leads them to move on.
Not so at the Hostelling International: Seattle, a 200-bed colossus located in the Market just off Post Alley, next to the Alibi Room. It is run by Bob Howell, who holds an undergraduate degree in business administration. Bob wears khaki Dockers, a denim shirt with the Hostelling International (HI) logo, and a shiny gold watch that is either expensive or a credible imitation. He uses the word "pro-active" without irony. He has worked for HI for 17 years in hostels "from Cape Cod to Port Townsend."
HI is an international organization responsible for certifying hostels (4,000 at last count) around the world. A crew of roving, anonymous inspectors makes sure that member hostels meet certain minimum standards. HI hostels in Europe and America often require guests to leave by 9am and return only after 5pm—the dreaded "lockout"—and lights out is often at 11. Drinking is generally forbidden, carousing is frowned upon; dorm rooms are strictly single sex. The theory is that hostelers ought to spend their days touring the city rather than nursing hangovers; in practice, guests predictably find the parietal rules nettlesome. The cognoscenti think HI branches are geeky.
On the other hand, compared with a typical HI hostel, the Seattle branch is surprisingly pleasant—fascism with a human face. It has no lockout and no curfew. Common areas are lively, the communal kitchen is spacious, the staff organizes folksy concerts. The lobby sports four award plaques—including the "American Youth Hostel Open Door Award: For Outstanding Service in Hostel Development, America Youth Hostel National Council Meeting, Wakefield, MA, 1987."
The bulletin board informs that "Richard, Room #301, Bed #1" is selling two Greyhound tickets to Vancouver, BC, and a cruise ship to Alaska is looking for people who will "WORK HARD IN EXCHANGE FOR . . . hiking, kayaking, wildlife-viewing, whale-watching, birding." Whereas American Backpacker's will pick you up at the Greyhound or Amtrak station in a blue chitty-chitty-bang-bang Oldsmobuick when you call, the HI lets you take a cab door-to-door on its dime. The rooms are slightly more expensive (almost $20) and the clientele includes families and folks in their thirties, forties, fifties. The maximum stay is one week, and you get the feeling that it's enforced without exception.
The HI lounge boasts a sprinkling of serious-faced people typing on laptops. The rows of tables are topped with "wood-grain" plastic sheets and have built-in stools that would not seem out of place in an elementary-school cafeteria. The folks who work the check-in desk know a great deal about Seattle—they live in apartments, not at the hostel—and have a faint acquaintance with international travel. For them it's less a lifestyle than a job.
The official policy at HI is that only those who live more than 60 miles away from Seattle qualify to rent a bed for the night. The point is to prevent drifters and vagrants from using the hostel. American Backpacker's has an even stricter policy—the sign on Broadway reads, "International Passport Required." One manager tells me that hostels are for "backpackers, real travelers." Again, the theory is to exclude vagrants and drifters—people without passports—or anyone else who might make international travelers uncomfortable.
But in the winter, at least, when business is slow, American Backpacker's honors its policy mostly in the breach. For instance, Ken (of Ken-and-Marisa fame) and his buddy Jerry—both of whom have been at American Backpacker's for a while—don't have international passports, and are clearly the sort of rough trade the international-passport fig leaf is meant to discourage. When asked to describe what he likes about hostels, Ken says they're vastly superior to "the streets and the mission." Jerry, for his part, growls rather than talks, and dresses in tattered, dirt-caked jeans. He tells me: "I made it with a Jap chick" and complains that, despite his entreaties, she wouldn't let him ejaculate.
Jerry, predictably, has had a series of minor arrests and convictions, making it hard for him to find a job. He works, when he works, as freighter crew. Ken won't admit to any record—though he seems to have a lot of opinions about the criminal justice system—but is constantly complaining that it's awfully hard for a fellow who's lost his driver's license to get along in these United States. In fact, he missed out on a back-kitchen job in a fancy Seattle restaurant because he could not produce any identification. He may look for work as a fisherman, though he's never tried it. He plans to stick around in Seattle for a while. He's glad to be out of Philadelphia, although he thinks he'll "eventually have to [go home] because someone will get hurt or die."
THE MIX OF GUESTS in a hostel is important for reasons that go far beyond safety. Hostels are like fraternities without the brotherly spanking. They offer instant community. Travelers—especially single travelers, meaning almost half of hostel-goers—often tour the city in amoeba-like groups composed of people they've met in their dorm rooms or in common areas like the TV or pool rooms. Often the friendships are strong enough for a newly met group to head to Vancouver or Portland together, until they get sick of each other and eventually go their separate ways.
The Green Tortoise, a 150-bed hostel on Second and Pike, is a little more formal about the touring process, actually employing a guide to walk hostelers over to the Pioneer Square $3 Thursday pub crawl. Waiting in the lobby as the troops are gathered, I meet Mark Miller from New York. Mark will be staying at the hostel rather than joining the festivities since "my pants will be down by my knees if I go dancing tonight." Naturally, I have no idea what in hell this means, so I blubber out the first question that pops to mind: What does he think of Seattle? Mark cops to enormous surprise at all the "hard attitudes" he's found out on Second Avenue, tough kids who "look at you in the face." This surprises me, since Mark says he's an elevator repairman who's worked in some of New York's rougher projects. He is also a pretty big fellow, probably weighing in at 300 pounds. I often walk Second Avenue, and it's urban, sure, but hardly comparable to Bed-Stuy, right?
Wrong. As I walk towards Pioneer Square with 15 hostelers swaddled in Berghaus parkas and chattering away in stilted English, I take a mental step back and suddenly see what Mark is talking about. First we're stared at, then verbally abused, by each clump of men drinking on the corner we pass. On the way back, we are approached by a singing bum whose stagy happiness seems almost calculated to creep us out. Nancy, our tour guide, who is from Pennsylvania, inexplicably tries to discourage him by pretending to speak no English, which is hardly the best defense if you'd rather not be taken advantage of. The guy follows us for three blocks before he gives up.
The hostel pub crawl group is well known at the first bar we visit, which is basically empty. We even get something like 50 cents off our drinks, and the bartender makes a little "Howsa Grintortise?" chatter. On our way to the next bar, a baby blue bicycle carriage pulls up, and the driver starts chatting up some female staffers who have come along with us. Our guide tells us that the driver wants to see how many of us he can pile on his bizarre urban rickshaw. We fit seven, and he somehow manages to get us rolling after much Herculean straining. "We don't have any money," the female staffer on the top of our pile chirps. "We're from the hostel."
"That's OK," he replies.
HOSTELS ARE HALF-STRANGERS in the US city, neither totally foreign nor totally American, neither fish nor fowl. Americans—including this one—who have discovered hostels invariably talk about how disarmingly charming they can be. Many of us who have brushed up against long-haul travelers envy cultures like Australia's, for instance, where a yearlong stumble around the world is something virtually all young people make. Inevitably, the word "broadening" pops up. In this context, the word has a rather bad reputation, ever since Hemingway pointed out that "writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind." But Papa's quip is mostly wrong, I think. Exposure to foreign cultures is, on net, a worthy, laudable experience, just like your mother told you it would be. And a visit to an American hostel is worthy and laudable for all the same reasons.
But what of the twentysomethings from Australia, Japan, Israel, New Zealand, England, Germany, Ireland, Nigeria, Norway, and Holland who visit American hostels to put in eight hours a day watching daytime TV in a hostel common room? Or who spend evenings killing pints with a newly formed posse of fellow travelers, then perhaps sidle off to a dizzy few hours in a bunk bed making squishy noises with a fellow hosteler, much to the dismay of the dozen dormmates who must share the moment? In what sense is this travel at all?
Of course, it's not as bleak as all that all the time. Most hostel visitors who can afford a few extra dollars per day do all the Seattle tourist things: visit the Boeing factory, take a snapshot by the Lee graves, drop by for a set at the Breakroom. And when someone like Marisa meets someone like Ken, the story will probably be told all over Heidelberg this summer. Moreover, it's hardly worth saying that no one—not Paul Theroux, not Bruce Chatwin, not even Robinson Crusoe—achieves the traveler's ideal of walking for a week in a native's shoes.
But at the same time, it's hard to deny that hostels insulate and buffer visitors from whatever it is that Seattleites actually do all day. Ben Danielsen, the Norwegian hotel manager working at American Backpacker's, tells me that he's making contacts with enough European hotel management students in American hostels to hope that his trip will be a decent career move. By making contacts, of course, he means sitting on the porch and shooting the shit. The daily routine of Seattle's hostelers—a little TV, some drinking, perhaps a walk to some local site, and then back to the hostel for more TV and drinking—seems a lot like what I once saw in Los Angeles hostels when I worked for a travel guide in that city. And it could be replicated anywhere in the world where you can find beer, a couch, and cable TV. That's what's amazing about youth hostels in London, LA, Boston, Florence (and in Bangladesh too, I suppose, though I haven't been there myself): They create a sort of universal culture that has only a little to do with the actual city in which they happen to be located. It's a pleasant irony that European hotel students, Nigerian sailors, German university students, and unemployed drifters from Pennsylvania are doing what it takes to keep the slacker lifestyle alive and well in Seattle. *