Half a block from Broadway and Columbus is Hotel Trout
Fishing in America, a cheap hotel. It is very old and run by
some Chinese. They are young and ambitious Chinese and
the lobby is filled with the smell of Lysol.
The Lysol sits like another guest on the stuffed furniture
reading a copy of the Chronicle, the Sports Section. It is the
only furniture I have ever seen in my life that looks like baby
And the Lysol sits asleep next to an old Italian pensioner
who listens to the heavy ticking of the clock and dreams of
eternity's golden pasta, sweet basil and Jesus Christ.
The Chinese are always doing something to the hotel. One
week they paint a lower banister and the next week they put
some new wallpaper on part of the third floor.
No matter how many times you pass that part of the third
floor, you cannot remember the color of the wallpaper or
what the design is. All you know is that part of the wallpaper
is new. It is different from the old wallpaper. But you can-
not remember what that looks like either.
One day the Chinese take a bed out of a room and lean it
up against the wall. It stays there for a month. You get used
to seeing it and then you go by one day and it is gone. You
wonder where it went.
I remember the first time I went inside Hotel Trout Fish-
ing in America. It was with a friend to meet some people.
"I'11 tell you what's happening, " he said. "She's an ex-
hustler who works for the telephone company. He went to
medical school for a while during the Great Depression and
then he went into show business. After that, he was an errand
boy for an abortion mill in Los Angeles. He took a fall and
did some time in San Quentin.
"I think you'll like them. They're good people.
"He met her a couple of years ago in North Beach. She
was hustling for a spade pimp. It's kind of weird. Most
women have the temperament to be a whore, but she's one
of these rare women who just don't have it--the whore tem-
perament. She's Negro, too.
"She was a teenage girl living on a farm in Oklahoma. The
pimp drove by one afternoon and saw her playing in the front
yard. He stopped his car and got out and talked to her father
for a while.
"I guess he gave her father some money. He came up
with something good because her father told her to go and
get her things. So she went with the pimp. Simple as that.
"He took her to San Francisco and turned her out and she
hated it. He kept her in line by terrorizing her all the time.
He was a real sweetheart.
"She had some brains, so he got her a job with the tele-
phone company during the day, and he had her hustling at
"When Art took her away from him, he got pretty mad. A
good thing and all that. He used to break into Art's hotel
room in the middle of the night and put a switchblade to Art's
throat and rant and rave. Art kept putting bigger and bigger
locks on the door, but the pimp just kept breaking in--a huge
"So Art went out and got a .32 pistol, and the next time
the pimp broke in, Art pulled the gun out from underneath
the covers and jammed it into the pimp's mouth and said,
'You'll be out of luck the next time you come through that
door, Jack.' This broke the pimp up. He never went back.
The pimp certainly lost a good thing.
"He ran up a couple thousand dollars worth of bills in her
name, charge accounts and the like. They're still paying
"The pistol's right there beside the bed, just in case the
pimp has an attack of amnesia and wants to have his shoes
shined in a funeral parlor.
"When we go up there, he'll drink the wine. She won't.
She'Il'have a little bottle of brandy. She won't offer us any
of it. She drinks about four of them a day. Never buys a fifth.
She always keeps going out and getting another half-pint.
"That's the way she handles it. She doesn't talk very much,
and she doesn't make any bad scenes. A good-looking woman, r
My friend knocked on the door and we could hear some-
body get up off the bed and come to the door.
"Who's there?" said a man on the other side.
"Me," my friend said, in a voice deep and recognizable
as any name.
"I'11 open the door. " A simple declarative sentence. He
undid about a hundred locks, bolts and chains and anchors
and steel spikes and canes filled with acid, and then the
door opened like the classroom of a great university and
everything was in its proper place: the gun beside the bed
and a small bottle of brandy beside an attractive Negro woman,
There were many flowers and plants growing in the room,
some of them were on the dresser, surrounded by old photo-
graphs. All of the photographs were of white people, includ-
ing Art when he was young and handsome and looked just like
There were pictures of animals cut out of magazines and
tacked to the wall, with crayola frames drawn around them
and crayola picture wires drawn holding them to the wall.
They were pictures of kittens and puppies. They looked just
There was a bowl of goldfish next to the bed, next to the
gun. How religious and intimate the goldfish and the gun
They had a cat named 208. They covered the bathroom
floor with newspaper and the cat crapped on the newspaper.
My friend said that 208 thought he was the only cat left in the
world, not having seen another cat since he was a tiny kitten.
They never let him out of the room. He was a red cat and
very aggressive. When you played with that cat, he really
bit you. Stroke 208's fur and he'd try to disembowel your
hand as if it were a belly stuffed full of extra soft intestines.
We sat there and drank and talked about books. Art had
owned a lot of books in Los Angeles, but they were all gone
now. He told us that he used to spend his spare time in sec-
ondhand bookstores buying old and unusual books when he
was in show business, traveling from city to city across
America. Some of them were very rare autographed books,
he told us, but he had bought them for very little and was
forced to sell them for very little.
They'd be worth a lot of money now, " he said.
The Negro woman sat there very quietly studying her
brandy. A couple of times she said yes, in a sort of nice
way. She used the word yes to its best advantage, when sur-
rounded by no meaning and left alone from other words.
They did their own cooking in the room and had a single
hot plate sitting on the floor, next to half a dozen plants, in-
cluding a peach tree growing in a coffee can. Their closet
was stuffed with food. Along with shirts, suits and dresses,
were canned goods, eggs and cooking oil.
My friend told me that she was a very fine cook. That
she could really cook up a good meal, fancy dishes, too, on
that single hot plate, next to the peach tree.
They had a good world going for them. He had such a soft
voice and manner that he worked as a private nurse for rich
mental patients. He made good money when he worked, but
sometimes he was sick himself. He was kind of run down.
She was still working for the telephone company, but she
wasn't doing that night work any more.
They were still paying off the bills that pimp had run up.
I mean, years had passed and they were still paying them
off: a Cadillac and a hi-fi set and expensive clothes and all
those things that Negro pimps do love to have.
Z went back there half a dozen times after that first meet-
ing. An interesting thing happened. I pretended that the cat,
208, was named after their room number, though I knew that
their number was in the three hundreds. The room was on
the third floor. It was that simple.
I always went to their room following the geography of
Hotel Trout Fishing in America, rather than its numerical
layout. I never knew what the exact number of their room
was. I knew secretly it was in the three hundreds and that
Anyway, it was easier for me to establish order in my
mind by pretending that the cat was named after their room
number. It seemed like a good idea and the logical reason
for a cat to have the name 208. It, of course, was not true.
It was a fib. The cat's name was 208 and the room number
was in the three hundreds.
Where did the name 208 come from? What did it mean? I
thought about it for a while, hiding it from the rest of my
mind. But I didn't ruin my birthday by secretly thinking about
it too hard.
A year later I found out the true significance of 208's
name, purely by accident. My telephone rang one Saturday
morning when the sun was shining on the hills. It was a
close friend of mine and he said, "I'm in the slammer. Come
and get me out. They're burning black candles around the
drunk tank. "
I went down to the Hall of Justice to bail my friend out,
and discovered that 208 is the room number of the bail office,
It was very simple. I paid ten dollars for my friend's life
and found the original meaning of 208, how it runs like melt-
ing snow all the way down the mountainside to a small cat
living and playing in Hotel Trout Fishing in America, believ-
ing itself to be the last cat in the world, not having seen
another cat in such a long time, totally unafraid, newspaper
spread out all over the bathroom floor, and something good
cooking on the hot plate.