The deal was a place to sleep and all the tea and toast I could consume in exchange for three hours of changing sheets and tidying up one of the kitchens after the breakfast rush every day. It sounded pretty good to me.
George Square, Glasgow
The hostel had recently expanded into a new building across the street and they needed a hand. Morah showed me to my “room” which was an L-shaped broom closet full of cleaning supplies, mops, toilet paper, etc. There was a bunk bed wedged into the far end of the room. When I say “wedged in” I’m not exaggerating. One side was wedged up against the wall, the other side was wedged in against the window. The only way to climb in to bed was from the bottom end. There was a backpack and a bunch of clothes strewn across the bottom bunk.
“I have a roommate?”
“His name’s Iñaki. He’s from the Basque Country.”
Poor Iñaki. In the evenings people gathered in the common room where they sat around drinking beer and chatting about their travels. Iñaki always got frustrated when people didn’t share his view of geography.
“And where are you from?”
“I am from the Basque Country.”
“So you’re French? Or Spanish?”
“No, I am Basque. I live in the Basque Country.”
“OK, but if you live in the Basque Country you either live in France or Spain.”
“No! I am not French! I am not Spanish! I am Basque!”
“OK, calm down. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”
Iñaki must have gotten up and walked out of the common room every other night after getting frustrated with someone who wasn’t up to snuff on current affairs regarding the Basque Country. I myself knew absolutely nothing about the Basque Country at the time, but I was discreet enough to never bring up the subject with Iñaki after witnessing a couple of his meltdowns. Fortunately, Iñaki was a good roommate. He went to bed early, didn’t drink much, and didn’t snore or break wind. Unfortunately, Iñaki couldn’t say the same about me.
The job was easy. Iñaki vacuumed the floors and cleaned the bathrooms which he didn’t seem to mind one bit. (And fortunately he never asked me to switch duties with him.) Iñaki was always taking bottles of shower gel and tubes of toothpaste that people left behind. He had a shelf full of this stuff. He told me to help myself.
I changed sheets and cleaned up the kitchen. There was a shelf in the fridge labeled “Help Yourself” where people who were moving on could leave things they didn’t want to take with them. A jar of tomato sauce, a hunk of cheese, half a bottle of orange juice, a couple of yogurts… Add that to the free tea and toast and the only thing I ever had to go shopping for was beer.
Mitchell Library, Glasgow
One day a Scottish guy checked into the hostel. Morah didn’t like the look of him one bit.
“Keep your eye on that one. He’s up to no good.”
He sat around the common room all day quietly drinking beer and watching MTV. The video “Why Does It Always Rain On Me?” by the Glaswegian band Travis seemed to be on 24 hours a day. One day, after he had been around for a couple of weeks, we got to talking. His name was Alisdair and he was from Edinburgh. He had been fired from countless restaurant gigs because of his drinking. He had burned all of his bridges and outstayed all of his welcomes. He was paying for his bed at the hostel with dole money. Alisdair seemed like a nice enough guy, but he was losing his battle against the bottle. One afternoon he came looking for me in the new building across the street. He had showered and shaved for a change. He had a business proposal.
We walked into the common room together and he announced that he would be preparing a chicken curry that evening for anybody who was interested. ₤5 per person. Half a dozen people took him up on the offer. We walked to the grocery store and bought all the ingredients. With the money that was left over he bought beer. I chopped vegetables and did the washing up in exchange for an incredible meal and a couple of cans. We did this a couple of times a week for about a month. Alisdair was a helluva cook. Then one morning, without saying a word, he checked out of the hostel and we never heard from him again.
Buchanan Street, Glasgow
The owner of the hostel, Jack, was a shady character who pretty much left the running of the place to Morah as he preferred to spend his time at his other hostel in the Highlands. Every couple of weeks he would show up unannounced, open the safe, toss all the money into a black trash bag, then jump back into his car and disappear again.
At one point Jack was around for about a full week which was very rare. There had been a bedbug infestation in the old part of the hostel (not in the new building, fortunately, where Iñaki and I were working and sleeping) and the place had to be fumigated. This incident made Jack realize he needed to be a bit more hands on regarding the running of the hostel. Of course, after a week of pretending to be responsible he fecked off to the Highlands again for a good long stretch.
It was during this particular week that Morah got a call one afternoon. Jack was at the hospital and he needed a ride home. He had had emergency surgery for a hernia the day before. Jack was not a particularly healthy individual. From what I saw when he was around, he drank all day long, he smoked like a chimney, he lived on fast food (he was somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 pounds overweight) and he popped lots of strange little pills. The guy was a complete mess.
Jack’s car was parked just around the corner and there was a set of keys in a drawer at reception. I was the only person around at the time and Morah couldn’t leave reception so I had to go pick him up. Fortunately I had learned to drive “stick” in Ireland, so driving on the left-hand side of the road with the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the car wasn’t too much of a shock.
Red sandstone tenements, Glasgow
I picked up Jack at a nearby hospital and drove him to his place in the West End. He was high as a kite on painkillers. I helped him out of the car, up the sidewalk and into the building.
“Take your shoes off,” he slurred through the numbness of the pills. “There’s beer in the refrigerator. I’ll be back in a second.”
I was in the kitchen searching for a bottle opener when I heard him in the living room fumbling around with the TV.
“Ever seen Casablanca? The best film ever made.”
He entered the kitchen and shook a bottle of pills over his head like he was playing maracas.
“You want one?”
I turned around and there was Jack in a bathrobe and a pair of slippers. The bathrobe was open and he wasn’t wearing anything underneath it.
He stumbled over and slipped his arm around my waist.
“Need any help with that bottle?”
I bolted out of there so fast… I don’t think I ever moved that fast in my entire life. I grabbed my shoes as I flew out the front door and I didn’t stop to put them on until I was halfway down the street.
I walked all the way back to the hostel. Morah was still working reception.
“Jack tried to fuck me!”
“He does like the young boys.”
“I didn’t know he was gay.”
“How is that possible?”
“I mean, come on, look at him.”
“Because he’s so disgusting?”
“I’ll break it to you gently, Yank: not all gay men look like Morissey.”
The person who was supposed to work the night shift at reception never showed up so Morah and I pulled an all-nighter with the help of a couple of bottles of Buckfast Tonic Wine and MTV.
Buckfast (aka: “Buckie”) is a fortified wine with caffeine. And yes, it tastes as disgusting as it sounds. A 750ml bottle contains nearly the same amount of caffeine as 8 cans of Coca Cola. In Scotland there is a bit of controversy around Buckfast. It’s the preferred drink of young hooligans, underage drinkers and petty criminals or “neds”. Scottish politicians and social activists place a lot of the blame for crime and social deprivation in poor communities on Buckfast. The drink is referred to as “Wreck the Hoose Juice” and “Commotion Lotion”. I’ve also heard it referred to as “a bottle of what the fuck are you looking at? ” At the hostel backpacker’s would pass around bottles of “Buckie” before going to the pub in order to get pumped up and to save a bit of money.
The scrappy, little old lady who washed and dried the sheets was awfully surprised to find Morah and I up so early and in such good spirits the following morning. She was always extremely rude to everybody at the hostel. If you got in her way you would be viciously insulted.
“That woman is a real pain in the ass.”
“Well, she’s had a pretty rough life.”
Morah made sure the coast was clear. Then, in hushed tones, she told me that the little old lady was from the Czech Republic. She and her husband had been sent to a concentration camp during WWII. She survived and emigrated to the UK after the war. Her husband wasn’t so lucky. He never left the camp.
“One day she showed me the number they tattooed on her arm.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty grim stuff.”
I didn’t run into Jack again at the hostel for at least a week. He mumbled good morning as he dropped a cigarette butt into an empty beer bottle. I don’t think he even remembered the bathrobe incident.
There were lots of little, everyday adventures at the hostel… Two Danish girls were passing through for a few days. One night the three of us were sitting on the stoop chatting when two Glaswegian college students walked by. They were very drunk, but very funny and charming at the same time. They asked the girls to accompany them back to their flat for a drinking session. The girls said they would go if I came along with them. (For what? Protection? Me?)
We went back to their place and drank beer and told stories and played records all night. It was the first time I ever heard Bob Dylan’s Desire. I kept picking up the needle and placing it back down on “Hurricane” over and over again. At one point I came back from the bathroom only to discover that my fellow partygoers had hidden the record from me. The night ended with the five of us in the kitchen, exhausted and hungover, eating Pot Noodle (a plastic cup of disgusting, instant, dehydrated noodles and flavor powder… add boiling water and voilà!) as the sun came up. I remember the horrible feeling that came over me when I realized, I have to go change sheets in a couple hours…
Nice N Sleazy, Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow
The pub crawls were always… educational. Between the people travelling through for a few days and the hostel employees (most of whom had also originally intended to just pass through for a few days) there was always an interesting cast of characters. Every night was a chaotic lesson in geography, history, language, food…
“How do you say ‘Cheers!’ in Croatian?”
“You eat what?!”
“Surströmming! Sour, fermented herring!”
“What is the name of your king?”
“I don’t have a king.”
“What are you saying to me? That is not possible!”
“I’m from the United States of America. We do not have a fucking king.”
“How do you say ‘whore’ in Polish?”
“My grandparents were forced to leave Salla when the Russians invaded in 1940. They lost their land and were never compensated.”
“No, I am not Spanish. I am from the Basque Country! ”
In 1999 people weren’t constantly distracted by their cell phones, either. In fact, I don’t even remember seeing people with cell phones. The hostel didn’t have WiFi. People didn’t travel with laptops or iPads or Tablets or Kindles or iPods, etc. I don’t want to sound like an old fogey (In my day we walked to school barefoot in the snow… uphill… both ways!), but the people who passed through the hostel were, for the most part, very outgoing and interested in talking to each other.
I don’t stay in hostels much these days, but the last couple of times I did the people hanging out in the lounge area were sitting by themselves either hunched over a laptop wearing headphones, or sending Tweets, or updating their Facebook status on a cell phone. There wasn’t much budget traveller comradery going on. Why ask someone about the local sights when you have Google? Why ask someone if they can recommend a decent place to eat when you have TripAdvisor? End of old man rant.
On a few of those pub crawls Morah and I were the last people standing (more like wobbling). Coming out of Nice & Sleazy on Sauchiehall Street one night, after more than a few pints, she told me she had seen Belle & Sebastian play in the dingy room downstairs when they were just starting out. We were walking fast to get to the next bar before last call. At some point I realized I was walking alone. I spun around and there was Morah lying flat on her belly a good 15 paces behind me. She was laughing hysterically. I tried to get her up on her feet. I tripped and went down in a heap right next to her.
“I think it’s time to call it a night.”
“Bloody Yank. There’s still half an hour ‘til last call.”
“I can’t. I’m destroyed.”
Then she made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“One more pint and then chips and curry at King’s Café are on me.”
Kings Café, Elmbank Street, Glasgow
On another occasion a big crew from the hostel decided to go to a nightclub. I can’t stand nightclubs, but the Buckfast slightly impaired my judgement. The place was a giant maze of dozens of rooms, god knows how many floors, seizure-inducing strobe lights and horrible, pounding music. There was a very large Tasmanian woman staying at the hostel for a few days. She was heavily, and I mean heavily, tattooed and pierced and her head was shaved. At the hostel she kept staring at me and telling me I was adorable. I was wandering around the nightclub from one horrible room to the next when Morah tapped on my shoulder.
“Taz is looking for you!” she screamed into my ear.
“She’s really drunk and she’s telling everybody that tonight she’s sharing her bed with you!”
“I believe her exact words were: ‘Tonight I’m going to turn that adorable American boy into a man!’”
I was terrified. Morah gave me the keys to her place and I got the hell out of there immediately.
Tolbooth Steeple, Glasgow Cross
A backpacker from New Zealand, Luke, was doing a few small carpentry jobs at the hostel. He and Morah hit it off rather well. Around the same time I was having a bit of a fling with one of Morah’s flatmates. So Luke and I were hanging around their place on Renfrew Street a few doors down from the Glasgow School of Art quite a bit.
During the last month of my time in Glasgow Luke and I rented a cheap room up on Park Terrace. We had completely burned out on the chaotic atmosphere of the hostel. One night we left our room to go to Morah’s place for dinner. We were there less than an hour when the phone rang. Morah answered.
“It’s for you.”
She handed the phone to Luke.
“It’s the police.”
Two junkies had been watching us from the park across the street as we got ready to go out for the evening. Our room was on the first floor and had two enormous windows with no curtains facing the park. Shortly after we left they walked through the main door of the residence, turned left down our hallway and picked the lock on our door. Then they walked right back out the main door with our backpacks. Lucky for us, at the end of the street they came face to face with two cops on the beat. The junkies panicked, dropped our packs, bolted into the park and were never seen again. The cops took the backpacks to the station and looked through them for ID. They found a small notebook in Luke’s pack which had Morah’s phone number written in it.
Unfortunately, in the small side pocket where he kept the notebook he also kept a cigarette pack which contained a big ol’ chunk of hashish that he had picked up on a recent trip to Amsterdam.
“The cop said we can collect our packs at a station in the West End tomorrow around 11am.”
“Great! What luck!”
“Luck!? What if they found the hash!? What if it’s a trick!?”
The following morning we walked down to the station. Just as we were about to enter, Luke panicked.
We got to the end of the street and ducked into a pub.
“I need a pint to calm my nerves before we talk to the cops.” He was sweating profusely.
In the end we had a lovely chat with a friendly old timer down at the station. He asked us where we were from, where we were going, if we were enjoying our time in Scotland, etc.
“It must be lovely to be out and about and seeing the world at your age. You lads take care and be more careful with your things in the future.”
steel wire mural of Billy Connolly in Anderston area of Glasgow
As my Scottish adventure was coming to a close I walked down to the bus station one day and checked the departures. There was an overnight bus leaving for Paris in a few hours. I bought a ticket and hopped on.
to be continued…
(In the meantime, Haud yer wheesht! is Scottish for Shut up!)