Everybody's sprawled along the couches and chairs, blankly staring in the direction of the television, as late-afternoon sun brightens the lobby of the St. James Hotel. A young father and his 5-year-old cautiously make their way up to Bobby, who's working the front desk. The father's wearing a tool belt and work boots; his son eats McDonald's French fries out of a bag. The father talks briefly to Bobby, who says, "Lemme see what I can do."
Bobby hustles over to the manager's office and explains the situation to Wanda, in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: "We got one room left, but it's not big enough for two people--it'd be violating a code or something. Got any answers, Wanda? He's got a kid."
Wanda doesn't have any answers. Heads turn from the TV toward the waiting father. The boy, oblivious to circumstances, puts the fries aside and plays with a Happy Meal toy. Soon, a small huddle gathers before the front desk. Bobby's the quarterback, but three TV watchers are now in the game:
--Hey, he can stay in my place. Just give me permission to stay down the hall with Thomas . . .
--Joey already said he'll switch with the newcomer. Joey'll move his stuff out into the cot room, and the newcomer can have his room and stay with the boy . . .
--Well, hell, Joey's got too much stuff in his place to move out. I got nothin'. Lemme move into the cot room, the newcomer can take my place, and Joey can stay put.
Keys are traded, humble smiles exchanged, television watching is resumed. The father and son take their French fries up to their room.
Renting out rooms for $12 a night, $8 for a smaller cot room, the St. James Hotel carries the baggage and assumptions that go with that kind of place. An SRO. A Single Room Occupancy hotel. A bachelor's hall. A flophouse.
But the St. James is a place that surprises people. The labyrinth of hallways, the bare-bulb lighting and whitewashed walls create a space that is visually timeless. A visitor immediately gets the feeling the St. James could inhabit any time period, from the Depression to the present; the only clue of 1990s modernity is an occasional appearance of Bart Simpson on the lobby television.
Originally built in 1928 to serve tourist and business travelers arriving in Phoenix via the new mainline-railroad connection, the St. James Hotel has run into growth that has put it in odd juxtaposition to the rest of the city. The hotel is two blocks south of the white-collar high-rise known as Renaissance Tower, two blocks north of railroad tracks that no longer carry passengers, three blocks east of Madison Street Jail and 55 paces from America West Arena. Because of this odd location, most people who stumble across the hotel do so by accident, while they are headed somewhere else. Often, those casual visitors try to avoid closer contact with the St. James in subtle ways. Couples cross to the other side of the street. Wives squeeze their husbands' hands a little tighter; the husbands stare straight ahead. Neither husbands nor wives get close enough to know the real St. James, which is a shame, because, like the stereotypical blind date, it's got a great personality.
In November 1993, Wanda and Charles Shadden were living in Denver, Colorado, "working for U.S. Motels, doin' Super 8s," when they were offered a temporary management gig by COAZ Hotel Properties, the owner of the St. James. They arrived in Phoenix at midnight and drove all over downtown, hoping their directions would lead them to something Arizona-esque, someplace with palm trees, or a cactus at least.
"When we got outside," Wanda recalls, "I just stared straight ahead and said, 'Charles, I thought they only had places like these in the movies.'"
Obviously, the Shaddens had not intended to make a long stay at the St. James.
"I was supposed to be here two weeks: train a manager, set up the paperwork; Charles'd get the maintenance done and leave," Wanda explains. Things didn't work out that way.
"It seems like we just got attached--and it happened real quickly, because of the people," she says. "This place was in such decay that anything we did was a major improvement. And with the residents--we started treating them like equals. We tried to weed out the troublemakers and kept the nice people. The long-term residents appreciated these small changes so much, and made sure we knew it.
"The whole process of living here and working here became really satisfying. You're building something and you see what your efforts can do. It's rewarding."
If it's rewarding on the whole, life at the St. James also presents specific problems seldom seen at Super 8. In the summer of 1994, for instance, Wanda got a call from a resident who complained that blood was dripping from his ceiling. Charles went to check it out, discovering that Randolph Brewer, the tenant living in the room above, had expired. Then there was the junkie whose left arm got infected--it subsequently had to be amputated--after he shot up with a dirty needle. Knowing he would be evicted if Wanda knew about his drug use, the junkie explained the infection as the result of a brown-recluse-spider bite. Wanda and Charles were ready to tear up the floor searching for the spider before they learned the truth.
And, of course, there's the former resident who is no longer welcome at the St. James. "I won't let her stay because she wants to drink herself to death at the bar next door," Wanda says. "I'm not going to serve her that drink. I'm not going to contribute to that."
If there are problems, there have also been improvements at the St. James, and longtime resident Bobby Price has seen most of them. Bobby, who has an Abe Lincoln profile, is a former automotive machinist who works afternoons at the front desk. He lived at the St. James before Wanda and Charles arrived, during a period when the hotel was "run like a concentration camp."
"Wanda's more human. She's become the mother hen around here, 'cause she just loves to take care of people. Now, for the people who've been here over time, you're bound to get to be a little more than just a tenant. Wanda's got her own family living with her in the apartment, but she created a big family here."
"Family." The word comes up regularly in conversation with the St. James' longtime tenants. Loss, divorce, imprisonment, death, addiction: Life's choices seem to have stripped away many residents' cynicism, allowing them to appreciate basics.
Hank Raines, former U.S. marshal, former military policeman, inactive sheriff's posse member and current maintenance man for the St. James, has lived there seven years. "When I came here in '89, I didn't know anyone, but I got acquainted real fast," Hank says, describing the St. James as "a workingman and blue-collar hotel. And to me, you could not find any better. Each neighbor watches out for each other neighbor. It's just like a big family, a big family, and that's real nice."
Richard Butler is a man of few words. He's prone to statements such as: "I have a philosophy about this place--whenever you see a drug pusher, you shoot him." Butler tells a tale of ditching a long-term job, pension, profit sharing and the rest of the enticements corporate America offers for the freedom of a year-and-a-half-long motorcycle trip. "I'd go where I wanted to go, stop when I wanted to stop," he says--and then his tough exterior melts. The phone has rung, like it rings every Sunday, like clockwork. It's his mom.
Joyce Bates has a small room dominated by a store-bought print of a tigress and her two young cubs in the jungle. It's up against the mirror on her dresser--a place where she can see it every morning. Joyce has worked steadily for Phoenix Civic Plaza and has lived at the hotel for five years. She says the print is the most important thing in the room.
"I moved here after living in Los Angeles. . . . My mom was here in Phoenix, took me back in and helped me get back together. The lion--that's my mom, strong and relaxed but always watching her cub. No matter what that cub would get into, she's there watching. She sees me explore and get into stuff, but she's right there to pull me right back to her. When I mess up or have a problem, she'll pull me back to safety. Just like in the painting, she never lets me out of her sight."
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Behind the front desk, at the back of the St. James Hotel storage room, is a door that leads to an alley, a narrow chunk of land between the St. James and the warehouse next door. The high building walls transform the space into an urban oasis of sorts; it's constantly shady, consistently quiet. Still, it's not your usual oasis.
Two stories of windows overlooking the alley have seeded it from above: a couple of marijuana plants that have grown tall, the spontaneous rebirth of someone's hastily discarded stash. A wet greeting card, ink faded and running, with the words, "To our son, Robert," handwritten above the Hallmark poem. A single key. A new-looking plastic syringe. A dollar bill. There is peace in the alley, but it reflects the gritty reality of life inside the hotel, too.
After spending the afternoon giving a visitor a tour of the hotel, Hank, the maintenance man, heads to the rooftop as the sun begins to sink. Looking down into the alley and then back out to the skyline, Hank sums up his thoughts this way: "Yeah, we used to have the riffraff, we used to have stealing, we used to have all the bad things. You can see that we still get some crazy people now and then, we can't help that.
"But, to be honest," Hank says, "the last three years have been one of the beautifulest times in this hotel.