For this story, you need to go back to the year you entered the real world, the working world, the man-up (or woman-up), you’re-on-your-own-now world.
For me, it was at age 21 — like many I was able to forestall my entry into it with college — but, during my senior year, I started looking for a job in journalism. After more rejection than I care to remember, I finally got an offer — to be a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
There was a three-month probationary period and, self confidence never having been my strong suit, I decided — here in what appeared to me, as an easterner, a lonely and alien land of dust and cacti — to live somewhere I wouldn’t have to sign a year-long lease.
That’s how I ended up at the Howdy Manor.
It was old even then, as were all the other little motels that lined Benson Highway — a once major thoroughfare that, when the Interstate came, saw its clientele turn from tourists to transients.
The Howdy Manor wasn’t nearly as hospitable as its name sounded, but it had a kitchenette, and it was close to the newspaper, and the price was right, given my $160 a week starting salary — $5 a night, if you signed up for a full week.
At first, it was a depressing little place, full of people I didn’t think I wanted to meet. And given my shift, I didn’t. I worked 4 p.m. to 1 a.m., spending most of that time at the Tucson Police Department, waiting for crimes to occur. (Now there’s no waiting). The captain was Linda Ronstadt’s brother, and the desk sergeant was a big man with a mustache who always greeted me the same way when I came in: “How’s your hammer hangin’?”
I was always a little intimidated by the question, and try as I might to come up with an appropriate answer — “Oh, it’s hangin’,” or “quite well, thank you” — I never did.
In the wee hours of the morning, I’d get back to Howdy Manor, lock my door, turn on the TV — I’m pretty sure it was black and white — and heat up something on the stove to eat while I watched Perry Mason reruns, until falling asleep. Around noon, I would wake up, eat, shower and it would be time for work again.
My stay at the Howdy Manor — I can’t remember now if it was for only one month or all three, before I moved into a modern, boring apartment — came during one of only two two-year periods in my life that I didn’t have a dog. I probably could have used one. I was, except for work, leading the insular life into which I’m prone to slip.
That, though maybe I didn’t realize it at the time, was why I got into journalism — to force myself into the world, to force myself to meet people, to force myself to learn new things. It was one of the best decisions I ever made, despite the fact that the industry’s hammer hasn’t been hanging too well for more than a decade now.
The point is, the time came, there at the Howdy Manor, that I got tired of being in my room, that I ventured out and met its other denizens — or at least those who weren’t bigger recluses than me. And I found them — just as I found the people I’d encounter on the job, which took me, in siren-chasing pursuit, to neighborhoods of every ilk — fascinating.
That is probably when, rather than ignoring and evading oddballs, I started seeking them. That’s when I began to realize that the common man isn’t really common at all, and I’d much rather rub elbows with him than schmoozers in suits.
So, as another leg of my six-month journey with my dog across America came to a close, I decided I needed to visit the Howdy Manor, or at least where it once stood, before my planned month-long layover in Phoenix.
To my surprise, when I looked it up on the Internet, it seemed to still exist — mostly in newspaper crime reports, some of which provided the address.
But when I hit Benson Highway earlier this week, I couldn’t find the Howdy Manor, or the address. Eventually, I realized the relevant portion of the highway, rather than having disappeared, is still there; it’s just a matter of making a couple of turns after it seemingly comes to a stop. I found the proper block and drove slowly down it — passing the Lariat, the Western, the Bucking Bronc and several other motels and trailer parks with cowboy names. But not, as far as I could see, the Howdy Manor.
The block looked a little more faded, a little more battered — but pretty much otherwise exactly as it did when I left it. It could still be 1975 there.
Today’s Howdy Manor appears even more down at the heels than it was when I — fearful and uncertain, young and naive — became a resident. It’s a little more worn and torn, and the plywood cowboy who I recall stood waving his hat in welcome is gone now, replaced by a sandwich board sign, supported by cinderblocks.
I pulled over, and was immediately approached by a young woman who asked me what was wrong. “Nothing,” I answered, “I’m just looking. I used to live here. Thirty-five years ago. It was five dollars a night.”
It’s now $99 a week, she pointed out, and $20 a night. That’s what her brother pays. She pointed me in the direction of the manager, and I knocked on the door.
A girl with blue hair and multiple face piercings opened it, and called her mother. When she came to the door, I told her I used to live there, 35 years ago, and that it was only $5 a night. She was unmoved and unimpressed.
“Do you want a room?”
“No,” I answered, “but could you give me the name of the owner? I’d like to talk to him”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“To learn more about the history of the place,” I answered.
“Why would you want to do that?”
“So I can write about it.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
Our conversation seemed to be going in circles, so I thanked her, excused myself and got back in the car, leaving a trail of dust in my wake as I pulled out.
Back on Benson Highway, I thought back to the old days, and compared them to my current ones. Back then, I managed to make it through my probationary period, to learn the ropes, and to fall in love with the desert and Tucson. After three years there, I spent 30 more in a newspaper career that wasn’t entirely undistinguished.
When I left the business, I wrote a book, and continued to write my own website, making about enough in the latter pursuit to afford the modern-day Howdy Manor, if I paid by the week.
In some ways, I’m even more insecure than I was when I moved into my motel room with a kitchenette in Tucson 35 years ago. I have no real job, no health insurance, no boss, no salary — not even a salaryette.
But, two years after departing the newspaper industry, I continue — stupidly, maybe — doing the thing I love and know how to do: seek out stories and write them. I continue to occupy, like some kind of squatter, my former occupation.
Because I’m a writer, dammit.
And that, good sir, is how my hammer hangs.