It was a dead body. A disemboweled carcass. A decapitated prostitute. An Indian burial ground. A sacrificial altar festooned with the cadavers of a hundred virgin corpses. No matter what, it was a dead body — must be a dead body — and I stood before the room as ready as I would ever be.
I wore two layers of latex gloves, a surgical mask, and a heavy-duty trash bag for a poncho. I always knew I'd find a corpse at this hotel, and apparently my time had come. The odor seeped through the doorframe and insinuated its way into my pores. I slid the keycard through the lock and entered the room, preparing myself for the carnage within.
The room had been occupied by a guest named Anna, who first checked into the hotel two months earlier. Her arrival had been fairly inconspicuous. She was a slight woman with black hair and a lightly tanned complexion. The only thing distinct about her was her desire to appease each and every member of the front desk staff, a behavior prevalent among guests planning to stay for a long time.
The hotel's policy discourages such guests, because after 28 days they become legal tenants and it becomes difficult to get them out without reverting to court orders and other messy legal options. But at the time Anna arrived, occupancy was waning and we were taking whatever we could get.
She didn't need to try hard to evoke the sympathy of the staff. Nor did most long-term guests, as many were very lonely people. Nothing demonstrated Anna's loneliness as succinctly as the night before Thanksgiving in 2008, when I saw her using all the strength in her slight frame to haul a turkey through the lobby. When I asked what the enormous bird was for, she explained with an uncertain smile that it was for her kids who she hadn't seen in years, just in case they decided to visit. As far as the staff could tell, they never did.
Hard luck afflicted most of the hotel's long-term guests, and Anna was no exception. A few weeks after Thanksgiving she was stricken with a severe case of psoriasis, and a few weeks after that we had to kick her out. She was thousands of dollars behind on rent. To no one's surprise, when we went to boot her she was already gone, probably having fled down the fire escape.
But the next day a panicked housekeeper approached the front desk. She explained how she entered Anna's former room and was immediately overpowered by a terrible smell. The odor was so strong she said it made her nose bleed.
Our housekeeping staff was known to exaggerate, but I decided to investigate anyway. As a precautionary measure, I enrobed in the aforementioned protective layers — a tactic I had had to use on more than a few occasions during my tenure at the hotel.
Yet any skepticism regarding the housekeeper's account evaporated as soon as I entered the room. It stank like a morgue. The air was viscous, thick with a smell totally alien to my senses but which nonetheless triggered some reptilian cranial sphere that registered it as that of decaying flesh. It was silent except for the ominous droning of dozens of flies.
First, I checked the box spring, well aware of the urban legend concerning a prostitute's corpse. Nothing. Likewise the closet and under the bed. I'd exhausted every option but the one I dreaded most: the bathroom.
As I made my way toward the commode, the dread and nausea increased. A sickly sliver of yellow light seeped underneath the door. Here, the smell was strongest. My stomach clenched like a fist. All my senses were saturated with the pungent odor. Worst of all, I was salivating for reasons I couldn't explain and my saliva tasted like the room smelled. Cautiously, I opened the door.
There, in the sink, my worst fears were realized. Arranged in a vaguely purposeful manner were a tiny heart, a tiny kidney, and a tiny liver, along with other entrails forming what appeared to be a double-helix atop swirly patterns drawn in blood on the linoleum.
Then, the origin of the smell: Beneath the sink sat an enormous turkey, uncooked, disemboweled, its peeling yellowing flesh decomposing before my watering eyes. Maggots were eagerly devouring its skin, so many that I could hear their tiny chewing sounds.
I lifted the bird up, sending a platoon of maggots raining onto the tile floor. I grabbed it by a drumstick, but the skin slid off its leg with a sickening sucking sound — thwup! — sending the carcass crashing to the floor. The collision caused bits of liquefied flesh to careen through the air, splattering onto my trash-bag poncho.
I stood there for what seemed like a long time, considering the significance of the arrangement of the entrails and the textural intricacies of decomposing flesh. Finally, I got around to the most important question: Why was I working here in the first place?
Welcome to Oakland's Jack London Inn, which the popular travel site Trip Advisor called America's second dirtiest hotel. It earned its lofty title earlier this year, not just because of hygienic concerns, but also because of its problems with drug-dealing, prostitution, and the intermittent discovery of such things as a decomposing turkey carcass. It may not be the dirtiest hotel, but its deterioration was striking, and it's certainly not as fancy as its web site suggests.