This story concludes the events of Day 3
For the first time that we’d been in San Juan, I didn’t notice the side cut eyes, the inhospitable nature of the hotel staff or the way locals looked through you as you walked by. You have to understand: I’d lived the majority of my life in Ghana and then moved directly to the South, where the culture mirrors much of old West African society. You nod, you greet, you acknowledge the presence of your fellow man in some form. San Juan – it would appear – does not share a culture of what South Africans call ubuntu, a philosophy that is made manifests in myriad ways, and maybe it was unfair of me to expect what I think is basic courtesy. But none of that mattered in the moments we spent walking from the beach to the hotel. We were high on island vibes!
Cagney pointed out the general decay in the corridor and immediate environs. You could easily tell where the Costa Bahia’s property ended and the other properties began.
“Yeah. We told y’all it was a dump!”
Light laughter ensued. I was no longer affected by any of it, still vibrating from the beauty of the day.
Adj, who was a few feet ahead of us, waved her key in front of the door and cursed loudly.
“What is it?”
“My key won’t work!”
I quickened my pace, fished my key out of my bag and waved it in front of the lock. An angry red flash of light greeted me.
“Ugh!!!” Adj grunted in frustration. “It’s always something with this hotel!”
“Just go downstairs and ask them to reactivate it,” I advised. “It won’t take long.”
Cagney, Lacey and I diverted ourselves with conversation for what felt like an eternity. How long did it take to reactivate a key? Maybe 10 minutes later, I answered my phone to my sister’s aggravated growl.
“This place SUCKS! I fucking hate it! I can’t get anyone to help me!”
She’d gone to the reception desk, as advised, where it was left unmanned. She’d let proceeded to the security desk on the first floor and informed the officer on duty that her keys were not functional. He informed her she’d have to go back up to the reception area. He could not reformat keys.
“I just came from there. There’s no one there!”
“And if there is no one there, what do you expect me to do about it?” was his glib reply.
Naturally, she was incensed.
A tall figure with a cleaning cart passed me in the hallway. It was the custodial manager, the one that Charles had previously assigned as “one of the important people” he knew in the hotel. I asked him if he could radio for someone to come to the front desk. Our keys were not working. Could he be so kind as to send someone?
“Go back to reception,” I told my sister. “Someone would be there shortly.”
She sucked her teeth and hung up.
*Keep the vibe, keep the vibe…* I repeated inwardly.
Finally, we were in our room. Cagney and Lacey were enthralled by the general horribleness of it all. Adj was still percolating fury and unable to find the humor in our predicament.
“Why don’t you go take a shower?” I suggested. I hate to see my sister unsettled, and I felt powerless to do anything about it. A warm (sputtering) stream of water was all I had to offer. She disappeared into the bathroom while we three discussed pop culture and Netflix. In time, Adj emerged from the bathroom.
“Feeling better?” I asked with a grin.
“Fuck you!” she shot at me. And not in that playful way that one does when someone steals a french fry and you call them out for their greediness. Fuck you, in the way that a random thug screams at a woman who has rejected his unwanted advances. I was stunned. We all were.
*Keep the vibe, keep the vibe…*
Apparently, my sister was stewing of the final parting shot the receptionist had lobbed at her, telling her patronizingly that “cell phones deactivate keys, so next time keep your phone away from the keys.” But both keys? At the same time? Highly unlikely.
“I’m just ready to leave,” she whined. “I’m ready to get the hell off this island.”
“Do you want me to see if we can check out and get our money back,” I asked, knowing the chances were slim but still worth the effort.
“No,” she sighed. “I don’t want them to create incidentals and then bill us for it later.”
Fine. I was going to take a shower and we could head off to dinner. By now, the sun had set plunging the city into darkness and there was no way we were going to swim in unfamiliar waters at night. When I emerged from the shower, I caught the tail end of Adj recounting some other things the staff had said to her in those 30 minutes prior. Fine, she did not want to upset the apple cart by asking for a refund, but I wanted to know why this establishment felt it was okay to treat customers this way. We weren’t the only ones with complaints. Our neighbors – a mother/daughter duo – had expressed similar concerns to ours. I wanted to know if they would be willing to share their experiences and scribbled a note to that effect.
“What are you doing?”
“Writing a note to the ladies next door for an interview.”
*keep the vibe, keep the vibe…*
“Don’t do that. That’s just weird.”
“Shut the fuck up, Adj,” I snapped.
Now she was stunned. A gloom settled on the room.
“Fine,” she said raising her hands in surrender. “Shutting up now.”
“No. I didn’t say, ‘Shut up.’ I said, ‘Shut the fuck up.'”
Here’s what I have to explain to you, Dear Reader, if you’ve made it here. People like me – people who ask questions and make observations and keep records with pictures and notes and so forth – make content so that people like you have something to read when you’re in the tube, or on a trotro or eating your bagels on a Monday morning at your desk. Of our quartet, I was the most ‘creative mind’ present. Adj does research for a living. Cagney sits in front of a conveyor belt and waxes vaginas all day. Lacey does something in accounting. So yes, while I understood why they felt it was odd for me to request an audience with our neighbors to get their take (what was I supposed to do? Send Morse Code?), I did not appreciate any of them shitting on my process. I grabbed my notebook and announced I would be back. I was going to the reception area to speak with the manager. Lacey leapt to her feet. She loved drama, she admitted. It was not my intention to cause any.
But as soon as I stepped off the elevator, whom should I see but Monica. I pulled my lips back in that smile that white folks give you when they pass you in the aisles at Publix. Inhaling, I approached her desk. Lacey perched herself on one of the lobby chairs to the left of me.
“Hi. Monica is it?”
“How are you? Listen, I need to ask you a few questions, and I promise I’ll explain why when I get the answers I need. But first, I need to share an observation with you. My sister was just down here and your security staff was really rude to her. In fact, they’ve been rude in general. The service here has been so bad that we’re ready to cut our vacation short and check out early.”
Monica narrowed her eyes behind her huge glasses. “When you say staff…you mean one person? All of them? Do you have names?”
No, I did not have names, but in my experience all have been subpar with the exception of the guy with the short ponytail.
“Yes. I know him,” Monica confirmed.
Great. These were my questions: Who owns this property? Who is the manager? Who was responsible for training the staff and monitoring the customer experience? Why did they think it was okay to charge this much a night, and treat the people responsible for keeping this establishment afloat like a nuisance? When you look around, Monica, do your customers seem happy? Do you think your customers are as happy as say, the Hilton next door?
Her answers: Arms owns the building (A lie. Arms is a security group.) I don’t have a manager. I don’t know what you want me to say. If you want to check out today, you’re free to go! You can leave. Everyone has their own issues. The Hilton is a different operation from us…completely separate. I cannot say whether our customers are happy or not because you can’t make everyone happy. Dios mio!
At this point, she picks up her cell phone, walks to the back room to make a call and leaves me thunder-stricken at the front desk. I look at Lacey who can’t believe what’s just unfolded. We wait 5 minutes before she re-emerges.
“Yeah. You can go tonight if you like,” she says.
“And what about a refund for the remaining days?” I’m doing my best to keep my composure. To keep the viiiibe.
“Obviously I cannot do anything about that, because I don’t have a manager.”
I point out that this would make her the manager in charge. Someone has authorization to make this happen. We go around this mulberry bush until the custodial manager – Danyleo, who helped me in the hallway – comes out of the elevator. Monica relays everything that has transpired and entreats him to stay, refusing from that point on to look at or talk to me.
“Why are you asking him to stay,” asked Lacey. “Do you feel threatened? Do you feel like you’re in danger?”
This only pokes the hive and soon Monica is shouting, Lacey is talking over her and Danyleo is standing there with his hands in the air. I appeal for everyone to calm down.
“Put your hands down, sir. I’m not going to eat you or bite.”
All I want to know is: If he had traveled from PR – say to Dubai – what kind of service would he want after a long flight? A warm face to greet him, perhaps? Some brochures about the area? An assurance that the hotel staff was happy that he was there and were eager to make his stay a pleasant one?
“Yes, of course,” he said.
“Well, your colleagues have done none of these things. And I’m just trying to get to the bottom of this. How long have you been working here? How long have you been a manager?”
Danyleo gave me a quizzical look. “I’m not a manager. I’ve only been here two months.”
Charles, that lying self-important puffed up bastard.
“Thank you for listening to me, Danyleo,” I said earnestly. “I plan to send an email to your reservations department with what I hope will be thoughtful suggestions that can be implemented here. Will you back me up?”
“Sure. Of course.”
“Great,” I said. I had to make this last point because I know how these conversations go when we are not in the room. “And finally: I am a Black woman. Has there been anything threatening or angry in the way I have approached you during the course of this conversation?”
I was halfway through recounting these events when Cagney interrupted me.
“Now, what was the use in you going downstairs to do all of that?”
“You knew they weren’t going to give you a refund, so what was the point of complaining?”
“I didn’t go down there to complain,” I said in measured tones. “I went do there to get some accountability – and to make them think about the way they’ve been treating us.”
Cagney scoffed. “But we just read the article today. People in Puerto Rico are racist and there is nothing you can do about it.”
My back stiffened and my eyes flashed. Wasn’t this the same woman whom hours ago had told us about how one of her clients had called her “colored” and she had to stop her and educate her about the history of the word? What in the hypocritical hell…?!
“So your solution is not to say anything in the face of injustice? Just be quiet when you see something is wrong?”
Punctuating her words with a slight roll of the neck and a hint of condescension she replied, “I’m just saying that there is racism everywhere and you can’t let it take you out of yourself. You just have to move on.”
Oh God. Cagney was part of the U-Haul Krewe. Like hoteps and Ad*s, there is no reasoning with them. So I did as I was advised and moved on, putting my attention on my phone and blocking out the room. The three other women were still chatting, but my silence was noticeable.
“What’s wrong, Malaka?” Cagney asked. “You’re so quiet. And you ALWAYS have something to say.”
“Nothing. I’m just tired,” I replied. And I was. But not in the way I relayed. “Swimming just takes a lot out of me. And like you said, I have been talking all day.”
The more I was pressed to confess what was wrong, the more I denied it. What would be the point of telling a woman that I had only known for 48 hours that I no respect for her politics, or that I thought her rolling over to be treated like trash “because there is racism everywhere” is exactly the type of attitude that would still have us sitting at the back of the bus, if not chopping cotton?
“She’s really tired,” my sister assured them. “Malaka is not the type of person to not say something when she’s upset.”
My sister could get the hell on too, as far as I was concerned.
“You guys go look for food without me. No…I’m not hungry. No need to bring me anything back. Yup. See you later.”
I kicked my shoes off and wondered how I was going to survive the next two days in this tropical hell. I could not keep the vibe.