Where Elvis Meets Jesus: The Surprising World of Big City Hostels in the Wake of the Great Recession

Remember your parents’ hostels – those youth tourist dorms where 10pm curfews reigned, and pancakes and morning chores were the order of the day? That world has changed. You’ll still find backpackers from afar. But as effects of the economic downturn linger, temporary domestic inhabitants are on the scene, and even more often, long-term residents who are unemployed or underemployed, transitioning between cities, or merely saving a buck.

I know. I’m a freelance writer and public relations professional, but due to unexpected circumstances, I spent some time in DC hostels and got a glimpse of a surprising America.

Hostels in the Age of Austerity

It’s early evening at Downtown Washington Hostel, a walkup dorm a few blocks from Capitol Hill. Guests lounge on generous cushions or curl up with laptops as a large TV monitor dominates a room that also serves as kitchen and dining space. The mainly Spanish and German male guests are cackling at the inane slapstick of ABC’s “Wipeout,” a reality show that combines the worst aspects of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and “Fear Factor.” The guys are savoring every pratfall and absorbing the slang of the announcers and contestants.

The scene is typical of a night in Washington's hostels, where students, young Europeans, Australian and Japanese vacationers, and other intrepid travelers co-exist with an array of Americans whose backgrounds might surprise you. Where else can you encounter a 60-year-old sci-fi novelist, a China-hopping airline pilot from New York with a masters' degree from GWU, an otherwise coherent German who insists he is Jesus Christ, a multilingual terrorist interrogator named Elvis, and a 40-something pianist who was once the toast of Boston’s nightclubs?

Hostel living involves concessions of privacy and property. Food is the first casualty. In the kitchens, guests mark their purchases in Magic Marker, but that system doesn’t work out so well. I highly suspect that the first time my Fig Newtons were eaten, and the empty box placed back atop the fridge, the culprits were among a large group of Spanish students from Carnegie Mellon. The fact that staff prepared a huge Thanksgiving feast did not save my Newtons. About a week later, same routine. 

Often, ordinary conveniences go out the window. While I am not certain what diehards such as Elvis do about their mail, I suspect post office boxes or overnight shipping stores play a role. The one time I asked that something be addressed to me at a hostel, I was never notified of its arrival.

Dealing with these small challenges is an adjustment when you’re new to this world. I lost my apartment last fall, six months after being laid off from a media firm and a month after late and insufficient payments from a freelance public relations client. I turned toward hostel quarters, knowing they were inexpensive, and in Washington, conveniently located for downtown job searching.

Post-recession slumming by professionals in DC hostels has garnered the attention of public officials as it has in New York, where the Bloomberg administration passed a measure that bans rentals that are less than 30 days and makes the use of even one apartment for transients illegal. Prior to the new edict, a majority of a building had to be occupied by transients for it to be declared illegal. "In the past, ambiguities in the law hindered our ability to take enforcement actions against illegal hotels," said Mayor Bloomberg. He has closed a group of short-term "hotels," some raids forcing residents into the street during their stays.

At the McDougal Street Synagogue on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, building owners left clients specific instructions on how to try to subvert the new law, noting in a flyer that inspections may occur and "if you inform the public official that your stay is longer than 30 days, then the public official must leave your residence and should not bother you any further" and "don’t give your receipt of payment to them."

Bloomberg said, "Now, with clear definitions and standards, we can more effectively take action against dangerous hotels." Health concerns were cited as the rationale for the New York's surprise inspections and raids, though longtime DC guests who also frequent Manhattan and Brooklyn facilities claim the city was exploiting loopholes such as sanitary issues to shut down hostels because apartment and condo developers fear the encroaching, affordable competition. At the New York Hostel 104, at 2027 First Avenue and East 105th Street, inspectors cited overcrowding, the lack of a smoke director and combustible materials inside building.

Where Elvis Met Jesus

One weekend at Duo Hostel in downtown DC, we all met Jesus. Our self-appointed savior was a German guest in mid-to-late 20s who refused to keep quiet while others watched TV. “I don’t care,” declared the savior, “you’re all going to hell, and what I have to say is more important that what you’re watching!” “That’s not very Christ-like,” observed a couple of snickering male tourists from Birmingham, Alabama. Last night, they roomed with Jesus.

During a "Jeopardy" category on German history, Jesus matter-of-factly refutes the chancellorship of Konrad Adenaur and the fact there ever was a divided Berlin. Jesus and Elvis (the hostage interrogator), bicker about courtesy, which is ironic given Elvis’ tendency to bogart the remote during late-night movie viewing. Later in the weekend, the University of Alabama-Birmingham boys, an amiable and well traveled pair that fit the foreign profile of hostellers more than most of the Yanks I encounter, regale me with anecdotes concerning the rudeness and pronouncements of Jesus. Jesus was far from the only eccentric I met in DC hostels, but he’s the only one the U.S. Secret Service was monitoring. His penchant for visiting embassies and announcing he would like an audience with President Obama -- to warn him and mankind about the earthly presence of aliens and the impending apocalypse—had gotten their attention.

When Jesus left the building that weekend, Elvis did not. Elvis, an elfin government contractor, favors films about badasses because in wartime and the Middle East, he interrogates their like. He is also brash and unconsciously bigoted, especially when he is nursing a prohibited nightly concoction of mystery booze. His regular nocturnal tube companions are a 30ish attorney from New York who never gets in before 10pm; a former journalist/news photographer in his 60s who worked for papers in Norfolk, Virginia and Denver; and a bright young employee of DC Pedicab’s cycle taxi service that shuttles tourists about who is also an atrocious snorer. Elvis snores up a racket too, but his barefoot TV watching is a more annoying vice.

We Can All Get Along

Some of the American "regulars" became familiar with hostels while traveling abroad. In the age of austerity, rather than book hotels, many stay in them in cities like San Francisco, New York and Miami, where a South Beach hostel has a bar inside.

In hostel kitchens and entertainment centers, no conversational topic is off limits, and Yanks share their observations on culture, the American social scene, their careers, and things to do and see to foreign guests. Testosterone-induced confrontation is more common between the domestic guests than between internationals and Yanks. Once guests pass the “raised eyebrow” phase that accompanies the realization there are middle-aged men who appear to know their way around the space rather well, it’s mostly Kumbaya. A typical night at Duo finds guests from as far as Australia and Brazil enjoying a DVD of the ultimate in ugly Americanness, The Hangover II, courtesy of a young Puerto Rican American who’s a recent grad student from George Washington University.

HI (Hostelling International) Hostel, a few blocks downtown from Duo (both are franchises in national chains, though HI is a much larger concern), boasts a large building -- seven stories with elevators and a full-service cafeteria. HI is home to a few long-termers, one of whom is a middle-aged woman. There is far more personal space at Duo, and the most dynamic permanent presence in the house is a kitchen employee who insists during breakfast that each guest, even the Yanks, greet him “…in a language other than English.” No buildings in the HI chain were closed during the New York crackdown, because HI is an established international enterprise, well staffed with housekeepers, and in Washington, its downtown digs are well maintained. I observed almost no regulars there. Smaller companies depend on the resident assistants and front desk staff to wash laundry, and clean rooms, kitchens, and showers.

And what of romance? There’s surprisingly little in the close quarters. Duo offers co-ed dorms because if touring couples were asked to room separately they would take their business elsewhere. You get accustomed to unisex lodging, even while changing clothes. At HI there’s little interaction between guests and front desk staff, while at intimate Duo, the manager escorts willing guests to nearby nightspots. Duo’s resident assistants sometimes imbibe with their patrons. One, a former college basketball player, confessed her attraction to me while heavily under the influence. For these R.A.'s, the fringe benefit is free digs. At some DC hostels, they are not even paid a salary, as far as I could discern. Other jobs or student stipends sustain them.

An urban hostel is no place for the judgmental. Here, preconceived notions about adult choices in life meet harsh realities. A kid with triple masters degrees who threatens every day to bolt to New York or Massachusetts to collect dated paychecks proves to be rational, frugal and well-traveled. So what if the guy who shows you the five sci-fi novels he published with a vanity press, including one about a talking dog, believes American blacks and Africans suffered oppression because they have not followed Jesus?

Though the U.S. unemployment rate has been inching down, we are still living in precarious times. Hostels are a refuge for plenty of job-seekers and folks with paid employment who are still struggling to get by. What’s the shame in paying $19.95 a night for lodging, if you can find it? A step inside confers a status of equality, along with a mandate to leave prejudices by the front door with your shoes.

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