Inside the Dirty Inn

An ex-employee's story of how Oakland's Jack London Inn came to be called one of America's filthiest hotels.

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.

It’s hard to pin the hotel’s ill repute on a single entity. But it appears that the owners chose not to invest much money in the Jack London Inn because they planned to tear it down and build condominiums. That fact, as well as the saturated hotel market, the slumping economy, and demand for cheap, short-term housing, helped turn what was once a decent hotel into a place described as “filthy beyond imagination,” “cringe”-worthy, and “disgusting,” according to some reviewers on Trip Advisor. One of the owners of the hotel called the accusations “hogwash,” but speaking from first-hand experience, I can say that such descriptors told only half the story.

The Jack London Inn opened in February 1964. The nautically themed hotel contained a lounge, restaurant, swimming pool, meeting areas, and one hundred rooms. It hosted fashion shows and featured live music in its lounge. The hotel also promised soundproof walls to combat the noise of the train running fifteen feet outside its door. Much to the chagrin of today’s guests, especially the light sleepers, that promise remains unfulfilled. In 1967, Oakland Tribune columnist Perry Phillips had high hopes for the hotel after a refurbishment: “The Jack London Inn is in full swing again. … It’s nice to see the JLI back with us once more. Its strategic location brings many a visitor to the Jack London Square area.”

Up until a few years ago, the hotel’s reputation remained largely unblemished. Owned and operated since the 1980s by a company called Ivy Oakland, the Jack London Inn wasn’t exactly vibrant and thriving, but it possessed a steady customer base. The manager at the time, Henry Bose, made ends meet without much of a struggle.

In those days the hotel’s profits heavily relied on contracts with large companies. “At the time we had big contracts with Union Pacific and Amtrak,” recalled Michelle Bert, who held many positions at the hotel from 2004 to 2009, including general manager, director of operations, and controller. “They used up to thirty rooms a night. Even during the slow months we had that extra buffer zone. Henry did everything he could to keep those contracts up and going.” Besides blue-collar workers, the hotel’s clientele included business travelers and tourists who didn’t want to pay Marriott prices, added Bert.

In 2005, Jack London Towers LLC purchased the property from Ivy Oakland. They contracted a new management company called Integrity Management to oversee day-to-day operations.

In the long term, officials at Jack London Towers LLC had their eyes set on something bigger than a five-story budget hotel — namely, they wanted to build an ambitious condominium. According to Frank Maggi, who became manager of the Jack London Inn in 2006, they intended to demolish the property and construct a 27-story skyscraper. “I think it was a three- to five-year plan to where what they call breaking dirt,” said Maggi. “In the meantime, the plans were to keep a hotel running and try to lose as little money as possible, or break even.”

According to blueprints, the condo project was to be the crowning glory of Oakland’s port, an announcement of the city’s eminent arrival on the global economic stage. “Mayor [Jerry] Brown really liked the project,” said Nick Maggi, owner of Lancar Development and part owner of the Jack London Inn, who’s also Frank Maggi’s brother. “He wanted to pursue it and keep it going.”

While the condo project was in development, Integrity Management, owned and operated by Bill Harris, attempted to keep the hotel afloat. But it wasn’t easy. It was a tough economy, even for a budget hotel, and the situation only worsened when Union Pacific, one of the most reliable sources for revenue for the hotel, cancelled its contract.

And then there was Hurricane Katrina.

Harris offered the hotel as a refuge for displaced New Orleans residents. On the surface, it appeared to be a fortuitous deal. In exchange for consistently high occupancy rates the hotel relaxed its policy on long-term residents. The rooms were paid for by FEMA and other government organizations. “During the Katrina era we had in excess of $100,000 dollars in the bank,” Bert said.

Some of the displaced lived at the hotel for months, and some for more than a year. Families of five were crowded into rooms with two double beds. At its peak, more than forty New Orleans families lived at the Jack London Inn. The hotel achieved maximum occupancy on a regular basis. It was the perfect arrangement for the inn’s owners, who seemed content to merely bide their time.

But eventually FEMA cut off funding to the hotel’s Katrina residents. Frank Maggi was forced to ask the remaining evacuees to leave.

At that point, the hotel’s remaining appeal was its price. “It was a low-budget hotel, but it wasn’t really dirty,” said Frank Maggi. “The curtains looked old, the sheets looked old, and everything looked old. But it wasn’t really dirty.”

The hotel’s aesthetic shortcomings were exacerbated by the large families living in small rooms for extended periods of time. Jack London Towers LLC appeared to remain focused on the site’s ambitious future and declined to spend much money renovating a hotel that would soon be demolished.

“They started talking about how they were going to make upgrades and remodeling but that never happened,” Bert said. “My assumption is that they weren’t in the hotel business to be in the hotel business. They just ended up with it. They didn’t know what to do with it.”

Jack London Inn co-owner Nick Maggi disputed that assertion — to an extent. He said that the owners have “always been engaged in making the hotel the best it could be,” but in a way that made financial sense. “To make it into a four-star hotel and then tear it down — that didn’t make sense at all,” he said. Still, he said that the owners were committed to making it “clean and operable for what the hotel was.”

“There was always remodeling going on there every day,” said Nick Maggi. “Anything that was damaged, we went to the effort of repairing it. … The management put a lot of money into the hotel.”

In any case, the owners’ efforts fell short. And there’s evidence that their decisions set the stage for the hotel’s dramatic decline.

Explaining the precise logic that led me to work at the Jack London Inn is difficult, but at the time it seemed like a good idea. In the beginning of 2008, I lived in one of South San Jose’s nondescript, sprawling suburban communities. The characterization of the area as a haven of boredom and malaise is a stereotype I won’t contradict.

The first time I strayed into Oakland, it was hard to not romanticize the city’s gritty character. While the suburbs felt prepackaged, Oakland felt teeming, bursting at the seams.

Also, and probably most importantly, I was friends with the son of the manager of the Jack London Inn and was pretty much guaranteed a job at the front desk. I was hired in the summer of that year.

My first few weeks were uneventful. The front desk staff consisted of five employees, mostly Oakland natives. A front desk jockey’s most coveted skill is that of the schmooze, the ability to talk to anybody about anything and make them feel at home. To that extent the hotel’s staff was exceptional. Although the hotel’s online reputation lies in tatters, most reviewers — even the ones postulating it as a previously undiscovered circle of Dante’s hell — regarded the front desk crew kindly. Acknowledging the increasing number of complaints regarding dirty towels and sheets, management encouraged the staff to be as accommodating as possible and act as a sort of counterbalancing measure.

To varying degrees the staff liked or loathed the hotel for the same reasons any employee hates his or her job. The hours are too long or not long enough and the pay’s never enough. But unanimous among all was the sense that the hotel had seen better days.

Within a few months of my employment, the fiscally induced anxiety at the hotel was palpable. After the summer, patronage seriously dropped off, to the point that often, during the week, only 15 of the hotel’s 111 rooms were occupied. At that point management’s most pressing concern was paying the bills, an increasingly difficult task.

“The hotel was constantly on the brink of poverty,” Bert said. “Not being able to pay the bills also meant not being able to buy towels and sheets, not being able to replace things as needed. So there was this constant juggling of, ‘What is the most important thing to spend our money on?’ And if what we needed was new towels we’d do it, but if we could put it off for a few weeks we would.”

The fewer clean towels and sheets, the more stressful the job became for the front desk staff. An eight-hour shift felt like serving in a war zone, with employees constantly embroiled in battles with combative guests. Some employees handled it better than others. Reports of blood-stained bathroom walls or stinky hallways came to the front desk daily.

Besides aesthetic concerns, the hotel’s socioeconomically diverse clientele proved problematic. Often, out-of-towners would be deceived by the hotel’s web site depicting (even today) a classy-looking establishment set to a smoothly swinging jazz soundtrack. Such appeared to be the case with an elderly middle-class white couple that checked in one weekend. Clearly, they didn’t read any online reviews. They entered the lobby expecting a low-budget Marriott, but instead confronted an atmosphere that would have given Charles Bukowski pause.

It was up to me and my co-worker Chemise to assuage their anxiety. It’s a task I never handled well. Whenever people asked what to expect, I advised them not to walk around barefoot. But Chemise schmoozed adeptly and usually sent her customers away starry-eyed.

One night after her shift ended, the elderly couple phoned the front desk, where I was working until 11 p.m.

“What kind of hotel is this?” the wife asked at a volume usually reserved for the outdoors.

The Jack London Inn’s biggest issue wasn’t its meager accoutrements but the constant awkwardness tourists felt when confronting a segment of society they weren’t accustomed to interacting with, much less living with. As it became necessary to lower the prices to remain competitive, an increasing number of socially marginalized people populated the hotel. Japanese businessmen and Midwestern tourists dropping hundreds of dollars at Yoshi’s mingled with drug dealers and prostitutes, to vastly varying results. The undertone of the interactions was often racial, with white tourists made uneasy by the overwhelmingly black clientele. That was the insinuation in the case of the elderly couple.

The couple opted to remain bunkered in its room, occasionally making a call to the front desk to frantically inquire as to the nature of a raised voice emanating from the hallway, or a loud bumping noise in an adjoining room.

Toward the end of my shift I got a call from the customer who had checked out of the elderly couple’s room earlier that morning. She wondered, in a shyly hushed tone, whether housekeeping had found anything worthy of note. I told them I needed more details.

“Well, we left an object in the room…. It’s kind of embarrassing, but, um … well, it’s a big, black dildo,” she explained.

I froze. An impulse to laugh was quickly stifled by the image of the elderly woman being horrified by the discovery of the sex toy.

I had to act fast. I called up to the room. The phone rang and rang. Minutes passed until she answered with a panicked, “Yes, what is it?!”

I said I needed to get into the room to retrieve an important piece of housekeeping equipment before my shift ended. They refused, insisting that no one enter the room.

I told Bob, the onsite security guard, about the situation.

“It looks grim,” he said. “Can you imagine what’ll happen to that old lady when she finds that dildo? She’ll have a heart attack.”

Little did he know how well I could imagine, indeed.

It seemed that only one recourse remained. I dashed up the stairs in the urgent manner I was becoming quite accustomed to. I paused in front of the couple’s door, wondering how best to execute this delicate operation. I decided the best option was to knock loudly enough to wake them up and shout, “Room service!”

It didn’t occur to me at the time that this elderly xenophobic couple was far more likely to be disturbed by a late-night banging at their door than by the sight of a sex toy. A vast silence followed the knocking. I knocked again, to no avail.

I ran back downstairs and grabbed the ringing phone. It was them. The wife was in an absolute panic, screaming that someone just tried to enter their room and rob them and rape them and murder them and consume their flesh and perform pagan rituals with their discarded bones. “Call the police!” she demanded.

I explained that it wasn’t a rapist-murderer-cannibal, but was actually just me. They were having none of it. They just wanted to sleep, be left alone, and get out of the hotel as soon as possible.

The next morning, after my shift ended, the couple checked out, but not before registering a complaint with Chemise about the completely unhinged front-desk person trying to get into their room at eleven o’clock at night.

“Oh, and before we forget, someone left this in the room,” the old lady said, as she set an enormous black dildo on the counter.

Six months into my employment at the Jack London Inn, the character of my experiences changed abruptly from absurd to endlessly depressing.

Learning a lesson about the value of long-term clientele from the halcyon Katrina days, management used a travel agent to contact a magazine sales group and drew up a contract with them. The contracts varied, but usually guaranteed a month-long occupation of 30 percent of the rooms. To my eyes, it signified the hotel’s apparent increasing willingness to sacrifice integrity for a quick profit.

The crew of magazine salesmen traveled around the country and consisted mostly of black 18- to 25-year-olds considered to come from “at-risk” backgrounds. None of the numerous magazine companies that contract with these groups were available for comment for this story. In recent years the business model has come under scrutiny. A 2007 article in The New York Times describes the trade as “entirely unregulated” with persistent abuse, fatal accidents, violent crimes, and rampant drug use. The web site claims the industry has resulted in more than eighty documented deaths and more than three hundred documented felony cases.

We referred to the sales crew as Nightcrawlers. The crews spent their days in far-flung suburban communities around the Bay Area, knocking on doors and trying to sell subscriptions to magazines that no one seems to read anymore. Only at night were the crews free to do as they pleased, but their budgets restricted them to the hotel and local cheap dives. So they spent their time wandering the hallways at all hours of the night. Because of this we segregated them from the other guests — the Midwestern tourists, businessmen, and all the other customers who generally weren’t coming to the hotel with the intention to settle for the long-term or establish an amateur slanging business.

Monthly quotas kept the Nightcrawlers on edge, as either bad behavior or anemic sales numbers placed them at risk of expulsion. Such a fate was especially dreaded because the company, upon firing employees, would buy them a plane ticket to the place where they first met up with the group. As that place often wasn’t the employee’s hometown, it was the equivalent of condemning many of them to homelessness. Sometimes discharged employees, with no other place to go, would sneak back into the hotel at night and sleep in the ballroom. We called them ghosts, and as sad as it was to see them around the hotel, it was always sadder when they simply disappeared.

Around this time, merchant mariners made up another large portion of the hotel’s clientele. These men spend inordinate amounts of time at sea, cruising across the Pacific in steel behemoths for the majority of the year. Returning to shore is a liberating and disorienting experience, resulting, for some of them, in a slow decline toward booze and women. It’s a gross stereotype, but the kind that’s hard not to believe in after two years at the Jack London Inn.

The mariners protested the most vocally about the influx of petty crime such as the occasional car break-ins or the common smell of marijuana wafting down the hallways. Their complaints were often tinged with racial undertones, as the mariners were mostly white.

One mariner, in particular, contributed to the atmosphere’s mounting tension. His drinking was a nosedive into alcoholism. His mattress was frequently shat upon, and the lobby’s meager collection of lamps and cheap furniture suffered his drunken stumbling terribly. While one of the increasingly rare families of legitimate tourists visiting Oakland checked in one day, the mariner stumbled out of the elevator and stood for a moment, swaying back and forth as if he were held upright by an invisible thread. The perimeter of his face disappeared into a dirty cloud of beard, from behind which his sodden eyes bore in my direction.

As the family was leaving the lobby, the mariner produced a comically oversized knife and snarled, “I’m gonna gut me a nigger.” He proceeded to pace around the lobby, detailing the ways in which he was going to make good on his threat. I called the police, who apprehended him a few minutes later in front of the Home of Chicken and Waffles, a restaurant around the corner from the hotel.

Meanwhile, the Nightcrawlers for the most part kept their noses to the grindstone and did their best to behave in a way that wouldn’t get them fired. A fight broke out here and there, but it was understandable considering that the crews were housed five or six to a room. Most guests didn’t see or hear fights or drug deals, but the Nightcrawlers’ very presence unnerved them.

Soon afterwards I left the Jack London Inn to work a new gig at a hostel in San Francisco, where I met an English woman who became my wife. Shortly after our wedding, I moved to London for six months where I worked as a freelance writer.

When I returned to the Bay Area I was jobless and in dire need of cash. Having heard only rumors about the sorry state of the Jack London Inn, I went ahead and applied for a position. I was totally unprepared for what I encountered.

The hotel’s struggles had only increased. The worsening economy coupled with a growing reputation as an unsafe hotel effectively ransacked the Jack London Inn’s revenue. In response, the owners brought in a new management company in 2010.

Marin Management operates dozens of hotels, including Ramada, Holiday Inn, and Sheraton‘s Four Points brand of boutique hotels. No one from Marin Management would comment for this story; the company’s policy is to not speak to reporters.

It’s difficult to guess what went through the heads of Marin Management officials when confronted with the ignominious Jack London Inn, but doubtless their first priority was to bring in cash, and lots of it — quickly. Incoming manager Ronald Prasad had a lot on his plate. According to Michelle Bert, he inherited more than $30,000 in debt. To cover the shortage, management opted to slash the room prices by half.

For years the Jack London Inn hadn’t even attempted to compete with the big hotels. As Frank Maggi put it, “It’s tired. It’s a tired old hotel. We were a budget hotel. If you couldn’t afford $150 or $100 a night, which a lot of people couldn’t, it was the hotel for you.”

In his managerial days, Maggi kept the room rates above $60. Dropping that rate by half posed a new challenge. When I started working at the hotel again it was glaringly apparent that the prostitutes and drug dealers we once relegated to the hotel’s inconspicuous corners now dominated the clientele. Two weeks prior to my rehiring, the front desk had been held up at knife point and one of the new employees was punched in the face while trying to break up a fight.

A couple weeks into my redeployment the front desk phone rang and a worried tourist said she heard a fight on the second floor. Bob, the security guard, was on it, but by the time he got there the instigator had left, but not before punching out a light fixture and dragging his bloody fists all along the hallway. A forty-foot-long trail of blood stretched from his room to the back exit.

I again donned my old uniform: two layers of latex gloves, a surgical mask, and a trash-bag poncho. I seriously reconsidered my decision to rejoin the Jack London Inn.

Besides cleaning blood off the walls, I spent my time behind the front desk, not feeling any particular desire to leave my comfort zone. The weekend night shifts were the worst. Come four in the morning, it became obvious how rife the place was with meth and prostitution. The hotel didn’t just feel dirty or overly lived-in. It felt dangerous.

The deal-breaker came at the end of a relentlessly tense night shift. A parade of squalor, despair, and drug addiction marched through the lobby until the sun rose. That morning after I’d counted my drawer and was preparing to leave, a tearful girl approached the front desk and told me I needed to call the police. She looked young, maybe in her early-twenties. Her face was swollen and red and her eyes darted around the lobby. She explained that she’d met up with some guys a few days earlier and they’d tried to force her to work as a prostitute from one of the hotel rooms. She said she was sixteen.

The girl was so terrified of the men that we hid her in a vacant room until the police arrived. After I headed home, the police came and placed her in a shelter, but not before she told the front desk staff that she made the whole thing up.

I’d had my fill. A few days later I got a job as a tutor and left the Jack London Inn without giving notice.

Jack London Towers LLC still plans to convert the site into condominiums, but according to Nick Maggi, it’s a matter of waiting for the economy to improve. “It’s hard to say what you’re going to do in the future, not knowing what the future is,” he said. “There’s new players down there now so we have to revisit them to see who’s still interested in doing a project like that. We’ll be reintroducing it when the timing is right, even if we don’t know that we’ll be doing the same project.”

That leaves it up to the current management to turn the game around. According to an inside source, the hotel is now profitable for the first time since the Katrina evacuees left. But its reputation threatens to undermine that progress. Thus, management is left with a difficult decision — that of taking a harder stance on the activities enabled by its current policies and alienating much of its profit base, or letting things continue as they are and risking the further implosion of the hotel’s reputation.

In the meantime, according to Nick Maggi, management has begun making some upgrades, which would seem to indicate a desire to reverse the hotel’s fortunes. But it’s difficult to say if it’s a case of too-little-too-late. New furniture, beds, paint, and carpets certainly leaven the hotel’s tired, unhygienic appearance, but there’s no denying the sordid past, or the strong presence of prostitution and drug dealers that plague the hotel’s reputation. Until a stronger stance is taken on these issues it’s difficult to imagine that the Jack London Inn can escape its notoriety. Plus, the Internet remembers everything, and one of the top results of a Google search for “Jack London Inn” reads “America’s 2nd dirtiest hotel.”

My own misadventures at the hotel and the countless stories of the Jack London Inn’s other employees may not appeal to the tourists and blue-collar workers that once comprised the hotel’s client base, but they may attract the intrepid. Michelle Bert put it best: “It used to be a place I’d recommend to my friends and family, but not anymore. Not unless they were looking for an adventure.”

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