Staying at the Best Hotel in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco is a sociologically informative experience. The Best Hotel is splendidly located only two blocks away from the two ASA conference hotels and it is relatively cheap ($120 per night as opposed to $300), booked only ten days in advance; yet, I am guessing, it is not among the most desirable housing options for conference participants. The hotel reviews depict the place as located in an area where homeless people, drunks, and drug addicts loiter. Some reviewers even report bed bugs, which horrifies a San Francisco friend of mine most of all. While waiting for my room to be ready−I was being treated to a brand new bed [a sigh of relief!]−the manager, who is also a concierge, repairs guy, and anything else that he needs to be, regretfully informs me that “My only problem is the homeless and the drug dealers in front”. Indeed, the place isn’t that bad. The room is large and clean (I am not a fan of the smell of the cleaning products used but I can live with that for a few days, I try to convince myself). It has a bathroom en suite, free Internet, and coffee 24 hours: the traveler’s essentials.
The first morning challenges my poise though. One of the cute little conference outfits I had been so happy to pile in my suitcase makes me feel uneasy when I leave the hotel and walk the one block to Mason street, which separates the “good” part from the “bad” part of the neighborhood. The dark-blue business-casual dress matched with a white cardigan, red flats, and nylons, contrasts flashingly with the baggy jeans, tank tops, and sports jackets of the residents hanging out in the neighborhood. After eyeing me continuously, one man greets me with an exclamation, after I pass by him: “Good morning!” I barely have a chance to respond with a confused “Good morning” back, when a woman looks me over and mumbles something disapprovingly incomprehensible. I try to breathe normally and maintain a fast and steady stride as I make my way through the block. Beyond Mason street, I feel a tension release and realize my body had internalized a sense of fear of the downtrodden. Then, I start to wonder: ‘Who is really more in danger, they or I?’ (But notice the distinction this statement already implies.)
That evening, upon hearing about where I am staying, a male colleague insists on walking me back to my hotel. Despite some hesitation, I accept the offer. As we walk down the block, I now worry about his possible reactions. I can sense his unease and mistrust of the folks around us but hope he would stay cool, which he mostly does, besides an abrupt step back to avoid the closeness of an overly eager beggar. ‘And we are sociologists,’ I am thinking.
On the third evening, I walk back by myself. At the door of the hotel, I am greeted by a woman who tells me a well-rehearsed story of distress and asks me for money for food. I can’t tell if she is bored, troubled, amused, or intrepid. I nevertheless listen to her and decide to give her a couple of dollars. She looks at me with disbelief: “Thank you for not judging me!” she says and with a bitter laughter continues: “If I were you, I would judge me.” She then shakes my hand. The hotel manager/concierge, who is waiting at the top of the stairs, probably worried about why I hadn’t reached the lobby soon after he buzzed me in, asks me if I gave her money. “They carry diseases,” he says. “Immediately wash your hand!” He insistently repeats the command several times, which makes me self-conscious of my hand and I actually follow his command when I enter my room.
Every morning and evening as I leave and return to my hotel are instances of discomfort, dare, olfactory displeasure, appreciation of my fortunes, and sadness of the misfortunes of others. I catch myself counting the number of times I need to go through the experience. Then, I congratulate myself for the courage to stay at the Best Hotel, which in turn makes me feel guilty.
Why did I decide to stay at the Best Hotel after reading its reviews anyway? There are certainly reasons for that. Finding an affordable place in San Francisco in August not too far from the conference hotel ten days before traveling is not easy. Basically, the Best Hotel was the only option I could find that did not exceed my conference budget. Why only ten days in advance? Couldn’t have I planned it better? Well, that is where being a foreign body comes into play. I recently defended my dissertation and moved to Chile for a postdoc. As I citizen of the (former?) second world with a now expired student visa, I needed a new visa to come back to the United States for the conference. I couldn’t apply for the visa until I got to Chile a month ago. And I couldn’t book the hotel (because the affordable prices are nonrefundable) until I was sure I was getting the visa. Having to apply for the visa and enter the United States on a visa qualifies the otherwise privileged position my experience with the Best Hotel reveals.
The bureaucratic annoyance of the visa application, however, was nothing compared to my actual entry into the United States. Upon arriving in the country at 5 a.m. on a Wednesday, I was “greeted” by a border protection agent with a series of questions. I expected to be asked about the reason for my visit, where and how long I was staying but I did not expect to be asked about how much money I had [the question being accompanied by a rubbing of the agent’s thumb against his index and his middle finger]. The agent then asked me about my student immigration paperwork, which I presented to him. I forced myself to happily inform him that I had recently graduated. He hardly looked at the paper informing me that I did not need it any more. So, ‘why did he ask for it?’ I thought, ‘I was on a different kind of visa.’ He asked me if I had looked for jobs in the U.S. I answered affirmatively but said that I had opted for the position in Chile. Again, he rubbed his thumb to his index and his middle finger: “Does it pay well?” “It does,” I responded. “And it allows me to do what I want,” I was starting to raise my voice in frustration.
The last question the border protection agent asked had something to do with smoking, I guessed rightly or wrongly. I did not actually hear the question: the agent had lowered his voice to an unintelligible level. He made what I perceived as a smoking gesture by approaching two fingers to his mouth. My frustration rising even more, I heard my voice saying loudly and firmly “I don’t understand you, sir. Can you speak louder?” My tone I imagine combined the entitlement of someone who had lived in the United States for years and who had just acquired a PhD and a gainful employment with the rightful indignation of being treated as a second class person through a series of humiliating questions and gestures. ‘This again?!’ I thought experiencing the familiar feeling of shame and anger resulting from a hurt dignity, which I had felt years ago upon crossing international borders before my second-world formerly socialist country became part of the European Union. This time, however, I was not going to let “them” do this to me, the instantaneous internal thought-response followed. Luckily for me (or was it really luck?), another border protection agent approached, offered the first guy a gum: “Here you go, buddy!” and conciliatorily offered to take over my processing. The first officer accepted the gum, mumbled something along the lines of “No, I’m going to take care of this,” handed me my papers, and let me into the country.
My little journey to and through the Best Hotel is a subtle indication of the place my body occupies in the world pecking order of categories of human beings. As a white educated and employed person, I have the privilege to travel to the ASA city and to expect some level of comfort and respect during the trip. As a privileged person and as a woman, I am encouraged to worry about my personal safety in the city, particularly in areas occupied by predominantly non-white downtrodden people. As a holder of a passport from a second-world country, however, I present a danger for the American labor market and am, therefore, shown my second-class place in the world through border crossing processing.
We tend to think about mundane occurrences such as those I describe above as politically inconsequential. For me, however, mundane occurrences like these define me as a world political actor. As I move through the world social space, I am shown my place in the world and come to understand myself and my “interests” in relation to others. I and persons, more generally, thus experience our placement into hierarchically organized categories through embodied practices. (At least some of) the categories appear to be sealed onto the body through (negative) emotions. The emotional memories associated with the categories we are placed into then have long-lasting consequences. They color the way we see the world, limit our options, and orient our “choices.”