I stayed two nights last week at an Airbnb in South Berkeley, a looming purple house just off of Ashby Avenue, separated from the road by a dense thicket of vegetation. It was cheap, around $45 per night. I was filling space between six days of catsitting in the city and a weekend trip to Arizona. The listing touted a “hostel-like” experience, five rooms for rent in a shared space. The hosts, M. and A., were responsive and detailed in their communication. I was hopeful.
I checked in late on Tuesday night. I was promised a painless self-checkin, and it was. The row of lockboxes bolted to the house, one decorated with a blocky letter matching my designated room, provided me my keys. Inside I found an L-shaped hallway with five doors, “A” through “E”. Near the entrance was a small counter atop which sat an electric kettle and microwave: the “kitchen”. At the end of the hallway I found a tiny room with a shower stall, an aluminum washbasin wedged into another corner. A metal hose light snaked out of the plaster wall like an oversized reading lamp, a bare light bulb on its free end. The hallways and my bedroom alike were sweltering, a inexplicable contrast to the invigorating cool of the East Bay night.
My bed presented itself as the sole piece of furniture available for relaxing on. There was no common space, and, met by four closed doors, I couldn’t determine whether additional guests were spending the night. I lay on the bed and listened to the sounds of the house around me: the muted bass tones and frenetic pacing of a television in the room above me; cats fighting in a yard nearby; later, just before I drifted off, the front door, guests entering. Sound in our confined quarters did not travel so much as exist in perpetuity. Mercifully, my exhaustion carried me into sleep.
Wednesday morning I left the house without incident or interaction. The other guests, if I’d not imagined them in my pyretic delirium, had left early or hadn’t woken. I did not hear from my hosts during the day, was not asked if everything was as expected.
The next night I arrived late again, prepared, this time, to do nothing more than sleep. I could hear guests the second night: a couple in one room, giggling; a guy in another, talking on the phone. I left the next morning, having not had the opportunity to meet the hosts or any guests.
Actually, that’s not entirely true.
The night of my arrival, turning onto the small side street, a man was walking toward me as I approached the house. We passed each other in front of the driveway but both stopped, hesitating.
“Is this number…,” he began. I couldn’t see a house number, but figured there was not likely to be an abundance of purple houses with tiny forests in front of them.
“I’m nottttttttttttt sure,” I said, starting toward the side of the house, “I’m checking into an Airbnb.”
“Oh! Yea, me too.”
Together we found the lockboxes and I retrieved my key. We met: “I’m Mike”; “Hey, I’m Wayne”. Wayne was in room “H”, a letter we quickly deduced to be outside the range of options presented to us. We ferreted about the small alcove, shining our phones into the ivy and briars crawling up the fence that abutted the house, willing a camouflaged lockbox into being without success. After five minutes we relented and returned to the Airbnb description sent by our hosts.
“Walk down the driveway and push through the ga… ohhhhhhhh.” The gate, one we had presumed to be locked, was indeed not, and Wayne’s room lay deeper into the compound. We wished each other a nice night, and he pushed the gate open to resume his journey.
This interaction, brief as it was, proved to be the highlight of my two-night stay. A moment of humanity and kinship, even if fleeting. The listing, it goes without saying, was less than what I’ve come to expect from Airbnb. I would not return.
Why, then, have I just stolen precious minutes of your life to tell you what amounts to me complaining?
Because it’s a compelling reminder of why people are the crucial ingredient to feeling at home on the road. In the absence of people—hosts, fellow travelers, friends—the focus shifts back to the environment: the room is too hot; there’s no common space; the bathroom is dingy. In the presence of these people, the complaints often fade into the background. On one end of this spectrum are the historically successful hotels, which provide comfortable, if sterile, spaces for the period of time we spend away from our heart people. On the opposing side are the couches of friends we will gladly crash on without complaint.
The comfort (or lack thereof) of where we sleep the night pales in comparison to wishing somebody goodnight with a smile, of waking up in the morning to chat over coffee. The medium of these two scenarios is why platforms like Airbnb have succeeded, and acknowledging this felt important after my last stay.
In a toss-up between environment and people, irrespective of comfort, I will endeavor to choose the latter every time.