Friday, March 20, 2015

Hotel Fenex


My name is Scott Martin.   I'm an ex-military type who couldn't cut it in the real world... I woke up one morning and said, 'screw this'… I sold what little I owned, bought a small diesel auxiliary sloop and bailed out.   I was running from some crap I had no answers for... I thought maybe if I tried to catch up with a sunset or two, I might figure it all out.
Back in 1982, I brought old Gypsy limping into the town of Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.   Now I live aboard my sailboat with my main squeeze... Barbara.      Most of my old friends had written me off as a long lost bum...

My lady friend and I had been out for over a year, mostly sailing and hanging out in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos.   Our on board stores were down to the dredges and my pockets were empty.    I was still making a boat payment in those days, and sending money to my daughter every month.    After it was all said and done, I usually collected a little over fifty bucks on the first of each month when Uncle Sam paid me for the twenty years I had put in Americas biggest canoe club, the US Navy....


I had about fifty bucks in cash when we entered the harbor one afternoon.    The port was pure third world... old, broken down and generally squalid, and when the wind died off... the smell of garbage and sewage could be overwhelming.   Still looking up at the rolling green hills and the peak of Isabella De Torres with its huge statue of the Savior guarding the city and harbor, I was glad to find refuge.    Gypsy's little diesel was belching dark gray smoke and I was feeding her more oil than I could afford.    Her sails were a little ragged too... I had been hand stitching torn out seams for months.   As we came around the big Customs mole, I spotted the ancient concrete pier that the transitory yachts tied up to... It had seen better days, but having been in Puerto Plata in the past, I knew that this was all there was to offer.   Anchoring out, only invited the thieves to have a field day.     At least the old pier was controlled by the Port Commandante and he controlled everything and everyone with an iron hand.


There was a serious surge that could roll into the port when huge swell waves from the Atlantic swept up against the land mass of Hispaniola.    Not only were the conditions untenable, but severe damage could be caused to any vessel that was not properly moored.


We dropped two big anchors off Gypsy's bow, at approximately two hundred feet from the pier, then backed down, stern to... then we set out two stern lines, and two springs which we eventually added two old automobile tires as shock absorbers, finally mooring Gypsy over thirty feet from the pier.     We used the dinghy to ferry ourselves back and forth.    We knew it would be impossible to stay aboard Gypsy as we were downwind from the towns main oil burning power plant... an antiquated monster whose scrubbers and filters had long ago wore out, a plant that was all ready old in the forties.   The constant trade winds dumped fine, black, soot on everything in its path....


Back in those days there were three hotels which catered to the expatriates that lived in Puerto Plata...    The Hotel Castilla, built of wood around the turn of the century, was about five blocks up from the waterfront on Calle John F. Kennedy, and was owned by a Spanish guy from New York, named Jeff.   The street level bar was right out of a thirties movie set... rickety overhead fans lazily stirred the humid afternoon air... you almost expected Bogart or Sydney Greenstreet to arrive at any moment.   The rooms, like most of the expatriate hotels, were ratty little cubicles.


Charlie's Hotel Palacio was a block down the street, on the second floor one of the first Spanish colonial style cement buildings built in the thirties.   Charlie was the grandson of the original owner of the building.   He went to school in Miami for a couple of years and fell in love with progressive jazz and Steely Dan.    Charlie had turned me on the esoteric lyrics and style of the group years earlier when I had first met him.    Charlie was a little weird, but a good guy.     Charlie's bar was popular with the older crowd because Charlie wouldn't allow any whores in the place.



Then there was Trenton Fenex's place.... the Hotel Fenex.     Trenton liked to call himself, a cowboy in paradise.    Trenton was a cowboy of sorts...  he had been raised on a ranch in Montana, his grandfather's ranch, actually.     But Trenton was carrying around a lot of emotional baggage he picked up in Vietnam.     He was one of those guys that just could not let it go... he was obsessed by the experience, and it did not help that he stared everyday at the urn the held the ashes of his best friend, Teak.      Trenton and Teak and been young marines back in the thick of the Vietnam War...    They had been tracking a Viet Cong patrol one beautiful morning, with the air soft and sweet, the sky a stunning blue, and little white cotton ball clouds drifting along overhead.     Teak, whose skin was a rich caramel color, like fresh oiled Burma teak he was named for, stepped on a land mine laid out the night before.   He was killed instantly... a mangled mess.      In an instant, all his dreams, hopes and fantasies of the future were brutally gone....  but for Trenton, it was a moment that would never let go... it became a nightmare that invaded his every moment....    and Trenton then found refuge in booze and drugs.    A Huey gunship picked up the marines and Teak's body...  his remains were sent back to the states, where eventually, they were cremated.    Trenton had gone home with Teak and met the family, a long lost aunt and uncle.     Trenton had asked for Teaks remains...


Trenton was down and out in Miami in the late seventies when his old grandfather died.  Trenton's share of the estate was a little over a hundred thousand dollars...    Trenton managed to drink and suck up threw his nose over fifty thousand before he committed himself to a rehabilitation program...   Trenton did get off the coke, but he would never beat the booze.      Trenton knew he had to get out of south Florida or he would surely take another fall, so he packed his stuff into a couple of bags and bought a ticket to Puerto Plata.    He had decided to buy a small hotel.


Trenton found an old two story bar made of wood from dunage almost one hundred years ago which was close to the waterfront, where transit sailors, fortune hunters, vagabonds and expatriates from the world over hung out...   the area was rough, rundown and seedy, but Trenton saw his little hotel in the making.    He paid to much, as all gringos do, and it cost too much to convert it to his fourteen room hotel, bar, and restaurant... but he finally opened the doors in 1980.    There were ten tiny rooms upstairs, each with a double bed, a night stand, a chest of drawers and one straight back chair... and a fan... the monthly rate was seventy-five bucks, US.   Of course everyone shared the rooms with the roaches and the mice... hell, it was dry inside...   Downstairs, there were four rooms with attached bathrooms and showers... these rooms were exclusively for the use of the whores that had made Trenton's bar their place of business... working the single men that were passing through.    Trenton's barman, Santini, handled that part of the business for Trenton.    The guests renting the upstairs rooms used a common bath and shower located next to a small central open air patio, off the kitchen, where coffee and breakfast was served.    The patio doubled as the dinning area at night, or you could eat inside at one of the tables around the bar.


Trenton had a private apartment, with a television, a video player and a stereo radio.   Trenton must have had a couple dozen John Wayne movies; his favorite was the Green Berets...  Trenton watched it a couple of times each week, and had memorized every word old John spoke...   he liked True Grit, too.


My lady and I moved into one of the upstairs rooms and quickly became part of the little family of expatriates...    And what a group we were...

There was Bruno... a long, tall, gangling guy, who was the bad boy of a wealthy family from Switzerland.    Bruno loved to play and sing American rhythm and blues on his guitar... then he loved the drink beer and study languages.    Bruno spoke five and was learning Spanish from a long haired dictionary.    The family had bought Bruno a small sailboat and gave him a monthly stipend, and sent him on his way.

Dante was an Italian kid from Philadelphia...    It was rumored he had knocked up some Mafioso's favorite daughter and skipped town...   it was also rumored there was a price on his head...   Dante was always broke, mooching off the whores or hustling tourista ladies out at the beach hotels north of the town.

Cap, who told everyone he was a captain in the merchant marine, ran a little Bar-B-Que joint over by the Malecon.    He served ribs, French fries and cole slaw.     Cap had put the minimum down payment on a thirty foot sailboat in Charleston, loaded up his gear and left.    He never made a payment.    Cap stopped in Haiti, had some counterfeit ships papers and bill of sale made up, and then sailed to Santo Domingo where he sold the boat to a rich Dominican.    He used the money to start the restaurant, and lived at the Fenex.

Solomon was a jolly fat man who was Cap's cook.    Nobody knew much about Solomon.  He wasn't particularly wise, but he must have been great in the sack, because most nights, his girlfriend made loud noises of apparent ecstasy for what seemed hours on end.    Sometimes, some of the others would beat on the wall, but all you would hear from Solomon's room was laughter....


Rachel was an anorexic Jewish girl on the bum... she claimed to have been around the world with a backpack...   Rachel was always poor mouthing, but always had the money for beers and a meal.    Since she was single and unattached, she got a lot of freebies at the bar from hopeful single guys... sometimes a guy got lucky.

Maria, was a timid little bird... she was a refugee from El Salvador.   Her family had published a small newspaper, in the town of Santa Anna.    They had been murdered by army death squads, and she had escaped with the help of friends in the underground to Honduras, then on to Santo Domingo.   Trenton had met her on a business trip shuffling government paperwork, and brought her back to the hotel.   Maria did maid work and acted as an interpreter for Trenton... her English was perfect, and Trenton gave her a room.    Maria had applied for a visa under political amnesty, but so far, she had heard nothing.    

        Then, there was Lucky Diamond.    Lucky was an accomplished artist and a big time drunk.    Lucky had ripped off some blank checks from his sixth wife, cashed them for some very large numbers, and split.     Everyone thought Lucky's luck would one day run out.   He was also a very obnoxious drunk and had pissed off the local Police Captain... He could very easily wind up fish bait some night.

        Cecil was a real ex Army Special Forces guy who had sliced off enough Viet Cong ears to make a necklace.   He had also sliced off some other body parts that he liked to stuff in the dead guy's mouth.    Cecil was a giant man, weighing over two hundred fifty pounds, still mostly muscle...    He would swill down three or four El Presidente beers before his first cup of coffee, then order up a half dozen eggs and a bunch of bacon, with  a half loaf of bread.     Cecil had taken his GI Bill and went to New Orleans where he enrolled in a Culinary Arts school and became a chef.    I would run into him later, when he was working at the Frenchman's Reef in St. Thomas.

        Patrick was a retired CIA field officer... Middle East Desk.    Pat had a solid pension, and no worries, except for his seventeen year old main squeeze that bled him for all he was worth.    Angelica had been one of the whores working the bar when Pat decided he wanted her all to himself.    Now, Pat paid Trenton a premium price for one the of the ground floor rooms that he and Angelica lived in.     For Patrick... it was the screwing he got... for the screwing he got.

         And last, but not least, was a nut case by the name of Crazy Billy.    Billy had been a postman in Ohio, or some place.    He was crazy like a fox.    Billy claimed that a dog had attacked him on his route one day, causing him to fall down a drainage ditch.    He claimed he injured his neck and back...   Billy, filed claims and grievances until, along with his doctor, who he was also badgering daily, the Postal Service caved in and gave him a medical disability pension....        Crazy Billy up and left his wife and family fifteen odd years, bought a ticket to the Republic claiming he had no intention to return.  The whores at Trenton's bar loved Billy.



The routine of living at the Hotel Fenex became habitual after a couple of weeks....  I would go down to the pier each morning and spend a couple of hours working on Gypsy, then meet back at the bar for a couple of beers.    I had determined that the diesel was going to require a small overhaul...   The biggest obstacle would be getting the parts shipped from a dealer in St. Petersburg, Florida.   There would be some palms to grease before I got my hands actually on them.     I needed more money than what was available, unless I wanted to spend the next six months saving it up... little by little.

        When I retired from the navy, I needed some time to re-adjust... I had the GI Bill available, so I enrolled in a technical school in north Florida and studied General Contracting for a year.    At the end of the school, all I had to had to do in order to be licensed, was sit for the exam in Tallahassee... but, I didn't see the point.    However, the education would prove to be invaluable, and now I put it to work, picking up small jobs that the locals wanted done right....   I was working for pesos, the equivalent of about three bucks an hour, but in a town where I paid a helper or laborer, five or six bucks for a days work... I wasn't complaining.    Soon enough, we were eating, drinking and generally living better, and more importantly, I ordered the engine parts on my credit card, knowing I could pay for them.

        It was about this time that Patrick approached me with the idea we rent a little casita, a small wood shack on the Malecon, and open a beach bar.    Seems his main squeeze, Angelica, knew a guy who knew a guy...  oh, we would have to pay out some mordita... some cash to the right people, but it seemed we could get operational on a hope and a prayer... and maybe a couple of promises thrown in.    The local police captain would be the first guy to see.


There were several dozen little casitas spread out along the waterfront, selling beer, rum and fried finger food.    The towns’ people loved to talk and walk up and down the street, stopping for refreshments.  The weekend was the busiest.    The only other competition was the central town plaza.

        We finally cut a deal with the owner... and paid everyone that held out their hand, but the deal was done.    Pat and I got the place cleaned up and painted the outside... we had a guy paint a sign that said, Los Amigos.     There was a small wood deck built right over the sand which was attached to the shack, where we were able to set up six small handmade wood tables and chairs.    The place was shaded by some old and weathered false almond trees, and the waves were breaking a hundred feet below us.    We also had room for five barstools on the street side serving counter.    Pat brought his cassette player and I brought all the working cassettes from the boat....all American artists... rock, be-bob, and jazz.     The rest of the casitas up and down the Malecon were playing traditional Dominican music... meringue and salsa.    There was a beer cooler in the place which we had repaired... pumped in some gas and a couple of seals...   my lady friend came up with the idea of doing New York style hot dogs, so we found a little store that sold cheap electric crock pots, bought a couple and almost overnight, we were in business.    We found a meat supplier who sold jumbo sausages.   Then we found a small baker who made up some pan de aqua buns for the dogs...   Barbara also suggested we do Texas style chili for the dogs....  right on, we said.     We ordered a load of beer, some small pint size bottles of assorted rums, which we sold as setups, with cokes, lemon, and ice.     A couple of nights later, we opened the joint and was an immediate success.    All the gringos came out the woodwork; the Dominicans that liked hanging out with the expatriates and practicing their English, also came...  we were packed and sold out almost all our stock....    Pat and I were counting our pesos....

        We ordered our replenishment supplies daily from a generally wholesaler... a couple of hours later, a guy with a horse pulled cart would show up and unload the stuff.   Pat and I took care of the perishables ourselves.

Within a day, a local cop showed up and established routine of having an afternoon snack and a couple of beers, then another couple of plainclothes cops started hanging around at night...  sometimes they paid a few pesos on their bill, most of the time they 'forgot'.    It was the price of doing business.    Still, all in all, we were doing OK... we were getting into Trenton's knickers too...

        As the weeks passed, Barbara and I were actually beginning to live off the casita, and were even putting a few bucks aside.    I could let my navy pay ride in my account back in the states...   we had it made... or so we thought.         I had bought a variety of small paints, black, red, blue, green, yellow... and a couple of art brushes.     We let anyone paint a small flag of their country on the outside walls of the casita....   After a while there were a dozen or so of the small painted flags adorning Los Amigos.     One night, five cops with guns arrived and banged on the counter, shouting, and gesturing wildly....    One of the Dominicans said they were shutting us down....    Why?  We asked... what have we done wrong?     Well, it seems that the Mayor was insulted; that there was no Dominican flag painted on the casita...  it was now apparent, they watched our every move.     The following day, we went to the mayor, and apologized profusely, claiming to be just ignorant gringos...   We finally resolved the problem by painting a Dominican flag above and larger than the rest on the casita.   We re-opened that night.


The weeks and months passed.    Then one day a ratty Dominican I knew sided up to me and informed me that the Federalies were going to bust our casita... the old marijuana throw-down routine... and arrest all of us... there would be big fines...

        I asked the snitch when this was going down.... he didn't know... but, soon, he said.

        Of course, I told Patrick... and he talked to Angelica, who told him it was bullshit and not to worry...  I knew better....  and I told Barbara... it was time to sail.

        I cut a deal with Patrick.... for my half of the business....basically, we totaled up our assets and he paid my half... I think it was about three hundred bucks...

        It took about a week to get Gypsy ready to sail, and the night before we got underway, we had a big party at the Fenex Hotel.... all the gang... the motley crew...

        We made port several days later at Santa Barbara de Samana, on the extreme eastern end of Hispaniola, anchoring in a palm lined cove off the main bay.

        Someone had sent a message with a publico driver to the Port Commandante's office...    Trenton Fenex.... the cowboy in paradise, had been killed the night we had sailed... on Halloween.    Trenton had got totally fucked up on the booze and decided to take a motorcycle ride at midnight... he hit a black bull in the middle of a country road....    His body was three hundred feet from the broken bull and bike... someone said he looked like he was just passed out... you know Trenton... except for all the blood.

Then Teak came and took his friend home...