The Hotel Yates sat squatly near the corner of Yates and Douglas streets in Victoria, sandwiched anonymously between the Birks Jewelers on the corner and a long row of small retail shops.
Although it had scores of rooms jammed inside in its upper levels, the Yates presented a surprisingly narrow face to passers-by. It’s smallish, dark lobby opened into the bright and cheery “Guv’nors Arms Pancake Restaurant” next door. The two establishments complemented each other: The pancake restaurant added some light and life to the dark, pensive confines of the hotel, and the hotel anchored down the energy a zillion silver dollar pancakes and countless syrupy smiles from kids like me and my little sister Kim.
Our grandfather, Poppy, was the Manager of the Hotel Yates, working behind the reception counter in the lobby. Lined up against the wall across from reception, stood a row of small, dark wooden chairs, propping up various elderly residents of the hotel. They were the aged, long-time guests of the Hotel’s quiet hospitality, waiting out their afternoons inside deeply lined skin; they were infinitely wise, watching their surroundings with distant, unblinking faces and slightly watery eyes. There was a quiet dignity in those faces that fascinated me then, and still impresses me to this day. It seemed that “the Yates” was a sanctuary for Victoria’s aged citizens: sons and daughters of World War One, fathers, mothers and taxpayers of World War Two and beyond. The Yates was where, for one reason or another, each of them had to spend their final years, and Poppy, or Mr. Clarke as he was known respectfully to the residents, was their caretaker and protector.
On a couple of occasions, my sister Kim and I were dropped off at the Yates during the day. Seeing where Poppy worked and seeing the inside of a live Hotel was a real novelty for me.
The Yates Hotel must have been around for a long time, since it had an old fashioned, manually-operated elevator, the kind with the crank handle and the accordion-style steel gate that you had to slide open and closed by yourself. This was no simple, push-button affair – you needed someone who knew what they were doing to get around the hotel in this old contraption!
On my first visit to his work, Poppy took me along on his one of his regular duties: to inspect the elevator motor. He led me into the old elevator, pulled the steel gate closed with a loud clang, and then demonstrated how the crank handle had to be pulled to the right to make the elevator go up, and to the left to make it go down. It was very difficult for me to push, so Poppy letting me put my hand on his while he did it.
As we started up to the top floor of the hotel, I could feel the elevator vibrating under my hand. It shook and wobbled a bit, and I thought about the cable that Poppy told me was pulling us up. I listened to the whine of some engine far above us gradually getting louder and louder.
At the top floor, we stopped and got out. It was so much quieter up on these higher levels, I noticed. The light was low, and I looked at the dark surfaces: door after anonymous door, stretching up and down the hall in both directions. I felt like I was sneaking around somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be, but since Poppy was the boss I knew it was okay. I felt proud to be allowed along on one of my grandfather’s important duties.
Poppy led me across the old carpeting to a small stairway on the other side of the hall. We went up a narrow flight of stairs, and stopped at the top, in front of a nondescript door with a small sign on it. Poppy pulled out a huge ring of keys, opened the door and called me to follow him inside. This was the room that contained the elevator motor. I had imagined a huge wheel with a cable looped over it, maybe like the clothesline pulley over the back porch at Poppy’s house. The room was dark, mysterious and a bit scary, but my curiosity won out and I followed Poppy inside.
The noise of the large elevator motor was striking – a loud metallic hum or buzzing. I was sure that this was a place that rarely saw any visitors. Poppy switched on an overhead light and I saw some large dark grey metal shapes. I stayed next to Poppy while he briefly studied a label and peered into some equipment. After a few moments, he said “Okay, let’s go”, and we went back down the stairs. As we went down to the lobby in the old elevator, it sounded different to me; more familiar. It was a sound I now felt that I somehow understood. I had glimpsed into how it worked, and it had made me feel special.