Airbnb. Russian Roullete for lodgers. No, really. There's at least a 1-in-6 chance of landing in some freakish abode. Before Airbnb, travel accommodation was as dull as ditchwater. Four walls, a roof, a bed, a television, and a mini-bar as dry as dirt. Oddly, the more you paid, the less you got. A cheap and nasty motel; the kind of place where a wand of blue light reveals caked bodily fluids from decades of orgies, and heinous crimes, comes with free Wi-Fi. While staying in anything over three stars, and you were forking out a fortune for a wake-up call.
Then along came Airbnb–a couple of fellows with the idea ordinary people could make money renting out couches to vagabonds. Miraculously people with sleeping spaces the size of matchboxes immediately turned into professional photographers. Capable of proffering Potter's staircase hovel as a suite in the Bellagio. Not only could they use a camera, but they could also write copy to shame Ogilvy: "Situated in the vibrant heart of Dublin...". Translation: that part of town where drunken Irishmen fling bottles at each other until dawn.
I couldn't help myself. I spun the barrel and pulled the trigger...
'What do you mean you burnt the body! I told you not to burn the body! Marlie's clothes were on the body!'. The young woman holding open the door had a round face, wore glasses and had her hair in a bod. She reminded me of Velma from Scooby-Do; short, curvy and oddly attractive. Behind her, a neanderthal cross hipster–or are hipsters just neanderthals–bellowed down a phone. Sweet Jesus, I thought, my number's up. I've booked a room with Toronto's Manson Family.
The lounge looked like the inside of a serial killers cabin. Severed limbs and skulls, hacked and bloodied, were scattered across tables and chairs. It was a room that defied any order or elegance. Trophies of victims; tiaras to typewriters, occupied every possible space. I crossed the threshold as the neanderthal ended the call. 'Sorry about that,' he said, 'I'm Bob. Can I offer you a beer?'
Bob and Marlie managed props for a crime series. A show about unhinged cyber freaks who hookup online and hatch horrific plans to hack up their loved ones. The body was a dummy made of Chicken Wire, stuffed with paper and dressed in Marlie's sweats, and the severed body parts convincing props. Bob and Marlie turned out to be one of my favourite Airbnbs, second only to an eccentric Italian photographer and his deranged cat. We spent long warm summer afternoons negotiating kegs on the patio and short freezing winter nights clutching cigarettes and red wine on the porch. They even invited me to their wedding. An intimate event at a little cottage in the woods; property acquired through their Airbnd windfall, and an invitation I politely declined.
It's not always about the host and the accommodation. Dodgy neighbourhoods are part of the excitement. On a visit to Odessa, gripped in the teeth of a blizzard, barely surviving on a diet of vodka and caviar, a Russian insurgent blew himself and a nearby apartment to smithereens. Our Airbnb was so warm and comfortable; we didn't even bother going outside to investigate. We cracked open a bottle of Ukranian vodka, courtesy of our host, and wished the Russian lunatic farewell: "Na Zdorovie!". Then, when the storm cleared, we dug our car from six feet of snow with a plank we'd peeled from some vagrants shack and skidded our way back to Romania.
Speaking of shacks, I once booked into a London squat. My host was away, so his German flatmate met me outside the Shard to hand over the keys and give me the rundown. 'This one unlocks the front door, this one your room. It's on the first floor beside the bathroom. Make yourself at home. I'm in international banking so only get home late.' The German went back to trading with the Americans, and I took off for his place where the kitchen looked like the galley of a breached battleship; greasy dishes and half charged glasses tumbled from the sink and covered the countertop. It wasn't the first place of this sort I'd hung my hat in London. There was a place in Camden billed as a 'working home'. Working home, I should have heeded the warning; a film of grease clung to the entire apartment. These are not the sorts of places one wants to prepare anything for human consumption. I found my room, a space no bigger than a postage stamp, and deposited my luggage outside the door. There wasn't room to swing a cat, let alone store a suitcase.
After dinner, I returned to my squat to discover The German racking up lines of Bolivian marching powder while his Indian flatmate syphoned up leftover glasses of wine... or whatever else the degenerate could salvage from a scattering of wine glasses. While The German upheld London's reputation for having a financial system powered by drug fiends, the Indian fellow, an aspiring marketer, recovered a bottle opener from the kitchen and we opened a bottle of the ridiculously overpriced plonk I had bought on the way home. We held court in a back garden smothered by a lawn of cigarette butts, drank wine, smoked cigarettes and bonded over stories of being strangers in a strange land. When I eventually turned in for the night, I discovered a pair of pink panties in my bed, which after untangling from my ankle with a coat hanger, I considered selling to some deviant online. A way of recovering my expenses and potential medical bills. Instead, I flung the offending item into a dusty corner, covered the bed with towels and slept, levitating inches above.
Of the fifty plus Airbnbs I've inhabited, I've only had a handful of odd experiences. I use the word 'odd' because they haven't been bad experiences. Just windows into peoples lives. Strange lives and experiences that one doesn't soon forget–that make for good fodder for writing.