I arrived at my home away from home on Labor Day. 

That temporary home is the San Rafael Extended Stay America – a Marin County motel just beyond San Quentin State Prison. 

The lodge-lockup proximity invites comparison, so here goes: I’ll take ESA over SQ anytime – although my daughter did suggest I use the old inmate practice of penciling days served on my motel room wall. 

Although returning to Yankee Hill for weekends, I’ll spend weekdays in ESA’s Room 312 though Oct. 15.  The reason? A month and a half of quick (10-minute) daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer. 

Guests typically stay a bit longer at Quentin. 

Cells at the prison are 48 square feet, about the size of a walk-in closet. Tenants get showers every other day and occasional exercise in the yard. The place is 168 years old. Maid service is intermittent. Some guests have been known to kill others.

This particular Extended Stay America was built in 2007. Basic rooms like mine are about 300 square feet. I pay a little more than $100 a day. 

But San Quentin is free (for inmates, not for us California taxpayers) and includes meals. 

Extended Stay America gets two stars and one reviewer called its  accommodations “straightforward.” (Translation: Don’t expect chocolates on the pillows). 

Another guest griped that his room “smelled like a wet dog mixed with a nursing home.” Mine smells like a dry dog – who just happens to be Lil. Yes, unlike Quentin (except perhaps for attack dogs), ESA is pooch friendly. 

A third Extended Stay guest complained that her room “had no lotion in the bathroom and no conditioner in the shower.” She should look at the bright side: Guests here aren’t murderers. 

One more ESA advantage: I drive home for weekends. Even the best-mannered guests up Francisco Boulevard at Q do not have that privilege. 

Escaping my motel requires a car. Escaping from Q requires planning, guile, and risking your life. But a bonus for those who try checking out of Quentin early: If you’re caught, you get to stay for years or even decades longer for free. 

That comparison done, let’s look at how Marin County differs from Tuolumne. 

First off, I saw an “Elizabeth Warren for President” bumper sticker in a shopping-center parking lot. On an electric car. 

Back home in Tuolumne County, it’s Trump-Pence stickers on F-350 diesel trucks. With gun racks. 

Also, here in Marin they take Covid very seriously: I see people driving their cars solo with masks on. What’s with that? Are these folks scared of infecting themselves? Or their dogs? 

Also, I’ve walked the San Pablo Bay Trail several times this week. There is a mask-required sign at the trailhead and I see masked-up solo hikers  so often that I’m starting to feel guilty about not doing it myself.  

My strategy: Move 10 yards off the trail and face the opposite direction when a mask comes my way. I haven’t been scolded yet. 

Marin businesses and customers also toe the line. 

Go into San Rafael’s Whole Foods, and all shoppers and employees – as they should be – are masked all the time. Don’t dare approach a checkout station until the previous customer has paid up. And then only after the cashier has wiped down the counter. 

All this said, Tuolumne County is doing a better job than Marin in controlling the virus. Our restaurants are open for indoor dining and its are not.

Under California’s Covid rating system, the virus is considered “widespread” in Marin, thus outdoor seating only. But hospitals remain open, so I can continue getting my radiation treatments at Marin General. 

In contrast, viral spread in Tuolumne County ranks only “moderate.” So last week I joined a friend for an indoor meal at Mandy’s in Columbia for the first time in months. It was wonderful.

Air quality? Both counties are terrible. 

Here in San Rafael, a surreal, dark orange-brown murk greeted me Wednesday morning. It seemed to be perpetually 8 p.m. for the rest of the day. “Great sunset,” I might have said – had I not be coughing with each breath.

Street lights and headlights remained on. Eyes watered. 

“Be very careful driving home,” a technician warned me as I left Marin General that morning. “These kind of conditions can cause bizarre behavior.” 

I made it back to ESA OK, then hit the Bay Trail with Lil for a short walk – which some might construe as  “bizarre behavior.” Thanks to smoky conditions, I saw few fellow hikers. 

But one whom I did pass, issued a muffled, one-word comment through his mask: 

“Apocalypse.” 

And thus continued this already dramatic, eventful year of 2020. 

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