Saturday, February 19, 2011

Tales from No-Tell Motel

 I spent 20 months as the front desk clerk at a small, suburban motel. Now I am told that my debt to society is repaid and I can rejoin the free peoples of the world.

Which motel did I work at? Doesn't matter. They are all are the same, right? Whatever your price range you can pretty much find the same room from coast to coast:

There will be a bed, or two. You have two random options for mattress firmness: “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier” (which is harder than Chinese Algebra), or "Soft Taco" ("Help! Help! I've fallen into the bed and I can't get out!").

On the bed are sheets that have been centrifuged in boiling bleach and may form a light crust if the room is not used for a day. Stretched across the sheets is a blanket. No, really, there IS a blanket there. It can be hard to spot, especially if viewed edge on, because it is thinner than a porn movie plot.

On top will be a few pillows, and here again you have two random options for firmness. Your pillows will either have the consistency of boiled mashed potatoes, or, a bagel.
Over this is an industrial strength comforter that does its best to provide industrial comfort. The design on the comforter should not be looked at directly. Look at it fleetingly, out of the corner of one eye, and then flush that eye with cold water for 15 minutes.

Also in the room are curtains in colors nature never intended and in patterns that would make a casino carpet designer wet himself. But this is better to look at than the view out of the window. You don't get a motel room for the view. In fact the only worthwhile thing ever seen out of a motel window is whatever is going on through the open curtains of the opposite room in the next wing.

There is a TV that will play nothing but depression on every channel.

There will be two paintings in the room. Van Gogh aside, there is a good reason why starving artists are indeed starving. Motel paintings are one notch below that, though. Creating a work of art that is clearly destined for an EZ8 motel is what causes starving artists to stop starving and just off themselves.

Just as laying an Extra Large egg is usually the finale of a chickens life, so too it is with artists. You step back, take a long, hard look at "harbor boats in Earth tones #8" realize you just laid an extra large egg, and you go gently unto that good night. And it does not help that the wallpaper behind “Harbor Boats in Earth Tones” is Technicolor candy store.

Off the main room is a bathroom that is devoid of any color at all and is lit by 17
400 watt bulbs. The shock of crossing over from the main part of the room (Jackson Pollack projectile vomit) to the bathroom (the 'clean room' lab in Heaven) is responsible for 15 deaths in America every year, on average.

There will be a Gideon Bible in the nightstand drawer. I witnessed many things in my motel's rooms, heard a few more, and cleaned up after several others. None of the activities in a motel room are either started because of, or stopped by the presence of a Gideon Bible.

Nevertheless every three months a nice voice on the phone would ask if I needed any more. I would always say no, but we're a little short on the Desiderata, the Vedic Sagas, the code of Bushido, and the Wiccan Rede. The nice voice would laugh a polite little laugh, bless me - I guess for my next sneeze - and hang up. And within 48 hours every room that was missing its bible would suddenly grow a new one.

So that's a motel room in the states. You don't expect much, but you know what you're getting. Same concept as Denny's, now that I think about it. Where we expect more is a Bed & Breakfast: several cuts above a motel, with a breakfast several cuts above a Denny's. But in Britain this hierarchy is reversed.  An English motel is at least a star or two above its Colonial counterpart, but a Bed & Breakfast overseas means a bed in a room in somebody's suburban row house, with a breakfast of old cornflakes with two obnoxious children who are late for their school bus. With exceptions, of course. Sometimes its a very nice place, sometimes its fruit loops and three kids.

My motel hosted a lot of European vacationers, who were always a bit dismayed at the state of the room, but being non-American they were too polite to make a fuss. When my census was full I would redirect these folks to the nearby B&B which was posh beyond belief, had an incredible ocean view and a breakfast that would make Louis XIV break down and cry. And when I sais “B+B” the Euros would give me these stricken looks like I was sending them to Binky's cell in "Life in Hell". Thank Goodness for brochures.

The brochure for MY motel featured a low-angle wide-screen shot of our kiddie pool that made it look Olympic sized. As In Mt.-Olympus-swimming-with-Poseidon-Olympic-sized.

The brochure also boasted a "Continental Breakfast", but did NOT show any pictures of that. A broken end table in the lobby with motel coffee and a pile of dusty Svenhard danishes on it must be really hard to light properly or something. I ate some of the danishes once, on a slow Tuesday night the day before payday. Afterwards I called it the "Incontinental breakfast".

The coffee though was weirdly attractive to me. It was a major mystery, on par with the timely spawning of the Gideon Bibles. The coffee was stored in a closet-sized cabinet behind the front counter. When I started working there the tightly packed little freeze-dried bags were at about eye level. 20 months of coffee later it was down to about chest level.

Which begs the question: Just how old was this stuff? There was no expiration dates on the foil packs. I asked my co-workers, and they just shrugged, and said "No se". I looked in the computer files, the manuals, the bookkeeping records. There was no record of this coffee anywhere. The stack in the closet had simply always been.  It was the breakfast beverage of Lovecraft's elder gods. I had stumbled upon The coffee of Cthulhu. The motel must have been built around it.

And, not surprisingly, given its pre-record-keeping age, it was completely tasteless. I used to force eight packets of coffee into the machine instead of one. Partly to make the eternal stack in the closet go faster, and partly to try and kick start some taste into it. Didn't work. The pile never seemed to go down, and the only effect on our guests was that they checked out in a blur and peeled rubber out of our parking lot.

Front desk is a lonely job with constant interruptions. When I came on at 3pm every other employee in the place left. It was just me and 54 rooms of fun for eight hours, until the overnight person showed up, which happened now and then. I met hundreds of new people each week, and none of them wanted to meet me.

I was simply a barrier to be dealt with so they could go pee.

A few tips from the other side of the counter:
1) Don't plan a party at a motel. Or a reception. Or a superbowl get together, or a bachelor blow out. The geometric nature of motel architecture means that 4 or 5 other rooms are sharing walls with you. Enough complaints and I WILL throw you out, no matter how many bong hits I am offered. Actually in my years of motel service the very loudest parties were always the senior citizen ones. Failing hearing aids trump alcohol-fueled bellowing every time.
2) Firing up two hot plates and a hair dryer is not going to elicit any sympathy from me, or from the occupants of the rest of the suddenly dark rooms.
3) Don't call down to the front desk and say "Please call me a cab." Because I am only going to answer, "Okay. You’re a cab!" Used that one over 200 times and never got tired of it.
4) "No Vacancy" is not the Exact Science it would seem. There are more levels of full than the nightly census would seem to indicate. I am full if its Graduation night in my college town. No leeway there. I am full on Saturday nights in summer - except for the couple of rooms kept aside for reservation screw-ups, sob stories, and people too drunk to drive. I am full on a Tuesday night when the parking lot is empty if you blast through the front door with major attitude, an open container, and a voice that blows the plants off the counter. "Sorry" I say, deftly flicking the "No Vacancy" sign with a hidden swipe, "we're full".
5) Bring your own coffee.

What goes on in a motel? Yes. Everything that you can ever imagine going on does go on. And you might be sharing a wall with it. The ironic thing about the universal Ugly American Decorating in American motel rooms is that it is apparently one hell of an aphrodisiac. Illicit sex? Pre-marital sex? Extra-marital sex? yeah yeah yeah. But also local monogamous sex. Couples would check into my motel with local addresses, giddy faces, and their own pillows from home. Go Mom & Dad!

On Thursday afternoons an old Lincoln Continental would pull up at around 1pm. Checking in was a rich woman of 'a certain age' who would order a suite and pay cash. Precisely ten minutes later a battered landscaping truck would appear. In would walk a strapping young groundskeeper who would ask for "Mrs. Smith's" room and take the other key.

About two hours later I would see the Lincoln pull regally out of the parking lot, and precisely ten minutes later, the landscaping truck. All cliches begin in truth. Go grandma!

Of course I also broke up some 'domestic disturbances', got to know a few sad families who now had no home to go home to, and befriended my share of battered wives who had finally had enough. "Sorry, no one checked in with that description. Try the Motel 6." Fantasy Island was sometimes The Burning Bed.

My favorite guests though were the groups of, shall we say, casual businessmen. Informal cash-based agriculture engineers. For a few weeks they would stay in a corner room (but never open the drapes), have a lot of visitors and take a lot of phone calls.

The reason we liked them is that they were exceptionally tidy, always paid their weekly bill on time (cash; all 10's) and they were very, very quiet. And then late one night one of them would rush down, pay the tab, and they would vanish. For a few weeks at least.

So it was a lonely job, but never dull. The nature of the Hospitality industry is that you are constantly surrounded by people who are going someplace. Sometimes just vacation, sometimes a radical life change. Sometimes up, sometimes down.

But I was going nowhere fast. Late at night, after the overnight person failed to show up again, when all was quiet, you could hear my little brain cells dying, one by one. Plus I was getting hooked on watching 'Cops'. So I checked out, knowing that I now have a job skill that I can use anywhere, and hoping that I never have to.
Angus McMahan

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