03 April 2009

Motel Fantasies

We’ve all got our fantasies. One of mine is a little kinky. It involves motels. No, not sex in motels, nor copping drugs in motels, nor Quentin Tarantino-type scenarios in motels. This is more about motel architecture. CHEAP motel architecture.

Not so much in LA. In LA, if you stay in a cheap motel, you’re taking your life in your hands. Sirens will be the only pleasant sounds you hear. You’ve gotta stay somewhere that’s at least $140/night, which can sap your resources pdq. In LA I had to tone it down, stay at the chains, pretend I was a business traveler...

But when I drove a few hours north, to San Luis Obispo, I knew I could indulge this little fetish in ways I had heretofore previously not even considered. For San Luis claims to have INVENTED the “motor hotel.” And with lots of still-extant vintage structures, it can fairly be called a motel mecca.

This lovely innovation occurred back in the 1950s—you know, boom time (for all those under the age of 10, that means a time of relative prosperity)--when Americans had the bucks to make road trips, and a stop squarely between San Fran and LA felt just about right. SLO proudly asserts that the country’s first such place was its Motel Inn--though it was little more than a Spanish-style fa├žade backed by a withering pile of Tyvek when last I visited. Which probably would have pleased J. Edgar Hoover, as he thought motels the hotbeds of Communism. The rest of the country simply considered them hot beds—that rented by the hour.

Anyway, after I’d spent a few nights at another cheap motel, the Travelodge--which lacked defining features except a hugely chemically smell, some cigarette burns on the bathroom sink, and insulation so poor that I slept with the pillow wrapped around my ears for 3 nights so I wouldn’t hear my neighbor’s TV-- I stumbled onto the Peachtree Inn. Which Margot immediately dubbed “the Beachtree,” probably because it had been so long since she’d seen a beach, and anything that was this close to the water must be a relative. Although at first glance I thought I was staring down another El Cheapo, I quickly realized that I'd stepped back into a time warp. The entirely-too-civil owner handed me several large gold room keys (not a plastic card!) and gave me my choice of rooms built around a lovely courtyard. From a massive tree was suspended a large swing. On another patch of green grass were 3 Adirondack chairs in which families relaxed and, get this, read books.

That sold me.

You could sit literally for hours in those chairs, which believe me I did ‘cause I was Kentucky-fried, and stare off into the mountains, read a book, nibble on the cookies and pretzels that were left out in the kitchen all day long, and simply ponder your fate. I felt like I was 10 again, and at the lake with my parents. Except no one was fighting and I wasn’t getting pushed into freezing cold water and tossed into a canoe that leaked.

In the late 60s and early 70s, my family and I had ventured out to nearby upstate NY and PA, and stayed in small motels, where yellow signs boasted “Color TV,” a Fresca machine sat proudly behind the motel office, reservations were recorded with Bic pens on index cards, and a cool stream seemed set to perpetually burble right next to the property. (And people even used words like “burbling” to describe it.) This was that kind of a place.

Every morning I would get up and go to the breakfast room, where they had bad-for-you cereals that my Whole Foods-inured palate hadn’t seen in years, like Honey-Nut Cheerios, which I’m betting no real bee or real almond ever got near. There I would actually talk with the motel staff and guests. You could eat inside, where a radio station played songs Pet Clark never even remembered recording, or go outside on the back deck and appreciate the ever-temperate weather and revel in this kind of spring-morning, good-to-be-alive feeling. I was rabidly content. When I left, the woman at the front desk asked, “Didn’t you check in for just one night about a week ago?”

Truth is, I adore motels. Given the opportunity, I might just live in one for the rest of my life. I love the rituals of motel life--the maids coming around in the morning with their carts full of fresh white towels and miniature soap bars. Love the bad fake eggs and worse coffee at the free breakfasts. Love watching people pack up to leave, and the silence that descends around the property at about 1 pm, when many have checked out and no one new has yet checked in. Deeply enjoy the feeling that I am perpetually on vacation and don't have to worry about the mundane aspects of life. All is neatly contained in one little room, complete with plastic coffeemaker, bedside Bible, color TV, and complimentary shampoo and conditioner.

There’s something slightly decadent about staying even in a decent motel, and something titillating about checking into one that’s a pinch sleezy. I’ll never forget the Broadway Motel in Eugene, OR. Now, I have to say that I find Eugene overall to be rather edgy. The place scares me—it just does. There’s a lot of what my mother used to call “a bad element” hanging around. The Broadway sits right on the main drag as you enter town on your way to…packs of distraught hippies and students hanging out by what seems to be a bus stop at every corner. It’s a macadam blacktop-and-pool, cut-through-on-your-way-home, next-to-the-fried-chicken typa place. For some reason, it was highly rated on Trip Advisor, maybe because by Eugene standards this is the cat’s meow. But after spending a couple nights in an idyllic cabin in the woods, it was one of those joints that made me sigh heavily and say, “It’s fiiiiine. Reeeeeallly. I’ll just bring in my sheets.”

Motels were often built at midcentury and have cool old fixtures, which is why we find them quaint and charming, like Chevys with fins. I liked the gilt-flecked mini-tiles in the bathroom, the old mirrored medicine cabinet, and all the mint green and pink flamingo-like touches that just shriek, “It’s 1958, and my family’s on VACATION!”--even in urban Oregon. (Maybe in 1958, charming Eugene was the cout d'etat of Pacific Northwest vacationland, I don’t know.) I enjoyed a bit less the rocking chair/toilet, the showing-its-age shower, the spots of something black in the grout, and the…well, we’ll just close the door and hope they don’t make their way out in the middle of the night and join me in bed…

It’s good I never travel with a microscope.

So, after inspecting the premises and giving them a good sniff, I concluded that this was probably par for the Eugene course and it was only going to be one night and I wouldn’t be spending much time there anyway and blah blah blah, and took myself into town and had dinner.

On my return, the scenery had vastly improved, as the hot July night had prompted the opening of several doors, mostly of rooms filled with single guys in wife-beaters sitting on their beds in their boxers smoking and watching the tube while running their hands through their greasy hair. I’m never quite sure what this behavior is about—and why beautiful Latinas with long black curly hair and doe eyes don’t make this a similar practice—but I generally conclude that it’s a combination of the heat, Marlon Brando movies, and a desire to score on either the sex or drug fronts. But does this actually occur, and if so, how? Do attractive women go knocking on these doors and say, “Hey, fella, you’re looking really hot with that gut and can of Miller High-Life. Can I come on in and do a little NASCAR with you?”

This shit never happens to me, and I own both men’s boxers and tank tops. I must smoke the wrong brand.

Anyway, it was just hot enough and just July enough that this felt steamy to me. Sensual as a night in Little Italy. I realized that in room after room, everyone in this motel could be having hot motel sex with spouses not their own, packing drugs into pipes, snorting lines off bathroom mirrors, drinking Cuervo straight from the bottle on the old mattress under which they’d stashed hundred dollar bills … The whole thing caught fire in my mind…the illicit sleaze I was embroiled in—well, not really embroiled, but sited somewhere near the epicenter, all this swirling around me, possibly, separated only by an accident of architecture: a thin little motel wall. One well-placed act of God—an earthquake or hurricane—and all of Gomorrah would be exposed before my eyes.


And others would be gaping.

But honest to God, for me, it's all about the architecture. I even have co-authored a book concerning Victorian hotel architecture, so you know we're just talking building materials here. The sordid acts that humanity perpetrates in their little cells stacked end to end really holds no fascination whatsoever.

It's all about burbling streams and Fresca machines, and swinging--in a swing on some Astroturf--in a small town that really does bring home a little innocence to an era that holds absolutely zip. I think that's actually a bit more radical than Quentin Tarantino. Some might even call it...titillating.


[My apologies for the partial repetition from a previous blog entry. This is a chapter from my book.]