“Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn.” So rapped Big Bank Hank of the Sugar Hill Gang in 1979 on the seminal album, “Rapper’s Delight,” a record which, when placed with the gentle reverence of a church offering by my buddy Sarah onto her mom’s turntable early in 1980, touched me like a live power line. The vital kick-assness of the sampled Nile Roger’s rhythm guitar part and the Sugar Hill Gang discharging a cluster of spoken words—explosions of language based as much or more on sound than anything—stunned me with their immediacy. Their engagement. The engagement of heeled shoes to the dance floor, of carbonation to hot lips.
The “Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn” line gathered the song to a peak. Hank led into it with an, “Everybody Say!” a command we followed. At Sarah’s house, in the halls at school, riding the backseat of my parents’ Chevette. The accommodations in question just sort of appeared in the song without much connection to the other lyrics except as an anthemic and mystical destination toward which one might point a stylish, bigass car.
And the words just rocked with an air of exuberant defiance, a possibility that we might have to hit the road, friend, if things get lame.
In the years around 1980, to a significantly lamer soundtrack, my family hit the road often in the summer for long, mind-numbing car trips. These odysseys were broken up by visits to relatives and nights in a hotel or motel, oases of relief from the monotony of mini magnetic checkers, electronic football with the sound off (dad), and I Spy and often a release from direct parental supervision. Unattended ice machines down the hall, beds to jump one from the next, color TV from bed. A pool.
The pool was king, and we craned around in the backseat in little towns off the highway to point out hotels with pools you could see or that advertised them, but often the advertised rate had us rolling on by, my brother and me grumbling. When a slightly nasty, over-chlorinated kidney of green water matched up with a rate my dad could approve of, we were pumped. Even better when the pools were heated and/or had underwater lights. I remember swimming down with my brother and staring at a huge round, light, rubbing its smooth warmth with my hands and face. It seemed like a portal to another world.
We always felt robbed by the one-story, roadside motels that didn’t have shit. No halls to run down, no ice bucket! The kind of places that didn’t have their own little restaurant and we had to get back in the car and drive around some more to find a place to eat. Those kinds of motels lacked the awesome anonymous quality I associate with a good hotel stay. The owners/managers seemed too close, too present. Our car parked too close to the bed.
Those little motels were at least preferable to a bed and breakfast. My parents loved b & b’s. The opposite of anonymity—the bed and breakfast felt like staying with relatives you hadn’t ever met, sleeping in somebody’s room, not sure who you might run into on the way to the bathroom. A hotel room has hosted many before you, but they’ve been mostly scrubbed off.
What does this say about me, that I prefer the generic stylings of a Best Western to the close humanity of a b & b? I guess it’s a sign, at best, that I’m not too lonely. I’ve never lived my life on the road. I’ve usually left a hotel to go home.
Because I know a hotel room can be the loneliest place. It’s where husbands go—at least in movies or sitcoms—when they’re kicked out of the house. Wives seem to go stay with their mothers or friends during a fight, but husbands slink away to loneliness and Gideon, and the cruel siren song of minibars. They go, supposedly, to the very place where people go to do the things that might get them kicked out in the first place.
I have certainly been lonely in a hotel room. While it’s true the rented room offers a haven of quiet and a free pad of stationary, it’s equally true that you will not make a friend in there. I remember sitting in a hotel room in Tangier when I was twenty and underprepared and hearing the call to evening prayer blast from nearby, not knowing what it was, and feeling panicked and out of place and so alone I sat so I could see myself in a mirror for company. I looked terrified.
When I imagine the loneliest moment on earth, I think of the hotel room where my friend Patrick killed himself. I think of him choosing the place, all the little steps of horrible certainty he had to take that lead to the split second of the trigger. No hope for a friend, or anyone, to stop him. The nameless blank of his last surroundings seems unspeakably sad.
But someone else, I’m sure, has slept in that room since then. Someone always will.
One of the strangest nights of my life happened because I couldn’t find a hotel room. When my college semester abroad ended in Rome, I headed out with a Eurail Pass and my guitar to travel alone and see what might happen. I began by riding the train with a young woman I knew who said her sister would put us up in Paris, from where I had plans to travel to Ireland. We found the sister and her small flat, but after a hushed conversation in the bathroom, the women emerged and told me I couldn’t sleep there. I don’t know if the sister felt mistrustful or if I was intruding on some other plan, but even after we called around and Paris turned out to be entirely booked up, they cheerfully told me it was time to go.
Believing that any second they would recant, I was ushered out the door at about 10:00pm to take the subway to the St. Lazare train station where I’d be leaving in the morning. “I guess I’ll just sleep on the floor there,” I remember saying, pausing in the doorway, fishing until the last second. “Yep!” the sister said.
At 3:00 in the morning, while I played my guitar and sat on my backpack, a security person told me to leave because the train station would be closing for several hours. At that moment, a large man with a kind, Hispanic face and sorrowful eyes walked past and said in broken English that he had a hotel room around the corner that had a bunch of extra beds. It had been the only one he could find.
This seemed totally plausible after my dead end phone calls, and after having spent the previous night on the crowded train, I was very tired. I followed the man, who told me his name was Luis, to his room, which was in fact right around the corner. And it had the extra beds. He showed me pictures of his family in Peru and a stuffed animal he had bought for his daughter. French turned out to be our best tool for communication and he told me how much he missed his family. He traveled often for business, he said. He seemed forlorn.
When I woke up in my tiny bed an hour or two later, Luis was entirely naked with one hand in my underwear and the other working his erect penis. His belly looked enormous. I pushed him away but stayed in the bed—for some reason, I wasn’t afraid of Luis. In French I told him to get back in bed and I fell back asleep, only to wake up a little while later in the same situation.
This time, I made him get back in his bed while I pulled my jeans on and got my shit together. The morning twilight had just begun to lighten. Luis asked mournfully from his bed if he might have my address. I shook my head and felt exhausted and while I hoisted my backpack I had the very clear thought that I was glad my mother did not know what I was doing, surely a thought had by many, in many a strange hotel room.
In “Garbage Lady,” Nahid Rachlin’s short story, a young woman struggles with the effects of homelessness and injury on the streets of Tehran. Rachlin offers a terse, rich look into the mind of a woman confined by traditional roles in Iranian culture. The piece transcends the vital issues it addresses as well, with the original and convincing voice of its damaged protagonist and a brilliant succession of patterns and images packed inside a flickering crime story.
“Secret Motel,” flash fiction by Scott Rooker, combines five short pieces or chapters into a fascinating larger frame. The pieces hold each other in place through a variety of connections and themes—mystery, lemons, hidden movement—and add up to a short work that is at once funny, smart, poignant, and fresh.
All of the strange, sometimes grotesque loneliness of under-attended childhood looms inside Gary Moshimer’s flash story “See Me.” The desperate need for acknowledgment, for the loving attention often associated with motherhood, haunts this stark, oddly beautiful little piece.
“The North fell off each hundred miles or so/in chunks of slush from the bottom of my car—/Spanish moss’s cousin, twice removed.” Ellen McGrath Smith’s poem, “Transplant Run,” takes off with breathless rhythm and a fabulous line and never looks back. Her delight in sound and easy leaps of image are only topped in this piece by its joining of wonder and seasoned intimacy.
James Valvis’ “Motel Mama” reads so clearly it’s easy to get lost in the narrative and miss the craft applied to each musical line. This poem would still be good hummed, the sharp drawings of life in a motel and an enigmatic manager almost a bonus. A deep compassion for the poor and inexperienced runs through the work, as well.
“It Was There that I Knew that Someday I would Never Go Home,” a poem by Jorge Sanchez, balances a playful delivery with the touching predicament of a lonely boy far from home. Sanchez captures the power of a young epiphany with the unlikely and clever imagery of an old fashioned board game.
Temporary shelter earns “Building the Igloo” inclusion in the Hotels & Motels issue. Alfred Lehtinen builds up his lyrical instructions in a confident, melodic tone, and then takes your breath away.
Our Hotels & Motels issue concludes with Patricia Clark’s elegant poem, “Body Ash.” Clark’s beautifully polished lines (“On mattresses, in the loose weave of sheets,/it’s what we left behind”) serve to elevate the corporeal, to inject the body and even its dead cells with awe. Not one word of her poem feels inessential or out of place.
Photo By: John Speziale