I was still in high school and C. was leaving for college in the fall. We told my parents we were going to Santa Fe for the night, and that we were going to stay in a motel. My mother was at the sink washing dishes, and I remember the way her back looked — shoulders motionless, neck rigid. She didn’t turn around at all. My father said quietly that he wasn’t sure it was legal.
We drove in C.’s Volkswagen bug to a place called Casa Linda, located along the seedy strip just outside of town. He got the room while I waited in the car, afraid the sight of an unmarried couple would cause the motel clerk to sound an alarm. Half my life later I can still see the room: stained walls with cheap pictures bolted to them, a Magic Fingers machine by the bed, bugs crawling in the shower stall. It wasn’t the first time we’d been in bed together, but it was nice to be together all night long. In the morning there was a knock on the door, and I dove under the sheets, terrified it might be the police. It was only the maid wanting to clean the room. C. laughed and, after I relaxed, I managed to laugh with him.
That morning we bought pastry in the square and walked around feeling very much in love. I don’t remember what my parents said when I got home. I think they were just relieved I was safe.
How many motels have I stayed in since? I don’t know that I could name any of them now, or describe the rooms in any detail, or taste the sweetness of my breakfast the next morning. But I remember the Casa Linda, and the warm pastry, and saying goodbye.
My brother Marshall was getting married several states away in Lexington, Kentucky, and his wife-to-be had made reservations for us at the Springs Motel. I was thirteen and had never been inside a motel room. My twelve-year-old sister and I pleaded with our parents to let us share a room with our two cousins, who were about our ages. They said yes.
After we had thoroughly explored our room and discovered the pool, ice machine, and vending machine, we headed over to the little traveling carnival set up in a shopping-center parking lot across the street. We were wearing stylish clothes bought just for the trip: hot pants and cut-off tops. We pretended we were sixteen and accustomed to wandering about without our parents.
Experimenting with our budding sexuality, we flirted with the Ferris-wheel operator to see if he would give us a longer ride. He had long hair pulled back into a ponytail with a faded bandanna, and a small tattoo of a snake on his right shoulder. To us he was wild and exotic. Eyeing him sideways, our bangs swept seductively over our eyes, we cooed, “We sure do like Ferris wheels and hope we get a nice, long ride.” He smiled as he clanged the safety bar shut, locking the four of us in place. We inhaled his scent — old sweat and cigarettes — and held his gaze until we swung backward and up into the sky.
At the top we became children again, exploding into giggles, rocking the car, and waving wildly. When we got close to the bottom, we elbowed each other and miraculously matured back into sixteen-year-olds. We smiled at the operator, resting our chins on our hands. He smiled back and our confidence soared. Sure enough, people who had gotten on after us were getting off. We were powerful. We were sexy. We were women.
Then we saw it: he had an erection. I had heard about them but had never actually seen one before. We knew they were dangerous, though, and we were scared. We sat quietly in our seats, heads down, waiting for the ride to be over. But it didn’t stop. Around and around he took us. One of my cousins threw up. More people got on and off, but still we rode.
I wanted to yell, “Let us off!” but my parents had taught me never to make a fuss. Instead, I looked longingly down from the top of the Ferris wheel at the black, U-shaped motel roof with the swimming pool in the middle, and at my father, unaware we needed to be rescued, reading the newspaper in a lounge chair far below.
Years ago, when my husband and I had just moved to L.A. and our finances were low, I signed on as a maid at a beach motel near the city. Minimum wage at the time was $1.75 an hour, and that’s what I got — along with an education.
It was hot, backbreaking labor: changing beds, cleaning bathrooms, mopping floors, wrestling with the laundry. The soft-hearted owner, Jack, was completely nondiscriminatory in renting out his rooms. One night he rented to two biker couples who left bloody sheets and floors. (My imagination ran wild.) One family in a monthly rental skipped out with all the bedding and towels, as well as an unpaid bill. Another time Jack rented a unit to a ragtag rock group. They stayed about a week, then departed in the middle of the night, taking the TV but leaving a mountain of empty aluminum TV-dinner trays. Jack said, “It’s more trouble than it’s worth to try tracking people down.”
Once, a haunted-looking man rented a room for what turned out to be the last week of his life. We heard a gunshot one morning, and Jack went to investigate. He came back and told me not to go into the room; he would do the cleanup.
Copper Center, Alaska
When I was a senior in high school, my boyfriend, Dale, and I sat in the parking lot of the Admiral Benbow Motel, trying to get up the nerve to register for a room. We dreamed of sheets, walls, a door that locked. Dale got as far as the office’s bug-stained screen door, but the tattooed man inside reading Playboy and smoking a cigarette was too daunting. We never did spend the night there.
Two years later, my long, white wedding gown — the most expensive dress anyone in my family had ever bought — lay on the floor of Room 119 at the Admiral Benbow. A navy blue suit coat Larry had borrowed from one of his ex-fraternity brothers was flung across the bodice.
Outside, ice fell into a plastic bucket; someone banged on the soda machine. “Don’t you tickle me, Fred,” teased a voice bright with red lipstick.
“Shh,” a male voice replied, “people are sleeping.”
A car door opened and slammed, a James Brown song escaping like a quick comet of sound.
Inside Room 119, Larry slept and I wondered what we’d meant when we’d promised the rabbi we would love each other forever. Why had my mother whispered, “I hope you know what you’re doing,” when I’d gotten into Larry’s car to leave?
“Life is just a bowl of cherries,” a man’s drunken voice insisted, and a bottle crashed against concrete.
“Look what you’ve done,” a woman said. I felt as if she were talking to me.
1972; San Diego, California; Surfer Motor Lodge: Family sleeps crosswise on one bed. Dad puts his feet in a drawer.
1973; Guaymas, Mexico; motel unknown: Room being painted next door. Hundreds of crickets and roaches migrate to our room.
1980; Phoenix, Arizona; motel unknown: Graduation-night party. Embarrassed that my dress is from Sears. Slip showing all night.
1986; Roseville, Minnesota; Super 8: I am a maid for eleven days.
1988; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; Howard Johnson: Pancakes thicker than mattress. Clogged toilet.
1992; San Diego, California; Dana Inn: Look under ninety-four beds for my cat. Find her twenty-six hours later, alive.
San Diego, California
I didn’t spend a single night in a motel until I was almost out of high school. For vacations, my Irish-Catholic family camped on the beach in a huge, round, army-surplus tent that could have slept a dozen soldiers. There were seven of us, which left plenty of room inside the tent for our beat-up metal ice chests full of hot dogs and macaroni salad, the flimsy suitcases bursting with hand-me-downs, and the secondhand buckets and bats and beach balls our mother picked up at the local next-to-new shop. Rearing five kids on a small-town school teacher’s salary made such cheap vacations the only kind possible.
One year for Mother’s Day, my father built five circular plywood shelves that fit around the tent’s single wooden support pole. My mother covered them with bags of marshmallows and potato chips, toothbrushes, mosquito repellent, bottles of suntan lotion, and, way up on the highest and smallest shelf, a single votive candle — just below the silver crucifix she hung from a thumbtack in the pole.
Once, a pair of underwear was hung to dry a little too close to the votive candle and caught fire, blackening the top shelf and center pole and filling the tent with smoke. My oldest brother herded the rest of us kids outside and extinguished the flames while, a few campsites away, my parents were enjoying some precious minutes of solitude in the hot showers at the painted concrete restrooms.
Falling asleep for the second time that night, the smell of singed wood strong in my nose and throat, I listened as my mother explained how our brush with disaster proved the existence of guardian angels.
About all I remember of the first motel I ever stayed in is the green Gideons Bible in the empty drawer next to the bed, the smell of air freshener, our sleeping bags wall-to-wall on the floor.
But to this day, the smell of damp canvas or the feel of sand in bedsheets puts me back inside that big tent where I first discovered things even the best hotels in the world cannot offer: a pure sense of connection to the earth, a feeling of tribe.
When I go to motels, I listen at the walls, trying to hear the people next door making love. The first thing I do when I arrive is put my ear to the wall to find out who is in the room on either side. I try to imagine what they look like from their voices. Once, what I thought was a young couple turned out to be a dignified man and woman in their sixties.
I can never sleep well because I’m always getting up to listen. Whenever I hear a creak, I’m up.
Young couples make love right away when they arrive. Older couples (not in age, but in time together) usually wait until about 11 P.M. Couples with children like 4 A.M., when the kids are really asleep.
Putting your ear to the wall for any length of time hurts. The strain on your neck causes your hand and arm to go numb. Stethoscopes, regular or electronic, do not work. A sensitive microphone will work if you put a hole on your side of the wall. I use a Swiss army knife to make a small hole under the edge of the headboard or behind the night stand.
Cheap, modern motels are good for listening. (Older motels have thicker walls that are more soundproof.) But the very best listening is in a bed-and-breakfast. The old houses have thin walls and doors, and are full of romantic couples.
Why listen? I don’t know exactly, but it has become an obsession. Even when I’m with a woman, making love, I can’t help but keep one ear open for sounds next door. Whenever I hear the rhythmic creaking of a bed, my heart pounds, my mouth goes dry, and I close my eyes to be with them.
We were young and nearly newlyweds. I’d just completed the first phase of my Air Force technical training in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we were driving back to Denver with all our worldly possessions loaded into a tiny U-Haul trailer behind our ancient Dodge Dart (painted by a former owner to look exactly like a skunk). We decided to stop for the night in Amarillo, Texas.
Chain motels piled up like tumbleweeds outside of town on U.S. 287. Some advertised prices in large plastic letters beneath their corporate logos. Others displayed “Congratulations Ted and Nancy” or “Welcome Amarillo Stockmen’s Assoc.”
“Look,” my wife said, “a Holiday Inn.”
I drove on. She pointed out a Ramada Inn, a Sheraton, a Best Western — all of which I passed by. Soon we reached Amarillo’s older environs. The motels there were single storied, stuccoed, and flat roofed, with small courtyards where broken-down playground equipment stood in for swimming pools and tennis courts. I stopped at a nondescript, ramshackle motel with a buzzing, malfunctioning neon sign in the shape of a cowboy boot. A smaller, hand-lettered sign advertised double occupancy for under ten dollars.
“You’re kidding,” my wife said.
Freight trains rumbled by all night long, three feet from the rear wall of our small, well-worn room. If I stood on the cracked toilet I could look out the window and watch the boxcars fly by.
“We’d be missing this at a Holiday Inn,” I pointed out to my wife. “And we saved twenty bucks.” But her mind was elsewhere, dwelling, perhaps for the first time, on the differences between us.
Marinus Martin Mende
After my grandmother died, my grandfather used to take my sister and me with him to visit his German friends in the Catskills. My sister and I would look forward to these trips, since we got to eat out and choose which motel to stay at (as long as it wasn’t too expensive).
The motel rooms always smelled musty and the windows were small, set just below the ceiling — I guess so passersby couldn’t look into the rooms. The rooms were dark and had two small beds. Grandpa would sleep in one and my sister and I in the other.
One morning it was cold and I awoke early. I was pulling up the covers when Grandpa noticed I was awake. He told me to get in his bed; he’d keep me warm. My sister didn’t wake up.
Grandpa started to stroke me and it felt good, comfortable and warm and loving. But I was scared. Why didn’t my sister wake up?
He stroked my hair, my arms, my chest, telling me everything was all right. I wanted to believe him; I had to believe him, didn’t I?
His hand slid under my panties, still stroking. I froze, looking up at the grain in the paneling, the rays of sunshine coming through the small windows. As my sister started to awaken, Grandpa told me to get up and go to the bathroom.
He was a lonely man, my grandfather, and I loved him very much.
Mom called from her favorite motel, the one she had described to us kids as “so quaint, near a river with a covered bridge in Pennsylvania Dutch country.” She loved early Americana and felt immersed in another time when she went there.
Having learned to drive just a few years earlier at age forty-two, after Dad left her with three teenage kids and broken promises of child support, she took car trips as a form of therapy. Now she was calling from this motel — her final destination — many miles from her home.
“I took sleeping pills,” she said, “but I woke up. I guess I’m coming home.”
Thinking I might understand the hurt, she was looking for sympathy and a show of love from a teenage daughter too caught up in her own life to hear the desperation.
“OK, Mom,” I said. “See you when you get here.”
Amalia, New Mexico
My family had moved to Quesnel, British Columbia, and was living in the Birch Motel; six of us, for six months. The motel was small and run-down, but to me it felt ritzy. I was living a kind of holiday experience. There were horses in the fields across the highway, and every day when I got off the bus from school, I would push my hand through the fence to feel their steamy nostrils.
After dinner each night, I would wander into the woods to a small clearing where I had bound two branches together into a cross and planted it in the ground. Every night I would kneel in front of that cross, hands folded, head bent. I don’t remember what prayers or confessions I made. I remember only the feeling of safety and beauty, of peace and belonging. There were times when I felt the grace of God come down through the birches, poplars, and pines, and enter me like a ray of light.
One day I took my brother with me. He poked around the clearing, then stared at me. “This is stupid,” he said. “There’s nothing special about this.”
I didn’t return after that. My sanctuary in the woods by that motel had been spoiled. But I go there even now in my mind.
White Rock, British Columbia
It was November 1963. I was attending college and had just begun dating George, a junior at Harvard. George was wealthier than anyone I had ever met. On our first date, he poured champagne into a crystal goblet and toasted me from his dorm room overlooking the Charles River. Now he was about to drive me out to Provincetown for the weekend in his red Karmann Ghia.
I was all packed and ready to go when the news came that President Kennedy had been shot. George arrived, wild-eyed, and told me he had a gun with him. He was afraid people were going to take to the streets. I made him leave the gun behind, and we drove to an expensive motel a stone’s throw from the water.
It was the first time I had spent the night in a motel with a man. Our room was a suite with a sunken living room and a huge marble bathtub. We threw down our bags and immediately went for a walk on the beach. George and I were both literature majors; he stamped on the shore, cursing and quoting Moby Dick. Later we went back to the room, drew the drapes, and made love. Afterward George cried.
We checked out Sunday morning and drove back to New Hampshire, breaking the speed limit all the way. I couldn’t bear to listen to the radio; the whole country was in mourning, and there I was, thinking of bathing in that marble tub, feeling, for the first time in my life, like royalty.
I was about seven years old and my family was on vacation. We had driven since dawn in our un-air-conditioned Chrysler to arrive in the middle of the afternoon at a Tennessee motel.
Mom and Dad said that, after our naps, we could go swimming. But we couldn’t sleep and I went to tell Mom and Dad we four children were ready to go to the pool. Bathing suit on and towel in hand, I opened the door to their room and saw my parents naked in bed together. I don’t remember what was said, but I know I had to wait a while before going swimming.
Having heard jokes about guys taking girls to motels, I now put it all together, quite cleverly I thought: motels were where people had sex . . . the only place people had sex. Then I tried to figure out where my parents had been vacationing nine months before each of us was born.
It’s 6:30 A.M. and your parents are shaking you. You open your eyes to an unfamiliar room. You’re nine and you’re on the way to some national park. It’s summer. The room smells like the cleaner they use in the bathroom — even the sheets. You shuffle to the bathroom, but your mother’s in there, so you sit on the edge of your parents’ bed, holding it, and watch Good Morning America. Your mother makes you check under the bed for stray socks before you leave.
Or you’re eighteen and with your boyfriend. You’re on the way to North Carolina, but you’re still in Tennessee at 3:00 A.M. It’s winter and the filthy slush thrown up from the wheels of passing trucks covers your windshield until you feel as though it’s your eyes that are muddied. So you stop at a boxy brick motel. The room smells like smoke and unwashed bodies. In the bathroom, you find a pair of men’s underwear behind the door and decide not to shower after all.
Or you’re twenty-two, and evading responsibility. You spent last night with a man you haven’t known more than a week, and this morning he says you’re going with him to the ocean. Dressed in the same clothes you were wearing the night before, you drive two hours with the windows wide open, the air sharp with the beginning of autumn, until you arrive at a string of cheap motels and seafood restaurants. You stop at the Lucky Star Motel, at the end of the strip. The air smells like fried food and seaweed, and you stay in the car while he checks in at the desk. You can see the woman at the counter peering at you through the dusty glass, cigarette dangling from her hand. He’s old enough to be your uncle, if not your dad, and he knows how to take care of these things; he comes out and takes you by the hand and leads you to the dark, quiet room where you have good sex, slow and long, and then you fall asleep.
A. Lorraine Strauss
Durham, North Carolina
When my aunt and uncle and I moved away from the mountains of New Mexico in 1948, we spent the night in San Bernardino, California, in a trashy motor court. I suspect it was the only place they could afford.
I was only seven, but I remember it well: the yard was barren dirt; the torn screens let in mosquitoes that droned all night; the mattress and pillows were filled with corn husks. My uncle graciously slept in the truck, while my aunt and I shared the bed. All night we debated whether we ought to join him. Every time we moved, even slightly, the corn husks rustled, making sure we stayed awake.
Thirty-four years later, my husband and I took a trip to the Napa Valley. The only motel with a vacancy that night was a motor court: the same spare, white cabins set a driveway apart from each other, lined up in two straight rows. But here there were fir trees, tall and majestic, and bright pansies and salvia around the front walks. Each cabin had French doors opening onto a redwood deck. We slept for twelve hours in a queen-sized bed, and awoke to find the morning paper on the front steps and a covered basket of homemade muffins and jams and a thermos of hot coffee on the deck.
As we sat outside in the shade of a tree, reading the paper and taking our time over coffee, I wished that my aunt and uncle could be at the table with us, asking me to pass the muffins, getting to appreciate a day of ease and luxury together after the hard days so many years before.
I once went to see a performance at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Although not a big country-music fan, I wanted to partake of this all-American experience. But the show was a disappointment and I walked out halfway through, disgusted by the uninspired and repetitive performances.
I passed twenty dollars to a sleepy, worn-out clerk behind counter-to-ceiling protective glass in one of the cheapest motels along Nashville’s Music Row. Later that night I held a woman in my arms and felt just a little better, until her beeper went off, signaling that my hour was up. I spent the rest of the night alone, kept awake by the crackling of the plastic sheet protecting the hard mattress.
The next time I heard Hank Williams’s voice on the car radio singing “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” I felt like a true American.