Monday, May 25, 2009

Motels/Memorial Day

It's not much, I know, considering the importance of the day we set aside to honor those who have given their lives over the years, but my custom is to drive to a large cemetery in Tulsa (Floral Haven), where thousands and thousands of American flags fly for the entire weekend. One can drive the entire cemetery on paths lined with 2000 flags which have been donated by families of veterans and put in place by the Boy Scouts. After dialysis this morning, I made my pilgrimage to Floral Haven and was moved greatly, as usual. There were scads of people there, a long line of cars winding through in a solemn parade.

It pains me greatly that I can't be at Afton Station today, because I'm sure it'll be a busy day there. I think David and Marly will be there finishing up the Citroen 2CV, so I trust they'll take time off to greet anyone who comes to the door. Sometimes they get so involved in their work that they entirely miss visitors. Ringing the doorbell will usually get their attention, however.

I have a huge obsession with motels. It stems from my youthful desire to be a motel owner, and all through my childhood I fantasized about having that coveted desk clerk job, my dream come true. In my older years, I've finally figured out that owning a small motel can be backbreaking work, especially if one can't afford a cleaning crew. Also, since I go to bed very early at night, staying up to check in late-arriving guests no longer holds any appeal for me. Nevertheless, the romance of motel ownership still wafts around my brain whenever I pass a little roadside place. I wrote this esssay for my website ( several years ago, and it will explain my obsession.

First, a confession. Back in the '50s, when other little girls were playing with dolls or teasing the daylights out of little boys, I was sitting at a small drawing board my father set up for me in our basement “rec room”, designing motels! When other kids dreamed of being firemen or housewives or veterinarians, I dreamed of nothing more than being a motel owner. Not many people knew about my smoldering desire, although occasionally my parents would show incredulous visitors the elaborate schematic drawings of tourist courts and motor inns I was cranking out on a daily basis.

How did this aberration occur to such an otherwise seemingly-normal grade school kid? I think it has to do with my intense love of the open road, a love which began at age four when my mom and dad took me on my first “road trip”. Being an only child, I never had to share anything with anyone, and that included the big back seat of our 1951 yellow and black Plymouth. That domain was mine alone, and from that vantage point I got my first taste of what it was like to be in a “different” place, to watch an unfamiliar world go by, and to help with grown-up selections such as a place for lunch or a motel for the night. I can truthfully say that even as a small child, I never experienced a single minute of boredom while cruising down an open road in an automobile. It is where I belong, and it continues to be where I am at my happiest.

On every road trip my family took, one of my favorite moments of the day was when my mother would suggest to my father that it was time to find a motel for the night. Each year, we would go to Florida twice, once in the spring and once in the fall (my parents took me out of school for these trips, and teachers never objected as long as I reported on my vacation in a somewhat scholarly way when I returned), and each summer we would take at least one “big” road trip (usually out west) and some smaller ones (often to Canada). My dad loved road trips as much as I did, and I suspect my mother did as well, although I can’t recall her enthusiasm matching that of my dad’s and mine.

Anyway, around 4:30 in the afternoon, my mother would suggest we begin the process of finding lodging for the night. Since we were an early rising family, we might well have already logged 10 hours in the car by that time. We liked to stop early for several reasons: for one, the earlier we stopped, the fewer NO VACANCY signs we were liable to encounter. Second, early stopping meant more time in a refreshing motel pool (complete with swirly slide, if I was lucky) before dinner. Finally, stopping early meant I could finally go to the bathroom, something I was always reluctant to do in gasoline station facilities.

Mom would get out the trusty AAA Motel Guide and we would scout out the next couple of towns through which the AAA Triptik had routed us. For some reason I never pursued, my mother hated Duncan Hines. The AAA Motel Guide and Quality Courts guide were her bibles, but if a motel sign indicated that the premises was recommended by Duncan Hines, she would shudder as visibly as if the sign read, “Yes, we have rats!” I never understood her prejudice, and never will, as my mother passed away before I thought to ask her.

After much leafing through pages and reading descriptions, we’d choose one or two motels that sounded up to our high Richards family standards. When we finally found the motels themselves, we would cruise through the parking lot just taking in the general ambiance. To this day, I only know that some of the motels felt “right” and others felt “wrong”, but I can’t pinpoint the characteristics that made them so. Since it was still quite early in the evening, we could be as choosy as we wanted to be.
Once we found a motor court that felt right to all of us, we would stop at the office and Dad would go in to negotiate the room. Back in those days, everyone always inspected the room before making a final commitment, so usually Dad and the motel owner would emerge from the office and Mom and I would follow as we were shown to our potential quarters. Once again, our acceptance or rejection of a premises was based on “feel”, although I’m sure that such attributes as cleanliness, spaciousness, proximity to a decent place to eat, and that ever-desired swimming pool were the criterion on which that “feel” was based.

There’s not much I can say about a motel room that everyone in America doesn’t already know. Just saying the word “motel” conjures a certain smell, a distinct quality of light, the hum of an air conditioner, a well-made but probably lumpy bed, a glass wrapped in paper, water that never tasted like “home”, a rubber mat with suction cups for the shower floor, a light bulb that didn’t produce quite enough light, a paucity of clothes hangers, and a friendly desk clerk (usually the owner back then) who was quick to suggest that the best breakfasts in town were to be found in the little cafe which, coincidentally, happened to be connected to that very motel.

Basically, I maintain that motels haven’t changed much since the '40s and '50s. Yes, the big chains have taken over and caused many mom-and-pop operations to die. Of those which remain, over half are operated by foreign-born rather than native-born Americans. Yes, more motels must be accessed by inside corridors now, rather than affording the convenience of pulling one’s car right up to the door. Yes, there are some “new” amenities like in-room coffee pots and hair dryers. Yes, glasses made of glass have been replaced with plastic cups. Yes, king size beds are now an option. And yes, for some diabolical reason, the practice of putting the sink on the outside of the bathroom is becoming pervasive. But..... the basic motel room is intact. A bed (or two)... a nightstand with lamp and phone on top and Gideon Bible in the drawer, a long, low dresser on which is found a tattered folder containing an inadequate supply of motel stationery, another lamp, an ice bucket, and a TV. A table and two chairs. A closet or hanging bar with a couple of permanently affixed hangers. A bathroom with all the necessary amenities, including a bathmat neatly folded over the side of the tub, a woefully tiny sliver of soap wrapped in paper, several clean white towels that don’t quite wrap around as fully as those you have at home. It’s all there....... always was, always will be.

As a child, and more so even now, I feel completely at home in a motel room. Perhaps it’s the sterile atmosphere that speaks of no agenda other than my own. We never know the person who slept in the bed before us, nor the one to follow us. We are suspended in time and space. We have no worries about cleaning the place or decorating it or even making the bed. We can simply exist there, then shed the room like a cocoon in the morning. To me, that is an incredibly free feeling. I’ve always been rather rootless anyway, and the feeling of floating from one spot to another from day to day is very appealing to me. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind being on the opposite side of the registration desk, either. I’d love to be the owner who is fortunate enough to meet a succession of new people every day, who hears new stories each day, who makes new friends, albeit very temporary ones, every single day.

During my childhood career as a motel designer, I created fanciful arrangements of rooms and driveways and parking spaces and landscaping, and once in a while I’d even violate the sacred “interior layout” of a motel room and rearrange the furniture! I would Scotch tape six or nine sheets of typing paper together to make a blueprint-size working surface, and all my lines were drawn with a ruler. I would be careful not to violate certain long-held motel strictures -- one parking space per room only, paths that led to the pool from all sides of the motel, an office in a centrally located place, decorative trees and shrubbery everywhere. But after that, my imagination went crazy. I would create motels in the shape of snakes and stars and initials. The impracticality of construction was meaningless to a kid my age. The neon signs I designed for outside my motels were other-worldly, gaudy, even more so than the ones in front of real motels in those days. My motels had owners (usually they were Laurel Richards and a husband of choice), maids (all named things like Lulu and Frieda) and guests who signed a guest register (Mr. and Mrs. John Wilson, children Karen and Billy, driving a 1952 white Ford Fairlane) and all the detail were carefully recorded. If a roadside archaeologist unearthed those documents today, he would surely think he’d found a real motel guest book, along with rather crudely-drawn architect’s renderings of the motel in question. I was a details person, in miniature. And I had a dream.

It’s many years later now, and I’ve never owned a motel. But, I still stay in them! And I’m blessed with a daughter and friends who share my enthusiasm for the “old road”, who join me in boycotting corporate-owned entities when possible, and who tolerate, and even encourage, my constant desire to be in a car, driving down an old road, waiting for the first hint of dusk to fall so that the evening motel selection procedure can begin.


Cathy said...

What a terrific read - I became addicted to motels at a young age myself, still today they seem like magical places. As to all those flags and what they REALLY represent, doesn't the irony get to you my friend? Come on over and see how I truly feel about this so-called holiday of the dead. The Mexicans do it up right, carrying skulls and death masks, we just cry about heroes and bravery and other stuff bs. Why not just stop agreeing to fight? Simplistic but why not.

Ken Riches said...

I know Beth shares your love of old motels.

Beth said...

I do! And your wonderful essay brought back some great memories. Two of my favorite things about stopping at motels like that was Magic Fingers and those louvered glass windows. Those seemed to be especially popular in Florida, when not all motels had "refrigerated air." :)

Susie said...

What a great story!
I was never one to like travel much as a kid or even as an adult until the last few years seeing we got the Harley. Now I can't get enough of it.
Probably because we almost never traveled when I was a kid seeing I was one of nine kids and a twin at that. :)
I loved reading your desires, feelings, emotions, and loves. :)
Thanks Laurel for the wonderful posts,
Susie in northern NY

Laurel said...

You're welcome, Suzie. I can't wait to meet you! Will you be traveling Route 66 on the motorcycle or in a car? As for your question on the eGroup about traveling east-to-west or west-to-east, I must say it's just easier starting in Chicago because all the guidebooks are oriented that way, but you see the same things going either way, so just GO! :-)

Susie said...

We will be traveling on the Harley and I think my husband may be thinking now of going East to West. :) We have almost a year to plan. :)
I hope you are open when we go through but if not that is just the way it is. :)
Thanks again for a great blog.

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