b Papa Dog's Blog: Strays at the Hourly Rates Motel

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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Strays at the Hourly Rates Motel

The motel I worked at in New Orleans was the kind of place that rented rooms by the hour. I sort of inherited the job. It was summer and I was sick of working in an office, sweating in a suit and tie while I waited for the bus. A friend from around and about was working graveyard at this motel, and he was quitting it to head for points elsewhere. He asked if I wanted his job. I vaguely knew the area where the motel was and understood it to be a bit on the rough side. I asked him about that and he said, “Well, I bring my gun with me, but I think that’s overkill.” Okay then. Don’t ask me why, I took the job. It was a family-owned place, nice people from Taiwan. They all lived in a unit behind the office, mom, dad, and a gaggle of children. There wasn’t much in the way of a job interview. They had liked my friend and his word on me was good enough for them. My first night there, mom told me, “There two kind of customer we don’t want: drug dealer and prostitute.” By the end of the first night I had to wonder who in the hell she thought was renting the rooms. Should I out the place? I guess I shouldn’t. But you can find a subtle little clue here. There was a scary-looking blank-faced dive bar next door that I only set foot in once or twice. Behind the bar was a chalkboard full of specialised drinks invented and concocted there, some given names with broad appeal like “1-800-FUCK-YOU-UP,” but most with references to the neighbourhood. One particularly potent brew was called the “I Stayed at the _____ (name of motel there).” The motel was so scary that the scary dive bar held it up as a place of fear and dread. It made me feel tough working there.

At the opposite end of the scale from the hourly tenants, there were long-term guests as well. A few rented rooms by the month and had been there for ages. There was one old lady who had lived there for years. I saw her name on the room sheets and asked one of the other clerks about her. I found it hard to believe that anybody would choose to live in this dingy little motel for that length of time when an apartment could be rented cheaper. She didn’t let the maids in her room, so there wasn’t even a bonus of free housekeeping. I didn’t ever see the old lady for the first few weeks, and I started to think of her as a myth. Finally, though, she happened to wander by one night on my shift to pay her rent. She came up to the night window and slid in a little wad of hundred dollar bills. I wrote her up and gave her her change, thinking all the while that there was a funny smell to those hundreds. After she was gone, I took one of them out of the drawer, gave it a sniff, and it hit me – mothballs. I was struck by this image of her in her motel room with her life savings in cash in a trunk with her blankets and sweaters. “What’s the story there?” I wondered, as I found myself wondering about so many of the people I met at the motel.

Another of the long-term residents was the handyman, who got his room as part of his wages. He was silver-haired, short, muscular, and dead-eyed. I can’t remember his name, but would naturally make up a fake one if I did. He was nice enough most of the time, but now and then – on payday, I guess – he’d cab home drunk and want to come bend the ear of whoever was in the office. Since I worked graveyard, that was usually me. One of those times, he came in barely able to stand. I didn’t much like that. Counter-intuitively, graveyard was actually the safest shift to work, because you never had to let the customers in the office with you. Anybody who was drunk and/or belligerent had to be drunk and/or belligerent on the other side of a pane of bullet-proof glass. There wasn’t much I could do when the drunk had keys to the office. He came in and rambled away at me about this and that and next thing I knew he was telling me how the best blowjob he’d ever had in his life was from some guy on a ship when he was in the navy. Clearly it was an overture and as you might guess not a particularly welcome one, but I’m a poker player, so my instinct was not to react and a Canadian, so my instinct was not to offend. I just nodded as though he’d told me some obscure but halfway interesting tidbit about maritime law and said, “Yeah? Huh.” He looked a little bit on the crazy side, so I did some busywork on my balance sheets and remained utterly neutral while he changed the subject, or tried to. Eventually he cycled back around to, “Uh, listen, don’t never tell nobody about that,” and I said sure. In fact I haven’t told anybody about that since (except maybe Mama Dog, who gets told everything), but I reckon the statute of limitations is up on that by now. And besides, I’m only halfway betraying his confidence when I can’t even remember his name – and I’m sure he said the same thing to every male desk clerk who’s worked there with him before or after, so it’s not exactly a state secret.

It wasn’t a bad job, just deadly boring. When I signed up for it, I had some hope of getting writing done in the wee hours, but that quickly proved impossible. You’d be surprised how many people drop by a motel between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. There was no way to maintain the concentration to write when some street trash or other would come by to buy cigarettes from me every twenty minutes. All there was to do was watch TV, and as I couldn’t even count on seeing a show properly from start to finish, I eventually gave up and started watching the MTV or the CNN. If nothing else, I got to watch The Famous Teddy Z on Comedy Central – I didn’t have a TV when it was first on.

There was a feral cat that hung around the parking lot. I’d often see it in the morning when I went around shutting down the lights in the lot, but I could never get it to come close to me. One rainy night I was sitting in the office reading or watching TV or doing something else other than writing when I heard what sounded like a meow outside the window. I looked out, but didn’t see anything. I heard the meow again. Finally, curious, I got my keys and set foot out of doors. There, right under the night window, was a bedraggled little kitten, probably a matter of weeks or even days old. It was meowing pitiably. I picked it up and brought it back inside. I dried it off and gave it a bit of water. I had already eaten my lunch, so I didn’t have any food to share with it. there was nothing in the snack machine that would be suitable. The kitten didn’t seem to mind. It seemed very content to be warm and dry and in the hands of someone who seemed inclined to do nice things. It purred and curled up on my lap and went to sleep. It was like a minor preview of how I’d feel the first time I rocked Baby Dog to sleep. I knew I was now responsible for that cat. The motel mom laughed at me the next morning when she saw the kitten. I asked if she thought it was okay if I just took it home. She didn’t care what I did as long as I never brought it in the office again.

I took the cat home and gave it some bologna and put it in a box with some newspaper, which was the best I could do for a litter box. I found out quickly that I’d have to find some other solution. My housemate, who was out of town, was allergic and would be home in a couple of days. Avenuu took the cat off my hands for the short term, but she couldn’t keep it either. We eventually found a home for it, and both felt pangs at being unable to do more. It was a very loving little cat, and I hope it made out well in its new home. Myself, I only lasted out the summer at the motel. Minimum wage lost its charm and I reluctantly put the suit and tie back on and went looking for other opportunities. I wonder if they’re still alive and what they’re up to now – the old lady, the handyman, and the cat.


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