Saturday, March 15, 2014

From a Days Inn in eastern Ohio

I pressed my pounding head against the cool countertop, and drawled "ah'll be stayin' 'ere about 2 weeks a-think." Snow had stretched my 4-hour drive to nearly 6, and staring intently into the swirling white had given me a vicious headache. I had intended to lodge in a cabin at Moraine State Park, but 15-degree temperatures motivated me to cancel and drive to a budget hotel instead. The second I smelled the fast food grease that had clung to my sleeve, I felt nauseated and jerked my head up from the counter. The desk attendant nodded gravely, then slid a key toward me. "Room 135," he said. I re-parked my car, dragged my suitcases in, popped some Advil, and cocooned in bed. 

After 12 hours' rest, I felt much better and was ready for a full day of research in Sharon. As I walked down the hallway, I noticed gray clods of dried mud on the carpet. I shrugged  it off. Yet as the week progressed, copious amounts of dirt disappeared and reappeared in my corridor.  Within a week I realized that part of the hotel had been set aside for certain customers. And that I was relegated to it. 

On "my" side, rooms seemed smaller. Many of my neighbors were young men employed by construction or gas/oil drilling companies (hence the mud). Besides them, there were couples who arrived without bags and departed hours later. I noticed the differential treatment of us all on my second night, when I walked to the opposite side of the hotel to find a vending machine. The floors were noticeably cleaner and the hallway had fewer scuff marks. There were no crumpled McDonalds wrappers  or empty pizza boxes laying outside anyone's door. Several days later, I occupied myself while brushing my teeth by reading the faded notices pasted to my wall. I discovered that my room had once been priced at $110 per night, more than double what I was paying. 

As the days passed, I also realized that the housekeepers were neglecting me. Although they emptied the trash, supplied fresh towels, and made the bed, they never vacuumed the carpet. Dust accumulated on my bedstead and cup-rings patterned my nightstand. I wetted a facecloth and wiped things myself. Friday and Saturday nights were reminiscent of my first weeks at GWU's freshman dorm. Some residents propped their doors open, while others cranked up music or sports on their TVs. There were inexplicable bursts of stomping overhead and someone else's cannabis wafted in the air. Never very sociable, I curled up with books and Sudoku. I rolled my eyes and covered my head with my pillow when I heard the telltale moaning and rustling of sheets on the other side of my bedroom wall. 

The segregation was especially obvious on weekends. The two hallways, each leading to different sides of the hotel, met at the continental breakfast area. Comparisons between the people coming from my hallway versus theirs were stark. From my side were the girls wearing last night's clothes, furtively snatching juices. The bleary-eyed single mother with a squalling baby. The doddering elder with long, greasy hair who talked too much. The only people from my block that you *didn't* see were the construction workers and frackers. On early Saturday mornings, they were staying with family and friends, sleeping in, and/or hung over. From the opposite hallway streamed middle-class families who were just passing through. This morning as I waited for my bagel to brown, I choked on the overpowering perfume of a woman with an expensive purse slung on her shoulder. Though she was wearing jeans, designer sunglasses crowned her head. She was wearing a cashmere sweater and smart leather boots, too. At another table, an enthusiastic middle-aged couple had various pamphlets spread in front of them. Their sullen teenagers chomped on Frosted Flakes and waffles. Although the kids' ears were blocked by pounding music from their iPods, they groaned audibly when their parents decided everyone would visit the McKinley Presidential Library. 

Over the past 2 weeks, it has been amusing to think of myself as a less-desirable guest. When I described the place to my husband, he suggested that I demand a better room. But I stuck with 135 in part for sociological curiosity, and in part for the funny stories that might unfold. As a college faculty member, I have the privilege of observing, laughing, and then casting aside this experience whenever I want to. I can afford to stay in a Hampton Inn or even a Hyatt (briefly!) if I choose. All this said, though, I am glad it's my last night here. Nothing makes you feel lonelier than the constant chill of an overlong winter, away from your spouse and cat, eating nothing but shelf-stable food, in a hotel whose staff make negative assumptions about you. 

Yet I feel sorrier for the single mom who just needed a night's rest, the elderly man who just wanted conversation, and the frack boy who just wanted a filling dinner and a good lay. To me, how hotels apparently treat these customers is a microcosm of how American society often cordons off the poor, the dirty, and the rambunctious from those who are not. The twain shall never meet, and I suppose the middle-class illusion that social differences are not real remains intact. 

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