Friday, November 4, 2011

A Year and a Half in the Motel Hell

Considering living in a motel for a year and a half? Here is everything you need to know.

It was not my intention to spend a year and a half living in an extended stay (i.e., a motel) across the street from the Swinging Richards strip club, but life has a funny way of working out, or not.

The Atlanta, Georgia Northside Drive InTown Suites currently enjoys a composite 2.5 out of 5 stars after five Google reviews. Three Yelp reviewers bestowed a less generous 1.5 out of 5 stars. A few choice quotes from the Yelp reviews:

"This is, undoubtedly, the shadiest place I've ever stayed."

"the $40 cleaning deposit was not returned in full even though the promised house keeping never made an appearance during out [sic] entire stay."

"A guy got murdered while we were there, and the staff lied to us about it, even though there was caution tape, police officers, and blood stained furniture removed from the room and thrown into the dumpster."

(To be fair, as any long-term InTown Suites resident knows, caution tape, police, and bloodstained furniture does not always indicate a murder.)

The Google reviews were a little less interesting, but they had a ring of truth to them. "Bed sheets were dirty and stained and smelled bad," wrote one customer, and I can corroborate the observation as apparent blood stains and cigarette burns appeared on my "fresh" white sheets more than a few times during my stay.

The official web page for the Suites' "Atlanta Central (ZAG)" location features a flattering photograph of the three-story building taken on a cheerful, sunny day. Indeed, in the daytime, InTown Suites looks sturdy and inviting. It resembles a decent budget hotel.

For the most part, it looks like one on the inside, too. Neatly-framed abstract art prints hang on the walls. The floor is carpeted with a dark green material, similar in texture to a pool table top. If you're in a single, a square table and two metal chairs are your only furniture; no sofa could fit in there. Although housekeeping sometimes failed to appear on some weeks, as the Yelp reviewer noted, on most weeks they did, and the powerful smell of their cleaning detergent was reassuring. There were regular insect fumigations (I only saw one roach during my stay, and after bug-bombing my room I never saw another one). The full-sized fridge and two-burner range (one burner of which worked) were handy. There was basic cable on the flat-screen TV mounted on the wall.

I also presume there were semen stains throughout, but you can’t avoid semen stains. Consider that amazing footnote in the official Recommendation for Dismissal for the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case regarding the ritzy Sofitel hotel. In addition to the semen stains found in Strauss-Kahn’s room that were proven to be his, "Three other stains on the carpet contained the semen and DNA of three different unknown males, and one other stain contained amylase and a mixture of DNA from three additional unknown individuals. The stain on the wallpaper contained the semen and DNA of a fourth unknown male." If the high-class Sofitel is filled with semen stains, I would have to assume that InTown Suites has a remarkable DNA collection of its own—and probably exceeds the Sofitel for quantities of other bodily fluids.

(Of course, I contributed my own semen stains. If you find that nauseating, then I am deeply offended.)

Its being next door to the Northside Drive Liquor Store is either sketchy or convenient depending upon your fondness for alcohol (the staff at the liquor store was very friendly, and a cool employee there named Natalie enjoyed my nickname for the establishment—"Sin"—since every vice [except sex] was catered to there [and the rumored prostitutes nearby even took care of the sex]).

Across the street from the Northside InTown Suites is Swinging Richard's, a gay male strip club. People who are suspicious of my middle-aged bachelorhood may be surprised by what I’m about to say, but I have never been in there. I did see one particularly buff neighbor of mine crossing the street one evening on his way over there, presumably reporting to work. It makes sense that Northside's InTown Suites would be the top place for a male stripper to stay during a weeklong engagement at Swinging Richard's.

I wound up at InTown Suites after I had returned from a three month European adventure. In order to travel for three months in 2010 in the first place, I broke the lease at my previous apartment, and so I had no place to return to. I wasn't eager to rent again, because the experience of breaking that lease was like being force-fed a log of dog shit. Which reminds me: I also learned from my apartment days that your dog is too damn loud, and you’re never going to do anything about it, even after I complain. No dogs are allowed at InTown Suites.

My original goal was to spend a few months at the Suites, and then return to Europe in order to continue pursuing my writing career (which had been working out a little bit during my 2010 odyssey) and my DJ'ing career (which hadn't worked out so well, so encourage me by listening to my Euro sets here). Unfortunately, due to money issues, six months turned into a year and a half.

The weekly rate is currently $209.99 (a bit more with tax, but the tax is dropped after a few months, at which point you are seen in the eyes of the law as a resident). This rate might seem high for a place where—it is rumored—prostitutes work their magic in the rooms around you, and where—it appears from my admittedly limited powers of observation—drugs are obviously being sold in the parking lot, but consider that the price includes all utilities, cable and wireless internet, and the aforementioned somewhat reliable cleaning service. OK, the Internet speed was the slowest I've experienced since 1995, but it usually worked. When I did the math, I concluded that I was saving a few hundred bucks each month by living there.

But problems with InTown Suites became apparent after a few months. The floors are flimsy, and so if you wind up living underneath an upstairs neighbor, which of course happens often, you are fated to hear every footstep, every drunken stumble, every body slam. I imagined that one of my upstairs neighbors had only one leg, and that she literally rolled out of bed every morning onto the floor with a crash before beginning an interminable series of hops to move about the place (she never left her room, presumably because the stairs were too dangerous for her to navigate). The walls are thin and hollow, so when an overturned dresser hits the floor of the room above during some domestic dispute, the crash literally shakes everything in the room below: ceiling, walls, floor. Because the bed’s backboard is attached to the wall, reading there forces you to concentrate while attempting to ignore a sensation like that of a child striking the back of your head repeatedly with a mallet. Thus, it’s not just the noise that keeps you awake at night (earplugs and noise reduction headphones can shield some of that); it’s the earthquake shocks that rattle your body. Some people are active by day, and others by night, and if your schedules don't overlap then you are fated to experience at least one week of poor sleep. Even if you and your neighbors are synchronized, there is no relief from the constant noise during literally every waking moment spent in the room. It’s awful.

One couple I lived under smashed things until 3 AM on most nights. I know they were fighting, because one time I stood outside their room and listened to their angry voices. I would have said something to them then if they hadn’t already been engaged in a violent, drunken rampage.

So I waited a few nights, then knocked on their door, fearful that I might be shot in the face, because—hey, it’s the InTown Suites, the place where a Yelp reviewer thinks a guy got murdered.

The door opened a crack, and an eye regarded me suspiciously.

"Hello?" a young, sinewy black guy said to me.

"Hey," this middle-aged, beer-gutted white guy replied. "I'm your downstairs neighbor, and I'm really sorry to complain, but there's a lot of noise coming from your room, and I know you probably don't even realize you're making it, because you wouldn't know that unless somebody actually told you. So here I am, and I’m telling you, and I just wondered if you could keep it down a little bit?”

He looked warily around him. His girlfriend, a young woman whose large girth implied guilt in the noise-making, lay on the bed behind him. She regarded me with vague amusement.

"Are you sure it's us?" the fellow said.

"Yeah, pretty sure. I mean, the ceiling is vibrating right over me. I actually put my hands on the ceiling, like this [I raised my arms into the air with palms facing the heavens], and, like, I can feel the ceiling shaking.”

"I don't think it's us. I think it must be the guy living behind us."

This was going nowhere, so I apologized for wasting his time and returned to my room.

A few minutes later there was knocking on my door. I looked through the peephole. It was the guy and his girlfriend. Do I open the door?

"Hey," I said, opening the door.

"That thing about the noise,” the fellow said, shaking his head. “I’m just…confused. Are you sure it's us? Because I don’t think it is."

"Well, I'm not sure-sure. I'm pretty sure, but—"

"I don't think it's us."

"It probably isn't you. The floors here are thin, acoustics do weird things. Sorry to bother you."

“Did you hear the sounds two days ago?”

I couldn’t remember if I had or hadn’t, but I said, “I think I did.”

“Well, then, it can’t be us, because I wasn’t here two nights ago. I was working.”

“Oh, OK,” I said.

Unfortunately, as the weeks rolled by, it became obvious that the smashing and crashing was indeed coming from the couple upstairs. The truth came out one night when a dramatic fight between them spilled out of their room, down the stairs adjacent to my room, and concluded right outside my door, where I carefully observed their yelling match through the peephole.

They moved out eventually. But I didn't. I stayed on.

When times were good, I referred to the Suites as the “Motel Paradise.” When they were bad, I referred to them as the “Motel Hell.” As the months crawled on, the words “Motel Hell” fell more and more frequently from my lips.

Sure, many residents were benign. I think of the foreign families that stayed for a few weeks at a time (I was told some were probably the families of fresh professors transitioning to Atlanta's universities). Sometimes, a group of Mexican laborers would crash in a few rooms; I'd see them hopping into their trucks en masse, presumably toward some construction job. And there were the Lenox cab drivers who have adopted the Suites as their sleeping headquarters. (Never did I see a Checker Cab parked there overnight. I wonder if Checker Cab has its own turf? Also, if a Checker Cab cabbie dared to sleep at InTown Suites Northside, would angry Lenox cabbies destroy his car with hammers?)

But more and more I grew afraid of my neighbors. One time I heard a guy on his cell phone outside my room roaring, "Ain't no way I'm gonna plead guilty to those charges!" And there was the time a woman screamed to a hastily departing man, “Don’t you ever fucking touch my kids again!”

Several residents had a habit of leaning over the railing outside their room, where they surveyed the parking lot for what seemed like hours at a time, no matter how hot the summer day and despite the fact that air conditioning was included in the price of their room. What were they doing? Were they keeping track of who was leaving his room unattended? Hopes of my own blending in were trounced by my vehicle of choice: a black SmartCar with a Romanian license plate affixed to the front. My watchful neighbors always knew when I was in or out. It made me paranoid.

And then there was the night I heard a floor-shaking crash, and when I went outside to look and see what had happened I saw three men stroll into a room—one of them slinging a battering ram. Uh, do you have a license to do that? Is that…normal? Is someone going to use a battering ram on my door tonight?

Every night, in the parking lot, men sat in cars with their engines idling. A Yelp writer says he has been told these are the men who deliver prostitutes to the rooms. I have no way of safely verifying this, but…yeah…why are you idling in the InTown Suites parking lot, sirs?

And good God, after sharing all this, what must readers think about me? What is Andrew up to in those InTown Suites? Is he fucking hookers? Is he doing heroin?

(It should be said that InTown Suites has an impressive security camera network, but all that did was guarantee that my murder would become a potential future viral video.)

Some of the residents were simply crazy. One day I stood in the laundry room near a scruffy, salt and pepper-haired man. I had to unload somebody else's too-long abandoned clothes from a washing machine in order to put mine in. As I plucked out such items as oversized black and green zebra-patterned thongs, I muttered, "Man, I wish people would be a little more considerate about moving their laundry along.”



Random horror film observation: The awful ring of the room’s telephone sounded even worse when it went off in the middle of the night. Upon my answering it, the person on the other end always hung up, leaving me with only the sound of the dial tone to keep me company. I unplugged the phone after my first week.

And then there was the ice cream truck, with its creepy carnival music regularly cut off by the canned, tinny recorded sounds of laughing children, which drifted eerily through the parking lot seeking under-aged customers. Make the driver of that truck a circus clown and you’d have a movie rated Too Scary for Anyone.

More and more I slept at my office, or at a friend's place. I began to drink more, reckoning that by being drunk I might be able to tune out my horrible reality and get a decent night of sleep despite the banging, the shrieking, the crying of babies, the shouts of warring couples. But getting drunk only meant I felt worse when I was awakened at 3 AM by some sickening thud, and so I found myself in sorrier and sorrier shape sitting in my office cubicle the next day. I was irritable with co-workers. I frequently trembled with rage and terror. I was falling apart.

Here is how I celebrated my 39th birthday at InTown Suites. While preparing to go to bed, I was startled by a thunderous BANG-BANG-BANG! on my door, followed by another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my window, followed by the sounds of somebody running away. This was followed by another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my window, and another BANG-BANG-BANG! on my door, and more running away. It went on a while.

When the mysterious knocker finally held still long enough outside my door, I opened it.

The woman standing before me looked like a perfectly ordinary young, African-American college student, with nice clothes, hair, and a pleasant smile.

"Hello," I said.

"Oh, sorry, I got the wrong room," she said. Then she ran away.

I shrugged, crawled into bed, and went to sleep.

4 AM. BANG-BANG-BANG! on the window! BANG-BANG-BANG! on the door! And then, a strange whining sound outside, a pleading, "Help me! Please let me in!"

I stumbled in the darkness over to the door and peered through the peephole. The young woman stood there, an eerie silhouette against the harsh backlighting of InTown Suite's bright exterior lights, her face hovering a few inches from the peephole. She had what appeared to be a dark trash bag slung over her shoulder.

"What do you want?" I shouted through the door.

"Please let me in!"

"What do you want?"

"I need to use your telephone!"

"No!" I said.

She made another whining sound to signal her disappointment, and then ran off.

The next morning I dropped by the front desk of the InTown Suites. Two employees in their regulation uniforms of Navy blue InTown Suite polo shirts greeted me. (I would like to take a moment to compliment the InTown Suites staff. They were courteous, responsible, responsive, and surprisingly good-natured considering the weirdness and dysfunctionality they must endure at their jobs every day.)

"Last night this chick was banging on my doors and windows," I said to them. Which sounds vaguely sexual.

"She was arrested."

"Ah," I said.

"Anything else?"

"No. That's it. Thanks."

In truth, the InTown Suites are a good concept. There is a growing need for more affordable, no-strings-attached housing, not just because of our troubled economic climate, but also because of our increasingly mobile lifestyles. If InTown Suites could guarantee a good night of sleep (which would require a substantial architectural re-think), and keep rates around their current $200 a week, business travelers who work multiple days in a location far from home might be more tempted to become regulars, holding onto their rooms for half the price of, say, four nights in a hotel—and enjoying the ability to stock their refrigerators in order to create a place that feels a little more like home.

Since you pay each week in advance, you can leave the Suites whenever you'd like. You don’t even have to tell anyone. No one will call you after your departure to complain that you didn't clean the oven to their specifications. Considering that it's the sort of place where a body with a heroin needle dangling from an arm must occasionally be disposed of, a ketchup stain in the refrigerator is always forgiven. Breaking off relations with InTown Suites is as simple as parting with a prostitute after a night at…InTown Suites. It's an ideal arrangement.

And so I spent last week gathering all my possessions from my home for the last 1.5 years.

I have headed off to Zagreb, Croatia, which is why I invited all my black readers to join me there earlier in this narrative. It’s a crazy venture. I’ll be pursuing that writing and DJ'ing thing. It's a big move. Yeah, it might sound like a scary gamble, but for some reason I'm not so terrified by the thought of living there.

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