Roach Motel: Lowdown Living in California

“It’ll be temporary.” They’re the three most frightening words in the English language. Still, what did I know? My on-again, off-again girlfriend looked at me like she really meant it. So I went along while never believing a single word she said. Which is how I ended up managing the skeeviest hot-sheets motel in America for what turned out to be the longest year of my life.

My alleged friends asserted that my first mistake was cheating on my girlfriend, but they were wrong. Actually, that indiscretion turned out to be tons of high-energy fun. No, the error occurred when I opted to assuage my guilt by confessing to my girlfriend. Then, to make things worse, I decided to do whatever it took to get her back, to perform whatever ludicrous act was necessary, to accede to her every request.

Julie asked me to move back into her parents’ California home with her. I did.

I knew I’d fucked up the second day after we pulled up to the overpriced corner ranch home on Palo Verdes Road in a Ryder truck piled to the ceiling with our belongings. We were snorting down Julie’s mom’s food when her dad got off the phone and entered the kitchen. A real-estate speculator, he owned houses all throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, which he rented out after chopping them up into tiny apartments with incomprehensible layouts.

Julie’s dad had recently purchased a 48-room motel to supplement the rental properties on Interstate 80 in Vallejo, a former state capital and sprawling, ethnically-diverse slum situated near the refineries halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

He wore a plaintive look that morning – the kind that warns you that you’re about to get screwed. One of the motel’s long-term guests had called to inform him that the live-in manager he’d hired had abandoned her post and split with the week’s receipts, leaving the door to the office wide open. “You don’t have jobs yet,” Julie’s father said, eyeing the two of us. “I need help and you need money. Why don’t the two of you run the motel? Until, of course, you find permanent jobs.” I hadn’t the foggiest where to find a real job on the West Coast. Maybe I can lifeguard or something, I thought.

“I can pay you each $100 a day.”
I perked up. “Off the books?”
“Cash. The same day.”

I looked at Julie. After all, she knew her father. I was in her hands – in fact, I still wasn’t used to the harsh glare of the sun outside.

She shrugged. “It’ll be temporary,” she said.

There’s an incredible variety of motels in the American hospitality industry. The range runs from your Best Westerns and Ramadas on the high end, which offer clean rooms and amenities like room service, to your Holiday Inn Expresses and Knights Inns, which are perfectly suitable for an afternoon roll in the sheets with a coworker, to your basic Motel 6 and Super 8 chain outfits, which offer you shelter, free local calls and a malodorous mixture of sweat, nicotine and Freon for around $35 to $50 a night, single-occupancy. For those who haven’t yet eaten of all of the fruits of free-market capitalism, there are individually-owned motels. Although some are better than others, an absence of regular visits from an outside corporate honcho results in an unfortunate tendency toward quality that matches their low rates. Among these bottom-tier institutions, there are still further distinctions. Julie’s dad’s motel was by any measure the fungus beneath the rotted planks under the bottom of the barrel – a motel whose patrons were evenly divided between welfare recipients and gang members in the northern half, and low-level drug dealers, recently-released felons and street hookers to the south.

The fanciful tropical motif of the Islander Motel was strictly limited to the jaunty Polynesian-rip-off lettering on the sign. The decrepit two-story structure had clearly seen better days – at one point there had been a pool for guests with children (Sea World was about five miles away), but it was entombed in cement to save on insurance payments. It was hard to imagine that the surrounding neighborhood had ever been more than a pothole-ridden jumble of weeds, stripped-down cars on cinder blocks and nocturnal roving thugs. Whenever we called the Vallejo Police (and this was typically twice a day), there would always be a long, heavy sigh after we told the dispatcher our location. “Have some respect,” I snapped at the cops one time. “If it wasn’t for all the crime we generate, you guys would be out of work.”

Julie and I lived and worked four days and three nights a week in the motel’s office, occasionally venturing out into the overly bright sunshine to deal with troublesome guests. Most of the time, though, we were stuck in the airless red-shag-carpeted office, watching television between interruptions. We hired a maid to clean the rooms, so we didn’t usually need to go outside. We worked from the first asshole checked out at 6 am until the last asshole checked in at 3 am – and I didn’t even dare sleep those three hours because I constantly had to chase off people who were trying to break into the office with a metal bat.

You’d think that the little one-bedroom set-up would have been nicely arranged, considering all the time the manager had to spend in there, but this hell-hole was an esthetic atrocity of mid-1970s beige and brass. Julie’s parents would relieve us the fourth day, and we’d emerge like hostages after being blindfolded for months, feeling woozy and wincing from the light. The next three days would be lost to a weird walking daze as our bodies recovered from Burger King and Denny’s. Then, just when we were beginning to feel sane again, we’d trek the hour back across the Dumbarton Bridge, up I-880 through the Maze to I-80’s Benicia Bridge for another four days and three nights of checking in guests, directing incoming calls to the rooms, folding sheets (the local laundry service was exorbitantly expensive, so we washed the motel’s linens ourselves), and switching the pirated porn tapes on the VCR.

A third of the rooms were constantly occupied by “the monthlies,” welfare moms living at county expense on a monthly basis. This left us with roughly 30 rooms to fill each night. We got $33 a night for rooms with leaky faucets held together with duct tape, flea-infested rugs and air-conditioning that sounded like a jet breaking the sound barrier. The reason: We offered an exquisite selection of hardcore porn tapes. They played 24 hours a day and were equally accessible on Channel 6 to unfaithful truck drivers boning hookers in the two $75-a-night hot-tub rooms and the welfare moms’ kids.

Every week I’d use one of my evenings off to hit Tower Video in Mountain View because it possessed one of the nation’s finest collections of recorded sex acts. I’d rent a dozen with high ticket prices (the $89.99 videos tended to offer better acting than the $19.99 ones) and dub them three films to one VHS to create a six-hour-long collection of vice. I watched hundreds of X-rated tapes a month in order to find the most titillating films, which gave me a bizarre expertise among my intellectual friends whenever we discussed what movies we’d recently seen.

I quickly learned that these tapes were absolutely essential to our success. “You still have those movies, right?” some gangly tattooed guy would leer through the bulletproof glass at the counter, using a California prison system parole card as ID. (The Islander was many inmates’ first stop on the outside.) Most of our customers were locals – people with Vallejo addresses – bringing their wives for “a treat,” the same way bourgeois types might spend a weekend snuggling at the Saint Francis – except that we had more intriguing cinematography. Whenever a tape would run out, the switchboard would light up with patrons caught empty-handed in the middle of some unspeakable act.

Although I had always associated myself with liberal politics, working at the Islander was enough to turn Che Guevara himself into a Republican. The spectacle of institutionalized poverty would greet you the second you pulled into the parking lot from the northbound freeway exit. There’d usually be a few miscellanous addicts and alchies passed out under the trash-filled shrubs, and maybe someone trying to steal the engine out of an abandoned car. The welfare moms would loll in their grotesquely tight pants on the second-floor balcony, coming down to the office every so often to offer some excuse for delaying paying for the next night’s room fee. “This guy, he’s gonna come by later and I’m gonna suck him off for $35…I’ll have the $33 then, so can you wait until I’m done?” Naturally I demanded collateral for this sort of credit, and soon collected an impressive array of Swatches, imitation Rolexes, cameras and firearms from people who’d overstay a night and take off, normally after pulling the phone out of the wall and stealing the TV. If we were lucky, there might be feces to clean off the wall or a kitten to send to the animal shelter.

All of these women looked forward to seeing their psychotic criminal boyfriends, who’d come around late at night to beat them up, throw them through windows at great inconvenience to me (I had to replace the glass) and steal whatever money theyÕd scrounged together from selling their food stamps. They’d weep in a clichéed daytime-soap kind of way and pick the shards out of their torsos and get all made up in time for the next evening’s for the next round of abuse. They never looked for work, but I could never determine why they were at the Islander in the first place. The county paid us $600 a month to house them, but you could rent a decent two-bedroom house for far less than that. The truth was, they liked being around their fellow losers.

Check-out time was 11 am. At noon I’d start calling around to rouse the human refuse recovering from the previous night’s whoring. It was like bobbing for dung apples; every noon there would be some horrific surprise. One time this guy refused to open the door when I knocked, but I could hear a woman’s muffled voice inside so I called Vallejo’s Finest. It turned out that the guy had been repeatedly raping a hooker all night in there. She left in an ambulance, barely alive. Another time I used my key to open a reticent guest’s door and he answered the door in his BVDs, holding a pistol.

“I hope you’re satisfied, man,” the guy said with a hollow-eyed, Cobain-like stare. “I had to shoot myself. No choice.”

There was a smaller-than-you’d-think hole in his upper thigh. Blood trickled down his leg. I closed the door.

When the cops brought him out in cuffs – he was wanted for jumping bail – he yelled at me: “Why’d you go and call the cops, man? I was gonna pay for the fucking room!” This lunacy was typical; there was a constant parade of demented souls with incomprehensible demands on the other side of the thick glass.

I became rapidly disenchanted with the job, but it did have its advantages. Many guests would come in for a quick screw and leave after an hour or two, which allowed me to go in quickly when the maid wasn’t around. I’d tidy up the sheets (forget changing them!) and dump the empty whiskey bottles (most people need a drink to get into the mood) so I could rent the sucker back out again so and pocket the extra $33. I turned over some rooms as often as three times in a single day – including the $75 “spa” rooms; this provided me with vital extra income that I was saving for my eventual return back east, as Californians say. People also forgot a lot of things in their rooms after checking out. I sold this stuff, including a twelve-gauge shotgun and shells, vibrators and a rooster which had evidently been used in cockfights. Most of the time, however, they just left garbage.

On one occasion we had to change the locks when one of the monthlies failed to turn over her check. She didn’t come back, so we went into her room. Everything she and her kids owned was in that room, but there wasn’t anything worth selling or keeping. It was all crap – dirty plastic shit, fast-food wrappers, broken toys, nasty thrift-store clothing. Although throwing away a human being’s possessions was weird – I still remember the kids’ homework fluttering out of the dumpster – in a way I felt like I was doing her a favor. After all, she owned nothing worth having.

After a few months, I’d started to settle into the motel routine. So Julie decided to leave for Taiwan, to tutor English and study Chinese. I was stuck in motel hell, running this squalid cesspool all by my lonesome.

It’s not that there weren’t offers of sexual companionship to distract me from the loss of my beloved. The welfare women were constantly trying to lure me into their rooms for a quick bang (in exchange for a free night), but any temptation in that arena was squashed by the knowledge that they were all dating Crips or Bloods – and some were seeing both. And there was the sweet bridesmaid from Nebraska who got stuck at The Islander because every other motel in the area was full.

Her call came in at 4:30 am. “Why don’t you come over and play with me?” the girl with red hair and entirely too much cleavage for someone that short asked an hour after checking in. She was cute, but it was the motel’s 3-to-6 witching hour, and I knew that my customers were circling the parking lot like hyenas, waiting for just such an opportunity. Undoubtedly I would have returned to the office the following morning to find it robbed and trashed.

After spending years working jobs that required me to be polite, there was something amazingly gratifying about treating people like shit for a living.

“What the fuck do you want?” I’d yell at people who’d just asked me for an extra towel or change for a dollar or to put on a better video. I became more irritable after Julie left for the Far East; it wasn’t easy remaining celibate while even inbred trailer-park types were getting laid all around me.

The job also allowed me incredible insight into the psyche of the human animal. Occasionally several guests would call to complain about the porn vids. “There’s not enough – you know,” they’d say.

“Enough what?” I’d ask.

“You know, action. Stuff going on. Fucking.”

“Yes, I see. You mean, you’re unsatisfied with the plot progression? Or do you find the screenplay trite and banal? Perhaps you should await the denouement, Mr. Siskel!” And I’d hang up.

The VCR in the office/apartment was the only way I could watch a video. That meant the whole motel had to view whatever I felt like seeing. The film “Manon of the Spring” nearly caused a riot when it cut into the middle of a Savannah girl-girl scene. A huge employee of a nearby Navy facility appeared at the front desk in a stained white tank-top that didn’t go all the way down to his navel, pounding and screaming. “What the fuck is this shit?”

“It’s fucking culture, you fat bastard!” I barked through the safety of the glass. “It’s fucking sensitive romantic French shit, you fuck!”

I tried compromising between white-trash and white-collar tastes with a series of Russ Meyer films, but to my surprise “Mudhoney” and “Faster, Faster Pussycat…Kill! Kill!” turned out to be even less popular than “Repo Man” and “Total Recall.” “Turn off this old shit,” a woman from room 114 yelped. “We want real sex!”

In my most bizarre cinematic experiment ever, I exposed an entire motel full of horny Marines and crack whores to “The Battle of Algiers,” a critically-acclaimed black-and-white French-language pseudo-documentary depicting resistance to France during the Algerian War. There’s absolutely no sex whatsoever, but Islander customers gave two-thumbs-up to the graphic torture scenes.

The calls came in as the credits ran. “That was really cool,” one guy said. I couldn’t believe they stabbed that thing into that guy’s ass!” Not a single complaint was lodged.

Like the Morgan Freeman character in “The Shawshank Redemption,” I soon became accustomed to life at the Islander – and became more and more like my guests. I didn’t blink twice when the same customer used driver’s licenses with three completely different names to cash a government check (I charged 10 percent of the proceeds), or when a teenager got his hand trapped in the Coke machine while trying to steal its coins. (I threatened to tip it over on him.) I had deadbeats’ cars towed away to force them to cough up the back rent, and started to consider a addled Vietnam vet named Lee (Room 101) one of the more normal people in my life whenever he wasn’t screaming about “the copters, the copters” in the parking lot.

Nearly a year of my life had passed this way before I realized that I had finally saved enough money to return to New York. I said goodbye to Julie’s dad and mom and flew back, leaving them to fend for themselves against the onslaught of scumbags seven days a week. Unfortunately, they never found someone as reliable as I was, and the motel fell further into ruin. They sold it to a guy from Thailand who decided to do away with the porn vids, thus eliminating the motel’s raison d’être. Soon the once-thriving business was mostly empty and within months, the Thai guy defaulted on the Islander’s mortgage and property taxes . He disappeared and abandoned the place to bank receivership, and now the ghosts of welfare moms and pushers and white college boys from New York walk amid graffitied walls and broken glass and shitty furniture that nobody found worth stealing.

(C) 1998 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved