The Hotel's Name is Long-Forgotten
Traveling across country in the early fifties held scenes nothing like this postcard. Along the unfamiliar roads were unknown diners and loosely regulated rows of roadside rooms. About the same time my parents honeymooned in Washington DC, a man named Kemmons Wilson also took a trip there and was so unimpressed by seedy motels that he decided to make his own Holiday Inn
near Memphis, Tennessee. A few years later, in 1957, he started the successful chain. That same year a man named J. Willard Marriott
, whose business began as a root beer stand in Washington, DC, opened his first motel.
A similar story began in California with the Best Western
chain founded by M.K. Guertin, but that new "franchise" did not have a motel east of the Mississippi until after 1964. Actually, those new motels in the east were called Best Eastern
until it was decided to keep the franchise name the same from coast to coast.
The concept of franchising
promoted consistency, customer recognition, and a sense of security on the road. It was eventually applied to restaurants and retail stores as well. For instance, in 1951, there was a stand-alone burger joint in San Bernardino, CA, that had developed something called a “speedy service system,” but the first franchised site of that restaurant would not open until 1955, when a man named Ray Kroc would buy the rights from Dick and Mac McDonald
It would be a decade or so before recognizable logos of national chains made otherwise strange places feel a little more like home. So how did Dad know where to spend that first night after Aunt Edith's? He didn't. Each night on the road was a shot in the dark guided by a "rule of thumb" held by many people in that day: Don't stay at a motel.
Today, we often use the words Motel
hotel is derived from the Medieval Latin word for hospital, hospice
, and hostel
, all of which imply staff on hand to tend to the personal needs of the guests. Motel
, on the other hand, is a uniquely American word, a blend of the words MOTOR
and HOTEL (
which is what they were originally called). Motels sprang up along America’s burgeoning byways after WWII. They were often in the middle of nowhere
serving “one night” guests in a hurry to be someplace else. This lent to their sordid reputation, which was similar to the opening line of common jokes about "the traveling salesman" with a twist of campfire stories about "the Boogie Man." This image became legendary in 1960 when Alfred Hitchcock released Psycho
. Who can forget the Bates Motel? But ten years
before that film hit the movie screen many travelers who hit the road vowed never to spend the night in one. My father was one of them. “It’s worth the wait to stay in an established Hotel,” his father had warned, “places that have residents and repeat business know how to treat people.”......................................................
Mom and Dad hurried through the cold February air into an old hotel whose name has long since been forgotten. The lobby had warm wooden trim and staff-hook reading lamps beside well-worn leather
sofas. There was a brass cuspidor beside a chair that reminded Mom of the one at her Grandpa Spencer's house. Though she hated the habit of chewing tobacco, and shuddered at the thought of what the inside of that spittoon no doubt looked like, the sight of it brought a homey touch that made her smile.
“Stay here by the door while I get the room,” Dad whispered.
He stepped up to the desk with a suitcase in each hand. The distance served two purposes: Dad thought it would make them look less like eager newlyweds, but more importantly, he could ask the lady at the desk about room prices without Mom hearing it. The first purpose did not fool the clerk, and the second purpose did not fool his bride, but both women played along. Dad put the key in his pocket and motioned for Mom to join him..
“Top floor, end of the hall on the left,” the clerk repeated.
As the elevator door closed, Mom whispered, “She kept looking at me like a chaperone at a dance. I couldn't tell if she smirking or smiling?”.
"At least she didn't say anything about my mother wringing my neck.".
On the third floor, the door dinged open to what looked like a neglected wing of the building. The hall was narrow with faded paper, curling at the seams. There were little candle sconces on the wall, and the dim light shone on hard-crackled varnish that clung to the paneled doors like dried molasses. The candle outside their room wobbled loosely in its socket. Mom stood it up straight, but when she let go, it leaned to the left again. Dad pretended not to notice as he turned on the light inside, and closed the door behind them..
It was a small room with a bed that sagged in the middle. The small window did not have real curtains--they were sheets that had been died brown. At least they could have pressed them
, Mom thought, but she didn't say a word. Beneath the window was a cast iron radiator and Dad turned a knob at its base to open the valve and let the steam pass through the pipes. "Kind of chilly,” he said, propping a wooden chair under the knob of the closed door..
“Why are you doing that with the chair?”
“My dad told me to put a chair against the door like this. It’s the only way to really keep someone out.”
“Do you think someone would try to get in?”
Since the night before, Mom had been worrying about this second evening because--shall we say--things had not gone smoothly at Aunt Edith's, and now the sight of this chair braced against the door added a new concern to her post-nuptial bedtime jitters. Still looking at the chair, she asked again, “I mean… are there people who break into locked hotel rooms?”.
For a moment, Dad weighed the pros and cons of explaining that there are in fact bad people in the world just as there are bears in the forest and sharks in the ocean, but he knew that if the chair was for his peace of mind, his answer had to be for hers. Rather than answering the question she asked, he laughed and said, “Not in places like this where there's nothing worth stealing. It’s just a precaution, Bev.”
He opened his suitcase and pulled out four brand-new tooth brushes still in their boxes and opened one..
"Why do you have four new toothbrushes?" Mom asked.
"We can always use extra tooth brushes," he began, but he knew this didn't sound like his normal frugal self so he blurted out..."Oh, alright. The truth is... every time I went up to the counter to buy the... you know
... there was a lady at the cash register so I'd just say 'I'll take a toothbrush.' Finally, at the last drugstore I went to, there was a man and I still felt funny so I got a toothbrush AND
." (Even with his bride, he was not yet able to say some words.).
"Well, that's how we girls feel," Mom pointed out, "when we're buying our things and there's a man at the counter.".
They had never talked of these personal matters directly before. Dad stepped into the small bathroom, pulled the string of the bare bulb over the sink, and shut the door behind him..
Mom pulled down the covers of the bed and waved the small lamp from the nightstand back and forth like a torch as if performing some ancient ritual. Dad stepped out with a toothbrush in his mouth..
"You'll want to be sure to lock the other door in this bathroom. It opens to the next room."
"What? Is there anybody in there?"
"I didn't check, but there's a hook to lock it on the inside of the door." He then saw the lamp in her hand. “What in the world are you doing?” he laughed, trying to contain his foaming toothpaste..
“It’s just a precaution. I’m looking for bedbugs! You’re dad told you to do the chair. My mom told me to check for bedbugs,” and then without warning she sat down on the side of the bed and just started to bawl. Dad was at a loss. He could not interpret the signs. After a long pause he spoke.
“You’re sorry you married me, aren’t you?”
“No, Don. It’s not that at all. I’ve never been happier,” she sobbed. “It’s just this room
is not what I imagined it would be like.”.
It was a great relief to Dad to know she was only crying about the room and bedbugs and burglars that in all probability would never show up. In that moment, Dad learned what some husbands take years discover: disappointment is a hard bill to pay, and within reason, a man cannot overspend on the significant "firsts" of life. This was their first night in hotel room. He was trying to save money so they could have a nicer room during their three days in DC, but this was their first room
. He put his arm around her and let out a comforting "Shhhhhhhhhh," and the radiator hissed in agreement..
“I’ll be right back. Don’t unpack. I’m going down to the desk.”
“I’m not staying up here alone," Mom blubbered.
"Okay. I'll take the bags but stay by the elevator until I come for you.".
Down at the front desk. Dad rose above his bashful ways and walked right up to the lady. “Look, ah… I'm not very fussy, and that room would be fine—if it were just me, but I probably should have mentioned that we’re on our honeymoon, and it's not quite... Well...Do you have anything...How much is your nicest room?”.
“I said to myself you two were newlyweds," the clerk beamed, "but it sounded like you were on a budget. Tell you what. Our finest room is right here on the main floor. Second room on the right. I call it our honeymoon suite, and it happens to be vacant. Here’s the key. No extra charge. Newlyweds on the third floor. What was I thinking? You go bring her down here right now.”.
"She's waiting on the elevator. Thank you. Thank you very much.".
In the lifetime to come, Mom would someday stay in fine hotels across America and abroad, but none struck her as more beautiful than that second room, on that second night, in that hotel with the long-forgotten name.