Yes-No Neon – Part 1

IMG_2776The clerk at the Edgefield Motor Suites was trying to be patient. I leaned across the counter to focus on his computer screen, laboring to be polite. After half a century of lodging in all manner of motel, tourist court, travelers rest and motor inn, I was trying to maintain an unblemished record of civility with the cast of no-dozed, detached, curry scented but generally honest characters who have played host to my road-weary self on nights from Halifax to Huachuca. But this encounter challenged my decorum.

I fancy myself an ideal, road-tested motel patron. I sprint to the parking lot to recall my license plate number when demanded. I don’t pester the bored night man for blankets when I know if I don’t I will be sorry. And back in the land-line days, I was always first to point out any phone charges that I had accrued. But on this morning, after only nibbling on the breakfast buffet of cold cereal, boiled eggs, mini-donuts and mealy apples the management had laid out for its ‘honored guests’, my string was about to break.

“No, no. One hundred thirty-five dollars can not be right,” I declared with certainty. “It was eighty-nine bucks, before my AARP discount.” I reached for my wallet to extract proof of my advanced age, and to seal the deal, but as I did, the computer screen and the clerk’s printer came to life.

“So sorry sir, we are very rigorous about our accounting.” He yanked a document from the printer and slid it across the counter. “Please review the list of charges carefully. I’ll answer any questions…”

I blew. “List? How can there be a list?” I counted off what was surely was the obvious: “Room rate, less discount, plus taxes: ninety-two fifty. That’s hardly a list.”

The congenial mask fell from the fellow’s face the way the Rose Queen’s smile collapses after her float takes it final turn from Colorado Boulevard. He hardly uttered a word in response to my outburst. With the authority of the entire hospitality industry behind him, he dropped his forefinger to the printout and tapped the list of ‘extras’.

“Snacks,” he proclaimed.

“Snacks, hell. I never had a snack…not here. They’re too damned expensive. I know. I checked.”

The clerk raised his eyes imperceptibly.

I don’t think I was born yesterday, but sometimes I have my doubts. The nature of my work and my tastes in travel generally take me to destinations beyond the reach of most state-of-the-art lodging. This unfamiliarity left me blind to the depths technology had dipped in order to plunk an irresistible purchasing opportunity right under the nose of a hungry, vulnerable traveler. This should have been no revelation, we have all long-ago learned that one can access pay-per-view films with a click of the remote, and rack up endless bills. I am used to that, but I was unaware of the new snare hotel merchandising services had rigged for me. I recalled the tidy display of salted cashews, chocolates, espresso biscotti and other delights that occupied a crucially unavoidable space on my ‘desk’. And I recalled the prices.

“Seven fifty for a dinky can of peanuts. Are you kidding me…six bucks for junior mints? Forget about it.”

It was true. The goodies were far too steep. I could have strolled one block to a 7-11 and saved three bucks a pop. Like I said, I checked them all. My wife, who knows a few things about nutrition, has imprinted within me an involuntary reflex to read all ingredient labels. That evening I had stood before the AutoSnack-Rack, and scrutinized every item’s label. So I was well aware of the snacks’ daunting chemical complexities as well as the prices, but I never so much as broke a seal on a single Cappuccino Bon-Bon. Yet there they were, Bon-Bons and all, recorded on my bill and charged to my total.

“No, I never ate any of this crap.” My wife would have been proud, but the ascending volume in my voice gave the clerk a different view. I don’t know for sure, but I sensed his finger searching beneath the counter for the ‘Clerk Support’ button. Yet no beefy fellow in an Edgefield blazer ever arrived. It wasn’t necessary.

“Sir, you bought the snacks.”

I looked at him incredulously, but before another word could escape my lips, the clerk informed me of my error – of my naiveté – in a new world of load-cell purchasing technology. “You do not need to consume them to purchase them.” He looked at me with pity. “It’s no different than any store.” He pushed a pre-printed sheet explaining the operations and customer obligations pursuant to the AutoSnack-Rack systems. His logic escaped me, but I was comforted to realize I was not the first Luddite to be ensnared by the Rack. He continued with my enlightenment: “When you pick up an item you have 45 seconds to return it to the rack or the load cell confirms the item’s removal and records it as a purchase.”

Before I could raise further objection in the face of oppressive technology, he lowered the boom. “The rules are clearly marked on the rack. And they are described in your Rental Agreement.”

What could I say? I didn’t realize I had a Rental Agreement other than to refrain from stealing the linen or chasing the maids, and to get the hell out at 11:00am. But a full sheet of 5-point type on the back of my sign-in document testified otherwise. It was enough for me to throw up my hands in defeat. I suppressed a few select oaths and tossed down my credit card. I had nearly exited when I realized this obligation cuts both ways, and I returned to the desk with a determination the clerk could not challenge.

“If I bought ‘em, then let’s have ‘em.” I pulled the bill from my pocket and circled the extras list. “I’ll wait right here.”

Perhaps the clerk was irritated that he couldn’t slip upstairs to my room and claim the goodies before the maids arrived to make the bed and reset the Snack-Rack’s computer, but he never let on. He abandoned his post and his attitude long enough to return with a plastic sack of my accidental purchases. It was with some satisfaction – albeit costly – that I carefully checked his delivery against my inventory and stepped out into the clear southern Oregon morning. I still had about 700 miles to go to catch up with my brother in-law in Las Vegas. Things weren’t so bad, I thought. The ride to Sin City might be a little more tolerable with a bag of over-priced munchies to see me across the desolate stretches.

In a moment I was driving down motel row and all was forgotten. Despite the clerk or his snack trap, it would take a lot more than this blunder to shake my love affair with motels. My eyes darted involuntarily from motel sign to motel sign, utterly unnecessarily seeking an illuminated YES in the bright morning.

It is not that I am a cowering sycophant, but I recoil from the word NO. I don’t like to say it, hear it, and worse, I loathe the sight of it, especially when flashing, flickering or glaring in neon. A shrink, if he bothered to dip into the embarrassing depths of my psyche, would quickly recognize the red flags of a “complex” common in folks without a stable childhood home: aloofness, inability to commit, fear of denial or its sinister twin craving for approval. And he would be right. The root of my issues, my desire for YES – for blind acceptance – in the words of one particularly astute professional of the shrunken persuasion, “flashes like a neon sign declaring ‘gypsy.’” Well they sure got the neon part right.

They weren’t far off on the gypsy issue either.

My father was a severely disabled, indomitable veteran of WWII. For the better part of my childhood he wasn’t employed, but he was never despondent. Before the war he had been a bit of a hobo and a consummate storyteller. After his war came to a horrific end, and what wounds would heal healed, he picked up the pieces and resumed his rambling nature when his wife’s patience and his children’s schooling permitted. And sometimes not.

Caught up in dad’s restless nature, and the lure of an expanding interstate highway system, my family never stayed put for long. We children rarely saw the school year come and go from the same classroom. Our house always was, it seemed, in flux, and our belongings spent inordinate amounts of time in the guts green Mayflower vans barreling between Philly, LA, Nashville and Utah, or idling in the lot of a Howard-Johnson’s awaiting further instruction. Okay, that is a slight exaggeration, but between frequent moves and summer-long treks to dad’s home turf in the Maritimes of Canada, or to my mother’s people in Philadelphia, home for a large portion of my formative years truly was where our Ranch Wagon finally stopped for the night. In my father’s world, that choice was never easy. The decision was governed by a tedious vetting process involving cost, safety, accessibility, intuition, complex racial and social issues, and, of course, the whim of the neon vacancy sign.

img_2888-e1411448994350For a crucial spell in the fifties and sixties before lodging supply caught up with the demands of mobile ex-GI’s and their kin – before 8’s, 6’s, Quintas, Qualities and Comforts thrust their blazing standards into the threatening night skies – there was no certainty for the motorist in finding a bed. The tired family peering at the lights of an approaching town held their breaths in hopes that lodging would be revealed. With luck, the welcoming lights of a motor court emerged from the dark. As sure as flowers, in competition for insects’ attention, evolved intricate floral designs, so, too, did motel owners devise elaborate neon structures to captivate the sleepy traveler. Ever more competitive lists of amenities were shoehorned into the signs, testing the skill of designers and neon craftsmen.

Nowadays, a brand is sufficient to sway a motorist’s decision, but back in the glory days of the blue highways, the days my motel gestalt was forged, copy was king – lurid neon text: Air Conditioned, Free TV, Color TV, Steam Heat, AAA, Pets Welcome, No Pets, No Smoking, Smoking, Kitchenettes, Free Coffee, Heated Pool, Clean Bathrooms, Christian, No Coloreds..and of course, the kicker, the simple binary report of the facility’s availability. YES. NO.

To a weary family, bickering under the ravages of low blood sugar and lack of REM sleep, the report was crucial. Thumbs up promised relief. Thumbs down condemned them to fatigue and anxiety out on the dark, serpentine two-lanes, or on the main drags of remote, inhospitable towns whose police prowled the streets in hopes of picking off out-of-towners who might pay up on-the-spot rather than test the humor of a cranky traffic court judge in the wee hours.

YES. NO offered no grey area. To a sensitive youngster as was I, it seemed a harsh existential judgment that likely contributed to a life of pesky mood disorders (and the vindication of my shrink’s neon sign diagnosis). But to keep this in perspective, the signs are an obvious convenience and have saved many folk from squandering valuable time and effort on useless room shopping. History might have been written far differently if Joseph had been directed by a simple sign reading YES, to a decent room a few miles up the road from Bethlehem. Maybe it’s just as well. It is a bit of a stretch getting one’s imagination around the image of angels, wise men and camels parading up the hall of a cozy inn, than it is to picture them gathered beside a rustic manger.

Biblical considerations aside, I recall the keen anticipation of settling into a comfortable motel room – the chance to pull the ‘sanitized for your protection’ paper strip from the toilet seat, to slide into thin, Tide-scented sheets, to watch local TV hosts guffaw their way through the heavily censored evening movie, to eat Dinty Moore canned stew warmed over a hot plate, and with luck, to writhe with pleasure at the tips of a quarter’s worth of Magic Fingers.

Unfortunately, the promise of a room and an end to the tedious bladder bending hours on the road, did not similarly affect my father or his finely tuned frugality sensors. To him the YES could be ignored if displayed on a sign that indicated AAA approval (too expensive by his measure) or free color TV – also a costly extravagance. Pools, to my dad’s reckoning, were a significant strike against a motel’s surviving his cut, and a bitter pill for his children to accept – especially in August. Although he occasionally relented, and we boys were permitted to cavort in our skivvies after respectably attired children had yielded the pool for the evening.

My father, who suffered the loss of both arms to a land mine a dozen or so years earlier, often ambled out to these infrequent family gatherings by the chlorinated waters, a stout motel-issue tumbler of ginger ale and Old Granddad clamped in his hook. I never saw him swim, but he waded in to his knees and reveled in the extravagant comforts he had grudgingly approved. My mother might dangle a foot or two in the water but generally surveyed the scene for potential dangers when dad’s damaged eyes could not. Thanks to her, even though traveling without reservations or Yelp or a Mobile Guide to provide assistance, things usually worked out okay. But there were close calls when we passed up one too many rooms, a fact due largely to my parent’s brutal selection process.

In their system a motel displaying YES, and having survived the initial AAA/Color TV/Pool/Racial cut, was then subject to inspection by my mother. After some mumbling with my father, that in the confines of a Ford Ranch Wagon somehow escaped the comprehension of my brothers and I but was presumably a confidential review of today’s budget, she would disappear into the office, leaving us in the hush of anticipation.

We watched the pantomime of her body language as she bargained with the clerk. With luck, he would hand her a set of keys. This was only the beginning; she would then make a personal inspection of the proposed room. Sometimes she would review several. As she came and went between the office and the prospective rooms she often passed the car, but I never recall her letting an expression of hope – even an inkling as to the room’s suitability – slip from her determined face. Then, as until she drew her very last breath at St. Peters office door, she held her cards tightly.

* * *

It was a gloomy moment when we saw Mom pass the keys back across the counter and turn to go. She would climb back aboard issuing only the most cryptic justification for her rejection, then throw the car back into gear. My father, no matter how badly he might have had to pee, never challenged her judgment. To this day I can not fathom what imperfection might have triggered her rejection of what from the car appeared to be perfectly acceptable accommodations for the night. I suspect, however, that some of the bathrooms might have been equipped with rubber machines.

Suffering vast disappointment, we would swing through the parking lot in silence; past the parked cars of guests who had either more money, less taste, or a modicum of common sense. Wise, comfortably settled people peeked from the drapes in pity at the lights of the station wagon pulling eastbound back onto highway 40 in the dead of night. From behind their curtains they, like quivering townspeople watching two gunfighters squaring off in High-Noon, must have known the misery that lay dead ahead. They must have been aware that there wasn’t another chance at a motel for 80 miles of winding, god-awful highway.

In defense of my departed parents, I must confess that these horrific nights were an exception. And as uncomfortable as it must have been for them to ride out into what singer, John Koonce called, ‘The Octane Twilight’, they never grumbled or quarreled, and never reassessed their selection criteria, even if we habitually landed past dinner-time and the Honeymooners. We traveled in a bubble, a kind of grace generated by the whir of recaps on asphalt. Whatever it was, it seemed they saved their disagreements for home. Even though there was an increasing chance that the next town could leave us room less – homeless – and at the mercy of the drastic measures my ex-hobo father readily enumerated, such as waking the local priest, sleeping in a church, curling up in a post office, checking into jail, or bedding down in an emergency room lobby. They all seemed like reasonable but frightening possibilities to me – a far, dreadful cry from those hundreds of blissful evenings when in lowly American motel rooms, our family came together like nowhere else on earth…

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