Some things I know. . . I just know. Driving along those highways and thruways, and those state roads. Never knew a real home. Motel, motel . . . Howard Johnson, Holiday Inn and Eddie's German Cottages. One day I just know I'll drive up a long hard road to that great Holiday Inn In The Sky and that mean old neon sign will be winkin', blinkin' NO VACANCY, NO VACANCY . . . Move on - Anonymous 20th Century Driver
God knows how many motels have swallowed up nights of my life, from Florida to Maine, from Pennsylvania to Oregon, down to Juarez. My god, what motels, what highways! Sometimes I think there are a few of us who love highways and motels more than the places they go to or the momentary stopovers they are. The other night I was sitting in the bar at Downey's, a saloon on Eighth Avenue, a couple of hundred feet west of Broadway in mid-town Manhattan, gazing around at the old photographs on the walls of actors peering out of dressing rooms, wearing make-up of long forgotten characters. Marilyn Monroe kissing Eli Wallach, Geraldine Page looking tense. Somehow they all seemed on the road . . . at least at that moment, since I was on my second Tanqueray martini. The guy I was with, a shoddy slippery producer of borderline pornographic off-Broadway 'artistic triumphs' was in a vaguely maudlin mood.
SHODDY PRODUCER (touch of sob in the voice): Sometimes I wonder what it's all about. Guy does his best and in the end you don't come up with nothin'. Look at poor Marilyn there. Jesus!
ME: Yeah, you're right, Jay. Sometimes you wonder what it's all about. (This last said with great solemnity, as though intoning a newly-discovered Universal Truth.)
SHODDY PRODUCER: You know, ever since "Princess Lesbia Meets Superman" closed in New Haven, I've been feeling rotten. I don't feel right unless I'm in some hotel room dialing room service.
ME: I know how you feel. Some guys are hotel guys, and then there's Us.
SHODDY PRODUCER: Us?
ME (signaling for a third martini): Motel Men. We ain't the same, Jay, deep down. You ain't living unless you're in a hotel; and me . . . hotels make me nervous. It's Motels I love. Man, some nights when you're booming along out there under the stars and you see that Howard Johnson coming up out of the blackness, well . . .
SHODDY PRODUCER: Motels! You mean those tourist cabins?
ME: Tourist cabins? Where the hell you been living for the past hundred years? You mean you don't know what Truman Capote said about motels?
SHODDY PRODUCER: Truman Capote? Wasn't he the guy who wrote 'GRASS HARP'? A bomb. The B'Nai B'Rith hated it. What the hell does he know?
ME (my voice assuming a low philosophical narrative tone): Jay, let me tell you about motels. Bartender, bring my slippery friend here another Tia Maria, and I will tell you something about motels.
SHODDY PRODUCER: It's late, and ...
ME (interrupting): I have listened to you for many a night, telling me of the disasters of your life. Allow me a few precious moments of your time .... And anyway, I'm buying.
SHODDY PRODUCER: Okay. I got nothin' to lose, I guess.
ME: Truly spoken. We, Ľ all of us, come into this world with nothing and we leave it in the same state. Hairless at the beginning; hairless at the end. A great cycle of futility that stretches ...
SHODDYPRODUCER: I thought you were gonna tell me something about motels.
ME (carefully twisting lemon into gin): Motels, ah yes, they are part of it. There is nothing more American than a motel. I have traveled the world over and I find few places anywhere on this globe remotely like a good motel, and I, for one, love them. Motels, Jay, are like green oases on the trackless desert, snug ports nestled on the shores of endless alien seas.
SHODDY PRODUCER: No kidding?
ME: No kidding. No, I kid you not, as Captain Queeg often said. Some nights when I'm cooped up in my pad on 10th Street I feel the urge to revisit some of those great motels I have seen in my time. You know, there's nothing that makes you feel as free, as on-the-move, as a motel.
SHODDY PRODUCER: You can't tell me nothin' about being on the road. Did I tell you about the time I was traveling with the third road company of 'PAJAMA TOPS?'
ME (raising my hand imperiously): Hold! I have the floor. Have you ever heard the name "Camino Real?"
SHODDY PRODUCER: Are you kidding? Maureen Stapleton. For Chrissake, what kind of a dumb ox do you think I am? Have I heard of 'Camino Real.' Tennessee Williams! Why, I remember the night they ...
ME: I mean the real Camino Real. Not some wispy melodrama about ladies with roses in their teeth.
SHODDY PRODUCER: You mean there's another one? I wonder if the rights . . .
ME: Jay, some day I think you're going to try to buy the rights to the world, including serial, recording and book club sales. The Camino Real, the real Camino Real, is a magnificent motel that once enfolded me with its loving arms like a passionate mistress on the dark desert sands.
SHODDY PRODUCER: Holy Christ!
ME: Yes, Jay, the Camino Real is a fantastic motel across the bridge from El Paso, just outside that decadent, fleshpot of the Western world-Juarez. You come up on it all of a sudden, like some movie set rising out of the red and yellow baked clay. It's made of adobe, and has high, swinging balconies and long cool open-air hallways with cactus, and you can smell the chili beans and hear a guy playing the guitar someplace down by the pool. And what a pool, with that Mexican sun slanting down, making the water dance and shimmer until it looks like cool liquid blue ice. And the girls just lay stretched out like lizards in the sun. The rooms have low ceilings with that square, heavy Spanish furniture made out of some kind of hard, dark wood. Why, Jay, they've got a nightclub in that motel that looks like it's right out of a set of some old Merle Oberon movie, with all these elegant ladies in slinky gowns and these guys dressed up in black, formal suits, going up winding staircases, with chandeliers made out of cut-crystal and a band wearing those Mexican shirts with the puffy sleeves and their hair slicked down like patent leather. Out in the lobby they have a little cart that they push around, ladling out free ice-cold lemonade, with that hot desert air puffing in once in a while to remind you that there are mountains around.
SHODDYPRODUCER: Aw, come on, you're not talking about a motel.
ME: The hell I'm not. You have known me as a car cuckoo for a long time, Jay. Well, any good car nut is also a motel nut. Cars and motels go together. In fact, they are almost one and the same. I figure it couldn't have been more than 20 minutes after the first car ever built set off across country than soma smart operator figured that the guy driving it would have to eventually look for some place to light, empty his bladder and rest his weary head, so he put up a sign on the side of a shack reading: Honeymoon Acres Tourist Cabin and that's where it started. I've been in motels all over the country, all kinds. I remember one outside of Jacksonville, Florida, just over the Georgia line, made out of old faded warped wood with blistered paint. Kitchen chairs in the room; linoleum on the floor, and a light bulb hanging down from the ceiling. There was an old geezer on a rocking chair out in front of the office, swatting flies and chewing tobacco. I drove in my drophead Morgan +4, hot and tired after making 700 miles that day heading south toward The Keys. 'Cost me six dollars that night, and as I lay on that lumpy mattress I could hear the crickets and those Florida frogs quackin' outside in the warm dark. I went out around the side and got a Coke out of the machine, came back and lay in the dark; drinking Coke and listening to frogs and Tammy Wynette singing "D-l-V-0-R-C-E" on the radio, andĽ I want to tell you; that night I knew I was in the South as much as I'd ever be, and I could hear those big diesel rigs rumbling on past, carrying those oranges up North on U.S. 41.
SHODDY PRODUCER: US 41? Never heard of it. Is that over by the Lincoln Tunnel, in Jersey?
ME: US 41 in JERSEY! My god, you really are an innocent. You mean you don't know the feel and smell and look of the really great roads of America? Forty-one! Just saying it makes shivers go up my spine. US 30. US 66. US 80. You name 'em, Jay, I been over 'em all. The great Turnpikes . . . Maine . . . Florida . . . Indiana . . . Ohio. They're like the great rivers of the world the Nile, the Amazon.
SHODDY. PRODUCER (stirring his drink listlessly): Jeez, I never would have known. Where's US 80?
ME: Ah, I hoped you'd ask. On US 80, my Showbiz Scoundrel, lies one of the great motels of them all. Have you ever heard of Little America?
SHODDY PRODUCER: Yeah, Isn't that the place where that Admiral Byrd or whatever his name was had all those penguins and polar bears? I saw a documentary . . .
ME: No, Jay. One of the great moments of my driving life, which has been most of my life and I wish I had a dollar for every mile I've driven, came one bad night on US 80. I was heading east out of Salt Lake City in a rented Cougar. I crossed the Wyoming line about seven o'clock at night. It was in October and all day the sun had been hard and bright and crystal sharp, and you could see for a million miles to the low hills that lay on either side of US 80, which is a fast divided 4-lane masterpiece that runs as straight as a die east and west along the lower part of Wyoming, my absolute favorite state. I was trying to make Cheyenne when all of a sudden, with no warning at all, it started to snow, that wind cutting 90 degrees out of the North, right across the highway. The snow coming down so fast and hard that I felt I was driving through a white tunnel, and couldn't see fifteen feet ahead of the Cougar: Right ahead of me I could barely make out the red taillights of a big semi, and I figured I'd hang on to him like grim death, since I figured he could see the road. It got colder and colder, and my windshield was freezing up faster than the defrosters could blow it off. I had the radio turned to a station in Rawlins, Wyoming, and they began giving out emergency storm alerts, Well, I figured all I could do was push on. I hung on to the back of that semi like a barnacle and I could see another guy hanging on to me off in the haze through my rearview mirror. We boomed on through the night. It seemed like forever. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a sign, barely visible through the snow off to my right where some range cattle were huddled up in a snowbank next to a barbed wire fence. "LITTLE AMERICA FIVES MILES AHEAD FREE ICE CREAM CONES." The sign was shaped like a penguin. For a second or two I thought, Christ, my mind has snapped at last, I know this snow is bad enough, but "Little America!" No, it was really there. The wind howled and the snow kept getting worse and worse. Temperature must have been down around zero when I came to this turn-off with a big arrow: "LITTLE AMERICA." Well, I pulled off, swung through the underpass amid the snowbanks, and the next thing I knew I was driving into the biggest goddamn gas station I ever saw in my life. They must have had two hundred pumps, and there, spread out before me, was one of the greatest motels of them all. Little America. I went into the lobby, and I can't tell you how good that heat felt after that night on US 80. I think I must have got damn near the last room, and here I was in the middle of nowhere, at Little America, on the edge of the void, in a room that had crystal chandeliers, Florentine furniture, silver candelabra, blood red velvet walls with a carpet so thick I sunk up to my ankles. Outside the wind howled and the antelope came nuzzling up to the glass windows of my room. I wandered down to the dining room where they had fresh Rocky Mountain trout and baked abalone, and one of the greatest bars in all creation where everyone sat around drinking Jack Daniels and laughing at the storm that raged outside. Why, Jay; Little America is the only motel in the world that has its own post office! It's a whole town! This storm kept up for three days. They kept reporting hunters lost in the hills. And every night I'd come back from that fine Wyoming food and that good Wyoming liquor; lounge around under my crystal chandelier, with my candelabra gleaming and the red velvet walls glowing like blood, and I figured that if there's anything finer than a motel named Little America, in a storm, I sure as hell don't know about it.
SHODDY PRODUCER: Hey, that gives me an idea. Have you ever thought of writing about a motel? See, there's this poor waitress, kind of a Kim Stanley type, see, and this guy comes in off the road on a cold night, and he's on the lam, see, and . . .
ME: Oh for Chrissake, that's 'BUS STOP'
SHODDY PRODUCER: A bus stop ain't the same as a motel.
ME: That reminds me, have I ever told you about the Inn Of The Six Flags, outside of Fort Worth? Now there's a place that . . .
BARTENDER: All right, you guys, let's break it up. It's closin' time. We gotta knock off sometime.
We parted on Eighth Avenue, Jay back to his room at the Y and me heading down to the village, dreaming of that Great Motel In The Sky.