It was during an uneventful drive, a few months back, when my boyfriend and I first fixated on the obscenely tacky sign belonging to the Anchor Motel. Its neon lights flash from blue to green to red, the innocent maritime image etching into our eyes.
Across from the Anchor Motel is a small Mexican restaurant called Tacos Pancho. We get some food there as an excuse to ask our waitress about the motel’s reputation. “To be honest with you, it’s really low-rent,” she warns me. “People go there for one night stands. There’s a lot of prostitutes; they come here after they do their business.”
She strongly advises us not to stay there, as she’s heard it’s full of bedbugs, and recommends we find a hotel in Irving. But to us, her words have the power of a glowing sales pitch on QVC. We are again sold on the Anchor. We are looking for bad motels, and the worse the better.
I’ve been dating Stephen, a guitar player, for three on-and-off years. In musician time, that’s 40 years. There’s not much undiscovered territory between us, as the same package is delivered night after night, no matter how we alter the wrapping. Instead of inviting cameos by a third person, we opt for a change of scenery by switching bedrooms.
As a couple, we aren’t particularly reckless — we’ve committed more misdeeds when we’re broken up than together. But we find the hazards of bad motels to be soothing, like camping. The sounds of nature may be replaced by the noise of strangers screaming in the next room, but to us the stimulative effect is the same.
So we stand in the lobby face-to-face with the Anchor Motel’s attendant, who’s standing behind a bullet-proof glass. I can’t explain how reassuring it is that the staff anticipates getting shot during the course of their employment. To be fair, there was a shooting at the Anchor three years ago and an attempted robbery took place here this month.
Tonight the hotel is robbing us. “Ninety-five dollars for a room?” I complain. The man in line behind me sympathizes. “Yeah, $85 is too much,” he says helpfully.
The attendant sees that I’m onto the fact that he’s charging what he sees fit like he’s running a garage sale. No bulletproof glass will protect him from my attitude, so he lowers it $10. We take the deal and head to the room. It’s perfect: dimly lit by a single working lamp, no remote control for the TV, abhorrent decor on the walls and mold above the shower head that has been painted over.
But there’s a dirty mirror, and when there’s a mirror in front of a bed you can look at yourself doing it with the manic glee of Christian Bale in American Psycho. Which is exactly what we did.
We call it moteling: the fetish of identifying and frequenting the cheapest, filthiest and most dangerous motels for a thrill. It qualifies as leisurely fright-seeing or counter-tourism. We seek out the kind of places that inspire the pulpiest of writing, so dangerously dirty they could pass as a set for a snuff film.
I’m a historic hotel aficionado. I’ve had my fun at the Adolphus, the oldest hotel in Dallas, when my boyfriend and I decided to crash it with an artist friend. And some of my best memories have taken place at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, and the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff, the closest Dallas has to an artist hub like New York’s Hotel Chelsea. The Belmont attracts a constant flock of musicians and artists, but it’s far too clean to satiate our appetite for the low life.
Making a deliberate decision to stay at a motel rather than a hotel, when it’s not a question informed by money, might say a lot about your character. It suggests, for starters, an unabashed taste for the déclassé. Motels are hotels’ skanky little sisters, the preferred accommodations for those who’d rather live in a beat novel than an issue of Good Housekeeping. Even in fiction, hotels gave us Eloise running around the Plaza, while motels have Psycho’s Norman Bates gutting guests when he’s not peeping at them. Hotels are where you bring an escort, while motels are for bargaining with hookers. They reek of suicide, homicide, insecticide.
Motels also bring me back to the cruelest time in my life. When I was 17 my teenage boyfriend kicked me out of our shared apartment and dropped me off at a hotel in Plano, where my sister was staying with her two children. As I left his car with my one pathetic suitcase full of nothing but notebooks, he said, “I actually mean this, good luck.”
I slept on the Hearthside Extended Stay’s floor for a few weeks, or in a urine-soaked bed with my 2-year-old nephew, all the while avoiding the drunk old man on the second floor who repeatedly invited me to have a beer in his room.
Like in many extended stay hotels, entire families of unfavorable credit or dubious backgrounds lived there semi-permanently. Many had been stuck in this limbo of a lifestyle for years, and their hopelessness showed as they literally planted roots in their humble units, evident in the dusty flowers which hung depressed off the windows. My nephew was pragmatic enough to escape the room three times in the middle of the night, despite management’s attempts at safety, and he’d crossed the street to a field of coyotes in his diaper.
There was a family of Jehovah’s witnesses on the second floor whose children knew an alarming number of lyrics to gangsta rap songs. One time the mother came back from the salon proudly showing off her new mullet haircut. When my little sister took her own life a few months later, it was the mulleted Jehovah’s witness who delivered the message to my older sister.
I’m a middle child of middle looks and middle intelligence, and middle-of-the-road political views. I know from personal experience that nothing lacks more charm than mediocrity. I can’t think of anything more boring than staying at La Quinta, with its 3-star comfort and modesty. So I reach back to the frightful days of my teens to revel in masochistic nostalgia, except this time I get to return as a victorious outsider.
We don’t need a trend to validate our taste, but we want to know if there are other motelers out there. An online search uncovers no web pages or support groups. A consensus among our friends indicates that there’s not a huge trend of bad motel enthusiasts. It appears that most people prefer to upgrade their lodgings and aren’t interested in paying to expose themselves to a new ecosystem of unknown bacteria.
I speak to Dr. Jessica Tartaro, a psychologist who specializes in orgasmic intimacy, who has the fortune of not treating us. I ask her about the thrill-seeking appeal of staying at grungy motels. “So many people are living on auto-pilot, and we want to wake up and live life more awake,” she explains. “Living on the edge is a creative way to spark the system. Going to motels is relatively safe compared to other things you could be doing.”
Tartaro concludes with what I take as a blessing: “I encourage you as a couple to be creative, to seek out experiences that will thaw out the nerve endings.” I end the call by asking for her rate, because I suddenly can’t live without her insight.
My boyfriend and I depart to find a motel on Harry Hines Boulevard with our own blankies, like horny children. We look for a motel in our neighborhood because we know it must have less to offer, and want to stay as close to the whorehouses as possible. I had suggested going to South Dallas, and he responded with an unequivocal “fuck no.” Too dangerous, he says. So instead we choose establishments closer to our home.
When you first move to a place, well-meaning locals quickly warn you where not to go. That’s why I heard of the Harry Hines area before I learned of any other Dallas attraction. I’d hoped to find a boutique red light district like Amsterdam’s or a street bazaar of near-naked women like I’d seen in Buenos Aires’ Zona Roja. While Paris can boast of La Pigalle, home to the Moulin Rouge and an underbelly of sex shops, Dallas’ red light district is tragically underwhelming.
For one, any entrepreneurial signs of the world’s oldest profession are hidden here in bland concrete strip malls, in the form of storefronts marked by neon signs which light up simple words like “Passion.” These signs offer no indication of the type of business that’s run inside, but instead announce only a promise. Last Valentine’s my boyfriend was romantic enough to show me around these presumed massage parlors, by pointing out where he lost his shameful post-high school virginity.
This night, we abandon the constraints of morals. “Nothing is off limits,” I say.
“Except my butthole,” he replies, without provocation.
We’re on a kamikaze mission to find the absolute worst, so we Yelp backwards, starting with lowest-rated. We pass a few on the way and I deem them “too nice.” He disagrees, and points out that one motel has paint that hasn’t been updated since the ’70s. We go in and out of parking lots to best assess the properties’ damage. We see prostitutes entering rooms, while pimps guard the parking lots, but still, too nice.
You know a motel is worthless when the biggest selling point advertised is the fact that they have internet access, like we’ve traveled in time to the mid-’90s. Even worse, one motel on Harry Hines includes the word “telephone” on its sign. They might as well boast of having running water.
We find a beacon of hopelessness in a spot called Cole Manor. The sign’s letter C fails to light up, but “ole Manor” too sounds like the title of a horror movie, or else a country inn from an Agatha Christie novel, murder-mysterious either way.
There’s a convenience store across the street, next to a liquor store, where a few men loiter outside. The store smells like the throes of clinical depression. The clerk, an older Asian man, is blasting a foreign-language radio show. I ask him about the Cole Manor, and he tells me that it’s dangerous, but says it can’t be that bad because he hasn’t heard any gunshots.
He says there are a lot of people there on drugs and that he sees the same people come in and out of his store. “They live there for years, or longer than that,” he says, giving no explanation as to what he means by longer than years. Decades? Centuries? He ultimately suggests that I go stay at a better motel located one block down.
The Cole Manor was built in 1946, and offers an idealized lavish life, if you’re destitute. The rooms are the size of a walk-in closet. It’s the the kind of place you’d sooner forget to pack your blow dryer than your gun. Even the blue paint on the door suggests that it’s been fiercely ripped off by a tweaked-out hand. There are a few people, even a single woman, smoking outside of their rooms. One of the rooms is open and an old man and a young man can be seen sitting in there. There’s a community microwave on the patio, and a man is standing in the cold, waiting for something to heat up. They’re all quick to shut their doors or walk away as our car approaches.
Our cozy room at the Cole Manor smells like cigarettes and mold. Our AC unit, though functional, looks like it’s been savagely attacked and gutted. We’re on the second floor, and have a stunning vista, some sort of wasteland yard with a row of toilets. The trash can is a repurposed big tub of laundry detergent, which is odd, because nothing appears to ever have been washed. Clearly aware of their clientele, the words “Stolen, Property of Cole Manor” have been written with marker on a rickety little plastic fan that couldn’t cost more that two dollars at a yard sale.
A sign in the lobby promises “free phone calls,” but there’s not even a phone in the room. The place has been run miles down, but its unattractiveness is endearing, like a cat with one eye.
In the spirit of the evening, we decide to venture to the worst strip club we can find on Harry Hines, and so we enter a Robert Rodriguez movie-looking venue called Chicas Bonitas. The dancers show an occasional vital sign in the form of a spastic movement. They look like they’re about to cry or expect their children to jump onstage.
A private room is only $30, but looking around, you know you get what you pay for. My boyfriend’s face betrays the disappointment of not getting to upgrade his visuals. He seizes the momentum by trying to persuade me to go to a higher-end club, perhaps somewhere where bodies don’t look like blobs falling out of their contours, shifting before your eyes with every sad move on the pole, like they’re made of quicksand. But I decline, because I’m vain and petty, and the fact that he’s more interested in me than in any of the dancers has my self-esteem soaring.
We return to Cole Manor and duck into our room, away from some men arguing loudly in Spanish. There’s an ashtray in the room. It turns out that crap motels are the last place in America where you can still smoke indoors. We’re in a cancerous cloud of our smoke, but are too frightened to crack the door to let in any air. I’ve never seen my boyfriend scared. He’s always threatening to kick everyone’s ass and means it. Not tonight.
A couple begins screaming at each other at the top of their lungs at 4 a.m. We entertain ourselves by filling in the blanks of their argument.
In the morning, things seem better. We pass a chipper couple standing outside of their well-lived-in unit. They looked like they’ve aged 30 years due to meth, but whatever their poison, they seem at ease. It’s a fine place to live if you’re into dumpster diving, sleeping in trailers, and eating elotes for every meal. Add some bottles of Topo Chico and some American Spirits and this place could pass for hipster.
In the suburb of Richardson, next to a Lamborghini dealership on U.S. Highway 75, sits the Como Motel. The Como has been a landmark since it was built in 1964, though in Richardson that isn’t saying much. We’ve landed there guided by many a reverse recommendation. My boyfriend has a cold, and it’s freezing outside, but we’re most disappointed to find the room too decent.
It’s hard to measure our own sense of objectivity at this point, but whoever is rating it with one star has never stayed at the Cole Manor, which would get a negative four stars in comparison. These tiny units are actually non-threatening, with pastel yellow doors that are so small they seem to be made to accommodate hobbits.
The shower sparkles with shiny black tile, which covers the bathroom ceiling. The sheets are stained, but we attribute it to bleach discoloration. The curtains are possibly from the ’80s and appear to have not been cleaned since. Several of the lights in the room actually work, and the lamps by the bed’s headboard light up with fluorescent magnificence. We are spoiled at the sight of a new roll of toilet paper and celebrate its finding like it’s made of silk. There are no parked cars to be found except for ours, so we’re either the only guests or else the only ones with a vehicle.
Either way we are king, and we have sex like royals.
But alas, all delusions come to an end when we’re awakened at 10:55 a.m. to the impatient voice belonging to the lady at the front desk. “Can we do a late checkout?” I ask naively, so accustomed to the good will in customer service. And even though nobody is waiting in line to take our room, and God knows they’re in no hurry to clean out the curtains, she yells “you have five more minutes” before hanging up.
A week later, we move onto East Dallas, in the area near Mesquite on Garland Road, which also hosts a cluster of cheap motels. It’s a foggy, H.P. Lovecraft kind of night, and we are looking to be spooked. We check out the Tampico Hotel, our first choice, but they have no vacancies. Judging by the full trash bags outside of the rooms, they have many permanent residents.
We consider the Stay Express Inn on Interstate 30, but it’s next to a Denny’s and seems like a traveler’s stop. We aren’t looking for franchises, with their diligent managers and corporate standards.
We settle on the Luxury Inn, a name which can only be sarcastic. This place is an actual murder scene, as a woman was found dead on one of the unit’s floors back in ’09. There’s not even an office to walk into, and our dealings are done through a mere window, which offers a glimpse of the owners’ kitchen and living room.
The window doubles as a small kiosk, framed by cigarettes and condoms for sale. The attendant doesn’t want to run our card for a dollar, so he lets us have a Starburst candy for free. Very nice of him, but he shouldn’t be charging anything for fossilized candy.
We start turning the key to Unit 6 when the front desk guy yells at us ominously that we are meant to go into Unit 9. We hot-foot it to the right room and walk in to find the TV already on and already playing porn, which raises questions about whether anybody has even cleaned this room since the last person was here, or whether they just greet guests with a free movie. Or maybe an employee was just in here jerking off and we’ll be charged for his movie. And if we were selected to go into this room, what was in Unit 6, exactly, that the front desk wanted us to avoid?
The headboard is tattooed with existential poetry worthy of prison cell walls. We notice the lack of a shower head and bare lightbulbs. But it’s all an out-of-focus blur, nothing else is in our lucid line of vision except the gigantic black cock on the screen, the tip of which seems to follow you no matter where you are in the room, like those crazy eyes on paintings.
The giant cock is on a nice flat screen TV, too. I’m not sure if it’s in high definition but it is highly defined and appears like it’s jumping out in 3-D, but maybe that’s the effect of my boyfriend’s brimming enthusiasm. He has me take a picture of him in front of the screen, both his thumbs up.
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Like many men, he suffers from porn Attention Deficit Disorder, so he looks through every channel, out of principle, to see if any other porn has been paid for. Our viewing options have been narrowed down to Frasier or back to the XTSy channel. We end up watching an accomplished Eastern European film called Ass Virgins.
Two hours into the deflowering of asses, and the channel suddenly cuts out. Perhaps in an attempt to restore my virtue, my boyfriend reads The Happy Prince to me as I fall asleep.
We wake up, and he’s in a shit mood, complaining like a princess that the bed was too hard. I sense that we’ve both had enough of the awful motels, and yearn for the predictable comfort of a place like La Quinta. But if we do, we won’t admit it. Now we’re locked into moteling, each refusing to admit that the impulses of desire and fear that drove us to this habit may be ebbing.
Instead, on the way home we acknowledge the motels where we’ve yet to stay. Till next time, bedbugs.