I used to enjoy going to hotels. It felt liberating somehow. “Anonymous.” Even though all your information was on file and if you so much as scratched the corner of a dresser, they would probably charge you. Because no, I wasn’t exactly deigning to stay at what some would call “prosty joints.” I always shelled out for, at the bare minimum, a “middle-class hotel.” But even that couldn’t get you very far anymore. Or rather, very much. Nothing was luxurious now. It all felt seedy. The entire industry could presently be classified as one massive prosty hotel. Skimping on comfortable bedding and hygiene products. For Chissake, you could scarcely find a hotel anymore that didn’t have two-in-one shampoo and conditioner as opposed to separate bottles for each. What was this dreary, low-budget world coming to? The point is, I guess, that I really didn’t want to have to stay in a hotel. Something about it made me feel lonely and empty in a way that never previously happened to me, when I enjoyed the feeling of being “on the move.”
In that era, movement did symbolize freedom, whereas now, it only signals some potential contraction of illness. Even though everybody pretends everything is “ back to normal,” we all know contagion is still waiting at every public corner. And the “private” rooms of hotels are certainly that: public. But left with a choice between waking up ass early and still risking the potential of not being on time to the airport, I opted for getting a hotel right next to it. Even though my other fear in the climate of now was that the flight would be cancelled and I would have paid a mound for a hotel (in addition to the mound for the plane ticket) for no reason other than having to turn right back around and go to my own abode. It was never quite like this before. Traveling never felt both so stressful and filled with so many hidden costs. Wasn’t this the twenty-first century? Wasn’t this supposed to be the epoch of improvements and advancements (as all the naïve twentieth century ilk had predicted)? Instead, everything was deteriorating. Budgets slashed in the name of more profit as those fools, like me, who still paid top dollar expected something akin to the “Pan Am glamor” period of travel. When it was all posh and accommodating, even for the non-“elite.” In the current hellscape, the only way to be treated in the manner of the Pan Am past was to be a billionaire. Maybe then, you might be given something akin to “decadence.” Subject to be revoked on any employee’s whim. After all, it’s not like they’re being paid adequately to “service you.” Why should they go out of their way to make you feel “at home”?
So no, there was not exactly an “inviting vibe” when I stayed at hotels anymore. And it had been so long since I surrendered to doing it (as a result of how much I had grown to loathe it) that I had forgotten just how unsettling it was. Starting from the moment I approached the desk after two p.m. and was told I was still too early. My room was not yet ready. Could you please wait over there? the vexed front desk attendant demanded as he motioned to nowhere in particular, looking at me like I was vermin to be exterminated. I nodded and carved out a place among the smattering of chairs they called a waiting area. I suppose, to be fair, the front desk guy, whose name tag read: ALPHONSE, looked a bit haggard and gray. Like he had been doing this for far more years than he expected. Maybe he had a backup plan he truly believed couldn’t fail. Like so many of us whose backup plan failed. Because the backup plan was supposed to be the Real Plan. And what you were doing to make money was, in actuality, the “backup.” Or so you told yourself. The Man wanted to keep you clinging to that hope for as long as possible until, one day, you woke up to find your youth faded and your body worn down for the sake of minimum wage.
That seemed to be what was afflicting Alphonse. I couldn’t blame him for how discomfiting this hotel stay was already. I could only blame The System itself. It was set up so that nobody had to do anything at all to keep it running, causing life to grow more impersonal with each passing year. The System, “invented” so long ago by white men who couldn’t foresee the future damage they would wreak (not that seeing it would have stopped them anyway), had infected every facet of existence. Even “leisure.” This was no vacation for me, however. A mere “practical approach” to dealing with my flight time. Which, no, wasn’t even early if one didn’t need to be at the airport three hours ahead of schedule “these days.” It took me two hours to get to said airport from my own joint, which meant needing to factor in a five-hours-in-advance travel time to get there. The train might not even yet be running. Thus, the necessity of a hotel kept encroaching upon my baseline stress levels with regard to traveling.
If I was going to pay through the nose for any hotel, I suppose my dream location would be Relais San Maurizio. It might not look luxurious enough for the type of person who only buys into “true” luxury hotels being located in the Maldives, but I’m a sucker for former monasteries converted into hotels. And that’s a decidedly Italian thing. At least a hotel has more character that way. I’m sure there’s also plenty of bougier options I could choose along the French Riviera as well. But anyway, I’m not likely to make it to Santo Stefano Belbo in this lifetime. Instead, I’ll probably be spending most of it in the faux waiting room of this hotel, called simply Best Stay. So far, that was proving not to be the case at all. After thirty minutes of musing about how much more fun I would be having at Relais San Maurizio, I decided to approach Alphonse again to ask him what the fuck was going on with my room. He glanced up at me as I came forward, only to look back down at whatever he was pretending to do behind that desk. I glared at him and inquired, oh so sweetly, “Any update on my room?”
“I’m sorry, remind me of your name again,” he replied, still without looking up at me. Like traffic cops, front desk agents at hotels get off on the small amount of power they can wield over another person. It was fucking infuriating.
Even so, I politely reminded, “DeRoulet. Chantal DeRoulet.”
He typed something likely arbitrary into his computer and finally looked up to say, “Oh yes. Your room is ready now.”
The fucking asshole. That’s certainly information that might have been useful to me roughly fifteen minutes ago when he was secretly getting off on watching me wait. Using all of my final reserves of patience not to totally lose it in front of this prick, I maintained my mellifluous tone and answered, “Great.” Never let them see you affected by their petty power plays. It gives them too much pleasure.
Alphonse slowly rigged up the key card and informed me my room number was 511. Sounded unspecial enough. Much in the vein of this entire hotel. Taking the key from him, I went to the elevator, too cramped for much more than myself and my bag. And wouldn’t you know it, that was the instant a rotund American decided to roll up (almost literally). Huffing and puffing from his “exertion” from the lobby to the elevator, I decided to step aside and let him have the goddamn thing. Five flights wasn’t that many. Except when one flight is comprised of two. No matter. I made it. Singing for the very supper I paid for.
As I flung the door open, I had to laugh at the utter unremarkableness of the room. At the (absolute) least, there was a shitty coffee maker with a ration of two pods to use. Which amounted to nothing for a coffee fiend. In contrast, there was a surfeit of tea packets. Who the fuck wanted that? And who the fuck wanted a generic framed photo of New York above the bed? We weren’t even in New York (though sometimes, it was actually cheesier when a hotel outfitted the rooms with artwork of the very city one was staying in).
Minutes later, with my things unpacked, I realized there was nothing to do but wait. The hotel being so close to the airport, there was positively nowhere to go in this nexus. I could spend some hours “grooming,” but with what resources? I used to take comfort in using the magnifying mirror that once came standard in most mid-tier hotels such as Best Stay. Alas, this bathroom had no such mirror. Just a small-sized one that had a visible smear mark thanks to the haste with which it was “cleaned.” I went back into the main room (a butter pat of a square) and opened the curtains. A lovely view of one of the terminals was practically within reach. I’m sure I’d be hearing the sound of planes all night to prepare me for my own journey in the morning. Sighing, I dipped into the reserve of coffee, turned down the bed and did my best to get comfortable on it while I resumed reading V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. Would that he could talk about the enigma of departure. Especially when caught in the limbo between coming and going that this hotel stay was embodying. After about an hour, I counteracted my weak coffee intake with a sleeping pill. This hotel was too depressing to remain sentient in for very long.
What felt like days later, I awoke to the sound of a harsh and abrupt knocking on my door. Before I could orient myself and find my voice to speak, a maid was bursting in. She took one harsh look at me and announced, “It is checkout time, ma’am. Please collect your things and go.”
Checkout time? Fuck. I gasped and looked over at the shitty digital clock on the nightstand. Eleven a.m. My flight was leaving in ten minutes. There was no chance of making it before they shut the gate. And after all the pains I had taken to do so. I might have known this would happen, always overestimating my ability to emerge from a sleeping pill-induced slumber. But since I had taken it so early, I assumed I would wake up refreshed around seven. I assumed incorrectly.
Taking my time with checkout, I was relieved to see that Alphonse was no longer there. In his place was a younger woman whose name tag declared: REGINA. She unburdened me of my key card and charged me some additional bullshit fee while inquiring if I had a pleasant stay. I stared at her blankly and said, “‘Pleasant’ is a word that connotes having some kind of feeling at all. This place gives me no feeling.”
She smiled as though I had said nothing and urged, “Okay, have a great rest of your day!”
Spat back out into the abyss of this airport realm, I decided I would walk to the terminal and see if I could get on a later flight. What was one more obscene waste of money? I paused briefly to look behind me at the beige, vertical rectangle of an edifice and it struck me: I want no hotel. Notel, if you will. Maybe, if I ever started my own hospitality empire, that’s what I would call the chain of outposts. Each one decorated differently to avoid that impersonal, generic aura that has become the norm and expectation of traveling. Designed to make you feel as lonely and uncared for as modern existence.