a one-night body storage unit
“We start with the idea that a hotel is like a theater, and a theater is like a hotel. They are both places where life is simulated but also suspended. Nothing real happens in a hotel, and nothing real happens in a theater, and yet, in both locations, life looks like it is, or appears to be, taking place.” -- from No Hotel, by Kara Feely and Travis Just’s Object Collection
There is no way to walk in. This hotel is in the donut hole of a bunch of freeways. The view is the most boring imaginable: the grey and beige box sides of other hotels, of airplane hangars, of runways and freeway slabs. I am not entirely sure why I decided to spend four nights here instead of another hotel. Chalk it up to an overdose on the intensity of other people's living spaces and grubby cursing at a camp stove in the mornings when it was slow to produce tea.
Let's call this place what it is: a one-night human body storage unit. It is not unlike the nearby storage for vehicles, and a little bit further away, storage for cargo. None of which are meant to be interchangeable. This is the most sterile, neutral ground its parent corporation can make it, despite the best efforts of its staff (who seem tired, probably because of the pandemic): about as far from "community" as you can possibly get.
There's a glitch around the next hotel block down; a SpringHill Suites. The plants outside are overgrown to the point of looking post-apocalyptic, nearly swallowing the smoking booth in front. Has Marriott abandoned this one of its three hotels here, trying to cut its losses? (The fourth hotel on this block is a Hilton. I think in Monopoly terms this means Marriott can't build further here, but I thought what you couldn't build in that case was hotels? It's been ages since I played.) Was that one turned over to COVID quarantine? It doesn't look completely empty; a few cars swirl around.
Look closer at the asphalt, at the pointless patches of grass. Something with wings flashes red as I move by. Spotted lanternflies are everywhere. Every few feet. Alarmed, I sidle along the pavement, trying to stomp them before they fly off. The red is pretty. It almost seems a shame, but if we don't stop them, our fruit trees and god knows what else are done for. I wonder if in China, whose cargo brought them here, those red wings are considered lucky.
Periodically I pounce with two feet when I see two close together. A man getting out of a truck gives me a skeptical look. “Spotted lanternflies,” I explain.
“Oh, I thought it was stinkbugs,” he said. “That’s what we have back home.” There’s more than one infestation in the US right now.
“Where are you from?” I ask. He says St. Louis, Missouri.
Shuttle drivers look askance at me as I leap at something unseen. I have to be careful not to walk into their blind spots. Nobody expects to see a soft body here—somebody who isn't in a car or a plane. Not built for you if you don't have a metal exoskeleton, an anthropocene-era, dinosaur-oil-powered mech suit. Your mask will certainly not protect you from being run over. It might do you some good against the air, though. The sky is white. The air smells like jet fuel.
This is some kind of hell. I'm less than an hour away from New York City and yet there's no walking to anything interesting. There's scarcely even a connection to the trains; just one tenuous, every-half-hour link in an airport shuttle. Even the Newark Airport train station has alien three-dimensional-chess rules; it is not accessible by foot or by car, as I once learned the hard way.
I walk to the Courtyard Marriott two hotels over for dinner, and sit at the curving beige marble counter waiting for an affable woman in hijab to bring me the popular salad of the moment.1 Deja vu rises from the sensation of my lost feet seeking purchase on the stool.
For a year or so, starting in the fall of 2016, I was a regular at hotel bars. I was working for an international tech consultancy, one of the kind that flies its employees everywhere, playing fancy games with the tax deductions for businesses that let them write off all sorts of things most employees have to pay for themselves—housing, travel, meals, car rentals, even their phone bill—provided those employees leave their homes.
I don't know what I was thinking. I didn’t understand that business model. I applied to that company hoping they would let me move to San Francisco, so I could be closer to friends and family I cared about. I still felt rootless in New York after fifteen years. Wanted to put down roots in the Bay. The company was quite explicit there would be a lot of travel, but somehow it didn’t get through to me that I would be flying twice a week, and I wouldn't get to pick where I went. They had not been clear I would not be based in the Bay.
I was near-completely confined to a worn, infinitely beige Sheraton in Wilmington, Delaware for a whole month around the 2016 election, when I broke my ankle.2 It was there that I learned the feeling of a hotel bar. That constant pining for human contact. For someone back home. Someone to come up to you and flirt, or at least have an interesting conversation. Colleagues to come downstairs and join you, when spending more time with coworkers may be the last thing any of you need. For the news to be more meaningful than talking heads. A growing familiarity with the bartender.
That was what I got, in the end. One of the women on staff at the Sheraton, a round, raucous Puerto Rican with a stiff walk, had also broken her ankle badly ("I was young and stupid and all I thought about was looking cute; I should never have been playing basketball in those high heels") and she adopted me while I was there, looking out for me and ferreting me extra cartons of milk via room service when I begged for them, to make the cocoa my mom had sent me for my convalescence.
I'm not sure I ever felt as alone as I did in hotel restaurants on that job, even when my colleagues and I were all crowded into a booth together. They were all at least ten years younger than me, fresh out of college and maybe trying to re-create the camaraderie of that experience. Half the time the conversation was about airline and hotel points: how to play the game with reservations and credit cards and mileage runs, so that you managed ridiculously baller vacations and the points status of businessmen three times your age and salary. It was so achingly empty of meaning I felt lonely just sitting there in the middle of it.
The local king of the points game in Wilmington was, oddly, one of my favorite people: a weedy but earnest and kind ginger kid cursed with a wispy-bearded face that made him look barely out of high school, much less college, and probably led his coworkers to take him less seriously. Everyone called him Sprinkles, after some earlier drunken incident. He went with it, as he went with a lot.
Sprinkles played the points game by never going home. He had an address in upstate New York that was his parents', but no other place that was his own. If he wasn't on the job site, he was traveling to the Caribbean or further afield. He had spent so much time on the Wilmington contract, at the same hotel, that he had a dedicated Marriott representative who handled his reservations. Not only did he get his pick of rooms, the rep would send him extras like plush robes or the soda and candy he liked left on his pillow. She might have been flirting with him. I wonder if she'd ever seen him, or just knew him as the points millionaire on the phone who was as kind to her as he was to everyone else.
Sprinkles was kind, but he seemed sad. He kept on in Wilmington even though everyone else fought to get out of the tedium of that contract. It was like he didn't know what else to do with himself.
I've lost track of Sprinkles and most of my other coworkers from that company. I don't remember the name of that bartender at the Sheraton now. I could chalk that up to the disposability of that kind of happenstance friendship, but instead, I'm going to blame myself, for being a bad friend.
I used to love hotels as a kid, for the blankness they offered, like a page you could write on. I would leave my family to the double queen beds and head downstairs to write, in the lobby, gathering snippets of conversation from the lives of everyone who passed through.
Today, when I go through the lobby, I have to wear a mask. I put one on before I exit the airlock of my hotel room, checking around the bridge of my nose for leaks. And my family and friends feel like they are on a distant ship, unreachable through the cold darkness of space.
I really like the scansion of “warm grain bowl.” Don’t you?
This, too, was some kind of hell.