A Few People I’ve Seen through the Front Windows of the Motel

A beautiful, curly-haired brunette, vomiting ferociously while her tall, soul-patched and pony-tailed boyfriend dances in place to the electronic music playing on the cellphone he holds buoyantly above his head.

Jason Isbell, the fantastic musician previously of the Drive-by Truckers, in town for a gig.

The same guy, wearing a large puffer/Michelin Man coat for nine months, be it hot or cold, walking at an incredible pace while holding his cell phone downward at a 45-degree angle, with the screen at its brightest, and volume at its highest. It plays talk radio, maybe sports-related. The first few months, he was of average build. After disappearing for a few months, he’s returned gaunt, but otherwise identical in appearance and movement. His short, scraggly, red beard never grows, never goes away.

A topless lady in 51-degree weather, who salutes me as she marches past. I was unable to promptly recall the proper response from the Army Regulations Manual. Ma’am, if you see this, please know that I am sorry, and I hope your mission was successful.

Those that Shun the Light

It’s a few nights before Halloween, between two and three a.m., what my manager calls the witching hour. A large group of guests, already drunk, left in a cab hours ago, and I speculate obsessively and uselessly over how disorderly they’ll be upon returning. The bars closed at two, so they could be back any moment. While I hope they’re sobering up in a Whataburger or nodding off in a diner’s corner booth, I won’t jinx myself with wishful thinking.

On certain slow nights, this quiet waiting does not bring calm. Eeriness pervades, and the desk clerk and I speak of a weird energy in the air we are unable to define. The free time I love so much about the job cannot be enjoyed, but must be endured. There is only waiting, uncertainty. It feels like I’m back in Little League, playing right field. Nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens. I look down and notice the browning grass. I swipe away gnats, or the dawning realization that coach put me here because I’m the worst player on the team. I’m at least better than Dav –a sudden crack of the bat, and I’m scanning the skies for the potentially lip-busting object hurtling my way. This job is a lot like that. Sure, I’m not a kid any more, and I half-ass know what I’m doing, but now it’s never the same object. Maybe it’s a couple loudly fighting outside someone else’s room, or a drunken film crew celebrating a wrap, or simply a non-functioning air conditioner.

I walk the sidewalk in front of the motel, and I stand at the corner of the block, listening. Many night shift workers complain about developing supersonic hearing, a pronounced sensitivity to sounds while trying to sleep through the day. Things previously ignored or that blended with the white noise of the city’s daily routines now become unbearable. Trash trucks, a barking dog, and construction work are the bane of the daysleeper. It’s true during my job as well. Because I actively listen for any possible disturbances to guests, I have a difficult time ever turning it off. The smallest sounds – a car door, an unknown beep or creak, distant chatter – ring out so much more in a slumbering city. I err on the side of heightened sensitivity, imagining every guest to be the lightest sleeper.

The motel keys jangle in my pocket on the walk back to the housekeeping office. Industrial-size washers and dryers line one wall, extra towels and bedding on another, and cleaning supplies opposite that. Rollaways and housekeeping carts leave just enough space for me to edge in, where I sit at the desk facing the large window overlooking the back lot. I leave the door ajar so I can listen.

The a/c hums, and a standing fan oscillates on lowest setting. The floor is slanted, and all the chairs have wheels. If I don’t tuck one foot behind a wheel, I’ll slowly creep back toward the dryers. The coffee I made earlier is cold, but it gets the job done. It’s after three, and only a couple rooms still have lights shining through their blinds.

With less than two hours on my shift, I figure I can make decent progress on my library book. As soon as I open it to the bookmarked page, I hear something. I close the book and tune fully into the world around me, eyes and ears scanning for whatever’s hurtling my way.

There’s not much more horrifying than the sound – initially unknown, but soon identified by the sight of antennae bobbing above the rim – of cockroach legs struggling for traction inside my empty coffee cup.

The ghostly chitters, like soft but subcutaneous scrapes, jolt me awake, and my body courses with something much stronger than caffeine.

The cup’s destiny as projectile flung across the room is so narrowly avoided, that this dimension is surely the only one in which porcelain shards don’t litter the floor.

I pull closed the door and quickly get some distance, while a last wave of chills slithers down my shoulders. I mention it to the front desk clerk, even bringing up the time a few weeks back, when one crawled out of my bag of sour cream and onion chips. “I’d only had one, got up to answer the phone, and when I came back, there he was crawling out of the damn bag.” He insists he’s never seen a cockroach here, but suggests writing a note to the housekeepers to stop leaving the lids off their donut boxes. A fine suggestion.

It’s my first Halloween at the motel, and management’s abundant decorations pale in comparison to the horror of these creepy crawlies. I’ll take the theatrical over the palpable any night. Give me strings of orange lights and glowing spiders hanging from handrails, the handfuls of plastic black spiders tossed generously around the property, and the old netting stretched like webs over the gate to the pool. Surprise me with glittery skulls in every nook and cranny.

Prop this guy on a chair in the lobby:

Skeleton Sam

Just don’t show me the head of a roach peeking through a pumpkin’s grin.

I spend the next hour reading about cockroaches.

They exhibit group-based decision-making. Headless roaches are capable of living for weeks. (the body can continue to function without its brain) Simple bodily functions continue without the brain. Even the head, antennae aflutter, thrives for hours after separation. Refrigerate it – god knows why – and it can last even longer.

I regret spending that hour reading about cockroaches.

I do, however, have something in common with them. Their scientific name derives from the Latin blatta, “an insect that shuns the light.” We are contemporaries, nocturnal rivals.

I walk it off, and try to clear my head. A cab slows down in front of the motel, stops, but no one exits. I wait. It’s probably the drunks from earlier, so incapacitated they’re having difficulty settling the fare. Finally, the back door inches open.

Their arms and legs struggle for traction escaping the cab, heads lolling around their shoulders and ghastly chatter spilling out of them. Even without brains, their bodies function long enough to hear my spiel. They crawl back in relative peace to their room, and I wait out the rest of the night.

An hour later I’m in bed, shunning the light and thinking of Halloween drunks,  skeletons, witches and werewolves – anything but those bobbing antennae so near to my lips.

Full Moon Madness

The word “lunatic” derives from the Latin lunaticus, meaning “of the moon.”

While no strong scientific evidence suggests a link between a full moon and human behavior,  strong anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. Google “full moon night shift,” and here’s a sample of the results:

My job is light years away from that of a nurse, but I understand the reputation surrounding that particular lunar phase. In a way, my job as night watchman of the motel also requires me to take care of the infirm, albeit with inebriation the nearly-singular cause of illness. The similarities end there, for while nurses wish their patients well, I merely wish our guests well-behaved stays.

Not all of my full moon nights contain stories of lunacy and unusual mayhem, but my first left a lasting impression. Now, I can’t help but feel a wave of dread each time I see that luminous silver in full diameter, craterous and charged.

I only had a month of experience as the night watchman at that point, and it had been relatively without incident. As luck would have it, my manager dropped by to lessen what could have been much, much worse.

What follows is my first night report of any substance. The only edits are to provide any previously-lacking context.

March 5 2015 – Night Report – Josh – 9pm to 5 am

Tonight’s full moon brought some strangeness. The guests in 116 could not get their phone to work, but worse, they were stuck in their room. Neither the guests inside, nor Mitch and I outside, could get the door open. The knob would turn, but it didn’t seem to engage/retract the plunger. I called Dwayne, who was in the area, and he arrived in about fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, I checked with the guests, and they were in for the night and surprisingly understanding of the situation. Dwayne double-checked the door but realized we would need to remove the knob with a hammer.

Once removed, he tried needle-nose pliers, a screwdriver, and even deftly-targeted curse words to turn the latch and plunger, but to no avail. Eventually, we consulted Dean (the owner) and decided to use a crowbar as the last resort. The door opened to reveal the guest standing in his pajamas, calmly sipping a beer. Unfortunately, the door and door frame sustained damage. We changed the locks and made sure the door was working, and the guest was nice and patient throughout the process.

I spent the rest of the night managing the guests in 138, 140, and 145. At 12:30, I had to ask 140 to quiet down as they were drinking and talking loudly outside the room. 138 was relatively quieter, but there may have been some crossover partying between the rooms. Around 1:45 I reminded three of the women from 140 to not be loud as they guided one of their too-drunk friends to 145. At 2:20, another woman from 140 was escorted by friends to 145, but took a break outside 151 to vomit. Fortunately, she was quiet, and a light eater.

Around this time I also retrieved the broom and dustpan from outside 138, which Wilson informed me had been requested earlier in the night. They claimed popcorn had been spilled, but I would not be surprised if popcorn = lamp, and spilled = broken.

No other problems to report.

Addendum: Upon leaving this morning, I saw 138’s trash can sitting outside the door. It contained a grocery bag full of vomit, which I threw away.

As I read over that now, many months removed, it doesn’t sound all that strange or awful. Having since wrangled a gang of guitar-wielding hootenanny dipshits, unclogged a bathtub for a giant Norwegian man in a poorly-tied silk robe, and been at the receiving end of a coked-up birthday boy’s threats, I don’t see much lunacy in a few trapped guests and a party of wine-drunk, middle-aged women.

Taking the Job

Another Monday night with Sal and his Adderall. He snorted his in the bathroom; I followed the more traditional route. Whenever I take “a peach,” as he calls them, I know I’ll be handling most of the night’s auditing paperwork. I always agree with the barter, because even after eight months on the night shift, I’ll take whatever help I can get.

I leave him halfway through a synopsis of a movie he recently watched, starring “Pierce Bronson and Liam Nelson,” before he can butcher the title, too. Or forget it altogether.

“No Vacancy” glows neon red above the front door. The epicenter of drug and sex sales in the 80s, the motel now enjoys historical status in one of the many revitalized, gentrified areas of a rapidly-growing city. It sits on a main artery of commerce, surrounded by outrageously expensive antique stores and restaurants serving organic, locally-sourced food.

No Vacancy

Of course, by the time I arrive, most have their lights off, or the servers are putting chairs on tabletops and taking trips to the dumpster, milking the clock for one last smoke break.

Traffic thins. Drunk couples spill from nearby bars and ooze down the sidewalk, and I wait. Even on busy nights, I have plenty of time to patch together, yet again, the sequence of events that led me here.

Did I always dream of growing up to be the motel security guy in charge of telling the drunk guest from 134 not to urinate in the middle of the parking lot at three in the morning? Is taming the giant, inflatable-penis-carrying bachelorette party my ultimate destiny?

I still don’t have any answers, but it’s not for a lack of time to think about them. I was never good about setting goals, and I could never tell you, even as a kid, what I wanted to be when I grew up. Let this be a warning, if you don’t do that sort of thing, you may find yourself wrangling drunks and seeing how people act when they’re just looking for a place to, as a coworker said, “sleep, shit, and screw.”

Before this, I worked a nine-to-five, multi-tasking, fast-paced customer service nightmare of a job at a downtown print shop. After nearly seven years, my fatalism led me to believe I would die hunched over a Xerox. Occasionally, so fed up with the job, I would spend my lunch hour frantically searching Craigslist for openings. So many postings spoke of similar “multi-tasking, faced-paced environments,” that I wondered if any place existed where people single-tasked in a slow-paced environment. If not, the possibility of relief from long stretches of continuous soft rock or sports commentary on the manager-controlled radio station might suffice.

The skills and knowledge acquired with my bachelor’s degree in Electronic Communication had mostly atrophied, and my English minor—while arguably fostered by the periodic writing of mostly-unpublished short stories – were equally useless. There were close calls with other jobs, particularly a writing gig that entailed managing local companies’ social media presences. I would ghostwrite online copy for Facebook, or even engage reviewers on Yelp, assuming the identity of the client’s management. There was also the position of assistant editor at an erotic book publisher. One of their best sellers was about a forbidden romance between gay werewolves. If I was surprised to learn of the large numbers of polyamorous werewolves, I was completely stunned by the rapturous demand for material about their trysts and adventures. Perhaps I just don’t get out enough. Despite a promising future in the world of alternative paranormal romance, I did not put my ear to the erotic, howling wind of lusty lycanthropes.

Fortunately, in a manic Craigslist search, I finally found it: “Perfect Job for Night Owl Writers: Time Alone & Good Wages.”

It was a combination night auditor and night watchman position at a motel. I was surprised at how openly they acknowledged, even championed, the abundant downtime. I forwarded the email to my girlfriend with the message, “Dude, holy shit. Other than the not good pay, this is what I’m talking about.”

She was skeptical, worried mostly about the loss of time we’d have together and whether or not the reduced pay would threaten our already-precarious budget. Good points, both, but I was desperate. I quickly edited my résumé, wrote a cover letter, and followed the post’s instructions to stop by in person after 9 p.m.

Maybe it was the fact I still had a job to go to in the morning, one that paid the bills and had decent insurance. Or, maybe it was how quickly things moved from seeing the ad to sitting in the lobby filling out the application, or that the whole thing seemed like a lark, but I didn’t feel nervous. I’d recently finished a terrible story about lovers on the run from the cops that concluded in a motel, so I figured, at best, this could be a glimpse in to that world. I fell in to an immediate rapport with the two guys in the lobby, joking about the bleakness of Werner Herzog films. A section of the application asked about which books, films, and TV shows I enjoyed, and their lack of frowning disapproval was encouraging. I was asked to speak with the night manager, who was on duty.

Much of the interview, in retrospect, seemed to be a test of how well we could just, well, hang out. He discussed his interest in billiards, neurology, and divulged quite a bit of personal history and how he came to work at the motel. He had nineteen years of employment here, and he loved the amount of time it gave him to research his various interests, read, and simply think. Slow-paced? Check. And as for the tasks? The fundamental job of the night watch was to keep an eye on the property and guests. There were chores such as watering, laundering the pool towels, and fulfilling requests for things like extra pillows, but mostly I would watch and listen.

The final duty was to fill out the night report, documenting anything of interest for the incoming day staff and the owner. This could include unruly guests, maintenance issues I was unable to solve, or vagrants I had to escort from the property. It also served the larger interest of establishing a record of the egregiously awful, of guests who would never again be welcome.

After a week of additional interviews with the owner and day manager, as well as background checks to ensure my trustworthiness with the keys to the place, I was offered the position. My ambitionless inertia at the print shop was taken as a sign of stability, much appreciated at a family-owned motel where multi-year to near-decade tenures are the norm.

The restraint required to not break into song and dance when giving my two weeks was acknowledged in my own mental award ceremony of personal achievements. I was festooned with garlands, champagne-sprayed and hoisted heavenward. My family gutted a fatted calf.

The last few days of the job coincided with the first days of my overnight training. My manager insisted on a gentle transition, sensitive to the circadian chaos to come. My regular nine-to-five was about to become 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

During my first trainings, I read the archived night reports. Most, fortunately, were brief: “The night was quiet. No problems to report.” Others, particularly one from a week prior, were lengthy and even mentioned summoning the police to the property. If made into a word tree, the words “loud” and “drunk” would be its thick trunk, with twisting branches of “smoking,” “talking,” and “arguing.” A pretty unpleasant tree.

I was told these cases, especially ones requiring the police, were rare and that I should just focus on establishing my new sleep schedule. Eight months later, and the idea of any firmly established sleep schedule, of some simple adjustment, has been replaced by the reality of struggling to manage shuteye in an inherently unnatural lifestyle.

I feel a slight twitching in my forehead. It reminds me of the Adderall, reminds me I need to check the audit paperwork, and to try and focus on numbers while Sal spits word after word, a scattered brain at 2X speed, on into the night.

Oct 12 2015 – Night Report – Josh – 9pm to 5am

A peaceful, quiet night. No problems.