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Gustave Doré: Liberty (c. 1865–75)

" … we still hold the instinct to survive … hospitality."

After two and a quarter years of housebound isolation, I find myself in a hotel room this weekend. I was once a frequent guest, traveling for business. One year, I managed to stay in more than one hotel room per week on average, and I stayed in a few of those rooms for more than a week, so I must have really been on the move that year. I became accustomed to the patterns and rhythms of modern Hoteling, which seem so different from the Grand Hotel tradition. No longer does one use the lobby as an extended sitting room, for instance, taking to an overstuffed chair to read or simply people watch. Modern hotel lobbies seem reserved only for transitions, for checking in and checking out and nothing else. They usually feature little furniture other than a front desk and a concierge stand. Everything's self service.

Hoteling's a kind of camping experience.
One packs in most of what one needs during the visit, then sets about recreating a home of sorts. This home, rather like a tent, is centered around the sleeping arrangements. The bed dominates the room. These days, few furniture pieces are ever provided, and those, so cruel and spare as to border on unusable. The couch I'm sitting on as I write this story seems almost as comfortable as the typical packing crate might be, but with upholstery as rough as forty grit sandpaper. It features one arm and little charm, and would be unusable were it not for the pillows, of which a modern hotel room has plenty, more than any sleeper really needs. These, one uses for amending furniture, crafting arm rests where missing and generally finishing the furniture maker's job, which a cruel minimalism apparently inhibited.

The room encourages one to leave it every chance one gets. It's a room with perhaps a small refrigerator but no napkins, a tiny coffeemaker but no spoons. A huge television not even this experienced guest can reliably determine how to turn on or off. The television's almost always already turned on when entering the room. This, an apparent act of hospitality intended to make the place feel more like home, except at home, we keep our television in the basement to discourage use and only rarely ever turn it on before sunset or well after. The television, like some other things about Hoteling, might be intended to be welcoming but seem more of the off-putting sort instead. Do not under any conditions attempt to send out laundry with the expectation that it might come back as intended. Find a laundromat if pressed and wash it yourself. Be forewarned that the iron and ironing board will certainly prove disappointing.

I once, in my prime, prided myself on my orienting skills. Within about a half hour of checking in, I would have located the closest coffee place and bakery, two essentials during every Hoteling stay. The coffee provided in the room and often in the early morning lobby tends toward dishwater decaf and might be best left for those moments when one's rushing out to catch a fateful five am flight. It will not sit well. Likewise, the old John Steinbeck notion that one might find a decent breakfast anywhere in America has sadly become a myth from the past. Now, one's fortunate to find anything even distantly edible, let alone affordable, in any modern hotel. One simply must eat out and probably a ways away. The neighborhoods in which modern hotels sprout up tend toward fast food and hot dog carousels. The bakery, identified early and visited at the first opportunity, is there for sustenance, for backup when you're starving and it's three am and even if there was room service, it would not be available until sometime after seven. A bagel or a baguette with perhaps a little hummus in the fridge, and one's covered whatever the conditions.

Money becomes more or less meaningless in a modern hotel. Whatever ravages inflation might have made out in the real world, it's always several times worse when Hoteling. Parking might cost the better part of fifty bucks per night, and even the much-vaunted Hotel Six should probably set you back more than a hundred, though their polyester sheets will still reliably induce night sweats and insomnia, just like in the days when those rooms actually went for six bucks per. Super Eight's gone upscale, too. Marriott's now a multi-national conglomerate and were The Muse not a member of their frequent snoozing club, we couldn't afford to stay. She was recounting yesterday how much our current comped room would have cost us and even I, an experienced Hotel stayer, choked at the thought. I've learned to keep a pocket full of dollars to feed the helpful hands of everyone coming across my path. The baggage handler, the janitor, and the concierge expect some recognition and seem capable of quietly inflicting damage if denied it. My dollars serve as my primary defensive weapon when Hoteling.

Visit over, we pack our bags and disappear back into anonymity again, We turn back into nobody special, no one's guest. We will have survived another brush with if not greatness, then at least the lower levels of lavishness. We parted with the dollars and we managed to slip around a few of the more prominent traps modern hotels set for their guests. We wisely chose not to eat on the premises. We avoided the late night bar, the scene of serial humiliations and of people with really no business drinking Courvoisier, anyway. Car retrieved, we ditch the tag and pull the paper off the keyring, before heading back into sequestering. The Damned Pandemic has certainly kept us off the streets and convinced us that we're really nobody all that special. How refreshing, then, to revisit the source of so much side-stepped serial humiliation to find that we still hold the instinct to survive even a flood of hospitality. I'm heading out to that bakery!

©2022 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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