On Feb. 18, the doors permanently closed at the Durham Inn, or, as locals knew it, the big blue motel by the highway. At its end, city officials refered to the lodging as an "eyesore," with its rainbow mural and sky-blue shingles, and a "nuisance," for racking up more than 300 police calls since 1996. A local newspaper described it as "plagued," and residents declared its closing "a victory for Durham."
The Durham Inn was our shady motel and, as such, its role resembled that of a haunted house. Driving by it prompted a sinking in the stomach. Its darkened windows were a space in which we could imagine illicit affairs, prostitution and drug deals. It was both a site and symbol of social debauchery. And, like all bad motels, it was laden with our worst fears of anonymity and permissiveness, poverty and desperation.
As one Cary resident said of another, cheap motel, "I always speed up when I have to drive by there."
With sunlight upon them, however, cheap motels offer a welcome alternative to commercial chains. For better or worse, they have roots in the Triangle and testify to local history. They jostle us to think about the American travel boom of the '50s and '60s. Their locations remap old thoroughfares and suggest that, years ago, visitors considered being downtown a virtue.
Relaxingly, these small businesses do not strive toward generic, virtual standards. A previous occupant's trash locates you as one in a series of imperfect guests. Best of all, they are almost free of insidious marketing ploys--the feedback cards, the guidebook dialogues and the Keep-Your-Sheets-Because-We-Care-About-The-Earth programs. In short, cheap motels offer folks a local and visceral experience.
With these standards in mind--sensorial experience, suggestive of local history and sordid details--I set out to find and rate the Triangle's worst motels.
Lonely, Cheap and Charming: The Country Lodge
Raleigh's Country Lodge sits between Shelton's Furniture Barn and Wyatt's Used Car lot. Shoney's and Amoco buildings rest abandoned nearby. I pull up to the motel on a Friday afternoon while a rainstorm is forming. I get out of my car and enter the office, which sits in a house surrounded by the parking lot.
The room is decorated with knick-knacks, pictures and a philodendron. The proprietor, an older man wearing moccasin-style house shoes walks behind a circular desk. A home video camera sits on a tripod behind him and faces me. I identify myself as a single occupant, pay the $40 fee in cash and receive a key to room Number 1.
I notice my room is the only one in a series that does not have items resting on its window ledge. Room number two's window, for example, bears a Pittsburgh Steelers tree ornament, a Dale Earnhardt pint glass, an Alan Jackson CD booklet, a black plastic cat covered in beads and a Kid Rock CD jewel box. Room Number 3 has a row of stuffed animals and a Barbie.
I put my luggage down and sit on the room's doorstop to watch the storm approach. The wind blows a cellophane cigarette box wrapper into my room. Down the walkway, a woman emerges from Room 3. She watches the storm too. After a while, a blue Chevy Z-24 pulls up and a wiry man carrying to-go boxes and a woman in all black get out and enter room two. They re-emerge and sit on some lawn furniture to watch the storm.
I approach and ask them if they will help me drink some beer. They say yes, and I return with a 12-pack of Milwaukee's Best. They introduce themselves as Lisa and Ronnie.
The proprietor comes out of the office. Gator, as he introduces himself, leans against the hood of the Z-24 and tells stories about wartime in Vietnam, first wives, in-laws, second wives, the drugs, Latino work ethic, race relations, nuclear winter and, finally, the motel.
One of the stories involves a motel guest who promised a prostitute a rock if she gave him oral sex. She performed and, when she finished, he handed her a piece of gravel. She slit his face, from ear to ear, then down his neck. Gator lingers on the fact that she used a straight razor, which creates wounds that "just feel like something itching."
Another story involves a cracked-out couple staying at the motel that got in a fistfight. The police arrived to find that the husband had locked his arm around his wife's head. They pepper sprayed him to release his grasp.
A final story tells of a guest who said her boyfriend got drunk, then pissed off the side of the bed.
"My ex-husband used to do that," Lisa replies.
A mini-van pulls up. Gator approaches the driver and receives a brown paper bag. He returns, grinning, and takes out various packs of cigarettes. "My boy works at a convenience store," he says. "What do y'all smoke?"
He hands Lisa and Ronnie some Marlboros and Newports and goes inside. A little while later, the three of us see Gator emerge a changed man: He is wearing a purple satin shirt, a cowboy hat and tan boots. He slips into a 1976 black Cadillac Coupe DeVille with white wall tires and pulls onto South Wilmington Street. A pair of handcuffs can be seen dangling from the ceiling.
"That's a faggot's car," Ronnie says, laughing at his insight.
The lanky young man does not like Gator because, as he says, "He acts like he's the president."
Lisa, Ronnie and I are on our second 12-pack of beer when they fill me in on their story. They have lived most of their lives in Trout's Run, Pa. Ronnie worked at a factory and Lisa worked as a Rod and Gun Club bartender. Late last year they took a road-trip to Florida. A strut broke on Lisa's car and they couldn't afford to fix it. They worked for temp agencies along the East Coast and stopped at Raleigh's Laborfinders. During this time, they slept in their car, parking in the lots of McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Laborfinders. But, as she says, "They don't like you doing that."
Only a few days ago they accumulated enough money to get a motel room. With the weekly fee so cheap--$25 per night--they are content to stay put for a while. They have made their room cozy--pictures of Lisa's children are propped up on the dresser; a glazed cross-section of a log, bearing the poem "Mother" hangs on the wall; a zebra-print bandana covers the bedside table.
At around 10 p.m. Ronnie goes inside to call his sister. He wants to find out if his disability check, which he receives after having a run-in with a unprotected saw blade, has come in the mail. With his beer in hand, he has problems working the phone card. He blames his difficulty dialing on the homeless man who they let sleep in their room, for $10 dollars, the previous night.
Lisa helps him. He makes contact, talks, and hangs up. The phone rings. Ronnie grows paranoid. "You know why that does that? Because all these phones are hooked up to computers, man," he says. He smokes a joint and falls asleep in a straightback chair.
Lisa and I eat pretzels and watch a Stanley Cup game. We talk briefly about her children and then part at 10:30. She has been up since 5.
When I wake the next day, sunlight fills my room. The previous night's visit from a crack head, banging on my door with a fist full of crumpled dollar bills, around 11 p.m., is a faint memory. I go outside and take a picture of the sun rising in the Coupe DeVille's black paint. I walk inside the office where the world news is blaring on a TV. Gator is sitting behind his desk, looking sleepy, and smoking a cigarette. We talk briefly about his Cadillac. "The older it is," he advises me about cars and women, "the more likely they are to get into it."
I then ask, "How was last night?"
"She fucked me to death," he says, laughing. "Good stuff."
Machinery and Perverts: The King's Motel
About a quarter mile from Raleigh's corporate skyscrapers, civic buildings and towering executive hotels, stands a dog food plant and a tiny motel called King's. The lodging's long, cinderblock building is dwarfed by the industrial containment units behind it. The sound of generators and an aura of floodlights fill the motel's parking lot. Surrounding the motel is a church, homeless shelter and porn store called Snap Shot News and Video.
On a tepid Tuesday evening, when I enter the office, an older man in a thin, white T-shirt comes to the service window. I hand him two $20 bills, which he holds in the air and snaps lengthwise to check their authenticity. He then hands me keys to Room 18.
The room has a bed, two chairs, a table, a TV and a dresser. There is no art on the walls. A cigarette, once placed on the bed's backboard, has burned a starburst of orange and red. An aqua blue Q-Tip rests on the window ledge. Fingerprints smudge the doorframe. Mexican phone cards litter the floor behind the dresser. A black condom wrapper lies beneath the bed. Twelve squares of sunlight come through the window and shimmer on a wall.
The room has no clock. The television is bolted down. Some of the only items that are not secured--the shower curtain and complimentary soap--are themselves stolen from the Holiday Inn and Comfort Inn.
While I wander around, I leave the front door open. A half a dozen black flies fly into the room and land, upside down, on the ceiling. They are not fast and do not seem to be searching for a way out. They seem tired and slow. I bloody the back of Joan Didion's Salvador, a thin paperback, by jumping and smacking them.
At 10:30 p.m., after pacing for five hours, I get stir-crazy. I leave to explore the area around the motel. I gawk at the dog food plant next-door. In the ditch in front of the homeless shelter, I find a piece of cardboard with "Do you know Jesus?" written in ballpoint pen. I find a hastily opened package for a "Climax Brush" in front of Snapshot News and Video.
I have never been inside a 24-hour porn video store so I decide to have a look around. Magazines and sex toys line the walls. Many of the toys are nightmarish, like "The Fist," a closed hand attached to a forearm, "The Butt," a rump that vibrates around a hairy hole, and "The Mouth," a piece about the size of a Mardi-gras mask with rubber prong rollers inside a lipped orifice, all of which, the package promises, "Feels like the Real Thing."
I approach the front desk, buy the minimum amount of tokens and enter the video room. It is a dark, labyrinthal hallway of booths. Signs on each stall glow a carnival red and yellow light onto the cracked floor. Inside booth Number 1, a Coke bottle and wads of tissue paper lie on the bench. I pass it and enter the next. I plug a coin into a slot to witness 45 seconds of plotless porn.
When I leave the stall, two men are standing in nearby doorways. They are looking at me and smoking cigarettes. I walk across the hall, into another booth, and lock the door. One of the men follows, and enters the neighboring stall. He has the thick glasses and frustrated grimace of a Far Side character, a green shirt with tie-down shoulder straps and a clunky cell phone attached to his hip. He illuminates a "Buddy Window" between us. I can see him standing there in the booth next to mine. I have a red "Buddy Button" too, but it alters nothing when I press it.
I see the man reach down and rotate himself in a limp circle. He glances at his screen, showing a naked blonde, and then he begins staring at my legs.
I leave the stall, return a stack of unused coins and walk back to my room. How desperate, I think, this man on a Tuesday night searching for stimulation, volleying between the virtual and the real. I put my combat boots by the bedside, brush my teeth and go to bed.
Drugs and Violence: Budget Inn
The Budget Inn on Durham's Holloway Street is locally notorious as a bastion of crime. The Durham Police Department has made repeated visits this year for complaints involving child molestations, shootings, burglaries, breaking and enterings, wanted-person sightings, larcenies and thefts.
I'm warned, one Friday afternoon, about the motel. I'm in North Durham on Glenn School Road, looking for people to vote on the area's worst motel when I see a gas station building half-gutted by a fire. Posters reading "CONDEMNED" are plastered on the right side of the building, while "C-O-L-D-B-E-E-R," a rebel flag and metal window screens appear on the building's left. A sign reading "Edna and Lucky's Bar" towers over the whole place.
When I walk in, six folks are sitting at a bar. I ask them to name the worst motel and they respond, "The Budget Inn."
"You going to stay there?" a man asks, his facial skin gathering at his chin.
I say yes.
"Is your boss trying to get rid of you?" he replies. The group of six chuckle.
"You don't stay in Durham," a nearby woman in a black hat explains.
A young man gets up from his stool and looks out a window. "That's your car?" he says, referring to my silver sedan with chrome rims. "They'll have that thing jacked up in seconds."
He sits down with the group. They are heeing and hawing. "You're going to need to bring a .45 and a string," the man with sagging skin says. "Tie one end to the trigger and the other to the door."
The bar crowd finds this one hilarious. After the revelry calms, I think my torment is over. A man, who another says is a Lumbee Indian, comes up and leans on the end of the bar. He motions toward me. "Hey buddy. Let me buy you a beer," he says. "I've always wanted to buy a dead man a drink."
The Budget Inn is bordered by a dead end gravel road and the U.S. 70-98 underpass. A chain-link fence surrounds the property and an unoccupied guards' booth resides in the parking lot. The building is shaped like a U, with two levels of rooms lining the perimeter.
The main office is designated by a neon "Welcome" sign. When I enter, a middle-aged man with his shirt unbuttoned at the top, stands behind a glass wall. I pay him $40 cash for the night, plus a $3 key deposit, and he gives me a key to Room 221. I drive around the building, find the room and approach the door. A Heineken bottle cap lies on the ground. I open the door and catch wind of the smoke-saturated fabrics inside. Two metal pieces dangle from the entrance's broken lock. I flip on the lights. Reddish brown stains run down the walls. Stems from incense sticks jut out of bullet-sized holes behind the door.
There is a table, two chairs, a bed, a TV and a dresser covered in black spots from cigarettes left along the edges. More burns mix in with the comforter's pastel flowers. "6112," "Devon" and "524-0308" are etched into the wall above the phone. What looks like the corner of a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich lies behind the air conditioner's grate.
On a shelf in the rear of the room, a luggage rack, spoon, and broken glass vial are scattered. The vial has a dried brownish red substance at its base. "Fuck you" is carved on the bathroom wall.
The colors of dusk gleam through the warped front door and frame. I can hear a child outside, banging on something. I peer through the curtains and see a little boy running his motorcycle along the railing. I sit down. I hear voices coming from the other side of the window. "Chris, you can't carry everything," a female's voice says.
"I'll carry it for you. I'm strong enough," says a young man's voice.
"Chris ... Momma said," a man's voice bellows, followed by a lurching step.
"I'll beat your motherfucking ass!" the young voice yells.
"Chris you can't carry everything," the man replies.
"I'll beat your ass tomorrow," the young voice threatens, then adds: "I don't have to work tomorrow."
There is the sound of a car pulling away. Another voice follows about 15 minutes later.
"222--disturbance," it says.
I look outside and see a stocky police officer talking into a black receiver clipped on his breast. He knocks on a nearby door and talks to the room's occupants. A man in a white toboggan ducks out of the cop's view.
The police officer leaves and I continue to look out of the crack between the curtains. The room across from mine, 242, next to the stairs, receives visitors all night. The same six or so characters walk the motel's perimeter and greet a black Laredo all night long. If this is crime, I think, I never knew there was so much nerve-racking deadspace. I am one among many people watching an empty parking lot for hours.
I get in bed around 2 a.m. I hear some commotion so I return to the window. A woman is outside, turning in circles. She is wearing a dark dress and tugging at her necklace. She yells at a passing car and heads toward a hallway, carved beneath the motel's wings. Successive orange ceiling lights fracture her shadow as she walks out of sight.