At the end of May, when I flew out to B.C. to attend my 96-year-old father’s wedding, I got my first taste of Motel/Hotel culture in 40 years.
Forty years is a long time away, but I have my reasons. While I was in Europe as a teenager in the early 1960s, I saw enough fleabags—and bedbugs—to last a lifetime, and I’ve avoided hotels and motels since. The only ones I can remember, actually, are the Cour D’Elene, Idaho motel I stayed in when my first wife and I eloped in 1966, and the Niagara Falls hotel where my current wife and I spent the night after we were married in 1993. Between these have been a few Caribbean resorts and European pensiones, but the half dozen motel/hotels I must have stayed in elsewise are a blank. When I travel, I try to stay with friends and relatives. It isn’t because I’m cheap, and I don’t think it’s a neurotic fear of bedbugs or the lately-publicized stories about the loads of cumsplatter and other unsafe body excretions that are supposed to cover every hotel and motel room on the planet. I just don’t like the damned things.
I did once stay in a motel I liked, come to think of it, in 1958. I was 14 years old, on the one holiday I ever took with both my parents. We drove down from northern B.C. to among other destinations, several days at a motel in Birch Bay, Washington, a few miles south of the Canada/U.S. Border. A cousin my own age was there, and another, older exotic cousin lived in a trailer park nearby and drove a blue Chrysler hardtop. I remember all this because it was my first encounter with the ocean. My main recollection is of clamshells, salt water, the perfumes of the tidal foreshore and the sight of convertibles—the first I’d seen—bombing the beachfront drag in the summer sunlight. I also remember a song: Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool”. To this day that song returns me instantly to Birch Bay—and not incidentally—to my first true moments as a hormone-crazed teenager.
I didn’t feel anything remotely evocative of that at Penticton’s Best Western Motel in 2003, but there was excitement of another kind. My entire extended family was also booked in for my father’s wedding. My twin sisters were there, my older brother and all their spouses; all 10 grandchildren, several with spouses of their own, all 15 great-grandchildren; even a newborn great-great grandchild. Several of my step-mother-to-be’s family were staying at the motel, too.
As families go, mine is used to being together en masse, and comfortable with one another despite the inevitable spats. Family reunions have been annual events for decades, and they aren’t generally described by outsiders as sedate. Water fights are family tradition begun in the 1950s by my maternal grandmother, and today they go on for hours, involve irrigation hoses, forest fire fighting equipment, and 5 gallon pails deployed from rooftops. In our tactical universe, SuperSoaker 6000s are children’s weapons, and sneered at. Thus, there was some expectation that we would not only take over the Penticton Best Western, but quite possibly destroy it before the weekend was over.
Nothing you’d want to describe as their fun or mayhem took place, and I’m puzzled by it. Maybe it was the presence of formal clothing—never a feature at family reunions. And maybe it was a certain looming apprehension concerning the wedding. I don’t think anyone was worried that my father was going to keel over from excitement during the ceremony, notwithstanding his advanced age, but there was a small uncertainty about whether he might his foot in one of the many buckets that surround him. The most prominent of these was that, while praising his new wife he’d insult my late mother, to whom he was married 64 years, most of them unhappily. But maybe it was where we were staying, which seemed like a mini-me of suburban life, where the object is to have enough property and recreational opportunities that you never have to engage with anyone, including your spouse and your children.
The Penticton Best Western provides an excellent model for human non-interaction. The complex consists of a square of two storey buildings that overlook a wide inner courtyard. In one corner is an indoor swimming pool and whirlpool bath, and in the grassy courtyard’s centre, a larger outdoor pool. There is a restaurant buffet in the office complex that serves barely-edible breakfasts, and there are picnic tables and children’s swings here and there around the courtyard, always isolated from one another. If you occupy any of them, you instantly feel like you’re preventing someone else from using them, and you don’t settle in. All the units share a common walkway, a five foot-wide common corridor for the upper units, and a similar one, this time concrete, on the ground floor. Both seem designed to keep people inside their rooms, and at least to prevent anyone from asserting territorial rights on any outdoor space.
The most peculiar feature was the water temperature in the pools. The indoor pool had to be close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and the whirlpool felt hot enough to boil lobsters in—and breed superbacteria. The water temperature of outdoor pool was, if anything, higher than the indoor one, so warm that five minutes of splashing around or a couple of lengths renders swimmers—even kids—exhausted and sleepy. Attempts to fool around in the pool were also swiftly interrupted by scowling motel personnel, or shouting self-policing adults: no running on the decks, no diving, no throwing balls or smaller children. Imagine a society run according to insurance company liability-prevention practices, and you’ve got the atmosphere.
After a few hours of this, the teenagers in the family quite naturally grew ornery, disappearing into the back parking lot to drink stolen beer, smoke dope, and to otherwise find ways to pick on one another and complain about their oppressed condition. The adults shouted supervisory slogans, took naps or went shopping for things they didn’t particularly need—pretty much like life in the suburbs, in other words.
The wedding itself went off without a serious hitch or much embarrassment, except for the several tracks of teenager-puke splashed across the sidewalks the next morning. The family dispersed the next morning without a water fight or, on the bright side, any bodies face down in the pool. For the latter, I guess we can call ourselves lucky.
Two days after the wedding, I left Penticton to drive to Prince George, B.C., where I launched a new book. I spent the three nights I was there at the Days Inn in downtown Prince George—or what’s left of it. The hotel was once the Simon Fraser Inn, the city’s first modern hotel, a three storey wood frame structure built in the late 1950s. Its bar had been the site of most of my major early-20s drinkdowns, and the launch pad for innumerable lesser late-night punchups and puke-o-ramas. I’d never stayed in the Simon Fraser, and the one time I got to its third floor was while I was in high school, and then all I did was strap tubes of rotten-egg gas to the hallway walls as a Halloween prank.
Times have changed. The old sawdust board furniture has been replaced by more modern sawdust board furniture, the hallways renovated to the Day’s Inn chain colours. The hotel was also less than half full, and the bar was as quiet as a funeral chapel. But if the place was quiet, it wasn’t exactly safe or peaceful. I was warned by the desk clerk not to park my rental car in the parking lot—threat unspecified—and the first time I popped outside for an evening stroll, I was subjected to some very aggressive panhandling by three Native Indian 20-somethings:
“Gimme a cigarette.”
“Okay. Why not? Take a couple.”
“Got any spare change?”
“Fuck you, then, cheap bastard.”
It didn’t stop me from taking my stroll, but it prevented it from being any fun. There was nobody on the streets in the twilight except other groups of young men, most of them native Indian and similarly aggressive. I haven’t ever sprayed that much defensive testosterone walking Toronto’s streets, but the alternative was emptying my wallet and running for it—or getting my throat slit.
Inside the Days Inn, there was really nothing to complain about, except on the second night, when someone decided to explain his philosophy of life to his roommates after the bar closed. I didn’t call the desk until I heard a beer bottle shatter—no doubt the part of the philosophy dealing with recycling. It’s silly to whine about the other small irritations—the newsstand not opening until 10:A.M. or the absence of The Globe and Mail or The New York Times, and I didn’t bother to find out if there was room service. In despite the friendly staff, which are more accountable to small town civility than the franchise’s customer relations manual, it was a vaguely unpleasant environment to be in: sterile without being really clean, with décor so neutral it made one’s senses irrelevant, and the streets outside empty and hostile at the same time. Taken together, it was a series of second-rate applications of third-rate ideas. Once again, sort of like most days in the suburbs.
It’s a truism that hotel and motel chains are an inevitable fact of contemporary economic life, and that the last refuge of human hospitality left for North American travelers lies in the Bed & Breakfast sector, which I try to avoid because of the way everyone is forced to admire antique furniture and eat fussy breakfasts with too-chatty strangers. Traveling in the hinterlands will be this way until the “hospitality” industry learns that local colour isn’t culture, and comfort isn’t really the same thing as inoffensive dullness and sterility. It might change if travelers decide that travelling involves going someplace specific, and start demanding surroundings that are a little more lively than the accomodational equivalent of Kraft Dinner. On the other hand, civilization isn’t going to collapse if these things don’t get better. The suburbs will take care of that.
1750 w. August 20, 2003