Welcome to day 28 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
I still enjoy traveling a lot. I mean, it amazes me that I still get excited in hotel rooms just to see what kind of shampoo they’ve left me. — Bill Bryson
Or, what kind of animal the towels have been arranged to make.
At The Cove Motel in Orleans, MA (Cape Cod) — the sixth of our favourite motels and hotels — one of the housekeeping staff is remarkable for leaving fairly elaborate towel animals on the beds and we also heard, but did not see, that for guests with children she makes towel monkeys to hang in the closets, too.
We came back to find this elephant one day, with real cedar or yew cuttings for the eyes:
I wanted to bring it home but that sort of behaviour is frowned upon at most lodgings.
The day before, it was a swan, similar to the swans in the cove –Town Cove, off Woods Cove, off the Atlantic Ocean — from which the motel gets its name.
Even before these enchanting creatures appeared in the room during our September 2017 visit, we had decided that The Cove would be our go-to spot on the Cape, after staying there in April and having tried two other motels (another in Orleans, and one in Hyannis) on previous visits.
The waterfront location, on the cove, is tranquil and quiet.
It’s also walking distance to some restaurants (e.g., Hole in One for full breakfast; Mahoney’s Atlantic Bar & Grill for dinner — love the sole almondine; the wonderful Hot Chocolate Sparrow coffee shop most mornings and many evenings) and to the Ice Cream Cafe in season. Also walking distance to the bike rental shops and access to the 22-mile Cape Cod rail trail. It’s well located for exploring walks and beaches in our favourite parts of the Cape — Eastham, Wellfleet, and Truro — but it’s not too far from Chatham’s restaurants, Dennisport, parks and trails in Harwich and Brewster, or more shopping, eating, and entertainment action in Yarmouth and Hyannis. (It is, however, a longish drive to the Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich.)
Location and charming housekeeping staff aside, the Cove is just a pleasant and agreeable spot to rest. The wifi works well, beds and pillows are comfortable, windows can be safely opened to let in fresh air …
… ample parking is available …
… there’s seating and a firepit by the cove, and “quiet hours” are posted (and enforced) for all guests, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., which I really appreciate. When I couldn’t figure out how to work the newfangled TV, someone came right over from the office and got it going. There’s also an outdoor heated pool (which we haven’t used), ice, vending, the usual motel amenities. Some rooms have a kitchenette (most have at least a microwave), fireplace, and/or water view.
In April, we had a deluxe queen room; this is how it looked:
In September, there were two queen beds and no sofa:
Of the two, I preferred the one queen bed with sofa, but both were perfectly accommodating.
If you visit, make sure to walk a couple of blocks to the little Orleans Conservation Area pocket garden; it also overlooks a cove.
Welcome to day 21 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Exteriors, Entrances, & Lobbies
Included are: Holiday Inn Resort, Jekyll Island, GA, July 2016; Olde Tavern Motel, Orleans, MA (Cape Cod), Nov. 2016; Sand Dollar Motel reception, Pine Point, ME, June 2013; Midtown Hotel, Boston, Feb. 2015; Cotton Sail Hotel, Savannah, GA, Sept. 2014; Clark’s Motel, Santee, SC, Sept. 2013; Flagship Inn, Boothbay, ME, June 2015; Tall Timber cabins, Pittsburgh, NH, July 2015; Casablanca Motel cabin, Manchester, VT, Nov. 2012; Cove Motel, Orleans, MA (Cape Cod), April 2017; Schooner Bay Motor Inn, Rockland, ME, Aug. 2013.
Lobbies, Public Living Spaces, Breakfast Rooms:
Hallways and Corridors (I mean, what are they thinking with some of this carpet?):
Welcome to day 16 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Why I like motels & hotels and not B&Bs:
“One of the more tiring aspects of accepting an offer of free accommodation is a need to be sociable and make conversation with whoever had offered it to you. It would be considered poor form to turn up, dump your bags, crawl into your bedroom and order an early morning alarm call. How I longed to do just that, but instead I chatted merrily away to Marjorie, energy ebbing from me with each sentence, until the tea was drunk, the cake was eaten and I finally plucked up the courage to mention just how exhausted I was. I apologised and said that I simply had to grab a couple of hours sleep, and Marjorie understandingly showed me to my room.” ― Tony Hawks, Round Ireland with a Fridge
Welcome to day 8 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Then there’s sex. Usually better in a motel or hotel than at home, but why? Boundary blurring of private-public? Some kind of taboo related to adultery (commonly practiced in motel rooms exactly because they’re not quite private or public), a trespass (temporary usage of a space that’s not mine), that sense of anonymity or of feeling I’m not quite the me I usually am (or that you are not quite your ordinary you) — are we idealised and idealising, or is it just that the thought of a stranger is more exciting than the familiarity of each other? Is it that it’s a break in the routine, whether a different time, the different place, different bed, or some other aspect? A reminder of brothels and motels that can be rented for an hour, even if you’re there for three days on a straightforward business trip or for a funeral?
“… the North American roadside, a place underwritten by the values and desires of a cultural system that anxiously balances the competing aims of instant gratification and moral purity.” (on “Dreamland Motels” and Freud, at Motel Register)
Elizabeth Hornbeck, in her essay on Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel in his novel The Shining (in Stephen King and Philosophy, Jacob Held, 2016), is articulate in her description of hotels as places, heterotopias, where non-normative and transgressive acts can occur, activity that subverts normal social roles and rules. She notes first that Michel Foucault “describes motel rooms as heterotopias ‘where illicit sex is totally protected and totally concealed at one and the same time, set apart and yet not under an open sky.'”
“While Foucault does not mention hotels in his essay [“The Order of Things,” in which he does mention brothels], they satisfy his description of the heterotopia of deviance because of the unique kind of social space they offer. Hotels bring together individuals whose paths might not normally cross, and they create relationships and social hierarchies new to those individuals — relationships and hierarchies that do not always correspond to the individuals’ ‘normal’ relationships outside the hotel. In subverting the status quo, they are fundamentally political spaces in the broadest sense. …
“The family home … constrains the parent-child relationship, the spousal relationship, intergenerational relationships, and so forth, all according to socially defined roles. Breaking away from those norms is facilitated by leaving the normative space of ‘home’ and entering the subversive space of heterotopia. …. Heterotopias undermine our sense of ordering, defining, and understanding, and hence to some extent controlling, the spaces we occupy. Unlike their counterparts, normative spaces, heterotopias are spaces where the transgressive can take place without censure.”
“Magic fingers” were all the rage at the classy places we went to as kids on family trips.
I’m pretty sure I also know what’s floating around in the “jacuzzi built for two” and it’s not any kind of aphrodisiac. (This International Inn & Suites is in Hyannis, Cape Cod, MA. Their URL is “cuddles.com”)
“Hotel rooms constitute a separate moral universe.'”– Tom Stoppard
It’s not exactly a motel, but it may as well be: This scene with Goldie Hawn and Dudley Moore in Foul Play is a gleaming model for all things sleazy motelish. The liquor cabinet and bad drinks, the strobing lights, the BeeGees, the sudden arrival of the sex dolls, the naked women paintings and the porn film projected on the wall, the heralded hidden bed and mirrored neon-lights ceiling, tambourines, binoculars, his coy preening and prancing. Then his utter humiliation and shame when he’s scolded and the lights come on. It’s a classic!
Welcome to day 7 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
Being in a foreign place, preferably for the first time, having seen many things and collected new impressions, and returning to an empty hotel room with an hour or so to blow. That mix often yields fine results. — Stefan Sagmeister
Yes, it does, and here’s another thing that can yield fine results: Being in a familiar place, even a place of childhood, having seen many things and collected many impressions, having emotionally compressed past, present, and future into one sticky toffee, returning to an empty hotel room with an hour or so to blow.
Specifically: After spending an intense day or two with family for a sister’s 50th birthday celebration in Virginia,
with a visit on the way to meet your favourite Hannah Banana bulldog (may she rest in peace) and her brother, Tank, and her mother, Kim, in Charlottesville,
then a week exploring your most favourite spot in the world (Jekyll Island, GA) with just your spouse,
with an utterly perfect side trip to Fernandina Island, FL to spend time with a good friend who’s moved too far away,
then a 9-hour car trip back to Richmond, Virginia — to visit a botanical garden before returning the rental car and boarding the train in the late afternoon for the trip back to Boston (an overnight journey) — to arrive there tired and anxious from the harrowing rainstruck highway through the Carolinas, later than expected without food breaks, ordering ahead online (still on the highway) from your phone, from the familiar and comforting Olive Garden menu, dashing in to pick up the food in a torrential rain storm, and arriving a few minutes later at a decent-enough chain hotel — one you’ve stayed in several times in the past, including before and after funerals, before and after weddings, before and after other intense family events that take a psychic and physical toll, despite joy, love, history, because of history, patterns, the way time unfolds — to eat and rest. Only to eat,
in your room with its “Do Not Disturb” tag hanging on the doorknob, and only to rest, mindless, knowing that no one else knows you’re here and no one will come bother you, need anything, expect anything. And that there is no routine for you to adhere to. Ahhh.
Then, to get back to the quote above, in those moments you may dwell in the midst of possibility, gratitude for friends and family, reluctance and anticipation of returning home, longing for the beach and the south and the simple condo and anonymity and every-day discovery and wonder, longing for close friends to be closer, longing for exactly where you are and what you’re doing. Shaken, stirred, it’s still a fine result.
Chain motels and chain restaurants can nourish, recharge, shelter and bring comfort. Bless them.
Welcome to day 4 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
There’s a funny phenomenon in real estate photos, where the person photographing the rooms unintentionally photographs themselves in a mirror, usually in the bathroom. In this way, realtors superimpose themselves, the marketer, onto the home they are marketing, which is not their home, not a space where they would usually appear in the mirror, except for the fact that they are selling this home for someone else. They don’t belong here but they are now integral to the space, as though they were the inhabitant of the house. (Check out Bad MLS Photos, especially the series I’m Looking for the Agent in the Mirror – definitely “asking him to change his ways.” Also, Stupid Selfies at Terrible Real Estate Agent Photos, which I think says it all.)
The same thing happens when I take photos of motel and hotel rooms. I try to avoid it, except when I am actually trying to do it, but occasionally I capture a little of me, someone else, or some luggage reflected.
The motel remains, and I am a fleeting glimpse caught forever in its mirror. If the mirror weren’t there, would I remain? Where is my actual presence in that moment?
In Nataly Tcherepashenets’ book Place and Displacement in the Narrative Worlds of Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar (2007), she talks about Foucault’s “motif of the mirror … which questions ‘real’/’fictional’ place opposition and where the concepts of utopia and heterotopia converge. … [It’s] where the very notions of linearity and presence are suspended.” She compares “the City” in Cortázar’s novel 62: Modelo para armar (1968; in English, 62: The Model Kit) — characterised as “a heterotopian zone, constructed and deconstructed at the same time” — to a mirror: “[Juan] has an impression that … a mirror of space and a mirror of time had coincided at a point of unbearable and most fleeting reality before it left me alone again, with so much intelligence, with so much before and after and so much in front and in back” and she continues “[t]he functioning of the City turns out to be that of a mirror where heterotopia, utopia and dystopia converge. It accumulates ‘real’ (recognizable) spaces and at the same time appears to be an overtly imaginary construct.” In this way, as Danielle Manning puts it in her article (Re)visioning Utopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting, the mirror has the “ability to destabilize the seemingly straightforward transcription of real space.” The mirror both includes and excludes real objects: they appear as images in the mirror but are not really “allowed” in the mirror, instead remaining external it. Where are they?
The “intelligence” Juan describes seems to me to be a kind of revelation or realisation, which comes from his sense of “so much before and after,” the convergence of eternity — past, present, future — in the never-ending refraction of light in a mirror, with him at the center. Yet the mirror, like “the City” in the novel, is a real place, the mirror possibly made in a Chinese factory and transported across oceans on a container ship to be placed in, perhaps, this particular home or motel. It’s a real object but its significance is wholly in its function of reflecting other objects, and those reflections aren’t “real” but are “image-inary.”
An exhibition for the Singapore Biennale (2016-2017), “An Atlas of Mirrors: At Once Many Worlds,” includes Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016), which was apparently inspired in part by Foucault’s thoughts on mirrors:
“Paracosmos [click to see image] propels the viewer into a parallel world – a space of otherness that is recognisable but unfamiliar. … [T]he ‘membrane’ of hand-cut mirrors dissolves the definition between foreground and background by dissipating the single image into an explosion of reflections. A space of simultaneity, and eternally liminal, the mirror was core to philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as a kind of zone that could encompass other sites. Yet munificence can also be deceptive, and like a mirror that throws a warped or skewed reflection, heterotopias can disturb and distort the spaces held in their embrace. The mirror reveals itself as a paradoxical device: able to hold every other image by having no inherent image, it can enfold an ‘everywhere’ by being a ‘nowhere’ in itself.”
The mirror is a perfect “placeless place”: the mirror itself is empty of imagery, yet that’s where accurate representations of real objects are found.
Looking at oneself in a mirror, it’s hard not to experience, on some level (maybe a subconscious one), both a reassuring sense of our own solid presence and a disquieting sense of our fleeting impermanence. The mirror suggests that besides the “real” me, there is another me, out of body, external. And that reflected, external me doesn’t correspond perfectly with the real me. The copy of me isn’t me, but it’s what everyone else, for whom the mirror stands in, sees as me.
Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, in their (pdf) article “The uncanny mirror: A re-framing of mirror self-experience” in Consciousness and Cognition (Feb. 2010), mention in the introduction “the wariness typically associated with mirror self-experience” and French phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s description of “the profoundly unsettling encounter with one’s specular double.” Rochat and Zahavi share the story of an isolated tribe living in the Papuan plateau, who had never seen their own reflections in anything natural or constructed (no slate, no metallic surfaces, only murky rivers); an anthropologist brings a mirror to their tribe and they look into it: “They were paralyzed: after their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension. Like Narcissus, they were left numb, totally fascinated by their own reflections.”
It’s easy to forget, especially in this age of selfies, that without mirrors, reflective glass, and cameras (or clear reflections in water, rock, etc.), we would not know what our own face looks like, we would never see the gestalt of our body in one image.
The authors go on to discuss the uncanniness of mirrors, as a “source of visual enhancement as well as illusory perceptions. …. Mirrors are visually trickery because they give perceivers an illusion of transparency, the exact opposite of what they are in their physical reality. ” They raise Merleau-Ponty’s argument that for a child who first sees its whole body in a mirror or other clear reflective surface, “this new unifying appearance of the body” is an objectification:
“For the child to recognize the specular image as its own is for it to become a spectator of itself. … At the same time that the image makes possible the knowledge of oneself, it makes possible a sort of alienation. I am no longer what I felt myself, immediately, to be; I am that image of myself that is offered by the mirror. To use Dr. Lacan’s terms, I am ‘captured, caught up’ by my spatial image. Thereupon I leave the reality of my lived me in order to refer myself constantly to the ideal, fictitious, or imaginary me, of which the specular image is the first outline. In this sense I am torn from myself, and the image in the mirror prepares me for another still more serious alienation, which will be the alienation by others. For others have only an exterior image of me, which is analogous to the one seen in the mirror.”
In other words, as they continue,
“Merleau-Ponty’s central idea is that mirror self-recognition exemplifies a troubled form of self-knowledge. … The enigmatic and uncanny character of the specular image is precisely due to this intermingling of self and other. It is me that I see in mirror, but the me I see has not quite the same familiarity and immediacy as the me I know from inner experience. The me I see in the mirror is distant and yet close, it is felt as another, and yet as myself.”
These intermingled feelings — of knowing oneself while being alienated from oneself, of self as both object and spectator, of recognising oneself intimately yet feeling distant from self, of feeling the image to be eternally situated and at the same time deeply transitory — points to the experience of ambiguity and contradiction inherent in heterotopias.
And looking at photos of mirrored images all the more ambiguous, unsettling, disorienting. This was 20 years ago. For a moment. That never ends.
“I suspected that what happens in hotel rooms rarely lasts outside of them. I suspected that when something was a beginning and an ending at the same time, that meant it could only exist in the present.” — David Levithan
Welcome to day 1 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
About 11 years ago, on Tuesday, 21 November 2006, while on an 11-day solo train trip from Boston to New Orleans (staying one night), to Memphis (staying two nights), to Minneapolis (staying three nights), and back via The Lakeshore Limited through Albany, I wrote this while sitting on a train about to leave New Orleans:
“After Cafe du Monde, I walked around the French Quarter for an hour. I don’t remember liking Rue Royal so much before, but it was a favourite this time. Something about the feel of it. Then back to the hotel room, where I sat out on the rooftop garden patio that my hotel window/door opened out on, and read the free USA Today while drinking a diet Dr. Pepper.”
Below is that patio, at the Omni.
Something I never do at home is drink soda and read USA Today — or any newspaper except the weekly local one, which takes 5 minutes to flip through, standing at the kitchen island. Occasionally on a long car trip, I’ll get a diet Dr. Pepper at a rest stop to drink in the car, but it takes a motel, hotel, or other non-home lodging to prompt me to pop open a soft drink, much less to sip it while reading a newspaper. It’s one of those things that I do when I’m in a heterotopic space — a non-normal place, familiar and unfamiliar — and especially when I’m alone, anonymous, not having to meet expectations of others or do anything in particular.
It’s like there is an alternative me, ready to appear given the right circumstances, and those circumstances include dislocation and anonymity. Is that the “real” me or is the me among those who know me the “real” me?
How many versions of “me” does each of us contain, and what triggers their appearances, or what keeps them hidden, in abeyance?
Drinking the Dr. Pepper reminds me of my mother and my childhood, and reading the USA Today reminds me of my father, because that’s one of the papers he liked to read daily. Maybe they come to inhabit me in a greater way than usual when I am dislocated.
Later that same day, now in Memphis, I went out to dinner at midnight, walking alone, through dark, unknown, but relatively crowded streets, eating at the Flying Saucer, a sort of brew pub/bar.
The next afternoon, I visited the Peabody Hotel, across the street from my hotel; the Peabody is famous for its ducks, which march from elevator to lobby fountain, and back, on schedule twice a day, at 11 and 5. I hung out in the hotel lobby with some business men, who bought me a drink. That’s not ordinary for me, though not completely out of character:
“… the Peabody lounge/lobby, which is fabulous — I could live there. Went at 4:15 to see the ducks at 5 and ended up hanging out with Robert (“like Redford”), Derrick, and another guy who all work in the field of sleep apnea and do sales of equipment to sleep clinics. I hung out with those guys on the sofas and comfy chairs in the Peabody Lobby. Ordered a Peabody cocktail (tastes not unlike a Hurricane; made with Southern Comfort, rum, orange and pineapple juice, dash of Grenadine), and ate their cashews, banana chips, and sesame crackers. At 5, I watched, along with dozens of children and their parents, four female ducks and one male duck do their thing: that is, march from the fountain in the lobby along a red carpet into a waiting elevator that takes them to their skyway “palace” (more like a big cage) on the roof of the Peabody, where there is a spectacular view of Memphis.
“The duck march is a huge deal, full of pageantry, with festivities starting at 4:30 as the duckmaster, in a red and gold costume holding a cane with a duckhead grip, tells the history of the Peabody hotel and of the ducks. An honorary duckmaster, someone pure of heart, is also appointed and “knighted” (in that posture) by the duckmaster with the cane. The one today was a female college student who had done something noteworthy.
“The ducks originally were English ducks, smaller than the northern mallards living in the hotel now, and were live decoys that some duck hunters put into the fountain as a joke. In the morning, the ducks were still in the fountain and there was a crowd of people around them, marvelling. From this came the daily duck march. ( The Peabody’s website says that “Each team [of ducks] lives in the hotel for only three months before the ducks are retired from their Peabody duties, at which time they are returned to a reserve to live out the remainder of their days as wild ducks.” Is that possible? )
“Afterward, Robert bought me another drink (I drank half of it; only accepted it to be polite; Memphis must be having an effect on me!) and we chatted some more and I showed them pictures of my dog and saw pictures of theirs (on cell phones).”
In Minneapolis, a few days later:
“[I] stopped in at the Dakota Jazz Club to see about getting a walk-in seat for the Cuban pianist playing there tonight, Nachito Herrera. When I had called from the train a day or two before, I was told that all the reserved seats and tables were gone but that some are always held for walk-ins, if you get there early enough. When I walked in around 4:15, the place seemed empty, but I heard voices in the balcony and called out, “Hello?” A man who introduced himself as Jim came right down and showed me around the place. He said he’d leave a note with my name on a bar seat (small bar — about 6 seats) so I’d have a spot if I get there by 7, which is my plan.”
[Later:] “…. Then I went to the Dakota Jazz Club … Got there by 7 and my seat had been temporarily given to some guys having a “quick drink.” All the staff was exceptionally nice to me — the hosts and hostess, including a friendly, happy-looking guy named Tom, who leaves for New Jersey and Princeton Seminary next year (and who encouraged me to go to church in the morning!), and the bartenders, Karl and Dave and one who didn’t introduce himself. Karl in particular had his eye out for me, making sure I got the bar seat when it was vacated. He also gave me a complementary drink. He has a friend who lives in Portsmouth, NH. I ordered a gin gimlet and stood drinking it, waiting for the guys to move. Finally two of them did (the other two stayed for the show) and I got my seat around 7:30. Ordered peeky-toe crab cakes (three of them, small and columnar, with a very spicy remoulade) and the Local Beet and Apple Salad with Frisee, Pistachio and Truffled Pecorino. Both delish. Later, got a Pimms and lemonade, then pumpkin cheesecake brûlée and herbal tea. Ate the brûléepart and left most of the cheesecake, which I don’t like; I got sucked in by the word brûlée.
“The jazz set went from 8-9:30, with the pianist, Nachito Herrera, a timbalis player, a percussionist, someone on bass, and a female vocalist for some of the songs. I chatted off and on with folks at the bar, including a woman, Patty, who lived in L.A. for 30 years but 4 months ago moved back to Minneapolis (her company offered her a transfer) to be near her parents, because every time she heard the phone ring in L.A., she was worried something had happened to them. She feared Minneapolis would be all “wallpaper and doilies” and is pleasantly surprised at the edginess. She also said that you can’t hear jazz in L.A. — they think the Doobie Brothers are jazz. She and I both bought reserved tickets to tonight’s late show, Dr. John, at 9:30 p.m.”
Again, not my normal M.O., but this is who I apparently am when alone in a city I’ve never seen before. I read USA Today, eat dinner at midnight, chat with everyone in the bar, and decide to go to late-night jazz clubs when the mood hits. If I had been here with my spouse or a even with a close friend, I don’t think I’d have done half the fun things I did on this trip — several plays, a musical, other concerts, city tours, visiting museums and homes, walking through neighbourhoods, interesting meals — mainly because of the time it takes to agree among people what to do, and when to do it. I’m a great planner, but within those plans I prefer to follow my mood and instincts, like getting tickets for the second set of jazz that night — but this is just about impossible when living with and travelling with other people. And if I had been at home or in my hometown, and these opportunities had spontaneously been presented, other duties or constraints might have prevented me, or I may have felt that they prevented me, which amounts to the same thing. Alone, in a place neither here not there, not limited by my normal sense of time or of what “should” happen when, I had the freedom to do what felt right at the time. The Dr. John show is one of my strongest and best memories of the whole trip. (In fact, I went back the next night for his late show.)
During Breaking The Waves, I was on my own in a hotel room. I think I would have been impossible to live with. When you go home, you have to pretend to be the person you are at home. — Emily Watson
The next day I saw a play at The Jungle Theatre, then another that evening at the Guthrie Theatre, way across town. In between,
I “had dinner at the bar at Cue. … Tim was my bartender/waiter, and we talked for about an hour all together. I had a club soda and cranberry juice, then hot cider (gratis), plus a puréed white lentil soup with olive oil-baked croutons and heirloom tomato coulis — quite good — and an autumn field greens salad with black olive vinaigrette and fried shallots (so-so). Then hot tea. And lots of water. [I had a bad cold.]
“Tim is working on his masters in forestry engineering. His undergrad degrees are in archaeology and geography. He wants to do agriculture, maybe orchards or tree farms. His brother lived in Bath, Maine! Both his brother and his brother’s wife (last name Fisher) worked for Hyde School, and they still do but have moved to the Woodstock, CT school. Another brother lives in Brooklyn and I heard about some visits Tim made there (during subway strikes). Tim is a nice guy and offered to call me a cab after the show. …
After the play, “… I took Tim up on this offer to call a cab, and while I was waiting, he brought me a club soda and a splash of their signature cocktail that he made for someone else, which is grape vodka (made from grapes and not grain or potatoes) and cabernet grape juice (which is non-alcoholic). I took the cab to the Dakota Jazz Club and was there by 9:35, one song into Dr. John’s 1.5 hour set. His piano playing is amazing, and his voice is still fluid. Some of the songs were jazzy, some bluesy, many were funny, if crudely so.”
If I weren’t travelling alone, I also wouldn’t have chatted up the cabbies so much. In a strange city, I highly recommend talking to the cab drivers, not only to find out what’s going on, but more because it’s an education, on a detailed anecdotal level, in how other people live, in the complexities of other people’s lives.
Here are a few of my summaries of conversations with cab drivers:
New Orleans: “My cab driver said he grew up in NO, lived in Calif. for 10 yrs (San Diego and north), but when he was visiting home, “someone sold me a cab” for $2,000 and he drove it that night, making $300, then the next, making $400, and so on, so he had to stay here, because he had six kids to get through college. He did get them through college, and now the 13th grandchild, Justin, nursery-school-aged, was expelled from nursery school because of his hyperactivity. Also, he (the grandson) can’t really talk, although he can say “Gammy car” when his grandmother’s white station wagon pulls up. And he asked for a “boom” (broom) to extricate to toy car lost under the sofa. As his granddad said, the kid knows how to get what he wants. His grandmother is glad he’s moved now with his family to Houston TX, because when he was staying with them he waited until they fell asleep and then got some cans of white paint and poured them over the carpet, his head, the furniture, and put his arms into the cans up to his elbows. She is worried, though, that the medications he’s now on for the ADHD will make him a zombie.”
Memphis #1: Driver to The Pink Palace: “On the way over, I got a guy originally from rural North Carolina. He’s one of six kids, with seven years between him and his next youngest sibling. The day he was born, at home, with a midwife (4 June 1951 at 4:30 a.m.), his brother, who was 18, headed to the military, along with another brother, 17, who had lived most of his life — since he was 5 or 6 — with a cousin or aunt in another town (not too far away) who liked him and at first told people he was hers. The 17-yr-old brother had come home that very morning, and when he found that his brother was joining the Navy, he decided to join up, too, as did a friend of the older brother’s. Both brothers served in the military for 23 years, until they were 40 and 41. Both are dead now, though the brother’s friend is still living. My cabdriver’s cousin (another one) ran a liquor house, where people went to drink at 5:30 or 6 a.m., before work, and the relationships were like family, though not everyone who regularly came to the liquor house was related to each other — but some were. His dad, for instance, a concrete worker, was a habituee. His mom was a “houseworker” (someone who “did” for other people). When the family she worked for went to Mexico on holiday, they wanted her to go with them, so my cabdriver, a kid at the time, was sent to Maine to be watched over by his two older brothers serving in the Navy. His mother deemed his father too irresponsible to have sole care of him while she was away, what with the liquor house visits, and then there was a little campfire his dad made at the concrete site that got out of control one night, though their dog fortunately alerted them to this, but even the dog’s presence wasn’t enough to satisfy his mother that his dad could care for him adequately. So he was in Maine briefly as a child, and that’s how I learned that story.”
Memphis #2: Drive back to hotel from Pink Palace: “The driver on the way back from the Pink Palace is originally from Ethiopia, which was coincidental because I’d just spent an hour watching an IMAX show called “Mystery of the Nile,” about a rafting expedition from the source of the Blue Nile, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to its end in Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea. The driver has been in the U.S. since 1999, and also lived in Arlington, VA. He came over originally to visit a friend, and then the friend or his relatives needed some help and he stayed 8 months to help them, then ended up never returning, even for a visit so far. His whole family except one sister (of 4 sisters and 3 brothers) is in Ethiopia. He has a 4-year-old but isn’t married to her mother; this seemed to be a tough issue for him. He told me it’s better to be married before having kids. He gave me his card with his cell phone number on it in case I needed anything while I was in Memphis.”
Memphis #3: “The cab driver was the one from the other day who took me to the Pink Palace. He remembered me (in fact, he honked at me about 10 mins before, when I was crossing the street, and I waved back at him; when I called the cab company for a cab, he came right around and asked why I didn’t flag him down then for a ride — I had gone back to the hotel to get a scarf before heading to Graceland) and talked a lot more about his family, his brother’s son and daughter — the daughter had a son out of wedlock and the cabdriver’s brother (her dad) went over to the house and took the baby away from her, and he and his wife raised the baby! How history repeats itself in that family!
“He said that his godson called and asked him for a ride to school today, because the godson’s mother’s car wasn’t running. He said to the godson, and the mother, who was also home from work and not doing anything about the car (which had been not working the night before), or arranging alternate transportation for herself or her son: “Do you think a white person would lay around and not get a ride and make excuses about their car?” Etc. I said I didn’t think this was something that black people had cornered the market on — I know white people who would do exactly this, and in fact, I’ve been one — but he argued that this “can’t do” attitude of victimisation is much more prevalent in the black community.
“He said that his mom told him, when she was raising him, that he had two strikes against him already being born black and poor, and that he was going to have to work all the harder to overcome this by getting an education. His mom told him that a white boy would go into the military for 3 years, get a college degree (paid for by the military), and then leave and get a good job, rising up the ladder, while black folks make a career of the military; and in 20 years, the white guy has a college degree, a good job, and two retirement packages, while the black guy has 20 years of military service, a high school diploma, and not enough money to live on. My cabdriver chose the latter route, dropping out of college, which he regrets, and spending 20 years in the military, then needing another job when he got out to make ends meet. He doesn’t like Memphis and wants to retire in four years (with 20 years in the military and 20 years driving cabs) to either Austin, TX, or back to North Carolina, where he grew up.
“It’s not that far to Graceland — after we got there, he sat and talked for another 10 minutes and we discussed these questions of race.”
Memphis #4: “My cabdriver on the way back from Graceland was the first white one I’ve had on the trip, and he regaled me with tales of amazing things he’s seen in his job: a drunk guy he picked up at The Peabody (the posh hotel) one afternoon who gave him a street address that didn’t exist … the street existed but not the number … After 20 minutes of hunting, both cabbie and passenger were getting irritated and annoyed, until passenger asked, “Are we in Memphis or Nashville?” The cabbie drove him back to the Peabody. He was a lawyer from Nashville, in town with other lawyers. Another fare was a guy who spoke only to himself, carrying on a lengthy argument in two distinct voices. He continued arguing with himself after paying the fare and as he walked off. Another passenger said nothing to the cabbie other than asking him if he had a glass; the cabbie didn’t, only a styrofoam cup, to which the passenger replied that he needed a glass, and that with only a couple of inches of liquid in it, he could look into the glass and see what his girlfriend was doing right now.
“This cabbie is from rural Missouri and came to Memphis years ago to visit his dad. Then he met a woman; they were married for 18 years, until she died. He wants to go back to Missouri and doesn’t know why he’s not going, except for the money involved.”
Minneapolis: “My cab driver from the hotel to the Amtrak station this morning, Judy, was very very talkative … at 7:15 or so. Aaagh. She’s never been to Chicago! The gist of most of the conversation was that she’s had her eye on another cab driver, who’s cute and young (26), and they’ve waved at each other in passing … But yesterday, they spent from 4-10 p.m. together at his place and now she wonders if he’ll call. She left her sunglasses at his place but she doesn’t want to seem like “psycho woman” (her phrase) by calling him about them, so she plans to buy new ones. She’s a 24/7 cab driver with her own car, but he’s a day guy with another company who changes cars every day. So he can recognise her on the road easily just by noticing her car but she can’t recognise him unless she actually sees him.”
Not a Cab Driver, But: “My overnight seatmate from Chicago to Albany was Rick, who does something creative involving music for Apple in Worcester, MA., and who had been out to Cupertino, CA, by train for a work conference. So he’d been train-bound for 3-4 days in a row (though some of it on a sleeper, for which he dipped into his savings; Apple paid the coach fare only) and was getting despairing as our train got later and later, eventually about 4 hours late into Albany and 3 hours late into Boston (and Worcester). He would like to move to Calif. — his brother owns a marketing company in San Francisco — and do something more creative and less customer-service-oriented for Apple, or for someone else. He’s 32 and wonders where the last 10 years have gone, what he’s done with his life, where it’s going. He’s noticed that he tends to be impatient and impulsive and he wonders if that’s always wise. When I asked him what was keeping him from moving, he answered the same as the cabdrivers: “Good question.”
That’s a question I think about a lot, and thought about even more 11 years ago, when I took this trip: “What’s keeping you from moving?” “What’s keeping you from doing what you want, from going somewhere else, from unsettling your life?” I constantly asked (and ask) this of myself, and I’m always curious about other people’s responses, especially if they seem unhappy, anxious, wistful, regretful, trapped in their circumstances, trapped in their place, not at home in their home.
Somehow, being on the road, especially alone in anonymous, non-home places, in new cities, exploring the place and talking with the people in those places (or even just observing them), lends itself to breaking free from ordinary constraints, schedules, expectations, assumptions, one’s own attitudes, moods, and reactions, which I think is a good practice for developing self-knowledge, compassion, curiosity, and perhaps even wisdom. (Not to mention that travelling Amtrak — which I love — builds patience, greater comfort with uncontrollable situations, and a strong laissez faire attitude concerning timetables. Either that or it kills you.)
I also noticed that when keeping my journal, I repeatedly mentioned that this place or that place, this meal or that one, reminded me of a past place or meal, making the unfamiliar a bit more familiar, perhaps a self-soothing strategy when confronted with dislocation and the unknown. Or maybe it’s just the way the brain works, finding patterns and similarities among disparate things.
To be travelling is to be always, in a way, in a liminal place — on a threshold, making a transition, on both sides of a boundary — and to be often feeling liminal, which, in anthropological terms, is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” During this time, between separation and reassimilation, one’s identity, one’s sense of time, one’s community and relationships may be called into question or restructured. Besides travel, think also of events like college graduation, military boot camp, peri-menopause, the time between engagement and marriage, the time between death and burial, the idea of purgatory.
Coming back to the question, what keeps you from moving/changing?, those who stay in situations where they’re unhappy aren’t willing on some level to separate from that situation, to move into the confusion and disorientation of the middle-stage of liminality, hopefully afterward to reassimilate into their lives, or into society, in a way that’s more satisfying. It can be daunting to move from the known, even if it’s lousy, to the unknown, to feeling bewildered and lost on a dark pathless path. The meaning we have assigned to things, places, people, events becomes ambiguous, tenuous, and we can feel adrift, destabilised, detached from our moorings.
If you’re grappling with a life that’s not what you want, or trying to decide how to change your life, how to move, my suggestion is to go somewhere alone, somewhere unfamiliar and heterotopic like a motel (or a library, a museum, a public garden, a cemetery) — any no-place, any-place kind of place that doesn’t demand you be your usual you — and let time and space wash over you. Even a few hours in this sort of space may be helpful.
For me, travelling by myself functions as a retreat, not from the world per se but from my world, from the proscribed boundaries of my world, the boundaries that I have created and allowed and which, once called into question by their absence, are revealed and can then be reassessed. Standing at the threshold, remaining there with one foot in and out foot out, can feel discomfiting and unsettling, and for that I recommend a little comfort food, a good play, and a quiet hotel room waiting when you return. All the better if there are ducks marching around in the lobby.
“I love everything about motels. I can’t help myself. I still get excited every time I slip a key into a motel room door and fling it open.” ― Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away