Welcome to day 25 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 woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. — Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Welcome to day 17 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.
To enlarge on yesterday’s post,
I’m with Rat.
When I travel, whether alone or with a friend or spouse, I want complete anonymity from strangers and even some time away from most friends and acquaintances. I often travel to be with friends or family, and of course I want to spend time with them, enjoy meals, weddings, birthdays, or other occasions with them, and talk a lot together, be together, face to face, in a way that email, texting, and social media does not allow. But, because I am half extrovert and half introvert — both energised and enervated by social contact — there comes a time when, after a day of socialising, I need an hour or three alone to recharge, process, breathe, and of course work on my photos. For that, the chain hotel or motel in a city is perfect.
“She left me the way people leave a hotel room. A hotel room is a place to be when you are doing something else. Of itself it is of no consequence to one’s major scheme. A hotel room is convenient. But its convenience is limited to the time you need it while you are in that particular town on that particular business; you hope it is comfortable, but prefer, rather, that it be anonymous. It is not, after all, where you live.” — Toni Morrison
The trip spouse and I took this last long weekend, to attend a wedding, was pretty perfect for me in terms of balancing social and alone time:
Day one: A day in the car together, during which spouse and I rarely talk and I can think, not think, and observe what’s outside the car. Followed by dinner out at a vibrant brewpub, where I can see other people and overhear their conversations. A little low on socialising but I know what’s ahead and so this is fine.
Day two: A day wandering at Longwood Gardens with spouse, interacting slightly with others, mostly taking in the beauty of the world as it is, while texting with friends too, and then dinner out at a place we used to visit when we lived in Maryland (but now not owned by the same folks, apparently); it’s where our parents met each other before we married. When I’m at Longwood or any public garden, or hiking on a trail, or even walking city blocks, I am really focused on what I am seeing, hearing, smelling, breathing, touching, flora and fauna alike, in a way that is much like meditation, I think.
Day three: Lots of texting with friends pre-wedding, a 2-hour walk with spouse on trails (Soldiers Delight — where chrome was discovered in the U.S.!) nearby the hotel for my daily dose of nature, followed by driving around the neighbourhood we used to live in — and the heavy energy flow of memories that that evokes for me — and then being at the wedding venue (lovely inside and out) from 4:15 to 11:15 p.m., mostly talking in depth with a few good college friends, plus lots of superficial chit-chat and shorter interactions with other friends and acquaintances, moments of photo-taking silliness, listening to heartfelt wedding vows and speeches, meeting a few strangers, and (maybe best of all?) an hour or two of celebratory dancing.
Day four: Texting, texting, more texting with friends here for the wedding, a little time with spouse walking around Charles Village, then an hour or two with friends (and spouse) at the Baltimore Museum of Art — more beauty, more conversations, more new things to discover — followed by another walk in a nearby park and then four or five hours with close friends who are family, at their house for cocktails, a cookout dinner, a walk around their neighbourhood after, changing conversational partners as we walked (but it still wasn’t enough catching up).
Day five: Another car day after breakfast at the hotel, minimal conversation with spouse, my own processing of the weekend, follow-up texting and emailing with friends of photos, glad tidings, etc. Once home, the chore of unpacking, thinking about groceries, falling into bed at 8:30 exhausted. Texting with friends and my sister, whose close friend had some hard news yesterday, which changed my psychic energy, too, on hearing it.
Day six: The perfect post-travel day, with no obligations, the ability to sleep late, then only a quick dash out for groceries and a couple of small errands, time to look at photos, organise a bit, reply to stacked-up emails, do laundry, make dinner, blog a bit.
The hotel (Hyatt Place) that we stayed in did not have weirdos in our room (other than us) or people in the bathroom, though we did eat breakfast a couple of days with strangers (but many were speaking some Chinese language, possibly Korean, so even that didn’t intrude), and the TV in public spaces at these places is always intrusive. Mainly, the hotel was a convenient place to rest between doing the meaningful things, a place we could close the door and shut out the world, which is necessary at times. In other words, a little bit of heaven among the beautiful entangled orbits.
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 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
Michel Foucault, who coined the term “heterotopia” in the 1960s, describes it as “a space that disrupts the continuity and normality of common everyday places.” (From that description alone, you can see how motels and hotels, and in fact many places associated with travel and vacation time, are examples.) Foucault uses the term to describe spaces containing more layers of meaning, or more relationships to other places, than immediately meet the eye. The role of heterotopias in his view is either illusory or compensatory, to either “create a space of illusion that exposes every real space, all the sites inside of which human life is partitioned, as still more illusory” or “to create a space that is other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill constructed, and jumbled.” In either case, they point to the truth of our own reality.
(Above, my sister at family cemetery plot)
Beyond revealing the illusion of real space and time (either directly or through compensation), a heterotopia is a place that’s removed from ordinary time, from the evenly spaced movement of time. It’s a disjuncture. It’s a place that changes how time is felt, experienced. It’s a place that juxtaposes past with present, future with present, that disorders time and allows it to function in a non-hegemonic way (i.e., no longer ruled or ordered by prevailing social or political context). It can be a built space (a library, museum, garden, cemetery, ship, prison, etc.) or it can even be something like the “space” of a phone call or the moment when a mirror reflects our image.
(Above, Jekyll Island Club Hotel, Jekyll Island, GA)
In fact, gardens, especially public gardens, are seen as heterotopias, because they incorporate a rich spatial incompatibility, superimposing meanings, changing the pacing of time, mimicking perfection a la the Garden of Eden and/or revealing how far they fall short of what Mother Nature constructs; and since my [other] blog is titled A Moveable Garden, I think it’s appropriate to post these there — though the posts won’t be about gardens (most of the time) or about the natural world per se — to reflect the larger idea of living in transition, moving from place to place, knowing and not knowing places and spaces.
(Above, Boston Public Garden)
As I’ve said, I often wonder whether my true home isn’t perhaps a heterotopia, or some sort of liminal space I am continually passing through. A wholly unnecessary space, “irrelevant to the practical functioning of everyday life.” A tourist town, a dis-placed place. No-home. It’s where I, perversely perhaps, seem to feel most at home. Not “home” in the sense of feeling rooted and attached but rather in the sense of feeling relaxed, satisfyingly connected, most myself, engaged in discovering and exploring the new and mysterious, not able to be easily found by others.
As much as I enjoy being at home (in my house and garden), and being part of a geographically situated community, I seem to prefer slightly more being neither here nor there (hence my appreciation of Facebook). And even as I make each new place, each new garden and ecosystem, each new community, “my own” — no matter the USDA hardiness zone, no matter which birds sing in the trees, no matter whether I am in the midst of the most-craved ocean and marsh, or of mountains, lakes, rivers, swamps, meadows, prairie, forests, desert, tundra, or cityscape — I am aware of the illusion that it is a lasting place, a place that persists. In the short term, I will leave, and in the end, no place will persist for any of us.
Before we delve more deeply into the home-away-from-home motel and hotel focus of this series, here are some more examples of heterotopias (some overlapping), for those interested (from “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias” in Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité, October, 1984, based on a Michel Foucault lecture of March 1967):
heterotopias of crisis (red tents for menstruating women, honeymoon hotels for virgins, boarding schools for boys, hospitals, nursing homes)
heterotopias of deviance (prisons, retirement communities, mental hospitals)
heterotopias that juxtapose “in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (the theatre, cinema, public gardens)
heterotopias linked to slices in time, where humans in them “arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time” (cemeteries; museums and libraries, which are “heterotopias of indefinitely accumulating time”)
heterotopias linked to the accumulation of time, those “linked to time in its most flowing, transitory, precarious aspect, to time in the mode of the festival” (fairgrounds, seasonal spaces like corn mazes, resort communities and tourist towns), where in fact one might even “rediscover” time.
(Above, corn maze in New Hampshire)
As Danielle Manning notes so articulately in her essay “(Re)visioning Heterotopia: The Function of Mirrors and Reflection in Seventeenth-Century Painting” (in Shift: Queen’s Journal of Visual and Material Culture, 2008), “[t]he enigmatic term ‘heterotopia,’ popularized by Michel Foucault in his text The Order of Things (1966), describes sites that undermine stable relationships, disrupt conventions of order, and negate straightforward categorization. Heterotopias also reflect a curious slippage between the familiar and the unfamiliar. … Heterotopic sites seem familiar, as they are subsumed within a society’s conventional ordering system that links them to other sites, yet they are unfamiliar in that they simultaneously contradict the premises by which these relationships are sustained.”
“The strange thing about hotel rooms is that they look familiar and seem familiar and have many of the accoutrements that seem domestic and familiar, but they are really weird, alien and anonymous places. ” — Moby
For me, motels and hotels — like trains, probably my favourite heterotopia — are a reminder of our fleeting existence, and serve perhaps as practice, if you will, for the time when time is no longer linear, when life is no longer programmed at all, no longer ordered by societal norms.
There is something comfortingly anonymous about motels, hotels, and some inns — which is not so for most B&Bs — that I think relates to the heterotopic nature of these temporary places. It’s sort of like Alfred Hitchcock walking into and out of a scene in one of his movies with no one interacting with him or hardly seeming to notice him (excepting Blackmail, 1929); he’s almost an apparition; he rarely has any effect on those around him nor they on him. In a sense, there is utter possibility then, because being is unacknowledged and there is only becoming, in a place where, e.g., what happens next or what happened before is not as significant or intrusive as normal. Hotels and motels remind us, because we exist in them only briefly and quite anonymously, not known to others around us, that although we can feel mighty solid, with a complete history of lived experience, fully installed on Earth and in our homes, we are actually atoms, air and water, with personalities and minds that may or may not persist, with homes that will vanish on a planet that will also disappear.
(Above, Hitchcock walk-on in Marnie. Not my photo.)
As Peter Beagle says, in The Last Unicorn (1968; a book I found when I was young and even more impressionable than I am now),
“When I was alive, I believed — as you do — that time was at least as real and solid as myself, and probably more so. I said ‘one o’clock’ as though I could see it, and ‘Monday’ as though I could find it on the map; and I let myself be hurried along from minute to minute, day to day, year to year, as though I were actually moving from one place to another. Like everyone else, I lived in a house bricked up with seconds and minutes, weekends and New Year’s Days, and I never went outside until I died, because there was no other door. Now I know that I could have walked through the walls.”
A heterotopia can reveal the illusion of time, the illusion of solid walls, to us.
Some say (far down, in comments) that a luxury hotel might be the best hotel heterotopia, because for a while one inhabits a completely other world than usual. I can see this, but having stayed in quite nice hotels and quite dreary, sketchy motels (one in Petersburg, VA, comes to mind), and many in between the two, my experience is that they are all about equal in their ability to remove me from my ordinary life, which is neither posh (by American standards) nor low-rent.
B&Bs, on the other hand, are not up to the task, although they may juxtapose the familiar with the unfamiliar in a disorienting way, because they demand adherence to conventional societal norms: usually B&B guests breakfast together, or if not together in a group, they are still often expected to chat with their hosts or at least exchange pleasantries with each other; sometimes there are wine afternoons, with more chatting and the ritual of “getting to know” someone, exploring what you have in common. Sometimes there is a shared bathroom, with all the communication amongst strangers that that requires. In some smaller B&Bs, a guest might even be expected to check in after each excursion, or to ask advice from the hosts about the area, or, in a true case from my own life, stay in a bedroom with the daughter’s clothes in the closet and decorated with her knick-knacks and enjoy a movie, with popcorn, with the host on her sofa of an evening.
But when one stays in a hotel or motel, one is usually left alone. Most don’t even require that housekeeping staff come in to change towels, make the bed, and tidy up every day. You can put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door and behave pretty much as you like in the room. The linked article above even mentions “the famous American motel rooms where a man goes with his car and his mistress and where illicit sex is both absolutely sheltered and absolutely hidden, kept isolated without however being allowed out in the open.”
(Above, not my photo)
And the decor of hotels and motels, while it ranges from drab, musty, wallpapered to sleek, modern, uber-plush, is impersonal (unlike even most Airbnbs, at least those in my limited experience), enhancing the feeling of not being anywhere in particular, of not knowing anyone here. Chain hotels and motels, like chain restaurants, tend to look the same, no matter what town or city you’re in: The town, region, weather, country may be unfamiliar, but the motel or hotel is familiar. In many of them, you can completely and disorientingly forget what physical location you’re in once you open the door, and even in mom-and-pop one-off motels, there is a motel feel — born of the generally low-slung architecture, the carpeted floors and the landscape/abstract paintings, the key or keycard you carry with you, the Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand, the very brightly lit bathroom, and perhaps most of all the simple knowledge that this is a temporary place — that lends a sense of nowhereness to them, and to you.
(Above: Except you shouldn’t mistake the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, where Martin Luther King Jr was shot to death, for any other motel.)
In the next month, I will be posting interior and exterior photos of 30 or so motels, hotels, or inns I’ve stayed in, and perhaps a few I haven’t. (I already have a list of 34 I’ve photographed while as a paying guest, plus 8 or 10 more I’ve photographed without being a guest.) While they are essentially located anywhere and nowhere, they are geographically located in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Boston, the Berkshires, Cape Cod, Rehoboth Beach in Delaware, Kennett Square in Pennsylvania, Savannah and Santee Georgia, New Orleans, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, and other spots. (Unfortunately, I had no camera with me in London and in Wales; in Granada, Spain I stayed in a rented apartment; I neglected to take any when on the island of Saba, N.A., in a sort of motel/apartment combo; and I took only day trips to Montreal and Nova Scotia, so I’ll be posting only photos of hotels and motels in the United States).
I’ll also be looking at motels and hotels in film; considering the different experience of staying in motels and hotels alone vs. with someone else; thinking about how we may behave differently when in a hotel or motel vs. at home; exploring the juxtaposition of multiple realities, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the conventional and the unusual, that coalesce in motels and hotels; considering how a sense of anonymity and of feeling unknown open possibilities and can affect attitude, behaviour, mood, imagination; how physical location of a motel or hotel may interact with the dislocating nature of the space; and so on.
Join me! And if you have a motel or hotel story, tell us about it, please.
A few days before Christmas, we took Amtrak from Boston to Savannah (Silver Meteor from NYP on the way down, Palmetto to DC on the way home), where we spent 2 days. Rented a car in Savannah and drove to Jekyll Island, arriving on Christmas Day around 1 p.m. Stayed there a week, then drove back to Savannah, spent another half-day and a night there, and took the train home on 3-4 January 2011.
Walking on the Georgia coastal plain beach on Christmas (and every day for a week)
Shrimp and grits almost every day! Yay! Some excellent grits.
Warmth on the last few days of the trip – days in 60s and low 70s.
Got very lucky with tides — low tide almost always when we were out walking on beach.
The colours of the marshes.
Saw alligator out of water for first time ever in the wild.
Time with Jerry and Pat exploring new places on Jekyll.
Gobs of train time – Acela and roomette on trip south, business class on trip home – about 24 hours of down-time each way
Great train staff on route south on 22-23 Dec (Acela and Silver Meteor)
Rental car hassle-free; friendly Budget staff in Savannah; car had heated seats, which came in handy! Also sun/moon roof.
Fabulous, comfy beds at HIX in Savannah – very nice rooms in general, great location on East Bay
Wi-fi almost everywhere: Acela, HIX, and at our condo on Jekyll (for first time)!
Found The Crab Shack on Tybee Island – great ambiance and menu. Also, Coastal Kitchen on St. Simon’s Island at the marina.
Revisited favourites: SeaJays, Gnat’s Landing, Barbara Jeans.
Historic homes in Savannah and Jekyll decorated for Christmas. Regular homes also decorated with lights — and inflatables.
Christmas Eve service at Anglican church in Savannah.
Shopping local stores in Savannah on Christmas Eve.
Loaded up on cherry Zots at sweets shops in Savannah. And free praline!
Dog did great at “kennel” (really a house/family, who now miss her, so sweet).
Someone (thanks, John!) plowed us out at home so we could get into our driveway after blissing out in the snow-free South!
Lowlights (not many):
Probably the lowest light for me was that we couldn’t eat al fresco for any but one meal because of cold; it didn’t feel as much like a trip to the beach or a vacation in the South.
Cold for several days — bitterly cold and windy on Sun/Mon at Jekyll, chilly Tues/Wed.
Missed the dog!
Surly, lazy staff on Amtrak Northeast Regional for last leg home from DC-Boston Sun/Mon.
Out of blue crabs at The Crab Shack! ?!? (Only chance to eat crabs v. crabcakes)
Missed the Rose Parade because we were driving back to Savannah while it was on
Missed both Patriots final games – on train for first, not shown in our market for second
Didn’t see an oystercatcher and didn’t find a lettered olive shell (though have some from past visits).
To summarize: The dog was happy, no one got sick or injured, T’s foot did fine, trains all on time (miracle!), in touch with family and friends via technology, got some great snaps, ate some fab meals, enjoyed sunsets, marinas, sand aplenty, long walks, and warm breezes. In short, none of my fears came to pass and nothing really harshed our mellow – we had a great time!