“Putting on the Ritz” nonfiction


I’ve always liked the feel of motel rooms. From the moment I first open the door and sniff for strange odors, wander into the bathroom to see that towels and the sanitary seal are all in place, run through the television channels and test the mattress for support, order pizza and lay back on the bed with my shoes on, I feel insulated from the rest of the world, secure.

For several years I lived in cheap motel rooms. I built powerlines for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and so I followed jobs all along a seven state corridor touched by the Tennessee River and its drainages, but I mainly worked north Mississippi and Alabama, and the entire length of Tennessee, which covered two time zones. TVA paid $110 a week per diem to cover living expenses, which could go pretty far in the mid to late 80s, coupled with an apprentice lineman’s wages and few debts to speak of. Monday through Thursday nights I’d split a cheap room with someone from the crew, and on the weekends I usually drove to the nearest mountains and camped out in the national forest. Many times on Sunday nights I drove to the job show-up and slept in the seat of my pickup and waited for Monday to go to work.

Back in the day, a Motel 6 counted as a nice room, though I’ve also rented rooms where paying by the hour was an option—where hookers lingered in the parking lot and strangers knocked on the door at two a.m. trying to hustle ten dollars with a sad story. There’s an edge to good, cheap motel rooms that I liked. I carried a pistol under the front seat of my truck and kept it in my room at night, not knowing what might wander in off the interstate, and I used to wake frequently during the night to look out the window and make sure no one was breaking into my truck. I’ve spent many hours worrying about the security of my kayaks and canoes and camping equipment.

Early in my second year of marriage, post graduate school and following our move to Denver, my wife Lisa and I flew to Los Angeles for the weekend, a business meeting for her, a vacation for me. “They always hold the meetings in nice hotels,” she warned me. “We can be pampered for two nights and three days.” It was January and I was between semesters of teaching college composition. The Colorado winter was just beginning to sink in, if not wear long. Walking under palm trees along the ocean sounded like a nice change.


The Ritz-Carlton overlooks Marina del Rey and a harbor full of ocean going yachts. The doorman wore a hat like you’d see on a Victorian coach driver and the bell boys eagerly handled our bags. The lobby bustled with Japanese businessmen, Americans wearing pastel sweaters tied around their necks, and svelte European-looking women wearing jewelry that looked to be worth the yearly take-home from all my part-time jobs put together. The wood work was dark and ornate, the brass polished, and after we checked in the staff all seemed to know my name, which made me uneasy.

We couldn’t get into our rooms right away—two NBA teams had spent the night before and didn’t want to leave the luxury of the hotel to spend an afternoon sitting around a locker room. Lisa went to an early meeting and I spent the afternoon reading and napping in a lounge called the “Library Room.” The shelves were furnished with leather-bound books, most of them legal reference. A fireplace took up one wall, and museum quality antiques were displayed under glass cases. A waiter hovered nearby. He asked if I “required service,” and after I told him no he ignored me for the next two hours. I detected a look of distaste on his face when I propped my hiking boots on the coffee table.

By the time the NBA teams checked out and our rooms were ready, we’d been waiting in the Library Room for five hours. I was tired of being pampered, but walking into our room made the wait worthwhile. The bathroom was the size of a Motel 6 bedroom, all tile and glass, and the room itself half the size of my two-bedroom apartment; the television was enclosed in an armoire, just above a fully stocked refrigerator bar. There was a sitting area with an arm chair and ottoman, a writing desk stocked with pens and bond writing paper and copies of Buzz, The Quarterly Review of Wines, and Wine & Dine Gourmet Magazine. In the closet a five pound terry bath robe embossed with the hotel logo hung on a hanger that wasn’t fixed to the rod, and a key-lock safe waited for our valuables. Lisa and I prowled the room like children searching the tree for one last Christmas present. We called to each other to come look at the tins of European body soap, the telephone on the wall beside the toilet, the Ritz-Carlton corkscrew and the FunSaver disposable camera, the notice inside the closet door that listed the daily room rates at $379.

The television carried a special video channel for the Ritz-Carlton that advertised yachts for rent and exclusive clothing and gift stores. You could even conduct dogfights in vintage World War II airplanes–each plane carried three video cameras so you could show your friends the enemy plane captured in your sights.

I ran down the hall with the ice bucket, stopped a maid and asked where the ice machine was. She pointed down the hall and said something in Spanish, but I found the machine anyway. Later, when the bell boy brought our bags up and asked if he could get us some ice or anything else, I smiled and said no and slipped him a five dollar bill as easily as if I had been doing it all my life, barely wincing at the thought that five dollars represented nearly an hour’s work at Barnes and Noble, my first job after graduating with a Ph.D. in Creative Writing.

It was getting dark as Lisa and I settled into the room. I stood on the balcony and watched the giants from the NBA climb onto their chartered bus through my binoculars. There was a high rise condo on the other side of the parking garage and I scanned the glass fronted apartments, picking out the glow of several televisions. In one apartment, a man and a woman sat on bar stools in the kitchen and talked. I didn’t think anything about spying on them. It felt like the LA I’d watched on television for years. It felt like what I was supposed to do. I toyed with the idea of unpacking my suitcase, something I’d never done in a motel before because the stay never felt permanent. But I could see settling in at the Ritz-Carlton, pretending that I belonged there. I felt like I had wandered into a taping of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

When we went to dinner that evening Lisa locked her purse in the safe. She handed me the key to put in my blazer pocket, making a joke of it. “Like we have anything worth stealing,” she said. After dinner she fell asleep and I watched television until midnight. The balcony door was open and the curtains pulled closed. We’d driven to the Denver airport in snow that morning, and the evening air was pleasant, with a light breeze billowing the curtains. We were on the third floor and the street noise from below helped me sleep well that night.

One thought on ““Putting on the Ritz” nonfiction

  1. I love this! I am also fascinated by motels and hotels. Your TVA time sounds kind of heavenly. I was on sabbatical a few years ago and we spend five weeks camping all over the US, staying at Motel 6 (dog-friendly and cheap) maybe every sixth night. Best time of my life.

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