From December 6, 2012 until April 27, 2013, I was living in the beautiful Pompano Beach condo that belongs to my partner Jim and me. Jim needs to work two more years before his retirement, so our cat Riggs lives with Jim in our Colorado house, while our dog Dudley and I spend the fall and winter in the Florida condo. I’ve been retired for nine years, so I’d rather keel over from heart failure playing tennis, bowling, or swimming, than from shoveling snow. Because shipping pets can be dangerous or, at best, traumatic for them, I’ve opted to drive the 2200 miles to and from the condo for the dog’s comfort and my peace of mind. It’s about our trip back to Colorado this past week that I’d like to write today.
I’ve never been a good traveler, probably because I don’t “transition” well or very quickly from one location to another, even though I’ve been to Europe several times. Though I enjoy occasional change and adventure, there is also something to be said for that feeling of being anchored and secure (however illusory the sensation) in just one or two places. In a world that is changing ever faster, the emotional comfort of having a safeguard or mainstay location is gratifying. I’d have made a completely unsatisfactory nomad.
After closing up the condo and leaving a set of keys with a trusted neighbor, Duds and I began the first part of our journey on the southern portion of the Florida Turnpike at around seven that morning of April 27. The first part of the drive was quiet and uneventful, maybe because it was an early Saturday morning, so I was happy with the minimal traffic, even though there were signs from time to time warning drivers of possible delays due to “Spring break” travel.
Duds and I stopped at the Claremont motel in Valdosta, Georgia late that afternoon. The room was comfortable, and there was a good restaurant next door. Drifting off to sleep after watching Rachel Maddow, one of my favorite commentators on MSNBC, I was able to rest until just after two in the morning, when I heard someone pounding on the door two rooms down the hall. The pounding was accompanied by the voice of a man saying loudly, “Aw, come on, baby. Open the door. I’m real sorry, sweetie.” Hoping that the woman would open the door to let the man in some time before dawn, I waited as his pleas degenerated over the next ten minutes to screaming epithets, like, “stupid bitch” and “dirty whore,” along with the insistent percussion of his fists punching and his feet kicking the woman’s door. I heard a door open, but it was that of another room, from which a man’s voice yelled, “Hey, keep it down, moron! We’re trying to get some sleep here!” At that point, there was some welcome silence either from the woman letting in the maniac, or from his simply having given up and gone away. I couldn’t tell which, but it didn’t matter. Things were quiet again, and I was able to fall asleep fairly soon. After breakfast, Duds and I checked out, continuing our drive to Antioch, Tennessee, where we checked into a motel called The Knights Inn.
I should have been more aware of what I was in for, when I saw the “lobby” of the inn. The receptionist was behind what was undoubtedly bullet-proof glass. The shabbiness of the carpet, furniture, and art prints brought visions of Irskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, about Georgia tenant farmers during The Great Depression. However, any fear I experienced about possible danger was diminished by my fatigue and hunger, so that I paid for the one night stay, along with the ten-dollar pet fee and took Duds and the luggage to room 202, right next to the caretaker’s room, which had as its window curtain what appeared to be a huge and badly stained tee-shirt from some era long gone. On walking along the second floor catwalk, I saw a discarded wash cloth, a large hair pic comb, and some empty beer cans. Again, exhaustion softened the harsh reality of these giant clues.
Inserting the key card, I opened the door to see the room, and the bed which was nailed to the floor. The smell of the space was that of unmistakable mildew as my eyes were drawn to the upper walls around the room, which at first appeared to have a border of floral design, but which was actually the pattern of mold or mildew recently painted over in order to hide the fact. My only thought was that we could be gone by early morning before any mold could burst through the paint in time to harm us in any way. There was a TV, but there was no coffee maker or shampoo. In the shower was a bar of soap that Barbie and Ken would consider too small, and a bath towel that at home I would probably use to dry dishes. The shower knob had to be turned very carefully to get water, as the knob kept falling off. The general dinginess of the place made me think briefly that it could be a hot property for any producer doing a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. This was really the Bates Motel.
I gave Duds his dinner and a dental chew stick to keep him occupied while I dined at the Mexican restaurant next door, which turned out to be a great place to have dinner on a colorful veranda in the shade. I needed the extra margarita to face going back to that dreadful room, but by then, I was too tired to be concerned about anything less than a level five tornado or an army of angry red fire ants.
After I took Dudley for a short walk, I noticed three cars in the parking lot that had trunks and hoods that had been pried open. The scalloped edges spoke of midnight crowbar invasions. Two hoods were wired shut, and one was closed by duct tape. Suddenly, by contrast, my Honda Accord looked like a Rolls Royce, but I had a brief vision of tape and wire holding it together on the remainder of the trip home in the event of a nocturnal vandal or thief. Even all this wasn’t enough to keep me from falling asleep almost immediately after I went to bed.
Just after three in the morning I was awakened from a dream about delicious cheese tostadas by loud voices in the parking lot below my window. Pulling the curtains aside slightly, so as not to be seen, I saw an enormous black woman wearing a muumuu the size of a camping tent, arguing with another black woman with a gigantic Afro unlike any others I had seen since the early 1970’s. Though I couldn’t make out much of what the two were screaming at each other, I did recognize the old standard insults of “Bitch!” and “Cunt!” yelled at ear-shattering volumes, followed by physical punches, hair-pulling, and kicking. The large woman, named Maggie, took off one of her flip-flops and began beating the one named Shaquita over the head with it. They were only a few feet from my car, which was a greater concern to me than Shaquita’s head, which was protected by enough frizzed hair to fill a mattress, and could most likely not be penetrated anyway by a heavy shovel, let alone a rubber flip-flop. Then a burly man, even larger than Maggie, entered the fray, trying to calm the two women, who turned on him together, hurling labels, like “Mutha Fucka.” After ten minutes of what became a real brawl, a police car arrived, siren blaring and red lights flashing, followed by the two women being hauled away, while the burly man waved goodbye, laughing his way back to his room. By that time, I was wide awake. I mean, after watching people trying to kill each other in a parking lot outside your room, it’s a bit tough to get back to sleep.
For breakfast the next morning, I had a couple of Kashi Pumpkin Spice energy bars with some cold coffee I had left over in a thermos. All I wanted was to escape! Duds and I made a quick exit, never to return. I threw my key card through the little slot of the bullet-proof glass enclosure around the frightened looking clerk before Duds and I were off to Kentucky, through which we drove pretty much without interest or incident. Southern Illinois was filled with lovely scenery, which I didn’t know even existed there. My only mistake was pulling into MacDonalds for lunch and choosing a Quarter Pounder, which I will be digesting until Mothers Day. The drive that day ended in Missouri at a Ramada Inn which was, by contrast with the Knights Inn, the Taj Mahal. I spent a relatively luxurious night there, sleeping well, and feeling much renewed by morning. I wondered why the previous place had been named Knights Inn. The only reason I came up with was that the renowned Knights of the Round Table in King Arthur’s court had to prove their bravery through tests of endurance during activities, like duels and jousting. Staying at that motel would certainly have earned any Sir Lancelot a place of honor with other knights, who had shown extraordinary courage. In the end, though, were I attempting to demonstrate daring or boldness enough to become a member of the Round Table, I would probably choose jousting or fighting dragons over staying at the Knights’ Inn.
Tuesday, April 29th was the fourth day. Duds and I drove through Kansas, which seems to be, at least along Interstate 70 West, one huge fossil with a few twigs growing out of it (not actual living trees). Having heard the blizzard warnings for the plains and Colorado coming Wednesday, I chose to keep driving the extra four hours to arrive home early Tuesday evening. It’s a good thing I did. There was indeed a blizzard Wednesday, but my car was already parked safely in the garage by then. Now I’m expecting e-mails from all my friends, who know how much I hate driving. The notes will all be pretty much the same message: “Congratulations, John, for not being killed on your trip home.” JB