Behold the Joys of the American Road
Laundromats, Dive Bars and Cockroach Motels to Die For
Being on the road in this country with very little money has led me to some interesting – and sometimes questionable – nocturnal destinations. I’ve stayed in cockroach hotels (self-explanatory), needle motels (three guesses) and, if the budget stretches far enough, perhaps a Best Western Hotel (not so much a hotel, more of a cry for help). The latter is – by comparison – a luxury, but luckily for me I’m right at home in dives.
The dive motel sits loudly by the roadside on the fringes of towns and cities, its neon signs calling you in like a port in the night. Which is exactly what it is. The bedrooms of such places boast carpets that are barely there, a microwave that doesn’t quite work and a remote control fuzzing with dirt. The taps won’t stop dripping, the soap refuses to lather and there’s usually a sign asking you to keep using the slightly stained towel provided for the duration of your stay in order to save water. As for the bedsheets, it is sensible to remain fully clothed between them while saying vinegar prayers to a rarely addressed god before sleeping – which brings me to the maids responsible for the cleaning of the linen. A note to new comedians hitting the road: these no-nonsense women are armed with huge bunches of keys and they’re not afraid to use them, despite the scream of the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and the negotiations/protests that come from behind it. I once made the mistake of laying in bed while blowing giant smoke rings into the air ten minutes past check-out time. Do not surrender – but always be prepared to do battle.
Yes. I’m at home in dives. Don’t ask me why. I think probably because I tend to meet real characters in these places and, as mentioned above, I include the staff in my theory. In Atlanta Georgia, I had to wait fifteen minutes for the lady behind the front desk to slowly eat a tin of sausages right in front of me, eyes glazed over, before she was ready to check me in. In a town on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, close to the border with Mexico, I checked into a place that celebrated once growing the world’s biggest chili pepper in its backyard, by building an twenty-foot-high fibre-glass chili pepper in its frontyard. It was managed by a dour-faced Australian, well into his seventies, and his young Indonesian wife. He’d sit in the lobby, staring at the television set while his wife would bring him coffee and light his cigars. I wonder how these people end up in places like this. It is a question asked not infrequently to myself.
Burgers that sit. Bottoms that wobble. Balls of butter the size of a hernia. Behold the joys of the American diner. Just a stones throw from the dive motel, the roadside diner is a lifeline that offers plenty of respite and a heart attack on a plate. The waitress expects a smile, a happy stomach and a generous tip. She is without fail seduced by an English accent but is slightly disappointed when you don’t fulfill the stereotype of the bumbling lead in a Richard Curtis romcom or the chim-chiminey sweeper in a Julie Andrews musical. Behind her, while she’s deciding which end of the spectrum you fall, the coffee is burning. The waitress in the New York City diner, by contrast, expects you to order quickly, eat, settle the bill then get the hell out of there – caring little for the accent and I don’t blame her. But it is the American roadside diner that keeps the expectations low and the cholesterol high and where life – and probably death – can be found.
It would be wrong to document life on the road in this country without mentioning the phenomenon of the dive bar. I once spent a wide-but-bleary-eyed night in Tucson, Arizona in a place named the Meet Rack (see what they did there?) where the owner was filled with stories of meeting Elvis, Burt Reynolds and – if I remember rightly – Jaws from the James Bond film. Whether they were true or not is neither here nor there – I was glued. The Meet Rack, as any self-respecting dive bar should, takes great care of its out-of-town customers while the regulars shoot pool instead of each other, the music blares from bass-blown speakers and the language begins to slur, helped along by shots of well whisky, cheap beer and old friendships. That Tucson dive bar also boasts a condom machine in the ladies toilets, rigged up to a sound and light system above the bar. If a girl buys a condom, the sirens wail and the lights flash and she returns to the bar to great cheers and applause. Behold the spectacle of the American dive bar.
Lastly, it is imperative to stay clean and tidy. Just because you spend your spare time in dive bars, diners and between the sheets of some the shadiest hotels around doesn’t mean you should let yourself go. Laundromats and dry cleaners must be found and although the staff of those places offer their services, it is faster and cheaper to do it yourself. But there is nothing worse than spending your day figuring out the settings on strange machines in sweltering temperatures on a hangover from hell. Stay focused. Just the other day with a hazy head I’d gone and bought a packet of dishwasher detergent capsules by mistake. Those little bubble things might get the dishes whiter than white but as it happens the few clothes I carry are not made of bone china. You’re looking at a man who’s about to hit the road with a faint essence of Lemon Jif about him.
Published in Gorilla Arthouse, Summer 2017.