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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Me and Motels

Never ask me advice on where to spend the night. You’re liable to end up with an ‘E’ ticket ride to hell and back, and I’ll be minus a friend.

I drove cross country to California in 1974 with $500 in my pocket and everything I owned on the backseat of Phyllis’ 1970 Chevy Camaro, my Honda 305 Dream in tow. Without even the prospect of a job the first place I landed was on Highland Ave. in Hollywood, about 2 blocks from the Hollywood Bowl. My rent was $21.50 a week.

It was clean and quiet -- but came with a couple of perks that gave me the willies. After dropping the Camaro off with Phyllis’ brother out in Encino, I parked my Honda around back, spitting distance from a little whorehouse. The hookers were cross dressing Hawaiians, as ugly as sin, and when they smiled at me I opted out pronto for the next zip code. They would stand in front of the apartment building during the day, hitchhiking for love.

They must have had some kind of alure, because every Saturday night there’d be Mercedes and Porsches and Beemers parked back there. Sunday morning they would wash their wigs and hang them to dry on the clothesline out back.

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “It just hasn’t gotten weird enough for me yet.” A couple of months later it most definitely got weird enough for me. Gainfully employed with Phyllis and her mom living at her brother’s home, we would get together on Friday evening for a night out in Westwood. She came down to pick me up. As she was walking up to the front door she tripped over something. Before she could fall a police officer grabbed her arm and pulled her aside.

“Ma’am, did you see what you just tripped over?” Phyllis looked down to see a naked man with a rather large knife sticking straight up out of his back. Apparently two gay lovers had a spat and one used the knife to end the argument, pushing him out of the second-floor window to the sidewalk below. At Phyllis’ urging, I relocated that week.

In the mid 90’s I shifted gears and worked away from home for nearly 20 years. I had morphed from a photographer into a software architect in the late 80’s but there was little work in the Coachella Valley where I lived; so I had to hit the road to pay the bills -- and most assuredly the road hit back, sometimes with a vengeance. First stop was Orange County, where there was plenty of work for many years. I found that about 30% of my income was evaporating for living-away-from-home expenses, so I had to choose my places of residences wisely – and cheaply.

I didn’t want to be more than a fifteen-minute drive from work. The Key Inn (Tustin, Ca.) fit the bill perfectly. Tucked neatly at the intersection of the 55 and the 405 with a Denny’s at walking distance for breakfast, it suited my needs perfectly. At $49 per night it was quite the bargain, but required some ‘upgrades’ by me, to improve its livability.

My primary complaint was the adjoining rooms sprinkled throughout the facility. Invariably the person in the room next to me was a heavy smoker and all of his cigarette smoke got sucked between the door and the room like it was supposed to be there all along. Stuffing a wet towel at the bottom of the door helped some, but I was still choking on the stuff and needed to find a more permanent solution.

I started working with my hands when I was 16. Over the years I became quite adept with all mechanical devices: cars, home appliances, wood working, plumbing, etc. so the solution to my second-hand smoke problem became obvious. Every Sunday evening when I headed down the 91 to the motel, I’d pack a tube of clear caulking. When I got to the room, even before unpacking, I’d grab my caulking gun and seal the opening between the door and the wall. Since the caulk was clear, it was not even remotely noticeable. Then I’d soak a towel in the shower and stuff it under the door jamb. Problem solved.

There were problems I couldn’t solve. I woke up one night to a low-pitched hum, turned on the lamp next to the bed and looked down. The floor was moving. A minute or two later when my eyes focused, I saw zillions of bugs moving in one direction, and it was not the direction I wanted. I called the front desk. A portly security guard with a wry sense of humor came to the room. “Yep, bugs.” Was all he said. They changed my room and I made it out alive that night.

Others in the motel were not so fortunate. More dead bodies, yellow police tape, domestic disputes that turned violent. While they were not every week occurrences at the Key Inn, they were still jarring when they happened, and the addition of bullet-proof glass around the check-in desk did not inspire confidence. I graduated to being on a first name basis with the responding officers. I couldn’t move, no way. I had befriended a Vietnamese waiter at the Denny’s next door and looked forward to our morning talks over oatmeal and an English muffin.

A couple of years later I had relocated to Canoga Park for a job in Calabasas. I was staying at a motel on Ventura Blvd. near the 101 freeway – direct shot to work, idyllic community, high School across the street, Denny’s nearby. Very peaceful, until one Sunday afternoon as I was watching television I noticed a sheriff’s deputy in full riot gear toting a 12 gauge run past my window. Then another, and another. A SWAT team had descended on the motel. I knew enough not to go outside and say “Hey bro, what’s happening?” I leapt behind my bed and flattened out on the floor. “Incoming rounds (of ammunition) have the right of way” I’ve heard it said.

Soon there was an urgent pounding on the door. As I opened it one of the SWAT team grabbed me and led me to safety. Two bank robbers had holed up in the room next to me, with a hostage -- and a firefight was in progress. It took 3 hours for the police to apprehend the robbers – no one was hurt. I sat it out at the Denny’s with the other temporary motel residents, drinking free Iced Tea. When I returned to my room, an officer came in to look for bullet holes.

Couldn’t leave that motel either, it had a fridge and microwave! Next week, same room, I hear a loud thud outside. I go to investigate and find the semi-motionless body of a young woman on the ground in the parking lot. I call 911. Seems as if she and her boyfriend had a spat and he launched her off the balcony. Fortunately, her injuries were not serious. A female officer came to intervene, and we talked briefly. She wouldn’t press charges, so the officer’s hands were tied. As the officer left, I looked up. Sitting outside the closed door of the motel room was the young lady in question, waiting for her boyfriend to calm down and let her in again.

Oh yeah, one last thought. As I was lying on the motel room floor waiting to be rescued by SWAT I phoned my wife. She was at the movies with my daughter and couldn’t talk. Click. That weekend when I recounted the story to hear her reaction I told her: “Next time I phone you, please take the call. It may be the last time you ever talk to me.” We all had a good laugh.

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