Andrew Moran, Contributing Writer
I had been there before; I knew all about it. The asbestos-laden concrete blocks breaking off the wall, the fetid fountain whose tropical specimens had long since gone the way of all fish, the redneck bar, the scum-topped swimming pool – I learned it all that hellish summer when my family moved from Long Island to Texas after American Airlines (AA) transferred my father. The old house had been sold, the new one was still occupied by the sellers, and so our first August in Texas was to be at the Western Hills Inn, a motor inn in Euless that had long been popular with AA personnel; indeed, in the ’50s and ’60s it had been the jewel of the Mid-Cities. Elvis would stay there. Its bridge-bedecked pool was celebrated, the haunt of bathing beauties; waiters in green tuxedo jackets would take drink orders from guests lounging beside it. The banquet hall hosted the swankiest receptions between the downtown areas of Dallas and Fort Worth. The Vegas-style, Western décor was the height of mid-century motel chic, as was the tiki bar. But by the 1980s, the bar belonged to rednecks throwing punches and throwing up, and the place was literally falling apart.
What to make of a diminished thing?
Go to work for it! I might have become a respectable citizen if I’d gotten an internship in corporate America after my junior year of college. Instead, I worked as an airport shuttle driver and front desk clerk at the Western Hills Inn and was set on a career path of giggling at the bawdy puns in Shakespeare. A summer there was an education in the base and ridiculous; a dive motel was my Yale College and my Harvard. Every morning shift began with a comical conundrum after the first call for an airport pick-up: Which superannuated Ford Econoline van should I drive – the one whose shocks were shot or the one whose A/C was kaput? For the first airport runs a driver could roll down the windows and get by with the latter, but the rest of the time the A/C was necessary, and so one could only hope that none of the passengers were recovering from a spinal injury. By this point, only a few years before the City of Euless had the building condemned, the owner wouldn’t pay for repairs – or for pretty much anything. And so nice families from West Texas or Oklahoma, in town for Six Flags or a Rangers game just down Highway 157 in Arlington, and only aware of the motor inn’s former reputation, would invariably be back at the front desk within five minutes of checking in. Many immediately demanded a refund. The more easily defeated, in the days before hotel.com meant one could quickly find alternate lodging, would sadly ask if something could be done about the sheets … the shower … the toilet … the smell … the roaches. They quickly learned that the swimsuits had been packed in vain.
I liked working there because I could bring a book. It was more a summer for Faulkner and Dostoyevsky than James and Austen. Because of the inn’s odd mix of people – the result of its past glory and subsequent dilapidation – there was no better summer job for the student of human nature. Out of habit and despite the disrepair, AA crews still stayed there. The pilots usually stiffed the drivers, but the stewardesses tipped generously, especially Juanita, a septuagenarian who refused to retire and was good for $2 per bag. In my role as Charon-on-wheels I met all sorts of interesting people at the DFW airport, such as the philosophical Australian backpacker who had quit his job and was now seeing the world. The clientele was surprisingly international, in large part because of our proximity to Bell Helicopter’s training facility on Highway 10. Pilots from Saudi Arabia and Turkey learned firsthand about Western decadence – especially from some of the drifters who took jobs at the motel and lodged there for cheap before they wore out their welcome. There was the good-natured and industrious construction worker who would then go missing while off on a bender. There was another drunkard, a brash Okie, who often seemed on the verge of violence and whose sad-faced wife bore great burdens. I remember one Sunday morning recording his bar tab and realizing that, though his wife was pregnant, he had, the night before, spent a third of his paycheck. For a student too often set on collecting funny anecdotes to share with his friends, it was a reminder that it’s “a world more full of weeping than we can understand” (Yeats).
There were also the kind of riff-raff one would expect at a cheap motel, though their presence was not spoken of until I made the mistake of asking about them. The general manager (GM), a smart and gregarious woman who somehow kept the motel open on a shoestring budget, was also New York Irish, which may be why she treated me with particular warmth. Alas, her friendliness only encouraged my curiosity:
Me (impertinently): What’s the deal with the prostitutes and stoners?
GM (glaring): I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Me (abstractedly): I mean, why don’t they go to the motel down the street? It’s cheaper. It’s not like they’re here for the complimentary airport shuttle.
GM (glaring with the heat of a thousand angry suns): I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Here was the life lesson and professional preparation that a summer job should provide a young man, but I have been too slow a learner: Keep your mouth shut.