ideas make manifestos
The Great American Road
You work with me not someone else
Words and photography by Sarah Feeney for Monopod print magazine
A 4-minute read
A road trip back to the 1960s and 70s.
I spent a lot of my summer in Long Beach, California, endlessly photographing the glorious "City Centre Motel".
It was the kind of motel you’d expect to find in a not-ending-well pulp fiction paperback, or a film about being on the run, on a road trip, or some other tale from the Great American Road circa. 1960 onwards.
At this time in fiction, these motels would have advertised “Cash is King —in advance— No cheques!” and would probably have boasted a bath in every room and/or a color TV, or later, a Fax Service.
Check-in would have accepted unmarked dollars with a disinterested attitude, all-around lapse, and disrespect for morals and/or legal, bureaucratic requirements such as valid identification.
Out front would have been a 1961 Chrysler New Yorker Station (a bit wonky but cool details), soon to be replaced by a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville, and in the mid-60s, any of the Buicks or Impalas.
Those working there are stuck between both the margins of society and the major freeway. The sports and soap operas would have screamed away in the room around back, the pre- a/c fan would have been useless, and the buzz from the neon motel sign so persistent it drove them doolally.
Stoic maids would have gotten used to discovering the bed unslept due to the place having briefly been used as a convenient, private location for some quick clandestine activity or transaction; the occupant is long gone, having legged it during the night after being hunted down by someone’s husband, the person owed money or the Terminator, or another visitor from the future.
For a stay in the City Center Motel, the wearing of Snakeskin boots or jacket, a la Nicholas Cage in Wild at Heart, would have been mandatory, as was the consumption of cheap liquor swigged straight out of a quart bottle. Preferably whilst still behind the wheel.
Smoking in the No-Smoking rooms was standard; if there were even a No-Smoking room at all, there would have been no natural daylight once inside, the curtains are always drawn, and no one has swum in the pool since 1955.
By the 1970s, the Overdose Motels' whereabouts would have been well known to the Vice Squad, drug dealers (and takers), Columbo, Dirty Harry, and the local fire department.
Their destination as a viable, cheap layover while conducting legit business would probably still have been popular though. The businessman or, indeed, salesman (back then, it would most certainly have been a man) would have frequented a cheap motel when in need of a much-deserved, always-be-closing celebratory Martini or commissary Whiskey after a long and lonely trip around North America with a trunk-full of vacuum cleaners, lost dreams or window cleaning equipment.
By the 1970s, the car out front would have changed. I want to paint the picture with a period correct Studebaker as this was the car owned by probably the most iconic of American salesmen: Willy Loman; the death in Death of a Salesman took place in his Studebaker, but the Studebakers of the 1970s don’t feel right. So instead, let’s go with imagining our salesman in a battered 1966 Studebaker Lark instead; he’s still driving the last one off of the production line well into the 1970s.
He would have swung it into the convenient parking spot outside the door, hopped into the welcoming steamy shower, hopped into the convenient dive bar next door, hopped into bed, and then hopped straight back out onto the road the following morning.
We suspect there would have been the odd secretary or old love involved somewhere; roadside call phones leave no trace and tell no tales. All he’d need was a Quarter and no sense of regret or guilt while organising his night of illicit, middle-aged (and slightly past-it) passion between the (polyester) sheets and Vacuum accessories.
It’s a somewhat dark but charismatic nostalgia that clings around America’s motels. To those outside the US, this is their main appeal; they’re a part of America’s cultural heritage, the sort that goes hand-in-hand with some of its best crime and road novels.
Sadly, many are being torn down or neglected; if they’re not considered to be of architectural worth, they have very little value, not worthy of a preservation order. I hear that a few have been renovated into a more gentrified, overly-stylised, overly-expensive version of their former gloriously grubby glory.
To be fair, most of the damage has already been done. Many had 1990s refits that saw pretty much everything torn out and replaced by chintz, except the bathrooms, which still well-performed their original function, so there was no need. Some motels still have glorious shower and bathroom hardware that looks straight out of the jet age or as though someone nicked the taillights off of a 1963 Ford Thunderbird and reworked them as taps and shower heads.
To end my summer in the US —and to complete the Hotel, Motel theme, I spent the night in the newly renovated TWA Hotel at JFK. A modern hotel—and why not—that still has its feet firmly planted in 1962.
The main building was originally built as a terminal, with the hotel wings added later during the renovation. Being conveniently located right at the heart of the airport, the hotel now marks the beginning, or indeed the end, of a road trip across the states and, as such, seemed a fitting place to spend my last night. As though reading my mind, and conveniently for this piece, there’s a Lincoln Continental parked right out front.
I didn’t get a chance to stay in a Holiday Inn, so it’s on the list for next time. As is the wearing of a Snakeskin jacket whilst driving around in a Studebaker with a trunk full of Vacuum cleaners.
As featured in Monopod magazine
Writing and photography by Sarah Feeney
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