Outside Hotel Windows
There’s always a lamp, a chair, a set of drawers. Hotel rooms are a fulfilled checklist, a greatest hits album of accommodations. There’s a fridge, sometimes, and a pseudo-Keurig that I always say I won’t use and then end up using. The telephone I never use. The television I rarely turn on.
Of the items I need, there’s a bed, a power outlet, a desk. And a window.
In David Halberstam’s The Breaks of the Game — a book that claims to be about the championship 1976-77 Portland Trailblazers but is really about about the hardships of the 1979-80 NBA season — life on the road is boiled down to time. Time in hotel rooms — cheap ones, usually, because this was before the NBA became a profitable league, filled with televisions that showed local programming and soap operas, before video games, before the relaxed nature of today’s game bled into the locker rooms. Though the rooms aren’t described in detail, you know them by heart: cold buildings, windowless hallways, a vague smell of chlorine and stale cigarettes, beds too small to support the frame of a professional basketball player.
Sometimes, in smaller towns, or when attempting to save a little bit, I’m in those hotels. Windows carved into the side of a bleak stone facade, utilitarian and held apart by a fading hospitality. Oranges and yellows, bevelled mirrors. Some fake plants to spruce the place up. Everything updated, but about ten years ago. We’re there tonight. As we wind down from a Weird Al show, I see an empty construction site. It was bustling when we got here; I had to pull the kids away with promises of swimming and pizza. Now, it’s quiet. It’s at peace. For a bit.
But inside the rooms, it’s always the same. Lamp. Chair. Drawers. Windows. What’s outside the windows is the only thing that changes.
Like that time I watched the tires of passing cars create late-afternoon shadows on my wall, my room in the basement of a small-town hotel in the Black Hills, as I sat at the desk and prepared a report for the South Dakota Humanities Council.
I spent hours staring over luxury apartments from floor-to-ceiling windows on a high floor in Atlanta. They sprung to life as I dove into some deadlines, and they slowly faded into the night, as did I. The same thing in Detroit, where the Renaissance Center stayed up all night, flashing, dancing, trying proving its worth.
There are endless windows overlooking parking lots. Gillette, Wyoming: layering in snow as our kids grew anxious over what time the pool would close. Hauppague, New York: where I spent Labor Day weekend doing work for a client that never panned out. Chamberlain, South Dakota, where I’d crash after a day of board meetings.
Uncle Hugo’s sat outside one window in midtown Minneapolis. Royal Street sat outside another in New Orleans. The world sits outside the windows. It’s the thing that changes, even when the phones do not.
The right thing to do is always to leave the room, go outside, do something. But when you can’t, you still look. You still put yourself in someone else’s town, seeing the world as you would if you lived here, sometimes pretending a life of luxury, sometimes understanding the real story, seeing what happens when the town stops and the stores close and all that’s left is empty streets and quiet interstate highways.
Landmarks, gone dark as the day turns off. Infrastructure. The building blocks of someone else’s life. Today, it’s just a construction site. But that’s just today.
For that block of land. For me, too.