A night at the Inn
A banner hangs from the side of the Coliseum Inn office – a crenellated box more than a story shorter than the adjoining rooms promising low daily rates, the lowest weekly rates and free local calls. It is a Tuesday afternoon on a windless summer day, and with the exception of the couple loitering on the walkway, few seem to be taking the innkeepers’ offer. Most of the property footprint is given over to parking lot, which is empty except for a scattering of aged sedans.
I pull my car into one of the diagonal spots near the High Point Road entrance. The motel is built on the backside of a hill that crests near the middle of that road and bottoms out on a backstreet called Westbrook. The Coliseum Inn probably has somewhere between 50 and 75 rooms – not a lot by hotel standards – split between two buildings set on a perpendicular. A taqueria occupies a slip near the office and the basement below the second building is a bar. I’m here to rent a room for the night. Why? Because civic boosters have lately turned their collective attention to the High Point Road corridor, particularly the section between I-40 and the Coliseum, and have drawn crosshairs over this establishment. The Coliseum Inn’s reputation as south Greensboro’s premier den of iniquity is well established – an archive search from the local paper yields a couple of hits on the police blotter. More than a year ago a clerk at the Coliseum Inn was assaulted and robbed, and a year before that a resident turned up dead at the home of a rival drug dealer. Anecdotally, neighbors complain of shoplifting and rowdiness among residents. I suppose I’m here to find the other side, to discover who besides the rowdies and roughnecks makes their home here. So I make my way to the office, crossing paths on the way with an old man carrying a 12-pack of Milwaukee’s Best.
As I see it, there are two types of motels in this world. There are those that cater to travelers on a physical journey – the kinds of identical establishments with pricey phone plans, continental breakfasts and, sometimes, mini-bars. And then there are those for folks on a more existential journey. The domestically challenged often end up at places like the Coliseum Inn before they are sleeping on the street – it is the last station of the cross, housing-wise, before abject homelessness. Homeless people can sometimes collect enough money in a day of panhandling to afford a room when the weather is bad, or when the need to sleep in a proper bed and take a hot shower strikes. Consequently, it is often the first type of housing available to homeless citizens on the mend, those looking for a stop gap between shelters and permanent housing. “It’s a good kind of place for people who don’t have a lot of money,” says a man who declined to give his name. “It’s the kind of place you stay in when you’re saving up for that apartment.” He said he’d been living at the Coliseum Inn off and on for five years. I myself have spent plenty of nights at the former kind of motel; tonight will be my first experience with the latter.
The office is gleaming, uncluttered and charmingly old school. The clerk takes my license and writes out my personal information by hand on a slip he files in a shoebox. On top, the names of those banned from the inn have been neatly penciled on an index card. The clerk checks with housekeeping and turns to select a key from a row of cubbyholes behind him. He sends me to room 261, on the first floor of the second building, right above the bar that used to be Ace’s Basement and is now the Underground. When I get there, the housekeeper is still working. “I told him to give me five more minutes,” he grumbles. “Oh, well I’ve got to get something from my car anyway,” I say. I get back to the room before five minutes have elapsed, and the housekeeper is fixing a framed print to the wall above the bed. “You got a key?” he asks, and then shuffles out the door. My room is… well, it’s a motel room. It’s got green woven carpeting frayed around the edges, a double bed, two sitting chairs faded by sunlight and use, an oval coffee table with a spotless ashtray overturned on it, a four-drawer chest and 18-inch television. There are no instructions for the phone, no guide to the cable channels, no clock – alarm or otherwise – no coffee maker and no fire evacuation plan posted on the back of the door. Every room at the Coliseum Inn has one wall almost entirely devoted to pane windows. You enter the rooms via an interior hallway, half the rooms have windows on the parking lot, the other half face the property surrounding the motel. In my case, that means a view of the back alley and a field where someone has parked a semi trailer. There is a Gideon’s Bible opened to Ecclesiastes, and I wonder whether that was the doing of the housekeeper or a former resident. I unload my arsenal. A coworker had loaned me pepper spray, a truncheon and a black light for the assignment. I drop the first two items on the coffee table and plug the last one into an outlet near the bed. It’s no good. I turn a switch on a panel near the door and eventually find an outlet with enough juice to fire the bulb. The curtains pulled, I shade the light over the bedspread, a yellow polyester number covered with red flowers and blue vines. My amateur forensics turn up only one glowing spot about the size of a button. It’s quiet, except for the muted bombast of a television down the hall. The room smells sweetly musty and an halo of old tobacco smoke hangs over the upholstery. I pull the chain lock and sit on the bed.
I sneak out of my room around dinner time and make my way toward Ah, Chihuahua, the taqueria. It’s empty at around 6:30 except for one man in a Rastafarian cap who is at the counter ordering takeout. I slide into a booth and eye the menu, which includes an assortment of authentic Latin cuisines like lengua and tripa. The place is done up with vaquero accessories like hemp ropes, cast iron skillets, wagon wheels and bovine skulls. On a raised shelf behind the counter sit about a dozen karate trophies. The restaurant is smoke-free. The restaurant appears to be run by three women, none of whom are fluent in English. Soon after I arrive, a man who does not live at the motel drives up in an extended-cab pickup and settles into the booth next to mine. I order a pollo torta, a Mexican-style chicken sandwich. The sizzling from the grill threatens to drown out a Spanish-language news program leading with President Bush’s commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence. The torta arrives – grilled chunks of marinated chicken sandwiched between slices of broad, grilled bread. Condiments include sour cream, guacamole, refried beans, pickled jalapenos, lettuce and tomato. My waitress drops two bottles of salsa onto my table – one green and the other red. While I’m eating, the waitresses scroll through cable channels, past a soccer game pitting Bolivia against Peru to a telenovela. Then, after everyone but me has left, they slide into a booth and unwrap Gansito snack cakes. After I’ve finished my meal – which is delicious, by the way – I head back to my room. “Oh girl, you gonna take my blood pressure?” comes a come-on from the parking lot. “No… um, I’m not really qualified,” I say. “But you will be qualified,” he says. “Well, I’m not a nurse,” I say. “Actually, I’m a reporter. And I was hoping to talk to someone about this place. The Coliseum Inn. Do you live here?” “Noooo. No, I don’t live here. I live out on Randleman. Man, you writing about this place? I believe you might have a story,” he says. “Well, what are you doing here?” I ask. “I’m dropping off my brother,” he says. His brother is holding a bag of McDonald’s, and he’s the one who has been living at the Coliseum Inn for five years. A man and a woman, and two boys named Tory and Dante, have congregated on the sidewalk. “What can I say about this place?” a man says. “It’s a good place.” He laughs, as do all three adults who have assembled on the walkway. “There’s no story here,” the woman insists. Her manner is far from convincing. In fact, I half expect her to spread her arms and start using her body to block the view into her room like a kid caught stealing cake. She says she and her family are here only for the night, and she retreats when I start asking questions. “I hope you can find somebody to talk to you,” she says over her shoulder. Then she ambles back toward her room and I head to the bar, which, at 8 p.m., is closed. I’m beginning to understand that I haven’t sauntered into any old business where I needle the customers at will. I parachuted into a neighborhood, and I haven’t yet earned anyone’s trust.
Things you hear when you are trying to sleep at the Coliseum Inn: Babies, doors, footsteps, the air conditioner, voices, reggaeton, hip hop, television, children, windows, keys, plastic bags, knocking, laughter, shouting, change, snoring, dance music. Unlike my home, where sounds are just as likely to penetrate from outside, the noises at the Coliseum Inn all seem to originate from the motel itself. The two story structure seems almost hermetically sealed, and all the noises within are amplified. The music is, I think, coming from the club underneath me. The doors have been opening and closing all night, and I’m jumpy. It reminds me of the scene from A Touch of Evil when Janet Leigh, ensconced at the Mirador Motel, is bombarded with torturously loud music. The experience drives her past the edge of her sanity. I’m getting there myself. Lying in bed, I’m afraid to make noise, lest anybody know I’m here, and I startle with every squeal of the front door. Motels and hotels loom large in our collective imagination. The Bates Motel in Psycho, also starring Janet Leigh and made just two years after A Touch of Evil, scared a generation of women away from solo traveling in the Southeast (there was a stretch in the late 1950s when Leigh’s cinematic alter egos suffered terrible luck with lodging). Perhaps the most famous horror hotel of all is the Overlook Hotel from Stephen King’s The Shining. In that film the hotel was not just silent witness to violence, but accessory as well. Recently even the motel’s cheery European cousin the hostel has come in for horror schlock treatment. None of this is comforting me as I stretch between the sheets. Outside cars sweep through the alley, and I hear the clink of keys in the door next door, the room where I heard a minor family argument earlier in the day. I slip in and out of consciousness – there’s no clock so I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep or when during the night I wake up. Once I awake to silence, the music has stopped and the only sound is the whir of my window unit. I plumb the silence to determine the hour like a captain sounding the depths from his ship. It must be between four and five in the morning, the sky outside is pitch. I grab a handful of hours of sleep during the night and wake early enough to hear another resident rattle a cart down the hall. It’s six a.m., the sun is peeking over the horizon, and my shower doesn’t work.
Chickadees roost under the awning of building two. The sun is a cinnamon disc hanging over the gray haze of the horizon. A handful of motel residents have started their day, which begins with a trip to the registration office, where they pour drip coffee into small Styrofoam cups. A few residents assemble near the office with their coffee and exchange morning greetings. I’m exploring, circling the structure with my camera, trying to get good shots. I walk up the staircase that leads to an open observation deck on the third level, noticing that all the rooms up here are empty. Stacks of lottery tickets have been torn and tossed like confetti on the stairs. The clerk – a different one from the one who checked me in – spies my camera and asks, “Are you staying here?” “Yes,” I respond. “Which room?” “261,” I say. This seems to satisfy him, and he lets me on my way. Back in my building, it’s quiet. I sit on the stairs and watch the comings and goings, which are minimal. A boy, shirtless and shoeless, runs out the double doors with an empty ice bucket and returns minutes later with ice. He flashes a smile. Later, when I’m leaving, I see him playing at the bottom of the stairs outside the entrance to the building. They lead to a dingy landing and a pair of locked doors. Through the dirty windows, you can see scattered furniture; there is no sign of activity or business. I turn in my key and glance at the walkways. They are completely empty except for the same old man I saw coming in, who is now carrying a black plastic bag.
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