When I told friends I'd be staying at the No-Tel Motel, one of them suggested I bring a black light so I could check the furniture for body fluids. At first, I thought it was a good idea.
But when I saw the place, I decided that I really didn't want to know.
Driving around the neighborhood on a warm October night, I started to feel nervous. I had shown up around 9 p.m., but no one was in the fully-lit office. There was a sign on the door at the 2425 N. Oracle Road hotel that pledged someone's return in an hour.
The hotel seemed dead. One or two cars; no people. I needed to kill time.
The area around North Oracle Road is studded with once-glitzy motels, porn shops, strip joints and warehouses. Turning up West Miracle Mile, I encountered more of the same--buildings with peeling paint and people drinking out of bottles wrapped in paper bags.
Folks have been saying for years that places like the No-Tel, with its "heated wa-wa beds" and free porn, are headed for extinction. Situated between an empty lot and a cookie-cutter Walgreen's, the No-Tel is made up of a dark, lonely parking lot bracketed by two rows of rooms and a dry 8-foot-deep pool.
A man in a minivan pulled up just as I was trying the door to the office for the second time. He waved--which surprised me--and then parked in a carport beside one of the rooms.
Once inside the office, the man stepped behind a flimsy plastic barricade and asked me if I had been waiting long. No, I replied. I looked around as I penciled in my name and address on a small square of white paper.
No guests, a sign read. Great.
"You staying alone?" the man asked after I told him I might be staying for multiple nights. I had left the spot marked "Guest" blank.
The thought of being in this place all by myself made me feel queasy. Just to leave the option open--in case I lost my mind--I told him my "friend" might be staying with me. The man, with what I perceived as a slight look of disapproval, took down my friend's first name, waving a hand in my face as I tried to spell his last name. The first name was sufficient.
I gave the man $40 for one night; he gave me $5 change and a key to room Number 6. I walked to my car and collected my things.
After unlocking the door, I plunked my bag on the double-sized bed. A deep breath followed: The room smelled of cigarette smoke mixed with that universal hotel-motel odor.
It was sparsely furnished with a bed, a rickety chest of drawers and a stained gray metal chair. A grimy air conditioner was attached to the wall, just beneath the window. Mirrors were hung on the ceiling over the bed. Turning on the TV, I witnessed a woman pleasuring herself with a pink dildo.
I then inspected the bathroom. The sink, though old, looked like it worked well enough. The ringed toilet had an early-industrial appearance to it, like it would look natural next to a foot-pedaled dental drill.
The shower was untouchable--despite having a "Sanitary Bath Mat" tossed in front of it. Years of muck had accumulated on the tiles, creating a brown, streaked effect. It looked like a bomb had gone off inside.
I sat on the lumpy bed. On TV, a woman wearing pantyhose moaned as she dry-humped a man with a mullet. Melancholy wafted over me as the air conditioner strained to cool the room.
A few minutes later, I walked outside to get a pad of paper out of the car. After taking three steps, a weathered man riding a bike came to a screeching halt several feet in front of me. Surprised, I took a step back, and my eyes immediately focused on his scraggly salt and pepper beard.
"Hey," he said in a high-pitched voice, looking like he wanted to start a conversation. I didn't want to, so I muttered a greeting and kept walking to my car.
The man dropped the bike and scampered into the room next door to mine. I saw a pair of toes wriggling on the edge of the bed, as the door, which had been slightly ajar when I arrived, slammed shut.
I was heading back to my room, pad in hand, when I noticed movement in my neighbor's window: I saw a pair of eyes watching me. Quickening my pace, I reached my room and locked the door behind me.
Later, I stepped out to get a soda from a new-looking machine next to the empty pool. I heard my neighbor's door open slightly, and a pair of eyes darted after me as I walked across the lot. When I got to the machine, the door shut suddenly. Now my neighbors were watching me from the window again.
Returning to the room, I triple-checked the lock on my door.
Feeling drained and paranoid, I lay on the bed and watched a couple go at it on TV. Eventually, I drifted off.
Day 2WHEN I WOKE UP THE NEXT morning, I had a strong desire to leave. Taking a walk around the No-Tel, I noticed the chain link fence surrounding the pool had big Xs on it. No admittance. Looking down the road from the parking lot entrance, I saw two women crossing the street at the nearby intersection.
One woman wore a clear raincoat and carried a matching parasol. She was trying her hardest to ignore the other woman, who seemed to be babbling incoherently and shaking her head.
Upon closer inspection, I realized the talkative woman had a hole in the side of her face.
Walking back to my room, I felt dirty. Showering at home seemed preferable to cleaning up at the motel, so I packed my things. I decided to leave my motel key and check into another room when I came back, in an effort to escape my freaky neighbors.
Returning two hours later, I strode into the office to find the man sitting in a recliner behind the plastic barricade. I paid for two more nights and told him I didn't have a guest this time. He put me in room Number 5--right next to my old room. The man's minivan was parked just outside my door.
My new place was a lot like the old one, except there was wood paneling on the walls and the ceiling didn't have mirrors. Perhaps the lack of mirrors made this the "single person" room. The bathroom was basically the same--the new shower was unfortunately my old shower's twin.
After a couple hours of flipping through channels and putzing around with my GameBoy Advance, I decided to walk to the Walgreen's next door.
I'm the type of person who usually knows what he wants when he steps into a store; I don't browse much. But today--for some reason--I walked up and down the aisles, looking at nothing in particular. No one was talking to me, but it was a comfort to know that the potential for non-creepy human contact was there.
Eventually, I decided upon some Pez and a newspaper. The cashier made no eye contact as he mechanically rung me up.
I followed a man up the sidewalk toward the No-Tel Motel, as he pushed his walker against the flow of traffic. I was lonely again.
Back in my room, I absent-mindedly glanced over the newspaper. I was going stir-crazy. Checking the time, I remembered a female stripper friend of mine told me to swing by a nearby club for a cocktail in between dances.
After shoving a handful of Pez into my mouth, I locked my stuff in my car. A worldly friend of mine was adamant about the No-Tel locks not working too well. I didn't bother asking her how she knew that.
I immediately felt out of place when I walked into Curves Cabaret, which bills itself as one of Tucson's favorite adult hotspots. Streams of women--of every shape and size--circulated the black-lit room like hawks, picking off men with wads of cash in their hands. There were short, chubby women with large breasts, and tall, wispy women with no cleavage to speak of.
I spotted my friend, who told me she had just made $150 in less than an hour. We chatted for a bit, and then I watched as she went to work on a middle-aged fellow across the room.
I had no idea she was so flexible.
A woman in a neon-yellow thong gently raked my back with her fingernails and asked if I wanted a dance. It struck me how abruptly she turned away when I told her I was OK. Feeling a little flustered--like a goldfish in a tank full of piranhas--I kept telling myself that if someone got too friendly with me, I could bust out with the magic phrase: "I'm gay."
A couple of off-duty strippers sitting next to me asked if I could watch their things while they freshened up. I said sure; I didn't have much of a choice.
"They were all up in my stuff, so I just needed a drink," one of the ladies said about the hordes of hooting men when they returned.
"I know how you feel," I replied, just as a waitress touched my thigh, looked into my eyes and asked if I wanted another beer.
Feeling antsy, I left.
I sat on the patio by the pool for a bit as the sun went down, and then went inside. It seemed quiet.
Day 3EVEN THOUGH THE ROOM was obviously meant to be private--the drapes wouldn't open and there was tape over the peephole--I didn't feel very secure. I kept getting the feeling I was being watched.
Around 3 p.m., a friend of mine dropped by to do lunch at La Fuente, a family-owned restaurant that has been around for more than 40 years. I hadn't been eating regularly since the beginning of my stay, which may have been contributing to my unease.
My friend and I started walking up the street. After crossing Grant Road, we ran into two guys waving orange flags. I asked them what they were doing. A tall, ruddy-cheeked fellow seemed uneasy about speaking to me. The other man, named Fred, however, was eager to talk.
He told me Teen Challenge, a drug-recovery program he was in, was having a car wash up the road. I chatted with him for a bit. Originally from Phoenix, he said he had to get away from his life up there for a few weeks to get clean.
There was something straightforward and hopeful about him that I hadn't seen since the beginning of my stay at the No-Tel. I thought he was young--in his mid-20s at the most. He turned out to be 31. Radiating sunshine, he told me how Teen Challenge was helping him to see his potential and stay focused.
"We're all here for a purpose," he said. "It's about Jesus."
My friend and I said goodbye to Fred and continued walking up the street. We passed three men sitting around a table draped in an American flag.
Nobody was getting a car wash.
A seemingly endless stream of motels followed. Two shirtless old men on bicycles rode by us as downtown loomed in the distance. Eventually, we came to La Fuente, a building that looked like a bunch of brightly-colored cubes nestled between yet another motel and a decaying home. Despite its location, La Fuente is a classy joint--especially inside, which is tastefully decorated with Mexican art and plants. An autographed portrait of a smiling George W. Bush was hung next to the door.
My friend and I arrived during a lull in business. The restaurant was practically deserted, and employees were busy setting up the place for the dinner rush. Despite the warm atmosphere, I didn't feel like talking. I was hungrier than I thought, though.
After eating, we walked back to the No-Tel. My friend left, and I went back to my room. A big cockroach was sitting on my bed when I opened the door. Another one scurried along the ceiling in the bathroom. I don't like cockroaches, so it was hard for me to keep my mind off of them as I reclined on the bed and read a book.
It was busier at the No-Tel than it had been on the previous nights. Doors kept slamming, and I could hear my neighbor's porn blaring through the thin wall. I took a peek outside and noticed a shirtless man standing motionless in the parking lot, staring at the entrance.
I just wanted to go to bed.
Day 4WHEN I AWOKE, I discovered the cockroaches were in full force. I found one hiding in the shower stall. It defied all attempts to kill it.
I started feeling emotional, like my neuroses were taking over my senses. I kept getting a crawling sensation on my skin, and I paced back and forth. To make sure no one was watching me, I checked a hole in the wall that was covered with black masking tape. I kept washing my hands. Touching anything in the room made me feel dirty.
I had to get out. Walking up Oracle, I noticed a man and a woman across the street, zigzagging as they shouted things. I couldn't make out what they were saying over the noise of traffic. I felt like they were yelling at me.
Reluctantly, I went back to the office and paid for one more night. As I paid, I told a friend who had just called me on my cell phone about all the cockroaches I'd encountered. Usually, I wouldn't keep talking on the phone while being helped. Manners were becoming meaningless, however.
My mind swam; words tumbled out of my mouth. I had to stop myself in mid-sentence to focus on what I saying.
"I'm not sure how much more of this I can take," I told her, as I closed the office door behind me. "I feel really depressed. I feel like people are watching me."
"Do you want to get a drink?" she asked.
"No, it would probably just send me on a downward spiral," I replied, walking through the parking lot.
I hung up. Locking the door behind me, I poked around my room. Behind a chair was a small closet. Half expecting a corpse to fall out, I opened the door very slowly and peeked inside. I was getting bent out of shape over nothing.
Next, I looked through the chest of drawers in search of a Bible, a staple item of inns everywhere. Two of the six drawers lacked bottoms. One of those bottomless drawers was apparently home to a cockroach that dropped to the floor and ran under the bed.
No Bible. I'm not a religious person, but I felt like reading it.
I looked at myself in the medicine chest mirror in the bathroom. Splashing cold water on my face, I noticed the dark lines under my eyes. Half asleep, I leaned forward and tapped the mirror with my forehead.
It was then that I realized the medicine chest door opened. Not wanting to touch it, I covered my hand with a plastic bag from Walgreen's and unlatched it.
Its interior was filthy, with bits of singed tissue in front of a gaping hole burned in the wall. Odd. I realized that the hole, at least 1 inch in diameter, led to the medicine chest in the room I stayed in my first night.
Maybe the hole was something innocent. People could have been passing notes between rooms. Or maybe it was for drugs. I instinctively sniffed the air for the scent of bitter almonds--which is what I've heard crystal meth smells like--but detected nothing.
Then again, it could have been some kind of glory hole for the sexually adventurous. Strange visions of men trying to mount the medicine chest filtered through my mind.
Feeling mischievous, I thought about using a pen to push open the door on the other side of the hole. There were now people in the other room, however. I could hear moaning coming from their TV. Pressing my ear against the wall, I decided not to push my luck.
My nerves were frayed, and I just wanted to go home. Clutching my pepper spray, I tried to fall asleep. Instead, I tossed and turned as the hours went by. My skin was crawling. I thought people were at the door. I saw things dash across the wall out of the corner of my eye.
An uneasy, dreamless sleep descended upon me. Around 2 a.m., I woke up. I was sweating. Everything was quiet and my room was dark. I had to get out of there.
Like a whirlwind, I packed my things and loaded up my car. The engine started; the car shifted into gear, and I was gone. A wave of relief rolled over me as I saw the red and yellow No-Tel sign in my rear-view mirror.
I had a sneaking suspicion that the No-Tel Motel had many more secrets hidden away in its crumbling walls. I just didn't want to stay any longer to find out what they were.
If only cockroaches could talk ...