Every hotel has one. It’s the room that they don’t let out, at least not to anyone they want to see again. Maybe it’s next to the elevator. Maybe it’s next to the 10-story building’s main furnace. Or it has a view of a brick wall six feet away. Or it’s impossible to find at the end of a corridor. It’s the room that gets given to people who the desk staff think won’t complain. Or, as I said, people they don’t expect to see again, ever.
While every hotel has one of these dreadful spaces, you don’t typically find them in inns. Especially not inns that are competing in a market characterized by words like “pampering” or “luxury” or “five-star” or “boutique”. Usually those kind of inns are patronized only by people who can absolutely be expected to complain if something isn’t right – because the clientele are usually paying very handsomely for the privilege of racking up under that particular roof. And the Gold Standard for such inns is the Repeat Guest…preferably, the sort of guest that leaves reviews on TripAdvisor saying things like “We come here every year” and “I wouldn’t stay anywhere else.”
Roy and I – both of us having plenty of personal experience with the concept of “roughing it” – him, in terms of sleeping in Greek caves or being awakened by getting sprayed with a fire hose in the Athens city parks back in his Salad Days, me, in terms of occupying an endless series of difficult-to-erect tents in places where the flora is hostile and prone to attack, and the fauna is as well, occasionally with life-threatening consequences, and doing it inclement weather – scorching hot, pouring rain, oppressive humidity, and high winds at nearly arctic temperatures, and sometimes all of these within a given eight-hour period, because such is the lot of anyone who goes camping in Texas. Now I have the income of a Professional, and so does Roy, and the kids are out of college, and we have some disposable income…and no taste at all for “roughing it” or anything like.
We like to go away, and when we go away, we like to be treated very well. Comfortable beds, overstuffed armchairs, gas fireplaces, large bathtubs with bottomless hot water, fine dining, and hot chocolate, cider, or tea laid on with fresh baked goods at 3:30pm. We have extremely discriminating tastes, and we like to Stimulate the Local Economy through payments to innkeepers, waitstaff, and housekeeping tips. It’s a win-win.
Within this love of Going Away, we have our little habits. One of which is the Great Anniversary Getaway. We were married shortly before Halloween, and celebrate that occasion every year by Getting Away From It All, typically to some place best characterized as “high-end rustic Vermont Country Inn”. “Rustic” in this sense indicates to the availability of a wood-burning fireplace somewhere on the premises, and easy access to vast tracts of scenic hiking terrain. The last several years, our Great Anniversary Getaway has been fraught with…excitement. Who can forget the Thrills and Chills of paying Over-the-river-and-through-the-woods in the post-Hurricane Irene landscape of southern Vermont during the Great Halloween Blizzard of ’11? Or the Electrifying Adventures of the Hurricane Sandy blackout? The tumult of recent history has given us two great take-aways: 1. Always park the car behind the house when we leave, not on the street; and 2. Avoid scheduling trips that involve air travel around Halloween.
This year, as a direct consequence of the pandemonium of prior years, we elected to change up our game plan, to forego the Rustic Vermont Country Inn, to forego the charms of foreign parts, and to stick close-ish to home and do a City Vacation instead. Every year on our way up to the Great Annual Maine Summer Vacation Week we pass through Portland, a town with every evidence of charm, culture, and significant amenities. Every year we say “we should come visit here sometime!” And this, children, is the year we chose to do this.
Now Roy, I may have said before, is very much a Creature of Habit. He even puts the cat to shame in terms of his firm commitment to Tradition. So it bears mentioning at the outset that he was not, shall we say, completely on board with the decision to abandon the overstuffed armchair dozing in front of the fire, and particularly, he was not on board with bailing out on the jacuzzi tubs one often finds in the High End Rustic Vermont Country Inn. However, he agreed that our recent luck with these destinations was sufficiently poor that we could try something else, which is how I wound up looking to book a room in the city center of Portland, Maine.
To my utter surprise, this task proved far more challenging than expected. The first four places on my list were booked to the eaves for the weekend in question. The fifth place – having earned that position by the…somewhat…varied…reviews provided by the TripAdvisor Faithful, was not quite full. And that, friends, is how we settled on Room Six.
This is Room Five. Not the room we booked, but I feel that it’s useful to provide it as a reference point.
It looks nice enough. Lovely large bed, apparently soft, plenty of pillows, good lighting, large bathroom, carpeted floor. All-in-all, a solid contender. But, alas, not available for the entire weekend.
This is Room Six.
Now, as a Seasoned Consumer of Internet Marketing Practices on the part of a massive array of inns coast-to-coast, this picture left me with some questions. The first among which was “How big is that bed?” Without more in the way of floor space it wasn’t possible to know. “Roy,” I said. “Before you book that room, call the inn and find out if that’s a queen bed, or a double. If it’s a double, we don’t want the room.”
Togetherness with Roy is one of the great joys of my life, but as we’ve learned in our decade of relationship, a double bed is just a little too much togetherness.
He duly called, discovered it’s a queen, and we booked in.
Things started to get a little sketchy early in the week before the trip, when I had to check the website to get the directions, etc. That’s when I realized that the room description indicated that the private bath had a shower. In Inn-Speak, this means it only has a shower, no tub. Uh-oh. “Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.”
One of Roy’s favorite things about Getting Away From It All is the availability of large tubs with plenty of hot water. We only have one tub in our house, and it’s more of an apartment-sized tub, spacious only to someone the size of a six-year-old child. And our water heater is oversized, but doesn’t quite satisfy Roy’s desire to immerse himself completely in water hot enough to cook a lobster, even if the tub was large enough to immerse more than the upper or lower half of an adult body, which it’s not. I knew he was going to be devastated by the lack of a tub.
And I was right. I just didn’t know how right.
Friday afternoon of the weekend in question found us pulling up to an small historic building in a charming and slightly funky section of the Portland city center. Oddly enough, however, there was no designated street parking zone for people checking in. This really is odd – most of these places are very careful to ensure that their clientele have some place to stow the car where it won’t draw the attention of the Meter Maid or of Wandering Thieves. Usually, it’s marked “15 minute parking for guests of…” or “reserved for check-in” or some such. This one, however, featured no such amenity – not even after we circled the block searching for one. Eventually, we left the car in a COMMERCIAL LOADING ZONE, STRICTLY ENFORCED spot. Roy, as a native of New York City, is far more comfortable with every variety of illegal parking activity, including some I had never even heard of before driving in the City with him. Double-parking is probably my favorite version of this, especially the one were the driver whips in next to someone parked curb-side, sets the Hazard lights going, and say “Stay here in case the police come by.” before getting out of the vehicle.
So we left the car illegally parked and went to meet our innkeeper and check in to the room. The second question we were asked – after “Your name?” was “Is there anything you don’t eat, so we know for breakfast?”
I should say here that this inn advertises itself as offering a “five-star” dining experience for breakfast. I’m not much of a breakfast person, but Roy certainly is, and it’s always interesting to see what these innkeepers come up with. “Oh, yes,” I said. “He doesn’t eat anything made of pigs, and I don’t eat anything made with sodium nitrite, so we usually solve the issue by going vegetarian for breakfast.”
Now, this isn’t exactly a controversial stance. I’d say that the vegetarian breakfast has a fine, healthy, active multitude of adherents, nationwide.
And yet, the innkeepers face fell. “Oh, I was going to make a bacon quiche.” “Nope,” I said, “We definitely can’t eat that.”
There was one of those awkward little conversational pauses, where someone should have spoken but didn’t, and the other party to the conversation is waiting politely for the response that doesn’t come.
“Ah.” the innkeeper finally said. “Well, is it OK if you have a yogurt, or some oatmeal?” Now, there was no serious question about this being something cooked like Steel-Cut Oats. I knew instantly that we were talking about a paper packet of instant oats. And a plastic cup of yogurt.
Hardly what I’d regard as “five-star” dining. Because I don’t go for breakfast much, it’s pretty easy to impress me. A fresh omelet with a good handful of melted cheese and sliced button mushrooms is Serious Breakfast to my thinking. Top it off with a spoonful of Hollandaise sauce or a remoulade, and a side of crispy home fries, and I’m in my own personal “five-star” land. I’m much more selective about dinner. But breakfast? Easy peasy.
But a cup of yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal?
I don’t think so.
There was another one of those awkward silences, this one made more…interesting…than the last by the Rising Tide of steam coming from Our Roy. I doubt the innkeeper was aware of it, but this is my mate, and we have a Spiritual Bond, and I am extraordinarily attuned to his emotional state. I could feel something Switch On.
Something I should say about Roy before we go any further is that he is extremely, one might even say, excessively, even-tempered. He’s the single most optimistic person I know. He’s regarded as a Precious Ray of Sunshine, Lighting Up The Darkest Moments with Happiness, even when that happiness has had to be prized out of the deepest, darkest recess of his nasal passages. One of his favorite things to tell me, when we discuss our relationship, is that he’d be happy to be hanging out with me even in the Bus Station of Secaucus, New Jersey. I’ve never been to Secaucus, New Jersey, but I have spent time in plenty of Bus Stations, as has he. And I assume that – as a native New Yorker – his choice of the Secaucus, New Jersey Bus Terminal is not a random one, and that this Bus Station stands as a metaphor for the Very Pits of Hell.
But he was already cranky at having to give up the fireplace in the room, and his prized Tradition, and the jacuzzi tub, and being offered a yogurt and a packet of instant oatmeal – even though this is what he would eat at home – was starting to slather icing on the cake of his discontent.
I peeled my lips away from my teeth in something that could have been mistaken for a smile. “Or,” the innkeeper suddenly said, “I could make another quiche. One without bacon. How would that be?” “That would be fine,” I said quickly before Roy could Weigh In. He can be a little bit of a Loose Cannon when he gets going.
She reminded us our room had a “private entrance” (that was in the description, yes) and suggested we walk out the front door and around the corner, where she’d meet us to show us where to go. While she walked through the house. I thought that was…odd. Usually, the innkeeper just takes you directly to the room. But who were we to say no? We went out, walked around the corner, and met her on the sidewalk. She let us in through a wooden fence to a door, and pulled it open. We then got our first glimpse of Room Six.
It reminded me of the staging portion of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World, the one were everyone goes into a little room with portraits, and the lights drop, and then so does the floor – exposing previously unseen and very creepy portions of those portraits. The charming young woman with the parasol turns out to be dancing on a tightrope over snapping alligators. That part of the ride.
So in that vein, we were greeted by Room Six:
Whereupon the eye slid inexorably upward to see the undisclosed features of the room:
There’s nothing I like to see more, in an room in an upscale inn, than lots of exposed plumbing. And artistic and no doubt Highly Historic cracks in the ceiling plaster.
I should take a moment and comment that this inn is in a building that is about 160 years old. I, myself, live in a house that is 120 years old. I understand old buildings, and I understand historical plaster. Possibly better than most. But what I understand about Historic Plaster is this: you repair it when it cracks. You don’t just leave the cracks and say, “Oh, it’s old!” You fix it.
I can’t really comment on the exposed plumbing. I just don’t have words for it.
I turned around, in awe, regarding the absolutely minisculity of the room – no wonder they didn’t capture the corner of the bed, they couldn’t get far enough away. The innkeeper (or rather, Deputy Innkeeper) was explaining about how it’s an old building, and so sometimes you have to wiggle the door a bit to get it to lock.
This is what I saw. The door, at this point, was as closed as it could get…without throwing the full weight of a grown adult against it and flipping the lock at the same time. This required the reflexes of Jack Burton.
I said, weakly, “Super.”
In the meantime, Roy’s attention had been riveted by the vision of the side window:
From a distance of eight feet away – even with my own head whirling in astonishment – I felt his blood pressure start to hit the Red Zone.
The innkeeper, I think, must have noticed something, because she said “Let me give you the tour of the house!” And, continuing in a chirpy tone, informed up about how next spring, the owner of the inn was closing this room permanently and going to gut it and join it up with the room overhead, and pointed out the angled roof line where a walled-in stair case disrupted the tiny back of our room. More on that in a minute, though. At this point, she showed up the other door into the room, and said “You can get to the rest of the inn this way!” And led us up a short flight of stairs that terminated…in the kitchen.
“Ah,” I thought. “That explains the ‘private entrance’. We’re racking up in a converted coal cellar. How…charming.”
We finally parted ways with the innkeeper, who was exhibiting increasing anxiety – and for good reason. This room should never have been rented at all. She was embarrassed of it, and rightly so. They ought to be embarrassed. Roy and I reconnoitered back in the room. His face was nearly purple with Suppressed Emotion.
“OK.” I said. “Speak. I know you want to.”
“This room is a disgrace,” he hissed. “Look at that. That window is broken. BROKEN! A BROKEN WINDOW! I can’t believe this place.”
“And,” he continued hissing, caught in the throes of powerful feeling, “Can you believe she was going to give us YOGURT? FOR BREAKFAST? She wasn’t even going to offer to make another quiche. What kind of place is this?”
It felt just like Brad and Janet, coming to grips with the old Frankenstein Place.
I encouraged Roy to process his feelings, since I knew quite well there was no other room in this inn, and no room available at the nearby inns either. I discovered later that there was some kind of whiz-bang food-and-wine festival going on in town which answered, I think, for the paucity of available rooms. Finally I suggested that Roy take a spin through the ‘hood while I unpacked the bags and settled us in. He set off in a huff.
I took a closer look at the room, which appeared to have been furnished out of someone’s grandmother’s garage. The chest of drawers would have done good service in an attic, somewhere, or maybe on the curb of a residential street with a placard reading “FREE” in magic marker taped to the front. The nightstand…well, a picture is worth a thousand words:
The image quality from my cell phone cam is lousy, so I’ll explain. That is a perfectly hideous oblong end-table with drop leaves. It’s a good 2 1/2 feet deep, which puts the near corner in perfect position to ram into the knee of anyone getting out of bed in the middle of the night. Also, it’s hideous. The other nightstand isn’t any better, but – more importantly – doesn’t match this one. The room looks like it was furnished out of a yard sale. Probably was.
The process of unpacking facilitated further exploration. Roy’s laptop surfaced, as did his power cord, so I began the inevitable search for an outlet. And the outlets were, surprisingly, easy to find…and not a single one of them was grounded. Two prong, all the way. I finally discovered a desk under the walled-up stairway, and the alcove featured a proper grounded outlet…halfway up the wall. A drawer in the bureau had revealed a power strip, not a typical accessory for a room in this kind of inn. Given the general atmosphere of…neglect…that characterized the room, I made the instant assumption that the only reason the innkeepers were providing a surge protector was because it was necessary and that some other poor guest had discovered this the hard way, and ensured that the experience had come home to roost on the innkeepers. Here’s the very charming and quaint arrangement that is necessary to get power to the computer:
Isn’t that nice? Just what I’m used to from an expensive hotel.
And yet, the Stirring Discoveries had not yet attained their peak. Or their nadir, as is more properly the case.
Because I realized in short order that the computer desk alcove, here:
Is actually the bathroom vanity. Yes. One-stop-shopping for your personal electronics and your toothbrushes.
Because this is the bathroom. I will keep the commentary to a minimum on this, because, largely, words fail me.
After this little tour, I had to pause to Collect Myself. I could not rid my mind of the unbidden vision of Roy’s countenance when he should discover this development. Doubtless as a function of his upbringing in cramped New York City domiciles – of which this room reminded more more and more with every passing minute, to the point where I wouldn’t have been surprised to see evidence of some kind of vermin – Roy has a passion for Sanitary Facilities. The more they resemble a Greek Temple to the Goddess Hygenia, the better. He wants the big sink. He wants a throne worthy of the name. He wants to spread out and consume space while he shaves his chin and laves his body. He wants a shower large enough to perform Downward Dog comfortably – or, better yet – Triangle or Warrior II. He wants capacious, spotless, thick and luxurious towels. He wants perfumed unguents of every type. He wants too light to shave by. He also wants total, complete, cone-of-silence privacy while he uses all of the facilities.
Instead, he was going to get this:
That thing that looks like a hanging string is a chain that you pull to turn on the light. How charmingly primitive. And that’s the door to the rest of the inn in the background. And, no, these walls don’t actually go to the ceiling. It’s not a bathroom. It’s a stall.
Just about then, Roy returned from his wanderings. I am sorry to say that he was Much Reconciled to the situation. Sorry, primarily, because I was well aware that nothing but an uninterrupted stream of Highly Unpleasant Surprises awaited him.
“Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.”
Fortunately, his discovery that the bathroom afforded zero privacy were delayed until the following morning, which at least spread out the dreadfulness over an extended time period. In the meantime, though, I discovered that the showerhead was leaking continuously. Plink, plink the water went on the plastic floor of the shower booth. Plink. I attempted a fix. Plink, plink, plink it relentlessly continued. “Roy,” I said. “Be sure to keep the bathroom door closed.” Otherwise, I knew, we’d both rise in the morning, ready for the straight jackets. Nothing makes a person go certifiably insane faster than having to listen to a dripping faucet all night long.
We headed off for dinner, only to return to additional unpleasant surprises. But wait! There’s more? Yes. The overhead light was on. The room was boiling hot. I discovered that the heat was served by a steam radiator, and there was no thermostat anywhere to be seen in the suite. I feel that I must call it a “suite” in light of the separate computer/bathroom vanity alcove. And the rest of the…amenities. No thermostat. I began to open windows. finding that the main window had storm windows installed, and was not currently possible to open. My attention turned to the window with the broken pane. “For god’s sake, don’t touch that window,” Roy said. “You might sever an artery.” I ignored him, my desire not to sleep in a sweltering room overcoming my concerns about broken class. This window, thankfully, was not insulated by a storm window, and I got it open without breaking the glass all the way out of the frame.
I feel the need to raise the question. Why put storm windows up over only half of the windows in the room? In ordinary circumstances, the mind would boggle. However, I found, my mind has a finite capacity to boggle, and had passed that threshold some time around the moment I discovered the thigh-polishing qualities of the toilet booth. I was just grateful to get some fresh air.
Next, I turned my attention to the overhead light. I looked for the switch.
I did not find one.
I mounted a Full Red Alert Search for the switch, even considering the possibility that it might be located outside the room.
I considered the possibility of having to sleep in this room with an overhead light glaring all night, and began to lose my temper. “This place is a f*****g pit” I said. Then I took a closer look at the light fixture.
It registered on me that there was another chain dangling down. “Ah ha!” I thought. More of the same primitive action as with the bathroom light. I pulled the chain.
It started the fan.
I cursed and looked more carefully. There was another chain, one approximately 4 inches long, dangling against the light fixture on the other side. “Roy,” I said. “I have some bad news.” When Roy discovered that he was going to have to climb up on the bed to access the “off” switch for the light he started using language that I did not know he had in his vocabulary.
At least the mattress was reasonably comfortable.
First thing in the morning, Roy always rolls out of bed and right into the shower. Plink. Plink. Plink. He emerged from the bathroom. “I can’t get hot water.” he said. “Just wait. Hopefully, it just takes a while for the water to get here.” There was a pause, and then I joined him in the bathroom. “I have a problem,” he said, from the shower booth. I looked. We did, in fact, have a problem. There was a minor Plumbing Issue with the showerhead that was causing it to shoot a small but high pressure stream directly out of the side of the shower booth, with enough velocity that it was going directly into the closet where our clothes were hung.
I have never had a problem, before, with my clothing getting wet from the shower while it was hanging in the closet. I did not know such things were possible.
I hung a towel over the metal framework at the top of the shower and started laughing. I told Roy we’d passed the Threshold of Absurdity, and that all we could do was laugh. Later, I heard him request that the innkeeper turn down the heat in our room and do something about the dripping showerhead. She promised to turn it down and see to the shower. Then he began to renegotiate our room rate with the innkeeper’s assistant, something I have certainly never seen him do before. He was partially successful – I feel that a reasonable rate for this room, all things considered, would be about $25 per night. He got them to drop it to $120 per night. It’s still Highway Robbery, but I did promise him that I would not reveal the name of this Prize Gem in any writings I had to offer on the subject, accordingly. I am pretty sure he wants to reserve that pleasure for himself when he gets home and logs on to TripAdvisor. My aunt and uncle were once innkeepers, so I know how hard these people work, but this one? They’ve brought it on themselves. This room should not ever have been rented out.
At present, I must just ask myself: What other Delightful Surprises are lying just around the corner for us?
And Roy answers me: the heat in the room is now completely off. Evidently there are two settings for the radiator: Burn in Hell, or Freeze. “For God’s sake, Roy,” I said, “Don’t get them to do anything else. I can’t stand the suspense.”