MARK NUTTER

MOTEL LIFE

Some people think I’m joking when I tell them I grew up in a motel. Other people can’t believe Nutter is my real name. Sometimes these two groups of people intersect, in a Venn diagram of skepticism.

Nutter is my real name. I suppose people think that because I write comedy, I changed my name for comic effect, especially if my name used to be something like Mark Sepsis or Mark Pustule. It’s hard to imagine getting comedy writing work with those names. Apologies if there’s a comedy writing team out there named Sepsis & Pustule. 

And I grew up in a motel. ON a motel? I think IN is correct. Reminds me of George Carlin’s joke about the pre-board announcement: “I’m not getting ON the plane, I’m getting IN the plane.”

After serving in the army in WWII, and then working for the DuPage County Mosquito Abatement District, my father decided he wanted to be his own boss. So he bought an eight-unit motel, located 6 miles east of Joliet, Illinois, in 1956. It was called the Haven Motel. I was two years old.

The motel sat on two acres of land. My father planted a huge vegetable garden and an orchard of fruit trees—peach, cherry, crab apple. The motel boasted a coin-operated soda machine—“pop machine” if you’re a Midwesterner. The machine drew neighborhood kids like a magnet. Magic Fingers were available in every bed. A quarter got you fifteen minutes of soothing vibration.

And don’t worry about the heat. Each room was cooled with “Modern Cross Ventilation.” A window fan blew stale hot air out a window, drawing in fresh hot air in through a window on the opposite wall.

The Haven Motel resembled the Bates Motel from Psycho, only without a scary house and a mummified old lady. We lived right there on the premises, next to Unit #1.

Our motel sat along U.S. Route 6, a two-lane highway connecting California and Massachusetts. Families would stop at the motel, on their drive cross-country on summer vacations. My dad bought a picnic table and put it in his orchard, so our guests could dine alfresco. If guests wanted, we’d give them a bucket of ice. We had no ice machine, so my mother kept a couple ice buckets in our family freezer, in there with the frozen peas and the Dreamsicles. 

I never had a pet. My dad didn’t want a dog bothering the guests. Okay, I had a turtle or two.

Every morning, after the guests checked out, my mother would make up the rooms. For years, she paid an old woman, Hazel, to help her. Occasionally I’d be recruited to help too.

I’d put fresh clean sheets on the bed, then tuck them into the mattress making nice tight hospital corners. 

I’d clean the toilets, then put a paper band on them, assuring guests the toilet had been sanitized for their protection. 

My mother would gather up the small used bars of Dial soap from the bathroom. She grew up during the Great Depression and couldn’t imagine wasting anything. So she’d melt down the little motel soaps and form them into larger bars for our personal use.

It never occurred to me that living in a motel was unusual.

Here’s somethiing else we shared with the Bates Motel: when they built the interstate, business dried up. No more families taking relaxed cross-country drives. Now the families sped along Interstate 80, passing us by. 

In order to make ends meet, my dad was forced to rent rooms at hot sheet rates, for couples enjoying afternoon trysts. It started when I was about ten years old. My mother explained it to me thusly: “They’ve been driving a long time, they’re sleepy, and they want to take a nap.”

Now, in addition to putting “Sanitized for your protection” bands on the toilets, I would gather up half -consumed containers of alcohol and store them in our basement. A half-pint of Old Grand Dad bourbon. Three cans of beer from a six pack of Hamm’s. Like my mother’s conservation of soap, we couldn’t throw the alcohol away. “Save it for Uncle Orville. He likes his beer and whiskey.”

My curiosity about sex was growing, fueled no doubt by the current James Bond-inspired spy craze. I don’t know where I got the idea—television probably— but I’d go into the room next to a unit a couple had just checked into, then try listening at the wall with a glass—after I removed the little wax bag that said Sanitized for Your Protection. My efforts were futile; I heard nothing. They probably heard me, though, clumsily positioning the glass against the wall.

Somehow my dad made a go of it. He was determined. He loved his garden and the orchard. But it wasn’t easy.

Because he owned a motel, he was on the FBI’s mailing list. We would regularly receive flyers of criminals’ descriptions, mug shots, and fingerprints. We got this one after Martin Luther King was assassinated.

My dad was held up at gunpoint. Twice. So he installed heavy-duty bullet proof glass at the check-in desk. 

No surprise, my dad was getting fed up with motel business. There were no fixed rates. He’d charge the guests whatever he felt, depending on whether or not he liked their looks.

A neon sign reading “No vacancy” hung outside the office. If my dad didn’t want to deal with the public, which happened more and more frequently, he’d tell me to turn on the part of the sign that read, “No.”

I’m certain he was relieved when I went off to college. He sold the motel and bought a farmhouse in downstate Illinois. Bigger garden. No FBI flyers. No armed guests.

A couple years ago I thought I’d drive by the motel for a nostalgic look. I’d heard from friends who still lived in the area that the motel hadn’t been maintained well. 

Understatement. 

Nothing. No units, no garden, no orchard. Scorched earth. But there used to be a motel there. That’s where I grew up. Honest.

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