Last week I was in Dearborn, Michigan to attend the wedding of one of my best friends. I was glad to be present, but still, I was a bit disappointed that the ceremony was not being held in nearby Detroit, where I hear there's a lot of industrial decline and some really scary neighborhoods. But it was just a flying visit and there was no time to hit the town: I was reduced instead to gazing wistfully from my hotel window at the soot-black smokestacks in the distance, as if they were the towers of some remote city on the hill. As for the hotel, it was a Hyatt Regency. That was rather swanky for my tastes: there was a $5 penalty for cracking open the bottle of water in the room. I was only there for the wedding ? usually I stay in the cheapest places I can find. I can't see the point of spending money on a room I am only going to sleep in. If I'm not going to be conscious, then what's the point of having nice furnishings, etc? But there's more to it than that. The truth is: I love bad hotels.
At first I stayed in them because I didn't have any money, or, as is frequently the case in Russia, because there were no good hotels. I remember fondly my "suite" in the Hotel Tsentralnaya in Izhevsk, where I went in order to interview Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the assault rifle bearing his name. The constant chatter from the wall radio I couldn't turn off, the stink of methane from the sink... that's what travel is all about. By the time I was traveling in Siberia for my second book I could have afforded better. But I wanted to probe further the rottenness. I asked the taxi driver to take me to the worst hotel in town. He was puzzled, but needed the fare. However, the receptionist turned me away.
"You don't want to stay here," she said. "It's filthy and it stinks. There's a better hotel for the same price elsewhere in town."
"Nahh... I think I'll stay here."
"Trust me, you don't want to."
"Look, please don't stay here. I'll even order a taxi for you, to take you to the other place, if you just agree not to stay here."
In the end I agreed. I could tell it was going to cause her pain if I, a foreigner, were to see the state of the rooms she had on offer.
But I do like fleabag hotels. Their walls breathe tragedy, loss, age, decline, good times long gone, male pattern baldness, bad sex, varicose veins, sad holidays, the inevitability of death and aging. Bad hotels remind us of our place in the cosmos. Therefore when I came to America I was delighted to find that the world's biggest economy and only superpower contained many, many fleabag hotels, some considerably worse than what I have seen in Russia.
For a while, the worst hotel I stayed in stateside was in San Antonio. It was located across from a building covered in paintings of eyeballs and a 24 hour tarot reading place. Pieces of pipe and metal stuck out of the walls. There was a hole in the door big enough for a dog to walk through. And in fact, while I was sleeping a dog actually came in and pissed in my mouth. No it didn't. I just made that up. The view from the bathroom window at midnight however, was real, and really bizarre: a clown's face, illuminated by the moon, with a huge and sinister, gaping, grinning maw. I pulled back the frayed lace to see better and realized that I was looking at a sleeping children's fairground. But it wasn't until the morning that I could see clearly enough to realize that the clown was just a garbage can, with a gut full of sweet wrappers and Coke cans. In the night, however, it had been something truly mysterious.
That was nothing compared to Huntsville, Texas. I was taking a British friend to see the five prisons and the museum dedicated to punishment they have there. I didn't want to spend money: it's wrong to live well when you're surrounded by so much human suffering. So we went to the cheapest hotel we could find, a link in a famous chain I shall not name.
The first room was freezing, and there was a steady drip of icy water from an obscene, tumescent bulge in the ceiling. I didn't want to catch pneumonia, so we asked to change. The second room was humid and sweaty, and filled with a thick, acrid stench that clung to the nostrils and throat, as if there was a moist corpse rotting away beneath my bed. I figured I'd get used to it, and was lying on the stained mattress ready to doze off, when my friend saw a cockroach dive-bomb my hair. We got our money back and moved.
Perhaps an American would see this place as a filthy shit-hole and nothing more. But the dark parts of America can be very poetic if you're a foreigner and you've watched too many films. Having grown up on David Lynch, I had a sense of deja vu, as if I had wandered into some dark dream I had already had, long ago. On the other hand scabies mites are very real, and now that I think of it, I have been itching a lot lately.
The worst hotel I ever stayed in, however, was in central Asia. I won't name the country, because I was not really supposed to be there, but let's say for argument's sake that this was in an old soviet settlement called "Oil Factory." Whenever it rained it killed the electricity to the whole town, so if you were driving in darkness you would miss it absolutely. The hotel was a long shed with no locks on the doors, and one dim light bulb. It looked like a terrible murder had taken place in 1974 and no-one had slept there since. My bed was a wooden board, propped up on bricks. The mattress felt like a sack of wet sand. While I was eating my meager supplies a bat flew out from behind the torn- cloth curtain and shat on my sandwich. I found this pretty funny.
Later, however, I gave a radioactive sausage I could not eat to the woman who ran the place. I had bought it at a market, but the thing was just wrong. She was supposed to feed it to her cat. But when I went out to look for her, I caught a glimpse through a door of her and her husband chowing down on that wicked cylinder of bloody decay.
And that wasn't funny at all.