Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Checking into the Heartburn Hotel

by Susanne "Please No Bedbugs" Dietze

Growing up, my family didn't go on “destination vacations,” unless by "destination" you mean Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Every summer, we’d fold into the sedan and make a cross-country road trip to Tennessee.

In ye olden days before the internet, we’d drive until Dad decided it was time to stop. Mom would pull out the AAA guidebook and figure out what sort of lodging was available in the next town. One thing she always looked for was a place with a pool. My brother and I could swim off our pent-up energy and leave my Dad a full hour to unwind in the hotel room.
Motel SignImage by bobthemtnbiker via Flickr

On our Tennessee-bound trip when I was eleven years old, we checked into a chain hotel in Kansas (not the places depicted in the photos, by the way, which I'm sure are perfectly nice). Even at age eleven, I was something of a motel connoisseur and I remember thinking that this place looked promising. With its brick façade, in-house restaurant and well-appointed lobby, I had a hunch that this motel was the kind that offered freebies, like HBO and cute little shampoo bottles.

I was right about the toiletries. And the HBO. But we had another freebie in our room. Something foul-smelling and elusive. After dinner, I found the source of the stench behind the trash can. I’ll just say that the room’s previous occupants had a pet – a small dog, I’d say – and the poor thing hadn’t felt well.

The pet’s present was the first of several gifts we didn’t want or need. There was a bit of a problem with the faucet. The way the room smelled and, truth be told, felt when we touched things, we weren’t sure anybody had cleaned in there since the Carter Administration. Needless to say, nobody was in a charitable mood by this time. My brother and I got into a bit of trouble for being too silly. So while our parents were occupied with the "dog issue" (as we came to call the incident), my brother suggested we watch TV until we could swim.

Nowadays, many hotel televisions are set to an automatic “home channel” when they’re turned on. The screen serves as a directory to local channels and pay-per view options. But back then, just like my home TV, hotel televisions had no such channel (or in my case, a safeguard). They came on set to whatever channel the room’s previous occupants had watched.

The dog-owners must have been watching HBO. With a pop of light and a crackle of static the television came to life, and behold! Naked people tap dancing. Ok, not totally naked. They were wearing top hats. Before I could say “eww,” my mom hopped up and hit the power switch.

“We’re going to the pool!”

Pool and SkyImage by Patrick Powers via Flickr

At least it smelled better out there. The air was thick with an industrial dose of chlorine. Relying on the skill I’d honed in years of YMCA training, I decided to swim laps. I was probably thinking how cool I looked when I freestyled smack into another kid. (I am that graceful still.) I apologized and dog-paddled --my head completely out of the water, the better to see where I was going -- back to the steps.

Though it seems silly now, swimming into someone almost did me in. The act seemed symbolic of me and my awkward place in the universe. I was just out of a difficult period where I’d switched schools. Now it was time to switch back to the old district for junior high, and I expected to start the coming year as I’d ended the previous one, self-conscious and clueless.

Not that I was a total pessimist, but I figured that being self-conscious and clueless was just the way of the world for me. I was the sort of kid who swam into people and got stuck in embarrassingly gross hotel rooms. At that moment, I loathed Kansas, the hotel, and myself.

I was thinking that the stinky room was preferable to hanging around the pool when someone said hello. I turned. It was the girl I swam into. Big-eyed, dark-haired, and pretty, she wore a red bathing suit. She smiled and invited me to swim with her.

I was impressed by this girl in the red suit – Susan, she said. She was confident. She had a cool Oklahoma accent. She could swim in a straight line.

We messed around in the water for a while, and the sun was setting when one of our moms called us out of the pool.

“Do you like to write letters?” Susan asked me.

Did I like to write letters? Boy howdy, I did. So Susan and I agreed to be pen pals.

I knew better than to get my hopes up. People become pen pals all the time. But I gave Susan the number of my smelly hotel room and she phoned me within the hour to exchange addresses.

I went to sleep that night with all thoughts of the stinky room (and thankfully, the naked dancers on HBO) displaced by a sense of awe at the turn of events. I’m still amazed when I think about meeting Susan because that Kansas hotel, nasty as it was, was used by God as a vehicle to give me an unexpected gem of a gift.

I’m not going to tell you how many years it’s been since I swam into Susan, but we still write to each other. She has been a constant in my life for ages, through the awkward days of junior high; through boyfriends and AP exams; through college roommates, church searches, and frustrating bosses; through joys, losses, and disappointments. We’ve visited in person (though it’s been far too long since we’ve seen one another).

Susan is a gift of God that keeps on blessing me. Over the years, she’s given me encouragement and made me laugh.

But in that Kansas swimming pool, God didn't just give me the gift of a friend. He also used Susan to teach me a valuable lesson, one which I’ve tried to pass on to my own kids. With a smile and a kind word, you can change the course of a person’s day. Maybe even the rest of her life.

Susan’s smile sure changed mine.

Serious Question: Have you ever experienced a kind word or gesture that changed your day?

Not-so-serious Question: Have you ever stayed in a horrible hotel, one where your socks turned black or the neighbors blared the TV?

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  1. Whee, I'm first to comment today! (And it's dark outside, I might add...the things I'll do to pick out the virtual scone of my choice.)

    When I asked in the non-serious question about staying in a hotel where your socks turned black, I was recalling a time we went to Disneyland with our godchildren from back east. That hotel room not only had filthy carpets, but a flaming orange bathtub too.

    I'll be back later...Hope everybody's having a fabulous summer day.

  2. Horrible hotels? Oh yes! On deputation where we travelled for over a year we essentially lived in hotels. It was an experience! Some great, some not so great. But I did learn a lot.

    And I know a kind word has changed my day before. In college I worked at Office Depot and I made up a little game. Let's call it a social experiment. I'd act out certain emotions as I interacted with customers. It was amazing how frequently they came to mirror whatever it was I was projecting. Looking back it's kind of silly, but it did make me realize how much influence we have over one another.

  3. That's such a sweet story, Susie! And it's so true that a kind word, a smile, even just a pleasant attitude, can change someone's whole perception of a place or a situation. A wise friend once told me to smile when you're talking on the phone, because it actually changes the tone of your voice and makes you SOUND happy and cheerful.

    As to hotels... I don't have any icky hotel tales, but I did work as a maid at a mountain hunting lodge and cabins for a couple years. People are really gross, and have absolutely no concept of considering the person coming in to clean up after them!

  4. I told my husband I'm done with horrible hotels. SO he bought an RV. Be careful what you say, things may get expensive.

  5. What memories are coming to recollection! There are two hotel stories that come to mind for me. I remember one hotel where we walked with damp feet over the carpet and then saw muddy (and I'm not exaggerating there) footprints in the bathroom, and another where I was greeted in the shower by what had to be a four inch long cockroach.

    On a serious note, though, it is amazing how kind words can change us - especially unexpected ones. Isn't it interesting, though, how we have to try so hard to remember them when the hurtful ones seem to never leave our consciousness?

    Thanks for the story!

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  7. Lisa, I would imagine that I would've been sick to death of hotels after deputation. I would like not having to clean the bathrooms or wash sheets, but there's not a lot of privacy when you live that way. Wow.

    Your Office Depot experience sounds funny. I'm going to have to try that.

    Niki, I love the idea of smiling when you talk on the phone! Great suggestion. So what was the weirdest thing you encountered when you worked as a maid at the lodge? Or maybe you can't answer that... I think it's true, a lot of people probably trash hotel/motel/lodge rooms because they don't have to clean them up. Boo to that. Let's resolve to leave our rooms in decent condition as a blessing to those who have to clean them.

  8. Since my husband's work usually pays for hotels, I've gotten kind of spoiled. So a while back when we had to stay at a cheap motel with one hard pillow per person and a scratchy bedspread, I made my husband take me to Target to purchase some decent bedding. We were in LA, so it was much cheaper than upgrading, which would have been about an extra $100 a night for four or five nights.

  9. T Anne, my inlaws have an RV! What a great way to travel! And you know the sheets are clean because you washed them yourself. But you're right, they're not cheap. The gas alone will do you in. We've visited my inlaws in some of the RV parks where they have memberships, and it's interesting to see that there's a whole RV culture. Do you guys have a particular place you like to go or do you visit new places?

  10. Hey Karl! Thanks for visiting today. I remember something about you and a giant mosquito in a hotel, too.

    You're right: hurtful words seem to stay carved in my mind, where words of blessing don't stick as well. I will attempt to use more words of kindness and focus on those that others have shared with me. Thanks for coming by today.

  11. Susie - Great post! What a sweet story. I loved it.
    I think it's amazing the change of service I get from a checker at WalMart or waitress at a restaurant just by smiling and/or asking them how they are doing.
    And oh yea, I have gross hotel stories. I refuse to go to one chain ever again b/c of an experience that is not really repeatable! Yea, that gross. Anyway, I always feel safe and clean at a Hampton Inn or a Homewood Suites. I gladly pay more for CLEAN!!! :-) Write on, friend!

  12. What a blessing it is to have good and unexpected things happen!

    We stayed at an interesting motel years ago; I believe my brother in law called it 'the place where shag carpeting went to die'.
    Thanks for sharing:)

  13. Dina, what did you do with your Target sheets after using them in the hotel? I have some awesome sheets from Target -- they're my favorite ones, in fact. They're soft.

    Lori, eww, whatever happened at that hotel, it must have been horrible. I will gladly pay more for clean, too. Though I think my husband would rather pay more for a "free" breakfast.

    Keep smiling at people! I smiled at everyone I saw on errands today. A few looked at me like I was an escaped convict but I kept on smiling!

    "The place where shag carpeting went to die." Still laughing at that, Karen. Snort. Thanks for popping by!

  14. I think I just bought a down comforter and some extra pillows. We fit the comforter in our luggage and my son is using it on his bed.

  15. Remember that as wary as you might be about the sheets, the bedspread is probably much worse!

    I'm really glad you got a pen pal out of the experience, Susie!

    I have had hotel staff come and change the sheets when they were obviously dirty, but my worst hotel experience was one of those 'paper walls' places. Sad to say it was in Niagara Falls NY on a trip with friends. in the next room were two couples who basically argued most of the night and we could hear every word.
    The night clerk came up and warned them they'd have to leave but it dind't stop. It's bad enough to not be able to sleep but I was angry at their thoughtlessness!

  16. Glad you got more use out of your purchases, Dina.

    Deb, that hotel experience sounds awful. When my son was born, we were placed in a private room next to a family who had visitors until 4 am...noisy ones, it was astonishing. We're in the maternity ward! And the nurses wouldn't ask them to keep it down. It almost sounded like they were having a party with alcohol, and the walls were thin...Ugh.

    It's so unfortunate that the night clerk's request was ignored. How exhausting.

  17. I can't even begin to tell you how much I LOVE this story Susie! Here is what I remember about that day. I remember thinking we had SOOO much in common because our names were so close, we were in the same grade, we both had braces, and we both had a sibling and were going to visit relatives!!! Funny how your mind works in 6th grade! Who would have thought that chance meeting at a hotel in Kansas would have turned into a lifelong friendship?!! I am so blessed to have you in my life.
    Susan from Oklahoma (!!)

  18. Susan!! Yay! The lady of the hour! Swimming into you was the best thing I could've done, LOL. You've been such a blessing in my life! Love you!


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