Fuck. A late plane, a surly cab driver and now I can’t get into my goddamn room? Welcome to L.A.
Toni grabbed her bags and lugged them back down the decrepit cement stairs. The wheels of her beat up roller bag stuck on the tar-covered parking lot, still oozing from the heat of the midday sun. The stocky Filipino man behind the chipped laminate counter looked surprised to see her again.
“My keys don’t work.”
“My card keys—neither of them open the door.”
The man took the keys from her and ran them through a card reader, staring hard at the screen in front of him. His face registered nothing. He ran them through a few more times then tossed them into a drawer.
“Sorry Miss. I can’t fix until tomorrow. I let you in with my master key.”
If I killed him now, how long would it take before anyone found the body?
He held the door for Toni as they exited the small, air-conditioned office but made no move to help her with her bags. At the top of the stairs, he opened the door with his pass key and stepped aside.
“You plan to go anywhere tonight Miss?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because you will be lock out unless someone in the office open the door for you.”
“Well then I guess I’m not going out.”
“OK. Goodnight, Miss.”
She stood in the doorway and watched him stump down the stairs and across the parking lot, his velcro loafers sticking to the melted tar. The motel crouched at the edge of a graffiti-covered L.A. street not far from the Staples center. The half-full swimming pool glowed a dingy pink as the sun sank behind a row of sickly palm trees. Sighing, she went inside her temporary home and shut the door behind her.
It was the dirtiest hotel room she’d ever seen. A barren light bulb—one of those dim, eco-green types—feebly lit up finger-width gaps in the floorboards, a scraggy bedspread and scuffed furniture that quietly decayed under a milky white layer of god-knows-what. She turned back toward the door. There was a hole where the deadbolt should be and masking tape covering the peep hole.
“No no no. NO way.”
Dropping her messenger bag on the rickety bedside table, she dug out her cell phone. No service. She dove for the room phone and dialed the 1-800 number of her travel agency. The phone rang three times and then a familiar voice answered.
“Hi. I wasn’t trying to call you, I was trying to call out.”
“The phones don’t work that way Miss. You can get calls in but you can’t make calls out.”
She put the receiver down and started to laugh: a shaky laugh, even to her ears. Gathering her things, she exited, stopping at the office just long enough to cancel her reservation. The man at the desk bid her a perplexed goodbye and moments later she was standing on the twilit corner of 7th Street and Figueroa.
A group of smack-talking teenage boys approached from two blocks down so she started walking. She pulled her cell phone out again, praying it had at least a couple of bars and exhaled heavily when she saw the 4G light up. She dialed her travel agent, who was also her roommate.
“Genova Travel, how may I help you?”
“Gen, you gotta help me. That motel I booked was a nightmare. Cheap, filthy, totally unsafe and now I have no place to stay and it’s getting darker by the minute–”
“Hey, slow up! I told you you should’ve let me book the trip for you.”
“I need help, not a scolding. Can you find me something? Please?”
“Just sayin’. Let’s see…”
The tapping of a keyboard drifted faintly through the phone along with Genova’s breathing and the occasional coffee slurp. Five minutes turning in circles under a street lamp was all Toni could manage before bursting out.
“Impatient as always.”
“You’re not the one standing with all your shit at gangland ground zero!”
“Hey, don’t snap at me! I’m doing you a favor. Anyway, I found a place in downtown called Stay. It looks decent, got good reviews and they have one room open.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Cool. I’ll set it up for you but don’t waste time getting over there. There’s a convention in town and if you wait, they might give your room away.”
“I’m going right now. Thanks, Gen.”
Toni hailed a passing cab and getting into its grungy back seat, breathed a sigh of relief. As dilapidated buildings, panhandlers and meth-head-filled doorways passed by her window, she felt like she’d made a narrow escape. The cab pulled up in front of a classic art deco building hung with a shockingly modern sign. She got out, paid the driver and pushed open the lobby’s heavy glass doors. Like the sign outside, the lobby was unexpectedly modern. Neon orange panels accented shiny white walls and set off blobby, Scandinavian-style furnishings. An orange plastic chandelier hovered like a knobby spacecraft above the sleek, white registration desk.
“Hello. Welcome to Stay,” said the pretty young girl behind the desk.
“Hi. A friend just made my reservation for me. Under the name Toni Mazur.”
“Ah yes, here you are. We have you down for one night in a single room. Is that correct?”
Toni studied the girl as she stared smilingly at the computer screen. She was reassuringly normal. Looking around the bright, spotless lobby the tension in Toni’s shoulders began to dissipate.
“Hey, if I decide to stay more than one night, can I do that?”
“Of course. In fact, most people who stay with us one night find it hard to leave,” she giggled, handing Toni a heavy, old-fashioned key. This is a historic building so we don’t have wi-fi in the rooms, but you can access it in the lobby. Also, breakfast comes with the room and it’s served every morning right through that door,” she said, gesturing to a white door at the top of a flight of narrow stairs. “If there’s anything we can do for you, please let us know. Enjoy your stay.”
Dragging her roller bag behind her, Toni moved to the elevator. The numbers above the door shifted up, then down, then up again. After pausing for a strangely long time, they finally began to descend. A faint “ding” heralded the arrival of the old mechanism and the doors opened to reveal a small lift dominated by a worn leather arm chair. Briefly, Toni considered walking up the stairs, but a second glance at her fourteenth floor room number convinced her it was better to squeeze in next to the lift’s strange occupant. The ride up was mostly uneventful—except for an unscheduled stop at the 4th floor—and Toni was pleased to see the modern style updates applied to the upper floors as well as the lower ones. She opened the door with the old-fashioned key and couldn’t help smiling at the sight of her room.
Like the lobby, it was spotless and featured simple Scandinavian furnishings in white and gray. The minimalism of it calmed her nerves. Putting her bags down, she opened the drapes and looked out at the twinkling lights of L.A.
Amazing how much friendlier it looks from up here.