Alone on a business trip, staying in a hotel in Miami, I awoke at 3 in the morning to a strange sensation, and in the dim light coming through the window I perceived the dark shape of a giant cockroach running -- nay, gamboling! -- across the bedspread. So very vile! A totally loathsome bug! It is no exaggeration to say that the creature was the size of one of the flying monkeys from "The Wizard of Oz."
Yelping ensued. And invectives. Extremely unprintable language. I confess, at one point I actually used the word "vermin." I leapt out of bed but could not bear to stand on the floor, or touch anything at all, lest the enormous insect -- With those kinky little legs! That hideous mindless helmet head! Those ostentatiously wriggling antennae! -- come into direct contact with my own personal epidermis. Pumping my legs as though riding a bike, I managed, somehow, to float.
The intruder vanished. Now what? I didn't like the thing when I saw it, and I liked it even less now that it was lurking. Would it stalk me? No -- I would stalk it. We'd see who was boss of Room 112! I began stealthily hunting, probing the recesses of the room, studying the carpet for tracks or spore, always trying to stay downwind.
The hunt gave me an opportunity to appraise the hotel room, which, down to the last detail, was indistinguishable from any other budget hotel room in America. Painting of a sailboat. Lamp with no visible on/off switch. Strangely thin, foamy, almost spongelike blanket of a type never seen outside a hotel room. Theft-resistant clothes hangers, their design a mild insult. Miniature coffee maker, so that rather than buying bad coffee downstairs you can make bad coffee right in the room.
The basics. Nothing unexpected. In America we want our hotel rooms to be unsurprising and colorless. The success of travel is measured by the absence of drama. Stay at the chains, avoid eccentric characters, maintain strict anonymity in all dealings with service personnel, and, when we get home, it'll be as though we never went anywhere.
The cockroach violated all these maxims. Way too authentic.
What American hotel rooms lack in style, they make up for in size. Once, in Houston, I stayed at the Something or Other Suites and had a room that could be described in terms of acreage. To gaze across that carpet was like looking over a fruited plain. The sliding-glass doors leading to the balcony were barely visible in the hazy distance. I realized I should have brought my clubs, practiced the pitching wedge.
My brother lived for six months in a Holiday Inn Express in Colorado. He was perfectly content. Clean sheets, clean towels and the word "Express" on the hotel door saved him from the suffocating pretentiousness of a full-fledged Holiday Inn. His phone rarely rang; he received no mail; and his "neighbors" were kind enough to be gone, forever, before noon the next day. Though he was leading the life of a fugitive, he liked the spare existence. Most of us are bolted down in life, trapped by various mortgages, covenants, contracts, warranties, etc., but my brother knew that at any moment he could simply . . . check out. Steal the little bottle of shampoo, leave a fiver on the pillow for the housekeeper, and go.
All countries have fancy hotels, but America has the best cheap ones -- the motels, the "motor inns." You can walk for blocks in the Left Bank of Paris without finding a single Days Inn or Motel 6. Instead it has lots of hotels that are "two stars," which means the linens date to the age of Napoleon, or "one star," which means that's when they were last laundered. Meanwhile, I've heard that in Japan some business travelers sleep on shelves, or in drawers, like documents being filed away.
By 4 a.m., the thrill of the hunt began to fade as the creature remained invisible. I concluded that it was gone, that it had escaped into a secret lair, perhaps through a passage to another room, or down some stairs into a dungeon where the roaches keep wailing and screaming hotel guests in chains.
In the morning, checking out, I explained to the front desk clerk that I wasn't going to pay, and proceeded to reenact the events of the night. I was only a third of the way through the tale -- demonstrating the part where, armed with a rolled-up New Yorker, I set an ambush for the creature by hiding in the shower -- that he stopped me and said there'd be no charge.
Apparently I had him at the flying monkey.
Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.