Take My Room, Please

By Pam Janis
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 18, 2005

Either Lemony Snicket is my travel agent, or I did something terrible in a past life. How else to explain my recent series of unfortunate hotel events?

It's not that hospitality isn't what it used to be; that's what my father said in 1968. He checked us out of an unpleasant roadside motel in New England after one noisy night, then forever after silenced his four children with the words, "Shut up or I'll take you back to Slumberland."

So if hospitality generally is no worse than it ever was, then it has to be karma that draws me to dens of malfunction next to the nests of couples who took the words "Get a room" literally. Maybe I was the hotelier who told Mary and Joseph, "No room at the inn." Perhaps I made off with a terry-cloth toga from some taberna in ancient Rome.

All I know is, misfortune awaits me in hotel rooms the way chilled Cristal awaits rap stars in resort suites. Me, I'm just an occasional business traveler who goes wherever a client wants me, evidently with the baggage of centuries packed into a carry-on.

According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, there are more than 4.4 million hotel guest rooms in the United States. So why, when I get there, wanting nothing more than a hot bath, do I draw the disabled-accessible room with the roll-in shower? (My karma really beats the odds on that one; the Americans with Disabilities Act mandates that properties with 51 to 100 rooms have at least one such room; larger properties have proportionally more, but it's still Powerball for the hapless any way you call it. Of course, if I needed a roll-in shower, no doubt none would be available.) If 73 percent of U.S. hotel guest rooms are nonsmoking, what statistical matrix determines that the moment I present myself for check-in, they will all be gone for the night?

I'm a good person; I've never stolen anything from a hotel room, I strictly observe the environmental towel signals, and I even leave the complimentary shampoo and conditioner where I find them unless I actually use them. I stop short of feeling guilty about leaving the bed unmade, but other than that I'd be proud to have me as a guest. The fact that my bed at home is invariably unmade when I rush to an airport is beside the point: I've never knowingly abused the nation's hospitality system. In this life.

And yet:

In Maine, I had the smallest hotel room I've ever seen in this country; it was perilously close in dimension to a room I'd once had in Florence -- but without the Duomo a biscotti's throw away. The bed was crammed into an alcove with no room for a night table. The TV hung over the bed from the ceiling like one in a hospital room. The remote was broken; I had to stand on the bed to work the TV. The sink was in the room. The stall shower and toilet were on a raised platform separated from the room by a plastic folding screen, just steps from the bed. The experience left my heart aching for veal calves everywhere.

In Norfolk, I took not one but two long walks with heavy bags down interminable corridors to rooms that were already occupied. I'm sure the unsuspecting patrons never dreamed that I opened their electronically locked doors to scan their belongings on the bed, including jewelry and a computer. Thank goodness they weren't actually there when I broke in. The third try was the charm, and I got to read the chain's Service Pledge posted in the elevators one more time on my way to yet another disabled-accessible room with a door too heavy for a disabled person to open. Even if I needed a wheelchair, it's still a good bet that there would be no bell person on duty to carry my bags.

In Park Ridge, Ill., the stench of a previous guest's body odor rendered the bedspread so noxious that the hotel comped my room.

In New York, I encountered a broken, stuck-out deadbolt that prevented the door from actually closing. Having checked in at 1 a.m., I was a little surprised when I went back downstairs for a new room and the clerk -- I swear to God -- told me there'd be one available shortly. Sure enough, a couple soon left, passing me as I sat bleary-eyed in the small lobby. The clerk buzzed a housekeeper, and by 2 a.m. I had a clean room with a door that locked. But, ewwwwww.

Near Pittsburgh, clogged plumbing actually sent me scurrying to a smoking room.

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