Bob Shealy, steely eyed and gap-toothed, checked into the Suburban Motor Court in Fairfax two years ago. Checkout time, the 65-year-old man figures, will be the day he dies.
"I'll tell you something," Shealy wheezes, tipping his frayed baseball cap.
"I've lived with millionaries, but this is better. Nobody asks you how much money you got, how much property you got or how much you're worht."
Frank Brown, Shealy's 34-year-old unemployed neighbor at the paint-chipped Rte. 1 motel, agrees. "I don't want a house. I don't want an apartment. This is what I want. I dig it. No kids, no noise and a color TV."
Double-digit inflation, a tight housing market and hard times have left many in the Washington suburbs hard-pressed to find shelter. Unable to afford a down payment for a home, or even a modest security deposit for an apartment, a growing number of suburbanites have been forced into alternative living quarters: motels.
For them, home is where the hot plate is.
"I wouldn't want to do it," says Harry Mensh, owner of the Suburban Motor Court who charges $80 to $140 a week for rooms and efficiencies. Last year, Mensh had one or two permanent residents at the 47-unit motel. This year, he estimates that 50 guests have stayed for more than a month at a time. Currently, he has nearly a dozen permanent residents. "I wonder myself why they live here," he says.
Motel managers say their permanent residents are most likely single, unsettled and slightly outside the mainstream of suburban society. Says Jim Tew, owner of the Rainbow Motor Lodge in Rockville, "You've got to be a little different to want to live in a motel permanently."
Although the rooms aren't cheap -- the cost averages nearly $400 a month -- motel dwellers have the advantage of not having to pay security deposit or sign a lease. Many also prefer paying their rent by the week rather than the month.
"Motels are the last resort," says Carla Pittman, supervisor of the Rte. 1 office of the Fairfax County Social Services department. "With the economy the way it is, more and more people are resorting to this situation. We're also seeing an increase in families [living in motels] as well as more deinstitutionalized people."
In the past, she says, these people could have afforded an apartment. "It's really depressing. I think motels have become the county's halfway houses."
Pittman recalls finding 17 people crammed into one Fairfax motel room recently. "They were from West Virginia. They come up hoping to get jobs, hoping to find a place to live. But there was no place for them to go."
The living conditions in some motels, says Pittman, "are appalling. It's a very poor life situation."
Inside the neon-lit motels on the suburban strips, the rooms look much the same: oranges and dull greens, inexpensive shag carpeting, throw rugs on linoleum, laminated table tops and the constant blue flicker of televisions tuned to game shows or soap operas. In the small, musty-smelling lobbies or outside the numbered doors are vending machines selling canned baked beans or Raviolios.
"It's the pits," said Rick Dodd, a 24-year-old carpenter who checked into the Holly Hill Motor Lodge on Lee Highway six months ago. Dodd pays $80 a week for a bedroom, bath and TV. "I don't see much difference living here than living in the inner city," he says. "A motel is a place to turn when you have no place else to turn. It's either that or the streets."
Dodd says there are three reasons people live in motels: "Either they can't get a lease for an apartment, they have bad credit or their jobs are transient."
Dodd says that he likes being able to "pick up and go" when the time is right. "It's an easy life," he says, twirling his dark mustache. "There's only one bill to pay and you don't have to haul around a lot of furniture."
The worst part, he feels, is not having a home. "I always say when I leave work that I'm going home," he says. "But this isn't really home. I guess there are a certain number of people living in motels who feel they're losers."
Puttman says some of the motel dwellers she deals with are on public assistance. Others work as taxi drivers, construction workers, waiters or busboys. Some are Vietnamese refugees waiting for new lives to begin; some are waiting to die.
Still others may choose to live in a motel to retreat from the outside world. Motels in general have a notorious reputation -- deserved or not -- for tolerating just about anything.
"Some people to it to avoid harassment from bill collectors," says one desk clerk."There's prostitution and drug abuse," says Pittman. "Some are running from the law."
"Everything happens in a motel," says Harry Mensh. While not condoning illegal activities, the owner says. "When they close that door what they do is their own business. You know what 'motel' is spelled backward? It's 'let'om.'"
Down the road, at the Keystone Motel, 44-year-old Floyd Melvin Kelly says he's lived there "longer than anyone else. I've been here two years and I like it." Kelly points to the side of his head and tell a visitor there's a steel plate inside. Pulling out a faded identification card, he alternately introduces himself as the shah of Iran and "Mr. Guam."
Kazume DeGeus, a 47-year-old Japanese woman, has lived at the motel with her husband for the last four months, paying $440 a month for a room with a kitchenette. "I like the safety here," she says. "You don't have to worry about your house being broken into."
One elderly gentlemen checked into the Virginia Lodge Motel on Rte. 1 in Alexandria eight years ago and has no plans to check out. "I come and go as I please," he says. "I park right outside my door and in heavy snow, I don't have to shovel the sidewalk."
Assistant manager June DeWoody said she wonders why he lives at the motel. "I asked him once why he stayed here so long," she recalls. "He told me he didn't like to take out the trash."