Catskills Chronicles: Survival and Thanksgiving

I am thankful my sons and significant other were such sports about sleeping in the motel we stayed at last night. In fact, I dig that they aren’t hysterical folk. Many, if not most, would have backed out shaking their heads and opted for sleeping in the car with the engine on. Anywhere but at this motel in the depressed Catskill town of Livingston Manor, where our family gathers at their peaceful vacation home up in the hills, a home that was – like the turkey –  stuffed to the gills for the quintessential American holiday of Thanksgiving.

Nick, the groundskeeper at the motel, didn’t have many teeth left in his mouth, and his yellow threadbare sweatshirt was full of stains, the kind of smudges and smears that must have accumulated over months of wear without much laundering. A local handy-man, hired to keep the place running while the absent owners are home with their family for Thanksgiving, Nick was expecting us and had worked hard to prepare our two rooms.

Except for Nick’s pickup, our car was the only vehicle parked in the head-in parking spots in front of each bright red motel-room door. Approaching us from room 24, located at the far end of the single one storied row of rooms, the room reserved for him, the one the paper note taped to the office door told us to go to for our room keys, he had a slight limp and shuffled in the wintery slush gathering along the walkway, calling out “hi there!” A small friendly calico cat was already welcoming my boys with cuddles and purrs. The red, white and blue “Grand Opening” banner attached to the motel sign at the top of the driveway made things look promising, and our cousins had heard it was recently renovated, so to myself I thought, how bad could it be? But I already had a premonition of just how bad it might be. Snippets of Stephen King’s The Shining flashed before my eyes, and before the night was over; family members with their morbid sense of humor urged us to leave our dental records before returning to our night’s sleep at the musty motel.

While Nick was telling me about all the new stuff and changes at the newly re-opened motel that had been closed for several years, cars and trucks whizzed by on Highway 17, on the other side of the brook behind the building. I noticed the rolled cigarette propped between the top rim of his ear and the bottom rim of his grey knit hat, while he enthusiastically told me the many things he had ensured were in order for our arrival. The sheets were clean, as were the towels (phew!) and he shared his newly discovered trick of sticking Bounce dryer sheets in the heater vents to deodorize the room. “Some people just turn the bed sheets over, you know” he added, “but the owner checks on me; she comes in and smells the sheets to make sure I’ve washed them just right.” Well then.

Dryer sheet trick and all, when he opened the doors to our rooms and lead the way in, the faint pungent odor of cigarette smoke was impossible to ignore. And while I did notice that the bedding and floor tiles, as well as shower curtains and window curtains seemed of recent date, the ring of grime to remain unnamed in the toilet bowl and remnants of prior tenant’s facial hair (I hope) on the sides of the sink kind of was a kill-joy.

Since one of my boys had to sleep on the couch, we needed extra sheets and blankets. Nick looked bewildered for a moment (was he thinking about how to turn used, unlaundered sheets inside out while I was there, looking on?) but eventually said he had some extras and returned with a stack of what I can only hope were clean sheets and a towel. I stretched out my arms for the pile, including a green, pilly, polyester blanket, and felt it was moist and warm to the touch. After Nick left the room, urging us to let him know if we needed anything else, I lifted the blanket to my nose for a quick whiff, and while hoping for more of the April Fresh Bounce scent, what emanated was more a combo of what I conjured as heat from the dryer after a quick attempt at getting rid of more cigarette smell, and what could only be old cat urine.

Notwithstanding the evident string of complaints, there was something about the Willowemoc Lodge Motel and especially its grounds keeper Nick that made me feel like I wanted to see them succeed at what they were clearly making many efforts at achieving. The fact that we decided to stick it out in stead of bailing, and that Nick appeared earnestly interested in our input and evaluations, his seeming eagerness to improve things warmed our hearts. When I told him I had worked in the business of in-keeping, and suggested that he vacuum the headboards the next time he cleaned the rooms, the next morning, as we were checking out, he made sure to tell me that he had already done it the night before, while we were at our Thanksgiving gathering.

We left tips on the nightstands, for Nick sure was a hard working man. Pulling out of the driveway of what can only go down in our family lore as one memorable hotel experience, I wondered how the owner would take an email from me with compliments of the already completed improvements and suggestions of how to get to a point when guests leaving will say “I’d come back here” rather than what some of our comments sounded like: “I’m just happy we didn’t get killed” or “if people like uncle Marty can survive what he did during the war, we have to simply count our blessings.”

And count we did.

Motel Sign