“Please don’t use the towels to clean luggage, shoes or cars,” the sign on the medicine cabinet in the Gadsden Hotel bathroom reads. This ancient grand dame of a place reminds me of the hotel in Pittsburg where we stayed on long car trips when I was a child; “fire trap,” my mother would mutter, hardly deigning to place herself on the cretonne-covered bed, her feet in high-heeled shoes never coming in contact with the scrofulous rug.
Now that motels rule the interstate with their room rates from $29 dollars a night to $58; the Gadsden hardly stands a chance. In its ornate lobby, marble pillars support a ceiling of stained glass; a few undaunted individuals are cleaning up the decorations—fake ivy and silver garlands—left after a presentation for a supplement called something like Xanadu. From the number of chairs set out, they expected a crowd, but the elevator operator ( the old Otis elevator has no door and so must be operated by a employee) says no one came. Loud music blared when we dragged ourselves in but has now been put out, and the remnant of presenters is scurrying to the parking lot (security from 10 pm till 4 am, the hotel clerk assures us), clicking open locks.
Like Pittsburg in the 50’s, Douglas is deserted by ten PM, barely the rustle of a passing car, and where is there to go, anyway? Streetlights stand tall above the old three story buildings, empty now, that wall the wide street. The movie theatre has been closed for years; when I was spending the night in Pittsburg, its equivalent was showing a black-and-white horror movie. The spectacle of cabbages turning into monsters so terrified me that I hid under the seat, fingers in my ears, repeating, “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie.”
The setting remains unchanged, in southern Arizona as well as in the Midwest in towns the interstates bypassed fifty years ago. We are so far from both interstate and airport now that the night has an intense quietness I’d nearly forgotten. It’s eery, unsettling, as though the help I usually take for granted—911, firetrucks, Triple A—has vanished from the face of the earth. Is car travel actually more dangerous, not only in terms of fatalities but because the car removes us from what seem to be reliable sources of help?
To be continued...
Sallie Bingham is a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.