OM151 - Hotel Detectives

The show opens with the song Hotel Detective by They Might Be Giants.

John’s history of hotel upgrades with his band (OM151)

John has stayed at plenty of hotels in hundreds of nights, fewer than 500, but definitely in the hundreds. He likes hotels and over the course of his career as a musician and traveler he increasingly upgraded them. In the early days they often had four guys in a hotel room, two guys per bed, staying in Motel 6s with blood on the walls. It was a banner day for them as a band when each guy got a bed and getting two hotel rooms seemed so extravagant! One guy always slept in the van to protect the gear.

In about 2006 each band member got a room and when that happened, John didn’t think you could get bigger as a band. They never had a bus. U2 gives each band member one room, the same as The Long Winters. Eventually they went from three star hotels to four star hotels and of course you get used to a certain amount of cleanliness: Rooms don’t smell like bleach anymore and there is not a feeling like someone is going to come in in the middle of the night.

Ken’s hotel during Jeopardy (OM151)

The whole time Ken was on Jeopardy he was staying down the street in this cruddy little Notel Motel. The TV company would fly you back if they have to, but most quiz show contestants of all kinds end up paying for their own travel and accommodations. Ken just wanted to stay as close to the studio as he could and this place had a marquee that said ”Color TV and Phones”, which sounded fancy.

John being a regular at the Chateau Marmont (OM151)

When John started to hang out with a higher class of celebrity, which happened probably the day he met Ken, no, 12-13 years ago in about 2006, he started to venture out of his little Indie Rock coral and into a world where people were making things. One of those beloved people was their good friend John Hodgman who at the time was doing the Apple ads for Macintosh. As part of that junket they would fly him to Los Angeles from his home in New York and put him up at the Chateau Marmont, which is a nice hotel, but also a storied one, the one where Jim Morrison hang off the balcony and Led Zeppelin rode their motorcycles into the lobby. It is movie and music industry decadence!

When Hodgman was staying there, he would often invite John to come stay with him at the Chateau to such a degree that John became a regular there, and once you have been a regular at a fancy hotel where they greet you by name when you come in, it is very hard to stay at a Marriott out by the airport again. Of course John wasn’t doing that on the strength of his own fame or wealth, but he was always piggybacking.

Hotels know everything about their guests (OM151)

One thing Ken likes about hotels is the anonymity, the sense that you are in this space where nothing is yours but everything is yours. The illusion is that it is all for you although it is clearly for a mystery paper person. The anonymity is an illusion and Ken was once reading an article where they talked to former hotel employees and managers, asking them what would surprise people who have stayed in hotels that they didn’t know, and the guy’s answer was that hotels know everything about their guests.

You feel like you are just one of an anonymous sea of people, but the staff is so big and they observe your comings and goings, they know who is up to something shady, they know who did something embarrassing in their room or in the lobby, and ever since Ken has read that he has never been quite at peace in a hotel lobby or hotel room, knowing that the building has dozens of employees, all talking about you.

It is like what you dreaded about High School is actually true. The Chateau Marmont doubles down on that because when you check into your room there is stationary with your name imprinted on it, saying ”From the desk of John Roderick at the Chateau Marmont” and it looked like it had been printed for 25 years. They have used some of it for Omnibus recordings.

Using the facilities in a hotel (OM151)

If Ken is with the kids, the kids will go swimming in the pool and he will sometimes follow along. He has never used the gym although he will always pack gym clothes with the best of intentions. He has used the ice machine, but he has never done hotel laundry because it seems expensive. John has had shirts pressed, but never had a suit cleaned. He has had all manner of hijinks happening to him or near him in a hotel, some of them unrepeatable, but a lot of them are just mundane grossness. He doesn’t think any of it is criminal, but just unprintable in a family show like this one.

Mystery fiction, hotel detectives (OM151)

Ken is a fan of hardboiled mystery fiction like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammond. Those stories always feel a little pulpy to John because he fashioned himself as an erudite man of letters who didn’t read any Louis L'amour. He did read Spencer For Hire in High School, but only because his dad bought it. It was long before the TV show and he was surprised and dismayed by the TV show and didn’t like it. Later they also mention the novel The Maltese Falcon.

Ken thinks the literary reputation of these guys is really coming back, like Chandler, Hammond and James M. Cain probably. Hammond actually was a Pinkerton detective and he might have overstated the romance and the bonafides of his career, but he did write from experience when he talked about somebody following a suspect or casing a joint or the way a private detective would interact with the cops.

A stock character that always appears in these works without fail is a hotel detective. You don’t realize how much is said in hotels and how often Sam Spade or The Continental Op or Philip Marlowe or whoever the detective is will run up against the hotel detective. It is usually somebody he knows, like ”Hey, Bill! What is up with the guy in room 108?”

It happens all the time that the detective hero shows up at a hotel and wants to know more about this mysterious guest from out of town and the hotel detective is always happy to spill, which is a weird vibe. Why does a hotel have a detective? What good is he if he knows everything about you and tells every shady character who crosses his path? The advantage of hiring Sam Spade is probably that he knows all the hotel detectives.

This was a different time when traveling was less of a middle class activity and more of a thing relegated to salesmen and a certain kind of elite. Now we don’t have hotel detectives anymore, also called the House Dick, with ”dick” being a shortening of ”detective” or possibly from the Romano or Hindi ”dicko decko” meaning ”to look, to glance”. This is older than using dick as an insult or an anatomical term. The hotels then were not like we think of them now, but there were inns where you would pull over your horse, tie it up and spend the night, or in the old West there were hotels, but they are definitely a post-industrial urban innovation.

Las Vegas hotels still have hotel detectives and a security desk, but they will not have a plain clothes guy loitering in the lobby at all times, which is really a roster of mostly ex-cops who would make their rounds, palming door knobs, meaning checking that every room is locked, banging on doors, like ”You got a girl in there?” This was a full-time job! John wonders if we know for sure that they don’t exist anymore. What about the Waldorf Astoria? Isn’t there someone sitting around in the lobby, watching everyone’s comings and goings?

The main reason it went away is technology, because now there are CCTV system all connected to a single desk with a sleepy middle-aged guy and key cards that let you know who is coming in and out. In the past there were no key cards and no auto-locking doors, but it was a full-time job just to make sure everybody’s door was locked. People would tend to stay longer at an establishment, just because it took so long to get someplace. If you were coming to New York City from the Midwest, it would take you a week to get there, unlike the 1.5 hours it takes today. Hotels would have long-term clients and some people would even live there.

John has always wanted to live in a hotel, although as he gets older he realized that he doesn’t. Ken gets sick of his room in week two and he doesn’t know if he wanted to live there. If you could do the thing you see in movies where you could decorate your suite, maybe that would be different. Ken would miss having all his books.

John ordering room service in an empty room (OM151)

Really early on in the advent of key cards, some time in the mid-to-late 1980s, John and a friend from High School went down to the brand new Sheraton in Anchorage. It had just opened and they hung out in the typical 1980s lobby with a lot of glass and escalators for a while. They started riding the elevators up and down, which passed for fun times in Anchorage in 1985, and eventually they got off on a floor and started walking down the halls. They had never seen key cards and they tried some door knobs until one of the doors opened.

They went inside and shut the door of a room in the brand new Sheraton. A sexy middle-aged woman was in there, welcoming them in, and she had keys to a Corvette, no, it was just the two of them. After a while one of them thought to call for room service. They called down and ordered two personal pan pizzas and two pieces of chocolate cake. The food arrived and they signed for it, waiting the whole time for a hotel detective.

They were almost certain that someone was going to show up because room services was being ordered from a room that wasn’t occupied, there was no luggage in there, it just wasn’t locked, and they ate their dinners, watched cable TV, laid down on the bed and kind of dozed off until 1am. When they woke up they were 100% certain that something bad was going to happen and they high-tailed out of there. Every time John uses a key card he thinks back to that story.

Later on there were proms in that hotel and John might have been to a Cotillion dance there, but he has never stayed there because he has people in Anchorage.

Random bits (OM151)

Ken has never dined and dashed or split a scene. He has dined, so he is halfway there, but he has never dashed. He has dined many a time without dashing, meaning he has done half of the crime, except later he paid in full with a generous tip. He did half of the crime, did he do half of the time?

Unpacking and watching TV in a hotel room (OM151)

A hotel detective observes if a couple will unpack their things because in a married couple she will put everything in the drawers while he will give a generous tip, but an unmarried couple will just be standing there nervously with their hands on the back, staring at the ceiling. Then the detective will go downstairs and tell Sam Spade that this guy might be trouble because he is definitely telling us a story about, he is doing a thing, and he is not a normal or a snork.

When Ken is staying just two days in a hotel he will absolutely not unpack. The suitcase goes on that little suitcase thing or if he is alone it goes on the other side of the King Size bed. Earlier this month Ken was in a hotel in Burbank for almost two full weeks and he immediately unpacked and figured out his whole arrangement, like this is going to be the hamper for dirty laundry, hang up his stuff in the closet, this drawer is for socks and so forth. He did not hang up his oil paintings on the wall, though.

John’s mom loves to unpack and John unpacks his shirts and jackets if he is doing a thing where he is wearing a tie and a jacket. Ken will always hang the hangable stuff, usually in the bathroom, and turn the shower on hot, trying to steam them out a bit. Neither of them are ”Turn on the TV as soon as they come into the hotel room” people like 99% of the country.

If you have two little kids at home you are so happy to not have to hear anything for once. The only time John turns on the TV is when he comes back to the room at 1am and wants to find an episode of Sex in the City and if he can’t find one, the TV goes right off. Ken will turn to the station about the hotel where it has a weird slide show with pictures of the banquet room, which will lull him right to sleep.

John playing the newspaper boy in The Hot I Baltimore (OM151)

In 1980 John was playing the newspaper boy in The Hot I Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, an early-1970s play about the decline of the American railroads and the Downtowns of America. The formerly glamorous hotel Baltimore had fallen on hard times and was full of a ragged cast of colorful characters. John was 12 years old and didn’t have any speaking parts, but he came on stage multiple times.

It was an adult performance as part of the Alaska Repertory Theater and John had previously auditioned for the role of one of the sons in An Enemy of the People (by Henrik Ibsen), but he didn’t get the role and was very disappointed because he was ready to knock the Ibsen out of the park. A little while later he got a call from one of the producers who offered him a role that was not a speaking part, but he would be on stage a lot, sitting in the lobby with his newspapers, filling up the machine, and so on.

The cast were all veteran actors who had headshots and had done time on Broadway and had been in movies. There was nudity in the play: A woman playing a prostitute who was a regular in the hotel and maybe even living there came downstairs in a towel and was yelling at the front desk clerk and at some point she whips off her towel and snaps it at someone.

Ken doesn’t like nudity in the theater. By Anchorage standards in 1980 it was shocking! John could handle a little bit of nudity, he had seen a Playboy magazine. Not for everybody the first time they ever see a breast is on stage in Hot I Baltimore. It conveyed what it was like to live in a formerly grand hotel that had become somewhat seedy. One of the characters was a retired cop and a lot of this quality. Although John wasn’t always Downtown in Baltimore during this period, he felt he had lived it.

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