When Avi and Vasanti came to visit us in California, I told him I was working as front desk clerk at a local motel. It must have hit him hard! He nearly fell off his chair. He regained his balance and composure when I followed with, “You know I always wanted to study music in a formal way. This is my last chance.”
We had known each other for ages, since our college days. Avi always wore a serene look, like a sage in meditation, whenever I told him about my flights of fancy. He asked, in his usual gentle voice “When are your classes over for the semester?”
The day I finished my classes at the University, there was a message on my phone. “Listen,” Avi said, his voice rising “I have bought a motel. You are the General Manager. You are also our partner.”
Since the call was from Avi, I really did not have a choice. I packed off my Casio Privia piano ahead of myself on Fed Ex and took a flight on American to New Jersey.
Avi drove me to my new assignment. Quaint little towns from the colonial era dotted the landscape. They could film a re-make of ‘Gone With The Wind’ in any of these little towns, I said to myself. Somewhere in a forgotten corner, where the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia come together, we stopped in front of a picturesque motel. This is the ‘real’ country, I gathered.
When I was a student of Architecture at Texas Tech University, my design professor, Walter Calvert told me that a few years earlier, a young man, Henry John Deutschendorf had occupied the cubicle that was now mine. Between drawing plans, elevations and perspectives on the drawing board, the young man played the guitar and sang.
With Calvert’s support, Henry John Deutschendorf gave up his drawing board and slide rule and adopted the guitar as his way of life. He ‘left on a jet plane’ for Nashville, changed his name to John Denver, ….. and became a music legend of his era .
John Denver had sung, '….. Almost Heaven, West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River; Country Roads, Take Me Home …..'. The mist over the very same mountains John Denver sang of now charmed me while I sipped my first coffee. The same babbling brook sang to me through the day and night. I had come full circle.
The job was a no-brainer. In fact, as a manager, there was very little to do. As part of my orientation to the area I went around to the local businesses to introduce myself as the new manager of the Quality Inn. Sadly, I was not received very well. Even when I bought a very expensive bottle of Port at the liquor store down the street, the cashier, Linda gave me a curt ‘thank you’.
I was a little hurt. I wondered if John Denver had missed something. I was close to the Mason Dixon line. In these hollows of the mountain country, old feelings linger long into the new day.
It was perhaps the end of my first week in the motel. I sat by the large picture window in the breakfast lounge, savoring my first cup of coffee. Gradually, one by one, sleepy young women came down from their rooms on the second floor and took their places in the lounge. They seemed to know each other; a hushed conversation filled the air.
Something about these young women did not sit well with me. They reminded me of the wax mannequins at Madam Tussaud’s in London I had seen as a child. I looked across the parking lot and saw a group of young men, jostling about, laughing and cracking up among themselves. Every last one of them was built like a Greek God. One achieves such physical perfection by pumping iron full-time and more often than not, it is done in a prison yard somewhere. I put the two and two together.
I carried a fresh cup of coffee and a mini-muffin to one of the young ladies. Brittany was delighted. I slipped into the chair opposite her. “My six-year-old son Raphael will be here for the summer. Honey, how will I explain your presence at this motel to him?” I asked politely.
Her face lit up. “You have a son, Mister Satya? I have a daughter.” Brittany reached into her purse and brought out a picture of her two-year-old Charlene.
The other ladies in the room rushed over and joined in on the conversation about our children, displaying pictures of their loved ones. Their animated chatter about diaper rash, nap time and the merits of Gerber’s Baby Food filled the room. I could just as well have been at a PTA meeting, planning the menu for the Easter Bunny Hunt. These were the ‘meanest girls in town’ and the mention of my child brought out the ‘mother’ instinct in each of them to the forefront.
I gathered I would not make any headway with the ladies, so I walked over to the parking lot.
Addressing the first Greek God among men, I asked him sternly, “Are you not afraid that when her brother finds you out where you are, he will drive over in his pickup truck with a shotgun and blow your ass to pieces?”
‘Why?’ he asked, rather surprised.
“Why?” I raged on. “You have the gall to ask me, ‘why’?”
“Mister Satya, please calm down. You are thinking, I stole a lily-white girl from the suburbs and brought her down. I did no such thing. She was rolling in the gutter long before I met her, being beaten black and blue. I rescued her. I protect her.”
I was aghast.
“Her brother thanks me. They threw her away and would not let her return when she wanted to go home. I gave her a room at your motel. I gave her respect.”
I was stumped. “Don’t worry, Mister Satya. We protect you too,” he added for good measure.
But I did not want their protection. I did a favor to my friend Avi and agreed to look after a mutual fund investment he had made. The motel came with that investment. Now I was in a predicament that neither one of us could have foreseen.
The problem gnawed at me. The murmur of the babbling brook was not enough to lull me to sleep at night. I tossed and turned.
I remembered the shabby looking Greyhound Court Motel on the outskirts of town. I stopped by to have coffee with the manager. “Joey,” I began, “We need to paint the second floor at the Quality. Know any good painters?”
Of course, Joey knew some good painters. His brother-in-law worked at the hardware store.
In a matter of fact way, I added, “I have a bunch of daily, cash-paying customers staying on that floor. 79 bucks a night; you can go up to 92 over the weekend. You want them for the week?”
Joey could scarcely believe his good fortune. “Are you sure you want to pass them up?”
“What choice do I have? City inspection is due in a week. The walls look like crap. Mildew is showing through the sheet rock. I don’t want the Big Guy to shut the whole place down.”
“Okay,” Joey responded softly, faking a humble look.
I bet Joey’s heart was beating a mile a minute. This was his lucky day. “Let me know if I can do something for you, in the future,” he shouted from the window as I drove away.
It was a small town. The story spread quickly that I had got rid of the working girls and their muscle-bound friends. The Quality Inn was now considered a respectable business, a safe place. Next time I went to the liquor store, Linda seemed happy to see me.
“My Susie and Emmet are tying the knot in July. Do you guys do catering at the Quality for weddings?
Business started to pick up. I hired a couple of attractive young women to work at the front desk. Joe, a local man did the overnight shift and I could depend on him. I missed my family and needed to make a quick trip to California. I asked one of the new front desk assistants for directions to the Washington Reagan Airport.
I followed her directions. First, I took the road by the creek to the red church and took a right. Then I followed the mountain trail for several miles till I came to the cross road by the barn and took the left at the fork. I got lucky finding the general store where I took another left. It sure was the scenic route and in three and a half hours, I came around the bend and saw the airport.
On the way back from California, the flight landed in was the middle of the night at Washington Reagan. I was not sure I could find my way back to the motel through the dark roads and rural landmarks. When I stopped at the cashier to pay for long-term parking, I asked him for directions to my motel.
The cashier pointed to the Interstate. “Take that road north to Germantown and you’ll see the exit for I-70 to Frederick. From there, you are almost home.”
I got back to the motel in a little over an hour. I asked Marybeth next morning why she had not told me about the Interstate.
“Oh no! We don’t take the big roads,” she said.
It dawned on me that there are people in the United States who do not take the Interstate. They travel the network of country roads. They are the country folks and they still look upon city folks with suspicion. They have a parallel existence in America. They have a different set of values that I had never imagined was possible.
There must be many ways to run a successful motel business. It was not in my plans to learn much more than the bare minimum. Avi called me on occasion and I did pick up some tips on management from him. What really worked well for this little motel was the fact that I stood in the lobby every evening and welcomed the guests. They in turn stood around awhile to chat with me.
Over time, I sensed that at a certain level, America had become a very lonely place. People are busy and do not have time for each other. America is hungry for real contact, for simple conversation. “Mrs. Hardwick, how is the arthritis in your left knee treating you? Has Ann had the baby yet?” was enough to bring guests back to the motel. My interest in these people was sincere. My suave manners and sense of hospitality made friends out of our customers. In no time I developed a solid customer base.
I brought Raphael over to spend the summer with me. Born in Manhattan and living in Los Angeles, the country folks were a new experience to him. None of my staff had ever seen the inside of a college lecture hall but they had warm hearts. China, the head house-keeper, welcomed Raphael to our motel with a home-made upside-down apple cake. Raphael accepted the cake and responded, “Thank you, China, for the cake but you can’t go to the Supreme Court.”
China and I were both at a loss to decipher Raphael’s puzzling comment. A day or two later I asked him why China could not go to the Supreme Court.
The answer was plain as the summer day to Raphael.
“Daddy, you told me to brush my teeth every day or my teeth will fall out. Mama told me, if I don’t have teeth, I can’t stand before the judges at the Supreme Court to present a Human Rights Case. China did not brush her teeth and her front teeth fell out. You tell me, could China go in front of the judges of the Supreme Court?”
So much for teaching children to do the right thing!
I have to admit, I enjoyed fatherhood. In fact, I am sure ‘fatherhood’ is the best thing I have done with my life. As Raphael was watching Sesame Street on TV, I played ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ on my piano. Raphael paid no attention to me.
“Would you like to learn how to play that tune on the piano, Raphael?”
His eyes still glued to the TV screen, Raphael walked over and without a hitch played, ‘Twinkle, Twinke’ on the piano. There was no call for a teacher. He went back to his seat.
My jaw hit the floor. My prayers have been answered.
“Come here son. Sit by me. I will teach you to play the piano,” I blurted out.
“I don’t want to play the piano,” he responded nonchalantly.
I was crushed.
During the next commercial break, Raphael said, “I want to play the guitar.”
That was sweet music to my ears. I grabbed Raphael and dragged him across the parking lot. I must have broken all speed records as I drove downtown to the music store. For seventy-nine dollars, I picked up a three-quarter size classical guitar.
Back at the motel I tuned the guitar to the piano. Raphael sat next to me on the piano stool. Like so many Bengali fathers in America, I chanted a blessing and had Raphael in his tiny voice repeat after me,
“Om Jay Jay Debi, Characharo Sare; Kuchojugo Shobhito Mukta Hare.
Veena Ranjito, Pustaka Haste, Bhagobati Bharati, Debi Namohstute.”
I took Raphael’s hand in mine and helped him form the ‘C’ chord on the guitar.
It was not lost upon my staff that I was a doting father. Marybeth pleaded with me, “Can’t you find me a man like you, Mr. Satya?”
I burst out laughing. “Honey, you are not even thirty. I am in my fifties. I am old; all my friends are old. I don’t know any young men for you to meet.”
“It is better to find an old man than no man,” she was quick to reply.
And ‘find a man’ she did. Monday morning, Marybeth came in to work beaming as I had never seen her before. She looked absolutely stunning. She had met a man at the pool-hall down the street. China could barely get away from her as Marybeth continued to recount through the day this ‘perfect gentleman’ she had met the night before.
David was everything Marybeth had said he was. At a quarter to three he showed up in the parking lot in a grey Honda Accord. They went off together. Tuesday was more stories and the carriage waited for her in the parking lot at a quarter to three. Wednesday morning Marybeth was a bit tired and I attributed her condition to young love. I too had been young in my day!
Marybeth was not in the pink of health on Thursday morning. In fact, she was hung over. I helped her through her shift. Friday, I was concerned about her emotional state as I gathered things were not going too well between her and David. I held my tongue as it was not my place to interfere in a personal matter. A real trooper, Marybeth picked herself up but made frequent trips to the bathroom.
On Monday morning, Marybeth was definitely falling apart. There were tears and more trips to the bathroom. On Tuesday morning she asked me if I could advance her a part of her salary from the previous week’s work.
“Didn’t you get paid last Friday?” I asked.
“It is gone,” she whispered. There was a vacant look in her eyes.
Marybeth’s answer baffled me; I stared at her in disbelief. China brought me back to the present. “Are you blind, Mr. Satya?” she yelled.
I was not blind. It was not like me to follow a woman into the bathroom to verify if she was using the toilet or sniffing white powder from a tiny package. I had not known a young woman to go from ‘absolutely stunning’ to ‘absolutely nothing’ in a week. I paid Marybeth her week’s salary, gave her a little extra and asked her to leave. She did not protest.
The carriage was no longer waiting for her. She called for a taxi. She carried her dreams of a house with white picket fence with her and in silence, walked away from the lobby.
I recall with great sadness that I was there when the scourge of Oxycodone and heroin addiction made their first appearance. The scourge was cunning and difficult to track down. Prince charming came in a middle-class, grey, Honda Accord and drove you past a residential construction site because he had told you, he was a contractor. You assumed he was building your future home. A couple of wild nights together and you were hooked! The following week, you had to walk out of the Quality Inn with hopes of finding a room at the Greyhound Court in the edge of town. You remained friends with Prince Charming as he was your pusher now and you were dependent on him for your supplies!
This was not the ‘country’ we Bengali immigrants chanced upon when we came to America in the late sixties and seventies. Where have the Beverly Hillbillies gone to? Why are we not laughing out aloud with Hee-Haw and going to bed, our stomachs aching from the laughter? There was something wrong with the ‘country’ now and I wanted to go home.
Within a few weeks, Raphael could play a few chords and sing a tune or two. Perhaps I was lulled to sleep by the music of his guitar, but I did dream of John Denver that night ….. and he did not look happy.
It was the summer of 2008. The price of gas was about to touch 4 dollars a gallon. We were dependent on working-class families going on vacation in their SUVs and stopping with us for the night. I was facing too many empty rooms at the Quality for our own good.
I called my friend and business partner. “It’s time to move on, Avi. Middle America cannot afford to travel at these gas prices.”
Avi agreed. We sold the Quality Inn quickly and got out of the business.
The market crashed two weeks later. We were just plain lucky!
Raphael is sophomore at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. He is a music major. His focus is jazz guitar.
Veena Ranjito, Pustaka Haste, Bhagobati Bharati, Debi Namohstute.
(Posted April 1, 2019)
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Country Roads, Take Me Home