Cleaning House

Small Town, North Dakota—I spent my first morning as manager of the cheapest motel in town cleaning house. It seemed the previous managers—a young couple in their early 20s—had given every job-seeking transient and local degenerate a room on the promise they’d pay when payday rolled around or when grandma called with her credit card number. The grandmothers—half-suspecting they’re being scammed by their grandchildren—do always call. Their consistency, weighed against the paycheck, is unrivaled .

Half the rooms were filled with squatters or speed freaks, indiscreet in their indiscretions. It’s easy to spot. The same sketchy locals will bounce from room to room, visiting guests who come from different corners of the country. Maybe these guests arrived with employment in mind, but the smalltime Scarfaces—local guys who’ve helped the black market expand with the boom—got to them first, taking both their money and their hope of a more prosperous tomorrow.

It isn’t easy to kick people out on the street, especially when you’re only a paycheck away from being them. But that’s exactly what we did last Tuesday when we discovered receipts for nearly half the occupied rooms were missing. My boss, a self-made blue-collar gazillionaire, says to me, I’m gonna show you how this is done. 

It’s really simple, he explains, either they pay by eleven or they get the fuck out. You’re not running a charity; you’re managing a motel.

We visited Room 118 first. A little birdie informed us the night before the couple who checked into 119 had picked the lock to the door leading to adjacent 118, letting their friends in. My boss pounded furiously on the door. From inside a man cried, What!

Management! the bossman yelled back, opening the door.

One of the guys sprang out of bed. What, man? he asked, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He squinted as if he hadn’t seen the sun for days.

What, man? the bossman asked back. Where’s your receipt? That’s what, man.

The man rubbed his face, pensively. Where’s Alice and Brant? We had a deal worked out with them. They said we could pay today. 

Uh-uh, the bossman answered. There are no deals. If you don’t have a receipt you gotta pay and if you can’t pay you gotta go. You’re stealing right now. Theft of service.

Whatever, man, the guy shot back.

Not whatever, the bossman said. You’re stealing from me. Give me fifty-dollars right now or pack up your shit and get the fuck off my property. 

The girl in 119 stuck her head out.

You! the bossman yelled at her, Pack up your shit. You got fifteen minutes or I’m calling the police. 

The night before, the girl said the bossman owed her for helping his son bail out of jail some time ago.

Are you the one who said you helped my son? he asked her. You really were some fucking help, weren’t you. He’s facing forty years in federal prison right now. Tell me: how is that helping him? The prosecutor just called me yesterday. Tell me how you helped him.

She had nothing to say.

The bossman’s son fell in with some fast girls, this one among them. Next came the bust for running heroin from Billings to North Dakota, in a town that had never before had a heroin case. Excited, the feds picked it up. Now the U.S. Attorney wants to hand the boy what amounts to a life sentence.

Just get the fuck out of here, he hollered. I don’t want you or your meth friends on my property. I fucking hate drug addicts!

And so it went, room by room, guests pleading with us for more time to settle up, claiming they had worked out deals with the previous managers, which was probably true. The books were an utter mess. But the bossman was unmoved. Before long, on a lovely morning in the Bakken, some two-dozen weary-eyed travelers were hauling their luggage to vehicles if they had them, down the street if not, muttering obscenities under their breath.

Everyone has a sob story, the bossman explained. Alice and Brant wanted to be everyone’s friend, but I’m not paying you to be friends with these people. If they don’t pay, they don’t stay. Some of these monkeys, even if they can pay, can’t stay. We don’t want those kinds of people here. Don’t take no shit, man. This is your motel now. You have the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason. 

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