A Gorgeous Girl, a Cadillac, and room 17

They built a few of these pointy motels in 1960s and they all looked alike. It was supposed to become a national chain of 60. I doubt they made it to a dozen. I was a switchboard/clerk at the very first one on Route 18 in East Brunswick, N.J., for a month or so in 1966.

The boss was a connected guy whose phone calls I screened. Simple job. If someone asked for him politely, I took a message. If some goon said "gimme Sal," I put him right through. Every day was an adventure, from the guy whose mug shot was posted behind the counter to the goings on at Cloud Nine Lounge next door. Since I worked days, I heard more about the lounge than I ever saw. But I did see the guy in the poster. Unfortunately, I didn't recognize him. He was notorious for trashing hotel rooms, and I rented him one. He even smashed the toilet bowl. I said he must have shaved his mustache, and Sal forgave me.

If a guy came in with a girl in the car and it looked like a quicky, I was to give them a lower rate. Sal wanted more of that business. "The trouble with overnight people," he said, "is that they stay overnight." I remember listening in on phone calls (I know, I know, but I was young) and recall a girl, probably from Douglass, telling her mom she was spending the night with a girlfriend and would be home in the morning. They did stay over, and curiously I felt put out because I had given them the quicky rate.

But most of all, I remember the infamous Room 17, and the day Sal stormed into the tepee-shaped lobby/office, grabbed the room 17 key from its special hook under the counter, and hung it with the other keys. "No more room 17," he announced. "Anyone calls for room 17, we don't have it anymore. Rent it out like any other room, you got it?" I got it.

Until then, room 17 was special. I was never to ask anyone anything about it. If someone called to reserve room 17, I checked under the counter; if the key was there, I would tell him (it was always a him) the room was free. It really was free. I was not to charge for it. When the guy showed up and asked for the room 17 key, I simply handed it to him. No questions, no registration, no license plate number. Just "Here you go sir."

It was bound to happen. Not two hours after Sal put the kabosh on the room 17 deal, a deep voiced guy calls and says he's reserving room 17.

"There is no room 17 any more. Seventeen is just a regular room now," I said.

"Don't give my any bullshit. Just put room 17 aside for me."

"Sir, I can certainly rent you room 17 if you like."


Fifteen minutes later a new, black Cadillac pulls up to the Hostways tepee, and out clomps a middle-aged guy with a pockmarked face and a close haircut. He storms into the office, nearly tearing the door off. Behind him in the Cadillac sits a stunning young woman, too young for him. More than that, she belonged in a Mercedes if not a Rolls, on a haughty thoroughbred with an English saddle or in a prince's gilded coach. But no way did she belong in this Cadillac, a pumpkin coach for sure. She sat perfectly still, looking straight ahead.

"Gimme room 17," says Pocky. "I got not time for bullshit!"

"I can rent it to you," I said, stepping back slightly in case he reached over the counter.

"What the fuck! Just pick up the phone and call Sal," he demanded, "

But gimme the fucking key first!"

"It was Sal who told me we're not doing the room 17 thing any more," I said defensively.

Silence for half a second.

"Get Sal down here!" he yelled.

So I called Sal. Sal said he didn't care who it was, there were no more free rooms.

"Oh yeah?" said Pocky when I told him. "We'll see about that!"

He raged out the door and strode across the parking lot toward the motel and Sal's office. I called Sal to warn him.

As Pocky crossed the lot, the lovely maiden in the Cadillac noticed. She did not change her expression, not just then. But when Sal came out and began arguing with Pocky, she did. She seemed concerned. As the argument went on, she began looking around as if to escape. And when Sal and Pocky got to shouting, Cinderella broke.

I watched as she slid into the driver's seat and turned the key. She must have flooded the carburetor because the Caddy didn't start. She kept cranking until the sound reached Pocky, who whirled from Sal and strode toward the car.

The engine caught and roared. The Caddy shuddered with a loud clunk as she dropped it into drive. The spinning rear wheels spewed burning rubber smoke onto Route 18. The Caddy fishtailed its way out of the lot.

Pocky forgets about Sal and plunges back into the office, demanding a phone. I plug the lobby phone into an outside line, and he dials like he's trying to kill the phone with his index finger.

Tense silence for a long second.

"It's me!" he hollers. "I'm at the fucking motel. Pick me up!"

Then he slams the phone down and walks outside to wait. Sal has disappeared.

In what seems only minutes, a car pulls up; Pocky hops in without a word. It's a marked police cruiser from one of the other Brunswicks -- New, North, or South. I can't remember which. The car pulls away with professional urgency, no lights, no siren, no spinning tires. Just businesslike haste.

With Pocky gone, Sal came into the office.

"That was the chief of police," he said with unusual candor, then thought it over. "Don't you ever say a fucking word!"

Like I said, I honestly don't recall which of the New Jersey Brunswicks it was, but it was definitely one of them.

Days after that, Mom was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and my long-time friend Ted offered me a job working for his construction company in faraway New York State. I had no idea at the time, but in a year I would be married and life would be different.

I was never cut out to be a low-end motel clerk, at least I hope not. But I do remember the Hostways Motel, and not without a certain fondness.

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