I picked this one because it has kind of a retro name and a sign that has nothing to do with its surroundings. It also advertises an “indoor pool.” I never use a motel pool, for the same reason I never lay face down on a motel bedspread, but as an amenity I thought it somehow suggested a more benign clientele. I mean, how many sullen bikers or crazed meth-heads do you see cavorting in a motel swimming pool?
The woman at the desk was friendly enough, but she did have cautious way about her, a certain wariness you see in people accustomed to things going south in a hurry. I asked for a nonsmoking room and she quoted a rate of $58 a night. For this place, I thought it seemed a little high. But then I figured they needed to cover the overhead on the pool. She also told me I didn’t have to put down the number of my license plate, which I can never remember. That established an element of trust that was encouraging.
The trust thing was immediately eroded when the nonsmoking room I’d asked for, number 103, exuded an immediate and distinct odor of recently smoked cigarettes. I asked for a nonsmoking room that didn’t smell of cigarettes, and was promptly assigned one that smelled pretty much the same. At this point I deduced that the nonsmoking stickers on the door are purely decorative, and that as a practical matter, smoking is not only allowed but encouraged in every room at the Bel Aire. I was tempted to light up myself before remembering that I quit 34 years ago.
I left the door open in an attempt to clear the place out, and it was while leaning casually in the open door that I noticed what appeared to be a drug deal in progress just across the parking lot. Three white kids trying to look like black men from the golden age of hip-hop knocked on a door, conducted some sort of brief transaction and ambled away. Later I observed the room’s tenant, a slightly older guy, pacing back and forth with a cell phone glued to his face. He got only one other visit that I observed, so if he really was dealing, business was a little slow.
Other impressions: the bathroom ceiling sagged, with a couple of boomerang-shaped stains that spoke of epic flooding in the room above. The remote didn’t work. After removing the bedspread, as is my custom, I noticed that the blanket bore a couple of unidentified stains near the foot of the bed. That night I slipped fitfully, as far from the stains as was practical. I was haunted by crazy dreams in which everybody was smoking cigarettes.
On the positive side, the place was surprisingly quiet, apart from a sound like a body being moved sometime around 3:30 a.m. Nobody tried to break into my car. The shower had good water pressure.
I don’t know. If this is what I can expect from independent motels on the way south, I may be back at the La Quinta sooner than I thought. Lessons from the Bel Aire: Make eye contact with the desk person and ask them elaborate on what constitutes a nonsmoking room: Does it mean nobody has smoked in it, or nobody has smoked in it during the last 20 minutes? These little distinctions are important. Finally, funky signs are maybe not the best criteria when selecting overnight lodging.