Over the years I've developed my own rating listings of the places I travel; a veritable Michelin Guide to the nation's plague spots. When someone has need to travel to, say, Platteville, WI; Springfield, MO; Fargo, ND or Toledo, OH, the second thing they'll do (after trying desperately to get out of travelling to Platteville, WI; Springfield, MO; Fargo, ND or Toledo, OH) is to call good old Denny for trip advice. In a trice (sometimes less...) they'll know which hotel has the best beds, attached bars, least objectionable pillows, Manager's happy hours, hottest and least rashy whirlpools, double-bubble 2-for-1 drink specials, best workout rooms (okay, I made that one up...) or most amusingly surreal Karaoke night (Bar in the Holiday Inn Fargo- hands down. There's a blog post all its own there, someday...) I've always taken a certain measure of pride in this. (As well as in my lighting reflexes and 30 foot wingspan.)
This is why I'm not at all happy with changes that have lately been occurring within my little travel domain. I've had about 20 years to get used to everything (About the standard period for me to commit anything to memory) Now, however, things are changing right under me. I've stayed at the same Comfort Suites hotel in Green Bay for 18 years. I loved it because they had a huge pool and spa that was virtually empty except for me whenever I was there. They also had a supper club made up of dark wood, velvet flocked everything, comfy furniture and tables with crisp white tablecloths waited on by old staffers who'd served there since LBJ was in office. The dependable menu had nightly specials including the truly hilarious "Thursday Polish Buffet". I enjoyed the food, even venturing so far as to have a bowl of Charnina (Duck blood soup) periodically just to trick someone else into having some as well. This is entertaining twice; first when you tell them what they're eating and then again once they can bring themselves to ask what the lumps are.
Even better, though, was the clientele. Large, extended families of large, extended people would show up every Thursday dressed in colors and fabrics not found in nature since Robert Hall outlet stores shut down in the early 70's, grazing contentedly on blood soup, blood sausage, pierogis (probably blood pierogis...) and all manner of blintz-centric foodstuffs. I actually came to recognize many of them over the years and was able to watch the children grow into their teens, heading for high school and their first coronaries. All this history, all this tradition came to an unexpected, crashing end a couple years back. I strolled through the hotel, down the access corridor and bopped through the supper club door into a parallel universe. The supper club was gone.
In its place was a slick, modern bistro/lounge with flat black walls and ceilings, decorative metallic panels, pendant lighting and thick slabs of glass everywhere. The old wait staff were gone, their dogs barking now only in my memory; replaced by young, eager servers sharing a common look of puppy-like incomprehension. The long-standing menu was gone. In its place were offerings apparently spit out by some sort of evil, random-menu-generator. Entrees were date-raped by sauces or recipes with no reason to exist in our plane of reality. (I imagined a large, heavy book back in the kitchen. Chained to an iron bookstand and glowing malevolently, the words "Cooking With Cthulu" are dimly visible on the cover. Distant, anguished chanting is heard, "The chicken is sauteed in a sage/oregano/lime/herb butter, finished with a pomnegranate/chocolate/balsamic reduction, why not, and served on a bed of couscous with fried plantains, tickled broccoli rabe and THE STILL BEATING HEART OF THE VIRGIN SACRIFICE! ALL HAIL, CTHULU! ALL HAIL THE DARK LORD!! This is offered with a bread basket and your choice of pretentious field greens salad or some absurdist soup. Today it's Pumpkin Ionesco. Please let me die now...")
This was sad enough. Worse awaited me, though, as I made my way to the far end. Where once a big, 4-sided bar surrounded an island of grown-up offerings; Scotch, Wild Turkey, Cuervo and a reliable, if limited selection of nice, old single malts, (Critical for those nights when you just have to swirl one around as you stand in the rain, loudly declaiming T.S. Eliot into the teeth of the storm. "Thass right! Aprilzz cruuelest month, sumbitch, you callin me liar? Oww! Okay, okay, sstop hitting me, lady!!!") I now found a minimalist bar fronting a glowing, backlit wall that silhouetted the fruit vodkas and other kiddie drinks currently underwriting all the most annoying TV commercials. There was, of course, a huge day-glo list on the wall of all their specialty martinis, none of which is actually a martini! I'm sorry, "Appletini's"? "Hershey's Mint Chocolate Kiss-o-tini"? This is sick and wrong.
I can actually feel "Grumpy Old Man" rising up self-righteously in my consciousness, waving his cane about, good ear cocked forward and ranting about the old days when "we drank Old Forrester until we finally came to, being led back to our rooms by some smiling Latino man from the Wait staff and that was the way it was, dammit!"
The crusty old, rough-whiskered bartender (Wonder what became of her?) has been replaced by a blank cipher named Chad. Nice enough in a dim way but no apparent appreciation for a patron's fascinating tales about the old days. No proper understanding of how badly the music, sports teams, work ethic etc. of his generation compares to, say, certain others. Worst of all, the priceless knowledge of how to make the perfect martini that I had, in my Promethean way, imparted over the years was gone; lost to the ages!
Here is the recipe! Save and share it! Teach others so it will survive the dark times! The machines are coming, dispensing frozen margaritas and oblivion!
- Fill a glass with 3 oz. Bombay Sapphire, Gordons or Everclear, chilled to below freezing.
- Wave a bottle of vermouth threateningly in its general direction.
- Garnish with 3 vicodin-stuffed blue-cheese olives
- Scatter throw pillows about the floor and alert smiling Latino man from Wait staff.
I gradually adjusted to the loss of the supper club just in time for the next surprise.
I arrived one late Fall day to discover that the peaceful, empty pool area had been converted, seemingly overnight, into a water park. Screaming small people were whizzing down (and probably on) water slides, splashing through shower hoses and floating, lazily, face down in the whirlpool spa. Sighing softly to myself, I quietly downed the last of my drink and had Gonzalez lead me away. I've not been back since.
This is just a sampling of the changes, some large and some small, that now assail me. One hotel chain has converted all their bed mattresses to pillow tops; nice and comfy but notably taller which can be confusing when, like me, you often wake up with travel amnesia; no idea what city or hotel you're in, in which direction the bathroom or air conditioner lie or, particularly critical after several Denny-tini's, where exactly or how far away the floor is currently located. Also troubling is the expanded offering of pillows I'm now confronted with. God meant us all to have two nice, rectangular pillows on our beds. One of my favored chains now proffers a bed with 5 square pillows. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with them. Often I just curl up on the floor and weep softly to myself.
Last night, though, marks a turning point beyond which my world just no longer makes sense. Worst of all, it seems, is that I've been done in by a Best Western. Somehow, it's just wrong being taken down by a hotel that accepts pets. Apparently some yappy Maltese can comfortably negotiate something that totally confounds me.
One nice thing about hotels is having an easy chair or recliner to prop yourself in while you watch TV, read or find other ways to avoid checking e-mails. There's usually a nightstand to one side and a lamp stand/table to the other, allowing you to multi-task between eating and drinking which is critical to high achievers like myself. Last night, though, I checked in and found myself confronted with this.
This is not an easy chair. Actually this is not any sort of chair. I remember seeing pictures of these things in movies. I'm pretty sure this is a fainting couch. They were prevalent back in the old times when women wore whalebone corsets so tight they tended to pass out a lot. They'd apparently spend a lot of time on these things, waving wanly at prospective suitors and dying of consumption which was much in vogue back then.
These are not conducive to sitting, though I made a game attempt. I think you're supposed to drape yourself languidly across it which I'm unable to pull off. The closest I can get is to sprawl myself uncomfortably on top of it which just isn't the same. This piece of furniture frightens and disturbs me. If I'm being presented with fainting couches in my hotel rooms, what's next? I already can't work the ergonomic desk chairs. They fold me in half and then flip me over backwards into a somersault not nearly as graceful as you might think me capable of.
Some day I imagine I'll walk into a hotel washroom to find one of those mechanized, Japanese toilets with the servo arms, gauges, probes, rotating knives and such. That's where I'll have to draw the line.
Oh, I'll get by for a while by booking rooms with open balconies but that won't work forever. I get dizzy just thinking about it.
As a matter of fact, I think I'll head across the room and take another shot at that chair. I seem to be feeling just a little bit languid right now.