Stuck

Why we can't (or won't) move on from bad jobs, bad relationships, and bad habits, and how we can all move ahead.

What Can Hotel Rooms Teach Us?

Here's a new travel idea: Don't leave your hotel room.

I had overnight reservations at a hotel. I checked in shortly after noon. I had no plans in that city until well after dark. My room was purple and green and immaculate. 

I sat on its pert couch and thought: Why leave?

It was the Hotel Adagio in San Francisco, which I had heard was on a mission after its recent multi-million-dollar renovation to become the friendliest hotel in a city that, despite its hippies-and-Irish-Coffee heritage, is generally not as friendly as you might expect. It has its attractions, which are popular despite the fog that sweeps in from the sea to spoil sunny days and shock the unsuspecting clad in sleeveless shirts and shorts. This climatic chicanery reflects, or perhaps fuels, the local personality: a certain gorgeous backwards smirk that says: Ha ha.

Reaching up from the sofa, I opened a window -- rare in that, unlike at most hotels, these open wide enough to leap or fall through: See? A sign of trust. We would prefer that you not kill yourself. Located in the theater district, the Adagio is a short walk from Chinatown and major stores. Fisherman's Wharf, Golden Gate Park and beaches are not far.

Still, why not stay inside?

It struck me that more people should do this, or at least think about it: spending their vacations, or at least more of their vacations, inside their hotel rooms. How safe. How clean. How mercifully serene.

For solitary types, for the heartbroken and the healing, for anyone highly sensitive at all, this could be the idea of a lifetime.

By the time you have its key, your room has been paid for, or soon will be. Hotel rooms are not cheap, despite (or because of) the crashed economy. One night will cost you as much as, say 84 ice-cream cones or two hours of out-of-pocket therapy. Why then not make the most of this?

You can absorb much of a city, learn a lot about it and feel part of it, merely by sitting silently inside one of its hotel rooms. From the sofa or bed, you hear the city's sounds. Its particular light, depending on the hour, lilts awaiting your inspection on the spotless walls. Its hum, the kind that wavers high above the street: in San Francisco: seagulls, freeways, Cantonese.

Nothing in a hotel room did we, its guests, design or choose or buy. Others did that. Not up to us, its color scheme, its tub. This fact, please let it sink in, is a shudderingly sweet relief to those of us who for whatever reason shrink from the responsibility of having chosen anything, of saying I pick this. That hotel rooms were put in place by others is for us a kind of holiness. To sit silently in such rooms, having been so let off the hook, is gratitude itself.

In a hotel room, we who go through life apologizing owe nothing to anyone, except of course the full price of the room. But given that, once we have slipped inside, once its lock clicks, the room asks nothing of us, expects nothing of us beyond common sanitary decency, demands nothing and plays no tricks.

In hotels, we are public yet private. For now, this is my house and the fact that no one here knows me is the point. In a hotel room, no one tells you what to do. Outside, elsewhere, and certainly at home, one is often ordered around. Not in a hotel room. Each hotel room is, for the time being, an Independence Temple, a Solace Shrine to its current occupant, he or she whose way has been paid.

Inside a hotel room, they cannot get you, cannot reach you, cannot touch you, cannot find you, cannot hurt you, cannot see you. This too is the point.

Why do we nearly always toss our bags into hotel-room closets with barely a glance, use those brand-new bars of soap in those spotless bathrooms to wash our faces if even that, then race outside into the roar? Most city streets are gritty and morose. What we see outside most hotel rooms (those, that is, far from forest, desert or shore) will almost certainly be worse than what the management has ensured that we see inside our rooms. That management, these strangers, have gone far to please us, hiring cleaners and designers, hiring chefs and servers should we want room service, on a whim. By staying in my hotel room instead of going out, I honor them, their labors and foresight. I savor the softness of freshly laundered linens, the sparkle of polished porcelain, clean glass. I note the swoop and arc of end tables and lamps, the jolly saucy purple and green paisley-and-maze rococo designs on cushions, bedspread, walls which someone, some live human being somewhere, tapped into his or her aesthetic impulse to choose for this room, for the eyes and bodies of all future occupants, including me. By staying in my hotel room instead of going out, I meditate on color, shape, intent and space, on what constitutes comfort, on the dignity in hospitality, on home and home-away-from-home, on hiding in virtual castles to which we have bought the keys, knowing that we must give them back. By staying in my hotel room intead of going out, I ponder permanence and its facsimiles.

By racing out of hotel rooms and back into the roar, into what some call the real world, we leave all that behind, choosing instead distraction, and denial, or a pier or art museum or, granted, that conference we have been paid to attend.

What some call the real world is thick with filth. The hotel room by contrast is immaculate. Once mussed, it will -- hang that small sign outside your door -- become immaculate again. As long as you remain a guest, your room will become again and again immaculate.

Hotel-room mirrors always make you look a little better than the ones at home. Were you to spend more time in your hotel room, gliding back and forth before its mirrors in a state of dawning shock, you would realize this. It is in its own way irresistible.

Historic hotels, such as the Adagio with its buttercream-whimsy-wedding-cake fa├žade, absorb you into their soft hand-hewn asymmetries -- floral plaster on a fireplace, the twisted wrought-iron of a rail, shy metal spirals framing panoramas: See those ships at sea and fog-swept city lights like citrine shimmering through lace. Even alone inside your room, without taking a single step outside, you are part of a gathering, that amiable fellowship of every guest who ever saw these walls and called them, for even just one day, home. Which is to say, a mostly happy band of strangers, travelers and ghosts.

Why go outside?

What would I miss if I did not go out? What might I gain?

In my purple and green room, I thought: I would rather be right here, right now, than anywhere. I thought: Tomorrow morning I will lift the phone and order continental breakfast.

Oh, I know what you are thinking: This is an apologia for agoraphobia. But no. At least not totally. I come and go.

 

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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