Last week I went on a little road trip with a friend. We drove about small cities and townships just north of Toronto, one night finding ourselves staying at the White Towers Motel in Barrie, Ontario.
It looked like trouble.
Surrounded by a chain link fence that separated it from the highway, the motel was a low-slung, U-shaped structure that had seen better days. There were perhaps three other vehicles in the parking lot—all somehow looking like horses that had been ridden hard— and from behind the curtains of a scattering of rented rooms, dubious looking people peered out at us.
There was no lobby, just a front desk that pretty clearly was located below the room of the guy that ran the place. It smelled strongly of fish curry, and when I asked the desk manager, in a friendly way, what he was cooking, he responded in the clipped and defensive manner of somebody who was accustomed to not giving out any more information than he needed to.
“Smells like fish curry,” I responded.
“You are like Einstein.”
This irritated me.
“So tell me,” I started, ” Einstein here is really curious, what sort of clients do you serve here? I mean, who can we expect our neighbors to be?”
The man looked at me and mumbled something about it being the end of the month. I pressed him. Frustrated, he said, ” We get as you would expect, you know, the good, the bad and the ugly.” And then, as he gave us the keys to room number 5, the closest one to the highway, he handed over the remote control for the TV set, an act that suggested most of the patrons of the motel were considered high risk for theft of television remotes or the batteries that resided therein.
As we walked across the parking lot to our room, laptops slung over our shoulders like soft, glittering jewels, all the residents of the motel continued to stare out at us. One guy, a massive bald creature in a sleeveless undershirt, sat unblinking in a chair facing out his window, glowering. I gave him a friendly nod to which he responded by pointing at his eyes and then at us. Another tableaux, room 16, contained a squat grey woman yelling at a doughy man-child who was almost certainly her son.
It was um, disquieting.
It was, in fact, “Lynchian.”
This word, which entered into the popular vocabulary some years ago, refers to the feeling of unsettling and surreal menace that is the trademark of the work of David Lynch. Best known as a filmmaker, he’s the singular talent who brought us Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, amongst many other things. Lynch has defined his own brand of weirdness, and when you find yourself in a Lynchian situation, as I recently did, you’re usually in over your head. Simmering just beneath the flinty normalcy of the cultures we’ve erected hums something dark and unpredictable that at any given moment could explode, shattering the presumptive security offered by the familiar.
What was percolating throughout the rooms of the White Towers Motel was anybody’s guess, but I imagined people getting fucked-up and losing control, in short, I imagined David Lynch’s most recent music video.
The room we were assigned was worn, as if taped together over the course of neglected decades, and mysteries were abundant.
The color of the bathtub.
The scrapes and gauges, as if claw marks, in the wall by the bed.
The huge pylon beside the front door.
The slashed open screen in the window.
The Ouija board in the desk drawer.
Feeing very uncertain about the decision we had made to stay there, we quickly headed out for dinner. It was here where I asked the waitress what she knew of the White Towers Motel.
Astonished, “You’re not staying there, are you?”
“Yes, the owner said that the good and the bad and the ugly stayed there, we’re the good.” I said.
“You can’t stay there. I won’t let you. It’s full of crack heads and hookers. Bad things happen there.”
“I found a Ouija board in the desk,” I added as an affirmation.
“Creepy! Oh God, please, please, please don’t stay there. If anything were to happen to you guys I’ll die from guilt!”
“We have pepper spray for bears,” my friend added, as if to calm her fears.
Over the course of our dinner we had three different servers and the restaurant manager all approach us and try to persuade us not to stay there. The manager, assuming the authority only restaurant managers can, found a vacancy for us at a different Motel. “Look,” he said, ” you really don’t want to stay there. Just last week a guy, messed up on Meth, cut out the screen window of his room (my screen window!), wiggled through it and then jumped off the bridge just behind the motel. He thought he was under attack from demons (The Ouija Board!). It was all over the news. That’s the sort of thing that happens there all the time, man. Check out the reviews online. Just tell me you won’t stay there.”
” We won’t stay there, ” I assured him.
“It’s the end of the month and the welfare cheques are coming in. People party like monsters. It’s like a full moon times a million.”
“A lot of bad decisions and pent-up frustration,” I said.
“You really have no idea, you guys really don’t want to stay there.”
Still, we did stay there.
Feeling confident, even curious, after ingesting a belly full of booze and red meat, we figured we could handle anything, after all, we had a bottle of Scotch and some pepper spray for bears in our room with us, what could possibly go wrong?
Obviously, this was a recipe for disaster, and as I sat on the edge of my bed in this seedy motel, drinking scotch and being instructed on how to use the bear pepper spray in case somebody tried to break-in, I thought of a movie I’d just watched a week earlier.
Into The Abyss, a documentary by Werner Herzog, could, I guess, be described as a broad examination of the death penalty in the USA. It’s not a political film, but a rather personal, even humane one. Herzog, always off camera, interviews a wide variety of people affected by the crime a death row inmate. These people, whether victims, perpetrators or the executers of justice, were all deeply traumatized, marked by a deep anger, sorrow and disappointment. The vulnerability in each person was heart wrenching.
The villains in the movie, those whose lives were long stretches of boredom and limited expectations punctuated by seemingly random acts of violence, didn’t have a chance. Everything in the world, both the arbitrary and the ordained, seemed stacked against them. These were the people I imagined in the motel rooms around us, individuals stretched thin, who in some state of flight, despair or release could in the flash of one inarticulate, explosive spasm, detonate a chain reaction of destruction that could ruin lives for generations.