In terms of wealth in the US, we’re somewhere in the top 3-5%, depending on the dataset you use. Most of my friends are at similar or more elite levels. This is my reality. You could say, I’m living in a bubble of affluence. I’ve worked hard to get in this bubble and I am very proud of the accomplishment. That means at least 95% of Americans live a different reality.
So, the last time I gave any serious thought to a Motel 6 was when I was a kid in Rock Springs, Wyoming. There is a Motel 6 off I-80 along Foothill Blvd and we often passed by the motel on our way from here to there. I remember it had HBO, which to a 10-year-old in the mid 80s sounded pretty cool. I did not grow up poor, my Dad was an educator. Though his salary didn’t leave a lot for extra travel. When we did, we always found a “Motel”. I remember a Super 8, and I vaguely remember a super classy Comfort Inn.
Fast forward to August 2018. A canceled flight plus a busy hotel season and I found myself at my only hotel option within 60 miles of the Denver airport, The Motel 6 along I-70.
As we approached the motel my taxi driver asked me if I was sure I wanted to get out of the car. I assured him I was in the right place, got my bags out of the trunk, and proceeded to the lobby to check-in. Check-in was an interesting mix of folks. I was clearly not the only business traveler a bit surprised to find myself at the Motel 6 along East 39th. There were 6 people in line ahead of me and Margaret was busily checking people in and answering the phone. She was probably 30, though it seemed from her physical appearance, things hadn’t been easy for Margaret. Especially in the dental area. Though she clearly had taken some serious time to do her nails. They were brilliant red and clicked loudly as she entered guest information into her system. From time to time she’d start talking to herself while nursing her large Mountain Dew, “I knew I was going to get hit with a rush, I just knew it.” She was clearly flustered by the long and growing line and the constant ringing of the telephone, but she was making her way through the tasks with reasonable speed. I did admire her nails. “Maybe it was the only thing she thought she could control and get right?” I thought.
Soon there were 4 people behind me and the line snaked outside of the small lobby into the other smaller lobby where you got buzzed in. From my perspective, it looked like most of the people behind me were more frequent Motel 6 guests. I was judging them, and they were judging me when a man walked in, well dressed, a bit exasperated. He looked at the line, shook his head, and walked right up to me, as if we were traveling together, and said “Looks like you’re here from the airport too?” “Yes,” I said. “Can you believe we ended up here?” he said rather loudly.
At that point two thoughts crossed my mind. First, it’s not always a good idea to say what you’re thinking. Second, where is the nearest exit if this turns ugly?
I replied, “I am grateful to have a bed given how many people seem to be sleeping at the airport overnight.” Hoping that would end the conversation. It didn’t. He kept talking. And people kept staring at him. Hoping, I think, to kill him, or at lease force him to the back of the line with death stares. I pointed to the line, but he was oblivious or didn’t care.
It was finally my turn with Margaret and she asked if I was paying cash and if I had a vehicle. I told her no. I complimented her on her nails, gave her my ID, and she reminded me they had free WIFI. She checked me in and I was on my way to room 237.
Room 237 was at the end of the line on the 2nd floor, and rather simple. Clean if you didn’t look closely. And had a noticeable smell of old, musty cigarette smoke, combined with powerful air freshener. Surely this had been a “smoking” room at some point. Or maybe it was whiffing in from next door. I wasn’t sure.
I sat down in a wobbling chair and looked around. “You know, for $95 this isn’t bad,” I thought. “I think I’ll keep my suitcase on the desk, harder for bedbugs to get in,” I also thought. Though realized I didn’t really know if that was a valid idea. I think I remember reading they jump pretty high. Gross.
I decided to get some water from the vending machine and went back to the lobby. I ran into Juan, a journeyman for a local electrical union. That lead to a fascinating conversation about why he thought unions were so important. I loved talking to Juan and learned a lot about the perspective of a journeyman in an electrical union. Then I chatted with Dee, a single mother of 4, fighting with her ex for custody, in transmit to Memphis. She wanted to know if I had any advice being a “lawyer type.” I told her I was not an attorney, but that didn’t sway her from asking me what she should do. I had a ton of compassion for Dee, though felt pretty helpless to do anything for her. I also talked to Harry, an older man. I couldn’t tell what he was up to. He was traveling with his wife (maybe), and they were stationed at the Motel 6 for a while (reasons unknown).
I saw lot of people who were probably working. I saw some folks who seemed to be somewhat stranded. And then of course there were the airport travelers who mostly scurried quickly to their rooms, closed the shades, and locked the door.
Figuring I was starting to be the weird guy lingering in the vending room talking to strangers, I decided to go to bed.
5AM came early and after a restless noisy, smoky, night I was ready to go. Someone was crying until at least 3AM from what I could gather. I was slightly nauseated from the cigarette smell and highly motivated to be on my way and was out the door by 5:30AM.
On the way to the airport watching the sunrise, thinking about the lovely breakfast I was about to have at the airport Westin, I had the following thoughts.
- From my perspective, it was so easy for me to see signs of opportunity for improvement in people’s lives. Whether it was the guy in front of me paying cash because he didn’t have a bank account, or the young woman behind me in line who was talking, with pride, about how she stuck it to her boss and didn’t show up for work. Or Margaret, who with some access to dental care, would likely have a much more pleasant experience, be more presentable, and might have a shot at something more lucrative than night clerk at Motel 6.
- As easy as it was to see the opportunity, it was equally hard to figure out what to do about it.My guess was many of the issues I was seeing were deeply systemic issues based on years of thinking patterns and beliefs that would not quickly or easily be reversed. At best, I thought, I might provide some temporary relief by helping someone have a better day. But that hardly seemed like enough.
- Though perhaps most alarming to me was the clear undertone of deep resentment, that took the form of apathy, and anger in the conversations. This was the undercurrent and it left me with a different level of understanding of why Trump was elected.
I have a message to my fellow 5 percenters. We have to do more. I have to do more. We have to do more to empower and educate to help people who are willing to do the work to get ahead in their lives. I think that starts by getting out of our bubble and talking to people with other perspectives and increasing our empathy and understanding of these dynamics to look for ways we can advance the betterment of people’s lives.
This is the right thing to do for the greater good. It’s also good for those of us in the bubble. You see, the thing about bubbles is, they can pop.