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A Hotel Room of One's Own

During two decades of work-related travel, I have done time at the Connaught and in roadside motels with parking-lot pools. I have spent the night (sleep was out of the question) in a cheap Santa Monica motel where the mattress was draped with a dirty velour bedspread and the dresser drawers were lined with scribbled Manson family-style screeds. I have stayed in vast suites at the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi, where the service is so attentive as to induce paranoia. I have worked myself into a lather attempting to think of something, anything, for my personal butler at the Manele Bay, Lanai, to do. If there is a single element unifying the experience of these disparate lodgings, it is this: I always rearrange the room.

In his 1995 book S, M, L, XL, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas expounded on the Tao of anonymous lodging. "I like hotels," wrote Koolhaas, "because in a hotel room you have no history, you have only an essence. You feel like you're all potential, waiting to be rewritten, like a crisp, blank sheet of 8 1/2-by-11-inch white bond paper." Either Koolhaas is spending a lot of time in space stations or the leftover bunkum of postmodern theory has gotten jammed in his skull.

In my experience, hotel rooms are rarely spheres of unlimited possibility, much less launch pads for new identities (unless, that is, you're in a witness protection program). What Koolhaas may be referring to subliminally is absolution, since if there's anything the neutrality of a hotel room expunges, it's sin.

The point is not so much that you are a new person in a hotel room but that the place holds no record of the old. This fact alone may account for any number of ill-advised acts undertaken by traveling salesmen. Yet while hotel rooms may liberate the traveler from reminders of his own past, they saddle him with those of persons unknown.

I'm not just talking about the obligatory Paris street scenes, the bad "modern" art prints, the tabletop clutter, or the stranger's business card stuck in a dresser drawer. Hotel rooms are, in some ways, haunted by all the people who have passed through them, however briefly: the engineer who decides to stint on baseboard molding; the chambermaid who watches soap operas while she scours the tub; the couple who drink too much at dinner and afterward find themselves trying the Kama-sutra postures they'd never attempt at home. They're all there, always. Part of the hotelier's stagecraft is to make it seem as though each new person is the first person in the room. Cleaning and freshening are not only a matter of sanitation. They're acts of exorcism--which is why, whenever I check into a hotel, my first act is to perform some rituals of my own.

First, sweep the horizontal surfaces clear of stuff. Then dump (in the night-table drawer next to the Gideons Bible) the pay-per-view come-ons, the room service menus, the management's reminders to save the environment (and, uh, reduce overhead) by going easy on towels. Next, clear away the guilt-inducing mini-bar scorepads, the memos from housekeeping staff, the laminated local magazines with "reviews" for restaurants rarely patronized by anyone but hapless tourists and freelancers on the grift. Carefully survey toiletries arrayed on the vanity. Eliminate the shower cap, the cheapo gel, and the ever-mystifying shoeshine disk. Wipe down the telephone receiver with alcohol-based Wet Ones. Flop on the bed and dial room service.

These rituals of mine began during a long vacation at a Mexican resort. My suite had its own secluded balcony and a pristine view of a horseshoe bay. It also had more chairs than a catering hall. One evening, while threading the maze on a bed-to-bathroom circuit, I managed to stub my toe so badly that the nail took on the hues of a tropical cocktail. When the throbbing subsided, I tried shoving some of the junk out of the way. Later I managed to cram a few random chairs into a closet outside the bath and heaved the sofa against a wall. Once that was accomplished, I could see that the bed had been positioned just far enough away from the window as to block the panorama. This left me with a view of Palm Trees by Moonlight, obviously painted by someone's brother-in-law. It was then that I got busy, taking down all the dreadful paintings, collecting errant ashtrays, assembling a heap of generally unwelcome stuff. I called housekeeping and a handyman arrived with a dolly. My traveling companions were somewhat horrified at my presumption. Management was unfazed. Housekeeping, as I recall, was not displeased by the heft of my tip. And I spent the rest of that vacation with a satisfying proprietorial sense about my lodgings.

IN THE LARGER SCHEME OF THINGS, says Lauren Halvorsen, spokesperson for the Waldorf-Astoria, my impromptu redecoration would barely register as a special request. "We've had people ask that their beds be elevated," she says, "either because their feet need to be up for medical reasons or they don't want their bed to touch the floor." One claustrophobic Waldorf guest had a coromandel screen propped across the doorway and guards posted in the hall for the length of his stay. Another had a $40,000 Oriental rug purchased, delivered, and laid in his suite.

Such practices are not necessarily limited to high-end hostelries. The midrange Avalon in Manhattan had a pet-friendly policy when it first opened that accommodated even a zookeeper's boas. "We have really big bathrooms," explains general manager Daniel Melendez. That also made it simple to grant one guest's wish to have his bed placed alongside the tub. "He had issues with dust and germs." A highly placed fashion executive of my acquaintance always puts up at the Bristol in Paris, not so much for the hotel's convenience and chic as for the fact that management meticulously restores his fourth-floor suite to the precise furniture configuration he arrived at on his initial stay.

Of course not everyone wants to spend precious vacation time moving chairs, and not everyone travels to places where such behavior is encouraged. It can be tough putting your imprint on a room, for instance, when everything is bolted to the walls. Still, even budget hotels will often let you add or remove furniture. During a reporting trip to Laramie, Wyoming, I stayed at a Holiday Inn with a stirring view of big sky over a busy interstate. The modest room had two beds, two chairs, two tables, and barely enough space to move around. After I had some of the extras cleared away, I settled in quite comfortably. I even found a florist who agreed to forgo the usual cellophane and baby's breath and sell me a dozen naked tulips in a mayonnaise jar.

I realize that the compulsion to alter one's surroundings is particularly strong in certain types. Truman Capote famously hauled around his paperweight collection whenever he traveled. Carol Matthau went everywhere with an industrial-size bottle of Fracas to swab down her rooms. A friend of mine, a recovering alcoholic, calls ahead to ensure that no tempting little bottles of vodka show up in the mini-bar. Yet, in truth, almost everyone who's ever stayed at a hotel attempts in some small way to banish the ghosts, to instill the space, however temporarily, with his individual essence. The blankness Koolhaas was talking about is existentially spooky. It suggests transience, disappearance, even nonbeing. It's probably a bourgeois thing to say, but changing one's hotel room is a gesture of belief in a vital present. It's a way of getting located, of reminding yourself to be here now.

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