A California Teepee Motel Review

Monday, August 8, 2016

The California Roadtrip, part III: Fear and Loathing in San Bernadino

Every time I write, I seem to talk about some aspect of writing. So let me introduce or reacquaint you with a literary term. Roman a clef. It's French for "novel with a key." It's a piece of writing about real life overlaid with the facade of fiction. Sometimes it's as simple as changing a few real names of people and places to fictitious ones, the rest is completely true. The key is knowing the relationship between the non-fiction and the fiction. So what are just a few reasons for using a Roman a clef? How about just 1? Writing about controversial topics or reporting inside information on scandals without giving rise to the charges of libel. Anyway, tuck that term away and call me Ishmael.

From 1985-1989, I lived in a sweet little cul de sac neighborhood in southern California while my father went to art school. My mom worked at Kaiser Permanente. We lived at the base of the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains. My cat ate a gopher once and put it’s head on our front doormat like the severed head of John the Baptist. Then a coyote ate my cat. I rode my bike to school and I had my pack of neighborhood friends. We played cowboys and Indians and made mud pies in the backyard for high tea time. It was like a Spielberg movie. My Great aunt lived a few towns away and we’d often pick her up and take her out for dinner at some stuffy banquet hall full of beige drapes, beige carpet and blue hairs. My father would drive us down route 666 and we’d inevitably drive past the Teepee motel-an old motel that had quirky concrete teepee structures for motel rooms-a relic of California’s 1940’s road culture. Conversations of cultural appropriation didn’t really happen in the 40’s or when I was a 7 year old kid. It was torture, driving past those teepees. C'mon Dad! All I wanted was a night in a teepee. One of the first lessons any child learns is this: You can’t always get what you want. 

Flashback to 1986. Illustration: Meryl Franzos

Thirty years later. I was going to get what I wanted. A stay in the teepee motel. I couldn’t believe it still existed. I booked a night and emailed the owners. I let them know that I'd always wanted to stay there as a kid and was super excited to do so in a few weeks. I also mentioned that I wanted to feature their business on my fashion blog. In my head, I was going to show the world what they were missing. Why stay at the cookie cutter hotel when you could stay in a quirky, and visually fun slice of road culture history? (Not to mention, I knew it would be an amazing background). Fashion bloggers are ALWAYS looking for fun locations or colorful walls. My pictures would bring more bloggers. It would bring more business and help to preserve and reinvigorate the dwindling appreciation for a boomer generation’s obsession. I was picturing a scenario where everyone wins. I got no response.

Day 3 of our California road trip finally came. It was “route 666 day” and I was super excited. We were going to hit Cabazon Dinosaurs (something else I always wanted to see as a kid, but Dad said no to as well), go for a hike, check-into the Teepee Motel, and go to Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse in San Dimas- a zany steakhouse from my youth. I remember going there and begging my father to wear a tie. Any cityslicker that walks into this blue-collar cowboy restaurant wearing a tie will get the tie cut off and stapled to the ceiling. My Dad said no to getting his tie cut off as well. But today, was the day. I was going to do it all.

We left Indio and went to Cabazon dinosaurs. I have to be honest here, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. The dancing sugar plum fairies and pee wee kitsch dreams of my youth were promptly shattered and I was ready to leave in five minutes. My husband Raoul and I decided to find the trail head for Desert Creek Hot Springs. The google images of the hot springs were stunning. We love hikes with a good pay off, so we embarked. Google maps sent us on a wild goose chase. We off-roaded in the rental car, often spinning our tires. We quit offroading when the road became so steep it looked like a wall. We tried to get to the trail head by a few other suggestions, but no luck. After a frustrating four hours of looking for the trail head, we finally admitted defeat and threw in the towel.( It's probably for the best...We later learned that it’s actually a nudist colony. So if you're into that sort of thing and you have an off road vehicle, be sure to check it out...)

We ventured back to San Bernadino. After a small taco and a cold drink, my childlike excitement returned; it was time to check into the Teepee Motel. When we pulled up, there were about 15 pristine teepees made of painted concrete. The grounds were well kept, with some moldering, classic cars in the back lot. Strings of lights ran from teepee to teepee, sure to look magical at night. There were palm trees and lush, green grass and at the center of it all, was a very inviting pool. It was 100 degrees out.

Raoul waited in the car while I checked us in. The front office was covered in route 666 memorabilia and souvenirs. The owner sat at the front desk, tucked behind all of the route 666 signs. I said Hello. He continued to check his phone while I waited. After about twenty seconds, he set it down and slapped a motel registration on the counter. I smiled and said that I'd made a reservation online. He brusquely found my online registration and bade me to fill out the motel registration anyway. I happily did as I was asked even though he gave me the impression that I was annoying him. He asked for my credit card and I gave it to him. He asked me what my plans were while running my card. I perked up and said, "Well, we've had a long hot day so you're pool looks really amazing right now. I think we'll take a dip, then, since we're being nostalgic we'll go out to Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse for dinner--I went there as a kid and I'm looking forward to retu-"
"The one in Colton," he interrupted.
"No. San Dimas," I replied.
"They recently opened one up in Colton, it's like three minutes away from here."
"Oh, well I went to the original one in San Dimas when I was a ki-"
"WELL, if you want to waste three hours of your life. Go to the "original." But personally, if it were ME...JUST SAYIN...I'd rather save myself three whole hours of driving."

You sir, are not me and you're not writing novel, I thought, But three hours?
I could feel my brow starting to contort. I studied the maps pretty hard while plotting this trip out. I didn't recall San Dimas being three hours away. But, in classic ME fashion, I began to doubt myself. I supposed I could be wrong. If anyone knew better, it should be him. 

I muttered something about looking at the map again and thanked him for the suggestion.  
 He gave my credit card slip to sign, my room keys and quickly oriented me to our teepee, the ice machine and where coffee could be found in the morning.  I nodded silently, but there was something in his manner that...well, my gut was sending off warning flares. I once had a job with a high percentage of...actually, no. Let's not go there...Let's just say since all that job experience with the public, my gut never lies. My inner robocop scanned the environment, scanned him and his voice stress levels. The threat assessment pointed to PROBLEM CHILD. 

Robocop film still.

For being the owner of a business, steeped in nostalgia, he was quite possibly the least nostalgic and most judgemental person I'd ever met. I turned away my robocop assessment and turned on my writer's empathy. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. He's just having a rotten day. Whatever this was, has nothing to do with me because I'd just met him. I handed the signed slip back and smiled at him. My most winsome smile. A smile flickered on his face for a second then he avoided my eye contact like his life depended on it. I positioned my elbow on the counter and was about to mention photography and my blog at this point, but he opened his laptop and dismissed me.
"OKAY. We're all done. YOU CAN LEAVE NOW." 

I'm pretty good with social cues. I saw myself out. 

I got back in the car with Raoul and said, " Something's off with that guy. He was super rude, but whatever, let's have a good time and hope we don't run into him again."

The teepee room was round. There was a queen sized bed and a love seat. There was a bathroom with a shower. It was dated but clean. Raoul and I had refreshing dip in the pool.Then we got cleaned up for dinner at the Original Pinnacle Peak Steakhouse (only 20 minutes away). Before we embarked on our 20 minute journey, we took some pictures of me and the teepee village. The owner saw us and said nothing. The other guests at the pool saw us. Nobody cared. We went to Pinnacle Peak. We enjoyed our steaks. We enjoyed ourselves, then we came back to the motel. It was now dark. We took a few more pictures of the teepee vilage, all lit up with colorful string lights. Then we retired for the evening. Happy with how disapointing our day began and how pleasant our day ended. Little did we know, that would all soon change.
What are you guys talking about? Illustration: Meryl Franzos
The next morning we woke up early. I wanted to get an outfit shot for the blog with the teepees in the background. Raoul walked around the property while I did my hair and make-up. He got beauty shots of the teepee village and the classic car "junkyard" in the back. I say "junkyard" but it's really set up like a photo-op. Everything at the Teepee Motel is set up like one big photo-op. Raoul waved at the owner and the owner's father who were walking around the village too. They ignored him and Raoul shrugged, assuming they were busy. When I was ready, we found the best spot in the best morning light. We got some really great pictures. Both of me and of this historic landmark. They were good enough that we would've given some of the pictures to the owners --to use for their website or their social media. However, right before we finished the last photo, the owner slinked out of the office and whispered something to my husband. I can see the confusion on Raoul's face, so I stop posing and walked over to see what is going on. 
"What's up?" I asked.
"I'm going to have to charge you a $150 photography fee," said the owner.
"What?"I asked in surprise.
"Normally it's $600, but for you, since you're guests, I'll do you a favor and charge you $150."
This reaked of sleazy business dealings. 
"No. I'm not interested in that. I'd rather delete the pictures." 

I hated to hear myself say that, because the pictures were great, but I knew that I didn't want to live with the weak version of myself that would allow a petty crook to take advantage of me. 

Robocop film still.

"Well, you've been taking pictures since last night. I can't verify what you've already uploaded, so I'm just going to have to charge your card anyway," the owner pressed.

"This is news to me. You don't have this photography policy posted anywhere on the website or in the office. Nor did you mention this last night when you saw us taking pictures," I pointed out.

He shrugged and said something like, "It is what it is."

That didn't fly with me
"Ok, fine," I said, my voice thick with sarcasm, "This is wrong, but you go ahead and do what you think you have to do. I'll just report you to the better business bureau and dispute the charge."

This is when the owner's eyes bugged out and became glassy with fury. His silent, unsmiling father circled up behind us.

"If you charge it back, I'll take you to small claims court and I'll win. I do it all the time!" the owner yelled, his arms waving in the air.
I yelled back
"This is extortion! I don't even want the stupid pictures anymore!" I said, "I want to forget this entire experience."

"Ishmael," Raoul pleaded, "We'll just pay it."
"NO! He's probably used to people rolling over on this, but I'm not. This is completely unprofessional, not to mention illegal. I demand you show me your photo policy! You can't can you? because you don't have one!"

The owner pretty much went ballistic at this point. He became very intent on proving that we'd come to take photos. Yes! I cried with a shrug. He clapped his hands and laughed. HA! He pointed at me like he'd caught me. 
"By the way, Ima recording everything you say!" he shouted. 
"Good," I said, "let the record also show that I emailed you about photos a month ago. YOU NEVER RESPONDED.  I tried to talk to you about it again, the other day when we were checking in, but you dismissed me. Ball was in your court and you blew it!"  

His father sat down on a concrete fence and glowered at us, earbuds still plugged into his skull. The owner sat down next to him and shouted about how hard he worked. How my husband, Raoul was sneaking around taking photos last night and again this morning, avoiding them because we some how knew there was a fee for photography and we were trying to avoid it. The owner hollered about how hard his parent's worked. How he has to live here and how people like Raoul and I just waltz in and steal and disrespect from him. 
Raoul sneaking around the teepee village. Illustration: Meryl Franzos

It became clear to me that his anger really had nothing to do with us and yet it was coming out at us just the same. Maybe business wasn't going so well. Maybe it was going so poorly as to reduce him to juvenile attempts at highway robbery. Maybe it wasn't personal, maybe it was merely survival? My writer empathy stuck up for him.
"Okay," I paused, taking a step back and said something to the effect, "Clearly we got off on the wrong foot. You guys have done a wonderful job. This place looks wonderful. I'm sorry to have given you the impression that I don't know the amount of blood, sweat and tears it takes. I did not mean for any offense. That was not my intention."

"Pfft. whatever. It's a $150."
"I'm trying to apologize here."
"take your apology and shove it. You walked in here and disrespected me and my parents...Most people are happy to pay $150."

I swallowed the anger that was steadily re-gaining ground and said, "Pointing out that you don't have a publicly posted photography policy is not disrespect."

The owner rolls his eyes at us and walks back into his office. We followed him in, thinking he was going to produce a photography policy. He pulled up his laptop.

After a couple minutes, I asked him, "So are you going to show us a photography policy or are you being childish and ignoring us?"

"Pfft. Whatever man. Your card will be charged. Enjoy your photos."
Robocop mentality pushed my writer empathy far, far away. I was about to give him a piece of my
"Let's get out of here," Raoul said, herding me out the door, "His life is clearly going very well as to make him a very happy and reasonable person."

"I LIVE HERE. MY LIFE IS AWESOME!" he shouted as we left. 

wigwam motel
Communication Breakdown. Illustration: Meryl Franzos
We retreated to our teepee. I packed my bags. I paced around the room. I wanted to leave, but Raoul had to shower and pack up. I climbed under the covers and shivered. I was angry.Ten minutes ago, I was going to tell the world how great this place was. Then all of the sudden, I was paying someone an additional fee to advertise for them. I was never going to look at the photos; I wanted to forget them. These photos were never going to see the light of day on my blog, so I was effectively charged $150 for nothing. I was so angry that I couldn't make the crazy man see reason. WHY COULDN'T HE SEE REASON?  WAS I IN SOME KIND OF TWILIGHT ZONE, WHERE "NO" MEANS "EXTORT ME" AND "I'M SORRY" MEANS "FUCK YOUR MOM?" WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED?

By the time we were ready to leave, I'd mostly stopped shaking. I bade Rauol to go into the front office and hand deliver the room keys, so the awful manager wouldn't charge us for lost keys--something I knew he would do if we left them in the room, just to stick it to us. I even took a picture of our room, in case he said we trashed it. Raoul, being a professional photographer had never witnessed anything like we'd just experienced, ever. In all of his fifteen + years as a freelancer. Raoul is smooth and calm. He's worked with recovering addicts, famous astronauts, autistic children, actors, directors, musicians, CEO's, protestors, politicians, homeless people and everything in between every possible stratum of society. Believe me when I say he is above all, professional and sensitive. "I'm just going to go in there and tell him that we have no plans to publicly or privately use the photos and ask him to please not charge your card.

Raoul came back out and started driving to the teepee village exit.
"What did he say?" I asked. 
"He said...I already charged her card. We love photographers here, man. I'm a photographer too," Raoul said, doing a pretty good impression of the unhinged owner.
Something in me snapped.
"STOP THE ******* CAR!" I roared, "This is B*******! He's a ******* ******* and a ************ and a coyote ******* CROOK who probably preys on all the old boomers rolling in here and he's just mad because I called him on it. Well, it STOPS ******* HERE!"
"Ishmael...." Raoul groaned, pulling into a spot by the last teepee.
I called the cops.They said a patrol car would come.
So we waited. and waited. And waited. 
1 1/2 hours to be exact
I called the cops back. Some emergencies had sprung up. I looked around the part of town we were in. I wasn't surprised and I understood. $150 was not a life or death or an emergency situation, but it was wrong. The cops agreed, the motel owner was wrong and they'd be there as soon as they were able...probably another couple hours. I looked at the time. We had to meet a friend of mine in Universal City in an hour. I had to let it go. 
"Please don't let this ruin the rest of your day," Raoul said, "He's not worth it."
"I know," I said.  
So we headed west, and I sorta let it go. 

wigwam motel
Thumbs down. The California Teepee Motel carved wood sculpture. Illustration: Meryl Franzos
 We met up with my friend. A Pittsburgh transplant in Los Angeles. She used to be my intern, but now she's a VIP at NBC Universal Studio. I couldn't be prouder. We had lunch and told her about our travel exploits. We probably lingered over the teepee motel a little too long, Raoul and I were still in shock. But eventually we abandoned the topic and caught up with her and her new life in California. Life is going well. And of course, having a friend that works at a tv and film studio wouldn't be complete without a tour. She took us around the studios on a golf cart. We could get out and walk around the film sets whenever we wanted. We saw fake New York. We saw the Bates Motel--we all had a great laugh. Maybe crazy motel owners are a thing.

When I called my credit card, I found out that the owner of the teepee motel decided to stick it to us just a little bit more. Instead of $150, he decided $165 was a little bit better. For him. I remembered his threat. If I did a charge back, he'd take me to small claims court. If I went, would cost more than the $150, $165. If I didn't go, he could add on more costs probably...legal, time and whatever emotional damages he saw fit. So I didn't dispute the charge. I wish I could say I didn't let this awful experience ruin the rest of my time in California and the days when we got back. Today even. But I'd be lying. It did get to me. I failed. I couldn't get someone to understand and that made me angry, with him, with myself. Was he a willful crook or was he just crazy? I filled out a Better Business Bureau complaint and then I filled out any possible online review that I could. One star reviews. I pinned my negative experiences with the place solely on the management and how they tried to extort me. My Better Business Bureau complaint and my one star reviews were practically the same words. I pressed publish. And then, people began emailing and reaching out to me. Poor souls that had also been stepped on and had their vacations ruined by the belligerent owner. There's apparently a survivor's group. Fancy that. I went back to these review sights and scratched my head at all the glowing reviews, but when I filtered the search to negative only, I found stories eerily similar to my own. Strange, angry outbursts that often end in the owner evicting the people from their rooms over simple things like, asking to exchange a souvenir t-t-shirt for a different size. I also noticed that the owner responded to any negative reviews. There was a clear pattern. There was never any admission of guilt or misbehavior on his end, rather the owner dismissed the guest's negative reviews because they were "drunks" or "junkies" or... in our case, he called us black mailers, frauds, scam artists and thieves and that we were solely responsible for route 66 places going out of business. He called me a crook that goes around black-mailing businesses to give us stuff for free and if they don't', we bash them. He supposedly also added us to a "corporate hotel black list."
One lesson I see repeated over and over in my adult life is: You can't always get what you want. Or, in my case, if you try to, it won't probably won't be exactly like you thought. Everytime I get disappointed, I remind myself to banish those thoughts that creep in when you're feeling sorry for yourself...You know, the thought that the world owes you something. The world owes you nothing. The better thought to replace it with is, What about you? What can you give the world? 

The Better Business Bureau got back to me. They've compelled the owner to issue me a refund. According to the motel owner, I received something for free. According to me, I received the funds that were stolen from me in the first place, back. So there's that. I told him I wasn't going to use any photos taken on his property and I've kept my word. Law abiding citizen that I am. Fortunately, I didn't promise not to dust off my college art degree to illustrate it though. However fearful of his retaliation I am, the story was one that I thought you should hear and be warned by. More harm would come if I remained silent. Trust me, weary traveler when I say, Here There Be Monsters. Anne Lamont wrote, "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better."    Words are a mirror that we hold up to society.  Unfortunately, people won't always like what they see. Be good and you won't have to worry. Are you a good person that had a bad day and took it out on someone? It's still okay, just apologize. We're all human, we'll understand. But spread hatred and dischord and refuse to admit wrong, wherever you go? Well, don't be surprised when people like me call you out and mop the floor with your lies. 

Bates Motel. photo credit: Joshua Franzos