My friends Jesse and Jason Cooke always sing Johnny Cash’s I’m going to Jackson when they Karaoke. It’s always terrible, but it’s their go to song. Jesse could be a modern June Carter, and Jason deserves a certain comparison to Cash, but both of them are totally tone deaf. Every time they sing it makes me smile, because both of them look likely they are having so much fun, but that’s the thing with karaoke, it’s all about the artifice. It’s not supposed to be real.
As Nicole, Max and I have driven the country I have found hotels for us as we go. All of them the day of. Originally we were going to stop in Memphis but we decided that would be too much for Max, between 9 and 10 hours, so we decided to stop in Jackson, Jackson Tenessee. Not far off I40 I found us a room at a place called ALLSUITES. I’m not including the italics not to highlight the name for effect. When we arrived at the hotel, the name, in giant red letters on top of the building was actually italicized.
The whole reason I picked the place was because they had an indoor pool, and I thought, a place we could get something to eat. I walked in first to get us checked in was immediately taken by 3 things. First, it was huge inside. One of those hollow hotels with the balconies on the inside, it was the kind of place, that when I was a kid, I would have loved. Second there was no restaurant, I was wrong, that ones on me. Third, there was a bar in the center of the lobby with a few sad bottles of beer above the counter on display for Jack Torrance, and no one else around…anywhere, not even behind the reception desk.
I looked around the huge space. Looked up the five floors at the old glass elevators, and my eyes landed on the ceiling tiles, a few stained with water and age. I grimaced. The pictures online were really good, very cleverly staged, taken only so the nice parts of the building could be seen. I walked over to reception and rang the electric doorbell that was sitting there. From some unknown room in the back a 250 pound woman sauntered out. “Can I help you.” She muttered. I told her I had a reservation, and as she looked me up, I stared back out at the empty lobby and waited for a tumble weed to roll by. She found my reservation and handed me my key. I looked at her and said, not so busy today, huh? She mumbled, “Not today.” And walked back to the dark place from whence she came.
I went back out to the parking lot with a baggage cart and smiled at Nicole. “How is it?” she said. The look on my face said it all. “Oh.” She looked around the parking lot. Ours was the only car in sight. “Is this place safe?” She said. Of course it is, it’s totally safe, just…safe. We loaded our luggage, most of it, because we didn’t want to leave all of our worldly belongings in the car to be stolen, cause this place was safe.
We walked in the large automatic opening door and Max was immediately in heaven. He had been trapped in a car seat all day and was now in a huge space. He stared up at the ceiling, so far away from his 2 year old body, and whispered, “Awesome.” I watched as his motor started, and fired burned in his eyes, there was the sound of burning rubber, and then he ran as fast as his legs would carry him.
He made it around the corner and stopped. There it was glistening in the late afternoon sun, blue like the color of the sky, the heated indoor pool mentioned on their site. The hotel might have been terrifying but at least there would be swimming. Max walked up to the gate of the pool and tried to run in. Max, you see, loves the water. Back on the east coast we had a splash pad where in the hot summers Max would spend hours, going through countless tubes of sunscreen. There were pinwheels that sprayed water, buckets that filled and dumped , and water that shot up from the ground. Between that and visiting certain friends who lived in high rises with pools, he had the water bug. So now every hotel we stay in we try to find one with a pool.
I stopped Max from just jumping in. He kicked and screamed as much from lack of sleep as disappointment. He is only two years old and thinks he understands physics. He would get in that pool wearing anything, not care a lick, and then he would sink to the bottom like a stone. I promised him we would come back down and swim before we went out and found our dinner. The only thing that pried him away was showing him the glass elevators that we would take up to our floor and promising him he could press the button.
The door to our room swung open and I could tell immediately what we were getting. It was a suite, just as advertised by the name. The living room was painted white with a couch and a chair, there was nothing on the walls. The bedroom contained a single king bed and a picture on the wall that was so forgettable it might as well have been parsley. There was a balcony that looked onto the inside of the hotel, right down onto the pool. Along the edge of the balcony plastic plants were growing wild in a manufactured jungle. I touched one of the leaves and years worth of dust came off in a white cloud. I backed carefully away from the unknown toxins and walked back in.
By the time I was in the room Nicole had managed to get Max into his swim suit and ready for fun. I looked at her and saw a mirror of myself. Dark lines under the eyes, lots of blinking, and a tired look that comes from 8 hours of driving after moving 7 years worth of stuff out of an apartment with a toddler. We wanted to drink and go to bed, but…we had to do the pool first.
I have to admit that by the time I got down stairs I was looking forward to a dip. I thought it might refresh me, waking me up a little so I would be more equipped to play with Max. I opened the gate to the pool and walked over, Max and Nicole following close behind as Max jumped up and down with excitement. I got to the pool and stepped in. Shock went from my feet all the way to my head. Ice cold. Heated pool my ass. I jumped out and Nicole looked at me. I shook my head. She knew what I meant. Max however had no idea and the shock of not swimming would be so much worse than the temperature. Nicole looked at me with that wonderful smile, that only the best mothers have, and said, “Just let him get in if he wants to.” She’s great like that, every time I think we should put the kibosh on something, she points out that we don’t have to.
Max stepped onto the top step and made that funny little face when something is too cold. “It so cooooold.” He said with a great big grin on his face. Now I’m a great big wuss when it comes to cold. I can’t do it in the water. Nicole, not a wuss, stood in up to her calfs and held Max’s arms while dragging him around the water. This lasted about 10 minutes and then he was cold enough that he was willing to get dressed and go foraging for food.
After drying off and getting dressed we walked out the front doors and to our relief noticed the parking lot had started to fill up. It made both of us feel better to know that we would not be the only people staying in this giant building. We got to top of the drive way and looked down the road. It looked like one leading up to a mall, lots of chain restaurants owned by conglomerates that owned other more popular restaurants closer to better hotels. Also, there were no sidewalks. We carefully made our way across the street to a place called, Redbones. I had never heard of Redbones but we both decided that rather than cross 3 parking lots to get to The more popular Charlie O’s, which I had also never heard of, we would just go to Redbones, since the food was probably about the same.
Walking into Redbones however was not what I expected. This off the highway Ruby Tuesdays wannabe as nothing of the sort. It was like walking into an Olive Garden that had yet to been furnished and decorated, with the exception of 3 or 4 giant televisions playing tennis, football, and baseball. In the back I saw a man in orange chefs clothes hobnobbing with the clientele, which consisted of what I assumed to be two groups of lesbians and a bunch of guys wearing cuts from an MC. This, in short, was an interesting place. I began to wonder what this was before Redbones took it’s life force. My first impression said Red Lobster. That once upon a time this had served up delectable plates like The Admiral’s Feast, a huge plate of deep fried scallops, clams, and flounder, and rum drinks like a Bahama Mama. It’s possible they just changed the sign, kept the red and replaced the lobster with bones, a long shot to be sure, but possible.
I stared around at the art on the walls, the polar opposite of the hotel. This was all art by someone the owner knew, had painted, and was probably for sale. Someone local who lived and worked in the Jackson TN community had painted these. Not my taste in art, but obviously someone had taken the time to put something personal on a canvas. This place had become something different than what it’s exterior screamed.
Our waitress, a sweet mousey woman with the best Tennessee accent I have ever heard walked up, handed us menus, and then left to get two beers and a glass of milk. We ordered a simple meal. Max ate of the small peoples menu and had chicken tenders, while Nicole did a simple chicken breast with broccoli, and I had a salad and Cajun Chicken sandwich. The thing that surprised me the most about the food was that it wasn’t that bad, it was even pretty good. Lots of flavor, but not too much, and though the way it looked on the plate left something to be desired, it filled the hole and left us all better for it.
Walking back I couldn’t help but think how both of these places were great representations of America. One, the hotel, was left to fall apart. In 1989 I bet that place was hopping. That empty bar in the lobby was in full swing as men with bad suits and woman with shoulder pads in their jackets held business meetings there. Now it was obvious no one cared about the place. At one point I dropped something on the bathroom floor and caught a glimpse just under the rim of the toilet. It’s nothing I want to think about again after I finish typing this, but another example of how long it had been since anyone had really cleaned the place. The staff was tired, maybe working for an owner who didn’t really care about any kind of quality, but the appearance of quality, and even that was waining quickly. We also live in a world of monster chains and no where is that more evident than along our nations highways. This hotel, as far as I could tell was the only one of its kind. Since we were at the ALLSUITES we stayed at another, one that was owned by a huge company, one that maintains 20 different chains, each one larger than the last and one that has enough money they can maintain certain standards.
Redbones, a restaurant in a terrible location, is trying to be a local establishment. It’s not original or interesting, but it is attempting to have its own personality amidst strips of lands that lack any at all. It will fail or succeed because it looks the same as all the other chains along the highway. Some will steer toward it and others away for that very reason. They are trying to build upon what was already there, using an infrastructure based on nothing but the organizations around it, each one using almost the same architecture and design ideas. Actually, I want to revise my previous thought. It will fail. It is the height of optimism to try to build an organization, any, at the foundation of another, but unless you are building one that is directed at the reality of the world we live in, it is destined to fall apart. Then again, if Redbones opened up in a swanky location in a historic section of town, I bet they would sell like gangbusters. Either way you look at it, what you see is the end result. It has nothing to do with how good the food actually tastes or how the rooms are in reality, it’s about what we believe is waiting for us on the other side of the highway.
As we walked back from dinner I started humming Johnny Cash, thinking about Jesse and Jason and laughing about their Karaoke performance. The sun was dipping low throwing a deep orange glow across the asphalt and Max was running in one of the empty parking lots. It was actually quite beautiful and strange seeing the sun go down behind a bunch of signs on the side of the highway.