There’s a series of low-slung motels along Pacific Highway South. They sit side-by-side, their balcony-style hallways shouting distance apart. Every day, thousands of cars stream along the median-split thoroughfare, passing weathered signs and week-long specials.
I visited one motel regularly, looking for Lisa, the girl in the robe. Since she hung out in the area, I did too.
In August, hundreds of cops descended on the motels. They drove up with armored vehicles, wore black tactical gear, and shut the motels down. The cops said the motels were “crime dens.” The owners allowed residents to sell drugs and commit prostitution, taking a fee for each visitor, each transaction.
I’d heard complaints about the owners and their fees. But the people living there, many who were self-admitted addicts, didn’t see much choice. It was part of the lifestyle.
What follows are a series of vignettes from the place I frequented while filming “The Long Night.”
Some names have been changed.
A dark blue van, an American make, was parked outside Jane’s room. I hadn’t seen it before. Fluids leaked beneath the front grill.
The motel door was cracked; inside I saw three men of various ages. They sat with a young-looking woman in blue a tank top.
“As usual, my room is full,” Jane said, coming outside. She looked different; she wore makeup and her hair was partially braided.
“I got bored,” she said. I told her she looked nice.
I always check in with Jane. She knows I’m looking for Lisa, who wasn’t there. Jane’s been cool with me, but she’s also clear about when it’s a good time and when it isn’t. Her room is a hang out. A place where people get connected to the things they need, get high, relax. On her wall is a sign she made, “Pay da House.” The motel charges $10 dollars for every visitor. She charges too. I’m the outlier; I don’t pay anyone.
As a long-time resident, Jane’s a mama figure, a social nexus. Sometimes she cooks for everyone, using the electric skillet on her bathroom counter. It’s beneath the drying socks.
Jane was feeling chatty. We stood out in the cold night air. As usual, I asked a lot of questions.
Then, he came out of Jane’s room. Tall, maybe in his twenties, with pants hovering just below his crotch. He turned and I saw something boxy and large in the small of his back, beneath his shirt. Having only exchanged manly nods, and not knowing him, I didn’t ask. Firearms aren’t something I really feel comfortable with in this crowd. Especially when people are getting high on crack or meth. It makes them twitchy.
She leaned into me, pressing her forearm into the crook of my elbow.
“It’s like this,” she said, as she stroked her arm against mine. “Trick f*cking. You don’t let them inside you. You do it like this.”
Holly laughed and stepped back. We were standing in the parking lot, just outside Jane’s motel room. Holly was simply hanging out. Or working, I wasn’t sure.
“Here’s my number,” she said, rattling off her digits. With a flirtatious nod she said, “It rings at my house.”
Holly lived in the motel for six months, room 109, she said, but was very clear that she had her own place.
“All these bitches here, they going to die,” she waved at the motel room doors.
I wasn’t quite sure what she was referencing; her conversation was erratic, a monologue, and it flowed from one thing to the next. I suspected it was the crack. I followed her next door, where she bought a $5 dollar pipe.
I asked about Lisa, the 19 year old I’d been following.
“Five hours,” Holly said, without context. She was referencing how long Lisa had been gone from the motel during her first attempt at detox. She’d only stayed in the facility about an hour.
“I’d already cleaned out her purse when she got back,” Holly emphasized.
“I’ll steal anything to sell,” she continued, owning her immorality. “I found a cook tin with black (heroin) in it, and two needles full.”
“When she came back I was like, Bitch!” she laughed, reaching up to choke my neck. She was angry that Lisa came back to her addiction.
Many people I spoke with knew they had a problem, a reason they were there. Holly knew Lisa’s was heroin. Holly was one of the few who wanted Lisa to stay away, to get clean, to leave the life. Lisa was younger than the hotel residents I’d met and, for all their dysfunction and addictions, they appeared to be a loose knit family.