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In and out

No-tell motel caters to customers' strict desires

MT Photo: Detroitblogger John
"It's a tough business," says daytime manager Lloyd Morris.
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Published 11/19/2008

Sleazy acts sometimes beget sleazy settings, and when folks want to act on sordid things they can't practice at home, they can visit places like the Cabana Motel on Harper.

The Cabana is a seedy, no-tell motel on Detroit's east side that offers rates for stays as short as two hours.

Its customers are mostly hookers, hustlers, cheaters, dopers and the down-and-out who stay there to hide from trouble, or vacation away from their run-down homes in the area.

The place was built in the early '60s on a forgotten main road, and looks about the same as it did on its first day — the exterior is original, only dirtier. A retro sign rises out front, painted rock covers the front walls, and garishly colored tiles line bathroom walls.

The Edsel Ford Freeway's across the street. It cut through here in 1959, plowing away one side of Harper, stranding its other half on the service drive, where the sounds and smells of traffic drift upward toward the 35-room motel.

Sixty-two-year-old Lloyd Morris is the daytime manager here and often works 12-hour days. He's a heavy-smoking, lanky figure in loose clothes; a no-nonsense caretaker with an otherwise gentle disposition.

"Most of the people who come in here know me and they know I'm not takin' no shit," he explains softly.

Morris says he has had guns pulled on him. He has had customers move into rooms and refuse to leave until ordered to do so by the law. He has been dragged into violent domestic disputes. He has been through it all.

"It's a tough business," he says, matter-of-factly.

Rooms cost $25 for two hours, or $40 per night. A week's stay runs $140. Each room offers a bed, a table, a TV that shows pornos and smells of sweat and cigarettes masked by disinfectant. The front office sells snacks and condoms from behind thick glass. A dog stands guard.

Posted rules are strict: only two people per room. No refunds five minutes after check-in. No swapping of room partners. Get caught violating any of these and you're out.

But customers make every effort to break the rules.

"They'll try every little game in the world," Morris says. "I've been in this business 15 years. I've seen everything, I've heard everything, so don't pull it on me 'cause it's not gonna work."

Every day's an adventure here, Morris says. "The other day a guy was looking for his girlfriend, what room she's in with another guy. He kept kicking doors. I says, 'Hey man, what are you doing?' I says, 'You're wrecking my motel. It's gonna cost me money to fix that door.' He says, 'My girlfriend's up in there.' I says, 'I don't care who's in there. You don't kick in my door. Wait until later on, find her someplace and kick her ass. Don't do it here.' So he left."

A middle-aged auto salesman pulls up, gets a room for himself and his woman, and jogs excitedly to his room. The door closes, and locks are heard turning. He's a regular. "They come to get away from their wives, take their secretaries out here," Morris says of the daytime customers.

But most of the motel's business, Morris says, comes from what he calls "short stays," visits by people who need a place where they can penetrate each other. And with another cheap motel just down the road, this stretch of Harper is rife with hookers. Morris has to keep them from loitering out front. "I just tell them to take it down the street," he says. "You can rent a room or take it down the street."

He's indifferent to their presence now. "It's gonna go on," he says. "There's no way you're gonna stop it. It's just the neighborhood, man, believe me. The police don't even bother. I mean, they'll make a sweep once a month or something, they'll stop 'em and stuff, but most of the time they just let it go."

The motel is busiest the first of the month, when people get their assistance checks and go on sex or drug binges for up to a week at a time, Morris says. He cleans the rooms when they leave, picking up used condoms, crack pipes and emptied drug baggies.

As he stands outside and talks, a bewigged 48-year-old woman who's been staying here awhile walks up, hustling for everything she can think of.

"I need a favor, a phone," she says. Morris hands her his. She makes a call. And then she demands, "I need a cigarette too. I'm just so broke." She makes another call. Next she angles for a lift somewhere. "I need a ride. You know anybody riding? You like to party?" she asks a stranger. She heads off to hitchhike on Harper.

A few minutes later another customer asks for the phone. Morris gives it to her.

"Our phone system's messed up here right now," he says. "And it costs a lot of money to have it fixed. So the only thing we'll let them use is the office phone right now. Because if we put a phone in the room, the phone bill will be catastrophic. So if I let them use the office phone I gotta charge them 50 cents. I know the people, they ain't got it, so I let them use my phone."

The hotel was recently taken over by Brad Kumar, a 39-year-old Canadian guy who'd heard of an investment opportunity just over the border and bought in. Turns out his investment was in this sleazy motel in Detroit.

Now he's trying to make the best of it. He's put so much money into it that he, his wife and kids, sold their home in Canada and moved to the small apartment above the hotel office. They work the overnight shift.

"It's a big change in our lives," Kumar says. He and his wife are renovating the motel themselves, taking turns watching the front desk and painting rooms. "Whoever's been running it, they never did any renovations, so it's been going downhill from there. So I'm trying to build it up. I'm trying to give people what they pay for."

But renovations can go only so far. "You can't have, like, a Holiday Inn in this neighborhood," he says. "They damage the property all the time, so you can't bring it up to that level, but it has to be improved a little bit. In the spring we'll paint the sign and do some landscaping, make it look nicer from the outside."

Morris was scheduled to transfer to one of the old owners' local motels, but he stayed. "I felt so sorry for these people, 'cause they bought this hotel sort of blind. They didn't know what they were getting into."

Morris does his part, picking up litter and trimming front hedges. "They just want a person to have a decent room for the money they spend," he says. "Forty dollars is a lot of money."

He smokes another cigarette as a cold drizzle begins to fall. Soon night will come, and the rooms will sell out. A chubby hooker on the corner waves and yells at traffic. She'll likely wind up here tonight too.

"I don't worry about it," Morris says, peering down the street. "They're gonna do what they're gonna do. There's nothing that's going to stop them."

Detroitblogger John writes about the city for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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