The motel has always been caught in extremes. You could exhaust yourself rallying all the binaries, from one storey vs. multiple floors to wish-fulfilment vs. domestic life to kitsch vs. high culture, and, of course, exploration vs. safety.
Beneath all of these, however, there’s a more visceral tension that the mid-century motel exploits: hot and cold. Out there the road is an inferno of melting tar; inside the air is COOLED BY REFRIGERATION.
As much as the tourist court and its lineage can be traced back to basic shelter narratives, the room itself is always more than a place to sleep. You don’t decorate the roadside in neon promising merely a roof over the head.
And who wants to watch CABLE TV in a sweltering room?
Air conditioning is everything in the motel. That spray of strangely humid but somehow still stale air helped to colonize a nation with humble roadside accommodations and tacky signs. So many deep sleeps.
No air conditioning — no deal.
When the motel arose as a symbol of the American way of life, technological advancement promised, on the one hand, national prosperity, and on the other, everyday comfort. To be assaulted by freon was manifest destiny.
So, one approaches an old motel air conditioner with some reverence these days. Caught in a musty room in a rundown building, the dial-operated machine appears dumbfounding. The pressing question is always “can I make it work?”
Then it rumbles up to life and you shut the curtains, safe and alone. You know immediately that the hum will be just loud enough to lull you to sleep after the last re-run.
For the next eight hours everything makes sense.