The motel was like something right out of a book. It had taken on a personality of itself to me. The neon sign that forever proclaimed it’s vacancy, apart from two weeks in March when Mr Wong took himself on fourteen days of paid vacation to Rarotonga. I don’t think his name was actually Mr Wong. His real name was long and harsh sounding, and he had resigned himself to the fact that he was a middle-aged Chinese man who owned a motel. His guests wanted to be able to pronounce his name. So, Mr Wong, it was.
There were mismatched neon lighting strips above the doors of the rooms, and at night the motel was lit up in a grimy haze of pinks and oranges. The prostitute on the second floor had smashed hers and convinced Mr Wong to replace it with a bright red one. She’s always been subtle.
The courtyard of the motel is cracked concrete, the door to the reception always creaks when it's opened but never when it's being closed and if you climb out of the window in the end room on the second floor, Room Twenty, you can use the rusty fire exit ladder to boost yourself up onto the roof.
From the roof, you can see across the busy road into the windows of a cluster of buildings.
There's the dairy. The dairy is really a gas station, but it’s where we get our food. The Maori lady who runs it likes my little brother so she gives us cheap bread and tampons and lets us run up a tab. Next to the gas station dairy, is the hub of activity.
Not exactly a pub, not exactly a strip club and not exactly a diner, the building has earned the name Over The Moon. I always joked that it should really be called Under The Moon, depending on where you were seated. The bar attracted everything from bikers to hippies. Although you wouldn’t be hard pressed to find a tired-looking family of four sitting out front in the diner on a Tuesday night.
That had been my family once, a long time ago. If you had looked closely at this picture you would have seen me, only seven years old, playing with the sugar packets in a jar on the table. And m little brother slumped against my shoulder, staring dismally at the bright yellow that was the diner chairs. My mother who still sat up straight and still cared about the way her hair looked, eyes cast sadly to her hands. And my father. But when I look at this picture, which I have many times, his face is always scratched out. A blur in my mind.
I can hear his voice though. He is yelling about the food taking to long, or how bad the traffic had been during the drive here. He knew no one was listening, but didn’t care.
That was the last night he was with us.
We checked into the motel after our meal at the diner. My brother and I had just been tucked out of their minds and into bed when the argument had started.
It went on for hours. Then it was suddenly over. His gruff voice whispered ‘I love you,’ into my sleepy ears, and a callused lipped kiss planted itself on my forehead.
If I had been more awake I would have realised what was happening and I would have wrapped my arms around his neck and held him back. If I had been more awake I would have stopped him from leaving. But I was stuck in the hazy fog of dreamland, with no way to get out.
So with that, he was gone, never present in any more pictures apart from the one of a monthly check, addressed to my mother's name. Until that stopped too.
We were going to leave, I think even mother believed it.
But after a month her and Mr.Wong had come up with an arrangement. He was a good guy, I think he’d had kids too. Or he just had a soft heart and liked taking in strays.
Almost half his guests were made up of permanent residents. If you could pay $170 a week you could stay there. He told me he was Christian once, said he was just doing the Lord's work. I couldn’t see why the Lord if he was real, would care. But Mr Wong just said it was the right thing to do.
I think that's how he kept the place running. During the quiet months, there were hardly any guests at all. When mum asked him if we could stay a little while longer, his cleaning lady had just run off with her boyfriend to have a baby, so Mum got her job. With the pay from the cleaning and the checks from Dad she could pay for the room, as well as have a little left over.
Suddenly, we were permanent residents for, ‘just a little while longer’. That was ten years ago.
The bar’s kitchen was in the middle of the building and it acted in a divider in a way. When you first entered you were accosted by the sight of brightly coloured tables and booths. Then if you made it through the burgers and slightly soggy chips with tomato sauce from those little plastic packets, and through a small archway on the left side of the kitchen, you got to the bar.
It was considerably darker, usually foggy with someone's second-hand smoke, lit by half-hearted multicoloured lights that had been brought in an attempt to make the strip nights more ‘titillating’.
It only brought focus to the small stage and frighteningly unclean pole. There was a ripped up pool table in the corner and the walls seemed to wind around themselves creating many little out of the way places for people to sit and talk. Or sit and do other things.
There were a couple of girls and one guy who operated a blatantly obvious soliciting service. It was alarmingly well set up. Each of the four worked as ‘private contractors’ but all chipped in thirty per cent of their income to a joint fund, that was kept in an old baking tin. The joint fund paid for regular checkups at the doctors for all of them as well as money for condoms, if the welfare clinic down the road had run out of free ones.
When engaging in something ‘company related’ they simply took out the needed amount from the baking tin and then provided a receipt after the checkup or purchase. Lu Lu, the oldest of the three girls did the numbers at the end of each month to check nobody was being screwed over. Excuse my joke. The Cookie Jar Fund had been her idea.
Over The Moon was run by an old guy called Bernie and his son. Bernie looked like a retired farmer with his always bent over back and plaid shirts. His son didn’t look like him in the slightest, I sometimes wondered if they were even related. In this place, it didn’t matter. His son’s name was Dallas and he had fought in the war. I don’t know which one, probably the most recent one, he wasn’t that old. He was a big guy and his arms were about the same width as my thighs. In the war, he had jumped in front of his wounded and unmovable friend when a grenade exploded. He had lost his left eye and his left leg.
He didn’t speak much and mostly tended the bar part of Over The Moon while Bernie worked out front and in the kitchen. As well as serving drinks he had elected himself bodyguard and general intimidator after Joseph, one of the regular prostitutes, had been beat up by some guys in town for a business convention.
One of them had realised what Joseph was doing and all three of the convention guys had lured him outside. They were out the back in the alleyway so nobody could hear Joseph yelling. Dallas saw that Joseph wasn’t hovering in his usual spot by the pool table clutching a vodka and ran outside just in time. They had gotten Joseph onto the ground and were kicking him in the ribs calling him a fag and a bastard.
Dallas basically took on all three of the guys and won. Only two of the guys were still able to stand by the end of ‘their little chat’ as Dallas called it, and they had to carry their friend off between the two of them. I don’t think the friend was dead. But he looked pretty damn near it, and I never found out if he made it. I didn't care. None of us did. After he had sent them off, Dallas closed up the bar and him and his dad drove Joseph to the hospital.
In the days that followed the girls went into action, putting their combined income from the last week or so into the Cookie Jar Fund. They also campaigned for donations, if you didn’t want to engage in ‘company activities’, but still wanted to help Joseph out. That was the Maori lady, who made us all call her Aunty’s suggestion. I donated a twenty.
They used the profits from The Cookie Jar Fund to pay Joseph’s medical bills and care for him a couple of weeks he was unable to work when he was allowed home.
Joseph was in the hospital for five days and Dallas made sure that either himself or his dad were with him at all times. He said that nobody should ever be alone in a hospital.
From then on that was just how things were. Outside the bar was free reign but inside, you treat everyone respectfully or else Dallas would come to have a chat. And like I said, Dallas didn’t ever say much.
Next to the bar was another two-story building. Upstairs lived what was advertised as ‘The Best Law Firm Cheap Can Buy.’ Otherwise known as Higgs Law. I had never actually seen anyone come in or out of that building.
Downstairs was what was possibly the last video store in New Zealand. It wasn’t a franchise one so it was called VideO’s. The O was capital and the entire name was painted bright orange against a tacky blue colour.
Luckily, the store’s owners, who lived overseas somewhere, had figured out we just pirate our movies online now and had branched out to DVD’s, music, books and even some cheap sweat pants and polyester tops with boldly proclaimed slogans like ‘Slay’ and ‘Babe’ in a strip across the boobs.
The shop was managed by an onslaught of surly, acne-plagued teens who lived slightly out of the way and wanted an easy first job. They usually quit out of boredom in under three weeks. The longest lasting manager was Angus, a goth from down the road, who had lasted an entire six weeks and two days. He still holds the title for the longest employee at VideO’s .
The motel, the gas station-dairy, the bar-diner, the never seen lawyers, VideO’s, and the motel.
That was my whole world, until it wasn’t.