On behalf of my esteemed employer, the Spanish newspaper El Pais, I traveled to Orlando for this year’s NBA All-Star game. It was to be a trip of firsts: my first All-Star game, my first press pass for a basketball game, my first flight from Real California to Cuban California.
It was also my first experience with Roomorama.com, the website that allows its users to rent rooms and apartments (and probably basements, if you dig long enough) from the owners, slash, proprietors of those apartments.
On principle, I was skeptical of Roomorama. Like everyone, I have a deep-seated (or perhaps shallow-seated) fear of being murdered in my sleep by a stranger. And I’m no great fan of the –orama suffix which, like –palooza and –gate, are as tired as Pheidippides on mile 25.
But I was A) booking late, thanks to a delay in the procurement of my press credentials, and B) me. (The child of a man who would pop his own popcorn to take to the movie theater in paper bags stuffed inside his coat. In a word, cheap.)
So, after plumbing the depths of Hotels.com, I gave in and booked five nights at an apartment not far from Sea World. (Or so said Google Maps.) After I paid up, my host emailed me directions from the Orlando airport (overheard: “Goddammit, Dewey, I told you, we don’t have time for Disney and Universal!”) to his place.
It was 10:30 p.m. when I parked in front of number 207 at the Ridge Club Apartments. I got out of my car and hailed my host, Curtis*.
*Curtis is not his real name. Tyron** is his real name.
**Tyron isn’t his real name. His real name is…nevermind, this is boring***.
***Secretly I don’t find this boring.
Curtis dotted his Is with hearts, cuffed his jeans, and was quite obviously gay which, normally, wouldn’t matter. Except that, in this case, it did matter, a lot – in that I was thrilled that Curtis was gay, because I can’t help but think that Curtis’s homosexuality assisted in the development of the apartment’s décor and general upkeep, which were both stellar.
Obstacle one: passed. Because, after all, I had no real idea whether the apartment would look like the pictures on Roomorama or like the pictures in my head, which looked like that place in St. Louis called the Thrifty Inn that my mother booked in the pre-Internet days, back when I was 12.
The layout of Curtis’s apartment was another pleasant surprise. Upon entry, the door to my bedroom was on my immediate left, meaning that I didn’t have to walk through any kitchens or bathrooms or dog kennels to get to my room. That room – outfitted with a king-sized bed and a bathroom of its own – was clean, tidy, and welcoming. The bathroom was not the bathroom of a Ritz-Carlton, but it, too, was clean in the “free of stray pubic hair” sort of way, which is about the most one can hope for out of a strange room in a strange town.
Curtis explained how things would work: he’d be available by cellular phone anytime I needed him. (He stressed the “anytime,” which made me feel alarmingly attractive.) And if I was around the apartment, I could always just knock on his door…
Eeeerrrk? His door?
That’s right, Curtis was staying in the apartment with me. Not in my bedroom, which would have been ultraweird, not because Curtis was gay, although, yeah, come to think of it, that would have been superultraweird, but more because, you know, it would have been weird to share my room with anyone I didn’t know.
But, yeah, in the apartment, in the other room.
It turned out that Curtis stayed in his room for most of the time I was staying in his apartment. Both In His Room in the sense of Not In The Living Room, which was nice of him, and In His Room in the sense of Still In The Apartment, Always, which was kind of strange, because I was there for five days and DID THIS GUY HAVE A JOB OR WHAT?
At first, I found Curtis’s omnipresence off-putting. I couldn’t relax, I thought. It wouldn’t be possible to, I don’t know, walk out of my room naked and into the kitchen in order to make myself a bowl of oatmeal. At least not without some serious explaining and, possibly, something that I would have to square in my mind for a long time to come.
But as my stay progressed – through that mediocre Rookies/Sophomore game, and that less-than-less-than-mediocre Dunk Contest, and that actual All-Star Game, an All-Star game that was about as compelling as that story your girlfriend told you about the Vietnamese girl who does her nails – I realized that I rather liked the situation. Not just the Roomorama situation – I liked that my room cost me $45 a night, that I had a room and bathroom on par with a Sheraton’s, that I had a kitchen at my disposal – but also the specific Curtis & Roomorama situation.
Curtis’s heart-dotted presence made my stay away from home more like what I’ve always wanted out of a hotel, which is The Prancing Pony from The Fellowship Of The Ring.
We (humans) have decided that we like the anonymity of a faceless hotel room. But faceless hotel rooms are awful, when you think about them. The beds, the floor, the toilet – they’ve all been used by something approaching infinity people. And while we have mastered (mostly) the use of disinfectants and elbow grease, still, GROSS. But more than that, it’s nice to have a good old-fashioned innkeeper. A man who can tell you where to tie your horse (park your Hyundai), where to find the best alehouse (grocery store), how to avoid the Ring Wraiths (speed traps on the highway).
I will grant you that, if Curtis had been a bad host, mine would have been an unpleasant stay. And because Curtis didn’t have much of a history on Roomorama, there was no real way for me to know whether Curtis was a good host or a bad host until I let him host me. I was gambling, to some degree.
Gambling because we haven’t quite got this “sharing economy” figured out. It’s the proverbial Wild West (or Middle-Earth) out there. Roomorama, ZipCar, thredUP: these are not yet household names.
But someday, thanks to ratings systems and recommendations and social networking and unrelenting interconnectivity, staying at a stranger’s apartment may seem no more odd than staying with a long-lost cousin. Everyone will know (or be able to find out) who’s a good host and who’s a bad one. (And, likely, will be able to find out whether we’re good guests or bad guests.)
At the end of my stay, Curtis asked me if anything could be improved – he was new to Roomorama, too, he said. I looked at my bed, into my bathroom, over at the kitchen, thinking that the only thing I would request for next time would be Strider sitting next to a fire in the corner.
Instead of that (because who knows whether Curtis knows that Aragorn was Strider first), I said, “This has been great. It feels like I’ve seen the future.” I shook Curtis’s hand, picked up my bag, and walked out, toward my car.
Inside my car, I thought about what I’d said. I had seen the future. A future that looks a lot like the past. We’re headed toward full circle: from inns where you knew the owner’s name to hotels where you didn’t, back to apartments where you do.
This, the great hope for the Internet. Or perhaps only my great hope for the Internet: that, thanks to the complexity of its form, we could find simplicity in its function.
We were built for human interaction. We think this isn’t true; we think we’d rather order our food by pushing a few buttons or book our flights by moving a mouse or slink anonymously into a hotel room without dealing with anyone in the elevator or at the front desk or outside in the hall.
We think this because we’re all – or most of us, anyway – afraid of each other, a little bit.
But human contact makes us happy. My trip to Orlando was improved because Curtis was there waiting for me, like the innkeeper at the Prancing Pony.
Paradoxically, websites like Roomorama – websites which, our parents would surely say, seem devoted to removing the human element – enable such human contact. They provide the security we need in order to muster the courage to interact.
In other words – and to stick with the Tolkien theme – we’ve gone there, and back again.
And I have a feeling that we’re going to like the place we’ve found.
(Note: when this piece originally “aired,” I mistakenly identified the Greek marathoner as Achilles. Because I’m an idiot.)
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