Boise in the Hood

This is the story of how I almost got shot in Boise.

I was driving from Portland to Salt Lake City last week and, owing to vagaries of scheduling, had to split the trip into two parts rather than drive straight through. Boise isn’t really the halfway point — it’s closer to SLC than it is to Portland — but the actual midpoint is an empty field near the Oregon/Idaho border, and an empty field has, by definition, no motels in it.

I Pricelined a room at Boise’s Extended Stay America hotel for only $40. When I arrived at the place at nearly 1 a.m. Wednesday night, I was surprised to see many guests still coming and going and milling around. I was also surprised that they were all in their early 20s and that they were all African-American.

Seeing black people doesn’t normally surprise me, but Boise isn’t really known for its racial diversity. Of course, the fact that it was at a hotel suggests they don’t actually live in Boise. I assumed they were part of some kind of conference or training session or something, but why such an event would take place in Boise, heaven only knows.

The desk clerk was an exasperated middle-aged white woman with a smoker’s voice who was perfectly friendly to me but seemed to have had a busy evening so far. She checked me in and assigned me to Room 220. I went up to Room 220 and found that of all the attractive features my keycard had, opening the door was not one of them.

So I returned downstairs and reported this to the exasperated smoker, who said, in an exasperated, smoky voice, “G–d— it, we’ve been having problems with those all week.” Having thus impressed me with her professionalism, she said she’d go up with me and let me in with her master key.

As the two of us rode in the elevator, she suddenly said:

“These black people are driving me crazy! I don’t know what they’re all here for, but I can’t get nothing done when they’re here.”

Simultaneously shocked and delighted to be witnessing such a trainwreck of humanity, I said, “What do you mean? What do they do?”

“Oh, ‘I need the phone activated because my boss won’t do it, I need to be let in because I don’t have my key,’ every five minutes it’s one thing or another.”

So they’re hotel guests who need you to do your job, I thought. You’re right, that is totally just like Those People.

When we arrived at Room 220, she tried both of her keys — actual metal keys, not keycards — and neither of them worked. She told me to wait there and she’d be right back with another set of keys to try. I wondered why, if she was uncertain which key fit the lock, she hadn’t brought all of the possible ones. Maybe she was afraid of being mugged by one of her many troublesome black guests.

I waited about five minutes and then, in my boredom, tried the keycard in the lock again. This time, the door budged but still didn’t open. It seemed to be stuck. I gave it a push. Then I noticed that the latch — you know, the metal thing that hinges over the door when you’re inside the room — was engaged. I thought: How could the maid have accidentally latched that as she left the room? To activate it, someone would have to still be insi–

That’s when the door was shoved closed by someone inside and I heard a male voice say, “Get the gun!”

* * * *

Now, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t actually have a gun. “Get the gun!” is one of those things you’re supposed to say to scare off burglars. (Also: “I hope there are no burglars afoot, for I am leprous!”) But it’s also possible he DID have a gun, for the following reasons:

1. Everyone in Idaho has a gun.

2. He was, as the desk clerk pointed out, staying in a hotel with a lot of black people.

3. Maybe he was afraid someone would be assigned to his room accidentally, open the door, realize the room was already occupied, and decide as long as he was there to go ahead and rob the place.

At any rate, I said, “Sorry! Wrong room!” and hightailed it out of there. I assumed the desk clerk was on her way back with the other key, and I wanted to head her off at the pass lest she be shot. When I got back to the front desk, however, I found it closed down for the night, a security window drawn across the desk. I could see the woman in the back room, sorting laundry. She had totally forgotten about me.

I rapped on the window to get her attention, but to no avail. I pounded harder. She still didn’t hear me. Finally I got out my cell phone and called her. I heard the desk phone ring and saw that it caused the woman to exasperatedly throw down the laundry she was folding, obviously thinking it was another one of those pesky guests wanting something.

I told her I was at the front desk as we spoke, gazing at her through the security window. She turned around, saw that this was so, and came over. I explained (in person now, not on the phone) what had happened at Room 220 … and thus the complete and total flummoxing of the exasperated smoky woman was complete. She had not expected Room 220 to be already occupied, of course, and this unforeseen complication was the tipping point. She was now utterly baffled, entirely unraveled and confounded, now giving the sort of job performance you would get if you put a hat on a monkey and told him to be a desk clerk. The woman stammered and sputtered and fumed and seemed genuinely at a loss to figure out which rooms were actually unoccupied. Honestly, she had no way of knowing. I saw a computer in the office, but she made no attempt to manipulate its functions into producing a list of empty rooms. Perhaps the computer was only for checking e-mail or for visiting white supremacist Web sites.

At any rate, she called someone on the phone to get some suggestions of rooms to try. You wouldn’t think someone who wasn’t even at the hotel would be a reliable source of information when it came to which rooms were vacant, and you’d be right. At his or her suggestion, we tried Rooms 144 and 142, both of which turned out to have people in them, which we discovered only when the desk clerk opened them with her master key, with me in tow and her adviser still on the phone. I got the impression this was how the exasperated smoky woman always found rooms for new guests: She just went around and tried doors until she found one that was empty. (It made me think of another reason the people in Room 220 could have had a gun: They were sick of the desk clerk barging in every couple of hours and had decided to put a stop to it once and for all.)

At last, she opened Room 140 and found it empty. She apologized in a yammering, addlepated sort of way for all the confusion, and left me. She hadn’t given me a key, so I had no choice but to simply not leave the room. I deadbolted and latched the door, lest the woman come back again two hours later with new guests. The next morning, I spoke to the real manager — I wasn’t even sure anymore that the exasperated smoky woman had actually worked there — and while he didn’t seem terribly surprised by anything I relayed to him, he did refund what I’d paid for the room. I thought: Since refunding my money is really all he can do, what would he have done if I’d been shot by the guy in Room 220? Refund my money, and send a card to my parents? I should have asked him what he normally does in that situation.

I probably made the woman out to be more of a racist than she really is. All she actually said was that one thing, and then for the rest of the column I mocked her for it. (Note: At the Snider house, that is what happens when you make one stupid remark. Ask my dad.) I tried to think of how she could have relayed the information without sounding racist. Perhaps: "All these guests -- the ones here for the training session -- are driving me crazy!" Or maybe: "These many demanding guests -- the black ones, though their race is irrelevant; I mention it just so you know which guests I'm talking about -- are driving me crazy!"

Did I really almost get shot? It's impossible to say. Maybe the people in the room really did have a gun and really did believe me to be a burglar. After all, they'd probably heard me fiddling with the door for several minutes before finally gaining access. On the other hand, there is family lore that my grandmother as a young woman frightened off kidnappers with the "Get the gun!" line, so apparently its use is widespread. (The lore also maintains that the kidnappers were serial abductors who had been whisking Texas women into Mexico, never to be seen again. I had never heard this lore until the other day when I told my mom the Boise story. What other great family lore is being kept from me?!)