Saturday, March 08, 2008

Working at the motel blues....

There is an interesting article in the Globe today about the closing of the Hillcrest motel, one of the last three motels which were still running on the old motel strip around Humber Bay. This article brought back some memories I haven't thought about in some time.

When I was in highschool and when I started university, I worked summers at one of those motels, The Universal. It was the last motel west on the strip. Directly to the west of it was John Ducks Tavern, which like the Universal, is long gone.

In the early 80s, the motel I worked at was well kept, but still old. Out front, there were two fiberglass horses, as I recall. Inside the office, there was a fantastic old sofa, that was plastic encased gold glitter. Today, we would call it vintage. There was also an old-school switchboard system. All the rooms had phones, but to phone out, the guests has to call the office and give the person at the desk the number. The desk clerk would then open a line by plugging in two cables and "dial" the number. Even in the early 80s, this was a magnificent relic of days past.

My job became "afternoon guy". I worked something like 4:00 to midnight. Once the owners of the place and the maids had all gone home, I was it, and my job was to do everything. The goal was to try to rent all the rooms every night, but not to rent rooms to anyone who was going to trash the place. This wasn't easy. The first rule was not to rent to anyone who didn't come in a car, and to avoid local people. The guests we wanted were people visiting town. They were the safest.

A lot of our customers were travelers from the United States, looking for a reasonable place to crash. Although even then the place seemed to me like it had just emerged from another time, we filled more times than we didn't.

I had an unspoken deal with a local pizza joint. I always recommended this place to anyone who asked. They were happy to drop off a free one for me from time-to-time. It was a good deal all around, and their pizza was excellent.

One of my strongest memories from that time, was going out behind the motel to clean the pool, and seeing dozens of garter snakes in the grass by the lake. I have never before or since seen that many snakes in one place at one time. It was kind of creepy. I have no idea what was going on. Maybe it was a snake convention. A week later, I saw none.

Even when I was there, the developers had started buying up the old motels for condos. The strip later became pretty seedy. I recall driving along there just a few years after I worked there and seeing hookers plying their trade along Lakeshore. There was little of that going on when I worked down there. The owners of the motels were trying to keep them up as well as they could. Today, there are some newish condos built where motels once were. There are walking and bicycle trails out on what I think was lake back when I worked down there. The trails are nice to bicycle along now, but the area feels very artificial to me.

The strip of Lakeshore that hosted the motels was and is a strange bit of Toronto, because it is separated from the city by the Gardiner Expressway / Queen Elizabeth Way combination. South of the Expressway, there is only a narrow strip of land and then Lake Ontario. Just up the street from the Universal, you could walk through a tunnel and access the street car at Humber Loop, really the only transit link to the whole motel stretch. To the west, past the Palace Pier condo complex, is the Humber River, and west from there, the road spills onto what I guess is the main stretch of Lakeshore Blvd. To the east is Mimico and Longbranch (I never quite understood how those boundaries worked and which was which), and some very interesting neighbourhoods.


Candy Minx said...

I seem to recall you were also able to watch a little retro tv like Hawaii 50 some nights?

The snake thing is creepy.

The lakeshore development is a crime...did you know that our lake is within the top ten cleanest urban lakes in the world...fortunatley that ugly Garniner...almost taken down hasn't stopped me from enjoying the beach culture of TO...

just thinking about this makes me want end to winter...

Gardenia said...

I hate to see those old motels go - they were from an era that so many of us wish to return to for just a little while, or maybe longer.

I had to laugh about the snake convention. The garters won't hurt anyone - actually there was probably a mouse convention which drew the snake convention and maybe a merger occurred?

sp said...

I remember seeing an old motel along there, perhaps when I was biking once, and I thought it was such a doomed place for a motel since it was somewhat cut off from...well many places. I did also wonder about what that area must have been like when the motel was newer. Thanks for the glimpse into that area of Toronto.