Retreat to New Orleans, Memphis, & Minneapolis

Welcome to day 1 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.)  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.


About 11 years ago, on Tuesday, 21 November 2006, while on an 11-day solo train trip from Boston to New Orleans (staying one night), to Memphis (staying two nights), to Minneapolis (staying three nights), and back via The Lakeshore Limited through Albany, I wrote this while sitting on a train about to leave New Orleans:

“After Cafe du Monde, I walked around the French Quarter for an hour. I don’t remember liking Rue Royal so much before, but it was a favourite this time. Something about the feel of it. Then back to the hotel room, where I sat out on the rooftop garden patio that my hotel window/door opened out on, and read the free USA Today while drinking a diet Dr. Pepper.”

Below is that patio, at the Omni.


wider view of Omni Hotel roof patio, New Orleans

Something I never do at home is drink soda and read USA Today — or any newspaper except the weekly local one, which takes 5 minutes to flip through, standing at the kitchen island. Occasionally on a long car trip, I’ll get a diet Dr. Pepper at a rest stop to drink in the car, but it takes a motel, hotel, or other non-home lodging to prompt me to pop open a soft drink, much less to sip it while reading a newspaper. It’s one of those things that I do when I’m in a heterotopic space — a non-normal place, familiar and unfamiliar — and especially when I’m alone, anonymous, not having to meet expectations of others or do anything in particular.

It’s like there is an alternative me, ready to appear given the right circumstances, and those circumstances include dislocation and anonymity. Is that the “real” me or is the me among those who know me the “real” me?

How many versions of “me” does each of us contain, and what triggers their appearances, or what keeps them hidden, in abeyance?

Drinking the Dr. Pepper reminds me of my mother and my childhood, and reading the USA Today reminds me of my father, because that’s one of the papers he liked to read daily. Maybe they come to inhabit me in a greater way than usual when I am dislocated.



BB King’s Blues Club on Beale St, near my hotel

Later that same day, now in Memphis, I went out to dinner at midnight, walking alone, through dark, unknown, but relatively crowded streets, eating at the Flying Saucer, a sort of brew pub/bar.

The next afternoon, I visited the Peabody Hotel, across the street from my hotel; the Peabody is famous for its ducks, which march from elevator to lobby fountain, and back, on schedule twice a day, at 11 and 5. I hung out in the hotel lobby with some business men, who bought me a drink. That’s not ordinary for me, though not completely out of character:

“… the Peabody lounge/lobby, which is fabulous — I could live there. Went at 4:15 to see the ducks at 5 and ended up hanging out with Robert (“like Redford”), Derrick, and another guy who all work in the field of sleep apnea and do sales of equipment to sleep clinics.  I hung out with those guys on the sofas and comfy chairs in the Peabody Lobby. Ordered a Peabody cocktail (tastes not unlike a Hurricane; made with Southern Comfort, rum, orange and pineapple juice, dash of Grenadine), and ate their cashews, banana chips, and sesame crackers. At 5, I watched, along with dozens of children and their parents, four female ducks and one male duck do their thing: that is, march from the fountain in the lobby along a red carpet into a waiting elevator that takes them to their skyway “palace” (more like a big cage) on the roof of the Peabody, where there is a spectacular view of Memphis.

“The duck march is a huge deal, full of pageantry, with festivities starting at 4:30 as the duckmaster, in a red and gold costume holding a cane with a duckhead grip, tells the history of the Peabody hotel and of the ducks. An honorary duckmaster, someone pure of heart, is also appointed and “knighted” (in that posture) by the duckmaster with the cane. The one today was a female college student who had done something noteworthy. 

“The ducks originally were English ducks, smaller than the northern mallards living in the hotel now, and were live decoys that some duck hunters put into the fountain as a joke. In the morning, the ducks were still in the fountain and there was a crowd of people around them, marvelling. From this came the daily duck march. ( The Peabody’s website says that “Each team [of ducks] lives in the hotel for only three months before the ducks are retired from their Peabody duties, at which time they are returned to a reserve to live out the remainder of their days as wild ducks.” Is that possible? )

 “Afterward, Robert bought me another drink (I drank half of it; only accepted it to be polite; Memphis must be having an effect on me!) and we chatted some more and I showed them pictures of my dog and saw pictures of theirs (on cell phones).” 

ducks in the fountain
I saw “Annie” at the Orpheum
I ate at the Little Tea Shop: broccoli puffs, sliced carrots with onions, turnip greens, with cornbread, unsweet tea. The hostess (owner), Suhair Lauck, and a waitress hugged half the customers and greeted them like long lost friends. As I paid, the owner said, “You haven’t been here before, have you?” When I said no, that I lived out of town, she said, “I didn’t recognise you.”



Nicolette Mall – my hotel was nearby
Minnesota Orchestra building, not far from hotel

In Minneapolis, a few days later:

“[I] stopped in at the Dakota Jazz Club to see about getting a walk-in seat for the Cuban pianist playing there tonight, Nachito Herrera. When I had called from the train a day or two before, I was told that all the reserved seats and tables were gone but that some are always held for walk-ins, if you get there early enough. When I walked in around 4:15, the place seemed empty, but I heard voices in the balcony and called out, “Hello?” A man who introduced himself as Jim came right down and showed me around the place. He said he’d leave a note with my name on a bar seat (small bar — about 6 seats) so I’d have a spot if I get there by 7, which is my plan.”

[Later:] “…. Then I went to the Dakota Jazz Club … Got there by 7 and my seat had been temporarily given to some guys having a “quick drink.” All the staff was exceptionally nice to me — the hosts and hostess, including a friendly, happy-looking guy named Tom, who leaves for New Jersey and Princeton Seminary next year (and who encouraged me to go to church in the morning!), and the bartenders, Karl and Dave and one who didn’t introduce himself. Karl in particular had his eye out for me, making sure I got the bar seat when it was vacated. He also gave me a complementary drink. He has a friend who lives in Portsmouth, NH. I ordered a gin gimlet and stood drinking it, waiting for the guys to move. Finally two of them did (the other two stayed for the show) and I got my seat around 7:30. Ordered peeky-toe crab cakes (three of them, small and columnar, with a very spicy remoulade) and the Local Beet and Apple Salad with Frisee, Pistachio and Truffled Pecorino. Both delish. Later, got a Pimms and lemonade, then pumpkin cheesecake brûlée and herbal tea. Ate the brûlée part and left most of the cheesecake, which I don’t like; I got sucked in by the word brûlée.

The jazz set went from 8-9:30, with the pianist, Nachito Herrera, a timbalis player, a percussionist, someone on bass, and a female vocalist for some of the songs. I chatted off and on with folks at the bar, including a woman, Patty, who lived in L.A. for 30 years but 4 months ago moved back to Minneapolis (her company offered her a transfer) to be near her parents, because every time she heard the phone ring in L.A., she was worried something had happened to them. She feared Minneapolis would be all “wallpaper and doilies” and is pleasantly surprised at the edginess. She also said that you can’t hear jazz in L.A.  — they think the Doobie Brothers are jazz. She and I both bought reserved tickets to tonight’s late show, Dr. John, at 9:30 p.m.”

Again, not my normal M.O., but this is who I apparently am when alone in a city I’ve never seen before. I read USA Today, eat dinner at midnight, chat with everyone in the bar, and decide to go to late-night jazz clubs when the mood hits. If I had been here with my spouse or a even with a close friend, I don’t think I’d have done half the fun things I did on this trip — several plays, a musical, other concerts, city tours, visiting museums and homes, walking through neighbourhoods, interesting meals — mainly because of the time it takes to agree among people what to do, and when to do it. I’m a great planner, but within those plans I prefer to follow my mood and instincts, like getting tickets for the second set of jazz that night — but this is just about impossible when living with and travelling with other people. And if I had been at home or in my hometown, and these opportunities had spontaneously been presented, other duties or constraints might have prevented me, or I may have felt that they prevented me, which amounts to the same thing. Alone, in a place neither here not there, not limited by my normal sense of time or of what “should” happen when, I had the freedom to do what felt right at the time. The Dr. John show is one of my strongest and best memories of the whole trip. (In fact, I went back the next night for his late show.)

During Breaking The Waves, I was on my own in a hotel room. I think I would have been impossible to live with. When you go home, you have to pretend to be the person you are at home.  — Emily Watson

Westminster church I went to on Sunday morning, across from hotel


The next day I saw a play at The Jungle Theatre, then another that evening at the Guthrie Theatre, way across town. In between,

I “had dinner at the bar at Cue. … Tim was my bartender/waiter, and we talked for about an hour all together. I had a club soda and cranberry juice, then hot cider (gratis), plus a puréed white lentil soup with olive oil-baked croutons and heirloom tomato coulis  — quite good — and an autumn field greens salad with black olive vinaigrette and fried shallots (so-so).  Then hot tea. And lots of water. [I had a bad cold.] 

“Tim is working on his masters in forestry engineering. His undergrad degrees are in archaeology and geography. He wants to do agriculture, maybe orchards or tree farms. His brother lived in Bath, Maine! Both his brother and his brother’s wife (last name Fisher) worked for Hyde School, and they still do but have moved to the Woodstock, CT school. Another brother lives in Brooklyn and I heard about some visits Tim made there (during subway strikes). Tim is a nice guy and offered to call me a cab after the show. …

After the play, “… I took Tim up on this offer to call a cab, and while I was waiting, he brought me a club soda and a splash of their signature cocktail that he made for someone else, which is grape vodka (made from grapes and not grain or potatoes) and cabernet grape juice (which is non-alcoholic). I took the cab to the Dakota Jazz Club and was there by 9:35, one song into Dr. John’s 1.5 hour set.  His piano playing is amazing, and his voice is still fluid. Some of the songs were jazzy, some bluesy, many were funny, if crudely so.” 

Guthrie Theatre and loft housing


If I weren’t travelling alone, I also wouldn’t have chatted up the cabbies so much. In a strange city, I highly recommend talking to the cab drivers, not only to find out what’s going on, but more because it’s an education, on a detailed anecdotal level, in how other people live, in the complexities of other people’s lives.

Here are a few of my summaries of conversations with cab drivers:

New Orleans: “My cab driver said he grew up in NO, lived in Calif. for 10 yrs (San Diego and north), but when he was visiting home, “someone sold me a cab” for $2,000 and he drove it that night, making $300, then the next, making $400, and so on, so he had to stay here, because he had six kids to get through college. He did get them through college, and now the 13th grandchild, Justin, nursery-school-aged, was expelled from nursery school because of his hyperactivity. Also, he (the grandson) can’t really talk, although he can say “Gammy car” when his grandmother’s white station wagon pulls up. And he asked for a “boom” (broom) to extricate to toy car lost under the sofa. As his granddad said, the kid knows how to get what he wants. His grandmother is glad he’s moved now with his family to Houston TX, because when he was staying with them he waited until they fell asleep and then got some cans of white paint and poured them over the carpet, his head, the furniture, and put his arms into the cans up to his elbows. She is worried, though, that the medications he’s now on for the ADHD will make him a zombie.”

Memphis #1: Driver to The Pink Palace: “On the way over, I got a guy originally from rural North Carolina. He’s one of six kids, with seven years between him and his next youngest sibling. The day he was born, at home, with a midwife (4 June 1951 at 4:30 a.m.), his brother, who was 18, headed to the military, along with another brother, 17, who had lived most of his life — since he was 5 or 6 — with a cousin or aunt in another town (not too far away) who liked him and at first told people he was hers. The 17-yr-old brother had come home that very morning, and when he found that his brother was joining the Navy, he decided to join up, too, as did a friend of the older brother’s. Both brothers served in the military for 23 years, until they were 40 and 41. Both are dead now, though the brother’s friend is still living. My cabdriver’s cousin (another one) ran a liquor house, where people went to drink at 5:30 or 6 a.m., before work, and the relationships were like family, though not everyone who regularly came to the liquor house was related to each other — but some were. His dad, for instance, a concrete worker, was a habituee. His mom was a “houseworker” (someone who “did” for other people). When the family she worked for went to Mexico on holiday, they wanted her to go with them, so my cabdriver, a kid at the time, was sent to Maine to be watched over by his two older brothers serving in the Navy. His mother deemed his father too irresponsible to have sole care of him while she was away, what with the liquor house visits, and then there was a little campfire his dad made at the concrete site that got out of control one night, though their dog fortunately alerted them to this, but even the dog’s presence wasn’t enough to satisfy his mother that his dad could care for him adequately. So he was in Maine briefly as a child, and that’s how I learned that story.”

Memphis #2: Drive back to hotel from Pink Palace: “The driver on the way back from the Pink Palace is originally from Ethiopia, which was coincidental because I’d just spent an hour watching an IMAX show called “Mystery of the Nile,” about a rafting expedition from the source of the Blue Nile, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to its end in Cairo and the Mediterranean Sea. The driver has been in the U.S. since 1999, and also lived in Arlington, VA. He came over originally to visit a friend, and then the friend or his relatives needed some help and he stayed 8 months to help them, then ended up never returning, even for a visit so far. His whole family except one sister (of 4 sisters and 3 brothers) is in Ethiopia. He has a 4-year-old but isn’t married to her mother; this seemed to be a tough issue for him. He told me it’s better to be married before having kids. He gave me his card with his cell phone number on it in case I needed anything while I was in Memphis.”

Memphis #3: “The cab driver was the one from the other day who took me to the Pink Palace. He remembered me (in fact, he honked at me about 10 mins before, when I was crossing the street, and I waved back at him; when I called the cab company for a cab, he came right around and asked why I didn’t flag him down then for a ride — I had gone back to the hotel to get a scarf before heading to Graceland) and talked a lot more about his family, his brother’s son and daughter — the daughter had a son out of wedlock and the cabdriver’s brother (her dad) went over to the house and took the baby away from her, and he and his wife raised the baby! How history repeats itself in that family!  

“He said that his godson called and asked him for a ride to school today, because the godson’s mother’s car wasn’t running. He said to the godson, and the mother, who was also home from work and not doing anything about the car (which had been not working the night before), or arranging alternate transportation for herself or her son: “Do you think a white person would lay around and not get a ride and make excuses about their car?” Etc. I said I didn’t think this was something that black people had cornered the market on — I know white people who would do exactly this, and in fact, I’ve been one — but he argued that this “can’t do” attitude of victimisation is much more prevalent in the black community. 

“He said that his mom told him, when she was raising him, that he had two strikes against him already being born black and poor, and that he was going to have to work all the harder to overcome this by getting an education. His mom told him that a white boy would go into the military for 3 years, get a college degree (paid for by the military), and then leave and get a good job, rising up the ladder, while black folks make a career of the military; and in 20 years, the white guy has a college degree, a good job, and two retirement packages, while the black guy has 20 years of military service, a high school diploma, and not enough money to live on. My cabdriver chose the latter route, dropping out of college, which he regrets, and spending 20 years in the military, then needing another job when he got out to make ends meet. He doesn’t like Memphis and wants to retire in four years (with 20 years in the military and 20 years driving cabs) to either Austin, TX, or back to North Carolina, where he grew up.

 “It’s not that far to Graceland — after we got there, he sat and talked for another 10 minutes and we discussed these questions of race.”

Memphis #4: “My cabdriver on the way back from Graceland was the first white one I’ve had on the trip, and he regaled me with tales of amazing things he’s seen in his job: a drunk guy he picked up at The Peabody (the posh hotel) one afternoon who gave him a street address that didn’t exist … the street existed but not the number … After 20 minutes of hunting, both cabbie and passenger were getting irritated and annoyed, until passenger asked, “Are we in Memphis or Nashville?” The cabbie drove him back to the Peabody. He was a lawyer from Nashville, in town with other lawyers. Another fare was a guy who spoke only to himself, carrying on a lengthy argument in two distinct voices. He continued arguing with himself after paying the fare and as he walked off.  Another passenger said nothing to the cabbie other than asking him if he had a glass; the cabbie didn’t, only a styrofoam cup, to which the passenger replied that he needed a glass, and that with only a couple of inches of liquid in it, he could look into the glass and see what his girlfriend was doing right now. 

“This cabbie is from rural Missouri and came to Memphis years ago to visit his dad. Then he met a woman; they were married for 18 years, until she died. He wants to go back to Missouri and doesn’t know why he’s not going, except for the money involved.”

Minneapolis: “My cab driver from the hotel to the Amtrak station this morning, Judy, was very very talkative … at 7:15 or so. Aaagh. She’s never been to Chicago! The gist of most of the conversation was that she’s had her eye on another cab driver, who’s cute and young (26), and they’ve waved at each other in passing … But yesterday, they spent from 4-10 p.m. together at his place and now she wonders if he’ll call. She left her sunglasses at his place but she doesn’t want to seem like “psycho woman” (her phrase) by calling him about them, so she plans to buy new ones. She’s a 24/7 cab driver with her own car, but he’s a day guy with another company who changes cars every day. So he can recognise her on the road easily just by noticing her car but she can’t recognise him unless she actually sees him.”

Not a Cab Driver, But:My overnight seatmate from Chicago to Albany was Rick, who does something creative involving music for Apple in Worcester, MA., and who had been out to Cupertino, CA, by train for a work conference. So he’d been train-bound for 3-4 days in a row (though some of it on a sleeper, for which he dipped into his savings; Apple paid the coach fare only) and was getting despairing as our train got later and later, eventually about 4 hours late into Albany and 3 hours late into Boston (and Worcester). He would like to move to Calif. — his brother owns a marketing company in San Francisco — and do something more creative and less customer-service-oriented for Apple, or for someone else. He’s 32 and wonders where the last 10 years have gone, what he’s done with his life, where it’s going. He’s noticed that he tends to be impatient and impulsive and he wonders if that’s always wise. When I asked him what was keeping him from moving, he answered the same as the cabdrivers: “Good question.” 


That’s a question I think about a lot, and thought about even more 11 years ago, when I took this trip: “What’s keeping you from moving?” “What’s keeping you from doing what you want, from going somewhere else, from unsettling your life?” I constantly asked (and ask) this of myself, and I’m always curious about other people’s responses, especially if they seem unhappy, anxious, wistful, regretful, trapped in their circumstances, trapped in their place, not at home in their home.

Somehow, being on the road, especially alone in anonymous, non-home places, in new cities, exploring the place and talking with the people in those places (or even just observing them), lends itself to breaking free from ordinary constraints, schedules, expectations, assumptions, one’s own attitudes, moods, and reactions, which I think is a good practice for developing self-knowledge, compassion, curiosity, and perhaps even wisdom. (Not to mention that travelling Amtrak — which I love — builds patience, greater comfort with uncontrollable situations, and a strong laissez faire attitude concerning timetables. Either that or it kills you.)



I also noticed that when keeping my journal, I repeatedly mentioned that this place or that place, this meal or that one, reminded me of a past place or meal, making the unfamiliar a bit more familiar, perhaps a self-soothing strategy when confronted with dislocation and the unknown. Or maybe it’s just the way the brain works, finding patterns and similarities among disparate things.

To be travelling is to be always, in a way, in a liminal place — on a threshold, making a transition, on both sides of a boundary — and to be often feeling liminal, which, in anthropological terms, is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete.” During this time, between separation and reassimilation, one’s identity, one’s sense of time, one’s community and relationships may be called into question or restructured. Besides travel, think also of events like college graduation, military boot camp, peri-menopause, the time between engagement and marriage, the time between death and burial, the idea of purgatory.

doors in New Orleans

Coming back to the question, what keeps you from moving/changing?, those who stay in situations where they’re unhappy aren’t willing on some level to separate from that situation, to move into the confusion and disorientation of the middle-stage of liminality, hopefully afterward to reassimilate into their lives, or into society, in a way that’s more satisfying. It can be daunting to move from the known, even if it’s lousy, to the unknown, to feeling bewildered and lost on a dark pathless path. The meaning we have assigned to things, places, people, events becomes ambiguous, tenuous, and we can feel adrift, destabilised, detached from our moorings.

If you’re grappling with a life that’s not what you want, or trying to decide how to change your life, how to move, my suggestion is to go somewhere alone, somewhere unfamiliar and heterotopic like a motel (or a library, a museum, a public garden, a cemetery) — any no-place, any-place kind of place that doesn’t demand you be your usual you — and let time and space wash over you. Even a few hours in this sort of space may be helpful.

Graceland cemetery (Memphis, TN)

For me, travelling by myself functions as a retreat, not from the world per se but from my world, from the proscribed boundaries of my world, the boundaries that I have created and allowed and which, once called into question by their absence, are revealed and can then be reassessed. Standing at the threshold, remaining there with one foot in and out foot out, can feel discomfiting and unsettling, and for that I recommend a little comfort food, a good play, and a quiet hotel room waiting when you return. All the better if there are ducks marching around in the lobby.


“I love everything about motels. I can’t help myself. I still get excited every time I slip a key into a motel room door and fling it open.” ― Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Notes on Returning to America after Twenty Years Away 


  1. The photos didn’t show up for me, just the text. 🙁
    Love the stories, especially the Peabody ducks! (I wonder how the ducks adapt to life in the wild after three months of luxurious hotel living. Hmmmm. I’m dubious about that part of the duck story, as well.)
    I enjoyed picturing you chatting away with everyone. I find that I’m much less social or inclined to converse when I’m traveling alone. I guess I feel the need to act more social when I’m being “me”, and free to keep to myself when I’m in a private heterotopia.

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