Taking Sanctuary in Diners, Train Stations, Motels

Welcome to day 22 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.


“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life

I’m fairly certain Father Nouwen wasn’t speaking of hotels and motels in his words about the division-healing work of hospitality, but there is something about the “free space” offered by motels and hotels, without conventional expectation and placed outside ordinary relationships to a greater or lesser degree, that perhaps gives the humans who stay in them some freedom for the mind or heart to open. As I’ve quoted earlier,

“Hotels bring together individuals whose paths might not normally cross, and they create relationships and social hierarchies new to those individuals — relationships and hierarchies that do not always correspond to the individuals’ ‘normal’ relationships outside the hotel. In subverting the status quo, they are fundamentally political spaces in the broadest sense” (from The Shining’s Overlook Hotel as Heterotopia by Elizabeth Hornbeck, 2016).

Or as Beth Lord — then teaching fellow in Philosophy at the University of Dundee in Scotland, now Head of Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen — notes, concerning museums but equally applying to motels and hotels,

“What are we to make of Michel Foucault’s claim that the museum is a heterotopia? When reading Foucault’s description of the heterotopia in his 1967 essay “Different Spaces,” we are left with the impression of something negative, uncanny, and disturbing: a heterotopia is a space of difference, a space that is absolutely central to a culture but in which the relations between elements of a culture are suspended, neutralized, or reversed. Unlike utopias, heterotopias are real places ‘designed into the very institution of society’ in which all the other real emplacements of a culture are ‘at the same time, represented, contested, and reversed, sorts of places that are outside all places, although they are actually localizable.'”

Dr. Lord mentions two of Foucault’s prime examples of a heterotopia, the cemetery and the ship, adding about the ship that it “is ‘a piece of floating space, a placeless place;’ it functions according to its own rules in the space between ports, between cultures, between stable points.” Places that are heterotopian “are those sites in a culture designated as spaces of difference, spaces in which ordinary relations within the culture are made and allowed to be other.” (Beth Lord in “Foucault’s museum: difference, representation, and genealogy,” in Museum and Society, March 2006)

It is this “being allowed to be other” than who we normally, routinely, habitually are that I think merges with Nouwen’s concept of hospitality as a space where we and our relations with others (other people, other beings, the earth, the abstract and eternal, the power structure of the culture) are allowed — not coerced, forced, or manipulated (except by architecture, perhaps) — to be other; not that being other than usual is necessarily a good in itself (as countless horror movies set in motels can attest), but that it offers us freedom where change can take place, because we are freed to question ourselves, the prevailing society, our relations with all things and beings.


Philosophical writer Alain de Botton, below, is in part speaking of motels when he describes one of their functions as that of a sanctuary:

“The twenty-four-hour diner, the station waiting room and the motel are sanctuaries for those who have, for noble reasons, failed to find a home in the ordinary world, sanctuaries for those whom Baudelaire might have dignified with the honorific ‘poets’.” ― Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, 2002

The welcome of a good motel, hotel, or inn (or a 24-hour diner, or a station waiting room) is such a comfort in the midst of the rigors of travel. On our first evening near Newport, Rhode Island, in late spring this year, we couldn’t find a suitable restaurant without an hour-long waiting line at 8:30 p.m. You know that physically fatigued, stressed feeling you get when you’re hungry, tired from travel, trying to navigate and orient in an unfamiliar place, easily frustrated, ready for bed but needing some sustenance and just … some impersonal, disinterested, non-demanding comfort? That night, we found such a sanctuary in the Blue Plate Diner in Middletown, RI. No, it’s not a 24-hour diner (but it was open until 10), and the food was fine, but more importantly, it was warm, available, and served with friendliness in a comfortingly casual, anonymous, and just-well-enough-lit space.



I’ve spent a fair amount of time in train station waiting rooms. Most are unremarkable, a few are unpleasant, but a few stand out — either because of their architecture, amenities, and the feel of the space, or because of my need for that kind of comfort just then, or both — as exemplars of sanctuary for those of us who who have, by and large, failed to find a home in the ordinary world. Or, I would say in my case, as one who has found herself equally at home when somewhere not designated as home; and more at home and at peace, contented, in the non-ordinary place rather than within the circumference of my ordinary world.


Union Station in Washington DC

It’s changed quite a bit in recent years, with the Center Cafe, in the center of the “Beaux-Arts main hall,” closing in 2016 after 28 years there  (I miss it, contrary to this March 2016 Washingtonian article that says it won’t be missed by many), as well as B. Smith’s restaurant closing in 2013 after 23 years, and the Barnes & Noble bookstore being replaced with an H&M clothing store. There’s still the Thunder Grill, which offers a roomy space for travellers with lots of luggage, and the service and southwestern food are surprisingly good for the location. They also have a full bar.

Really, Union Station is just a beautiful spot, if you like classical architecture. Some of the police ride segways through the space; there are large waiting areas; and there are many boutique shops (though most open up late, close early, or for whatever reason aren’t open when I’m there) and some chain restaurants/cafes like Au Bon Pain and Pret A Manger. (A Legal Seafood is coming soon.)

I often have layovers of 1-3 hours here and don’t mind it at all.

Christmas time at Union Station, Jan. 2017
Thunder Grill at Union Station, Sept. 2014
bar at Thunder Grill, Jan. 2017
Center Cafe when it was still there, Jan. 2011.
waiting area, Union Station, Dec. 2013
Gate J is usually my Union Station gate. Jan. 2011
with my sister at Union Station, Nov. 2006
sign inside Union Station celebrating 45 years of Amtrak, 1 Jan. 2017


Penn Station in Baltimore, MD

Not a grand station at all but serviceable, airy, with a Dunkin Donuts and an eat-in/take-out place called Java Moon Cafe. I’ve had some scary moments scrambling with my luggage off the train in the middle of the night — it stops for about 2 minutes in Baltimore before heading on, and not all doors open onto the platform, which if you’re asleep and disoriented poses a challenge — but waiting here for a train is one of the less stressful travel connections, since there’s pretty much never a queue as there is at termini like Washington DC and Boston, and people sit reading the newspaper on the comfortable wooden benches — like pews in a sanctuary?  — until their train is called. Very civilised.

Penn Station (on left) in the Mount Royal section of Baltimore, May 2008
me, looking tired indeed, waiting for a train, in 2004 or 2005


South Station in Boston, MA

I’ve spent more time here than any other train station over the last 25 years. (It’s also a major bus terminal, including for the bus from my NH town to Boston, which I’ve probably taken at least 30 times in each direction in the last eight years. The bus station side is not nearly as nice — in terms of architecture, spaciousness, amenities, etc. — as the train station.)

On the one hand, I like that South Station is an Amtrak terminus, which means trains start and end there (this is the northern end of Amtrak’s very popular Northeast Regional and Acela lines), so on boarding all the seats are available when you get on and on disembarking you never miss your stop, even if you are asleep. But being a terminus also means that riders often line up, inside and outside, long before the train is scheduled to depart, in order to get the best seat possible or seats together if travelling in a group. I do this, too, but it’s kind of a pain to feel that urge. On the other hand, if I’m going to be sitting on a train for 8 or 12 hours, it’s not a bad thing to stand in a line for a while beforehand.

South Station exterior, March 2015
plantings, the bus side of South Station, May 2016
South Station Starbucks (almost side-by-side with Dunkin Donuts), Dec. 2013
Au Bon Pain at South Station, Oct. 2015
line at Au Bon Pain, Dec. 2013 – look how perfectly spaced the queue is
arrivals and departures board, and train display during Christmas, Dec. 2013
arrivals and departures board with Apple ads, March 2011


Actually, just looking at these stations has me itching to take the train again right now.

“So I’m more at home with my backpack, sleeping in a hotel room or on a bus or on an airplane, than I am necessarily on a bed. It’s weird being here. It feels like I’m standing next to my real life.”  — Henry Rollins

A bed is certainly more conducive to sleep, but in some ways I prefer sleeping (or trying to sleep) while being no-where, on a train or bus, or being somewhere that feels like no-where, like a hotel or motel.

Train stations, diners, hotels — I love those that feel welcoming, comforting, a home away from home that’s nothing like home.  A placeless place feels like my place.


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