Inn & Out

Decadence and desperation rendezvous at St. Louis' no-tell motels

Room 43 of the Grand Motel is the epitome of bare-bones shelter: wood-paneled walls, lamps with no shades, very little room to move. The room's center -- and in a sense, its central purpose -- is the king-size bed, with its rock-hard mattress and worn floral-print sheets. Nothing else here matters.

Ten minutes ago Peter, the room's occupant, paid the petite Indian woman behind the bulletproof-glass window of the office twenty dollars to spend the next three hours here. Then he tipped her another ten to allow a prostitute to join him without a hassle. Now he's waiting, absentmindedly sipping from a bottle of Stag purchased at a corner market and watching the Cardinals on the color TV set that's mounted to the ceiling on a metal stand.

All things considered, Peter hardly seems your average crack-whore enthusiast. Tall, fresh-faced and clad in shorts, shades, athletic sandals and standard-issue rayon clubbing shirt, he looks like any other weekend warrior in search of big-city fun. White and in his early thirties, he holds a master's degree from a respectable local university and is working toward his Ph.D. while living at his grandparents' house in the county.

Mark Andresen
Bob Reuter

For weekend fun, Peter explains, he and his buddies used to troll popular local haunts -- Velvet, Harry's, J.Buck's. When the occasion demanded more electric environs, there was the occasional trip across the river or an out-of-town excursion to Miami, LA or New Orleans. Eventually, though, the run-of-the-mill tomfoolery grew monotonous. For the past five years or so, when Peter has gone looking for action, he often finds it in north St. Louis, at down-at-the-heels motels like the Grand, on North Grand just south of St. Louis Avenue, where he hires women to score crack and smoke it with him, then pays them to have sex with him at ten dollars a throw.

Someone knocks on the door. After a peek through the smoke-stained curtains, Peter admits a black woman with a tennis-ball afro. She strolls in, wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans, holding a pipe, a tuft of steel wool and a white nugget of crack cocaine.

"Peter, when can I get a hit?" she asks, her eyes bouncing jitterily around the room.

But Peter has unbuttoned his shirt and switched the TV to Channel 3, which is playing a pornographic movie, piped in courtesy of the management.

"Suck my dick, baby," Peter says.

Like a dog obeying a command to fetch, the woman complies. Peter takes a hit of crack, basking in the commingling of sex and drugs. His companion proceeds to indulge Peter with a hollow striptease. After he gives her a hit of crack, she leaves.

Peter showers, dresses, heads back outside. Another ten-spot for the window attendant, another bargain with a prostitute. Five minutes later she arrives.

"Peter, you're my man," she coos, beaming as they share some more of his crack and dry-hump hungrily. "Look at you -- your hair! You've put on some weight. You lookin' good!"

Peter's night has only begun.

"I've been a police officer for 23 years, and the Flamingo used to be packed," imparts Ninth District Lieutenant Kenneth Kegel as he maneuvers his squad car through the intersection of Jefferson and Cass on the Wednesday-night graveyard shift. "There used to be a bar where there's a package liquor store now, and people would spend the night."

Pamela Williams runs that north-side package store, next door to the Flamingo Motel and just down the street from Vashon High School. The establishment, which shares the Flamingo name, used to be a nightclub. Williams ran that, too. Her grandfather, Elson, built the motel in 1978, and she managed the place from the grand opening until he sold it eight years ago.

"Even though we had three-hour rates, we had some of the tourist industry," the 46-year-old Williams says as she orders candy bars and beer nuts from a distributor, ensconced behind her store's protective bulletproof glass. "Our deluxe rooms were as nice as the Holiday Inn. We did a lot better because it was personal -- my grandpa put a lot of money in."

Williams recalls a time when motels on the north side were owned by a close-knit bunch of local black families. "We would do things as a group when we could -- go down and buy linens together," she says.

One of the group was Bob Riggins, who owned what's now the Grand Motel, and also what's currently known as the J&B Liquor Store next door. Back then, Riggins says, the motel was called Lisa's Motel, in honor of his daughter. Riggins sold both properties in 1992 to put all his resources into Club 54, the nightclub he'd opened across the street. Today, as he sits in an office surrounded by autographed photos of James Brown, Johnnie Taylor, B.B. King and Dexter Gordon, it's abundantly evident that at age 83, the beaming, youthful-looking Riggins has no regrets. With glee he recalls the time when the Godfather of Soul, who was in a bad way down south, called with an offer to play Club 54 for $15,000 -- a bargain guarantee for the likes of Brown. On the night of the show, Club 54 was packed beyond its 1,100-person capacity, Riggins says, and both he and the singer made out far more handsomely than either had budgeted for.

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