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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.

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.

"I had all my rooms filled -- I made some money over there," Riggins reminisces, pointing out the window toward the Grand.

When it came time to sell, the buyer, an Indian immigrant from Chicago, paid the club owner in cash.

The transfer of lodging enterprises to Indian entrepreneurs is hardly unique to St. Louis. According to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, people of Indian origin own approximately half the motels in the United States. Most of them are named Patel -- a surname as common in India as Smith or Brown in the United States. In St. Louis, one Patel or another owns the Grand, the Flamingo, the Ebony Motel on Page and North Grand, the Guest Host Motel on Grand and Market, and the Gil Hess on Newstead between St. Louis Avenue and Natural Bridge Road.

In a previous lifetime, the phone that now serves Peter's room at the Grand held down a bed table at a Doubletree Inn somewhere in the 612 area code. Its task-specific buttons convey the impression that the Grand is the sort of place that delivers freshly brewed coffee and hot, jam-slathered scones to guests' doors every morning, along with a complimentary copy of USA Today.

Fact is, the Grand's staff is more apt to drag a tenant out by his left ear if he does not leave promptly at the end of his allotted three hours -- a fact Peter learns firsthand at about 1 a.m. on Sunday.

Rather than retire to his grandparents' suburban home, Peter steers his action to the Flamingo. Like the Grand, the Flamingo's next-door neighbor is a liquor store. And like the Grand, the Flamingo is surrounded by a wall featuring barred windows, rendering the vast majority of its rooms invisible to passersby. Mounted on a plywood extension of the motel's gray cement walls, a misspelled sign reads "No Prstitution."

Late at night, one gains access to the Flamingo when an electronic motion sensor mounted atop the motel's office triggers an electric fence to slide open. Again, as with the Grand, "office" is a bit of a misnomer -- the natural inclination would be to order a double bacon cheeseburger or fill out a deposit slip when approaching a window like the one through which Peter rents a room for five hours. Price: $22.

Three hours later he reports that he has engaged in a threesome with a pair of hookers, producing as evidence the prepaid cell phone one of them left behind. His room here is three times the size of the one he had at the Grand; the added space makes it look all the more stark. No artwork hangs on the walls. Besides a TV set and a lone dresser that gapes like a hollow skull, drawerless, the room's sole piece of furniture is the queen-size bed. Utilitarian, if nothing else.

But it's time to move on. Outside in the car, a woman approaches. "You want some of this?" she asks, pulling up her shirt and loosening her belt.

"No, thanks," says Peter, avoiding eye contact.

She bangs on his window, pleading for commerce, but Peter has had enough of the Flamingo.

He's not quite ready to call it a night, though.

Typically, when Spirtas Wrecking Company prepares to obliterate a building, the signage boasts little flair. But for a property such as the Coral Court Motel, a dash of panache seemed appropriate.

"No more one night stands," read Spirtas' declaration of the death, back in 1995, of the yellow-tiled motel on Watson Road, a stretch of the legendary Route 66.

"At first I was really pissed off," recounts Shellee Graham, a photographer and author of Tales from the Coral Court: Photos & Stories from a Lost Route 66 Landmark. "But then I felt like Spirtas was really paying homage."

T-minus 24 hours from a monster road trip to a gathering of fellow Route 66 enthusiasts in Tucumcari, New Mexico, the diminutive Graham is clad in white Route 66 tank top and dangling silver Route 66 highway-sign earrings, munching on a veggie wrap at Cicero's in the University City Loop. She flips through photo albums and shuffles through postcards and trinkets related to the highway, till she stumbles across a commemorative plastic key chain bearing the Coral Court's insignia and room number 69.

What's the significance of the room number?

"What do you think?" Graham replies with a chortle.

Opened in 1942 and featuring Streamline Moderne bungalows -- referred to by motel enthusiasts as "Mae West" units owing to their curvy corners -- the Coral Court personified the changing face of the motel industry in St. Louis, if not nationwide. Once billed as "ultra-modern" lodgings that drew travelers from far and wide, the Coral Court was many things to many people over its lifetime. Most notoriously, though, it was an oasis for lovers whose assignations necessitated a measure of stealth.

The motel did its part to "court" such affairs. For one thing, Graham says, the rooms could be procured for four or eight hours at a time -- though not, as is often maintained, by the hour. Additionally, every room had its own garage, which meant no one could see who'd checked in.

In its later years, the motel's reputation exceeded its practicality as a draw. "There were the affluent having a liaison, salesmen getting lucky, poker games," says Graham. "I know people who rented Coral Court rooms for parties, scavenger hunts -- people had fun there."

But the interstate system had swept across America, rendering the Coral Court more of an island than a way station.

"Back in the Grapes of Wrath days, when people started going West, they were overnight stopping places for people who were just passing through," Muriel Lange says of motels such as the Coral Court. Lange has worked at La Casa Grande, on Watson Road not far from the site of the Coral Court, since 1982. "When I first came here, we were having people come from out of state, and they were coming up and staying for a week or two. I haven't had that type of rental in a few years."

To survive the change in climate, La Casa Grande now rents its rooms monthly. Other low-rent motels -- the Grand, the Flamingo, the Ebony, the Gil Hess and the Guest Host -- have taken a page out of the Coral Court's old book, aiming at an almost exclusively local clientele.

Enter the three-hour tour.

Tommy Tucker takes a live-and-let-live stance when it comes to the Grand Motel down the street.

"I let 'em mind their own business," says Tucker, owner of Tucker's, Ltd., a clothing emporium on the corner of St. Louis Avenue and North Grand, and former president of the North Grand Business and Merchants Association. "If people didn't support it, they wouldn't be there. It's the same with me, even though I operate a totally different business. Being close to the center of what's going on in the neighborhood -- which is not a whole lot, as of yet -- I'd know if something was going on. That'd be something the neighborhood council would address."

Jeff-Vander-Lou activist Columbus Edwards, president of the ten-year-old Whole New Area Neighborhood Association, isn't quite so charitable. "The neighborhood would be a lot better without them," he says of the Grand and the Flamingo. "The area needs businesses, but we'd like to have businesses that are compatible with the needs of the residents. [The Flamingo] has been an eyesore for a while down here. People come, have a good time, stay a while and leave. You have a lot of undesirable drug trafficking going through the place. It's a situation that's been going on for quite a while."

Alderwoman Peggy Ryan, whose Fourth Ward includes the Gil Hess, is a bit more blunt.

"I wish they'd close it up and tear it down," Ryan says. "It's a haven for drugs, prostitution, whatever else you want to call it. I've called building inspectors on several occasions. I definitely want it shut down. They've just been allowed to operate willy-nilly for so long, with no oversight."

In Ryan's estimation, the downfall of the Gil Hess began about fifteen years ago. "It had to do with an overall change in the neighborhood," she says. "With the older generation dying out and leaving homes to their children, those are the people who have allowed [drugs, etc.] to come into the neighborhood. The police come, arrest somebody -- next thing you know they're back out on the streets. People in these places now are renters who don't care."

Suresh Patel, owner and manager of the Gil Hess, does not agree. Although his English is rudimentary at best, he vehemently denies that his patrons are engaged in illicit activities.

What, then, are they doing?

"Anything," the motelkeeper replies.

Taking naps?

"Yeah -- three hours."

At around midnight on a quiet Wednesday in the neighborhood formerly known as Gaslight Square, Lieutenant Kegel pilots his squad car past a pair of boarded-up buildings on the 4100 block of Washington Avenue. These structures used to be motels that catered to a sketchy set, Kegel says, and when they were open for business, Delmar, a block to the north, was a bustling stroll for ladies of the night.

While Kegel's mates in blue made arrests aplenty around the two motels, it wasn't until the city's Department of Public Safety slapped the properties with scores of code violations that they went out of business. And when the motels shut down, Kegel says, the action on Delmar waned.

Within the past month, the Department of Public Safety's building division has conducted thorough structural inspections of the Gil Hess, Grand and Flamingo motels. No violations were documented at the Flamingo, while the infractions cited at the Gil Hess and Grand were minor, such as chipped paint and broken smoke detectors.

Of course, Kegel says, shutting down a budget motel here and there doesn't put an end to illicit transactions in the city at large. To illustrate his point, Kegel wheels his cruiser north, to a mysterious riverfront establishment on Bulwer and Prairie called the Mansion Motel.

"There used to be a lot of truck drivers there -- that was the whole intent for it," Kegel says. "Then it just got notorious. You'd see well-to-do white guys pulling off. You'd know what they were doing down there."

On this night, however, the Mansion is quiet, as it has been for quite some time. The action, at least for the time being, has migrated elsewhere.

If there's one Patel all the other local motelkeepers know of, it's Ricky Patel, proprietor of the Grand and former owner of the Flamingo. In contrast to his motel, Patel's private dwelling is a handsome brick estate on a quiet cul-de-sac in a Chesterfield subdivision called Nooning Tree.

Reached for comment while on a vacation cruise, Patel declined to discuss his involvement in the motel business and referred questions to his lawyer, Gary Uthoff. The attorney did not respond to phone messages. On-premises Grand employees Tammy and Denny Patel also declined to comment, referring questions to the owner.

Other Patels, however, are more willing to discuss the ups and downs of running a budget enterprise in St. Louis.

"Right now it's okay, but you've got to be careful," offers Toné Patel, manager of the Guest Host. Patel says he rents his rooms to "only local" customers. In his estimation, the Grand sees "more trouble" because of its proximity to a liquor store.

Sporting a hospital ID bracelet courtesy of a mishap with an electric foot massager and slumped on the flower-print couch in his family's quarters behind the bulletproof window at the Flamingo, manager Jay Patel has the face of a man who's somewhat the worse for the round-the-clock, three-hours-a-pop wear.

"The Grand gets better business because they're on a busy street," Patel theorizes. "The troublemakers are down here. They're not here because they're supposed to be here; they're here for other things. This isn't a very good neighborhood. When it gets dark, we don't go outside."

Patel lives at the Flamingo with his sister and two other relatives. The environs are surprisingly homey, with kitchenette flanking well-kept bedrooms and a clutter-free, couch-endowed commons. But when he speaks of the suburban bliss enjoyed by Ricky Patel, Jay Patel (no relation) evinces admiration and envy. "He's made a lot of money, so he doesn't want to stay around here," he sums up.

As for the condition of the rooms at his own place, Patel shrugs. "The building has deteriorated," he laments. "Clients just want to break everything."

He acknowledges that the rent-by-hour set is doing "a lot more than taking a nap." But of course, without those clients, Patel would be out of business. It's a ticklish situation. He says he'd like to see an increase in police presence, but he believes the cops are content to let shenanigans on his property continue to simmer. "They don't want to deal with the Flamingo," Patel says.

"I'm disappointed he said that -- that instigates us to do more," counters Major Dave Heath, commander for the Central Patrol Division. Heath's division encompasses the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's Fourth, Fifth and Ninth Districts, bordered by Adelaide and Chouteau to the north and south, and Kingshighway and the Mississippi River to the west and east. (The Eighth District, in which the Gil Hess is located, stretches from Natural Bridge to Delmar, and Vandeventer to Kingshighway.) "We always intervene in illicit behaviors, but we also are aware that there are illegal behaviors occurring on private properties that we don't see."

While Heath's office on Jefferson, a stone's throw from the Flamingo, annually fields several dozen calls apiece from neighbors or tenants of the Flamingo and Grand for alleged crimes ranging from violent assaults to carjackings, the major says he has never been contacted by either motel's owner.

"If they're really concerned, we're poised to help them," asserts Heath, a loquacious, philosophical lawman who bears more than a passing resemblance to the comic actor Leslie Nielsen. "But in some sense, it's about them renting rooms for three hours at a time. They're attracting a clientele that's into clandestine activities."

Like his friend Shellee Graham, St. Louis County Parks Preservation historian Esley Hamilton expresses a fondness for old-school motels, hourly rates and all. After all, the concept of the hourly rate originated to serve weary big-rig drivers and travelers who needed to freshen up or catch a catnap in the middle of a multistate pilgrimage. "The fact that an institution offers a three-hour rest period doesn't make it criminal," the owl-faced Hamilton points out. "Somebody still has to do something."

In Hamilton's mind, motels like the Grand and the Flamingo are victims of an old nemesis: suburban sprawl. "We have too few people spread across too big an area with no government regulation," the historian explains. "That's the overriding issue in St. Louis that affects all other things. It impacts small businesses in general. There's no pressure to live in the center part of the city. It's much easier for someone to move out to the county and take advantage of all the chain businesses. There's no pressure to keep up infrastructure, either.

"It's part of a downward spiral," Hamilton continues. "People move in and say, 'We're taking over,' and all the middle class has moved out. That's why you wouldn't find a motel like that in U. City. People would be on the phone every five minutes."

On this point Major Heath agrees. "It's all about social tolerances based upon neighborhood constituencies," the commander concurs. "How long do you think a vacant house in Holly Hills would last? It wouldn't."

Heath isn't the cuff-'em sort of cop who sees everything in black and white, and he says his perch atop a challenging command requires as much balance as it does vigilance. "Police in Ladue and Chesterfield are not like officers in St. Louis," he submits. "It's more a balance of capabilities among constituencies than it is anything else. In St. Louis you have such dichotomies among people's capabilities to afford things and to abide by things. As police, we have to balance that. If we were totally inflexible, there would never be a moment where police weren't arresting someone. It's such a puzzle in life. It goes to the Flamingo, it goes to the Grand. We make arrests up there all the time, but citizens always kind of dictate what sort of policing they want."

The morning before Peter embarked upon his binge, the body of a woman was discovered on the bed in Room 16 of the Grand Motel. She and a male companion, who had identified himself on a rental receipt as J. Brown of 3113 Hickory Avenue -- a fake address -- had rented the room from 7 p.m. until 4 a.m. The woman's black shirt was hiked up and a towel lay across her chest. She wore underpants, but not her jeans, which were found elsewhere in the room. The St. Louis Medical Examiner's Office has not yet determined the cause of death, but police suspect drugs played a role. Baxter Leisure, executive assistant to the chief medical examiner, says the woman "probably wasn't dead for that long" before her body was discovered. She has not been identified. Police describe the victim as black, in her forties, standing five-six, weighing 172 pounds and missing all her upper teeth.

Peter knew about the Jane Doe, but it didn't deter him from making the Grand his first stop on Saturday night.

It will be his last stop, too: one more three-hour tour, one more hit, perhaps one more chance encounter with a hooker. But right now, heading back to the motel in the early daylight, he's in somewhat of an expansive mood.

He says his graduation to what he calls "100 percent hedonism" came when he got romantically involved with a stripper who worked on the east side. They'd do coke together, engage in threesomes -- whatever felt appropriately outrageous at the time. Somehow, he says, sex and drugs became the top priorities in his life. "You do the Clayton scene, the Harry's scene -- it just gets old," he says. At the Grand, he has found a way to cut through the typically requisite emotional red tape.

"I want to get right to the point -- dick sucked, coke, porno," he sums up. "I want it all."

Peter says he's growing weary of the motel scene. But he's having trouble reconciling the two disparate modes of his life. When he speaks of a new love interest, an established career woman, his impatience with her traditional values is palpable. The lure of instant gratification keeps bringing him back to the Grand and the Flamingo.

The car continues down Grand in the early-morning sun, past a pastor unlocking the doors of a gray stone church, past a middle-aged man who has dropped a fat stack of Sunday Posts and set to the task of hawking. At a Mobil station, a sharply dressed couple gases up. Birds make safe landings on the green expanse of Fairground Park.

And for the second time in less than twelve hours, Peter pulls into the parking lot of the Grand Motel, wanting it all.

"Peter" is a pseudonym.

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