Nostalgia

Sleeping with the Protagonist: A Night at Boston’s New Verb Hotel

Whenever I drove through the Fenway neighborhood of Boston, my eye always involuntarily gravitated towards the Howard Johnson Motor Lodge nestled between the ballpark and Boylston street. It appealed to me as a gem from another era, a place where I easily imagined interesting characters flooding in and out of its rooms while baseball, bars, and music venues formed a protective shell around its perimeter.

In 1959 when the Inn first opened, rooms were only $10.50 a night, and Columbia Records regularly housed their artists there while performing or recording in town. By the ’00s, the place didn’t just look retro, it was irreversibly run-down (sample Yelp review: “I would only stay here if I was trashed, had no where else go to, was from out of town, and had a sleeping bag and extra large bottle of Purell – 2 stars, Alex J. from Jamaica Plain”). In 2013 the establishment unceremoniously shut down with an odd cry of victory plastered onto its street-side marquee: “HOJO 4 LIFE”

I was disappointed I had never gotten the chance to stay there and dutifully awaited the tear-down construction for the inevitable cell phone store or parking lot that was sure to replace it. When the news broke that the building would remain intact and re-open as retro-style “rock and roll” themed hotel called The Verb, I was straight-up shocked. The move seemed to buck the trends I had been getting used to in this city. I read up on the planned hotel and found this promising quote from developer Steve Samuels:

Rather than tear this thing down and put up another 150-foot high tower of residential, we decided that a lot of the history and character of the Fenway could be told in saving his 1950s building.

Soon I noticed the structure re-bloom with colored glass windows and an unorthodox marquee featuring two giant photos of hip, young people flashing the peace sign at the camera. Next, the giant letters spelling out Verb in a cursive, 1950′s-esque font appeared on the facade. I was intrigued. Naturally, I placed a request via this publication to reserve a complimentary night in a room during their first few weeks of operation. The following are my observations from my stay.

Sunday 11:33 AM -  I'm at my computer at home. I'm clicking through the hotel's website while my girlfriend looks on over my shoulder. My check-in time is in a few hours. “Not just a hotel, a state of mind” I whisper ominously out loud, reading the slogans that stick out amongst a collage of fashionable photos of unkempt 20-somethings, many of who are also flashing peace signs, which I quickly realize is supposed to double as a 'V' as in Verb. “Is that Dave?” my girlfriend asks pointing to someone in one of the photos.
“No, that's definitely not Dave,” I tell her.

“It looks like him. Oh look, it's Alexi!” she asks pointing to another photo.

For a moment, I’m confused, because everyone does sort of look like people we know, but they are definitely not people we know. “No, look,” I say, “I don't think these are Boston people, these are like...these are models or something”

She holds up her smart-phone showing me the hotel's Twitter account, reading its description out loud, “Promoter of local music, champion of counter-culture.” She looks back at my computer, “These must be people from around here. Otherwise it doesn't make sense.”

“Yeeeeeeah.” We both stare at the photos for a little while in silence.

Sunday 2:16 PM -  I am packing my bag for an overnight stay. There were many slogans I ran into during my prep on The Verb's website, but as I roll some clothes and toiletries into a backpack, I keep repeating one in particular: “Check In, Tune Out.” Of course, this is a playful remix of Timothy Leary's famous “Turn on, tune in, drop out” phrase, popularized in 1966 during his mission to deliver LSD to the masses.

Fragments of popular culture repurposed to promote a commercial endeavor has often haunted me, given me the hopeless feeling that no matter how pure the original source, the end game is waiting around the corner in a car commercial. This fear of the intersection between art and commercials has, in the popular opinion, almost entirely evaporated over the last decade:  the notion of “selling out” has become synonymous with a caricature of what it meant to care too much in the '90s. Leary described the “Tune in” part of his famous slogan as meaning that you “interact harmoniously with the world around you.” So, if the hotel encourages guests to “Tune Out”, what does that mean? What would it mean for a hotel to encourage you to behave inharmoniously with the world around you? What would it look like to overthink a hotel review? Will I always overthink things like this? What if, I involuntarily wonder, I get stuck inside this hotel article I'm writing? Is that a possibility? Is it OK that I'm asking?

Maybe it just sounded good and no one was thinking of Timothy Leary at all.

Sunday 3:33 PM -  My girlfriend just returned from a European tour, so the last thing she wants to do is spend a night in a hotel. I, on the other hand, am excited to begin my stay. She's agreed to check in with me for a few hours to offer her expertise opinion on the accommodations. Having stayed in hundreds of hotels in over twenty countries, I consider her my secret weapon for the more hotel-y observations about a hotel.

Valet parking is nearly $40 a night. So we do a U Turn and find parking down the street. Honest first impression: The building looks sort of magical and unquestionably impressive as you approach.

There's a perfectly restored vintage tour bus permanently installed in front, and a window where you can see “LISTEN TO MORE MUSIC” emblazoned on the wall. On my first airplane ride, when I was 8, I remember a stewardess coming around asking if I wanted a magazine. My eyes lit up at the possibility, and I asked her for the latest issue of Mad Magazine. They did not have Mad Magazine. But, when you walk into the lobby of The Verb, it reminded me of an airline that carries Mad Magazine. Marshall amplifier stacks (fake) function as a shelving unit, a real Fender amp in another corner with a guitar connected to it (though I never saw anyone play it), stacks of vinyl records to browse, furniture with shaggy white fur adorning it, a multi-colored circular pinwheel ceiling window, and walls covered with rock n roll history memorabilia all carefully framed and expertly placed in the room. It's like walking into an adult, real life Pee Wee's Playhouse.

Two extremely welcoming, friendly men both in grey cardigans greet us at the desk. The check-in desk turntable has “Van Morrison His Band And The Street Choir” cued up on it, but it's not playing right now. Some other music is playing from another source I never identify. One of the men says, “We hear you're a reporter?” I feel embarrassed and sheepishly tell them yes. As they hand me my door keys one of them says, “Perfection.”

Sunday 3:33 PM -  Room 205. There are 94 rooms in this hotel. This particular room features a queen sized bed, a couch, a dresser, a movable side table, a functioning, vintage Royal Typewriter, and a flat screen tv. Everything is clean. On the dresser there's an 11x17 manila envelope left for me. I imagine they felt this presentation would make something totally ordinary feel like I was beginning some sort of secret mission, and god dammit, they're 100% correct.

Inside is a guide to the hotel and the surrounding neighborhood. The fourth wall of the room is all windows, some of which are color treated, some are clear. My view looks down on the hotel's swimming pool, and across to the other set of rooms and decks of the hotel. You can see people milling about their rooms if they haven't closed their curtain, and it conjures elements of Hitchcock's "Rear Window" in my imagination. “Yep,” I think to myself, “I'll probably solve a murder tonight.”

My girlfriend opens a window and we hear the roaring crowd of nearby Fenway Park. If there was a concert at the field, you'd be able to hear it in your room. Neat. Above the bed, on the wall, there are two reproduced covers of the now defunct Boston Phoenix alt-weekly newspaper (each room has two different Phoenix covers). One of the covers in my room is the issue from May 21, 2001 with a tongue-in-cheek apocalyptic cover image with the headline, “IS THIS THE END?” It takes me a moment to remember what the hell that was all about. I double check the date. No, it's not Y2K, what scared everyone in 2011? Then I remember: Harold Camper, a Christian Radio Evangelist, predicted the date as the end of the world, and it stirred attention because he spent 5 billion in billboard advertisements declaring the end. It strikes me that Camper's method is like the payola of apocalypse predictions— they were only popular because someone threw massive amounts of cash at the issue. After the date passed without the world ending, he then chose October 21, 2001, which also passed without incident, but later that month he did die, so some credit is due.
Sunday 4:57 PM -  The choice of the relatively newly defunct Phoenix as a wall decoration is kind of odd, or at least begs a few questions. Here's the big one: does it always have to be a choice between the real thing and the idea of the thing?

Boston no longer has The Phoenix, but we can stay in a hotel where it's commemorated. Likewise, the premise communicated by The Verb's website and branding is one that celebrates Boston's rich musical history, and celebrates the eccentric outsiders who make that history happen, but everyone I see at the hotel's facilities are upper class families and wealthy baseball fans. Are guitar lugging weirdos supposed to populate these rooms, or just help them sell the idea of this hotel? Could the kind of people depicted in the hotel’s promotional photos even afford this hotel? As I see my girlfriend out to her car, there are two gentlemen in oversized Red Sox jerseys at the check-in desk. The clerk tells them, “Ok we do have a room for two days, but the rate on the second day is different.”

The guy in the Sox jersey dismisses her, warning with a visibly drunken hand wave. “I don't care about the rate change. It doesn't matter. We're in Boston, right? Let's spend some money.”

Sunday 5:30 PM -  I am now alone in my room, and I feel compelled to use my complimentary vintage typewriter. For some reason, when I think about typewriters and hotels, my mind goes to "The Shining." Did you know, in that film, that the stack of papers that Shelley Duvall's character finds with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” written on page after page was actually meticulously prepared by Kubrick's secretary, so that all 500 pages were actually filled with that sentence, often in different patterns for variety? That's extreme dedication. I momentarily wonder if she, Kubrick's secretary, went kind of crazy preparing them. I regularly read a blog called “What does the protagonist want?” which examines the motivation of the protagonist, carefully, of one film per entry. The writer's conclusion for who is the protagonist in the film "The Shining" is the hotel itself. What the protagonist wants, according to the author, is this: “The hotel is evil, it means to persuade Jack to kill his family.”

It's fun to think of places as sentient protagonists who want things. At the very least, it's an excellent writing prompt. The Verb is not evil, it's actually pretty fun, but now I'm pacing around my room wondering what it wants. I think it wants me to think I'm cool for choosing to stay there. Yes, I think, The Verb is this story's protagonist, and it very much wants to validate my excellent taste by staying inside its throwback-décor-laden-surroundings.

Not all stories feature endings where the protagonists wins.
Sunday 6:11 PM -  I go swimming. The pool is delightfully refreshing, well maintained, and temperate. Sometimes, when I come up for air, I catch glimpses of people in their rooms staring down at the pool. I feel like a lot of Elvis Presley movies were set at hotels where all the rooms were centered around the pool. Oh, the pool— that mighty blue social igniter!

When I return to my room, I try and find a classic Elvis poolside scene, but end up going down an Internet rabbit-hole triggered by a bizarre YouTube upload of just such a scene purporting to offer evidence of one of the scene's extras being murdered shortly after the film wrapped. It's around this time that it starts to creep in that I am this story's antagonist, stumbling upon downer free associations and cynical observations, resisting the protagonist's desired effect. I can almost feel you rooting against me as I write this.

Sunday 6:36 PM -  I forgot my guitar in my car, so I go out to get it. The closet hutch in my room has some wallpaper that's actually a photo of a bunch of electric guitars, so I figure why not put an actual one there and see how it feels. The Verb’s website's beautiful glamour-burn-outs are often holding a drink in those promotional snapshots, so I also stop at the liquor store to pick up a bottle of Jim Beam. I'm just experimenting with doing what the hotel wants me to do.

As I get about 20 feet away from the hotel I hear a voice about three feet behind me. “Yeah, I gotta come back here real soon,” it says. I turn around to find a middle-aged man wearing a polo shirt and shorts speaking to me as if we had been conversing for several minutes, but we had not been. It's eerie. “Yeah, I really should come back again soon....soak up some of the atmospheeeeeeeeeeeeeere.” I really can't believe this is a real interaction that's happening.

“Well,” I reply, “you're here now. Why not soak up the atmosphere right now?”

“Gotta get back to Pennsylvania first thing in the morning,” he tells me, shrugging, as if I was a fool for even suggesting it.

Inside, one of the friendly desk clerks who checked me in is delighted to see I have a guitar. By this time, since I've formulated my theory that The Verb is the protagonist and I'm the antagonist, I am under the belief that this is a concept now somehow psychically grasped by all of the staff, and I'm playing all of my cards pretty close to the vest. “Yeah,” I say, “thought maybe I'd take it to my room....strum it a bit.”

“Perfection” the clerk tells me.

Sunday 8:04 PM -  The bathroom is fucking awesome. When you slide the door shut, the back of the door reveals itself to be wallpapered with a giant reproduced photo of a sea of hippie faces wearing granny glasses, the whole thing tinted in a baby blue sheen, and these aren't unpleasant gazes to accompany you when you use the restroom. The shower is a stone container with the 4th wall being made of glass, no closable door, just a lack of glass where you enter. There is a circular hole in the glass by the sink, so you can reach into the shower and turn it on without any danger of getting soaked before you disrobe. When did this circular-hole-shower-technology arrive? It seems so simple and brilliant and yet I've never seen it before.

I arrived in Boston in 1997, fresh from my suburban home of Dedham, MA, to attend Boston University, just down the street from where I'm currently showering. This area has changed a lot.

When I first arrived in town, Kenmore Square was kind of seedy, but thrilling. It was there I first met the infamous homeless musician Mr.Butch, outside of the infamous Rathskeller rock club (a true shit-hole that hosted legendary shows by Sonic Youth, The Ramones, Pixies, and R.E.M.). Just as I summoned the courage to venture inside The Rat, the club closed. Soon, all of Kenmore Square's quirky establishments seemed to vanish. Boston University's take on the situation is comically phrased as if it was being spoken by a villain in an 80's comedy: “Although the young found it fun, the square looked like a dangerous eyesore to the BU administration” (Source for a more conspiratorial view of the last stages of development in Kenmore Square, see the top comment on the linked article, cheers to BU for not censoring the comment, at the very least).

Change and development in any city is necessary and unavoidable, but can you still root for a city and not be OK with thriving bastions of culture being routinely pillaged and steam-rolled (even if these bastions are only fun for “the young” as BU would say)? Is The Verb more of an indicator of this kind of cultural plague in our city, or is it an incredibly rare gem that's opened in defiance of these trends? Why contemplate such a broad question in a standard hotel review? I have no answers.

Again, the bathroom is fucking awesome.

Sunday 10:00 PM -  I'm in a band, and two band members come to visit me in my room. They are the first people I see at the hotel who look anything like the people in the photos on the website, which I will now formally admit, I am absolutely obsessed with. We all have a glass of whiskey and marvel at the novelty of the establishment. When I begin to semi-coherently ramble off some of the ideas I've expressed above, one of my bandmates tells me flat out: “Well look, a new hotel for junkies is not a good business model.” It's so accurate that I laugh really hard, but then continue my dutiful push forward as the story’s antagonist. “It may not be a good business model, but shouldn’t we be mad that it’s such a viable marketing and branding strategy?”

[During the editing of this article, The Boston Globe published a piece entitled High-end hotel adds suite dedicated to The Rat, which detailed the creation of a $500-$900/night room meant to honor the defunct punk club inside The Hotel Commonwealth. I’m never one for absolutes, but maybe irony really is dead?]

Sunday 11:59 PM -  The moon has risen above the buildings that are in the immediate view of my window. I can't believe how incredibly yellow the moon looks tonight, it's a drenched, vivid citrus color. I'm blown away until I realize I'm looking out through one of the color treated window panes in my room. I step to the right, one foot over, and the moon looks like it usually does.

This interaction with the moon is just like my point of view on all of this— the place remains the same, but my perspective on it keeps changing depending on where I stand. I don't like being the antagonist, I'm used to thinking of myself as the protagonist. I want my beloved Boston to thrive and grow, but the “luxury as a way to honor the gritty past”-modus-operandi seems so unaware, unseemly, and off the mark that I can’t help being a crank and yelling about it. At best, it seems like a Disney ride through animated recreations of things that were once powerful enough to actually stir people’s souls and change lives. At worst, it seems to literally help erase those things, almost as if destroying them, or stripping them of their power, a necessity for its existence. Shouldn’t we build myths that are durable enough, outlandish enough to be impervious from ever being repurposed as a way to get you to buy something? I feel like we’re smart enough, creative enough to do that. So why can’t I find one? I've had too much whiskey. I go to bed. As I drift off to sleep in the incredibly comfortable bed I glimpse the tiny little sign they've placed on my nightstand. It reads, “YOU CAN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT” and then, in smaller font below it, something about room service.
The Verb Hotel - ★★★★☆

- Ryan Walsh 8-26-14

Special Thanks to Damon Krukowski, Eugenia Williamson, and S.I. Rosenbaum