When I stay in a hotel, the first thing I do is explore the room. I sit on the bed to check how firm the mattress is, then I open various drawers and cabinets to see what I can find. It's never very much — a pen with the hotel's logo, a matching notepad, an ice bucket, cheap little glasses — and that's a good thing; when we sleep in unknown places, the fewer new items we can weave into a narrative, the better. Anonymity is a crucial part of a comfortable stay. (A stray hair on a pillow? No, thank you.) We just want to sleep, grind our way through a continental breakfast and be on our way.
Last week, when I checked into an Airbnb in Mid-City, rummaging through cabinets and drawers in the room I rented from "Kyle" seemed less innocent and more like the creepiest thing I could possibly do. This was this guy's stuff! But I needed a pen, so I opened a drawer that contained all of the items of a life, a collection of errantly organized office supplies and souvenirs that reminded me that I had entered not just a shared space in a "shared economy" but also a shared story — a shared life, if only for a single night.
On the Airbnb site, the listing boasts "upstairs carpeting" (apparently a rare commodity in New Orleans), but it didn't say I'd be displacing the room's current resident, who $130 later happily resigned himself to a smaller, walk-through room adjacent to the bathroom. There also are other roommates in the house.
Kyle knocks on the door to make sure everything is OK and to see if I need anything before he ducks out to meet some friends at a neighborhood bar. I tell him everything is great and guiltily admit to "borrowing a pen," knowing he will realize I must have gone through his stuff to find it.
"You can have it!" he says, then invites me along with him for a drink.
I tell him I've got other plans.
I take my usual inventory of the room. There's a collection of pocket knives on the dresser, which doesn't make me feel great. There's a pile of worn sneakers by the door and there are pictures of a stranger's life — his friends and family — all over the walls. I sit on the bed and notice an eggcrate mattress pad just like the kind I bought at Target with my dad before my freshman year of college. I imagine Kyle making the same kind of purchase in whatever town he's from. On the bathroom door, I find a wearable harmonica hanging on the knob. So, Kyle plays the harmonica, it turns out.
The bathroom is exactly what you would expect in a house full of people: relatively clean with a mishmash of bath products. Among the things that wouldn't fly in a hotel: a thin layer of dust and fingernail clippings in the shower. The smell of roasted peppers wafts through the house from the kitchen below. (Who is cooking? Another roommate? I never found out.)
When I wake up the next morning, I don't know where I am. This always happens to me when I travel, but this time I am in the bed of a graduate student, on an eggcrate mattress pad that's not mine and is not a feature of hotel travel. I feel a discomfort spread over me and decide to slip out and drop off the keys later.
I need to leave. There will be no continental breakfast.
I'm a little more excited about my next stay. Its Airbnb listing advertises it as an "urban farm" in Bywater. The central image on the website is of a hip-looking woman playing a clarinet in a chair outside.
The "farm," however, turns out to be a mostly empty lot — the host says wild chickens make it difficult to grow plants — with a big pile of rotting wood (it is winter, to be fair, but it's also New Orleans winter), and the Bywater location is actually a few blocks north of St. Claude Avenue. The clarinet virtuoso has been replaced by "Dale," a single man who's on his way to work as a limo driver.
He takes me through the house (a typical New Orleans shotgun with walk-through rooms), and though he seems like a perfectly nice person, I get a flash of fear as we pass through his bedroom, realizing that I'm going to be sleeping in the bedroom next door, with no one else in the house but the two of us. Between Dale's room and the bathroom hallway, there is only a curtain.
My room is filled with heavy wooden furniture, and on the bedside table sits a lamp with a comically large lampshade. Beneath the lamp there's a spoon with traces of rotting food on it, maybe hummus. Next to that, there's a rotary telephone. There's a lovingly framed sketch of Jesus Christ in the bathroom. Dale gives me a key to a bike lock and tells me I can use the cruiser that's parked next to the bed.
It costs $140 a night to stay here — about the price of a three-and-a-half star hotel in the Warehouse District.
Coming back later that night, it's pouring rain. In order not to clomp through Dale's room, I've been instructed to enter through the back gate, which takes me through the "farm" to the back door of the house. At first I can't close the gate because the wood has swollen, but when I finally do, I make my way through an obstacle course of a half-finished shed, planks of wood and a dozen garbage bags, then hop over a little concrete levee in the dark.
I make it inside and enter my bedroom through the kitchen. The bed is huge and has two polyester comforters and a set of thin, fake silk sheets that smell like Febreze.
I really do not want to sleep here. Everything around me tells me that I should not, from the dark and stormy night to the crusty spoon to the fact that I'm a single female sharing a house with an older man I don't know.
I open up the Airbnb app and flip through Dale's reviews. He hasn't been accused of being a serial killer yet.
I turn off the light and try to sleep.