The American Prospect
From the outside, it is hard to know that people live in the Ramada Inn. The parking lot is always empty. The hotel sits facing a wide suburban boulevard called Kipling Street, just off Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. The interchange where Kipling meets the freeway is packed mornings and evenings with daily commuters going to or coming from Denver and with skiers heading west into the Rockies. Hotels dot I-70 as it cuts through the 764-square-mile stretch of suburbia that runs from the city into the mountains, but at the intersection with Kipling is a cluster of seven budget-savers that travel websites warn tourists away from. The hotels advertise low prices—ranging from $36 to $89 a night—on neon signs next to gigantic flags that whip in the Front Range wind. Most offer even lower weekly or monthly rates. The Ramada is farther from the frontage road than the other hotels and is harder to notice, with its plain yellow stucco and dimly lit red sign.
Inside the lobby, which has wide windows and a clear view of a long, low mountain called Table Top and the snowy peaks beyond, are plenty of clues that the Ramada is more than just a hotel. Off the lobby sit two sets of washers and dryers that each take a dollar in quarters, and on weekends families use one of the bellhop carts kept in a back hall to roll out baskets of dirty laundry. In the late afternoon, schoolchildren do their homework on the dozen tables where guests have breakfast. Residents sit at the two computers with Internet connections. They wander around in sock-clad feet and chat with whomever they run into.
At any given time, roughly 20 to 40 guests are staying long term. Since they pay by the week, they call themselves “weeklies.” To score the cheap rates, $210 for individuals and slightly more for families, they must pay in advance. Residents sign a form that lists the activities that could get them kicked out (mostly involving drugs) and warns that they won’t get reimbursed if they leave early, no exceptions. Some families stay only for a few weeks, some for months, giving the hotel the feeling of a dormitory. A rotating cast of front-desk clerks sells candy and rations towels and washcloths. Though some of the clerks are kind and helpful, the guests think of them as enforcers, and the clerks tend to treat the weeklies less as customers than as undergraduates stealing toilet paper and sneaking in hot plates.
With its 121 rooms, cleaning service, and keycards, the place is not a fleabag. But it is also not the kind of hotel where the coffee pots and hair dryers reliably work or the comforters match the drapes. A traveler stopping here to avoid bad weather might notice the difference: a clerk who takes a little too long to offer grudging help, an absence of name tags for the staff, an empty spot on the placard that is supposed to provide the manager’s name, a stained lobby carpet, a guest or two with a slightly illicit aura.
Hotels have always served people who need an off-the-record place to live—sex workers, drug dealers—and the Ramada has its share of people who are hiding out. (Bounty hunters come to the hotel so often that the weeklies know their names and say hi.) But in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Ramada’s clientele shifted away from such regulars to include suburban families who had been used to staying in hotels only on vacations. Many of the families still had incomes. Some had long been struggling members of the working class, fighting to stay better than broke; others had fallen suddenly out of the middle class.
Across the country, suburban poverty rose by more than half in the first decade of the new century. Families now find themselves navigating landscapes that were built around wealth: single-family houses that are sold, not rented; too few apartment buildings; and government agencies hidden at the far edge of the suburban ring, more responsive to trash-pickup complaints than rising hunger rates.
The Ramada families became homeless because they could no longer pay rents and mortgages and found little help to slow their fall. In 2011, Colorado ranked eighth in foreclosures nationwide. When families in Jefferson County, which encompasses Denver’s western suburbs, lost their home in the recession, they flooded a market that had the lowest number of rental vacancies in ten years. The Section 8 program in the area dispenses vouchers through a random lottery that typically has about 2,500 applicants; in any given year, only 30 to 40 spots become available. The school system, which keeps the best records of homelessness in the county, says the number of homeless students rose from 59 in 2001 to 2,812 in the current school year. Unable to find another home and unable to find space in the county’s shelters, which hold fewer than 100 beds, the new poor disappeared into the suburban landscape wherever they could find a roof. With nowhere else to go, they turned the Ramada Inn into an impromptu SRO.
“Homeowners lost their homes, and here we are,” says Bonnie, a 53-year-old who lives with her husband and son in the Ramada. “This is where the homeowners are.” Bonnie’s family used to live in the small brick ranch in southwest Denver she’d grown up in; as an adult, she stayed and helped her father pay off the original mortgage. But during the mortgage boom, she and her husband, Andy, took out a home-equity loan. Nationally, $1 trillion in such loans were doled out in those years. Like subprime mortgages, these were often loans with hidden fees and adjustable rates that eventually made monthly payments impossibly high. When the crash came, the destruction didn’t differentiate between those who’d become new homebuyers with bad subprimes and those, like Bonnie and Andy, who’d taken out loans on houses they already owned.
A defining characteristic of what it means to be middle-class is now out of reach for a group of people who, less than a decade ago, would not have called themselves anything else. They’ve lost not just incomes and homes. They’ve lost who they were.
Bonnie never leaves her room without wearing makeup and a matching set of jewelry—big, brightly colored pieces that complement her sweaters, which she wears with jeans and sneakers. To get ready in the morning, she steps outside the back exit near her room and uses its glass door as a mirror, shellacking her short brown hair upward with hair spray that otherwise would fill the room she shares with Andy and their 14-year-old son, Drew.
The three have been packed into hotels for more than a year. Drew is still enrolled in his middle school in Denver, in a southwestern neighborhood of the city called Bear Valley; Bonnie has school correspondence sent to a friend’s house nearby so that officials won’t know that the family has moved out of the district and into a hotel. They are afraid of getting in trouble for not residing in the district, but, even more, they are afraid Drew’s schoolmates will pick on him if word gets out that he’s homeless. Drew, short and thin with a bowl-shaped cap of dark hair and the beginnings of a beard and mustache, has a way of hunching over and clasping his hands in front of his chest—a shy kid trying to make himself smaller. Andy is a 60-year-old from Colorado’s farmlands in the San Luis Valley. He wears flannel shirts and leather vests and balances a baseball cap on top of his scraggly gray hair. His long mustache frames his mouth—fixed in a half-smile, half-scowl. Whenever Andy was asked how he was doing, he’d answer, “Terrible.”
Any time they were getting ready for a trip or trying to decide what to eat, Andy would wave his hand and say, “I don’t decide anything,” and he’d let Bonnie take over. Bonnie never lets a conversation slip into silence or a question hang in the air; she’s always talking. No matter the subject, Bonnie will let her voice crescendo to a near yell. That’s especially true when she recounts what she refers to as That Mess We Got Into, the circumstances that led to her sharing Room 124 in the back hallway of the Ramada with her husband and son. Much of her fury is reserved for the banks, especially Countrywide Financial. What they did to her family was illegal, Bonnie tells everyone who will listen: “They were the ones who actually created the problem in the housing market. Instead of helping the homeowners that got caught in this, the government bailed the banks out.”
Like so many others, Bonnie and Andy were caught in an unfamiliar system and lacked the know-how it takes to work it. Bonnie’s house was in a working-class neighborhood called Westwood. While she was in high school, she and her father had opened a landscaping business; she also took day jobs throughout her adulthood. When she met and married Andy, in 1992, they both helped her father. They kept up the landscaping business after her father died in 2000. Between that and their other jobs, they pulled in a middle-class salary. “Back then, it was $80,000 at least,” she said.
Two years after Bonnie’s father died, she became ill and left the job she’d been working for 15 years at a local elementary school. She didn’t rush back to work, because the loss of her job alone wasn’t financially devastating. The landscaping business had been a steady source of income. Until it wasn’t. As the recession began, some customers started cutting back on services or taking longer to settle bills. Bonnie and Andy began to feel the crunch in 2007. “Our customers didn’t want to pay us because it was hitting them, too. That’s how we got behind, because we couldn’t get our money,” Bonnie says. “That’s where you lose, when you don’t get paid. You put out gas, you put out for the equipment and your time, and you get nothing for it.”
Andy had a job at a foundry, but his bosses began cutting his hours during the downturn. So Andy took out a home-equity loan from Countrywide in 2007 for $48,000 to keep the family afloat. “We wouldn’t have taken out the loan had we known they were crooked,” Bonnie says. “We never would have used that money.”
They took out an additional $20,000 to refinance the loan and avoid a balloon payment when the interest rates rose. The principal swelled to $68,000 at a time when Andy’s hours at the foundry had dwindled to almost nothing. It was a stretch to make the $300 monthly loan payment. When Andy’s boss asked him to start working on an on-call basis, meaning his hours weren’t guaranteed and could be as low as 20 hours a month, he refused. He was laid off. “What gets me is, some people say it’s better to take a low-paying job than to get laid off,” Bonnie says. “But if the money doesn’t cover the bills, if the money isn’t enough to even feed your family, why would you do it? I mean, would you work at a job that doesn’t pay you enough of what you need?”
“Do the math,” Andy says. “Twenty hours a month times nine bucks—”
“Understand what I’m saying,” Bonnie says, breaking in. “Especially if you’ve got a family. I’ve got a son who’s 14.”
In February 2011, Bonnie says someone knocked on her door and told them his company owned her house. She and Andy refused to leave. Around this time, they got a flier in the mail from a company called Colorado Home Savers. They’d gone everywhere for help—ACORN, a local nonprofit called Brothers Redevelopment, the office of their congresswoman, Diana DeGette—and everyone advised them to cut their losses and walk away from their home. Nobody promised what the agent from Colorado Home Savers did: that they could stay in their house. “He seemed nice,” Bonnie says. “Well, Andy seemed to think he was OK.”
“I shook his hand, and he seemed trustworthy,” Andy says.
Bonnie and Andy say they arranged to pay off their debt with Colorado Home Savers, but the company never sent any documents and stopped returning their phone calls. (The organization still has an active website, but the listed number is no longer in service.) The Denver Public Trustee’s office, which handles foreclosures in the city, posted a notice of eviction on their door in December 2011. Bonnie and Andy never tried to contact the trustee’s office, which is how they could have challenged the eviction.
The family had to leave in February 2012, the weekend after Valentine’s Day. “My husband and I, our parents wanted better for us than what they had,” Bonnie says. “And it’s gone backwards.”
They had to move quickly. Andy called around for places to stay. He would have been content for his family to sleep in their 1997 Chevy Suburban for free, except that keeping Drew in school meant they needed a place to clean up, because nothing said homeless like being dirty. He found a cheap room in a Motel 6 across the freeway from the Ramada, where they could keep their cat. They moved to the Ramada in June, because it was both nicer and cheaper.
They console themselves with the thought that they were ready to leave Westwood anyway. Bonnie remembers growing up in a nice, middle-class neighborhood, but now she says it’s more like a rundown border town, full of Mexican immigrants. She wants to move to Bear Valley, the neighborhood surrounding Drew’s school, where houses are a bit bigger, lawns are kept neater, and fewer ambulances are called for fights on Saturday nights.
She and her family often drive by an empty house they like, an L-shaped brick ranch down the street from the family friends they have their mail sent to. In fact, they spend all their free time in Bear Valley; after they pick Drew up from school, they grab dinner at the prepared--food counter of the local grocery store, King Soopers. They go to the King Soopers cheese counter for free tastings on Saturdays. They drive to the neighborhood for big shopping trips at the Wal-Mart or Costco, skipping the stores closer to the hotel.
“I would have sold my house, if I got my stuff straightened out, and moved to Bear Valley,” Bonnie says. “I could’ve probably gotten my stuff straightened out had they worked with me.”
Drew can’t understand why the banks didn’t try to work with his parents. From his point of view, they had worked hard to try to make payments, and he knew whoever bought the house after the foreclosure had paid less than his parents owed. One day, Bonnie and Drew took a drive past their old house. He asked why the banks didn’t make a deal with her.
“They wouldn’t have lost that much money,” he said.
“They wouldn’t have lost anything,” Bonnie snapped back.
The Ramada was built in 1972 amid a development boom outside Denver. Wheat Ridge is an old farm town that became a city in the late 1960s, when every bit of flat land between Denver and the mountains began to fill up with bedroom communities and subdivisions, connecting old frontier downtowns into a grid of unvarying suburb.
The hotel was bought in 2004 by a businessman who goes by the name of Bruce Rahmani. His legal name is Gholemreza Rahmani--Azar, and he now owns 46 properties—mostly hotels—along the Front Range corridor under one corporate name, Colorado Hospitality Services. Its corporate office is in another Ramada in a northern suburb called Northglenn, off a different interstate. On a hill, with a bright view of the snowy mountains, this Ramada is many shades nicer than the one in Wheat Ridge. It has a restaurant and a flora-filled sunken lobby. An office just off the entryway books weddings and other big events. Across the hall is Rahmani’s office. He declined to be interviewed and claimed he had little to do with the property where the weeklies live. He referred me to a property manager named Melissa, who did not respond to requests for comment.
The hotel’s residents know who Bruce is, though. They’ve seen him come by on Sundays to collect money from the washers and dryers, and they know he issues commands that affect their daily lives. From the perspective of the Ramada families, he has one rule that he wants observed above all others: no children in the lobby or hallways. If he drives up and one of the nice clerks is on duty, she’ll yell, “Bruce!” and whoever is in the lobby runs back to their room. Once, he told a clerk that she should tell Andy to shave his scraggly gray beard. Drew is so terrified of him he rarely ventures out. “These people have rooms,” a guest once heard Bruce say.
For everyone but Drew, the threat of Bruce is a minor problem compared to those suffocating rooms. They feel especially small with entire families and all their belongings squeezed in between two double or even queen-size beds. The one spot where they can try to build a home, a communal one at any rate, is at the tables or on the brown leather couch in the lobby, and even that is off-limits when Bruce comes by. The Ramada relies on the weeklies financially—they occupy more than a quarter of its 121 rooms—but Bruce, it seems, doesn’t want anyone to know it. His edicts are meant to wipe away any sign that the hotel doubles as a home.
Bonnie, Andy, and Drew live in an isolated room in the back southeast corner of the hotel, next to a rear exit and a boiler room. A hot plate and a small refrigerator, to the right of their doorway, constitute a kitchen; they have to walk through it to get to the bathroom. They lost their storage unit because they couldn’t afford the $300 a month in fees, so all of their clothes are looped over plastic hangers, stacked between the walls and the beds. “This is what I miss most of all—having a closet,” Bonnie says, pointing to a slim armoire that contains more clothes. “Because all they give us is this. I mean, how many clothes can it fit? This is some of our clothing there in the corner, and boxed up too, and in the car.”
In the low dresser, which holds the TV on top, they’ve filed their papers—the tax returns, application forms, and schoolwork every family keeps. Drew stores poster boards for school projects slipped between the armoire and the dresser and does his schoolwork on his bed. (In the fall of 2012, he studied mold for a science-fair project and would leave slices of wheat sandwich bread in Ziploc bags around the room the entire semester; their cat stepped on one and tore it.) Their desk is crowded with two desktop computers, a laptop, and a printer. One of their dresser drawers holds computer games for Drew. Shortly after they moved in, the games became a draw for another boy about Drew’s age, a 13-year-old named A.J.
A.J. is already six feet tall, with a crown of dark, curly hair. He’s lived with his grandparents since his mother died when he was four and his little brother, Beau, was a baby. Everyone agreed that had aged A.J. up. He tends to be exasperated with kids his age; when other boys in the hotel would complain that nothing was on television, he’d roll his eyes and tell them to read a book. “I tend to have adult friends,” he says. “I’m not like most kids my age.” For Bonnie and Andy, A.J. was a son who wasn’t quite a son; they could tease him about girlfriends at school without worrying whether he had done his homework; they saw in him a kid who collected older friends and realized he must need them.
A.J.’s family lost their house when his grandfather Mike’s business—he provided Federal Aviation Administration safety information to private pilots and sold it in easy-to-use databases—took a nosedive in the recession, and they fell behind on their rent. The sheriff came to evict them just a few days after A.J. and his brother finished the school year in 2011. It was around 9 A.M. on a Saturday. “I was being an 11-year-old trying to manage everything the best I can,” A.J. says. “When they evict you, it’s not nice. If it’s too big to bag, it’s ‘Chuck it out the door.’ And if it’s small enough to bag, you bag it and then you chuck it out the door.” He spent the next year with his grandmother Judy and his little brother at an aunt’s house in Oklahoma. The small house was crowded with eight people and only two bathrooms. The following June, Judy drove the boys back to Colorado to join Mike in the Ramada, almost the same time that Bonnie and Andy moved in. A.J. stayed with his grandmother in the front hallway—his grandfather and Beau, who is nine, had a separate room—but the crowded Room 124 where Drew and his parents lived was somehow more fun.
Shared misery will bring people together, and since many of the Ramada families had similar, working-class backgrounds, they believed their poverty was a temporary state. That involved some self-deception; part of the reason Bonnie and Andy were stuck in the hotel was that they wouldn’t consider renting or moving to neighborhoods more affordable than the solidly middle-class Bear Valley. Bonnie had owned a home, and she wanted to own one again.
For the time being, the hotel and its community offered advantages that would have been unavailable to the families if they’d scattered into rental houses or transitional housing programs throughout the neighborhoods that make up Jefferson County. They had each other.
A.J. and Bonnie bonded in the summer after a new clerk was hired. The clerk was clueless about running the breakfast buffet and asked the two of them to do it for her. It never occurred to them to ask for pay, but it became a regular gig. They’d arrive at 5 or 5:30 in the morning and refill bagel and donut trays and juice pitchers and make waffle batter. The clerks got used to it and would often ask them for help on other tasks.
“So I came down for breakfast,” A.J. says, recalling the first morning he served breakfast. “Amber, who worked here a week—only a week—goes one morning, ‘A.J., can you do me a favor?’ And, keep in mind, I came down here for breakfast, so I’m eating, and I have toast in front of me, and cereal and a bagel. I’m like, ‘Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.’ And she goes, ‘Can you do me a favor? Can you work the breakfast bar?’ I’m like, ‘What? I’m eating breakfast!’ She’s like, ‘But, but…’ and I’m like, ‘Fine.’ So then I’m flooded.”
“Next thing I know,” Bonnie says, “Andy’s coming down to the room, and he’s like, ‘Bonnie, can you go over to the breakfast bar? A.J. needs help. He’s doing breakfast by himself.’”
“I did pretty darn well,” A.J. says, mock offended. “I had everything refilled.”
“I came down here, and he goes, ‘Bonnie look at this! I’m all by myself.’ I said, ‘Calm down, calm down, it’s not as bad as, well, maybe it is as bad as it looks.’”
Later that day, they took it upon themselves to clean the front lobby, vacuuming the dusty carpet and wiping down the dozen tables and the tan, fake-leather chairs. The same clerk once sent them on an errand into the hotel’s storage area, a low, attached building that was once a restaurant and bar. Inside, A.J. and Bonnie found what seemed to be every discarded item from each of Rahmani’s properties—nonworking dryers, phones, old toilets—with cleaning supplies and chemicals next to sheets and towels. From then on, Bonnie was convinced the whole place would go up in smoke.
Bonnie and Andy still work for a few landscaping customers and earn a little money. Andy also owns about 240 acres of family land in New Mexico, about 15 miles from the border, which he has hidden from Colorado authorities; it’s the only substantial asset the family has. The value would put them past the limits allowed for the assistance they receive. It’s been listed at $1,000 an acre but, since no one is buying, it’s currently worth nothing in their quest toward getting out of poverty and getting a new home.
Andy is prone to gravelly-voiced invectives about the state of the country, about how the government’s bailout has sidestepped the people who really need help. “Recession is just a fancy word for depression,” he says. He and his family receive $300 in food stamps; he thinks families need more money for food. Through a Colorado program for low-income seniors, he receives a $700 old-age pension payment. He rejects welfare because it tops out at $462 a month but would require him to work about 30 hours a week for an approved employer. “You do the math,” Andy says, “and you tell me. They want you to work for nothing.”
Andy’s rants have given A.J. a target for his own sense of unhappiness: the world at large, especially the government. He and Andy stayed up late one night toward the end of summer to make friends with a bunch of Swedish tourists in town for a gem convention. One of the Swedes commented that, judging from all the SUVs and luxury condos around town, it didn’t look like America was in the midst of an economic crisis. A.J. told him that he wouldn’t see it if he only looked for a week, or even two weeks, because no one wanted to acknowledge that families like his are still struggling. “They hide us,” he said. “They lock us all in a closet like we don’t exist.”
A.J.’s family’s car stopped running after they moved to the Ramada. It sat unused in a side parking lot. Since Bonnie was one of the few weeklies who still had a working vehicle, she often gave Mike, Judy, and A.J. rides to the grocery store or Sam’s Club. Her aging Suburban had a busted frame from when she’d been rear-ended, so it took an elaborate ritual to close her driver’s side door: Andy or Drew would have to lift her door and settle it into exactly the right place for it to latch after Bonnie was already inside. The floor of the backseat was filled with Andy’s toolboxes; above, a plastic rod hung between the doors for when they brought laundry back from the laundromat. (Bonnie was convinced the hotel’s washers and dryers didn’t get her clothes clean enough.) A ride in Bonnie’s Suburban was always crowded, and the SUV groaned whenever she made a turn. She needed a new car, but she hardly ever refused to give the other weeklies a ride.
“There are people who have kids and are real close-knit families that have met other close-knit families in the same situation,” Bonnie said. A.J. took his friendship with Bonnie even more seriously. He dreaded the thought of leaving the hotel and leaving behind the extended family that now included Bonnie and Andy. “My grandfather sort of told them, whoever gets in a house first, if they get a house big enough, the other family moves in,” A.J. said. “There is no point otherwise. We are not leaving the other ones here.”
No one liked living in the hotel. They missed ovens and stoves. They missed closets, dining rooms, and front doors. They even missed housecleaning. There was no privacy, no place to cry after a hard day at school or work, no place for kids to host a sleepover, and no good place to have a birthday party.
There were everyday indignities, too, and the families began to feel them more acutely after months spent eating dinners perched on the edge of a bed or washing dishes in a bathroom sink. The price of the hotel rose or fell without warning. The maids cleaned the weeklies’ rooms only once a week, instead of every day. They used old linens on their beds, and put top-sheets where fitted sheets would normally go, so that the bedding came apart during sleep. The rotating menu of food that could be made in a Crock-Pot, a microwave, or on a hot plate got boring. (Experiments like Crock-Pot macaroni-and-cheese proved disastrous.) The spoils from any trip to a grocery store or food bank were limited to what could fit into the tiny, dorm-size refrigerators that constantly needed defrosting. Few families could afford to eat out, so a trip to the nearby Denny’s was a treat.
Still, the families had been in the Ramada long enough that they had worn patterns, and a pattern can make any place feel like home. They had settled into a state that wasn’t permanent or transient but something in between. Then a night in late August shook up their sense of routine.
It was a Tuesday, barely a week after the kids started school again, when the residents were reminded that they were subject to not only the whims of Bruce and the attitudes of the clerks but even to the ravings of a madman. At about 1 P.M. that day, a new weekly went out to the front counter to pay for the coming week. Two bail bondsmen happened in at the same moment, recognized him as the subject of warrants, and chased him to his room. The man slammed the door in their faces, and the standoff began.
The families gathered in the lobby and watched the police try to coax the man out. He yelled that he had a gun, that he would only come out free or in a body bag. At around 4:30, he opened the door and threw out a flaming roll of toilet paper. (Months later, the carpet would still be black and melted in the spots where the roll had bounced and landed.) It set off the fire alarm, and the hotel was evacuated. The residents were exiled to the flagstone driveway.
They passed the time on a grassy spot by the Conoco station next to the interstate. The officers assured them the situation would be resolved “very soon,” but Bonnie said, “Oh no, we’re going to be here for a loooonnngggg time.” Drew, who wants to be a paramedic when he grows up, made her take pictures with her flip phone of all the emergency vehicles that had filled the parking lot.
Finally, about midnight, everyone heard gunshots. The man, who was wanted for identity theft, criminal impersonation, and forgery, came out not in a body bag but dead nonetheless, atop two gurneys strapped together. The police tried to cover him so that no one, including the local news-station reporters who had gathered, could see him. It was 2 A.M. before Bruce sent a shuttle to take everyone to another hotel for the night. None of the kids went to school the next day. For weeks, the residents still couldn’t use the front hallway, which had to be cleaned because the police had sprayed tear gas. The door to 119, which had been rammed down, was replaced by one with a darker wood that set it apart.
The families had already suffered from the effects of forces that were beyond their reach: Unscrupulous lenders had sought them out, landlords had evicted them with little notice, the government had worked with banks but forgotten about homeowners. The worst part of staying at the hotel was that it brought even more instability. Their lives could be derailed by anyone behind one of the blank, identical doors lining the hall. They knew it would be difficult if even this sorry excuse for a life, this hotel life, were suddenly upended.
On the morning of December 21, the last day of school before the Christmas break, Bonnie got a knock on her door. A.J. and his family were moving out. They’d signed a lease a couple of days before on a house near the hotel and had nearly finished getting their stuff from storage. Bonnie had known they’d found a potential home but until the last moment, feared it would fall through for them. Judy wanted to know if Bonnie could drive them to Sam’s Club the following Sunday so that she could stock the house.
Bonnie knew the giant discount warehouse would be a madhouse so close to the holiday. She and Drew went to Sam’s Club all the time—the pizza at the food bar was one of Drew’s favorite dinners—and once in the store, they acted as Judy and Beau’s personal shoppers. Judy had suffered a stroke the year she was evicted, and she struggled to move quickly and lift heavy things, so Bonnie went through the list and yelled the locations of the next item while Drew would run off to get it. When Drew picked up a pallet of soda and shoved it into her cart, Judy yelled, “Come on, Muscles!” Drew looked up red-faced with an embarrassed kind of pride. Then he grabbed the shopping list from Bonnie’s hand and raced off for the next item; stocking Judy’s new house was now his urgent mission.
Bonnie and Drew liked shopping because it made them feel normal. What they hadn’t done in more than a year was buy items for a house. Sam’s Club purchases held a sense of permanence: A 25-pound bag of sugar in a pantry is going to be in the same place months down the road. Judy’s list took them up rows of bulk buys and housewares. She wanted gigantic tubs of detergent—now that she no longer had to lug her laundry to the washers in the lobby. She wanted a shower curtain, pillows, two cartons of eggs. She now knew that her family would be in the same place for a long time. But as they pulled up at Judy’s new house and unloaded the boxes from the Suburban, Bonnie and Drew didn’t know where they would be next month.
Andy had gone to help Mike unload furniture from storage in his rented U-Haul and wasn’t back yet. Bonnie and Drew decided to wait; they wanted to stay awhile. A tiny flat-screen TV in the living room was tuned to a home-buying show on Home and Garden Television, which gave Bonnie and Drew a chance to discuss their own grandiose plans for the L-shaped home in Bear Valley. Bonnie talked about how she wanted two ovens in her kitchen. She and Drew kept telling Judy that her new house was awfully small, that she had a tiny kitchen and living room. Judy, in an undentable good mood, just smiled, but after a while, A.J.’s little brother Beau, who was falling asleep on a recliner, asked, “Is it really that small?” Bonnie conceded, “It’s middle-sized.”
Bonnie’s anger and anxiety had a way of occupying the space around her, and all that emotion had its own seat in the Suburban as they pulled away from A.J.’s house. In truth, Bonnie and Andy had been looking for a house the way they looked at HGTV—aspirationally, without any way to turn plans into reality—and Bonnie knew it. All of the frustration with the mess they got into, with Andy’s inability to sell the New Mexico land, and with their failure to get out of hotels was boiling up, focused on A.J.’s house and the family waving at them from their new front porch. There had been nothing left to do except to call the house inferior, declare they wouldn’t have wanted such a house anyway, and ride back in sulky silence.
All the talk from the hotel days about helping each other get out was gone. All the talk about getting a house big enough for all of them was gone. Mike said later, “Oh, I don’t know that we were ever talking seriously about that. That was something we’d bounced off the wall, but I can’t imagine that would ever fly.” Bonnie and Andy knew it was just talk, too, egged on fervently by a 13-year-old boy. The problem was that, when they drove home, they drove back to a hotel.
On Christmas Day, one of the families in the hotel—a large family split across two rooms and three generations—decided to have their Christmas in the lobby. They cooked a ham in an electric roaster, turkey in an electric deep fryer; they tossed a salad and made a green-bean casserole in a Crock-Pot and spread it all out among the tables. They ate below the hotel’s Christmas tree, with lights that ran out a third of the way to the top, a few of which blinked erratically. The day clerk had given permission, only asking the family to clean up after themselves, but when the night clerk came in, she decided she didn’t want the festivities to continue. She turned the air conditioner up so high no one could stand to be in the lobby. The cold air filled the hallways as well. When one of the guests asked why it was so cold, the clerk replied, “That’s how the boss wants it, so no one will be here in the lobby.”
The air-conditioning incident was only one in a series of new affronts. Starting in the fall, Bruce had sent the nicest clerks to work at other properties, and the two who worked most often in December were cracking down on old rules the previous clerks had let slide. Weeklies no longer got free breakfast, and the clerks, who in the past had made free coffee throughout the day, cut that off, too. Families who paid late were now charged $89 for every night they fell behind.
The new clerks yelled at children who didn’t wear shoes in the lobby. Worse, the clerks fell asleep in the back office so that some customers would stand at the desk for long stretches, waiting for service. The families were getting fewer towels. Someone overheard one of the clerks telling a new customer that weekly rates were $280, which made the families worry they’d have to come up with extra rent. Another guest overheard a clerk on the phone telling someone that they could have a monthly rate of $785, an offer that weeklies had been told no longer existed. Bonnie swiped a directive that one of the clerks had left lying on the counter: It warned that families with pets would have to pay a $50 deposit and would still have to remove their pets or move out. A 20-year-old college student staying in the hotel with her mom and little brother summed up everyone’s thoughts best when she said softly, “I don’t know why they’re discriminating against the weeklies.”
Until then, the Ramada’s selling point was that life was less miserable than it was in other nearby hotels. Though the clerks had always been rule-enforcers, they’d at least given people breaks. This new level of hostility, the threat of losing family pets and paying more each week, made everyone feel a new sense of urgency. “We have to be out of here,” Bonnie told Andy. “And I DON’T want to be going to another hotel.”
Bonnie began telling everyone that her family expected to get a new place after the New Year. Andy had hatched a fresh plan: He wanted to rent-to-own, like a layaway plan for a house. He figured his unsellable New Mexico land could serve as a kind of collateral and, in the meantime, he could pay rent on an empty house he wanted to buy and the owners had trouble selling—like their L-shaped house in Bear Valley.
On Sunday, December 30, Andy told Bonnie and Drew he’d made an appointment with a real-estate agent whose office was in an outlet mall in Golden, at the outer edge of the suburbs. That morning, Bonnie stood outside the rear hallway, spraying her hair like she always did. Drew and Andy came out, and they piled into the Suburban, a Sunday shopping trip to get a new house. But they were back too soon. The real-estate agent wasn’t there, and Bonnie was in a fury. Andy, exiled to the lobby, had been yelled at by Bonnie, who said he couldn’t do anything right. To Andy, that meant that Bonnie wanted him to do everything alone. Andy planned to take them back the next day, a Monday. New Year’s Eve.
On Monday, the same hair spray, the same car ride. Andy carried a manila envelope full of papers with details about his New Mexico land, as if that land could serve as a sort of promissory note that would get them a house. Bonnie dropped Andy and Drew off at a mall entrance near a discount shoe outlet and circled the driveway until she could find an empty parking spot close by.
When she finally made it into the mall, Andy was sitting at a bar in the agency, which was next to a nail salon, talking to a middle-aged agent in a polo shirt and reading glasses. Drew stood beside him, hunched over in his quiet way. Bonnie stayed outside but propped her purse on a nearby seat to look in. She was nervous. She knew she’d get upset and yell if she went in. Agents, loans, home listings; it all made her angry. Soon, though, she wandered over to the storefront and watched as a flat-screen TV flashed some of the properties. Among them were half-million-dollar homes that were now listed as bank-owned, and Bonnie realized they represented a story much like hers, except that it probably began and ended with more money. Bonnie wasn’t interested in any of them. She wanted the L-shaped house in Bear Valley.
When Drew saw her, he ran out excitedly and said, “We’re getting a house!” He ran back near his dad and then came back to Bonnie. “Mom, you have to come in and show dad which L-shaped house you want.” She finally, reluctantly, went in. But, while Drew had heard probabilities, the agent was only talking about possibilities. It was possible they could rent an empty house and, when they finally sold their land, offer to buy it from the owner for cash. It was possible, but they’d need cash. Bonnie and Andy, though, didn’t have it, and the agent couldn’t rent them a house. He wasn’t filling out paperwork or showing them listings. Instead, Bonnie started to tell him part of their story, about how the agents they’d had before had lied, about how they’d been foreclosed on because the lenders were crooked, about how Countrywide started this whole mess in the entire country. The agent broke in, saying that he and his co-workers were having a quiet beer in the back together before they closed for New Year’s, and he needed to return to the party. He shook their hands and said he would call Wednesday or Thursday, after the holiday. He never did.