Everybody has to sleep somewhere. Why not here? A quick online search shows a competitive average rate of $49; proximity to Malley's Chocolate Factory and NASA Glenn; a utilitarian-looking highway hotel all dolled up in green and peach with a pool, gym, game room and Wi-Fi. For a traveler on a budget with a sweet tooth and inquisitive mind, it feels like a find on so many fronts.
Get in the rental at Hopkins, drive under a few highways, pass Ford's hulking Cleveland Engine Plant 1, crane your neck to the nondescript neon on the north side of the road - "Medder's Touch of Gold TOPLESS NITE CLUB," "adultmart," "Crazy Horse" - and look to the right at what your pre-planning hath wrought: Here, wedged between a boarded-up Mexican restaurant and the still-reigning Cap'N Taco, is your nest for the night: the Cleveland Airport Days Inn. Almost all the other acreage is consumed with heavy industry and lurching semis. Interstate 71 whines as the blast furnace at Ford aerates the breeze with an acidic tang and soot. Delicious.
You wonder where the hell the chocolate factory could be hiding and see that the hotel has an O'Malley's bar and grill attached, same font on the sign as on the chocolate boxes. Did you read the website right? Already you've got a sticky feeling all over, and you haven't even seen the room. When you do, it's not what you see as much as what you begin to imagine. As if Brookpark Road weren't storied enough for its historic embrace of Douchebag Chic, it now has a proper monument: This Days Inn was recently recognized by Tripadvisor.com for being an utter cum dumpster, placing fifth in the highly frequented site's annual Top 10 Dirtiest Hotels in the U.S. Under headings such as "A Truly Terrible Place," "Revolting!," "Beware!!! Stay Away!!!" and "Absolutely Disgusting," reviewers can't contain their disgust.
"I got a room with all kind of smells, dirty, big colored spots on the carpet, web spiders everywhere and dead mosquitoes with bloody spots on the wall … even worst: There were hairs in the pillow and the sheets weren't convincing about their cleanness," wrote a Cleveland Air Show visitor from Canada under the title "Disgusting place."
A New Yorker titled her diatribe "Not even worth giving it one star": "The carpet had burn marks, ceiling in the hallway was missing, bathroom was a disaster, old soap dried and stuck in the tub, furniture filthy and windows that appear never to have been cleaned. It is surrounded by very shady bars and appears to be a hotel that charges by the hour."
Location, location, location.
One Sunday night, across the street at the Crazy Horse, a gaggle of older men are heading to a car after unloading some bills. One says his name is Smitty, and he can "remember when you could pick up a hooker right on the street out here" - a bona fide red-light district, it was. The other guys lift their heads to the horizon. "Now you can't even find a hooker anywhere," he says, laughing as they stuff their guts into the car.
Police Chief Kevin McQuaid says that until I-480 was built, and strip clubs sprouted up and crack cocaine came on the market - all in the '80s - Brookpark's hotels were mostly frequented by pilots, stewardesses and business travelers. "All of this came at the same time," he says. "It used to be a beautiful area."
The Days Inn has been a problem spot, he admits, with "its share of calls." Some drug arrests, but mostly "disturbances."
"It's important to say that we have no interest to damage his business over there," the chief says. "We've had discussions on ways they could improve and he's working with us."
Predictably, hotel owner Sanjib (first names only, please) wasn't heartened by the new distinction. The former computer consultant has owned the place for six years and claims to invest constantly in order to improve his patrons' stays. "Send somebody here and have a look for yourself," he recommends when we call for a comment on the dubious honor he's won.
"That'll show that tripadvisor.com may be biased, but you are not."
Sanjib's wife, Anju, is at the front desk, pointing out the new heating units, the fresh carpeting in the lobby and hallways, the overstuffed furniture. "This is ridiculous, can you understand?" she asks. "We have so many places that are worse that this. Just go around Cleveland and you will find them everywhere. Maybe it's because there are 'those' places [across the street], people will say what they want and not think we are clean." Sanjib approaches and starts taking pictures of the hotel with me in every frame. Me playing myself at air hockey. Me looking at a bathtub. Me pushing my finger into a mattress to gauge comfort. "So this is it, huh?" he says. "You have to write this story and trash me down. It's a very hard business. There's no money."
The rooms he shows me - unoccupied units on a list of seven choices handed to him by Anju - are clean and acceptable, save for the 20-year-old décor and tasteless landscapes over the beds. Still, he's got 158 rooms and not even a dozen cars in the parking lot, so unless I can take keys off a board at random, the inspection is an unscientific endeavor. "All the rooms are clean," he attests. "And every six or seven years we are replacing all the bedroom sets to keep them fresh."
Passing through the unmistakable scent of marijuana in a downstairs hallway, then a maid at work changing sheets, Sanjib admits that all his customers haven't been happy - "the nicest hotels get people who are complaining" - but gripes about the complaint-based Tripadvisor listing: "I believe another hotel around here got scared of me doing better business than they are. I could go on the site too and write horrible things about other hotels, but that's not right."
He can't think of any other reason why people might feel dirty for staying here.