50 YEARS - 1988: Staying at the Clermont Hotel when it was a Dive
Check in & CHECK OUT: When two middle-class whiteboy staff writers check into the reowned Clermont Hotel on Ponce de Leon Avenue, they check out from reality. Steven Beeber and John D. Thomas, Oct 1988
“We’re not in the war, David,” we heard as we pressed our ears to glass ashtrays placed against the wall of out hotel room. “You’ve got to understand, he’s dying of AIDS. I know how it works, I know how God works. All he has to do is come to God.”
The Reverend screamed and testified, stomping his feet and varying the pitch of his voice as a boom box played Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” like a Greek chorus in the background:
Oh I luv, luv, luv you, yes I doooo!
The Reverend continued his harangue, “All religion, Satan devised it, even the worst form of cancer can say ‘Get out, Satan.’ David you must come to God, you must forget about the Church- the Church is not God. God waits for you with open arms and a smile on his face. All you have to do is accept him.
The monologue went on and on, broken up only by The Reverend’s need to quench his thirst. “God is there, David. God… shit! Could you hand me that bottle, I need a belt. The Lord can only do so much for a man. Thank you, Lord. God is willing to heal you, David, but you must take the first step.”
Steve took a step away from the wall and went to look out the window. In the parking lot below, a trio of raggedy-looking Ponce-people stood sharing cigarettes, sipping from a communal bottle of Fanta orange and exchanging obscenities.
The derelicts’ coughs and hoarse guffaws mingled with The Reverend’s sermon, the screaming red sounds of sirens and the thoughts running through our heads. We were in the Clermont Motor Hotel on Ponce de Leon Avenue- home of the down-and-out, the alienated, the drunkenly dispossessed and the unacceptably eccentric. We were there for the weekend, just across the street from the vacant kudzu lots where the homeless passed out and the prostitutes peddled their wares, to mingle with these people- but we felt more like two small children stuck behind a locked door while the grown-ups caroused in the next room.
“You’ve got to accept God, David,” continued The Reverend, “like I have. And when you accept, you have to toast him.”
“Praise Jesus. Yeah!”
As the sermon wound down, we left the room to explore our hotel. We made our way up the staircase, planning to go through the hallways from top to bottom, one floor at a time.
Like the hotel from The Shining, the Clermont seems of another time. If it was once not a fine hotel, it was at least a finer one than it is today. The black marble spiral staircase decorated with art deco lighting, the long, high-ceilinged hallways and the hand-operated elevator are the most obvious signs of what appear to be a state of former glory.
But these touches of architectural sophistication — set off by paint-chipped walls, bare lightbulbs and dirty carpeting — only serve to emphasize how far the Clermont has fallen.
The 61-year-old building was originally a “first rate” apartment house called the bonaventure Arms, according to Susan Dimmer of the urban Design Commission. Before it was bought by the Candlers in 1937 and converted into a hotel, the Bonaventure was the home of professional people and even one Atlanta Cracker, R.J. Niehaus, who played ball down the street across from Ford Factory Store. The Clermont only fell on hard times as the surrounding area did, Ponce de Leon being a kind of local version of Tobacco Road.
Wandering the hallways we encountered an assortment of the hotel’s inhabitants. A gray, masculine-looking woman, sporting her razor-cut hair peered out her door and giggled like a little girl. An elderly couple emerged from the dark spiral stairwell, toting two plastic Kroger bags full to the brim with assorted cleaning fluids. A tall, thin cream-and-coffee colored black man, emaciated and bald, wearing a beret and a T-shirt with a saxophone on it, walked by us whistling loudly.
We stopped to watch as one of the hotel’s maids, with a shopping cart full of plungers, brooms and towels, stood in front of a door and argued with a shirtless fat man in a yellow sunbonnet.
“The front desk told me to bring up these here towels,” she said.
“But I don’t need or want any more towels,” snapped the fat man.
They glared at each other for a moment. Then the man shut his door and the maid headed down the hallway. As she passed us, she shook her head and muttered. Her words were unintelligible, but her mood was clear.
Like many of the residents as the Clermont — outsiders in society — the man thought he had found an easy target in the woman who had to clean up after him. He had failed to take into account one thing however. She may have only been a maid in the hotel- but at least she didn’t have to live there.
The lobby has an air of schizophrenia. It is cluttered with vending machines, antique-looking furniture, dimestore fans and K-Mart special nail-polish-pink flower pots.
The overhead lights were off when we visited, leaving only lamplight and the somnambulant feeling one finds most often in a nursing home. This feeling was accentuated by the five comatose-looking residents who sat around the lobby staring at nothing.
Jeff, the 5-foot-tall Sartre-eyed desk clerk, was speaking to Old Joe, one of the hotel’s fix-it men. Joe looked like an ancient agrarian- his white socks fell around his patent leather shoes and his pants were pulled up almost to his armpits by cheap elastic suspenders. He had been there for 15 years, trying to keep the old lady together.
Jeff was telling Joe that he needed to fix a lock in one of the rooms.
“I ain’t goin’ up there if he’s in the goddamn room,” said Joe.
“He’s not in the room,” retorted Jeff. “He was just down here sayin’ that he couldn’t get into his room.”
Joe begrudgingly acquiesced and headed upstairs.
Just then, the man in question entered the lobby, went up to the check-in window and slurred, “You mean to tell me that for $5 I get a new key,” he belched.
“I already told you that,” said Jeff, trying to pay as little attention as possible to the obviously drunk man.
The man staggered away, only to stagger back a few minutes later. “You mean to tell me that for $5 I get a new key,” he growled, and then hobbled away again.
Old Joe came back in and sat down. He took little notice of the keyless drunk who was back at the window repeating his lines again: “You mean to tell me…”
While this was going on, a man in a brown overcoat pushed the hotel doors open and shoved a fat, tank-topped mountain-looking man into the room at gun point. The guntoter, who turned out to be the Clermont’s weekend security guard, looked at the fix-it man and said, “Hey, Joe, when the uniformed police get here, tell them to come and get this guy from 102.”
The security guard and his suspect received as little attention from the people in the lobby as the drunk did a few minutes before. While we sat there uncomfortably, the fan whirred, Old Joe began to doze and a gray-haired woman breathed loudly through her mouth.
All was quiet for a while until a toothless derelict who looked like a dirty black Buddha wearing a watch cap, came into the lobby. After wandering around for a couple of minutes, looking for change in the pay phone and the vending machine, he apparently spotted what he was really looking for and sat down next to JT.
“Hey, how ‘bout lending me a couple of dollars so I can get a pint,” said the man as he plopped down on the couch next to JT.
“Sorry, man, I’m broke,” JT lied, pointing to his pockets and trying to discreetly move away from the man.
The man just smiled when he heard that and moved even closer to JT. It was hard to tell if he was being threatening or drunkenly friendly.
“All right, all right then,” he said laughing loudly and suddenly getting up to leave. “But if you got no money, hows about you letting me sleep on your floor tonight then?”
JT was amused. “Yeah, sure thing, man,” he laughed. “Room 309. Come by later.”
As the man walked away, JT turned to Steve and smiled. It was only then that he noticed that the other people in the lobby had suddenly come to life around him. They were looking at JT and frowning.
The Clermont Lounge, in the basement of the hotel, is the oldest strip club in Atlanta. In the ‘60s, the Lounge was more in the congenial tradition of the burlesque, with big-breasted women and a live band that played “The Stripper’s Song” over and over again all night. Comedian Jerry Farber, who played in one of these bands, said that the Lounge used to be called The Jungle Club. Back then, he tickled the ivories behind such appropriately named bombshells as “Rubella,” “Thunder Thighs,” “Miss Honey Melon,” and “Elsie the Cow.”
Farber said in those days, the Lounge was “a 17-year-old’s fantasy of what a strip club should be.”
When we took the executive live-in entrance from the hotel into the Clermont Lounge Friday around midnight, we found a 17-year-old’s fantasy spot — and more.
Bob Seeger and the Silver Bullet Band were on the juke box and a heapin’ helpin’ of lovin’ was naked on the elevated strip tease floor behind the bar.
The cellulite-ridden woman’s belly and Led-Zep breasts swung to and fro with the musical rhythms. The T-shirt she removed read, “Born on a mountain, Raised in a cave, Party and rock and roll, Is all I crave.”
We took a seat beside a morose, cigar-sucking old man. Next to him was a bumper sticker on the wall — “Nobody’s ugly after 2 a.m.” He looked at us deadpan and intoned: “That girl’s just plain ugly.”
We asked him why he came to the Lounge if he didn’t like the girls.
“Well,” he said, hunching over the bar so that he looked like a cross between Vince Lombardi and Quasimodo, “the beer’s cheap and there ain’t no cover charge.”
From his pork-pie hat and nondescript clothing, it was apparent he couldn’t afford to be bothered with cover charges.
We ordered a couple of the house specials: Bud in cans. Around us the Clermont scene played itself out. A cherubic-looking member of Atlanta’s finest stood at the front door smiling maniacally, perhaps giggling to himself at the choice beat he had pulled.
Some old man who looked like Larry Bud Melman twirled his swizzle stick in his drink and put dollar bills in the garter belts of any and all of the Lounge’s ladies.
Meanwhile, a battalion of Georgia Tech prepsters cruised in, slapping backs and chanting frat-boy beer-chugging songs. Their starched white oxfords glowed purple under the blacklight near the door and their presence was an affront to the upstanding collection of slick-haired drunks, long-haired metal heads and gut-heavy middle-aged construction workers sitting at the bar.
Everyone was as busy talking to the off-duty dancers as watching those on stage. The girls hugged the patrons and pinched them on the cheeks, acting more like friendly big sisters or cousins than red hot seductresses of the night.
But then came Blondie.
The Lounge’s legendary blonde-on-blonde-black-beauty took the stage. The hair on her head matched that between her legs, making her look like a bizarre reverse negative come to life.
“All right, boys, we’re open all night,” she said jiggling and jiving as the Georgia Satellites “Open All Night” blasted through the club.
On the other side of the room, some dancers presented a birthday cake to the “Boss Lady.” It was her night and the fat-butted woman blew out the candles, expending almost no new effort at all. A younger dancer took a finger-full of icing, walked across the room and crammed it in Steve’s unsuspecting mouth. Steve smiled at her and she walked away.
As we downed a succession of Budweisers, a Fellini-esque parade of nymphettes, fat women and cowgirls performed for us on stage. Despite some serious eye contact and the Lounge’s reputation for providing “escorts” for lonely gentlemen, we sat alone and unbothered.
About 2 a.m. we were ready to head back to 309.
As we exited the lounge, Aerosmith was jamming through the airwaves and a crippled guy was playing drunken air guitar on his crutch.
It was just another night of fun, fantasy, and escape for 17-year-olds of all ages.
The morning after, Steve awoke to the sound of screaming. Outside, four men, apparently carrying on a drunk from the night before, were on the street enjoying the early morning Clermont atmosphere. While two of them shoved each other and sparred, the other two called up to one of the hotel windows.
“Yow, would you look at that!” said one.
“Come on, honey, jump on down, I’ll catch you,” yelped another moving towards the building with his arms outstretched like a cradle.
“Two dollars, I’ll give her two dollars,” called the third.
They walked away after that, apparently having had enough of the window dressing. Steve followed the still snoring JT’s example and went back to sleep for a few more hours after that. But around 3 p.m. The Reverend’s afternoon prayer service began.
“It’s a new day, David,” he said in a calmer voice now. “We’re all happy and healthy… and hungry. I’m ready to eat. Give me that can of beans.”
As The Reverend broke bread, we decided to head down to the lobby. It was time for us to take part in the Clermont residents’ late-Saturday-afternoon ritual — smoking cigarettes, eating vendomatic vittles and talking about nothing.
There, John the elevator operator introduced us to one of the Clermont veterans — Milly, a thin, goateed woman sporting polyester slacks and a sleeveless shirt that highlighted copious amounts of underarm hair. She had been living in the hotel with her husband for five years.
“Why did you move in here?” asked JT.
“It’s close to everything, and my husband is a printer for the newspaper, so it’s near his work. They have everything around here — liquor store — no problems around here.”
JT asked her if it was a violent place to live.
Milly shrugged, “Well, a couple of years ago this gal brought up some guys to her room, who must have been on dope, and they stabbed her to death. It was on my floor next to my room. All I heard her say was, ‘No, don’t,’ while we were watching TV. That scared the shit of of me. By the time they pulled her out she was already dead.”
“Do you go down to the Lounge much?” Steve asked.
“No,” she said, “I don’t like that kind of stuff. We just stay in our room and do our drinkin’ there and don’t bother nobody.”
We asked her what it was like to live in a hotel room for five years. She informed us that she lived in one of the building’s apartments which are located in the corners of each floor. The cost is $160 a week (as compared to $133.20 for a double room like our own), but that includes a kitchen, utilities, and grocery cart maid service. There is no security deposit required, an all important point for the rent poor of the city.
Mily left the hotel and walked down the street.
She returned a few minutes later toting a 12-pack of Old Milwaukee in each hand.
“All day long she goes back and forth like that,” gossiped John the elevator operator, sucking on an everpresent toothpick. “Her husband works, so she has to do his running for him.”
The others in the lobby gossiped too. It was like a crazy late night diner without the food, people talking vehemently about inane things, as much to hear their own voices as to communicate. They could have been in their rooms, starin at the walls, but at least here there was a warm body that had to pay them some attention.
“I couldn’t get to sleep and started drinking,” said a cigar-chomping man with a white gym sock on one foot and a blue on on the left.
“The next thing I knew I woke up in jail.”
“Well, you got a good night’s sleep,” laughed a lady in red.
“They say you can’t catch up on lost sleep, but you can,” the chomper stated.
A woman in a leopard skin dress with a baby walked by then, followed by a man in a cowboy shirt, tight jeans, and a union cap. All the while, an elderly woman sat in an overstuffed look-of-real-leather chair, peering through her hands which covered her deeply circled eyes.
JT turned to Steve and whispered, “Hey, that old woman is making me nervous. I’m going outside and check things out.”
In the parking lot, JT again ran in the toothless Buddha from the evening before. JT asked him if he had ever stayed at the hotel and he said yeah, but that they threw him out for having too many people in his room. JT then asked him if he had any good stories about the place.
“For five bucks, I’ll tell ya a hell of a story,” he replied smiling at the wallet-bulge in JT’s back pocket. JT handed him the green and followed him over the the side of the building.
“Hey, you see that rope hangin’ from the fif’ flo’?
This guy I know about got a pass key to the fif’ flo’. He went up there and got in one of them rooms and tied a color TV set around his waist with a sheet.” He paused, looking down at the wad in his fist, as if it might not be enough. Then he continued.
“He was climbing down the side of the building, and his rope gave way. He dead. The TV set was all smashed up in him when he hit the ground. I don’t understand why he didn’t just lower the TV down and then walk down stairs and get it.” JT agreed and they both laughed. “Hey, now how ‘bout just two more dollars so I can get a pint?”
“Come on now, I gave you five already, don’t try and rip me,” JT snapped back.
“All right, hah, hah,” he chuckled, “never hurts to try. Hey now, how ‘bout that room tonight. We still on?”
JT laughed again and told him, sure, then headed back inside to recount the story to Steve.
Steve was sitting watching a young Buckhead couple check in. The woman looked like a bad imitation of Princess Fergie and her boyfriend like a cross between Prince Andrew and Don Knotts. They were both visibly nervous as the headed upstairs for their evening of debauched slumming.
“Starting to get busy,” John the elevator operator said, winking “Just another Saturday night at the Clermont.”
After a dinner of Doritos, Fifth Avenue bars and Grandma’s Molasses cookies, chased with some Pabst we had chilling in the sink, we were ready for Lounge night No. 2 and a serious attempt at “action.” We descended into the red-lit fantasy chamber around midnight. There we purchased a couple of Buds and went to sit down in one of the four booths in the back of the room — these booths are where “business transactions” at the Clermont are reputed to take place.
We sat there unbothered for over an hour. Behind us, a group of Indian gentlemen chatted and called to the dancers.
“I’ll have seven bourbon and waters, hah, hah,” shouted the leader, a large man wearing a white turban with a ruby-looking stone in the center. “Oh, my, you look very nice tonight, yes. I’ll have another bourbon and water. Oh, you look even better now, whoo, hah!”
Despite the attempts of the men behind us, after another hour passed, we were still action-less. We went back to the main bar where we were approached by two of the Lounge’s better known dancers, Blondie and GI Jane.
GI Jane is an apartment manager who started working at the lounge last October when she needed some extra Christmas money.
“But after I started I didn’t want to stop because the money was so good,” she said. “I only work 31 hours a week, and I make 600 bucks. and , besides, I just love to dance.”
GI Jane dances in a camouflage outfit (“I’ve been asked to do a line of clothing”) and hands out commemorative items (GI Jane garter belts, beer coolers, and matches). She said the only people who know what she does for a living are one of her daughters and some of the guys she’s gone out with.
“If my mama knew I was here, she’d say ‘Get back on the house,’” Jane said. “But I like it here. It’s just blue-collar workers, good ol guys, drinks, conversation, and dancing.”
As she spoke, a dancer with a long white sleeve on one arm took the stage. Though the rest of her clothing came off, the sleeve stayed.
“It’s like Cheers in here,” Jane said.
“But here, everyone knows a little bit more than your name,” Steve whispered to JT.
“Just how well can a guy get to know you?” JT asked.
“I’ve been offered a lot of money, but if a woman wanted to be a prostitute she wouldn't be a dance,” she said. “It’s a fantasy type job.”
GI Jane’s stage rotation came around and she left us to do her five minutes of fantasy.
We turned to Blondie, who at 31 has been working at the Lounge for “10 years and a month.” Her trademark of all blonde hair on black skin has grown out of an early sting as a dancer when she was known as Anita Fox (“like I-need-a-fox?” asked Steve).
She spoke to us with a certain amount of intelligence and sophistication, but her mood changed whenever one of the Lounge’s regulars walked by.
“Hey, baby, I’ll be right over,” she cooed. “You just wait on Blondie.”
“Well I think the Clermont is a special place because, unlike other clubs, here you don’t have to have external beauty” she said. “It’s the inner beauty that counts.”
We asked her if she’d tried to work any of the fancier clubs in town.
“I tried to,” she said “But they wouldn’t have me. I guess I’m just too eccentric.”
She said she liked the Clermont better anyway, because customers and dancers have a special rapport. At other clubs, the girls are told to keep a distance and just push drinks and table dances. At the Clermont, she said, they are encouraged to be friends and to talk to the boys as much as dance.
But JT wasn’t buying any of it.
“What about the 10,000 kids across the city who say they’ve lost their virginity to Blondie? I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but is there any truth to it?
“Well, maybe just a few,” she said, smiling.
We were asleep in the room later when there was a knock on the door. we both woke up with a start, but said nothing. We lay still and quiet as possible. There was a knock again.
“Hey, open up! It’s me, Charles.”
“Who?” JT stammered?
“Charles, from out on the street man. You said I could sleep on the flo.”
JT quickly changed his voice to that of a young girl. “Who? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Charles knocked again and cursed.
“I’m calling the desk if you don’t go away,” JT said in the same falsetto. “Go away.”
He went away then, cursing as he walked down the hall.
We both rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. But for over an hour we lay awake waiting for the sound of another knock at the door. Only a few feet away outside, the Ponce people wanted to share our room.
And next door in 310, The Reverend was at it again. But this time it wasn’t a sermon. This time, The Reverend wept.