Stamford,CT (Population: 135,470)/Fairfield County (2020 Election Results: +27 Biden)
Miles Driven: 174 (5,040.77 total/Cups of Coffee: 3 (71 total)/Lowest Gas Price: $4.75/Number of States Visited: 19
Lodging: The Red Carpet Inn
Sometimes, the smell test is literal.
The Red Carpet Inn is a two-story flophouse just off exit 9 in Stamford, CT and a stone's throw from WWE's Titan Tower, the 8-story epicenter of professional wrestling. I wanted to stay in the shadow of headquarters, to see what I could glean through proximity and osmosis.
But osmosis would end up being far too subtle a word for the assault on the senses that I experienced at the Red Carpet. (I should have known better than to stay in a motel named for flooring; if the Red Roof Inn is no Ritz, lodging named for the ground should have set off alarm bells. Also, the carpet was blue. And full of cigarette burns. Also, I love writing in parentheses.)
After jostling a bit with the lock, I pushed open the door to room 155 and was met with the putrid stench of captive smoke. It was, in fact, a smoking room, something that I thought had gone the way of the VCR but remains here in Stamford. The carpet felt clammy on my bare feet, and there were DNA samples everywhere, from long strands of blonde hair to things I'm sure are only visible with a blacklight. The sheets felt soggy. The room began seeping in to my pores, burnt carbon permeating my cell membranes.
To round it out, there was a fist-sized hole in the wall next to the door.
I immediately brought my suitcase back to my car, not because I was leaving (the sensible thing to do) but because I didn't want my entire wardrobe to smell like cigarettes for the rest of the trip.
Avoiding the room, I took off on foot to the WWE building just over the freeway overpass. I found an older man folding a "Please Help" cardboard sign and stashing it in his backpack. He looked to be in his fifties or sixties, with short gelled grey hair pushed straight back and a purple collared shirt tucked in, his gut slightly spilling over. He had tinted prescription glasses, and based on his neat dress, did not fit the panhandler search image.
"Need some help?" I asked.
"Financial? Sure," Norman said, his eyes lighting up as his lips parted to reveal two giant gaps in his top and bottom jaw, perhaps five teeth missing in each space.
I gave him a couple bucks and asked what his story was. He explained that a recent business venture had gone bad when his partner was busted for embezzling.
"I keep going though. You got to. I cut my hair and panhandle--the cops generally leave me alone."
"What industry are you in?" I asked.
"Trucking. Yeah, I'm a truck driver."
"Do you have a place to stay?"
Norman paused just long enough to make me think there was more to this story, as he considered how much he wanted to share.
"Yeah. By the grace of God, yeah," he said, without elaboration.
I pointed to the tower behind him, the WWE and American flags waving side-by-side on the roof.
"Do you know what that is?"
He looked at me with disbelief and a hint of pity.
"Shit man, I was watching wrestling before you were even in diapers."
Norman, fifty-something, unemployed and on the edge of homelessness, was all caught up on Monday Night Raw.
"John Cena, he just came back last Monday. He's been around 20 years!"
Brad Balukjian is on a nine-week road trip, driving 16,000 miles around the country for his next book, The Six Pack, to be published by Hachette in 2024, about myth vs. reality in pro wrestling and the true identities of 1980s WWF wrestlers. To read past posts, click on the back arrow below.