The Strangest Stories From New York's Airport Hotels

This is the weirdness that inspired HBO's 'Room 104.'

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There’s something mysterious about an airport hotel, where tourists, business people, dreamers, criminals, and lost souls spend the night on their way in or out of a city. Around New York’s airports, where 125 million passengers travel every year, those mysteries are uncountable.

The Duplass brothers’ new HBO fictional anthology series Room 104 features stories of characters passing through a single room of a chain motel, with stories ranging from comedy to horror.

With that show in mind, Inverse talked to several managers and employees of hotels near JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark and asked about the things they’ve seen. Think low-level thieves wearing disguises to trick guests, hard-partying Midwestern women flirting with regional news anchors, and champagne enemas, and you’re just hitting the tip.

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Left Behind

Quite often, hotel employees don’t get to know guests at all … until the guests check out, anyway. Most people we surveyed repeated many of the same items as being frequently left behind: phone chargers, spare change, used maps, and half-eaten boxes of food, the kind purchased at a convenience store along the way. Sometimes, it also seems like visitors treat their stuff like the hotel room itself: temporary.

“Women would leave bags of business clothes, stuff you’d get at department stores,” one former manager of a Newark-area hotel told us. “And bottles of alcohol they couldn’t take on flights. It was usually belongings they hadn’t forgotten but instead didn’t want to take with them. We had a lost and found, but no one ever came looking for anything.”

Sometimes, people working at the hotels wish they hadn’t found what guests left behind, either. Used condoms are high on the list of items discovered in rooms after checkout; perhaps people only flush them when there’s no one to dispose of them when they leave a room for the day.

But discarded prophylactics are just routine, pick-it-up-with-a-glove trash, the kind of thing you only remember in bulk. A hotel manager in Queens told us a story about something far more memorable and, well, unsanitary.

“An older gentleman sometimes stayed at our hotel — the first time he was brought to my attention was when his sheets were found full of feces. He paid a ridiculous walk-in rate and did not check out at the front desk, so we figured he might have health issues, so we just charged a cleanup fee,” the manager recalled. “Then he checked in again a week or so later. He paid a high rate and had a younger GQ-looking gentleman with him. The next day housekeeping enters the room to find the same gross scene, but this time mentioned he had multiple bottles of champagne in the room.”

The upper management was called this time, and upon surveying the scene, some were baffled — including the manager. Then, the director of sales came by the room. “She was the most professional, prim individual, and she just responded, ‘champagne enema,’ like I was supposed to know what the heck that was!”

No one knows exactly what happened in that room, which is actually somewhat comforting; in a hyper-connected world that often feels impossible to escape, airport hotels seem to stand as one of the few anonymous places left.

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Criminal Element

Then again, not all regulars left such a mess or maintained such mystery. Another hotel employee, who worked at the front desk and often assisted in the chain hotel’s small restaurant, remembers a few frequent customers with fondness … even if they weren’t always model citizens.

“An old, eccentric man came in often and once misplaced a vial of cocaine,” the front desk employee recalled. “He was going crazy looking for it. A busboy found it, brought it over to me, and I quietly brought it back to him. He was so grateful that he came back a few days later and gave me an expensive bottle of perfume.”

Not everyone involved in criminal activity was so gracious or friendly.

“We had a guy who would wear clothing similar to our maintenance uniforms,” the Newark-area manager told us. “He’d go up to the guest room floors and knock on the doors announcing himself as engineering, and guests would actually let him into their room. He would let them know there was an issue with the AC unit or toilet and have guests go to the bathroom or bedroom to listen for a sound, and in the meantime he’d take items from the guests.”

Still, others used the hotel in other entrepreneurial ways, including a pimp who spent his time quietly reading classic novel after classic novel while his employees did their work.

Party Time

As a general rule, it seems that airport hotels are mostly filled with strangers, with each room its own island. But hotels in New York are very expensive, and sometimes for group trips it makes the most sense for out-of-towners to stay at the budget hotels near the airport.

Some frequent travelers got to know one another — often intimately — through the “VIP lounges.” These are generally remodeled conference rooms made to feel a bit swanky, with broader and more pseudo-upscale choices of food and beverage. Instead of the obvious go-to snacks and grill items — personal pizzas, burgers, and “unsafe calamari,” according to our Queens manager — these repeat customers were treated to fancy food and drinks served in cocktail glasses.

And they really loved cocktails.

“We have a lot of Avon ladies here for regional conferences,” the Queens manager said. “There are sometimes a fleet of them in town, the people who do this for a living. They are mostly from the Midwest; you could tell they were not from the city. They would do a lot of drinking and having fun. They’d try to sell stuff to people in the lobby who were NOT having it. But I admired their hustle.”

Sometimes, they were able to find willing customers in traveling reporters, who often came in from flyover states to participate in press junkets and check out events on behalf of local news stations. Other times, they just made friends with locals.

“We had regulars at the bar,” another former employee told us, “who must have been kicked out of every other bar in the area.”

Room 104 begins its 12-episode season Friday, July 28 at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.

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