Earlier this year, the Kew Motor Inn was shut down in a massive prostitution sting operation carried out by police. I wasn’t surprised: I’d been to the hotel a week before, as part of an assignment to report on the seedy sex hotels of New York City for Oyster.com…and met a pimp within an hour of being there.
NEVER LOOK A PIMP IN THE EYE
When I first saw him, I mistook the gigantic gold medallion he was wearing as a badge. When he began angrily pounding on the door of a room, yelling “Open up!,” I thought I was witnessing a prostitution sting operation going down. I soon realized my error: He wasn’t a police officer, but a full-blown pimp about to shake down a John. I could hear the voices of a nervous man and an excited woman from the other side of the door. I could barely make her out as saying “Just open it, just OPEN it!” over and over.
This all transpired while I was waiting for a glacially slow elevator with my fellow reporter, Rachel, eager to get out of the hotel as quickly as possible. I had an expensive camera with a large lens hanging from my neck that made me look like an undercover police officer. And at the time, unbeknownst to me, the NYPD was nearing the end of its three-month undercover probe, so real undercover police officers were in fact frequenting the hotel. It’s even possible the pimp was one, or the John on the other side of the door.
In spite of my camera — or perhaps because of it — the pimp was chattier than expected. I did my best to keep my eyes trained on the elevator’s floor indicator when I realized the man was waving at me. He smiled and nodded his head at both of us. “Hi, there. You two having a nice day?” We politely nodded back. After a beat, he went back to banging on the door and yelling. Our elevator arrived just as the guest was opening his door. I heard it quickly slam behind him as the elevator began to sink back to the lobby.
And now, the hotel — which had been one of New York City’s most famous and long-standing by-the-hour operations — is closed for good. To kick off Oyster.com’s series on the seedy world of sex hotels, I’m here to share exactly what it was like to experience it in its final days.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: PLASTIC FLOWERS AND CASH TRANSACTIONS
The building loomed over a gloomy stretch of the Grand Central Parkway, with a madly outdated late-60s facade. When I visited, sheets of rain were coming down and temperatures were in the low 40s. My fellow reporter Rachel and I made our way to the door with a camera bag and tripod conspicuously in tow. The first thing we noticed upon entering was the plastic flowers. The dust-covered plastic bouquets were literally everywhere: In the elevator bays, in the hallways, in the rooms, in the lobby and in the motel bar.
The front desk was protected by a layer of thick glass, complete with an ATM just off to the side for guests who suddenly decide they’d like to pay in cash. The room options were conveniently displayed above the counter, with exciting options like “Arabian Nights, “Waterfall” (complete with an actual flowing waterfall), ”Safari,” and “NY Skyline.” If this looks at all familiar, it’s because it’s just like a short-order menu at a Chinese food restaurant. Noon on a Wednesday proved to be a busy time for the Kew Motor Inn, as most rooms were already booked: My fellow reporter and I ended up booking a “Love Nest” after the first three we selected were occupied.
The lobby kept filling with customers while we were paying. The couple directly behind us looked to be in their mid-20s: he was anxiously tapping his foot and looking at us impatiently, and she was scantily clad, wearing tall spiked heels, and texting like a madman on her phone.
THE LOVE NEST
The room was absolutely as bad as expected. The dank smell of decades of stale cigarette smoke hung over the room and hallways so thickly it almost caused a contact high. The bedspread may or may not have been purchased in the early 90s. Visible stains marked up unexpected spaces. There was almost comedic overuse of gaudy mirrors (some cut in the shape of the New York City skyline).
For any normal person, the combination of all of the above can create a kind of sensory overload, or at least in my case, a temporary form of OCD. Accidentally touching a bed post had me paranoid, convinced I had just touched a sinister sticky spot on the wood. I used half a bar of cheap soap to wash my hands after having to lie down on the bed to take a picture of the overhead mirror.
There were also, of course, a plastic flower bouquet and plastic yucca plant tucked into two corners. Rachel noticed that someone had jammed a Kleenex into the peephole, which we chalked up to a cheating husband whose guilt had manifested itself in paranoid behavior.
When something stands out as notably “bad” in a place like this, you know there is something seriously wrong: In this case, it was the terrifying bathrooms. The towels reeked of burnt hair from three feet away. The showerhead was ancient and grimy, and the shower/tub combo was covered in mildew. A cheap pressure-flush toilet had stray hairs caked to it. After over an hour of snapping photos and exploring, both Rachel and I had an intense urge to leave and shower immediately.
PIMPS, DRUNKS, AND GOODBYES
Our altercation with the pimp took place just as we were leaving the hotel. On our hurry out the door, we also noticed a man giddily walking down the hallway with an ice bucket, an older couple hugging in the lobby, and two drunk men loudly talking on cell phones trying to get women to come meet them. It wasn’t until we were a few miles down the Grand Central Parkway that Rachel and I were able to process what we had just seen. When news of the hotel’s closure came up, all of the memories of our experience rushed back: from the scantily clad women in the lobby to the pimp in the hallway, it wasn’t surprising as much as it was shocking it had taken police this long to get wise to what was going on there.
The way I see it, at least the pimp was a friendly one.