Norco, Calif. (McClatchy) — On a dark desert section of Highway 91, about halfway between Disneyland and the bankrupt city of San Bernardino, a crack team of McClatchy journalists — cool wind in our hair — grinned at the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air vents of the 9-seater cargo van.
For more than six months we’d been on the trail of a government program that was allegedly building a hotel large enough to house all of California’s 140,000 homeless.
And now, up ahead in the distance, I saw a shimmering light. I glanced at my watch. 3 a.m. My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim. I knew the team had to stop for the night.
We pulled the van into the driveway, and there she stood. In the doorway. The hottest valet parking attendant I’d ever seen.
It seemed impossible, since I’d just written a feature-length expose on sexual discrimination in the valet parking workforce, and not a single hotel in Sacramento hired women for the job. Maybe things were different in Norco.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard a mission bell and thought to myself, “If all the employees are this hot this could be Heaven, but maybe it’s really Hell.”
“Leave your stuff in the van,” she said. “You won’t need it.” Then, in violation of all state workplace regulations I’d ever seen, she lit up a candle and she showed us the way.
There were voices down the corridor. “How many rooms do you have here?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, and I thought I heard the voices say “welcome to the Hotel California.”
“It’s a lovely place,” said one of my reporters. “Such a lovely place.”
I was going to say “such a lovely face,” but the company sexual harassment policy cut through the fatigue and the little bud, so I said nothing.
“There’s plenty of room at the Hotel California,” she said, answering and not answering my question. Journalists get that all the time, but for some reason it was extra annoying at 3 a.m. I tried to let it go.
“Any time of year, any time of year, you can find it here,” she said.
“I’ll bet her mind is Tiffany-twisted,” I thought, annoyance turning into agitation. “She’s probably got the Mercedes bends and a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends with benefits.”
The bud must have been stronger than I thought, because all of a sudden she was dancing with her boyfriends in the courtyard and Madonna and David Lee Roth were directing a music video of half-dressed parking attendants.
Sweet summer sweat dripped down my neck. That was some dance to remember, but I just wanted to forget, so I called up the bell captain and asked him to please bring me some wine.
“We haven’t had that spirit here since nineteen sixty nine,” he said. “Besides, this is a union hotel and that’s not in my job description.”
My team had somehow disappeared, and voices were calling from far away. I couldn’t tell if I was asleep or awake in the middle of the night, but I heard them say, “Welcome to the Hotel California. Such a lovely place. Such a lovely place.”
“My God, you have such a lovely face,” I blurted out, finally not caring if HR made me watch another pointless training video. All I wanted in that precious moment was to live it up at the Hotel California.
“What a nice surprise,” she said, her supple voice echoing off the courtyard walls. “What a nice surprise. Just bring your alibis.”
I desperately wanted her, wanted an alibi, but my training as a journalist kicked in and I started to document the scene like I was Hunter S. Thompson. Mirrors on the ceiling. Pink champagne on ice. And she said, “We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.”
Suddenly I knew we’d found the mysterious desert hotel we’d been looking for, because the words of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg rang in my ears: “we need a legally enforceable state imperative to bring people indoors.”
“They’re imprisoning homeless people here,” I thought, frantically looking for the rest of my team but still captive to the illusion. Stagehands were building a master’s chambers around me, complete with a four-poster bed, mosquito netting, and a wet bar.
Cameras flashed, and I sensed that my colleagues had joined me in some unexpected, unexplainable, group hallucination. Gathered for the feast, they stabbed it with their steely knives, but just couldn’t kill the beast.
“We have to get this story out!” I shouted.
The spell broke, or maybe the colitas just wore off. Either way, I was now the only sane person in the room.
Last thing I remember, I was running for the door, camera jolting against my hip, reporter’s notebook in hand. I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.
“Relax,” said the night man. “We are programmed to receive the homeless. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”