By Will Stephenson, April 02, 2015
A weekend in Hot Springs. City of ghosts and cracked porcelain doorknobs. Where old-world tourism once bloomed in the shadow of the Ouachita Mountains — a place of yellowed decadence, amphibious tour buses and wax statues of recent U.S. presidents. A city whose most prized attributes are underground: the geothermal wellsprings, the much-hyped subterranean mob tunnels. Steam rises off the public fountains along Central Avenue. Men wear their sunglasses propped up on the brims of their hats. Mothers smoke cigarettes in the very streets where Babe Ruth and Will Rogers once went looking to get hammered. The children all look vaguely disinterested. They have come from Malvern, Bryant and Little Rock, from Alabama and Tupelo, Miss. They have come for the bathhouses, the horse races, the alligator farm. They have come to be healed.
The Arlington Hotel looms into view no matter the direction of your approach. It is like a great rustic Spanish villa, with two twin watchtowers and walls of brick and stucco trim. A wide exterior staircase leads you from the street up to the pink veranda and the glass-planed revolving door. One of the great American resorts: built in 1875, moved in 1893, burned in 1923, reborn the following year — The Arlington, “where men may cease their toil,” the old promotional materials promised, “lay down their cares and rest in quiet enjoyment amid marvels not made with hands nor devised by the minds of man.”
We have come in the middle of racing season, so the lobby is filled with sullen men in golf shirts nursing sunburns. The bar sits at one end of the room, the bandstand at the other. A platform of tables rises in between. The front desk clerk has a bushy gray beard and hums loudly while he checks us in. “I’ve had the theme song from ‘Wagons East’ stuck in my head all day,” he says with a wink. We admit we’ve never seen it. “John Candy?” We shake our heads. He looks disappointed. “It’s a farcical comedy,” he mutters, sliding us our keys.
They place us on the fifth floor, a few doors down from the Ronald Reagan Suite. I’ve read that Al Capone used to rent out the whole fourth story when he’d come to town. His room was 443. We’re in 513. Above the elevators are those classic golden dials, the arms of which used to rotate up and down to mark the ascent and descent of the cars, but now seem mostly broken.
You are not walking on the floors of the Arlington unless you are walking on clouded marble, thatched tile or refurbished Hartford-Saxony carpet. Our room is modest and not air-conditioned. I notice the bottled water isn’t complimentary. Out of our windows we can see a wall of exposed earth behind the back of the hotel, the roof of which is lined with Mexican red tile. The swimming pool is up on the other side, perched at the edge of what looks like a huge chasm.
Walking back to the elevators we meet a frowning hotel security officer named Jim. He wears a sharp black suit, a black goatee and a huge silver belt buckle. “When would you say was the high point of the tourist season here?” I ask him, just to make conversation. He scoffs. “The proper question to ask would be when is the lowest point, and I think that would be January,” he says, crossing his arms at his chest. I imagine working security at the Arlington would be a demanding job, what with all the jazz music.
He gets a garbled message on his walkie-talkie and grunts, shaking his head. My girlfriend asks if anything’s wrong. “Nah,” he says. “They would’ve said a code.” She asks what code they use when something’s wrong and he stares at her, seeming wary and confused, as if the answer should be obvious. “Red,” he says. “It would be red.”
My dad once visited the Arlington and compared it to Norma Desmond, the aging silent film star played by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.” A desperate and sinister woman holed up in her mansion fantasizing about her return to an industry that has long since passed her by. It’s a sad and, for the most part, accurate analogy. The Arlington doubles as a museum commemorating the Arlington. Every room is both a functioning room and a kind of living exhibit of what the room once was. The walls are lined with framed photographs of the hotel as it existed in its prime, to the extent that I can’t help wondering what kind of art used to be there, how they could have gone about decorating the place at all before it had a history to draw on.
The entire tourist district is like this in a way, but so what? At the famous Ohio Club across the street, a thorough history of the bar takes up two pages of the menu. This is just the nature of the enterprise. In another sense, too, the Arlington is in its Golden Age. What does it even mean for a hotel to be passed its prime? The building aims for a vanished, 1940s standard of glamor. It has always aimed for this standard, and it remains very successful at achieving it. The place isn’t rendered irrelevant just because other standards have emerged or become dominant in the interim, other styles of wallpaper and light fixtures, other genres of Muzak. Its history has granted it a louche, unseemly quality, but this is only in its favor.
We come back to the hotel after a night out, and the lights and commotion from the lobby fill the sidewalk outside. A horse-and-carriage taxi is parked at the curb. My girlfriend pets the horse, which is pale white and, the owner tells us, named Grady. It occurs to me that Grady is also the name of the old hotel caretaker in “The Shining,” the one who haunts Jack Nicholson. That night I will have a dream about this horse, or at least I think it was this one. It’s hard to say — everywhere we’ve gone in town, horse races have been on television, just as background noise. The names of the competitors run together like bad poetry: Cinco Charlie. Humble Indian. Champagne Days.
Inside the lobby, which has turned into a vibrant scene, the band is playing “Moon River” and “Mustang Sally” and “Girl From Ipanema.” The guests, many of whom have been at the races all day, spend their winnings on whiskey sours and Michelob Ultras. Some of the men wear visors or bolo ties, and their wives wear colorful sweaters and heavy makeup and glow with happiness. It’s like we’re in old Havana, or like we’re all passengers together on a doomed cruise ship. The older guests have a way of shimmying over to the dance floor, transitioning slowly but firmly from a walk into a full-fledged dance. It starts in the elbows. It’s beautiful to watch.
Brunch begins the next morning at 10:30 sharp. We begin loitering outside the dining room a few minutes before, waiting for the doors to open. There is a palpable tension in the air. We are all pretending to be casual, nonplussed by the growing size of the crowd, but inside we are raging, manic, preparing to rush the doors at the slightest hint of welcome.
When we are finally allowed entry, we continue to wait in line. One of the primary aspects of the Arlington brunch experience is waiting in line. You wait to be seated and then you walk to one of the buffet stations (the meal is a $25 flat rate) and wait. It requires a degree of patience, even empathy. While you wait, though, there are plenty of things to look at. The dining room is one of the hotel’s most glorious features. All around us are oil portraits of proud hounds, great columns accented with gold flake, enormous mirrors with little hairline cracks and brightly colored jockey’s jerseys preserved in individual glass cases.
I estimate the median age in the dining room to be 47. A sea of Razorbacks logos and Nike swooshes and fleece vests. The diners this morning are slightly haggard in appearance, dead-eyed before the sheer luxury and excess of the occasion. The older men in the room seem to savor their bacon more than the rest of us, to really relish it. With each bite they are transported further inside of themselves. They eat alone with their thoughts.
At the center of the room sits John Puckett, the hotel’s longtime pianist in residence, who plays soft selections from the Great American Songbook while we eat. A server walks by briskly carrying a plate of doughnuts. Mimosas flow freely. The amount of champagne necessary to satiate the guests here is humbling. There is a commotion by the main courses, which turns out to have been eggs Benedict-related. A man complains that he has made four trips now to the Benedict tray only to find it empty. The staff smiles reassuringly.
At some point during the meal, I somehow manage to get chocolate icing on my pants. The location and extent of the stain appears implausible — short of straddling the dessert table, I don’t see how it could have been done. I didn’t even eat chocolate. The situation proves particularly frustrating given the buffet format, which requires you to stand up frequently. I try positioning my plate or jacket in such a way as to disguise the stain, but eventually I give up. I vow to keep a closer eye on the cakes in the future.
Otherwise, the food is nourishing and plentiful, though subject to the unavoidable difficulties of mass production. Eggs not cooked to order and biscuits a little too starched and stiff, that sort of thing. Frankly, it’s delicious. We eat bagels and lox, mounds of grits, sausages shaped like hockey pucks. We pile on waffles, straight from the hot iron of the waffle maker. We carve up slabs of roast beef, scoop fresh greens and double back for lemon cake and pecan pie. Syrup drips from the corners of our mouths. We down a string of Bloody Marys, scraping the olives off toothpicks with our teeth. We laugh half-crazed with endless breakfast. It is a quiet, respectful carnival.
And then, nothing. We pay and are shown out as the next group of guests takes our places. It feels worse than I expected, having to vacate the Arlington. In our short stay I’ve come to understand it as a suitable home. There is a photo in a corridor off the main lobby of the boxer Jack Dempsey dining here with the silent film star Rudolph Valentino, and in a vulnerable moment I imagine myself being absorbed into the frame, sitting between the two of them. Like Jack Nicholson at the end of “The Shining,” I could be frozen there in the eternity of the hotel, buttering my bread or sipping a highball, forever.
In the end, though, we drive home the way we came. Wagon’s East. We pass billboards advertising Choctaw Casinos and Creationism, the Arlington haze still in our eyes. We decide against our plans to visit the city’s famous alligator farm on the way out of town, figuring some things are better left to the imagination.
Photograph (modified) of Arlington Hotel lobby: http://www.arlingtonhotel.com/bpimages/headers/home2.jpg