It has been my practice for the past few years to occasionally spend a night in a local hotel in order to gauge the quality of its accommodations.
Being a person of modest upbringing, I do not demand splendor but merely an assurance that I will not be served tainted peanuts in the cocktail lounge and that a prostitute will not come tapping on my door at 3 a.m.
That happened in Fresno once. I was awakened by a woman whispering "Harold?" through the keyhole. When I whispered back that there was no Harold there, she went on down the hall and tapped at other doors, whispering "Harold?" each time.
The desk clerk said the next day that the woman was a hooker and that I should not pay any attention to her. "But you'd be surprised," he added, "how many Harolds there are in the world."
Locally, I have tried several hotels that I rated according to the quality of their service and their accommodations. The Beverly Hilton, for instance, just missed a 5-star rating when I was refused entrance to an elevator.
A security guard stepped in front of me as I was about to board the lift. I thought at first it might be because of a dress code violation (I was wearing scuffed shoes) until I realized it was because composer Burt Bacharach had just stepped in.
It seemed the hotel had a policy of allowing celebrities to ride alone, free of the lumpen proletariat who are forever tugging at their sleeves, demanding food and money.
Last weekend, I had planned to visit the elegant Four Seasons Hotel for $260 a night but was informed that The Times was in an economic crunch and expenses had to be cut.
We call it a "comprehensive cost containment program."
Well, I understand how things can get tough occasionally, so in the true spirit of containment, I abandoned efforts to overnight at the Four Seasons and instead chose the Royal Westwood Motel.
It was the first no-star accommodation I have ever visited.
Under normal conditions, I will neither dine at a restaurant that serves "eats" nor stay at a motel whose name begins with "Royal." Hard times, however, require severe measures.
I was attracted to the Royal Westwood in the first place because it offered free coffee and doughnuts in the lobby. I usually get an expense account dinner out of the hotel assignment, but, because of the cutback, free coffee and doughnuts would have to do.
"Where in God's name have you brought me?" my wife asked as we entered our room.
Even in the yellow glow of an anti-insect porch light, it was clear that the room was not up to the quality of, say, the Beverly Hilton elevator.
"For 40 bucks a night," I said, "you don't get hot tubs."
I flicked the light switch. Nothing.
"You don't get light either," she said. "There's no globe in the lamp."
"I'll just hop on down to the front desk."
"Yes," she said, too stunned to object. "You just hop on down."
I informed the desk clerk of the room's deficiency. He eyed me suspiciously and said, "You sure ?"
"I'm positive," I said. "There's a hole where a light globe goes, and it's empty."
"There was one in it this morning."
"It's a lousy world," I said.
When our room was finally flooded with light, I noticed a handwritten sign on the door listing, as it were, the rules of the house. Among them was, "Pets: Small Dog--OK. No cats."
"Tell you what," my wife said, "I'll kick a couple of bucks loose from the food money, and we can go someplace classier. A Motel 6 maybe."
"This is plenty classy," I said. "A telephone, a TV set, genuine wire coat hangers. . . ."
"And just enough room for two people and a small dog."
The handwritten sign also warned that we should keep the door locked at all times.
"I can understand why," my wife said. "What was that?"
A shadow had just passed our window. It was massive and hunched.
"Some form of primate, I'd guess."
"Lock the window," she said.
We were on the second floor. The window opened to a walkway overlooking a courtyard covered with a plastic imitation lawn. An old man sat alone at a metal table drinking beer and cursing.
When I tried to close the window, two glass louvers clattered to the walkway.
"We have a little problem," I said through the window. "It won't close."
" Why won't it close?" my wife's voice said.
"It falls apart when I try."
"How did I ever let you talk me into a motel that welcomes small dogs?"
We lived through the night, and I'm certain that the growling we heard outside the door was one of those small dogs and not something frozen on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder.
We skipped the coffee and doughnuts and said goodby forever to the Royal Westwood. There are some things that even a comprehensive cost containment program won't force me into again.
We ate that night at a restaurant called Champagne. It cost more than three nights at the Royal Westwood. I paid.