Blondie doesn't live at the Clermont Hotel.
Atlanta's best-known stripper/poet/beer-can recycler has worked the boards at the hotel's namesake lounge for the past 23 years, yet she bristles at the notion that she also resides upstairs.
"People often ask me if I live here and I say, 'Are you kidding? I live a mile-and-a-half from here and that's not far enough!'" she says shortly after making a dismount from the lounge's storied stage.
It's Friday just past 6 p.m., a not-yet-fashionable hour at Atlanta's oldest strip club. Later this evening, the middle-age men now warming the bar stools will give way to a crush of tattooed hipsters, frat boys and giggling coeds who come to dip their toes in the surreal seaminess that is the Clermont Lounge.
The twentysomething crowd will hang out, drink $2.50 Buds straight from the can and extend dollar bills to naked women old enough to recall where they were the day Kennedy was shot.
Then, like Blondie, the nightclubbers will go home. If they're unfit to drive, they may crash on a friend's floor or even take a taxi to Roswell. But under no condition will they venture across the threshold of the lobby upstairs to inquire about accommodations. Which proves that, even to a frat rat, there's a sharp distinction between seamy-fun and seamy-gross.
Outside, two young women who've just left Dugan's sports bar are walking through the Clermont's front parking lot. One tugs the other by the hand toward the hotel door, playfully urging, "C'mon, let's go in." When the tuggee pulls away, her friend taunts her: "Oh, you're just scared."
Scared? Of what? What is it about this Ponce de Leon landmark that simultaneously fascinates and repels Atlantans? After all, who among us hasn't driven by when the art-deco neon letters spelling out "CLERMONT MOTOR HOTEL" are at full glow without wishing we could peer, X-ray-like, at the freakiness within those walls?
Let's face it: Over the years, the Clermont has been tagged in the popular imagination with having helped put the "ho" in hotel.
And yet, in this era of strip-mall homogeneity, corporate urban renewal and don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it construction projects, there's something about the Clermont Hotel's defiant backwardness that we find almost comforting. In a city too busy to preserve its past, the Clermont is an architectural dodo bird, a living, breathing, warts-and-all connection to a simpler, bygone time.
We wouldn't necessarily book our parents into the Clermont, but we place an almost indefinable value in the fact that it still exists. And if it were to close its doors, we would mourn it.
That said, I certainly wasn't going to be satisfied with yet another frustrating drive-by of this mysterious icon, this throwback to mid-century, working-class Americana. So I checked in to check it out.
Along the way, I learned the truth about persistent rumors that the hotel has been sold; found out which room was occupied by the late punk-rocking scatologist G.G. Allin; discovered a disturbing new use for TV rabbit ears; and suffered a bizarre, embarrassing bacterial infection.
"Do I look convincingly down and out?" I ask my wife on my way out the door, carrying a stained rucksack packed with clothes and bed linens.
"You might want to remove the Lufthansa airline tag from your bag," she advises.
Doh! That small detail could've betrayed me as un poseur bourgeois before I'd even gotten my room key. I'm concerned about this because the Clermont ownership and staff are famously distrustful of the press.
That, and they loathe the Loaf. Seems a cynical forebear of mine stayed there over a weekend and wrote a caustic, mean-spirited diatribe trashing the hotel as a filth-encrusted haven for cockroaches, junkies and two-dollar streetwalkers.
Now, in our defense, please keep in mind that this article ran, oh, a decade ago. Some people need to learn to move on. In the meantime, however, I've got to keep a low profile or risk being turned out on the street.
I arrive after work in the Clermont lobby, whose linoleum tile and stark walls have the feel of a community rec center; approaching the enclosed registration desk brings to mind going up to rent shoes at an old bowling alley.
The clerk turns around to select a room key from one of the dozens of ancient, numbered pigeonholes containing letters, broken door locks, flashlights and other bric-a-brac. On the top shelf, two antique kerosene lamps gather dust.
"Can you show this guy Room 406?" he half-shouts to a small, older woman wearing red sweats and resting in a high-backed vinyl chair. She leads me onto the hotel's elevator and into a time warp.
The Clermont operates two of only three antiquated "car switch" passenger elevators -- controlled by a hand throttle instead of buttons, and largely phased out in the 1950s -- still known to be in use in Atlanta. Three shifts are needed to carry hotel guests to their floors around the clock. (Think about that for a moment: There are at least four people in Atlanta whose full-time job is elevator operator at the Clermont Hotel.)