It’s 5 p.m. at the Argonne Super 8 Motel, and Betty Shoemaker and Becky Strange are in a corner of the business as far away from the front desk as possible.
A door is open to one of the guest rooms, and the two middle-age women are dragging furniture into the hallway. The dresser, the TV, the little pedestal Formica table from beneath the window overlooking the parking lot – all of it goes into the hallway.
Soon the queen-sized bed is dragged into the middle of the room; a boom box is plugged in. Shoemaker is reaching for her stopwatch.
Now might a good time to call the hotel staff, except this is the hotel staff. Becky Strange, the 4-foot-11 manager of the Super 8 housekeeping department, happens to be the Marion Jones of bed making. She whirls around the bed in her hospital-white sneakers fast enough to whip cream, unfurling sheets, turning corners, fluffing pillows.
Shoemaker stands half in the bedroom, half in the bathroom, staring at her stopwatch and just trying to stay out of the way. She’s the motel shuttle bus driver and personal trainer for Team Strange.
Two minutes and 20 seconds after grabbing her first sheet, Strange throws her hands up rodeo style, as if she just hogtied a goat.
“She practically runs around that bed,” Shoemaker said. “When she gets kind of relaxed, she can get two minutes and 20 seconds.”
There’s a card-table-sized check for $8,888 on a shelf in Strange’s office. It’s for finishing second place at the 2004 North American Fast Feet, Smooth Sheets competition at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Strange turned in a wrinkle-free bed with all the right folds and fluffs but fell two seconds shy of the first-place time of two minutes, three seconds. First place was $25,000, a prize she hopes to win in just a couple months.
But speed doesn’t always win the race, Strange said, ducking into an unmade room with a pile of sheets to show off her skill.
“The bottom sheet isn’t fitted. It has hospital corner at the top instead of the bottom. Then, the top sheet, the blanket. Everything has to be even,” Strange said. “The judges take it apart layer by layer and you can lose points.”
Tucked away in the folds of a motel bed is a way of viewing society from the periphery. Strange knows the people who stay at the Super 8 Spokane Valley, though chances are they won’t meet her, may not even see her.
Strange knows people by the barked-up handles on their luggage, the books on their night stands, the half-eaten bags of cookies discarded on tables beside the motel window just in case the maid is hungry. And she develops this snapshot of their lives in 22 minutes or less, while turning beds, emptying wastebaskets, cleaning bathrooms.
Strange enters a room and knows immediately if guests’ body thermostats run hot or cold, if their hair is au natural or hardened with Aqua-Net. On Hoopfest weekend, she tells the players from the spectators by the size of the shoes at the foot of the bed. She knows the businessmen by their laptop computers and the paperwork in neat stacks on the motel room mattress.
“I remember once, I was cleaning a room during the holidays. And there was a box of divinity on the dresser and one of those pill counters with all the days of the week. And I knew it was a little old couple,” Strange said. “There was a smell of perfume, not strong perfume, that reminded me of my grandmother.”
Gingerly, she moves around the trace evidence of who we are, folding, spreading, racing without fanfare, without music, without her coach and shuttle bus driver.