On a recent Monday night, The Graduate Uptown was packed with football fans cheering on the Dallas Cowboys. I squeezed my way through the crowd toward the back, where I was to meet Anthony, my companion for the evening. Suddenly, carrying a drink and a cigarette in one hand, he welcomed me with a hug that might have seemed platonic ... had his other hand not grabbed my ass. My left thumb instinctively grazed my bare left ring finger; the ring sat at home on the dresser.
We chatted and drank for a short time, all the while flirting furiously. It seemed kind of wrong to be kissing him in the middle of a sports bar, but I couldn't help myself. The attraction in a sober mindset was intense; mix a bit of liquor into the equation and I could barely contain myself.
"Let's go back to your place," I slurred, having just finished a shot of Patron.
"No, it's too far away. Let's go somewhere else," said Anthony.
"Where?" I asked, momentarily envisioning my high school days of fucking in the backseat of my car. It was not something I wanted to relive.
"A motel. I know just the place, too." He paid his bar tab, and we left.
We weaved through the streets of Uptown, desire and lust suffocating the air in the car, until we found South Tryon and followed it to our destination: the Ascot Inn.
According to manager Hinanshu Gandhi, the Ascot Inn, located at 1025 S. Tryon St., is the brainchild of Ashok Patel, the head of the Boone-based Oscar Investors Management Corporation.
The Inn sits in an older, two-story building with yellow and blue walls on the outskirts of all the development going on in Uptown. Nestled behind Uptown Cabaret on South Tryon and proudly touting a billboard that promises heart-shaped Jacuzzis and romantic-themed suites, it could be considered either the center city's ugly duckling or a kitschy throwback from Charlotte's bygone days.
Patel (who could not be reached for comment) and his father reportedly borrowed the idea of a motel featuring specialty-themed suites from similar establishments in London.
"Nobody really has specialty themes here. Maybe in Las Vegas, but not in the Southeast," says Gandhi, who has worked at the motel since 2002. "It was a totally new concept in this market. At that time, Charlotte was not that big, but they still did good business with this concept."
Gandhi says that the name Ascot is also originally from England. "It's the name of a famous derby race. Once a year, they have a big horse race, and even the king and queen used to come in the old days. That's what I heard, anyway."
On the Ascot's Web site, eight suites with specific themes are listed. Visitors can choose to stay in rooms such as the Valentine suite -- featuring a king-sized brass bed surrounded by mirrors and lighting effects -- for $119.99 (weekdays) and $139.99 (weekends). For the same price, you could also get the Roman suite, which houses a king-sized water-bed and is accented with roman columns. If you wanted to go a little cheaper, another option is the Hawaiian suite. For a $69.99 weekday rate and a $79.99 weekend rate, you could find yourself in a suite with Hawaiian décor and wall-to-wall mirrors.
"We [also] offer spa kits for Jacuzzi rooms, rose petals, chocolates, candles, champagne -- if that's what they, you know, couples, are looking for," Gandhi says. "But more people come for the regular rooms because they're cheaper."
In terms of amenities, the Ascot offers much of what any other standard motel would offer: refrigerator; microwave; coffee maker; ironing board and iron; wireless Internet; cable TV; and free local calls.
Gandhi says that hotels are much like restaurants in the sense that mom-and-pop stores have to work harder than franchised restaurants. "People go to a franchise because of the name," he says. "People go to individually owned restaurants for the service. People go to the Westin and pay maybe $199 for a night. Here at the Ascot Inn, maybe the room style is a little different, but we still give the basic amenities. The difference is that the Westin is a new building and you pay more for the name. Ascot Inn is an old building, not a franchise and is individually owned, and you pay less price for the same standards."
Gandhi's wife Jessica, who also works in the Ascot, says that location adds to the Inn's charm. "We are close to the Convention Center. We are located right in downtown, close by to the Panthers stadium, to the Bobcats Arena, Amos,' Tremont Hall, so we are in a prime location. Because of that, people want to reserve here for a reasonable and economical rate. It's the lowest rate in downtown compared to the other big hotels."
The sanitation score (a 94) was posted on a shelf behind the check-in desk. Bottles of champagne, wine glasses, a TV connected to a security system, fake flowers, angel figurines, and a sign depicting two hand guns, reading, "These premises are monitored by Smith & Wesson," also adorned the shelf. No one was at the front desk.
While Anthony used a telephone mounted on the door to ring someone to check us in, I returned to the car and waited for at least 15 minutes. As I waited, I stared at a window on the wall that we were parked by, wondering if anyone was looking back at me. I contemplated the emptiness of the parking lot and what kind of alarms might have went off in my head if I were in my right mind. And for a brief moment, I thought about the man away on a business trip ... a man I was betraying.
After what seemed like an eternity, Anthony finally returned, excited that he was able to get a room for $65. "And he threw in porn channels for free, too," he said.
The front desk clerk came out of the lobby and gestured for us to follow him. We walked up the stairs to the second floor and entered a room whose number I couldn't make out in the dark.
As I walked over the threshold, I immediately noticed how stale and warm the air was inside. It was as if the door had been bolted shut since the building had been erected. Anthony went straight to the air/heating unit against the window and turned it on to try and cool the room.
The room was like any other motel room I'd seen before, except for a few things. First, rose petals were scattered across the king-sized bed. I picked up a petal, only to find that it was fake -- a soft, faded-red, papery decoration that I probably wouldn't really notice against my back anyway, considering the state I was in. It was a nice touch, even if the fakeness did kind of ruin the effect.
"Ooh, look! There's a mirror," I exclaimed. Directly above the bed -- for, I assume, no other reason than to add to the flavor of a sin-filled night -- was a mirror. And not one of those narrow mirrors you put on the back of the bathroom door so that you can quickly make sure your outfit is right before leaving the house; no, this was definitely bigger than that. The reflection from up above revealed the entire king-sized bed and some of the floor as well.
In the bathroom, a small, square-shaped Jacuzzi waited for two people to take a leisurely bath together. Of course, it was also accented with another mirror.
"Wow. High-class shit," Anthony said, an amused look on his face.
When asked about the type of people who generally check into the Ascot, Gandhi says, "You can't expect high-class here."
Against the backdrop of the ever-growing Charlotte skyline, the place has seen little in the way of modern upgrades over the years. And the fact that the Ascot is located conveniently next door to Uptown Cabaret, the center city's only strip club, leaves it open to developing a less-than-attractive reputation. Although Gandhi has only been manager for five of the 23 years that the property has been the Ascot, he knows what local people think of the place.
"There's a very thin line between thinking positive and thinking negative," he says. "Because people think we are in downtown and there's a strip club next door, it means we have a connection with them. We have nothing to do with them."
But back in 2004, according to articles published in the Charlotte Business Journal, the property was supposed to be taken over by Brian Dominick and his partner Tom Wicker, owners of Uptown Cabaret. A June 4, 2004 article stated that the "Ascot Inn property on South Tryon Street -- one of the best located but most underutilized tracts in Charlotte -- is for sale and may be targeted for residential condominiums." Two months later, another article in the Journal stated that "the owners of the Uptown Cabaret have closed on the adjoining Ascot Inn property and, within 90 days, will snap up the final parcel, giving them control of the entire block at Morehead Street and South and Carson boulevards." The price tag for the property was $3.14 million.
But, a search on Realist, a program that provides property tax records to Charlotte Multiple Listing Service subscribers, reveals that the property located at 1025 S. Tryon St. is owned by Oscar Investors Management Corporation, helmed by Ashok Patel.
When asked about the discrepancy, Brian Dominick says he'll have his people check into the matter. "But I bet you the same, in a couple of years, it [the Ascot Inn] is going to look totally different than it does now," says Dominick.
Gandhi also blames the bad impression locals may have of the Ascot on the Budget Inn that used to stand across the street at 1022 S. Tryon St., where crime was prevalent.
"Since the time we've been here, we've changed the image of the property," Jessica says. "People got a bad impression because Budget Inn was across the street -- drug activity, too much crime, everything. We do not allow any kind of mishaps over here."
The Budget Inn was closed in 1999 due to being "a public nuisance," according to an article published June 16, 2000, in the Charlotte Business Journal.
Gandhi adds: "We try to rent more to out-of-town people; that way, we can change our reputation. We cannot change everybody's mind, but we are trying to change people's impression so that we can stand with the franchises. Local people might still have a bad impression of the place because of the past."
"We have people come from Germany, England, China, Japan, Russia -- all over the place," Gandhi says. "A lot of people come for the conventions. People are looking for a very decent price downtown, and they don't want to pay high, they stay here."
As surprising as some people might find this, many folks stay at the Ascot Inn and return back for multiple visits. "They come back because they like the services, price, location," Gandhi says. "Some have been coming so many years, even before we were here. We had a guest who just passed away last year. He'd been coming here for the last 17 years."
Sweat was pouring down our bodies. While I'd love to attribute the perspiration to awesome drunken sex, I couldn't. The air conditioner was simply broken. And it wasn't that the unit didn't blow out air at all; no, the air was just warm ... like a man's morning breath.
After the first round, where I'm kind of embarrassed to admit I was mesmerized by the mirror overhead, we decided to check out what kind of adult channels we could access on our room's TV. We had a choice of two channels: one for those who enjoy watching white people fuck, and one for those who enjoy watching black people fuck. But for all we knew, we could have been watching footage of amateurs from another room in the motel.
By 1 a.m., we were ready to go. We showered quickly, got dressed and left without checking out. He had paid cash upfront anyway. On the way to the car, I reached into the icemaker that was beneath the stairs and grabbed some ice to cool myself.
"I hope there aren't any roaches in there," Anthony said. I threw an ice cube at him.
Part of me wishes we had used the Jacuzzi, but this had not been a romantic getaway for two people in love. No. This had been a passionate embrace between two people for one night.
But at the very least -- for good or ill -- we'll always have the Ascot.
Kim Lawson also contributed reporting to this story.