In Search of the Milner
My wife and I had dinner with our old friends Gary and Debbie Marfin last night. They were in Austin, staying at their posh lake front condo which gets them out of Houston on a regular basis. Gary had taken slight exception to my stating in these pages that he had never taken any math classes in college and that , perhaps, that that was unusual for an Associate Dean of one of the nation’s best Engineering schools. He reminded me (actually I did not have to be reminded, I knew)that he had taken numerous statistics courses in his Political Science graduate programs. Gary does not fully understand that while this blog is all about the truth, it has nothing to do with accuracy. Now if Gary can show me how he is able to use his social science statistics classes to do the civil drawings on a coal fired power plant, which he can design, I will admit that I have strayed from the truth. Otherwise I have simply been inaccurate as I generally always am when looking for a cheap laugh at someone else’s expense. He can ask my wife about that.
During what was a delightful dinner, the Marfins are the world’s best dining companions, I got to complaining about my daughter’s all consuming interest in a “study abroad program” which I fear will cost your correspondent a lot of money. We all laughed about how times have changed. Gary asked about my study abroad program at the University of Houston and I reminded him that it had lasted one day and that he had been there too. In Matamoras, Mexico. This gave us an excuse to talk about the escapades of our Junior year in college when we had taken a Greyhound down to Brownsville. I wrote something about that bus trip last August, but the talk last night turned to our lodgings for the trip.
After we disembarked from the Greyhound, Gary and I checked into a flop house (a flop house is one step below a flea bag) across from the bus station. The hotel, as Gary reminded me, was called the Milner. I learned this morning that at one time there were a lot of Milner Hotels. It was really the first hotel chain the country, started after World War I by Earle Milner, he built up over 200 properties with a business plan of catering to average travelers and charging between $1.00 and $1.50 a room. Earle died at the age of 56 and it has been downhill for the Milner chain ever since. Today, I find evidence of four properties still owned by the company, which is still controlled by the Milner family. I have on my desk a map of the Milner hotel empire at its peak. There, down in deep South Texas, is the Brownsville Milner.
When I say this place was a flop house, I am trying to be descriptive and not pejorative, It was a place where people went to flop. Sometimes with prostitutes, sometimes with drugs and often with guns. By the early 1970s when Gary and I checked in, the place was as ratty and disgusting looking as any hotel I have ever been in. Gary recalls the shock on the desk clerk’s face when we told him that we wanted to check in for the night and not for an hour or two. The desk clerk spent several minutes quizzing us as to what we were doing in town. In this he was joined by his side kick “Charlie”. I had recalled that the side kick’s name was “Ray” but Gary corrected me, and he was right. “Ray” was fictional sidekick that Gary and I had invented in college who worked with a fictional policeman named Murdock, whom we always dreaded was going to arrest us at 2:30 in the morning coming out of the Richwood Supermarket with a bag fill of munchies.
Anyway, Charlie never could get it out of his head that we were not traveling salesman. The desk clerk, whose name I have forgotten ,if I ever knew, was constantly cutting off Charlie’s inept questions by telling him. “They’re not on the road Charlie”. For years, those were my watchwords every time I checked into a hotel.
The room had to be seen to be believed. It had one double bed and a bedspread, no sheets. It had two small pillows with no pillow slips. It had one light bulb, with no globe, that was turned on and off with a long string coming down from a slowly rotating overhead fan, coated with dust and spider web remnants.. It also had a small basin with one faucet, a cold water tap only. Down the hall, we were made to understand, there was a community bathroom and I did see various derelicts tumble down there over the course of a few hours. Neither of us ever went down to look. It goes without saying that the place had no A.C. and I recall falling asleep on the bedspread, or maybe I passed out from the heat. When I awoke Gary was looking for his pen. “Check under the bed” I advised. “I’m afraid that there’s a tarantula under there” he said. “It’s not worth it.”
Now that I have told “how we got there” and “where we stayed” in two different blogs, I’ll save the “why we were there” and “what we did” for another day. My focus today is the hotel. My assumption was that the hotel was torn down long ago. Actually, my assumption was that the hotel had burned down long ago as that is how real property of that sort usually turns its final profit for someone. But I wanted to know for sure. The hotel seemed ancient them, and thirty five years have passed since Gary, Charlie and I yucked it up in the lobby. The trail is cold.
But maybe not. In my in depth research on the internet this morning, I found a story about a hotel in Brownsville across from the Bus Station and next to the Cathedral called “Hotel Econmico”. The hotel was shut down by health authorities in 2006 (sounds plausible) and put up for sale in 2008 with no prospects for buyers. Because the hotel was built in 1925 ,and appears in some architecture book, a modest effort to save the hotel had sprung up. I have not been able to determine how the effort played out and since you can still book a room there, I assume that the battle still rages, albeit quietly. The description of the hotel in the stories I read certainly sounds like the Milner.
“Inside, it looks as if the building and hotel have been stuck in a time warp. An old cash register still works on the desk. An old Coca-Cola machine selling sodas… Ceiling fans hang in every room over dilapidated beds.” Bingo ! The story goes on to say that rooms rent for $10-$15 a night and a Brownsville Police spokesman is quoted as saying “It is a known location for drug users, prostitutes and illegal aliens. We’ve had so many calls there over the years. It’s still the case.” Even the mayor concedes “it’s not a good place at night”. Boy, a statement like that will hurt reservations.
Is this the old Milner ? Who knows ? It is certainly descriptive of the Milner I knew. I guess there’s only one way to find out. I need to call the Greyhound bus company and see what a ticket from Austin to Brownsville runs these days.