Tuesday is Social Night. There’s complimentary dinner—pizza, fajitas, or comparable bar food—soft drinks, beer and wine from 5:30 to 7:30. If you show up at seven you’re part of the late shift. If you get there earlier and stay for just forty-five minutes, you might see three different shifts of people come in and out. That’s how quickly most people eat. They’ll take a seat next to you at the counter, sigh a bit louder than they need to as they reach for their silverware, and then say to no one in particular, “Well, these look like some pretty good wings,” as if it were so barefaced a truth that they couldn’t keep mum. Maybe you’ll see them tomorrow tweezing french toast sticks out of stainless steel orbs at the buffet line.

For the past week and a half I’ve been staying at an extended stay hotel in St. Louis, which was not a concept I was familiar with until I booked it. Whether traveling for work, moving, or on holiday, extended stay hotels offer a bed, shower, and kitchenette—ostensibly a touch more of “the comforts of home” to people on the road.

There are also the regulars, the people who make you wonder just how extended their stay has been. On my first Social Night, a seventy-something woman with a feeble gate was hobbling up to hotel staff and guests, assuredly predicting their birthdays.

“You were born on an eight weren’t you.”

“No ma’am I was not.”

“Three.”

“No, sorry, actually—”

“Seven.”

“Well, close. May seventeen—“

“That’s right I told you. You’ve always been a details guy haven’t you?”

“I’m not sure, I guess I—“

“Always going the extra mile, trying to make sure things are perfect for you and your loved ones.”

This is how her dialogues went. She approached people, rattled off a couple of numbers until she landed somewhere close to their birthday. Fueled by the conversational momentum of (almost) guessing the numerical date of someone’s birthday, she proceeded to fire off a string of positive and broadly applicable character descriptions. “You were always the person who put in the time, who waited when no one else would.” Occasionally, if her conversation partner was particularly receptive, she took them to a table in front of the fireplace and gave them a tarot card reading.

There’s a TV above the fireplace and CNN is always on.  For the past week, the bulk of the coverage has been devoted to the government shutdown, which has since become the longest shutdown on record—at the time of writing the shutdown is on the eighteenth hour of its twenty-fourth day.

Extended stay hotels contort the passing of time. Here is what I mean by that: In the space of a week you can share a fifteen-minute meal with guests who checked in for a night and guests who have made the place a semi-permanent residence. You will talk about the government shutdown and how good the wings are. For a quarter of an hour, you will “share a moment.” You may even leave knowing a bit more about your future. And when your dinner companion stands up to throw her Styrofoam plate in the hotel garbage, then retires to her room to get on the phone with a friend from back home, you will remember. You were just passing through.

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