One of the things that will get you thrown out of the Rock Center Motel is if you get loud, which must be difficult to judge. The motel, an old-fashioned grouping of eighteen or so cottages just off grungy Grand Avenue in Phoenix, shares its lot with a rock yard. The small room units, most of which rent by the week, stand just a few feet from large bins of gravel and stone. Every weekday at a very early hour, dump trucks and bulldozers begin to move decorative stone and giant sheets of granite around the property. Add that racket to the nonstop roar of Grand Avenue traffic, and you've got LOUD. You can't get much louder. As far as anyone knows, this odd coupling of hospitality and hard rock is unique. "It's the only one in the U.S.--a motel attached to a retail yard," says C.E. "Whitey" Webster, founder and owner of the Rock Center Motel and Western States Garden Stone Supply. The motel, located at 2830 Grand, came first. Webster was already in rocks, operating all over the West and specializing in Arizona flagstone and imported Mexican tile. In the late Fifties, he decided to move his base of operations from California to Phoenix. "I had to stick closer to the quarries," he says. He bought the lot thinking he'd someday bulldoze the motel. After he built cinder-block pens to hold the many varieties of colored landscaping stone, exotic rock and gravel, and after two of the cottages were converted to office space, and after a back room was later made into a rock showroom, Webster began to like the idea of keeping both businesses running.
After all, nobody buys rock at night. The income generated by motel guests--Webster calls them "bed partners"--is significant. "You'd be surprised how the revenue stacks up," he says.
Today, the motel rooms have lovely rock facing, and the stone sidewalk that links the rooms is a genuine work of lapidary art. Actually, the motel is a kind of showroom. In the old days, rooms rented for $2.50 a night. Today it's about $100 a week, paid in advance. Inside, the units appear to be subsistence-level housing, minimum accommodations. There are no phones in the rooms, but some have refrigerators and stoves. Climate control is done by evaporative coolers. The big sign above the office says that rooms are "Clean, Cool, Comfortable."
Typically, Webster says, guests are day laborers, exotic dancers from the nearby Great Alaskan Bush Company, folks on the move and "bachelors, maybe by-passing alimony." Some guests have stayed for years, one week at a time. "As rent goes today, it'll eat up your weekly salary real quick," Webster says, adding that life in the Rock Center Motel is pretty thrifty. "Really, all they have to do is supply food. The bachelors have their cold drinks in their refrigerators, and some of them have hot plates so they can burn up a little food. . . . The Bush Company girls come in at 4 to 5 a.m. and sleep all day. They might go somewhere else and play, but they don't bring it home to bed."
Webster says killings have occurred on motel property, as have suicides. Children have been abandoned there, and the dope crowd comes in waves. Single women tend to be the messiest. "You just can't imagine how much damage a single girl can do to a room," Webster says. "Some of the girls, once you get in there, are real pigs.
"We try to keep it clean. Somebody gets loud around here, out you go."
For a while, a note near the motel office stated Rock Center's rules: "No drugs, loud parties or car maintenance on lot." The sign recently was edited slightly to read: "No Drugs, No Pets, No Loud Parties Noise."
Chief enforcers are Lana and Harry Presnall, the live-in managers. "We try not to get involved in anything unless it gets outside the room," says Harry, who also drives a truck for a living. "They paid their money. It's their place until the money runs out.
"It's hard to judge people. You can go by the way they carry themselves. I strive to really keep it quiet."
Dopers are the worst guests, Harry says. "They're just like a bunch of cats," he says. "You feed a cat and he goes out and into the neighborhood and tells the others. Before you know it, you've got thirty cats."
Dancers, he adds, aren't so bad. "We had one right over there, I think it was number ten," he says. "She brought no boys in or nothing. That's astonishing. You'd think they'd be rabble-rousers."
Early-to-bed, early-to-rise workingmen are the best. They tend to appreciate affordable lodging and are good about paying bills. When the motel fills up with laborers, Harry says, "It's like an old work camp."
NO QUESTION, this is a motel that works. Whitey Webster, not a young man, puts in twelve-hour days in his paneled office off to the side of the rock operation. An eye-level gap in the office's window blinds allows him to keep watch on the entranceway and yard. A row of at least a half-dozen telephones helps him stay in touch with contractors around the country. Webster's wife Dena helps out with customers at the front counter. Years ago, Western States supplied the original decorative facing stone for the landmark Bob's Big Boy restaurant that once stood at Central and Thomas in Phoenix. Decades later, the company sold flagstone paving to the developers of the office tower on the same site. "Everybody needs a place to hang their hat," Webster says of his office jumble. "People will come in here and say, `You've got quite a mess here.' And I say, `Yes, and every day I come in, and some of it I throw away and some of it I add to.'"
Not long after starting up the rock-supply house, Webster bought a neighboring cement plant. The plant's giant cement-making tower still looms over the entire site. Like the warehouse and bins in which Webster's rocks are stored, like the memo pads and invoices used in all of Garden Stone Supply's official business, like the trucks that deliver and dump the merchandise, like the ball-point pens handed out one-per-customer in the main office, the massive tower is painted bright pink. It's Webster's calling card.
"It was a dirty old yellow-brown--I had to paint it some color," Webster says. "I said to my wife, `You know, I think I'm gonna paint that thing titty pink.' She said, `Not on my life.'
"I've had a lot of guys say, `I'm not gonna drive a pink truck.' I say, `Well, go on down the road.'"
Neither motel guests nor stone customers get to see Webster's VIP Suite, a special apartment he keeps next to the office for visiting friends and employees. It's the standard Rock Center Motel setup, just bigger and nicer. Iron bars cover the windows and door. "You wouldn't find anything better in town," Webster says. Just a few doors down from the VIP Suite is the room James Anderson has kept for about two and a half years. Originally from California, Anderson, a 42-year-old cement man, has worked his way "up and down and back and forth" through the local construction companies. He says he's brought home as much as $400 a week in good times. Currently his weekly wage is about $135. He rises before dawn to head for work, and is usually back in his room with the TV on by midafternoon. "If I was driving Cadillacs, I'd probably still live here," says Anderson between pulls on an after-work jug of Colt 45. "The people who work here are kindhearted people. If they see a guy trying to do something, some guy trying to make it, they'll give you a break."
Anderson says he's amazed at the variety of life he sees coming through the motel. "It's story after story," he says. "It's like--what was that show?-- Peyton Place. . . . We've had playboys, dancers, whores, rock heads. Whatever category, it's been here. Only the strong survive.
"Plenty of 'em are smart asses. It's all because of drugs." Drugs and alcohol, he adds. "I drink alcohol, too, but I've earned it," he says. "I'm kinda real about life."
As far as anyone knows, this odd coupling of hospitality and hard rock is unique.
For a while, a note near the motel office stated Rock Center's rules: "No drugs, loud parties or car maintenance on lot."
"I've had a lot of guys say, `I'm not gonna drive a pink truck.' I say, `Well, go on down the road.'