Chapter 7: Thank You, Norman Bates
A few years ago, I read an article about a Denver motel with a dirty li’l secret.
The property owner, Gerald Foos, had jimmy-rigged the entire outfit so that he could spy on his guests — from above — and documented years of folks checking in and out of the Rocky Mountain accommodation.
When I say “from above,” I mean it quite literally. Foos carved passageways in the ceiling over rooms in the motel, installing see-through grates through which he could play the part of voyeur to unsuspecting guests. He considered them research subjects. Foos took his work seriously, spending hours dangling overhead, unbeknownst to his guests, eavesdropping on private conversations, a monkey gazing into the most intimate of moments, keeping extensive notes of his invasive observations. Foos claims that he took no sexual pleasure from his peep-tomming: he was merely a people-watcher, of sorts, an unofficial anthropologist, collecting information on the intricacies of human behavior during heightened, fly-on-the-wall moments.
To quote Stella in Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window: “Window shopper.”
As a species, we often distill our complicated existence down into two buckets: public vs. private moments. We abide by certain rules of engagement, social standards that have evolved over centuries, defining what’s “appropriate” in public — and what isn’t. These guidelines shapeshift, depending on geography and local cultural conditions, but every community has structures in place that either approve of or admonish certain actions, principles, and beliefs. Wherever we roam, whatever these varying social standards are, they become laws of sorts, the font of public-facing human behavior.
But behind closed doors, when we take off our masks, we transform, into our most authentic selves. Many of our private ways of living aren’t acceptable in public, but behind the curtain, we let our hair down. We’re free.
When I’m home alone, I might take off my shirt and dance around my house half-naked to early Lady Gaga albums. But in public, I wouldn’t dare. My upbringing taught me that this kind of behavior is unacceptable. Specific cultural expectations that helped shape me, compounded with a sense of innate social insecurity and self-consciousness, makes it tricky for me to tear off my clothes and bust a move in the middle of a club —though, inherently, that’s all I want to do.
Gerald Foos documented those deeply personal moments that we keep close, the ones we hold onto because they belong to us, like an heirloom of invaluable proportions, a piece of our identity. I often think about the creeper from above, and I wonder how I might feel if I discovered someone had been taking stock of my private life. Would I dissolve into my own red-faced humiliation, never to recover? Or, would I accept the truth for what it is, who I am behind closed doors? Could that kind of rigorous honesty serve as a source of empowerment?
Actually, how am I that different from Foos? Granted, I’m not spying on people in their motel rooms, but I’m as nosy as the next person. I’m constantly listening in on people in public, eavsdropping on that private phone call or hushed conversation at a cafe. In that way, are Foos and I more alike than I’m willing to believe? If his intentions were as innocent as he claims, as years of objective documentation proves, despite the obvious egregious breach of privacy, aren’t Foos and I kinda similar?
After all, he’s no Norman Bates, the antihero of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 sensation Psycho. Foos didn’t cut peepholes into the walls of his motel with the intention of secretly gawking at countless victims for psychosexual satisfaction. There is a strange innocence in Foos’ behavior, to contrast Bates’ insidiousness lurking about the Bates Motel. Bates, a loner 30-something with a traumatic past (abusive mother) and a dirty little secret (spoiler alert, he murders her, props her fully-clothed, rotting corpse upright in his house and treats it like she’s alive, sometimes even taking on her persona, wearing her clothes, strutting about in a wig, talking in her voice, hosting full-blown conversations between him and her.)
If we’re comparing the two, Norman Bates the “Murderous Psycho” and Gerald Foos the “Peeping Tom” are in two different categories: Bates is evil, and Foos is innocent.
These thoughts swirl through my head as I pull up to the abanonded Sawyerkill Motel, easy to miss as you drive up the NYS Thruway. What I don’t anticipate as I step out of the car and into the chilly December sun to face this unique American ruin is that I will unknowingly become a Peeping Tom myself, discovering secrets of the ghosts who used to frequent — and still haunt — this property.
When I say “ghosts,” I’m not — necessarily — talking about spooky, floating balls of light, upside-down bedsheets wandering aimlessly around like humans (although I might believe in those kinds of ghosts too). What I mean is the five-dimensional story that my mind assembles when passing the threshold into any of these spaces of dilapidation and decay. Especially a location that houses relics, tchotchkes from the lives once lived behind closed doors, now buried underneath caved-in ceilings and crumbling floors.
I hold a strong belief that when these kinds of objects are picked up, held, used by the same sets of hands over years and years, managed, cared for, cradled, even loved, that energy passes into them. Electrons jumping from one form of matter to another. If I scoop up any piece of the past, close my eyes, and breathe into it, my imagination kicks into overdrive. A whole life bursts before me, like a movie. I can see the person who owned this inanimate proof of life, a shadow mulling about their day.
Wherever I am, this tiny piece of evidence substantiates the fact that a human being once lived here. A portal in my neocortex and thalamus opens wide, lit up like a bonfire, and I am connected to something unknowable, ethereal. A rush of faces, voices, experiences, and private moments sails around me, wrapping my body in stories that, while inventions of my mind, causes a full-body euphoria from the highest tips of my hairs to the lowest edges of my toes. This lovely feeling accounts for a hefty percentage of why I explore these abandoned sanctuaries. These sacred spaces, wrought with ruin, become wormholes through time, pathways to a creative, almost spiritual freedom where my body feels at ease, my muscles but clouds drifting through a golden hour. My heart becomes light. I am air.
I exit my Nissan Sentra out onto the cracked and splintered concrete in front of the Sawyerkill, an off-white stretch of cabins like any other motor inn you’ve ever whizzed by on a highway. Immediately, my body dives into a sea of ghosts, of former patrons. I am no longer in Saugerties 2020 but Saugerties 1960. Psycho has just been released, and folks across the country are petrified to stop at motels because who wants to end up like Marion Crane, minced meat to the likes of Norman Bates?
I’m checking in at the Sawyerkill Motel, en route to somewhere up north, entirely uncertain of where that “somewhere” might be. I approach a cracked door to the front office and speak with a grungy man wearing oversized overalls and a white t-shirt. He barely looks up from his crossword and directs me to cabin no. 13 with a flick of his cigarette. I wince at the room assignment because I’m superstitious but try my luck and head over. When I unlock the door, I’m faced with a ghastly sight: the floor has caved in completely.
I head back to the man who can’t be bothered who sighs and offers me a cabin no. 1 instead — which I immediately reject because Marion Crane was murdered in cabin no. 1. Also, it’s directly next door to his office, and I don’t want him to spy on me through a peephole between the two rooms. His final offer is cabin no. 10 which I ruefully accept because he might still pull a Gerald Foos — and not the innocent kind.
As I head to drop off my belongings in cabin no. 10, I glance towards the front of the property and see a brick house, one story, standing still at the entrance to the property. It looks lived in. I picture that the clerk has his mother’s corpse stashed inside and decide that I will go peek around after I settle in.
My room is as comfortable as can be for a cheap, rundown motor motel. I picture the bed in the corner, old box springs, cheap, scratchy floral bedding, and stained blankets with soft pink shades, discolored from years of use. I take a seat on the aging mattress and run my feet along the stiff carpet. I can feel the cool concrete underneath. I look to my left and see the bathroom. I poke my head in as Bernard Hermann’s shocking string assault echoes in my head, so I don’t stay in there too long.
It’s tumbling into dusk on this brisk December day. Daylight is dissolving quickly, so I decide to snoop around. I take stock in the fact that I’m the only guest checked in. I hear Bates in my head: They moved away the highway. This is (partially) true of the Sawyerkill Motel. The NYS Thruway was officially completed in 1955, causing major disruptions to old highways and many of the businesses on them. (The Sawyerkill opened in 1970, but for the sake of my fantasy, I pretend it opened in 1954, thus feeling the painful economic backlash the NYS Thruway caused hundreds of mom-and-pop joints.)
I exit my room and turn right, headed for the back of the motel. I hear cars on the Thruway, which runs directly behind the motel, parallel to Kings Highway in the front. My imagination breaks as I turn the corner and see a decaying satellite dish, covered in dead vines, likely installed in the ’90s to accommodate HBO. (Motel marquees always seem to advertise “FREE HBO!”)
The Sawyerkill Motel was abandoned in 2017, placed on the market in 2019, and finding any additional information about its history is next to impossible. I locate a blog post that describes life at the motel (and surrounding area) prior to abandonment. It sat next to a bowling alley and putt-putt course, both since demolished. The rooms appear to have been as clean as can be expected.
As I round to the back of the building, my 1960 dreamscape returns as my eyes dart back and forth at the motor vehicles whizzing by, up and down the Thruway. I push my way through thick brush, tangled up along the ground surrounding the motel, and spot an open door. I peer in, up a flight of stairs leading to the second floor. Suddenly, I feel like Lila Crane, poking about the Bates Motel, making my way into places where secrets are kept and discovered, searching desperately for my sister Marion who’s been missing for days. I picture Bates, dressed up as his mother, waiting at the top of the stairs, knife in hand, ready to slash me across the face, sending me backwards down the stairs like Detective Arbogast, only to meet my ugly fate at the bottom.
No knife-wielding figure lunges at me as I reach the top of the stairs and step into an apartment. There’s a kitchen, a bathroom, and a living room. I look up and see an old ceiling fan and imagine the whirring, that purring rotation synonymous with a hot summer day. But it’s December, and my feet make squishing noises as I walk step by step across the moldy, wet carpet, which doesn’t help my fantasy come alive at all, so I head back downstairs, afraid of catching a virus from the mold, and head around to the front of the motel.
Right before I turn the corner, I look up and see the crumbling Sawyerkill Motel sign, part of which has been stolen by thieves. It reads: “Sawyer ____ __TEL.” It’s strangely beautiful but also feels sad. I realize whoever took it now possesses a sign that says “kill HO,” and I laugh.
When I reach the front of the building, I eye the two twin pine trees standing on either side of the front office door. They’re majestic, growing out of the black concrete. I wonder how many years of guests they’ve seen coming in and out of these rooms. Like Foos, these trees observe from above, taking notes, carefully considering their evidence of humanity’s trials and triumphs. A slight breeze rushes by, and I close my eyes and feel the ghosts again. That’s when I hear the trees whisper from above, The house. My eyes snap open.
I shoot a hard look towards the front of the property. There stands the brick house. I feel goosebumps rise on the back of my neck and arms. Without warning, this Psycho fantasy has become alarmingly real. Is that the caretaker’s home? I think. What horrific secrets will I find trapped behind those walls?
I approach cautiously, looking over my shoulder to ensure the man in the front office doesn’t see me. He’s gone. The closer I get to the house, the more I feel like I’m straddling fantasy and reality, 1960 and 2020, where I’m in the beginning stages of my first pandemic winter, exploring another abandoned space because there’s nowhere else to go to alleviate my new fear of human contact.
I round the corner to the front of the house. There are two entrances, so I continue around the side to the second. Tall weeds, dead and mangled, block the stairway, but I push past them, up the steps until I reach the storm door, beat up from years of use. That’s when the bottom of my fantasy fully drops out because I discover something that feels as sinister as the murder mystery like that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — because real, here in front of me, slapped on the main door of the house. A sticker. It reads: STOP ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. My hands go numb, my stomach flips over, and my blood begins to boil. I realize that this house was once occupied by xenophobes.
I plunge in, and unlike the Sawyerkill, which is almost completely empty, it looks like this house was abandoned without warning, possibly an eviction. Everything is there: kitchen appliances, baseball cards, photos, pipes, books, inhalers, books, furniture, clocks on the wall, pay stubs, a spirit rock that says “Yes You Can,” beds with sheets still on them, a child’s bedroom and playroom with purple walls, board games, delinquent child support notices, stuffed animals, drawers full of trinkets, cat food, birthday cards, computers.
A full life.
I Google the man’s name on one of the pay stubs. Results populate showing multiple arrest warrants: DUIs, failure to appear in court, assault, battery, possession. As I lay down the pay stub, a child’s voice floats down the hallway, humming the chorus to “Sweet Child of Mine.” I smell thick cigarette smoke woven into the carpet. A new fantasy has come into full focus, a nightmare, with the TV on all night playing reruns of Wheel of Fortune and infomercials to help you “Lose Weight Fast!” Yelling on drunken nights, bowl after bowl of ramen noodles or Spaghetti-Os, toys purchased on sale at Wal-Mart.
As I rummage through this family’s belongings, a wave of compassion washes over me. I can’t imagine ever feeling the need to put up a STOP ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION sticker, but I also can’t fathom being so down and out, desperate for a sense of security. I know what it’s like to feel less-than. I know what it feels like to be cast out. I know the feeling wanting to claw my way out of feeling othered.
I know what isolation feels like.
Whoever lived here had little income, mounting debt, addiction problems, an ever-evolving criminal record, and is probably white. He’s obviously been tricked into thinking that, although he’s unable to scrape by or conquer his demons, “at least he’s not an immigrant.” What’s more, he’s clearly been duped into thinking that everything is the “illegals’ fault” — when the reality is that he can’t find work, afford child support, recover from addiction, or ever get ahead in life by taking personal responsibility for his own mess because the system was designed that way. And it continues to work that way because its intricate blueprint ensures that a few folks stay on the top and the rest of us suffer at the bottom, fighting amongst ourselves to feel some semblance of power, safety, control. We go to war over the color of our skin, spiritual beliefs, gender or sexuality, nationality, economic status. We segregate ourselves, dispelling the power of unity by trying to topple one another, out of the fear thrust into us.
The more things I touch in this house, the more the grim reality comes alive in this broken home. As it’s slowly reclaimed by Mother Nature, this rotting house and adjacent motel are symbols of the American Lie: if each and every person works hard enough, it pays off. This can be true for some, a select few, but when the federal government lists the poverty level guideline as a yearly gross annual income of $12,880, something is wrong. That’s not poverty — that’s Dickensian. $22,880/year, $32,880/year: who can truly survive on that income? When you account for the outrageous rising inflation rates, soaring housing rates, skyrocketing drug costs (which are outpacing inflation), mounting insurance premiums, and the mere monthly costs of being able to afford nutritious food, gas, clothes, it doesn’t add up.
What’s more, the United States hasn’t adjusted the variables to define poverty since LBJ took office in 1963. Does that not feel deeply disturbing?
I pick up another pay stub and close my eyes. A rush this man’s pain, anguish, anger, and unmitigated despair enters. I open my eyes and look down. The pay stub is dated November 2016. The YTD income is $14,848.50. So whoever lived here, whoever this man was, didn’t meet the national poverty standard, particularly if he had a second, third, fourth, or fifth job.
I call bullshit.
I exit the building, still very angry at this xenophobic man. But observing these living conditions— it makes it clear why someone might revert to ignorance. It doesn’t make it right, but it opens the floor for clarity, grace, and understanding.
I walk back to the long driveway that leads up to the front of the exterior of the Sawyerkill Motel. I pass by another storm door, crumpled on the ground like a dead body. This isn’t the Psycho fantasy I was expecting. It’s far worse. It’s a brutal reminder of where we are as a species — and why it’s critical to listen and hear one another. And why the fight is never over.
Because that’s what humanity does. We fight for each other.
I imagine Gerald Foos watching me from above, documenting my every move, recording my private-in-public behavior. My tears. My confusion. My rage. He feels sad too. I spot Norman Bates in the upstairs window and feel immense compassion for him too. Confined by his crippling childhood, drenched in a complete societal lack of empathy (or awareness of the global mental health crisis, especially back in 1960), he was bound to become a monster.
I get into the car and leave the Sawyerkill Motel as the December sun settles behind the Catskill Mountains on the opposite side of the NYS Thruway. Bates and Foos watch me drive off, slowly fading into the dusk along with the other ghosts that will wander the Sawyerkill property.
I whisper, “I’ll come back again. I promise.”
I keep my promise and return in August. My car pulls up under the banner of golden hour. I step out and look up at the sky, lavender and pink and gold. It’s calm here now. Something is different.
I start at the front of the property and walk into the house where the xenophobe lived. Everything is gone. The house is empty.
I walk back up the driveway to the motel and notice a For Sale sign shoved carelessly into the dirt, titled down and back at an awkward angle. It’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
I look for Foos and Bates. In the office, in the rooms. They’ve vanished. I pull out my Polaroid and snap a self-portrait. A train approaches on the opposite side of Kings Highway. As it saunters by, its whistle explodes then evaporates into the dusty summer sky.
I make my way around the back of the motel. The property is cloaked in tall weeds, surrounded on all sides like castle walls. The stocks grow so high, you can’t see the NYS Thurway — just the mystifying Catskill Mountains looming in the distance like tsunami waves.
You can only hear it as it thunders past the shadows of the Sawyerkill Motel.