Room 116

ByJane Neal

Apr 2, 2021

Winter Storm Uri created a fairly uneventful week from my perch on the sofa for much of the snowpocalypse. While my psychological health eroded with every news report and social media post detailing ERCOT’s near-collapse and my fellow residents’ suffering, my own condition was only slightly uncomfortable at most. 

At home, our power never went out; neither did our water (although the pressure lowered significantly). All of my children and my spouse were home together, totaling six people who could eat, cook, watch movies, laugh, and play in the snow. We would also annoy each other from time to time, but that is to be expected, in and out of the snowscape.

I was in a bubble during Uri, but the day the snow thawed, the bubble finally burst. 

At last able to drive again, I headed to Super 8 on the northwest end of Loop 323 in Tyler. The motel was one of a few local shelters housing residents without homes during the coldest days and nights.

Now the guests were departing, some returning to the encampment under the bridge, others trying to leave town or seek longer-term assistance.

Answering a social media call-out for helpers, I arrived at Super 8 donning a face mask and latex dishwashing gloves. My assignment was to tidy up room 116. 

Its guest was taken to the hospital with an emergency health condition the day before. All of their belongings in the world were in that hotel room. After recovering, they would likely want their things back.

From 15 paces away, I could smell room 116. I tightened my jaw and stepped over the threshold.

Inside, every surface was covered: the bed, the table, the chair, the floor. 

There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the items mixed together. Cigarettes with grape soda with a book; boots with half-eaten sausages with piles of tobacco grounds. Brand new disposable razors beside a half-empty mac-n-cheese box beside an Exacto knife. My first thought was, “This place looks like it has been ransacked by raccoons.”

I spent the next hour sorting, trying to discern what was salvageable and what would not be missed if I tossed it in the dumpster.

I eventually habituated to the smell, but there were other surprises. The longer I rifled through the items attempting to bring order, the more intrusive I felt. Here were the entire contents of someone’s life.

I gagged twice while sorting through bed linens. I, who take pride in powering through, using the “mind over matter” mantra.

Then, I found two things that undid me; two things I cannot unsee.

First, a plastic salt and pepper duo, still sealed but turned upside-down, each shaker pierced through with a knife to tear into the contents inside. 

“Why, why, has this person ever been left alone?” I asked the room.

And finally: A battered, water-damaged book at the bottom of a trash bag. “U.S. Army” the cover read. Inside were government documents, signed certificates, and letters in flourishing cursive, decades old. 

This time, there were no words to ask the room or anyone else. A picture of a life took shape. Now, I had a story about the guest of room 116.

A story that left me shaking.

A story that, for me, embodied everything fragile and harrowing about Winter Storm Uri — exacerbated by coming on the heels of a year of pandemic. A story wherein some are mildly affected and others have lost everything dear.

The most apt word to describe that moment? Helpless.

As the snowmelt dripped nonstop from the roof and gutters of the Super 8, I looked out the hotel room door and listened to the cars whizzing past — painfully cognizant of the flimsiness of my paper mask and plastic gloves; of my attempt to bring order from chaos. 

I blinked, not quite ready to find hope, nor help. I listened to people leaving. Some said heartfelt goodbyes. Others like me slipped out silently, walking into a morning in utter surprise that our feet could still carry us.

By Jane Neal

Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop, a nonprofit journalism startup that explores policy, history and demographics in Tyler, Texas. Jane also serves as storytelling director of Out of the Loop. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and Tyler Public Library. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She was a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former French teacher at the newly-named Tyler Legacy High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories.