The Ant People
(A True Story)

by © Gary Perlman 1984

Last year, we were attending a conference in San Diego near where I had attended school. I came a day early for a mini-conference and checked into the convention hotel just across from the airport. I was anxious to see old friends and did not pay much attention to my surroundings. I remember seeing some ants, but I had always seen ants in San Diego. It did not at first occur to me that there should not be ants in a luxury hotel.

Caroline arrived the next day and she noticed the ants right away. She insisted I get the hotel to attend to them. I remembered seeing lots of ants in San Diego, and I thought she was over-reacting, but I did notice that I had to brush several ants off the telephone before calling the front desk.

A maintenance man arrived shortly, and after an expert inspection, declared our room to be overrun by ants. Hundreds of the little kind. He informed us we would be moved immediately, across the hall, to another room on the first floor.

As our bags were moved, I looked around our new room. Were there ants here, too? I thought, ``If I were an ant, how would I get into a room?'' The bathroom seemed clear, but when I looked for an air vent, I found a small army of ants marching from it.

I told the porter we would not be moving into this new ant outpost. The front desk decided to move us up to the fifth floor and we traded our grassy porch for a balcony with a view of the harbor.

It was not long before we realized that many ants had come along for the maneuvers. Caroline's suitcase and all her clothes were full of ants. Caroline was frantic. I was calm. I was calm until I realized that I had as many ants as she. I became concerned.

The hotel offered to take our clothes away to be cleaned of the ants. ``What would we wear?'' we asked. The hotel told us not to worry, for they had a professional dry cleaning service and they would have our clothes for us the next morning. We believed them. All we would need is one change of clothing, which we scavenged from the debris. Our clothes were taken down to a security room behind the front desk for safe-keeping.

We told our friends about the ants and our room-to-room-to-room service. They said about the hotel, ``They should have let you stay for free!'' I was calm. I told them the hotel had acted swiftly and professionally to correct a minor and amusing mishap.

The next day, we put on our change of outer clothing and went to the conference. It was not a big deal to be without all our clothes. Caroline's blue dress was in good shape, so she had nothing to worry about. I went to the front desk and inquired about our clothes. We were told there would be some delay, but our ant-free clothing would be done by day's end. No one had told the people at the front desk about our ants. I thought it would be the gossip of the day for the hotel staff.

At the end of the day, I went to the front desk and asked for our clothing. Again, I had to explain the whole story. They had no record of our clothing, but they were anxious to be helpful. After several attempts to find them, they declared our clothes to be lost. I suggested we look in the room where our clothes were stowed the night before. I was also trying to estimate which clothes I had lost.

The room was in the same condition as when we had left it the day before. Our clothes were still there. The ants were still in them.

The clerk was very apologetic and promised our clothes would be cleaned by their professional dry cleaner ``first thing in the morning.'' Caroline was very upset. I was becoming uneasy. I was developing a rash, and I did not smell very good. It was suggested we choose our change of clothing for the next day. These clothes would get ``the highest priority'' by the hotel's professional cleaning staff. The cleaners opened at 7:30 AM, and we had meetings starting at nine. ``There would be no problem with hand delivery of our clothes to our room early the next day.'' I believed them.

We told our friends about our continuing struggle. We now called ourselves the ``Ant People.'' Our friends told us that the hotel should let us stay there for free. I said that my room was paid for by my company, so I could not really gain anything. They said the hotel should give us a free meal, but my company paid for my meals, to which they exclaimed ``They should give us a free meal!''

We went out that night after spraying deodorant on the outside of our clothes, an old trick from college when there was no time for washing clothes. We heard that some people had found some ants in their rooms on the first floor.

The next morning, our clothes did not arrive. It seemed that it took a while for certain machines to get warmed up, despite the professional efforts of the hotel's crack cleaning squad. We, the ``Stinking Ant People,'' put on the same clothes we had been wearing for the last two days. We were easy to recognize; I wore the crumpled red shirt that smelled of several doses of deodorant, and Caroline wore her smelly blue dress. I was close to anger.

After a few hours, I was able to go back to our room to see if we had gotten our change of clothing. Thinking back, I realize that I was joyful to see a few little boxes of our clothes. My heart beat quickly as I opened them and I could not stop grinning. When you have hit the depths, even a dim light shines bright.

At lunch Caroline changed, and we felt we were off the bad-luck road. At the end of the day's meetings, I went back to the room to find all our clothes returned. On closer inspection, I realized that the professional hotel laundry had stapled identification tags to each item. Every sock, T-shirt, and all our underwear had a crimped piece of metal through it. I realized with anger that it would take me an hour to remove all of them. I picked up a T-shirt and pulled at the staple, simultaneously opening a hole in my T-shirt and tearing off half my fingernail. I was furious.

I went down to the front desk and was greeted by a woman wearing a tan uniform. I blurted out something like, ``We just got our ants removed from our clothes and your cleaners put staples in everything!'' The woman, obviously professionally trained, said ``One moment please,'' and went into a back room.

A man wearing a blue blazer, no doubt a symbol of increased rank, came out and expressed concern. ``I understand you have some staples in your clothes,'' he said calmly. I started to explain, but I could not control myself. With an anger I have seldom had in my life I yelled out ``We are the Ant People! We have ants! Your cleaners have put staples in our clothes! I want them removed, now!''

Demonstrating the corporation's training investment in this employee, this man, confronted by a lunatic, said with cool calm, ``I understand.'' I am reminded of Peter Sellers in Being There.

I began to calm down, but then he made a tactical error. He said, ``If you would bring your clothes down here, I would be happy to remove the staples, or would you prefer to use this?'' He held up a staple remover. I stared at him with my fiercest ant stare and said ``I want someone to go up to my room, now, and remove the staples.'' He jumped back into line. ``It will be done.''

I think those two phrases, ``I understand,'' and ``It will be done,'' can go a long way.

When I went up to the room, there was a porter sitting on our bed removing a staple from my sock. I wondered if he had any idea of why he had been chosen for the task. I guess in hotel business, you have to take a lot without question.

Later, Caroline noticed that her suitcase and jacket were missing. In fact, half our clothes were missing. We went down to the front desk, and as we approached, the woman who had greeted me earlier turned around to get the man in the blue blazer. I said we were missing our clothes, and that I bet they were in the back room. He doubted me, but we looked any way, and, of course, there were our untouched, ant filled clothes. By then, the ants had died, unable to feed on Samsonite.

The hotel did not volunteer to clean the remaining clothes, nor would we have surrendered them. We shook the ant remains out as best we could and returned to our room.

The next day, I took some time to go to a custom T-shirt store and bought ``Ant Man'' and ``Ant Woman'' T-shirts made for me and Caroline. Mine was red to match my stinking shirt I wore for three days, and Caroline's was blue to match her smelly dress. We paraded by the front desk wearing our shirts, and got a double-take from the man in the blue blazer.

I sent the above story to the president of the hotel chain. As it bolted down through the corporate hierarchy to its eventual target in San Diego, I received letters and even phone calls from the sort of people, who it you work for them, you speak of in a soft reverent voice. We were invited to stay at the hotel for a free weekend and dine at their finest restaurant.

The next summer, we enjoyed their offer of remedial hospitality. We stayed in a two room suite, and every time we returned to it, we found a surprise like fresh strawberries and cream or liqueurs. At their French restaurant, we had what we both agree was the best meal ever. It was during the meal that I had my first inspiration for the sequel to this story: ``The Revenge of the Ant People.'' While looking at the wine list, I saw their dearest selection, a 1959 Chateau Lafite Roschild, for $425. This was a free meal!

``Bring on the Roschild,'' I wished I had said, as I ordered a $60 bottle.

The next day, we were at brunch in a less formal, but more crowded, restaurant. I had a thought. ``Ladies and Gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to announce that brunch is on me. You may charge your bills to my room. Well, I didn't.

We spent the rest of the time at the pool, and had a great time, even without extracting a pound of flesh.

Oh yes, there were no ants. There were no ants.