Life After a Night at the Rio

The Rio Motel is gone, but the memories linger.

I had just invested a significant portion of my waking life -- and a tiny portion of the sleeping version -- researching and writing on a scummy, dilapidated motel frequented by dangerous drug addicts, whores, and to put it kindly, people down on their luck. The Rio Motel was my subject, and I studied its history, talked to its denizens, and even slept, very briefly, in one of its squeaky beds.

A permanent cheap beer hangover later and a Chronicle cover story (Sept. 17, 1999) were all I had to show for the night. Not exactly. I also carried a new fascination. Each time I drove down I-35, the Rio called to me. I examined its crumbling sign, looked for further signs of degradation, and even wished I was mired in the life there.

I recalled the scenes of squalor as I questioned the guests ... six or seven fat people sitting together in one room staring at the TV, fast food wrappers on their unmade bed. I wondered whether I would ever return.

Then the call came. "Yeah, Rio?" asked a raspy voice.

"No, who are you calling for?" I replied. I thought maybe it was a source, calling to comment on the Rio.

"I'm calling the Rio ... this ain't the Rio?"

"No, you must have the wrong number."

I reflected, wondered, then didn't want to know. Then the second call came a few days later. "Rio? ... Oh, sorry, wrong number." Fascination quickly turned to paranoia. My wife was curious, as well. "Do you think they're out to get you for what you wrote?"

"Nah," I said, even though everyone knows that people who say, "Nah" don't believe themselves.

Then a third call came about a week later. "Is this the Rio?"

It was time to think things through. Who did I piss off? Luckily, I scanned my notes and noted the Rio phone number. Amazingly, it was one digit off ours on either side of the dash, and the natural cadence that our number carries makes it an easy misdial. We've gotten a few more calls over the years, but never in the cluster of three that followed my story.

With the death of the Rio, so dies my fascination. And no longer can I point to the pink pastel walls and exclaim, "I slept there."

I remember an interview I had with Mayor Kirk Watson at the time. "Finally," I said, "I have to ask you. Have you ever stayed at the Rio?"

"You may have to ask, but I don't have to tell," he replied.

Oh, there will be other trouble spots, but none quite so visible as the Rio Motel on I-35.

  • More of the Story

  • Goodbye to Big Pink

    The Rio Motel faces new ownership, a new name, and perhaps a new future.

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Rio Motel, Kirk Watson

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