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A few weeks ago, after the bars let out, Roscoe Nelson was sleeping on the couch in the tiny front office of the Alamo Motel in West Ocean City, Md., which he has run since 1996. Nelson sleeps light, so when he heard the banging, he got up to investigate.
Near the back of the motel, Nelson saw a man walking from room to room, rapping on windows. At 61, and with one arm, Nelson was surprisingly game for a fight. But as he approached, the man fled.
Around the same time the next evening, again asleep in his office, he heard the banging. Again, he went outside to catch the guy at a window. Again, the man ran away. The man hasn’t been back since, but Nelson figures he’ll probably have another chance to catch him. He has a pretty good idea what the man is looking for. It’s not the $1.50 drafts at the motel bar. It’s not a cheap room. Most likely, says Nelson, the knocker is after the very thing that has put the Alamo on the map—Russian prostitutes.
“The guys want to believe it so bad,” Nelson says. “They want to believe there is whores in here. But it ain’t fucking so.”
In small cities like this one, rumors die slow deaths. So the tale of blond girls for sale at the motel lingers. No one knows exactly how or when the story began. But for years now, men have stopped here, off Route 50, two miles from the boardwalk, at the neon sign with the sombrero hanging at the top. They beat windows and show up at the bar looking to buy a woman.
Nelson once believed the rumor would go away. Now he knows better. For as long as the Alamo exists, he says, he’ll be throwing out would-be johns who kick, scream, and tell him they are not cops.
“You can’t stop that burning fire, buddy,” Nelson says. “You’ll never stop it.”
As a motel man, Nelson is something of a visionary. He’s perhaps the first to market the exoticism of the foreign women who travel to Ocean City to work the hotels, bars, restaurants, and shops during the summer tourist rush, when Ocean City’s population swells to 300,000.
Back in 2000, when other bars and restaurants kept the foreigners working in kitchens, Nelson began hiring the most beautiful women he could find, many of them college-aged and from Eastern Europe, to tend bar at Rascal’s, the motel pool bar named after his dead calico. Inside Rascal’s, young bartenders in skimpy clothes serve drinks. The bartenders have traveled here to work, and not in the sex industry, to the continual disappointment of some customers.
Nelson now has three foreign bartenders—from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Bulgaria—and one local woman. He says he is overstaffed, but it’s the women, not the $2 Bloody Mary specials, who draw the men to the yellow pine bar.
At first glace, Nelson seems to get more jollies from his bartenders than his customers do. He plies them with sexual jokes and gave one bartender a room connected to his own. But the women say he treats them like daughters.
“I tell him, ‘Roscoe, you are my mom, my dad, and my grandma and my sister,’” says Zhanna Welsh, a 21-year-old half-Polish, half-
German knockout from Kazakhstan who is married to a local man. Nelson, she says, is “old school.”
Kseniya Popova, known as “Sandy,” is a 23-year-old from Russia who prefers skintight shorts and halter tops. Popova speaks so little English that she tends to pull out shot glasses when customers order a Corona.
When Nelson hired Popova in May, the other bartenders were angry. Since she can’t work alone, they have to split tips. Back then, Nelson told them Popova, a blonde who makes up for language skills with smiles, would be a draw. And she is.
“They like Sandy because she has a fat ass,” says bartender Ashley Baetzel, 22, a thin fireball from Pennsylvania who still holds a grudge, despite the fact that she is at least as popular as the foreign women.
Most afternoons, Bill Fears, an 83-year-old retired tool-and-die maker, shows up for a Budweiser. In the bar he is known as Mr. Bill. Fears, whose heart runs with the help of a pacemaker, drives his Chevy Caprice to the Alamo, sometimes twice, to “see the girls.”
As Fears talks to another elderly man about his experience on a destroyer during World War II, they watch Welsh, who is dressed in a denim mini and a tank top that reveals ample cleavage.
Welsh leans over to pick up a bottle of bourbon from below the bar, giving the two men a lucky look at her behind.
“She’s sexy, ain’t she?” Fears says.
Welsh knows she’s putting on a show for tips, but she doesn’t like to talk about the Alamo’s bad reputation. Earlier this summer, a drunk man plunked $200 on the bar and asked her to dance. When she refused, the guy wouldn’t give up. Nelson got in his face and shouted him out of the bar.
“I’m not going to dance with him for money,” she says angrily.
In town, Nelson is known, even among friends, as “the one-armed man.” He lost his left arm when he was 12 while deer hunting with a friend. He was climbing into a tree stand when the.32 Special went off. The bullet pierced his wrist and exited his elbow.
Now the missing arm is his defining void. It doesn’t slow him down. He carries his mail under his stump and uses it to bang his stapler. He’s a fantastic carpenter. When he gets excited, the stump flutters back and forth. When angry, he looks like he might knock you out with it.
The arm jokes don’t bother him. His are the best. One day, Nelson is showing the room he built for himself at the Alamo. The walls are painted the color of green sorbet. A hot tub bubbles in the corner. There is a pole in the ceiling to grip so he doesn’t slip and fall getting in.
“Fall and break my arm, I wouldn’t be able to wipe my ass,” he says. “I’d see who my friends really are.”
He might be surprised: At the Alamo, Nelson is king, a Rick Blaine type for the hardscrabble underemployed of Ocean City. He cashes checks, gives away money, and doles out work to people in trouble.
When the girls need a ride, Nelson takes them in his conversion van. When they need help, they ask. If they are in trouble, he sits them down on the couch in the office, closes the door to the bar, and talks.
Nelson is also a ball-breaker with a quick and unpredictable temper. It’s clear he knows how to fight and that he’s ready to release his fury on people who break motel rules.
On a sunny morning, Baetzel is tending bar when she sees a customer at the pool drinking something he didn’t buy at the bar, a violation of pool bar rules. The guy says it’s only water and keeps drinking, until Nelson steps outside. “Get rid of it,” he says and explains the cup could cause him to lose his liquor license. The guy tosses the cup in a trash can and then dives headfirst into the deep end, a move Nelson had flagged him on earlier.
“There’s no diving,” he yells, when the guy surfaces. “If you can’t follow the fucking rules, get out of the fucking pool,” he says and keeps eye contact, stump fluttering, until the guy looks away.
Even in a small town, rumors don’t start in a void. Something cracks people’s imaginations, makes them pass on the story.
In Ocean City, everyone, it seems, has heard the one about the Alamo. On a Greyhound into town, a young surfer and local bartender warned me to watch out for the Russian prostitutes when I told him where I was staying. A waitress at Outback Steakhouse said the place “has a bad reputation.” A taxi driver told me Russian prostitutes go in and out.
If most rumors have a sliver of truth, Mike Biddle thinks he knows what it is.
Biddle is a thin 30-year-old laborer with a sculpted beard. He is one of the winter people, a group who lives in the motel in the off-season and hangs out there year-round, staging arm-wrestling competitions, throwing horseshoes behind the motel, and drinking vodka from bottles packed with green olives.
“Sometime in the past, there was a prostitute here,” he says one evening, back from work and wearing a dirty wife-beater. “It had to be. Maybe she was Russian? Maybe she was Ukrainian? That’s close to Russia.”
Biddle thinks Nelson didn’t know about it. For his part, Biddle says he’s never seen a prostitute at the motel.
This summer, however, he took a keen interest in the Russian women who live in the back of the Alamo and work at beach shops. He talked to them once and says he was doing all right until Nelson caught him trying to take beer back to their room. “Roscoe thought I was thinking with my dick,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking with my dick. I was getting ready to think with my dick.”
Nelson is protective of the women at his motel. Some of them are there to make tips slinging drinks. Others are there for a place to live. That’s it. He keeps the guys away. Biddle thinks Nelson must have had a talk with the Russian women who live at the Alamo. When they walk by him now, they don’t even say hello.
Back in 1996, when Nelson first leased the Alamo from D.C. lawyer Charles Schulze, the roof had fallen in on a couple of rooms. A homeless guy lived in one of the better rooms. Some were infested with bugs and bees.
“I found a dead squirrel in the bed of No. 8, under the covers,” Nelson says. “He got in through the ceiling, and the bees attacked him. He went up under the bed sheets and died.”
Nelson says the motel dates back to 1945 and was built by a guy who later fell asleep in the cabin of his sailboat with a hibachi glowing. After his death, the place went through a few owners. It had been closed for several years before Nelson arrived.
Nelson hauled the furniture into the courtyard and hit the interiors with a power washer. He called a beekeeper and put the homeless guy to work. And on Memorial Day, he lit the sign.
“I didn’t need no fucking permit” to open, he says, although he has one now.
Then came the real struggle. Aside from the difficulty of renting rooms, the Alamo has had enough terror and early deaths to fill a horror movie. On a cold winter day several years ago, Nelson checked on one of his long-term renters. The man, who was around 25, was two days late on his rent.
Nelson knocked on the door. There was no response, so he came back with a key and cracked the door.
“The first whiff out of the room, I knew he was dead,” Nelson says.
Inside, the man’s face had turned purple. He was wrapped up in an electric blanket cranked on high. Empty half-gallon bottles of vodka littered the room. He was the third person to drink himself to death at the motel.
Nelson swears that what happened next is true. When the state police arrived and lifted the dead guy, his arm ripped off “like a chicken leg,” in Nelson’s telling.
“If that other arm is OK, I could use it!” Nelson says he told the cop holding the detached limb.
Up until the last two years, Nelson says he sold every room at the Alamo over the Fourth of July weekend. He turned off the sign and still people banged on the office door. The trouble started last year and got worse this year. This July 4, he sold only half his rooms.
The working people stopped coming to Ocean City, he says. Oceanfront rooms at the Hilton fill up at $500 a pop, but the economy has squeezed the little man out. “If you can’t feed your family, how you going to go on vacation?” Nelson asks.
Rich, who manages the Sea Breeze Motel downtown and would not give his last name, agrees it’s been a tough season for Ocean City. “We’re trying to make our money, but it’s not really happening. It’s from the gas prices.”
In the summer, rooms at the Alamo aren’t cheap. A weekday reservation costs $92. On weekends, there’s a Friday, Saturday, and half-day Sunday minimum that goes for $375. The price seems exorbitant for what you get, until you stop at the Bedtime Inn, the motel up the road, which on a recent weekend offered double rooms for $285 per night. Motel owners here require a good summer to get by. If it’s cool, the people don’t come. If it rains, they stay home. “You got rain, the fucking electric bill is still rolling, buddy,” Nelson says.
Nelson still gets a steady flow of vacationers, but the mood has changed. It’s more middle-class families stuck for a room in high season, he says, or it’s people who are too cheap to pay for the quality they want.
These, according to Nelson, are the kind of people who are never happy—the kind who complain about the lack of deadbolts on doors, the kind who disparage the “one-armed man” and write “It would be better to sleep in traffic” and “sleeping here should be a Fear Factor event” on TripAdvisor.com.
The change in clientele has put him in a bind. Putting more cash into the place would make it unprofitable, he says. And you can do only so much renovation with the old plumbing and wiring.
Early one afternoon, a young man and his wife arrive in a rental car. Nelson gives them the key to their room. A few minutes later, Nelson sees the man and his wife walking back toward the office slowly. Neither is smiling. “They’re not going to take it. I knew they wouldn’t,” Nelson says and walks from the bar to the front desk. “I’ll give them their money back.”
Giving money back is something Nelson rarely does. The sign in the office reads no refunds. If you are crazy enough to rent a room without looking at it, that’s your problem. The couple has found him in a generous mood, but they don’t want the money. There is nowhere else to stay.
They’ll take it, the man says, if Nelson will change the grungy black toilet seat. Nelson sends Bobby, his maintenance man, off to replace it. Twenty minutes later, long after Nelson’s rant on the price of toilet seats, Bobby parks his green golf cart and walks in the bar. “I couldn’t get that thing off,” he says to Nelson. “Had to cut it with a Sawzall.”
“I was wondering about that,” Nelson says. “There’s been a lot of asses on that seat.”
Room 1 sits closest to where cars zip down Route 50. The room is six-paces square with two vinyl chairs, an old black Sansui TV, and a bed covered with a shell-and-starfish bedspread. On the exposed ceiling beams, a lover has scratched a + a into the wood.
By roadside dump standards, the room is average—the smell of cigarette smoke lingers, scum rings the toilet, and a single loop of black hair clings chest-high to the shower stall.
This is the room where 21-year-old Melissa Chamberlain was probably killed.
In March 2002, John Passmore, then a 23-year-old from Ohio, was released from a county jail in Pennsylvania. He served eight months for assaulting Chamberlain, his former girlfriend. In July, he went looking for her.
For several days, he camped near Chamberlain’s parents’ home in Bucks County, Pa. Only Passmore is sure how the two ended up in West Ocean City on July 15 in Chamberlain’s Chevy Cavalier. Chamberlain left no note, but her mother found a piece of her daughter’s acrylic nail at the house.
Nelson remembers when they checked in to the Alamo, “a pretty white girl and a black guy” holding hands as they crossed the parking lot. Another set of lovers of modest means, he thought, looking for a place to stay. They paid for one night.
When the state police showed up several days later, Nelson had forgotten the couple. Investigators swarmed Room 1, hauled off the mattress, took the plumbing from the sink.
They had arrested Passmore, who led them to an oak tree in Talbot County where he had stashed Chamberlain’s body after suffocating her. She was wrapped in a sheet from the Alamo.
It’s 3 a.m. on a Friday, and Nelson is sitting at his bar. The lights are off. He’s sipping from a can of Natural Light, talking about the murder, the dead drunks, and the rumor.
“A hundred years from now people will be driving by the Alamo,” Nelson says. “They’ll say, ‘My grandfather told me there were Russian whores in there.’”
It defies logic, a run-down motel running a prostitution ring. This is Worcester County, after all, a place small enough for people in power to notice. Nelson figures that if he were running a whorehouse, he’d be in jail by now.
The first time someone got pulled over for a DWI, he’d snitch. “I bought some pussy at the Alamo. Will that get me off?” Nelson reckons the guy would tell the police.
Nelson is correct. Police have heard the one about the girls for sale at the Alamo. “We have looked into that rumor over the years, and we have never been able to verify that it is true,” says Joel Todd, state’s attorney for Worcester County.
Outside the Alamo, the stars are shining. There’s a warm breeze. The traffic on Route 50 is gone. Anyone looking for a room would probably be here by now. Nelson finishes his beer, steps outside, and sits behind the wheel of his golf cart for a patrol lap around the grounds.
“If you see any Russian whores over there, let me know,” he says before he takes off, laughing like a wild man.