A view of the Westhampton Seabreeze Motel from Montauk Highway. All photos by Ricardo Burneo.

The Westhampton Seabreeze Motel sits on the corner of Seabreeze Avenue and the roaring Montauk highway, its faded sign looming large in the front yard. The motel is located near the Westhampton beach in the small Long Island hamlet of Westhampton. With a population of around three thousand, Westhampton, like the other Hamptons around it, caters to the sunscreen and umbrella crowd. But even in the fall, visitors still pass through, evidenced by the fruit and vegetable stands that dotted the roadside during my trip there in October.

In HBO’s anthology series Room 104 one narrative rule tops all others: the stories must take place in the show’s titular motel room. And it’s clear to see why: as a storytelling device, the motel room is near-perfect. People stay at motels for all sorts of reasons, from joyous weddings to brutal break-ups, and these rooms act as perfect stopovers during momentous events. I wanted to experience stories like those featured in Room 104 out in the real world, so I packed up and shipped off to the Seabreeze, a motel that still feels frozen in time.

Glimpses into life at the Seabreeze motel.

I had set out to ask a simple question: What is a motel. In a market flooded with Value+ hotel chains and upscale bed and breakfasts, how can the classic roadside motel survive? To answer that, I needed to understand why people choose to stay in one. I needed to peek into the lives of those who make a motel like the Westhampton Seabreeze their home for days, weeks, and even years. As I pulled up to it, its long, squat shape obscured by a thick line of pine trees, guests were bustling to and from their parking spots, and the motel manager waved enthusiastically from her office, the salt-spray smell of the ocean lifting on the chill wind.

A standard room at the Seabreeze Motel.

The Westhampton Seabreeze Motel is made up of 11 tidy guest rooms, a small office, and the living quarters of the motel manager, Erlene. The accommodations are straightforward; each room has a bathroom, microwave, television, parking space, and a few faded guide books. Small benches sit outside each room and ashtrays dot each windowsill. Guests drop their keys into a big mailbox outside the office when they check out, and the motel only implemented online booking a month ago. It’s a quiet place, save for the squawking of crows, the occasional firing of engines, and the rhythmic, soothing white noise of traffic whooshing down Route 80.

Room details from the Seabreeze Motel.

Cars new and old sat parked outside eight of the 11 units. Twice that morning a rideshare driver dropped off a hurried passenger, who headed straight to reception to check in. Who were these people and where had they come from?

JUMP TO: The Owner | The Party Animal | The Alumnus | The Ruler of the Roost | The Long-Lost Half-Brother

Seabreeze owner Carrie Coakley and her dog Myla.

Carrie Coakley’s family purchased the Seabreeze from its previous owners 13 years ago, and she says it took a lot of work to get the place up to snuff. When they first bought the motel, it was filled with ugly wall-to-wall carpeting, poorly designed furnishings, and outdated televisions. Everything had to go.

One aspect of the motel hasn’t changed: the sign. “I’m really attached to the sign. And the sign isn’t even functioning properly,” she explains, laughing. ”I’m trying to get someone who knows how to fix it, but I’m really attached to the sign, so I don’t want to change the sign.”

Benches and floating trashcans accompany each room of the Seabreeze Motel.

Coakley, who lives in New York City and has run the Seabreeze for the past six years, says it’s tricky to operate a seasonal business. She has to maximize her summers then try to make it through the winter, which she says is why so many small roadside motels like hers are disappearing. “It’s a hard thing to get through the year and balance it,” she explained to me as her dog Myla panted happily around our legs. “I’m sure if a smaller motel is in a location where they get steady year-round business, a [big hotel] chain is going to love to try and gobble that up, and if they’re not in an area where they get year-round business then they’re trying to survive.”

But Coakley dedicated her current life to making sure the Seabreeze stands tall as other small motels crumble around her. “There was another motel nearby called Bailey’s, a little further east on Montauk Highway, north side of highway, that was closed and left to rot. It was demolished a few years ago.” The Seabreeze shows no signs of crumbling, and Carrie knows how important the idea of home is when running a motel, “We want it clean, and neat, and everything functional, but it doesn’t have to look slick and anonymous. We want it to be homey.”

JUMP TO: The Owner | The Party Animal | The Alumnus | The Ruler of the Roost | The Long-Lost Half-Brother

Kristine Murillo, the morning after the party.

Kristine Murillo burst out of her room clad in a multicolored dress with a towel wrapped around her hair, fishing for something from her car. In a flash she dashed back into the room, slammed the door, and didn’t emerge again until a taxi pulled up and whisked her and her partner — both done up for their friends’ wedding — away before I could talk to her.

The next morning, as she was checking out, she stopped and chatted. As her partner stayed in the car with his hands on the wheel, she happily declared how hungover she felt. When asked if her partner was bothered waiting in the car while she spoke with me, she waved lazily in his direction and said “he’s used to me doing stuff like this all the time.”

The Seabreeze Motel near sundown.

Murillo’s a hairdresser with a thick Long Island accent, and she styled the hair for her friends’ wedding at a venue called Oceanbleu, a seven-minute drive from the motel on the Westhampton beach dunes. She said they had partied hard the night before and she was feeling it today. But why did she spend her time and money on a motel in a tiny town during the off-season? For her, it was a matter of convenience, even if she had some preconceived notions about the safety and cleanliness of a motel. “I kind of got, like, ‘Oh God, it’s a motel?,” she explained to us. “I kind of got a little nervous. But it’s super cute, I’ll stay here again.”

JUMP TO: The Owner | The Party Animal | The Alumnus | The Ruler of the Roost | The Long-Lost Half-Brother

Jim Taylor looks back fondly on the class of 1958.

Jim Taylor slowly, deliberately packed up his small SUV on his way out of the Seabreeze early Sunday morning. Visiting from New Brunswick, Canada, his stay at the motel was for an entirely different type of celebration from Kristine’s rowdy beach wedding — he and his fellow classmates were celebrating their high school’s 60th class reunion. “It was fantastic,” Jim explained. “Believe it or not, even though it was our 60th there were about 45 students there, out of 100.”

Jim’s the great connector of his high school class. He runs a database with everyone’s contact information, and communicated all of the details about the reunion to his classmates. “I don’t think there’s anything more valuable than your human connections, and as you get older you just realize more, and more, and more, what mutual support and reciprocity means [to a person],” he tells me, as a housekeeper trundles past with an armload of dirty sheets. “It was practically a love fest, we had the best time.” For Jim, a stay at the Seabreeze facilitated a connection to his past, to his friends, and to his childhood hometown.

JUMP TO: The Owner | The Party Animal | The Alumnus | The Ruler of the Roost | The Long-Lost Half-Brother

Erlene Wood behind her desk at the Seabreeze Motel.

Standing just shy of five feet five inches, Erlene Wood is the motel’s manager and general “ruler of the roost.” Wood has been running the motel for the past 17 years, and lives right on site, her apartment a converted two-room suite off to the west end of the building. For her, the Seabreeze is a literal home. The motel, from top to bottom, is her responsibility, and bears the marks of her care. From Halloween-themed decorations to a big bowl of candy at the front desk, Wood’s fingerprints are all over this motel.

How did she get to this point? Wood said she’d just been laid off from her job at a picture frame factory when she heard the Seabreeze needed a manager. “A friend of my son-in-law needed someone here,” Wood tells me as the phone rings (the phone will ring several times during our conversation). “He had younger girls here and they weren’t reliable.”

The front door of the Westhampton Seabreeze Motel.

She’s seen it all in these past 17 years, her stories jumping from tales of quarrelling lovers to a ghostly motel room that never seems to get warm enough (Erlene says, decades ago, a guest died in that room), to naked guests sitting on benches outside.

The luxuries and little details of a room at the Seabreeze Motel.

“I didn’t like it at first because I come from Islip and everything’s going on. There’s nothing here in the middle of nowhere. Everything closed at nine o’clock so I didn’t know what to do. But I got used to it, and now I love it.”

But how did Erlene Wood go from feeling isolated, bored, and alone to loving her work and home? “With all the customers, I didn’t feel so lonely. And I’ve had a lot of workmen, like dredgemen and things, and they’ve become regulars and you get to know them, and there are other people who come and stay for so many days. It became more and more easier to stay here. It was like it was meant to be, even though I didn’t feel that way in the beginning.”

JUMP TO: The Owner | The Party Animal | The Alumnus | The Ruler of the Roost | The Long-Lost Half-Brother

Brady and Caitlin Huffer, moments before meeting their long-lost family.

Brady Huffer frantically shuffled his young family of four — wife, young daughter, and infant son — into their motel room. As Huffer’s young daughter hopped around with excitement, he told me the wild reason he brought his family all the way from California to stay at the Seabreeze Motel. “We are here to get to meet two half-sisters that I have never met before.”

Originally from the Long Island area, Huffer and his family have lived outside of Yosemite National Park in California for decades. Huffer learned of these long-lost half-siblings after taking a DNA test to figure out his ancestry. “I bought those kits for me and my wife because I thought in a few years Caitlin would be interested in her background.” In the DNA testing kits, there’s an option to make your results public, “and I figured I don’t care if people know what percentage of Irish versus Scandinavian or whatever else I am, so I made it public.” But what he didn’t expect was to hear from family he’d never known about. “Within a few days I had a comment on there saying ‘Hi I’m your half-sister,’ and a few days later another comment saying ‘Hi! I’m your half-sister.’”

Later that night, after he’d met his half-sisters for the first time, as crickets rose their twinkling cry and Huffer and his wife carried their sleeping children back into their motel room, he turned to me and whispered, so as not to wake the kids, “It was magical.” With that their door closed, and this small family — a family that just grew in leaps and bounds — went to bed. I couldn’t help but imagine that Room 3 of the Seabreeze Motel felt more like home to them that night than anywhere they’d ever stayed before.

A Cool Autumn Night at the Westhampton Seabreeze Motel.

As I packed up for the night, with the hooting of an owl echoing in the distance and the glow of the Seabreeze’s sign casting long shadows across the front lawn, it was clear why motels still survive today. They are transportive, moving each guest to a time, a place, a feeling that they haven’t felt in a while. Motels have a way of exuding this feeling, a feeling full of nostalgia, trips to the beach, family reunions, one-night stands, weddings, break ups, or late night stopovers on a long drive with the kids. Some guests come for family, some to see old friends, some come to surf the waves or view the leaves change. But most are just passing through, stopping off in this comfortable, temporary home before hitting the road again and heading off to their next great adventure, wherever that may be.

Leaves in the Breeze at the Seabreeze Motel.

To get a closer look at the kinds of stories and characters that can emerge from a good motel room, from strange friendships to quarreling lovers (and everything in between), check out Room 104 now airing Fridays at 11:30pm EST on HBO.

Giaco Furino is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between HBO’s Room 104 and Studio@Gizmodo.

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