On Aug. 15, Marilyn Mathieu, her partner, and their two young boys checked out of their hotel in Boston and headed to Cambridge, where they walked around the Harvard campus.
“We want them to dream big,” she said later of the visit with her boys, ages 7 and 3.
But two days later, after she returned home to New Jersey, her memory of the family trip began to sour when she noticed the hotel had charged an extra $250 on her credit card, on top of the agreed-upon $103 for the room.
When she called to find out why, a manager said it was for smoking in their room at the Cambria Hotel, a recently opened upscale 159-room hotel in South Boston near the Broadway MBTA Station.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mathieu said she told the manager. “I don’t smoke; my partner doesn’t smoke; the boys don’t smoke. Nobody smoked in that room. It’s got to be a mistake.”
She said the Cambria manager provided scant details but insisted he had “proof”: A housekeeper had discovered “leaves” on the bathroom floor and they had photos of them.
“Leaves” — as in marijuana, she asked? The manager would not say.
“It wasn’t us,” Mathieu insisted.
Mathieu asked the manager to e-mail her the pictures. He promised to do so, but no photos arrived, she said.
Before hanging up, Mathieu asked if the fact they are Black had anything to do with it. Mathieu emigrated from Haiti as a child; her partner, Calvin deGrasse, from St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean.
“He said, ‘No, that has no bearing on this; we go by the facts and we have proof,’ ” Mathieu told me.
Mathieu thinks otherwise. She believes her family had been racially profiled based on the hotel’s swift determination of their guilt and unwillingness to consider their denials.
“The hotel felt they could say whatever they wanted and that we were not to be believed,” she said. “It happens a lot and it’s hard to fight the system.”
After Mathieu contacted me last week, I showed up in the hotel lobby and talked to a couple of managers. One said guests get charged extra for smoking or causing damage “on an almost daily basis,” and seemed taken aback that I would question them at a time when the hospitality industry is reeling from the effects of the pandemic.
The other manager said the evidence of smoking was “iron-clad” but declined to show me anything or go into detail. He did intimate that they had electronic records showing no one entered that room between the time the family left and housekeeping arrived.
Like Mathieu, I asked for photos of the “evidence,” and, like her, I got none. The managers I spoke with promised to have the hotel lawyers call me. But I never heard from them.
If something was indeed found on the bathroom floor, it could have been dropped there by someone who worked there, or could have been there all along but was overlooked. But it seems the hotel had its mind made up.
Cambria is one of a dozen brands of Choice Hotels, one of the largest franchisers of hotel chains in the world with more than $1 billion in revenue in 2018.
Mathieu and deGrasse said their visit to Boston began as a long day trip. But after getting stuck in traffic in Connecticut late in the day, they realized they needed a room, which they booked by phone while on the road.
Mathieu, 42, is a licensed social worker in New Jersey, with a master’s degree from Hunter College. To smoke marijuana would be to jeopardize her career, she said. She said she loves her front-line work at a public psychiatric hospital where she helps people with serious mental illnesses get stabilized and return to the community with proper support.
DeGrasse is a former college athlete who now works for the city of New York. He told me he was willing to be drug-tested to show the hotel was mistaken.
It didn’t make sense to me that Mathieu would go to the trouble of finding me online and asking for my help, knowing it could expose her to publicity, if she were in fact guilty of toking in the bathroom. I think she would have quickly paid the $250 and moved on with as little fuss as possible.
One day after her first call to me, Mathieu called again. She said one of Cambria’s top managers had just phoned to apologize, promised a $250 refund, and offered a gift certificate for a future stay.
“He said they had no right to accuse me in the first place and that the evidence they had was not proof of anything,” Mathieu said. “It felt like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Mathieu said her boys are too young to understand what happened. Her emphasis right now is on keeping alive memories of inspiring places like Harvard.
She said she is dedicated to her children’s futures just as her parents and deGrasse’s parents “struggled to make a better life for us.”
“Our story is the American Dream,” she said.