The Price of Sleep

As I was standing recently in front of MinneNAPolis PowerNap Suites, a dimly lit store in the Mall of America, a herd of teenagers in hooded sweatshirts and sagging, crack-revealing jeans sauntered by and collectively stated the obvious: “Dude! Check it out. No way. This place is, like, for napping. Who would do that?”

In fact, according to owner Steev RamsDell, the suites have hosted just over 1,250 soporific souls since they opened in November. He showed me the “Deep Space” room, which could also aptly be titled the “Teenage Star Trek Geek Suite.” Deep black and speckled with glow-in-the-dark paint, the room has a bunk bed with a desk, small TV, a constellation lamp, a lava lamp, and a handful of plastic spacemen who seemed to be descending an electrical cord. Lying in the bunk bed, one can stare at the starry ceiling and imagine any number of alien invasions.

Which begs a few questions.

“We do a lot of cleaning here,” said RamsDell, who explains that fresh linens and robes are brought in after each use. “We’re always cleaning.”

“About sixty percent of our traffic is from out-of-towners,” he said, listing tired flight crews and pooped shoppers from Wisconsin among his customers. “Some people want to take a nap before they do the two- or three-hour drive home.” And not everyone naps. The suites, he claimed, have helped at least one person garner employment, a man who got a call for an interview while he was at the mall, “so he came in here and booked an hour to talk on the phone.” Could he get reception in the “Deep Space” room? Replied RamsDell, “I’ve called China from in there.”

Though paying up to a dollar per minute for a short snooze may seem like a nutty idea, RamsDell envisions an America where, “in three to five years, places to nap will be everywhere, like ATMs.” Places to nap, in fact, are already everywhere—heating grates on any number of city sidewalks, for example, or bus-stop shelters, or at the mall, on any number of benches—but it’s a matter of comfort. Take the massage chairs in the mall. “You close your eyes and try to relax,” noted RamsDell in his lullaby voice, “but who’s watching your bags? How can you relax when people are walking by and staring at you?” He’s banking that America’s insomniac millions might just be ready to shell out for some quality Z’s. Popular MetroNap, for example, offers the poor, tired, and hungry—well, just the tired—of New York quality napping in one of its partially enclosed pods, but even that leaves the fatigued open for public viewing. The powernap suites are locked. “Take Starbucks,” says RamsDell, who conducts business in bedroom slippers. “No one believed people would pay five dollars for coffee.”

The Mall of America has been a test location of sorts for PowerNap Suites and the company is currently in negotiations to open at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the nation’s sixth-busiest hub. The hardest part about opening at the airport, said RamsDell, are issues related to insurance and liability. How do you figure out, as he put it, “the risk of resting and relaxing?” For insurance purposes and for the public’s information, there have been a few misconceptions to clear up. Only one person is allowed in the napping room at a time, with some exceptions—nursing mothers, for example. But RamsDell said that there really is no downside to this gentle enterprise in our sleep-deprived culture. “It’s one hundred percent beneficial,” he asserted.

All of the rooms had a kitschy, homemade quality. The “12 Fathoms” suite had a leather massaging chair and a flat-screen television screening a scene of roaring surf, but it was also decorated with what appear to be rummage-sale finds—shower curtains with underwater scenes, a stuffed shark, and, tacked to the wall, a toilet seat with a fish design.

When it was time for my nap, the “Asian Mist” room was taken, so I chose the “Mesa Plateau,” with a cattle skull on the wall that would make Georgia O’Keeffe feel right at home. A staff member settled me in, placing my feet in the Chi machine, adjusting the support pillows, spritzing an eye pillow with aromatherapy spray, placing the body-warming panels over me, putting the music on a “rain and thunder,” setting, then, finally, closing the door. There’s no way I’ll fall asleep here, I thought as the thunder gently rumbled the table (it’s connected to the audio system). A rainforest monkey screeched in my headphones, and I made a mental list of things I’d like to buy at Williams-Sonoma.

The next thing I knew, a girl in a staff T-shirt was handing me a glass of water. “Take your time,” she said, “waking up.” —Shannon Olson