The Lincoln Tunnel Motel in North Bergen doesn’t look like much.
The long, squat building is nondescript, old. Cars whiz by the periwinkle doors that face Tonnelle Avenue. Just another bare-bones motel on a busy Jersey highway.
But this scruffy building and co-owner Brian Acosta-Arya have given hope — and a warm bed, a sympathetic ear — to many who have drifted through its door.
Acosta-Arya, 34, a husband and father of four, along with being part-owner, works the night shift, checking in latecomers from behind a scratched, bulletproof-glass window in a cluttered office.
“I spent eight years just sitting there, wondering if anything was going to happen,” he said. “Am I just going to be behind this bulletproof glass my whole life?”
That was before he found purpose in his humble role as a motel keeper; before his good deeds and viral videos launched him into an internet sensation.
His journey started in 2020, when a slew of people were evicted due to the pandemic. He started a program called Free Room For U, letting anyone who needed a bed for the night stay for free.
“Some people just need a shower and a place to brush their teeth,” he said.
At first, he was paying for it all out of his own pocket. But lately, Acosta-Arya has found an outpouring of support on TikTok. Donations have flooded in to help him in his mission. His account @lthotel has more than 850,000 followers.
@ltmotel Answer @TikTok this took my entire life to make 🏩 #motelhell #mosaic #AskOnTikTok ♬ The Motel Mosaic - Brian The Motel Guy
One TikTok posted on Dec. 12 gained 3.4 million likes. The cinematic, two-minute video shows Acosta-Arya working around the motel and lending an ear to a guest named Mike. Using voice-over, Acosta-Arya tells his story like a beat poet. How he likes to eat Pop-Tarts cold because that’s how they came out of the vending machine in the hotel he grew up in. How he allows late checkouts because he knows so many have nowhere else to go. How he stores guests’ bikes in his back room so they won’t get stolen.
The video caught the attention of celebrities and news programs. He was featured on "The Kelly Clarkson Show," CBS and more. People can donate money to help sustain Free Room For U through PayPal, or send supplies that will be given to people in need through Acosta-Arya’s Amazon wish list.
But the change Acosta-Arya really wants to see is outside the walls of the Lincoln Tunnel Motel. Donating money, he said, can go only so far. “I want to see people using their jobs to help,” he said.
Twice a week, Acosta-Arya hosts a TikTok livestream for six hours at a time. He keeps it running while he works the night shift and takes calls from viewers via Skype. Through the livestream, he has met hotel and motel owners also slogging through the graveyard shift throughout North America — from Canada to Georgia.
The concept of Free Room For U has spread through this network. Others have committed to helping end housing insecurity by letting free rooms to those in need.
“It’s daring people to really examine themselves,” he said. “We need systemic change.”
Acosta-Arya’s biggest inspiration — the reason he gives so much — is his father, the original owner of the Lincoln Tunnel Motel.
“My dad used to give people a break,” Acosta-Arya said. “If you don’t have an ID, don’t have money, you can still come to the motel.”
George Arya, now 90, came to the United States from India as a young man with a master’s degree in nuclear engineering. He had a successful career as an engineer at the World Trade Center.
Said Acosta-Arya, “He’s not a motel guy. He never got a degree in hospitality.” But he had some extra money and bought several hotels in the early '80s, before Brian was born, with his business partner, Kanubhai Patel. (George has now sold all of his properties except the Lincoln. He, Acosta-Arya and Patel are three-way shareholders, though George now lives in Florida.)
Acosta-Arya is George’s only son, and he spent his toddler years living in different hotels with his father and mother. Eventually, Acosta-Arya had to go to school, so George planted his family at the Turnpike Motor Hotel in Ridgefield so Acosta-Arya could attend public school in the district. He lived there from first grade to his junior year of high school.
“Living in hotels isn’t strange for Indian families,” he said. “Many Indian families own hotels. For my dad, that’s what he’d seen his friends do before moving their families into the hotels.”
But it wasn’t how Acosta-Arya saw other kids in school living. It was hard, he said, living in a hotel. Friends couldn’t come over for play dates. And the friends he made at the hotel would stay for a few weeks and then leave.
“I had friends there and then one day they would be gone,” he said.
Those who didn’t disappear became like family to him. One resident named Joe was a second father to Acosta-Arya. Joe initially lived in the Turnpike Motor Hotel and later, when George sold that property, moved to the Lincoln.
“Dad said he would give him a good price,” said Acosta-Arya. “He never wanted to live anywhere else.”
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Joe showed a young Acosta-Arya how to play chess and dribble basketballs down the motel lobby. He taught him that the best paper airplanes are made with the paper of Chinese food menus. Joe only recently left the Lincoln; he moved to an assisted living center in 2020.
When Acosta-Arya left high school, he, too, yearned to leave the hotel.
“All my life, people were like, ‘You’re going into the hotel industry. You’re going to take this over because it’s going to feed your family,’ ” he said. “I wanted out of New Jersey.”
Acosta-Arya loved to act, and he wrote and performed his own rap music. He wanted to make it in Hollywood. George said he could go to California for one year. If he wasn’t employed, he would have to come back.
“I thought, ‘If I go out there, I’m going to make it,’ ” Acosta-Arya said. “I didn’t make it. It was a learning experience. I had to do it to know that it wasn’t for me.”
That was in 2011. Acosta-Arya met his wife back in New Jersey, got married, had children. His father’s prophecy came true. He would, in fact, support his family in the hospitality business. But it wasn’t so bad. He made friends with frequent guests. And, one fateful day in 2019, he joined the then-burgeoning video app TikTok.
“I was seeing the hotel industry as less of a burden,” he said.
TikTok “couldn’t have been a better outlet,” Acosta-Arya said. Not all of his videos are emotionally charged like the one featuring Mike. Others simply show Acosta-Arya and guests joking around and telling funny stories.
“I love being a goofball and telling stories. I realized people wanted to hear the stories of the Lincoln Tunnel Motel," he said.
His partner in comedy is long-term resident Steven Fox, or “Steven the Maid,” as he’s known on TikTok. Fox and his family have lived in a room in the motel for more than 20 years. When Fox first met Acosta-Arya, George was running the motel. Fox had health issues and was in and out of the hospital. Sometimes, when he didn’t have the money to stay the night, he would sleep in the parking lot of the fabric factory across the street. George noticed and gave him a good rate to stay at the motel while he was struggling.
@ltmotel #answer to @TikTok the best story we’ve told yet #motelhell @steventhemaid #Bye2021 ♬ Stevens Story - Brian The Motel Guy
Now, the gentle giant with a slick of black hair does some of the housekeeping around the motel. And, of course, he makes TikToks with Acosta-Arya. “He’s an improv master,” Acosta-Arya said of Fox.
Acosta-Arya’s next venture is to create a supply shelf called “Free Supplies For U” where guests can take what they need when they check out.
“We’re not a shelter in any way,” he said. “We still charge people if they want to stay at our motel. But if you’re struggling, I’ll try to help you” … and he might just ask you to be in his next TikTok.
Rebecca King is a food writer for NorthJersey.com. For more on where to dine and drink, please subscribe today and sign up for our North Jersey Eats newsletter.
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: North Bergen hotel becomes a beacon of hope and a TikTok sensation