Arrived in Manhattan on the Acela local after missing my express train by thaaaat much. Everybody loves the MBTA and its fine morning service. As it turns out, I was only an hour later than I had expected, and I did get to see a bit more of the stations along the route as we stopped for each one. I had opted to spring for the extra 20 bucks and get a Business Class seat which, if you want to break it down, means $10 for glorious extra legroom and $10 for all the complimentary beverages you can guzzle down in the cafe car -- besides booze, of course, but it would have been perfect for this morning's trip.
"Didn't think I'd encounter so many screaming babies in Biz Class," I texted Miz B. It was true, too. Business Class ain't so much Business Class anymore as it is Upscale Coach. Lots of families getting on at Providence. Shook my view of train class a little bit. Sure, I didn't expect Business Class to be full of men in Oxford shirts and Bluetooth headsets saying "Buy! Sell! Sell! Get me into Nobu tonight at 7:30!" into thin air, but I did expect it to be, well, grown-up and quiet. Quiet enough so that, presumably, some business could get done. Quietly. On a laptop.
Instead I had two babies two seats in front of me who were not very fond of the whole experience,, some "quit touching me! MOM! He's touching me!" children a few rows back, but to my left and up one row, a pair of amazingly well-behaved 7 or 8-year-olds. They were travelling to New York with Grandma and were enjoying the ride a whole lot but doing so in that Very Well Behaved way. They played Auto Bingo or Train Bingo, asked Grandma neat questions about the Empire State Building and only got up to visit the Cafe Car and not play Racecar Derby up and down the train aisles. I like kids like that. I also like kids who shut up and bury their noses in a book or five, but that's just me. Rather, that was me.
"They should have a Screaming Baby Class," Miz B. texted back.
"I don't think that's necessary," I replied. "They already know how to do it very well."
My esteemed base-ball connoisseur and Coney Island friend Mr. Dyte met me at Penn Station and we headed down to 222 W. 23rd so I could check in at the Hotel Chelsea. It was much like visiting a dying friend, as the Last Bastion of Bohemia is poised at the very brink of gentrification and boutiquing. Stanley Bard, the long-time manager since 1946 and true soul of the hotel (who has been known, apocryphally, to accept paintings or other works from The Starving Artists in lieu of rent) was ousted as manager in June by the hotel board, spearheaded in part by David Elder, the heir of one of the hotel's owners. Elder is a beast of the cruelest persuasion. His mother's will stipulated that while her shares in the hotel would go to David and his brothers, they would be held in trust by her husband, author Piri Thomas, who would receive all the income from the trust until his death. At that time, the shares would fully go over to the Elder brothers, who would then presumably throw Machiavellian schemes to usurp the shares from one another.
However, Piri Thomas is still very much alive and spittin' mad, for while David Elder has made sure that Thomas has not seen one red cent of this income, Piri has still had to pay the taxes on it. David Elder is a cheat, a fraud, and a charlatan of most unsavory and unsympathetic type, and there will be a hearing this Monday -- the final one, residents and friends of the hotel hope -- to oust him as a trustee. Hopefully there will be two guys waiting at the door to hoist him up by his shoulders and belt to give him the true physical one, two, thuh-REE! heave-ho onto the street.
While Elder and businesswoman Marlene Krauss have already kicked Stanley Bard out and brought in the coporately nebulous "BD Hotels LLC" to run the place, there is still hope that something could turn around and keep the two, who never really cared much about the place until Chelsea started to become the New Expensive-Trendy neighborhood, from turning a truly unique institution into another expensive boutique hotel with tourist-friendly history: Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke stayed here! Ooo! So did Ryan Adams! Get a picture, honey! We may see a celebrity here! Can we see the room where that punk guy killed his girlfriend? Will that be on the tour? It's nice to know those types have gone, though. I wouldn't want my kids to have to see any of them.
But that's not what the Chelsea is. To know it and to love it, you must learn to accept it.
It is not posh. It is not five-star service. I don't want you going in thinking you're going to be pampered like a celebrity, because you're not. Being one of the cheaper places in Manhattan that doesn't use the word "hostel" or "Christian association" in its name, you takes what you gets. After checking in and paying for my room in advance, I waited twenty minutes for Ramon, the bellman, to take me to my room. I hung out in the lobby with Mr. Dyte, and we watched him help a gaggle of Debbies, those young women who look unnaturally tan all year long and who, if they were in Boston, would wear pink Red Sox caps and root for the cutest players only because the team's up on top or was on top recently. None of them had any idea what they were getting themselves into, most likely, but they were certainly excited to be there even though they were definitely not the Chelsea Girls you were looking for.
Then Ramon helped a family of four, kiddies and all, all shiny-faced scrubbed with Clean Travelin' Clothes and a Golden Retriever in tow.
"Wait, you got a dog?" the front desk clerk asked. He was a sleepy-looking gentleman in his 60s. Not one of the Bards, though. "Did you tell us you were bringing a dog when you made the reservation?" The woman turned to her husband.
"Uh, I think so. Honey?"
"I'm pretty sure we did." The desk clerk remained impassive.
"Are you gonna keep him in the room all day?"
"Oh, no! We'll take him out all day with us."
"If you leave him in the room and he barks--"
"Oh, he never barks!"
"Well, okay, but if he barks and we get complaints..."
It was at this point where onto our scene entered one of the Chelsea's long-term residents, an older woman with dyed black hair, a real aging artist hippie type who still had a lovely aura of grace and venerability about her. She had a small Yorkie breed on a leash and, as Yorkies without fear do, it started straight in for the Golden, yapping away. The Golden ignored the Yorkie. The woman ignored the family, looked only briefly at the larger Golden, and spoke to the Yorkie entirely in French. She then retrieved her mail and disappeared into one of the ancient narrow elevators.
I took it all in stride, with a pleasantly laissez-faire attitude. Honestly, I didn't feel like a tourist one bit. It is so very nice to know that if there's one place in New York City where I don't feel A Tourist, it's the Chelsea. You're not supposed to just stay there, you live there, for however long your rest stop may be.
However, I was still waiting to make eye contact with Ramon, just to motion I was ready to be shown my room once the dog had been shown to its barking space. However, you can still be laissez-faire yet refuse to let yourself be a doormat, so after waiting a leetle while longer I approached the front desk to ask if they could just give me my room key and I'd find my own way to the room, honest, no problem, I just got my backpack and that's it.
"Don't worry about it," the man said. "Ramon will take you up and show you where the bathroom is and everything." And he did, eventually, after a short misunderstanding regarding my surname (he thought I was making a noise complaint about one of the rooms.) I got my keys: Room 206. Ramon, Mr. Dyte and I rode up to the second floor, accompanied by another long-term resident in a wheelchair.
"I'm moving out," the woman said to Ramon. "It's time. I got a co-op from a friend."
"Oh yeah?" Ramon asked. "You were careful, right?"
"Yeah," the woman replied. "Got it in writing and everything." Ramon nodded sagely.
"That's good. You can't trust nobody when it comes to co-ops. Get it in writing, get the signatures, get it in blood if you have to, but get it down." The woman agreed; Mr. Dyte agreed, I agreed to make it unanimous.
We disembarked on the second floor, in front of the absolutely gorgeous staircase and marble floors and art on every wall: painted portraits of Houdini, Gershwin, Marlon Brando, Jimi Hendrix; photo collections of random faces, some you knew and some you knew you were never going to know; abstract works that nearly blended in with the walls, and through a small warren of passages Ramon brought me to 206, showed me the shared bathroom as we passed by, then opened the door and let me see the room.
The room was just big enough for a king bed and a desk in a window alcove overlooking an inner courtyard. A tiny kitchen/sink/counter area was tucked into one corner of the room and decorated with some graffiti, stickers, and the word "Hedonism" cut out of a newspaper and stuck on the red molding. Underneath the molding someone else had written "so dark the con of man." That wasn't quite the literary scene I'd expected in this place but hey, a book's a book.
The actual room itself was painted a bright yellow, and that coat of paint was clearly the most recent coat of about fifty, for the texture was so bumpy and thick that it pretty much resembled stucco at this point. It would have looked out of place almost anywhere else. But here, it was bright and made the room seem a whole lot bigger. There was a recessed archway on one side of the wall; whether it once led to another room or if it was always there for decoration I had no idea. I tipped Ramon even tho he carried no bags ("Thank you, Mr. N," he said -- isn't it interesting the first few times you get addressed as such by hotel staff?) and threw my stuff down on the other side of the bed, intent on heading out to Coney Island with the esteemed Mr. Dyte for the aforementioned base-ball match and roller coaster riding.
After a Coney Island adventure which I shall tell you about in another post (with pictures and all), I returned to 23rd Street just before midnight with the city in front of me like a giant beast of opportunity. I could go catch the Rocky Horror Picture Show at a cinema just a few doors down from the hotel; my fishnets, unfortunately, were at home. I decided to take advantage of my surroundings by taking part in a grand and glorious tradition: getting drunk and writing at the Hotel Chelsea. I purchased a small hip flask of Wild Turkey 101 (motto: "If it was good enough for Hunter S. Thompson, it's good enough for me") and a few non-alcoholic non-mixers on the side, just to stave off any unpleasantness which may come my way.
I went back to my room, took healthy swigs from the flask (lord, it's been quite some time since I've enjoyed the 101) and scribbled not-so-furiously on my notepad. I made sure my letters looked neat, at least. It is at this point I should point out one of the Chelsea's most famous properties: its incredibly thick walls and, as such, silence, sweet golden silence. All I could hear from my room was the white noise of both ceiling and window fans, plus the occasional snatches of conversation from the courtyard below or one of the open windows across. When I stepped out to use the bathroom, however, I could hear music, loud rock music, from behind the door immediately next to mine. We shared a common wall but I heard nothing until I was in the hallway. Now you know why creative types love the place. You can hear yourself drink.
The next morning, after a night full of fragments of dreams and scenarios which oddly didn't feel like my own, I sat back at the desk and finished up some of the work from the night before, and then did some texting on my phone. My fingers on the keypad sounded like fingers on typewriter keys. Tappa tap tap tappa-tappa-tap tap-tap-tap. I'd woken up far before I'd wanted to, and yet I felt fine. The day looked beautiful out the window, and the only things I could hear were still just my window fans and the wind rustling the trees in the courtyard. The only sounds I heard from my fellow human beings was one or two times the door next to me opened, but that was it. No car horns, no hollering, no human voices at all. Heading back out to the bathroom, I noticed the loud music was still playing in the room next to mine. Probably had been all night. It was one of the most calming mornings I've had in such a long time.
With some time to spare before check-out I inspected the sink alcove, with its mini fridge, a bit more closely. There was a tattered, ripped picture above the eye-level molding. What remained had yellowed to the point of nearly being unrecognizable, but you could tell it was some kind of woman's picture. Possibly Spanish; the eyes looked dark and there was a single curl above one eye. The rest of the details were gone, long gone. Stuck at the bottom were typewritten words in mirror image; perhaps the other side of the page of whatever publication had been co-opted to serve as wall decoration. I attempted to decipher the words I could make out -- the first word was "fleshy" and, accompanied with the ghostly image, provoked a morbid curiosity -- and I came out with what looked to be a description of a line of makeup ("vanilla pastel tones" and the like.) Maybe a fashion magazine.
High up above the other shelves was one which you needed to stand on the mini-fridge (or the chair, if you were smart) to reach. Up on there I found one long-dry wine cork and copies of the same picture (bird-like shapes flying by what looked like Fifth Avenue storefronts) with a developing date of June 2006 on them. I left them up there. Along the top near the ceiling, however, someone had written in forlorn ballpoint pen:
There was LOVE in this room.There was no rose up there. Not anymore, at least.
It went away...
The story behind the rose would stop your heart.
After walking back down the amazingly smooth marble staircase and smelling the bittersweet aroma of what must've been some very good weed wafting out from under an ornate and most decidedly un-toweled door, I waited to check out behind a French family who wanted to leave early. The kids waited on the amazingly wonderful old lobby benches while the woman translated for the man.
"You are due to stay here until Monday," the clerk said, looking at their invoice. "But you want to check out today?"
"French french french french french," said the man.
"He says, the airport, we want to be the closer to the airport."
"You want to be closer to JFK? And your flight leaves on Monday?"
"French french french french-french french french."
"Yes, we want to make it sure we are at the airport on Monday."
"You'll be more than able to make it from here on Monday, even in the traffic."
"French french french frenchity french."
"Can we please have our car from the parking garage?"
I couldn't really tell if they were just being polite yet still trying to beat a hasty retreat from some place that was Really Not Their Type, but it sure as hell sounded like it.
The rest of the day and the rest of the trip was Chelsea-free, but this morning, when I regained my real Internet access, I decided to check to see if there were any ghosts in my room that I should've been aware of.
I realized, after googling for Room 206, that I had indeed slept in Dylan Thomas' death room.
Well, not so much his death room as it was his coma room.
It was the room where, on the night of November 3rd, 1953, the poet had collapsed on his bed after a particularly lengthy bender at the White Horse Tavern on Hudson and 11th. "I've had eighteen straight whiskeys," Thomas said, "and that must be the record."
These weren't his final words, though. According to the BBC's biography page, which I trust about a zillion more times than Wikipedia, Dylan awoke the next day and went out to a bar for two more beers. He quickly returned to Room 206, however, complaining of breathing problems, and summoned his personal doctor, who gave him several doses of medication over the course of the day, including what appears to have been an "abnormally high dose" of morphine. This was not a very good idea considering the breathing problems. After experiencing what the BBC site terms "abstract hallucinations", Dylan commented "After thirty-nine years, this is all I've done" and fell into a coma. He was taken from Room 206 to St. Vincent's hospital, where he never recovered, eventually dying on November 9th.
(One comment on the BBC site mentions someone who believes the room to be Room 215, but that's the only mention of Thomas and that room anywhere else on the intar web, so I'm inclined to believe the poor fellow who wrote the comment had been unknowingly paying his respects to the wrong room all along.)
But like any hotel room which has experienced tragedies, you'd never have known unless you'd heard about it or are in a Stephen King novel. There were no tributes to the man anywhere, not on the walls, anywhere hidden in the window shutters or under the sink, nowhere. Of course, it's not very tactful to commemorate such an incident in the room itself (the Chelsea no longer has a Room 100 and they really hate it if you ask about Sid and Nancy) so I wasn't expecting a plaque or anything.
But as silent as the room was at night, I'm sure if I had known of its history before bedding down at night, every single noise I heard, every little creak, every tree rustle, every tap would have been the sound of someone going delirious into that good night.
But it's nice to know what the room once held. I know what it also holds now, too, and if you look in the right place, you'd also discover that it holds one-quarter of a flask of Wild Turkey 101 with a note attached describing it as a gift to the gods; spirits for the spirits (or a thirsty housekeeper) and, as a final shot, a goodbye in defiant capital letters: LONG LIVE THE BARDS! LONG LIVE THE CHELSEA.