I decided to move to the Chelsea in 1960 for the privacy I was promised. It seemed a wonderfully out-of-the-way place, nearly a slum, where nobody would be likely to be looking for me. It was soon after Marilyn and I parted, and some of the press were still occasionally tracking me, looking for the dirt in a half-hearted way. A friend who I would later marry had done photos for a book on Venice by Mary McCarthy and Mary had recommended the Chelsea as a cheap but decent hotel. (Mary of course hated my work, but that’s neither here nor there.) My friend, Inge Morath, who normally lived in Paris, had stayed there for short periods of work in America, and found it shabby but, to say the least, informal. ‘Nobody will bother you there,’ she assured me.
The owner, Mr Bard, showed me a newly redecorated sixth-floor apartment overlooking the parking lot (since covered by an apartment house) behind the hotel. The parking lot is important.
I did not know quite what to make of Mr Bard. A blue-eyed Hungarian Jew, short and with a rather clear, delighted round face, full of energy, he waved a hand over the room saying, ‘Everything is perfect. All the furniture is brand new, new mattresses, drapes… Look in the bathroom.’ As we walked to the bathroom I noticed a worn path down the middle of the carpet and what felt like coal dust crunching under my shoes. ‘The carpet,’ I started to say, but he cut me off. ‘A new carpet is coming tomorrow,’ he said with raised index finger, and one knew he had not thought of replacing the carpet until that very minute. He turned on both sink faucets and pointed proudly to the water pouring out. ‘Brand new faucets, also in the shower. But be careful in the shower, the cold is hot and the hot is cold. Mr Katz,’ he said. We returned to the living room and stood there.
‘What about Mr Katz?’ I asked.
‘He does the plumbing. Sometimes, he…’ Again he broke off and said, ‘So what do you say?’ Before I could answer, he continued, ‘I guarantee you nobody will know you’re living here. A maid comes every day. Some days when I feel down, maybe you’d like to join me, I go fishing in Croton Reservoir.’ One almost knew what Mr Bard was talking about, but not quite. He began to remind me of a woman I knew in Coney Island who used go out at night and steal radiators from construction sites for a new upper storey she and her husband were illegally adding to her house. To her son’s objections she would reply, ‘But they have so many.’ The way she said it seemed reasonable. Mr Bard had a similar talent for overriding probability, an emotional fluency which sent his thoughts on swallow loops from subject to subject, a progressive, enthusiastic view of life. In a word, anarchy. ‘The furniture is all new.’
‘You told me,’ I said. In fact, it was raw, south-of-the-border furniture, Guatemalan maybe, or outer Queens, and I gingerly touched a bureau but thankfully the varnish was dry.
Within a week the gossip columns, as I half expected, were reporting my new abode, and friends in Europe noted the same great news in some Continental and British papers. ‘That’s too bad,’ Mr Bard said when I confronted him, ‘we did our best not to mention it. Everybody.’
‘Who we told not to mention it.’
‘Including the newspapers.’
‘Including the newspapers, what?’
‘Who you told not to mention it.’
He thought that was funny and laughed. I laughed too. I was getting into the swing of things. I had heard a rumour that he had won the hotel in a high-stakes card game played in the New Yorker Hotel which had also changed hands a few times as a result of the game.
Despite parboiling myself in the shower a few times I began to like the hotel, or at least some of the residents, or denizens as some liked to call themselves. You could get high in the elevators on the residue of marijuana smoke. ‘What smoke?’ Mr Bard would ask indignantly. Allen Ginsberg was hawking his new Fuck You magazine in the lobby sometimes, Warhol was shooting film in one of the suites, and a young woman with eyes so crazy that one remembered them as being above one another, would show up in the lobby now and then, distributing a ream of mimeographed curses on male people whom she accused of destroying her life and everything good, and threatening to shoot a man one of these days. I had a serious talk, or what I took to be one, with Mr Bard and his son Stanley who was gradually taking over, but they pooh-poohed the idea of her doing anything rash. As I slowly learned, they were simply not interested in bad news of any kind. Of course she shot Warhol two days later as he was entering the lobby from 23rd Street, aiming for his balls. But this only momentarily disturbed the even tenor of the Chelsea day, what with everything else going on.
Anyway, it was certainly more gemütlich than living in a real hotel. In the early Sixties truckers still took rooms without baths on the second floor and parked their immense rigs out front overnight, and the Automat was still on the corner of 7th. There I often had breakfast with Arthur C. Clarke, who in his dry Unitarian-minister manner tried to explain to me why whole new populations would soon be living in space. Feigning interest in this absurdity I wondered what the point of living in space would be. ‘What was the point of Columbus wanting to cross the ocean?’ I supposed he was right, but not really. Meantime at tables around us numerous street people were hugging their coffee mugs to delay ejection into rain and wind, and would ultimately drive the Automat out of the area with their unappetizing ear and nose-picking, quick fights, copious coughing fits and exhausted deep sleeps from which the manager could sometimes not awaken them. At the time I doubt that either Clarke or I registered the strange contrast between his cloudy space-talk and the grimy Automat reality. But unlike space it was the reality that would soon disappear from public view, tucked away in shelters for the homeless.
One could tell how bad the weather was by having a brief chat with a gaunt, six-and-a-half-foot tall minister, denomination unknown, who, in his perpetual ankle-long and droopy raincoat, seemed to appear in daylight only after it had been raining or snowing for several days. He had the exaggerated reactions of a man living alone with mice and one light bulb, leaping forward to grasp a proffered handshake with a simultaneous deep bow of obeisance. He always wore the same eviscerated black tie, whose lining hung loose, and harassed black suit, his pant cuffs flapping high above his bulbous shoes, and rose to his toes with each loping stride, a man of fifty or so, with a sympathetic if dour expression which fairly exploded with instant gratitude to anyone at all who addressed him. He carried a black doctor’s satchel, not for thermometer and stethoscope but for a prayer book and a once-white, now yellowing, satin stole which he would drape over his shoulders for the funerals he specialized in presiding over, deprived as he was of a church or income. The worse the weather the more frequent the funerals, and after a week or two of freezing rains one came to expect a certain bright businesslike expression in his face. ‘How’s it coming?’ I would ask as the clanking elevator rose.
‘Oh, just fine, just fine,’ he would intone.
‘Oh, yes, yes indeed,’ he would reply, his contentment barely disguised, the water dripping off his black hat on to his brown grocery bag with its celebratory bulge.
Europeans soon began showing up, expecting God knows what adventures in this celebrity artists’ hotel they’d read about, and some just as quickly fled in polite panic. One of these, a German businessman, told me, ‘It’s like a certain kind of hotel in Paris,’ and added, ‘in fact, a little too much like it.’ But for many it met their expectations; it was thrilling to know that Virgil Thomson was writing his nasty music reviews on the top floor, and that those canvases hanging over the lobby were by Larry Rivers, no doubt as rent, and that the hollow-cheeked girl on the elevator was Viva and the hollow-eyed man with her was Warhol and that scent you caught was marijuana.
But more important for me was that my shoes were still grinding the grit in the carpet. Rose, the maid, came every day, as promised, and waved at things. She had a carpet sweeper but walked about the apartment pulling it behind her as she smoked. These things are never of importance until, as though from nowhere, a kind of pointless rage enters the mind and one finds oneself yelling into the phone, ‘For Christ’s sake, Stanley, don’t you have a vacuum cleaner in the house!’
‘Of course! We have lots of them.’
‘Then why aren’t they ever used?’
‘They’re not used?’
‘Stanley! You know goddamned well they don’t use them!’
‘I never heard of such a thing! Why don’t they use them?’
‘You’re asking me why they don’t use them?’
‘Well, you’re the one who brought it up.’
‘Look, just get a vacuum cleaner up here and let’s forget this conversation.’
‘Fine. How are you otherwise?’
‘Truthfully, there is no otherwise—all I am is a man waiting desperately for a vacuum cleaner.’ And he would laugh, grateful for another happy tenant.
A fateful, rather amazing delivery of a new roll of carpet was made one morning. It was left temporarily in the lobby where denizens stopped to stare at it as the first new object many of them had ever seen entering the Chelsea. Its size and heft being central to a grasp of the succeeding events, it may be described as about four feet in height and about a yard in diameter, its weight probably over 500 pounds. It was destined for the second-floor corridor and after some hours was deposited up there awaiting the installers who were to come the next day. Its arrival suggested a possible new reformist management attitude which had disturbing implications for some; for one thing, it might mean the building was to be fixed up. This would surely raise rents and send some unimproved tenants into the street.
But the new carpet roll was especially inspiring for Mendel Rubin, the building ‘engineer’, a bulky, benign, Jewish ex-Marine private, who dared hope now that some of the below-stairs equipment which he was forever nursing might also be replaced. Between bouts with his oil burners, Mendel would occasionally surface to help hang pictures in the lobby or strike up little time-passing artistic conversations with the guests. Learning of the astronomical sums Rivers got for his work, Mendel saw no reason not to begin scribbling designs of his own on leftover linoleum tiles he had found in the basement, splashing them with orange, green and black paint from leftover cans down there. These tiles he would display here and there in the lobby, and a lady visitor from Iceland, I think, or possibly New Zealand bought several, and paid him in money. He would never be the same. All his time now was spent on his tiles and he even managed to have a show in a downtown gallery. I never knew how or why he disappeared from the hotel, but before he did he confided in me a deep and abiding hatred of the house detective whom he was sure was a phoney, something which would turn out—as will shortly be explained—to have a profound connection with the new roll of carpet.
The Chelsea in the Sixties seemed to combine two atmospheres: a scary and optimistic chaos which predicted the hip future, and at the same time the feel of a massive, old-fashioned, sheltering family. That at least was the myth one nursed in one’s mind, but like all myths it did not altogether stand inspection. The idea of family had limits. Unless one was drugged out, or spending one’s days putting paint on canvas, words on paper, chisels on stone, or singing operatic arias at the piano, one found it difficult to hold Stanley’s attention. In fact, I cannot recall a single real businessman-guest, although some of that type may have frequented the regular all-night card games, like the one which caused a bit of a rumble when two hold-up men stationed themselves outside the room and robbed the happy winners as they emerged into the hallway. But such mishaps were rare and would be denied by the management even though it gave the place a certain panache, or relief from real life’s ordinary constraints. It was not, one thought, that Stanley cultivated weird people, potheaded layabouts and some extraordinary as well as morbidly futile artistic types, but simply that he seemed to think these dreamers were normal; it was the regular people who made him uneasy. In any case, it was a general rule that when something weird happened, nobody—not Stanley, not the desk man or the phone operator or Mendel—would ever really know quite what it was all about, and so a kind of fog of exhausted enquiry suffused the place.
What certainly did happen was Kleinsinger, who had moved into the Chelsea from a regulation suburban marriage, and got girls by keeping a fisheries exhibit in his room; in enormous glass tanks rising nearly to the ceiling strange South American fish floated, some of them armoured with pearly scales and wiry antennae waving up from their heads. In ample cages large snakes lounged, vipers plotted, weird Amazon turtles with long snouts stared motionlessly, speckled Patagonian lizards and an occasional small monkey made smells. Now and again a snake would escape and the whole hotel would be on its knees looking under beds. A blind couple in the rooms next to mine had to have Mendel Rubin scour their apartment, and not knowing how to call snakes he searched the closets calling ‘Psss, pss’ as to a lost cat.
Kleinsinger’s pleasure was to excite his guests, particularly ladies, by opening his door for them with a fat cobra-like reptile draped over his shoulders. He composed music, mainly for documentaries now, although he had begun as a writer of concert pieces and in the far distant past, I think, Popular Front oratorios. Kleinsinger had a merry smile, a debonair manner and a racking smoker’s cough. He had left the suburbs to live on the edge and the last time I saw him, shortly before he died, he was sprinting down 23rd Street in shorts and running shoes pursuing health and his youth, trailing heavy smoke from a long cigar and nodding pleasantly to neighbourhood acquaintances along the way.
The Chelsea, whatever else it was, was a house of infinite toleration. This was the Bards’ genius, I thought, to have achieved an operating chaos which at the same time could be home to people who were not crazy. I wrote most of After the Fall there and our daughter had her first baths in the kitchen sink. Virgil Thomson offered lethal martinis to his occasional guests, and Arthur Clarke doggedly charted the next millennium in his room. There were also, tragically, people at the end of their rope wandering the corridors or the elevators at midday in pyjamas, one of whom, according to many of his peers, had been the finest designer of women’s clothes America had ever produced, Charles James.
That he was deeply troubled was obvious, his helpless desperation written across his eyes. He was a broad-faced man in his sixties, still quite strong, I thought, and intelligent, but occasionally forgetful enough to start out into the street in his sleeping clothes. Kennedy had just been murdered when we happened on one another in a corridor, and he held on to my hand and said, ‘Is this the beginning of the end?’ and looked at me intently, as though the bullets had barely missed him.
The place, in fact, reminded me of Nevada in the early Sixties and still does. There was a similar kind of misfittedness about so many of the people who had either dropped out or never entered the normal ruts where most human traffic flows. Poor Brendan Behan was staying there for a couple of months at the point in his life when he seemed casually amused by death’s closeness, no different in this than Charles Jackson’s depressive sadness before he ended his life in his room (in 1968, twenty-four years after he published The Lost Weekend), or Dylan Thomas’s gallant swim toward a private cataract of alcohol that would catch him at last and fling him down on the rocks below. But where there are artists there will be suicides. It had always stuck me as odd, how glamorous a number of writers thought New York was. For me, born on 112th Street and Third Avenue, the city was certainly the world’s most interesting place but surely not a field of diamonds glittering under the moon, filled as it was with mere people rather than infinite possibilities. Behan seemed star-struck, putting in a lot of time in nightclubs wearing a proper suit and tie and uncorking Irish stories and one-liners that would be printed next morning in Leonard Lyons’s column, even as he was dancing as fast as he could toward his dying. I came on him one afternoon standing outside on the sidewalk in brilliant sunshine, happily talking to some woman while an unnoticed trickle of vomit dropped from the corner of his mouth on to his tie right through his speech. One morning, surprisingly, he called to invite me up to the choreographer Pearl Primus’s room for a spot of breakfast, and I found him sober then with lots of uneaten food in front of him. She, veritable black earth mother, was obviously trying to feed and repair this man whom she hardly knew but whose plays she had admired, attempting to tuck his napkin into his collar as with a mock-lordly wave of his hand toward her living room, he said, ‘My second home!’ Dylan likewise had ended here, helpless in the hands of an adoring woman. Behan (one is tempted to add ‘God save him’) seemed a rather patched-together personality of several colours by this time, I thought, what with his desperate, heedless lunging backwards toward a passing fame that required the image of the happy-go-lucky, late-rising, debonair Irishman, all on a sick stomach. Balancing himself like a bully boy on feet spaced apart and rapping out slang like a worker-chap, he was in actuality a son of middle-class Irish people. When I sat with him at breakfast that morning, he turned to me and said, apropos nothing in particular, ‘You’re a real playwright, but I’m not. I just scribbled some dialogue a couple of times…’ and broke off with a surge of anguish which he deflected with, ‘But we’re all born and dead in a day, aren’t we.’ When I said I had been moved by his Borstal Boy and The Hostage, he brightened gratefully but waved it all away nonetheless. In his morning sobriety he seemed to cease concealing something crushed in his gut, the joking was gone, silence reigned within him and it seemed terrible that people were in effect encouraging him to drink and perform his cute Irish act with his salivating brogue which Americans adore.
Wherever he went in the evenings, there was a big Irish ha-ha-ha! But on that morning, in the light pouring on to him through the tall old windows from over 23rd Street, his fair skin was blotched, and the tremor noticeable in his remarkably small and delicate hands. His hair was still wet and not so much combed as patted down and I supposed he had made a play at freshening up for my visit. If his condition called for pity, I still could not help recalling that his Irish friend and bodyguard, who stayed close to his side from morning till night, had gotten fed up with him starting bar fights which, the bodyguard claimed, he was left to finish. The man was most probably jealous of what he saw as Behan’s undeserved literary fame, for he turned out to have a book of his own he was trying to get published, but in any case he had confided one evening at the bar downstairs that Brendan had a small child over in Jersey and was still bedding the mother even though he suspected that he had syphilis. Was this, I had to wonder, why he was so patently killing himself with drink? Or was it all a galloping nightmare he could no longer decipher, born of the painful irony of his notoriety in New York growing precisely when he knew he could not face writing a new play or anything else any more?
Leaving Behan that morning it seemed odd that it was here in the Chelsea, ten years before, that I had found myself commiserating with another self-destroying alcoholic Celt, Dylan Thomas. All Brendan could hope to do was perform a bit longer; he had slowed to a sodden halt. Dylan had been different, still pursued, so I thought, by the guilt of his own success when a beloved poet-father had failed to achieve any recognition for himself. When Dylan stood, still young, roundish and cherry-cheeked, before the worshipful audience in the school auditorium on Irving Place, one hand gripping the podium to steady himself, his lilting voice, a musical instrument, leading us all with unearthly assurance into his fields and dreams and village streets, one heard something very ancient and mysteriously grave. His was a voice echoing out of stone crypts and things buried, and he appeared to me a man chosen to carry some lost spirit back into the world rather than a mere writer scrounging for a word or theme. Hearing him I knew what a bard was, and that he was dying of no disease as he sang for coins and the pleasure of strangers was terrible and strange. The Chelsea’s walls could tell a lot about the self-loathing of talented people.
‘Move back! Rent free! I have a wonderful apartment for you!’ It was Stanley Bard greeting me, years after we had ceased to live in the hotel. Every year or so I found myself dropping in when I was in the neighbourhood to chat with him and, I confess, sip again a little of the spirit of the place. But not too much.
‘Why don’t you want to live here?’ he would demand more and more insistently as the years went by. Now he was a grey-haired middle-aged man and his father was long gone and his own son was beginning to take over, threatening to clean up the place and even remodel parts of it.
‘Because I like surprises but not where I’m living,’ I said. ‘Like when that girl got shot on the seventh floor…’
‘What girl?’ He was genuinely flummoxed.
‘The prostitute who got one eye and a finger shot off.’
‘I never heard of such a thing!’ he said, really and truly outraged but at the same time smiling emptily as though at a remark he really could not understand. Why did people continue telling such stories! Managing the Chelsea was like managing a forest where little fires kept breaking out.
‘Well, it doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘What’s happening these days?’
‘Nothing. It’s nice and quiet. And we’re full.’
We were sitting in his office whose geography is indescribably complicated. Part of it is in one room and another part is as though in another room behind a glass partition which stands at one end but doesn’t separate anything from anything else. And one dares not ask what the partition is for lest the explanation answers nothing and only distresses the mind. The furniture was late McKinley, a treasure trove of discarded dark oak desks and sunken-bottomed chairs and ancient heavy electric fans and wooden filing cabinets. For no reason I thought of James, the designer.
‘Remember what’s-his-name-James, the designer?’
‘Sure. Wait a minute…’ The phone had rung. I found an old New York Times on the floor and picked it up and began reading it. I could not remember any of this news, it was like a future newspaper telling of things that hadn’t happened yet. Suddenly Stanley was shouting into the phone.
‘Now just a minute, Ethel…no, wait now, I have something to say! You are not coming back. I don’t care, we are not having that kind of business here and you know what I’m talking about…’
A beautifully dressed young woman walked in.
‘Please shut up a minute, darling,’ he said to this new arrival, who indignantly threw up her head and stamped her foot with one fist pressing into her hip.
‘You heard what I said, Ethel,’ Stanley continued into the phone, ‘this is final, I don’t want you here any more, darling!’ And hung up.
‘Where is my money?’ the beautiful young woman asked.
‘Now listen to me, Bernice, I am not your father, I have no money for you till the first of the month!’
‘The first of the month!’ Bernice, wearing 3,000 dollars’ worth of beige suit and matching boots and an enormous white beret, had an angelic, wealthy face with frightening green eyes that at the moment had murder in them.
‘What am I supposed to do! I’ve got a twenty dollar bill to my name!’ A little girl’s plaint was in her voice now.
‘First of the month, Bernice, that’s all I can tell you. I have no money for you till then. Now please leave me alone.’
Bernice was in tears now, sobbing.
‘I’m not listening,’ Stanley said and turned to me. ‘James, you mean?’ he said. ‘James died a couple of years ago.’
Bernice continued to stand there, weeping into an embroidered handkerchief.
‘Pathetic man at the end,’ I said, ignoring Bernice just as Stanley was doing, sensing as I did that while her anguish was real it was still a performance, repeated, no doubt, every few weeks. ‘He used to complain about how you were treating him.’
‘How I was treating him? Why? How did I treat him?’ And he suddenly remembered something. ‘Wait! I have a wonderful letter from him…’ And he turned his swivel chair and faced the Chelsea filing system, a stack of yellowing paper rising at least four feet high from the top of his desk. ‘It’s right here someplace…’ He peered at the hundreds of sheets piled up before him, raised his hand and with forefinger and thumb delicately drew out a sheet, glanced at it and handed it to me. ‘Here it is. Read.’
Still impressed with his lightning retrieval system, much faster than any computerized one, I took the paper, a handwritten letter, as his phone rang again. Bernice had meanwhile wandered out into the lobby to howl. The phone continued ringing as he explained about her. ‘They’re a very well-to-do family, but she’s on drugs, so I’m not supposed to give her money except on the first of the month.’
‘You’re in charge of her?’
‘Not in charge, I just…’ He shrugged at this, yet another unanswerable Chelsea question, not sure what his function was except that he was stuck with it. He picked up the phone, and while I read the letter he was now yelling into it, ‘Ethel, you are bothering me!’ And hung up again, his benign face neither blanched nor reddened by what must have been anger.
The letter from the late James was a frontal attack on Stanley for having demanded a rent rise when he knew that James could no longer earn very much and, from the sound of it, might have been on welfare. James mixed outrage with pathetic pleading, ‘You are destroying me!’ and so on.
The phone rang again and he picked it up and slammed it down. ‘I can’t stand crazy women,’ he said. And pointing to the letter, with a benign smile spreading over his face, said, ‘You see?’
‘Have you read this letter, Stanley?’ I asked.
His face clouded. ‘Of course I read it. He loved it here. He’d been here years and years. It was the best hotel in the world, he used to say.’
‘He says you were destroying him.’
Snatching the letter he said, ‘Destroying him!’ Clearly, he was remembering now as he glanced down at the handwriting. ‘But look, see what he says down here?’
He held the letter in front of me, pointing down at the bottom of it, and read aloud, ‘”Very sincerely yours”. You see?’ And he slapped the letter lightly with the backs of his fingers, his case made. Now he sat back and smiled his old friendly smile; ‘James loved it here. So listen, I’m serious. I’ll give you the apartment rent free if you’ll live here. At least look at it.’
‘I couldn’t live here again even if I had to pay rent,’ I said, but he didn’t get the joke. God knows why, but I soon found myself with him on one of the two elevators that was working that day and up we went to the seventh floor where painters were working in a large, high-ceilinged apartment.
‘All the furniture is new, even the bathroom faucets…’ Here I was again, over twenty years after the first demonstration I had attended with his late father, being invited to examine the bathroom faucets. Was this clan fated to go on forever reproducing itself and repeating the same things? A hundred years from now would a Bard be’ showing the brand new faucets to some hapless possible tenant? Depressed by these thoughts and their intimations of mortality, I had nevertheless to agree that it was indeed a lovely apartment although the porcelain had been rubbed off the refrigerator door, but I knew that there always had to be a certain remnant of shabbiness lest it turn into a real hotel that nobody would particularly care to live in. ‘And look how quiet,’ Stanley held up one hand as though conducting the silence.
‘It’s a terrific apartment, but…’
‘Think about it is all I ask. You ever hear quiet like this in New York? You’re in New York, would you believe it?’ He cocked an ear.
I had to confess it was in fact extremely quiet, knowing as I did that the ancient walls were a couple of feet thick. We descended to the lobby, and stepping out of the elevator Stanley was continuing his peace and quiet theme, ‘You could concentrate here, nobody would bother you…’ My eye caught the strange sight of a deep pile of broken glass lying just inside the doorway to the street. Crossing the lobby we both realized that the glass doors were gone, collapsed into this pile at our feet. Stanley, his Buddhistic expression intact excepting for the panic drawing tight the edges of his eyes, called to the desk clerk who promptly came around and addressed him.
‘I don’t know what happened,’ the clerk said. I couldn’t be sure if the man was in still in shock or if he always looked so pale and hauntingly surprised.
‘What do you mean you don’t know what happened, the doors are gone!’
‘Well, some guy stopped on the sidewalk and took out a pistol and shot them.’
‘What do you mean, “shot them”? He shot the doors?’
‘He shot the doors and they crumpled.’
‘Why would he shoot the doors, for God’s sake!’ Stanley raised his voice, almost accusingly.
‘How do I know? I seen him crossing on the sidewalk and he stops and takes out the gun and bang! And he walks away.’
Stanley, momentarily flummoxed, stood there shaking his head. Another unanswerable Chelsea dilemma beyond the analytical reach of any mind. Outside on the sidewalk the blind couple had arrived and with their white walking sticks were feeling around in the broken glass which blocked the entrance. Stanley instantly stepped over the glass, and taking the woman’s hand led her gently around the pile with the man following behind, telling them not to worry, everything was under control. Alone together again in his office, I said, ‘This is what I mean, Stanley, it’s too interesting here, I’d never get any work done.’
‘Well, you always stayed in your room, you never hung out in the lobby; nothing’s going to happen in your room. Will you think about it?’
‘I will do nothing else for the next three months.’ And he got the joke this time and laughed, albeit unhappily. His quick changes reminded me of his attractiveness for many people—he was a man of feeling, a passionate man. Along with some other qualities, but after all business is business.
A speck of dust fell into my eye. I hoped it wasn’t glass and carefully working the eyelid tilted my head back, and up near the ceiling the good eye spied a foot-square white linoleum tile with red and blue squiggles painted on it. Mendel the Marine!
‘Whatever happened to Mendel the Marine?’ I asked.
Two immense cops walked in, no doubt to talk about the shooting of the glass doors, and I left a very nervous Stanley, obviously worried about some inevitably unfair publicity. Mendel’s hatred for the house detective, back in the Sixties, surfaced in memory as I stood in the lobby waiting for two men to finish shovelling up the pile of glass. Bernice sat nearby, oblivious, under a Larry Rivers painting, doing a crossword puzzle on a folded newspaper resting on her thigh. I stared out to the street where, on a quiet Sunday morning in spring, the last before Kennedy was shot, I had managed to lock my car keys inside my Buick’s trunk. The desk clerk had suggested I call upstairs to the house detective who, he said, ‘had lots of keys’. He said this with a private little grin which I hadn’t time or wit to evaluate.
At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning the detective’s sleep-clotted voice sounded deeply controlled but furious. Apologizing, I told him my problem and he said he’d be down in half an hour or so, ‘if you want to wait’. As though I could do anything else with my ignition key in the car trunk. I had seen this fellow once about a year earlier when, waiting to cross 23rd Street, I noticed a Saab with its roof so collapsed that a telephone pole might have come down on it. Its windshield was separated from the rest of the body leaving a gap through which snow was falling on to the driver’s cap. His visor had about an inch of snow on it. Arriving at the hotel I saw the driver, who I later learned was the detective, unloading stuff from the car’s trunk. One side window of the car was missing, which did not keep him from carefully locking its doors before going into the hotel; a man, I thought then, of deeply engraved locking habits. That was in winter. Now, on this lovely spring morning, he at last came down in his shirtsleeves carrying a steel ring about the diameter of a frisbee on which were hung about a hundred keys. As he tried one key after the other in the trunk’s lock I kept silent with sinking heart, knowing that they were house keys and would never open a car lock. We ended the business by both of us removing the back of the rear seat, permitting me to reach into the trunk from inside the car. He was about thirty, a trim blonde man with a close military haircut and an unsmiling face even after I gave him ten dollars for his trouble. It had seemed odd to me then that a detective would not know that ordinary house keys were different from ignition keys, but again, at the Chelsea, the spirit of enquiry soon exhausted itself in answerless questions that trickled away like a brook in a desert—in this, come to think of it, the place was a lot like life.
Indeed, on the morning after the famous roll of new carpet was delivered and deposited on the second floor to await the installers, I emerged from the elevator to find three or four cops in the lobby, but they were not holding coffee containers. Instead they seemed to be working, quietly talking among themselves. Advised by my father at the age of seven to always stay away from crowds, I left, returning that afternoon to find Mendel the Marine selling a tile to some lady with a foreign accent, Alabama perhaps. Mendel caught up with me as I was awaiting one of the working elevators.
‘They stole the carpet.’
That 500- or 800-pound roll of carpet gone? Disappeared overnight? The desk clerk would surely have seen it if it had gone out the lobby door. Or had he been in on it? No, impossible when he was hardly five feet tall, painfully timid and always exhausted. How then could so massive and heavy a thing have possibly left the building? Removing an object of that size and weight was about the equivalent of stealing a grand piano and moving it into the street without anybody noticing.
‘Oh, it can be done,’ said Mendel under his lip.
‘How can it be done?’
With a glance left and right for interlopers, he gave me a head signal to follow him into one of the elevators, the one that was working.
In the second floor corridor Mendel indicated an enormous window at least ten feet high and perhaps six feet wide that looked down on the unlighted parking lot behind the hotel. ‘This is removable, frame and all,’ he indicated the window. ‘Then you back up a truck down there and drop the roll on to it and you’re in like Flynn.’
‘But wouldn’t somebody have heard? In fact…’ I suddenly recalled that the house detective had walked up the stairs from the lobby rather than taking an elevator after my trunk key misadventure. ‘I had some idea he lived on one of these lower floors.’
Mendel, straight-faced, raised a finger pointing at a door which displayed half a dozen locks just opposite the big window. ‘The house detective lives right there.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You can say that again.’
‘Maybe he wasn’t home at the time.’
‘That’s right; maybe he wasn’t. Maybe this isn’t even Tuesday either.’
In the weeks that passed, or months—I no longer recall—the main drama of the period had been the steady disappearance from various rooms of typewriters, radios, air conditioners, televisions and even a few pieces of jewellery and a valuable watch or two. Police had come and gone with not a clue developing. One morning smoke began pouring out of the room next to the house detective’s.
The fire department put out the fire in a few minutes, and following normal procedure asked Stanley for the key to the adjoining room, which happened to be the detective’s, to be sure nothing was smouldering in there. Stanley, of course, had no key to the six locks on the detective’s door and the sleuth was away at the time. The firemen, under Stanley’s protests, broke down the door and entered the apartment. There facing them were shelves rising to the ceiling filled with a good selection of radios, typewriters, televisions, fur coats and other useful items. The police were awaiting the detective on his return and he received a medium sentence, it was said, since he was not at all violent. From then on until he disappeared, Mendel the Marine was nothing but smiles whenever we ran into one another, a happy man, I believe, for the rest of his life.
With all my misgivings about the Chelsea, I can never enter it without a certain quickening of my heartbeat. There is an indescribably homelike atmosphere which at the same time lacks a certain credibility. It is some kind of fictional place, I used to think. As in dreams things are out front that are concealed in other hotels, like the wooden bins in the corridors in which the garbage pails are kept, and for some unknowable reason this sort of candour seems so right that you smile whenever you pass the bins. It may simply be that nobody is urgently concerned about what is happening because nobody quite knows what is happening, or maybe there is a kind of freedom or severe disconnect with plain reality, or, as the saying goes, a sense that the inmates have long since taken over the asylum, which can be irritating but perhaps not altogether a bad thing, at least in the spiritual sense. It may in fact be as salutary a way as any of running a public place. But in recent months and years a new determination to update has begun to show. Stanley’s son has come of age and there is a new carpet, wainscoting has been revealed from under its age-old coats of paint. The whole facade has been cleaned and restored to its long-obliterated Victorian elegance. On a recent visit there to Arnold Weinstein with whom I have collaborated on a libretto for a new opera based on A View from the Bridge, with music by William Bolcom, I found myself sinking back, psychologically speaking, into my original warm feelings toward the hotel as of my arrival there over forty years ago. And as we discussed some business in the total chaos of his living room, which is not so much furnished as littered with collectors’ items suitable for a massive Salvation Army donation, the door to the corridor swung open and without a knock a powerful maid entered, her exuberant smile and glistening black skin all aglow with some sort of triumph. And raising up over her head four rolls of toilet paper, two spiked on the fingers of each hand, she called out at the top of her joyous contralto voice, ‘I didn’t forget you, Arnold!’ And he rose from his wobbly chair and gratefully accepted her gift. And so I instantly knew that clean facade or not, refurbished lobby notwithstanding, I was back in the Chelsea again.
Photograph © Andrew Malone