He hated having to stay in hotels – or rather the fact that he had once lived in New York City made him feel demoted to an inferior status when he came back on visits. Returning to Manhattan was like seeing someone who’d once been your lover but was now with someone else; like going back to a house you used to own but can no longer enter, so you park your car across the street and look at it from a distance. For a long while he did something like that. The first thing he would do when he came up out of the subway was walk over to a building on St Mark’s Place – as if his apartment should still be waiting for him, with the same lock, fitting the same key he had kept as a memento. But he’d lost the apartment when the building was sold and the new landlord discovered he was not living there full time. Now someone else was, and after a few trips back he stopped walking past the entrance to peer up at his old windows – which led to the issue of hotels, which led to the issue of money.
People complain that New York is expensive, but the truth is you can live there very cheaply. It helps if your apartment is rent-controlled, of course, or rent-stabilized, as his was. Those years of low rent, however, had given him an artificial sense of what a room, even a temporary one, should cost. So it was hard to adjust to the idea of paying for one night in a hotel what he had once paid for a month in his apartment. Once, when forced to stay in a hotel that cost 250 dollars, he had lain awake all night, having divided the room rate by the hours he planned to sleep, as if there were a meter ticking in the headboard. He could not even enjoy the luxury that one got for that amount: the fluted shell-shaped soap, the thick towels, the herb-scented moisturizers and mini-bar, the deep carpet and enormous bed made up probably by a woman from some Central American country who certainly could not afford to stay there either. An expensive hotel room produced nothing in him but guilt; he didn’t see the point of the luxury, since there was something wasted about a hotel room to begin with. A hotel was a place you could sleep; and sleep was an unconscious state. You couldn’t appreciate the potpourri as you snored. You were sleeping. He wanted a hotel whose price seemed to him to make some sort of fiscal and moral sense.
Everyone he knew, however, chose hotel rooms in precisely the opposite way. A museum curator, an old friend who came to New York frequently on business, always insisted on staying in the current ‘hot’ hotel, like Morgan’s or W or the Paramount when they first opened. Once, he and the curator had gone to Paris together. While his friend had stayed at the Grand Bretagne, he had found a nondescript place on the rue Maubeauge, which shocked his Parisian friends when he told them where he was. ‘Rue Maubeauge?’ they said with stricken faces. But he liked his drab plain room where there was no servile attempt to please. ‘Genet,’ he reminded them, ‘just chose the hotel nearest the train station.’
What he did not say was that he found an allure in the nondescript, slightly sad establishment. There was something lonely and forlorn about checking into a hotel that could be a positive pleasure. In fact, he divided hotel rooms into two categories: rooms in which you wanted to make love, and rooms where you could imagine killing yourself. Most rooms, of course, were neither one nor the other but something in between, or a blend of both; especially when you were dealing with cheap hotels. In reality all he wanted was a room that was quiet, which had some natural light, perhaps a view, and a feeling that one could comfortably read the paper in bed before falling asleep: in other words, something like his bedroom at home.
What baffled him about New York was that he had been unable to find, in the years he’d been visiting since losing the apartment, just that sort of place – the modest, small hotel one could always find in Paris, say, or Madrid. He knew it must be there but he couldn’t find it. One friend told him it didn’t exist, for the same reason public toilets were scarce: Manhattan wasn’t welcoming. Manhattan wasn’t cozy or domestic. It demanded you sink or swim, and which you did depended on money. Of course the city was filled with hotels, but even when he lived there, and visitors had come to stay, he’d known of no place he could recommend, no hotel that met his own requirements. The Gramercy Park, which had the right look and location, was not cheap; the Hotel Chelsea charged for its mystique; and though he always looked on his walks uptown for little hotels on lower Madison Avenue, where there should have been just the sort of place he was looking for, he could find nothing.
Now he needed one himself – the place one could come back to over and over again, the place a traveler needs in every city he visits, a home away from home. One year he thought he had found it in the Leo House – a hotel on Twenty-third Street run by an order of Catholic nuns that offered rooms with shower down the hall, and did not even charge tax because it was a religious organization, and was popular with Europeans, sensible people who did not want to pay more than one had to, and had a splendid breakfast that was all you could eat that included muffins baked by the sisters. This could have been like Shangri La, except for one problem: He was never able to sleep, even when he took down the Crucifix that hung above the bed and put it in the closet. Some residue of Catholic guilt, some drabness in the always vacant sitting room, with its library of religious literature, its brown curtains and high window looking out onto the busy street, its echoes of the sad interiors Henry James gave to certain of his heroines, the ones who had no money, inspired not nostalgia for his Catholic childhood but a vague depression; and though he tried to make it funny, telling friends it was like a movie set from Going My Way, it wasn’t really. An odour of hard-won gentility, of denial and sacrifice, pervaded the place, though that was not the deal breaker; the final proof that it would not do was the simple fact that whatever the cause he could not get a good night’s sleep there, and so, after several dark nights of the soul, tinctured by the Crucifix in the closet, he had faced reality and given it up.
So he was grateful when one day an editor he knew recommended a place publishing people liked to stay called the Pickwick Arms, in the east fifties, just opposite the Sutton Place Synagogue.
It was fun at first to stay in midtown. The rooms, with a bathroom down the hall, were only seventy-five dollars, though they were the size of a cabin on a sailboat; there was barely enough room between the bed and the wall for a small table, lamp and chair, much less a person to stand. It was not a room in which one cared to make love or commit suicide. The window looked out on a brick wall. When he awoke in the morning he could hear the watery echo of taxi horns in the street below – that immemorial sound he associated with the midtown hotels of childhood, when his parents took him to New York. But it didn’t quite work. The neighbourhood was fairly swank, and he wondered as he crossed the lobby whether the man at the desk held him in contempt for being willing, at his age, to share a bathroom down the hall. Poverty was forgiven young people in New York (artists are supposed to starve), but people in middle age were expected to be prosperous; otherwise they’re failures. So the next time he came to town he found another hotel off Madison Square.
Madison Square he had always loved: the Flatiron Building still looked just as it did in the photograph by Steichen – that vanished, snowy, mystical New York. The Hotel Arlington was just a few blocks northwest of that glorious icon and had exactly the atmosphere he liked: It had seen better days. Everyone working the desk appeared to be Chinese. The block was drab and dingy; the lobby small, the floor linoleum, the counter stacked with brochures for Circle Line cruises that looked as if they had not been touched for decades, and there was still a pay phone on the wall. He felt no guilt checking in. Off the lobby was what had to be the world’s smallest gift shop, with, when he peeked in, a beautiful young man behind the counter, looking as bored, in the fluorescent light, as an animal in a cage at the zoo. Surely no one ever bought anything. Surely the young man was living on dreams of Broadway. Rather than trust the tiny elevator he walked to his room on the third floor. When he opened the door he realized he’d found that priceless thing: a painting by Edward Hopper – a room that was as dreary and faded as its blue chenille bedspread, a room that was drenched in loneliness, and made his stomach immediately tighten – because in it he could imagine having sex.
At sixteen, on his way home from school for Thanksgiving and Christmas, he had always stayed at the Hotel Taft. The moment the heavy door of that room – a beige, metallic door that bulged out, like a bay window – closed behind him with a solid comforting click, he’d started to masturbate – an act then considered a sin, but which, there in the middle of Manhattan, all by himself, seemed not likely to draw anyone’s attention except God’s. The black-and-white tiled bathroom, the heavy porcelain wash basin, the tub with its stopper on a silver chain, the kiosk in the lobby lined with candy bars and newspapers, the quaver of taxi horns in the street below, and masturbation: that’s what New York had meant to him at sixteen.
Forty years later not much had changed – though forty years later the city had acquired other meanings. One of them was the reason he was checking into the Hotel Arlington that August afternoon – when, after dropping his duffel bag in 312, he walked up one more flight and knocked on 416. When the door to 416 opened, he stepped back in horror – the cloud billowing out was so thick. Miles had been smoking. The smoking, over the years, had made a beautiful face even more lined than it would have been normally; but there, among the effects of alcoholism and skin cancers and drugs and cigarettes were still the outlines of the man he had once loved, which made the Hotel Arlington more than a hotel that day – it made it a rendezvous.
Miles was in New York for a less romantic reason: He was there to have his colostomy reversed. He had been given such a run-around by the surgeons at St Vincent’s who had performed the operation that removed a small portion of his intestine inflamed by diverticulitis, it had been cancelled and postponed so many times, that he had become so depressed he had finally walked into the psychiatric unit one day and told the clerk he was on his way to the Hudson River to kill himself. Then they had given him an appointment. They had also kept him under psychiatric care for four months, which, since he needed a place to live anyway, was fine with him. His room had a view of lower Manhattan that was spectacular, particularly at night. The stay had altered Miles, however; the anti-depressants had thickened and slowed his voice so that he sounded drunk; though Miles was still the person he was happiest to see.
In fact, once the door had closed behind him, he no longer felt like a tourist, or a stranger wandering the streets of a city in which he’d once lived. Miles was someone he’d lived with in his apartment on St Mark’s Place – someone who’d known him then. It hadn’t worked out: Miles had moved on to another boyfriend, another neighbourhood, the Upper East Side. He was now living on welfare. But they both still loved Manhattan, and when they went to a coffee shop on the other side of Madison Square, the moment the Greek waiter brought him his eggs and toast, he felt as if he was living here again.
Miles, however, was so weak from his months in St Vincent’s that after eating they walked arm in arm up Madison Avenue toward Brooks Brothers, something he would never have done in the seventies, when they were lovers, but that now, in late middle age, he did for support. In Brooks Brothers he bought Miles two shirts and a sweater Miles said he needed, and then they took a cab down to the Village to have dinner. It was understood he would pay for everything. Miles hadn’t a cent. He had fallen on such hard times, in fact, that he seemed irretrievable – the ne’er do well in every family, the one whom life had crushed, the one whose fate, thank God, had not been yours. He wasn’t sure why this was, but Miles didn’t seem to have the will power to get himself out of the hole, or the toughness, or gumption, or whatever it took; he seemed blunted and faded and numb, and there was nothing to do but give him money when he asked, even though he’d told Miles more than once that he should leave New York, that he couldn’t afford it, advice Miles had refused – because he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else, because, he said, he’d rather starve here than leave Manhattan.
For this he gave Miles credit – this devotion to a city they both loved – though no one they’d known when they both lived here was still around; or, rather, the few who were, Miles said, after running into them on the street, looked like vampires. Yet the Village was packed when they got out of the cab at a restaurant on Greenwich Street. ‘I always liked the city on weekends when everyone was at the beach,’ he told Miles as they waited to be seated. ‘You could do whatever you wanted on summer weekends – nothing, if that’s what you wanted. There was something almost rural about it. The pressure was off.’ This time they took a table outside Sapore, a restaurant Miles said he had been able to see from the window of his room at St Vincent’s.
‘You know, you have to admit one thing,’ he told Miles. ‘The hospital solved your housing problem. It gave you a place to live. I can’t find a decent hotel.’
‘I know one,’ Miles said. ‘This guy I met in St Vincent’s told me about it.’
‘Why was he in St. Vincent’s?’
‘He tried to kill himself,’ Miles said. ‘He thought the CIA was watching him. He was a nice guy. He spent all day reading Henry James. And he told me about a hotel on the Hudson River called the Riverview where you can get a room for thirty dollars a night. So after I was discharged I went down to check it out. You can live there for two hundred and seven dollars a week,’ Miles said, ‘though the rooms are very small.’
‘How small?’ he said.
‘Very small,’ said Miles.
‘Well, the rooms at the Pickwick Arms are small,’ he said. ‘I don’t mind a small room.’
‘The rooms at the Riverview are really small.’
‘But that’s such a bargain,’ he said, ‘and on the river! That could be the place I need.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘But the only other cheap place is the Leo House,’ he said. ‘And I can never sleep there. I’d love to see the Riverview. Let’s walk down after dinner.’
Miles shook his head in wonderment.
‘What are you saving your money for?’ he said. ‘Why don’t you stay at a good hotel, like the Carlyle?’
‘Are you crazy?’
‘No. You are,’ said Miles. ‘You won’t spend the money that you’ve got.’
The waiter put their plates in front of them. They sat for a while in silence, Miles devouring his linguine, while he absorbed the rebuke. Then he said: ‘The man who was reading Henry James in St Vincent’s – which James was he reading?’
Miles thought for a moment.
‘What Maisie Knew,’ he said.
‘Ah. What Maisie Knew could make you paranoid.’
‘Why, what’s it about?’ said Miles.
‘It’s about a little girl in a divorce case whom everyone lies to.’ He put his fork down, sat back, and looked around. ‘What do you think Henry James would have made of this?’ he said. It was a warm night, and the sidewalk was thronged. ‘Do you notice how many gay men are holding hands?’ he said. ‘But they don’t need to do that anymore – you don’t have to hold hands to show you’re gay. It seems to me a little cute.’
‘They probably do it because they can’t in the town they came from,’ said Miles.
‘But,’ he said, ‘I’ve seen four couples doing it now. That makes it a trend.’ He took a sip of water, realizing he sounded like an old fogey, and said, ‘It’s so wonderful to be back in New York. There’s no place like this – no place.’
The couple at the table behind Miles was a perfect illustration: a young man with a tiny rat’s tail of hair hanging down the back of his neck – a little curlicue of hair, a strange, asymmetrical addendum to his otherwise neat haircut, an arbitrary detail worn purely for the sake of style. The more he stared at it the more the curlicue of hair seemed to him symbolic of New York. It was like a cord you could pull – pull the cord, he imagined, and the man’s legs would part. He’d not had sex in a long time. When, after paying the check, the young man stood up, turned toward them, and slipped his knapsack on, his T-shirt rose halfway up his stomach – a fragment of Greek sculpture at the Met, an image that remained even when he and Miles abandoned their table an hour later and started walking westward through the sensuous summer streets. ‘The Village has changed, you know,’ said Miles in his slow, medicated voice. ‘These townhouses are now even more expensive than ones on the Upper East Side.’
It’s the real estate conversation, he thought, the one people have in every city but New York because there’s nothing else to talk about; their relationship had come down to the real estate conversation. Walking down Jane Street toward the river it was easy to see why, however: the high ceilings, molding and chandeliers – the enviable rooms of people who did not need a hotel, who actually lived in settings James had used. But that was not his fantasy. ‘I never really liked the West Village,’ he said to Miles, ‘I don’t know why – at least I never wanted to live there, did you? It seemed so bourgeois. I came over here for the bars. But I was always glad to go back to St Mark’s Place when they closed.’ But now he did not have that option, so, still walking toward the Hudson, he suggested they look at the Riverview.
‘Do we have to?’ said Miles. ‘I may actually have to move there and I’m not looking forward to it.’
‘But we have nothing else to do,’ he said, ‘even though it is Saturday night. We have nothing else to do,’ he repeated, in astonishment.
The sad truth was just that, so they went to the hotel.
The Riverview turned out to be a large, red brick, nineteenth century building that had once been a sailors’ home. It was right at the end of Jane Street, which the city had closed off so that it no longer intersected with the West Side Highway; in its place was what looked like a curved driveway edged with flowerbeds, like something in Miami Beach. Upon entering they went up an echoing flight of worn marble stairs. At the top, inside the lobby, in a cloud of fluorescent light gleaming on linoleum, there was an enormous cage with a man inside it. An old man with white hair was bent over the counter talking to him – the sort of old man, he thought, who shouldn’t have to end up in a hotel like this.
The old man was trying to find out how much a room for two nights would cost.
‘Eighty-three dollars,’ said the man in the cage.
The old man bent forward at the waist, as if hit in the stomach, and stepped back. ‘Go ahead,’ he muttered to the two of them, and took a step away from the counter.
He smiled, and nodded at the old man, and stepped up to the cage. ‘Is it possible to see a room?’ he said in a voice that sounded to him over-educated and la-de-da.
The man in the cage spoke into a walkie-talkie and told someone there were people who wanted to look at a room.
The old man returned to the counter and took some money out of his pocket. ‘How much?’ he said again.
‘Eighty-three dollars,’ said the man in the cage. The old man rocked back once more, as if hit in the stomach a second time.
‘That’s more than you said it was,’ he whispered to Miles. ‘It must be the tax. They really screw you with the tax. Nothing costs what it’s advertised to be, hotel rooms or airline tickets, because they always leave out the tax.’
‘Maybe it’s thirty a night only when you stay a week,’ Miles muttered.
A Negro with grey hair and glasses came up from the street and pressed the elevator button. The man in the cage told him it was out of order. A young man with a Puerto Rican flag on his t-shirt came down the stairs and asked the man in the cage in Spanish what he wanted and the man in the cage said, ‘Show them 410.’
The Puerto Rican, who turned to them with a dolorous expression, was about five-foot-eight and had big dark eyes, a moustache, and a long broken nose. He was dressed in black, with keys and a walkie-talkie hanging from his belt, and as they walked slowly upstairs there was plenty of time to admire the proportions of his body, the wide shoulders, and V-shaped back. The man was probably tired of going up and down these stairs, he thought. In fact their progress was so slow that impatience overcame him between the second and third floors and he went around the Puerto Rican and went up the stairs two at a time to the next landing. But there he stumbled, and the sound of his stumble, the slap of his shoe, echoed down the stairwell. ‘Are you all right?’ Miles called up, laughing.
‘Yes!’ he said, his reply reverberating. Now that he was old he did not find a stumble funny; such things were in fact foreboding. He walked up the rest of the way with care and waited, when he got to the fourth floor, for the others.
The Puerto Rican seemed even glummer when he reached the final landing – tired of working, no doubt, in a place that got more and more depressing as he followed the custodian down the hall. The doors of the rooms were painted grey. Thin fluorescent tubes lined the ceiling; it looked like the interior of an air craft carrier – or a bathhouse. That’s it, he thought suddenly. This is like following the attendant in a bathhouse – like the Everard, in fact, those old Puerto Rican guys at the desk who wanted you to know that though they were working there, they were straight and did not approve of what you were going there for.
He had never been able to decide if their contempt was a pill he had to swallow, or one of the ingredients that made the Everard so exciting, along with the rumor that the Police Benevolent Association owned the place. That question was moot now – yet the resemblance between this hotel and the Everard was so strong that, walking down the hall, he began to feel a strange nostalgia. The gleam of the fluorescent light on the linoleum, the sullen Puerto Rican, his beauty, his back, the total silence, were having an effect. The Everard had burned down years ago but the similarity was uncanny.
The Puerto Rican stopped two doors from the end of the hall, opened one of the rooms, and stepped back to let them look inside.
‘You see?’ said Miles.
‘You weren’t kidding,’ he said. ‘This is an incredibly small room. This is smaller than the Pickwick Arms. This is like a submarine! This is like those Japanese hotels where they slide you in an out in a drawer. This is like a morgue!’
‘I told you so,’ said Miles.
There was nothing in the room but a television set suspended over a bed, like a security camera. If the television were to come off its perch, it would fall right on the person watching it, he thought, like the bookcase that killed the rabbi in Paris when he reached for a volume on its topmost shelf.
He stepped back. The attendant led them to the end of the hall and pointed to a doorway. He poked his head into a large bathroom consisting of gray walls, showers and toilet stalls. A shower head was dripping and there was a breeze coming through an open window. It reminded him of the changing rooms in the roofless pavilion at Jones Beach, the big open-air changing rooms that were like a souk in Morocco, patterned with light and shadow. But it was the drip of the shower he loved, above all else; that took him back to the Everard, to the silence at four in the morning, when most people were having sex or sleeping and no one was walking up and down the halls and the shower room was empty. He had loved the shower room when it was empty, for the same reason he loved walking the city late on Sunday night when there was no one on the sidewalk. There was something restful about both. That was the thread he had lost when he’d left New York – the Everard, the Club Baths, at four in the morning, lying in his room near the showers with his door slightly ajar – wondering who could possibly still be up, especially on a week night, the only time he went to the baths. He knew now that this had probably been the happiest time of his life. Safe and sequestered in the middle of life, equidistant from birth and death, hidden from responsibility and expectation, wide awake in what felt to him then like the center of the universe. The dripping of the shower was the drip of Time passing, Time suspended and caught.
He turned and looked at Miles. Miles had never liked the baths; he’d found them degrading and unromantic. The Puerto Rican led them back down the hall as the Negro with glasses was knocking on someone’s door, which opened as they passed to reveal a man lying on his bed in his Jockeys – a big fat man on the narrow bunk in the tiny room, putting down the paperback he was reading and turning, like a beached sea lion, as he greeted his visitor. It’s just like the baths, he thought – people used to bring books to the baths, too, and used to knock on friends’ doors, when they took a break from cruising, to talk and laugh.
Halfway down the stairs, he started talking to the Puerto Rican in Spanish, and by the time they reached the lobby he was glad to see the Puerto Rican smiling. But when the man in the cage asked them if they wanted to rent the room, he explained they had just wanted to see it, for future purposes, thanked him, and went out into the street.
‘You mustn’t even think of living there,’ he said to Miles. ‘It would plunge you into a depression you’d never get out of, it would undo all the work you did at St Vincent’s.’
‘I may have no choice,’ said Miles. ‘It’s all I can afford.’
‘Better to leave New York,’ he said, ‘better to live in Sayville, or New Jersey, or anyplace you can find a cheap room.’
‘No,’ Miles said. ‘I want to stay in Manhattan.’
‘At what price?’ he said. ‘The Riverview is so depressing! It would be the worst possible thing you could do. It would drag you down. You have to take care of yourself, mentally. You can’t just stay in a room watching television all day smoking cigarettes. That’s what you can’t do. You have to go out, get back on your feet – start a new life.’
‘Anyway you can!’ he said. He thought a moment. ‘That’s a line from Henry James. The doctor tells Milly Theale, who’s dying, that she must be happy, and she asks how, and he says, ‘Anyway you can.’ Well, it’s the same thing for you. You’re not dying, but you’re in danger. You have to find your way back. You can’t go to the Riverview. You’d turn into an old man in his underwear watching TV all day.’
‘But I am an old man,’ said Miles. ‘At least, I look like one. Unless I wear my baseball cap and dye my beard. Then I get cruised.’
‘You see!’ he said. ‘You could still find another lover – and that’s what’s always been important to you – having a lover. Without one you fall apart.’
They walked back the rest of the way in silence to Madison Square, through the throngs of young people who seemed like fish swimming in a different sea, one in which only they could breathe, and they parted on the landing at the Hotel Arlington. The next morning they had breakfast in the same coffee shop on Madison Avenue. After that they said goodbye. ‘Remember,’ he said to Miles, ‘even if you have to live in Brighton Beach or some place really far out – you can always come in on the subway. But you mustn’t stay in the Riverview just so you’re in Manhattan. Manhattan isn’t worth that. You have to get a job, and have a place that is reasonably cheerful when you come home. You have to take care of yourself. You can’t stay home all day watching TV.’
‘But that’s all I want to do,’ said Miles.
‘Well, that’s what we all want to do, on some level, but you have to fight that instinct,’ he said. ‘Anyway, I’ll call you tomorrow!’ They embraced, and he started walking to Pennsylvania Station to get the train. But with each passing block he realized he did not want to leave the city quite yet; he wanted to stay another night. Yet he didn’t want to return to the Hotel Arlington; and he didn’t want to see Miles again. Miles was preoccupied with his own problems, and his problems were depressing; New York was not just Miles, there was more to it than that.
So he went to the Metropolitan Museum. When he got there he headed immediately to a room with a small Roman cameo whose presence there had always amazed him: a carving in ivory, no larger than a brooch, of a man with powerful legs and a very long penis that was clearly stuck in the buttocks of another man. Then he went to see the Greek fragments – those small torsos, devoid of arms or legs, whose grace and beauty always astonished him. Then he wandered around till the museum closed. It’s not worth the money I would save, he thought, on the subway downtown. The room is too small. And it’s not the Everard. Or Jones Beach. I don’t watch TV, so there will be nothing to do. And even if I take a shower, the chance that the Puerto Rican will come in is slim to non-existent. The Puerto Rican will be working. The Puerto Rican is straight. I cannot even be sure the Puerto Rican will be on duty, or if he is, that there would be any reason to run into him. Nor can I lie on my bunk, with the door open, and wait – the way we used to at the baths, when the waiting was more sexual than sex. No, he thought, as he stood on the steps of the Riverview, this will be like going to prison. He turned and walked back down to the street. An hour later he was on the train leaving Penn Station, going through the tunnel that always seemed to him like a birth canal, after which they emerged on that marsh beyond which the towers of the city rose so improbably. Around him everyone was already reading or looking at their phones and he felt himself sinking into exhaustion and exile. It was always sad, leaving Manhattan. He looked back through the dirty train window at the city, and then rested his head against the seat and closed his eyes. There was nothing to look forward to. He could not help Miles. He was lucky to have escaped himself.
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