The Chelsea affect | Daily News


The Chelsea affect

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.’

‘Everybody what?’

‘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 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.

- Granta

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