Holden Caufield can wonder about the ducks all he wants. I wonder about where bohemia went—my bohemians went and why I can’t find them and how they survive on these streets in the winter—, and so I imagine my own funeral. Dynamite will be welded to my joists, down in the basement, where they now do the graying laundry and where the maids used to gather to gossip about the guests. Outside on 23rd Street there will be a demolition crew, ready to flip the switch and have all of my twelve stories collapse in on themselves, so as not to disturb 7th Avenue. Either that or I’ll fall right down, collapse in on myself, all by myself, if that damned Hilton boy buys us out.
If you haven’t yet noticed, this city doesn’t have the longest of attention spans, and my bohemians have left me, so it’s only a matter of time.
I’m lying. Some are still here. My occupancy rate still stands, at least. And so many who check in as guests check out years later as residents, wheeled out on stretchers or in straightjackets. Or those were the old days. Now they still paint and perform in the hallways, have shameless sex, unabashed because of my thick walls, or go mad, but they do none of it with the same fervor or fame. Now they are small timers, known around the neighborhood instead of the globe.
Now they take photos in the style of Mapplethorpe, instead of being Mapplethorpe. Instead of whispering secrets of the bomb to me, as Robert Oppenheimer once did, they whisper about the bomb and Oppenheimer and how they wish they too had been blacklisted. Remember? Back to Arthur Miller and O. Henry and Tom Wolfe and Andy and his Superstars. I’m a name-dropper, sure, but remember that panty dropper Bob Dylan? I remember him for weeks on end with Edie Sedgwick, her amphetamines and pearls.
Remember when Edie set fire to Room 105, almost burning through those unabashedly thick walls, and burning down her hats and fur coats and funny cigarette lighters too? When they carted her out of here with a needle still stuck in her wrist, she immediately demanded to be returned to 105. She did. She had given up her money to live here. She had given up her family. There would be no Barbizon Hotel for Women—per family wishes—for my dear Edie. Only Chelsea.
Where did that go? Where did Edie go?
Oh, I’m getting old, I’m taking pleasure in my own funeral, in dynamite welded to my joists. I was once New York, in that special brand of down and out, and up and coming. And America. I was America too. A mighty statement, you might say. But the Times called me America, they called it my America, if America meant “freedom of spirit, tolerance of differences, creativity, and art.” That’s what I accomplished, which is more than most can say. Play your music loudly, I proclaimed. Cover the walls in imitation leopard print, I cooed. Do what you’ve got to do, I demanded. Paint. Write. String your violin and tune your piano. Conjure up atomic plans. Go mad, even.
From me they would never again take ship to London or Paris or Venice. Only around the block and then back again, they would go. They couldn’t stand to be away longer, not longer than a cigarette run. And when they came back, they cried upon entering my doors. For here felt more like home to them than grain silos in Tulsa or a closet sized house in Kyoto or ancient churches in Rome or a studio lot in Los Angeles or their apartment in Midtown or the Upper West Side, or wherever they were from.
One man gave up his marriage before his room on the 9th floor.
Why do I have to use the past tense?
And I was bohemia. Another lofty proclamation. Oh certainly, sir. But think about it: those who could afford 59th and the Park and above came to me instead, because here they could write or draw or act out surrealistic dramedies in the hall, bring in goats to perform one act plays from room to room. I saw “2001: A Space Odyssey” before you, because it first happened here. I ate lunch, naked with Burroughs before he put it all down on paper. I was the only one to witness Dylan Thomas in his final moments, moaning long before Ginsberg did about jazz and sex and soup. And Ginsberg, after traveling from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge, certainly settled in and moaned about all that here.
Am I bragging? Well I’m an old old lady. I think I’ve earned the right since 1884 to wax nostalgic. I’ve lived through both Presidential assassinations. I’ve seen the skyscraper wars. I sympathized with the Chrysler building, for I once, ever so fleetingly, held her title too. Tallest building in New York for so many months upon my construction. I am history, I’m allowed to complain. I am the history of rock and roll, and literature, and the Beats, and free spirits, and hippie socialites, and apartment hotels.
There was once I never would have complained. When the international intelligentsia made dates with their compatriots, dates with them and with me, dates here. “I’ll see you at the Chelsea,” they’d say in Prague and Tangiers and Warsaw. But now I am an old old lady, worried about the kinds who used to frolic in my halls. If they found satisfaction and lodging elsewhere—at the Algonquin, say—I’d feel hurt but not regretful. Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and the roundtable inhabitants would haunt them there, and care for their minds and wits. Even if they settled in for long stints at the Plaza, they’d have dear little Eloise to watch over them. But they no longer exist at all, to be taken care of anywhere. There’s the rub.
I used to fend off this truth, thinking they simply flocked away because I lack amenities. Darling, don’t I know it. I know you can’t watch MTV or drink yourself to death off my minibar. I know there is often a little too much of past guests left in the rooms, be it their dust or their condom wrappers. I’ve heard the complaints. But, dear, have a little fun. And before you lodge complaints, read the plaque outside the front door. Don’t you see those names of Wolfe and Thomas and Flaherty and Henry? If it was good enough for them…Don’t you see I was the first to be awarded with a historical landmark plaque on this whole goddamned island? If I was good enough for Manhattan…And I remember the day someone—a lonely girl with a dead maple leaf pined to her lapel—came along and emblazoned “Sid Vicious” in Sharpie underneath those other names.
But they didn’t flock away for my lack of whatever and my Sharpie. They’re gone. I don’t know where.
I miss Sid and Nancy. I alone know what happened that night in Room 100, that room that no longer can exist because of all the blood, all over, all through that night. Where did my Viciousness go?
I’m feeling irrelevant, New York.
I don’t think we think about hotels. Maybe the ones you never stayed in. Or if it’s clean enough to walk on the floor barefoot. But most of all, you think “This is not my home.” People used to think of me and say “It’s good to be home.” It is a terrible thing not to be needed. I’m not a pathetic holdover from the sixties, I don’t want to relive radicalism or a yearning for causes. I want to be needed. I want my bohemians back, those crazies who needed my shelter and lack of room service. I need them as much as they needed me.
I didn’t insist on rent or any sort of monetary payment, only creativity and bad behavior. Fires and suicides welcome, a sign should have read outside.
“I’m still here,” I want to yell to passersby. All I see is them slumping over, their eyes downcast, their noses buried in their papers or their scarves. They pass my red neon title and red brick, my corners that each culminate in gables, my delicate ironwork and they say nothing and look at none of it. But they’ve written odes to me, ballads, I want to yell. And poems too. And whole books. Where did those go? And where did all their authors go? Where did their painters go? Their lyricists? And composers? Where did all my bohemians go? And America, where did you stash them all? Behind the Hilton sisters, I suppose.