This was supposed to be easy. A few years ago I spent five weeks in Europe, and the only way I could ever have afforded a trip that long was by backpacking and sleeping in hostels. Before I went I thought the hostels would be a mildly unpleasant necessity, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed staying in them, mostly because I met a lot of interesting people I never would have met had I been cosseted in hotels. Plus, the bunk beds and shared bathrooms really weren't bad, and they came at a fraction of what even the cheapest pensione would have cost. Certainly the same logic would hold in New York. Right?
The only hostels I had stayed in before were all affiliated with Hosteling International, an organization that – I now see – does a splendid job of confirming that a given hostel is a decent place to stay. The only Hosteling International-affiliated accommodation in New York is on West 103rd, and for a variety of reasons I wanted to stay downtown, so I booked a bed at the unaffiliated Chelsea International Hostel on West 20th: right that name down and don't go there. I'll tell you why.
My first impression of the place was mixed. On the plus side, the place was filled with French people, and as a Francophile I always take that as an encouraging sign. I even got to use my rusty and inadequate French (from necessity no less!) twice, once on a gaggle of French girls in the lounge who spoke no English, and then with a couple from Quebec, one of whom spoke little English. (Even a simple "Merci" really ingratiates you with the French, and I used the word often that day.) On the negative side, it took nearly an hour for the incompetent desk service to check the quebecois in front of me in, and another half hour to check me in. Whenever I passed the desk, there was a long line, as the clerks seemed never to have seen a computer or a telephone in their lives.
The first night passed fine, but, in the morning, I discovered that the shower room had no hooks to hang anything. None. But this was okay. As a friend of mine, a deeply experienced shoestring traveller of Asia, says, "You have to be adaptable when you travel." True enough. I went off to spend much of the day at the Met, then reunited with friends I hadn't seen in close to a decade, but out on the street in Chelsea with them that night I ran into one of my roommates, who told me that a pipe had burst in the ceiling of our room, soaking the carpeting. The management turned the water off. As it was Saturday before Easter, it was unlikely that the plumbing would be fixed anytime soon, but, luckily for me, my friend and his daughter offered me a couch to stay on in an apartment they had keys to on the Upper West Side that night. It took some convincing – after all, I like hostels, and I'm stubborn – but I agreed. Certainly the plumbing would be fixed by Monday morning…
On previous trips to New York I had never gotten further north on the West Side than, I don't know, probably Lincoln Center. The apartment was in the 90s, so emerging from the subway to the sidewalk that night after a hectic evening in Chelsea was like stepping into a living room. The apartment itself was spacious by New York standards, with one bedroom, a living room, and a fairly complete kitchen, but I was struck yet again by how few things New Yorkers own, with their tiny closets and their lack of floor space. It's refreshing and I envy it a bit, only now I myself own so much crap I can't imagine parting with it if I were to move to NYC myself. It must be nice not to have accumulated much. In the morning the three of us had breakfast at a diner; now, in LA, most wait staff are actors or performers of some kind, but because there are so many people in the "business" they treat everyone as a potential contact, so they are always always on, making it impossible to even buy yourself a cup of coffee on Sepulveda without feeling like you're being entertained by a barista. By contrast, though I'm guessing that many of the waiters and waitresses in New York are likewise performers (they have the look, after all), one isn't treated like the "lucky break," making breakfast rather less sitcom-ish than it would be in LA.
Speaking of sitcoms, I take it as a sign of true hayseed-ish-ness that I felt like I was in an episode of "Seinfeld" while walking around in that neighborhood discussing the merits of the film Waking Life with that screenwriter friend of mine, but that show is probably the most familiar most of us Americans ever get with the Upper West Side.
Later in the day, expecting the plumbing problem to be fixed, I went back to the hostel; signs were posted in the halls saying that there would be no hot water until Monday afternoon at the earliest. When I asked about it at the front desk – the woefully incompetent front desk – the young woman working there claimed not to know anything about the water problem. I went back to my room, and I loaned my guidebook to one of my roommates, a British soldier who had been working in DC and travelling the country when he had the chance, so that he could find alternative lodgings. He told me that he had recently been in New Orleans and gotten stuck in a similar situation, and then ended up in a very expensive hotel, something he didn't want to have happen again. As for myself, not wanting to pay more than the $30 a night the hostel cost, I briefly thought of staying put, but it dawned on me that it would be stupid to do so. I had come to New York with a lodging Plan B, and that was the historic literary haunt a few blocks north, the Chelsea Hotel. I went there and booked a room for the remaining two nights of my trip.
The Chelsea Hotel. According to my copy of The Rough Guide to New York (one from my favorite series of guidebooks), Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams have lived there. Dylan Thomas and Sarah Bernhart have stayed there. Arthur Miller, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Wolfe, Arthur C. Clarke and Paul Bowles have all written there. As for musicians, Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa have stayed there…as did the aptly-named Sid Vicious, and it's where he murdered his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (historic crime scenes aren't a draw for me at all, however). But, maybe best of all, Bob Dylan writes in his song "Sara:"
I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells
I'd taken the cure and had just gotten through
Stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel
Writin' "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" for you
This lineage is well and good and had made me consider staying there instead of the hostel when I had been planning my trip. The Rough Guide, after all, rhapsodizes on the artistic legend of this place for nearly a page (p.118 of the ninth edition). But it also includes this sentence: "With a pedigree like this it's easy to forget the hotel itself, which has a down-at-heel Edwardian grandeur all of its own and, incidentally, is also an affordable, though not always desirable, place to stay." (Emphasis mine). Indeed.
The Chelsea, you see, is a residence hotel, and such places have their share of interesting people. Like the guy down the hall from my room sitting in a folding directors' chair, wearing sunglasses…indoors. He gave off a vibe of never leaving the building. Or the woman who, one morning as I was going down the stairs said in the dreamy, disconnected voice of the troubled, "You must not be from New York, because New Yorkers never take the stairs." None of this bothered me too much – I live in Portland, after all, which a few years ago was one of the three biggest heroin cities in the country, along with much larger Seattle and New York – but "down-at-heel" rather understates the upkeep of the hotel. Let's use "rundown" instead.
Most memorable, though, was the afternoon I heard scratching inside the wall, a sound I am too familiar with from once having had a family of rats in my ceiling in Santa Barbara. (Rats love Santa Barbara more than tourists do, because all those avocado trees provide them with an unlimited supply of greasy snacks.) That inside-the-wall sound had as much to do with me curtailing my nap and going out sightseeing again that afternoon as did a strong desire to look around. Again that night, as I was bedding down, I heard the sound. So, do I put in earplugs and ignore it? No, that only provoked my lurid imagination. Instead, I left the lights and the TV on, which, while having the desired effect of letting the rat know that someone was home, didn't exactly make for a comfortable night of sleep. At some point, probably around 3 a.m., I woke up in a daze, unable to sleep but too tired to do anything but stare at the Girls Gone Wild imitator ad that was looping on that channel, the same girl next door coeds lifting their shirts to reveal black censorship squares, over and over again. My exhaustion made it all about as arousing as a prescription drug ad, but they must have known their usual audience: insomniac, restless, lonely men. At the time I was too bleary to be reminded of anything, but now I'm reminded of something I recently read, I believe a quote from Susan Sontag, to the effect that all restlessness is at its core sexual restlessness. I wonder if the rat would have agreed?
Okay, so rats in New York City aren't an unknown phenomenon, and I've certainly heard rats at other hotels, like that wooden fire trap they call a "lodge" in Yosemite, but between that faint but evocative scratching and the failed quasi-bohemians for whom the Chelsea is a permanent purgatory, my experience of the place didn't exactly make me feel like I was communing with Twain, Smith, Dylan, or Burroughs.
Well, maybe Burroughs, but then I never was a fan of his.
William Johns lives and works in Portland, Oregon.