Welcome to the _OTEL CHELSEA

On its current web site the Chelsea Hotel in NYC bills itself as "a rest stop for rare individuals." I came to live there in the Fall 1979, feeling rather "rare" myself.

At the time the Chelsea was just a place for me to get into without all the usual apartment hunting hassles. My marriage had ended and soon later my career in advertising would evaporate. Let's just say that the handwriting on the wall said that it was time to look into the perennial questions. I was (and certainly felt) quite literally down and out at the Chelsea Hotel.

I arrived there with my godson Christopher firmly in tow. He was then an aimless youth and had been living with me before my marriage breakup. When I left cannubial bliss, naturally he was sent packing with me. He's a good man, now married with children with his own advertising agency. Let's hope his creative sense has improved, however. One day I left him in charge of painting the kitchen alcove in our cozy 4th floor apartment. Left the choice of color to him (artistic sensibilities, and all). Well, when I came home in the evening from work, there it was — the fiercest and brightest orange in the world. Just to walk past, it was like being instantly transported to Amsterdam. Quite a head trip, literally. It certainly was in the punk spirit of the Chelsea; but, maybe only for a young punk like Christopher. For me, no way. I immediately had him repaint to a nice, neutral shade of light green. (That was pre-Martha Stewart mind you. But, she would be happy to know that others out there share [some of] her taste.)

As you probably know the Chelsea has a reputation as the stomping grounds of many of the famous in the arts. When I resided there I was vaguely aware of that fact, but looking from the inside out at the time it was just a crummy hotel to me. The "H" on the neon sign outside was not working during my year there, hence the title of my story.

The lobby was a high traffic area, ten or so steps from the outside glass doors to the front desk. The manager, Mr. Stanley Bard, in special cases accepted original art in lieu of rent. The lobby hosted an eclectic jumble of a collection. This shows the lobby circa 1972, but much like I recall it looked when I lived there.

One day I was hanging out watching the parade of people in the lobby seated on one of the benches that faced the front doors. In came a certain other resident of the hotel. I never got his name and my interactions with him were, how you say, weird. This is him in a photo from that time.

The photo was taken by another resident, Claudio Edinger, who took many resident's pictures on his way to creating his 1981 book Chelsea Hotel. He photographed me also; but, alas, fame eluded me. (Claudio, if you still have the negative — that's me wearing the varsity "D" letter jacket — I would love a print.)

So here I am sitting in the lobby and this drama unfolds. The strange fellow I just referred to (who had the look and aggressive bearing of one of the Blue Meanies from Yellow Submarine. He wore thick black eyeglasses repaired with the requisite white tape.) stops in the middle of the lobby just in front and to the left of me and begins to purposely insult and taunt the desk manager. After some back and forth from a distance the manager comes racing out from behind his glass partition at the front desk and gets eye to eye with our belligerent friend. They were on the exquisite cusp of something very ugly and potentially very violent. I have no idea what it was about except that they seemed to have some nasty history between them. Just in the nick of time someone else from the front desk gets in the middle and pulls the irate manager back to his station. The other guy slithers away, seemingly pleased at being able to plug the other guy into such a rage. I remember being rather relieved that nothing further occurred. Or did it?

I need at this time to say that in the short nearly a year that I stayed at the Chelsea, I came to regard it as my home. It is a fond part of me and I feel (even if there's no plaque on the front entrance with my name on it) I am a part of it. That "Red Bitch" on 23rd Street, as I sometimes called the Chelsea Hotel, had an unique essence of its own. A soul. It was alive. Certainly haunted. I'm sure that anyone who has spent some time there would agree.

Anyway, continuing with the tale, the next morning following the incident when I came down to the lobby something amazing greeted me. There on the very spot where the two fellows were doing verbal battle with one another was an oval tin waste basket. It was black with a big red rose painted on the side. Someone put it there to collect water(?) dripping down from the ceiling just above. The very spot.

True story.

When in NYC, after doing the #1 must-do attraction (walking across the Brooklyn Bridge from the Brooklyn side) stop in at the Chelsea Hotel (better yet, stay there). Take the elevator to the top floor and walk down its beautiful 12 flights of stairs.

Apparently, I am not the only one who was enchanted with that staircase:

After descending the staircase to the ground floor, immediately turn left into the El Quijote restaurant, sit in a booth, and order Cod Fish in Green Sauce. That's the complete Chelsea experience.

PS... Also remembering my time at the Chelsea there was an old musician by the name of Tex. He played slide guitar on the street with his partner who played jazz guitar. Tex wore a beat up old cowboy hat; his partner, a fedora (in a way that suggested he wore it 24/7). Story is that Tex for some undisclosed reason was blacklisted from the music industry. Bad karma, dog. Tex and I used to BS in front of the hotel, smoking cigarettes, sharing our world weariness together. Last time I saw him was over drinks at El Quijote when I paid a visit to the old digs some time later. I spotted him there and sidled up at the bar for a Dos Equis.

I asked him what was up? "Back from the dead," he said. He looked real enough to me; but that may have in fact been his ghost, who knows. And, oh yes, he was wearing the cowboy hat*** that I gave him, only now nicely broken in; a look even better than that old poser, Ralph Lauren, could achieve.

*** The hat was given to me as a parting gift from the advertising business by clients from an Idaho based company. I got the hat (never felt like it was my kind of thing) and a great send-off-from-MadAv luncheon at a swell place called the Brussels. Lobster ravioli with shaved white truffel garnish.

When I lived in my 4th floor apartment one of my neighbors was Stella Waitzkin. She, as I have come to learn, was one of the artists in residence. I visited her apartment and it was full of shelves of books, all made of resin. An environmental (of) art. She was very kind. At the time she was a nice neighbor. Take a look at her work.

Ms. Waitzkin has cited as saying, "Words are lies". It seems as if her resin sealed books were in some sense to ensure that those lies wouldn't get told. 

Them's were the days. The hotel in itself is great. Then, there's those that lived there.  

PPS...[Can't stay away] Even later, I had a most unique visit back to the Red Lady. Happened that I drove some swamis and musicians to the hotel for an evening meditation intro at the apartment of the SUPER STAR, Viva. It turns out her daughter and mine were schoolmates at Laguardia High School, NYC. That didn't come up. What did...the notorious lady and I had a brief moment alone together in the kitchen, and — hey! — she was checking me out. Still pretty hot, after all that time.

Viva! Chelsea Hotel!

PPSS... And, oh yes...I left the hotel owing some rent (evidently, a select but large club). As collateral I left Stanley Bard a piece of jewelry, a silver pendant (abstract, articulated human face) I bought in SoHo from a designer/owner store on West Broadway; also, a dirty old Iranian tribal rug (from a SoHO antique shop), and my Nikon FTN and lenses in a custom case.

I can't quite place the time of publication, but Smithsonian Magazine did a piece on the Chelsea Hotel in the mid-1980s; in a photograph of Stanley sitting at his desk behind him there's an open cabinet with — Holy Cow! — my camera case. When I finally came back to pay my bill Mr. Bard didn't even remember the debt. But I paid it. You don't want to leave anything behind at the Chelsea. And retrieved the camera set. No idea where the pendant and the rug had gone to, however. (If anyone has those two items, please give them back. They are paid for, free and clear. You don't want me haunting you, do you?) 

There was film still in the camera and I finished the role that day. First picture, looking south at the Flatiron Building with an outdoor sculpture by Rhonda Roland Shearer in the foreground. I didn't know her well at the the Chelsea Hotel; but, I did know her well at Johnny Jupiter (another one of my stops along the way). More on that in a later post.

Just to say that at one time after seeing Rhonda's exhibit at the Wildenstein Gallery in 1989 my comment on her work of that period was that it looked like "garden ornaments." Offputting, no doubt. She didn't want an unvanished opinion from me, evidently. But, lo and behold, there is that thing right there on the island at the intersections of 23rd, Broadway, and 5th. Outdoors. Ornamental. And, isn't NYC a garden, really?

Maybe I know a thing or so about art after all! Start preparing a plaque for outside the entrance.

PPPSSS...  Also remembering one Neon Leon, a fellow resident at the Chelsea. He is alive and well as you can see:

PPPPSSSS... Once there was something very special that happened one day in connection with being a resident of the Chelsea Hotel. I found out that there was a memorial service for an illustrious resident of the hotel in the Village, just near Washigton Square Park. Mr. George Kleinsinger had passed away after spending the last 25 years of his life in residence at the Chelsea. We were contemporaries only; I often saw him passing through with his entourage, self contained as if in some rare creative other world. At the memorial service I noticed this handsome, dignified older man and had an instant recognition.

When I was a young boy there was a television show called Mr. I-Magination. The eponymous host would arrive sitting on a small scale train wearing a striped engineer cap and matching overalls. He would sing sweet songs and talk to a magic (talking) mirror. I was entranced. I only saw the show a few times, then it disappeared. I pined for its loss. So here I am and I walk up to this gentleman, introduce myself, and say... "You're Mr. I-Magination, aren't you?" Indeed, so! Paul Tripp was an associate of Mr. Kleinsinger and was there to pay his respects.

Just such a lovely blast from the given-up past! Thank you, Madame Chelsea.

Posted by Hello


Kristie said...

Your #2 here . . .

I liked your story and it gives me some insight into what your life was like at that time. Of course, I don't have any recollection that you stayed there.

On a side note, I wore that varsity letter "D" jacket all throughout Jr. High and High School. I wore it to shreds, actually. There wasn't much left of it when I was done. And, unfortunately, no famous photographers took my picture while I wore it.


Kate said...

Great to get a glimpse of your time there! I remember visiting you there only once. It seemed run down and the most striking detail I can recall about your room was the very high ceilings and maybe coved plaster molding with decorative scroll details. Am I right? And was the desk clerk behind some pretty thick bullet proof glass?

Anyway I actually wrote to Claudio Edinger a few years back to see if I could surprise you with a gift of your photo, but I heard nothing back. It would be great to see that. When Kristie says there was nothing left of that old jacket when she was done, she is not kidding! A real pile of rags.

I liked to think that D was for David.