Posts Tagged ‘Hotel 17’

Stuyvesant Diner

The Hotel 17, on 17th and 3rd, is the first place I lived as opposed to just stayed, in New York . . .

The room cost $150 a week and was just wide enough for a cot bed, a dresser and a sink. The Arab looking guy who ran the place would glare at you from the pexi-glass shielded check in desk every time you came in and especially when you paid for the week, as if he took your presence in the hotel as a personal affront.

In the daytime, the old-timers hung out on the stoop next door. They must have been a holdover from a time when the Hotel 17 and all hotels like it were basically lodging houses. Sometimes they’d clutch beer bottles in brown paper bags (in those pre-Guiliani days, you could still do this without fear of being arrested). In nice weather, they hung around every day, all day.

What must have been good-sized rooms at one time had been divided with cardboard-thin walls, so if you were unlucky enough to have a noisy neighbor on the wrong side, you had to endure them talking, or their TV turned up, or whatever. On the weekends, people came in from the outlying areas and drank and screamed and fought in the hallways. Each hall had a single rotary telephone next to the toilet stall and one night some metalhead chick with the appropriate bouffant hair spent an hour on that hall telephone screaming at her boyfriend. But if you had the right room, it could be surprisingly quiet, and you could put your milk and sandwich meat out on the ledge to keep it cold. 3rd Ave wasn’t all gussied up then. At the Gramercy Diner on the corner, you could have a cheap breakfast or dinner, and get to know all the people from the neighborhood who hung out in the evenings. Just up from 17th was a Jazz bar, and every time you walked by a hologram of Dizzy Gillespie would follow you, the horn raised to Dizzy’s lips and his cheeks puffing out . . .

I met a guy later that spring who’d lived in the hotel back in the 80’s. He said they had big parties on the roof and trannies hung out in the halls and everyone was on blow. He claimed the Arab-looking guy had pulled a gun on him once. But I never saw anything like that and even the guy at the front desk became more genial when I’d been there a little while. Maybe he saw the leather jacket I wore then and figured I’d be trouble . . .

But I didn’t want any trouble at all. The room was a place to crash, to write in a notebook in the evenings. I got a job just up the street. Even if it was just a llabouring job on a construction site, it was one of those sites which were about to disappear when the last recession really hit, where the money was practically being thrown out the window. I was making a fortune and just out the gilt-framed windows of the penthouse suite we were renovating, I could see the golden dome of the Mutual Life building, the spire of the Empire State. Trust New York City to make a labouring job seem like the American Dream.

In the morning when it got warm enough, I’d sit in Stuyvesant park and have coffee. The homeless still slept in every second or third doorway on 3rd Ave and on maybe a quarter of the park benches and in the morning a few would just be waking up, hacking into the morning cold. The homeless were a part of New York I didn’t understand, so ragged and isolated, in greater numbers than in London or Canada or anywhere else I’d been. The kids from nearby Stuyvesant High School would be out, smoking cigarettes, sharp big city kids carrying novels, smoking cigarettes, clustering in ever-changing groups like kids anywhere and I used to wonder how their world intersected with that of the homeless sleeping on the benches, what one thought of the other.

I went back recently. A young Arab-looking guy was at an open front desk. He was easygoing, friendly. A room cost $80 a night. I don’t know if they’d made them any bigger. The jazz bar is some sort of absurdly upscale yoga studio but the Gramercy Diner is still there, though it costs a lot more and I doubt it has the same clientele. The old guys hanging around outside are long, long gone . . .

Hotel 17

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                              Photo by garretc (flickr)

Worked in Manhattan this morning. Came in on the G to Williambsurg then transferred to the L to the City. The L train packed, even at 7 am, with long queues for the escalators. Just like London. The L creaked along in the tunnel, even with the seven minute gap between trains. 

You get on the G train and it’s all working class Brooklyn faces, of a kind you rarely see in London anymore (I forget when I’m away, about New York’s basic working class character. The iron bridges, the brick housing projects, the tenement buildings with the iron fire escapes, the brutal crashing of the subway cars into the stations with the iron pillars, the unadorned concrete surfaces). Black, Hispanic, white. Polish or Russian, heavy Slavic consonants just audible below the roar of th etrain. Big black guys with tattoos and hard Brooklyn faces. I see them and wonder how working class people hang on in places like Bed-stuy or anywhere near Williamsburg, since the rents have gone up so much. 

   Nowhere to have coffee around Stuyvesant Square – the cafes and the single Starbucks are full up (in London you’d have like five Starbucks in the three block radius around Stuyvesant Square – London has more Starbucks per capita than anywhere else in the world – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, given how awful British coffee was a few years ago). So I sat on a bench in the Square, a block away from the Hotel 17 where I lived in a narrow room (bed, dresser, sink) for a couple of months when I first came to this city – 17 years ago. Warmed by the morning sun, drinking bad deli coffee with too much cream. A pack of kids had been in the deli, swarming around the counter. A few black, some Asian, mostly white. Happy-looking kids, saying sorry for standing in the doorway when people were trying to get in and out – a lot healthier and happier than equivalent kids in London who tend to be spotty and ill-behaved. 

   On mornings like this, it’s hard not to love New York. Stepping out of the cauldron of the 1st Ave Subwa into the bright Manhattan morning, the great metal spire of the Empire State rising up behind the golden dome sparkling in the morning sun. The Chrysler building, the other hi-rises that become almost background until they jump out at you one bright morning, when the whole world seems to be out there in the Manhattan sunshine with the big trucks and yellow taxis hurtling down the potholed streets, the crowds jamming the sidewalks with everyone rushing to work. Not even the women with their pinched, surgery enhanced faces walking their dogs in the park – New York, whatever it’s glamour, has always had more than it’s share of unattractive people – can take away the feeling that this is a special place, hallowed ground of a sort. 


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