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 . . .