While the crowds in all the nightclubs punish the parquet,
And the bars are packed with couples calling for more,
I'm deserted and depressed In my regal-eagle nest,
Down in the depths on the ninetieth floor.

— lyric excerpt, "Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor)" by Cole Porter

Porter's song of loneliness and melancholy describes to a tee how I imagined I'd feel when I moved back to The Big Apple to seek an education, fortune, and fame (in that order). Surely, I too would while away my idle hours surrounded by fine antiques and plush appointments in a glamorous high-rise overlooking the concrete and steel canyons of the "city that never sleeps." And long for excitement. Oh, the drama of it all.

My first dwelling in Manhattan was with a roommate. The view was better than most; looking downtown at the Empire State Building from the 16th floor of a doorman building. It was a small apartment, however, and, roommates being roommates, he drove me to the brink, no, teetering on the very edge of the vast chasm known as insanity. I really shouldn't blame it all on him. I worked full-time during the day and took a nearly full course load in the evenings. Add to that the requisite partying that a young single man in the city is wont to engage in and it adds up to burning the candle at both ends. Regardless the reason, I decided I had to get out; so I began my search for an alternative dwelling place.

Plaza Suite

I'd walked down Broadway on the upper West side one day, and noticed many of the huge, older hotels displaying signs offering "weekly and monthly rates." Now, at that time, I had champagne tastes and a beer bottle pocket. The idea of living in a hotel (as did many of New York's rich and famous, including my then-favorite cabaret singer, Bobby Short) was extremely appealing to the grandiose side of my psyche. Imagine being able to tell people asking my address, "I keep a suite of rooms in the 'High-Faluting Hotel.'"

My budget at that time allowed a maximum of $350 a month for rent. My convoluted logic led me to assume that all non-chain hotels in New York accommodated people on monthly or weekly plans. The first place I tried, a stately place that had nonetheless seen better days, was near the Theater District. The archetypal New York doorman, dressed in a black suit and tie and white shirt (man, suit, tie and shirt had also seen better days) told me that a single room with bath would set me back $2,700 a month. He continued by informing me that I'd need to be at least 21 to rent from their venerable establishment, and provide proof of full-time employment (as college students were frowned upon by the management).

The Search Is On!

Wide-eyed, optimistic and not easily daunted (a condition I was affected with in my youth but have since lost) I figured that rents would drop sufficiently as I walked north on Broadway, out of the glitter of Times Square, past the opulence of Central Park South, and into the squalor of the lurid underbelly which was the upper West Side at that time. Sure enough, the prices indeed went down. I was enlightened to find that on 72nd Street and Broadway, I found a single room (with shared bath, in the hallway (Heaven forbid; this was no spotless hostel in Germany) for $500 monthly. A quick mathematical analysis led me to believe that I'd reach my goal of $350 a month (and more spacious, private accommodations) by the time I got to 86th Street. As I plodded along, the neighborhood got rougher and rougher. The Hotel Commander on 86th Street west of Broadway cost $425 for a tiny room with a view of 86th street, a closet and a bathroom with a tub and shower. As I exited the building a man approached me looking like he was panhandling. As I broadened the space between he and I, rather than ask for spare chnage, he offered "the best herb" for sale by the joint or the "dime." (Note to self: when in need of buddage, visit the sidewalk outside of the Commander Hotel.)

"The Epitome of Luxury and Convenience Right On Manhattan's Famous Broadway"

It was at the majestic Hotel Narragansett that I found digs at the reasonable price of $325 monthly, paid in advance. No security deposit was necessary. Telephone calls were fifty cents apiece; long distance fifty cents and had to be made collect. I was ecstatic (after all, think of all the cheap beer the extra $25 a month would buy me). The prospect of actually having a place of my own to do with as I please caused me to be myopic to the following issues that would've caused a reasonable person to turn tails and run:

  • The front desk was enclosed in a 1" Lexan cage (like bank tellers in bad neighborhoods).

  • The man who took me upstairs to the room took me up in the freight elevator, mumbling something about the passenger elevator "smelling like piss*."

  • A cacophony of all sorts of music, punctuated with the yelps of couples fighting and unending screams of unhappy babies filled the air.

  • The door to the room was held together with many pieces of sheet-metal which had been screwed into various places, but still failed to hide the fact that the door had been busted down at least once but more than likely several times.

  • The refrigerator was vintage (but it's door-seal was rotten, and it was teeming with cockroaches).

*It did, more often than not.

By now I'm certain that I've convinced you that the only thing the Hotel Narragansett had in common with the charming Rhode Island seaside resort and fisherman's paradise of the same name was its name (and perhaps the odor, at times). Nonetheless, I gleefully handed over my check for $325 whereupon it was gleefully handed back to me by another gentleman, the cashier behind the Fort Knox-style front desk. He chuckled as he informed me that they only accept payment for rent in cash, and that I better keep my checks in a safe place because I was probably the only one in the building with a checking account.

A borrowed station wagon deposited me, a strong-backed friend and all my worldly belongings at the front door of the hotel. My friend was aghast when he discovered that I'd actually chosen to live in a hotel that, unknown to me, was inhabited entirely by junkies and welfare cheaters. A painted lady in the front hall offered some of the kindest words yet, "y'all better watch your stuff or it gonna disappear right quick" and she walked away. My friend was good enough to have the foresight to move the small items up first, lock them up in the room, and then go find the porter to get the freight elevator to move several larger items (including my huge old Magnavox console tv/stereo; one that I'd found in a junk shop but worked fine). The porter arrived up from the basement in the freight elevator, reeking of pot. Perhaps God decided that at that moment, a contact buzz was just what I needed. The porter extorted $5 from me for running the freight elevator, and another $5 for helping us with the Magnavox, which must have weighed at least 300 pounds if not more.

The following weekend was spent purchasing cleaning materials with which I scrubbed down the bathroom from stem to stern, disinfecting the refrigerator and shampooing the tattered excuse for carpeting. There were no maids, and when I asked if I could borrow a vacuum cleaner, the man behind the front desk rattled off the room numbers of the people who'd stolen the hotel's previous vacuum cleaners, and said that if I could manage to retrieve one, it would be mine to keep. I did not want to make a single extra step into the bowels of the Hotel Narragansett, nor did I want to associate with known vacuum thieves, so I ditched the idea of retrieving a vacuum and bought one of my own. (Say, do adult committers of vacuum larceny start out small when they're kids, with electric can openers and blenders?)

A Room With A View

My luxurious suite high above the rooftops of Manhattan was actually an eighth floor room with one window in the bathroom and one window in the main room, which at 12' x 19' was indeed rather spacious. The only problem was that the view was not of the sunset over the skyscrapers of Gotham. It was into the airshaft windows, that airshaft being shared by the building next door. One could, depending upon the time of day, view things like a wife-beating, a 70-year old morbidly obese woman dubbed Matilda by neighborhood denizens dancing around stark naked, and, through the stairwell windows, young Puerto Rican men tying off and injecting heroin, and younger Puerto Rican men masturbating.

When school was up for the summer, I had the opportunity to spend several weekends on Long Island. Upon returning home from one of these trips, I exited the urinator, er, elevator and my heart sank; my door was ajar. Inside my room, everything I'd acquired, cleaned and arranged so carefully was topsy-turvy. There wasn't much to steal; a tape deck, a small radio from my office, a calculator, and, peculiarly, a number of items of clothing were missing. The Magnavox console had been moved, but sat in the middle of the room, as if it had planted both of its feet in solidarity against the thieves. So at least I had stereo and television (and days worth of cleaning up).

I Might've Been Lonely, But I Was Not Alone

At thirteen weeks I received a neat surprise; a rebate of all of the New York City Hotel Tax; because I was now a permanent resident. Most people would go out and buy themselves a present with an unexpected windfall like that. I bought my "pets" presents: Boric acid and mousetraps. The place was infested. No big, fat rats, but every other living creature known to man. Thank God I slept soundly and couldn't hear the scurrying of little feet at night.

The occasion when I was awakened by sounds in the night was when a person; a person in a black leather jacket, came crashing through the window in the main room. I'd thought it was secure enough, it had that fine, octagonal-patterned wire running through it (although it was on a fire escape, allowing anyone who happened to be climbing up or down a clear view into the place. When the fellow discovered that I was indeed home that weekend, he was taken aback. When I recognized him as one of the residents of the building next door, and an employee of the supermarket down the street, and he likewise recognized me, there was a pregnant pause and in unison we said all we could say at the moment, "Oh, shit! It's you!"

He beseeched me not to say anything to anyone and that he'd leave me alone and that he was very, very sorry, which I though was nice 'cause initially I was ready with a big piece of two-by-four getting ready to fend off a knife. It turned out he was jonesing for a fix, and was far more scared of I than I of him. I saw him out the door quickly and locked it. The cold wind flew into the broken window. I remained up all night. What scared me more than anything is that not a single neighbor had thought to at least call the front desk, much less the police.

The Landlord: What, Me Worry?

I had to take a half day off from work to get in touch with the building manager and receive assurance that the window would be fixed and that bars would be installed. I was running late for my evening classes at college and came home to find that the window had been simply boarded up, and no bars were in place.

That was the last straw. I immediately moved my things into the home of a charitable friend and bade the stately Hotel Narragansett goodbye. The front-desk manager laughed when I asked for the remainder of my rent back, plus the replacement value of the calculator and what I'd paid for the other missing items. His tone changed from jocularity to fear when I brought my cousin Robert, then a sergeant in the New York City Police Department, back to collect. After a telephone call to someone who was his superior, I received $700! In cash, no less. Robert was a good guy to have around in a pinch.

Sadly, for me, I was back to scouring the Village Voice newspaper for advertisements for "roommates wanted." I ended up with a pretty cool living situation on the upper East Side, in fact, and things worked out well until I could afford a safe, comfortable place of my own.

I've not lived for an extended time in a hotel since. I fantasize, when traveling, what life must be like for the wealthy and privileged who actually live in the hotels I visit for short stays. Pristine suites filled with opulent appointments, with corner views of the city lights. The ability to order whatever wants to eat at the touch of a button on one's phone. Doormen greeting you by name. Heh, maybe all that fussiness would make me feel self-conscious.


Harvard Student Rebecca Hwa's Website (for Cole Porter song lyrics): http://people.deas.harvard.edu/users/students/Rebecca_Hwa/lyrics/porter.html (accessed 1/9/07)

The Hotel Narragansett in The New York Times: "Habitats/S.R.O.; New Deal For Old Hotel" by  Tracie Rozhon (10/1993) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9F0CE7DB1039F934A25753C1A965958260 (accessed 1/9/07)

Website of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel (now owned by Hilton): http://www.waldorfastoria.com ("FAQ" page accessed 1/9/07)

Submitted for More Than Walls

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