Good night, New York
I moved to New York at the end of August 1997. I could look up the date, but I know it was somewhere around the last week or so of the month. Roughly this time, in that year. I had visited the city two years earlier, as part of a school trip, and at that point had known for at least a year that the city would one day be my home. It was the place I belonged. After growing up in the greater Los Angeles area, I felt drawn to the East Coast. In my mind, it was all light vs dark, night vs day. I needed to go towards the dark, towards the night, towards the not-California.
Of course, that sense of New York as the great bohemian other was a bit of a fallacy. The idea that New York will make you great is even more of a fallacy. New York, like everywhere, I suppose, is what you make of it.
In 1997, I threw myself across the country to make a city my home. And for many years, it was. Year to year, it took different shapes, different boroughs. The couple years in Manhattan were followed by a dingy six months on Staten Island, and a number of years in Brooklyn. It was the city I lived in through most of my defining moments of early adulthood. It was the city I lived in through most of my deepest sorrows.
In 1997, though, it was already not the city I wanted it to be. It was not the New York of the Beat poets, Ginsberg having died a few years earlier. Neither was it the New York of the punks, the jazz age, or any number of dead or dying artistic movements. But it was the New York where you could go and sit where they sat, drink where they drank. It was the New York where, despite the efforts of Mayor Guiliani (the song at the end of this post has recently become one of my favourite representations of the sanitized era of New York), you could make your own movement.
That is, if you put the time in. And, of course, had a bit of funding.
As it was, it was the city I needed to be in. It was where I needed to be when I read Pynchon, Auster, and Delillo. It was where I needed to be when I drank my way across the spirits. It was the city that was so full of ghosts, you couldn’t help but stumble into a haunted corner. For me, most of those corners were to be found in and around the Chelsea.
Some beautiful twist of fate within NYU’s housing department had put me as suite-mates with somebody equally obsessed with carving something out of that past vision of New York. With Mary’s help, I found myself in the Chelsea, slashing up a shower curtain, stirring gin and cherry Kool-Aid with a clothes hanger. The Chelsea, less than 10 blocks up from our dorm, was our retreat. It was the New York we wanted to be a part of, whether it existed or not.
Years later, I would end up working across the street from it. On the fourth floor, I managed to somehow get my office to be a room at the front of the building. I got to sit there, trying to work but so often distracted by that other life. Each room was another life, a life I wanted to be. It was the life I wasn’t ever able to make for myself, but the one I could never let go of entirely.
Even more years later, after a move to England, I still lived with the Chelsea. For somewhere around six months, Adam painted a four foot by five foot canvas of the hotel. More precisely, it’s a canvas of inside the hotel, looking out onto (and down on) the rest of the world. Through the time, he had to hear all my stories. The stories of the Chelsea as oasis, the stories of West 23rd Street and all its characters. While the canvas hung in various houses, it was a continuation of that New York life I never quite managed to finish.
The Chelsea was part of my New York. All the monuments and plaques can tell a story, but they can never convey what that place is like. They can bring in the tourists, but they can’t tell you what it’s like to hear guitars playing next to police tape. They can give you dates, but they can’t remind you of the smell of the lobby or the feel of a breeze through the hallway windows.
All the news stories of the Chelsea’s closing can raise all sorts of frenzy and concern. But they can’t make the ghosts move. Nothing can ever make the ghosts move.