I used to live in a place called the Hotel Lucerne on W. Broadway and 79th Street in New York City. That was in 1967.
They have cleaned up The Big Apple since then, or so they tell me. Legions of police keep order and corporate robots occupy organic food cafes. TImes Square, which used to be infested with woebegone, drug-hooked, or just plain bad people, is now a Tourist Mecca. Everybody is eating sushi and doing yoga. Well, times change. But rumour has it that NYC has "lost its character." That's hard to define, but I get the meaning.
The human mind has many galleries, and most of them gather dust as you age. But sometimes, as on a twilight street, you go back and polish the faded pictures. So I started thinking about those old New York days recently, and right away the Hotel Lucerne popped into my brain.
I had come to New York with a high school friend of mine from Minnesota. No reason really, except that these were the '60s -- the Days of Dylan, so to speak -- and Greenwich Village was a 'happening' place. I wanted to be part of the scene. Why we chose the Hotel Lucerne as our headquarters I have long since forgotten, but I guess everyone always ends up somewhere. Probably because it was cheap by New York standards, or maybe Mike and I simply happened to be wandering around in that direction and tripped over a drunk crashed out on the street near the entrance. It sure as hell wasn't on any travel brochure because, frankly, it was a bit of a dump.
Not that it was empty. F--k no, it was as crowded as the subway (metro), day and night. I suppose the Hotel Lucerne could best be described as a 'transient' hotel, by which I mean an establishment where people (sometimes whole families) came and went very often. At 3AM, the elevator was likely to be packed. It was one of those places -- its lobby was big and draughty yet vaguely smelling of human sweat, and anchored with a jaded carpet that seemed centuries old -- where even in the middle of the afternoon it always seemed like the middle of the night. Full of immigrant-looking people with stony faces who invariably appeared tired but somehow in a hurry. Like they had just come off the boat. As I hailed from West Virginia, which was full of hillbillies (toothless Appalachian goofballs whose toddlers ran around with shit hanging out of their diapers), so all these hawklike Slavs and Spaniards seemed pretty exotic to me, especially the slouching mahogany-colored women. You would not exactly have said they were beautiful -- not if by 'beautiful' you mean the girls on the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine --, but to me they seemed distantly seductive and in some cases hardcore erotic.Without trying in the least to be. Like cold dark cabinets of flesh, but with burning ovens under their dresses. Or so I dreamed in my HeeHaw West Virginia way.
Anyhow, Mike and I moved in, and then we both got jobs at the New York Public Library. That's where our paths began to diverge. Mike was assigned to the branch at Lincoln Center -- where there was a lot of culture, such as art and ballet -- and I was sent to the division on Lenox Avenue and 132nd Street. It was in the middle of Harlem, which In those days was the biggest ghetto for Black people in NYC. I wanted it. This was the Civil Rights era, and I had a bad case of Jungle Fever. I entertained a naive but very romantic view of the Black lifestyle and I had the hots for Black Women. To me, going to Harlem to work made a lot of sense.
Always the activist in romantic pursuits, I soon found myself frequenting a juke dive called the Bluepoint Cafe up on 96th Street. It was full of Negroes (which you could say back then), and, as a matter of fact, I was usually the only spot of milk in the joint. Not surprising therefore that one fine evening, I was approached at the bar by a winsome colored lady (it was also still OK to say 'colored') wearing a 'processed' (smooth-haired) wig who introduced herself as 'Rita' and sweetly informed me that, for a small fee, she could enrich my night by leaps and bounds. It was an offer I couldn't refuse. We went somewhere, and I still remember, telling her -- upon finding out the that the "small fee: was not so small after all -- that "I think they would charge less in West Virginia!", and her saying (sweetly), "Honey, this ain't West Virginia."
Everything went well. In fact it went so goddamned well that one night in the witching hours(about 4AM) she turned up at the Hotel Lucerne looking for me. (I had told her where I stayed and what room. Didn't think it mattered.) I guess I must have been flattered because I gave her the royal welcome. Mike wasn't so happy. He got over it that time, maybe even grudgingly considered it cool that an 18-year-old out-of-towner like me could pull an obvious hooker in off the street. I never told him I had paid for it, and, anyway, this time there was no small fee at all; she was just down on her luck and looking for a place to stay. After that she would come and go. At all hours. Mike was less and less amused, and finally he just got mad and moved the f--k out. Arrevederci Mike.
I soon discovered that Rita was basically a Lesbian and that she had a drug habit. Even then, at that tender age, I somehow wasn't the least bit shocked. Heaven knows where I got this strange side of my character from, but -- although in this life I have been invited to some pretty ritzy places now and then -- always there has lurked in me a peculiar love of the slums, a submission to the allure of darkening people and bleak places. Rita was a 'nighthawk', no more, no less. I unblinkingly accepted it. I loved the sugar that was rotting in her breath.. As I said, she came and went. No telling when or where.
Meanwhile at the Countee Cullen Library I often spent time down in the basement pasting jackets to hold the 'borrowing' cards in the backs of books. Remember, it was a long time ago. All this digital stuff was a long way off. One day I saw a volume called "Lady Sings the Blues", and it was a ghost-written autobiography of Billie Holiday, the great blues singer from an earlier era. The story of her life, unfolding as it did in her own (fictitious) voice and catty, jivey way of talking, completely mesmerized me. Then, having digested the sad, rocky tale (she was dead by then -- of drugs and alcohol), I decided that I needed to hear what she sounded like. So I combed the record shops along Broadway until I found a Billie Holiday album. I bought it and took it home. But I had no record player. I bought one. Cheap as I could find.
But let me tell you something about the room at the hotel. It was strictly old world, like something from the 1920s. There was no view from the window except of the facade of the building opposite, Below (I was up on a high floor) was an alley. Sometimes people in the rooms above me would throw stuff out the window and I could watch it come sailing down. Every now and then someone would even piss out the window and I could watch that too, tumbling in a nice sharp stream. There was a metal hot plate for cooking, and that was all. No fridge and no TV.
Rita used to bring women with her once in a while, usually in a f----- up state. I remember one big fat one who was so far gone she could hardly move. How Rita ever even got her into the elevator I'll never know. So gradually I started to get tired of Rita. One night she left, promising to come back, and never returned. Arrevederci Rita.
Thanksgiving was near and I was damn near broke. So I asked one of the colored girls who worked the corner in front of the Chock-Full-o-Nuts coffee shop on the edge of Broadway what I could buy cheap that would fill me up. She evidently came from the South because she immediately suggested 'grits' -- a cornmeal type of Каша that they like with breakfast down in Alabama and Georgia, etc. So I went hunting for grits. Turns out anything you want is available in New Yawk City ! Came Thanksgiving night and I went back to the Hotel Lucerne to celebrate with my grits and a big jug of wine. This festivities were going to be marked by the first grand performance of Billie Holiday because I had just bought the record player with the last of my paycheck.
It was freezing cold out on those windy late November streets, and I was shivering when I got back. But then -- as now sometimes -- the alcohol solved the problem. I was feeling good and a little nostalgic (it comes with the wind and the rain, you know). I figured I would munch down some of those grits and listen to the music. Trouble was I had never cooked grits before and so I didn't have any idea how much to dump into the saucepan. Turned out I put in half the bag and that was almost half a bag too much. The water was boiling as I slurped the wine and stirred my Thanksgiving dinner. And then, too my horror, the shit started foaming up and billowing out over the sides of the pot and spilling all over the goddamned floor. It was the god-awfullest mass of albino bowel-movement you ever saw. And it tasted like washing powder. The hell with dinner.
I took another gulp of 'juice' and sat down to put on the music. I guess I was half-crocked by then, and sure enough, just as I looked up, here came the jet of piss streaking past my window-pane. Right on time. Rather sad. Then, from her grave, came the voice of Billie Holiday, and I have never forgotten that moment. A new portrait for the soul's gallery. Listen, if you will
Don't know if it was me crying or the wine afterwards. I sure was missing Rita about then. But it was cold outside, and, anyway, New York is too big to go looking for someone. And forever is a long time to be gone.
===Eric Richard Le Roy===