Too long on the road, we drove right across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. We’d expected it would be more obvious. "We’re looking for New York," I told the man at the convenience store, and then followed his directions back over the bridge and down the Hudson Parkway to our guaranteed reserved hotel rooms at 44th Street and 5th Avenue.
Something about Hotel Mansfield made me remember the Alamo. Not the one in San Antonio, but the one that used to be in Austin. The one that the last time I saw it was a gaping hole on the corner of 6th and Guadalupe. Something about the way the people in the lobby seemed to have grown there — like the furniture and the flocked wallpaper. Even though there wasn’t a bar, I found myself listening to hear Catfish (I ain’t got no sweet potato!) playing the blues, or Bill Neely keeping Texas swing alive and well around the corner in the Alamo Lounge. What I heard instead was the desk clerk apologizing about the other people who were still occupying our guaranteed reserved hotel rooms. Then he made us an offer we could only refuse.
"What we can do is let you pay here for tonight and we’ll send you to another hotel on 92nd Street near Hudson Parkway."
"Is that hotel comparable to this one?" Emily wanted to know. "Will you give us a letter guaranteeing round trip cab fare to that hotel and back here?" We’d already driven all we cared to in New York. They didn’t seem to know about Drive Friendly here. Zero to 60 in half a second. Yes to both questions, with a qualification that he thought the hotel was comparable. He’d never actually seen it. We decided to take our chances on our own.
Emily and I were joking with the desk clerk at the Carter Hotel as we took care of the paperwork, when suddenly the clerk’s voice changed to a firm no-argument tone:
"No, we have no rooms. We’re booked up. It’s impossible to get a room unless you have a reservation." This information was directed at a stunning black woman wearing a BMW t-shirt and tighter Jordaches.
"I’m from out of town, and can’t find a room anywhere," she begged. "My husband is waiting in the car with our luggage."
She started out, then stormed back. "Look," she shouted, "I can show you identification if that’s what you want! I swear I’m from out of town!"
"No room without a reservation." The clerk was adamant.
"Can’t get a room anywhere in this fuckin’ town!" She stomped out.
Amazing how he had her pegged right away and so sure of himself! Emily and I had asked for a room under the same circumstances — no reservation, husband and luggage waiting in the car, and no problem. Maybe questionable clients don’t work in pairs. Or look like mother and daughter. Or wear oversize t-shirts and baggy pants. Or look as tired as we did.
Our room secured, we ventured back out onto the street (clutching each other’s hands) to where we’d left Carl in the car. What we found was a large truck. The street was controlled by a burly type whose job it was to be sure the semis were able to to maneuver into the New York Times loading dock. After he’d had Carl move the car three times and invited him to get out of it twice, Carl decided the best course might be to drive around the block until we showed up.
Waiting for the elevator to our 11th floor room with three oversized, overweight bags, we tried not to hear the outraged complaints of the man who claimed he’d just had to walk down from the 15th floor because the elevators weren’t working. The elevator appeared to be working at the lobby level at least, so we followed the porter to room 1103. We had to follow the porter because he had the master key. ("No wonder this room hasn’t been rented," the desk clerk had said, "there’s no key for it!") The porter was to let us in and then have keys made.
"Who’s there?" called a voice from the inside of the door to room 1103.
"Is someone in there?" asked the porter "What are you doing here? Do you live here? What’s your name? Did you pay your rent today? Open the door and let me see your face."
Apparently it was an acceptable face that appeared in the crack permitted by the safety chain. The porter left us in the hall with our luggage while he went downstairs to find another room. We hoped. I was half expecting to be allowed to sleep on the couches in the lobby, and at that point would have been grateful for the opportunity. We did go to sleep in beds, however. With the Sunday Times competing with Saturday night live just below our window in room 625, we sagged into our beds, three-in-a-row, exhausted, and slept.
"Is this the Times Square they show on television on New Years Eve?" the male half of an out-of-town couple asked me. They seemed as bewildered as I was. The marquee said One Times Square, but nothing looked like the New York I’d seen on television, or in the movies, or in magazines, and certainly not the post cards in the hotel lobby.
"Hey lady," beckoned an enterprising elderly man as he held up a Kodak Instamatic. "This here’s a $300 camera. I’ll sell it to you for $10." I lowered my Konica with its 28-85 zoom lens from trying to frame the plywood facade of the Tourist-Information-Police building. "No thank you," I told him. "This one is really all I need."
What I needed was a camera that recorded odor. One that could capture the gummy stickiness that coats the skin as soon as you step outside. Emily told me later that 8:00 Sunday morning is not the best time to see New York. The Saturday night fallout hadn’t finished settling. Garbage covered the sidewalks and people still slept in their doorway shelters — all the leftovers of the night before. I don’t know where the sleepers go later in the day, but the sidewalks get swept and washed. The smell doesn’t go anywhere.
I remembered other Sunday mornings, walking out into the night-fresh air while most everyone was still asleep. A kind of a magical time, tiptoeing around the edges of people’s dreams to get the Sunday paper. This Manhattan Sunday morning had none of that. It felt like the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. As I picked a path around the block, scenes from 50s zombie movies kept flashing in my mind — Morning of the Living Dead.
As I was buying a $3 bunch of daisies for our hotel room, a man rushed into the store, asked for a pack of Salems, and handed the clerk a traveler’s check. Tried to. The clerk backed off and reshelved the Salems.
"It’s a traveler’s check, man! It’s good! Look, it’s signed and everything!"
The clerk didn’t buy it.
“Did you hear what he said to me?” a rosy-cheeked Midwestern looking girl asked her lookalike friend as they crossed 6th Avenue. “He said,‘What the fuck you lookin’ at, bitch?’”
I realized that I had walked four blocks without looking anyone square in the eye.
I had dreamed of finding the romance of beat New York, the New York of Kerouac and Ginsberg, so Emily and Carl humored me to the Bitter End by way of Washington Square. We found park benches still occupied by late sleepers. No romance. Just hung over, burned out, exhausted humanity. And we were too. Burned out, walked out, hot, hungry without appetite, clothing stuck to our skin. It was time to find the Lone Star Cafe, fabled refuge of expatriate Texans hungering for real Tex-Mex and Lone Star beer. Number 51 Fifth Avenue became our mecca, our oasis, our quest, our promised land. Did I dare hope for a Shiner Bock? I took a picture of Emily and Carl in front of the Lone Star Cafe. Then she took a picture of me. Twenty stories above the "closed" sign coils of barbed wire snaked around the rooftop protecting the lone tree that grew there.
I wanted to go home.
On the way back to the hotel I bowed to the thin man who stood at the end of our subway car playing the blues on a brass clarinet.
©1988 Nancy Grona Meredith