Zany or Zen: Me and the Chelsea
By Cynthia Adams
It was my father’s idea to book me into the Hotel Chelsea. Yes, that Chelsea — Manhattan’s confounding hotel.
I was 15, en route to meet fellow high schoolers and our chaperones, young art teachers, for studies abroad. This trip, plan B, arose when my mother nixed my being in Ecuador as an exchange student.
“I won’t have it,” Mama insisted. “Something terrible will happen.”
My travel-happy Dad, heavily influenced by a strong dollar and the hope that I would score him a bargain Rolex while we were in Lucerne, suggested Europe.
You may be thinking, the Chelsea! How very cool. But, no.
The seedy Chelsea was cheap. And so was my dad. Once, on a family trip to Nova Scotia, Dad tried to negotiate with an innkeeper on rates by offering his daughters’ help with housekeeping. Travel on the cheap with a large family reminded me of humorist David Sedaris’ accounts of his father, Lou Sedaris. My Dad, Warren, seemed to be Lou’s brother from another mother.
Rufus Wainwright wrote music at the Chelsea, even naming songs after it, telling Vanity Fair “there was no better address to have in terms of communicating decadent, sad ’20s esprit.”
Dad didn’t know the Chelsea had domiciled the likes of O. Henry, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe (who wrote You Can’t Go Home Again there), Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg plus Arthurs Clarke and Miller. No, he knew none of that. Nor that it was infamous for murders, suicides and misadventure — before Sid Vicious lived down to his moniker, killing Nancy Spungen.
The mood setter for my Chelsea experience was the taxi ride into the city. A grubby driver with two-day stubble on his double chin grinned as I gave the address: “222 West 23rd Street.”
“First time in New York?” he asked. “Southern gal,” he burped out, leering in the rearview mirror, careening wildly. Was he drunk?
The oppressive taxi stank of body odor.
“Welllll…” he drawled, like Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear. “Whar in Dixie? I’m Southern, too.”
I didn’t want to answer, but, well, Southern manners required it — so I mumbled, “Near Charlotte.” He followed up with, “Ever heard of a rapist, little girl?”
His gray teeth showed as he grinned. “I got charged with rape down in South Kerlina and left.”
Left? As in escaped? And I was in the rapist’s car.
Staring out the window, determinedly silent, I reviewed my helplessness. What to do? To my infinite relief, he pulled up at the Chelsea, chuckling.
I paid and fled with my bags into the then-seedy hotel, faced with a new dilemma. The Chelsea looked like what my elders called “a flophouse.”
Having escaped abduction or worse, I planned to hunker down in a dodgy room till morning. Before, gulp, taking another taxi ride to JFK.
I was famished, but not hungry enough to venture next door to El Quijote, which has since been restored, by the way.
Just as well, it happens. Lola Schnabel, daughter of artist Julian, told Vanity Fair about a finding a human tooth lodged in a croquette while living at the Chelsea.
At sunrise, jumping out of bed, I tugged opened the curtains.
Mere yards away, a slender man on the rooftop was performing a sun salutation. In the nude.
I dragged the tatty curtains closed. As quickly as I could dress, I asked the Chelsea desk clerk for help with a taxi, one driven by a non-rapist. He kindly obliged.
Weeks later in Lucerne, a Rolex saleswoman pulled trays of watches for my (uninformed) inspection, but my budget was $300. She gently suggested Bucherer instead and gave me a tiny Rolex spoon. Dad wore the Bucherer for decades, as if it was the watch he coveted. I kept the spoon.
(Years later, I gasped when actor Keanu Reeves sported a Bucherer.)
I never mentioned the taxi driver, the pre-renovation Chelsea, nor the birthday-suit sun salutation to Dad — who died long before Reeves proved the Swiss saleswoman, bless her heart, had been right all along. OH
Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.