Yesterday as I walked by the Chelsea Hotel I thought of the hallways inside and felt sad. I had read something about the real estate developer who bought the place and how he had decided to renovate it. And thinking about that depressed me.
I thought of visiting Ira Cohen there last summer, when he was staying in a room with the window open onto the ‘Chelsea’ part of the big Chelsea Hotel sign. He was there for a couple of weeks while his apartment uptown was being fumigated for bed bugs. One day we sat together on the bed in his room and talked about Vali Myers, when she lived in Room 631, and some of the crazy antics that took place in her room. Ira said it was hard for him to believe that Vali was actually dead because she didn’t seem like the type to die. And neither, for that matter, did Herbert Huncke, who had also lived in the Chelsea.
When I said goodbye to Ira that afternoon, the halls of the Chelsea looked much the way they had when I walked through them on my way to Vali’s room in the early 1990s, but something was already lost. Passing by yesterday and imagining all the hallways renovated, I felt blue. Then Virgil Thomson’s name on one of the brass plaques out front caught my eye and I thought of Ned Rorem and his wonderful published diaries.
At the beginning of summer my friend Indra Tamang took me to visit Mr. Rorem at his apartment on West 70th Street near Central Park. It was just starting to get hot on the day we went, and I liked sitting in the comfortable and pleasantly worn living room we were invited into. The windows were open and the room was full of late afternoon sunlight. There was the grand piano stacked with sheet music, so black and full of presence like a person, the walls were hung with paintings by Mr. Rorem’s friends, which I took in all at once. “Joe Brainard painted that one,” he said, and looking at the painting made me happy. I thought of the little books Joe Brainard used to make, his I Remember books, full of sentence upon sentence beginning with the words, ‘I remember.’ Reading them always transported me to places I thought were forgotten.
Ned’s niece Mary served cake and ginger ale while he and Indra talked about Charles Henri Ford and some of the people they knew in common. Ned said that he didn’t think he ever met Djuna Barnes in person, even though so much overlapped for both of them. He said that he and all of his friends had read Nightwood as teenagers and been impressed by it, and that he had been part of a whole gang of Djuna Barnes fans. Indra mentioned Leonora Carrington’s recent death and said that Dorothea Tanning is still around, though by now she must be ancient. “What about Harold Norse?” Ned asked, and Indra said, “He’s dead too.” Then Ned said, “I wish people would stop dying. I don’t understand why people die. I mean, why are we born if we have to die?” And Indra said, “Exactly. That’s what I was always thinking when I was growing up.”
Ned asked me where I live and I told him that I live around the corner from the Chelsea Hotel. He said that once he worked for Virgil Thomson in the Chelsea, earning $20 a week plus orchestration lessons. “I was Virgil’s copyist,” he said, “which means that I copied his music, at his place, while he was in the bedroom dictating his articles over the telephone. He was the best writer on music who ever lived, as well as being a composer of quality, so I learned an awful lot about music.”
At the time, Ned lived in a room on West 12th Street above the Beatrice Inn, for which he paid $25 a month. “I had a pretty good room with a bed,—and a hot plate, it seems to me—a bathroom of my own and windows that looked out on the street,” he said. "My room was directly above the Beatrice Inn. I wonder who lives there now, in the room that I had. Prices are very different today. Now it would probably cost a thousand dollars.”
“Or more,” said Indra.
Back then, Ned told us, the village felt much more like “The Village” that we still imagine. In 1948, 8th Street was where people did a lot of their shopping, there were bars full of painters who didn’t know what to do with themselves after the sun went down, and everything was cheap. He said that he ate his lunch at the Waverly Inn almost every day because it was just so convenient and cheap. The San Remo bar on Bleecker Street was where all kinds of people with brains would sit and talk all night, and I thought of the nights there recorded in Judith Malina’s published diaries. The Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street was where a lot of gay people went, and everything was close to Washington Square.
Ned said that sometimes he would go to Eddie Condon’s club on West 3rd Street to hear jazz. He worshiped Billie Holiday and saw her in person a few times. He said he remembered getting completely drunk with friends and going to see Billie sing someplace, and that when she saw them come in, she said something like, “Oh, boy, here they come.”
As I walked home yesterday, I pictured Vali the way she looked in her room, reclining on her pillows with the pretty dog Sheba lying beside her, and Ira appearing in her doorway like a glittering wizard with his beard and his cape and his rings. My sadness lifted a little with that picture, and I thought: “I remember The Chelsea Hotel.” Sometimes writing things down can make everything a little more bearable.
18 August 2011
The first issue of my new little magazine Housedeer is almost ready.