Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Chelsea Hotel Notes



It was sleeting and evening was falling on West 23rd Street when Laura and I stepped out on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel for a smoke. You can't smoke in New York anymore, but this is the Chelsea where poets die, a rocker killed his girlfriend, the walls are covered by paintings artists left instead of payment, and smoke is what connects the stories. We watched a lit window on the second floor across the street. Old people kept arriving into the frame, hanging up their coats and checking out their hair in an invisible mirror. A woman passed a comb quickly through a close-cropped silver top.

"What do you s'ppose is going on?" asked Laura.

"Communist party meeting," I said.

I don't know what made me say it, maybe the way the elders hung their coats, briskly, or the unaffected, efficient vanity.

"They look well dressed, maybe it's a meeting of the theosophical society ..." speculated Laura. "Rudolf Steiner people, maybe."

So I had to find out. I put on my coat and dove through traffic. I walked right in the front door, went up the stairs -- and found a loud meeting hall full of close-jammed tables. There was a huge buffet and full bar, and a guy in a Santa hat. A banner over a small stage said NO WAR FOR OIL. I walked up to a table covered with various items payable by "donation," things like buttons of raised fists and T-shirts, one of which depicted Che Guevara and another the Young Communist League logo "80 years of struggle," followed by a Web site address. Bingo. The Young Communist League was hosting a late Christmas dinner for old communists. The elders were having a mighty good time, arguing all the way from the buffet line to the table, keeping up what I imagine was a conversation that had started sometime in the 19th century -- at about the same time the Chelsea Hotel began hosting bohemians.

"Theosophists, nothing," I told Laura, showing her a T-shirt.

She was impressed. We scanned the street. The YMCA on the corner (where Truman Capote set the start of Answered Prayers,) a dry cleaners, a tailor ("alterations"), a candy store, a fancy furniture designer, an organic juice bar, an old-fashioned beauty parlor. This was the heart of old Chelsea, the Chelsea still here, being quickly surrounded by the new, ultra-chic art scene escaping from the prices of Soho real estate. It was the 10 or so seconds between worlds, the old one hanging up its coat, the new one putting up its feet. Old commies and bohemians never say die, except when they do, and then they only do it literally. The conversation keeps going. Some of the elders looked like they'd fought in the Spanish Civil War and some of the Chelsea Hotel residents were surely veterans of the culture wars -- a lot of casualties but no letup in the utopia biz.

The wintry street telescoped through history like a metaphysical strudel. Outside the meeting hall, some of the elders were smoking.

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