6. The Chelsea Hotel
6. Brendan Behan wrote this dedication to his Brendan Behan’s New York while living at the Chelsea Hotel, 222 West 23rd St. “To America, my new-found land: the man that hates you hates the human race.”
Leonard Cohen’s famous song, written about his affair with Janis Joplin, floated in my mind. A thousand years ago I lived at this hotel in New York City and…just let his voice transport you. I spent hours at the Chelsea Hotel when I was young imagining Leonard and Janis while I was supposed to writing. But I also wrote. I stayed up all night with the ghosts and living people, writing. I write every day. It’s how I think. It’s how I make sense of having arrived in this world at all.
I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel. You were famous, your heart was a legend. You told me once again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception. And clenching your fists for the ones like us who are oppressed by the figures of beauty, you fixed yourself, you said, well, never mind. We are ugly, but we have the music.
I vividly remember the night I started fantasizing about becoming a writer. My father and another writer gave a reading in the West Village. I was too young to attend and so was the other writer’s daughter but they let us go anyway. The event took place in a small theatre. We were to remain hidden above, on a balcony where two costume racks were loaded with outrageous textiles, texture, sparkle and weave. At one point while my father was reading, I couldn’t hear what he was saying but I felt it in my bones when the audience all leaned forward in their chairs at the same time.
“I’m going to be a writer,” I said, mouthing the words to the girl and pointing at myself.
I have not seen this girl, Mora, since childhood. In writing this I wondered what became of her. I nearly fell off my chair when I found out. She is a filmmaker. Here she is talking about her film, Zipper, at Sundance, and what it means to write strong female characters who are diverse, human and, the interviewer says, nearly siren-like.
“You just have to stay by your vision,” Mora says. “There’s a lot of rejection and strong opinions along the way, but you have to stay true to the story and why you are telling it.”
You have to find something you can obsess about, she says, for many years. It’s like falling in love, you just find that thing you can obsess about over and over.
On this night when I hid with Mora, I saw the Chelsea Hotel for the first time. The outside is covered with plaques commemorating famous writers and the works they produced there. The pinnacle of literary stardom, I thought, was a plaque on the front of the building where a book was written. My book. I wanted my name on a plaque, like the Irish poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright Brendan Behan, who was inspired by patriotic ballads and his time in prison. He spent time at The Chelsea Hotel at the end of his life before dying at 41 on March 20, 1964, after collapsing in a bar.
The kind of writer and lifestyle I was taught to romanticize as a child. It takes so many years of adulthood, maybe all of it, just to unlearn what we learned as children.
The Chelsea Hotel has endured years of development hell, a saga that has left a trail of broken hearts in New York. It is still surrounded by scaffolding. I found some gems of wisdom on the wooden partitions.
This one really got me. Especially now, with a pandemic raging, social injustice rampant, political upheaval and climate change breathing hot fire down our necks. And yet. We still have joy. We can’t help when it comes, and in what form. Is it — ok — to feel joy when so many people are suffering? It has always been the case that some subset of the world’s population suffers while some feel joy. In the past, we just didn’t know about it. Now we know. Millions of people are waking up to the reality of systemic oppression, economic collapse, violence and ecosystem hazards at the same time.
But if we could only feel joy when everyone got the pleasure of experiencing it all at once, nobody would ever know the feeling. Those moments of unexpected joy, like Leonard Cohen bumping into Janis Joplin in the elevator of the Chelsea Hotel while she was looking for Kris Kristofferson, make life worth living. I think we have to take them where we can, without guilt, knowing they will pass like everything else and we will have more suffering ahead.
The walk to The Chelsea Hotel shows how true this is. Look at the two sides of this shuttered newsstand.
And this shopfront behind it. A thousand dreams within me softly burn.
And walking past FIT, this collection of paintings covering the walls.
I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel, that’s all, I don’t think of you that often.
But that’s changing. We are remembering. We are saying the names of women over and over. Breonna Taylor. We are writing, painting, policy planning, seeking justice. If you didn’t click on Janis Joplin above, do it. Give yourself those six minutes and eleven seconds. Two minutes and forty seconds in, that’s when it gets real. Janis is shaky, raw, imperfect, human, complex. Pure emotion, something we have suppressed for so long and now have to learn to translate like an ancient text in a language we never should have forgotten.
It’s like falling in love, you find that thing you can obsess about over and over.