Friday, June 2, 2017

Nurse the Hate: The Hotel Charlemagne

I had taken residence at the Hotel Charlemagne shortly after my diagnosis.  My thought was that I would finally finish my novel, a final attempt at notoriety.  This would be a daunting challenge as the "novel" at this point had sprawled out to 800+ pages without cohesion.  It was actually more like eight separate novellas, each incomplete and thinly linked to the other.  Written over a decade, it offered no clear voice or vision.  Still, it represented a decade of work, so I had no choice but to at least try to form it into something tangible.  There was little hope but it provided me with the illusion of purpose.  I soldiered on as best I could in the mornings in my shabby room on the third floor.

In the late afternoons I would sit in the lobby slowly working on a terrible bottle of chartreuse that Michael the concierge poured without asking.  If I timed out my various medications correctly, I would hold the liquor down.  It had taken some trial and error.  Some days I would have to retire back to my room for a violent session of nausea before returning at dusk for a light supper.  The small staff began to make a thin potato soup for me daily that I would take with bread.  It wasn't much, but it generally stayed down.  This provided a welcome routine to my days.

I had come to the Charlemagne for its admittedly dated reputation as an artist's enclave.  Faded photographs of Henry Miller and William Burroughs were displayed prominently in the lobby.  I was staying in "the Burroughs room" though I did once overhear Michael tell two Japanese tourists their room was in fact the "real Burroughs room".  It didn't really matter.  I liked the idea of spending my final days in this famous (to some) old hotel.  It was now so wonderfully seedy that a weekly rate was affordable to me.  Based on my savings and my doctor's best guess at my prognosis, I would run out of money at just about the time I ran out of life.  I had made an agreement with the owners of the property, the notorious Benton Sisters.  Well known in the 1970s as socialites and "it girls", the Bentons now shared a three room uptown condo and lived frugally off the rental incomes of their deceased father's holdings.  When the party finally stopped for them in the late 90s, they turned into surprisingly adept businesswomen.  We struck a deal.  If I died before my money ran out, they could keep whatever was left.  If I kept going, they'd put me up unless someone else wanted a room.  As the hotel hadn't been completely occupied since Tom Waits made his band and touring party stay there in the mid-70s, I felt fairly confident I would not end up at the charity hospital in a shared room in my final days.

Each afternoon as I slipped into the threadbare chair in the lobby, Michael would ask "if the work was going well".  I would answer "as well as can be expected" as he grunted and poured the chartreuse.  The room smelled like mold and mothballs.  A ceiling fan ticked as it spun.  I would stare out the window at the women passing by and sip my drink.  With the exception of the occasional camera touting tourist eager to spelunk into the cultural graveyard of the Charlemagne, it was like being a passenger in a car staring out that window.  I would sit and watch the light in the room change as dusk advanced from yellows to orange.  Michael and I would carry on a slow moving conversation as he slowly wiped down the small bar.

Michael had been at the Hotel Charlemagne for seven years now.  He slept in a small room in the back.  In his previous life, he had been a bass player in what was a moderately successful indie pop band.  The band’s claim to fame was having a song placed on a romance comedy movie soundtrack, the proceeds of which allowed the singer to overdose on heroin.  That event ended his professional music career.  He was from a small village in Ireland which he had not seen in years.  He had taken up residence here as an expat.  He had met a woman a decade ago while in the city on tour.  They spent a six week break in his schedule together in her apartment before he had to do a four week run of dates out of the country.  She was heartbroken when he left, refused any further communication from him, and then disappeared.  He looked for her on and off before giving up and taking the job at the hotel.  “She always liked Burroughs.  Maybe she’ll come in someday.”

We sat in the lobby.  On Saturdays Michael would take scratchy Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck records from behind the bar and place them on an old Realistic brand plastic stereo.   The crackle and pop between the songs was almost as good as the music itself.  It always made the chartreuse more palatable.  The fan whirled.  Michael wiped down the bar and looked out the window for his girl.  The liquor burned.  "Michael... Can you please buy another brand of chartreuse?"  He ignored me and wiped out a glass.  The last of the sunlight streamed in the window illuminating the floating dust particles.  We sat in the lobby and waited.    


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