THE HOTTEST SPOT IN TOWN
July ’73, Times Square, New York…There’s a recession on, but you can’t tell by me. I’ve got a bar job– twenty-seven bucks a night and all the goldfish I can eat. It’s at the Hotel Diplomat, an SRO on 43rd. St. and Sixth Ave. We call it “the Roach Motel” because once you check in you don’t check out. Half the tenants are seniors, shuffling around the mahogany chairs and sputtering lamps in the lobby until they find a spot on a lumpy sofa where they can lean on their walkers, muttering to the ghosts in the gloom. They stop breathing in rooms filled with fifty years of clutter, and lie forgotten until their stench signals their demise. The stronger ones make it to the hospital, bounced down the steps on a gurney, heads turning for one last dazed look around before they vanish into the ambulance of no return.
Hookers live in rooms rented by their pimps, who hang out in a bar off the lobby. They are hustled out, handcuffed and hysterical, by Vice Squad cops. New girls immediately take their places like there’s a waiting list. The seniors lean on their walkers and watch as they lead raucous sailors, nervous high school kids or furtive men in suits across the lobby.
Slouchy guys mutter in the phone booths by the elevators. Some of them are found with the needles still in their arms. Alerted by a trail of blood under the doors the maids enter to find the others tied, gagged and slashed in ransacked rooms. The seniors hobble down the hall as EMS workers wheel the bodies out, wrapped in their bloody sheets.
Rats the size of anteaters raid the liquor room, ripping open the bags of pretzels, unscrewing the tops of the maraschino cherry jars. We shout and sing to get them to scatter before we enter, but there are a few practical jokers in the pack. You don’t know what terror is until you’ve been startled by a giant rodent covered in Red Dye No. 2.
The Diplomat was once the hotel of the soft Left. The Socialist Party had its meetings and dances in its three ballrooms. Now promoters rent the spaces for dances and special events. Friday, Saturday and Sunday night the Crystal Room, so named for its chandeliers, is taken over by Alfredo, a twitchy middle-aged Neapolitan and Gerry, his blonde Brooklyn girlfriend. They put on dances for Italian immigrants. They charge ten dollars at the door and the hotel gets the bar. The room has a capacity of seven hundred and fifty. Every night begins with Alfredo pacing nervously as a few people straggle in. But by ten o’clock the place is jammed.
Three of us work a ninety foot bar. It’s Paul, a retired mailman from Harlem, Al, an angry butcher at Gristedes, who sells swag steaks out of the trunk of his car and me, a recently separated hack writer with a six year old son. We each have a bottle of Seagrams Seven, Highland Dew scotch, Gordon’s gin and Wolfschmidt’s vodka–and a soda gun. Seven and Seven is the cocktail du soir; we go through at least three cases of Seagrams a night. All drinks are $1.25 and served in plastic cups. No bottled beer; quarrels often erupt and the management doesn’t want any throwable glassware available.
The customers rush the bar, hundreds of them, shouting and shoving and clamoring for drinks for like they’ve been crawling on the Sahara for weeks. They pay in small change. “These greaseballs don’t go for spit,” Al says. By midnight, we have so many nickels in the register that Lester, the night manager dumps them in a huge sack. A quarter is considered a big tip and is presented with much pomp and ceremony. A few of the guys proffer a buck like it’s the papal crown on a plush pillow, but then they want free drinks for the friends and any stray girl who happens by. We do the math and figure that with people coming and going Alfredo is grossing ten thousand cash a night on Friday and Saturday and about five on Sunday– twenty-five G’s for low. Figuring an average crowd of twelve hundred, averaging three drinks at $1.25 per, that’s about $4500 for the hotel. For very low. “Everybody’s makin’ money and we get screwed,” Al says. We decide to charge the customers and steal from the till.
A quintet plays Top 40 and traditional Italian. Vito, the vocalist, a short kid with a gimpy leg and coke bottle glasses, is the ideal cover singer, doing Marvin Gay, Frankie Valli or Domenico Madugno with equal fidelity . Gerry rakes the dance floor with disco lighting, flashing, strobing, changing color, sweeping the room like a prison spotlight. The dancers do the same steps to a proto party list, going from Swear to God to Let’s Get It On to Volare.
There is a hard core of about a hundred regulars who show up every week. Among the men, an older group, smooth-shaven and slick-haired in wide-shouldered suits clusters at one end of the bar. They own pizza parlors all over Brooklyn and Staten Island, Vito explains. Another faction, young and modish in jeans and leather vests over sleeveless tees comes to my end. They work in “debt collection, you know what I mean?” Vito says flicking his nose. The two groups greet each other guardedly and never mix.
The females are either overdressed, heavily made up and deliriously sexy, at least to me, or mousy and awkward and giggling with each other. They arrive in groups like a bus tour and dance together for the first hour until the men join in. Everyone usually pairs off, but one night I spot a melancholy lady staring at me as she knocks back Seven and Sevens. At closing an invitation to coffee leads to a lurching clinch in the lobby and more stumbled kisses on the subway steps. But she sobers up on the long ride out to Brooklyn and by the time we get to Bensonhurst it’s life story time with lots of names and places, weddings, spiteful cousins, he saids, she saids… I find out she lives on 18th. Avenue with her parents and her “fiance” is a few doors down and I’m out of there. The next week she’s at the bar with one of the “debt collectors,” giving me a complicit smile like we’re having a mad affair.
The ’60′s had been a stressful time, what with psychedelics, army physicals and the shock of parenthood. Now, in the ’70′s I wake up broke, rejected and full of guilt on a mattress on the dusty floor of an empty apartment. But I’m not in school, I’m not in the army, I’m not married and I’m up for a job writing porno novels at ten dollars a page. Life is good.
One night I come to work to find a line a gleaming limos in front of the hotel.
“We doing weddings now?” I ask Lester.
“They’re havin’ a big party at Le Jardin tonight.”
He’s a black dude who’s been at the Diplomat for forty years, working his way up from porter. You’d think he had seen everything, but he shakes his head in amazement.
“They had Diana Ross and the Supremes up there the other night. They get just about everybody…”
I remember a few weeks ago when the place opened. “They got a fag joint on the roof,” Al had said.
Vito had gone up there one night and come back with a dismal report. “No live music…They got a DJ like on the radio. Two turntables goin’ back and forth…” He looked at me helplessly. “Everybody’s gonna do this now. We’re dead…”
It’s the beauty of narcissism. A seismic cultural phenomenon was erupting right under my nose and I didn’t even notice it.
For the first time I notice that the lobby has a new population. Young, stylish, flamboyant, pushing the seniors off their perches, interfering with the orderly process of prostitution, even sending the dope dealers into temporary retreat. They jam into the only elevator that goes to the roof, making so many trips that the motor burns out and they have to take the stairs.
“They wait on line like they’re givin’ out twenty dollar bills,” Lester says. “You oughta go up there. They got everything goin’ on…”
TO BE CONTINUED