Chelsea Mourning: West 23rd Street
Why do we do the things that we do? I suppose it’s often a matter of exercising our choice of creative thoughts or logical reason, but I tend to find myself in a totally different frame of mind - none at all. I exist without reason, other than it feels right. That’s how I ended up in the backseat of a taxi headed south down 7th Avenue in the middle of the night.
As the car turned onto West 23rd, I saw the sign dimly lit amidst the darkness as if it were a burned out star guiding me to the promised land of long ago, a lighthouse guiding sailors in the night. The Hotel Chelsea, the iconic structure in abstract view covered by scaffolding, served as a sign of the present ignoring the past. It seemed like the place to go, as I had just been kicked out of the room I was sharing somewhere in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan.
I let the driver continue on for about a block and a half past the intended destination before letting him know that he had arrived. As I got out, I made up an excuse that I was picking up a friend and requested that he leave the meter running until I returned. From his response in broken English, I assumed we were in agreement and headed up the steps, into a hotel across the street.
I glanced over my shoulder before entering the building to see if the cabbie was still watching me. The position of his head and scrunched look on his face made it obvious that he was either fully concentrated on a game of Words with Friends, something he had mindlessly rambled on about during the ride, or jerking off. Most likely the latter, as I’d caught him while we were stopped at an intersection earlier.
I walked down the long hallway and made my escape from the back storage area into the alley. Buying a little time, I ducked into a coffee shop we had passed earlier. I counted and recounted the buildings backward as I made my way back toward 7th Avenue, to be certain I entered the back door of the right place.
More often than not, hitchhiking (armed with a knife in my left combat boot) was my go-to method when travel by car was necessary, yet I still possessed the skill of evading cab fare. But it was never malicious, though; it was the curse of possessing such wit and a desire for survival.
Cautiously, I slipped in without notice and went straight for the counter. Staring into the glass case, I selected what looked to be the most edible day old doughnut and ordered a cup of black coffee to go with it. I fished around in my pocket for the $3.13 and tossed four crumpled dollar bills on the counter in exchange for my sustenance.
I found an open booth near the jukebox and made myself comfortable, sipping my cup of hot coffee carefully as not to burn my tongue. Sitting with my back facing the window that provided a visual of the street, only feet away from the running meter and masturbating driver, it finally hit me. This has to end. The running. The madness. Everything. It has to end right now.
At the age of 25, I found myself believing that life was meant for the truly alive, and that was something I no longer was. I had accepted my fate: my job as a cashier for a corporate entity who didn’t even know my first name, my lover gone to never return, my innocence lost…and my mind in disarray. I held my sorrow gently; it was all I had left to call my own.
As a soul marked by years of exhausting the ability to fight, I saw flight as the only true option - and I took it quite literally. I purchased a one way airline ticket and headed a thousand miles away from the closest familiar face, fearless to the notion. I arrived on Halloween night with a few hundred dollars to my name, a change of clothes, and a book of poetry by Joni Mitchell - the absolute yet bare essentials, I thought - and went out in search of a place to sleep for the night.
My first night there, I ended up in an all-night burger joint somewhere in Brooklyn Heights, where I met a woman who was looking to rent out a room in her basement apartment. She offered me a night free in exchange for a poem that she could give to her boyfriend who was away on business. The following morning, I left the poem on the kitchen table and made my departure without a goodbye and caught the 4 train over to Manhattan.
The next night was spent with a lady I made friends with a woman at the ticket desk for discount day-of Broadway shows. We made small talk to kill time, as the line extended around the building, and learned we were both from Nashville and both involved in the downtown music scene in different capacities; by the time that we arrived at the purchase window, we both selected the same musical remaining on the nearly blank availability board.
She offered to let me stay with her for the rest of my time in town, and in my situation, I figured that it was the wisest chance to take. Our adventures took us all over Manhattan for the day, beginning at Battery Park and ending at the Marquis Theater for a performance of Tootsie. It felt as if I were golden. I belonged to the City and it belonged to me. Everything felt right, idyllic.
But it was fleeting. As she lay in bed next to me the following morning, I made the decision to let her sleep and quietly dressed for the day. I walked to Central Park from where we were staying in Murray Hill, stopping on occasion to pop into places I found interesting to make the trek seem less lengthy. Once there, I went ice skating on Wollman Rink, wandered among Strawberry Fields, and fell asleep on a large rock formation to the sounds of Joni Mitchell, who was ultimately becoming my spiritual guide to the City.
When I returned that night to shower, I found my new friend sitting up in bed, appearing to be in a different state than before, unreachable and unaware. Perhaps it was some sort of break in her mind, even her soul, a tip that was in hindsight weaved throughout previous conversations, but she became enraged enough to start an argument. I think I had left my dirty socks in the sink or something of the sort and it triggered her. I often wonder what it was and where she is today; all I know is that I ended up in handcuffs and once again without shelter.
And just like that, I was sitting in a coffee shop on West 23rd in the middle of the night overanalyzing it all.
I downed the coffee and got up, pretending as if I were looking for the restroom, but inched out the back door. Making my way down the alley, all the way down to the intersection of 23rd and 7th before turning to make my way back to the Hotel Chelsea. The cabbie would have picked up on my plan, I was certain, and by now was long gone.
It didn’t matter, though, as I was on a journey to the promised land in which I had developed a desire, a need to exist within. An old soul, I am called. An old soul, I am. The Chelsea stood as a symbolic gateway to all I found gratifying in this life: the works created within its walls - all of the books read, music heard, poetry consumed - brought me here to this city, this place, this moment. It never occured to me that the late 60s had turned into the 70s and the 70s had long passed away. And there I was, a victim of the 21st century, clinging to my last twenty the way I clung to that notion of the world hearing my words.
As I approached the building, I read the sign that hung from the door: CLOSED to the Public for Construction. In my fantasy, I was a writer seeking refuge in the same place where Patti Smith lived and created art with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, where Bob Dylan wrote tracks for Blonde on Blonde, where Kris Kristofferson sat on the floor and sang “Me and Bobby McGee” with Janis Joplin, and where Sam Shepard wrote his haunting, heart-wrenching plays. In reality, I was simply a drifter with a pen in hand.
I walked back to the coffee shop down the street to think about my next move, for it was nearing midnight and I was without the one thing I had managed to secure for the last few days. The bells on the door announced my entrance. I nodded at the lady behind the counter, acknowledging her presence with the hope that she would recognize me from earlier. For the most part, I anticipated that my table had yet to be cleared and I could take advantage of the free refills on coffee.
I put fifty cents in the jukebox that sat against the wall by the door, carefully selecting a John Lennon song from the playlist that had not been updated in the last forty years, much less in my lifetime. Earlier in the day I had spent time exploring Central Park, specifically Strawberry Fields, even crossing over to see the famed doorway of the Dakota where he was gunned down in the winter of 1980. The dream is over, what can I say? The dream is over, yesterday. How appropriate…
The waitress approached me, asking if I was alright. I’m certain she had seen her fair share of mental cases through the years of working in the City, and my display of sadness was nothing new, certainly not the worst. I requested a refill, and she returned with my coffee and two doughnuts; they would toss them at closing time anyway, but it was thoughtful nonetheless. I thanked her for her kindness and waited for her to turn away before I wrapped up the doughnuts and shoved them in my bag for later.
I continued to sip my coffee and think through where I was about to go as I watched the woman begin closing procedures. I dug through my bag for a pen, then reached for a napkin from the dispenser. In my desperate state, I began to write:
At a coffee shop in Chelsea
Watching all the traffic go
Nobody here knows my name
And I know this ain’t my home
No matter how hard I try
No matter how I pretend
I’ll still be who I am
And I’ll still need a friend
I’m not yet ready to leave
Yet I know I cannot stay
I’m down to my last dollar
And I’m haunted by old mistakes
No matter how hard I try
No matter how I pretend
I’ll still be who I am
And I’ll still need a friend
I just need a friend
For the second time that evening, I headed out searching for a place to crash. I walked south down 8th, watching my surroundings, mildly paranoid that the cab driver was still in the area. My desire for shelter seemed smart, yet realistically there were no rooms available at this hour for less than a twenty and some on the spot prose. I had no way to come up with the minimum eighty bucks in such a short time. Even my search on CouchSurfers turned up with no immediate responses.
In desperation, I started making calls to folks I had known back in Nashville. Being from a musician’s town, I placed all of my hope in the fact that in their travels, perhaps they knew someone in the City. Or at worst, could loan me enough cash to get a room. Nothing fancy, only shelter and maybe a warm bed. November nights in New York were colder than I expected.
Ring, ring, ring. My ability to recite the generic voicemail greeting was realized very quickly, as every call went unanswered. I stopped and sat down on the nearest stoop and cried. I pulled out my book of poetry and began reading to an audience of passers by, mostly the homeless and a few tourists who found my southern dialect fairly amusing. At that moment, a man came out to say I could not block the steps for the paying guests. Turning around to apologize, I could see he knew I wasn’t a typical bum spouting off prose. He took my hand and walked with me inside of the hostel I had set up camp in front of.
I explained that I didn’t have enough money for what he could offer if a room was even available. It meant nothing, as he didn’t react. We went into the office where he pulled out a chair and gave me a locker for my few belongings. The man asked what I was doing wandering the streets, which led into my spinning a yarn of travel tales. I always hated pity, so I never offered my story to anyone in exchange for anything. Even if it were only my written words, I existed with the belief that barter was better than gifting.
We sat in the office for an hour talking about everything from the impending doom brought on by the current political climate to the works of William Blake as we snacked on the doughnuts from my bag, him manning the front desk and me petting the office cat, whom I was allergic to. I suppose it was an establishment of trust, as he swiftly pulled a key from the wall and placed it in my hand. Without allowing a thank you, he directed me to room G57.
I could finally sleep. But I couldn’t for the noise, the constant talk of men outside my door. I couldn’t get the lock to work well enough for me to lay down on the small cot in the middle of the room. I feared they wanted more than a place to rest their heads and seeing a woman enter alone was just the score they had planned to obtain. Eventually my exhaustion got the best of me, and I fell asleep just before dawn.
I woke up a few hours later and headed down to the office, half-hoping to catch the name of the man who had spared me the night before. Instead, I saw a large black woman behind the counter. Shift changes. I said hello, and without looking up from her magazine, she pointed to the box where returned keys were deposited. With her eyes still focused on her tabloid, she slid a ten underneath the glass and in my confusion, she explained that key deposits were returned at checkout.
With an extra ten to my name, I felt a little more at ease, as if the amount made much difference in the grand scheme of things. It was as if the world was trying to tell me something yet I refused to listen. I didn’t want to face the truth; it’s never been a strong suit of mine and I felt the acceptance of what was would be a dreadful thing to do in my condition.
But I had to. It was time.
I retraced my steps from the night before and once again stood in front of the Hotel Chelsea. Trying to understand exactly what this building had over me, why I was so obsessed with the idea that I should have been here. It was a hotel, after all, and not the promised land. It’s time had passed, just as everything must in the end, including my time in the city. Why does mortal desire consume the flesh and the highest desire ravage the soul? It hurts.
For the final time, I took the train out to Brooklyn on my way back to Nashville. With a few hours and ten dollars to spare, I seated myself along the back row of barstools in Skinny Dennis, a bar named after the iconic bassist that paid tribute to the leaders of the 1970s Americana. Ironic. I raised my glass of whiskey in honor of all that I had survived and said my goodbyes in the only way I knew how. In my nervous hand, I penned my final tribute to the city.
Tonight I’m flying 30,000 feet
above the world
Don’t tell me that I’m just
your average sad girl
I’m looking for peace,
something I can claim for myself
Cause I’ve been living deep inside of the well
yeah I fell
I got high in Central Park
on white, burgundy, and green
Full of desire and the longing
just to be free
Joni Mitchell sang my song
the soundtrack to what I’d seen
I’m here to find myself
in a city that never sleeps
I had a drink at Skinny Dennis
went skating on Wollman Rink
I let my heart get broke last night
I slept on 23rd Street
Now my glass is dry
and singles now skate in pairs
It’s like I’m watching from the sidelines
but I’m right there
You can say I’m living
but my bones say otherwise
I’m doing all I can
just to get myself by
It’s like I’ve got to keep moving
just to feel alive
Returning home feels unwarranted
but to stay would be unwise
The City We Became: New Yorks Avatars
New York City: The City That Never Sleeps
“Come, then, City That Never Sleeps. Let me show you what lurks in the empty spaces where nightmares dare not tread.”
The City We Became: New Yorks Avatars
Staten Island: The Forgotten Borough
“They think Staten Island is some tiny thing, an afterthought, because they shrank it down to fit this map.”
A cool statue
I’m a nerd, ok?!
Subway rat me and my friend named Dude
Took this one around Christmas time
George Washington took the oath standing on this
Hamiltons grave (again, theater nerd, no judging)
Statue Of Liberty
I took this one on a ferry at night
Love on Coney Island
1940 - 2020
On May 26, 2020 it was announced that the legendary Copacabana in New York City has closed.
The club was originally named for a neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, known for its crescent-shaped beach, one of the most famous in the world.
The Club was popularized in song, screen, stage, and television.
“It looked like what everybody’s idea of what ‘I Love Lucy’ was.” ~ Johnny Mathis, singer
On “I Love Lucy” Ricky’s nightclub, The Tropicana, had decor that was influenced by The Copacabana, although its name was derived by the infamous Havana nightspot.
The Copacabana was mentioned in the very first aired episode “The Girls Want To Go To A Nightclub” (ILL S1;E1) in 1951; the Copacabana was that nightclub! Sadly, the girls end up celebrating Fred and Ethel’s anniversary at Madison Square Garden, instead.
ETHEL: “It was going to be the Copacabana.”
LUCY (wistfully): “Gee…the Copacabana!”
The Copacabana had Brazilian decor and Latin-themed orchestras, although the menu featured Chinese food! The club was also known for its chorus line of Copacabana Girls, who had pink hair and elaborate sequined costumes, mink panties and brassieres, and fruited turbans, not unlike the one Lucy wore in “Be A Pal” (ILL S1;E2).
In that episode, Lucy is impersonates Carmen Miranda, who starred in the 1947 film Copacabana featuring Groucho Marx and the world-famous Copa Girls.
In 1952′s “The Mustache” (ILL S1;E29), Ricky shows a talent scout his scrapbooks and brags that, in addition to appearing on Broadway, he has played the Copacabana. Desi Arnaz used his real life credits for Ricky’s.
Arnaz performed at the Copacabana in the summer of 1946 to coincide with his new film Cuban Pete.
Las Vegas’s Sands Hotel named their lounge the Copa Room in honor of the New York nightspot. In 1958′s “Lucy Hunts Uranium” (LDCH S1;E3) Ricky Ricardo headlines at the Sands’ Copa Room. The tie-in was not doubt thanks to the Sands General Manager Jack “Mr. Entertainment” Entratter (1914-71), who was previously the manager of the Copacabana. Entratter designed the Copa Room to replicate the Brazilian decor at the NYC club and also imported the Copa Girls to Nevada. In real life, Desi Arnaz also performed there. It was demolished with the hotel in 1996. In 1981, Sands Atlantic City also opened a Copa Room. The New Jersey location closed in 2006.
The original Copacabana was mentioned again in a 1964 episode of “The Lucy Show” when Lucy Carmichael’s new torch singer tenant (Roberta Schaeffer) auditions for a job at the Copa with Lucy, Viv, and Mr. Mooney as back-up!
In real life, Lucy and Desi were often spotted at the Copacabana during its first years of business.
In 2012, a second official Copacabana was opened in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but quickly closed a few months later.
Like the iconic Brown Derby restaurant in California, which also figured into the “Lucy” legacy, The Copa operated in several locations over the years.
- It first opened on November 10, 1940, at 10 East 60th Street.
- In 1992, the club moved from its original location of over 50 years to 617 West 57th Street.
- In 2001, the club was forced to move for a third time to West 34th Street and Eleventh Avenue on the west side of Manhattan, when its landlord terminated its lease early to build office towers on the site.
- On January 20, 2007, the club announced that it would have to move by July 1 because its current location was condemned due to the construction of the extension of the IRT subway. From late 2007 until the club reopened in 2011, the club was sharing space with the Columbus 72 nightclub, which shares the same owners.
- On July 12, 2011, the club re-opened to the public in Times Square at 268 West 47th Street.
- Although its final location is now “closed for good” - owners announced their hopes to re-open yet again at a yet-to-be-determined location in 2021.
This collectors plate from the Hamilton Collection was titled Night at the Copa, although the moment depicted is from “The Diet” (ILL S1;E3) in 1951.
Hey Upper East Siders, it’s Gossip Girl here.
Did you miss me? I bet you did.
I’m sorry it took me this long to realize that you can’t live without me, don’t worry I won’t be gone another time, I just needed to fix some unsolved business.
Get ready for some scandals!
You know you love me.