Someone stole a letter. Passersby wondered. Was the missing letter an A? LAST HOTEL? O? LOST HOTEL? Or a U? But why would anyone steal a chrome letter from the hotel awning? Because it was there. Because it could be destroyed. Because no one cared about New York City, circa 1979..
Manhattan was broke, and a general air of lawlessness governed, if you didn't live in select neighborhoods. Graffiti snaked the subway in ghetto nightmares. Dog turds, garbage on the street. Plastic bags floated in the sky like bloated ghosts. Metal gates klunking heavily over store windows. Abandoned buildings, broken windows, nailed boards painted with fake flower boxes.
It was a place to escape from, not visit. Certainly not bring a car. A stroll through Central Park, especially after 5, you took your life in your hands. Riverside Park was positively murderous. 69 Cents stores, Nedick's, Max's Kansas City, CBGB's, the Tunnel, the Limelight, housed in an Episcopal Church on 20th Street, where someone was murdered as hundreds hustled to Donna Summer's "Love to love you, baby..." Mostly, you had to have a strong stomach to live in the city.
This is the story of a small residential hotel on the corner of 72nd and Columbus Avenue, when such places still existed. When hotels were, in fact, a respectable way of life. Clean and affordable. For single women, especially, who liked to have a concierge-type downstairs, without the sorority of the Barbizon, which forbade gentlemen visitors. After romantic break-ups. Divorces. Funerals. Men liked it mainly for the longer term. Like renting an apartment, but they could pay weekly. No lease. No commitment.
Understand, residential hotels were not SROs, those scary, transient Single Room Occupancies that housed foul-scented dens of iniquity and worse. No, these hotels were faded movie queens who still possessed good bones and solid brass fixtures from the gilded splendor of a New York that was once piss elegant.
Built at the turn of the century, the Last Hotel had been a gin mill, flophouse and brothel, where fancy people came uptown for good times with the hoi poloi. Stories circulated about the hotel's mythic speakeasy past of illegal booze, gambling, jazz, and rooms rented by the hour. There were nights when ghosts twirled past bewildered tenants. Sex juices rose in loud gurgles from the radiators! Many swore the vibrations of those licentious days lived in the walls and inspired its current inhabitants..
Inside, you could still see remnants of its glory days. An absurdly elegant lobby of marble walls with ornate moldings and sconces, white and black tiled floor, full-length smoked mirrors, and a glorious, non-working chandelier. A long turquoise vinyl couch, a mahogany coffee table, and a plastic rubber tree plant were chained to metal loops drilled into the floor.
A mere six floors, the Last Hotel was surrounded by tall, elegant hotels and doorman apartment buildings, taxis and limousines parked outside. Women in minks walked snooty little dogs past heaps of garbage mounting each day as the Sanitation Workers' strike continued. The Athena, a Greek diner, occupied a ground floor storefront, floating in a sea of black plastic bags. Scents from the kitchen wafted in the lobby. Sizzling garlic, onion, eggplant, feta cheese, and souvlaki.
The Dakota, a castle-like fortress, was at the end of the block. Movie stars lived in palatial twenty-room apartments. John and Yoko occupied the penthouse. It was not uncommon to see them stroll into Central Park, arm in arm, Yoko in black leather and her huge dark glasses, and John, black sailor cap pushed far over his face, pea coat, jeans..
Most residential hotels in the neighborhood had fancy names. The Regency. The Oliver Cromwell. The Franconia. What Saul, the Manager, called the Greener School of "Think Yiddish, Dress British." A few men who knew each other from Poland, some having survived the same ghettos and concentration camps, many who came on the same boat to America, scraped their savings - maybe ten thousand dollars each - and since the West Side was considered a war zone, picked up these dollhouses for a dime.
The Last Hotel attracted the thrifty, the broke and broken, surviving spouses, divorcees and émigrés. It was a hotel of dreams and lusty dreamers. All lived alone. Saul insisted. "Too small for two people. You'll kill each other.".
The place had a crummy charm - for those who disliked pretension and could handle funk. All the surfaces bore a coat of antique dirt. There were generations of cockroaches, of course, and the occasional water bug. The entire city was covered with cockroaches. Hector the exterminator came to spray the Last Hotel once a month, which is when the cockroaches visited someone else's apartment..
Yet the residents shared rent pride. The smug satisfaction of having found a bargain in the toughest city in the world. Lincoln Center, built a decade earlier, was six blocks south. The New Yorker and Thalia theaters were nearby, not to mention The Embassy, which was just down the street. You could see an Ingmar Bergman double feature anytime. And eat Szechuan Chinese, Cuban Chinese, Cuban and kosher, all within a five minute walk. And Gray's Papaya was down the block, where you could get two hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, and a papaya drink for 99 cents.
Living in the Last Hotel, one became part of random, raucous humanity, separated by cracked plaster walls. The lobby was the family room. The elevator offered daily rites of passage. The suites were paved with golden stories. Or rather, fragments of stories, curious particles of people's private lives. What one could glean from a chance encounter in the lobby, a ride up or down the elevator, a trek to the laundry room in the basement. Puzzle pieces that glittered like Manhattan schist, enticing one to stay.