Chelsea Girl

In the late 80s I lived in New York City in the Chelsea Hotel. For those of you who have avoided New York at all costs, the Chelsea has a certain amount of fame or notoriety, depending on how you choose to look at things.

Bronze plaques outside the entrance remind visitors that writers such as Thomas Wolfe, Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Mark Twain once lived there. More notorious guests needed no placard because everybody who wanted to know already knew about Sid Vicious, Edie Sedgwick, William Burroughs, and Janis Joplin, for example.

Located on 23rd Street, the Chelsea is a 12-story red brick building with businesses on the ground floor. One of these stores sold fishing equipment exclusively. Yes, right smack in the middle of Manhattan, fishing equipment. I never saw many customers in that fine establishment. Another sold all kinds of electric guitars.

The sensation of walking into the overstuffed hotel lobby was discombobulating. It brimmed with art that, I suspect, was not purchased but sufficed as barter for one month’s rent in a moment of pity. However faded the pictures had become, they maintained a certain playful whimsy that characterized the Chelsea.

The atmosphere was definitely one of nostalgia, but nostalgia for what exactly, it would be hard to say–for the carnivalesque, for lost bohemia, for abandoned dreams. Maybe the feeling was not so much nostalgia as loss. In any case, the mood of the place was fraught with the wishes for what it had been before.
The young residents of the Chelsea were, like me, hoping to seize the day in the presence of inspiring spirits that still haunted the hundred-year-old building.

My room at the Chelsea brought tears to my mother’s eyes. It was tiny, lumpy, rickety, seedy with a shared bathroom down the hall. I remember her words precisely: “You don’t belong in a place like this.”

I guess in my mind, though, I did belong in that place. What appealed to me about the Chelsea was that great writers had inhabited it. It symbolized a community that I lacked so I imagined one using the Chelsea’s history to fill in the gaps.

The ultimate goal of this blog is to serve as a digital lobby for writers who are looking for conversation or things to think about, while in pursuit of creativity, art.

I was chatting with my friend Kat the other day, and it turns out she once lived in the Chelsea as well. When I asked her what she remembered most, she said, “Just sitting in the lobby for hours—just like watching a parade.”

8 comments

  1. I remember visiting you in the Chelsea. I think you were living with someone and I don’t remember if you had bunkbeds or just the one bed, but I do remember it was you, and the bed, and me and the two people I was with (I think it might have been Ross Wheeler and Stephanie Brown). And I recall the down the hall toilet.
    Then one night maybe ten years later, my wife and I were staying in Brooklyn with a friend who had a girlfriend in Manhattan, and the key to his place he left with us didn’t work when we returned one night to find him gone, our shelter for the night blitzed, and looking for a hotel in Park Slope — no luck. So we took a cab and got left off, I don’t know why, somewhere near the Chelsea. We asked the price of rooms there, and the hotel next door; it was only marginally higher next door, so there we ended up.
    I thought of those nights again recently when I was watching a rebroadcast of the Loud family documentary done by Allen and Susan Raymond. At one point, the Chelsea denizen, Lance Loud, tells the filmmakers,
    “I feel at home within the vernacular of real time, the time that you guys [the filmmakers] create.”
    This articulates so beautifully a sensibility alien to mine, but which just so I find wildly appealing —

  2. It is my understanding that Bill and Hilary Clinton’s daughter was named for that hotel–and possibly conceived in it? (That second part may be my colorful imagination alone.)
    I had a friend who went to General Seminary which is right around the corner from the Chelsea and I always thought it would be ultra cool to live there!

  3. almost 10 years ago i lived just down the block — even as the neighborhood changes now, a certain kind of invisible mystical fence keeps the Chelsea the same . . . it’s fascinating. i’ve never been inside a room though, just a minute in the lobby and some wandering time in front on the sidewalk.

  4. When I lived in NYC my parents came to visit me for the first time, and I reserved them rooms in the Chelsea Hotel. Everybody I told thought I was crazy. I knew almost nothing about the Chesea, except its name and the tone of voice people used in association with it. People warned my parents before they came not to stay there–but I insisted, for some reason, I’d decided it was the only hotel in NYC worth staying in.
    They stayed in the Sid & Nancy room. My dad had never been to NYC, and he ended up loving being in a hotel that made you feel like you knew a lot about something, which is what the Chelsea did. They picked up rumors and stories and felt like they’d stayed in a neighborhood.

  5. Since we’re talking about it:
    “Chelsea Hotel”
    (for Janis Joplin)
    by Leonard Cohen
    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
    you were talking so brave and so sweet,
    giving me head on the unmade bed,
    while the limousines wait in the street.
    Those were the reasons and that was New York,
    we were running for the money and the flesh.
    And that was called love for the workers in song
    probably still is for those of them left.
    Ah but you got away, didn’t you babe,
    you just turned your back on the crowd,
    you got away, I never once heard you say,
    I need you, I don’t need you,
    I need you, I don’t need you
    and all of that jiving around.
    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
    you were famous, your heart was a legend.
    You told me again you preferred handsome men
    but for me you would make an exception.
    And clenching your fist 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.”
    And then you got away, didn’t you babe…
    I don’t mean to suggest that I loved you the best,
    I can’t keep track of each fallen robin.
    I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel,
    that’s all, I don’t even think of you that often.
    – Leonard Cohen –
    “New Skin for the Old Ceremony”, 1974

  6. I’ve seen the documentary about Lance Loud and family but had forgotten about it until I read Jeff’s comment. It was on PBS here late at night. Marcia was pregnant, and I watched it by myself. Next day I tried to find another soul who had seen it because I wanted to discuss it. Nobody had seen it. So I dashed off a thank you email to the station manager of our PBS station since I was the only person in Houston (I thought) who had seen it. I thought about it intensely for a week and then it drifted away from me. I think it may have been a part of the American Family series. The line that you quoted is amazing!

  7. 1. I can’t believe you brought your mom there! I could imagine “Mother’s Response to Room at Chelsea Hotel” could make for a good poem (or at least a haiku).
    2. I understand Chelsea Clinton to be named after the song Joni Mitchell song “Chelsea Morning.”

  8. I am looking for stories… from life experiences in the chelsea hotel. I am a performance artist and writer. Looking for a compelling story to create a film about the chelsea hotel. Only looking for serious, artistic, and mature people to respond. Creating a piece of visual culture to create change and a new beginning in the arts in america and education. Its a vision. Thanks, nancy

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