January 27, 2023

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When the Ghost of the Chelsea Hotel Is You

5 min read

I was six when I saw my first angel — a beautiful man who roamed the halls naked save a cloth diaper and massive feather wings. He never spoke.

There were ghosts, too, in the Chelsea Hotel, the Manhattan landmark where I grew up. There were also addicts and artists and addict artists. And an old woman with a bouffant who sat in front of her apartment in a wheelchair accusing guests of stealing from her.

These were my neighbors and my friends. I loved them. My father sometimes joked that the Chelsea Hotel was the last stop before the mental institution. It was a circus. It was a haunted home.

Some people came to meet the ghosts (Leonard Cohen, Arthur Miller, Nancy Spungen). Others checked in, never moved out, and became ghosts themselves. To live permanently in a hotel is to want to stop time. I grew up in a cradle of other people’s nostalgia‌.

Infighting among the owners led to the sale of the hotel. At the time I was wearing braces with blue rubber bands. Then the hotel was sold again — and again. I was still wearing braces. After that, the place was closed to nonresident guests for renovations that went on for years. Most of the people I grew up with were evicted.

I headed off to college and began to forget that I had ever lived with angels and ghosts. When I went back home during school vacations, the hotel was in a state of transformation. I had to push aside a thick plastic tarp to keep the construction dust out of my parents’ apartment.

After graduation I moved into a ground-floor apartment on Saint Marks Place, about 15 blocks away from the building where I had grown up. My bed was a few feet from the street, and I used various strategies and props to drown out the nonstop noise — a white noise machine, ASMR on loop, a wraparound noise-canceling headset that made me feel bionic.

I furnished the place with treasured junk from the Chelsea Flea. One of the vendors told me: “Nicolaia, you’re about to enter your Hemingway years. Either you get married, get drunk and get a Nobel Prize — or you blow your brains out. If you’re lucky, it’s a combo.”

One night I was woken by a noise I didn’t recognize: the sound of my own gasping. Two weeks later, it happened again — choking in the middle of the night. I ended up in the emergency room, where they filled me with antibiotics and steroids.

I developed an itchy burning rash from the medication that stretched from my thighs to my armpits. For months afterward I was either getting ill, ill, or recovering from being ill. The doctors decided I was suffering from a convergence of mono, Covid and a rare allergic reaction, known as baboon syndrome, to the antibiotics I had been prescribed.

Having mono at 24 is embarrassing, because it broadcasts to everyone that you never had sex in high school and have been overcompensating by kissing N.Y.U. seniors at dive bars. And I didn’t remember selecting the baboon syndrome option for my Hemingway years.

The doctors resolved to scoop out my tonsils. After the operation, I agreed to go back to the Chelsea Hotel, where I would recuperate. At least there was the promise of the large and comfortable bed of my childhood.

As I approached the building with my parents, a doorman in a black suit opened the door to the lobby. For the first time in a decade or more, the hotel was fully open. In the week of its grand unveiling, party after party took place in the ballroom. It was sleek and new and did not look much like the place where I had grown up.

Up in my room I found that, in my absence, my dad had replaced my large and comfortable bed with a small and uncomfortable antique opium bed made of curled mahogany and horsehair. Opium beds are not supposed to be functional — they are meant for people who are so out of their minds that sleeping on a twin XL isn’t a top priority. In the secret drawers, where long pipes used to go, I found some of the horrible sock dolls I hazily remembered making when I was a child.

I endured two weeks of inertia on the horsehair. Unable to speak, I communicated via an app on my phone that sounded permanently angry. I gave the voice an accent like Björk’s.

Every morning I checked my horoscope on a fashion magazine website; it told me to focus on my future and let me know when there was a sale at Kate Spade. In the evening, I drank cold broth with no salt. I could’ve salted the soup but I didn’t, deliberately. This was the worst I had ever felt, and I wanted to really feel it. But when the pain got too bad, I iced my neck with bags of frozen artichoke hearts.

I wondered why opium had gone out of vogue. I missed my old friends, the people who had lived in the hotel before it had uniformed doormen and functional wifi. I dreamed of my former neighbors hurrying down the wrought iron staircase, lingering in the dusty hallways, arguing in the cluttered lobby.

My mother lent me an old white nightgown. It was slightly torn and it puddled at my ankles. On the night I felt strong enough to get out of bed, my dad took me on a walk in the hallway. The frozen artichoke bags were taped to my neck with gauze. The gown trailed behind me.

Not far from our apartment I saw a fashionable woman, about 40 years old, and her young daughter. Their rolling suitcases announced that they were some of the new guests of the Chelsea Hotel, tourists paying to spend nights in a well-appointed suite with a waft of old bohemian atmosphere. They were the first people I had seen in more than a week who weren’t my parents or an errant delivery man.

I attempted a greeting, but a strangled moan emerged. Quickly, before they disappeared into their room, I tapped out the word “Hello!” It came out of my phone speaker in the rageful Björk voice. The child screamed.

In that moment I realized what I must have looked like — a wane and wild-eyed girl in a Victorian nightgown, roaming the halls with artichokes strapped to her neck. I had become a totem of a vanished world, an uncanny envoy from a time long past. The angel may be gone, but the Chelsea Hotel will always have its ghosts.

Nicolaia Rips is the author of the memoir “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel.”

Nicolaia Rips

2023-01-14 10:00:15

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