Passing Trains

Short Stories... All Aboard!

5.06.2005

The King of Greenwich Village

.

The thermometer outside the all-night groceria read 3 degrees. Except for a passing cab's steamy exhaust disappearing along 6th Avenue, the streets and sidewalks were abandoned. Even Greenwich Village’s surliest characters had descended deep into the subways or taken blessed charity to escape the Arctic gale that had roared into the city a few hours earlier.

No, I'd never survive this night outside. My pockets yielded $2.40, maybe enough for a room at the Greenwich Hotel. In all of New York City, this was the only nominal hotel which had, decades earlier, anticipated this night - and my destiny. Occasionally, I had walked under the Greenwich Hotel’s tattered canvass canopy, advertising in faded stencil "Rooms from $1.65". I had imagined what these rooms looked like, smelt like, even questioned whether they were “rooms” at all, but only in briefest of passings. Yet, prompted by the Arctic reality, I left the warm late-night oasis called La Groceria and pushed my way out onto the tundra of 6th Avenue.

The cold, the glacier now moored in the Hudson, transformed the few blocks a hundred-fold with each wind-battered step. As I reached the playground on the corner of Bleecker Street, a blast of Siberian air crashed through the chain-link fence, sliding me dancing and flailing halfway up to MacDougal Street. Still upright, my feet continued one painfully in front of the other, struggling past the empty coffee houses and frost-bitten tourist traps. In the distance, the lights of the inn flickered dimly, a mirage promising survival.

The treachery from the north continued daring saint and sinner as I approached the ancient doors of the Greenwich Hotel. Strands of its disintegrating canopy whipped in the cross-town gale as I ascended the few steps to the entrance. Forcing my chin from my chest, I focused my half-blind eyes on the small iron door knobs, barely visible through the onslaught of swirling snow and hell-born dust.

No use, locked! They've shut down ‘till spring! I ripped my hand from the frozen right-handle and reached furiously for the left. Wood creaked as Arctic wind challenged man and door, nearly succeeding in making us one. Struggling, hinges groaned and cracked -- I braced again, forcing myself half-in, half-out as wind and timber conspired to sever me at the waist. Finally, I forced an opening large enough to allow passage. Battered and beaten, I was in.

As feeling and function strained to return, I stood inside the entrance trying to grasp the scene before me. Although wholly relieved to be beyond the deadly weather now lying in low and evil wait, even the conditions beyond the doors could not have prepared any resident of earth for the sight now opened before me.

The lobby wasn’t a “lobby”, but a dungeon encased within a rough, stone cutter’s walls. Not a redeeming or welcoming sign in sight, its space was absent apparatus or furniture of any kind. A single bare bulb twenty feet above, no more than a flickering tower candle, the lone designate indifferently illuminating the vast, ransacked area. Beaver-size rats could have patrolled the shadows snatching bodies without challenge or notice. Toward the rear, flanked by wide, ascending, dilapidated staircases, was a cage enclosed by layers of dark, rust-colored mesh. Only large enough to accommodate a single form, a pair of eyes peered out from behind -- the eyes of the demon, or a flop-house clerk.

Whatever it was, it was locked and clothed behind the wire for poles north. It was then I realized that the temperature inside was little improved over the conditions outside. Only the wind stayed beyond the heavy doors, but for how long - as it pounded like death to get in. Somewhere in life, you’d think, I had gone terribly wrong, and a night’s survival hung on the balance of zero.

"Do you have any rooms?" I asked . "A dollar sixty-five, plus tax" it choked and gagged, gloved extremity pushing a file card through the letter-size cage opening. "Sign in" it hacked. I couldn't see the entirety of the figure coughing at me, but its eyes were bloodshot from a lifetime of consumption or repeated exposure to other-worldly apparitions. No doubt though, he, a wretched soul, locked in a hellish life, trapped finally by the cage closed in around him. Lastly, it graveled, "room 558, elevator ain’t workin'.”

As I began ascending the steps and counting all my 21 years of mortal sins, the sound of an elevator resonated from behind the stairway. I leaned over the railing as a bent figure emerged from the shaft. "Is the elevator working?" I asked. Dragging a smoldering can of ash, the figure stopped and glanced up at me. "No... ya haf-ta wait..(mumble)."

The old man, a porter, maybe a trustee, was covered in what looked suspiciously like rodent pelts. It seemed that deeper I went, the worse things got. “Okay, get in” he motioned furiously. Then, with every ounce of diminished strength his aging body could muster, he slammed the elevator's scissor-gate behind us as to wake up the dead.

In virtual darkness, he pushed the operator's lever and we began bucking upwards. With head uncontrollably bowed toward the floor, the pelt-clad porter/trustee bashed the lever back and forth, apparently convinced such maneuvers would hasten our ascent. The elevator’s noxious interior was evidently his only realm of control and form of expression, each alarming movement orchestrated to maximize the efficiency of this spastic relic, surely the original Otis Company prototype. No matter that I tried to hold onto the ash-caked walls as we yanked and jerked our way upward, Sir Otis himself would have refused this late night ride on what had to be its last worn strand of 19th century cable. Then, after what seemed a dozen jarring attempts to align with the fifth floor, the odorous operator mumbled, "5”.

I remembered my offense, the bag of Oreo’s I had shoplifted while a 7th grader in parochial school. Sister Catherine Mary Margaret, Superior General and Chief Inquisitor, said I’d forsaken purgatory and was heading straight to hell. Even more damning, she said it with blood in her eyes.

I tripped from prophesy into a dank, colorless hall. Grime-covered bulbs lit limited portions of the long corridors extending on either side, partially exposing a series of closely set doors. It appeared to be a procession of closets, side by side, end to end. I walked slowly to the right studying for a number, a sign, a mark that might indicate the direction to hell-hole #558.

As I passed under the dimmest of lights I noticed that the walls did quite not reach to the 8' ceiling. Metal grating constituted the builder’s material above the doors, which continued uninterrupted the length of the halls. What an odd design, I thought, suggesting prison cells rather than rooms of forced religious penance. Yet, who was I to question the wisdom of flop-house designers. No doubt their architecture incorporated some purpose beyond my layman's comprehension.

What a gasping stink!... Ammonia -- blended with Summer-in-the-Bowery. And the stillness, the quiet. The elevator had since reached its original destination with a deep, gravitational thud, having apparently plummeted down its airless shaft one last time. Except for the muffled gales, no sound drifted through the gratings, not a nightmare, a tuberculin cough, not an isolated hint of the hopelessness residing within. The next sight, however, suggested an answer for this destitute and veiled inn of detention.

Before another step, however, you should know that during the 1960's, Greenwich Village hosted a number of assorted and singularly extreme characters. Most, like the camera clicking tourists and slumming out-of-towners, came and went without notice. A few, however, were genuine odd balls roaming the narrow Village streets from dawn to dusk. At night, a mother’s search would find these lost souls sleeping between high voltage tracks in subterranean gulags, or in darkened doorways, and in parks neglected since their construction. They existed in the shadowlands, responding to inner voices, sponging annually at public fountains, their occasionally visible torments serving to remind each shocked onlooker of their own good fortune. Among this group of lost lives and banished loners, however, one particular individual moved above and apart from all others. Even by the most jaded urban standards, his sheer presence demanded one's full attention.

As I turned the corner at the end of the hall, studying for #558, something beyond caught my eye. I peered through the near darkness trying to focus on the presence blocking the far end of the corridor. Light from the two-watt bulb refused to illuminate the barrier, which appeared to reach from floor to ceiling.

I continued slowly down the hall, glancing at the partially missing numbers, but eyeing the obstruction as I went. Then, at a distance of twenty feet or so, I noticed the object had a rug draped over it; a rug or maybe fabric of contrasting colors set in wide vertical patterns. The colors, becoming vivid orange, yellow and red as I approached, did not quite descend to the floor. When I reached number 554, I felt I couldn't take another step until I understood that which was stationed or planted only a few feet from #558. Then it moved forward, enough to catch an excuse of light, and stopped.

My God!.. it was a huge black man carrying a staff ripped from the trunk of a mahogany tree. Wearing a discarded rug and pair of massive sandals, my eyes were fixed on the fiercest Serengeti head-hunter ever to step from the pages of National Geographic. No man-eating tribe of blood-thirsty warriors would knowingly mass against this seven foot Goliath and expect to witness another sun. Yet, here I was, 155 pounds of shivering flesh and mortal sins -- pitted against a 400 pound rhino bent on the annihilation of everything in its path. The instinctive terror that gripped me at that moment dwells beyond imagination or coherent explanation. Suffice to say that during those frozen moments I experienced fear in its deepest, purest form.

Yet, even when all hope seems lost, the rules-of-the-city rule; never show fear when confronted by dealers of death. As a result of this dictum, panic is perceptively unknown amongst my species in New York, since fearful behaviors empirically lead to defacto suicide, or confinement in a New Jersey psychiatric unit. No, one survives by negotiating the streets with an expression of blank detachment -- thus exhibiting full-blown Endemic Sidewalk Psychosis (E.S.P.); head down, eyes transfixed on purged gum, cigarette butts, and the shoes of man’s last stand.

The sight of this incomprehensible giant, standing only a few feet away, would startle even the most deranged uptown mugger. Yet, I managed to move toward him, one small step at a time, until reaching my door. Only an arm's distance from entering the permanent world prophesied by Mother Superior, I inserted my key, turned, and pushed. As the never-oiled door screeched open, I looked the giant [almost] in the eye. In that instant, the light and closeness failed to reveal the fearsome head-hunter I had encountered just a few seconds before. His ebony face reflected no evil or threatening intent. I viewed instead a huge man dressed in a colorful rug-robe with a thread-loose hole cut in the center for his head, acquiring the darkened hall aided by a jagged, 50-pound Zulu cane. How he came to be standing precisely at cell number 558 was the mystery, but I felt no fear as I entered my room for the remainder of the unfolding night.

I stood inside feeling for a light switch. I lit a match, then another; no switch, no string, no light - another inspired feature of the hotel's visionary designers. I was also quickly reminded of why I had ventured into this frozen purgatory; the deadly wind-chill waiting outside. Yet, it seems the wind had come in, and #558 was void of any standard heat source. The room, smaller than the warrior stationed at my door, may have registered 40 degrees, give or take a digit. It was, however, 100 times more survivable than the streets below sealed in the ice age.

On top of the bed-spring was a mat wrapped in stiff, cold plastic, on which was thrown a single, balled up military type blanket. Opened in all its civil war glory, this burlap and quill remnant measured four foot square and a full sixteenth of an inch thick (except where worn to utter transparency). Not unlike the ransacked lobby, #558 contained no extraneous or space-consuming furniture. The room offered no amenities beyond its steel platform, reinforced filth-covered window, and partial view of the dank, hall ceiling. Given the temperature and circumstance, sleep would come by fitful chance. Absent options, I laid, clothed and shoed, on the plastic and covered up the best I could.

Then, as I looked up, I couldn't help seeing the giant's head through the grating. He was standing motionless, his back now substantially against my door. What an incredible sight, I thought. Was he 'guarding' my sinful soul, or was it simply the spot assigned by his militant inner voices? I thought to ask, but opted to leave it and him alone, since, like the voices, the partition separating us didn't exist.

My eyes opened and closed, but his head remained fixed in place during those minutes, maybe hours. In defiance of the steel-blue cold, however, short dreams managed to overtake my shivering alertness.

Some life or hours later my consciousness came into muted daylight. Yes, the illumination was gladly morning, but Lord only knows how it penetrated number 558. Assisted by daybreak, I appreciated without effort the room's absence of artificial light. I also remembered the Masai warrior I had left guarding my door, but he, like all ghosts, had vanished with the night. Now there was movement in the halls, sounds of footsteps and doors, proving that the floor had indeed been occupied beyond #558.

I sat up on the edge of the squeaking platform and wondered if I had imagined or dreamed the experience of the night before; would anyone believe this demented story of a carpeted, wall-to-wall, black giant guarding my door? This was New York, and between the Hudson and East rivers every floor has its tale to tell, and tell again.

Meanwhile, a better day was calling. The halls were now illuminated by the rising sunlight, yet it hadn’t even begun to arrest the dank and cold. Several men were striding through the corridors, though I guessed none were heading for Wall Street. I reached the bathroom and to my relief found sinks, even a paper-towel dispenser. What luck, accommodations for a well-worn razor. As I shaved in ice water, I peered into the mirror, left, then right, and saw only the faces of men fortunate to have survived the previous night's Arctic brutality.

I walked down the five floors over partially missing sections of staircasing, arriving in the plundered lobby, unredeemed even by daylight. The heavy doors opened easily now, the Arctic wind having gone north with the Central Park caribou. I stepped out into a near frigid, but glorious morning. I stood for a moment beyond the hotel's battered canopy looking up and down Bleecker Street, and feeling rather lucky to be alive.

Then, as I was about to walk over towards Broadway, I was stunned to see my staff-wielding friend standing on the corner at MacDougal Street. He was truly an intimidating giant, as no human dared pass within striking distance of him or his scornful expression. In his African rug-robe and with sandled feet planted firmly in the sidewalk, he surveyed his Village subjects with contempt and disdain. Yet, at seven foot, he appeared regal, his massive shoulders attesting to a majestic strength. His face reflected intelligence behind its fierce intensity. What a terrifying, yet benevolent monarch, I thought.

For a brief moment he appeared to be looking directly at me, but the half block between us rendered my impression guess-full. I stood a few seconds longer, then headed toward Broadway processing images of dungeons and warriors. Before reaching the corner I turned for one final look, but the giant was gone. Only strands of the hotel's torn canopy flapping in a gentle wind.


Epilogue:

In the Village, he was known as “Big Brown.” A chess hustler from up Harlem told me this before proceeding to pick my pawn’s pocket. And so it was that during the 60’s, Big Brown wandered lower Manhattan from Washington Square to South Street. The spirits had appointed him guard, giant gatekeeper of subways, boats, and buildings. At noontime he might be guarding Sheridan Square, and at midnight, the darkened entrance of Trinity Church. Better than any Pope, his size and stare scared the sin out of all who dared to walk the night's foresaken streets. But how he lived the Lord only knows.

These things are all true, my sins, the night at the Greenwich Hotel, and my first audience with Big Brown, the King of Greenwich Village.


© 1997/2007 David Baker (a/k/a D.M.M)

(Reposted 5/1/08)

3 Comments:

Blogger NellieRose said...

Riveting.

Bakerman, each of your stories land me in a dreamy-ish Twilight Zone meets Cocoon feel....your writing is beautiful....please tell us that you are on the payroll somewhere! As I read each of your stories I feel as if I am seeing a short film play out in my mind.....

The *King of Greenwich Village* will stay with me for many years to come for many reasons, one of which is the *558* which was our building # up in Hun80's @ St. Nick.



Your words are legendary.....

May 09, 2005  
Blogger Bakerman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

May 09, 2005  
Blogger Bakerman said...

Thank You... NellieRose.

May 23, 2005  

Post a Comment

<< Home