Editor’s Note: This is the sixth installment of Sonia Pilcer’s The Last Hotel: A Novel in Suites. Look for it every Friday. Of this work,the author Hilma Wolitzer has observed: “‘The Last Hotel’ is a 20th Century ark filled with survivors of history and gentrification. Sonia Pilcer brings them all vividly to life with gentle wit and a generous heart.” To read previous installments, click here.
The first time she saw the brass plate on the wooden door, Hana Wolf had the sensation of having dreamt it. Or seen it on a TV show. Mary Tyler Moore. Okay, Rhoda. Her very own place in the City. The rent was $40 a week. No deposit, no lease. Even she could afford it on her slave wages as an editorial assistant at Coward and McCann.
Her studio was a corner suite on the fifth floor. Sweet, it wasn’t, but she loved every cramped inch of it. A kitchenette the size of a tiny bathroom, with a mini fridge and a double hotplate. The bathroom was a closet. But who cared? She lived in Manhattan. Not one of the boroughs, especially Queens, and not New Jersey.
Like Dorothy Parker, she could live and write in a hotel room. The Last Hotel would be her Algonquin. Besides, it sounded so glamorously, dangerously existential. The Last Exit to Brooklyn. Last Year in Marienbad. The perfect place for a writer, which was what she called herself, even if she was mostly unpublished.
A month earlier, Hana had moved out on Eliot Gold, D.D.S. They had lived in an apartment in Forest Hills, where he had his office. She was not ready to settle down. Or settle. She was hungry for experience. It didn’t matter much whether it was good or bad, and often it was very bad. A writer needed that. What didn’t kill you made you strong. But she’d die trying. The best revenge was writing well.
“You stupid girl! What do you think is out there for you?” her mother Bella demanded. “A dentist makes money, and believe me, that makes life better. Much better.”
As if her father, Stashek Wolf, Managing Editor of Cookie Times, a baking industry trade journal, had showered her with diamonds. “Kill me,” she said, “I want better for you.
Hana had headed for the city of eight million.
Q65A bus to the subway. F train at Continental Avenue, changing to the D train at Seventh Avenue to Columbus Square, where she picked up the uptown IRT to 72nd Street and Broadway. Carrying her New York Times Real Estate section like a beacon, listings circled in red, she had spent hours, traipsing up and down the streets of the Upper Westside and hadn’t found a single affordable studio. She didn’t want a roommate. She was at 72nd Street and Columbus Avenue, about to give up hope, when she saw the sign.
L st Hotel
The second letter was missing. A wicked smile crossed her face. LUST HOTEL.
Something was happening in the lobby as Hana entered. One of those dramas she had heard the city occasionally offered free of charge. She stood in the doorway, privileged to be in the audience.
“Go to your brother’s, Spiros,” the older man insisted. “He’ll take you in. Stay with him until you get some money.” He spoke with a strong European accent.
“I told you, Saul. I’m taking the owner to court. He fired me so his nephew could get my job. It’s nebotism. That’s what it is.”
“Nebech. Too bad. Whatever it is, you have to get another job. There’s always work for a waiter.”
The younger man raised himself to his full height, maybe five feet five inches with lifts. “Saul, I’m a professional waiter,” he said. “I’ve been with the Athena since it opened six years ago. They can’t throw me away like garbage.” He paced back and forth. “They owe me my back pay. Then I can give you everything I owe.”
“That’s vot you told me last month!” Saul shouted. “It’s almost two months. I still don’t have a broken nickel from you.”
Spiros was inspired. “Saul, I’ll give you my air conditioner! My air conditioner is still on warranty. It’s a Kenmore.”
“Stop hondling me!” Saul blew up, his voice booming. “I don’t need your farshtinkener air conditioner!” He crossed his arms. “Vy do you do this to me? I like you, Spiros,” he cried. “You’re a decent man. A clean tenant.” He shook his head. “But I can’t carry you no more.”
Several residents had stopped to watch. A greasy-haired guy, Racing Form in his hand, stood jawing an unlit cigar. He was joined by a dignified, older gentleman, who carried a briefcase overflowing with papers.
Spiros turned around, discovering the onlookers.
“Please, Saul,” he begged, clasping his hands. His voice rose plaintively. “As soon as the case is settled, I’ll have the money. Look, I have a court date.” He showed him a piece of paper.
“I can’t do it.” Saul turned away, shaking his head. “Okay? Go! Now, already. I’ve had enough.”
Shoulders heavy, Spiros walked toward the elevator.
“I CAN’T DO NOTHING!” Saul yelled. “I’m just the manager. I have partners. I don’t own this place.”
As Spiros was about to enter the elevator, he turned toward his neighbors. First, the women. His dark, long-lashed eyes implored theirs. Spiros looked around. No one spoke. What could a person say? Life was tough. He entered the elevator.
In the corner, Hana overheard three older women. “Oh, you know that? They tell you the intimate details of their relationship?”
“One knows these things.”
“I’ve seen you flirt with Spiros.”
“She’ll flirt with a board if it has a hump.”
“That little pisher? I wouldn’t let him smell my underwear.”
“Just what he’s dying to do.”
“I hate to spoil your pleasure, but the show is over,” Saul yelled over their voices. “Would you all go back to your apartments, please? I’ve had enough for one day.”
That’s when he noticed Hana. “What do you want?”
“Do you have a vacancy?” she asked, a little afraid of him.
“A vacancy?” He laughed for some reason.
Before she could answer, he demanded. “What’s your name?”
“Wolf,” he repeated though it sounded like Volf. “Where are your parents from?”
“Brooklyn,” she said.
“Americans,” he said dismissively. “Well, you never know what will happen in this place. When Spiros leaves, it’s possible.”
At the time, she’d had no idea of the extent of her good fortune. Names languished on long waiting lists for a suite at the Last Hotel, and she was able to move in the following Monday.
For once in her life, she had been in the right place at the right time, after having been in so many wrong places at the right time and right places at the wrong time. This was a confirmation. She had walked away from security to the terror of her own life, and entered the world of the Last Hotel.
Bella the Gorilla called as soon as the phone was installed in her room. “So how big is it?”
“A studio with its own bathroom.”
“Thank God for that.” She paused. “How many locks do you have on your door?”
“Two. And a police bolt.”
“You should buy a can of Mace and always carry it in your handbag whenever you’re walking outside.”
“It’s not such a dangerous neighborhood.”
So what if addicts shot up on city benches at Needle Park on Broadway, right outside the 72nd Street IRT station. “Weed, weed,” a boy with dreadlocks whispered to passersby. Sometimes he recited his own poetry.
“I read the newspaper. There are murders, rapes, right on your street. Whoever heard of a woman living in a hotel? You could be living in the lap of luxury.”
“Mom, don’t start again.”
She was right, of course. Pickpockets and handbag snatchers were not uncommon in the neighborhood. Hana had learned to walk with her wallet in her pocket, hand firmly grasping it, other hand holding her keys just in case she needed a weapon.
“I’ll never understand why you didn’t marry Elliot,” Bella lamented. “And why don’t I have grandchildren? All my friends’ daughters …” She went on as Hana softly hung up the phone. She wasn’t even thirty, but already a spinster in her mother’s eyes.
Hana had painted the room a pale, dreamy blue to offset the green shag carpeting. Henry, the super, removed the daybed. She bought a double mattress, which she laid on the floor, covering it with an Indian spread and Moroccan silk pillows. Henry hung a rice paper shade from Azuma over the bare bulb. In the closet, on an upper shelf, Spiros’ shoe lifts remained lined up like Dorothy’s slippers, as if awaiting his return.
She found a seven-foot wooden door at the hardware store. Henry helped her prop it on two black file cabinets, placed several feet apart, in front of the only window. If she leaned over her new desk, she could see a toenail slice of the Hudson.
Next week: Meet Monica Parker in Suite 45.