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‘The Last Hotel: A Novel in Suites’: Lobby

America gonef. You thief, you stealer of dreams, of desires, of livelihood. He’d had work, honest, good, clean work. He managed a hotel with nearly forty residents. And it was being taken right from him. Like a plate of food, snatched from your hands. America gonef.

Editor’s Note: The Last Hotel: A Novel in Suites by Sonia Pilcer. This is the 29th installment of her tales of the Upper West Side in the 1970s. Look for it every Friday. To read the 28th installment, with links to previous ones, click here

Lobby

 

Saul locked his tiny office, picked up his coat and left the hotel at ten. He took the IRT local at 72nd Street. As the subway sped through the ventricles of the city, he opened his New York Times to the stock listings. Citibank was up to 74. He bought it at 57. P&G was 35. Okay. He bought two hundred shares at 27. Not bad. He got off at the City Hall station.

Climbing the steps, he entered a massive government building with stone columns, mosaic tiled floors, a huge brass chandelier, none of which he noticed.

When he entered, he had to fill out several forms in triplicate. Yes, he was a Naturalized American Citizen. 1962. They had tested him on the Pledge of Allegiance.

As he entered Room 112, Saul saw the long line at the Clerk’s Office window. He just needed an index number to start the lawsuit. It would go to the Supreme Court. It sounded so important. The lawyer Fred got from the Rent Board told him he could sue for a violation of partnership agreement.

They hadn’t moved in ten minutes. Boge. God. He could be here all day.

He tried to calm down. Be patient. To just read his newspaper, but sweat began to pour out of his skin, drenching his armpits as he waited on line.

He looked down at his watch. Already fifteen minutes that he stood on a long unhappy line with only one window open, the other three shut, only God knew why. A dim-looking woman with large gold earrings sat at the open window.

Lead-directory3-502x1024Usually Saul went to Small Claims Court. That putz Spiros still hadn’t paid the seven hundred fifty he owed. Not one penny. So the partners insisted. That he had to take Spiros to court was a sad thing. He liked the man.

Most of the claimants were kvetches, complainers, whose dry cleaners ruined their best suit, whose crowns cracked on a chicken bone, who fell in a pothole, a brick from a building dropped on their head. Physical therapists, contractors, architects, trying to collect outstanding bills. Last time he was at Small Claims Court, a guy sued a garage for scratching up his Jaguar.

A room full of shnorrers, he had thought. Maybe he’d get his few hundred bucks. Over time. Spiros would send him a check for ten dollars every month. More like water torture than payments. He looked down at his watch again.

Time never stopped moving. Not even for a second. The minute and hour hands stuck in place. Then when you weren’t looking, the minute hand leaped forward.

Every morning at 4:30, he’d had to line-up to be called and counted. The German soldiers shouted, “APPELL! APPELL! ” If someone was missing, they could stand the whole day and night too. Though he wrapped his feet in trash, his toes were frost-bitten from standing in the snow. “APPELL!” He must not think of this now.

Saul’s claims were always small. Not like those millionaires in Municipal Court, suing for hundreds of thousands. And they got it too. A crack in the sidewalk, an exploding Coke bottle.

He should have been a lawyer! Last time, it was for that Episcopalian priest, who slashed the mattress. Was he fighting the devil in his room? Then he had the chutzpah to demand his deposit back.

Gelt. Money. So much like the English word guilt. He and Ruth had not felt a pinch of guilt when they finally started receiving their checks from the German government. It was a pittance compared to all they’d lost.

The German checks allowed Saul to join Viktor’s 40%. Bolek, Janusz, he and Heniek had pooled their savings. Together, they bought a 30-year lease for the hotel in 1968. Saul’s share was small, but he would manage the place.

And now Viktor had passed it down to his son, who was destroying the business.

Saul looked ahead of himself. There were five people in front of him on the line. He checked his watch. Twenty minutes. This was how he spent the hours and minutes of his life. It was pathetic. It was shameful.

His claims were always small. He felt grateful to be alive, to have found Luba, his beloved bride after all these years. His true love. Yes, he’d spent thirty-five years with Ruth.

They’d met in Germany after the war. Ruth had been in Belsen with her sister, Juliana, but lost her at the end. She had lost everything as had Saul. They got together like two sticks, rubbing against each other, trying to build a fire that might warm their frozen bones. Saul married Ruth in the DP camp, and then three years later, gave birth to their daughter, Leah.

He’d been a good husband to Ruth. There was always food on the table, shelter over their heads. It was a tragedy that she died. But she was not meant for happiness. Her heart was dark and ferbisener, bitter.

Two years ago, he had decided to attend a gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem. After nearly a lifetime as a husband and a father, he had found his Luba. The last time he’d seen her was when she was a child.

In 1940, when the Aktion began, when Jews had to leave their homes and were forced in the ghetto, Saul stole away. Luba’s family, who were neighbors, had built an apartment in the upstairs crawlspace. Luba’s father, Dovid, who was Jewish, hid there with other Jewish men. Saul had joined them. He was thirteen years old.

Later, the Gestapo came to the house and pointed a rifle at Luba’s throat. “Where is your father?” they demanded.

“I have no father,” she answered as she was taught by her German mother, Elke. “He’s dead.”

When the soldiers discovered Jewish men hidden upstairs in their house, she was sent in a transport with her mother. They were separated in Auschwitz. Luba never saw her mother again.

A year later, Saul found Luba, half-starved, her beautiful blond hair shirred. In the soup kitchen at Auschwitz, he saved scraps of meat for her, loving her enough to live through the war to find her afterwards.

But he didn’t find her after the war. Saul checked the HIAS listings, asked people, described her. Luba’s father had died in Treblinka and the Jewish agencies didn’t know the whereabouts of Luba’s mother, since she was German. How could Saul have known that Luba would end up in Uzbekistan after the war, where she married another survivor, Wolf. She had no children.

My Luba! She was his world now, his everything. It shamed him to admit that he was as crazy in love with her as the day he saw the ten-year-old girl. He wanted so to give her things, to protect her. But he couldn’t protect her from his own daughter.

Was it Saul’s fault that she hated him? That she hated Luba? He had gone through plenty with Ruth. And it broke Luba’s heart that Saul’s daughter wouldn’t open her mouth to her. He was a simple man. He didn’t know what to do.

He thought if he gave Leah a place at the hotel, he’d see her. But he never did. Didn’t she ever leave her room? How could she stay upstairs in that rat hole and never come out? What did she do up there?

He drew out his wallet from his pocket. The new one. He pulled out a snapshot of Leah dressed in an identical dress as Ruth, standing against a cherry blossom tree in Brooklyn Botanical Gardens. Then he looked at another photograph, of his beautiful Luba, with the white blond hair that shone in the sunlight like wheat.

He still called the wallet new because he’d had another wallet, a leather one, from his early months in America. He had kept it for years. It was already falling apart when he managed the Harlem Arms uptown on 122nd Street.

One afternoon, a teenage boy in a blue knit cap walked into the lobby. He looked around himself. No one was around. He flashed a gun. Saul wasn’t stupid. In an instant, he opened the cash register. “Here.” He had handed him the contents of the hotel cash register, knowing not to look into the eyes of the hooligan. Just like with the Germans.

“Your wallet,” the boy added gruffly.

Saul took out his worn leather wallet. As he gave it to him, he said, “Listen, you can take all the money, but would you give me back, please, the picture in the wallet.”

The hooligan had punched Saul in the stomach so hard, he fell to the floor. Then he started to run.

Though he wasn’t young, Saul was tough. He moved every new mattress and box-spring in the hotel. Whenever a tenant had a problem, Saul ran up the stairs, not waiting for the elevator. He turned off leaky faucets, raised windows painted shut, pulled out air conditioners in the winter.

Summoning superhuman strength, Saul stood up, and chased the crook down the block to Broadway, calling, “Police! Police!”

Saul kept running down Broadway, looking for a cop, but the crook escaped with his wallet. It contained the only photograph he had of his father. Afterwards, a bullet-proof glass was installed at the Harlem Arms.

Was there justice in this world? To even ask the question was childish. He had seen it all and then some. Yet a man had to act as if there was justice.

America gonef. You thief, you stealer of dreams, of desires, of livelihood. He’d had work, honest, good, clean work. He managed a hotel with nearly forty residents. And it was being taken right from him. Like a plate of food, snatched from your hands. America gonef.

The place would be gutted like the brownstones. The walls would come down. It would renovated, remodeled with recessed lighting. All that would remain would be shell of the hotel.

He looked ahead of himself to discover a young Puerto Rican woman with teased black hair standing in front of him. She hadn’t been there before. He was sure of that. He’d been on this line for almost an hour and she thought she could just sneak ahead of him? This is not allowed!

“Excuse me, Miss,” Saul said quietly, trying to control his temper, “But I didn’t see you on the line before.”

“I been here,” she answered curtly, not turning around.

“Miss, you have to stand on line like the rest of us.” When she seemed unimpressed, he added, “We all have been standing here a long time.”

She turned to face him, her thickly painted eyes glaring. “Who do you think you’re talking to, Mister?”

“You snuck in front of me on the line!” he said quietly.

“What did you say?” she demanded. “I been standing on this here line and suddenly this man just starts talking at me!”

“No, you haven’t!” Saul insisted, imploring the people behind him. “You weren’t here five minutes ago. I know. I saw with my very own eyes. Go to the back of the line, where you belong.”

The other people seemed not to notice.

“You can’t talk to me like that,” she said.

“Lady, please -–“ He felt a stab of pain in his side.

“If you don’t leave me alone, I’ll call the police!”

Suddenly, he felt short of breath, woozy in the head.

“Next,” the clerk called out from the window. “Who’s next?”

The Puerto Rican woman walked up to the window and handed her forms.

His knees wavered. His complexion turned ashen. Saul took a deep breath, closing his eyes.

When he opened them, he saw that everyone was staring at him. That’s when Saul realized that he was at the front of the line. “Mister, do you hear me?” The clerk’s dark eyes pierced him.

Saul stumbled to the window. He held on to the window ledge as he tried to pass her the first form. “Here,” he whispered.

“Do you speak English?” she asked, leaning away from him like he was contagious.

He handed her the other forms, trying to stand up straight. “I – eh – am not well,” he said, swaying back and forth, trying to hold on to the window ledge.

“Do you have a Social Security number?” she asked slowly, enunciating each word.

As his legs buckled underneath him, he said, “What do you mean? I am the Manager of the Last Hotel on 72nd Street.” He lost his balance, and collapsed on the floor.

______________

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Photo: Denise Demong

Sonia Pilcer is the author of six novels including The Holocaust Kid. The Last Hotel is now available at your favorite bookstore or Amazon.comVisit Sonia Pilcer’s web site here

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