5

I HAVE SEEN SID AND NANCY FOURTEEN TIMES.

Despite what you probably think, I’m not some crazyass obsessive fan. I mean, it’s a great movie, even if they got Johnny Rotten all wrong. A love story that isn’t full of shit, that recognizes the stupidity of it all—true love, impossible in the real world, only leads to pain.

But that’s not the reason I’ve seen it fourteen times. I’ve seen it fourteen times because it was the only movie Daphne owned, and we were usually too lazy, wasted, or horny to make it to the video store.

“Remind you of anyone we know?” she’d ask me each time after it ended. A question that should have been, let’s face it, a gigantic red flag, given that—sorry if I’m spoiling the ending for you—Sid winds up stabbing Nancy to death in a room at the Chelsea Hotel.

But then Daphne would sing 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…”

At which point she would stop singing and reenact the scene—the TV was conveniently located in the bedroom. Thankfully, unlike the song or the movie, Daphne’s version always had a happy ending.

We used to talk about staying at the Chelsea for what I assumed would be a night of mind-blowing sex. Before she tried to kill me. Still, I kind of owe it to myself to see the place.

“In and out,” I say to Leatherpants. “And that’s not like, you know, a metaphor for anything. I’m serious. You better not offer to blow me when we get there.”

He’s already racing down the street. “You know, for a drug dealer,” he yells over his shoulder, “you’re dressed like a real asshole.”

The hotel, a hundred years old, looks her age. Not so much from the outside, but inside there’s an ongoing war between patchwork and decay. The smart money is on decay. But I still feel a tingle when I see the familiar lobby, nearly every square inch of wall space burnished by paintings whose placement and artistic value both seemed to have been chosen completely at random.

I follow Leatherpants—who by now has introduced himself as Nate—past the front desk toward the elevators. A guy in an expensive sweater, possibly cashmere, pressed slacks, and tassel loafers looks up from the floor he’s mopping. He examines us through a pair of glasses hanging from a cord around his neck. He doesn’t look pleased.

“Hello, Herman!” says Nate, waving as he shoots past the guy onto the square-spiral case, ripping off three steps at a time. I jog after him, feeling Herman’s stare on my back. We don’t stop until we reach the fourth floor.

I’m not sure what I expected. Kind of a punk-rock Animal House, maybe. The peeling wallpaper and rusting pipes feel right, but the hallway is quiet and empty. It occurs to me that for the second time in my first three Meet-Ups, I’m violating the rule against following customers back to their rooms. The police could be waiting for me. Or worse, I’m going to get jumped and rolled when I step through the door.

Nate bounds down the hallway like a manic jackalope, planting his feet in front of Room 411.

“Janis Joplin,” he says.

“I’m sorry?”

“This was Janis’s suite.”

Then he opens the door, sucking all of the fear and disappointment out of the air.

It’s backstage at a rock concert born in the imagination of a horny teenage boy: beer cans, bottles of Jack half-drunk, rock nymphettes half-clothed. Guns N’ Roses blasting from a box radio on the kitchenette’s counter. A topless blonde sways to the music on top of the guy she’s got pinned to the couch, hypnotizing him with tits too perfect to be real. A Eurotrash dude with a clove cigarette and a brown jacket that might be sewn from the skins of baby deer cheers on two brunettes in stretchy miniskirts, asses so sculpted they should be in a museum, as they face off in a dance that makes the Lambada look like the Virginia Reel. The part of my brain that isn’t gaping like a tourist wonders why I can’t see any panty lines.

“Is that you?” comes a voice from an attached bedroom. I turn toward it in time to see a perfect female silhouette framed in the doorway against the sunlight, a trucker’s mud flap come to life. Then she steps into the room, and there’s nothing left to remind me of a trucker. Her eyelids seem to open a fraction of an inch higher than they should, leaving extra space for her eyes—radioactive blue, lively and intelligent. High cheekbones softened by pillowy lips and auburn hair that cascades in waves down to the small of her back. A body whose long legs and curves would have been a genius plastic surgeon’s signature work had they not been entirely the real thing. She’s wearing a concert tee with three-quarter sleeves, white panties, and nothing else. She looks at me quizzically. “You’re not Nate.”

Nate’s across the room with the Euro-dude, who’s reaching for his wallet. “No,” I reply, scrambling for an opening line. But I’m too slow.

“Well then close the damn door,” she says. By the time I step inside and close the door behind me, Nate is greeting her with a kiss.

“There’s my angel,” he says, twirling her around like a dancer. “I was just securing your degeneracy of choice.” He pulls her close, slips a $100 bill into the band of her panties, and spins her into me. We realize at the same time—and with roughly equal levels of embarrassment—that I’m expected to remove the cash from her intimates. We attend to the transaction with a minimum of eye contact.

“At least my degeneracy is all-natural,” she says. I remove the bag of weed from my pocket and hand it to her.

“Now come on, sugar,” Nate says, raising an eyebrow toward the couch. “Artificial has its charms. Wouldn’t you say so, Clem?” The guy on the couch seems to agree, his reply muffled by the blonde’s bodacious endowments.

“You’re a pig,” says the silhouette, returning with the weed to whatever magical lair she emerged from. Nate grins and follows, stopping only to punch me on the shoulder.

“You’re the man,” he tells me. “Stay and party. I’ll bet Kristof will share.”

Across the room, the two brunettes—Kristof’s apparent bounty—interlock their tongues in a passionate kiss. I look down at my pager. It is barely eleven o’clock in the morning.

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Well, come on by after,” he says, closing the bedroom door behind him. “The party never ends.”

Six hours later, having ditched my sports jacket on a nearby fire escape, I walk back into the Chelsea. The man in the maybe-cashmere sweater sits behind the front desk, clearly in his natural element. He is the master of this environment. Whether by optical illusion or some other arrangement, the light in the room actually seems to bend toward him.

I smile, wave as I’d seen Nate do, say “Hello, Herman!” and make for the stairs.

“I don’t baleeve we’ve met,” Herman says. His voice is what you might call “New York Authentic,” nasal and low-pitched, and amplifies his already potent dominion over the lobby. “Yuh wuh heah earliah, wit’ Nate.”

“I was just headed back upstairs to see him,” I reply. But my feet have stopped moving and the staircase—another optical illusion—seems to be moving farther away from me.

“No yuh not. Not unless yuh been vetted wit’ me fihst.”

“I didn’t realize this was that kind of joint,” I reply, a lame attempt at vaudeville humor. Something about the accent. “You want to see my calling card?”

“Huh,” he snorts. “Yuh tink I don’t know yuh a drug dealah?”

Ouch. I cycle through my brain for a response until a bell goes off. It’s the elevator. We both turn toward the opening doors. The silhouette is slightly different, but I know immediately it’s the same girl.

She steps into the lobby. Her wavy hair is slicked back, still wet from a shower. She’s wearing a Catholic schoolgirl miniskirt, 18-eye Doc Martens, and an oversized leather jacket that probably belongs to Nate.

“Hi,” I say, a little too eagerly.

“Hi,” she replies, politely concealing her inability to place me. Her radioactive blues are stony red.

“When I was here earlier. This morning. Nate told me to stop by the party later.”

“The party ended hours ago.” Herman looks down when she says this, apparently deeply saddened by the news.

“I’m an idiot,” I suggest.

She looks me over. Now I’m wishing I were wearing something other than wool slacks and a button-down. “Probably,” she finally says. “But you’re coherent enough to have a drink with me, aren’t you?”

“Sure,” I say. “I pride myself on my coherence.”

Herman slinks back into the shadows behind the desk. I follow her down a corridor that connects the lobby to the Mexican restaurant next door, where mariachi music pipes in through tinny speakers and the waiters are dressed for a bullfight. We slide into a booth and order margaritas and cheese nachos.

Her name is K. Actually, it’s Katherine, but she adopted the initial because she thought it would help her get started as a professional model. Her first job took her from her native Northern California—“Sunnyvale!” she chirps with an exaggeratedly fake smile—across the Pacific Ocean, where she spent three months doing catalog shoots in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong. “Amazing,” she says, “but incredibly lonely.” She met Nate during a return trip to San Francisco—he and Clem, the guy I’d seen getting dry-humped on the couch, formed half of an L.A. glam-rock revival band called Venomous Iris. A drunken hookup at a bar segued into a drunken weekend in Napa Valley and an invitation from Nate to follow him back to L.A., where he was scheduled to play a few dates on the Sunset Strip. He was tall and sexy and spoke English and what the fuck, following a band for a while would probably be fun. Clem told her from the start that Nate was a guitar god, and he hadn’t been lying: The band got signed to a deal and their first album, Love Vampire, won over a few influential reviewers who dug the fusion between GN’R and Bowie. Sales weren’t amazing, but they were promising enough to earn them a shot at a second album. Only the scene in L.A. was… you know, L.A.—not exactly conducive to getting shit done. They somehow hooked up with Kristof, who’d spent some time working for the record companies and also possibly as an international arms dealer, but we don’t talk about that, who offered to not only manage the band but bankroll a trip to New York City, because no distractions in New York, right? That last part was sarcasm, K. assures me.

They moved into the Chelsea eight months ago. Herman was thrilled to have them as guests, giving them the suite that had belonged to Janis because, as he told them, he truly believed in Nate’s ahtistic pahtental. Herman loves artists, K. explains. She thinks the paintings in the lobby are gifts he’s accepted over the years in lieu of rent.

We order a second round of margaritas. “How’s the album coming?” I ask.

“Ah,” she says with a sigh. “The album.”

One month into their stay at the Chelsea, Brett, the bass player, died of a brain aneurysm.

The grieving process went on for nearly two months before they met Brett’s replacement, Ralphie from Queens, during Thrash Day at CBGB. Ralphie was good, probably better than Brett—very Les Claypool—but Brett was like mellow peace-sign dude, while Ralphie is, you know, intense. The retooled Venomous Iris managed to record four songs before Ralphie punched Clem in the face, which, spend any time with Clem, is pretty much inevitable. Ralphie took off and the next three guys sucked. Scott, the drummer, got so fed up with the scene he quit and enrolled at Columbia—grad school in psychology. But Clem finally patched things up with Ralphie and they were going to start recording again as soon as Scott was done with finals. Nate thought the album—now they were calling it Hell’s Sweet Gravity—might be done by Christmas, but with all of the holiday parties, postparties, and postparty recovery time, it would be a major accomplishment not to mention a minor miracle if they were done by spring.

K. looks at me to gauge my interest. “Am I boring you yet?” she asks. I tell her she’s not and order another round of drinks to prove it.

In another bit of irony, what had been bad for the band had been good for K. A week into their stay, on the elevator—the Chelsea’s elevator is quite the scene—she met Ray Mondavi. He lived on the eighth floor, where he had a photography studio, and he offered to take a new set of modeling photos to help get her back into circulation. That wasn’t all he offered, but if you know Ray you know he just can’t help himself and no, nothing ever happened. He showed the pictures to John at Elite who booked her an ad on a billboard that had brought traffic on Broadway to a near halt and now John was claiming that she was at the top of the list for next year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Not that she believes him—she knows all the stories—but shit, fingers crossed, right?

K. crosses her fingers, waving them at me like she’s casting a spell. “I am now officially finished with talking about me,” she says. “You’re up.”

Three margaritas are exactly enough to get me started on Daphne. “We’ll save my story for our next date,” I say, placing two twenties on the table to cover the tab.

“I’m not sure Nate would like that.” When she grins, I think of that movie with the cartoon rabbit. I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way. I can see why K. would make an effective fashion model.

I rise to my feet to leave. Always leave them wanting more. But it doesn’t take me too long to recognize the flaw in my strategy: I have nowhere to go.

“You’re going home?” she asks, not quite innocently.

“Yeah, no, I don’t really have a home….”

“Oh…”

I can almost hear the doors closing in her brain as her opinion of me moves from “cute mystery guy” to “sad homeless waif.”

“I mean I’m staying in Long Island until I find a place in the city,” I add quickly. “I just started looking.”

“There’s always the Chelsea,” she says cheerily.

When a door closes, I reflect, a window opens. My second idiotic platitude in thirty seconds, I realize, a sure sign that I’m getting drunk. “I don’t know. I got the distinct impression from Herman that he might not like me hanging around.”

“I’ll bet I can change his mind.” The stony lethargy has drained from her eyes, replaced by something competitive and maybe a little feral. I let her drag me back to the front desk, where for Herman’s benefit I am reinvented as a struggling poet who’s just inherited a small sum from a dear aunt whose dying request was that I use it to launch my career. I have a unique and important voice, a cross between Stevens and Bukowski, and the New Yorker recently expressed interest.

I can tell that Herman’s not an idiot, but K. isn’t the kind of woman you’re inclined to argue with, not if you’re inclined toward women. In the end, her radioactive blues trump his skeptical stare and I am offered Room 242, at a rent there’s no way I can afford, just as soon as I can come up with first and last plus a $1,200 deposit. “I nuh ha diffacut poetry can be,” he assures me.

I shake Herman’s hand, give K. an awkward cross between a hug and a kiss, and exit the lobby into the icy night. My jacket is still hanging right where I left it. I reach inside and find Danny Carr’s business card.

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