The Heartbreak Hotel
David I. Aboulafia
REDEMPTION can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Sometimes it lies only at the end of a long and bitter road littered with the remains of souls torn and tattered by the sharp dagger of lost opportunity, and stained by the tears of regret, then strewn and scattered upon the asphalt like empty beer cans or shredded tires.
At other times it resides deep within our spirits and our hearts, but remains so vague and ambiguous, so transitory and fleeting, that we may search for it our entire lives, never knowing it was at hand all the time.
And, every now and again, it waits to be discovered just around the next bend and a few steps to the right, through a nondescript entrance way located by a lamppost on a corner at the edge of forever.
Such a place existed, once upon a time. It was a real place made of brick and of mortar, of travertine and gold, of marble imported from Italy and rich walnut scavenged from the grandiose office of an infamous Wall Street tyrant who leaped to his death from a twelve-story window on a gorgeous fall day in October of 1929.
It was a place of desperation and last chances. Where dreams were realized and fortunes were made. Where love was found and love was lost.
It was a place of loneliness, and violence, and remorse. It was a place people were drawn to without their having to consider why. A place they needed to come to, that compelled them inside.
For most of the guests, there was a reason why they came.
The reason was always the same.
They came because they had somewhere else to go.
Something must have happened to The Hotel Albert somewhere along the way. Some people thought it might have started in one of its vast corridors or luxurious upper floor suites. Some believed it was something about the dirt and the granite its predecessor lodges had been built upon. Others mused that it was something floating in the air that had somehow gotten inside, that had permeated the place, and stayed, and that had changed everything.
It was none of these things, not really.
But something had happened.
You see, some people’s transgressions adhere to them like an oil stain upon a concrete pavement, burrowing into their souls like insects until they won’t be removed, infecting them, leaving a cancer inside, buried away somewhere, something that manages to survive the decades.
Sometimes our evil becomes ethereal and timeless, of such everlasting a nature that it becomes capable of traversing the unthinkable borders separating life from death itself.
Oftentimes, such wickedness is not an act, but a failure to. For acquiescence can be as great a sin as malevolence, and passivity a greater wrongdoing than murder.
And, sometimes, the horrors of our omissions give rise to certain things, things independent of ourselves, like a play, the effects of which are felt offstage. They acquire an intelligence and a will, a life of their own. The stink of it refuses to dissipate.
It lingers in the air. It stays.
And it carries things with it. It takes people along for the ride. It wipes away the laws of psychics, and all systems of order and belief, and reality, too, the world as we know it, and with it, time itself.
In The Hotel Albert, all the years were mixed up into one big handful of goo. The Hotel was above time, it was beyond it, it skirted it somehow. To walk through its doors was to not merely step back into time. It was to disregard it.
Some guests noticed the difference. But most didn't care. Even if they did, there was little they could do about it, anyway, except leave.
If they could.
The Hotel Albert was the fourth and last hotel to stand upon its site. It had been known by many names.
But those who knew it the best...those who knew what it was, and those who knew what it could do...
...they called it The Heartbreak Hotel.
The Hotel Albert rose from the ashes of the Flamingo Hotel, a mid-nineteenth century fleabag of a three-story rooming house located on a large lot on the corner of University Place and East 11th Street, in what would come to be called The Village in New York City.
The Flamingo was a home to bedbugs and vagrants, the deprived, the depraved, and the dispossessed. Mice could be heard shuttling along the borders of its dark hallways all night long, one after the other, as if part of a rumba line. Every now and then a rat, somewhat bolder than its smaller cousins, would slither across the bare feet of a transient resident, who would shriek his horror and surprise into the murky and unforgiving shadows. There were water bugs as large as a man's index finger.
Every curtain in every room was worn and tattered. One kerosene lamp was placed in each, ensuring an enduring odor of coal tar that mixed with the stink produced by the cheap cigars sold in the lobby. Sparse coal gas lighting – four lamps in the lobby and one lamp at opposite ends of each of the hallways of the upper floors – lent a bare illumination to the Hotel’s wretched passageways.
But there was always wood to be found in the fireplaces of every room. Chimneys were kept clean, flues were oiled regularly, and residents were generally ensured they would not freeze during any cold winter night, nor suffocate from the fumes of their fires in the dead of it. Fresh bread and olive oil were delivered at eight in the morning to all guests, including the poorest among them, a compliment of Management. The bathroom at the end of each hall had hot water some of the time. Coffee could be brought to your room at any time of the day or the evening at your request. It was bitter, and you had to be willing to wait for it. But it was usually piping hot, and it was also free.
Notwithstanding the bare amenities of the place, it was generally accepted that if you had reached the doors of the Bird, as the locals called it, you had come to the end of the road. It was so named in deference to the garish pink creature with a yellow beak painted on the swinging double doors that functioned as the entrance to the Hotel.
To enter you were required to slice the thing neatly in half.
In those days, everyone knew who ran the Flamingo, but no one could divine who owned it.
No one cared. It was enough that the Neighborhood knew the proprietor and considered him to be one of their own, despite the overall shabbiness of the dwelling house he oversaw. Everyone called him Mr. Victor, and he could be seen most any time of the day or the night standing behind the front desk of his establishment. He dressed formerly for the task, and he seemed to put some importance to it, as if a neatly pressed suit could somehow remove the dank chill from the staircase of the Flamingo, or as if a colorful tie might brighten the shadowy gloom of its corridors.
He always had a slightly haggard look to him, almost certainly the result of a lack of sleep, but he would never admit to fatigue. If asked about his general health or state of well-being, he would typically just say that the Hotel was “keeping him busy,” or that he was "still feeling his way around her," or even add that he "was still a little new to all of this."
That was always curious. Mr. Victor had been with the Flamingo since forever.
He had a niece in her twenties, and a charmer she was, never found to be lacking a broad grin on her face. She fairly bounced her way along, where conventional folk of more orthodox nature might have walked or strolled, and she seemed to bring with her an air of muted euphoria wherever she was to be found.
She was a kindhearted soul, and had a natural innocence, and one could not help but be happy to see her. She would always remember your name, and always greet you by it.
It seemed to be a rule of some kind.
She was conventionally employed - more often than not - and had no lack of assignments and offers to sew or teach lessons to children. She liked to feel useful – you could tell that about her – and she always seemed to gain a subtle pleasure from helping someone along.
And - to be sure - she was known on rare occasion to permit the often-generous company of a middle-aged man; but only in the most modest of ways. They all needed more mother than lover, she had always said, and the former occupation was one that came naturally to her.
She had a two-bedroom suite on the second floor of the hotel, which Mr. Victor ensured would always be hers. She was alone in the world – this was true – and the proprietor was not ignorant of the fact he was her sole surviving relative. But he rarely offered a kind word, and was often abrupt, at other times merely feigning a disinterest in her. A bystander might have thought he felt put upon, or harried by what he perceived as a certain flightiness on the part of an unworthy charge.
But this was more parlor trick and play-acting than anything else. He adored her, and she knew it, and she adored him, and without him having to ask at all, she would spontaneously appear at the front desk at most any hour of the day or night, and fall into such duties as there were to perform, insisting he rest for a time.
All of this was strange only because the parties to this unspoken acknowledgement could not confess to their feelings. But we humans are strange, and the relationships we form with each other stranger still.
The Hotel was somehow out of place, out of its time, even then, even considering the eccentricity of the Neighborhood, with its quirky shops and peculiar galleries, bohemian coffee houses and dark pubs, all interspersed among neat row houses and stately residences.
Among these was an aphotic and tapestry-filled town home located at 177A Bleeker Street, which housed a particular denizen by the name of Strange, a doctor, whose professional practice was medicine, but who more than dabbled in the art of sorcery.
The Flamingo had been a relatively good neighbor for a long while. It had never caused anyone any real trouble. Hell, it was needed, in its way. No one seemed to require directions to the place, and it wasn't as if any signage announced its location. There was just the bird on the doors. And they just came. Whomever needed a room. The accommodations were affordable, owing to the general condition of the place, everyone imagined. And, the fact was that no guest had ever been unable to pay the sum of money asked of them to stay.
The Flamingo never turned anyone away. That seemed to be a rule. A bed was always assured.
Of course, there did come a time when some guests would ultimately be asked to pay a sum in excess of that which they could afford.
But that’s the story, isn’t it?
Many people had died there over the years of varied causes. A few had checked in with the intent of never checking out. Some came to flee from death, as was the case in 1854, when a Cholera epidemic swept relentlessly through the streets of New York City, from house to house, block after block. Thousands died by the summer of that year, and Uptowners flooded the Village as if it were a raft in the open sea, seeking any oasis they could reach where the disease might not follow, or where it had not already been.
Greenwich Village was largely unaffected by the crisis for reasons no one really understood. So many lost souls flocked to the Flamingo during those days, seeking sanctuary, as it were, and they weren't treated differently from any other guest. All were greeted with a comforting smile, and a cordial "Welcome to the Flamingo." Then, they were personally ushered to their temporary abodes, and that was that. The scant belongings of some of these guests – who always seemed to have left their permanent dwellings in such a rush – were sometimes escorted by a local ruffian with bright red hair and a dirty face named Timmy, ably equipped by the Management with a rather impressive, bright gold bellboy's uniform with a faded red "T" embroidered above the left breast pocket.
All of the wayfarers were grateful for the shelter. Most were visibly shaken from their ordeals and fatigued from their travels. A few were paranoid or panicked. Some were visibly ill.
It mattered not. Anyone who needed to come to the Flamingo was welcome. That's why it was there.
People seemed to move through the Flamingo that year, rather than merely stop by for a while and then move on. There was a strange flow to the guests, whose character and quality were so sundry and diverse that they appeared to represent the entire world. As varied as they were, they came and went so quickly it was easy to get one or a pair of them confused with another. It was as if everyone and anyone, regardless of their wealth, or occupation, or stripe, or standing in life, were being asked to pass through the twin doors of the Bird like it was a gauntlet or some kind; a gateway to somewhere else, through which they were first required to pass.
There was a strange and subtle change in the stale air hanging above these temporary residents, as well, and a change to the Hotel itself.
Perhaps it was just in the process of becoming. Perhaps it was finding itself, in a way, like a bloom opening to the sun.
But the people who stayed at the Flamingo came from the outside, and they all brought some of the things from the outside with them, including cholera. Death finds cholera a fine omen of things to come, much like the captain of a ship lost at sea might perceive a bird that has landed on its bow. So, too, did Death find the residents of the Flamingo.
It was around this time that everyone noticed how efficient Mr. Victor was in the disposal of the occasional dead body. Corpses were to be expected, after all, and even though no one in the Village may have witnessed any of their next-door neighbors dying from the plague, they were fully aware that Death surrounded them on every side. This scourge hadn't been as bad as the epidemic of '50, when the American president himself had died of it, but it was bad, and everyone in the Neighborhood knew they were all sitting on a good thing, a little piece of somewhere that the Great Overseer had decided to overlook for a time and spare his wraith.
But when Death did come a-calling, most were blithely unaware that anyone had passed at all. The wagon came so early - at 4 o’clock in the morning every other week or so - manned by a driver whose eager comportment could be partially explained by the abundant compensation he would receive for his venture, even considering the ungodliness of the hour.
He was a tall man and a handsome one at that, with an intelligent, trustworthy face. He was reliable and punctual and always happy to serve. Pleasant words of greeting were the first you were likely to hear from him. He possessed numerous qualities incongruous with his chosen profession. He looked to be the kind of man you might have chosen to be your liaison or your concierge, your confidant, or your gatekeeper.
He was accompanied by his son, a strapping young lad of nineteen years – with a face that could fairly be described as beautiful, cast in the mold of his father – and who would be called upon to do most of the heavy lifting. He was a buoyant young man, soft-spoken and mannerly and, like his sire, always with a smile upon his face.
A thin sheet of dense fog tended to roll down the narrow streets of the Neighborhood almost every morning in those days. Maybe it was because the Hudson was so much closer then, all of that landfill not having been dumped into the river at the outer edges of Manhattan Island yet; I don't know. But these men worked in this murkiness as a matter of course, and paid it little mind, as their sorry loads were transferred from the rear entrance of The Hotel located halfway down Eleventh Street toward University Avenue. It never took very long; fifteen minutes, tops. And, then it was done, and the wagon was gone and quickly consumed by the mist. Where the bodies were to be taken was left to the discretion of the driver.
If you were the kind that didn't sleep fitfully; if you were kept awake by the common settling of a home, or by wind in the rafters, or the rustling of bed sheets, or by things that go bump in the night, well… maybe you'd stir and remove your head from your pillow at that wee hour, and look out your window, and see this crew at work, and understand that when you close your eyes at night, the world goes on, and sometimes in ways you would never expect.