On West 23rd Street, smack between two ugly avenues, sits the Hotel Chelsea.
Only the clueless tourists who are forced to snap pictures of her underwhelming exterior by their misfit goth nieces back home in Missouri, call her the Hotel Chelsea. The rest of us — misfit gothic nieces included — call her the Chelsea Hotel.
But to the old-world gallery dwellers of downtown, she’s simply — *lights cigarette and scowls at happy yuppie walking puppy* — The Chelsea.
Born in 1884, the twelve-story building was once the tallest in the city. And in her mid-century heyday, she housed every iteration of New York artist, messy heiress, and falling star.
In the spring of 1968 tortured rock legend, Janis Joplin lived in The Chelsea. So did, brooding singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. “I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel. You were talking so brave and so sweet. Giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street,” he wrote of their fourth-floor affair in the song, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.”
Before she was a queen of New York’s early punk-rock scene and before his exquisite portraits of gay men and bondage rendered him an artworld darling, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe cohabitated in room 1017, the smallest unit in The Chelsea. The year was 1969 and rent cost fifty-five dollars a week.
Dumb boys with creepy ponytails who won’t pay for your drinks at KGB bar will tell you that Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road while staying there. But the elite of generation beat knows that’s wrong. Kerouac and Gore Vidal famously fucked at The Chelsea, following a 1953 bar-crawl.
Blue-blooder and sparkly Warholian superstar, Edie Sedgwick set her mattress ablaze after falling asleep candle-still-lit in room 105. A decade later, down the hall, Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols would be accused of stabbing his young, troubled lover Nancy to death, in room 100.
Bob Dylan wrote “Blonde on Blonde” in room 211. They auctioned the original door for six figures.
The Chelsea — which, according to Keith Richards, only used to hire bellboys who were “certified drug dealers” is glamourous to the kind of people who glamorize bad behavior and dying for art’s sake.
Naturally, Violet and Gabriella were obsessed with the place. “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” had been playing on a loop in their heads for as long as they could remember.
Violet discovered The Chelsea through her love of Edie Sedgwick, such is the case for most stylish girls with daddy issues.
Gabriella was introduced through her Aunt Valentina, a transgender performance artist turned Long Island school teacher, who’d wax poetic to Gabriella about her alleged affair with a Nigerian oil heiress in room 501.
“That room was the grandest room of ALL the rooms in The Chelsea,” she’d slurred to Gabriella, then an impressionable teenager with a retainer and clip-on bangs. “We did mountains of cocaine and made love until the sun rose over the isle of Manhattan. It was marvelous.”
Gabriella twirled a plastic ring from Wet Seal around her prosthetic finger. “Should I try coke?”
“Honey, I learned a long time ago that blow is for bad girls,” she paused to refill her mug of wine. “Good girls —” she slurped her sauvignon and smirked, “we stick to wine.”
“What’s blow?” Gabriella asked but Valentia didn’t hear her. She was too busy humming along to the Christmas music blasting through her kitchen. Like all manic-depressives, Valentina played Christmas music twelve months a year.
Gabriella recounted this story to Violet on the rooftop of Violet’s building last week. Tenants were forbidden from being up there, but to pretty young things, rules are suggestions.
“Your Aunt sounds cool,” Violet purred into the half-moon. They were sharing a blunt and sipping wine from a bottle shivering in faux fur. “Did she ever take you there?”
“Nah,” gray smoke steamed from her lips. She’d just had a syringe of filler injected into her mouth and looked like a pornstar. “She was supposed to but —” she passed the blunt to Violet.
“— but what?” She brushed a fallen ember off her coat.
“We made it to twenty-first street before she had one of her signature meltdowns.” Gabriella giggled, a sweet, sensual high slowly pouring warm candle wax over her brain. “She saw an Equinox gym I think? Or was it a Whole Foods? I don’t remember. But what I do remember is her screaming ‘DOWNTOWN IS DEAD’ at the top of her lungs, dragging me by the ponytail fifteen blocks to Penn Station.”
Violet leaned backward and flattened her torso into the cement. “I get it.”
Gabriella lay down next to her and stared soulfully into the stars. “So do I.”
The two best friends leaned their heads together and grieved silently for a New York they’d never met and never would. Because that New York had died in the ‘80s when crack and glam rock replaced LSD and poetry.
“I remember you well at The Chelsea Hotel, you were famous your heart was a legend,” their guardian angels sang from the sky, ‘cause let’s face it. Neither girl would have a spirit guide who wasn’t a fan of Leonard Cohen.
A few days later they were lazily strolling through Alphabet City when Violet casually chirped: “I got us a room at The Chelsea for your birthday.”
Gabriella halted in her six-inch over-the-knee boots. “What?”
“I got us a room at The Chelsea for your birthday. It’s booked.” Violet was wearing a mint-smocked baby doll dress under a powder-blue faux fur which she kept taking on and off. She’d had a mild fever for several days and was teetering between piping hot and freezing cold.
“You’re kidding?!” Gabriella shrieked so loudly the intravenous drug user shooting up on the stoop to the left stared at them transfixed.
Violet’s hazel eyes were spinning like two yellow dreidels. Suddenly sweating, she ripped her coat off and hugged Gabriella. “I’ve never had a friend like you.” Her clammy body was sticky against Gabriella’s red patent trench.
Gabriella hugged Violet back. “That’s lowkey offensive.” Tears pooled out of her chocolate-almond eyes. Her fake mink lashes dampened Violet’s face. “You’re a fucking sister.”
Violet pulled away.
Gabriella sadly watched big wrought-iron gates spring from the cracks in the sidewalk and prison guard Violet’s heart. But she didn’t say anything. She just popped a stick of juicy fruit into her pornographic pout. “Bitch,” she chomped.“What the fuck are we going to wear?”
Aunt Valentina, much like Gabriella, was vastly different from her family in Massapequa, Long Island. For starters, she’d rocked her traditional Italian-American parents when she’d come out as a transgender woman in the early seventies.
Whenever Valentina babysat a young Gabriella, Gabriella would bat her lashes and squeal in the bath: “Please! Please, Auntie Val! Tell me the story of when you told Nonna you were a woman?”
Valentina would throw her elegant hands into the air and theatrically recount how her mother, Flavia, upon hearing the news, had collapsed onto the plastic-wrapped couch of their Howard Beach apartment.
“She didn’t come to for over six minutes. Can you believe that? Six minutes! We thought she was dead!” The number of minutes swelled each time she told the story, but Gabriella didn’t care. This was her favorite bedtime story.
And according to Long Island suburban legend, right as Flavia’s husband Guiseppe was about to call the paramedics she’d hopped onto her feet, rushed into the bathroom, popped three valiums, and locked the door of her bedroom. Twenty-one hours later, she appeared in the kitchen, bright coral lipstick freshly applied, hair expertly sprayed into a series of indestructible curls, magnificent turquoise swing dress twirling in the breeze of the ceiling fan. She’d first winked at her chainsmoking, nervous-wreck husband, Guiseppe. Then she’d winked at Gabriella’s mother (then a teenager). Lastly, she winked at Valentina (formerly Valentino).
“Valentina, would you prefer we have ravioli or ziti for dinner?” she asked, flashing a brilliant smile.
“Oh, ravioli, for sure,” Valentina answered in her typical entitled way.
“Well too bad ‘cause I’m making ziti!” Flavia bellowed, her pearlescent skin gleaming like never before.
And that was that. Valentina was accepted by everyone in the family — besides one chin-less cousin, no one liked anyway.
But it wasn’t just her gender identity that set Valentina apart from the pack. Instead of getting a “union job” like the rest of her siblings, she’d moved to New York at seventeen to become an artist. She’d hung out at the Warhol Factory and claimed to have had her heart smashed by Jackson Pollock. She’d dropped acid with Dennis Hopper in Peru. She’d had a brief stint working as the executive assistant to a notorious Hollywood Madam. She’d danced on tables at Studio 54. She’d lost all her money to a multi-level marketing scheme and moved to Long Island right when Gabriella was born. But being dead broke, single, and living with her Republican sister in Bayshore didn’t stop her from terrorizing the town with her pink feathered hair bursting into local school board meetings (despite having no children of her own) demanding MORE FUNDING FOR THE ARTS!
Even though she could be a nasty drunk and fiercely criticized Gabriella’s poetry, Gabriella and Valentina were as close as can be. Without Valentina, Gabriella wouldn’t know anything about art or The Chelsea Hotel. Without Valentina, Gabriella wouldn’t have known that the most powerful thing a unique girl can do is throw sequins over the very sparkle that set her apart.
Later that night Gabriella sobbed in the shower.
She sobbed because she missed her family on Long Island. Especially Aunt Valentina who, for reasons unbeknownst to her, refused to speak to her since she’d moved to the city.
She sobbed because there was $-25 in her bank account and rent was due next week and how the fuck was she going to pull it off?
She sobbed because despite the heaps of attention, something about New York made her feel squat and ordinary.
She sobbed because her boss at the sex magazine she worked for had yelled at her in front of her superiors three days in a row.
She sobbed because even though she’d always longed to live alone, excruciating pangs of loneliness shot through her bones like growing pains.
But mainly she sobbed because finally —
all of her dreams were coming true.
It was a foggy November evening in 2007 and the Chelsea Hotel was music-less and sucked dry by the radiator. Besides a handful of old iconoclasts huddled over a bucket of moonshine in room 304, the only trouble makers in the building were the ghosts of former residents, pissed off about the institution’s new management. Every hour or so Dee Dee Ramone would rise from the dead and furiously shake newly hung paintings ‘til a trust-fund girl skittered away screaming into the street.
But a wild electricity jolted the dull air awake when Gabrillea came stomping through the lobby blowing bright red bubbles of Juicy Fruit, a fresh set of lashes tickling her shimmery brow bone, mesmerized, emotional, and ready to turn twenty-seven.
She slung her vinyl pink weekender bag off her shoulder and watched it thump against the floor of room 506. “Warhol shot some of ‘Chelsea Girls,’ in that room, you know,” Violet had gushed down the phone, just last night. She hadn’t heard from Violet since.
BANG. BANG. BANG. Pounding against the door of her room tore Gabriella from her thoughts.
“Violet!” Gabriella swung open the door, too relieved to be angry. “I’ve been so worried about you, where have you — ”
“Surprise!” belted a stable of eclectic dykes. Gabriella gasped. Piled outside of room 506 stood Patra, Imani, and Dara, curious eyes fox-trotting like ballroom dancers, clutching magnums of champagne and tinfoil boxes filled with pink cupcakes.
Imani swagged into the room and plopped on the queen bed. “Isn’t Violet with you?”
Dara followed her, fumbling with the foil of the champagne bottle she was holding. “She’s probably in the bathroom downstairs writing a mentally ill poem she’ll ask to critique at 4 a.m.”
Patra stood quietly in the doorway.
“She’s here right? I mean this was her idea,” Dara pressed, twisting the champagne cork. POP. Just the right amount of bubbles oozed from the sides of the bottle.
“I don’t know where Violet is. I can’t reach her,” Gabriella instantly resented the quiver in her voice. She felt childish and dumb in her new pleather catsuit and matching dog collar.
“Well, I, for one, am worried. Yeah, Violet can be a fuck up, be she’s a fuck up who shows up,” Dara began to nervously pace in the tiny, historic space.
“Seriously. Let’s go over to her apartment, NOW,” Imani announced, her inner basketball captain taking over.
“No.” Patra glowered. “No one is going anywhere.” She stepped into the room and clicked the door closed. “I refuse to let Violet ruin Gabriella’s night.”
“But aren’t you, like, nervous?” Dara asked anxiously.
“Absolutely fucking not. Violet’s fine. She’s being a selfish piece of shit, that’s all.” She stalked over to Gabriella. “Trust me. I’ve known her the longest,” she rasped in a sexy, lazy voice. “Now let’s get fucked up and celebrate the birth of the hottest lesbian in New York.”
The girls, grateful for instruction, did as they were told and partied in the Chelsea hotel before hopping into a Dolly’s-bound cab at nine-ish as planned, buzzed and beautiful in leather and chains. Their incessant chatter left no room for the darkness of the truth: That perhaps Violet’s seemingly indestructible light had finally blown itself out.
Dolly’s was packed with queers hailing from a multitude of generations dressed in their own, unique interpretations of bondage chic. Most of them didn’t even know the birthday girl. But that’s the thing about party gays. They have no shame. They’ll show up at a stranger’s door dressed to the nines all in the name of having a good time.
Patra grabbed Gabriella by the shoulders and marched her through the crowd so quickly, Jack who was in ass-less chaps over wrinkled corporate slacks, didn’t even notice them speed past her eyes. Patra shoved Gabriella into the tiny dive bar bathroom, pressed her against the graffitied walls, and kissed her hard.
Gabriella kissed her back.
It wasn’t a particularly sexual kiss but it also wasn’t a-sexual. It wasn’t a particularly passionate kiss but it also wasn’t meaningless. It wasn’t a particularly happy kiss but it also wasn’t sad.
It was a necessary kiss between two friends who need a fucking second before getting swept away in the dancefloor tornado.
It was a procrastination kiss.
But it still felt nice.
Like numbing out to a shitty pop song on the radio because you know real art will make you cry and holyshit — you’re over crying. It was a kiss to get lost in, like a video game.
I remember you well at the Chelsea Hotel. That’s all. I don’t even think of you that often. The walls of Dolly’s softly sang until Gabriella and Patra forgot all about their missing friend.