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Canadians in New York: The Chelsea Hotel

By rob mclennan

Despite parboiling myself in the shower a few times I began to like the hotel, or at least some of the residents, or denizens as some liked to call themselves. You could get high in the elevators on the residue of marijuana smoke. ‘What smoke?’ Mr Bard would ask indignantly.

Allen Ginsberg was hawking his new Fuck You magazine in the lobby sometimes, Warhold was shooting film in one of the suites, and a young woman with eyes so crazy that one remembered them as being above one another, would show up in the lobby now and then, distributing a ream of mimeographed curses on male people whom she accused of destroying her life and everything good, and threatening to shoot a man one of these days. I had a serious talk, or what I took to me one, with Mr Bard and his son Stanley who was gradually taking over, but they pooh-poohed the idea of her doing anything rash. As I slowly learned, they were simply not interested in bad news of any kind. Of course she shot Warhol two days later as he was entering the lobby from 23rd Street, aiming for his balls.
                - Arthur Miller, “The Chelsea Affect,” Granta 78 (summer 2002)

I remember you well, Leonard Cohen crooned about Janis Joplin. I don’t even need to complete the line, one everybody well knows, or possibly should. For some time now, Lainna and I have talked of the Chelsea, a possible few weeks in New York, wishing somewhere for the sake of new space, to catch what the overly familiar can never find. Not travel writing but staying, about being, after the perpetual arrival wears away. What is it about needing to get out of one’s daily routine to reinvigorate, to get anything done? British writer Neil Gaiman once said in an interview he sometimes takes a motel room to finish projects. An anonymous room in a town where he knows no one. After some research online, Lainna claims the rooms expensive, says we could find better. She lists a few cheaper alternatives, more elegant, perhaps, but without that rustic charm of the Chelsea. The romantic past, echoing into the present. But she likes what she sees. Still, she says, why would you want to go there?

What is the Canadian fascination with New York in general? It’s probably obvious. When Ottawa writer Elizabeth Hay wrote her Captivity Tales: Canadians in New York (1993), she wrote Glenn Gould, Marshall McLuhan and Joyce Wieland, not Cohen, digging broader and deeper into the city’s Canadian past. As she writes in the book, “I like my Canadians dead, it seems.” Remember late Ottawan Elizabeth Smart, writing her Grand Central Station? Briefly I wonder if Hay’s novel would have been any different had it come later, after Nick Mount’s exhaustive study, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York (2006), but probably not.

In the anthology take this waltz: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen (1994), at least half the contributors make reference to the old Chelsea, referring to Cohen’s own #2 (did Saskatchewan songwriter Joni Mitchell ever compose her own “Chateau Laurier #2,” I wonder, for Jimi Hendrix, after their own late 1960s encounter in Ottawa?). Judy Collins, as though speaking directly to Cohen about the fall of 1966, wrote “I think you were living at the Chelsea Hotel then. I remember I wasn’t drinking.” Another, Andrei Codrescu, opened his poem “for leonard cohen” with “the party was on the roof / of the chelsea hotel / above shelley winters’ penthouse / a summer breeze started up.” Of course, it always means more when you know they were there, and not sentimental about what they’d only seen second-hand. According to Brad Dunn and Daniel Hood’s New York: The Unknown City (2004), “…the ornate, 12-storey structure was the tallest building in New York north of Houston Street from its completion in 1884 until 1902, when it was eclipsed by the Flatiron Building.” An infamous hotel that, over the years, has housed artists such as Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Edie Sedgwick, Stanley Kubrick and even Rufus Wainwright.

On January 7, 2004, I caught a midnight glimpse of the infamous hotel after a reading at ACA Galleries with fellow Ottawans Stephen Brockwell and Clare Latremouille, an above/ground press feature as part of Boog City and David A. Kirschenbaum’s monthly “d.a. levy lives: celebrating the renegade press in america” series. Our first reading in New York surrounded by other Canadians, writer Corey Frost and poet Adeena Karasick, residents for some time. As Kirschenbaum wrote in a blog entry after the event, the group of us, including Aaron Kiely, Nathaniel Siegel and Kirschenbaum himself, headed for drinks at their regular post-reading hangout, Chelsea Commons:

 

And they wanted to see the Chelsea Hotel, which was only a few blocks away, so we walked over and into their lobby. They admired and took pictures of the art, which had changed since the last time I was there. And as they looked around two men around my age walked in, and I noticed that one of them was Ethan Hawke, who had moved into the hotel after Uma Thurman threw him out for cheating on her. I couldn’t yell that he was there, but said something once he was by us a bit, but they didn’t see him. Then Aaron and I went outside to get some air, and there was a hot, thin black-haired girl and a guy with her. Aaron had picked up his guitar, after having left it at the gallery a month ago for the night, a typical Aaron move, and now this girl started talking to him because of it. Wound up her and the guy were the band The Kills, basically think Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs 18 months ago. So the Canadians joined us outside and a guy leaves the hotel walking his dog, bumping into rob, and who was it, yes friends, Ethan Hawke, again.

Just at the mention of the name, the old Chelsea Hotel, visions of Cohen and Sid Vicious like sugarplums, shades of Dee Dee Ramone, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan. A misery of plaques around the door of the infamous dead who had made their way through, phone booth as old as the century inside the lobby (Miller’s recollection wasn’t entirely accurate; despite Warhol and many of his entourage through the hotel, Valerie Solanas actually fired her attempt at the artist a few blocks away at The Factory, 33 Union Square). Clare and I ran up the grand staircase ― before stopped by staff ― reciting lines from Sid and Nancy (1986), dreaming of what might have been. As Kirschenbaum himself says, outside with our American hosts, shared conversation with The Kills, and actor Ethan Hawke, in passing, to enter and leave, dog and handler in tow. A little poem I wrote at the time reflected the immediate scene, and perhaps, little more:

 

chelsea hotel

a plate of small plaques. names listless

shadow down the sidewalk. names glisten
sid vicious, l cohen. the kills

in a cigarette hold court. open. clare
runs up the stairs, saying

i am the small moment

between some. small players. ethan hawke

& his little dog, too. yellow cobblestone.

 


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com.