I was six when I saw my first angel — a beautiful man who roamed the halls naked save a cloth diaper and massive feather wings. He never spoke.
There were ghosts, too, in the Chelsea Hotel, the Manhattan landmark where I grew up. There were also addicts and artists and addict artists. And an old woman with a bouffant who sat in front of her apartment in a wheelchair accusing guests of stealing from her.
These were my neighbors and my friends. I loved them. My father sometimes joked that the Chelsea Hotel was the last stop before the mental institution. It was a circus. It was a haunted home.
Some people came to meet the ghosts (Leonard Cohen, Arthur Miller, Nancy Spungen). Others checked in, never moved out, and became ghosts themselves. To live permanently in a hotel is to want to stop time. I grew up in a cradle of other people’s nostalgia.
Infighting among the owners led to the sale of the hotel. At the time I was wearing braces with blue rubber bands. Then the hotel was sold again — and again. I was still wearing braces. After that, the place was closed to nonresident guests for renovations that went on for years. Most of the people I grew up with were evicted.
I headed off to college and began to forget that I had ever lived with angels and ghosts. When I went back home during school vacations, the hotel was in a state of transformation. I had to push aside a thick plastic tarp to keep the construction dust out of my parents’ apartment.
After graduation I moved into a ground-floor apartment on Saint Marks Place, about 15 blocks away from the building where I had grown up. My bed was a few feet from the street, and I used various strategies and props to drown out the nonstop noise — a white noise machine, ASMR on loop, a wraparound noise-canceling headset that made me feel bionic.
I furnished the place with treasured junk from the Chelsea Flea. One of the vendors told me: “Nicolaia, you’re about to enter your Hemingway years. Either you get married, get drunk and get a Nobel Prize — or you blow your brains out. If you’re lucky, it’s a combo.”
One night I was woken by a noise I didn’t recognize: the sound of my own gasping. Two weeks later, it happened again — choking in the middle of the night. I ended up in the emergency room, where they filled me with antibiotics and steroids.
I developed an itchy burning rash from the medication that stretched from my thighs to my armpits. For months afterward I was either getting ill, ill,…
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