Friday, September 3, 2010

Livin' It Up at the Hotel Pennsylvania

Me outside the Empire State Building
(on the right!) on the trip in question.
The first time I stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania was in the fall of 2004. I had turned 30 a year previously, and had recently concluded it was time for me to be done waiting. I had spent the bulk of my adult life waiting for a mate -- somebody to make me complete, an actual grownup. It was only then, I thought, that I could embark on grownup adventures like trips to New York. Who would ever do such a thing on their own?

There was an obstacle, however: Money. I wasn’t poor, exactly, but I was a journalist, and of course had little money saved. But the idea of a New York trip -- centered around the annual New Yorker Festival -- had taken hold of me.

So I resolved to be profligate -- I would use a credit card -- but not too profligate. I would stay at the cheapest non-scary hotel I could find in Manhattan. A search at gave me just one plausible answer. For less than $200 a night, I could stay at the Hotel Pennsylvania.

What the website didn’t tell me, I would glean soon enough: That once upon a time, the Hotel Pennsylvania had been a thriving New York City hotspot; that Glenn Miller and his band had played there; that Miller’s famous song, “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” took its name from the hotel’s phone number. All I really knew was that in photographs on the Internet, pictures of the rooms looked clean. That was all I needed.

And when I arrived at the hotel, fresh off a plane from Kansas, I was initially dazzled. The lobby was beautiful! You had to show your key to a doorman to get on the elevator! The elevator had a TV! What kind of luxury was this?

My perspective changed when the elevator doors opened on the 14th floor. The hallway was ominous: Threadbare carpeting and dim light, lined by a row of room doors that -- in their size and bulk -- looked like they belonged on meat lockers, or in a morgue.

This is my main memory of the room: A huge, blotchy stain on the carpet that very much appeared to be the result of somebody bleeding to death about 30 years prior. The furnishings, with the exception of the television, seemed to have gone unchanged since the 1970s.

I kind of loved it. No Disneyfied Giuliani New York for me! I was staying in an honest-to-goodness fleabag hotel! This, I felt, revealed something important and flattering about my character.

The Hotel Pennsylvania thus became my New York City lodestar. I spent the next few days walking as far as my legs could carry me around Manhattan. Down the Avenue of the Americas, eventually to Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, where I was challenged to a chess game. Up through Times Square, to Central Park. One night, I stumbled back to my room -- tipsy on free wine -- up a darkened section of Broadway, returning from a New Yorker event. Another late night, I found myself with a handful of fishnetted thigh -- I’m still not certain how -- as a Greek hooker offered me her services not far from the Ed Sullivan Theater. By the end of my stay, my feet were covered with blisters. Every night, though, they carried me back to the Hotel Pennsylvania.

So I was a little sad to find out the hotel is not long for this world. Sometime in the next few years, it will be demolished to make way for a giant new skyscraper they say will rival the nearby Empire State Building on the New York skyline.

That makes me wistful, because the Hotel Pennsylvania is still where I start my New York experience. The BoltBus from Philadelphia -- where I live now -- drops its passengers at nearby Penn Station. When I visit, I always walk to the hotel to get my bearings, then stroll down 33rd Street for breakfast and the New York Post at Times Square Bagel and Deli, which is nowhere near Times Square. After that, I can begin my business in the city.

It is likely, however, that I have contributed in a small way to the hotel’s demise. Two years after that first stay, I returned to New York -- on a honeymoon. I’d finally grown up. It seemed unwise and unromantic, however, to subject my new wife to bloodstains and a rickety bed. We stayed at a Holiday Inn.

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