from Woolf's Guide to New York
Douglas Woolf

               It was quite a while since he had slept alone. Ah, once in Indiana, 
right. He had drunk almost enough to obliterate that night. What he 
minded most this night was sleeping with his clothes half on again, 
having to remember where his shoes were placed, remember to wind and 
set the clock. He had chosen the Belvedere on 34th as a one-night stop, 
halfway to the Gramercy. Not a fine choice, this ancient collection of 
paper walls and wailing springs racked throughout the night by 
incessant thump-thump-thump. Thus he awoke several times before the 
lucky clock; people were snoring in coma by the time it did. His own 
good fortune was that no one was left over in the crapulous mens and 
menses room, only a fluorescent condom drooping dejectedly over the 
enameled tub, and he could shave in clean cold water in his private 
enameled sink. It took him only a minute to repack his Wanamaker after 
               He thought to find a home for his bags before he ate. Horn & Hardharts 
had no cloakroom or hat check girls, though they did have rather roomy 
aisles. A little exercise, fresh air would do him good, in any case; he 
wasn't ready yet for a fluorescent enameled egg. Thank God he wasn't on 
a coffee clock, however comforting it might be at such a time to the 
head - his legs were quite ready to do as they were told. His head told 
them to carry those bags just as quickly as possible to the Gramercy.
               The Gramercy lay in partial shade, of trees with leaves. The topmost 
floors, the third and fourth and fifth, basked in uninterrupted 
early-morning sun. Birdsong filled the air, sparrows outnumbering 
pigeons down here. A cruising police car did not blink or bark. More 
than half the dogs had been curbed, it seemed, or were from out of town 
and knew what a gutter was for. Mothers were already locked inside the 
park. No matter that one taught her little boy to hit a fluorescent 
ball with a fluorescent bat, the other read a book. Smiling, Ray 
climbed the four steps to the Gramercy's wide-flung front door, the 
lace curtains of the wide-flung windows waving him in. The little lobby 
was airy and clean. From behind a desk a young man, blond and combed, 
smiled at him.
               The two pretty ladies seated side-by-side on straightbacked chairs 
looked up to smile too, then bend again to their laps, the white-haired 
one to her knitting, the young blonde to her magazine. Ray rested his 
bags in front of the desk, the smiling clerk.
               "Can I help you?"
               "Have you a room by the week?"
               "Why, I think so. Let me look." He consulted his file. "For just 
               "I can give you a room with private bath for $49.50, or one without 
for $38."
               "That last sounds just right." Registering, he said, "I lived here one 
winter when I was a kid."
               "Well, welcome back!"
               "Thanks." Ray took a check from his wallet. "Can I give you a check?"
               The young man studied him. "Is it local?"
               "Oh, fine." The clerk handed back the pen.
               "It'll be covered this afternoon," Ray said. "I'll deposit my paycheck 
at lunchtime."
               "Oh, fine!" He was smiling again, and slid the key.
               303 was a childhood room. The high old bed wore a fat quilt, its 
more-than-lifesize flowers yet wilting in the dim light of the 
northfacing window let in. The flowered wallpaper too. The big 
open-armed chair was over-stuffed. The wooden bureau, real, stood on 
its own. One looked lifelike in its looking glass. Near the window, a 
severe little writing table with a lovely bare-armed chair asked you 
not to forget those letters and postcards home. The grey-white curtains 
fluttered yes, yes, yes.
               He had time to open the drawers, bounce the bed, ease into the 
easychair, flop a leg over one of its arms. From here, the invitation 
was to tarry for a while, just walk a little faster when you left. Even 
beyond the window the view was rather restful; the facing wall was some 
feet away, and stone. Hardly the view of street and park that he 
remembered, but a useful counter-measure to nostalgia. The quiet of the 
airwell did seem at peace with the occasional tat-tatting of a 
typewriter, which itself he found useful, for he might otherwise have 
imagined hearing the clink of nib in inkwell.
               It was time he was walking more than a little faster; even faster, it 
turned out in the end, than he had guessed. He came in fourth. The 
three sat in a gruesome row beneath the fluorescent light, their eyes 
mesmerized by their knees and feet. The curly scholar did lift a hand 
Ray's way, the ex-hobo not. The catatonic one had been replaced, or was 
he the new one from Chance? Perhaps they called him in for debriefing 
from time to time, recycled him. They had trimmed his beard, had they 
               Jose, at his desk, was delirious. "Ray! You're back! I have your 
check," and a trip to Madison Square Garden via Bloomingdale's. To New 
York you can go home again.
               He strolled, with sleeves rolled up. In summer there are bodies once 
more, taking credit now for having borne winter's pinched pink face, 
not to mention the overcoat. Hips and thighs are studied first, before 
the face. Aha, nice match! There are those of course who stop at 
crotch. Such observations are never polite, even though the intention 
be flattery. Ignore all that, from either sex. The likely girl will 
want to see your face, however fleetingly. The friend, or innocent, or 
both, will meet your eye.
               "You can catch the crosstown bus on this street."
               This lovely was not listening, to whom, brother, boyfriend? Probably 
brother's friend, in polyenim.(r) She simply did not hear, not even the 
second time. Smiling and wide-eyed, she had an exquisite outland 
freshness such as Maureen once had had. So this is what New York is 
like, she seemed to tell herself, poor dear. Her sweet mother was 
looking and listening both. Ray smiled at them, and at brother's 
friend's shaking head. He was wrong besides. Try 59th.
               Yes, a blooming day in every way. The Garden he always liked. And the 
Sterling Bank did accept his checks, including the driveaway. With luck 
like this in the neighborhood, he thought to drop in on Alistair. The 
doorman clearly remembered him, Alistair's ladies too. As for Alistair 
himself: "Well, hello, hello . . . Ah, Raymond Chase! I was thinking 
about you just the other day!" They shook hands on that. "Come in. Sit 
down. What have you been doing with yourself."
               "I'm just back from a fast trip to the Coast."
               "Oh yes, your family." Alistair leaned across the desk to light Ray's 
cigarette, leaned smiling back with his. "You flew?"
               "No, I delivered cars both ways."
               "Oh I remember, yes. You were telling me about it at lunch that day. 
What is it again, drive-and-pay?"
               "Oh yes, of course. You were thinking of doing a magazine article on 
that, weren't you?"
               "No, probably not."
               "Say, I read your novel about the two old men." He turned to check the 
title, point it out to Ray. "I think that book will last, I think it 
               "They've made a movie of it."
               "Have they now!"
               "Have you seen Koch?"
               "Koch? I don't go to the movies very much. Was it good?"
               "They stole my book."
               "Oh dear." Alistair tamped his cigarette in the ashtray. "Hm, when I 
was in England last month someone expressed an interesting in 
reprinting one of your books."
               "Which one?"
               "Hm, let's see . . ."  He studied his fingernails.
               "Who was the publisher?"
               His hands went up. "I don't remember that."
               "You must have a record of it somewhere?"
               Alistair shook red-faced again.
               "Well," Ray said, jabbing out his cigarette, "I guess I'm on my own 
               "Oh dear."
               "I can't have my books in the hands of a man who can't even tell me 
who made an offer for what." He had not wanted to raise his voice. "Can 
               "No no."
               "Then let's part friends," Ray said, putting out his hand, "but you 
don't represent me anymore."
               "Of course, of course. Do you want your books?"
               "Please keep them. I have lots."
               Alistair showed him to the door, where they shook hands again. The 
ladies' smiles were mournful, they had heard, but not the nodding 
doorman, who knew that Ray belonged.
               It was time to walk fast again. Lunch could wait. He had little 
appetite just now. In retrospect, the Yale Club's famed crab bisque 
seemed a trifle too rich, to one of haut Horn & Hardhart taste.
               Having stopped off at Walgreen's for a Pay Day bar, Ray came in 
eighth. No problema, with a full line-up like this Jose called on his 
second string. He liked to give everyone some playing time when he 
could, give his stars some rest. Ray himself did not object, having 
been on the road a week. He could well use this chance to cross his 
legs, catch up on his paperwork. How much he had missed, and where to 
begin. Not by nature a masochist, he did nonetheless take a fiendish 
pleasure in reading The New York Times Book Review each week, see how 
the Johns were doing. Johns on Johns could be very funny, how they 
found nice things to say about themselves and one another and Catherine 
Poter. Billboard was more sobering, not to speak of Fortune and 
               Perhaps he had crossed his legs too much. They seemed to feel some 
doubt about carrying him to the grocery store, far less the Gramercy. 
Of course, he had not used them much of late, just his feet. Too, 
hadn't the Pay Day bar again decreased? Twenty years ago he would have 
known, exact, for he had used to load hundreds of them each day into 
their machines. Bars had held relatively constant then, within the 
limits of their nickel price. The dawn of the space age was when they 
broke that barrier in the early '60s. Nowadays it would take a fulltime 
research team to keep track of them. He was in no position to initiate 
that, but he could check back at Walgreen's at least.
               They had the big menu still. Seated at the counter he studied it, even 
though he always, always had the butterscotch. Yes, there it was, and 
in its picture it looked about right. Could it be that it had not 
changed, except of course in price? God and Mother only knew what the 
cost was forty-five years ago.
               "You want nuts on that?" The clean-shaven bartender was speaking to 
him. There had been ladies then, usually two of them.
               "Please." The Grand Central Walgreen's is not the place for frugality. 
Spend freely for once, with a smile, as Mother did. It was how he 
always knew the time was near to say goodbye. He could see himself in 
the mirror now. He had only been able to see Mother and Patty then. 
With the butterscotch before him, he did not have to look. He could 
concentrate on spooning little breathtaking dabs of it, as though in 
this way he could delay the "Well, are we finished now?"; the long 
climb down to the train beneath the ground, with its departure time in 
big numbers above the board out front that named his father's town; the 
long, slow walk to the crowded car, where the man in the red hat put 
their bags in the rack while all the mothers and fathers but theirs 
settled themselves; the kisses then, the smiles, the waves as the train 
jerked away; Patty's half-stifled "Don't cry. Don't cry."
               He could dab as long as he wanted today. The butterscotch must surely 
have changed, but it was impossible to say in what way. The sweetness 
still clutched the throat; the battle between hot and cold still took 
place in the front of the head. No, neither he nor the butterscotch had 
changed in those ways. Face it, he said to the mirror, you're enjoying 
this more than you used to because now you're in need of it.
                The Gramercy lay in a different light, mellower, less intent, readying 
now for a short night of rest after a long, wide-windowed day. They say 
the older you get the less sleep you need - the young say that - do 
they know that it grows more sweet? The days are each unique; the 
nights repeat. Summer talks so much; winter has less to say. Little 
wonder the lace curtains looked tired, awaiting the shades of night.
               The man behind the desk was an older one, had less hair to comb than 
the morning one, but loved his job at least as much. He loved to watch 
someone come in the door, loved to greet. He loved to remark on the 
beauty of evening, the warmth of day. Loved to swivel to his boxes, 
fondle the key to 303. What he loved best was lingering long in passing 
it. "Have a lov-ely evening."
               "Yes, you too."
               303, though resting, cool, did not look quite itself tonight - 
inviting still, however illy. He sat down in it without a beer. Ah, out 
the window the wall was gone. It had become another window, with people 
shadowing a lesser wall beyond. This morning's timid typing had given 
way to blatant stereo. The wall rebelled. The curtains shook. His 
armchair quaked - it wanted to go back home. All right, all right. He 
had to ask his legs to do the work of six, convince them that the 
exercise would in the long run do them good. The chair they understood, 
but not the bed. He coddled them: take one corner at a time. They did, 
they did, they did, they did. Soon his panting room was itself again.
               That faithful wall looked good to him! He opened a beer, to celebrate. 
To you, dear stone. To you and you and you. What, he should have bought 
a second pack? His legs said no no, nyet, not tonight. Think it over, 
he advised, throwing them over an easyarm. How will you feel at 2 a.m., 
when I'm asleep? They still said no. Oh, all right then, "I" agree. The 
head controls it all, but it doesn't control all of itself. It makes 
rules, like let's stay alert our first night in, which it is later 
baffled by. Then the legs remind. It was time to eat. There is an 
uneasy line between hemoglobin and butterscotch which chipped beef 
mocks on rye.
               The well was alive, with a girlish voice tinkling above the stereo:
               "You mean just because he's bald . . .?"
               mmunh mmunh mmunh
               "That makes him sexier?"
               mnunh mnunh
               "Wow! Let's go see!"
               "Not tonight."
               mnunh, he turned on the radio. WCBS has lots to say at any time. It 
had been warm today. Stocks were marginally up. Three kids had knifed 
an eighty-year-old Professor of International Jurisprudence, in 
daylight, two blocks from Columbia. It was the route he had taken home 
for thirty years. No one had come to help him as he bled to death. It 
was going to be warm tonight. Ray turned off.
               mmunh mmunh
               "Let me get on top . . . ."
               "Grab her other one . . ."
               "I'm going to stick it up her little . . ."
               mmunh mmunh mmunh mmunh
               One can only turn on WCBS and wait. At eight the walls withdraw. Turn 
on the light. The light is quiet pink. Now the dim walls rebound. 
Comforting and comforted. Together we'll be all right. See how my 
flowers smile. There now, you're smiling too . . . Well, you wait, you 
will . . . One has to come to understand such a room by the time the 
last mnunh resounds. Hit the hall when the door derides.
               This morning's deskclerk was heading out of another door. He had lost 
some of his smooth acomb; in fact he looked like a blond Raggedy Andy 
whose string was pulled out tight. "Goodevening!" Ray called to him, 
and received a marbled stare for that.
               Well, in all fairness, he had been offered a room with bath. No one 
had asked him to wander these halls at night. The public bath was clean 
at least and could be locked. Back in his room was a friendly, 
worldwise sink, in case. The legs were right: one six-pack was quite 
enough. Time to put this room to sleep.
               Upstairs, someone was trying to wake one up. He sounded to be doing it 
with a club, unless his knuckles were of mahogany. "Open there! Police 
officer here!" The staunch door withstood such shocks, but finally not 
the hurtling weight of cop. That broke its teeth. Now the clubbing 
blows landed deep in soft thumph thumph thumph . . . Twenty or thirty 
of them, slow, methodical, without retort. Whatever grunts there were 
sounded official ones: uh-thumph uh-thumph.
               Now a clear voice called out, terribly calm: "My-hands-are-empty."
               "No, not that one!" a girl's voice said fast outside his door, and 
they passed him by.
               Ray lay down again. The lonely old man was back in town. Well, at 
least they hadn't caught him sticky-mouthed.
-- by permission of the Estate of Douglas Woolf