I rented a room in what used to be one of New York's sleaziest flophouses, the St. Mark's Hotel, on St. Mark's Place. This place used to be so nasty I walked a little faster when I lived in the neighborhood. Wasted drug-addicts used to hang out in the entryway, spewing infections out of open sores. The notorious St. Mark's Baths was next door, a place of such debauchery that someone once described it as "Gomorrah the way it shoulda been." The New York City Health Department was so worried about this corner of the city, it had a special unit assigned to it. I only knew one guy who'd ever stayed at the St. Mark's Hotel in the Seventies, and he said his room had eight glory holes and some weird-colored cockroaches fed, no doubt, on spilled drugs and body effluvia. He mentioned the bedbugs too, as an afterthought, as the least offensive thing about the place. This was a place that, like a few other New York inns, mostly on the Bowery, had suicides and OD's carted out of it regularly.
A quarter of a century has passed since then, and I thought I'd give it a try because it was the cheapest place I could find on the Internet. The Carlton Hotel, where I'd stayed last time, listed at $950 a night for a single room. Yup, you read that right. My publisher had put me up there because they had some special deal, but it had to have been very, very special to even qualify for the aura of a price like that. The Carlton is one of a string of midtown hotels being renovated in nouveau deco splendor, after being nothing but flophouses for close to a century. There was nothing worth even $200 for my money. The room was an old-fashioned New York residential-hotel room, redone by a decorator to look like a, well, old-fashioned residential-hotel room. There was still a feeling of lonely old bachelors dying in here after years of dawdling about in yellow pajamas until it was time for lunch at a corner diner and a nightly visit to an old porn cinema in Times Square. The place had history, but $950 worth of it? For that money you can rent a piece of big American history for one month in any historic Southern city. The price for one night at the Carlton might be shocking to a rube like myself, but it's hardly news to New Yorkers who now pay $500 for a ticket to a Broadway show. Yup. You heard me right. You and your love can spend two grand a night for a bed and a slick piece of uptown tinsel. That doesn't include food and transport, but you can do those on five dollars a day because there are alternatives.
In light of that, the $110 a night that St. Mark's charged felt like forgiveness. For what, I don't know. Maybe for the sin of being poor, which in New York is punishable by law, I think. The corner of St. Mark's at Third Avenue was just as busy as I remembered it, full of punks and vague-looking desperadoes, but the fauna only looked like it used to. On closer inspection, the punks looked like they had been groomed in punk salons and dressed in punk boutiques, and the majority of them were Japanese. Still, when I got to the tiny reception desk at the top of the stairs, some of the old St. Mark's was still ticking. The desk guy, a Turk surrounded by three handsome Arab boys, laughed at me when I asked about credit cards. "Cash only!" he shouted. In fact, he was holding a large wad of cash he was counting as I handed up mine. The miniature room I was granted was so small that any wrong move would have landed me next door. For all that, it was clean, there were no glory holes anywhere, and there were new Venetian blinds on the one window looking out on Cooper Union. There were also clean towels, soap, shampoo and a TV that worked. True, two of the channels showed hard-core porn. Later, when I ascertained that the clientele consisted mostly of foreign travelers and families on a budget who'd found the place on the Internet, I wondered how the porn struck them. Very downtown, I'd think. And true to the old days, the hotel had a $40 rate for day use. That must have been mostly for show because the place was booked to the gills. The new New York can't afford any slack, even if it wants to. History costs money.