A Story of the Waldorf.-

It's 1:00 a.m. Wynton Marsalis plays My Funny Valentine in the background, while a tear drops slowly, heavy and blunt down my cheek. Although my face is an impenetrable and pragmatic mask, that damn tear is there again, like it is every time I sit in this spot. Next to me, a backpack with everything ready for tonight. I still have another 25 minutes to get my mind ready. Gin will help. 

 

The suffocating tobacco smoke is as thick as the fog on a London morning, and I say to myself that's whats irritating my eyes. But I know that's not true. I try to pretend that nothing happens and calmly finish up the drink I'm holding in my hand. The truth is that there is no point on pretending, because everyone in here knows me too well. The big, round glass and the shadows cover part of my face, and through the glass, like a kaleidoscope, I see the picturesque and decadent landscape of the Waldorf's bar, a place known for never closing and with a  sign at the door that reads "We assure you we're open. You can come here to sulk about this shit world 24/7." The strong alcohol and the distortion of what I have in front of me make me think of the past, of that night in this very same place, in the Waldorf Grand Hotel, several floors above me. 

 

The Waldorf is one of those hotels with its own character. When you listen to Rhapsody in Blue and imagine the sun rising over a building in Manhattan, that building could easily be this hotel. The casual guest might think this is just an ordinary hotel, if you can call that a place which was a top class luxury establishment back in the 20s, but that had now deteriorated to a shameful state. The symptoms were clear: shabby furniture, worn-out curtains, decrepit carpet and that particular smell, that slightly sweet scent, a mixture of old yellowed books, tacky wallpaper soaked in tobacco smoke, ancient wood, leather and bourbon. All these, splattered with some lonely scenes painted by Hopper and some other unsettling paintings by Wyeth here and there. Some of the hotel corners were delightful, while other spots could be described as creepy. Perhaps, it was exactly the contrast between those atmospheres what inspired all the artists who used to gather there, like triggers for their creativity. 

 

You could not try to imagine the good times at the Waldorf. The happy and crazy 20s after the Great War, the gangsters, the whisky smuggling, and then the great depression that after some years would see the beginning of World War II. This hotel had been a silent witness of the 20th century and is still standing, like the old cabaret dancer who had fame and success until everyone forgot about her. 

 

But I'm no casual guest. When I walk in to the Waldorf door, I feel at home, maybe the only place in the world I can call home, because I feel its history as mine, due to the countless times I've stayed in its filthy rooms. And also because, after all, this place has changed my life. That's why I love it and hate it. I can totally understand why Janis Joplin locked herself in to drink whiskey to death in her room at the Chelsea Hotel, or why Hemingway used to get plastered in La Perla, in Pamplona. I find very natural that Joyce and Yeats were regular customers at the Renvyle House, or that the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok hosted Steinbeck, Kipling or Conrad between its walls. I can understand all of them. In fact, hotels like the Waldorf are secret communes that remain unnoticed to the occasional travellers, but for those of us who always come back, they safely keep surprises and unexpected delights behind every door. A jam session in that room, a discussion about literature, a theatre play being rehearsed, a good game of poker, a hooker that needs a fix and gives you everything for nothing, or a passionate lover. After some time, everybody knows each other, and somehow, they love each other, although they also ignore each other and they all mind their own businesses. They are, we are, the family of those who have rejected social conventions, and this hotel is our own freak show, where we feel less lonely, less miserable, with the company of our fellow men and women. 

Indeed, nights at the Waldorf are depressing, brilliant, adventurous, crazy, monotonous, glorious, and you never know how they will end. I know this very well, because this is where I met Maureen. 

 

-o-

 

Maureen was the love of my life. And if after this damn existence there is another life, I'd bet shell be the love of that one too. Back then, I had known better days and I survived playing trumpet in sordid underground clubs.  At least, I was able to pay for the hotel and buy some food. 

 

My life was never easy; I was never a good boy. As soon as I had the chance, I left that shithole of a town where I was born and raised and never came back. After a long time in Treme, New Orleans, where I stayed with a crazy woman called Thester, who played the sax like an angel, I finally moved to Chicago, because I loved the jazz scene there and I was sick of Bourbon St. and all the Indian stuff. 

Any day, too much Second Line or Mardi Gras would have killed me, and dying young or becoming a chronic alcoholic was not part of my plan. In fact, I wanted to get better with the trumpet, and thats what I did in Chicago. But Fat Rick always used to tell me My boy, bucks and babes are all in New York city! So thats how I ended up staying at the Waldorf for the first time. 

 

And that first night, as I turned a corner in the corridor while looking for my room keys after too much drink, I stepped into her. She was a bit ungainly, not too beautiful, bit she had two wise eyes that caught my attention. Her wavy, black hair made me think of Spanish roots. But it  when she laughed and apologised for the collision,  I suddenly got such a surprising erection that it nearly sobered me up. Her voice, half sensuality, half ingenuity, her teeth, white as soda powder and some sort of peculiar shoulder movement made my head spin. I mumbled a clumsy apology with my vodka smelling mouth, but by the time I finished my attempt at talking, she was already by the end of the corridor, laughing. I remember gesturing in the air several times, like trying to catch something or saying "come here, come back", while shaking my head, "don't go, don't..."

 

That's how I met Maureen at the Waldorf; a spark, a moment, just a simple coincidence, and since then, a fucking splinter in my memory. We could have both stayed in there for months and never have seen each other again, but we did. Our story had just begun and I was willing to follow it up the next day, at any cost. 

 

It turned out that she was also a long-term hotel guest. She was a writer and she had planned to write her masterpiece there. I had to pay 20 bucks for the porter to give me some information about her times and routines, but it was worth it. During the next 48 hours, I accidentally appeared near her so many times that, finally, with that smile of hers, she had to ask me to join her for a drink at the hotel bar. There I was, a veteran after thousands of battles in the New Orleans motels, and suddenly I was nervous about this appointment with a simple girl. That was the first one of many drinks, many intimate talks and a relationship like I had never known. 

 

After the first night, I found out I could get drunk with her, but also that she had her own dark alleys, forbidden subjects and taboos. Anyhow, she loved jazz and she used to come to my gigs, which I found strangely exciting, but also physically painful at the same time; every time someone tried to go too far with her, I couldn't bear it and I jumped down the stage to settle the matter. Those boxing lessons by "Hot Rod" Dom, an old friend of mine who used to work as a doorman, proved very useful during those happy black-eyed days. 

 

After many nights of drinking and talking, one spring night she took my hand and walked me to her secret hideout, which was the hotel rooftop. We sat against the huge "W" of the Waldorf sign. There, while the first sun rays found their way through the skyscrapers, I felt like saying some nonsense about how small the other buildings looked from this height, how small people seemed to be from that perspective, about gods, about nihilism and I don't know what else; whatever to seem intelligent and educated to her. But after half a sentence, she put a finger in my lips while she stared at me, like asking me to shut up. Then we kissed like there was no tomorrow. 

 

'Tomorrow, at 1:25 a.m. Ill be waiting for you in my room.'

 

'What for?' I asked with a silly expression on my face. 

 

'Well, you don't think we are just going to kiss for the rest of our lives, do you? I want everything.' And with that promise, she got up and left me there by myself. She said it with a tone in her voice that left no room for doubts. The wink she used to emphasize her words made me so euphoric that I stood up and started singing as loud as my lungs could...

 

Madi cu defio, en dans dey, end dans day!!

Madi cu defio, en dans dey, end dans day!!

 

We are the Indians, Indians, Indians of the Nation, 

The wild, wild creation. 

We won't bow down, 

Down on the ground, 

 

Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red. 

I've got a Big Chief, Big Chief, Big Chief of the Nation, 

The wild, wild creation. 

He won't bow down, 

Down on the ground, 

Oh how I love to hear him call Indian Red. 

 

It was then that I nearly fell off the hotel rooftop. Emulating a New Orleans Big Chief on a cornice wasn’t the brightest of the ideas, no matter how happy I felt. I had to tell that story to Thester if I ever saw her again. 

 

-o-

The next day, at the agreed time, I knocked on her door. It was open. With my heart throbbing violently, and an almost religious respect, I walked in to what would become the realisation of our desire. On the bed covers, a red undergarment promised me the sweetest fantasies and an unforgettable night.  The pendant I gave to her a few days before was carefully placed on the side table. The lights were warm and soft, but I covered one of the lamps with my hat to give the place a more intimate touch. The full moon seemed huge behind the Empire State. I looked at the clock; it was 1:25 a.m. I couldnt have been more punctual!

 

But Maureen wasnt in the room. In fact, according to the New York police department, she wasn't in the hotel or the surrounding area either. No one had seen her get out of the building or go to any other hotel room. She could not be found in any of the near hospitals or morgues. It was incredible, but she had simply vanished. All her clothes were still there, her old typewriter, her notes and her diary. However, her ID was missing. In her diary, in the last page, written that day in the morning after being on the hotel rooftop with me, she had written "I already got my big story. "

It was during those days where I became who I am now. I spent countless nights wearing my brain out, while repeating that sentence in my head. "my big story...". I never wanted to stay at the Waldorf on long term basis, my pain was too deep, the loneliness agonising, the memories devastating. Even as I dragged my sad soul through the corridors on my way out of the hotel for the last time, the other guests came out of their rooms in tears to hug me, feeling sympathy for my bad luck and wishing me that everything was just a misunderstanding, although at that stage they all guessed -they wouldnt say it to me - that Maureen could be floating face down, near some reed bed in the Hudson river or in some road ditch, for who-knows-what sinister reasons. 

 

As I made it to the hotel reception, I saw a tourist with a map of the United States, and an idea came to my mind. Suddenly I knew what I had to do, what I wanted to do. My heart was flooded with a strong determination. I approached the reception desk and asked for a world map, I opened it, closed my eyes and randomly pointed with my finger, as if it was a dart. That’'s how I found out of my next destination: Brazil. 

If fate had wanted that when turning that corner in some corridor of some hotel I met Maureen, I would try the same method again. Since then, I travel the world with no final destination, just with my suitcase, my trumpet, my hat and a map full of marks. Each destination is a new chance to find her again, if she's still alive. There is just one destination where I keep coming back to. Every year, on the same day that Maureen disappeared, I go back to the Waldorf hotel to remember her, secretly waiting for her to appear again, although I know this is just wishful thinking. 

 

The hotel has never refused to give me her room, and if necessary, they move whoever is staying there to a different room. At 1:25 a.m., I lay her red undergarment on the bed, place her pendant on the side table and cover the wall light with my hat. Then I drink until I pass out. In the morning, the door of the room is full with dozens of candles that the passing guests look at, worried and intrigued. I look at the regular guests faces, older every year, and I pull myself together. Then I point my finger at the map again. 

 

I am the man in the hat. Maybe one day youll turn around in a square, somewhere, in your favourite bar or in the middle of a desert, and I will be there. 

 

 

 

Juan Pedro Betanzos.-

© 2015 by Antonio Bernal.