A Poet’s Journey 2 St. Clement’s Church

St. Clement’s Episcopal Church, 423 West 46th Street, New York circa 1978

When the frost cleared, I returned to Hell’s Kitchen. It was a risk, a life in the arts, but I had to script my own life.

Jeff Jones, the administrator of the church and Theater at St. Clement’s, welcomed me to his office. He was tall, the office small. He enormously filled the room. *

“I came to a poetry reading here,” I said, and told him I knew Richard Spiegel from another reading series he ran in Midtown several years ago. “I would like to work in the theater. Behind the scenes. Is there anything part-time?” Seeing his reaction, I amended, “or volunteer?”

Jeff asked if I would like to help Richard with the poetry program, but I said, “I want to do something different, to work with a group of people and get away from writing.” I meant to say, though it took me from my usual writual, little that was new and unexpected seemed impossible.

“There’s lots to do,” Jeff said. “There’s nothing paid at this time.” He added, “It’s a place to start.”

I was living in a Single Room Hotel and on the dole. This would be on-the-job training.

“Would you be interested in helping build the set?

I perked up. “I think I could do that.”

Jeff said to talk to Steve Cramer, the TD, which he explained meant Technical Director. As I was leaving, he said again, “Are you sure you don’t want to do something with the poetry program?”

No, I nodded, “I want to try this.”

Down, down, down the stairs I tumbled, into the shadowbox of the theater, a hall lit by hanging lamps, and tall windows in one red-brick wall opening on a garden. By the windows leaned tall plywood boards painted black, to be set in place to block off any light during performances. The other walls were a light-absorbing matte black.

Into this dark space, with its two visions of a secret garden, filled with roses in summer, a tall, lean man, Steve Cramer, appeared magically from another portal.

Richard Spiegel and Steve Cramer in the downstairs theater at St. Clement’s circa 1978

Steve and I positioned wooden platforms to form a stage and seating area.

“How do you lift these all by yourself?”

Moving one end of a platform, he placed it on the edge of another. “Don’t lift when you can leverage.”

Some had rows of red plush folding seats bolted on.

“Old Roxy seats,” he said. “We salvaged them when they tore down the theater.”

Roxy Theater, Broadway, NYC

We secured scrims in place to create a black backdrop and obscure the machine shop backstage.

“If you have to move furniture or other props, mark where they belong with small x’s in white chalk.” The poetry program and the church both used the space, but they had to replace anything they moved to its original location to keep the actors from being disoriented.

I watched the lighting crew work, clipping lights on the exposed grid of cables and pipes.

And I bloomed in the small space, as the roses did, and carried the secret garden within myself.

In the office I talked to Jeff. He said “At St. Clement’s, liturgy and the arts collide and divide, and sometimes coalesce. When it comes together, it’s transcendent.” He paused. “But when not, it’s a disaster.

He worried that Richard was trying to do too much. Benefits for causes, poets theater, weekly readings. “Richard could use some help with the Poetry Festival.”

I wavered. After all, I wanted to escape the fate of Emily Dickinson. I wanted to be out in the world. Did Richard need help? “I don’t know if he’ll want my help.

“I think he will.”

Wondering if I would fit in and what the future would bring, I sat with Richard as the poets arrived for the Monday night reading.

After a while, I asked him, “Would you like me to help with the poetry program?”

He answered quietly, but emphatically, yes. And began immediately to talk of scheduling readers.

* Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

This and the previous post are from a memoir in progress called Into The Fire: A Poet’s Journey through Hell’s Kitchen. All rights reserved. Photos by Mary Clark.

Tales of Times Square 3

In 1975, in the summer with the windows open at the Times Square Hotel, people had very few secrets. About 4 o’clock one morning a girl began to scream, No, please! Don’t do that! Get a prostitute if you want to do that! Here, take back your money! Just let me go! After pleading a half-minute more, a door slammed and she ran down the hallway. Shouting and sobbing, she knocked on the door next to mine. “Somebody,” she begged, “open the door please! I don’t want to get killed out here!”

I looked through the peephole. She continued to cry and knocked on more doors. No one opened a door for her. So I opened my door and she ran into my room. I called downstairs for the security guard. She cowered on the end of my bed and started to smoke with all the affected gestures of a high-school nicotine addict. I was surprised to see that she looked a lot like me, except she was a few years younger. She was white, blond, blue-eyed and dressed casually in light blue jeans and a white blouse. Someone else had called because the security guards arrived while I was on the phone. The security men arrived and she lunged at my door.

When she went into the hall, I closed my door on all of them. A few minutes later, one of the people in the hotel who “helps out” knocked on my door. While I fumbled with my bathrobe, he was becoming very angry.

“Put a master key on this door!”

“Just a minute,” I said angrily, opening the door. The security guard was behind him.

“What’s that girl’s name?” he asked. “Do you know who she is?”

“No,” I answered. “I only let her into my room. I never saw her before.”

He looked at me suspiciously. “Well, she came out of your room.”

“Yes, but I don’t know her. I’m sorry.”

He stood there a moment distrustfully. I heard the security guard say, “She’s not a madam.” Then they went away.

Several weeks later, the elderly woman who lives across the hall met me by the elevators in the lobby. We said hello and she leaned over to me and asked, “Are you in some kind of trouble, dear?”

“No,” I answered, wondering why she thought I was.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I heard all that noise in the hall the other night. That young woman was in some kind of trouble. I thought it was you.”

“Oh no.” I laughed. “That wasn’t me.”

Upstairs, she invited me to her room, where she confided, “I heard her knocking on my door and I wasn’t going to let her in.” She looked frightened then, as if she had to appeal to my understanding. “I have to value my life too. But I thought it was you. I would be afraid to let you in if you were in trouble.”

I looked around at her room, at the pictures of Jesus and the cross on the table next to her bed and I realized that this episode had been upsetting to her because she knew she could not help someone in trouble, and that for last several weeks she thought it had been me she left out in the hall.

She told me I could visit her anytime. “Don’t be strangers.”

Her name was Mary H. “My husband was an Irishman, a cop,” she said, “and a gambler. He died in a poker fight.” He died at forty and left no will.

“Do you have any family?”

“I had a daughter. She was sweet, just like you. She died of leukemia when she was 21. My other daughter, she’s no good, she never comes to see me.”

“Why are you living here?”

“I had a nice home once, in Chelsea,” she said. Chelsea was the neighborhood below 34th Street on the west side. “I lost the house, all my furniture stored away and then I couldn’t pay and it was all gone.”

Every day she made one trip, to the Blarney Stone. She got food there and on the way bought the Daily News. Several times she asked me when she was not feeling well or the weather was bad to make the trip for her. I did, and brought back sandwiches which she tried to share with me. One time I noticed a small container of milk leaking on her dresser and cleaned it up.

I thought she would not want me to stay and started to leave. She said, “Don’t go, I’ll miss you. Who else can I talk to?”

I sat and talked with her a short while but I was always restless, ready to get out into the city, ready I thought for anything.

When I left, I said goodbye. Never say goodbye, she said.

Tales of Times Square 2

I woke up, smelling smoke and went to the window of my fourth floor room to let in some fresh air. A cloud of smoke came billowing in from a fire below on the lobby roof. Across the way, in the tower opposite me, the old black man was pouring glasses of water on the fire.

I ran into the hall, shaking from head to foot and called the desk on the hall phone.

The old man came into the hall. “Goddamn! That’s a fire!” he said in a huge voice.

The woman at the switchboard answered that they knew about the fire, but it was on the other side of the building from me. I hung up. Back in my room, I looked down and saw firemen breaking windows on a lower floor and attacking a small wooden structure on the roof.

The next fire I woke at three a.m., smelling something cooking. Calmly, I got dressed. I opened my door to see a fireman walk by in hard hat and knee high boots and carrying an ax.

People were coming out of their rooms. A young man in the hallway greeted people as they came out of their rooms, some in pajamas and robes. He nodded at me. I stared: he was the most handsome man I had ever seen. Black hair, great body, beautiful eyes and face. He must have seen the way I looked at him.

He said there had been a fire that afternoon. “You missed it.” He asked me and another man to check that everyone was out of their rooms.

As walked down the four flights of surprisingly elegant stairs, the neighbor started joking with him about the fires and trips to the lobby, many in the wee hours of the night, in all sorts of dress and undress.

We waited in the lobby for the all clear, which was signaled by the firemen tramping out the lobby doors. The street was quiet, deserted; even the prostitutes had retired for the night. Upstairs the young man said goodnight, opened the door to his room, and I saw a plant hanging in his window facing 43rd Street. We spoke occasionally after that. He had been a model (maybe still was).

A few weeks later, on Eighth Avenue crossing 42nd Street, dust and trash swirling, cars braking and honking, the Port Authority Bus Terminal looming on one side, the air thick with car exhaust and hot dogs and stale pretzels, I saw him near the corner with some other young men. He was wearing white hot pants and not much more. We exchanged glances and I saw in his expression: this is the way it is, but you know me, you know who I am.

I looked ahead and went on my way.

Tales of Times Square

Times Square Motor Hotel 1976

Times Square Motor Hotel, West 43rd Street, New York City, 1975 Photo by Mary Clark

Diary of A Mad New Yorker

On August 20, 1975, I carry one suitcase into the Times Square Motor Hotel, 255 W. 43rd Street, to a room on the fourth floor. The hotel is on the corner of West 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue, next to the New York Times building.  My room has one window, from which I can see an adult bookstore.

That night I hear bottles crash on the roof below, prostitutes shout to one another, cops on bullhorns, police and fire sirens. A din of iniquity, so to speak.

At 4 a.m., the New York Times trucks screech and snort in the street as the morning paper rolls out.

“Don’t they know,” a neighbor complains to me, “that there are people trying to sleep here at night? Honest, hard-working people? And elderly people?”

A few days after I move in I overhear a man say, “I wouldn’t live in a place like this. Not if they paid me.”

I decide it’s a challenge. ”It’s not a bad place, “I tell a friend visiting me. “At least it’s clean.” Just then outside the window, leaves of toilet paper flutter down. A few tissues come to rest on my plants, which are inside the room on my air-conditioner.

Across the airway from me lives a huge old black man. He has no air conditioning. He keeps his window and curtains open night and day. It’s summer now and if he could climb out on the ledge and live there, I think he would.

Downstairs in the lobby, the same group congregates every day. A lot of elderly people live here and most of them are on social security. There’s a lot for them to see. One hot summer afternoon an old bum wandered in, completely naked, drunk and fully erect. He walked to the front desk and asked for a pair of pants, saying he couldn’t remember where he had put his clothes. Another time, a woman asked to have her shower fixed and ten minutes later when the engineer hadn’t come yet, she came down on the elevator, walked through the lobby stark naked to complain about it. The night manager hurried her into the office and threw a raincoat over her.

There’s romance in this group too. One day coming down in the elevator an old woman was crying, rejected, hurt. Later that day I saw her back with her boyfriend, sitting in the lobby looking a little resigned and grim, but much calmer.

One man, confined to a wheelchair because he has no legs, sits in front of the couches closest to the entrance and watches the people come and go all day. Then there is Mr. C, a neighbor of mine, who doesn’t like to go up on the elevator with anyone else. For an hour or more every afternoon after work, he waits for one that is empty or only has one passenger. Another elderly man walks around with his hands behind his back, observing everyone and taking notes in a small notebook. He always wears the same clothes, summer and winter, and won’t take the elevator either. He walks up the five flights to his room.

The elderly woman across the hall says when she can’t sleep she sits by her window and watches the fights on the corner of Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street.

One night, as I close the window, I hear from the street below, “All right, let’s break it up. Move along. This is the vice squad.” Let them stay on the streets, I think. I don’t want them inside where I am.

Good night, New York!

The Times Square Hotel is now run by a non-profit agency and provides affordable housing. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.