The Shabby Victoria
The Abbey Victoria. Never heard of it? Why would you. It’s a myth. A ghost. A phantom.
A tiny, twinkling little piece of New York City’s frothing, churning past. A memory of something that never was. Something forever lost to the pace of New York rhythm.
Maybe the Victoria was always relic. A grand hotel for the poor and semi-transients of midtown New York alternating as a fading imprint of a mythic, quasi-fictional city. A place that should have been filled with 1940s-era New York newsmen. Fast talking Sammy Glicks. Smoking cigs. Hitting on dames with great gams and names like ‘Patsy’ and ‘Gloria.’ Making calls from the pay phone at the corner malt shop. Men with chins like Kirk Douglas. Broads bobs and ankle skirts.
You’d rent a room and find yourself greeted by a Barton Finkian subcutaneous hallway. Creaking metallic elevators wheezed and groaned as you ascended up dozens of floors to your dark, fungal room. You’d walk down shag rugs of Kubrickian Overlook Hotel, minus the creepy twins and Big Wheels, to find a dark wooden door with a tinny brass number clinging to it.
Once inside, the moldy smell of peaches and cigarettes filled your nostrils. Peeling wallpaper and a small, wooden window looked down at cab-filled New York traffic.
You were home.
The beds were lumpy and springy. Jump on them too quickly and they’d scream like a thousand recursive Slinkies crying out in pain. And then silenced. The sheets were sandpaper soft. Cheap high school toilet paper sheets soaked with the sweat of a thousand New York tears. The curtains were scented by Lucky Strike and cough syrup. Dog hairs that avoided the cursory monthly vacuum curled up around ancient 1940s-era wooden chairs and tables. The bathrooms had chipped tiles and roaches. The paper-thin walls coughed and wheezed with neighborly advice and sex crimes.
But that’s how it was. The Abbey inspired dark, Film Noir monologues amidst the faded New York dreams of yesterear. Sore heads and broken bodies had curled up and sighed by the thousands.
And yet there it still stood. A monument. A fading relic of semi-fictional New York imaginarium. A stubborn link to a past that never was clinging desperately to a fast-paced world that had long passed it by. Even worse. A world that now ignored it.
Some said the Abbey was haunted. Not literally, in a Ghostbusters Stay-Puft sort of way. This was a thematic haunting. Conceptual more than literal. For the Abbey was a place totally and completely out of time. Like some Twilight Zoneian dissolve had shifted the scenery and now Rod Serling waited to tell your plight. Right after stepping out from behind the room’s linty window curtains.
The Abbey shouldn’t have been there. Yet it had made it across the great thematic New York pre-war/post-war time divide in one piece.
And there it stood. In 1982.
A hulking relic of the garment trade. Refusing to move. Refusing to be mowed down. Holding its wrinkled, defiant brick facade to the wind and cursing and piss and dirt and grime. At the corner of 51st and 8th Ave.
I know this because I stayed there. I was Kilroy. It was real. And I remember it.
For the Abbey Victoria was my very first home away from home. My first place of rest upon my very first vacation trips to that magical island of Manhattan.
I stayed at the Victoria with my father.
Those rare and incredibly special occasions when he took me from all the way from Boston. For a weekend trip. To visit New York. To visit Times Square.
Dad and I first stayed there on New Years Eve in 1980. Glowing Flash Gordon ads ran in giant block pixels on the primitive Jumbotron. We waited for hours in freezing rain for the ball to drop.
I was six years old.
We were there again for various work trips that my father had to take throughout 1981. Two more times in the Spring of ’82. Dad nicknamed it “The Shabby Victoria.” The name stuck.
We’d wander Times Square. Eat a slice of pizza. See a Broadway show.
The Shabby was our getaway spot. The one vacation that my recently divorced and penniless father could still afford. At least every so often. A place we’d go when Dad needed to escape the pressures and chaos of Boston after he and my mother had finally split up for good in 1978.
The Shabby was our oasis.
Our time to be men in the big city together.
Father and son.
When the trips were over and we’d come back home to Boston, I would spend months begging my dad to return to that magical, mythical place. A place I still wasn’t sure had actually existed. The city of endless skyscrapers transcending the sky that now haunted my childhood dreams. Loud cabs. Fast people power-walking through traffic. Salty warm pretzels sold on the street.
I’d beg and beg to go back.
And then one day Dad would have enough money. So off we’d go.
Hop on the Amtrak. Four hours. Check in to the Shabby. Rest up. Get dinner at Tad’s Steakhouse. Get tickets to see a show.
Annie. Barnum. Pippin. A Chorus Line.
A respite from the suckage of life that was post-divorce Boston. My father was living in a broken down apartment in Boston without a kitchen. I was staying with my mother in Brookline for the school system. Then I’d switch. Go to Dad’s place. Downtown. Right at the base of Beacon Hill. We called it “Beacon Ditch.”
When the phone fights got too much and my father had me for the weekend, we’d lit out for the Northern Light. Take the Amtrak silver bullet for the holy landcape that he’d once called home and my young mind could barely comprehend.
This giant gleaming pearl of clusterfuck exhilaration. Entirely unfamiliar. A loud, shrieking primal scream of metal and flesh pouring through the dirty crevasses of a pornographic wasteland. I began to grasp the concept of sin in a Times Square that reeked of violence and sleaze. Travis Bickle America. You could smell it on the pavement. Or maybe that was just puke. A dead pigeon. Just make sure that you don’t talk to that guy selling watches out of a cardboard box.
Boom boxes on street corners played Fab Five Freddy and Wyld Style. Card hustlers asked you to find the Queen. Street performers break-danced and wore red jumpsuits.
It was dangerous. Corrupt. Entirely too adult.
Dad would buy me trinkets from the camera-shop hustlers on Broadway. A Mickey Mouse wristwatch. Two dollars. Once he even bought me one of those pens with a picture of a girl in a bikini. When you clicked the pen, her bikini would come off. Not an appropriate gift for a six year old. But I loved it. And I adored him for it.
We’d return to the Abbey Victoria after dinner and a show and I’d curl up in the scratchy sheets on the cheap bed and never want to leave. Never ever ever. This was my real home. I was Eloise. I was free.
In the Spring 1982, they tore the Shabby Victoria down. Make way for the future. No place for you here.
Dad and I went to New York again in the Fall of that year. We ate at Sbarros. We saw a Broadway show. Dad was quiet. We stayed at another hotel. It was fine. Inexpensive. Relatively clean.
But it wasn’t the same.
It wasn’t the Shabby Victoria.
Time moved on.
My dad is gone.
My Mickey Mouse watch is gone.
So is the Abbey.
But I remember it.