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The Night Man (Or Why I’m Not a Novelist)

When acclaimed essayist Arthur Krystal was 24 and living in New York in 1972, he thought he was going to be a novelist. For inspiration–and a little cash–he took a job as a night watchman at the haggard Hayden Hall, a hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In this excerpt from his latest book, Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic, Krystal recounts how this experience had just the opposite effect of inspiring: it lead him to realize that writing novels was not the kind of writing he was destined to do.  — Lana Goldsmith, associate publicist, OUP USA.

I didn’t know I wasn’t cut out to be a novelist until I began to write a novella in the late Seventies about a writer who lived in a seedy hotel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. It was only then I realized that I knew practically nothing about the people who lived there.

Let me amend that: I did know something about one of the tenants, although it was not information I went out of my way to find. It was handed to me on a small china plate with, if I recall correctly, pale blue filigree. And since it’s the only story that I took away from the hotel, I have never forgotten it. The woman who handed me the plate—let’s call her Mrs. Hawthorne—was probably closer to eighty than seventy. She was a soft-spoken, diminutive woman, always neatly attired in jacket and skirt, with a string of pearls. Her perfect manners, her perfectly coiffed, perfectly white hair, and her faint Midwestern accent made her an oddity among the hotel’s dispirited residents. She was also, as it happened, a theater buff. Two or three times a week, after returning from a show, she would stop by the front desk and run through the highlights with me. Broadway even then was expensive, and what I knew about Sondheim’s Follies or The Sunshine Boys, I learned from Mrs. Hawthorne.

That was the extent of our relationship, until one afternoon when she asked me—as I was walking out of the hotel—if I could change a light bulb in her room. Of course I agreed, but with a certain reluctance. I tried to steer clear of the occupied rooms if I could help it, because it was too sad to enter them. It was one thing for a twenty-four-year-old writer to live in a poorly furnished room; it was quite another for someone over fifty to do so. But when Mrs. Hawthorne opened her door, I saw I had nothing to worry about. True, the room was small and spiked by the inevitable sink and medicine cabinet, but there were also delicately colored lampshades, a small oriental rug, two red-cushioned chairs, a cherrywood table, and a tall armoire. Lace curtains covered the windows; glass and ivory knickknacks rested on the table and dresser; and fine lithographs jostled each other on pale cream walls.

Apologizing for putting me to so much trouble, Mrs. Hawthorne needlessly steadied a chair as I climbed up and changed the bulb. She prepared tea, and afterward we sat facing each other, our knees almost touching. I sipped the tea and looked around—at the elegant surroundings—and realized with a small shock that Mrs. Hawthorne could live anywhere she chose to, and the strangeness of it made me ask why she remained in the hotel.

Mrs. Hawthorne fluttered her hands without replying. She picked up her cup, drank delicately, put it down—then said softly: “I fell in love here.”

I don’t know what I said to this, but I must have asked or looked a question. Anyway, this is the story she told me:

Mrs. Hawthorne had come to New York from Michigan during the Depression with the idea of becoming a graphic designer. She knew no one and had little money, so she moved into the hotel, which at the time was a perfectly suitable residence for a single woman. The people who lived in Hayden Hall were more or less respectable men and women who held down jobs and took care of their appearance. Mrs. Hawthorne’s room was the same one that I was now sitting in, and when she had first moved in, there had lived down the hall, in one of the two-room “suites,” a professional gambler by the name of Alfred Bendel (not his real name).  Alfred was probably around fifty when he began to court the twenty-something Mrs. Hawthorne, but she didn’t mind because Alfred was every inch a gentleman: polite, considerate, well dressed. He was quite stylish, in fact, and Mrs. Hawthorne, like a certain Daisy Buchanan, was taken by the sight of a man’s beautiful clothes.

Mrs. Hawthorne was a small-town girl, and Alfred was a New Yorker, a man welcomed by name in many of the better restaurants and night clubs. He took her to the track, to speakeasies, and jazz clubs. It was all very exciting and prompted her infatuation with Broadway. She liked Alfred and thought he liked her as well. She also thought, at first, that she would have to ward off his advances, but Alfred maintained his distance, giving her nothing more than a chaste kiss goodnight when they got off the elevator. Mrs. Hawthorne attributed this to the difference in their ages and thought it was charming that Albert was so formal, so polite. But after they had been seeing each other for some months, Mrs. Hawthorne decided to speak up. One evening, she announced that she liked him and “didn’t care a fig” for how old he was and that he shouldn’t think about it either. Her openness, however, did not have the desired effect. It wasn’t the difference in their ages, he told her, and then he changed the subject. Surprised and somewhat worried, she insisted that he tell her what was bothering him. Was it her fault? Was it something about her that kept him from becoming, as she put it, “more intimate”? Finally he caved in. With some embarrassment, Alfred confessed that he had peculiar tastes. Truth was he liked to be beaten, to be hit with a knotted rope, to have women walk on his back with spiked heels. He kept a whip in his closet and also a broomstick that could be used to whack the back of his legs.

Well, this, of course, put matters in another light. She considered ending things—but then, on reflection, decided that that would be unfair. What had Alfred done that warranted her disapproval? He had only been good to her, had never asked for anything in return, and, in fact, wasn’t asking anything from her now. She decided not to hurt his feelings. She decided to make him happy. Of course, she wasn’t adept at it, not in the beginning, but with practice she learned to whip him and beat him and walk across his back in high heels just as he liked. Sometimes his back would be such an awful mass of cuts and welts that they would have to wait a week before starting up again. They continued this way for six or seven years and then one day his heart gave out.

I believe I now interjected: “You mean during the . . . uh . . .the . . . ”

Mrs. Hawthorne shook her head. Alfred, she said, had suffered a heart attack while cutting into a steak at Sardi’s. He was dead by the time the ambulance arrived. A few weeks later, Mrs. Hawthorne learned that she was his sole beneficiary: he had left her more than two hundred thousand dollars, which was a great deal of money back then. “I see,” I said, glancing at the lithographs and bric-a-brac. But I didn’t. Patting her perfectly white hair, Mrs. Hawthorne looked me in the eye and said softly: “You see, dear, it pays to be nice to people.”

That, after ten months, was what I learned at Hayden Hall. I also learned that I didn’t want to live there anymore. After so much time, I wasn’t a writer or former graduate student; I was a night watchman in a seedy hotel. The pose of urban anthropologist I had affected had worn thin, and the hotel was beginning to get me down. Sartre was wrong (he was wrong about a lot): hell isn’t other people. Other people may be hell, but hell itself must be solitary to be perfect torment. It’s purgatory that is other people, a waiting room occupied by men and women whose shoulders create no emotional friction, where familiarity never turns into concern or affection. The hotel’s floating population now seemed normal to me. I didn’t identify with them, but it did occur to me that if luck took a hand and smacked me with it, I might also end up a middle-aged man living alone in a furnished room, eating Thanksgiving dinner in a Greek coffee shop along upper Broadway. How hard could it be to fall into my own solitary half-mad groove of life?

In late December, I gave notice. Sas shrugged. “Don’t come back,” he told me, not unkindly. The first day of the New Year, I took my savings and headed south to finish my novel, and when the money ran out I got a job on a construction crew outside Charleston, South Carolina. I continued to drift and to take a number of jobs, though none that ever kept me up past midnight. But after a while I lost my patience for physical labor and for writing uneven novels. Actually, I came to realize that the fiction I wrote didn’t measure up to the fiction I was reading; and why would I want to be a cut-rate John Cheever or a dullish Peter Taylor?

This, of course, doesn’t stop people from writing fiction (or poetry), but it did me. Not only could I not comprehend the emotional lives of other people—at least not to the extent of envisioning what their feelings might lead them to do—I couldn’t rid myself of the sound and sense of the novelists I admired. In effect, my inability to free myself from the Great Books prevented me from acquiring a voice that, for better or worse, was my own. By the same token, this feeling for literary prose still made me want to write sentences. So I suppose you could say that my weakness as a novelist became my strength as an essayist. This is, of course, both too shapely and reductive a statement; and yet a day arrived when it seemed more natural to write about books than to write one myself.

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