Scurrying along the sidewalk on a late Sunday afternoon, hardly anyone looks at the decrepit artifact standing forlornly on the southwest corner of 42nd Street and Ninth Avenue. Those who do scrunch their faces as if disturbed by the thought that this anachronistic eyesore taints the landscape of their new Times Square.
They probably don’t notice the tall, rail-thin woman with kinky brown hair exiting the crumbling stairwell or the dismissive way she says goodbye to a bespectacled middle-aged man as they head in opposite directions. They don’t see the flash of disgust that crosses her face as she zips up her sweatshirt over a midriff-less spandex top.
They certainly don’t know that she has played out this same scene three times in the last hour and a half. They couldn’t know this unless they’ve been staking out the entrance of the Elk Hotel for the last six hours like I have. But had they stopped to notice, they might have recognized the significance of the building and its transient inhabitants. They’d know that the Elk, the last “no-tell hotel” in the area, represents one of the few surviving remnants of 42nd Street’s seamy and seedy side, a barely living connection to the gray days when Times Square was the reigning kingdom of sex and sin.
Bugs Bunny and the Lion King now line what was once home to porn theaters and sex emporiums. The Port Authority, yesteryear’s mecca of grime and crime, now attracts kiddie birthday parties to its renovated, high-tech bowling alley. Last summer, even the classic Show World , land of peep shows and strippers, fired all its exotic dancers and started pimping plastic replicas of the Statue of Liberty and crappy “I ª NY” T-shirts. Then on May 27, it was shuttered for allegedly being the site of a friendly little fencing operation.
But even before Show World, I started to wonder if there was anything left of the Times Square I grew up with. So on a sunny afternoon I said goodbye to my wife and set out on a mini-adventure-to see if I could find any establishments serving the time-compressed lascivious needs of harried and horny New Yorkers in Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s newly minted and freshly scrubbed Times Square-cum-Disneyland.
After wandering for a while, I turned to the professionals for advice: a couple of morose-looking doormen and bouncers at Show World. I inquired about the possibility of locating a room for just a couple of hours. Five minutes later-and $10 poorer-I was standing in front of the filthy plastic doors of 360 West 42nd Street.
There are no signs on the outside mentioning day rates, let alone any fraction thereof. I climbed the 12 stairs and waited to be buzzed in by a man hidden behind a Plexiglas-and undoubtedly bulletproof-separation. Finally inside, I asked the Pakistani clerk about room rates. He leaned forward, looking to see who had escorted me inside the building. As I signed the guest register (John Smith, of course), he asked me-twice-if I would be staying alone. I assured him I would. He just stared, then he shrugged and pointed me to the far end of the first floor.
A twin-size bed dominates Room 109-precisely what one would expect from a place charging $25 for a two-hour stay. The ratty, bumpy, mattress features a concave crater directly beneath the semen stains on the once white sheets. With only a little imagination, one can discern the subtle outline of the human form on its surface, where countless numbers of women must have lain, usually paid for the inconvenience of staring at the mold-covered ceiling. Pressed in one corner stands a chipped faux-wood table and underneath it a plastic container with one crumpled napkin, one crusty tissue and one used condom inside.
Out the window, I could see people walking. They would be repulsed by Room 109. But I saw something different. To me, the room and all its inert inhabitants were like a moment frozen in time. A moment, that if I had my druthers, would remain frozen precisely this way.
But rumor has it that the Elk’s current owner has been slowly “assembling” the buildings along the southwest and southeast corners of Ninth Avenue in the hopes of constructing a residential high-rise similar to the wildly successful Manhattan Plaza that stands kitty-corner from the hotel.
Should we let this antique go gentle into that goody-two-shoes night? Nay, I say. The wax enthusiasts behind Madame Tussaud’s will soon open a 60,000-foot facility just an avenue or so over. For a few bucks more, they could buy the Elk Hotel and memorialize the hot-wax enthusiasts who’ve occupied its rooms-a life-size, interactive exhibit that’s one part Lower East Side Tenement Museum and five parts Sodom and Gomorrah.
Picture the themed possibilities: In one room, a 16-year-old runaway and her john are entwined on the bed, while her pimp, attired in pink mink, gold chains and feathered fedora, listens at the door, a smile covering his face as he greedily counts his cash.
On the second floor, the museum re-creates an earlier era- those special, summer nights at nightclubs like Plato’s Retreat when beer guts, feathered hair and cocaine razors were the coin of the realm.
And what trip would be complete without a visit to the adultery room, replete with rendezvousing lovers caught in flagrante delicto by a jealous wife waving a kitchen knife.
Imagine the gift shop: T-shirts emblazoned with catchy slogans (“Welcome to New York. Now get the fuck out.”), dildos shaped like Lady Liberty’s torch and candies-in-a-crack-vial. At the register, a snippy workforce on workfare fleeces customers at three-card monte.
Then there are the expansion opportunities. A bed-and-breakfast where you can live like the addicts did-raids, deprivation and all! And a theme restaurant with out-of-work actors dressed as the homeless, directing customers to a buffet-style dumpster dinner.
On second thought, perhaps we should just leave it all alone. Sooner or later the ever-cycling city will hit another downturn and we’ll need a blueprint for transforming Disney back to Deep Throat and Restaurant Row back to Crack Alley. Let the Elk Hotel remain in its present, pristine state, a repository for historical DNA from which we could clone 42nd Street the way it was meant to be.
For now, I’ll just go home to my wife and wait till it happens.