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When the Ghost of Chelsea Hotel Is You

I was six when I saw my first angel — a beautiful man who roamed the halls naked save a cloth diaper and massive feather wings. He never spoke.

Ghosts also lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, where I grew to be. There were also artists, addicts, and addicts. An elderly woman with a bouffant sat in front her apartment in a wheelchair, accusing guests of stealing.

They were my friends and neighbors. I loved them. My father joked that the Chelsea Hotel was the last stop prior to the mental institution. It was a circus. It was a haunted house.

Some people went to see the ghosts (Leonard Cohen. Arthur Miller. Nancy Spungen). Others stayed put and never left, becoming ghosts. To live in a hotel permanently is to want to stop the clock. I grew up in a cradle of other people’s nostalgia‌.

The hotel was eventually sold because of infighting among its owners. I was wearing braces that had blue rubber bands at the time. Then the hotel was sold again — and again. I was still wearing braces. The place was then closed to non-resident guests. Renovations continued for many years. Many of my childhood friends were expelled.

I left for college and forgot that I had ever been surrounded by angels and ghosts. The hotel was in a state that had been transformed when I returned home from school vacations. I had to push aside a thick plastic tarp to keep the construction dust out of my parents’ apartment.

After graduation, I moved into an apartment on Saint Marks Place’s ground floor. It was only 15 blocks from my childhood home. My bed was a few feet from the street, and I used various strategies and props to drown out the nonstop noise — a white noise machine, ASMR on loop, a wraparound noise-canceling headset that made me feel bionic.

I furnished the space with treasured junk from Chelsea Flea. One of the vendors told me: “Nicolaia, you’re about to enter your Hemingway years. Either you get married, get drunk and get a Nobel Prize — or you blow your brains out. If you’re lucky, it’s a combo.”

One night I was woken by a noise I didn’t recognize: the sound of my own gasping. Two weeks later, it happened again — choking in the middle of the night. I was taken to the emergency room and given antibiotics and steroids.

The medication caused an itchy burning rash that ran from my thighs to my arms. I was either getting ill or recovering from being sick for months. Doctors determined that I was suffering from a combination of mono, Covid, and a rare allergic reaction to the antibiotics I had received. This is known as baboon Syndrome.

Mono at 24 is embarrassing because it shows everyone that you have never had sexual contact in high school and that you have been overcompensating for it by kissing N.Y.U. seniors at dive bars. And I didn’t remember selecting the baboon syndrome option for my Hemingway years.

The doctors determined to remove my tonsils. After the operation, I was able to return to the Chelsea Hotel to recuperate. There was still the promise of the large, comfortable bed from my childhood.

As I approached the building, my parents and I were greeted by a doorman wearing a black suit who opened the lobby door. The hotel was open for the first-time in a decade. Throughout the week following its grand opening, parties after parties were held in the ballroom. It was modern and sleek, and it did not look like the place I grew up.

My dad had replaced my comfortable, large bed with an uncomfortable, small, and inconvenient antique opium bed of curled mahogany, horsehair, in my room. Opium beds are not supposed to be functional — they are meant for people who are so out of their minds that sleeping on a twin XL isn’t a top priority. I found some of the terrible socks dolls that I vaguely remember making as a child in the secret drawers.

I was forced to endure two weeks of inertia due to the horsehair. I was unable to speak so I communicated with the horsehair via an app on my smartphone that sounded constantly angry. I gave the voice an accent like Björk’s.

Every morning I checked my Horoscope on a fashion magazine website. It told me that I should focus on my future, and it also let me know when Kate Spade was on sale. I drank cold broth without salt in the evening. I could’ve salted the soup but I didn’t, deliberately. This was the worst pain I’ve ever felt and I wanted to feel it. When the pain got too much, I wrapped my neck in bags of frozen artichoke hearts and iced it.

I wondered why opium was no longer in fashion. I missed my friends, the people who had lived in this hotel before it had uniformed doorsmen and functional WiFi. I pictured my former neighbors hurrying down a wrought iron staircase, lingering on the dusty hallways, and arguing in the cluttered lobby.

An old white nightgown was lent by my mother. It was slightly tattered and puddled at my ankles. My dad took us on a short walk in the hallway the night that I felt strong enough for us to get out of bed. The gauze was taped to my neck to secure the frozen artichoke bags. The gown sat behind me.

A fashionable woman aged 40 and her young daughter were not far from our apartment. Their suitcases proclaimed that they were new guests at the Chelsea Hotel. They were tourists who wanted to spend nights in a well-appointed suite filled with bohemian vibes. They were the first people I had seen in more than a week who weren’t my parents or an errant delivery man.

I tried to greet them but got a strangled moan. Quickly, before they disappeared into their room, I tapped out the word “Hello!” It came out of my phone speaker in the rageful Björk voice. The child screamed.

In that moment I realized what I must have looked like — a wane and wild-eyed girl in a Victorian nightgown, roaming the halls with artichokes strapped to her neck. I was now a totem from a distant world, an uncanny envoy of a past time. Although the angel may have passed, the Chelsea Hotel will continue to have its ghosts.

Nicolaia Rips is the author of the memoir “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel.”

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