THE DANIELS HOTEL

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I was young but so was the depression. I was healthy but often I was hungry. New York was new but the Village was still the old Village complete with Pierce-Arrows in McDougall Alley and Bodenheim in the Vagabondia. The season was summer and the year was 1929. Not for four months would Wall Street lay its egg, yet the depression was already on, unbeknownst to all but employers, who weren't hiring; buyers, who weren't buying; and recent college graduates, who couldn't find jobs.

The New York Times paid me $110 a month, which was almost exactly $25 a week, to cull and to call. First I culled classified ads from Post and Telegram, from World and American, from Journal and Herald-Tribune. Then I phoned the advertisers: "We saw your ad in the __________. With three insertions of that same ad in The Times, for only $[so many] and [so many], we are sure you might expect superior results." Our canned spiel had been edited by a lawyer with a talent for ambiguity.

A 21-year-old bachelor could live well on $25 a week then, especially if his bridge (auction bridge) was sufficiently superior to bring him ten or fifteen extra dollars at a quarter of a cent a point; but also the young bachelor could starve if he ran into a losing streak. Only a few years before, a to-be-famous graduate of Village bridge games, Ely Culbertson, had propounded the doctrine "I can't afford to play for less than a penny a point."

There was much choice of bridge games in the Village. One might go to Frank Marshall's chess club, where the maestro played bridge more often than chess. With equal vigor he would scold his partner and slap his breast to dislodge temporarily the layer of cigar ashes that continuously settled on his blue serge vest. Here the game was easy to beat and there was the occasional thrill of playing with the Great Names of chess -- Capablanca and Doctor Lasker and even Alekhine. But the card fee was 50 cents, while at the Vag and other coffee houses it was possible to buy a cup of coffee for a quarter and nurse it through a full evening of bridge--unfortunately, in a tougher game. On payday there was no question as to where one would go: the Lafayette, with its higher stakes and higher prices but no better players. What if a dish of ice cream did cost 80 cents? Four times as much could be won from an unwise opponent in a single bridge hand.

Some of the habitués lived where they played, in the Village; some did not. Milton Hanauer and Eddie Santasiere took the long (45-minute) subway ride to Washington Heights after the evening session was ended; Tholfsen went to Brooklyn; Barnes walked home to Chelsea; and I lived in the Tenderloin, at Ninth Avenue and Forty-second Street. There was an elevated line up Ninth Avenue in those days and from my window I could reach out and touch its scaffolding. Every ten minutes, all night long, a train went by with thundersome roar and seismic vibration but never was my sleep disturbed. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I would have waked with a start if ever a train did not go by. My room was not quite wide enough to allow me to stretch when I woke up in the morning, but it was clean and comfortable, after one got used to the strong disinfectant smell, and it had "all facilities," which in those days meant simply that there were a radiator for heat and a basin with hot and cold running water. In this basin I washed my shirts and on a folding ironing board with a folding electric iron I ironed them. I cherish the belief that I could still iron a shirt, though I have not tried for nearly thirty years, just as I cling to the belief that I could sit down in a Model T Ford, retard the spark, advance the throttle, release the emergency, step on the clutch, and be off in a cloud of dust.

The Tenderloin was solidly Irish in those days--now, sans Elevated and red lights, it is more Italian--and I was the pet of Daniels Hotel, a juvenile in an eyrie of elderly Irishman, a Protestant in a clutch of Catholics, an immigrant in a nation of New York natives whose merchandise was moichindice, whose municipal was muniSIP'L, whose mirror was mirrow, whose take was invariably bring. Daniels was a Raines Law hotel. About 1910 a New York assemblyman named Raines pushed through a state statute forbidding saloons to stay open on Sundays, but the hotel lobby insinuated an amendment saying that this did not apply to bars in hotels. So every big saloon in New York promptly opened a few transient rooms upstairs and called them a hotel. Daniels' saloon had the longest bar in New York--96 feet--and the best free lunch, according to what the old Irishmen told me. Prohibition put the bar out of business long before I reached New York, but the hotel appendage to the enterprise lingered.

There was no prohibition in Daniels Hotel. Every one of the old gentlemen made gin in his room and kept a stock of limes for rickeys or lemons for Collinses. Every late afternoon a neighborhood youth would climb the long straight flight of stairs with a 100-pound block of ice, slung over his shoulder by tongs held in his left hand and wrapped in a tarpaulin (pronounced tarpoleon to rhyme with Bonaparte). Up and down the aisles he would go, knocking at every door. When admitted to a room he would release the big cake of ice to thump friably on the floor, chip off an adequate hunk with his ice pick, deposit the hunk in the basin, collect a nickel, heave the remaining ice in its tarpoleon to his shoulder, and go his way. Toward the end of his tour his tarpaulin would have captured several pounds of cracked ice, which his final customers could have free for the asking--though none needed it, for each had his own icepick. Then gin rickeys and Tom Collinses flourished in every room. By the time I completed my brief trudgery from The Times Annex (then so called) on 43rd Street near 8th Avenue where it still is to 42nd Street and 9th Avenue a mere long block away, there would be messages for me from half a dozen or more of our denizens: "Mr O'Shaughnessy (or McKeown, or Sullivan, or Flynn, or Dougherty, or Naughton) says come have a drink with him." I threaded my way gingerly among the invitations to avoid hurting feelings and also to avoid getting drunk. I think my popularity, which I do not exaggerate, was due to my Southern upbringing: Most of the Irishmen were in their sixties or seventies and I had been trained to use "Mister" and "Sir" when speaking to my elders. They loved it and I do not wonder at this because now I have attained to similar seniority and I love it too. As for the boy with the ice, he was rewarded commensurately with his strong back. The traditional, standard and coast-to-coast price of ice in those days was 40 cents for 100 pounds and off his cake he cut at least twenty pieces at a nickel each.

I lost my job on the Times but I got another job as a professional drinker. I am not sure anyone else ever had such a job so I had better describe it. My employer was a man named Mavis Hawkins who was manager of the truck department of the Chevrolet Motor Company in New York. My assignment was to stand beside him at a bar in a speakeasy, take a drink every time he took one, and when he passed out drive him home in his car, which was parked outside. For this I got $25 a week -- the standard figure, I suppose -- and he paid for the drinks. The $25 was paid by Chevrolet, not by Hawkins, for some putative job I was supposed to hold. I was very good at my job--I mean my real job, as a professional drinker. Probably I was born abnormally tolerant of alcohol, and the training I got by drinking socially with the elderly Irishmen must have helped, but to others who may aspire to employment as professional drinkers I can say with authority, ipse dixit, it is not a question of absolute capacity but of relative capacity. A professional drinker needs only to have more capacity than his employer. I had more than Hawkins.

The manager of Daniels Hotel was not an Irishman but a Bavarian named Henry Burg. Later -- from about 1933 until he died in 1945 -- he was manager of the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. He doted on me as the old Irishmen did but for a different reason: I was the only young man Daniels Hotel had ever had as a permanent resident. One day after I had lived at Daniels Hotel maybe three months I arrived home in the afternoon to find a new bed in my room. Henry (he asked me to call him Henry) had worried for fear the hotel's standard-sized bed would not suit my six-foot-four-inch dimension and had bought me a seven-foot bed. Even more than Henry loved me, my mother loved Henry. She came to the hotel to visit me one day and Henry told her sternly that "young ladies are not allowed in the gentlemen's rooms." These were the most flattering words my mother had heard in twenty years and every time she came to New York after that she ate at least one meal at the Grand Central's Oyster Bar. Due to Henry Burg Daniels Hotel, though it was located in the heart of the only real red-light district New York ever had, was as straitlaced as ever was the Statler Hilton (nee Pennsylvania) with floor clerks who call your room and say "Mr. Jones, if the lady visiting you is not your wife may we ask you to keep your door open?"

Daniels Hotel's sign said "Men Only" and at least while Henry Burg was there they meant it. The hotel has retained its vitality and you can see it even today, name changed to Roxy Hotel but holding forth in its pristine propriety on the northwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 42nd Street, entrance via same long, straight, steep steps a few yards west of the corner on 42nd Street. But I haven't been there and I won't go, even if they still have my special bed. Without the Elevated I couldn't sleep.

--Albert H. Morehead