ROOM 317

Ileft Tampa for New York on October 20, 1990. After a couple of months sleeping on college friends’ couches here and in Virginia and Pennsylvania I found a place of my own at 166 West 75th Street near Amsterdam Avenue.

The aristocratically named Parc Lincoln (née Hotel Lincoln Square) was a transient residence for some, permanent for others. I briefly stayed in room 1422 before taking the more economical (and smaller) 317. It was Christmas Eve, 1990. Unlike 1422, room 317 had only a sink, with no shower or toilet. A hand-written sign in a shared bathroom down the hall begged residents “PLEASE DO NOT URINATE IN THE SINK.” Someone later crossed out the word “URINATE” and replaced it with “DEFECATE.” Room 1422 had cost $146.31 a week. 317 cost $106.33, a refreshing $40 savings that allowed me to upgrade my diet of Vienna Sausages and Kraft Mac & Cheese to the more refined cuisines of Gray’s Papaya and Freddie & Pepper’s Pizza.

Room 317, wide-angle view

Room 317, wide-angle view

Soon after the move to 317 I scored a job at the Tower Records by Lincoln Center. Putting my 4 year degree in piano performance from a respected conservatory to work I was hired as classical music clerk. The job paid a criminal-even-then salary of $5/hour. Between that regular paycheck and occasional work as a pianist (and a judiciously dipped-into chunk of money in savings which made this whole adventure possible) I was actually getting by.

Moving to 317 may have saved $40 a week but it cost me in other ways. Its location on the third floor put it closer to neighboring food establishments. I blamed this for the fact that 317 housed way more cockroaches than 1422. This was especially true during the hot summer of 1991. For a few memory-searing weeks the Parc Lincoln roaches were implacable in their desire to climb into my mouth and ears as I slept. Those sensations I shall never forget. Phantom sensations of ghost roaches climbing all over me as I lay sleeping lasted for years after leaving the Parc Lincoln.

Critters competed with noise to drive me insane. Day & night I heard whistling sounds followed by explosions. Residents in higher floors dropped garbage bags and glass bottles from their windows, the latter smashing to the surface and shattering with sometimes shocking impact.

The walls were as thin as the saltines on which I spread Potted Meat Food Product for dinner. I was privy to every sound of one neighbor’s bed squeaking and creaking in response to his nocturnal movements. His incoherent mumblings almost made sense to me some nights. Another neighbor was an opera singer. He was a horrible opera singer. He was the worst opera singer that ever lived. His voice was like the sound of cattle being castrated, squealing howled approximations of “Nessun Dorma” at all God’s hours of the night and day.

PigeonsThe cacophony and the roaches were enough to cause lasting agita, but the more subtle clucking noises of pigeons roosting on the window pane would haunt my sensibilities years into the future. All through that hot summer I lay in bed sweating, leaving the window open so a box fan could circulate some air. Something about the cross breeze seemed to encourage pigeons to convene at the window. Through the nights I heard them discuss business and current events in their secret pigeon language.

Entertainment Center

Entertainment center

After 6 months at the Parc Lincoln I got an unexpected surprise: free rent. It wasn’t really “free” but it felt like it. The once surly people who manned the front desk took me aside, acting conspicuously congenial toward me after months of consummate rudeness. I felt like I was being ushered into an elite fraternity.

I had been paying tourist tax on the room and by law I was entitled to a refund of that tax because I had stayed at the hotel for over 6 months. The tourist tax refund covered about a full month’s rent, and while I had of course paid the money it still felt like a month of free rent. I was no longer a transient. Suddenly it seemed like I could live at the Parc Lincoln forfuckingever. Weekly rent dropped from $106.33 to an even $90.00. A weekly salary of $166.18 and occasional piano gigs almost made me feel financially solvent. With overtime at the record store I sometimes cleared stratospheric paychecks of over $200.00! (I remained in denial about the mountains of student loan and credit card debt which had mortgaged my future).

Rent receipt—yes, only $90!

Rent receipt—yes, only $90!

I was happy to get the unexpected tourist tax jackpot, but the pleasantness of the surprise quickly wore off. My life was going nowhere. Days passed like weeks, months like lifetimes. I devoured every issue of the “New York Press,” the free weekly publication in which I discovered an art project called the Apology Line. Apology was a telephone confessional which invited “criminals, wrongdoers, and the wronged” to anonymously call the line and describe what they did and how they felt about it.

From the first moment I called Apology I was hooked. Late at night I spent hours inside the Parc Lincoln phone booths listening to voices of murderers, rapists, child molesters, and all manner of human miscreants talk about the horrible things they had done. Many of the callers were liars but a clearly distinguishable number of them were not. I became involved with the project, and remained connected to Apology for several years.

One night (while listening to a confession from a fellow who’d been fellated by his dog) a man tried to force his way into the phone booth with me. It was scary. We were the only two people around. I would see this person (an older black man) almost every day, sitting on a chair in the hotel lobby. Seeing me spend SO MUCH time there late at night he must have thought I was looking for some kind of phone booth quickie. I didn’t really know what was happening. I jammed the door shut with my foot but he kept trying to push it open. He muttered a few words but I could not make out what he said. His fingers reached around the opening in the door. He shoved part of the door into my back, causing me to shout in pain. That seemed to turn him away. He went back to his chair. For endless minutes he was the only other person in the lobby. I stayed in the booth, waiting for him to go away, but he just sat there, not looking my way but somehow not leaving me alone. I listened to more Apology callers talk about sexual encounters with dogs. A large group of people suddenly filled the hotel lobby, making it feel safer to step out. I escaped unmolested but learned my lesson about hanging out in phone booths late at night.

The Parc Lincoln phone booths.  The one on the left is off the hook because I was listening to the Apology Line when I stepped out for a second to take this picture.

The Parc Lincoln phone booths.
The one on the left is off the hook because I was listening to the Apology Line when I stepped out for a second to take this picture.

Today the Parc Lincoln looks the same from the outside, but the lobby has been converted to a restaurant named ‘Cesca (highly recommended, btw). I had dinner at ‘Cesca a few years ago. The restaurant completely erased the former hotel lobby. I tried to remember where things like the front desk or the mailboxes used to be. Too disoriented to reach a conclusion I decided the phone booths were replaced by a wine cabinet, the front desk by a bar.

Looking at the ceiling I wanted to know if the people living upstairs, just 20 feet above, lived as squalid a lifestyle as did I in 1990 & 1991. Was someone’s sleep being disrupted by cockroaches and bags of garbage smashing to the ground as I supped on Cacciucco and a glass of wine downstairs? I am better off not knowing. Divider2 What happened next? Where did I go? What did I do? I barely remember. Days are long. Years were short. I lived at the Parc Lincoln for about 10 months before finding a room in Washington Heights for the insanely livable price of $240/month. When I left the Parc Lincoln I fit all my belongings into the trunk of a cab, with plenty of room to spare. Memories of the Parc Lincoln do not torment me like they used to, but it still feels like an experience I survived more than endured.

I quit the job at Tower after a manager accused me of stealing (I was fully exonerated of the charge because I didn’t freakin’ do it). From $5/hour I found a seemingly phat but clearly not-for-me position that paid a whopping $10/hour. After getting fired from that I found temp work on 57th Street. It was there and more importantly through my involvement with the Apology Line that I discovered the Internet and interactive services in 1992. I set up my first web site as early as 1993, and leveraged my early adopter status to land a job at a media conglomerate that had very little faith in the future of the Internet. In the 7 years I worked there I think the company finally changed its mind. Today my livelihood comprises writing, shooting pictures, slinging together websites, playing piano, and whatever’s clever.

Mark Thomas lives and works in New York City. His writing, photography, receipts, and other nonsense can be found at sorabji.com. His other website, The Payphone Project, has been featured by the New York Times, the St. Pete Times, National Public Radio, the BBC, and many other media outlets. Mark can be reached through his websites, or at P.O. Box 181, New York, NY 10185-0002.

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