You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
Ed Ryan, the night manager, knocks on 4D.
“Exterminator!” he shouts.
The door opens a crack; 4D, a pale face with green spiked hair, peers out.
“We’re spraying for bugs,” Ryan says.
4D opens the door, smiling uncertainly. Is this part of the entertainment, he seems to be wondering. At the Carlton Arms, you never know where art ends and life begins.
The Chinese exterminator darts into the room and begins spraying the baseboards. Ryan and I step inside the room, into a. . . . submarine. A painted-on maze of pipes, rivets, and ducts covers the ceilings, walls, and even the closet. There is a periscope to the left of the bed, and windows look out onto underwater views of the lost city of Atlantis. Mermaids frolic on the bathroom wall. On the back of the door, where room rates are normally posted, there is a framed message from the artist, Brian Damage.
A New York artist who created the disco décor at Studio 54, Damage is one of more than 50 artists whose work is on display at the Carlton Arms, a flophouse-turned-boho hotel in Manhattan, on East 25th Street. Their art covers nearly every wall and ceiling and even the furniture. In one room, the wall is covered with scenes of Renaissance Italy and the closet is painted to look like a confession booth. In another, a mural shows New York in the fluorescent glow of nuclear winter. On a stairwell leading to the second-floor lobby, a mural captures the boom-bust zeitgeist of the 1980s: A canary yellow car in flames, a souped-up monster of a machine, bears down on a stylishly dress couple, blithely unaware of the impending crash.
I accompany Ryan and the exterminator to Charlie’s room, the last room to be sprayed. Charlie is one of four permanent residents who have lived in the hotel since the days when it was a welfare hotel. Their rooms are the only ones that haven’t been painted.
“They’re very territorial,” Ryan explains, knocking on Charlie’s door. He recalls that in the old days some of the residents wouldn’t even let the exterminator in. “They thought he was coming for them,” he says.
There is no answer, and Ryan unlocks the door, then gently pushes it open. “Charlie?” he says. Ryan and the exterminator, I notice, have moved to the side of the door, away from the opening. I do the same, and seconds later a wadded-up paper bag flies past us. An old man, bent over almost double, approaches, leaning heavily on a cane.
“Whadya want?” he growls at the Chinese exterminator.
“Hey, Charlie, be nice,” says Ryan.
Charlie appears to notice Ryan for the first time.
“Aw, I was just kiddin’,” he says. “You know that.”
“Sure, I know, Charlie,” says Ryan.
“He’s calmed down a lot,” Ryan says as we walk away. “You should’ve seen him when he was drinking. He was a terror.”
When Ed Ryan took over as night manager in the early 1980s, the Carlton Arms was a seedy welfare hotel, a family-run business that had run out of family able or willing to manage the place. Ryan was hired after two previous managers—a father and a son—had nervous breakdowns. Ryan, 43, knew something about life on the edge—he had spent the previous decade wandering around Europe and Latin America, working as a construction worker and a waiter—but nothing had prepared him for what he found at the Carlton Arms.
“It was a nightmare,” he recalls. “There were hookers turning tricks in the bathroom and junkies shooting up in the halls. If you were predisposed for a nervous breakdown, then this was the place.”
Shortly after Ryan began working at the Carlton Arms, the owner sold it to a Taiwanese businessman, and with the new owner’s encouragement, Ryan began to refurbish the hotel. The most dangerous residents, the ones beyond the possibility of reform, were paid to leave, and when a room became vacant, Ryan and his crew cleaned and repainted it. Then Ryan began a policy of what he calls “selective renting.”
“We went from people who were crawling around on the floor to people who could stand at the counter to people who could fill out the application form.”
Ryan converted the boiler room, street display window, and lobby into art galleries. Gil Dominguez, a California artist, covered five flights of the stairwell with nightclub scenes and car crashes. Other artists began dabbling in some of the rooms, but it was Damage who introduced the concept of muralling entire rooms. His first work was the nuclear winter scene; his second, the submarine. Word spread through the avant-garde grapevine, and soon artists were sending Ryan copies of their portfolios, hoping for a chance to show their work at the Carlton Arms. Those who were selected got art supplies and free rent while they worked.
Artists came from Europe, Latin America, Asia. Their work styles were as diverse as their aesthetics. Once, Ryan recalls, two artists, one from Spain and one from Japan, showed up at the same time. The Spaniard walked into his room and in minutes was splashing bright paint on the wall. The Japanese artist walked into his room, sat down on the bed, and stared at the wall. Two weeks later, he was still staring at the wall. “I started getting nervous,” Ryan says. “I told him, ‘Look, we got an opening in a few days and you haven’t started yet.’ ‘This is the Japanese way,’ he told me.”
A day before the show, the artist painted the walls and ceiling white and built two small shelves on which he placed two toy horses. Whether his work was an example of Japanese sensibility or an artist’s lack of inspiration was never revealed.
The mid-1980s were a time of transition; the neighborhood was changing, going upscale.
But enough of the old neighborhood surrounding the Carlton Arms remained to keep things interesting. You were never sure who you were going to meet on the streets. “The next person you’d run into might try to sell you her body, steal your wallet, or save your soul,” Ryan recalls. At the Carlton Arms, most of the old residents had left, but a dozen or so stayed, contributing to the hotel’s offbeat ambience—and its growing popularity with travelers. They were mostly young Europeans—a German low-budget travel guidebook had given the hotel top billing—and they regarded the residents with that mixture of fascination and fear with which children of the middle-class view those who have hit rock bottom. It was a controlled risk: If things started to get out of control, you could always retreat to the safety of your room. “We gave people what they wanted,” says Ryan. “A little bit of danger—but from a distance.”
For the residents who remained, the changes brought new opportunities. A few earned money doing odd jobs, cleaning the rooms and washing the linens and towels. One homeless Hispanic man, who had moved to the Carlton Arms from a shelter, found work at the hotel as a maintenance man, eventually earning enough money to move his family into their own apartment. Residents attended art show openings in the hotel lobby: They dressed up, guests dressed down, and who could tell the difference? At one party, spilling out onto the sidewalk, a resident worked as a bartender—until he got drunk and started insulting people. “Another drink?!” he shouted at one guest. “You fuckin’ already had three! You’re a fuckin’ fish!”
Was it performance art? No one could tell for sure. For years, the residents had been holed up in their rooms, alone and ignored; now they found themselves center stage. In the evening, hotel guests would gather in the lobby to listen to them trade tales about the old days. They told about the delusional Herman Cohen, a one-eyed Jewish Puerto Rican heroin addict who came to believe that his father was the Depression-era gangster Bugsy Siegel and who claimed a visitation from the pope, but a miniature pope, only three inches tall. (“It was da most beautifullest thing I evah seen,” said Herman, who then went on to relate how the pope leapt onto his head, bit him, and said, “One false move and you’re dead.”) There was the front desk clerk who died behind the front desk and wasn’t discovered for 24 hours, and the Korean couple, newly arrived immigrants who kept setting off the fire alarm by cooking meat over a barbecue jerry-rigged from coat hangers.
But if art could create a community of unlikely parts, it couldn’t sustain it. Their work completed, the artists moved on, and by the early 1990s, all but four of the old residents had drifted away. “It seems that in order for this place to succeed, one thing had to replace another,” says Ryan, puffing philosophically on a cigar. It’s only a matter of time, he adds, before the last four residents are gone and the Carlton Arms becomes just another theme hotel, a subway ride away from what is becoming America’s largest bohemian theme park, the East Village.
I go back to my room to take a nap. It’s called the conversation room. Someone has painted heads and conversation balloons on the walls and ceilings. One balloon wraps around the overhead bulb; “bright idea,” it says. Another, wraps around the radiator; it says, “full of hot air.”
I dose off, but wake up a few minutes later to the sound of voices. For a second, I imagine the heads on the walls are talking, but then I realize that it’s Charlie talking to Fidel, another resident, in the lobby.
“I seen a movie about wild dogs once,” says Charlie. “They hunt together, then they argue over the meal.”
“My sister had a Datsun once,” Fidel says.
“A kind of dog.”
“What kind of dog?”
“A Japanese dog. Looks like a hot dog.”
Donald A. Ranard's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, New World Writing Quarterly, The Best Travel Writing, and many other publications. His play, ELBOW. APPLE. CARPET. SADDLE. BUBBLE., was named one of three finalists in Veteran Repertory's 2021 playwriting contest. Based in Arlington, VA, he has lived in 10 countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.