Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Empress Hotel, Part 1

I stayed at the Empress Hotel on several different occasions. Now, one rarely stays at The Empress for just a couple of days. Instead, you usually end up staying there for a while. Either that or you only use the room for a couple of hours. The Empress is one of those hotels that attract long term guests who live there.
The Empress looks pretty cool from the outside. It is a dilapidated old hotel in the Treme. It has a really neat second floor balcony on the front side, facing Ursuline Street. It is a nice place to sit in the afternoon, and even the mornings. It used to be a pink color, with paint chipping off. The balcony above provides a little covered area right before you go in the door.
The inside is run down and cheap. It is obviously an old building that smells like an old cheap hotel. I can smell it now, just remembering it. It is one of those buildings that just have a distinct smell. It smells slightly moldy, and slightly sweaty, and slightly muggy like all of New Orleans. The window air conditioning units give it an old dusty smell, and it still retains that back of a bar smell that pervades so much of New Orleans.
The front desk is on the right, opposite the stairs, as you walk in. I know everyone whom worked there; you get to know someone when you pass them every time you are coming and going. Bob is an interesting guy who has worked at The Empress for years. I see him sometimes at The Abbey, and various other places I hang out. I heard that before the Hurricane he took one of The Empress vans with another employee to evacuate. I think he was under the impression Mrs. Brooks said he could take it, but she thought it was stolen. A fiasco, I think.
Mrs. Brooks owned the place. She was a slumlord in the Treme area. She owned all kinds of properties where short term residents often lived. Mrs. Brooks was often renting rooms to addicts all over the Treme. She could be real nice sometimes, but then she could be a real bitch. If you didn’t give her money, she would kick your ass out so quickly. If you pissed her off, or fucked something up, it was the same thing. I stayed at several of her other properties, and it always ended badly. She lived in a beautiful house on Esplanade, where you would take her your weekly rent. She always had all kinds of random people who lived on her properties working for her, doing odd jobs and repairing things. Most of her workers didn’t last long as they were a sorry lot of junkies and losers.
The Empress was the kind of place that attracted all kinds of characters. I have known many people who stayed there, and I stayed there for quite some time myself. When I lived there, the place was known to be a haven for the wayward. It was cheap and convenient to the Quarter. I had access to everything I needed there; drugs and my job and bars and all the cheap, good food you can eat is nearby.
I remember the first time I ever went to The Empress Hotel. Liam and I had been up all night snorting heroin. This was back in the beginning, when everything still had that rosy glow. I was working at The Crowbar at the time, and we still lived over on Port Street. We had been fucking in the bathroom at The Crowbar, when the bartender on duty locked us in the bar when she shut the place down. I had a key, so it was really no problem. We had a few beers on the house before we left, and called Deborah to get more dope.
Deborah was one of my regulars at the bar, and she was a well known junkie. Deborah was missing an arm, and it was rumored that she lost it from shooting dope into an infected arm. She still used to shoot into the trunk of it, if I am not mistaken. I could be wrong, though. My memory of those days was quite cloudy and confused. I could swear I have seen her shoot up into that stump, but I could have just imagined it. She always wore a shawl that covered up the missing arm. You could not really tell right away. She had been a junky as long as I had known about her. She was selling dope for years, not enough to support her habit or anything. That was done with prostitution. She lived at The Empress for some time.
Well, that night she had some dope at six am when we called her. It is very hard to score dope at 6am, even in New Orleans. We expected her bags to be small and expensive, but it was better than nothing. When we went over to The Empress, the sun was just rising and the light from it was pink and soft and inviting. She was sitting on the balcony as we approached. She told us the room number, and we just let ourselves in and up to her room. In those days, you could just let yourself into the Empress; today the doors are locked. I remember thinking how neat this old ramshackle was. Yeah, it was crumbling and had that distinct odor, but it was pretty cool. Maybe I am just drawn to sad little places like this.
The room was really small, as I have later learned they all are. The Empress is on an old, old hotel. All the rooms are a little bit different. Believe me, because I have stayed in quite a few. The room was super cold because there are little window unit air conditioners that are always cranking. The smell of mold pervades the room, and I swear I can still smell remnants of the bittersweet smell of dope cooking. Then, again, that may just have been my imagination.
We scored our dope, and returned to Decatur Street with it. Snorted up in The Abbey bathroom, and had a couple of shots. Then, we went out to the river. We made love by the river early in the morning. It was exhilarating. It was a wonderful evening all together. A night I will never forget.
Years later I came to stay at The Empress and became one of the downtrodden, sorry legions who have lived at The Empress.

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