Prettier than a goat in New York

March 3, 2012 at 8:54 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

On a street corner just east of the Bowery in New York, I was watching a workman cart an armload of pipes down the footpath. I remember watching sweat slide down his calves into his boots, thinking This is the perfect place to be right now. When he turned and saw me, he shook his head and with a snap of his chewing gum, said Sorry darlin’  – you shoulda just hollered, ‘get the hell outta my way.’ When he stepped aside to let me pass, I laughed and told him I can’t…I’m too Australian. And he swung the pipes across his shoulder blades, winked lazily, and called after me No sugar…you’re too much!

Everybody ought to have a lower East Side in their life. Irving Berlin

I adore New York, and he’s just one reason why. In this blog I’ve been writing about the literary footsteps I’ve followed across the world, so far starting in Iceland, and with a ticket to New York just paid off, I’m turning my attention to this amazing city.

I remember standing outside Bloomingdales in the wake of Sylvia Plath, who sent the heroine of ‘The Bell Jar’ there to buy patent leather shoes, belt and purse. Standing in Central Park Zoo with ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ on my mind, imagining Holden Caulfield watching his sister ride the carousel with a smile.

But mostly, my trips to New York looking for ink invariably end in one place: West 23rd Street. The Chelsea Hotel.

If you’re looking for literary history, start here. I’d love to tell you I go there each trip because Dylan Thomas died in room 205, because Jack Kerouac wrote ‘On the Road’ and Arthur C. Clarke wrote ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ there. Maybe it was because Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Arthur Miller all lived there, the latter saying you could get high just by standing in one of the hotel lifts and inhaling the marijuana fumes.


But I’m going to be completely honest. I can’t stand Burroughs or Bukowski, and the Beat writers make me scowl. No, each time I go to New York, I visit the Chelsea Hotel for one Nancy Laura Spungen.

I know I’m a linguist in my thirties with a grown up job teaching languages, but there’s still a punk heart in there somewhere. And at nineteen, it’s safe to say I was a tad Sid and Nancy obsessed. So when I first stood outside the Chelsea Hotel, it wasn’t for Dylan Thomas or Arthur Miller. No, it was with a nod to the bleached haired, septum pierced, little punk brat I used to be, who pored over footage of Nancy Spungen’s body being carried out of room 100, and Sid Vicious in handcuffs being led away, snarling at the cameras.

My reasons aren’t always noble, ok?


Rugged man on cell: I haven’t had time to get my freaking eyebrows done since I got out of jail.

Guy on train on cell: Yeah, man, I’m not sure if I can go out tonight. (pause) I’m just saying, I have no idea what I’m on right now, but I don’t think I should mix it with alcohol.

Guy #1: Yo, brains is sexy.
Guy #2: Word up. All my bitches need GEDs.

Shoeshine man to group of young people: It ain’t natural. Our bodies, they have the hormones to digest meat. If we were like a goat–and not to insult you, miss, ’cause you’re prettier than a goat–but then that’s okay that we don’t eat meat.

Cop, taking report of stolen car: Ok, what was the color, make and model?
Hipster: It’s cranberry and…
Cop: Cranberry’s something you eat, son. Your car was red.

Literary footsteps are etched into damn near every street of New York though, and after three trips so far, I still have a lot to discover. I want to find the apartment in the East 60s where Tennessee Williams wrote my favourite play, ‘Night of the Iguana.’ I want to track down Henry Miller, go to the Museum of Natural History where Vladimir Nabokov worked with butterflies, and the hotel where Maxim Gorky was evicted for the sin of visiting with a woman who was not his wife.


It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only day dreamer to trace the steps of these ink spillers – Sylvia Plath herself once headed to the White Horse Tavern on Hudson because Dylan Thomas drank there.

That reminds me…I have to add that one to the list.


  1. Erica said,

    The timing of this post is uncanny. I think that we are brain twins right now!

    In the last week, I have just rediscovered my love of Nancy Spungen. It happened like this: I saw Gary Oldman on the Oscars and thought “He will always be Sid Vicious to me.” So then I rented Sid & Nancy and watched the movie again. And, since I have been sick and had a lot of time on my hands, I reread Nancy’s mom’s book “And I Don’t Want To Live This Life.”

    It was profoundly eye opening to reread it as an adult. I had only read it before in my teens. New details jumped out at me, and I thought to myself “I can’t wait to tell Rijn these things,” because I remember your curiosity about the Nancy connections when you were in Philly.

    I discovered, upon my reread: When Nancy was a baby, she lived in Mt. Airy- the neighborhood I’ve been living in for 6 years. When she was a teenager, she was locked up in the Youth Study Center, where I work!!! That part, to me, was the most important and renewed my defensiveness of her- she was an incarcerated teen. She would have been one of my girls. How amazing is that?

    Also I’m trying to get my hands on an article I came across in an academic Women’s Studies Journal which is about the historical revisionism that Nancy has been subjected to by the patriarchy, who have no problem vilifying a mentally ill teenage girl.

    So yes, Nancy has been on my mind a lot this past week. I even had a dream about her last night, strangely enough. I’m so glad you posted this because it gave me the chance to tell you what I have been meaning to tell you!

    And as far as the literary tour- just wait til we are in New Orleans! We will drink where Tennessee Williams drank, we will stroll down Esplanade Avenue like Edna Pontellier, we will even carouse uptown to see the old Anne Rice mansion. I can’t wait!!!

    • inkymouth said,

      You’ve been on my mind so much lately, Erica. Last night I even sat down with a glass of wine and ‘Thelma and Louise’, and felt like you were on the couch with me 🙂

      You know how obsessed I was with Nancy. I remember driving through Philly with you and seeing signs for places I recognised from the book, like Mt Airy. She’s woven all through my diary entries of that trip, so much. And yes, the Chelsea Hotel will always draw me in and though I can pretend it’s for Dylan Thomas or Arthur Miller, it’s mostly for her.

      It’s almost impossible to speak of any fondness for Nancy Spungen without people jumping to the usual ‘oh, that smacked out groupie?’ attitude. But as you know, anyone who’s read Deborah Spungen’s book will hopefully have sympathy for a young girl diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at an early age, institutionalised, abused and marginalised, and even as a murder victim incurring people’s disdain and ridicule.

      It astounds me that mental illness is totally romanticised within the artistic community – that’s a whole other story – but the same people can completely disregard it when the occasion suits them. An in-depth study into the mental health similarities between, say, Kurt Cobain and Nancy Spungen might come up with interesting links, but while one is lionised, that other is spat upon. And I would be interested to see how gender plays a role in that.

      I can’t believe you work where she was locked up…I can’t wait to have this discussion face to face, with martini glasses and the ability to reach across and clutch you!

  2. gretchen cello said,

    tick tock tick tock… x

  3. Leith said,

    You missed one..
    My fave painter Brett Whiteley lived and painted in The Chelsea back in 67 Bell. He would be my reason for the fanboy excitement if I ever stand before that place.
    Apparently The Chelsea displays several of Whiteley’s paintings from the period when he lived there including Portrait of New York which hangs behind the reception desk.

    Shared your Sid and Nancy infatuation many years ago though.. being an old Pistols fan from way back. I still think the Johnny’s interviews are hilarious and go back to them often.

    Safe travels and soak up some harmonica blues down south ok!

    RIP Sid.
    That car’s fine lookin man.. it’s something else..

    • inkymouth said,

      I must’ve seen ‘Portrait of New York’ then, Leith. There’s no bar or cafe in the Chelsea, so nowhere to soak up the history. The most I’ve done is linger in the lobby, much to the annoyance of the receptionist! But I did read that Frida Kahlo stayed there for a while. Basically, there’s a rich seam of artistic talent that, despite the atrocious reviews of the actual place itself, people still flock to it.

      If you have a sliver of interest still, I’d recommend reading ‘And I don’t want to live this life’ by Deborah Spungen, Nancy’s mum. It’s so evocative and enthralling, and really sheds new light on the scene, and particularly the relationship between Nancy and Sid.

      So many stories to weave in New York…bring them on, I say!

  4. The skulking wolves keep calling « inkymouth said,

    […] taken overseas in search of ink: chasing Viking sagas in Iceland, Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath in New York, and Kafka in Berlin. I love this last city so much, and it carries such literary weight that […]

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