In New York I stayed at The Jane hotel, which was historically interesting if a little uncomfortable. The reception is like something from The Grand Budapest Hotel, with bell boys in caps and braided uniforms and a retro check-in desk. The staff are friendly and helpful.
In the former sailor’s hotel known as The American Seamans Friends Relief Society Sailor’s home, built in 1908, the tiny rooms are more like cabins.
The navy was housed there while docked and abided by naval discipline on shore. The same hierarchy as on ship was repeated in the hotel, so ordinary seamen stayed in bunks, higher ranked seamen in single beds and officers in larger rooms with proper double beds and private bathrooms. The building was designed by William A Boring who embraced the maritime theme, with a red brick octagonal tower reminiscent of a lighthouse, on the corner. Many of the sailors rescued from the Titanic, arriving by ship four days after the sinking, stayed for the duration of the enquiry into the tragedy. There was also a memorial service. Today there are reports of transparent figures, ghostly sounds of sobbing and ‘cold spots’ in the hallways.
Over the years The Jane has been through various permutations. From onshore hotel for the navy it became the YMCA, then The Jane West, a flop house for punks, musicians, junkies and artists. This was the New York of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. As John Cameron Mitchell, writer of Hedwig and the Angry Inch musical (which debuted in the ballroom at the back) said in an interview with Rolling Stone:
‘Eventually we found a space — the Jane Street Theatre, which is now the Jane Hotel (…) which had been around for 100 years. It was a ballroom, it was a sailor’s hotel… it was a sex club in the 1970s, it was a punk rock club called The Punk Rock Hotel in the 1980s.’
Shor, one of the leads for Hedwig, says in the same interview:
‘The Jane Street Theatre was this bizarre place on the West Side Highway in the Meatpacking District. So it was basically tranny hookers and meat — and us. This really happened — I want to say it was during the first preview, but it could be my brain just wanting it to be the first preview. As all of the people were outside waiting to get into the show, someone in the hotel had OD’d and died. So they were wheeling the body — in a body bag — past the audience. And the house manager asked, “Could you maybe not wheel the dead body past the people going into our show? Just let them go in and then wheel the dead body?” The people were like, “No ma’am. This is a dead body.” So it was sort of like, okay: Welcome to Hedwig! Ignore the dead body! It was an interesting start!
In 2008, The Jane was refurbished by boutique hotel supremo Sean McPherson as stylish budget accommodation, retaining both the atmosphere of the seamans’ hotel and the grungy 80s. The location, in the Meatpacking district, next to the Hudson river, couldn’t be bettered. The downstairs bar and ballroom is a hip hangout with queues around the block at the weekend. There is also a fashionable Middle Eastern fusion restaurant Café Gitane, which according to Smitten Kitchen was the origin of avocado toast as a trendy dish.
The cramped room, in which my daughter and I had bunk beds, cost around 145 US dollars a night. There isn’t enough room to put your suitcase down, we both had to sleep with our cases on the end of our beds. (Fortunately we are both short, though I still continually banged my head on the underside of the top bunk.) The aesthetic is boat-like. A brass rail with hooks over one mirrored wall is the only storage, while the amenities such as towels and complimentary slippers barely fit on the window sill, the only shelf, spilling onto the floor.
Each bunk has a TV attached to the end wall. I think this is pointless. Most people have laptops or tablets, plus what are you going to do? The top bunk watches one station while the bottom bunk, inches away, watches another? The heating is centrally controlled and incredibly stuffy in winter. The shared bathroom is at the end of the hall. I found an old banana under the sink next the shower (yuck). On the floor we stayed, the corridors reeked suffocatingly of cigarette smoke because some of the former residents were still in occupation. These people were offered a great deal of money to move out but preferred to stay in their central bedsits. You can tell which are their rooms because the doors are scruffier. It was all a bit grim to be honest. Within that context, the design element of deliberately shabby chic ‘threadbare’ carpets about which McPherson boasts, comes across more as unhygienic than stylish. I didn’t want to walk anywhere without shoes.
As I mentioned before, the staff were great. The concierge recommended a wonderful neighbourhood breakfast diner, the old style New York ‘La Bonbonniere’, known to locals as the ‘bonbon’. This was a favourite hangout of Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini. The decor is tatty 50s diner with Chicano line cooks and surly but handsome waiters, adorned with gangland tats and long hair with undercuts or plaits curling down their backs. They don’t speak, they just nod.
I ordered a day-glo orange grilled cheese from the laminated menu, which was just the right kind of nuclear-age deliciousness that I want when I visit the US. It came with a pickle and fabulous horseradish sauerkraut; I got American drip coffee with refills while my daughter sipped on a tall unadorned chocolate milk. The clientele are interesting too: a guy we got talking to said he was Queen Elizabeth’s secret son plus a member of the CIA. He announced he could read my text messages from a special app:
‘Do you mind?’ he asked politely. ‘If I ask first, then it’s legal.’
On this trip to New York and Canada, the spectre of the Titanic seemed to lurk in the background. In Halifax in Canada, up the coast, I discovered that hundreds of the dead bodies recovered from the sea around the Titanic were taken there and buried. In the graveyard, the name Jack Dawson was found on a headstone and was used by director James Cameron for the Leonard DiCaprio character in the film.
My next stop on my Canadian travels was Quebec City, where the statue of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Nouvelle France, was sculpted by Titanic survivor, Paul Chevré.