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At the Algonquin Redux

Though I am an indigenous New Yorker, I had never visited the Algonquin Hotel until I returned to the city after a ten-year sojourn in Europe. By then I was a writer searching for quiet spaces in which to read, write, and converse with friends. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a venue to have business meetings because I needed a place to relax away from my home office. But I have since had a business meeting or two in the Algonquin lobby. I always get there early, find a comfortable chair near a dim light, and read for a while before my guest arrives. Indeed, I feel that the lobby is my lobby and that I am entertaining guests there, so homey is it to me. I carry a portable light with me-- especially helpful when I open my Kindle—and settle into deep reading. The waiter may or may not come over. When he does, he’ll be gentle so as not to interrupt my reading too harshly. I order a pot of hot green tea, one of the cheaper items on the revamped more upscale menu. And I sip from that pot all night. Sometimes I even ask for more hot water. The waiters get it—I don’t want to spend a lot of money, I’m a writer—and they leave me alone. Usually, my guest orders a drink or two which subsidizes the writers on the premises. Unless my guest is also a writer.

The tradition of extended conversation in a quiet club was embedded in me during my years in London. It’s a genteel tradition, not one in which I was raised, but I took to it quickly. I’m not an elitist, far from it, and always defied the locked squares in London’s tonier neighborhoods (we have one or two in New York also), by pretending I’d forgotten my key. I figured I looked as though I could belong. I knew that the polite Brits would rarely confront an interloper and when they discovered I was a class-less American they would simply laugh. This happened more than once. I had acquaintances who were Lords and Ladies and friends who were members of clubs and they always enjoyed a good American tease about their class pretensions. When they invited me to their clubs, and I didn’t decline, they were equally amused. I soon understood the purpose of them: luxury is very seductive. In London, it was an oasis from the hardscrabble neighborhoods I had to visit as a journalist or, in my early days there, when I taught in the still Dickensian schools on the periphery of the city. In the clubs, I could let my body and my mind relax for a while and refuel.

And that’s how I feel when I sit in the Algonquin lobby—relaxed in mind and body. And although I don’t want a thousand people to read about it in this blog, I’m delighted to be able to share this New York Literary and Historic Landmark with my students and writer friends. There’s no membership fee or hazing. Anyone can join because there is nothing to join. Walk in, sit down, enjoy. If you have a book club of ten or more, you can even reserve space in advance. I did this once with a new book club I had started. We weren’t ten so we couldn’t book in advance but, as soon as we arrived, Doomy, the gatekeeper of the lobby, found us a small round table at the back, very close to the Algonquin Round Table. I was thrilled. As we were leaving that day, Doomy came over to ask us how the discussion had gone and if we’d been comfortable. His family is from Haiti, he told us, he is at college when he is not working at the Algonquin, and he loves to read. My recollection is that we had been discussing Naipaul’s “Bend in the River,” and that Doomy was very interested in this book which is about colonialism in Africa. I gave him my copy.

Doomy is still at the Algonquin and has progressed from under-graduate to graduate studies. Every time I enter and he is there, I smile. We embrace and he helps me find a comfortable location. He might stop a moment or two to ask how I’m doing, and to tell me how he is doing. This week, he was reading “The Great Gatsby,” and when I told him that I read it once a year, we began to talk about why it is a classic. His copy is filled with marginalia. I approve. We could have talked all night but Doomy is a professional and I am not the only regular. The lobby was getting busy again and he had to get back to work. We said good-bye just as my guest walked through the door.
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