Monday, August 23, 2010

Up in the Old Hotel the title of an irresistible book by Joseph Mitchell I read more than a few years ago. Its about New York; its about characters, oddities, the buildings, neighborhoods, establishments, bars of the city; its about writing and reporting and a bygone era that was not yet bygone when the pieces were penned. It is one of those books I picked up because of the cover art, type set, and blurb.

But I kept reading, submerged in the sights and structure of the buildings, hotels, ale houses, traffic, and surroundings of Mr. Mitchell. Whenever we espy a hotel of straightforward architecture, few furbelows, a no nonsense front desk and a 'cafe' within, I think of Mr. Mitchell and I want to go there.
This romantic predisposition surfaced with a vengeance this past weekend as we finished a day at that most anachronistic of institutions, the State Fair. It seemed only fitting that a day that began with ham, eggs, and elbow rubbing with any politician worthy of a bumper sticker, continued with a stroll through the draft horse barns, and finished with social hour in the beer garden should conclude with a stop at a three story brick hotel sandwiched between the Boone County Courthouse and the Missouri River. Travelers we, with our carry on bags masquerading as carpetbags and no need to pretend to be wrinkled, sweaty, and in need of rest and refreshment.

I last stopped at the Frederick Hotel way back in 1977, I think it was. It wasn't an old hotel at that time; it was the Greyhound Bus Stop and pretty well down and out. I rode buses often back then and had low expectations of the amenities. As a matter of fact, I didn't ordinarily go in the bus stations if I didn't need to, so I can't report on the interior of the Frederick Hotel thirty years ago.

But I can tell you how delighted I was to pass through the arched portals, pass between the mismatched assortment of lobby furniture across the well worn, buffed white and black marble floor. There is a tall built in grandfather clock of oak. There are cubbies for every key. There is a lobby bar behind frosted glass doors. The hallways stretch into the distance, the walls hung with old maps and photos of old buildings. We didn't seek out the elevator, preferring to check out the second floor on our way to the third from the pine staircase. Each floor still has the guest restrooms at the end of the hallways, relics of the days before private baths. The wardrobes in the halls hold extra blankets. Ceiling fans move the humid air; the guest rooms are beautifully climate controlled, but I appreciate the good sense of letting the hallways in this monstrous building tend to the ambient temperature.

We drop our bags and head for the bar to enjoy the evening light from the west windows. A couple converses at the bar; there is just enough talk and music to put us at ease.

Years ago, we stayed at another marvelous old hotel, this one in Leadville, Colorado. Is the Delaware Hotel still operating? While not luxurious, the rooms were spacious and not spartan. We shared a walk through bath with a large iron tub with the kids in the adjacent room. I don't think the Delaware had television but we didn't miss it. We used our quilts that summer night at the 9,000 foot or so elevation of Leadville. We had an early wake up for the Leadville excursion train up the mountain the next morning. Leadville itself was too high, too chilly, too close to its mining past, to be too cute. But full of romance, the epitome of booms and busts.

And at heart, I guess I am a romantic traveler, always on the lookout for a vignette, a scene from a book, a cliche confirmed, a prospective memory to capture on film, chip, mind's eye. Something to tie into a lyric or a melody from the past or in the future. I save these like Scrooge McDuck hoards his coins. Memory is the guest book of my old hotel and the images come through the lobby like friends and family, settling in on the couch for a joke, a tale, a reminiscence, a cup of Irish coffee in Kildare, a frothy confection on Anegada, fried lobster at the Lake, or a lonely island rising from the rainy mist on Burntside Lake.

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