He was the angel-headed hipster who dragged himself through the Negro streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix. He was the man who taught Bill Burroughs how to shoot heroin, and helped him grow marijuana on his farm in Texas. His exploits are recounted in Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On the Road, Burroughs’ Junky, and sundry other staples of Beat literature. Con man, junkie, Times Square hustler, jailbird, and muse to the Beats, Herbert Huncke was also a fine writer in his own right, penning, among other works, the autobiographical Guilty of Everything, some of it written in a stall of a Times Square subway station.
Unlike the more famous Beats, Huncke was never able to make a living off his writings, and so his story is, in a sense, one of failed ambition. He felt that he was the real deal, that these other figures were all to some extent poseurs, and that, perhaps due to his lack of an Ivy League education, his own work had never received the attention it deserved. Always a gentleman, Huncke’s old age found him living in a tiny room at the Chelsea Hotel with a bathroom down the hall, struggling to maintain a quiet dignity in the face of failing health and the addiction that had dogged him throughout his life.
Like all junkies, Huncke liked to shoot up in the bathroom and nod off while sitting on the toilet. A private bathroom would, of course, have been ideal, but since his finances didn’t permit the extravagance, Huncke was forced to make do with the shared bathroom. For the most part, however, this arrangement worked out fine, as Huncke’s neighbors and bathroom-mates knew his schedule and were respectful of his privacy and special needs.
That was until the whores moved in. There were usually three of these strumpets, though sometimes up to five, living together in a small room with a shared bathroom—Huncke’s bathroom. They were all really young, teenagers in fact, except for their leader—a girl with one leg, the other cut off at the knee--who may have been twenty or so. The youngest girl, who was fat and had a bad case of acne, looked to be all of about 16 and was no doubt a runaway.
No stranger to the sex trade himself, Huncke had absolutely nothing against such “ladies of the evening,” and at first didn’t give their presence a second thought. Though he did kind of wonder about the one with the stump, he soon learned that she was in great demand, a specialist, it turned out, esteemed for her singular endowment and thereby respected in her field.
However, through some odd coincidence, some ironic quirk of fate, in all his time living in Hell’s Kitchen and Bowery flophouses, Huncke had somehow avoided ever having to share accommodations with such beings. Perhaps if he had been subjected to such an arrangement at an earlier age--say in his twenties—he would have cleaned up his act and gone to dental school, or moved to New Jersey and founded a dry-cleaning dynasty. But as it turned out, this deficit in Huncke’s lived experience would allow Destiny or Providence to exploit what can only be viewed as a sort of tragic flaw in a man who had for so long lived a heroic outlaw existence on the fringe of society.
The whores were, to say the least, heavy bathroom users. They were forever taking long bubble baths or fussing over their hair and makeup, either singly, or in teams. Besides that, Huncke soon noticed that they seemed to own, collectively or not, an incredible amount of lingerie—which makes sense when you think about it—which they rotated strategically, washing the various filmy garments out by hand and draping them to dry over the shower curtain rod, the sink, and the toilet, even hanging some over the mirror.
Even outside of that, it soon turned out that the bathroom was an integral part of their business operation. They were in there constantly, because—barring the occasional twosome or (prohibitively expensive) threesome--when one of them had a john the others had to have somewhere to hang out for the duration, and it would have been rather inconvenient to bother putting their clothes on and heading down to the lobby. Especially since their turn might come next. Nor did they merely idle away their downtime: they took with them their cell phones—huge, clunky things at the time--and appointment books, and transformed the bathroom into their makeshift office. In that way they were able to assure a steady stream of clients, one every half-hour, from afternoon until the early hours of the morning.
The whores ran around in the hallway in their skimpy negligee, and when Huncke knocked on the bathroom door they often answered it fully nude, and though this might have made the whole ordeal bearable for a heterosexual man, Huncke was gay, and so it didn’t do a thing for him. At first Huncke asked them politely if they would mind not staying in the bathroom for so long.
“If you need in, just knock,” said the one-legged leader, cheerfully smacking her gum.
But they would mill around right outside the bathroom door in their faux-silken teddies and polyester nighties while Huncke fumbled nervously with his works. If he took more than a couple of minutes they started banging on the door: “We’re freezing out here! Come on, we’re in our underwear!”
Huncke didn’t really want to get into a nasty argument with the women themselves, because, from experience, he knew that where there are whores, there are inevitably pimps, and he didn’t relish the thought of a rangy, gold-toothed young man lurking in the dark hallways to spring upon him with a knife. At his wits end, he finally could think of only one recourse. Though he’d never been a squealer, not even when it could have saved him from hard time in the can, he sucked it up and went down to complain to the management.
The result--which Huncke knew in retrospect to be inevitable--was that the guys at the front desk acted like he was completely out of his gourd, like they’d never heard anything so crack-brained and loony in all their lives. As they guffawed and rolled their eyes and suggested he check into a mental hospital, Huncke, disheartened, slunk back to his tiny room.
Nevertheless, the management did do something about it: they called the whores and told them that Huncke had complained.
Later that afternoon, dozing in his bed, Huncke was startled by a loud wooden thumping at his door. Opening the door, he found himself confronted by the leader of the whores. “Why do you hate us?!” she demanded, as two of her scantily clad co-workers stood behind her for back-up.
Huncke started to explain that he didn’t hate them at all, that he just needed to use his bathroom sometimes, but she cut him off abruptly. “You’re just jealous because we’re young and beautiful!” she declared, her boob bouncing out of her negligee as she hopped in place on her crutch.
“Yeah, and you’re just a shriveled up old man!” her co-worker with the acne, pointing at Huncke accusingly, added over her leader’s shoulder.
After that, the situation progressed from bad to worse, ten times worse. It may be an overstatement to say that the whores drove Huncke to his grave, but they certainly didn’t help matters, and may have hastened the progression of the illness that would eventually consume him. After the confrontation at Huncke’s door, the whores made it a point of staying in the bathroom round the clock, smoking crack and eating their lunch in there, and, Huncke came to believe, even sleeping curled up on the floor sometimes. Now they wouldn’t come out even if he knocked, but would simply shout back that he should use the sink in his room--or just go in his pants for all they cared.
Thus the poor man’s last days on earth were transformed into a living hell. In his final hour, Huncke had but one simple desire: to get into the bathroom to inject the one blessed substance that would ease the pain of his tortured existence, relax the iron bonds of consciousness, and allow him to slip seamlessly into the next metaphysical realm.
Alas, the whores were laundering their lingerie. Because his longing had been so intense, and because he died agitated and unfulfilled, Huncke was consigned to a Limbo, a lonely, shadow-infested, half-aware state between living and final oblivion—that finds its God-forsaken locus within the crumbling red brick walls of the Chelsea Hotel.
Often the door to Huncke’s old bathroom will be found standing open in the middle of the night, and his old neighbors know that Huncke has been by. Sometimes the door will slam shut, for no apparent reason. The wind? Perhaps. But if you’ve stayed at the Chelsea for long you’ve surely heard the mournful wail, howling up from the black depths of the airshaft in the wee hours of the morning like some forlorn Bohemian banshee: “Get out of my bathroooooooom, you fucking whoooooooooooooores!” -- Ed Hamilton
[Editor’s Note: The preceding story is fictional: ghosts don’t exist; and even if they did, Stanley would never have allowed them—or for that matter whores or junkies—to roam the halls of the Chelsea Hotel.]