I said, "Being sorry butters no parsnips. What happened to my room?"
The clerk was shocked into efficiency. "You see, sir, we didn't have as many checkouts as we expected."
"That's a hell of an excuse. Am I to get pushed around because you goof?"
"I wouldn't put it quite that way, sir."
"And how should I put it, and just what should I do about it?"
He pointed across the Stygian lobby. "You might talk to the assistant manager about putting you up at another hotel."
Mildly exhilarated by the exchange, I walked across to the assistant manager's desk, where sat a comely girl of about 22, wearing a dark-blue frock, speaking English with a German accent and trying to subdue three telephones. She was attempting to get hotel space for four Tokyo businessmen who had traveled a lot farther than I had for the privilege of being pushed around.
The Japanese had the view that a confirmed reservation at a reputable hotel was a vested interest. I shared this view. Twenty minutes later I had a room. An hour and a half later I was in it. The other hotel was a Hilton, natch. This is a jolly arrangement for the Hiltons. They can lay off a packed profitable hotel against a dog, rather like laying off heavy money from a favored horse. The system pleases everybody but the sucker. But that's New York, buddy, and you can like it or lump it.
I was getting the message. The Big Gouge was on. At my back I felt the invisible cop pushing me along, telling me to get moving, Mac, before I messed up the rate of turnover of suckers.
The room had, and the tub taken, the next thing was to find somewhere to get properly sloshed. Or, as we say in the Paris of the West, get a heat on. A culture is no better than the saloons it produces. A quarter century ago the salient New York spa was Irish-owned, by a lad who was one-third publican, one-third priest and one-third Tammany Hall street leader. The bartender was called Paddy, whether that was his name or not. In winter there was a bottle of mulligan in the center of the bar. The business of these establishments was drinking, and nothing else. These places came out of a robust, contentious and authentic tradition. Their like possibly still exists in New York, and maybe in sizable number, but the tourist, which I was instructed to be, does not come by them. What happened to them? It's simple. When I was a kid nobody born in New York ever called himself a New Yorker. That was for the guys who came from somewhere else, the wanderers, who in the end became permanent, career New Yorkers. These lads had no real commitment to the place. They had come to the big town to score. To remain spiritually at ease, they built an enclave which became a sort of super- Cleveland. This is midtown Manhattan, a horrific glass canyon where the only honest buildings are the old churches and the Racquet Club, which looks rather like an old church.