Floating on Air at the St. George Hotel

by

01/27/2008

St. George Hotel, Brooklyn Heights, 11201

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Brooklyn Heights

The visible landscape of Brooklyn Heights is much the same as it was in my childhood, which is a large part of why I moved back to the neighborhood after almost twenty years.

Every so often, someone stops me on Clark Street to ask directions to the subway station. It always takes me a second or two to understand that, although it is right there, it is all but invisible. The entrance to the IRT’s first station in Brooklyn, built in 1919, is through what was once the lobby of the St. George hotel. The building’s battered marquees tell the name of the structure above but nothing about the possibilities for transportation found underneath.

It must be hard to imagine the present anonymous warren as the shopping arcade of a fine hotel — not just fine, splendid. Established in 1884, the St. George could claim author Thomas Wolfe, abolitionist Henry Beecher, and presidents Kennedy, Truman, and Roosevelt (F.D.) among its guests. People actually came in from Manhattan to dance under the chameleonic lights of the “world-renowned” Colorama Ballroom. After the addition of the tower building in 1929, the St. George was the largest hotel in New York City and also (very briefly) the tallest building in Brooklyn. In its heyday, the complex included stores of all kinds, a restaurant, a bar, a movie theatre, 14 ballrooms and banquet halls, and an immense, salt-water swimming pool; there was even something billed as “the picturesque Italian village.” But, during the 60s and 70s — the era of my childhood — the St. George deliquesced. Its tenants became an uncomfortable mix of the indigent and the elderly, and the then-owners (“a group of nationalist Chinese investors” wrote the New York Times) allowed fixtures and services to decay. While the grand lobby furniture was dismantled and sold off, the building’s few remaining lifelong residents would reminisce about the days when one could call down to the desk for anything from a cheese sandwich to a diamond ring. In 1980, there was a disastrous attempt at a luxury conversion (lawsuits ensued). Finally, in 1995, a 16-alarm fire devastated the place, paving the way for its current incarnation as a dormitory for college students. I sometimes see them hanging around in front, smoking cigarettes in their pajamas.

I can walk down any street and look through the eyes of an earlier self: at age 6, a manhole cover suggests a hidden world of trolls and tunnels; at 11, the service entrance to my old building looks like a great place from which to spy; and at 17, I walk down Pierrepont Street singing rueful Bob Dylan lyrics to myself. But at the corner of Clark and Henry Streets, I am most definitely 9 years old, approaching the St. George newsstand with sixty-five cents in my hand. I will leave my whole allowance in the worn wooden dish above the pile of Journal Americans, and turn back toward the Henry Street with a Van Houten bar, a packet of Sour Apple gum, and the latest issues of Superman and Pep. Before returning to the street, I will stop for a moment and sniff the fragrance of bay rum and iodine, sawdust and laundry that faintly beckons from the white-tiled stairway beyond the turnstiles. The St. George pool, fed its salty greenish water by underground wells at the rate of 650 gallons per minute, was certainly the first wonder of my Brooklyn-based world.

At that time in my life, my best friend Barbara and I both lived a block away from the St. George. Barbara’s Uncle Max, a neighborhood fixture then in his eighties and, I suspect, nobody’s uncle, was a regular at the underground spa and occasionally brought us both along for the afternoon. He paid our admission fees to a clerk in the dark green, quasi-military serge of the hotel’s bell staff and dropped us off at the towel window where we were each given a scratchy, aggressively disinfected white towel. Barbara also received a hideous one-piece “bathing costume” in the smallest available size. Luckily, even the extra small was still too big for me and I got to wear the “poorboy” turtleneck suit my mother had brought home from B. Altman. (It was 1966; my turtleneck bathing suit was so tuff!) Equipped, Barbara and I went alone to the ladies’ locker room, stopping to gawk and marvel at the antique reducing machines: one of them applied a vibrating hip sling; another concealed all but the head of its victim in a zip-front canvas tent–the reducée, trapped within, looked like a surreal hand-puppet. We also studied the black-and-white photographs on the walls, which memorialized pool visits by Esther Williams, Johnny Weismuller, Buster Crabbe, and other patron saints of physical culture. This place had once been a true spa, a temple of health! But even by 1966 standards, its interpretation of that concept seemed off by a shade: Uncle Max was allowed to smoke cigars while taking the vapors, for one thing. For another, the water in the pool was pumped in from a naturally occurring source. Consider it. The Gowanus Canal?

The salinity of that water was part of the spa concept, too, meant to soothe sore muscles or restore lost electrolytes. It was also supposed to help one float. This I remember because floating was a sore point for me — Barbara said a bar of Ivory soap was purer than I was. Sadly, even at the St. George, I sank. The gilded ceiling looked just as glorious viewed from the depths, I told myself, sulkily. The St. George pool was only thirty-two years old when I first visited, but its origins seemed mythically distant — as far off as the vision of Babylon or Byzantium that had inspired its exuberant décor: old post cards show a mirrored, mosaic-wrapped room three stories high. In my memory, those mosaics are green-and-gold pictures of mermaids and athletes cavorting amid stylized waves, but my memory is not always reliable.

Although my first visits to the pool were with Barbara and Max, my most vivid memory was formed on an outing with my comrades from the Heights and Hills day camp, a group of twenty or thirty kids, most of us under the age of ten. On summer weekdays, we would set off in our yellow school bus for outdoor destinations such as Dyker Beach, Staten Island’s Clove Lake, or the immense but banal Sunset Pool. On the bus, we traded Beatle cards, played hand-clapping games, and sang gospel songs, although I doubt there were many Baptists in the party. The Heights (and hills) were funkier then than now with plenty of Bohemians like my parents, and immigrants like my Greek babysitter, and divorcée moms like those of my three best friends from P.S. 8. There were also some — though not very many — people of color. In any case, one day we all went to the St. George. I guess the bus was being repaired, or maybe it was raining.

We were hustled through the changing process and shooed past the fascinations of steam room and sun lamp, pinball machine and diving board (in fact, there were three). The pool was unusually crowded that day and we were told to stay in the shallow end but, having had the run of the place on past visits, I was unwilling to be penned. Though I could not float, I could swim like a fish underwater, and so I set off for deeper waters, perhaps to cannonball off the high dive.

Midway to the rope-and-float boundary, I came up for air, and, treading water, caught sight of some older boys, laughing and ignoring the “no horseplay” signs near the four-foot mark. My eye was drawn to one boy in particular, wearing an ivory necklace that stood out against his brown skin. I didn’t know what a crucifix was, then (my Bohemian parents were also atheists) but wanted to admire the thing, which did and didn’t resemble the strands of dried seeds and pods my mother often wore. I did know what a boy was then, but not enough to be shy about approaching one. And so I dove back underwater and emerged slick and giggling at the side of my new idol, the better to gaze at his old one. I think I may have even reached up to touch it.

The Catholic boy at the four-foot mark, perhaps shy, or perhaps not a native speaker of English, or maybe just the funniest guy I’ve ever met, then scooped me up into his arms and dropped me back into the water from what felt like a heavenly height. Do it again, I said! Again! Again! And he did. Was he just too kind to refuse me? Was he inspired by our pagan surroundings, invigorated by the health-giving powers of those waters, after all? It doesn’t matter, he gave me ecstasy and I never saw him again. (Unless I have: years later, I came across a reminiscence written by golden-skinned, Catholic-reared actor Jimmy Smits who, with his boyhood pals from East New York, also used to hang out at the St. George Pool. Not only arrestingly handsome, Mr. Smits would have been eleven years old that summer, so it delights me to suppose it was he who sent me flying.) In any case, every time some neighborhood newcomer asks me how to find the entrance to the “red line” subway, I will think about that crucifix, and those arms, and the exaltation I felt amid the mirrors and the mermaids, floating, finally on air.

This piece is excerpted from the recently published anthology Brooklyn Was Mine, which also includes work by Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem, and Lara Vapnyar. Rachel Cline’s second novel My Liar, is about friendship and denial in Los Angeles and will be published by Random House February 19, 2008.

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