Question: "Is Rita still here?"
Only in this hotel could such an exchange take place as calmly as if two people were discussing the weather. But most people don't check out of the Chelsea if they can help it.
They remain until they die, sometimes violently, sometimes quietly, their passings adding to the lore that has made this a world-famous cocoon of creativity -- home to musicians, poets, painters, dogs, drag queens and artists of every conceivable ilk. This is a hotel with no gym, where you can smoke in all the rooms and where a fat, pink papier-mache woman swings from the lobby ceiling.
As the world and the economy change, however, so does the Chelsea. Its owners are phasing out the more-or-less permanent residents in favor of making the hotel more of, well, a hotel, where people pay by the night and don't have the freedom to paint their rooms fire-engine red. Long-term leases are gone, replaced by 25-day agreements.
"If you're looking to make money, it's probably the way to go," said Jerry Weinstein this month as he led one of the occasional tours through the 126-year-old hotel on West 23rd Street in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood But as a 30-year employee of the Chelsea, Weinstein -- like the tenants who let him shepherd camera-toting tourists through their private dens of inspiration -- seems saddened by the change.
He remembers 20 years ago when at any major art opening in New York, much of the crowd owed the Chelsea money. Management back then was forgiving toward its loyal and artistic clientele.
"I don't think you could do it today, because everything is so expensive," said Weinstein, rattling off the famous people who have slept in the Chelsea: songwriter Leonard Cohen "did his best work" in Room 424; Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols' bassist, was accused of stabbing his girlfriend to death in Room 100; actor and playwright Wallace Shawn still checks in for short stays to recharge his creativity. Arthur C. Clarke completed "2001: A Space Odyssey" here. Bob Dylan composed songs here. Janis Joplin and Dylan Thomas drank here. Arthur Miller, William Burroughs, Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams wrote here.
"This was an unusual hotel, and they were unusual times," said Weinstein, who remembers one of his first nights on duty as a desk clerk, when a man fell (or jumped) nine stories to his death down the center of the spectacular cantilevered stairway and landed with a loud thud.
Like the rest of the Chelsea's common spaces, the stairway walls are lined with drawings, paintings and photographs -- works from artists who have made the hotel home -- creating a collage that reflects the diversity of the residents here. There's the papier-mache woman, a bust of President Truman and paintings by pop artist Larry Rivers, Brett Whiteley of Australian avant-garde fame and Robert Lambert, who still works in the Chelsea in a studio with paint-splattered floors.
In manager David Elder's office, a photograph shows punk musician Dee Dee Ramone sitting on his bed in Room 631.
Elder is the latest in a series of Chelsea managers after the 2007 ouster of long-timer Stanley Bard, a hero among many tenants for his leniency toward late payments and his nurturing of the hotel's artistic spirit. Like others since Bard, Elder's relations with some residents have been tense.
Ed Hamilton, a tenant activist who has blogged about the dispute with management since Bard's ouster, said the Chelsea's owners are "committed to emptying the hotel of permanent tenants." He said there are 40 outstanding lawsuits against the management, whom he described as "greedy hypocrites."
"We're trying to restore some of the rooms to the classic style," said Elder, who estimated that about half of the tenants are long-term residents, down from two-thirds a year ago.
In the meantime, despite the removal of the old-fashioned pigeonhole mailboxes in the lobby and other changes, the Chelsea's permanent guests remain hopeful that they will find a way to stay.
Some, like filmmaker Sam Bassett, arrived in recent years. Asked how he scored his homey penthouse, Bassett gave a Chelsea-like reply. "I knew one of the owners, Stanley Bard, in a very strong cosmic connection," he said. "It's a fateful kind of thing, you know."
Linda Troeller, a photographer in residence for 15 years, said it is the Chelsea's mix of people, history and unique atmosphere that fuels the creativity. "That's one of the fun things about the hotel. There are so many different influences you can draw from," Troeller said.
Inside her studio, a photograph of a young woman known as Miss Amelia, who lived briefly at the Chelsea, dominates the wall. Miss Amelia eventually moved to Shanghai and carved out a career as a successful burlesque dancer.
"So there is life after the Chelsea," Troeller said. "But not much."