From the archives: A night at the Viceroy

06/30/2010 5:23 PM

By Micah Maidenberg
Editor

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The Viceroy Hotel, the empty former hotel near Ashland and Warren, was designated a historic landmark by the city council on May 12.
In 2002, a Chicago Journal reporter nearly spent a night there. That story is reposted below.

Heartland Housing and First Baptist Congregational Church were designated by the citys Community Development Commission to develop 90 units of supportive housing and social services in the Viceroy in 2009.

Where Skid Row remains
At Madison Street's Viceroy Hotel, down-and-out's the same as it ever was
By MANDY BURRELL
Contributing Reporter
The last piece of advice in a string of cautionary words that ran from the moment I took this assignment to the very last minute was "Take all necessary precautions."
I laughed. Oh, was that funny to me at the time. For pete's sake, I was going to spend the night at the Viceroy Hotel, not infiltrate the mob or chase tornadoes. The Viceroy is on Warren Boulevard, near the intersection of Madison and Ashland, a quick left-hand turn after a five-minute ride from the Mart down Lake St. It's a transient hotel, and my assignment was to spend a night there and write about the experience. Simple enough, I assured everyone. I had managed to sleep through the night at an Amsterdam hostel while the couple next to me did exactly what you think they were doing and bedbugs chewed up my skin. Could the Viceroy be any worse? I considered it doubtful.
I heeded one piece of advice--a suggestion that I loathed taking until I realized how relieved I was to have done so. My editor recommended I take along my boyfriend, and I figured it would be a fun chance for us to share an adventure, a wacky night at a transient hotel, high hilarity.
To my surprise, and more to my annoyance, my boyfriend didn't share my sentiments. Do you know what this place is going to be like? he asked. Do you really think this is going to be fun? And the one that burned me up the most: I'm sorry, but you have no idea what you're getting into, do you?
Of course I knew what I was getting into. What did he think I was, some naive, stupid little girl? I told him, fine, don't come. I'll do it alone.
That didn't go over, and the reason was simple: My boyfriend knew that, in this particular instance, I was naive and stupid. But my cocksure boasting and bravado were born of blissful ignorance. I had no idea what I was getting into, but I was certain that it couldn't be worse than bedbugs and that couple that wouldn't stop screwing.
So off we went on a Friday night, my excitement for getting a cool story tempered only by my irritation at my boyfriend's sullen pouting and his hundredth reminder that he grew up in Roseland and left this kind of place behind a long time ago.
"I'm only here to watch out for you," he said. A stupid little girl, words he never said but that I can now hear loud and clear.

***

What I did hear as we were headed to the Viceroy were the words of Jack Kerouac, scribbled on a scroll as he barreled his Sal and Neal Cassady's Dean into 1950s Chicago, in On the Road: "Great Chicago glowed red before our eyes. We were suddenly on Madison St. among hordes of hoboes, some of them sprawled out on the streets with their face on the curb, hundreds of others milling in the doorways of saloons and alleys."
A quick survey of the neighborhood yielded one or two bums, and I thought smugly to myself, See, this isn't that bad.
We pulled up to the Viceroy around 9:15 p.m. and parked my rusty beater next to a rustier conversion van. I'd called ahead to check the prices and found out that the hotel only rented for twelve-hour stays ($38.62 with a TV, $32.62 without) or for the week ($150.80).
No partial refunds, and no need to book ahead.
No sooner did we park and get out of the car than two men leaning up against the chain-link fence around the lot waved us over.
"Hey, we got good weed and rock," one said. "How much you need?"
Now, I might have understood from the eerily empty streets and our not-so-auspicious welcome that bums don't hang out near the Viceroy because they all know it's not a safe place to stay the night. Instead, I found myself thinking thoughts of a calloused reporter, the kind I vowed never to be. What great color those crack dealers would make for my piece!
My boyfriend was less impressed.
"No, man, we don't do that," he said wearily, and we headed for the door.
The front door was unlocked but the cracked glass vestibule door was not. It was plastered with signs forewarning hopeful transients that if they don't have a drivers' license or state ID, the desk attendant has no obligation to rent them a room.
We were buzzed in and found a harmless man using up his 10 minutes of allotted loitering time, as per one of the dozen or so policy signs posted on the walls.
Behind a steel gate and then behind a thick plate of bulletproof glass was the desk attendant, a middle-aged woman who seemed surprised to see two clean, young, clear-blue-eyed faces looking for a room. She insisted that we sign in as Mr. and Mrs., though I pointed out that our last names were different.
"We're not married," I told her.
"I know, honey, I know," she said.
Oh. I can only imagine what she thought of the two of us.
Whatever she thought, we had money for a room--with a TV, which I figured would help to placate and occupy my boyfriend. She handed us a key, told us to check out by 9:15 a.m. and said to have a nice stay.
As we headed to the elevator, the loitering man piped up.
"There's security here," he said. "In case you were wondering."
I hadn't been wondering about security, actually, until he mentioned it. Our room was on the second floor, 216, but we took the elevator to check it out.
The lift was old and orange and groaned under the duress of our two-person, one-floor load. For the rest of the stay, we took the stairs.
Looking back, it was swinging open the door to our room that opened my eyes to the reality of the Viceroy. Somehow, the drug dealer out front, the bulletproof glass at the front desk, and the stink of urine that hung in the musty air were lost on me. But the room was hard to miss.
First, the smell hit me. The heat had been cranked up to an almost unbearable temperature that, when coupled with the dim ceiling light, created the perfect conditions for mold. The window was nailed shut, and with it with any chance of fresh, cool air. Our view was the twinkling city skyline. I felt strangely sad looking at it.
I'd brought along a fresh sheet for the bed but decided, after looking at the stained and soiled comforter tattered by cigarette burns and other unidentifiable transgressions, that we would not be lying or sitting on the bed that night.
In fact, it didn't seem wholesome to touch anything in the room. From the faded, pulled-up mess of a carpet to the showerless bathroom, with its filthy bathtub and mildewed grout, it seemed impossible that the room would pass muster on any state health inspection. Even the wood paneling on the TV set was gashed and burned by god knows what. And there was no way I'd ever use the threadbare towel or two Styrofoam cups resting upside down on the dresser.
Neither of us wanted to sit on the bed, and the floor was obviously off limits. Just breathing in the room felt wrong. So we snapped some pictures of the interior and wandered the hallways to take some more. We found a condom wrapper down the hall and not much else, so we decided to go sit in the common room.
Across from the front desk and the watchful eye of the attendant, the large room had bright lights, a television set, and decently clean seats. It would do.
We sat for a few minutes in silence, not looking at one another, my boyfriend's well-deserved I-told-you-so hanging in the air along with my frantic thoughts about how in the hell I was going to write about the most depressing place I'd ever been.
We watched a woman stumble out the stairwell and head for the door, asking no one and everyone if she was near Ashland, apparently not remembering where she was or, likely, how she got there. Two men and a woman tried for what seemed like forever to check into one room, despite no less than four signs clearly stating a strict policy of two to a room, and no guests. The second man spotted us in the common room and snuck over as his friends haggled with the attendant.
We could barely understand his garbled, cracked-out voice, but from what we could ascertain, he wanted to give us a couple of bucks so we would get him into the room. Sorry, man, not today. And not in 10 minutes, when he asked again. Or in half an hour when he suddenly reappeared, having been ditched by his friends.
After the third conversation with the poor, left-out crackhead, my nerves were shot. The lobby was momentarily quiet, but my thoughts were screaming. Finally, I conceded, first to myself and then to my boyfriend. This was far worse than I imagined it would be. In fact, it was the worst place Id ever been, and I didn't want to spend the night there.
Stained bedsheets and condom wrappers aside, the truth of the Viceroy Hotel is that no one should have to spend the night there, and yet plenty of people do.
Not only people looking for a whore or a place to smoke rock, but people who legitimately need a cheap place to stay awhile, to get on their feet, to get it together. We saw them, too--a man and a woman asking the desk attendant to recommend a cheap place to get a bite to eat. They were clean, and he wore a mechanic's jacket. Later, a van full of folks pulled up and wearily dragged their bags into the lobby, asking for a room on the 12th floor where they had stayed the week before. I had no idea what they were doing there, but based on the cross on the van, it wasn't for cheap sex or drugs.
It was the normal people who made me feel the worst. It's a horrible world where men pay poor women for sex on a filthy, burned-up mattress and where people smoke themselves into nothingness. But it's an even worse world that forces hardworking, hard-on-their-luck men and women to have to live in the same conditions.
My boyfriend and I had a long conversation in the TV room, about his boyhood in Roseland, watching a man die of a gunshot wound outside the hardware store where he worked, and having to hold a gun to protect his locksmith father while he was on the job. He was 10 years old then. I thought of my own childhood, my whole tidy, privileged life in the suburbs, and realized how lucky I am that I've so
far only had to figure out how to live, not how to survive. I've always had choices in my life, and I had a choice that night, too. I decided to make the choice I should have made in the first place.
Just shy of midnight, we checked out of the Viceroy Hotel. I've never been more thankful than I was speeding away down Lake Street, headed for the twinkling lights of the city.

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