The Chelsea Dilemma: An Investigation into a Forgotten Citizen

There has to be something called reality in order for us to come to its rescue.  – Jean-Luc Godard

Mario Fattori is downtown. Paper cup of coffee. Dead Visa Card. What to do?

It is late and he needs a room. But the Chelsea Hotel is as closed to him as the mouths of the desk clerks in the lobby. Outside the neon has crapped out in the cold January winds : the sign above the entrance reads ‘ho…chel…’ A few residents snigger by and into the elevator, shouting the new abbreviation to the boys behind the counter. Their voices cut back and forth through Mario, jovial and jabbing.

Some coffee sloshes over his fingers as he tries to explain his situation again. A waste of time, a waste of coffee, he thinks. They forget him; they want to forget him. Why?

A young man with a cocksure Sinatra walk approaches the night desk. Fine leather jacket to the waist, Mafioso style. He spies the older man in a fire red jumper and a brown suit arguing with the staff. Decides to ignore him at first. Other things are on his mind, like women and drugs and keys. But this old man, there is something about him.

‘Excuse me, please?’

Mario Fattori grabs his attention.

‘Buon giorno,’ the young man smiles, picking the older gentleman immediately as a fellow Italian. He shoots the greeting a little smartarse and quick, Milano style.

Mario Fattori is amused by this young rooster. And his polite accuracy, the northern twist of his tongue. But things are going wrong tonight. How to contain it? Nobody in this world wants a desperate man. He knows it is best to hold on, to control himself.

‘My name is Mario Fattori,’ he begins proudly. ‘Film producer and director!’ He bows slightly.

‘Tony. Tony Navarotino.’ The young man shakes his hand. ‘Fotògrafo.’

The formal introductions still the waves rising in Mario. He takes a deep breath. No words follow. Tony waits – asks finally if he can ‘be of assistance?’ Then it all tumbles out. ‘The stupid bitch I speak to on the phone won’t help. Now these pigs here refuse me a room when I have stayed here many times before. Many times!’

‘Aspetta,’ Tony says, slightly overwhelmed. ‘I don’t understand, signore.’

‘My card, these bastards say my credit card is no good. I am trying to ring Italy but the banks are all closed. I don’t know what to do.

I can’t get a room. I can’t make a call. This is criminal. Criminal!’

‘There must be an emergency operator at your bank. Someone?’

Mario Fattori does not answer.

The desk boys at the Chelsea Hotel smile wornout smiles.

It’s about 1 a.m. One of them smokes like a chimney. The smoke disappears, but the used-up smell lingers around him.

The other looks like a fat Puerto Rican rapper jammed into a secondhand suit that is falsely conservative. They act more tired than they really are.

‘Monkeys. Bastards,’ Mario curses them in Italian. ‘And the manager! He is a thief! This is why they refuse to help. I threaten to sue the manager for what he tries to charge me last time for my room. This is the real problem. Why they make my life so difficult.’

Mario’s rage pops out in a hot flush over his face and neck. Like a hand made of water spreading beneath the skin. The night staff pretend not to overhear, not to understand his abusive fits of Italian, not to understand his anger either. They do a lot of not understanding – it is their form of expertise.

Tony turns to the desk grandly. ‘What about it, fellas? Aren’t you going to help an old man in trouble? You’ve got to do something here.’ He slaps the counter ironically.

The skinny one answers, ‘Ah, he’s talking bullshit, Tony. He’s got no money.’

Mario bristles. ‘You lie. You know me. You know me! Always I come here.’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ the desk clerk mutters, turning his head away, ‘we know.’

Tony sees the situation has long ago reached a dead-end. He quickly whispers something to the fat boy in the suit, another arrangement, ‘okay?’ At the same time he begins to lead Mario away from the counter as a good son would an ailing father.

They stop near the elevator. Tony reaches out a calming hand to Mario Fattori’s shoulder. The old man holds his steaming coffee cup close to his face. It makes him look lonely. It’s then Tony notices a cluster of flesh-coloured plastic bands on his right wrist. Hospital ID bracelets. Curious.

‘Try the public phone over here again, signore. Try Italy again. There must be someone. And when you have finished, please, come to room 507a. We are having a party there. Please join us for a drink.’

‘Thank you, thank you,’ says the old man, placing his paper cup beside one of the phones. He searches his pockets. Pulls out an expensive gold fountain pen, tries to scratch the room number unsuccessfully on a piece of paper. The ink in the pen is bone-dry. Mario shakes it, tries again with an exaggerated effort. ‘It is not my day.’

Upstairs the world is roaring. Lauryn Hill is on the stereo, then some frenetic Miles, then Astrud Gilberto stepping light, followed by the rush of Beck’s ‘Beer Can.’ The cd player is a battlefield for the taste masters, the jag of moods. Vodka is being poured into tumblers, coffee mugs and what looks like an old jam jar. Someone accidentally explodes an ice tray over the table. Everyone just picks up the cubes and throws them in their drinks laughing. A bag of mushrooms sits open over a pile of magazines–a few people reach in and taste the dried, chewy fragments.

I sit on a chubby black leather lounge. It reminds me of a swollen piece of licorice, an ideal set piece for a porno film. Deep inside it, I find Tony whispering at my ear. He is leaning over the backrest, squelching down close. ‘Follow me.’

I get up with an effort, pushing myself free of the lounge’s sticky grip. By the time I am standing up, Tony is already out through the door and into the hallway. I chase after him. ‘Where are you going? What are we doing?’

Tony laughs. He’s high, smiling. Waving a finger onwards. ‘Just come with me,’ he says like a boy who is about to do something he shouldn’t. He reaches into his pocket as we hit the main stairwell and start heading upwards. Pulls out $60 and says, ‘When we get to the door, I’ll knock. Okay? A girl will answer. You show her the money and say “I want one gram.”’


He hands me the money. We’re at the door already. My mind is still catching up. I’m feeling stoned – and a little paranoid. A girl answers. Tony steps back to let me in first. Having thrown me in the deep end, he’s enjoying my struggle. I show her the money. Then I say, mumble really, ‘We’d like a … gram?’



MARK MORDUE is a writer, journalist and editor working internationally. He won the 2010 Pascall Prize for Australian Critic of the Year. Previously he has received a 1992 Human Rights Media Award for his journalism, as well as the 1994 Women and the Media Award. His travel book Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip was published in both Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2001) and the USA (Hawthorne Books, 2004). Film director Wim Wenders acclaimed it as the first book of its kind to take the road genre “into the 21st century”. Mark was 2001 Asialink Australian Writer-in-Residence at Beijing University and has taught narrative writing and literary journalism at the University of Sydney and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) over the past decade. He was Guest Editor of the literary journal Meanjin’s ‘On Rock ‘n’ Roll’ issue (November 2006) and recently completed a draft novel for his M.A. in Writing (by Research) at UTS. He is currently developing a major biographical work on Nick Cave for international publication.

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TNB Nonfiction features some of the web's best essays, excerpts of up-and-coming books, self-interviews, profiles, and humor from a wide range of authors. Past and future writers include Emily Rapp, Mira Bartók, Nick Flynn and Melissa Febos, among many others.  Our editorial team includes:  SETH FISCHER is the Nonfiction Editor. His work has appeared in Guernica, Joyland, Best Sex Writing, and elsewhere, and he was the first Sunday editor at The Rumpus. His nonfiction was selected as notable in The Best American Essays, and he has been awarded fellowships by Jentel, the Ucross Foundation, Lambda Literary, and elsewhere. He is also a developmental editor of nonfiction and fiction, and he teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles, UCLA-Extension, and Writing Workshops Los Angeles.

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