Hotel Duncan: Shabby chic or space portal?

Of the handful of hotels in New Haven, the Duncan is easily the oldest. And it shows. Its lobby is decorated with black-and-white photos of Yale men in football uniforms, still in their original chipped frames. Its ceilings still feature tin moldings, decorated with small neoclassical flourishes, paneling and flaking chips of gold leaf. And the only thing keeping the first-floor sitting area cool is a giant steel fan that’s been spinning for at least 40 years, I later learned from the hotel’s general manager.

It was around midnight last Monday when I checked in. I had called about an hour earlier to ask about rooms and a tired voice had murmured that there were “a couple of openings.” Without a house and with no desire to impose on friends and their worn Ikea futons, the receptionist at the Duncan immediately became my kindest host.

Walking up the steps of the hotel, into the open lobby, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of eeriness. The place resembles the set of a black-and-white murder mystery centered on a pill-popping chanteuse and her slick financier husband, the smell of the singer’s medication mixing with the scent of cleaning supplies used to scrub the worn floor.

Richard, portly, mustachioed and slumped beneath the receptionist’s desk, stood up and confirmed that rooms were indeed available.

“I spoke to you earlier,” he said, in the same exhausted voice I’d heard wheezed over the telephone. “I’m going to give you a nice room.”

He squinted at a list of room numbers taped to the side of his desk titled “Air-Conditioned Rooms.”

Moments later, he turned and pulled out a key from a shelf behind him, stocked with keys to what seemed to be dozens of vacant rooms for the evening.

“Don’t be scared,” he said, looking down at my credit card information.

That’s the last I heard of Richard, as I headed up the stairs to my bedroom.

I shouldn’t have felt comforted by Richard’s words, but as I keyed into room 207, notable for its air-conditioning and king-sized bed, all I could feel was a sense of relief.

At this point I had suddenly leapt back two months in my life to the grimy, aged Euphemia Budget Hostel in a decrepit corner of Amsterdam. The rough carpeting scratching against my bare feet with muffled noises echoing through the corridors and off of thin, stained walls sent out waves of nostalgia that locked me in a hazy day-dream of sunny summer weekends when my lunch plans were my greatest priority.

It didn’t matter that I could feel each bedspring beneath my shoulder blades. It didn’t matter that the only shows on the television were of televangelists yelling about “everyday devils.” It didn’t even matter that I could see coarse hairs woven into the duvet cover.

In my head, I was six hours away from a bike ride along quaint canals and through the red-light district.

I don’t really know what it was that sucked me out of New Haven. Maybe it was the strong scent of bleach. Or maybe it was the intense green of the carpets. Or maybe I was just exhausted from a day of walking around in wooden clogs, desperate for a windmill — or air-conditioning.

But when I woke up in the morning, having dreamt happy dreams of desserts and outdoor naps, I still thought I was away in Amsterdam. I only realized I was in America when I got out of bed and found a text telling me to go to Thai Taste for lunch.

At that point, the experience started going downhill. The nostalgia factor washed away as the dirty water spewing from the showerhead jolted me awake. The bathroom was the filthiest corner of the suite and smelt most strongly of bleach and Pine-Sol. Pools of murky gray water had collected in the bathtub and the once-white sink had yellowed like the teeth of a widowed coffee drinker with no one to brush for. A steady stream of water was dripping out of the loosened faucet.

“Drip,” it spoke. “And get the fuck out.”

So I packed up my things and headed downstairs, cutting my two-night stay short.

Richard greeted me in the lobby — slightly more chipper and alert.

“I found out I have to go,” I said, staring blankly at the shelf of keys behind him. “Can I check out today?”

He pulled out my credit card information, took my key and asked me to sign my receipt.

The total cost of my stay at the Duncan was $67.

I thought I was still hallucinating from breathing in so much bleach. I held the receipt up to a light for a second, as if to verify its authenticity. I put it back down on the table. I leaned in closer, looked up at Richard then quickly signed.

As I turned to exit, the charm of the hotel seeped back in. It had let me sink out of New Haven for a night and then conveniently returned me the morning after. And I didn’t even have to show anyone a passport.

I probably wouldn’t book my parents a room there the next time they come to visit, but if I get stressed out sometime this semester, I’ve decided all I need to do is pack my bags and head to the Duncan for a night.

I love you Duncan, don’t ever change.

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