15 May 2012

Haunted Hotel

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:16 pm

I’m sitting at a desk in my hotel room on the thirty-third floor watching the five p.m. traffic flow unimpeded through downtown Kansas City. Rush hour here is nearly indistinguishable from any other hour of the day, this being one of those Western US cities that sprawls across vast expanses of flatland.

It’s a Sheraton hotel, but an old brass plaque mounted inside the elevator still reads “Hyatt.” I  don’t know when the building changed ownership, but I do know when disaster befell it:

The Hyatt Regency hotel walkway collapse was a collapse of an interior suspended skywalk system that occurred on Friday July 17, 1981, in Kansas City, Missouri, United States, killing 114 people and injuring 216 others during a tea dance. At the time, it was the deadliest structural collapse in U.S. history, not to be surpassed until the Collapse of the World Trade Center in 2001.

Here’s the Wikipedia article.



  1. The plane lands. Bowen puts the half-read manuscript back into his briefcase, walks out of the terminal, and finds a cab. He knows nothing about Kansas City. He has never been there, has never met anyone who lives within a hundred miles of the place, and would be hard-pressed to point to it on a blank map. He asks the driver to take him to the best hotel in town, and the driver, a corpulent black man with the unlikely name of Ed Victory, bursts out laughing. I hope you’re not superstitious, he says.

    Superstitious, Nick replies. What’s that got to do with it?

    You want the best hotel. That would be the Hyatt Regency. I don’t know if you read the papers, but there was a big disaster at the Hyatt about a year ago. The suspended walkways came loose from the ceiling. They crashed down into the lobby, and over a hundred people got themselves killed.

    Yes, I remember that. There was a photo on the front page of the Times.

    The place is open again now, but some folks feel pretty squeamish about staying there. If you’re not squeamish, and if you’re not superstitious, that’s the hotel I’d recommend.

    All right, Nick says. The Hyatt it is. I’ve already been struck by lightning once today. If it wants to hit me again, it will know where to find me.

    [Author’s footnote.] Kansas City was an arbitrary choice for Bowen’s destination — the first place that popped into my head. Possibly because it was so remote from New York, a town locked in the center of the heartland: Oz in all its glorious strangeness. Once I had Nick in Kansas City, however, I remembered the Hyatt Regency catastrophe, which was a real event that had taken place fourteen months earlier (in July 1981). Close to two thousand people had been gathered in the lobby at the time — an immense open-air atrium of some seventeen thousand square feet. They were all looking up, watching a dance contest that was being held in one of the upstairs walkways (also referred to as “floating walkways” or “skyways”), when the wide flange beams supporting the structure broke loose from their moorings and collapsed, crashing down into the lobby four stories below. Twenty-one years later, it is still considered one of the worst hotel disasters in American history.

    – Paul Auster, Oracle Night, 2003


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  2. The reconstructed lobby looks as if it’s just a few days old, and Nick can’t help thinking that he and the hotel are more or less in the same situation: both of them trying to forget their pasts, both of them trying to begin a new life. The glittering palace with its transparent elevators and immense chandeliers and burnished metallic walls…

    The elevators are not transparent, and I know they are the originals because of the Hyatt brass plaques embedded in their walls. Auster’s novelist narrator acknowledges that he has never visited this hotel, so the misrepresentation isn’t egregious. The glass connotes modernism I suppose, along with the (purported) metallic walls, the machined futuristic efficiency ironically collapsing into itself in catastrophe. Still, the real brass elevator plaque seems a more telling emblem of the hotel’s inability to forget the past.

    He splurges on a suite, rides the elevator up to the tenth floor, and doesn’t come down again for thirty-six hours. Naked under his hotel robe, he eats room service meals, stands by the window, studies himself in the bathroom mirror, and reads Sylvia Maxwell’s book.

    If he’d gotten a room on the thirty-third floor he might have dropped the robe to the floor and studied himself in the windows’ reflection.


    Comment by ktismatics — 29 August 2013 @ 2:35 pm

    • I had thought, while reading the last excerpt, before your own punchline, that there had been little distance between a robe over nakedness, but even at the top I thought it was you having written something new based on your own lewd conduct some years ago….


      Comment by Patrick — 31 August 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  3. The strangest thing… After finishing Oracle Night I set it on the table to return to the Durham Public Library. Seeing it, Anne reached onto one of our bookshelves and extracted the exact same book, which she remembered unpacking. Obviously I had read this book before, which couldn’t have been all that long ago since the hardback was originally published in 2003 and I have a paperback edition — it’s probably one of the last novels I actually bought. “I had been sick for a long time.” This first sentence had seemed familiar, but I thought that Auster had intentionally cribbed it from some other novel that had influenced his story. Saramago’s novel about Pessoa’s alter-ego coming home from Brazil to Portugal is what came to mind, and later when Auster mentions both of those authors I was convinced. But in all likelihood when I first read Auster’s novel I had read neither Saramago nor Pessoa. Other passages seemed familiar too, and the overall flow of the story felt sort of inevitable. Still, I didn’t guess the ending. When I finished I thought: pretty good, better than a couple of other Auster books I’ve read, still not as good as the first one, somewhat derivative and predictable. But this surely had been the first Auster I’d read, and now I’d read it again without realizing.

    In May 2012 when I checked into the KC Sheraton, formerly the ill-fated Hyatt, did I do things in the room that I unconsciously remembered Auster’s protagonist having performed in the novel? Part of the novel’s premise is that writing causes the events it describes to occur. Did I validate that premise in KC? Does my father, deep into Alzheimer’s, experience the vaguest sense of deja vu when he asks for the twentieth time in twenty minutes what’s in the basket at the center of the restaurant table?


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 September 2013 @ 5:50 am

  4. The night before last I dreamed that Anne and I were on a slow-moving train, riding an empty boxcar, talking about where to live next. Kansas City seemed to be the place under consideration, though for no apparent reason. Sure, I suppose so, I said. I look out the back of the train — apparently the back of the boxcar was open. Up the track another train is hurtling toward us at an enormous speed, closing fast. It will surely hit us, we will surely be killed. I wonder whether the pain will register before death kicks in. I realize that I will have no memory of the pain afterward.

    Last night ‘s dream: I become aware of a group of psychotic artists who live and create together. A female colleague and I conclude that they aren’t actually psychotic, that they are creating psychosis as an artform. Do they make texts? No, the colleague asserts. Things then, though that wasn’t the word I used: it was some word for any art other than a text. Yes, says the colleague. Paintings? Sculptures? No. What then? Something more like found objects, but altered through some form of artifice into something else, something psychotic. Where can I see some of these things? In Kansas City, my colleague tells me, there is a little shop that carries them. Well, I tell her, you know what happened the last time I dreamed about going to Kansas City. But we went anyway. We flew there, no aircraft, just soaring at high altitude. Gracefully, enjoyably, we drifted down from the sky onto a quaintly artsy street, and there was the shop containing the psychotic art things. The dream ended before I could go in and look at the psychotic art.


    Comment by ktismatics — 28 October 2013 @ 8:03 am

    • I love the phrase as it finally ends up ‘psychotic art things’. It’s hard to imagine a shop being able to contain ‘psychotic art things’. For some reason, I find the phrase hilarious.


      Comment by Patrick — 31 October 2013 @ 7:34 pm

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