Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel
The hotel looms. Over the beach, it hangs brute uniformity over tourists and staff, people playing volleyball, lounging on chaise, bringing drinks, raising umbrellas, calling to children in the water, and here I sit picturing my mother on this same spot of sand picturing her children burning— have they got in an elevator? she has told me she was thinking, have they passed out from smoke? And the hotel is literally on the beach, like sprung from the sand, sand right up against it. How can these things not lean like Pisa after so much time? Twenty-one stories—no, there’s no thirteen, so twenty—and I count and it’s just tall enough for that disorienting thing where you lose count somehow even though you’re looking straight on; twenty stories plus that pillbox sign-cum-A/C-unit thing on top which made landing helicopters so difficult, almost thirty years ago. This is when it looms from for me, though with what we know about memory, the refraction of this moment though VHS in the form of an episode of William Shatner’s Rescue 911, plus my family’s retold stories, and newspaper clippings saved in a box marked FIRE, not to mention my way-too-many attempts to write about it (the best from first grade, when I drew myself behind the grid of the hotel, flames at the base, helicopters in the air, with a brief descriptive paragraph below)—all this seems active in the loom effect as well. But it’s the physical loom of this bulking box I’m struck by, lounging—a bit tensely, it turns out—under it on the beach. The Marriot, previously the DuPont Plaza, seems too big, while all the space around it feels sucked away, making everything tight and close and charged with energy, the insects in the air and voices against an inconsistent meter of surf.
So it looms, this hotel. Large in rectiline mid-century mod—why, I wonder, did the era of square buildings overlap the age of such frivolous, baubbly cars? And really, how great a Batwing Impala must have looked parked out front, or down at the still gorgeous Caribbe Hilton, disposing suitcases from a huge trunk and a nuclear family in Bermuda shorts, waited on, as we are still, by uniformed people probably wishing they were somewhere else, or that we were. I think of the woman cleaning my room, maybe at this very moment I hunch writing on the mesh of a not-new lounge chair, waiting for a waiter to bring me my second Presidente. The era the hotel looms from, originally, when conceived and raised from the rich port sand, is gone, leaving leisure ideals spaced out all along the Candado, and just shit tons of poverty. This mid-century idyll is not the moment the hotel looms from for me, though as a story of connectivity, the middle of the last century can’t really be over-emphasized here as background for first my parents’ and now my own luxie dreams. I would frankly love to pull some rented big-finned gas-guzzler up to the deco fluorescence of cool, like in the picture.
Anyway, the fucker looms, and, under it, I think of my mom on the beach, letting her children run on up to the room for cartoons 28 years ago. Perhaps a few moments of peace, with John at the casino and a New Years Evening ahead, a few minutes of sun… and then a smell she thinks, at first, is barbeque. I never heard an explosion, she said, just things starting to be not right, the tones of voices altering, a very different moment emerging from where she’d been, facing that blue water. So she turned and God smoke had surrounded the bulk, the bottom half gone, and her children gone, and the top sticking out, looking like it might be carried off, out to that very blue sea. This is the moment from which it looms for me. But I’m struck, just shocked, at this moment writing on the beach, by the material loom of the thing. It doesn’t pretend, like newer buildings with curves and glass, that inside it isn’t all steel, straight and unyeilding, infallible apparently, as that very steel met flame hot enough to bring Joey Cal flying down with Bob and Al’s dental records, and seems to have not sagged an inch. It is now painted the color of sand as envisioned by Florida mall-designers, a bit pinker and more orange than real sand ever is. The balcony rails—from which actual people actually dropped tied-together sheets with big cartoon knots—are a color or teal reminiscent of 1993. In 1986, the year of the fire, they were black, against which the previous white of the then-DuPont seems so classy compared to the current scheme, a color-combo admitting, I think, the not-first-rate status of the now-a-Marriot, though my father in a New Haven Register interview remembers it even at the time of the fire as not quite on par with the other destinations of his poker group’s junkets, which for the first time that year had decided to allow families. It was kind of an older hotel, he says from the past, in the black ink of newsprint. The picture of its opening in ’64, as a Sheridan—it’s like a cat, this hotel—show a horseshoe-shaped entry flanked on each side by an arc of flags, frozen in diplomatic snap, a residue of steamship luxury-liner pomp; this entry would keep San Juan’s hook-and- ladders from getting close enough to bring people out, and is, far as I could tell this morning, standing on the street, holding the picture on my phone up to the hotel, still here, though the flags are gone. Other tourists were also holding their phones up to the structure, presumably not comparing it to old photos from before the fire, so I looked, I guess, to be capturing the present like the rest, which I suppose I am. Anyway, the hotel is now Pink-Orange and Teal, which makes the loom more repulsive, like a dictator in Mickey shades.
What have I come here for? My wife told me my mother said I hope he finds what he’s looking for, which is exactly what the towel kid said this morning—as we stood where I’m fairly sure my father landed after jumping from the casino—after he asked, quite politely, why we were taking pictures of windows and patio pavers. I hope you find what you’re looking for. Which is extremely annoying, but as yet he’s the only one even remotely interested in my story, which I’ve been introducing with something like: the last time I was here this place was on fire, which is also extremely annoying. The best response by far came last night from the baseball trophy sellers’ convention guy at the bar, who said Hell-Yeah! When we first started coming this place was on Fire!… Now it sucks. The towel kid pointed out, when I asked what he knew about the fire, that he’d not been born in 1986. He, my wife, and I, standing by the pool, surrounded by palms lit in midmorning sunlight, looked up at the underside of the big spiral staircase, leading down from the lobby. On my phone, I have a grainy newsprint image of two men walking on these stairs the day after the fire, between them a sheeted body on a stretcher; seeing the staircase was the moment I realized how little had changed. I’ve been watching people flip-flop up and down it with books and beach gear, and have avoided using it. The hotel has no plaque to memorialize the 98 people who died here, which I hadn’t expected, but which gets weirder as it becomes clear this really is the same place; I pretend the stairs are a memorial, and when I do take them, I take them slow. After checking-in yesterday I asked the concierge—definitely born by 1986—about the fire, and if anyone who worked here then might still. No, she said, pissed off behind her desk, a few feet from the window I think my dad jumped from, it’s a completely different hotel. These words set me comparing old pictures with current structure, and the only major change I’ve seen is the casino now occupies a larger windowless side area, no longer overlooking the water of pool and sea. The window’s same Cartesian frame can be seen in another picture I can’t stop looking at, stored in the phone next to me on the lounge: a cindered body behind the aluminum bars, cinder legs hung over the ledge; it appears he or she almost made it out.
So I sit and soak the sun, a tourist on vacation, thinking of my mother, here, looking up at this same structure, knowing her kids are in it, her husband nearby, having been dragged off the patio, placed on a lounge chair, bones broken, disks slipped, just besides himself she has said, just beside himself, in pain and fear for my sister and I, refusing to go to a hospital, screaming God, Please don’t take my children, God, please don’t take my children, which He didn’t, which we reconstruct as both luck and love of God—as in: we were so lucky and as in God was looking out for us—not accounting for the 98 people who were, by logical extension, both unlucky and un-looked-out-for by God, let alone of course the just endless numbers of people subject to the hotel’s now fifty-years of labor and resource expropriation—a group that includes the men who started the fire, who never meant to kill, who were angry at management—people I see all around me, here, at home, everywhere, always close to wealth, the Bridgeport-in-Fairfield County effect we always think is an accident—people making my bed and worse; here, I sit and write where helicopters landed the groups of tourists my mother kept looking for us among, but no children, who would have come first, she knew, as that afternoon wore into darkness—the children would have come down first—and then no more people coming out, despair unlike anything I’ve known, so unlike this other moment, this so-called “now” with my wife next to me on a lounge chair, and all of it, suddenly, poised to slip away as well (and I think, God, please don’t take my wife) even though life and death seem so absent as I wait for a dark-skinned person to bring me beer #3; here where despair illuminated in helicopter spotlights scouring the grid finally, after four hours, yielded the happy resolution she narrates from the taped past, posed by Rescue 911 producers against the floral print of one of her many terrible sofas: when I just had no other places to turn, I thought I saw some movement up in the balconies and as I got a little closer, I could see that someone was carrying someone, a little closer still and that person was a little person, and then the dark hair and then I saw that it was Brandon, who was me.
Brandon Benevento works as a PhD student in UConn’s English Department. His dissertation project is titled “Upkeep: The Celebration and Erasure of Maintenance in Twentieth-Century American Literature.” In his spare time he cares lovingly for an aging strip mall in the New Haven area, a job in which he excels at picking up lots of trash. He lives with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Hypatia, in Branford, CT.