Brandon Benevento: Back at the DuPont Plaza Hotel (essay)

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.

A Liberal Arts Degree at Work

So, here you are, fresh faced out of the old cap and gown, back-floating on chasms of debt. A steady stream of e-mails from Great Lakes Borrower Services tells you to start paying off your loan interest and currents of envelopes rush in from banks, offering credit card after credit card because credit is all your broke ass has.

Welcome back home, young one, because all the independence you thought you secured in your four years away from home were just a vacation. There is nothing wrong with moving back home; you are very fortunate if you can do so. You save tons of money and catch up on family bonding so you can remind them why they missed you so much while you were at school. But its quite a heady feeling when you realize time travel is very real and possible as you wake up every morning to a childhood bedroom, perhaps confronting the cartoon puppy border that never got taken off the edges of your powder blue painted walls or the piles of Jonas Brothers shirt lying in the corner you still haven’t sold on E-Bay.

Instead of focusing on the inevitable stress of paying off student loans, I began focusing on the struggle of getting off the couch–an equally harrowing task. So, as most do in similarly trying situations, I began the clingiest relationship I have ever had: the job search.

Indeed.com is now the emotionally unavailable boy I always pined after in high school. Attractive and full of promise on the outside, but he was playing me; I was not the only unemployed college graduate that was seeing him. I withstood rejection after rejection and swore I could do better, but I always ended up going back. I started to get desperate, checking my e-mail multiple times a day. Why haven’t they called? I thought they would call. Is it me? Why do I care so MUCH?!

Then, I found it. The one. Just like they say, you always find them when you aren’t really looking. For me, I actually wasn’t looking anywhere because I was fast asleep when I got the phone call. Fate was calling. Naturally, I perked right on up and spoke to the woman from the temp agency as if I was a person that regularly woke up before noon on a weekday not next to an empty bag of Doritos.

Now, here I am, employed as a copywriter. A college success story. A liberal arts degree at work. The American dream in the making. The agency didn’t even try to make me watch the clerical safety video or take the online test to prove I know how to use a computer before giving me the job because, in the agent’s words, I’m “college educated.” Its what I’ve been told all my life in practice; having a college education really does put you ahead in the job market. A degrees almost like a get-out-of-menial-tasks-free card.

Everyday, I sit behind a computer pumping out product information and photo manipulation like a first class white-collar sweatshop. I battle rage in 9-to-5 commuter traffic like the rest of the snails out there on the road. As a temp worker, I have about zero interaction with other humans. I spend my lunch breaks eating egg and cheese sandwiches that are half ice because I don’t bother wasting more of my free time on them being in the microwave, but I get to eat outside. Its not as glamorous as the jobs other people I know, who immediately went from the loins of college to living the life in young cities like Boston, to the height of trend and hipster-hood in Brooklyn, those that got hired by corporations which then paid for them to take more college business classes. But its easy work, I get paid, I come home to see my dogs everyday, and they think I’m doing a great job. There have been weirder shaped stepping stones, and I’m getting paid. Just look at me now, Ma. (I mean, I’ll see you at dinner anyways.)

 

Stories in the Sky

Starry summer nights are fantastic. Grab some blankets, beers and friends (heck, you don’t even need friends!) and post up beneath the canopy of stars. You could sit there for hours, especially with a meteor shower going on.

I usually take those moments to start blabbering about the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and OH! how you can use them to find the North Star. If I’m with a cute guy or girl, I’ll then use my smooth tactic of making up a constellation and telling a story about it. It usually ends in some romantic hint that I’d like to make out with them. “How do you KNOW all this, Therese?” they ask, moving closer, totally falling for my ploy. We both know it’s because I’m a boss. But I share a simple sentiment:

“It’s not that difficult!” (then, cue the make-out session)

If you want to know how to find the constellations, check Google. I went to the local library and read about it. I’ll draw you a star chart right now.

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See? The Big Dipper!

That’s not the point of constellations. Adrastus didn’t turn to Despoine in 1300 b.c and say, “Hey, look at this cool shape of dots I saw in the sky,” just to look smart or get laid, because he could have gotten his way in that regard without the help of the stars. The ancient Greeks and other civilizations used the stars to tell stories, chart movement, and make scientific discoveries.

And that’s what you should be doing with your sky – telling stories, being imaginative, sharing history.

Now you might look up and say, “Hey wait a second. That looks nothing like a dragon!” Ok, Nancy, sit down and let me tell you something: we’re projecting the human imagination onto something that previously existed. By saying that it doesn’t look perfect you are choosing not to have any fun, and that’s simply not my problem.

Go outside tonight, sit yourself down beneath those stars and look up. It’s ok if you feel intimidated. What you need to remember is that you’re safe – no one is going to make fun of you. The heavens have painted a big canvas for you to explore. Use it as an opportunity. Let your mind wander, especially if it hasn’t in a while. Now go on and tell a story. Make one up if you must! Find shapes and explain how they got there. It might be dirty and raw at first! How beautiful.

Now don’t hold back simply because there are previously established constellations up there, because there are TONS of benefits to storytelling. It activates your imagination and strengthens your memory to name a few. Don’t let anyone stop you. Learn the old constellations if you want! Remember, you’re growing. You don’t need to know everything or anything for sure.

 

The sky was never about showing off how much you know – it’s about what you can find with it.

Maybe it’s a treasure map, and there are dangers along the way: cages, traps, lions, birds. But there are also ways to fight back, with boats and swords and castles. Or maybe it’s simple, like the Great Lawn Chair constellation. See? It looks like this.

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I lounge on it all the time.

Do not cower beneath the sky. Use it to tell your story. There’s no knowing what wonders you can find within yourself or your world after storytelling. You’re just as imaginative as those who named the constellations in the first place.

Plus, it’s a great excuse to make out with someone.

Lynn Z. Bloom: Quality Time

Quality Time

an essay

 

How to write about happy times when other writers—and critical readers—are suspicious of them. Do editors prefer works devoted to what I tell my students are the five D’s—disease, dysfunction, divorce, disability, death—to which we could add more—distrust, disfigurement, disturbance, degeneration, destruction—the list is endless. Overcoming great obstacles seems more credible even when they’re fictionalized; and attract publishers, applause, sympathy. I was, for instance, greatly moved by Kathryn Rhett’s Near Breathing: A Memoir of a Difficult Birth; especially by the tough part—the delivery and the tense two days afterward when the baby had aspirated meconium and was near death. The book covers 10 days; in my view the writing is better at the beginning and gets slacker and less appealing as the crisis wanes.
But would there be a market for a lyrical account of a normal birth and happy delivery to a two-parent family that wanted the baby? Why not? What’s wrong with celebrating the ideal?
Tie this in with the contrast–my own birth; the dead twin, the incubator burn leaving a searing scar on my now never-perfect knee—1 3/8 inches would have been all the way across the knee. The fact that my parents altered my birth certificate to erase the twinhood and never discussed it but named my sister Linda Kay, born seven years later, after the dead twin, a complement to my own name, Lynn Marie.
Maybe I’ve solved the problem—the significance of the happy times is understandable in contrast to the unhappy, the not so happy, the frustrating times in one’s own life or in lives of others we know about. The Grace of God factor. I do not think my childhood friend who has been unable to walk for the past 38 years is pitiable because she does not pity herself; indeed she is very tough as well as resilient. For years she headed a national church related disability rights movement, articulate, active and vigilant. But I think often of her being in constant pain from an incurable bone affliction and thus unable to walk, run, dance, or drive. That said, she pilots a speedy wheelchair, she travels, she is sustained by a powerful faith, her own determination, and a devoted daughter. She was widowed far too young when her devoted husband died of a malignant brain tumor—which also precipitated family estrangement that has lasted to this day. I am glad I can walk with ease and don’t have to think about putting one foot in front of the other, for the fact that my husband is alive and happy, and that our family, with—yes—negotiation, gets along well. That every day is a gift may be a cliché, but it’s welcome, and it’s true.

Lynn Z Bloom, University of Connecticut Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor Emerita, held the Aetna Chair of Writing 1988-2015. She learned the essentials of writing from Dr. Seuss, fun; Dr. Strunk and E.B. White, elegant simplicity; University of Michigan professor Art Eastman, nitpicking revision; and Benjamin Spock, during interviews for Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical (1972), “If you don’t write clearly, someone could die.” These precepts inform the heart, soul, and human voice of her teaching and writing, including Writers Without Borders and The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Lively Essays (both 2008), and her current work on creative nonfiction—memoir, essays, writing about food, travel, medicine—that people love to read—and write, also the subjects of her 2013 Fulbright in New Zealand.

Want to Write Better? Notice Pockets.

It might sound crazy, but my obsession with pockets has made me a better writer.

It might sound crazy, but I think my obsession with pockets has helped in my struggle to improve my writing. Let me explain.

As part of the generation reared alongside a certain boy wizard, the memories of reading Harry Potter books the day they came to my door on hot summer mornings left an indelible mark on me. After the series ended, and I got older, I realized that I was consistently drawn back to the initial book in the series, and to many of the more mundane facts about this strange world. Chief among the objects of my fascination was Rubeus Hagrid’s moleskin coat. According to the Harry Potter Wikia, and supported by different passages in the book, the contents of this coat’s pockets were as follows:

  • a pink umbrella
  • a slightly squashed chocolate cake
  • a copper kettle
  • a packet of sausages
  • a fire poker
  • a teapot
  • several chipped mugs
  • a bottle of “some amber liquid” (I see you, Hagrid, I see you)
  • a live owl
  • a long quill
  • a roll of parchment
  • a dirty, spotted handkerchief, which might actually just be a tablecloth
  • a couple of dormice
  • bunches of keys
  • slug pellets
  • balls of string
  • mint humbugs (British impersonations of candy)
  • teabags
  • wizard money
  • moldy dog biscuits
  • Harry’s vault key

Finding this passage again, I thought “This must be how it started.” You see, since I was a kid, I have always needed to have as many pockets on my person as possible, and if you were to stop me on the street and demand I empty them, you would find them all full. Hagrid’s coat was a kind of holy grail. Who would ever need to carry a bag if they had a coat where they could stuff an owl? Every pair of jeans I own has five pockets, every jacket has at least two outer and one inside pocket, and I usually wear button-downs with one or two breast pockets. Those who know me well might remember me jokingly challenging friends to “the pocket game,” where whoever has the most stuffed in each of their pockets wins. This was, of course, unfair, and you can probably tell that I was very popular. Yeeeeppp.

Anyway, “How does this relate to writing,” you might ask, if you were rude and enjoyed interrupting people. But you’d also be right in asking, because it does sound ridiculous. Here’s the thing: writing is all about practice. There’s that famous quote from Hemingway that “Ninety percent of writing is showing up,” and while that’s true, some percent of that is cultivating a mind that notices things, that seeks to tell the story of everything that the eye sees.

Do you have pockets? What’s in them? Where did it come from? Who made it? Would you give it to someone? What’s it for?

Do you not have pockets? What would you put in them if you did have them? What are you aching to tell the pocket-havers, and what can you share when you have nothing?

So yes, this is a strange and circuitous way of saying practice, damnit. But not just in sitting down to write. Practice thinking, noticing, and seeing behind what’s in front of you. Pockets are simple. Almost everyone has them, but you notice when they aren’t there. On the other hand, if you’re like many of the women I know, maybe you notice when they are, and especially when they’re fully functional. What else don’t you notice as much? Go out and write it. As an artist, you don’t have time off. While that might sound oppressive, it’s actually incredibly freeing. You might remember, if you’re like me, posting on author’s websites, writing in forums, or even (god help me) writing a letter asking for advice on how to get a book published when you haven’t written anything. I was eleven. It was to Christopher Paolini. I hope he never got it. Anyway, I’ve always been preoccupied with what I was going to do in the future. But when you take yourself seriously as an artist, really get into the habit of noticing things, it forces you to live in and appreciate the present moment. Get obsessed with life, with everything around you. And pay attention to the things that you are most caught up in. Chances are you’ve already noticed something about those that no one else has. So don’t freak out. Just sit back and watch, listen, and write.

Photo Essay: How to Not Make a Cup

When starting a project, it’s important to make sure you have all the proper supplies. Pictured here is our forge, crucible, some gloves and junk,  and I guess some lighter fluid.

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Oh, and it looks like he’s got some charcoal. I wonder what he’s going to do with it.

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Oh, he’s putting it in the forge, that makes sense. I’m gonna be real, I was day-drinking while Tom was doing all of this, so it’s all little fuzzy.

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It might look like he’s making a mold, but really he’s practicing making sand castles. It takes dedication to the craft to really create something beautiful, something that seems, for a moment at least, like it will withstand the harshness of the waves. But time destroys all, and he knows this.

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And now we see the cup used to make the mold. We can also see his scowl as he hands me the glass. Does he think he’s better than me?

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Focused, intense, he turns on the fan. Proper airflow is important as you bring aluminum to its melting point.

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This doesn’t look that impressive. I bet I could light that better than Tom. This is why airflow is important, Tom.

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Oh damn, that’s pretty cool.

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Fresh out of its crucible, the aluminum is smooth and beautiful. I stare into its surface, overwhelmed, and it reflects back at me.

Tom tells me that aluminum is dangerous because it doesn’t glow red as it heats up, just stays the same. Me too, aluminum, me too.

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After carefully removing the hardened metal from its earthen grave, Tom surveys his handiwork. His look is the same he gave to me earlier. Disappointed. Dissatisfied. Disgusted.

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Air was trapped in the mold, with no channels dug in to let it out. Imagine all of that air, crushed down slowly under boiling metal, its only victory in foiling the attempts of man. This cup cannot be used. It only serves as a reminder of our own imperfections, our own weakness.

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The bottom looks pretty nice though! A+

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by Carleton Whaley