People think they know what the Parker Spruce Hotel holds, but a night in a room there provides a clearer view.
One man on the seventh floor keeps trying to convince a friend he's all right. "People keep saying, 'You having a tough time' to me," he says. "But I'm happy. I ain't one of them young boys that died. A lot of young boys on the streets be getting killed. Not me."
There's more dissolution in the streets. A well-dressed, clean-cut twentysomething blond man dressed in a preppy blue-collared shirt comes lurching out of the Westbury--a gay bar that rents space in the Parker. It's not even 11 p.m., but he lists so heavily he almost pitches straight into one of three planters lining the sidewalk.
Moments later a transvestite walks by. She stands more than 6 feet tall, her face a mask of worry, like she's trying to maintain a composure and dignity she doesn't feel the world will allow her. She wears a waist-length electric blue coat, heavy silver ball earrings and a 2-foot-tall brunette bouffant wig.
A pair of men who just walked out of the Westbury watch her approach from half a block away and stare at her like a circus freak for the entire 10 painful seconds she moves down the street, then burst out laughing, their faces twisted with shadows under the street lights.
At midnight the scene repeats itself. While the hotel halls remain quiet and unchanged, the streets outside are brimming with vice. A crew of drug dealers operates at the corner of 13th and Locust. A man speedwalks by and says only "massage parlor" when I catch his eye.
"What?" I ask, stopping him.
"Massage parlor," he says, his voice low.
"Nah," I say.
"What you need?" he asks. "What you looking for?"
Comparatively speaking, the only scenes that play out in public view on this night at the Parker are more like oblique poetry than clear prose--a series of happenings that suggest more than they explicitly say.
"Hiram!" a man yells shortly after midnight in the hotel's lobby.
He's dressed in a one-piece mechanic's uniform, but he's long since stopped working for the night. His eyes are bloodshot and his mouth hangs open because he's too high to close it.
The man he's calling to has a shaved head and wears stylish eyeglasses with a series of silver curlicues adorning the stems. He wears a black sportscoat, a collarless black T-shirt, dress pants and dress shoes polished to a high shine.
"Hiram!" the drunken man hollers again. "Hiram!"
In response Hiram smiles beatifically and holds his hands out toward the other man, palms up, beckoning him forward.
The drunk obediently shuffles into reach--clutching a can of Budweiser--and they lean together, their foreheads nearly touching. They don't speak except for a few mumbled words. They remain that way for more than a minute, rocking slightly underneath the lights, Hiram holding the other man tightly by his hands and his Budweiser.
"All right, brother," Hiram says. "All right."
One of the hotel's female employees gets off the elevator, glances over at the clerk reading at the desk and sternly motions the two men inside. Only Hiram boards, but the drunk holds back the elevator door with one arm and whispers, "Where you at?" to Hiram.
"You better get on this elevator," says the woman.
Dutifully, the man does. So do I. But when Hiram gets off on the fourth floor, the drunk begins again, eyeing the better dressed man lustily and talking in a low, accelerating whisper. "Where you at? Whereyouat? Whereyat?"
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4