Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ogden Nash - "A Tale Of The Thirteenth Floor"

A Tale Of The Thirteenth Floor
by Ogden Nash

(explanations by William Adams)
 
The hands of the clock were reaching high
In an old midtown hotel;
I name no name, but its sordid fame
Is table talk in hell.
I name no name, but hell's own flame
Illumes the lobby garish,
A gilded snare just off Times Square
For the maidens of the parish.

 
(Around noon in an old and
 somewhat dis-reputable hotel.
 It has a bad reputation in the
 area. Probably lots of dubious
 characters live there, and/or
 hang out and do business there.)


The revolving door swept the grimy floor
Like a crinoline grotesque,
And a lowly bum from an ancient slum
Crept furtively past the desk.
His footsteps sift into the lift
As a knife in the sheath is slipped,
Stealthy and swift into the lift
As a vampire into a crypt.

 
(The revolving door, probably in need
 of maintenance, sweeps its bottom
 rubber seals on the floor. Probably
 leaks. A dubious character is sneaking
 past the desk into the elevator to go
 carry out some illicit mission. The knife
 suggests that it will not be peaceful.)

Old Maxie, the elevator boy,
Was reading an ode by Shelley,
But he dropped the ode as it were a toad
When the gun jammed into his belly.
There came a whisper as soft as mud
In the bed of an old canal:
"Take me up to the suite of Pinball Pete,
The rat who betrayed my gal."

 
(Hint of older times. There is an
 elevator operator here, and he is
 killing time reading a book between
 elevator passengers. We now know
 that the dubious character IS on a
 mission of mayhem as he sticks his
 pistol in the elevator operator's 
 ribs so that the operator knows not to
 pull anything on him. He obviously
 does not want to be overheard by anyone
 who could tell the D.A. what went on
 afterwards.)


The lift doth rise with groans and sighs
Like a duchess for the waltz,
Then in middle shaft, like a duchess daft,
It changes its mind and halts.
The bum bites lip as the landlocked ship
Doth neither fall nor rise,
But Maxie the elevator boy
Regards him with burning eyes.
"First, to explore the thirteenth floor,"
Says Maxie, "would be wise."

 
(The elevator starts up with lots of
 mechanical noises. Probably in need
 of some attention from the repairman
 itself. Part way up, it stops, and we do
 not know if the operator stopped it or
 if the elevator stopped of it's own accord.
 The elevator operator apparently knows
 something that the dubious character does
 not know, and suggessts that he visit the
 thirteenth floor before he carries out his
 mission of mayhem.)

Quoth the bum, "There is moss on your double cross,
I have been this way before,
I have cased the joint at every point,
And there is no thirteenth floor.
The architect he skipped direct
From twelve unto fourteen,
There is twelve below and fourteen above,
And nothing in between,
For the vermin who dwell in this hotel
Could never abide thirteen."

 (The dubious character objects, 
 because he has studied the building
 and noticed that it does not use a
 floor numbered 13. This is somewhat
 of a common practice in buildings right
 up to the present day. Further, lots of
 criminals and gangsters are horrendously
 superstitious. A real thirteenth floor
 would NOT do in this building.)


Said Max, "Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight;
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
Ere you peril your soul in murderer's role,
Heed those who sinned of yore;
The path they trod led away from God,
And onto the thirteenth floor,
Where those they slew, a grisly crew,
Reproach them forevermore.

 
(The elevator operator explains that
 the "thirteenth floor" is more of a
 supernatural place than a physical place,
 and that it is NOT a good place. He wants
 the dubious character to see what has
 happened to people who carried out
 killings before him, so that he can make
 a more intelligent decision whether he
 really wants to kill Pinball Pete. Note:
 Walpurgis Night is supposed to be one
 of the Satanic "holy" nights where
 "witches dance with the Devil." It has
 come to have a generic meaning of any
 event coming up that is universally dreaded.
 For example, if I have a shift scheduled at
 the motel where I know that ALL the guests
 will check in between 11:00 pm and 3:00 AM,
 and that they will all be crabby due to some
 airline foul-up, I might refer to it as , "Time
 to go in for my Walpurgis Night Shift.")


"We are higher than twelve and below fourteen,"
Said Maxie to the bum,
"And the sickening draft that taints the shaft
Is a whiff of kingdom come.
The sickening draft that taints the shaft
Blows through the devil's door!"
And he squashed the latch like a fungus patch,
And revealed the thirteenth floor.

 
(The elevator operator tells the
 dubious character that they have
 arrived at the thirteenth floor,
 then opens the elevator door.)


It was cheap cigars like lurid scars
That glowed in the rancid gloom,
The murk was a-boil with fusel oil
And the reek of stale perfume.
And round and round there dragged and wound
A loathsome conga chain,
The square and the hep in slow lock step,
The slayer and the slain.

(For the souls of the victims ascend on high,
But their bodies below remain.)
 (Sort of a typical "speakeasy" environment,
 saturated with cheap cigars, cheap and
 bootlegged whiskey (fusel oil), and the
 perfume of the women who frequented
 such places. The loathsome conga chain
 is the line of murderers, all being haunted
 and cursed by their victims.)


The clean souls fly to their home in the sky,
But their bodies remain below
To pursue the Cain who each has slain
And harry him to and fro.
When life is extinct each corpse is linked
To its gibbering murderer,
As a chicken is bound with wire around
The neck of a killer cur.

 
(When a person is murdered, their
 soul was often believed to ascend to
 heaven automatically. We'll argue that
 out later. The point here is that the
 soul goes on to heaven but the body
 stays, lifeless, to torment the person
 who carried out the murder.)


Handcuffed to Hate come Doctor Waite
(He tastes the poison now),
And Ruth and Judd and a head of blood
With horns upon its brow.
Up sashays Nan with her feathery fan
From Floradora bright;
She never hung for Caesar Young
But she's dancing with him tonight.

 
(Some well known cases, at least
 back then. Doctor Waite poisoned
 his family, Ruth Snyder and Judd Grey
 murdered Ruth's husband, Nan was
 a revue dancer who killed Ceasar Young
 in a hansom cab.)


Here's the bulging hip and the foam-flecked lip
Of the mad dog, Vincent Coll,
And over there that ill-met pair,
Becker and Rosenthal,
Here's Legs and Dutch and a dozen such
Of braggart bullies and brutes,
And each one bends 'neath the weight of friends
Who are wearing concrete suits.

 
(Vincent Coll, Legs Diamond, and Dutch Shultz
 were known gangsters in the 20s and 30s. Becker
 and Rosenthal were involved in shady gambling
 and Becker set up Rosenthal's murder. General
 air of gangsters "taking people for a ride" and
 "cement overshoes.")


Now the damned make way for the double-damned
Who emerge with shuffling pace
From the nightmare zone of persons unknown,
With neither name nor face.
And poor Dot King to one doth cling,
Joined in a ghastly jig,
While Elwell doth jape at a goblin shape
And tickle it with his wig.

 
(Apparently there is a "special" hell
 for unidentified murderers. Dot King
 Joseph Elwell were both murdered
 by persons unknown.)


See Rothstein pass like breath on a glass,
The original Black Sox kid;
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid.
And smeared like brine on a slavering swine,
Starr Faithful, once so fair,
Drawn from the sea to her debauchee,
With the salt sand in her hair.

 
(Arnold Rothstein was involved in the
 World Series scandal during the early
 part of the twentieth century. This is
 where we get the phrase, "Say it ain't
 so, Joe!" It was reputedly uttered by a
 young child watching Shoeless Joe Jackson
 being ushered into court to be tried for his
 part in the throwing of the Series. Starr
 Faithful is simply a woman who was found
 murdered on a beach with no clues.)


And still they come, and from the bum
The icy sweat doth spray;
His white lips scream as in a dream,
"For God's sake, let's away!
If ever I meet with Pinball Pete
I will not seek his gore,
Lest a treadmill grim I must trudge with him
On the hideous thirteenth floor."

 
(The dubious character is now in a panic,
 has decided to drop his plans to kill
 Pinball Pete, and just wants to get the
 heck out of there, fast.)


"For you I rejoice," said Maxie's voice,
"And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see - I had a daughter, too!"

 
(The elevator operator has apparently
 already killed Pinball Pete over a crime
 committed against his daughter. He tells
 the dubious character that he, the elevetor
 operator, must now stay on the thirteenth
 floor where Pinball Pete's body will
 torment him for eternity.)

The bum reached out and he tried to shout,
But the door in his face was slammed,
And silent as stone he rode down alone
From the floor of the double-damned.

 
(The dubious character leaves the
 thirteenth floor untouched, which
 is apparently very rare. He is able
 to ride back to the lobby of the old
 hotel and re-join the physical world
 once again.) 

1 comment:

mzungu said...

In the ninth section of the poem, the reference to Cain. Cain was the first child of Adam and Eve. First reference was Gensis 4:1. Cain was the first murderer. Because of jealousy Cain murdered his brother Abel.