2006August19 A W we can live with, at least for the next three days

Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes

I am writing from the lobby of the W Hotel in Victoria Square Montréal.

We’re here essentially to celebrate Linda’s birthday, and, well, to be in Montréal, where we have not been in some time.

I had thought by today I would long since have posted a different essay—a proto-review of a new barbeque joint in Boston, but somehow it became a fiesta of divagations, diversions and digressions. How do these things happen? And I’ve written over 2000 words so far and haven’t even mentioned the name of the place, so it will have to wait for a later posting date.

In the meantime, here are some preliminary notes about our digs for the next three days.

Victoria Square is within walking distance of the vieux port or old town of Montréal, by the waters of the St. Lawrence, where the French is thick as pâté en bloc, and the streets as labyrinthine as a Paris neighborhood. It’s a recovering part of Montréal, Victoria Square is, having been allowed to degenerate into a kind of bureaucratic, semi-industrial squalor.

W goes a long way to dispel all that. It is owned by the Starwood Group, whose flagship chain is Sheraton. You’d never know it from a W.

It’s relentlessly modern, indeed modernist. In this one, the prevailing lighting is red, and dim, and lest you begin to conjure images of bordellos and women in bustiers and net stockings, the illumination in the lobby (the halle) is mainly provided by some six monoliths lit from within by red sources of illumination. Red cubes of plexiglas adorn the floor, and are themselves adorned with small sandblasted cylinders of smokey glass with a votive candle within. Above my head are huge globes fashioned of fiberglass strands that were molded around spheres that were then deflated and removed after the epoxy setting the strands in a circumferential matrix had hardened. Centered within each globe in a cluster of five globes is a dim clear incandescent bulb dangling from a chrome cylindrical socket.

There are also tiny halogen down lights in a ceiling of hardwood stained rosewood crimson, and so far above our heads as to be useless as illumination. In short, the brightest thing in this large, echoey space is the screen of my laptop, and the screen of another geek, sitting opposite me, no doubt also too cheap to pay the 20 bucks a day (Canadian, but these days, same difference) for 24 hours wireless service in the room. Here in la halle, it’s free.

We’re lying like Passover celebrants, truly half-reclining because the cushions of the sofas are too deep—I’d say about four feet—and the absence of any but soft pillows for support make it necessary either to sit bolt upright with the laptop on one of those crimson cubes, or to lie as I am, as if wondering where the fourth glass of wine went, and who the hell stole the afikomen anyway?

We arrived an hour ago. From the valet dispatcher, to the bellman, to the receptionist the staff is flamboyantly cheerful. It made me think, having stayed at a W (the one in Union Square in New York last Christmas) before that was not half so friendly, shall we say, that they’ve got the staff drinking a lot of the Cool-Aid, a sort of fancy version of which they bring you in a cup as a refreshment from the journey while you’re standing there checking in. The dispatcher and the receptionist both wore headsets into which they murmured French once every so often, and who apologized profusely to me each time, as I responded with a “wha’?” And I soon realized, of course. They’re not juiced up. This isn’t some corporate facade of packaged bonhomie. Of course, this is Canada. The last civilized English speaking democracy left on the planet. Well, French and English. Well, mainly French and a little English, with a flip on that ratio just across Lake Ontario into Toronto.

Our room is also a cube of extreme dimensions. Big couches must be a theme. If we make friends they can sleep over, all six of them.

The theme of the room is black and white. At least I think so. It’s a little dim in there. I did have my laptop on for a bit before discovering the hook-up ain’t free in the room, which required dialing the front desk, which, in the spirit of zestful relentless modernity, is labeled tout divers/whatever whenever. I had visions of calling at three in the morning for a gram of cocaine, just to see what would happen… The bellman, zealously friendly, but sincere somehow, and in a postmodern kind of forlorn-looking tee-shirt, and with a day-and-half growth (don’t get the wrong idea—published rates for the rooms here start at $339US) showed us how to swipe our room key in the elevator to get to our floor, which is above the first few floors, and he explained that the clubs and disco crowd had to be discouraged from wandering the hotel. I asked, “But what if you’re lonely?” and he took that in his stride, chortling and suggesting we could wander the floors of the clubs.

The bathroom is a kind of open design, at least for bathing and washing up. The toilet is in a separate chamber with a huge floor to ceiling door that swings shut, but doesn’t latch, and in addition to the tub, perfectly square, there is a tiled shower stall about as large as my small office back at the apartment at home. All the fixtures are cylindrical, stubby chrome horizontal tubs that pull away at the stroke of a lever, also chrome, a kind of attenuated cylinder, slender, and levered, pulled it controls the flow, turned it controls the temperature. I don’t have the heart to tell them this all went out somehow when Walter Gropius died, although it does raise interesting questions about the degree to which modernism can penetrate the redivivus gestalt of post-modernism.

For all my sarcasm, this is, in fact, a very nice place. Quite luxe, for all the hard surfaces, and studiously subdued sensoria (music is constantly playing, which is moody, suggestive, not quite the bilge that’s called “soft jazz” or “smooth jazz” or whatever euphemism is used to cover the fact that it’s not jazz at all but some kind of white-bread pap. It’s not soul. And it’s not mood music. It’s probably some package from Muzak, and it’s probably called MZ647 World Pop Instrumental).

It’s a little déclassé if you ask me to charge for the Internet connection in the rooms. What’s that all about? In the halle any geek with a laptop can walk in and jack in. Where’s the cachet in that?

Nevertheless, the bed is very comfortable, and huge, and the surface obliterated with pillows and soft fabrics. And I know they leave delicious candy for you when you turn in, when they steal in, while you’re eating out, and turn down all those layers of finery.

Two last things: there is other music; it just played out… Vocals, vaguely African, and now there’s what is clearly Arab stuff playing, so I have a hunch (in my best mock humble shoulder-shrugging style, I ask, “but what do I know?”), but with a soprano sax hook, so someone is up to something (and it’s probably for sale on a CD on the “W” label somewhere in this joint—everything has a price). And finally, for those of you who care about these things, those globes of fiberglass strands are called “Random Lights.” They’re made in the Netherlands, and were designed by Bertjan Pot for Moooi.

I figure the rig here in the lobby is worth about three grand retail, plus installation.

Look it up yourself if you’re interested. I’m tired of doing all the work, and this is supposed to be kind of a vacation.

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