Back in 2009, round about a Friday the thirteenth, when I was blogging on the now defunct Blogstream, my friend Whit wrote a post about superstitions pertaining to the number thirteen, which inspired this post.
Now me, I’d just as soon stay in bed on Friday the thirteenth, but what caught my attention was Whit’s mention of hotels that do not have a thirteenth floor, skipping directly from number twelve to number fourteen. The great British ghost story writer M. R. James extends this superstition even to room numbers, in his story “Number Thirteen“, which features a room at an inn that was walled up, and other rooms renumbered, after its occupant made a deal with the devil.
Needless to say, this sort of grim idea is not one one would associate with the American light-verse poet Ogden Nash, but in 1955 he wrote a peculiarly chilling long poem about that very subject: A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor. Oddly enough, Nash’s internal rhymes and couplets give this piece an icy malevolence that make you forget his charming double-edged whimsies.
The opening stanzas set the scene: an irate father is in a “midtown” Manhattan hotel, seeking the vile seducer of his daughter, a gangster and gambler called Pinball Pete. He is intercepted by the elevator operator, an oldtimer named Maxie, who agrees to help him find Pete. But the elevator stops at a hellish place: the Thirteenth Floor, where murderers and victims party eternally, linked to each other with chains. Max explains:
. . .”Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight,
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.
(Walpurgis Night, April 30, is sometimes referred to as “the other Halloween,” being a night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to be thinnest.)
Nash gives the poem extraordinary vividness by using the names of actual victims and criminals, most of them from the wide-open days of the nineteen-teens, twenties and thirties, some still famous in our day, others whose deaths were sensational at the time but are virtually forgotten by all save true crime buffs in ours. The first he mentions is “Dr. Waite,” who was executed circa 1916 for killing his hapless inlaws; he gave them diphtheria by putting germ cultures in their drinking water. He mentions Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, executed in 1928 for the murder of Snyder’s husband. Arnold Rothstein, who “fixed” the 1919 World Series and was found dying in a service entrance at a hotel, shot in the stomach, in 1928, after allegedly welshing on a bet, is still looking for a game of poker:
He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid. . .
The last and most pathetic victim is a young woman named Starr Faithfull, found drowned on New York’s Long Beach in 1931, in circumstances that have never been explained; evidence, however, points to foul play.
The father, meanwhile, is so horrified by what he sees that he decides to leave Pinball Pete to the fate that is bound to come to him someday; he’s not about to risk his immortal soul. Only then does he learn that Maxie, too, belongs to that dreadful crowd:
“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. . .”
I cannot remember for the life of me when I first read this poem, although it must have been a good twenty years or more ago. I will say this: it gives me goosebumps, even to this day.