The Burglar in the Rye

CHAPTER

One

The lobby was a bit the worse for wear. The large oriental carpet had seen better days, lots of them. The facing Lawson sofas sagged invitingly and, like the rest of the furniture, showed the effects of long use. They were in use now; two women sat in animated conversation, and, a few yards away, a man with a long oval face and a high forehead sat reading a copy of GQ. He wore sunglasses, which made him look dapper and sly. I don’t know how they made the magazine look. Dark, I suppose.

While the lobby may have been the least bit down at the heels, the overall impression was not so much of shabbiness as of comfort. The glow of a fire in the fireplace, a welcome sight on a brisk October day, put everything in the best possible light. And, centered above the fireplace mantel, painted with such œil-tromping realism you wanted to reach out and pick him up and hug him, was the hotel’s namesake.

He was a bear, of course, but not the sort whose predilection for sylvan defecation is as proverbial as the Holy Father’s Catholicism. This bear, one saw at a glance, had never been to the woods, let alone behaved irresponsibly there. He was wearing a little red jacket, and he had a floppy royal blue rain hat on his head, and his legs ended in a pair of Wellington boots the color of a canary, and every bit as cheerful. He was perched on a shelf between a battered Gladstone grip and a shopping bag from Harrods, and a stenciled sign overhead proclaimed, “Left Luggage,” and…

But I don’t need to go on, do I? If you didn’t have such a bear yourself, surely you knew someone who did. For this was Paddington Bear himself, and who else should it be? Who better to grace the lobby of the legendary Paddington Hotel?

And legendary was the word for it. The Paddington, seven stories of red brick and black ironwork, stands at the corner of Madison Avenue and East Twenty-fifth Street, across from Madison Square and not far from the site of Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. (That was the second Madison Square Garden, as opposed to Garden #3, the one your father remembers at Eighth Avenue and Fiftieth Street, or the current entry, Garden #4, above Penn Station. White’s Garden was an architectural masterpiece, but then so was the original Penn Station. Sic transit damn near everything.)

But not the Paddington, which had gone up before the Garden and had lived to tell the tale. Built around the turn of the century, it had watched the neighborhood (and the city, and the world) reinvent itself continually over the years. For all that, the old hotel remained essentially the same. It had never been terribly grand, had always had more permanent residents than transient guests, and had from its earliest days drawn persons in the arts. Brass plaques flanking the entrance recorded some of the Paddington’s more prominent tenants, including the writers Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser and the Shakespearean actor Reginald French. John Steinbeck had spent a month there during a period of marital disharmony, and Robert Henri, the Ashcan School artist, had stayed at the Paddington before relocating a few blocks south and east at Gramercy Park.

More recently, the hotel had drawn touring British rock stars, who seemed less inclined to destroy rooms here than in other American hotels, either out of respect for its traditions or from a sense that the damage they did might go unnoticed. Two of them had died on the premises,