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The Queen of Clean

Last spring my grandmother returned for the Diplomat's grand reopening. I went with her. The old hotel had been demolished and in its place was a sleek, silvery blue tower of glass, a hole cut in the center. With a lobby full of towering freeze-dried palms, infinity rivers, and a spellbinding double-decker glass-bottomed oceanfront pool, the hotel is far more luxurious than the old Diplomat, and wired for the new age. We stayed in adjoining rooms, one of them an enormous suite.

On our tour, my grandmother quizzed our guide about the laundry facilities, the storage, the size of the cleaning staff, and the variety of uniforms. I kept looking for the old hotel logo, an insignia that had been stamped on everything—champagne flutes, the good heavy café silverware, swizzle sticks, beach towels, and napkins. It was a proud D, circumscribed by a heroic golden sunburst. I finally saw it on a floppy tan bucket cap in the golf course pro shop and bought the hat.

That night, we got dressed for the evening's grand gala. I zipped my grandmother's sequined emerald evening gown, which had been kept in storage since her days at the old Diplomat, and we headed across the promenade as klieg lights shined the sky and flashbulbs popped. My grandmother's sight isn't what it once was, so she held my hand as we entered the dark ballroom for cocktail hour.

After a few glasses of champagne, we made our way inside for a lavish dinner and a concert by one of the old hotel regulars, Paul Anka. Midway through his performance, my grandmother leaned close and whispered, "It's the same show he gave in 1973!"

Dessert was poolside, and as fireworks exploded over the silvering night surf, we ran into my grandmother's cardiologist, who'd crashed the party on a whim.

Touching her sleeve, he asked why she didn't dress this way for her checkups. I could see how much it meant to her, showing her doctor that she'd lived the high life before he'd even thought about medical school.

Finally, we went to bed. Or I thought we had. After I brushed my teeth, I knocked on the door between our rooms to say good-night.

"Um, Grandma?" I called, slowly pushing the door open.

The room was empty.

I wasn't worried, exactly, but I stayed awake for another hour. When she came back, I couldn't help blurting out, "Where were you?"

"Oh, I wanted to say good-bye to that journalist at our table, so I went down to Satine."

"The disco?"

"Paul Anka was there," she murmured, "and everyone was dancing, and I just didn't feel like leaving yet."

With that, she kissed my cheek good-night. It was the only time I'd ever smelled champagne on her breath.

Ben Neihart is the author of two novels and a forthcoming book about a turn-of-the-century Harlem brothel, Rough Amusements (Bloomsbury).

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