When a Hotel Is Home: A Bellman, a Bartender and an Artist Share Their Stories

In partnership with Freehand Hotel NY.

Freehand New York is one of those places you hear about over and over until you finally cave, give it a visit, and then suddenly, urgently get it. At least that’s what happened to me. The hotel carries the kind of word-of-mouth lore normally ascribed to old New York institutions like the George Washington Hotel (where Freehand is now housed). But it’s actually fairly new, and it maintains both a modern and old-world charm that either confirms and defies that, depending on the minute.

Freehand New York sells itself as more than a place to book a trendy room, get a fancy cocktail, or enjoy a social media-worthy meal — although I can personally confirm it more than checks those boxes. It’s a transient space founded on the idea that art and community need to be celebrated and nurtured, and that spirit is present in the rooms as much as in the people who populate them. Sometimes I stop by for no reason. It’s a nice place to just be.

In partnership with Freehand New York, I asked three people who work at the hotel and contribute to that magic to tell me their stories. First, in the lobby, you’ll meet Hero, the friendliest bellman in the world. Then, on the 19th floor, you’ll meet Miguel, the artist in residence who’s choreographing a new dance performance. Finally, up on the roof, with sweeping views of New York City before her, you’ll meet Yoly, a bartender from Puerto Rico who’s game to make you any cocktail you can dream up. Read their stories below, and then pop over to Freehand New York to meet them yourself.

Heroni Navarro

Hero is a bellman at Freehand New York.

I am one of the bellmen at Freehand New York, which means I’m in charge of making sure people’s luggage is checked in and checked out, and that people feel welcome and want to come back. We’re diplomats, as bellmen; we make sure that everyone’s happy.

I’ve always been a very outgoing person. A friend of mine wanted me to work with him as a bellman for years because he knew I had the personality for it, so that’s how I started. At other hotels I’ve worked at, though, I’ve felt like a robot reading a script. At Freehand, we’re allowed to be ourselves and professional at the same time. We have a saying: Good vibes only. The guests bring that, too. If I’m having a shitty day, someone will be like, “Hey! Why are you not smiling? I like when you smile.” They bring me up; it’s uplifting. I haven’t had a day where I didn’t want to be at work.

There are five bellmen at Freehand. We’re close, like brothers — one is the little brother, one is the middle brother, one is the hard-headed brother. I was the first hire, so I feel like I’m the older brother. I want things to be perfect, so I take a lot of responsibility for all of us. Some of us are lax; others are more organized. We all have different personalities, but that’s what makes us work.

The wildest thing that’s happened at Freehand is probably Hotel Man Repeller. We had a wild checkout; there were like 200 people from Man Repeller who came at one time. We had all these bags lined up outside and when everyone ran to the bus, I had to move out the way because I didn’t want to get stampeded. That was one of the funniest moments for me working as a bellman. It was really fun.

The most challenging part is the physical aspect. I stand on my feet all day, I carry bags, I get taxis, I am outside in the cold, I am outside in the heat. It’s very physical. People always ask me, “Where do you get the energy for this?!” I do get tired, but I just have to bring it regardless.

I like making friends with everyone. We had this Italian guest, and I kept trying to say “nice to see you” to him in Italian, which is “piacere.” Instead I was saying, “Porcini, porcini!” This dude was like, “What?!” Turns out I was saying “Mushroom, mushroom!” We were laughing so much. He never forgot me after that. He left a note in the elevator that said, “Porcini Hero!”

I like putting a smile on people’s faces. I had a guest the other day who came up to me and told me that I’m his kindred spirit because I’m always so jolly and so happy. This guy is always here and in a good mood. That makes me feel good, that I can make an impact. That’s what keeps me coming back.

Miguel Gutierrez

Miguel is the Bard artist in residence at Freehand New York.

I am a performing artist, a dancer and a choreographer, and I also compose and perform music. I’m currently the Freehand Fellow Artist in Residence, in partnership with Bard College, where I’m using the studio space on the 19th floor to create a dance-based performance. Right now I’m rehearsing a new dance piece called, “This Bridge Called My Ass.”

The piece explores the tensions that exist between identity-based work — in this case, LatinX identity — and abstract-based work which, for better or for worse, has often been rooted in whiteness. I’m working with an all-LatinX cast and we’re playing with questions that come up for us around those issues and seeing if identity-based and abstract-based art are, in fact, in opposition to each other.

The title is a play off of this famous book in the 80s called This Bridge Called My Back — a series of poems and essays put together by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa and a seminal text of third-wave feminism. This book was really important to me when I was younger, but a lot of issues raised in it really haven’t shifted that much. If you read one of the essays from it, you might think, This sounds just like a Facebook post I read yesterday. It makes you think about the weird, cyclical nature of our relationship to the politics and poetics of identity.

With the kind of work I do, I don’t think of dance as a mode of interpretation as much as a mode of perception. I think what I do is create physical relationships and engaged actions that then have an associative quality. When people watch a performance, their minds go through a whole range of thoughts. Dance puts people into a space where they don’t know what the fuck they’re looking at, and I think that’s a really fertile space. The same could be said for music or non-figurative painting. A lot of people get confused by dance because they think it’s supposed to be mimetic, that it has a one-to-one relationship with meaning. Like if someone does a gesture with their arm, it might mean they’re hungry — but no, they just did that with their arm. With dance, you’re looking at a group of people, and when you look at people doing something together, you start to interpret and read identity into those people, whether they want that or not.

I’ve been thinking about what it does to people to look at brown or brownish bodies doing actions that are read more as abstract. Does abstraction belong exclusively to white bodies? Do people want brown bodies to perform entertainment? We’re also using objects and different colored fabrics that obscure us and also evoke things like seeing versus being seen.

I came into dance really young. My sister was a cheerleader, and I was obsessed with watching her practice. I would teach myself the routines. Later I took visual comedy classes in school. They put me in the yearly performance of the Nutcracker because I was one of the few boys in school — boys are always overly-privileged in dance contexts. I got really into that and thought I’d end up in more jazzy, entertainment-based stuff. When I got to college, though, and learned about modern dance and post-modern dance, I realized there was this whole world of dance tethered to philosophy. I’m a person with a whole lot of ideas, and this form felt like the way I could access those things. I dropped out of college but kept working with small ensembles — companies where the process was highly collaborative.

Art is severely undervalued in this country. I’ve been in the field for some time, but I’m in the same pool of competitors as anyone else applying for stuff. When you’ve been doing something for 25+ years, to feel like there’s no security that you’ll get what you need to do what you do, that’s hard. It’s a very precarious position. Yesterday’s successes are not tomorrow’s. It takes a tremendous amount of resources to make these projects happen. The conceptual things are difficult, too — people are interested in the new, hot, young people. But I still have a lot that I want to do with my work, and I want my practice to evolve.

We’re still really early on. We’re just generating the piece here at Freehand, and we will probably perform it at a larger performance-based venue in New York. I’ve spent a lot of time in hotels because of the nature of my work. They’re like airports in that they become the people that animate them at any given moment, but no one — except maybe the staff — owns the experience of what that is. It’s nice; it gives us a different sense of allegiance while working here. It gives the place a slightly different life.

Yoly Báez

Yoly is a bartender at Broken Shaker, a bar on the rooftop of Freehand New York.

I’m from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I moved to the States six years ago and I lived in Miami for three years. That’s how I got to work at Broken Shaker in Miami. I started as a cocktail server there, and after a year and a half, they asked me if I wanted to learn to be a bartender. I started intense training for six or seven months, and after that, I was working behind the bar. But I always wanted to live in New York, so when I heard that we were opening a Broken Shaker here, I came to visit in November for a pop-up that we did here and I fell in love with the view and the location and with Freehand. So I decided to move here to help with the opening and to bring the Miami vibe here to New York.

I’ve been bartending for five years. In Miami, I was very active in competitions and representing the bartending scene as a woman. Bartending has a few big national competitions such as Bacardi Legacy and Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender. I got into the semifinals of both of them. You have to create cocktails that are very creative — you can make anything that you want and you have to do an entire presentation. It’s a whole production. They have 500 to 700 submissions, and people make crazy stuff!

Bombay Sapphire was my first competition. My cocktail was called Catch My Wave — my inspiration was the ocean because I’m from Puerto Rico. It was clarified milk punch with blue foam on top. Clarified milk punch is a cocktail that has milk in it but is completely clear. It’s a five-day process to make. I wanted to do something I’d never done before. I am a filmmaker and I wanted to combine both passions, so I also created a fish tank effect by projecting a video of waves in the background. It was a trip. It was super fun. I made it to the top ten. In 2017, I also won the Pineapple Award for Rising Bar Star in Miami. It was a People’s Choice Award. I was really proud.

I like working at Broken Shaker because I can be myself. I can create anything that I want, not just vodka sodas. We have so many ingredients and so many tools to be creative; we make everything from scratch. It’s like I’m cooking but with liquid; that’s the way I see it. And I get excited to see people get excited. I like to create an experience for my guests. It’s not just about creating a good cocktail for them, it’s about creating the best experience and seeing their faces light up. For me, it’s like a performance.

I like when people come to my bar and say, “Make me whatever you want,” and then just list a few flavors they like. I like that they trust me, and I like to surprise people. I add little flamingos, alligators, flowers. I like to play around and make it fun because that’s the whole point. I don’t see bartending as a job. It’s a space to have fun and be creative.

My first day at the opening of Broken Shaker in New York, I was working the bar by myself, taking care of the entire room. I had no idea how to use the sale system because it’s a different system than the one we have in Miami, so I was taking care of the service bar, the terrace, and with the new system I was like, “Aaah! Somebody help me please!” We had 906 guests on opening night!

I love it. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun. I never thought that I would make it behind the bar. Never in my life. But the people who trained me listened to me and worked with me, and now I’m here and I love it. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.

Visiting New York soon? Freehand NY is hooking MR readers up with a 15% discount if you book through the website with code MANREPELLER. See you there!

Photos by Edith Young. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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