Down and Out at the Hotel Providence
Scenes from a Bowery flophouse.
This Longform Reprint is reprinted by permission of author.
The Hotel Providence stands at the intersection of Grand Street and the Bowery in lower Manhattan, a nondescript five-story brick building kitty-corner to the Romanesque columns of the long-defunct Bowery Savings Bank. To the west there is the bustle of Little Italy and Soho; to the east there are Latino neighborhoods and the bars and bistros of the gentrifying Lower East Side. The facade of the Hotel Providence is chipped, the paint the color of wan flesh, and the sign advertising its presence is small, inconspicuous in the riot of billboards and storefronts along the Bowery. Days on the Bowery, the streets of Chinatown surrounding the hotel are teeming with pedestrians; passersby hurry along the sidewalk without a sideward glance. Nights, after the lighting-fixture and restaurant-supply stores have rolled down their metal sliding doors, the avenue is deserted, lit only by the thin yellow glow of streetlights and of traffic slowly making its way downtown.
The entrance to the Providence is wedged between a Chinese restaurant and a vegetable market. Inside, beyond the two or three men always loitering in the doorway, a single, steep flight of stairs leads up to a landing, where a clerk sits at the front desk behind a thick glass cage. To the left, there are steel doors that can be opened only by a security buzzer. NO VISITOR, the notices at the front desk say, RENT MUST BE PAID IN 24 HOURS OR ROOM WILL BE EMPTIED, STARTING NOW PEOPLE THROWING SOMETHING OUT THE WINDOW WILL BE KICKED OUT. Rooms at the Providence are let to men only; the price is $10 a night, payment in cash, in advance. Like the few other flophouses still left on America’s legendary skid row—the World, the Grand, the Sunshine, the White House, the Prince—the Providence is a remnant from a time when dozens of Bowery hotels offered refuge, of a kind, for a man in need of shelter and alone in the world. In the early twentieth century, when bars and hotels lined the street, some 25,000 men lived on the Bowery. Now, the best estimate is that 6,000 men in New York City are without shelter each night, but there are rooms for only 1,500 of them on the avenue. There is rarely a vacancy at the Providence; the place has 224 boxes crammed into four small floors, and every night the joint is packed.
Bowery flophouses have long offered men a convenient location, with few questions asked and the freedom to come and go. The alternatives, at the end of this century, are few. In the run-down area of Far Rockaway, Queens—21 rail miles, fifty-seven minutes, and a $1.50 subway fare away from the soup kitchens, social services offices, and methadone clinics of Manhattan—there are a growing number of homes illegally operating as boardinghouses. And in poorer neighborhoods throughout New York City’s five boroughs, there are furnished basements and spare rooms, rentable on a weekly basis, a trade that is generally under the table and unregulated. After those options, which both usually require a security deposit and as much as a month’s rent up front, the choices narrow and harden: a free cot in a city-run shelter, with wide open rooms, military camp-like rules, and rampant crime; a bed in one of the few church-run missions that continue to operate in lower Manhattan, with the accompanying religious services and demands of sobriety; or, finally, living rough on the street.
Last year, very late one night at the beginning of October, I walked up the stairs of the Hotel Providence. There was a vacancy, so I paid the $10, plus a $5 key deposit, intending to report on a month in the lives of the men and the hotel. For decades, the Providence had been one of a string of Bowery flophouses owned by the same corporation, but recently they had brought in new management. The new operators are Chinese, and their sides of conversations about paying rent, trying to pick up mail, and complaints were shouted across the front desk in fractured English.
On the second floor of the hotel, at the far side of the security door, a short dark corridor opened into a large room with high, echoing ceilings and scattered tables and chairs. The lobby was littered with full ashtrays and sleeping cats, and half-dressed men drifted in and out; here was the only gathering place in the hotel, the only place to sit out of the weather, eat, have a couple of beers, watch Wheel of Fortune on the old television propped in a corner. The marble floor was cracked and riven with grime, the air thick with the smells of men left to their own devices. The windows were stained brown by generations of cigarette smoke and soot; it was impossible to see into the hotel from the street, impossible to see out from the lobby.
At night, before the alcohol and drugs had taken hold, the talk in the lobby was muted and friendly: “How’d you eat today?” “Got an extra smoke?” “Burger King has a special, a Junior Whopper for ninety-nine cents, a buck seven with tax.” The roach ends of joints were passed around, and tips about horse races and soup kitchens were exchanged—the closest thing the men had to society—until at nine-thirty or so, a couple of regulars went down the street to bring up boxes filled with sandwiches and oranges and cartons of milk donated by the Coalition for the Homeless, and the food was set upon, wolflike.
The men went by first names, nicknames, jail names, aliases; the point of staying in the hotel was to be left alone, to hide from the law, family, creditors, the past, oneself, and the men I met agreed to let me write about them on the condition that I didn’t reveal their real identities. Many had become permanent residents of the Providence, some having lived there for decades, and they had gained the legal rights of tenants under New York law: their rent raises were controlled by the city in accordance with the rate at the time the man first moved in. Some men were still paying as little as $4 or $5 a night, and, in theory at least, they had recourse to the courts and police to ensure that they were not evicted. New arrivals, classified as temporary residents, faced a rule that wasn’t posted but that was universal on the Bowery and strictly applied: the most time that the managers permitted a newcomer to stay was twenty-one nights in a row. The days each new arrival spent in the Providence were carefully marked in a ledger book, and at the end of twenty-one days he was required to leave the hotel for a night or two before he was allowed to return.
On a Monday night in early October, after the drink and the dope had set in and voices in the lobby began to rise, as always, an argument broke out. Bobby, a temporary resident, had picked a handful of discarded lottery tickets from the garbage in the Providence. The tickets were losers that had first been gathered from garbage cans outside lottery stores in Chinatown by Dwight, a permanent resident. Dwight had already checked the Quick Draws for mistakes—a $2 win that had been chucked away, a missed combination, an unnoticed bonus number—and he had thrown the tickets away again himself. He was wild drunk, though, and he accused Bobby of stealing from him.
“I’ll kill you. I’ll slit your throat,” he yelled as he pushed Bobby against the wall.
Two other men, who wanted me to identify them only as Tommy the Shark and Raul, followed Dwight when he went out to the bodega to get more beer. They stopped Dwight on the street next to the Providence.
“NYPD,” they said.
Pretending to be plainclothes police officers, Tommy and Raul demanded Dwight’s ID, searched him for drugs, and told him to move along and stay out of trouble. Afterward, back in the lobby, Dwight told the other men that the cops had worked him over. He said he was afraid to walk outside. He said he just wanted to be left alone to drink beer and die. He was too wasted to register that Tommy and Raul had returned and were sitting in a corner watching Monday Night Football.
Tuesday morning, Tommy the Shark stood at the corner of the Bowery and Grand Street waiting for Raul. Tommy and Raul had a scam they were working together, Tommy said. He said the shakedown of Dwight the night before had been a kind of payback: Dwight was a punk and a drunk, and Bobby was harmless and couldn’t defend himself. Tommy and Raul had met in the Providence lobby only a few nights earlier, but they were fast friends. Tommy was five feet eight inches of nerve and cadge, dressed in a pair of jeans with a tear at the knee, a light blue jacket, and scuffed white high-tops. That morning he had spent twenty-five cents on a pack of JJ’s Flavor Filled Cupcakes for breakfast, and his last dollar had gone for a new pair of black tube socks. Clean socks are the most important thing to a man on the bum, he said: clean socks, a shower, a shave, a decent haircut. “Thirty-five years old,” Tommy said, “and for the first time in my life, I can’t even afford fucking underwear.” He said he was losing weight fast, ten pounds in the week since his mother had kicked him out of the house. He was already three days behind in rent at the Providence, and he was worried that the owners would put a padlock on his room; before Raul had explained that Tommy might be able to sneak past the front desk to his room without paying, Tommy had spent two nights that week on the street, one night catching some sleep in a booth in a West Side bar where he knew the bartender, the other night wandering the streets aimlessly, sleeplessly, until he had been roused by a beat cop.
It was past ten-thirty, and Tommy was growing impatient. He began to walk uptown along the Bowery, past the strip of cheap restaurants and hair salons and the True Love Wedding Center. Tommy said he had good eyes, street eyes—they were brown and sharp and constantly darting from side to side—and he spotted Raul while he was still a dot in the distance. Raul, who lived at another $10-a-night Bowery flophouse, the White House, was large and soft, with an open smile and a loose-limbed walk. He called everyone “Papi,” a Latino term of affection. “Sorry I’m late, Papi,” Raul said. “I slept in a little bit.” On the subway ride uptown, Raul’s forehead was beaded with sweat. The eighty milligrams of methadone he took daily were kicking in, and his eyes had turned glassy and spare. Tommy fingered the police badge in his pocket. The badge was shiny and gold, a real police ID from North Carolina, which a friend had given him years ago. Tommy and Raul told me about the scam they were working: they were on their way to extort money from a Manhattan store owner by impersonating undercover cops. Shouting over the rattle and screech of the subway, they rehearsed their lines and reviewed the plot. They were, they said, “getting into the zone.”
“What name did you use on Sunday?” Tommy asked Raul.
Raul paused for a moment. “Detective Ramirez,” he said, remembering, “and you’re Sergeant Kramer.”
“I’m not flashing my badge this time,” Tommy said. “A real detective, he doesn’t flash his badge five times. You do it once, people know who you are.”
Raul said Tommy should do most of the talking. “I’m going to hang back, Papi,” Raul said. “I’ll come in hard when we get down to the money.”
Tommy was a finesse con: he looked for angles, watched for weaknesses no one else noticed, and he never used violence to get money, though the suggestion of violence was kind of the same thing, really, he said. Raul said he was a poet and a former heroin junkie; he made his living shoplifting steaks from supermarkets. He had never worked a scam before, but he was trying to learn something new from Tommy, expand his horizons. On the subway, Tommy and Raul became worried that the police might read this article and come after them, so I promised to change details—the kind of store, the owner’s name, the location—that might identify the scam. The story Tommy and Raul told me of the setup was this: two days earlier, they had been walking from the Bowery to the Upper East Side to search for a way to hustle a few quick bucks. Late in the afternoon, after most of the shops had closed, Tommy had noticed a hobo type of a guy walking into an electronics store carrying a CD player. Tommy watched and waited, and when the bum came out without the CD player Tommy stopped him and asked if the store would buy goods, no questions asked. “No problem,” the guy said. “Whatever you got.” “This is a criminal activity,” Tommy said he was thinking, “receiving stolen property.” Tommy and Raul went inside, and Tommy flashed his badge, carefully palming it to hide the mark of the jurisdiction. The owner was a fat old lady who looked like a pit bull. Her name was Constance, and she was counting money; she had maybe a couple hundred bucks in her hand. Tommy said he spoke calmly to her. “I see you have a good business here. You’re probably a family person,” he said. “You don’t want to get in trouble with the law.” Constance just looked at him like she didn’t know what he was talking about. Tommy told her he had seen the bum come in with the CD player and he had questioned him and he knew that she was buying stolen goods. “I wasn’t trying to see what I saw, and I don’t want to file a report,” Tommy told her. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt a friend.” Tommy was sure Constance thought they were cops; the quality of the acting was too good. Raul said he had wanted to strong-arm her and take the cash in her hand then and there, but Tommy was patient. Tommy was laying the groundwork for a second visit: he was planning to come back and collect an envelope stuffed with cash. Constance had denied Tommy’s accusation, though, and they weren’t sure that she knew what was expected of her.
“Women don’t understand a payoff,” Tommy said as the express train raced uptown.
“Not to put women down,” Raul added earnestly.
“I know she is a fence,” Tommy said. “And I’ll tell you one thing: you can’t con an honest person.”
Out of the subway and onto the streets of the Upper East Side, Tommy and Raul tried to convince themselves that she would have the payoff ready for them. Tommy told me he knew all the inner workings of the New York Police Department, the hierarchies and the precincts and operations; NYPD Blue was his favorite TV show. “If the bitch doesn’t have the money,” Tommy said, “I’m telling her I’m going to send in the safe, loft, and truck squad. Go through every piece of inventory in her store and demand receipts for everything.” Drawing nearer to the store, Tommy and Raul grew visibly nervous. Tommy’s strut became uneven and he started to talk too loudly, mounting his indignation at Constance’s lawlessness. Raul began to lag behind. They cut in to a McDonald’s to use the bathroom. While Tommy was gone, Raul wiped the sweat from his face and said he was worried: he was down for crime, but he had only known Tommy a few days, and he didn’t know if Tommy was crazy or not. Tommy was a force of nature, Raul said. They left McDonald’s urging each other on.
“Get in the zone.”
“Stay in the zone.”
Five minutes later Tommy and Raul were back at the McDonald’s. The store was closed. Tommy was desperate and wanted to wait until Constance opened for business; the attendant in the parking lot next door said the store was usually open at that time of day. Raul seemed relieved: he wanted to split and kill the rest of the day in the reading room of a public library downtown, where he passed most of his afternoons. Traffic on the street was backed up, horns were blaring, and an argument started between a taxi driver and a muscle-bound man in a Chevy. The large man got out of his car and came at the cabbie. Tommy took his badge from the breast pocket of his shirt and claimed he was going to break it up.
“I think it’s good the store was closed,” Raul said to Tommy. “Maybe somebody was looking out for us.”
The lobby of the Providence, the point of return at dark, filled with men as the sun set and the coming winter began to chill the nights. The men were mostly white and Hispanic. The permanent residents and regulars, like Raul, were in their late thirties and forties and older, though man looked decades beyond their years. Stevie, a gaunt methadone junkie, his complexion deathly pale, sat at a table and drank a bottle of Wild Irish Rose; Turk, dressed in shorts and a canvas sun hat, shared the leftover wonton and tofu he had collected from a Chinese restaurant across the street. In one corner, a man silently played scales on his portable Casio electric piano, the headphones askew, his face expressionless. Another man, who couldn’t muster the price of a room but was allowed to spend his evenings in the lobby, tried to sell anything he had come across in his wanderings that might have value: Bic razors, a broken watch, a snowsuit. The transients were younger, in their twenties and thirties; new men turned up in the lobby on most nights.
The Providence was originally built in the 1880s as a place for sailors to sleep off their shore-leave drunks. At the time, places like the Providence were known as “cage hotels”; then, as now, the “rooms” weren’t, in any real sense, rooms at all: most were cubicles measuring three and a half feet wide, six feet long, and eight feet high. The walls were flimsy wooden partitions; there were no windows in most rooms, and chicken wire was strung over the top in place of a ceiling. Among the varieties of shelter once available on the Bowery—“barrel houses,” which provided a place to sit out of the rain in exchange for the purchase of keg beer; “rope houses,” with ropes strung across the room for men to lean against as they tried to sleep standing up; “flophouses,” often amounting to nothing more than a roof overhead and a space on the floor of an open room—the cage hotels, with a private “room” and chicken-wire ceilings, were relatively upmarket; they have become what are now known generically as flophouses.
The second floor of the Providence was divided between the lobby and the rooms mostly occupied by permanent residents. Upstairs, each of the floors had reputations for violence and danger that varied depending on who was talking: the third floor was safe, the fourth and fifth infested with drug dealers; the fourth was all right, but the third and fifth were crazy risky. My room was on the fourth floor, near Tommy the Shark’s and Stevie’s. Whenever I opened the door, I was met by a waft of rank, dead air. Inside, a rickety metal-frame cot with a piece of plywood under a wafer-thin mattress was covered by a single torn sheet pocked with cigarette burns; pillows and blanket weren’t provided. The room was painted in two tones, dull green and dull red, and there was one exposed lightbulb and one hook and Spanish graffiti scratched on the wall next to a faded poster of an Indian chief and a note taped in a cover that said JUST A REMINDER…TO KEEP TRYING. The bathroom was at the far end of the floor, four toilet stalls for more than sixty men, the tiling cracked and filthy and marked with scrawlings of FLUSH DON’T BE A PIG and threats and counterthreats, claims and counterclaims, that someone was a HOMO who TAKES IT UP THE ASS. In the dead of night, the man in the next room moaned in his sleep, his low cries joining the chorus of hacking coughs and wheezes and the deep guttural rasp of threat-cleared phlegm sounding throughout the hotel. Roaches crawled across the floor and walls, and small, airborne, biting midges lit on the sheets. Some men tried to control these plagues with sprays and chemical bombs, but most just tried to live with them. That first night, like the protagonist in “An Experiment in Misery,” Stephen Crane’s 1894 short story about a young man staying in a Bowery flophouse, I didn’t sleep at all.
Mornings came early at the Providence, stirrings beginning just after dawn, voices calling out, televisions turned on, radios tuned to Howard Stern and salsa and all-news stations. Sleepout Jackie, a longtime resident, lived a few doors away on the fourth floor. Sleepout ran a kind of restaurant out of his room, a “chuck wagon,” he called it: he sold heros and meatball sandwiches for a dollar each. His walls were covered with newspaper clippings of old-time gangster crimes and columns Newsday journalist Jimmy Breslin had written about Sleepout’s days as a street beggar on the Upper East Side. Sleepout said he had been attacked with a machete once, and he stayed clear of the lobby at night because there were too many fights. Stevie, the methadone junkie who lived one hallway over, had battled with Sleepout, and Sleepout had thrown buckets of cold water through the chicken wire of Stevie’s room.
In the Providence, I soon discovered, there was little interaction among the men apart from the evening gatherings in the lobby and in a nook at the back of the second floor, where some went to smoke joints. The rooms were too small to fit a visitor. Conversations in the hallways and the stairs were brief and perfunctory; the longtime residents knew one another and took vague notice of comings and goings, of illnesses and arrests and deaths, but there were few friendships. There were occasional low-budget visitors stopping at the hotel, like the college graduate from the Midwest who worked as a bike courier in Manhattan and quickstepped his way to his room each evening, or the two young French hipsters in black leather pants and silk shirts who checked in one night to cop heroin. For the residents, though, the Providence’s drug dealers were a constant and watchful presence. Sleep was difficult, impossible when a drunken argument started. The stench was close and tangible; the temper, lawless.
Detective Robert Suschinsky from the 5th Precinct, who regularly checked the hotel’s register for men with outstanding warrants and who was often called in to collect the corpse of an alcoholic or junkie who had died in his sleep, told me the police wouldn’t send undercover cops into the hotel because most of the men there had done time in jail and they could smell anyone who didn’t belong there. It was too dangerous, he said, not worth risking an officer’s life.
Thursday morning, two days after Tommy and Raul’s failed shakedown, an NYPD cruiser was parked on the bowery in front of the Providence. Tommy was hanging out in front of the hotel with Stevie. “There was a murder last night,” Stevie said. A man had been stabbed in the chest twenty-four times a few doors down on the Bowery, and the man the police suspected in the killing was a resident of the Providence; he had run up the street and up the stairs of the hotel. Stevie said he knew the guy the police were after: he had tried to sell Stevie a bag of heroin the night before. “The cops have videotape of him,” Stevie said. “Turns out there’s a camera behind the counter of the front desk. Six and a half years I’ve lived in this place, and I had no fucking clue about the camera. No one knew.”
Uniformed and plainclothes officers were coming and going from the hotel. Tommy stood to one side, leaning against the wall just out of their sight. On the landing beside the front desk, the police were combing through the garbage bags searching for evidence. Tommy had changed his shirt and jacket; he said he was lying low for a while. He had stashed his badge under the mattress in his room and was worried that the police hunting for leads in the murder would search his room and come across it. “They need a warrant to go into my room, right?” he asked me.
Two real detectives stopped to talk at the entrance of the hotel, and Tommy suggested a walk. He took epic walks every day to kill time and look for action, wandering uptown along Fifth Avenue to Central Park, back down the West Side to the Village and Wall Street. Tommy told me that one of the permanent residents had threatened to kill me or any reporter who came to the hotel, and on this walk I decided to stop staying at the Providence overnight. Tommy had a con he was working in Washington Square Park, he told me, and we pushed through the crowds of Chinatown. His walk was straight-legged, an open-toed strut, and he stopped dead in his tracks when an attractive woman crossed his path. He stared at the women fully and frankly, and he moaned and winced and called out, “Oh, baby, oh, baby baby.” Tommy said it was impossible for a man on the bum to get a piece of ass: he didn’t have the money to even buy a woman a cup of coffee; he had nowhere to take a broad.
Tommy said he had run into an old friend from college named Harry walking down Broadway the day before. They had taken a history course together, he said, and the guy was now a stockbroker and had made $400,000 in each of the past two years. Tommy had told Harry that things weren’t going so great for him, and Harry had opened his wallet and slipped Tommy twenty bucks. Harry’s wallet was snakeskin, Tommy said, and he had only one card in it, a platinum American Express. Tommy’s wallet, on the other hand, was falling apart and was thick with debris from his past: the pawn tickets for the watch and the diamond pinkie ring he had hocked, the registration for a Cadillac sedan that he said had been repossessed, dozens of business cards of police officers and lawyers and contacts in the import/export industry. The snapshots of his parents—his mother with a blue-rinse dye, his father in the dress uniform of a federal cop—were fading and torn at the corners.
Washington Square Park was filled with students and tourists spending the day in the autumn sun. Tommy searched through the block for the woman he was scamming. She had a table with a display of trinkets for sale, Tommy said, and he had flashed his badge and asked to see her street vendor’s license. She didn’t have one and he had let it pass, but now he thought he might pay her a visit and hit her up for a few bucks in return for not arresting her. He said he was staying in the Providence because he was in the middle of a run of bad luck. He told a long and involved tale of $180,000 worth of ladies’ clothes sitting in a warehouse in the United Arab Emirates that he owned but couldn’t get released because his former partner in the import/export business had skipped town with all of Tommy’s money. Tommy’s stories overlapped and spun back on one another: stories of “made” guys like Hank the Bank and Philly Dogs from his childhood neighborhood, his failed marriage, his years in the army, lawsuits he had pending, the specifics of thieving he had and hadn’t done, the thousand-dollar Italian suits he had once worn. He said he had no intention of getting a job, because he was overqualified for any kind of regular work. He said he had always gambled; if he had a spare dollar, often his last dollar, he spent it on the New York Lottery. He always played the same number, the only number, he said, that had never won.
Tommy couldn’t find the street vendor in the park. He said the reason he was on the Bowery again was that his mother had kicked him out of her apartment in Queens. He had secretly run up $1,000 worth of calls on her telephone account calling the Middle East trying to chase down his former partner, trying to get the women’s clothes released from the warehouse outside Dubai. His mother had been furious when she discovered the bill. “I’m ashamed to talk to my mother,” he said. “She’s on a fixed income, she’s an old lady. She doesn’t need her only son giving her shit.”
Tommy wanted to walk over to an outdoor basketball court at the corner of West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue. He had met a ball player there the other day, and the guy was big and fast and good, good enough for the pros, Tommy said. He had told the player that he was a lawyer and an agent and that he could get him a contract in the Continental Basketball Association. The basketball court was deserted, and there was no sign of the player. “The thing I’m most worried about is my dog,” Tommy said as we turned back for the Bowery. Tommy had left his pet poodle at his mother’s apartment. “I just hope my mother’s taking care of the dog, feeding her, taking her for walks, getting her groomed.”
In mid-October the new management of the Providence began to renovate the premises. Sheets of drywall and planks of lumber were stacked in a corner of the second-floor lobby, their purpose unexplained. On the fifth floor workers were adding steel caging to the tops of the rooms; the caging reached to the ceiling and made it impossible for men to climb the walls and cut the chicken wire and sneak into their rooms, or into another man’s room. The toilets on the fifth floor were being torn out, to be replaced with two new toilets and two shower stalls; the showers were new, but now there were two fewer toilets. The new management was slowly working its way down through the hotel, Stevie said, and they were going to add the steel caging and redo the bathrooms on all the floors.
Meanwhile, for the permanent residents, there was routine—eat, sleep, try to hold down a minimum-wage job maybe, wait for a welfare check to arrive at the front desk, somehow get the money to cop drugs, watch game shows and ball games in the lobby. One night in the middle of October, a man died in his sleep. He was an old alcoholic who had been at the Providence for years, and his death was the subject of conversation for an evening and then forgotten.
For the temporary residents, the passing time was punctuated by the onrush of the twenty-one-day limit. Tommy had been in the hotel for two weeks, and the time limit was closing in fast. Bobby, designated homeless by social service despite the room at the Providence that he was able to afford for part of each month, shuffled in at night, exhausted from his days at workfare, and ate what food he had managed to scrounge: sandwiches from a soup kitchen, noodles from a Chinatown take-out joint, the leftover wonton that Turk gave him.
Raul came to the lobby every night near the time the food from the Coalition for the Homeless arrived; he relied upon the lobby, he said. The twenty-one-day limit applied at Raul’s flophouse, as it did at most of the Bowery hotels still open for business, but Raul had made a “lease request,” and he had stopped paying rent, hoping the owners didn’t have the power to make him leave while the request was pending. He had a crumpled, tattered copy of a circular entitled “Tenant’s Rights” distributed by a free legal services office in the neighborhood. “The hotel is not allowed to do anything to keep you from becoming a permanent tenant with full rights,” the advice said. “The so-called 21 days agreements are not legal or enforceable.” One night, more than a week after he and Tommy had tried to extort money from Constance, Raul came to the lobby carrying a handful of London broil steaks he had boosted from supermarkets that day. Raul said he was exhausted; he was sweating and was high from the reefer he had just smoked to take the edge off the methadone. He said shoplifting was hard work—risky, tense. Raul was warm and quick to please, and he had the remnants of an easy charm. He said he had a strong leaning towards spirituality and philosophy. In college he had written a long paper on the notion of cause and effect, and he said he thought about the question a lot. The narrator of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had nearly lost his mind trying to fathom the great questions, he said, and he reminded Raul of himself. “For everything that occurs,” Raul said, “there’s an antecedent cause. And I’m saying, ‘How can I improve my life by creating better causes day to day?’ It comes down to taking responsibility for your life and realizing that problems are an integral part of everyone’ existence.”
Raul had traced the beginnings of his troubles in many directions: his mother’s mental illness, growing up without ever meeting his father, the crack plague of the 1980s, a girlfriend’s fatal overdose. He had been a crack addict in his twenties, nearly committing suicide in the trough of one of his deep depressions, and he had turned to heroin in his thirties; he used methadone now, with the occasional joint when he could get a couple of dollars together. Raul showed me his book of poetry, a thick black spiral binder with 166 worn and dog-eared pages. He had stopped writing when he became homeless. He had shown the collection to only a few friends: words were sacred things to him, he said.
On a Sunday morning in mid-October, the real-estate section of the New York Times carried a story about a businessman who had converted the derelict upper floors of a building on the Bowery into lofts that were “so chic, so decidedly hip” that they merited a feature article. The economic boom in New York City in the 1990s, which had gentrified poorer neighborhoods in every borough, had passed the Bowery by until now. A local residents’ association had started to complain about the bums on the avenue and pressure the government for the removal of one of the Bowery rescue missions. Buildings along the avenue had been neglected for generations, so the area was relatively cheap, and, because it is also centrally located, multimillion-dollar conversations into lofts had begun, slowly, to transform the Bowery. In the Times, the businessman said he called his new frontier Boho, a play on “bohemian,” of course, and on the name of the nearby shopping district of Soho. But also an inversion of the word “hobo.”
The same Sunday morning, on the fourth floor of the Providence, Stevie’s cat spilled his daily dose of methadone. At nightfall, Tommy saw Stevie walking up the stairs to the fifth floor with the sleeves of his shirt rolled up and a $10 bill in his hand. Stevie told Tommy that he was going to buy heroin. The next morning an NYPD van circled the block outside the hotel, its loudspeaker blaring in a monotone voice on a recorded loop asking pedestrians for any information relating to the murder on the Bowery the week before. Stevie came down the stairs of the hotel slowly, little more than five steps a minute. He looked as though he might fall at any moment He was thin and disheveled, his chest concave, his long blond hair stringy and greasy. His sharp blue eyes were bloodshot; his perfect white set of false teeth were missing, and his face had collapsed in on itself. Stevie said he was feeling bad, “real bad.” He asked if he could borrow a dollar, and he bought a caramel candy at the store next door.
Stevie was a III, the third man in his family to carry his name. He said he had been raised in a wealthy Long Island village. His parents still lived in a big house, with eight or nine bedrooms, he said, and in his hometown there were estates with private helicopter pads and $5 million mansions. The day before his cat spilled his methadone, I had gone with Stevie as he stopped by one of the few soup kitchens operating in lower Manhattan. Stevie said he was thirty-seven, though his sagging face and stooped manner made him appear many years older. He had been an auto mechanic, specializing in imports such as BMWs and Porsches. He said he had $10,000 worth of tools in the garage at his parents’ house, along with a stash of methadone pills he was hoarding for the day he would wean himself off the drug by lessening his dose little by little. Unlike Tommy and Raul, who didn’t get any public assistance and who were, for official purposes, nonexistent, Stevie received $192 a month in a housing allowance, $120 in food stamps, and a further $200 in welfare. Unlike Bobby, who also received government money, Stevie didn’t have to meet the obligations of workfare to receive his stipend. Stevie had broken his back in a car accident, had broken his knees in a variety of falls over the years, and was subject to petit and grand mal seizures. With his disabilities, he said, it was all he could manage to rise with the dawn every day, smoke half a dozen cigarettes before getting out of bed, and then set out on the twenty-five-block walk to uptown to his methadone clinic; the clinic was closed on the Sabbath, which was why Stevie had his dose sitting on his bedside table.
Stevie paid only $6.25 a night at the Providence, the same rate he had paid since he first arrived six and a half years earlier, but he said his income wasn’t enough to survive on. He often borrowed from loan sharks in the hotel: ten bucks doubled to twenty in a couple of days with some sharks; with others, the rates were lower and a loan of fifty became seventy-five. Stevie’s mother sent him cash by Priority Mail, and she had set up a private toll-free 800 number for him to phone home, to save the charges he had long run up by calling collect; he phoned his mother every day, from a pay phone at the corner of Grand Street and the Bowery. He said that he wanted to move back home with his parents but that they wouldn’t let him until he entered a detox program and got clean. Stevie had tried a number of times over the years to kick drugs, but he had never succeeded. “You ever heard the saying ‘Misery loves company’?” he asked me. “You come out of rehab and you’re doing real good, you’ve got your weight back, you’ve got your color back, and right away the drug dealers in the Providence are going to give you drugs for free.”
Stevie said a lot of men who came to the Providence would up dead. John, a neighbor of Stevie’s, had been found with a needle in his neck eight months earlier. John was once an enforcer for a gangster named Matty the Horse, Stevie said; John was a big guy with muscles, but he was a junkie and got full-blown AIDS, and when he died he was nothing but skin and bones. John had lived in the room next to Stevie’s on the fourth floor, and after his body had sat rotting for two days Stevie could smell something was wrong and had climbed up on the door handle and peered in through the chicken wire. John was sitting up in bed, stone dead; he looked like he had seen the devil, Stevie said.
Stevie’s room was a few doors down from Tommy’s, and he had an old television set on a shelf, posters of sports cars on the walls, dirty clothes and porn magazines strewn in a small metal locker. He had cut a hole in the chicken wire so that his cat, Malaka, could come and go as he pleased, and the sheets on Stevie’s bed were filthy and pocked with cigarette burns, the remains of the times he had passed out while smoking. ”My mother has no idea how I’m living,” he said. “What I’m going to do, I don’t care if it costs me every cent I’ve got, I’m going to get a fucking camera, one of those disposable cameras, and I’m going to take pictures of the fucking hotel, and I’m going to send them to all my relatives.”
That afternoon, when we got back from the soup kitchen, a man was waiting for Stevie in the hallway outside his room. The man was mangy, with a three-day beard and a ponytail drawn back on his head, and he stood close in on Stevie; he was one of the men I had seen loitering in front of the Providence day and night. Stevie had borrowed $3 from the man the day before for a pack of smokes. The man asked Stevie if he had the five bucks he now owed, the extra $2 amounting to interest on the day-long loan. Stevie pulled four crumpled singles from his pocket. The man counted the money. “That’s not the deal,” he said to Stevie. “I’ll give you the rest tomorrow,” Stevie said. “That’s not the deal,” the man said angrily, and he stepped closer to him. I quickly reached in my pocket for a dollar, but in the moment of threat, in the time it takes menace to become fact, a door behind us opened and the man who lived across the hall from Stevie held out a dollar—Stevie and his neighbor watched out for each other, Stevie later told me. The loan shark took the man’s dollar and he took my dollar, then he stared hard at Stevie and told him he’d better not fuck with him again.
Bobby returned to the Providence on Wednesday, after staying two nights in a warehouse in Queens because his twenty-one days had expired. He was unshaved and his hair was a mess of knots; his clothes were creased and stained. His tics—constantly sniffing and coughing, licking his upper lip raw, clearing his throat—had grown worse with the stress of displacement and the lack of sleep. A few nights away from the hotel had become part of what passed for the structure of each month for Bobby. He received $200 a month from workfare, plus $122 in food stamps and $15 every two weeks for subway fare to his Work Experience Program job, but the lunch month the city once provided for its unpaid workers had been taken away by the administration of Mayor Giuliani, and even with the workfare money, Bobby couldn’t afford to pay $10 a night to the Providence for the whole month, regardless of the twenty-one-day rule. The “stuck period,” as he called it, the week or so that he inevitably fell short of the price for a room, was looming. The refuge he had found in the warehouse in Queens wasn’t near public transportation, and he had no way of getting to work from the warehouse and had already fallen behind in his workfare obligation; like more than 180,000 citizens of New York City, under the terms of the welfare reform law President Clinton signed into law in 1996, Bobby had to work for no pay two days each week. In order to avoid the disaster of being cut from the rolls, which happened three times in the past six months, Bobby now had to catch up on his obligation by working four extra days. “I don’t know how long I can keep this up,” he said.
Two days later I went with Bobby to his workfare job outside Manhattan. The sky was blue and cloudless, and there was a sharp, chill wind in the air. Bobby was back in the Providence, but he said he hadn’t slept: there had been screaming arguments through the night. He had left the hotel at 7:30 A.M. and caught the subway to work; he had treated himself to an Egg McMuffin, and used the washroom at McDonald’s. He carried a plastic shopping bag with him everywhere he went—he kept a bottle of tap water in the bag, and toilet paper, napkins, newspapers, and the leftovers of any food he had saved—and he stashed the bag in the park’s work house before starting his labors.
Bobby’s work duties, the experience he was meant to be acquiring, consisted of helping with the general maintenance of a small park in a pleasant section of Queens, with terraced houses and tidy low-rise apartment blocks and folks walking poodles and schnauzers and young mothers playing on the swings with their toddlers. He wasn’t provided with work clothes, and he said one of the worst things was that his regular clothes were getting ruined. The only pair of jeans he had that fit him were dirty, and his shirts were constantly being ripped on thorns. He had no money to replace what was torn or wrecked; the $16 he had recently been forced to spend on a new pair of shoes had been a major setback in his monthly budget. He asked me to keep a distance from him in the park because his supervisor was a city worker who was paranoid about getting into any sort of trouble. Still, in unguarded moments, unwatched by his supervisor, Bobby worked steadily, raking leaves into large piles, bagging the leaves, picking up garbage tumbling along the sidewalk.
In the lobby of the Providence at night, apart from passing greetings with his few acquaintances, Bobby kept to himself. He didn’t drink or take drugs. There were men who would let him store his possessions in their room when he was forced to leave every month, or when he fell short of the money required, but he had no friends in the hotel. Dwight routinely threatened to kill Bobby for double-checking the lottery tickets Dwight had thrown away. The only law in the Providence is “every man for himself,” Bobby said. He said he would stay out of the lobby entirely but the roaches and bugs made it impossible for him to eat in his room. He had a small black-and-white TV in his room, and his favorite thing to watch was figure skating; he loved the simplicity and grace.
During the days when he wasn’t at workfare, Bobby loitered at the corner of Bowery and Grand Street, or he drifted through the streets of Chinatown collecting discarded soda cans for the nickel refunds; if he was lucky, in a week the money could add up to a night’s rent at the Providence. The last for-pay job he had found was almost a year ago, as a janitor at a McDonald’s on Long Island, but he had been fired after four days because he hadn’t been able to work fast enough. There had been other jobs over the years, all minimum wage and none of which had lasted: security guard, telemarketer, clerk in a record store, a job he liked because music was his favorite subject and he was expert in arcane pop trivia. When he was in college, Bobby had hoped to get into film or television, but he said he had no marketable skills and no experience, and those facts continued to plague him. He was nearing forty now, and he was trying to find some way to get off workfare, but it was difficult without a permanent address or a telephone number, without a good night’s sleep to calm his spirits. He had asked his caseworker if he could get assistance with finding a furnished room, but the caseworker had told him that the only choice Bobby had was to apply to live in a shelter; under the new guidelines of the city, unless Bobby was homeless and living on the street or working at a for-pay job, he wouldn’t receive a high priority for public housing. “‘I don’t know what to tell you,’” Bobby said the caseworker told him.
“As you get older, people don’t want to be bothered with you,” Bobby said. “You know, those washout ages like twenty-nine or thirty. If you want to accomplish something by a certain point, you know, you’re probably not going to do anything if you haven’t done them by then. Most of my friends, they weren’t wealthy, they were middle-class, but they had more than enough, and it was hard for them to understand my situation. They would try to help me sometimes. It became very hard, because I became afraid of rejection.”
Later on the day that I went with Bobby to his workfare, the sun disappeared behind a cover of clouds, and the park became cold and deserted. Bobby had worked as diligently as he could, pausing only for a moment to exchange greetings with a couple of elderly ladies out for a stroll. In the blocks surrounding the park, there were police barriers and trucks and hundreds of NYPD cops. Since it was October, the congressional elections were in the news every day, and one of the policemen said there had been a political rally in the neighborhood for the Democratic candidate for the Senate, with President Clinton as the featured speaker. The presidential motorcade had passed within a hundred yards of the park that morning, under the embrace of an autumn sun, out of sight of Bobby raking the fallen leaves.
Monday night in the third week of October, the windows in the lobby had been cleaned for the first time ever, seemingly, and the light from the outside world was startlingly bright, the shining glass gleaming the reflection of the men back at themselves. There was a football game on TV, but the room was mostly abandoned: there were still police officers staking out the fourth and fifth floors, hoping the suspected murderer would return, and the majority of the men in the Providence kept low profiles, out of the way of any encounter with the law. Tommy the Shark was sitting in a corner of the lobby. He had gone out to his mother’s apartment in Brooklyn earlier and rung the bell, but she hadn’t answered and there was no sign of her; he hadn’t heard his poodle barking. He had lurked around for three hours, careful to avoid meeting any of the neighbors. Then, Tommy said, he had gone to a bar on the West Side and met with Harry, the stockbroker who was an old friend from college, and he had convinced Harry to front $10,000 for them to start an import/export consulting business together. The problem, Tommy said, was that he didn’t have any money to eat and pay for his room. He was behind in his rent and was worried he would be kicked out of the Providence, even before he reached twenty-one days.
Upstairs, the renovations continued apace: the bathroom on the fourth floor had been demolished, and steel caging had been added to join the tops of the boxes with the ceiling; the work was rapidly nearing the main floor. The new owners were offering some of the permanent residents a cash settlement to leave the hotel and relinquish their claim to a room. It was common for the permanent residents to fall behind in their rent, some by as much as 500 days, and it was expensive and difficult for the owners to get the men evicted. The payout was, relatively speaking, a cheap solution. The amounts varied, but the maximum was $500, and Turk and some others had accepted the sum.
At nine o’clock, just after the kickoff of Monday Night Football, as I sat in my usual corner in the lobby, a young Chinese couple entered the room. The dozen or so men sitting around turned, amazed: no one had ever seen a woman in the lobby before. There were rumors that one of the drug dealers on the fifth floor was hiding a crack-addicted prostitute in his room, but none of the men had actually seen her. The young man and woman were both well-dressed and carrying luggage, and they had dazed looks on their faces as they stared at the men splayed around the room. “Hey, honey, what’s going on?” Tommy said. “Come sit over here with me.” The young couple walked down the hallway and opened the door of the room on the main floor that they had taken and then whispered furiously; it was one of the few double-wide rooms in the hotel, but, like all the rest of the boxes, its ceiling was chicken wire. Two minutes later they passed quickly through the lobby, still carrying their luggage, and disappeared into the night.
By the end of the third week of October, there was no way to get into the lobby. The second floor of the Providence had been turned into a construction site, and the ceiling echoed with carpenters banging nails and sawing wood. The piles of drywall and lumber began to shrink as the lobby was changed from one room into two. No one was quite sure what was going on. The men said that one room was going to be the lobby for men, the other for female residents; women, it was rumored, were going to take over the main floor. The rates were going to go up, it was said—$12 a night, $15 a night, no one was sure how much. The renovations were nearly complete, the new bathrooms and shower stalls in place. Other hotels along the Bowery that had once been flophouses had been redone recently, and the owners had started to rent by the night to tourists, some charging as much as $30 and $40.
Late in the week, a small article buried in the bottom corner of a page in the middle of the New York Post carried the headline “Bowery man held in fatal stabbing.” It was reported that a man who had been a resident on the fourth floor of the Providence had been arrested. He had killed one man and seriously wounded two others, it was said. He had been subdued by a security guard and an auxiliary cop after he had attacked a Chinatown shoe-store owner with a knife in broad daylight. He “stabbed people who rubbed him the wrong way,” the article said. The shoe-store owner had looked at him in a manner he found offensive. One of the other stabbings had been caused when he got angry at a man who spat on the sidewalk.
The same day that the Post story ran, Stevie rose early and walked to his methadone clinic, then caught the train out to visit his parents on Long Island. He did his laundry, had a shower, and picked up a winter jacket and thermal underwear; his mother gave him boxes of cereal, a jar of peanut butter, and a few cans of soup, and she slipped him $20. His mother was pushing the idea of him getting into a detox program, Stevie said when he got back to the hotel that night. He said he was seriously considering trying to quit methadone and the pills he was hooked on. There was a place in the city called The Realization Center that he was thinking of trying.
The next day Tommy told me that Stevie wouldn’t leave his room or answer the door, that he was really depressed, suicidal even. I went upstairs and found Stevie watching his television with a leather belt shaped into a tourniquet on the bed next to him, his shirt marked with drops of blood. He asked me if I would buy him a cup of coffee. We went to the bakery on the Bowery, and he chain-smoked cigarettes, his fingers yellowed with nicotine stains. He ate lemon rolls. He said he had walked by an automotive-repair shop just off the Bowery that specialized in imports and, for a moment, contemplated going inside and applying for a job, but the place was a dump, and he didn’t want to risk using his tools and getting them damaged or stolen. He said he would never sell his tools; that was like a writer giving up his pen, an artist giving up his brushes. He said he hadn’t shot heroin that day or the day his cat had spilled his dose of methadone. He said he had changed his mind that Sunday once he got to his dealer’s room on the fifth floor of the hotel, despite the aching pain of withdrawal. “I said to myself, ‘If I still want it in an hour, I’ll get it in an hour.’ I still wanted it in an hour, but I read a porn magazine for a while, cleaned the cat’s box, cleaned up my room a little bit, and the next thing you know it was time for bed.”
He rolled up the sleeve of his sweatshirt to prove that he hadn’t shot heroin. His arms were ravaged with angry, open sores and needle marks. Seemingly unaware of the contradictions in his story, or what the scars on his emaciated arms told of his situation, he said he couldn’t shoot heroin by himself. He had a lot of good veins left, he said, but he was afraid of getting an air bubble in the syringe that would go straight to his heart. We walked out onto the Bowery, into the crisp autumn air, and he said he was depressed because he had gone to The Realization Center for an assessment that day and had been given the dual diagnosis of CD and MI—chemically dependent, mentally incompetent. He had been put in a holding room with people who couldn’t even talk, with zombies. He feared he was going to be stuck in the Providence for the next thirty years. His biggest worry, the thing he cared about most in the world, was what to do with his cat if he entered a program to try to get straight. “If I could get my cat into my parents’ house I’d leave the Providence today,” he said.
I took the train to Stevie’s hometown on Long Island, where the autumn leaves on the trees were red and puce and gold. The town was, as Stevie said, affluent, with quiet, winding streets, massive estates hidden behind steel gates, and a Norman Rockwellian red-brick high school where Stevie had once been a student. Stevie’s parents lived in a modest two-story house in a less wealthy quarter of the town. The living room was decorated with throw rugs and stuffed dolls and portraits of their daughters’ college graduations and weddings. Stevie’s mother, who had the New York Times Sunday crossword completed in ink beside her on a side table, wore a cardigan and jeans and a pair of half-moon reading glasses strung on a necklace. His father, a retired investigator for the federal government, was a thin, soft-spoken man, and he sat at the dining table smoking a pipe. They had given Stevie $120 a month, month after month, for years, they said; Stevie knew when his mother’s social security check arrived, and he always came out from the Providence to collect the money. Stevie’s mother said she dreaded his visits. She also lived in dread that Stevie wouldn’t arrive and that she wouldn’t know if he was alive or dead.
Stevie had told me he was thirty-seven, but his parents said he was really forty-three. “We’re both about to turn seventy,” his father said, “and soon we’ll be gone and Stevie is going to have to fend for himself.” Stevie’s mother played a message from Stevie she had saved from their answering machine that morning. “I’m taking five hundred dollars to leave my room,” he said on the recording. “I’m going to leave the cat, because you promised me you would take the cat, but obviously you’re not going to do that. It’s obvious I’m going to die, so I might as well die on the streets. You know, five hundred dollars will be enough to give me a nice overdose.”
“Stevie’s always threatening that he’s going to jump in front of a subway train,” his mother said. “Or he’s going to take all the pills he has and die on our front lawn. In other words, it’ll make the local newspaper. In other words, to embarrass us.”
Stevie’s parents said that his troubles had been going on for years, and it had become impossible to clearly distinguish one event from another. They had made mistakes as parents, they said. “We’ve apologized many times,” his mother said. “We’re not perfect people, or perfect parents. We all make mistakes. He was the first born, so he got more than the others. We’re sorry, drop it, let it go, get on with your life.” Stevie’s mother said they had moved from a working-class neighborhood to their new affluent town when Stevie was in grade school and that he had never fit in with the more well-to-do kids. Stevie’s father said he had suffered a nervous breakdown when Stevie was a teenager, and Stevie had started to steal his quaaludes. The heavy drinking and marijuana and LSD and, eventually, heroin came later. They had bought Stevie BMWs over the years and paid for his training as a mechanic; he had wrecked the cars and lost a string of jobs. Stevie’s father said that their other children, their daughters, had grown to hate the way Stevie’s troubles affected the family. On their eldest daughter’s wedding day, Stevie had turned up at the house high, and his mother refused to let him in. Stevie shot up on the front step; his mother watched from the kitchen window as he injected the needle and swore at them that he would be dead by the time they returned from the church.
Since Stevie had moved into the Providence, six and a half years earlier, he had continued to come out to his parents’ house to sleep from time to time. His mother and father were terrified that he would fall asleep with a cigarette and burn the house down, though, and they had made him sleep in the basement, where the floor was concrete. Stevie hadn’t been allowed to stay the night for the past few months; during his visits, his father, exhausted by the repeated accusations and demands, had begun to retreat to a room on the second floor, where he stayed until his son left. When Stevie had been locked out in the past, he would pound on the doors and windows and open the mail slot at the front door and scream through the night. His mother said that tough love, which they tried to practice, following the advice of drug counselors and others who had experience in such matters, was hard to live out. “It’s very difficult for a mother to hear that your child hasn’t eaten anything,” she said. “Intellectually, you understand what to do, but emotionally it’s very difficult.”
Outside, Stevie’s mother and father opened the garage door and showed me the auto mechanic tools Stevie had told me about. The red Craftmaster tools were locked, and there was an empty pill bottle on top. They had bought the set for him at Sears: the tools were worth $800, not $10,000. Stevie’s mother said she wished he would get into a good rehab program, one that lasted a full year. The problem, she said, was that they couldn’t afford to pay for it, and Stevie wasn’t covered by their medical insurance.
“We’ve seen a psychiatrist about this,” Stevie’s father said, “because I had always heard that eventually people hit bottom, and when they realize they’ve hit bottom they work themselves up, they try to come up. And he told me ‘An awful lot of people hit bottom and never do come up.’ And that’s what I’m convinced is happening now.”
“If there was someplace out there for him to go,” Stevie’s mother said, her voice trailing away. “I wish I’d win the lotto. I would put him in some place. That’s what I wish.”
The lobby of the Providence was closed off entirely by the end of October. There were now two security doors near the front desk: one for the residents staying on the main floor, in the new rooms next to what had once been the lobby; the other, a black, prisonlike steel door that led to the stairway upstairs, for the men living in one of the three floors above. The renovation was complete. With no lobby, the men had to keep to their rooms to stay out of the cold.
The men I had met in the lobby of the Providence scattered to the four winds. Turk, it was said, went on a drinking jag and in a matter of days blew through the cash the owners had given him; the last report was that he was sleeping in the subway. Raul, no longer able to rely on the free meal provided nightly in the lobby, found a job working the midnight shift in a bakery in lower Manhattan. He said things were going well, that he had some responsibility for money and was proud of that. He just hoped he could keep it together. On the days Bobby wasn’t meeting his workfare obligations, he and I searched for a furnished room he could afford; I offered to pay the security deposit and the first month’s rent. There wasn’t anything available in the neighborhood near the park where he did his workfare, so he went out to Far Rockaway and took a room.
Tommy the Shark had left the Providence, still owing his back rent, and had moved back in with his mother. One afternoon I met him at the corner of Wall Street and Broadway. The cold of the early winter whipped through the canyons of the financial district as stockbrokers and lawyers and secretaries hustled along the street, their shoulders hunched. Tommy was dressed in a warm jacket, woolen slacks, tasseled loafers. He had gone to his mother’s apartment the week before, just short of his twenty-one-day limit at the Providence, and she had let him come home. The dog was fine, he said; his mother had tended to her, fed her, groomed her. Tommy was eating regularly again, and he was starting to get his weight back. He said he had taken a job selling jewelry part-time in a shop in his mother’s neighborhood, and he had worked one day in a menswear store; he was good at sales, he said. He had another scam he was working: a player in the National Football League he had met in a bar needed to renegotiate his contract, and Tommy was going to represent him.
Tommy suggested we meet on Wall Street because he had tracked down the street vendor he had tried to con in Washington Square Park. The vendor had relocated her table of trinkets to a spot near the New York Stock Exchange. Tommy talked to the street vendor and another woman who stopped to look at the goods on offer. The two women were both, it turned out, born-again Christians, and they discussed the best church services on offer in Manhattan. Tommy was still representing himself as an NYPD detective. He told the women that he, too, had been born again. The street vendor was married, Tommy said in a whispered aside, but the other woman was single; she was pretty and had an earnest, guileless manner. I’m going to nail that broad,” Tommy said. “Christian girls, they always go for it, and then they feel bad afterward.” Tommy and the woman made a date to meet at a church social on the weekend.
“Praise Jesus,” she said to Tommy. “Praise Jesus,” Tommy said.
In early November, precisely thirty days after I had set out to report on a month in the lives of the men and the hotel, Stevie disappeared from the Providence. That night I went to the birthday party of a lawyer friend of mine who lived with his artist wife in a loft a few blocks away. Around midnight, for no reason other than a growing sense of unease, I checked my answering machine, and there was a message from Stevie’s mother. “I have some sad news for you,” she said. “Stevie was killed by an automobile, walking from the railway station to our house this evening.” Late that afternoon, in the gathering dusk, Stevie’s train had pulled into his hometown on Long Island. He had called his mother from the station. He had said that he was on his way home. He was walking off the footpath, on the edge of the road, against the oncoming traffic, as he made his way along the main route. A van rounded a bend and hit him head-on. Stevie’s mother had been waiting for him when she heard the town’s emergency siren go off, the alarm screaming throughout the village. Sleepout Jackie, who lived in the hallway next to Stevie’s on the fourth floor and who had feuded with him over the years, said that none of the men in the hotel had mourned his passing. “He haunted people. Nobody misses him.”
The night Stevie was killed the handful of flophouses on the Bowery were scarcely noticeable, as always, sheltered in the shadows cast by the streetlights. A lone man stumbled along the sidewalk, his thick glasses askew. He was carrying a crumpled paper bag with a bottle of liquor in it, and every few paces he stopped and took a long drink. Upstairs in the Providence, the windows in the room that had once been the lobby were blackened. The men in the hotel had lost their only gathering place, the only place for them to sit out of the weather, eat, watch Wheel of Fortune. In Far Rockaway, on the farthest margins of the city, were the beginnings of the next last resort. On the Bowery, the time when a man alone in the world had found refuge, of a kind, in the heart of the city was into the past.
Reprinted by permission of the author, whose book “The Octopus” is available at GuyLawson.com.