“On the Bowery, on the second floor of an ancient flophouse, nine men pay less than $10 a night to sleep in cramped cubicles topped with chicken wire. Half the stalls in their shared bathroom are missing doors, and their halls are lined with spooky rows of empty cubicles whose last occupants either took off or died off.I knew one of those assets to their property, or maybe I just knew of him. Either way I'll never forget him or the big life lesson he taught me.
Directly above them, on the third and fourth floors, stylish young men and women pay $62 to $129 a night for a refined version of the gritty experience below. Their cubicles have custom-made mattresses and high-end sheets. Their shared bathrooms have marble sinks and heated floors. Their towels are Ralph Lauren.
The alternate worlds within 220 Bowery rarely intersect, although the hotel’s flophouse aesthetic is meant to create a 'living history' vibe that is 'equal parts museum and hotel,' its developers say. One of them, Sanford Kunkel, goes so far as to describe the men below, living in walk-in closets, scraping by, as 'an asset to the property.'”
Fresh off dropping out of college at 19 my boss found enough shelter under the department budget to give me a minimum-wage job at the library where I did work-study. With a dividend exactly enough to cover first, last and security from a dead grandmother I don't remember and the promise of a job paying $960 a month (before taxes) my friends and I signed a lease for a flat on the third floor of a brick building at the bottom of Mission Hill.
The Mission Hill of a dozen or so years ago was not the Mission Hill of today. Since 2000 the "non-profit" universities and medical centers have fully established their aggressive development plans and the students and young professionals they attract are buying into the schemes of gentrifying real estate investors. This undoubtedly works to the detriment of the established community, much of which resides in the four housing projects that anchor the boundaries of the neighborhood like turnbuckles in a ring.
Back then it didn't have the Bank of America / Citizens Bank / JP Licks / Stop & Shop / T.G.I. Friday's / Walgreens / cubicle space Megaplex dominating Brigham Circle. Instead there was: one of those markets—halfway between supermarket and bodega—that only managed to serve a clientele that enjoyed slimy gray meat and Price E. Hunt potato chips; a pharmacy that smelled more like the piss-and-clorox of a dive bar bathroom than a place where medicine was compounded and dispensed; and an industrial-sized laundromat with a parking lot bigger than a football field, despite the fact that nobody using it owned a car. My next-door neighbor a block down Huntington Avenue was a condemned bowling alley until they demolished it and left a fenced-in gravel lot. The gastropub across the street was at that time the Choppin' Block, a bar of ill-repute full of day drunks, crack addicts and junkies until its late last call brought the britpop hipsters (they existed in 2001) in from the bar around the corner. The current owners so throroughly gutted the place that the bar itself is completely new and the front door is on a different wall.
It was in this landscape that I knew David, a regular street bum that floated between the street, the homeless shelter and the halfway house two blocks down Tremont Street. In terms of annoyance he was one of the better neighborhood beggars. He didn't approach you everyday like a complete stranger and try to sell you stolen goods. He didn't lay the homeless sympathy shit on you like one dude who I knew lived in the halfway house (I drank with one of the house employees regularly). He only pulled the unsolicited-doorman-at-the-7-11-schtick during the day when the suckers were hospital employees and not neighbors. Most of the time he just hung out with his dispossessed peers in the circle of park benches we affectionately referred to as Bum Island.
In the very first hours of one bitter, raw day I saw David outside the 7-11. It was one of those nights just too warm to snow with blustering winds blowing shards of freezing rain into the skin of your face. His hoodie obscured much of his head and the darkness obscured his eyes, but his greasy red hair and disheveled beard poked out. His castaway winter jacket that used to be white and coral green was the color of dirty tap water and seaweed. The sleeves stopped about two inches before his wrist bones.
We were in the late-night magic money-making time in between one o'clock and two o'clock last calls, when he could hit up bar patrons stopping in the store with drunken cravings for salt, sugar, grease and nicotine. That’s why I was there and I expected him to hit me up, but he didn’t go to hold the door and he didn't have a cup in his hand. When our eyes met we were the only two people on the block. He came up to me.
"Hey, man. I'm trying to get the hell out of here. Can you help me?"When he said it was cold he wasn't talking about the weather, and when I realized that something profound sunk into me in a way those frozen rain shards could not. Stung by the situation—the wet, the wind, the darkness, the aspects of poverty shared and unshared—my place on the continuum of humanity seemed static at that moment. I was poor myself, probably one ladder rung below the one I was raised on, living in a neighborhood similar to the streets of my childhood in a community I understood intuitively, growing a few of the bad habits so readily associated with poverty. But I had never lived on the street, nor had I ever gone hungry beyond inconvenience (thanks many days to a sacrificial girlfriend or to carefully scouring the campus calendar for catered events). I had a safety net of a stable two-parent and two-grandparent working-class white family, something not afforded my neighbors past or present. It clung to my soul that, though I may forever be in the proximity of the bottom, I have never been and probably never will be at the bottom of the world.
"Where are you thinking of going?"
"I don't know. Maybe New York. It's too fucking cold here."
"It's not much warmer there, man."
"I know, but at least there are options there."
I asked him if he knew about the Fung Wah, the now-famous Chinatown bus that was then $10 and picked you up in an alley behind a bakery on Beach Street. He didn't, so I told him where to pick it up and gave him the $10 for the bus and the 85 cents to catch the first T downtown in the morning. The look he gave me, that admission of gratitude from a place where a man never does another man a solid, was worth $100 and $8.50 to me, and I still had just enough money in my pocket to buy the cigarettes I went there for. It validated an allegiance to humanity—and therefore in American society an allegiance to the bottom classes—that I haven’t wavered from since.
Twelve minutes up the road I was at the hostel. When I opened the door I stepped in the lobby and saw a red-haired man with a cratered face and seemingly black irises sitting at a table playing dominos. It was David, clean-shaven with short hair and clothes that fit. I was astonished, rendered mute until I could summon the courage to ask the desk attendant some questions.
“Is this just a youth hostel?”It’s very rare that a good deed goes rewarded with the knowledge of success, and exceedingly more rare that a bum does with your money what he promises. Only David knows for sure if he took my money and my advice down to Chinatown that morning as I was passed out drunk in my bedroom, but I saw him clean, calm and housed, with at least some semblance of control over his life. Before walking up to the third floor I took another long look at him. He noticed and looked back without showing the feintest sign of recognizing me or acknowledging that we may have changed each other’s lives forever. That was just the way I wanted it.
He looked nervous. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t get me wrong, man, I’m not a shrinking violet. They don’t bother me, but those two don’t look like youth hostel people.”
He paused, choosing his words carefully. “The third floor is the youth hostel and the second floor is a rooming house.”
“A rooming house? A flophouse? Not a homeless shelter? Not a halfway house?”
“It looks just like the hostel units upstairs, but people live there.”