When I was growing up in Flushing, a friend who lived across the street had an uncle, Jack, a gnarly, unshaven sort, who used to sit on the porch all day long. We knew he was an alkie, as much as 8-year-olds know about that stuff. Then one late spring day, Jack disappeared. I asked my friend, “Hey, where’s Uncle Jack?”
“We dropped him off. On the Bowery,” my friend said. “He lives there with his bum friends, then when it gets cold, we pick him up again.” Uncle Jack was “a summer bum,” my friend said.
With fall slinking into winter, Uncle Jack would have bailed by now, I thought, while I was sardined into Room 309 at the Whitehouse Hotel, not that you could exactly call it a room. Walk-in closet would be stretching it, except most closets have ceilings as opposed to the wood latticework that tops off the partition walls of Room 309. But this was a good thing, since, even if I could hear every single cough, groan, fart, etc. emitted by my fellow lodgers, claustrophobes don’t go for low overhead, especially in a four-by-six-foot plywood coffin lit only by a flickering fluorescent rod.
I knew the drill: Try not to roll off the two-foot-wide foam slab, take half a Xanax, hope the scabies savage the skin of the next sucker. After all, I’d stayed in a Bowery flophouse before. Once upon a newsprint time, reporters looking to make their Orwellian bones had to write about their night at the Pioneer, the Palace, the Globe—or any of the Bowery dumps still extant on the world’s best-known skid row. Now, however, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s not much Bowery left. Stroll up from Canal, past the Fukienese wedding parlors, the crystal-chandelier centers, the restaurant-supply Frialators glinting in the sun, and there are signs for some of the old flops, but you won’t find even a summer bum inside. The Chinese lady with the blue eyebrows behind the bulletproof glass at the World takes one look at my bindle-stiff-like suitcase and says, “No room! Go on Internet, make reservation with credit card!”
It has all been disappeared, ditto the punk fantasy-land that followed. The Ramones made sense on the Bowery. What better place for rockers to pretend that the planet had been nuked and they alone had survived, art-bound protagonists in zombieville, spared from the brain eaters by the wearing of their talismanic leather jackets, which warded off the cooties of the nine-to-five class.
The Whitehouse (supposedly so named because back in the day black bums didn’t stay here) is only partly a flop these days. The so-called permanent residents still sun themselves on the sidewalk, but the place also serves young Euro traveler types. Up the stairs to the left, where the permanents stay, no key is required. Posted on a wall inside the permanent quarters is a list of house rules. No. 1 is no screaming, no fighting, no spitting … no use of illegal substances, i.e. drugs. Beside this is a framed no smoking order signed by Robert O. Lowery, John Lindsay’s fire commissioner, who last served in 1973.
A very large man is pushing a very small carpet sweeper down the Whitehouse’s long corridors. “So the Bowery’s done, big deal,” he says. “You can’t cry about it. It’s the Bowery, for chrissakes.”
Paulie is his name, a former licensed plumber who used to unclog toilets at the Waldorf-Astoria. He calls himself “an endangered species.” Once the permanents like himself die off, Paulie predicts, the doughty Whitehouse will cease to be.
The grapevine says offers in the multimillions are on the table for the property, not bad for 237 cubicles full of sad stories. This was inevitable, Paulie said, ticking off several of the ever-more-humongous projects soon to dominate the Bowery skyline, most specifically the Cooper Square Hotel between 5th and 6th Streets, 23 floors of tapered frosted glass that neighborhood-preservationist blogs have taken to calling “the sore-thumb building.” Just down the street is the wedding-cake form of the New Museum.
This isn’t just redevelopment as usual, Paulie says as he sweeps. That’s because the Bowery isn’t just any neighborhood. “It is like 42nd Street. Like Harlem. Names that mean something. Those places you don’t just rebuild. You’ve got to rebrand them. The Bowery is being rebranded.”
Directly across the street from the Whitehouse, situated between one of the area’s last drug-treatment centers and the orange-brick Salvation Army home for adolescent boys, is the newly opened Bowery Hotel, the anointed flagship of whatever this famous neighborhood is about to become. At the Whitehouse, the tourist rate is $28—permanents pay somewhere between $6 and $9. Across the divided road, the Bowery Hotel charges $550 for a room with a king-size bed. That’s a $522 difference (at least to start; the Bowery room-service menu notes “an 8.375 percent tax, a $3 delivery charge, and an 18 percent room service gratuity will be added to every order”). It took 35 paces to walk door-to-door, Whitehouse to Bowery, or $14.91 per step. Even Alex Rodriguez doesn’t make that kind of money, just for walking.