The right to flop

When itinerant workers and the homeless needed a bed in New York, they headed for the many `flophouses' in The Bowery. Today, there are only nine left

Next time your friends come back from New York talking about the super time they spent at the Paramount Hotel, or the Mercer in SoHo ($250/pounds 156 a night basic), tell them they could have had a room at the Sunshine for 10 bucks. It's not far away - 241 Bowery, Lower East Side. Only, it is not quite a room you get - more a cubicle with a bolt on the door, about six feet by four, with a bed, a shelf and a naked bulb. And chicken wire for a ceiling.

The Sunshine is one of the last remaining "flophouses" in New York - places where itinerant workers and homeless men can flop for the night. Rural flops featured heavily in John Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, but for the last century in crowded New York City, they've been concentrated into one magnificent skid row - The Bowery.

It was still going strong in the Fifties ("Bowery bums" get a mention in Kerouac's On the Road), a buzzing thoroughfare lined with sawdust bars, barber schools (a good route off the dole), Salvation Army hostels, "missions" and 20-cent hotels. Now, however, there are only nine flops left. The street is being squeezed into respectability by the expansion of Chinatown and the inevitable arrival of groovy waiter/ actors and trust-fund kids whose folks can't quite afford SoHo. The few hotels that remain do so courtesy of their private owners, but the ground floors are given over to restaurant equipment shops.

I checked into my "coop" at the Sunshine ($70 a week, $49 for a dorm - no thanks) curious to see whether anything had changed in 10 years. When I was 19, I hitch-hiked all over the US for six months. When the money ran out (in New Orleans) I checked into various cheap places - the Ozaman Inn, the Salvation Army - rather than sleep rough. Around tea-time, you could join the queue of bearded men in baseball caps, sign in, stash your bag, get a shower and a meal, and watch some TV. Some people kept to themselves, some people hollered and argued all night. Some places made you trade chapel attendance for food. At night you lay under a scratchy blanket in a dorm, while people coughed and hacked all around.

It sucked. All the waiting around, the TV blasting away on its bracket, the listening to people's conspiracy theories, and their news about the latest place to get rides/work/ lodging/cheap wine. In the end it was less depressing to sleep in the park.

Ten years later, it still sucks.

I sat down in the lobby next to Bruce Davis, "the runner" who sits cross- legged all day, his lips going as if in prayer, sipping his way through a can of Mustang malt liquor every hour with atomic-clock regularity. His face was smooth and pale; he was clean and respectable. In an Alabama accent he told me that he became homeless when the bus he arrived on lost all his stuff. A decade ago. (Someone else told me he was on the run from the law.)

Bruce runs errands for the Sunshine residents (you can stay as long as you can pay - many have lived here for years). Want another Mustang? Call Bruce over and let him keep a dollar. A huge man in a black Tommy Hilfiger underpants-cap went "Hey Bruce". Bruce stubbed out his roll-up, drained his can and ran across like an obedient dog. They conferred, and he trotted off to the shops for a cold Hurricane.

The lobby of the Sunshine has bare wooden floors, four snack machines, some resident-artist paintings, a few plants, a bike rack and a huge metal cage protecting the exit. It smells of sweat and institutional cleaning fluids. Behind more bars, from 5am to 4pm daily, sits the manager, Nathan Smith, a 62-year- old with straightened hair gone grey. "Yeah, I bin here 12 fuggin' years, this fuggin' place," he said as he settled in for a marathon yarn.

Smith became manager by default when the previous guy, a Swede, shot himself in his room. "He gave all his money away the night before. Blew his own head off. But they made me move into his room. I didn't like that."

Trailing commotion behind him, a man in his twenties wearing an African- print dress, headscarf and gold earrings came out of the dorm area to take a phone call. Sourly, Nathan passed the receiver through the bars, while "Tim" (some people also called him "Candide", which figures) talked camp for 15 minutes. He had five days' beard growth on his neck, which offset the scarlet lipstick and nail polish.

Nate's bedroom is slightly bigger than average - he has space for a chair. The walls are covered in books, and a clothes rail hangs above him as he sleeps. He reads a lot, and uses a kit to conduct "experiments in electronics". He talks about the residents with a mixture of disdain and indifference. "They come from everywhere - Lucy comes from Alabama, LA comes from North Carolina, another nigger comes from Detroit - a good percentage of this hotel is guys on welfare. This is what I call the front- line niggers. They want a job making 500 dollars a week without getting too much of a strain on."

Is it more violent here than it used to be? "Hell no, sheet, this place is like a nursery now."

Most people like and respect Nate, and he's almost sympathetic when talking about the long-termers. He goes on to list many of the sad Sunshine cases. Anthony Coppola, a 30-stone man covered in bedsores who can barely get through his door to get to the lavatory. "He just wears a sheet. All he does is eat. He's in the hospital right now with his diabetes."

And no institution would be complete without a bird-man. "Vincent Giganti. He sits in his room with his two lovebirds. Been here eight years, I think. Methadone. He takes them out sometimes."

Since there's no TV out there, the lobby is fairly quiet. As Saturday night wears on and more cans are downed, a few residents hang out on the fire escape, shouting and flicking cigarette butts at people. The Sunshine is a converted pickle factory, and the cubicles are placed in rows, with padlocks on the doors and narrow corridors wide enough for one person. The bathroom at the end of the hall has two showers and two exposed lavatories. Either for ventilation or just company, many men leave their doors ajar.

There were rooms crammed with books, others with clothes, others with street junk - electrical equipment, water-bottles, newspapers. In one, an old, naked man was folded forward on his bed - he could have been doing yoga, or re-enacting the movie Birdie. In another, an old man stared out of the window for hours. Next to him was a Francis Bacon lookalike wearing a Walkman, wet-lipped and docile.

It was hard to tell when night fell because the strip lights never seemed to go off, the burble of voices persisted, and the TVs kept blasting away. My top sheet looked as if the entire Yankees team had cleaned their cleats on it. Luckily it was about 90 degrees in there.

I woke with a start at 2am. An altercation. And the guy next door was still talking to himself. I wouldn't have minded if he was reading the Bible or talking to his TV set, but it sounded as if he was reading the instructions from an Airfix kit: "Wingtips... mumble, mumble... glue... mumble..." Then he'd laugh and laugh. Occasionally I felt something tickle - what I caught looked like baby cockroaches.

At 6am it was quiet. By nine, people were up and moving about. There's no daytime curfew at the Sunshine - many people just lie in their bunks all day, relying on the runner. A guy, in a dressing-gown, with two giant dreadlocks, ironed his shirt in the lobby for church. A bare-chested man tried vainly to start an argument with him. Down the street, men were sitting on the pavement outside the Salvation Army, where a service was booming through the open doors. "They closed the shelter there and kicked out the residents," says Nate. "Gave 'em all twelve hundred bucks each. But I don't want them coming over here. Some of those people is nuts."

It's a sunny morning as I take off up the Bowery, tired and itchy, looking for somewhere to sit down, have a cup of coffee and get my head together. And when the very last of the flophouses is gone, even this will seem like a luxury.

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