They Call It Home

Flophouseby David Isay and Stacy Abramson;<I>Photographs by Harvey Wang</i>Random House. 154p $24.95

Flophouse is greater than the sum of its parts. That is, it is far more than a book of striking photographs of Bowery men and their surroundings, with brief accompanying texts. Because the four Bowery hotels described in the book are among the last of their kind in New York City, the book has an elegaic quality: it marks the passing of a whole way of life in America’s biggest city. The name itself, Boweryfrom the Dutch word for farmer, from early days when that part of lower Manhattan was inhabited by Dutch settlersis familiar throughout the country as a virtual synonym for skid row. A late 1980’s Webster’s dictionary, in fact, defines Bowery as a street characterized by flophouses and saloons. The saloons are long gone, having disappeared before the relentless pressures of gentrification. With real estate prices in the neighborhood already sky high, the days of these hotels are numbered.

As a resident myself of the Bowery neighborhood, living only two blocks from the first of the hotels described in the bookthe White House HotelI read Flophouse with a decidedly personal interest. Passing the White House almost daily on my way home from work, I now feel a small shock of recognition on matching in my mind the exterior as I see it on walking past it with the photographs of it in the book. A man who lives there, James Jackson, has set up an umbrella-covered shoeshine stand by its front door; if I can overcome my shyness, I may perhaps approach him one day and say: I read all about you in a book that has a picture of you at work!

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The Bowery’s reputation as a place for jobless and often alcohol- or drug-addicted people notwithstanding, a number of the 50 men whose profiles and photographs are presented here do in fact work. James Jackson is just one example. Another person at the same establishment, David Evans, does what he calls independent recycling, working long days to collect aluminum cans and bottles. In his interview, he speaks of saving up for a van and a storage room as a means of expanding his enterprise. At another hotel farther down the mile-long Bowerythe SunshineBruce David is a runner. For a small fee, he does shopping for others. And at the Providence, Jack Smith cooks and sells sandwiches out of his tiny room. They’re very cheap, he says, meatball a dollar, sausage a buck and a quarter, chicken and veal a dollar and a half. Aside from using part of these earnings to pay his rent, he cheerfully acknowledges gambling away much of what remains. Appropriately, the accompanying photograph shows him seated on his beda heavy-set, shirtless mansmilingly holding up a pair of dice for the camera.

Although the residents of these four hotels are mostly loners, what sometimes comes through in the interviews is a sense of community. As Wayne Smith of the Providence puts it, There’s a sort of security here. This is where my friends are. Another Providence resident, Guy, a former inmate at Rikers Islandthe huge jail and prison complex near LaGuardia Airportcomments in his own interview: It’s more like a family structure.... We look out for each other. We hang out, we celebrate Christmas together, birthdays.

From his photograph, Guy appears to be around 30. Most in the book, however, are middle-aged or elderly, and some have been on the Bowery for decades. David Ripley, originally from Pennsylvania and now at the Andrews (the cheapest hotel, at $4.50 a night), first came to the Bowery at 18. He is now 68. The photographs show a man of slight figure, with one sleeve rolled up to reveal a tatoo. Though once a heavy drinker, he speaks of having stopped. No more for me! I quit altogether. Did it cold turkey. Another, much older man, in his 80’s, also claims to have stopped a year and a half before the interview: My desire for it is gone, he says, I have no care for alcohol now. But for others, whether they stopped or not, the desire remains strong. Mike, another at the Andrews, reflects: Been drinking all my life, but I’m sick now and I can’t. Wish I could. The candor is striking, as is the self-awareness and lack of self-pity throughout most of the profiles. John W. at the White House Hotel has this to say of his life: The damage I’ve done to myself is all from my own hands.

Alcohol and drugs have taken more than a few lives. Bobby Connors, a young-looking man in his early 40’s, is shown on the roof of the White House Hotel balancing on the edge smiling, hands on hipswith a dizzying view of the Bowery far below. He speaks of having been on pills and heroin for 25 years, but adds that he has a strong heart. (Nevertheless, the interview notes that he died not long afterwards.) His precarious and cocksure pose on the roof can be seen as symbolic of the deadly risks he was taking because of his addiction. Another, much starker photograph shows the near-naked body of a young man lying sprawled on his bed, dead from an overdose.

Most of the residents of the hotels are American born, but a number are from foreign countriesa mix that reflects the diversity of New York City itself. Misha M. for instance, came from Poland in 1983 and initially studied economics in a Ph.D. program at City College. After returning to Poland to be with his dying father, he came back in 1994. A divorce and other problems led to a downward slide that brought him to the White House Hotel where, as he put it, I am hiding from everybody. In contrast to the photographs of others, Misha asked that his face not be shown, so he is pictured with his back to the camera, facing a closed window, suggesting the premature closure that has overtaken his life.

On a more upbeat note, another foreign-born man, Simon Thwigg from New Zealand, begins his interview: I’m a strong fifty-three-year-old, and I enjoy my life. His photograph reflects that sense of enjoyment. Tweed cap on his head, a copy of The Daily News in one hand, he looks at the camera’s lens with a broad smile on his whiskered face. But one can only wonder how deep is his proclaimed enjoyment of life, whencommenting on his earnings as a woodworkerhe observes: I tend to drink what I earned the previous week. But he is also aware of the needs of those around him, and responds to them: I feel for these old men. They’re just fellows waiting to die. I’ll cook for them or read them a story.... Got to give them a bit of humor, put a laugh in their lives. Again, the sense of mutual support and community is distinctive.

From still another part of the globe, Tibet, Sering Wang Du at the Sunshine speaks of coming to the United States and ultimately to the Bowery after the death of his wife and child. In Tibet, no drink, no smoke. I’m coming here, I go alcoholic.... I’m not drink, I can’t sleep. What I do now? he asks. And indeed, that is a question all probably ask themselves in their tiny rooms at some point, What do I do now? But their stories, and the photographs of them and their bleak surroundings, reveal lives marked by a genuine dignity. This dignity is conveyed not only through their own words, but also through the sensitivity of the two authors who conducted the interviews and distilled them into their present form: David Isay, executive producer of Sound Portraits Productions, and Stacy Abramson, a producer there. Sound Portraits Productions, we are told in About the Authors on the book jacket, is dedicated to bringing neglected American voices to a national radio audience. Flophouse had its origins, in fact, in a radio documentary based on just one of the hotels, the Sunshine, that premiered on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. The photographs by Harvey Wang, an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, capture far more than the outward appearance of the men and the hotels they inhabit. Like the interviews themselves, they convey the inner reality of a scene that is rapidly disappearing. We may be the poorer for its loss.

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