Friday, August 1, 2008

The Bowery And The Sunshine Motel

video
audio is from The Sunshine Hotel, Recorded in New York City Premiered September 18, 1998, on All Things Considered:
This is an audio portrait of one of the final vestiges of the Bowery, New York's notorious skid row. In the first half of the century, the mile-long Bowery's bars, missions and cheap hotels (or flophouses) were home to an estimated 35,000 down-and-out men each night. Today, only a handful of flophouses, virtually unchanged for half a century, are all that remain of this once teeming world.
For several months in 1998, David Isay and Stacy Abramson had unprecedented 24-hour access to the Sunshine Hotel, one of the last of the no-frills establishments. "It was like stepping into King Tut's Tomb," Isay says. "The Sunshine is this fascinating, self-contained society full of unbelievable characters. While it's a profoundly sad place, it is, at the same time, home to men with powerful and poetic stories."
The Sunshine Hotel was awarded the Prix Italia, Europe's oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award, in 1999. Producer: David Isay / Narrator: Nathan Smith

(Sounds of lobby ambience.)
NATHAN SMITH: Welcome, come on in, if you got the rent money, you can stay, if you ain't beat it! This is an eat it and beat it hotel. Normally, people come in, they stay for a day or two and get out. But for some reason or another, people come here and they like to stay -- for a year, for two years. In other words they like to give you aggravations. If you like aggravations come to the Sunshine Hotel -- it's a lovely place.

SMITH: You checking out?

TENANT: Yeah, I didn't like the fleas in the bed.

SMITH: Fleas?

SMITH: Yeah, I had fleas. I scratched all night, the whole time I was here. Yeah, roaches all over the wall.

SMITH: It's a nice place, if you're short of funds, and you need to lay your head down for a couple of hours, we hope to make your stay pleasant. But don't ask me for towels or soap -- we don't have it. We do not have those luxuries.

TENANT: You want to see ID of any kind?

SMITH: No, I believe you. This is the kind of hotel where everybody gives an AKA anyway.

SMITH: You're welcome to a room -- for a very nominal fee.

SMITH: Okay, here you are my friend, you're all set.

HENRY FOGELMAN: Thanks a lot buddy.

SMITH: Okay, you can square yourself away, this that and the other

SMITH: This is the last of the last.

SMITH: Welcome to the Sunshine Hotel.

SMITH: The last of the last.

FOGELMAN: Thanks a lot. I'm Henry by the way.

SMITH: Henry, I'm Nathan. Okay my friend, okay.

HENRY: Pleased to meet you.

(Door closes.)

SMITH: What's up garden, what's happening?

SMITH: My name is Nathan Smith, and I'm the manager of the Sunshine Hotel.

SMITH: Yeah, what can I do for you?

TENANT: I'd like to pay my rent.

SMITH: Good. You made the landlord a happy man.

SMITH: This hotel in 1998 probably looks the same as it did in 1928. Like almost all of the flops, the lobby is on the second floor, up a narrow flight of steps. It's just a large room with wood floors and a couple of chairs. I sit in a cage at the front, running the joint.

(Phone rings.)

SMITH: There's only one telephone for the entire hotel, which keeps me pretty busy.

SMITH: Sunshine give me a ten-four. (Shouting) Hey Eddie, Eddie do me a favor! See if you can get Earl Simpson. Tell Earl it's his mother. Earl! Earl! Wake him up and throw him out his bed. Tell him it's his mother.

SMITH: Headed to the john? You gotta see me.

TENANT: Can I have some toilet tissue?

SMITH: 35 cents a slice, I'll put it on your tab. You want paper too? Okay.

SMITH: Past the lobby, you'll find the living quarters for the 125 residents of this hotel. The Sunshine is one of the last places in the country where people live in cubicles. Maybe it's a little hard to imagine for those of you living in more affluent circumstances. Picture a long hallway, with a series of doors on either side. These are the cubicles. Four by six, no windows. The cubicle walls are only seven feet high, so there's chicken wire along the top to keep guys from climbing over into the next room. It's like living in a bird cage.

FOGELMAN: My name's Henry Fogelman and I live in room 36-A. Basically it's the size of a jail prison cell. It's got a light and bed, mattress and blanket, with screen wire on the top. And basically, that's about it.

DANNY: It's very tiny. It's so small you have trouble making the bed.

CHARLIE: I've been in prisons, jails, I been upstate, down-state. My cells were five times bigger than my room.

SMITH: So it's not the Waldorf. But where else can you get a room in New York for $10 a night? If it wasn't for this hotel, a lot of these guys would have no place to go. All you have to do is look around. Like over there -- you see that old guy there with the snow white hair and the guitar?

(Sound of guitar.)

SMITH: This is Eddie.

SMITH: Eddie Barrett

EDDIE BARRETT: Hello

SMITH: Eddie's been with us about 100 years..

BARRETT: It's a new day Sunshine and the world is still here, we're still here. So that's good . . . hey . . .

SMITH: Eddie sits all day in a corner of the hotel, looking out the window and playing.

BARRETT: I'm gonna play you Johnny Cash . . . Johnny Cash. That's my inspiration, Johnny Cash.

SMITH: The funny thing about Eddie is that he always plays the same songs over and over and over again.

BARRETT: Maybe I might sit down and come up with a new tune in my mind, but by the time I pick up the guitar, I done forgot the tune I had in my mind, see?

SMITH: Eddie used to work as a band boy for Tito Puente, but he had mental breakdown and ended up at this flop.

BARRETT: I met a nice guy on the street, and he knew the Bowery and he told me "You looking for a hotel? Come on with me, I'll show you a hotel. This place called Sunshine. It ain't bad." So we went together. That's how it started.

SMITH: That was 30 years ago. And Eddie's still here.

(Music ends.)

COOKIE: (Singing.) Somewhere Over The Bowery . . .

HOLLIS: Hey Nate, let me lean on you for another smoke. Yeah, light it up for me Nate, my hands are cold. I ain't got no feeling in them.

SMITH: The Sunshine is the last stop. On the one hand, it's probably as close as you can come to living in hell: 125 dysfunctional guys crammed together in this old hotel. On the other hand, its pretty interesting. I've had everything here from a priest to a murderer. You wouldn't believe the characters that stay here at the Sunshine! For instance, you see that little elfin white guy walking through the lobby? That happens to be the only deaf mute crack addict on the Bowery.

PAUL DONOGHUE: (Mumbling.)

SMITH: This is Donoghue Bowery. He loves this place

DONOGHUE: (Mumbling.)

SMITH: This gentleman here, this is our sue maven.

BOB RUSSIN: Yeah, I'm Bob Russin.

SMITH: He sues everybody in town. I think he's suing the Pope now for malfeasance. Or Father O'Connor . . .

SMITH: What happened? This is Vinnie here . . . this Vinnie. . . what happened?

VINNIE GIGANTE: (voice box sound)

SMITH: Vinnie Gigante, cubicle 25-A. Vinnie has throat cancer and talks with a voice box.

SMITH: Yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah . . . yeah, that's Vinnie.

GIGANTE: This is the manager. He's the best guy here. I've been here seven years. This man is like my adopted father. And he'll tell you.

SMITH: Vinnie looks a lot like the famous mob boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante. Rumor has it that the guy's his uncle, although I don't know.

GIGANTE: I came here because I was addicted to heroin. I didn't want to bother my family any more, so I've been here since then. And I will be here until I die probably.

(Bird chirps.)

SMITH: That chirping sound you hear is Vinnie's two lovebirds. He spends all day in his cubicle taking care of them.

GIGANTE: This is Pretty Boy -- he's ten years old. This is Little Bit -- he's five. He's a devil -- yes you are.

(Birds chirp.)

GIGANTE: They take good care of each other. If it wasn't for these birds, I don't think I'd have made it in this place. These birds have been my life. So many people don't realize you need something, you know, to help you through everything. Or you're not going to make it.

(Chirps fade out.)

ANTHONY COPPOLLA: Hey Pop!

SMITH: Tell me something, slick Anthony. Tell me what's going on.

SMITH: Anthony Coppolla, cubicle 4-B. Everyone here calls him Fat Anthony because he weighs 425 pounds.

COPPOLLA: Sometimes I knock off a 26-ounce can of Chef Boyardee Ravioli. That is for five people in the family. And I be eating it cold right out of the can. That is a load of eats! That's a lot of grub there!

SMITH: Anthony's an orphan who came to the Bowery as a teenager about 20 years ago. When I first met Anthony he was a normal-sized person. But something about this place caused him to eat . . . and eat . . . and eat. Anthony's gotten so large he doesn't fit into his clothes anymore. He walks around the hotel wrapped up in a sheet. And almost never leaves the building.

COPPOLLA: Why should I go anywhere? If I want air, I just open up the window. Turn on my fan a little higher, and I got air. (Laughs.)

SMITH: I've been trying to get Anthony to move to a hospital, but he won't go.

COPPOLLA: I don't want to leave, not yet. Too much like home . . . too much like home. You been in a place such a long time people get to be like family, you don't want to leave.

COPPOLLA: Let this young fellow in. This is my lunch.

BRUCE DAVIS: A little light snack. (Laughs.)

SMITH: That's Bruce, the hotel's 'runner,' delivering two bags of Chinese food to Fat Anthony. That's another part of life in these old hotels. See, up here in the Sunshine we're totally isolated from the rest of the world, so we create our own little society. Anything you want you can get from another tenant. We have a loan shark, a drug dealer, a guy who does other tenant's laundry for a couple of bucks, a room cleaner. And Bruce, who runs errands for tips.

COPPOLLA: Alright. Thank you.

BRUCE: Yeah, that's my dinner.

SMITH: All day, Bruce sits in the lobby waiting for runs.

VOICE: Bruce!

SMITH: And as soon as somebody calls him, then -- boom! -- he hops into action.

VIC K.: Okay. Tea two sugars, one Rolaid, two packs of Monarch non filter, large bacitracin, one pack ginseng, two packs Anacin. There you go.

BRUCE: Tea two sugars, Rolaids . . .

SMITH: Bruce is a Vietnam vet, and for him running errands is kind of like going into battle.

BRUCE: It takes constant concentration and constant alertness. The main thing is do the steps: get the order, remember who gave you the money, and remember how much they gave you.

VIC: 11 should cover it. Okay.

BRUCE: It's a work of constant steps and most of them are mental.

(Footsteps.)

BRUCE: Tea two sugars, one Rolaid, two packs of monarchs, large Bacitracin.

BRUCE: And walking all the time, you've got people constantly distracting you. Distraction's your biggest enemy.

BRUCE: (Mumbles.) All I need is a tea with two sugars.

BRUCE: You get to store . . .

BRUCE: Yeah, tea with two sugars.

BRUCE: You got to realize that you got to constantly be on guard, constantly be in guard. You're in the hustler's capital of the planet. Every third person you meet is trying to hustle you out of your money, store clerks included.

BRUCE: How much are the Rolaids?

CLERK: 75

BRUCE: OK, I gave you a dollar.

CLERK: I gave you 50 cent back.

BRUCE: You run into every kind of person that's out for money in the world out there. And you got other people's money on you. You got to defend it better than you would your own, because that's your livelihood. You blow it once you could ruin your career. You don't blow it. Once.

BRUCE: Check and make everything's all right.

BRUCE: My reputation is my business. I don't blow it. I don't blow it.

BRUCE: $1.37 your change.

(Door closes. Cookie and Crew singing "Back in my Heart.")

SMITH: Showtime. Showtime at the Apollo.

(Phone Rings.)

SMITH: Why, here's the phone. Business! (On phone.) Sunshine, give me a ten-four. No, he's not here. Didn't come in yet. But if he comes in I'll tell him. Alright. (Hangs up.) Cookie wants 20 dollars. So when the loan shark comes in I'll tell him. Leave $20 for Cookie.

FATS: Cookie with no teeth? Right, I know Cookie.

SMITH: Yeah, everybody's no teeth around here. In fact my greatest wish will be when I can have myself a set of choppers. You know what I mean?

(Music ends.)

ARTHUR Zimmerman: My name is Arthur Zimmerman. I'm 63 now. I came to the Sunshine Hotel in 1960. At that time it was bars all over the Bowery, two or three bars on every block. And it was like Broadway, it never closed. And the whole Bowery was filled with nothing but alcoholics then. Most of the people that I knew that was on the Bowery is dead now, because of alcohol. And, so I'm lucky to be alive. I know that. Survive those years on the Bowery, you know. It's rough living. Really rough living.

(Sounds of guitar strumming.)

SMITH: Some historical facts about this joint: The Sunshine was opened in 1922 by a guy named Frank Mazarra. Cubicles were a dime a night. His son Carl took over in 1945, and ran the place until a couple of years ago, when he sold it to new owners. Now they're looking to sell.

BUCKALOO: They should make this building landmark status.

SMITH: Yeah, that's an idea.

MASSA: Yeah, sure is. If we didn't have this place, we'd be in the streets, a lot of guys here. This is the only thing we can afford.

LA NELSON: This is a place where wise men do not dwell.. This place is the Last of the Mohicans.

MR. BLACK: I don't even call it the Sunshine. You know what I mean? I got a name for it. I call it the bum shine. You know what I mean, you know what I mean right? Huh huh.

SMITH: Like all of the flops, The Sunshine is a 'men's only' establishment. Some of the hotels left on the Bowery are still 'whites only,' but I let everyone in here. All races, all ages, all kinds of stories. We all have one thing in common: we're on our own. We all had homes, but for some reason we left, or got thrown out. Take me for example. Used to work in a bank, until one day, many years ago, I was injured on the job. They fired me, and that night my wife left. So I came down to the Bowery, and I've been here ever since.

Kerry: (Shouts.)

SMITH: Hey! Take Kerry in the back! Yeah, tie him up and take him in the back.

SMITH: Some of my guys in here are drug addicts or alcoholics. Some are just off of Rikers Island. Others just dream too big.

HOLLIS: I'm gonna build me a summer resort.

SMITH: Yeah, right.

HOLLIS: I'm gonna have an artificial football field, I'm gonna have four basketball courts, I'm gonna have a round oval 440 track. Track, Nate, track! Then I'm going to have . . .

SMITH: Hollis, don't you think that's a little over-ambitious? Why don't you just do one thing?

HOLLIS: You got to have direction, Nate. I'm having a summer resort and this is what it's going to be composed of.

SMITH: Some of my guys here at the Sunshine are working and trying to save a buck. Some are hiding out from the law. Some are dumped here by psychiatric hospitals.

LAWRENCE: Emotionally distraught people find a home in the Sunshine Hotel. And I found home inside me. White is girl color, black is boy color, blue is emotion . . .

JEFFREY MANGONES: My name is Jeffrey Mangones. I live in the Sunshine Hotel. I'm from a family of multi billionaires. My mother's a multibillionaire. So's my sister . . .

SMITH: And then there are those of us who end up here because we're dreamers, and just don't seem to fit in anywhere else. Like my relief clerk, Vic. Vic spends his days in a corner of the hotel, hunched over his Daily Racing Form, depressed. But he wasn't always like that.

VIC: In my case, I started off like probably so many people, maybe everyone for all I know. With sweet dreams you know.

SMITH: Vic grew up in Ohio with an alcoholic mother and an abusive father. He always felt like a misfit, so he buried himself in philosophy and poetry books, and then set off for the Bowery in 1960 to live cheap while undertaking his metaphysical journey.

VIC: I had some crazy, soaring ambitions of figuring out everything . . . figuring out everything. I was on the old impossible quest for "truth." You know? Ahh . . . it's like singing from that song "What's it all about, Alfie?" Who hasn't wondered what it's all about. Some fierce ambitions along those lines. I don't know. Seemed like I was making some progress. It was intoxicating. And after a while, it seemed like some crazy pipe dream, as they say. You know, figure there've been a lot more substantial heavyweights than me, by far, through history, and they didn't seem to come up with the answers. The big answers. So where do I get off thinking I had a chance for that. Seems like one of those stories better left untold. To me it seems that way.

SMITH (On telephone.): Could I get an ambulance here to the Sunshine Hotel, 241 Bowery? One of my tenants is very ill

SMITH: Mr. Marshall, room 5-B: 80 years old, senile, dumped here by his son two months ago. Doesn't eat anything but Oreo cookies. Can't walk to the bathroom, so he goes on the floor.

SMITH: Here they are now.

SMITH: He's down to 80 pounds now and jaundiced. Marshall wouldn't last another week here in his condition. I called his son last night, but he doesn't care.

SMITH: Yeah, look at him, he's starving to death.

Ambulance Man: Why don't you come on outside?

SMITH: Hasn't had any food, the whole nine yards.

SMITH: I mean it happens in a place like this. We're very popular with people being dumped, you know.

AMBULANCE MAN: Keep your hands on your lap. Don't reach out to grab anything. Just lean back and relax.

SMITH: The ambulance crew wheels Mr. Marshall out. And Edwin, our porter, puts on a gas mask to clean up the room.

EDWIN: You say you're going to throw everything away?

SMITH: Put it in a bag. Put in a bag, yeah.

SMITH: The cubicle is covered with feces, flies everywhere, and smells like nothing you've ever smelled before.

EDWIN: You see a lot of urine all over the floor. A lot of those milk cartons full of urine. It's the worst part, cleaning up rooms like this. Ahh . . .

(Music starts.)

SMITH: Watford's gone, Robinson's gone, Dave Rodriguez is gone.

SMITH: Late afternoon at the Sunshine. My shift is almost over, and I'm sorting through the mail.

SMITH: Calvin is gone, Ray is gone. Rodney -- he's deceased. This is the guy that got shot by the maintenance man here in the lobby over five bucks. Marcus is gone, Ozario's gone.

DONALD: It's like a death house. Okay, the seven months I've been here, five guys have died. Okay? And these guys will never leave the building. I mean months and months at a time. One guy I knew didn't leave this building for one year. He says "Donald." He says "I'm gonna die in this place." So it scares me. It scare me.

CHARLIE: I can't go no lower than this. I can't. The only thing I can do now is start, like a little chicken, start crawling out of the egg.

DONALD: I wake up in the morning and sit in the bed, smoke a cigarette and say to myself "Donald, what the hell are you doing here? What the hell are you doing here?"

MAX R.: Most of the people just lay on their bed all day in their cubicle, watching TV or listening to the radio or staring into space or sleeping, and just keep vegetating in these little cells. With fluorescent light overhead coming through chicken-wire. And that's their life.

SMITH: That's a guy we'll call 'Max R..' He didn't want his full name used. Cubicle 1L. Max is a 30-year-old Russian immigrant. A skinny kid with a pony tail and glasses. Unlike the other guys you've met, Max is one of my short-term tenants. He left his wife and kids in New Jersey and came here on a heroin binge two months ago.

MAX: This is my chance to get away, where I don't have to do anything for anyone, and just indulge to the maximum without being worried about what anyone's going to say, or how I'm going to affect others. No one knows that I'm here. It's just a complete getaway.

SMITH: Max is an architect. And even though he's only been here for a little while, he's managed to make his cubicle homey. Lit with candles. There are piles of books on the floor, and posters on his wall.

MAX: There's a painting of Durer's Saint Jerome, who was a hermit. He went to the desert and lived by himself for a very long time to try to seek knowledge. And achieve illumination. In a sense that's what I'm doing too, I guess. It's um, grotesque, and I enjoy it. It's like that movie The Cook, The Thief, The Wife, and Her Lover. The experience is so disgusting, so grotesque, so gross, but they make an art out of it. I'm kind of making an art out of experiencing this.

SMITH: A couple of days later, Max is arrested at the Sunshine.

SMITH: Max, they crashed him up against the wall several times, handcuffed and took him out of here. And that means his room is available for anybody that wants to rent. He's just a clean-out now. Nothing personal. He's a clean-out, and I'm gonna clean him out and sell his room. Maybe tomorrow. I'll probably sell it tomorrow, more than likely.

SMITH: Sign here, my friend. Sign and print.

SMITH: One tenant leaves, another checks in, but the hotel never really changes. The Sunshine will always be a dark place. Wake up every morning with chicken-wire just above you. Walls hemming you in on all sides. Alone. It's a stunningly sad place to live. Sometimes at the Sunshine I close my eyes and drift off. I forget where I am for just a second or two. Suddenly I'm not in a flop hotel, but sitting in some family kitchen, drinking a cup of coffee. Then I wake up and I'm back at the hotel. Just like everyone else here, hoping for a break. Waiting for day that I can finally check out of the Sunshine Hotel for good.

SMITH: Wolford, I hope you enjoyed your stay here.

SMITH: I always tell my tenants the same thing when they leave.

SMITH: You're welcome to come back anytime, buddy.

WOLFORD: Very good.

SMITH: And good luck, buddy.

SMITH: "Good luck. Good luck." Yup: good luck. Wherever they're going I hope it's not the same as this. I hope it's a little better. But I always tell them "good luck." "Good luck" is all I say.

SMITH: Okay, Wolford. Tony, you gonna help him?

TONY: Yeah.

SMITH: Good, good.

SMITH: I'm Nathan Smith at the Sunshine Hotel.

SMITH: Take care my friend. Be careful. God bless buddy.

(Music continues. Lobby ambiance fades out. Music ends.)

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