TALES OF A TRAVEL ADDICT:WE NEED TO talk about flop houses – skid-row flea-pits for transients. Being something of a skinflint, I’ll happily pay €40 for a night’s accommodation anywhere; I’ve even been known to spend as much as €70 in London and Rome, but I’ve never paid a cent more.I’ve stayed in more expensive places, but wasn’t paying. On my first ever trip to New York last month I knew it would be tough to stay within budget and, in the end, I paid €81 for a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side with the finest Egyptian cotton sheets, Ralph Lauren towels and Carrera marble bathrooms. It was an authentically restored 1920s flophouse called the Bowery House Hotel, with tiny cubicles, short metal cots and walls that stopped less than two metres from the ceiling with a timber lattice to stop people climbing into one’s cubicle.
It was right across from the Bowery Mission, a shelter serving the homeless and hungry since 1879. I’m still not sure what to make of the hotel – a low-class dosshouse for transients, renovated last year to look like a low-class dosshouse for transients. Clearly, cheap lodgings for spailpíní were an important part of most big cities, and finding a way of conserving them is worthy.
From an Irish perspective, it’s interesting to see the type of place we stayed in before Fitzpatrick’s on Lexington Avenue became the norm. Ó Conaire, Orwell and Dónal Mac Amhlaigh have written eloquently about such places in England and Ireland, as did Steinbeck and Kerouac in the States. They feature frequently in movies as a visually rich shorthand for the gutter or the ghetto.
The most unsettling thing about my hotel was that as well as the international models, actors and hip tourists soaking up the the recreated flophouse vibe on the third and fourth floor, there were genuinely homeless men living in the same broom-cupboard rooms on the second floor – only without the designer towels, the fine sheets or the marble sinks. It sounds like something from a Jonathan Swift satire – the same bed in the same room on different floors, one classed as slum lodgings and the other as stylish pseudo-slum, costing 10 times as much. I wasn’t even aware that the second floor existed, as the residents kept to themselves and are not allowed access to the fancy roof garden. In a surreal piece of marketing, one of the hotel rooms, Peppers Bunk, is named after one of the actual long-term residents, Charlie Peppers – a virtually mute old man with a love of peppers.
A former resident who described himself as having been a “wino, a bum, a drunk – in short – a bottom-feeding alcoholic”, wrote in the New York Times: “There are so many ‘authentic’ things that can be sought out in life, and these vapid hipster wannabes choose this? Here’s a thought: if you want to experience the ‘gritty’ side of inner cities, volunteer your time and money at a soup kitchen or clothing distribution facility.”
The moral complexities are too fraught to untangle, but I confess to having enjoyed my stay. The place is similar to The Jane, a former sailors’ mission in the West Village with tiny single cabins for $99 (€77) a night with shared bathrooms. The Jane is even more stylish and eclectic, but I avoided it as it had a recent bed-bug problem. Either place would make for a very reasonable trip to NYC. theboweryhouse.com; thejanenyc.com