“Hey, I didn’t know these places were still around,” Mike said as they turned onto the hallway. Under the bare florescent tubes, the cracked plaster walls, with their discolored and peeling layers of paint, resembled a barren, alien landscape. The yellowed walls were set so close together in the tight, narrow corridor that Mike and Brandy could have spread their arms and almost touched them both, and the checkerboard linoleum floor slanted to one side and creaked and buckled underfoot. They passed a gaunt figure in a tattered, faded blue bathrobe, who ducked his head as if to conceal his features. The frequent doors bore small brass plaques with scarcely legible numbers, while the occasional domed recess in the wall displayed a fire extinguisher or a red “FIRE” bucket ballasted with ash-gray sand and studded with cigarette butts like a pin cushion—the recent smoking ban having not yet penetrated this deep into the city’s bowels. Stopping at a door midway down the hall, Brandy fumbled through her purse for the key.
Because Mike spoke almost in a monotone, Brandy couldn’t tell whether his remark was serious or sarcastic. Mike was shorter than average, a stocky figure, and he stroked his hipster van dyke thoughtfully and somewhat nervously. Hanks of wavy, dark brown hair poked out from under his navy blue porkpie hat. He had been growing increasingly apprehensive ever since they turned onto the Bowery, with its dark, shuttered restaurant supply stores, the sidewalks littered with trash and disreputable characters. Rounding the corner onto the even darker side street, they had had to circumnavigate a sleeping man to get into the flophouse. Dazzled by the red neon sign of the Smith Hotel, Mike had accidentally kicked the bum’s empty bottle, which had then rolled, noisily, all the way down the sidewalk and into the gutter, the clatter waking the man, who grumbled incoherently. Scarcely more reassuring was the balding, tattooed desk clerk, who, snoozing in his alcove behind bulletproof glass, had registered the couple’s entrance with but one half-raised eyelid.
“Isn’t it dangerous for a woman here?” Mike asked, as Brandy, a bit drunk, continued to root around in her purse. As he said this, Mike’s eyes were fixed upon the slight, seemingly vulnerable woman standing beside him, and he felt a surge of protectiveness well up in him. Until a few moments ago, when his feelings had begun their subtle shift, he had just regarded Brandy as an easy (though, for him, admittedly, pretty damned rare) lay.
He’s being serious, Brandy decided, though she didn’t reply. Sure it was dangerous, but what other choice did she have? Nowhere else was affordable, and even this was only for twenty-eight days—twenty or so of which she had already exhausted. And tonight she felt she had more to fear from the thick-bodied, muscular stranger who accompanied her than she did from any of the down-and-out, defeated, and mostly harmless, flophouse denizens. For one thing, there was that troubling monotone. The man might as well have worn a sign around his neck that said “Serial Killer.” Why, then, did she find herself drawn to him? Why had she been willing to take the risk? Maybe it was his bashful smile, or his shyness in general; he wasn’t used to being around women. Or maybe it was simply desperation on her part. In any event, her Sisters at the bar had reassured her. Now, despite her initially cynical attitude, Brandy found that somehow, strangely, his concern touched her. She turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open with her shoulder.
It was only then that Mike noticed that the walls stopped short of the ceiling. There was about three feet of empty space above them, making them partitions, really—though sturdy ones, of an early vintage—and they were topped by a wire cage. The room was narrow, with barely room to walk beside the single bed. On the far end there was a sink with a medicine cabinet above it. Beside the sink was a little table where a hot plate and a toaster held pride of place. And above the table was half a window—luckily, for some of the cells had no window at all. A TV was bolted onto a bracket on the wall above the bed. As there was no closet, a rolling rack behind the door held Brandy’s coats and dresses. Mike took all this in at a glance. Then his attention returned to the chicken wire, and he jumped up and rattled it vigorously—more to show that he could than anything; he was self-conscious about his height. Brandy flipped on the light, saying, apologetically, “Home sweet home.”
Recently arrived in Manhattan, Brandy still had her Midwestern accent. Continuing in the same regretful tone, maybe in response to one or both of Mike’s earlier questions, she said, “Yeah, it’s weird here. It’s noisy. Not like traffic noise, but late at night people breathing, snoring, talking to themselves. Maybe they’re praying. Sometimes they cry or moan. To be honest, it’s disconcerting. I’d rather have the street noise, if you want to know the truth.” It’s not very romantic either, you jerk, Brandy thought with a touch of annoyance, but then, you refused to go back to your place.
They had stopped off at the liquor store for a pint. Mike cracked it open and Brandy got out some glasses. Though this was mainly to put Mike at ease, Brandy had a nip herself, then sat her glass aside, and, both of them still standing, gave Mike a little peck on the cheek. He grabbed her hungrily, ravenously, pawing at her soft, yielding body—as the desperate voices filtered in from above. He kissed her full on the lips, the specter of death and suffering making them greedy for life.
They were right to grab it. For even if it’s true that there’s meaning and purpose in this world, there’s hardly enough to go around; and while a lucky few find their soul mates, the rest of us are left scrambling to catch the table scraps from the banquet of love. As places such as the Smith Hotel make abundantly clear, it’s all a matter of dumb luck, and if there’s a God, he’s a bit of a trickster. And yet, with Brandy and Mike, something clicked immediately and they fit together essentially. They both felt it as they struggled to remove each other’s clothes. And their souls, or at least the heat waves of their passion and what might have been nascent love, steamed off them to radiate upward and swirl around along the ceiling above the chicken wire, mingling there with a hundred years of fear, frustration, futility, desperation—and even, one can only hope, the occasional moment of transcendence and triumph.
There was a subdued creaking of a mattress and then a thumping noise from the room next door, followed by a scarcely perceptible rustle directly above them. Mike pulled his lips gently away from Brandy’s, and with his face still close to hers, whispered, “What’s that?”
“Shhh!” Brandy hissed softly. Stealthily reaching out her hand, she grabbed a handy broomstick from a nook beside the sink, and then, grasping it firmly with both hands, she swiftly thrust it up through a gap in the chicken wire.
A man screamed, then cursed—“Aw, fuck! Shit! Dirty bitch!”—then there was a thunderous crash. There was more crashing and the sound of thrashing about, more cursing, and then from elsewhere in the building came several irate calls to keep it down. What had happened was that the man next door had clipped the wire a couple of weeks earlier, allowing him, by means of a chair placed on his bed, to stick his head through the hole and peer over into Brandy’s room. Though Brandy had complained at the front desk, the wire had not yet been fixed, only bent, ineffectually, back into place. “Goddammit, Horace!” Brandy shouted. “I warned you about that!”
Leaning back against the rust-stained sink with a frustrated sigh, Mike took a pull from the bottle. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” he said.
Brandy was really starting to fall for this guy—even as she took care to deny it to herself, to keep her eyes fixed on The Prize—because, damn it all, she liked it when the man took charge. Leaning the broom against the wall, she let herself be led, Mike’s meaty arm draped protectively across her shoulder, from the tiny room.
For Mike’s part, he was so horny at this point he would have done most anything to get laid—aside, perhaps, from putting on a show for the derelicts—and anyway, what were the chances that Brandy was a Predatory Apartment Vulture? Sure, it was suspicious, a beautiful woman putting the moves on him, buying him drinks and all, but hadn’t she passed the acid test when she agreed to take him to her place? Stranger things had happened—not to him, but, no doubt, to somebody. He really liked this woman and already trusted her. In fact, he actually felt bad for insisting that she bring him here. Fortunately, he’d been given a chance to redeem himself. These confused thoughts rushed through his drunken mind, coalescing into the satisfying conclusion that he was rescuing a damsel in distress.
In the hallway, the peeper, a thin, grizzled, older man, opened his door a crack and stuck his head out. “I’ll get you, you bitch!” he said. When Mike and Brandy turned they saw that the derelict had already bandaged his eye, absurdly enough, with an old ace bandage wrapped haphazardly around his head. As Mike turned and stalked toward him in his rolling, stiff-legged walk—a menacing figure when angry—the bum slammed his door and slid the chain loudly into place. “You’re dead! You’re dead!” he called out hysterically from within.
“Shut the fuck up!!!” a voice boomed out from elsewhere on the floor, and Mike and Brandy shared a nervous laugh. The desk clerk was fully awake now and scowled disapprovingly at the couple, correctly intuiting, by dint of his many years of experience supervising the down-and-out, that they had been the source of the disturbance.
Read Ed’s interview about “A Bowery Romance,” and The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York