I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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One can die in cleanliness, or one can die in filth. I’m not talking about your soul. At the Prince Hotel — an old Bowery flophouse — the men paid a few dollars a night to live in stalls, four feet wide and six feet deep, with chicken-wire ceilings. The hallways were lit by a single hanging bulb, always on. I went there as a nurse, to see the sickest of the men. It was never quiet in the flophouses. Conversations floated in the air. Coughing and spitting. An odd laugh. A murmur. The men alone, talking to themselves.
In 1999, the last year I worked in the flops, my father was dying of cancer, though he denied it. I’d found out by accident, a few months after my mother died.
I was visiting my father at his home on the Jersey Shore. He had set up a guest room for my sister and me, with matching twin beds, bedside tables, and lamps with white-lace shades. I was forty-four years old, but in his house I was a child in a child’s bedroom. He was fastidiously clean, sometimes showering twice a day, steaming up the bathroom, slapping his face with Aqua Velva aftershave. He reeked of soap and shaving cream. One day I was heading to the store, and I asked if he wanted to come with me. He had on pajama bottoms and no top. I touched his upper arm, just above the elbow, and felt a stunningly large lump. Rock hard. Immovable.
I knew what cancer felt like: a smooth egg under the skin, anchored to the tissue around the muscle. Not pliable like a cyst.
Dad, Jesus Christ, what is this?
He shrugged. Don’t be so dramatic, would you?
Over the next month a growing shortness of breath and cardiac arrhythmia convinced him to go to the doctor. Soon after that, he moved into the large apartment my sister and I shared in Jersey City. She was working in Canada and flew home every two weeks. My father would sit in an off-white recliner that faced our balcony, which had a view of a parking lot and a matzo factory. Before I went to work, I would lay out a sandwich for him. And The New York Times. And the TV remote. And his urinal, hooked to the bar of his walker. Then I would head into New York City for my job.
I had recently started working for the Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit that helped homeless people. Monday through Wednesday I was assigned to a shelter above the punk-rock club CBGB. Fridays I spent in a city building in Roosevelt Park on Delancey Street, where we provided services to about three hundred people a day. At the park I saw the clash of the old Bowery residents and the new Chinese immigrants, who made up the majority of the people playing cards, socializing, and waiting for lunch to be served. The recent immigrants were suffering more from overcrowding than from living on the street. Sometimes twenty-five people shared a studio apartment. The older Bowery dwellers were almost all white men, mostly Irish, mostly World War II veterans. They grumbled about the loud foreign voices around them. Mandarin, Cantonese, and Fujianese bounced off the cinder-block walls of the large hall, while the old white men stood on the edges, looking cranky and fractious.
The Chinese men and women would line up outside my cubicle and pat their arms just above the elbow. They wanted their blood pressure taken. Some of them carried bags of vegetables from the market. Their blood pressure was almost always perfect. Hao? Hao? they would ask. Hao meant “good” in two of the three dialects. Yes, hao, I would answer, and I’d write the numbers on a strip of paper and hand it to them. As they walked past the line of people waiting, they would show the others — Hao! Hao! — and receive congratulatory nods. Sometimes one of them would sing a song for me. Sometimes I’d go outside with a few of them and shoot baskets with an underinflated basketball. Sometimes they did tai chi under the dogwood tree in the park, its white blossoms falling in spring. Once, an old man drew a picture on a cloth napkin of himself dancing under a cherry-blossom tree with a woman in a formal dress. He gave me the picture and pointed to the dogwood. Like tree, he said. I still have the picture pressed in a book.
On Thursdays, after my three days in the shelter and before my day in the park, I visited the flops. I always wore a dress and a short white jacket when I did my flophouse rounds. I liked to get dressed up for the men.
The Prince Hotel occupied three floors above a street-level shop. There were fifty-four stalls on the second floor and seventy-four each on the third and fourth. Each floor had one bathroom with cracked tile and a toilet and a shower crammed into a small space. The odds of the bathroom being unoccupied when someone needed it were low, and the men — the drunk men especially — often needed it, which meant the hall floors had piss on them, and some men kept jars of urine in their stalls. Roaches were so plentiful they would fall on me from the ceiling. The men set out traps for mice. Sticky boards with peanut butter were the most popular. The men were less motivated to remove the traps than to set them, and I would often have to step over a decomposing mouse to enter someone’s space.
I was especially concerned about Frank, who had a cancerous tumor the size of a large orange on his neck, just below his jaw. I would place my hand on it and think of the planet earth. I would think of an embryo. I would think of a nest of birds. Anything to avoid thinking about the heat the tumor radiated. Frank could still talk, but he had difficulty swallowing. When I held his tumor, which he said made it hurt less, his saliva would leak out over my hand. Sometimes there was a string of blood in his spit. He would apologize, but I didn’t care. I’d just wipe it off with sheets from a roll of toilet paper he kept in his stall.
Then I would prepare his pain pills for the week, crushing them into powder one by one: two pills, four times a day; fifty-six pills a week. I crushed them with a mortar and pestle he’d found at a restaurant-supply store. I made little paper envelopes that looked like sailboats. Each sailboat held a dose. Frank and I propped them in a wooden cigar box with his other prized possessions: a baby shoe he’d found on the street, a picture of Rome, an old sailor’s button.
None of the other men ever stole Frank’s pain medications, no matter how bad their withdrawal symptoms were. They could hear his moaning. They could see the size of the tumor.
I would wipe out Frank’s drinking glass and dissolve one of the doses in water for him. He would tilt his head back and struggle to swallow it all. Some of the water always spilled from the left side of his mouth, where the tumor pulled it into a permanent half grin. The odor of decay oozed from him. Once, Frank said to me (his voice had become a whisper), I feel like I’m dyin’ from the inside out.
Before I left, I would put my hand on the tumor once more, feel its unrelenting heat, and feel, too, the cold clamminess of his flesh around it.
At night I drove home through the Holland Tunnel, wondering how much my father had diminished while I was gone. The apartment felt larger as he got smaller. When I got home, I always told him about my day. He’d been a cop and had seen some of the same things I was seeing. The grittier my stories were, the more he approved. He’d been proud when I’d left a lucrative job writing ad copy for a pharmaceutical company to work for the nonprofit in the Bowery. I’d grown bored with the tidy offices on 51st Street, and the drug-company money, though plentiful, had always left me wanting to take a shower.
My father believed in service to others. It was less a religious belief than one born of his own extreme poverty as a child and the number of people who’d been good to him. He told me how, in the early thirties, the manager of the J.P. Lorillard factory a few blocks away would place rows of new shoes on the loading dock for the poor boys in the neighborhood to choose from. What good is a life if it’s not spent in service? he asked me more than once.
The Bowery nonprofit was started in 1971 as a day program called the Social Rehabilitation Club for Public Inebriates. Clyde Burton and Jack Ryan and a man named Fred Cooper were the founders. Clyde and Jack were both still alive when I started working there. Clyde was a black man who always wore a gray suit and lived in a group home named after him. Jack, a white man, lived in one of the flops. When he died, he left eighty-four thousand dollars to the nonprofit.
It occurred to me that my father, a recovering alcoholic, might have become one of those men in the flops if he hadn’t gotten sober. Of course, many of the men were sober, but they’d stopped drinking only after they’d destroyed their family relationships. On Thursday nights, after a day visiting the flops, I would cry to my father. How similar he and those men seemed to me, the way they kept their good humor in the face of death. The men in their tiny stalls; my father in his chair.
I got home one night and saw that the only light on was the lamp my father could reach from his chair. The rest of the apartment was dark.
Jeez, Dad, sorry, I said. I must have turned the lights off on my way out this morning.
He didn’t turn in the chair, just sat facing the parking lot’s expanse. Oh, don’t worry, honey. Come here. Look. See that plastic bag? He pointed out the balcony door to a plastic grocery bag caught on the hook of a telephone pole. I watched that bag all day, he said. For a moment the flapping bag mesmerized us. Then we both laughed, and I went to make dinner.
Each morning he decided what we would eat that night. As I’d help him from the bathroom to the chair, he might say, You know what sounds good? Veal Milanese. Or maybe, Tonight, kiddo, how about a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup? He was like a man on death row getting his last meal day after day. Naturally I would agree to whatever he wanted, but inside I would think, What the hell is veal Milanese? Then I would have to look it up and make a list and go to the market.
One morning he asked me to bring him a tongue on rye from Katz’s Deli in Manhattan. The men’s shelter on Bowery was close enough to Katz’s, and at lunchtime I walked over. I had recently dyed my hair red. My father’s hair was red, and everyone called him Red. As he slowly disappeared, I felt there was some power to also having red hair.
Katz’s was a madhouse. Eight men in white aprons dashed back and forth behind the counter, shouting to the next person in line. When I got to the front, the man asked, Red, what’s for you? I shouted back, Tongue on rye! The guy nodded approval. That’s my kind of girl, boys. She knows what to ask for! People in line laughed. The sandwich was about three inches high, wrapped in wax paper and dripping with pickle juice.
That night my father ate just half of one half of the sandwich. It was too much for him. Thanks, sweetheart, he said. I sat on the ottoman of his chair and soaked his feet, the way I did every night, and rubbed them with lotion. Then we watched The Sopranos. My sister’s boyfriend had recorded it on VHS tapes for us. We lived just blocks from Exit 14C on the New Jersey Turnpike, so the show felt real and familiar. How many of these nights my father had left, the doctors couldn’t tell us. Across the street matzo baked, making the whole neighborhood smell like toast.
One Thursday a man named Tony stopped me from walking down the hall at the Prince Hotel. Tony had been sober for thirty years. He took care of the other men’s finances and kept his own stall neat, with a toaster on his bedside table and a picture of Saint Anthony on the wall.
I don’t want you to see it, he said.
That’s how I knew Frank had died.
Tony said it had taken the other residents a couple of days to realize that the smell from Frank’s stall was more than just the stench of his tumor. By then he was gone. The firefighters had to break down his door.
I walked down the hall anyway, wishing I’d been there with Frank, wishing anyone had been with him. His stall would soon be prime real estate for some other man, but today there was police tape across the entrance, and the door was split in two. The cot was stripped of sheets, and I saw a stain on the mattress where saliva had leaked from Frank’s mouth night after night. As I made my way out, Tony shoved a pink Italian cookie into my hand.
Felix, the janitor, was mopping the steps. The dirty water sloshed in the bucket, and some of it hit my ankles as I walked by. Sorry, Ms. Mary, he said.
It feels good, I told him. It’s hot in here.
Our laughter echoed in the stairwell.
The sun blinded me when I stepped outside. It was so bright I felt nauseous. There was a trendy lighting-fixture shop on the ground floor, beneath the Prince Hotel, and as I passed by, a bunch of designers were looking in the showroom window, oblivious to the fact that a man had died a couple of floors above.
That night I told my father about Frank’s death, about all of it.
I hate these new designer stores, I said to him. No one realizes the flops are even there. This guy was looking up at this expensive blue lamp, saying, “I love that one!” I started to cry, upset that we can be so unaware of the suffering around us.
My father tried to console me. In a few months I would lose him, too.
Hey, kiddo, he said. They looked up, all right, but they didn’t look high enough.
Mary Jane Nealon