The span of my outstretched arms was wider than my room at the White House Hotel. Already, you can see that “room” and “hotel” are generous descriptors. 

It was a flophouse on the notorious Bowery in NYC at a time when few of those havens remained. A four-story red-brick building with ghosts filling the hallways. You could feel them even as you entered the White House’s spacious tile-floored lobby off the street. It was 2002, well more than a century in the forge.

Within a dozen years, the White House would close for good, having carried, hidden and, perhaps, exposed countless haunted tales of the transient and down-on-their-luck. With the final closing of the doors would come the dubious honor of being the last of the skid row flophouses to lock tight.

The first residents on the Bowery date back to the mid 1600s. Ebbs and flows would bring economic fortunes and depletion to the street. By the mid 1800s and the end of the Civil War, brothels, beer gardens and flophouses took over the Bowery.

The White House Hotel opened in the early 1900s. Today, the building has since been redeveloped into “a boutique hotel in the heart of prime NoHo,” with a 2,200-square-foot street-level retail space available to rent for $27,000 per month. 

I crossed the open lobby from the front door to the reception window and asked for a room. There was a hard and indifferent vibe to the place. There were worn men loitering at the edges of the lobby and near the door. It was quiet and a touch heavy. 

These years later, I do not remember having been aware of the rich and gritty history of the Bowery and the flophouses in New York when I decided to stay there. Bed bugs, drugs, mental illness. Art and stories of gripped survival. So many and so much lived and died in the White House, and in similar flophouses up and down the Bowery for so, so long, I’d learn.

I was a soldier on leave from Ft. Meade, Maryland. I’d taken the train up from D.C. It was during that four-day weekend at the White House Hotel that I learned of the history I’d briefly stepped into. 

I bought Flophouse: Life on the Bowery from the man behind the glass at the reception counter. It’s a book of documentary photographs by Harvey Wang published in 2000, with text by David Isay and Stacy Abramson.

In Flophouse, Isay and Abramson write that in the heyday of the Bowery, it’s estimated that 25,000 to 75,000 men slept there on any given night. Imagine the stories, the humanity. With Wang, they documented stories of 50 men who lived in the flophouses that as yet remained in the late 1990s. A history fading. A history preserved.

From the book: “The four-story White House was opened in 1917 by Euzebius ‘Zeb’ Ghelardi and remained in the family until Zeb’s grandson, Mike Ghelardi, sold it in 1998. For most of its history, the hotel was for whites only – it’s rumored that the flop got its name that way. 

“One of the few flops with a lobby on the ground floor, the White House is the safest and most genial of all of the hotels on the Bowery today. It is also the most expensive, charging fifteen dollars a night for a cubicle. About two hundred men sleep in the White House each night.”

By cubicle, I assure you they meant cubicle. Somewhere I have photographs of the one I rented, documenting the space. I estimate it was six’ by four’. The narrow bed was pinched into position along the left wall, held by those at the head and foot. When I, at a height of six-two, was in a prone position on the bed, I could place my feet flat against the wall at one end with the tip of my head pressing into the other.

The walls and door were thin paneling. Essentially plywood. There was no ceiling. The light was ambient and came from over the walls. Either from a lightbulb in the narrow hallway at night time or from a falling gradient of daylight that reached as far as it could through a window at either end of the hall. 

A neighboring tenant on either side could stand on their bunk and easily peer down into the next cubicle. Or climb over the wall, I presumed. The door to my room was padlocked. No more than two shared one-person bathrooms were at the end of the hall. I paid $30 per night. 

I read of the $15 nightly rate for long-term tenants in “Flophouse” and did some math. It was intel I’d file away for a potential post-Army future. For knowing that if I wanted to give New York City a shot in the aftermath, to start a civilian life there, I could live at the White House Hotel for $450 a month.

One of the long term tenants photographed and featured in Flophouse was Ted Edwards, in room 369. A black man at the White House Hotel, because at some point in time, the rules changed. Here’s part of his story as told in Flophouse: “This place? This place is a respite for the weary run from life. ‘How did I get here?’ That’s your next question, right? I don’t know. 

“I really don’t know. It was slow and methodical. As Shakespeare would say, ‘my too, too solid flesh melted and thawed and is resolving itself into a dew.’ Let me see … I was a professional student – went to NYU, Cornell. Studied economics, history, government. Then I acted, wrote plays. Never found my niche.

“Worked on Wall Street climbing the corporate ladder. I was moving up to be an executive in a bank tax department when I went bananas. It’s a well-told tale – I lost the apartment, the wife. Tried to destroy myself, because I felt like a failure.

“Attempted to drink myself to death, but I couldn’t do it – liver wouldn’t fail, gut wouldn’t fail, nothing failed! That’s a failure within a failure within a failure – incredible! So I came here to rest my head and get out of the rain.”

While I was at the White House, I only remember eating at one place: the bodega next door. I’d get a sandwich and a tallboy there in the afternoon. I’d eat half the sandwich and save the other half for dinner. Living on the cheap was all I knew how to do. Maybe because of my scarcity-mindset upbringing. Maybe by my then-longstanding habit of spending too much money in bars, a habit that had been exacerbated during my years in the Army.

In that tiniest of ways, I felt connected to those full-timers who lived on the Bowery with their down-and-out pains and angers and substances. But I also knew better. I knew I had prospects, even if I didn’t yet know what they were. I knew I’d get out of the Army soon enough, and I’d have options. 

Then again … Ted. He once had great options too. We never think we’ll be someone who needs a place to get clear of the rain, do we? A place to rest our weary heads? Yet it happens. Even to the unsuspecting.

I was taken with Flophouse. Because it was photography. And because it documented humanity, and stories of it I’d never experience. My curiosity for the range of human experiences the world over consumed me. It’s part of why I ended up in the Army rather than an office cubicle after college. It’s why I went to New York that weekend.

I still have the book. It usually lives on a bookshelf nearby. Truth be told, it’s currently yawning at my elbow, lying open to the page that begins the first section. That of the White House Hotel. 

There are four flophouses featured in the book, and those 50 then-current residents of them. The remnants of a long, grimy and heartbreaking history on the Bowery.

National Public Radio’s Susan Stamberg endorsed Flophouse, saying, “This book takes you places you think you want to enter, to people you think you don’t want to meet, to lives you think you don’t want to live – and makes you rethink all your assumptions. It reveals the tremendous strength and humanity of those who are usually ignored. And as you pay attention, your own humanity expands.”

As I look back on my own history, threads are intertwining. I was not a professional writer then, and not yet a photographer. I was not a podcast and radio show host. I was not an interviewer. I was not a chronicler of stories and humanness. Though now I am all those things and relate to, “As you pay attention, your own humanity expands.”

I never did move to New York City. I never would stay in a flophouse again, let alone live in one. I had not envisioned living in a flophouse because I romanticized the lives of those men I encountered there, or those in Flophouse. I imagined it as a potential solution, not unlike many of the men there must have. Because I was raised with a scarcity mindset and modest-enough means. And with a fear of spending money, and a belief I did not and would not have much of it. 

I would leave the Army in the months ahead with little saved, because there was little earned. Though, I had a college degree to fall back on, as they say. And I had family and people who would take me in, if needed. 

No, I fantasized about living in the White House Hotel, because New York is daunting to anyone, and that certainly included a kid from a small, rural town in the middle of flyover land who could not conceive of how to make a life in the Big Apple. 

What I would do, instead of moving to the city and starting something new alone and with few ideas of how to make it stick, would be to return to school. To journalism school. I would become a writer and a photographer and an interviewer.

With that education and those skills, ten years after that four-day taste of the Apple and its flophouse underbelly, I’d return to New York. And by very different means. 

I would return to the city as a photographer, to photograph perhaps the most famous dog show in the world, the Westminster Kennel Club’s, in Madison Square Garden. And to do it for perhaps the most well-known pet-food brand in the world. And with a paid-for hotel room in the famed Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue.

Instead of skimping by on bodega heroes and beers, I’d ride to dinner with corporate executives in a limo and eat absurdly expensive dinners in New York restaurants. I’d wake up with hangovers from the top shelf.

I had a pregnant wife and a toddler son at home, in a house in a suburb, with a mortgage and a big tree and a nice lawn. A long arc from the days of soldiering and getting by in a flophouse, needless to say.

Now, not to be overly sentimental or self-serving, or act as if the story needs to have a happy turn of phrase or a self-congratulating quip to tie a ribbon onto its tail, but in reflecting on these histories, a sincere question arises for me: 

If I could do one of those New York experiences again, but only one, would I choose to go back to 2002 and the flophouse, or 2012 and the Waldorf?

Maybe such a question is inevitably and entirely nostalgic. And self-indulgent. Maybe it only can be met with an eye-roll and a reflexive gag. Maybe I’ve dug myself a credibility hole with you, the reader, at this moment. 

But I wonder, have you ever longed for your own version of the tin-can, low-rent early days? The ones filled with a fantastically selfish and simple freedom? And with excesses of laughter and friendships and devil-may-care? With an empty gas tank and just as nearly empty refrigerator? Before the weight of the world and responsibilities took hold, and before you learned there are prices to be paid for paid-for meals?

Maybe it’s not about the specifics of that kind of nostalgic question at all. Obviously we can’t go back in time. We know these things. Maybe it’s about what such questions unearth within us. In the now. What are they pointing out? What sentiments are they actually revealing?

Maybe a question like that comes to my mind, because I love questions. I think the more energized we are to be curious and query the Universe and each other, the more likely we are to know that questions are all we really have. Answers are illusions we cling to for comfort.

Thought, reflection, openness to possibilities. Curiosity, questions, connection. That’s the stuff.

I look back on my experiences, the ones noted above among others, and I look at their interweavings with others’ stories. I look at our shared humanness that underpins it all. The ups, downs, sorrows and joys. I see connection. Through our stories and ponderings. And our questions. 

“What more is out there? What more do I not know? What else might have been or could be?”

Again, 25-75,000 men slept on the Bowery on any given night in its heyday. Imagine the stories, the questions and the failed answers of life that were shared there. The tales and turns of centuries lived on the Bowery, really.

I’ve observed that many people, maybe most, don’t ask questions. Of themselves or each other. Not the deep, honest, curious, disturbing, revealing, difficult, enlightening ones. Not the ones that bring about the stories we can see our truest, deepest selves in. Not the ones that help our own humanity to expand, as Stamberg said.

If people do not ask those questions, of themselves and each other, what happens to the stories that go untold? And what happens to our humanity? Rather than expand, does it recede?

The White House Hotel is closed and the flophouses are gone. But the Bowery and its stories live on in boutique this and $27,000/month that. Maybe even some of those men who were tenants of its history do too. With dubious honors.

The Flophouse is #Four in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.