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I Smell Dead People

doa

Things were quiet at Cloudy Labs last weekend, as I took a few days off to go to New York City. Where I had the freakiest hospitality industry experience of my life.

My darling daughter is now a freshman at NYU and is taking Greenwich Village by storm. I’ll spare you a bout of bragging and skip over the fact that she accepted a massive scholarship to a kickass university and was also welcomed to the impossible-to-get-into Gallatin School of Independent Study, and leave it with: she’s awesome, I love her quirky little self madly, and it’s way too quiet around here without seventies funk and blaxploitation flicks blasting from her bedroom.

So, missing her acutely, I found myself in the wee hours of last Friday on a plane to La Guardia, with my 17-year old son in tow to boot. He’s an adventuresome lad who was looking forward to endless pizza by the slice and his first look at the City that Never Sleeps.

The trip was a gas, we wore ourselves out with my now-naturalized New Yorker girl (”What, your feet are sore? We’ve only walked 500 blocks, dad!”) and totally stimulated the New York restaurant and coffee shop economy.

However, with times being tight, my mission of the last few weeks was to find an affordable hotel for two dudes. The best candidate seemed to be The Jane.

hotelThe Jane is a 100-year old building on the Hudson river that was once a rooming house for sailors, with a long and colorful history - it even housed the survivors of the Titanic, and you can read all about it on their funky-groovy web site. What their site doesn’t mention is that for some years, the beautiful building had fallen into decline, becoming sort of a derelict apartment house. It’s now in the process of being remodeled into a hotel for those with “more dash than cash”. Hey, that’s me!

So, for the tidy sum of $115 a night, we were able to check in to a tiny room - really almost a closet - that consisted of bunk beds nestled next to a two foot by six foot stretch of carpet and a tiny window. Count us in!

FRIDAY AFTERNOON:

We checked into The Jane around 5:00 PM. Up the stone stairs, over a granite threshold that was visibly smoothed by millions of footsteps, and into the lobby, with its period detail and super-duper old-school reception desk. First impressions: a tad grubbier than one might expect, with work in progress here and there, but really pretty cool.

The desk staff was hip and perfectly friendly - efficient and “real”, no over-the-top fake friendliness here. We were taken up the old-school elevator by a uniformed attendant.

Now that's a tiny hotel room!

Now that's a tiny hotel room!

We headed down a narrow hallway to our room, and that’s when I got my first experience of… “the smell”. Vaguely familiar and very noticeable, something like old-house and old-food and very bad, though faint. The thought then struck me: staying in a place with hundred-years-of-living smell is going to suck. But thankfully, our tiny room smelled nothing-but-new. Varnish, wood and fresh paint, not even “hotel disinfectant”. Two plasma screens (one for each bunk), a tiny window and a humming air conditioner, hidden by a wooden grate beneath the tiny window. Comfy beds, and two big feather pillows each. We could handle this!

The communal bathrooms were a gleaming study in white & black tile, well thought out with plenty of privacy. Cool.

FRIDAY EVENING:

We headed out to find my daughter. The smell in the hall was powerful, and something did catch my eye, though it’s clear I’ll never be a detective. The odor was strongest at the end of the hall, where the narrow passage opened into the stair & elevator lobby. The last door was different than the others - every door but one was a gleaming study in rich, chocolate-colored oak, but (in hindsight) the door nearest the odor was old, a paneled door with generations of paint, faded to a gray-brown-green, the trim bruised and cracked. Yet it displayed the same antique room number applique as all the others. And in a hotel with such tiny rooms, there are lots and lots of doors.

FRIDAY NIGHT:

Enjoyed the rainfall-headed showers. The hall stinks!

SATURDAY MORNING:

We slept like babies in our comfy bunks, my only issue being that the wall-lamp over my pillow (of course I got the bottom, I was traveling with my son after all) was burned out, making my bed a dark little cave.

Leaving the hotel, we both noticed that the smell was intense. It smacked you as you passed, and I finally recognized it: something dead. Something very big and very dead. But, we were late and we headed out to a cold and misty day.

SATURDAY NIGHT:

Returning to the hotel, you could smell it once you stepped from the elevator, and the hallway itself? Thick, dense odor, something that made you hold your breath and PUSH through.

My son headed for the showers. I went downstairs to see if there was a bar (there was, now closed for renovation… damn!). I shared the elevator back up with a foreign woman, who got off on my floor. As we entered “the cloud”, I said, “I wonder what died in this hall?”

She had a hand over her face, but with the other, she gestured to the strange, old door. There was a bright green sticker on it that I hadn’t noticed today.

A police department sticker stating that the “room was sealed”. In fact, the name of the sticker was “Seal For Door of D.O.A. Premises”. Wow.

SUNDAY MORNING:

I left the hotel while my son was sleeping to grab some coffee. The smell pounced on me as I passed. Insane, thick, dense and dark. The green sticker sat quietly.

Heading back with my coffee in the elevator, I asked the older man who worked the gate and lever about the situation. I was fully aware that (A) whatever happened in that room was the full knowledge of every last hotel employee and (B) there was probably a silly cover story.

“Oh that”, he answered with a vaguely Hatian accent . “Someone came up to check on it, I don’t know nothing”.

Damn. Someone had been dead in a room on my floor for days, had been bagged and carted off by the cops, who then sealed the room. To say I was curious would be an understatement. It seemed totally surreal, vaguely impossible, except for the fact that the smell was simply devastating when you passed that damned door.

Hey, what's the smear?

Hey, what's the smear?

We stopped on the way out and snapped some pics of the door and sticker, the first time we’d paused in the hall. Fiddling with my camera, the smell was like a heavy, wet blanket. I could suddenly feel meals I’d digested years ago lurching up from my stomach.

I wish I could describe how all-encompassing the odor was, how it seemed to make the lamp in the hall begin to dim, how your visual field of view seemed to shrink, how you could feel a sharp little edge of something like panic (run - get out!) gleaming somewhere in your lower brain. Maybe part of it was the knowledge of what we were smelling.

I noticed a thick, brownish smear across the wood - I didn’t point it out to my son.

SUNDAY NIGHT:

We returned. Smell in the hall is terrible, with an added bouquet of bleach and ammonia… but our room still smells fresh. A window at the far stairwell is open, a big industrial fan blows in front of it, sucking dead-person smell into the night (and, I might add, all through the hall). I have a nice cold beer in bed.

I drift of to sleep with a vague vision of a long hallway terminating at a secret, ancient door where all of life ends. The fact that my bunk is a lightless little cave does not help. But the bed sure is comfy.

MONDAY - EARLY AM:

I head for the bathroom at 6 AM (thanks to my beer nightcap). Regardless of the fans and chemicals, the smell leaped at me, pummeling my sinuses. I held my breath as I returned to our room.

By 9AM, the odor has finally dissipated as I make my morning coffee run down the street. I return and wait for the elevator with a really pleasant maintenance guy. He says “You should have seen this place before the remodeling… really run down”, and explained that there were still residents on various floors, that those rooms were not yet remodeled, even down to the original doors still being in place.

Seeing I had an expert in my grasp, I inquired about the situation on the third floor. “Oh, that,” he replied, “Someone with really bad hygiene“.

I asked if the “hygiene police” had sealed the door. He laughed, leaned closer and whispered, “And some ladies used the bathroom in there, too”.

Now, I’ve lived in 80-year old homes. I’ve dealt with dead squirrels in chimneys, dead rats in walls. There’s only one smell like that, and it isn’t hygiene. “So, that’s the ‘official’ story?”

He laughed. “Yes sir. That’s the ‘official’ story.”

MONDAY 10AM:

The smell has finally receded a bit as we head down to check out. We left our backpacks with the desk (we had a 3:00 shuttle pickup at the hotel) and spent our last day in the city.

Returning for our bags, my son went in to use the bathroom, decided to take a last look, and found the sticker was gone. The entire perimeter of the door was now sealed with duct tape. When the bellman inquired about our stay, I said, “Great, except for that crazy smell”. He looked down and his face suddenly looked like he’d been the guy chosen to clean the room out. He apologized with no further explanation.

Now, I don’t want to get anyone fired, but… hanging around the lobby, waiting for the shuttle, I noticed an employee who will go unnamed and un-described. We chatted a bit, and I thought I’d give it one more shot, if only to get “version seven-B, revision 12″ of the ‘official’ story. Apparently this person hadn’t gotten the memo.

“Oh, some guy died in there. We think it was maybe Tuesday. Older guy, lived here.”

The shuttle came, and we left.

I know you’re asking… would I stay there again?

View from our room down the long dark hallway of death. The green sticker is visible on the distant right.

View from our room down the long dark hallway of death. The green sticker is visible on the distant right.

Good question. Overall, it was a great hotel for our hostel-like needs. On the other hand, the experience had a touch of the movie “Hostel”.

In my opinion, the management failed miserably. Were I running things, police-seals or not, I would have added the duct tape immediately, and covered the entire door with a drop cloth, hiding the sticker (any workers trying to enter the room would see it of course).

I would have moved everyone near the room to other rooms (perhaps they did - we were towards the far end of the hall). I would have contacted every guest on the floor with a suitable cover story - yes, a lie. Just “plumbing trouble” would do, with assurances that their health was not in jeopardy (though maybe it was… I would have checked with health authorities, and again, perhaps they did).

The thing is, most of us are squeamish about death, and having death rubbed so thoroughly in your face is an intense experience. I’d think 90 percent of hotel guests would be very happy to have an explanation to cling to - I think most people would be glad to believe anything plausible.

And looking at the bigger picture: if I ran a hotel that also housed residents - residents obviously nearing the bottom rungs of society, renting tiny rooms near the ends of their lives - I’d institute some sort of program to check up on them every 48 hours or so. Beyond the practical aspect of avoiding a hotel swimming in the fresh aroma of decomposing human beings, it just seems to me like the right thing to do.

Sitting here days later, I find that catching a little “off” smell no longer gives me a giant whiff of dead people (walking into a restaurant monday, just a whiff of something like wet dishtowels gave me a momentary blast of the morgue - funny how the mind works). I picture that darkened hall in my mind and it does seem a little haunting, like a frame from a masterfully done horror flick, better than any movie I’ve yet seen.

But I went to New York because I am so close to my daughter, because the house seems awfully empty without her. I took my son because he misses her too (well, he does love having the bathroom to himself), and I had the joy of seeing him discover the nothing-like-it-anywhere experience that is New York. I missed my wife, and after two trips to the city without her (one being the initial college-move), I decided I’m not going anywhere without her for some time. Ask me my biggest fear, and I’ll tell you straight up, it would be to live and die alone, without love. Some poor guy went to bed and didn’t wake up, and nobody even noticed until the smell got out of hand. Maybe he liked living that way, but I kind of doubt it.

I’m thankful for my family and friends every hour of the day. I don’t need to smell a very-dead person to remember that. But hey, dead guy - I don’t hold it against you. I hope you’ve moved on, to somewhere with a little more space, with someone who cares checking in from time to time.

But if you feel like sticking around, the third floor of The Jane Hotel would make an awesome haunted hallway.

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24 comments to I Smell Dead People

  • Norma Shitz

    That sounds like a really good price to stay in NY.
    It’s very expensive otherwise.
    I think you’re lucky to go to NY and get a cool ny story out of it, so much of the charming old new york is dieing away, to get a whiff of that decaying corpse, very topical.

  • I have to say how much I enjoyed the way you recounted this story. I love your writing. As a New Yorker I’ve considered recommending this hotel to a few frugally minded acquaintances, but I’ll think twice on that one ;-)

  • Cloudy

    Thank you - honestly, that event isn’t likely to be an everyday occurrence, and other than the smell issue, The Jane made great sense for my needs. It’s likely I’ll be visiting the city a lot more often now, and my guess is I’ll return to The Jane for solo trips… IF they get the dang bar open. And for the record, I didn’t see a single bug the whole time, bedbug or otherwise.

  • Zunk

    I stayed at the Jane for about a week during the end of August 2009. I’m a pretty no-fuss traveler, but have to say it was a pretty bad experience. It would have been nice to been told in advance that there were SRO residents in the building on the same floor. The smell in the hallway was terrible, and It was a little odd to walk down the hall and have people leave their doors wide open, smoking and cooking hot-plate food.

  • Moonbeam

    Next time you’re in the city, I highly recommend booking your hotel through Priceline, Expedia or a similar website. I recently paid $100 a night for a lovely suite at a very nice hotel for out of town guests. It really isn’t necessary to pay full price for your hotel.

  • Cloudy

    For this particular trip, I tried all the various travel sites and couldn’t get close to Jane’s pricing; being a few blocks from NYU was icing on the cake. After the $$ outlay of late summer (even with a 90%-ish scholarship, getting a kid to school in NYC was crazy-expensive) the low rate meant we could stay an extra night, get the most out of plane fare cost, etc. Though if I return with my wife in winter or spring, I’ll have to hunt around some more… the Jane does have their new double-rooms, but the Mrs. is a little iffy about the place.

  • soupflower

    This is one nasty hotel and condescending to the neighborhood. For $50 more, you could have stayed at a lovely B&B just around the corner on Horatio and Washington with breakfast and a garden.

  • Mrs. Cloudy

    Mrs. Cloudy loves breakfast and a garden, and would like to stay at the B&B around the corner when Mr. Cloudy takes her to NYC. Thanks for the recommendation!

  • Bro in law

    Well-written sir, really brought me there. I am staying at a hotel in Pine Bluff, AR tonight, a real armpit of a town. I think your experience in NY was much better, even with the dead guy smell. Or dead girl, how could I assume it was a guy. Did it smell like a guy?

  • Cloudy, what an incredibly freaky story, and well-written too. i just posted a piece about your post on my USA TODAY hotels web site, Hotel Check-In, which you can find at hotelcheckin.usatoday.com.
    cheers,
    Barbara De Lollis
    bdelolli@usatoday.com
    PS: Loved Motherless Child! great piece.

  • Cloudy

    Thanks ma’am… and bro-in-law, being that I grew up in Detroit, everyone’s one of “you guys” until gender is fully determined (well, that and the fact that an employee eulogized the deceased as “some guy”). (And speaking of “you guys” - or Chicago-style “youse guys” - living in Dallas, I really resisted “y’all” for years, but man, it’s a convenient word).

  • h3llc4t

    Hey Cloudy,
    Just a heads up that this post was featured on both Gothamist and The Consumerist. Thought you might want to know. :)
    I really appreciated your outlook on the whole situation. Your description of your relationship with your daughter was very touching, and reminded me of my relationship with my dad. Best of luck to your family.

  • Cloudy

    Hey, thanks H3 - I’m a lucky guy. It struck me while sitting in the Angelika in NYC, watching “Black Dynamite” with my kids (and laughing our buts off - we’ve been RABID for this flick since the trailers hit last spring) that it’s pretty cool when Faux Blaxploitation means family bonding time. What a great memory, and being able to see it with my girl instead of a dozen “wasn’t that awesome” text messages just made me feel blessed & fortunate.

  • Scott

    The odor of a dead human is quite strong. Not sure how anyone would not be sickened by it and what is odd is that one does not even have to “know” what it smells like; the human spirit just knows. My ex and I stayed in a similarily run down hotel near Manhattan in 2005 near Central Park. We got the room for $120.00 per night and I thought that we we extremely lucky also. After arriving and taking our luggage down the hallway, we arrived and entered the room. Our room had the worst urine-stench that I have ever smelled in my life. We were so over-come with the stench that we had to leave the room to breathe because it literally cut through our nostrils and we could not breathe. But because we were from Michigan we had no other place to stay and just dealt with the stench throughout the weekend.

  • Chuck

    In the future, should any of you check into a hotel that is also occupied by a corpse, you might try a tip given to me by a friend who worked with Homicide Investigations Dept. of the L.A.P.D. Take a pan of coffee or coffee grounds and put it on the stove until it burns. Apparently burnt coffee smell is one of the few things that will mask the stench of a rotting human corpse. My friend told me “Homicide guys” went to every investigation prepared to mask the smell of the unpleasant working environment they often encountered.

  • Hugh

    wow.
    that is one crazy stay.
    these days use priceline and you’ll find much larger rooms for about $100 a nite. it’s cheap time in NYC. i have had no dead people in rooms either!

  • Joy

    The Ace hotel is pretty reasonably priced and a much nicer “dash without cash” experience…

  • Andrew

    Great piece, vividly written, thanks.
    Death is all around us on a planet of six billion, but most of us aren’t often reminded of the fact. People die in hotel rooms, apartment buildings, hospitals every day…old age, mishaps, suicides. There are very few older human habitations where no one has died. Most of us don’t have reason to reflect on that much.

    And you’re so right about the smell. Unforgettable, unmistakable. Thanks for capturing all that so well, and congratulations on your family.

  • j

    but what was the room # - i can’t tell if that’s 342 or 542?. i just stayed in 340 so i’m curious

  • Cloudy

    The room was 352 - my son still has the card from the front desk.

  • cape codder

    Many small towns, like the one I live in, have begun police department programs to phone every elderly resident, every morning, to say ‘hello’ and see if they’re ok. The Jane Hotel is, obviously, smaller than any small town and should have had this kind of program in place from the get-go. Shame on them for not having done so. All they accomplished with their thoughtlessness was to alienate customers, damage their “brand” (sorry, I hate that terminology))and, worse yet, leave themselves open to the kind of business-killing publicity that could’ve/should’ve been avoided if the owners/management had been paying more attention to their ‘big picture’ and less to their bottom line.

    I wouldn’t have known about either this story or this hotel if I hadn’t first clicked a few links about Rachel Maddow having purchased an apartment on Jane Street and then taking a stroll around the block on Google’s ‘Street View’. As I approached where The Jane was, an icon appeared that I then clicked and …. VOILA!. That click led to other links about the hotel’s history and then to your blog. Now, forever more, I will think of that hotel in light of what you’ve written and I will ALWAYS remember Room 352.

    Pity.

    Isn’t the internet amazing? Thanks for your report, Cloudy. Fascinating reading - and well written, too! Great job!

  • steve

    This smells good

  • steve

    This smells gooddy

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