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.
The 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!
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.
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.
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.
Enjoyed the rainfall-headed showers. The hall stinks!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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.