Joseph Quevedo by Joseph Quevedo Photography ©
The front of the White House wasn’t that bad. The reviews online had been awful but perhaps they’d been hasty. The doors were bright blue and no place with bright blue doors could be that bad.
I heaved my suitcase over the step. At the train station, a frat boy had tried to help me with it.
“Jesus Christ, how fucking heavy are your curlers? This thing weighs 100 lbs,” he huffed.
“It’s mostly books,” I explained. “I’m moving here.”
“Don’t,” he said. “Too many people in New York already.”
He looked genuinely disappointed when I didn’t turn back but continued down the street, moving like a moth toward the city lights. I had no desire to return to the life I’d left six hours prior but even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t afford the move back. I could barely afford a $15 bed at the White House, the last flophouse on the Bowery.
Once inside, the lobby of the White House wasn’t that bad. Maps covered the walls and a vending machine flickered in the corner. It wasn’t that great either. An old man sat silent at a card table and the register was behind a wall of glass and chicken wire.
The cashier pushed a key through the slot and said, “It’s on the third floor. Sorry about that.”
I thought he was sorry about making me carry my bag three flights. “Oh no, it’s not that heavy,” I lied.
He shook his head. “The third floor has some of our more permanent residents. But you’re going to be here for a little while so…”
“Is it safe?” I asked.
“Sure,” he shrugged. “Sometimes they steal stuff but that’s it.”
It was August and my fingers were slick against the handle as I wedged my bag up up up. The staircase was dusty, crumbling where the baseboard met the wall. The grime stuck to me and the sweat running down my neck and legs. I passed a building inspection notice from either 1962 or 1967. I strained to make out the scrawl, as if accuracy mattered.
I pushed open the door to the third floor and walked into another hallway. This hallway was lined with small doors—a set piece for a particularly terrifying nightmare about indecisiveness—doors and doors extending into infinity. My choice had been made for me and I looked at the key in my hand. Number 6.
I opened the small door of Number 6. It was a coffin, albeit one with a cot. I pulled my bag in but then there wasn’t enough room to close the door. I turned my suitcase to push it under the cot but something was moving under there, something small and shiny, so I hoisted it up onto the bed instead.
This is probably upsetting, I thought. I should be upset. Or anxious or something. But I wasn’t feeling anything really. And maybe that absence should have been distressing but all I thought was: I am so sweaty—I should take a shower.
The bathroom was at the end of the Hall of Indecisiveness. There were stalls for the shower but the curtains seemed to have been ripped off, strips still dangling useless. Next to the showers, an old woman was sitting in a plastic lawn chair and I worried that the spray would get her too.
“Will it bother you if I shower?” I asked.
She shook her head no. “That’s why I sit here—cools me down,” she explained.
I undressed and stepped in. The water was cold but it was August so that was fine. There was mold all around me, itchy germs in the broken tiles, but I just closed my eyes. I thought again, this should be upsetting. But the anger was stopped, blocked somehow, vague and gone before it fell to earth, like a rainstorm in the desert —virga.
I looked at my neighbor. If she was enjoying the shower spray or seeing me naked, she didn’t show it, her face blank and fixed on nothing.
I know the feeling, I thought as I dried off.
It was early still; the sun had just set. I decided to go to bed because there was nothing else to do. I curled up against my suitcase and didn’t think about the sheets.
I wasn’t tired yet so I lay there, watching, listening as the floor slowly shut down for the night. Above my cot was a low ceiling made of lattice and higher above that, a real, solid ceiling. It was one big room, I realized, the third floor, into which the labyrinth of tiny cot rooms had been built. And the lattice was not just decorative; it was there to prevent anyone from climbing over the half walls and getting in. Which made sense— murderers and rapists the world over feared the dreaded lattice defense.
It did not keep out noise. Somewhere an air conditioner was banging away and someone was moaning and the two played off each other in a rather dreary duet. I didn’t know how many nights I’d be staying, how long it would take to get some money, a job, a room with a proper ceiling. I should have been upset but I wasn’t—my mind blank and clean in the absence.
But then there was a buzzing around my head—a mosquito—and I felt the first real flash of irritation I’d had since stepping off the train.
I can only ignore mosquitoes when I’m too tired to do otherwise and I wasn’t nearly there. So it was that, that tiny pest, that got me moving, got me pulling on my shoes, clattering down the stairs and out into the night.
I walked up the Bowery, past stacks of melting trash bags and the security gates of closed restaurant supply stores. And then I turned onto a side street and there were small brick buildings and elegant old townhouses and kids, kids everywhere, about my age, drinking and congregating on the sidewalks. This was the East Side, I realized, the East Village. The first stop for most immigrants, the ones who crowded into rooms, too poor to go back—the lowest rung on the ladder, the first step of so many dreams.
I wanted a beer but I couldn’t afford one so I got a peach instead from a funny little store on the corner that stacked dish soap next to cans of beans and boxes of tampons. I sat on someone’s front steps and watched the parade of people go by.
I didn’t know what would happen next and I had nowhere to return to, except Number 6 at the White House. I should have been upset. I wasn’t. I was thrilled. All day I had kept it quiet, even to myself, as if speaking my relief into reality would frighten it away. But there was no need, I realized—the limitations of my situation cemented my freedom. I wasn’t going back. I had taken the first step.
Brea Tremblay has contributed to UGO Networks, Inner Monologues, Lucky and Index Magazine. In 1991, she was the Junior Girls Stilt Walking Champion, Mountain Division.