A Tourist’s Guide to Lower Manhattan



Neighborhood: Lower Manhattan

February 1996 is bitter and icy and windy and numbing. My boyfriend Raz and I have been rendered homeless due to our depravity, immaturity, and stupidity.

By day, we relax at the Lower East Side needle exchange, the Beth Israel methadone clinic, or our favorite diner, Leshko’s, on Avenue A. Nighttime is more problematic. We often sleep in the lobbies of East Village apartment buildings, next to the steaming radiators (the building residents are surprisingly accommodating, recognizing how cold it is outside.)

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, I will earn enough in my peep show work to afford cushier accommodations. 

There are two levels of substandard hotels in Lower Manhattan. There are the crack house SRO flophouses, such as the Riverview Hotel on Jane Street in the West Village, where we often stay. This desolate place housed the Titanic’s crew survivors in 1911 during the inquest into the accident. In 1996 it just houses misery. 

There are also the staid budget hotels that attempt to maintain integrity and dignity in a world that lacks integrity and dignity. The Pioneer Hotel, located in Chinatown, falls into this category.  

Though it is more expensive than Riverview, The Pioneer is worth it. A relic from the 1940’s, it is clean, organized, safe, and rule-oriented. The affable yet no-nonsense owner resembles Jimmy Stewart in looks and manner. I feel almost normal when I stay at the Pioneer. When I’m at the Riverview, I cease to breathe.

Raz and I check into the Pioneer on the night before my birthday. As usual, the hotel is a quiet sanctuary of despondency and desperation. Eternally sleep-deprived, we both crash.

It is the next day. My birthday begins like other birthdays — dull, but with possibilities. Raz sleeps, and I wander to the public restroom to take a shower (oh, the pleasure of drowning in H2O after days of wearing the same clothes.) Alas, there are no towels in the bathroom, a blunder in the Pioneer’s system. I traipse down the hall in my two-inch heels and begin to descend the abrupt stairs. I slip on a step and tumble all the way down to the front desk. I lie on my back on the floor for ten minutes, collecting my bearings. It is then that I notice the plastic yellow “Caution — wet” sign in the hall. Eventually, I manage to push myself up and retrieve my towel from the front desk. My left shoulder throbs. 

It is now checkout time. My shoulder continues to burn and sting. I wonder if I fractured it. I hand the cashier money. She asks what it is for.

“To stay another night.”

“You can’t stay here.”

I am perplexed. “What are you talking about?”

“I don’t know,” she says. 

I ask to speak with the owner. My shoulder feels unconnected.

The owner appears 17 minutes later from a room behind the front desk.

“How can I help you?” he asks, gazing at the floor.

“The cashier says I can’t stay here”

“That’s true, young lady. I’m sorry.” 

“You know me. I’ve stayed here before.”

“Yes, I know you. There was a complaint.”

“What are you talking about? Today’s my birthday. My friend’s still sleeping. We didn’t do anything.”

He leans into the counter, finally giving eye contact, and says softly: “The maids found blood all over your sheets.”

I am flabbergasted. What the fuck is he talking about?  Does he think we were using needles to shoot up? Or maybe he thinks we were using knives in a satanic ritual? I don’t know. 

“This is a mistake,” I say. “The maids must have the wrong room.” At this point, my shoulder is numb.  

“Drugs are not allowed in this hotel, so I had to put you on the ‘No Room’ list,” he says.

“But we weren’t doing drugs. We really weren’t. I swear to God.”

“You were behaving like you were high this morning. The cashier saw you lying on the floor,” he says.

“That’s because I slipped and fell down the steps. I wasn’t high,” I say.

“I’m sorry, miss.”

“And it’s my birthday.”

“Tell you what. Come back in three months, and we’ll discuss it,” he says.

I walk away and return to my room. The sheets are a bloodless anemic white.  

Raz and I exit the hotel. He carries everything. We patiently wait in grey plastic chairs in the Bellevue Hospital emergency room lobby for 14 hours until my name is called. Bellevue offers good emergency care. Gunshot victims are brought here. Unfortunately, it’s a long wait.

A tall female doctor sees me. She examines the swelling and what is now an extending purple bruise. She takes x-rays. It’s not broken. “I think it’s just badly bruised,” she says.  

The doctor exits the room, and a stout Latino man enters. He identifies himself as Luis, a caseworker. He asks to look at my shoulder, which he inspects more carefully than the doctor.  

He looks at me through his gold wire-frame glasses.

“Did you come here with your boyfriend?”


“Did your boyfriend hurt you?”


“Did he push you?”

“No. I fell down some stairs.”

“Has he ever hurt you?”

Again, no.

“I’m only asking you these questions because we are concerned about you and we want you to be safe, he says, adding: “It’s an odd place to have this kind of injury — on the shoulder — if you fell down the stairs.”

“I fell down the stairs.”

“Are you positive? Is there anything you’d like to tell me?”

He reaches into a large plastic bag and pulls out some papers. The first sheet is a set of directions about what to do if you are the victim of domestic abuse. The second is an extensive list of shelters throughout New York City for domestic abuse victims. 

“You can show up at any of these shelters at anytime,” he says. “You don’t have to call first.”

He leaves.

The doctor reenters. “Take Tylenol for the pain,” she says. “You’ll be fine.”


Wendy B. currently lives in the Washington, DC metro region

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