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Last in Flophouse, Alone With Bowery Ghosts

June 26, 2004. New York Times.

Being the last man living in one of the last flophouses on the Bowery has its benefits. No wait for a shower or a toilet. No sounds of casual sex coming from the other side of the wall. No need to keep an eye out anymore for Juliano, that big bully in stall No. 36.

Juliano died a year ago, bequeathing to George, a man of 74, the odd mantle of sole inhabitant, Stevenson Hotel, 106 Bowery.

Each night George shuffles past the deserted clerk's office, where the men used to slide dollar bills through a slot under a cagelike grill. Now a folded newspaper rests on the clerk's counter, its 1990 headline of a "Missing Girl Found Slain" muffled by time and dust. On the wall is a notice bearing the names of people to contact in case of emergency: Lawrence and Juliano. Gone, and gone.

George walks along the shadowy rows of green-painted cubicles that once rented for less than $5 a night to tenants he barely knew: the Indian man who was robbed of $200; an Italian man named John; an old man called the Professor. Each cubicle has a number on its door. Each cubicle has a ceiling of chicken wire. Each cubicle is unoccupied, except for No. 40. This is George's address.

Cubicle No. 40 is four feet by eight feet, maybe, and is so cramped by clothing and the mattress that the door opens only a crack. To get in, George removes his jacket and slides his old body through. He loops heavy wire around a hook on the inside of the door; this helps him feel safer.

Here, among flophouse ghosts, is where George sleeps, to the concern of many people trying to help him and to the consternation of a landlord who has other plans for the $1.2 million building. George, you see, refuses to leave.

George prefers that his Greek surname not appear in print; it might not put him in the best light among people he knows. He has no teeth, one eye that is sightless and another not much better, and long fingernails that jut like blades from his dirty hands. He also has diabetes, and lives on about $660 a month in disability, much of which is spent on cheap Chinese buffets and subway trips to Astoria, where he buys Greek newspapers and small cubes of feta cheese.

Once, he was a published poet. But fortune has been a stranger since he came to the United States in the mid-1960's, what with the loss of a restaurant job, the eviction from an apartment, the mental and physical problems. In 1980, he took one bed among the dozens at the Stevenson, one of the many flophouses that defined the Bowery.

The Four Roses whiff to the Bowery gradually evaporated as real estate values rose. Speculators bought the flophouses and tried to push out the struggling and broken men, sometimes with cash, sometimes with violence. The new owner of the Stevenson, Chun Kien Realty, paid many tenants to move to another flophouse nearby, but some refused, including George.

Things got tense. In 1989, George charged that his belongings including a manuscript of poetry had been stolen, and that one of the owners had broken into his cubicle, injuring him. But George was in the hospital the day of the trial, and his charges went nowhere.

The landlord tried, but failed, to evict George after he stopped paying his $5-or-so-a-day in rent. Then came settlement talks that ended when the landlord decided that George was asking too much money for the gift of his departure.

"He's very traumatized by the assault that took place and the attempts to get him out," said Marilyn Nieves, a caseworker with the Institute for the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Elderly. "He's also very stubborn."

So is Chun Kien Realty, which cannot redevelop the building until George is gone. Laurence Olive, the lawyer for the landlord, said that he had no answer for why the owner never resolved the matter of George; perhaps, he said, it was merely a case of "mutual accommodation."

George's advocates, though, say the landlord's strategy has been simple. Someday, George will die.

Years passed. One by one, other men died. One day a foul smell led to the discovery of the body of Juliano in cubicle No. 36. George eulogizes the man this way: "Too many times, he hit me."

George was alone.

Negotiations began again, with the landlord offering first $50,000 and then $75,000 for George to leave. George responded by raising his demand, with $130,000 growing to $200,000.

George explains his reasoning this way: He needs $30,000 for dental implants and $40,000 for eye surgery, which almost eats up the landlord's best offer. He also needs money for rent and for furniture, he says although his fixation on that assault allegation many years ago suggests a desire for some payback. He also does not like change.

Thinking that a judge might resolve the matter, Ms. Nieves persuaded George to file a complaint in Housing Court about sealed-up windows, falling plaster and other code violations. This led to an impromptu visit to the Stevenson Hotel by Judge Kevin McClanahan, along with an entourage of lawyers, court officers and George.

At a court hearing a few days later, Judge McClanahan said that George's living quarters a flophouse in suspended animation appalled him, and he wondered aloud whether the landlord had decided "to wait everybody out."

The judge then tried to reason with George, his coaxing words translated into Greek by an interpreter. It would be in your best interests to move out, he told George. The landlord is offering a reasonable settlement, and what you're asking is quite excessive.

George's body language said that he would not lower his $200,000 demand, so the judge asked that he at least consider moving into the flophouse's old day room, near the clerk's counter. This way, the judge said, he would have light, ventilation and space, including room enough for at least a hot plate.

Again came averted eyes and slumped shoulders that said no. George says that he is safer in his fetid cubicle.

Judge McClanahan told George that he was engaging in a fruitless waiting game with the landlord. "And who do you think will last the longest?" he asked the hunched man.

The frustrated judge advised Mr. Olive to have his client address the outstanding violations, scheduled another hearing for mid-August and moved on to the next difficult case.

Afterward, Mr. Olive said that he doubted the landlord would raise its "substantial" offer, and wondered whether George was in his right mind. Mary Rosado, a lawyer appointed by the court to represent George's best interests, said that she would continue to seek a settlement but was worried about how the case would play out for her client.

"He doesn't realize that he's hurting himself," she said.

George left the court building, on Centre Street, and worked his way through Lower Manhattan to a place once called Skid Row. He muttered along the way about that assault back in 1989, about the high cost of Greek newspapers, about his lost poetry.

A few steps up the Bowery, he stopped in front of the old flophouse, key in trembling hand.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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