“The fabled mile-long Bowery, which was originally an Indian trail used by Dutch settlers, borders Little Italy to the east and runs from Chatham Square north to Cooper Square. Since the late 1900’s, this was the land of barbershops and bars, tattoo shops and cheap hotels for men, politely referred to as lodging houses. Today only a few of the old-time flops survive, with optimistic names that conjure up images of balmy Florida sojourns: the Sunshine and the Palace, the Providence and the Prince. And so it is these hotels – where a prison-size cubicle with a bed, bare lightbulb and chickenwire roof costs $10 a night – that curators, historians and artists are studying like some endangered species.” Doreen Carvajal, The New York Times, 9/4/01.
One of people to study this “endangered” species was filmmaker Michel Dominic. In 1999, working on a tiny budget, he took his camera behind the doors of the Sunshine Hotel, one of the few remaining affordable refuges for the destitute and out of luck in the Bowery. It was a world that had seemingly stood still for more than eight decades. The residents at the Sunshine lived in tiny four-by-six-foot cubicles crowned by a ceiling of chicken wire. Focusing on several of the Sunshine’s denizens – including a transgender woman saving all her money for additional surgeries and a hotel manager who doubles as its resident philosopher – Dominic presented a powerful snapshot of a diverse group of characters as memorable as anything Hollywood has ever come up with.
Our tour guide (and hero) is Nate Smith, long-time resident philosopher and the manager of the Sunshine. Nate has the soul of a poet and the pragmatic viewpoint of a guy whose luck ran out a long time ago. He sleeps in the same bed where the previous manager blew his brains out and while he says that doesn’t bother him, he does make a point of saying that he has changed the mattress. His piquant counterpoint is Ray. A desk clerk and former crack addict who copes with life on the skids by flinging barbed doses of reality out at whoever crosses his path, doses that hit the mark without doing the recipient much good.
In profiling the tenants, Dominic lets us get to know them the way he did, by listening to them talk about whatever comes to mind in a stream of consciousness that reveals much. There’s Bruce, who pluckily approaches his job of running errands with all the intensity and planning of a commando raid. And L.A., a shell-shocked veteran who has become so uninterested in his own life that he talks impassively about stepping on a landmine in Vietnam. And there is Cashmere, a transvestite who lives in the dorm area of the hotel and dreams of a new life outside the hotel.
The film is structured in riffs. How the men got to the Sunshine Hotel, how they get through their days, how they plan to leave, and, in a heartbreaking finale, why they probably never will–something we can figure out, but they haven’t. With each riff, we get to know the tenants a little better. But in a downward spiral that echo the tenants lives, the riffs become more bitter, and the tenants monologues drift further from reality. The seemingly functional hear personal messages from television broadcasts, and the barely functional horde an arsenal for the nighttime attack that they’re convinced is coming. Delusions lurk behind every word, fights punctuate friendships, and an overdose in the bathroom barely causes a ripple. At the end, Dominic asks Nate where he would you like to be in five years. “Alive,” says Nate breaking out laughing, summing up what life comes down to in his world.
As Nate says, you haven’t really seen life until you’ve been in a flophouse and he’s right. The SUNSHINE HOTEL shows us life as it is almost impossible to imagine. Even though it focuses on people that we would likely turn away from should we meet them in the street, Dominic’s infinitely compassionate take on his subjects inspires the same emotion in us. We empathize with the pain and mourn the waste of their lives. We see them as individuals clinging to the last scraps of their dignity with a bravado that is at once courageous and crazy.
Watch a trailer for Sunshine Hotel.
Stream Sunshine Hotel on Amazon
Bruce Davis talks about a fight
Audio interview with Nate Smith from Story Corps
(Notes of the audio: For several months in 1998, David Isay and Stacy Abramson had unprecedented 24-hour access to the Sunshine Hotel, one of the last of the no-frills establishments. “It was like stepping into King Tut’s Tomb,” Isay says. “The Sunshine is this fascinating, self-contained society full of unbelievable characters. While it’s a profoundly sad place, it is, at the same time, home to men with powerful and poetic stories.” The Sunshine Hotel was awarded the Prix Italia, Europe’s oldest and most prestigious broadcasting award, in 1999. Recorded in New York City. Premiered September 18, 1998, on All Things Considered.)