A Long Night In The Cheapest Hotel In Manhattan

vigilantVigilant Hotel advertises in the back pages of the Village Voice

Photo: Gus Lubin

Many have walked through the red door of the century-old flophouse in north Chelsea, but they’re not the kind of people you know.

Vigilant HotelThe century-old hotel is found behind this red door in Chelsea

Photo: Robert Johnson — Business Insider

Last month our reporter Robert Johnson was turned away when the owner caught him taking pictures.So when my turn came to try and spend the night in the Vigilant Hotel, I did my best to blend in.

I wore a cheap t-shirt and a dirty fleece from the Salvation Army. Walking over I smeared the shirt with cigarette ash and flavoring from a bag of Doritos. I carried my reporter’s notebook, iPhone charger and a Village Voice in a plastic grocery bag. I hadn’t shaved in a week.

vigilantA long-time resident walks up the stairs

Photo: Gus Lubin

Checking inBehind the first red door is a second red door, with paper signs stating the rules of the hotel: NO DOUBLES, NO COUPLES, MEN ONLY, etc. Another sign warns of 24-hour closed circuit surveillance.

Behind this door is a narrow two-floor stairway and a warm smell of body odor.

On the second floor, there’s a big room with a bunch of covered cubicles in the middle.

I followed a sign to the end of a hall, where behind a metal grate I saw a shirtless man with a big belly, white chest hair and a collar of white shoulder hair.

“Is it 40 dollars for a room?” I asked.

vigilantThe main hallway on the first floor

Photo: Gus Lubin

“It’s $120 for the week,” the manager said.”I just need a room for the night.”

The manger took my ID and $40 for the night plus a $5 key deposit. He didn’t ask what I was doing there. Either my disguise had fooled him or this just wasn’t the type of place where you ask questions.

But as he took my money he warned me I was in for a long night.

“You know there’s no ceiling? You’ll hear people next to you. You won’t be able to sleep.”

He told me where to find the bathroom and the shower. I could smoke in the room, but I had better use the ashtray. There was a deli downstairs and I could come and go as I pleased, but I should keep the door to my room locked.

vigilantThe flophouse floor plan

Photo: Gus Lubin

Finally he mentioned the bugs. He came out of the door with a big spray bottle with BUG written on the side in marker. “Spray it if you see a bug. You can spray it on yourself, your clothes, your bed.” He sprayed it on his hands to demonstrate.

vigilant shelfThe room is a 8x8x4 box

Room 108 is an 8x8x4-foot box topped by a grid of wooden slats.The bed is a foam mattress wrapped in plastic on a wooden ledge, covered by an old but washed floral sheet. A wooden plank serves as a shelf. There is a light that makes a loud hum and an outlet on the wall.

The smell wasn’t too bad and there was no immediate evidence of bugs.

vigilantEvery room comes with BUG spray

Photo: Gus Lubin

When I went upstairs and stopped to take a picture out an open window, I heard the owner shouting my name. I looked down and saw that his office had a window overlooking the stairs. He said: “The shower is right there and otherwise there’s no reason to be prowling around upstairs. People come here to sleep and you’ve got a nice room down there and no reason to go upstairs unless you’re looking to burglar something.”

The people who live there
The Vigilant is a single-room occupancy that is listed by city organisations as a resource for homeless people.

Some of the people looked like they had jobs.

vigilant bugHere’s the bedbug that bit me

Photo: Gus Lubin

I saw a black man carrying a bike to the third floor, and a Hispanic man in a button-down shirt making conversation with the manager. I overheard the manager asking one of the residents for help checking email. As their conversation ended, the resident said: “Alright Michael, have a good night. Thanks for everything.”

Some looked like they didn’t have much.

I saw an old black man in a towel walking barefoot upstairs to the shower. And there were others I heard but didn’t see, coughing, listening to the radio and moving around in their rooms.

I saw a bristly, wrinkled black man whose leather jacket looked like part of his skin walking down the stairs one booming step at a time. I followed him to the deli next door where he stood by the counter until all the other customers had gone.

“Coffee,” the man muttered.

“What?” the deli worker asked.


The deli worker looked uncomfortable for a moment and then poured the man a coffee and asked “milk or sugar?”

“Marlboro,” the man muttered.

At this point another deli worker came over and said, “Hey, is he going to pay for that?”

The man walked past me on the way back into the Vigilant. I asked how long he had lived here. “Three, four years,” he said with half a smile plastered on his face.

I went back to the deli later and asked about him.

“He’s messed up in the head. He lives upstairs,” the deli worker said. “The Vigilant is a bad place. Full of people with mental problems. The city pays for them to live there on the fourth floor. The rest pay rent.”

“It’s a bad place. Bed bugs, small rooms, like that bathroom, but smaller. They used to come in with their bedbugs and cause lots of problems for us. You’d see the bedbugs on them.” The deli worker gestured to his chest and shoulders. Used to? “Yeah I think they’ve fixed it or something. It’s a bad place. I would never stay there. Even if I were homeless I wouldn’t live there. It’s like paying for jail.

Going to sleep
The idea was to sleep sitting crosslegged. I had heard that the bug spray didn’t work, but I had a travel container of Purell and figured what the heck. I squeezed the Purell in a circle around me like I was doing some kind of black magic incantation.

But sleeping sitting up is uncomfortable, plus I figured the point of the story was to lie down and fall asleep in the bed, so I lay down.

I woke to a prick on my neck. I slapped and checked my hand and found a squished bedbug.

I got up and took off my fleece and felt my neck and arms and hips for bugs. It was 3:30 and I wasn’t going back to sleep.

Locking the door behind me I walked down the hall to the office. The manager was sleeping in his chair. He stirred at the sound of my keys. I would have taken a picture but I was afraid his eyes would open and he would be furious.

I took a taxi back to Brooklyn and removed my contaminated clothes before entering my apartment.

There are few options for people who have nothing in New York.

For those who can afford it, Vigilant Hotel isn’t a bad choice. You get a bed, a semi-private room and a not-unfriendly community.

But if you can’t handle the bedbugs, then you may be better off on the street.

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