Mum’s the Word


Location Upper West Side

Rent $350 (informal sublet)

Square feet 189 (room in 1920s SRO hotel)

Occupant Adam James (singer-songwriter; performer, Our Sinatra)

This hotel is like where they might do illegal organ removals—chipped green doors, bathroom down the hall, old beige linoleum, signs about terrorism in the elevator and no food delivery persons allowed. The woman at the desk sounded so tough. Though the lobby does have a coffered ceiling and marble walls, however cracked. They also post INS notices whenever there’s a change in rules. There are a bunch of immigrants here—East Europeans, Brazilians. I don’t know why so many Brazilians. I think one got a room here once. When new Brazilians come, they get a room. There are rooms that are half this size.

Maurice, the manager, on the phone, said rooms cost $50, $75 a day, $475 a week. You’re sort of house-sitting for a friend who’s on tour, you said, though you’ve been here off and on since 2001. I moved here the week before September 11. I was in this room when it happened. It had been my dream to come to New York for years. I got this grant. Then Broadway was shut down. I was auditioning, looking for apartments.

I can see you coming through the chipped green door—another day, another dollar—singing a song about your woes. My shoes were wearing out. Then I met Norah Jones. This was before her album was released. She was giving me advice on neighborhoods. I’ve become a professional house-sitter. New York turned me into one. I take care of a friend’s cats when he’s away. He’s a cabaret singer. Another singer, when she and her husband go to their house in the south of France, I stay at their apartment—85th and Fifth. It’s got a grand piano. I was just at 51st and Seventh. That friend is on tour with 42nd Street. This is how I survive. It’s only me, not like I have a family to cart around. The charm of house-sitting is you become other people. When you’re living in other people’s spaces with all their stuff, you try to tactfully . . . just seeing the stuff they own—that’s interesting.

I don’t know. I once sublet someone’s apartment for a month and it was in this scary 1930s building and she had all this stuff—appliances and water filters and the closets were bursting with thick sweaters and it was hard to breathe. There isn’t room for two people in one person. Who can absorb a stranger’s life? It’s too much! Then I would listen to this Julie London album over and over—”You’d be so nice to come home to . . . ” But I was alone all the time except for her neighbor, who would invite me over for cocktails. That’s all he did all day, have cocktails. He had a liquor cabinet. It was a horrible experience. Where are you from? Canada. I grew up in the suburbs of Toronto. My dad’s a folksinger, high school teacher. [I stand up.] Do you want to sit in the chair for a while and I’ll sit on the bed?

No, this is fine. I just needed to stretch. I have to tell you about a Nexis search that revealed a news article about this hotel. There was this man, a Cuban immigrant who had left just before Castro. He was married to a mayor of a nearby town in New York and he worked at a bank on Wall Street and disappeared after September 11, though his office was eight blocks from the Trade Center. But once a month, he had stayed at this hotel—your hotel—which the paper referred to as a “shabby genteel tourist hotel.” He usually stayed on Wednesdays. He came late, left early, and paid $60 for the night. He was always alone. He had a reservation for September 12. When they asked Maurice, the manager, what the man did there, Maurice said, “We don’t ask those questions.”