If you believe the reviews, the World Hotel is the worst place to stay in New York. Of the 453 NYC hotels listed on TripAdvisor, the World Hotel is ranked lowest at number 453. Over on Yelp, one reviewer describes it as “bed bugs galore” and that he “would rather have slept on the sidewalk.” Another writes, “This might be what hotels in hell are like.”
Naturally, I had to see this for myself.
Contrary to popular belief, the World Hotel is not located in hell, but rather in Manhattan’s gentrified Bowery neighborhood. Adjacent to Chinatown, this area was famously once populated by flophouses. It was these cheap crash pads — largely occupied by the destitute and desperate — that earned the Bowery its reputation as the city’s Skid Row through much of the 20th century.
Today, with rents too damn high across the city, and particularly in this trendy area, the flophouses have gone. Only the World Hotel remains, thanks mostly to foreign travelers looking for a bargain. And for good reason — my room on a Saturday night in December cost just $85, shockingly low in a city with rates averaging around $271 per night, according to Hotels.com.
What would my $85 (including tax) buy me in downtown Manhattan? My mother, for one, was not eager to find out.
“Please don’t do this,” she implored on a phone call. When I refused to budge, she changed her tack. “Have you completely lost your mind?”
“Leave me alone,” I said hanging up — only to call back seconds later and apologize, promising that I would go into this prepared.
Indeed, prepared I was. The plan:
• Pack all my luggage in a garbage bag.
• Show up at the hotel wearing the most ragged and disposable shirt, pants and shoes that I owned.
• Upon check-out, throw this clothing out in a nearby McDonald’s restroom.
• In that McDonald’s restroom, change into a fresh outfit that was safely sealed inside a Ziploc bag.
• For entertainment, I would only bring along magazines, which would then be thrown out the next day. It’s a fact: Bed bugs love magazines.
• None of my possessions would ever touch the floor of my room.
On Saturday afternoon, I assembled my gear, feeling like nothing less than an intrepid explorer endeavoring to conquer a foreboding mountain peak. Before I left the safety of my bed bug-free home, one of my roommates had the good sense to threaten me. “If you bring back bed bugs,” he said, “you’re paying for everything.”
Like an intrepid explorer who finally looks at that mountain peak and says, “Oh shit,” I now understood the extremity of my situation. If anything went wrong, I’d suffer for it the rest of my life — with not just damaged possessions, but damaged relationships. No one would ever trust my judgment again.
Check-In, 3 p.m.
What looked like a doctor’s waiting room on the wrong side of the planet turned out to be the World Hotel’s lobby. I was buzzed into the room, prison-style. The atmosphere was quiet and coldly robotic, with only a shelf of Broadway brochures to give the lobby any character. Two frazzled tourists were checking out as the door closed behind me with a thunk that was simultaneously reassuring and scary.
Though I had a garbage bag for luggage, the stoic young man at the front desk barely blinked at me. I’ll call him Dead-Eyed Dave. Did Dead-Eyed Dave have greater aspirations to, say, work at the Wyndham down the street? Was he cranking away at a screenplay stashed beneath the green faux marble countertop, dreams of Hollywood getting him through the long, dangerous nights? Or maybe he suffered through this job to help pay for his ailing mother’s dialysis?
I had no opportunity to ask. With barely a glance, Dead-Eyed Dave pushed my keys across the countertop. Room #302 was mine for the next 18 hours.
The Room, 3:30 p.m.
Naturally, the World Hotel has no elevator, so I climbed up to my third-floor room, careful not to let my garbage bag Valise by Hefty drag on the ground. At the top of the dreary, aging staircase, I took a moment to take in the hotel’s strange odor. It was an odd blend between dusty and moldy with just a whiff of cheap perfume that gave me a headache.
The best way to describe my tiny, windowless room is “mental asylum chic.” My twin mattress fit snugly in the space, with an ample few inches to spare on one side. The wall-mounted TV boasted three channels — two in Chinese. The bed itself looked clean enough; there were no visible blood stains, at least.
And though no mice scurried for cover when I walked in and no cockroaches were chilling on the floor, I did spy my first bed bug. I quickly squashed it, then hung my Hefty bag on the door-mounted coat rack.
My mother and roommates were right — I had no business being here. The World Hotel was more the bed bug’s home than it was mine.
Making Friends, 5 p.m.
Eager for some air, I wandered the hotel’s five dimly lit floors, looking for another sad soul who might talk to me. I offered to help several guests with their luggage. One woman with a Russian accent was glad to have my help.
“So what do you think of the hotel?” I asked, carrying her bag down the steps.
“My room was very small,” she said. “And not very nice. And there is no hand soap in the bathrooms.”
She was right. There was one communal bathroom on each floor, and not a single one had hand soap. My trips to the restroom would be limited — only number one, never number two, and certainly no showering.
My next new friends were a couple. Or, at least, a man and a woman. I can’t vouch for their romantic status. “Where are you from?” I asked.
“New York,” the man answered.
“Oh...” I replied. “Why are you staying at this hotel?”
The man mumbled something under his breath, which I didn’t catch, and the pair hurriedly pushed past me. There are two good explanations: They were having an affair or enjoying a drug staycation. For their sake, I actually hope it was the latter. I can’t imagine a more depressing place to have an affair.
Either I creeped out my fellow guests or they didn’t speak English (or both), so most ignored me. Those willing to exchange a few words described their rooms as “disgusting” and “cramped,” and only worth it for the price.
“This is all I can afford,” one man from India confessed to me. “This is the only way I can visit New York.”
Meanwhile, about 20 blocks uptown, my own perfectly good apartment — for which I pay a handsome rent, like all New Yorkers — was going unoccupied for the night.
With no one else to interview, I left the hotel for the first time in hours. I found a cheap Chinese takeout restaurant and, as I imagined my fellow guests were doing, ordered a cheap dinner combo meal. I also picked up a cheap bottle of red wine to bring back to my room.
Evening Comes, 9 p.m.
I won’t defend the World Hotel on many counts, but there was, at least, decent wifi. The hours passed as I watched Netflix on my phone and flipped through my magazines. On high alert for bed bugs, I experienced mini panic attacks every time I felt an itch. Through the thin walls, I heard the man next door take off his belt. I wondered if he was about to masturbate. I pushed my earbuds deeper into my skull and turned up my phone’s volume.
To keep my mind level, I watched three episodes of Jessica Jones on my phone and tried not to think about my self-abusing neighbor just a few feet away.
I unscrewed my bottle of red wine.
To Sleep, Perchance, 2 a.m.
The wine was gone, and I was ready to go to sleep. I was too terrified to crawl under the covers, so I sat upright against the wall, using my pajamas as a pillow.
This would’ve worked splendidly, if not for the very loud snoring coming from next door. Apparently, he’d gotten himself to sleep quite effectively.
I’m not normally one to lose my shit, but I didn’t have an ounce of positive energy left in me. “Shut the fuck up!” I hollered. I didn’t pound on the wall, for fear of punching straight through the drywall.
I could’ve left the World Hotel at any time. Like I said, just 20 blocks away, a friendly bed waited for me. But I’d promised myself I would stay until at least six a.m.
But no amount of Netflix could get me through these next four hours in good cheer. After hours of staring at the ceiling, I grabbed my garbage bag and ran down to the lobby. Sure enough, there was Dead-Eyed Dave, as ambivalent as ever. Would he ask how my stay was? (I had a lot to say.) But, no, he didn’t ask. He didn’t care.
As planned, I made my way to the nearest McDonald’s and changed in the bathroom. Except for my phone, absolutely everything went into the trash can. Sorry, McDonald’s, it’s your problem now.
And, then, I went home. I called my mom and told her I loved her, and told my roommates I would never do anything that reckless and awful again. As best I can tell, no bed bugs came along for the ride.
All photos by Jeremy Grossman