YM I So Tired?

The YMCA house band.

I love New York. This probably comes from not living there. To actually reside there would be hectic, exhausting, and expensive. But visiting! Visiting is a treat. Visiting is also hectic, exhausting, and expensive, but it’s over faster.

I took a trip to The NYC last month and had the pleasure of seeing friends who had moved to New York since the last time I was there. The nice thing about having friends in New York is that they’ll let you crash at their apartments when you visit. The downside is that everyone’s apartment in New York is the size of a public restroom stall, making the accommodations wise from the standpoint of economics but not ergonomics. You have to weigh your options: Sure, I can stay here for free. But is it worth it if I have to sleep on a pile of laundry under the sink?

Besides, you hate to take advantage of someone’s kindness, especially considering they must be driven crazy by their miniature living quarters already, without a freeloader sleeping in the closet (folded in half, stuffed behind a box).

Not wanting to be a burden on my friends, and wanting someplace comfortable to call my own where I could come and go as I pleased, I set out into the wilds of the Internets to find lodgings. Here I discovered that something had changed since my last New York visit. You may recall that in September of 2001 the city experienced some unpleasantness, and that tourism declined thereafter. I guess people were afraid, what, that the bad guys were gonna come back and finish the job? Whatever the reason, for a couple years after that you could get really good deals on hotels, because they were trying to get tourists to return.

Well, tourism must be back to its pre-2001 levels now, because the city has returned to its original position of not giving a damn whether anyone visits or not. In fact, they’d prefer you don’t. Some of the hotels charge prices so high that I have to assume their purpose is to actively discourage people from booking rooms there. “Stay home!” the prices seem to say. “We don’t want you here.”

I searched for creative, low-budget options. There are hostels, but I did that once, in London, and I didn’t want to repeat the experience. You pay only $20 or $30 a night, but you share a room with five strangers, all of whom also don’t want to pay real money for a hotel, which means they’re all hippies or college students or deadbeats or Europeans or some other class of people I don’t want to share quarters with. Plus, being on the registry of known snoring offenders, there was the strong chance I would be murdered in my sleep.

(Also: Once you are above the age of 30, you should not stay in a hostel. I have a lot of rules about what you should and shouldn’t do once you’re 30, and I just thought of that one.)

I also looked at options outside of Manhattan. Hoboken and Weehawken are in New Jersey, which is a shameful place to be, but they’re just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. There were places I could stay in Weehawken, for example, that are closer to Times Square than Brooklyn is.

Unfortunately, most hoteliers in New Jersey have realized how close they are to New York and jacked up their prices accordingly. The exception was a place in Weehawken that offered rooms, through Travelocity and some of the other websites, for as little as $100 a night. This was by far the cheapest thing I’d found anywhere remotely close to the city. One hundred dollars in Manhattan itself wouldn’t get you a spot on a park bench.

I was considering booking a room at this discount hotel when I looked at the reviews it had gotten from other travelers. They were filled with alarm and horror. “THE FILTHIEST PLACE I’VE EVER STAYED!” “THERE WAS STILL POLICE TAPE AROUND THE BED!” “A RAT ATE MY WALLET!” “MY HOOKER DIED!” The litany of complaints against this hotel encompassed every possible aspect of the place, and it convinced me not to stay there, at least eventually. At first I thought it might be fun to stay there just for the stories I would get from it. Then I remembered that it is unwise to spend so much money for the sake of a joke, as Nicolas Cage’s hairpiece will tell you.

Finally, Travelocity suggested something that had not occurred to me: the YMCA. They have cheap, no-frills rooms for out-of-town visitors, there’s one in midtown Manhattan, you can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal, you can do whatever you feel! My understanding was that it’s fun to stay at the YMCA.

Truthfully, all I knew about the YMCA was what I’d heard in the song about it. And yes, I’m aware of the subtextual connotations of that particular anthem; from what I gather, the YMCA in the late ’70s was a much less savory place than it is now (although I guess that’s true of most things in the late ’70s). Today it is far more reputable, free of shenanigans and eager to have people forget its old, seedy image. My only apprehension about staying there, really, was that I might have that song stuck in my head the whole time.

I booked three nights at the YMCA and made arrangements to stay with a couple friends in Hoboken for two nights thereafter. (The YMCA is cheap, but it’s not free.) I breathed a sigh of relief when I checked in and found my room to be clean and seemingly hepatitis-free. The YMCA’s rooms are about the size of a small dorm room, with a narrow twin bed, a desk (but no chair), a small refrigerator, a TV, and an air conditioner in the window. Each floor has men’s and women’s bathrooms with private shower facilities, and while the staff seemed to have booked men and women on different ends of the floor, there were no rules about who was allowed to go where (other than the bathrooms, obviously). So I suppose if a man wanted to bring a lady friend back to his YMCA room to hook up, he’d be free to do so, although such a proposition ought to be seen as a red flag for both parties: for her if he suggests it, and for him if she agrees to it.

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The room, in all its cheap splendor. Note: The photo is not blurry; the room itself is.

For me, staying here was merely practical, of course; it’s not like I was planning to hang out in my room at the YMCA all day. But that first night, sitting on the bed, reading a book in the dim light, I realized how depressing the whole place was. The room — bare and bleak and uninviting — was like a prison cell. It seemed like the kind of place you would go if you were a troubled loner who wanted to plan an assassination, or commit suicide, or write a manifesto.

And I had not taken into account the bed. My goodness, the bed. I knew the YMCA would be a no-frills operation, and that was fine. What I had not expected was that the bed would consist of a very thin prison-style mattress on top of: a wooden box. No springs, no second mattress, just a box made out of plywood, with that four-inch-thick “mattress” on top of it.

Even in the spirit of “roughing it,” this was unacceptable. The human body, even a soft, doughy one like mine, cannot adjust to such conditions enough to get a comfortable night’s sleep. It turns out it’s not fun to stay at the YMCA. Not fun at all! That song is a liar. Village People? More like Village Idiots!!!!!

As I lay there, trying to fall asleep and constantly failing at it, I knew the only way I could possibly endure two more nights of this was if I had something to look forward to when it was over. Unfortunately, as you’ll recall, my post-YMCA plan was to spend two nights on my friends’ couch in Hoboken. This couch would surely be more comfortable than the YMCA bed — a bed made of car batteries, fiberglass insulation, and fire would be more comfortable than the YMCA bed — but it wasn’t enough of a reward for surviving three nights on the Wooden Box of Sadness. I needed a better incentive for myself.

So the next morning I went on Priceline and booked a real hotel to replace those two Hoboken nights. The hotel promised a comfortable bed and my own bathroom! (It’s amazing what you look forward to after you stay at the YMCA.) Knowing I had this waiting for me when my stint at the Y was finished, I managed those next two nights just fine, the way prisoners of war keep themselves sane by dreaming of the cheeseburgers they’ll eat and the girls they’ll kiss when they get home. Of course, POWs probably sleep on things that are more comfortable than the beds at the YMCA, so I think you’ll agree that I’m even more of a hero than they are.

[ It was one of my Hoboken friends who contributed the line “MY HOOKER DIED!” in reference to the Weehawken hotel. The establishment in question, called the Park Avenue Hotel, has since closed, but the reviews from around the time I almost stayed there are archived here. ]