Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Sound Portraits

The Sunshine Hotel is an audio portrait of one of the final vestiges of the Bowery, New York's notorious skid row. In the first half of the century, the mile-long Bowery's bars, missions and cheap hotels (or flophouses) were home to an estimated 35,000 down-and-out men each night. Today, only a handful of flophouses, virtually unchanged for half a century, are all that remain of this once teeming world. 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."

All the Way Broken is the audio diary of Iolene Catalano, a former heroin addict and prostitute. She was born on May 10, 1948, in a carnival trailer in Pennsylvania. Her mother was an exotic dancer and her father ran a crooked carnival concession. She spent her childhood in orphanages, reform schools, and mental institutions. By age twenty, she was living on the streets of New York City as a prostitute, thief, and some-time rock-and-roll singer. Iolene was diagnosed with HIV one month after she shot heroin for the last time. Together Catalano and producer David Isay recorded more than thirty hours of interviews. In April 1994, Iolene had a breakdown. She was admitted to Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, and the project was suspended. Throughout her illness, Catalano kept a tape recorder by her bed-side. At night, she’d have a nurse tape a microphone to her chest so that she could record her thoughts before she fell asleep. Iolene died at Roosevelt Hospital on June 3, 1994. She was clean for the last eight years of her life.

Sound Portraits offers an online selection of some of the finest audio documentaries I have ever heard. Creative radio at its best