If only he'd taken a bath. Barefoot and miserable, the defendant, William Nowell, watched the jurors laughing and chatting as they filed out of the courtroom. Like they were at a cocktail party, he thought. Never mind that his life had just come apart. He started to cry. The verdict was in. He'd been evicted for smelling bad.
Nowell does smell. Even he admits it. But precisely how bad is a matter of debate. In August, it became a matter of legal debate, when the owners of the luxury loft building Nowell lived in took him to court in an effort to kick him out of the very apartment they'd let him into.
Nowell had been living on the streets for the past two decades, and he looks it. He owns one outfit, which he wears every single day: too-big, ragged black sweatpants wadded up into a ball at the waist, and black hoodie sweatshirt. No socks. No shoes. Fierce blue eyes peek out from beneath a large, scruffy dreadlock of hair, which clings to the back of his head like some crazy animal.
Last year, he received what every down-on-his-luck homeless person dreams of: a sudden windfall, a settlement in the amount of $200,000 to do with as he pleased. He would begin anew, he decided: find a home, clean up.
"I always envisioned the place I wanted," he says.
The building at 650 Spring St. fit the bill. It's one of eight buildings downtown owned by SB Properties, the largest loft builder in the area. A byzantine old former Bank of America, with original Art Deco tiles, echoing main hall and steel safe-deposit boxes in the vault downstairs, it's a place straight out of the movies — indeed, the music video for Usher's "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love Again" and scenes from Mad Men were filmed here.
Aesthetics aside, at other buildings, people were rude. "As you can imagine," Nowell says, pointing to himself. "I know I smell bad. I'm sick. I have serious kidney problems."
SB Properties leasing agent Cassandra Smith, however, "was very nice," he says. "She never gave any indication about my appearance or the way I smell. And I was worse than I am now." He met with her "just like this. No shoes." Nowell explained that he didn't have credit but could pay a whole year in advance. "I really wanted to get in there."
They accepted him with six months' rent in advance and a double deposit — a total of $12,000 up front. He signed a one-year lease, at $1,495 a month, for unit 408.
At 800 square feet, with cement floors, exposed-brick walls and industrial piping overhead, the one-bedroom unit is not terribly luxe. But it had 11-foot-high ceilings and lots of sunlight pouring in through three big, street-facing windows. He moved in on Tuesday, Jan. 3.
Nowell has an impressive memory and a genteel way of speaking that is at odds with his derelict appearance. Like a prince disguised as a pauper, he notes who is nice (the evening doorman, and Cassandra Smith "at first") and who is not (pretty much everyone else). "When I met the building manager, she gave me this look," he recalls. "I can sense when somebody doesn't approve."
"Nice to meet you," he recalls having said to her. "But she just looked at me. I knew what was going through her head. How did I get into this building? How did I get approved? What was Cassandra thinking?"
He spent the rest of the day in a taxi, schlepping 125 plastic grocery bags of stuff — the sum total of his worldly possessions — from the motel room he'd been renting in MacArthur Park to his new home. Nowell owned art magazines, books and old newspapers but had neither furniture nor linens. "I wanted to hold off on all that until I finally got my own place," he explains. "It was a big thing for me."
When exactly did things start to go wrong? It could perhaps be traced back to a kind deed gone awry.
Sometime during the day, Nowell got a call from Smith, the leasing agent. She'd purchased toiletries for him. Could she have permission to put them in his apartment?
"It insulted me," he says now. "I wanted to move in quietly and get some much-needed rest. I didn't want to be treated like I've been treated all these years. People wanting to ... whatever ..."
"Why don't you just leave it at the front desk?" he asked her.
"No," he recalls her saying. "Why don't I just lay it out in your bathroom." When he returned to the apartment, he found soap, shampoo, deodorant, a shower curtain, socks, shoes, towels, a change of clothes and a collection of tiny, travel-sized hotel soaps in a pink Victoria's Secret bag waiting for him.