November 22, 2015

Puck Your Stewardship


One recent Saturday afternoon I was in the kitchen doing something or another when Morgan walked in and said, “Here’s an idea for something Surreal to do.” There are few better ways to get my attention.

            Originally built between 1888 and 1893, the Puck Building is a glorious, richly detailed, and imposing ten-story brownstone structure standing at the corner of Houston and Lafayette streets along the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side. It was originally home (as the name might imply) to the offices of Puck magazine, which also helps explain the statue of Puck just off the sidewalk on the building’s north side, as well as the one poised over the main entrance. For awhile in the mid-Eighties, long after Puck had folded, it housed the offices of SPY magazine, and in 1988 The New York Press took over the ninth floor, and would remain there until 1997. The Puck was also home to a dance studio, a photography studio, some tech start-ups, a couple of little magazines, scattered other creative businesses, and some classrooms for both Pratt and NYU.

            Having worked there for about five years, I have very good memories of the Puck. Morgan and I met there, we met a lot of good friends there, and the paper was publishing a lot of great work. It was a wild and insane office back then full of eccentric characters (not just the writers and artists, but even the ad salesmen), and we think back to those days with more than a little fondness. I’m no party person, but my god even I have to admit the parties there could get completely out of hand. Where else could you see a future editor at the New York Times make a beer slide?

            We were witnesses to the last days of what the East Village used to be, and the building itself had a good deal to do with that. For all the hijinks, shenanigans, and occasional salaciousness that took place on the ninth floor, for all the midgets and crazies and off-kilter neighborhood characters who walked through the office door, it was still a building with history and style and class.

            The Puck boasted two gorgeous grand ballrooms, one on the ground floor, the other dominating the fifth. Although there was a pair of automatic elevators tucked into the back corner of the lobby, when you entered the Lafayette Street entrance the first thing you were confronted with was an exquisitely detailed wrought-iron manual elevator operated by a creepy Polish perv of about sixty named Andrei. The modern elevators would’ve been faster, safer, and more comfortable, but I always opted to ride with Andrei, even as he leered, drooled, and propositioned all the young women who came through the building. At the front desk in the cavernous and otherwise empty lobby sat Mark, another Polish immigrant, but a gentle, kindly, and erudite one. Mark had a degree in physics, but, divorced from the scientific community after arriving in the States, he still devoured scientific journals there at his desk. Apart from the raucousness on the ninth floor, the rest of the building still felt like classic New York from seventy years earlier. If it hadn’t received landmark status, it was simply a stupid oversight on someone’s part.

            Morgan and I hadn’t been inside the Puck since the paper moved to a much less interesting high rise in Chelsea in 1997, but one afternoon in 2012 while we were leaving a bar across the street from our old office, Morgan pointed out with some disgust and dismay that it seemed a clothing store or sporting goods shop or something equally worthless had taken over the entire ground floor of the building.

            “Oh, fuck no,” I said, or something along those lines. It was so grim and typical and sadly to be expected. Worse, I learned later several of the upper floors had been converted into luxury penthouse apartments for assholes.

            My next reaction was to wonder what had become of Mark.

            Which brings us back to that recent Saturday afternoon and Morgan’s idea for something Surreal to do. On Monday we were going to run a few errands around Manhattan, beginning in our old neighborhood. She hates shopping for clothes above and beyond most any other human activity, but needed a new pair of pants, so while we were in the area, why not stop into what used to be the Puck? First to see if they had anything she liked, and second to get a first hand look at what had been done to the building. We had no idea what we were in for.

            So Monday morning, with twenty minutes to kill before the store opened, we took a stroll down Houston just to get a look at the old neighborhood. I’m not sure where the old neighborhood was, but it sure as shit wasn’t where it used to be. The pool hall was now a chain drug store. The old car wash a high end sneaker shop. The old diner was now a fashionable boutique. Milano’s was still there, thank god, but the building next door—what used to be the Botanica bar, a record shop, and the original Knitting Factory, was now, well, some other fashionable boutique.

            I know New York by its nature has always existed in a state of flux, but I’ve never known another place with so much history immediately at hand that was in such a frenzy, especially over these last twenty years, to completely obliterate that history, as well as any accompanying sense of style.

            Oh, there’s little point in bitching about it anymore. With each passing day the world becomes uglier and stupider and worse. It’s always been that way, the simple trajectory of history. But dispirited as we were when we finally stepped foot once again into the Puck a few minutes after ten that morning, we could not have been prepared for what had been done to it.

            The ballroom was gone. The lobby was gone. That beautiful century-old elevator was gone. Everything was gone. Not only had the ground floor been completely gutted, they’d even carved holes in the walls in order to install huge windows allowing for a three hundred sixty degree view of the crappy world outside, all those flashing billboards and oblivious tourists and their fat shopping bags. And for what? For a fucking featureless warehouse crammed with more shit to buy. Where the elevator once stood there was now a big hole in the floor with steps leading down to still another vast warehouse space where you could buy even more shit.

            This building, once home to so much satirical and creative energy, to publications which delighted in skewering what the culture was becoming, had been beaten and raped into an immutable symbol of everything we had raged against.

            But then things got even worse. Morgan actually did find a pair of pants, but after working our way through a one-way maze clearly designed to thwart any would-be heinous shoplifters, we were confronted with a snide and grating checkout clerk who obviously took great pride in her job and the store as she gave us the Pitch.

            The store, she explained, was actually a non-profit co-op, and a percentage of their profits went to “supporting their neighborhood stewardship program.” What’s more, if we bought a share of the co-op for twenty dollars, at the end of each year we would receive ten percent of the amount we spent at the store. Isn’t that just super?

            Wait wait wait wait wait.

            First of all, what the hell kind of “non-profit co-op” can afford to buy up a chunk of prime Manhattan real estate, let alone in one of the city’s most recognizable buildings, let alone to undertake a complete gut renovation of said historically significant building?

            And what the fuck is this “neighborhood stewardship program”? What, so your plan is to encourage people to gobble up any lingering shreds of style or historical meaning, anything at all unique to the area, to transform more beautiful structures into cold and vast warehouses for savage commerce and asshole penthouses? To clog the skyline with more massive electronic billboards and the sidewalks with still more fat, entitled assholes swinging huge shopping bags? Because that’s pretty much what it sounds like.

            It was typical and expected then that when we informed this ill-conceived troglodyte we weren’t in the least interested in supporting her malignant program (though we didn’t use the term “malignant”), she turned stupidly vicious, all but accusing us openly of being common gutter thieves unworthy to enter her store. And you know, that’s just fine, because those are the people I’d rather be around anyway.

            My god what I wouldn’t have given for a flame thrower at that moment. Instead I just took it as yet more evidence there simply is no reason anymore to go to Manhattan. Of course I decided that about a decade ago, but it’s still nice to have all you’ve believed proven right once in awhile.


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