The MTA renovated the subway station at Bleecker Street a few months ago. It was a messy affair. Over the course of the renovations, I entered the station many times on my way to work. Sometimes, the construction workers wore gas masks. This made me think about asbestos. But I just held my breath as I always do for one reason or another in the subway.
As spring turned into summer, I could see progress. The workers chipped out the old cracked tiles and replaced them with shiny white ones. They redid the “Bleecker Street Station” signs to make them look more old-fashioned. They replaced the overhead pipes that had dripped on our suits and coats and heads all last summer and fall. They powerwashed the stairs that had likely been sticky since the seventies.
One day, a new sign went up on the freshly tiled wall:
The first time I passed this sign, it really caught my eye. In the beginning, it was the sincerity of it all that led me to believe it was a gag. It was really funny:
We want to hear from you
I don’t know about anyone else taking the subway in New York City, but I’ve never really noticed that a subway attendant particularly wanted to hear from me. Nor does anyone else in the subway want to hear from anyone, for that matter.
In fact, prior to seeing this sign, it had never really occurred to me that there might be an actual human sitting in the attendant’s booth you see in each station. Sure, I have heard the hermetically sealed voice blare like a messed up walkie-talkie, but maybe since we’re not even sharing the same oxygen, the disconnect is accentuated. When I need to refill my metrocard, I just go to the automated machines.
But now, along with the fresh new look of Bleecker Street Station, the portrait of Stephanie Jones brought a human face to the rats and drips of the subway station. What made it more remarkable still was that it was difficult to imagine any subway attendant 1) looking so friendly and cool like Stephanie Jones or 2) emblazoning their first and last name and photo in a city full of batshit insane people. And, with that in mind, that they would be 3) INVITING communication. I wouldn’t.
In time, I got used to the portrait, which is quite large. I passed it every day, and perhaps in the way it happens when people have a portrait of an old anonymous relative hanging over their fireplace, Stephanie started to endear herself to me. I began to enjoy seeing her face when I passed. She became a sort of subterranean friend. I liked her tinted glasses and her collar pulled up high, the swoosh of bangs brushing the right side of her face. She looked dated, but from an unpinpoint-able era. The look on her face was one I dreamed of adopting as my own subway-face: “I’m friendly but don’t mess with me.”
Day in, and out, Stephanie would infallibly greet me at 3:00am, or 4:00pm, or 8:25am. Whether I was late for work, spilling coffee on myself, jamming myself into the doors as they closed, swiping my card for a poor person asking me to, leaving my bag unattended or stumbling up the stairs a little drunk. All without judgment. No one even stole the picture, which was surprising.
In time, I started to point out Stephanie’s portrait to my friends. They hadn’t noticed their station managers, they would say.
Sometimes, passing time till the train came, I would glance around to see if I could spot her. Or, waiting for the uptown train, I’d squint across the tracks to the opposite side of the station. Once, I thought I saw the curve of her perfectly swooped bang across the way. I made a mental note and on my way back peeked in the booth when I got out of the downtown train. It wasn’t her. This attendant did not look like she wanted to hear from you.
Other times, the train wouldn’t come. When this happened in summer, body after body of sweaty commuters would accumulate on the platform, each silently praying for deliverance from their own private 125 degree Fahrenheit hell. And then, suddenly, preternaturally, a service update announcement would crackle over the sound system, in answer to our supplications for service change enlightenment. God-like from overhead, the loudspeaker would reveal important things you needed to know, but couldn’t quite decipher. Sweat rolling down backs, saturating pinstripe shirts, the commuters would ponder, “Is this salvation?”
I would wonder, “Is that Stephanie Jones?”
I tweeted the portrait of Stephanie Jones the other day. Maybe someone else had seen her? I wanted to know she existed. My friend Natalie tweeted me back a day later:
So that’s what happened to [J]ermaine!
I received the tweet (sorry to be bringing Twitter into the story) at 26th Street, and decided I was going to see if I could find Stephanie Jones today. If Natalie had Germaine Jackson, who knows who we had. I wanted to talk to her, after seeing her face all these months. Anyway, I should compliment her on the renovations, if nothing else.
It was pretty humid, but I backtracked to Broadway from Park and walked south all the way to Bleecker Street. I turned left on Bleecker, and descended the steps at the newly built entrance, at the bottom of which hung the sign. I marched up to the human in the booth; his face was surprisingly bright and fresh.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” I said. ”Is Stephanie Jones in?”
“Who?” he said, in the intonation reserved for crazy persons.
“Stephanie Jones,” I repeated. He looked confused. No wonder they don’t seem very approachable, people bothering them all the time like this. I lifted my thumb and jerked it over my shoulder, pointing without looking behind me at the face of Stephanie peering over my left shoulder from across the hall.
“Ohhhhh!” chuckling. “No, no, the station managers… they don’t come in the station,” he said, laughing at me to my face, this being the most ridiculous idea. ”I never even met her.”
“Oh, really? It says she wants to hear from us.” I looked back at the sign for an email, or a Twitter handle, or something. There was only the MTA website address, from what I could see.
“No, no, you need to write her a letter, Miss.”
“An email you mean?”
“Uh-uh. Look, there’s the address.”
This must cut down on the workload a lot. I guess they could blame the bad reception underground. I walked back to the sign, and copied down the address. I was going to send her a fan mail. Hell knows Germaine Jackson was probably getting enough of them.
I walked toward the stairs to leave and heard the microphone walkie-talkie engage behind me. The subway attendant called out something static-y, but I couldn’t quite make it out. The mic seemed to have cut out again. We tried to pantomime, but gave up.
Two passengers walked past, not raising their eyes, and punched the start button on the ticket machine.
This summer, I traded in my membership at the Chinatown Y in favor of the outdoor gym down by the East River. Some people have been known to call it, with fondness, the “Prison Gym.”
This gym has no membership fees. Girls appear to get free trial passes. The only dues for everyone else seem to be the ability to bench press another entire man. Maybe it’s like that outdoor gym on Venice Beach in L.A., except that this one is down by the river, across the freeway from the projects.
I have learned a lot of new moves at the prison gym. I’m not positive, but I think my biceps might be getting bigger.
I like going to this gym so much, I sometimes even go on Saturday nights. Like last night. Around 8 o’clock, I edged past the girls teetering in their heels up First Avenue, and sashayed past the boys stopping to light cigarettes. I found my friend waiting for me at the usual bus bench, beside a tired-looking old man I had seen around. I smiled at both of them, and walked over.
My friend and I headed east, and after passing the projects on Avenue D we were greeted by the only air moving, the wind from the cars whipping up the FDR. We walked up the switchback ramp over the pedestrian bridge. The light was fading, and we raised our voices to talk over the din of the cars. The trees against the East River made navy blue silhouettes.
On the river side, we crossed the paved pathway over to the jungle gym. Two muscular men were there; it wasn’t too crowded yet. One stood watching the other rise up and down, vigorously doing pushups on a bar. As his body went up and down, his skin reflected light from a street light maybe, or the moon, and the rigid muscles on his shoulders and back gleamed like the hard shell of a turtle.
I walked over to the parallel bars, grabbed them with both hands and jumped, trying to get enough height to do some dips. My friend sauntered to the chin-up bars. I couldn’t get high enough, so I gave up and spun on the bars for a little while, Grade 3-style. I glanced over at my friend. He was struggling to do his eighth chin-up. They’re harder than they look.
A couple more men trickled into the gym, and an older kid with two younger boys in tow. He was teaching the boys how to cross-train (he explained to them intently). They were jumping up and down onto a bench. I admired their intensity as I did a few leisurely dips off the edge of a park bench. The sweat ran down them. I felt some trickle down my back, too.
Between sets, most of the men alternated between sneaking sidelong glances at me – the only woman there – and looking admiringly at the unchallenged master of the pushup: the alpha male of this gym, the benevolent chairman, king, semi-personal trainer with a body like an exoskeleton, Ridwan. Ridwan was still doing pushups, one-armed now.
My friend let go of the chin-up bar, winded. Ridwan rose from his pushup position and breezed passed him for a set. His red bandana was wrapped tightly around his smallish head, he clasped one hand around the bar and smoothly lifted his body. Sweat dripped off of him and the sour smell of raw male hit my nose as I walked over the soft black tarmac toward the sit-up planks. Up, down. Up, down. He continued, without let up, doing his one-handed chin-ups. They are harder than they look.
“Hey man, that’s pretty amazing. How many can you do?” my friend asked Ridwan, envious.
“My body is my weight,” Ridwan answered, without looking over. “I’m at 208 pounds. That’s my normal weight. Couple weeks ago I went up to 219, and awwww man. I gotta work a lot harder. I get here to this gym, lift this body, and maaaaaan. Pfffft. Eatin’ bad, not exercizin’, Now, I’m back to 208. My body keeps me in check.”
“That makes sense,” my friend offered to Ridwan’s back as he swung his legs up on the bar and began doing crunches, upside down.
“Like I’m sayin’,” Ridwan puffed. “My body is my weight.”
I walked over to the bench the kids had vacated and tried to jump up like they had been doing. I was struck with a terror of tripping and instead sat down on it. My friend began doing a few pushups on the bar Ridwan had been using on the ground beside the chin-up bar. Ridwan hopped down from his apparatus, paused, then walked over to my friend doing pushups.
“What… are you doin’?”
Ridwan loomed over him. My friend stopped mid-pushup and looked up from his prone position, not taking his hands from the bar. He cleared his throat, “Pushups?”
“No. You’re not.” There was a pause. Then Ridwan said, with concern in his voice, ” You know what you doin’? You are exercizin’ your skeleton. Do you wanna be exercizin’ your skeleton?”
“Uh, I guess maybe not?” My friend craned his head to the side.
My friend released his grip and put his knees on the ground. Breathing hard, he leaned back on his heels and rose, slowly. In a smooth flash of skin, Ridwan was over the bar, hands gripped wide. His muscles undulated as he rose up and down, up and down. ”You see? All tight. You see?”
“Thanks, man,” my friend said. Sweat dripped on the black rubbery ground.
“You gotta master your own body weight.” Ridwan turned away and coolly returned to his crunches.
My friend tried a few pushups, tentatively.
“That’s the best I’ve seen you do all night,” Ridwan called over.
I was doing lunges around the outer edge of the gym. It was making me lose my balance, looking at them instead of ahead of me. It was so hot my head was starting to ache. I walked and stood over my friend, whose sweat was making little puddles on the rubber. “Wanna go?”
“See you, Ridwan.”
He didn’t seem to hear us. Up, down. Up, down. We hit the old chipped marble water fountain on the way out, the lukewarm geyser a testament to the heat of the night. We drank for a minute straight, each of us, then headed back over the pedestrian bridge. Two kids ran past, peeling the paper off of popsicles they had bought from the deli below.
We turned down Avenue C, past the community garden at the corner of 5th Street, and made a right on 3rd. Mist hit us as soon as we rounded the corner. Someone had cracked the fire hydrant cover open, and the water shot out in an arc, spanning the street like a wet rainbow. This made me think of what, at one time, I had thought New York was, a fantasy fueled by Spike Lee movies and far removed from the Manhattan of 2012.
I ran in first, and the water hit me hard like a punch. I put my head in the torrent. My hair flung straight out with its force. The cold water ran into my eyes, stinging, and it tasted like salt. I flipped my hair out, and the water from it sprayed my friend. My giggles must have echoed up to the apartments above. My friend thrust his head in, and I danced like a little girl in the spray.
Yesterday, I was walking home from work. I had just passed Gramercy Park when a tall, pubescent boy attempted to stop me.
“Excuse me, Ma’am,” he said.
I admit that I’m normally on autopilot when I walk the 44 blocks home from my job. You have to be, to walk 44 blocks down through midtown Manhattan. First, you must overtake the wide tourists marching in formation down Fifth Avenue. Then, as you turn into pockets of Gramercy, you have to hold your breath and two-step past rich people picking up their dog poo. Only afterward to be unceremoniously dislodged from the tree-lined streets and snobby parks onto the damage which is 14th Street, with its fast food restaurants, pushy coupon-givers, and Trader Joe’s grocery bag filled old lady type carts.
He had an accent, he seemed Asian. His oily skin shone in the angle of the late afternoon sun.
I did a semi-stop, not wanting to ignore him in case there was a problem, but also not wanting to stop… because of not wanting to stop.
“What’s that?” I said, sort of over my shoulder. I walk really fast.
“Do you know, is there a Forever 21 around here?”
I looked around at Washington Irving’s house across the street, and the new cheese shop across from it. This boy clearly didn’t want anything in Forever 21, and wasn’t that a women’s store anyway? One just didn’t see pubescent boys in there. But the question was simple enough. Having stopped now, I sized him up and gave a quick answer.
“Hmm. I don’t really know, I don’t ever go to that store. Maybe in Union Square, a few blocks over that way?” The idea that a shop chock full of creased polyester and $12.99 price tags could be steps away from the gracious stoop of any house in which Washington Irving’s books lined mahogany shelves or within smelling distance of the new cheese shop and its $16 rounds of brie, seemed surprising.
I concluded to him that I didn’t really know, and, lifting my foot to resume my momentum, encouraged him to ask someone once he got nearer to the shoppers in Union Square. He stopped me mid-stride.
“Uh…,” his voice rising. ”What should I buy my niece for her birthday?” he blurted out. ”She’s 10.”
I couldn’t walk away. Moments before, I took this gangly interruption for a lost tourist or well-dressed homeless person to avoid eye-contact with. And now I found myself suddenly brainstorming on the corner of 17th Street with a prematurely tall boy with whiskers poking out from his juvenile chin. Asking about his little cousin, what TV shows she liked to watch, where she lived, stretching back to the corner of my mind that used to know 10 year olds.
This morning, WNYC woke me from my LED alarm clock. As I half listened, in a dream, I stiffened in a panic. Was this conniving little genius of a teen the awkward, polite boy he seemed? Or, was he a master manipulator, roaming the streets looking for an easy target to exploit with his embarrassing experiments??
INSKEEP: All of us need other people to do things. Parents want small kids to brush their teeth and get ready for school. Panhandlers want our money. Marketers want people to buy. And there’s new research into how to get people to do things you want.
VEDANTAM: Imagine you’re walking down the street and a panhandler stops you. You’re much more likely to give the guy money if he starts by saying, hey, buddy. What’s the time? And if you stop and answer him and tell him what the time is, and then he asks you for the money, you’re much more likely to give him the money.
INSKEEP: Oh, now we have a relationship. We’re just talking here, among friends.
VEDANTAM: Exactly. So the foot in the door essentially opens the conversation, gets the guy to stop. And what this new research is finding – this is by a guy called Dariusz Dolinski. He’s in Poland. He’s found that when that initial request is highly unusual, people become much more likely to comply with what you’re actually asking them.
Vedantam, a scientist, came up to New York last week, to give Dolinski’s technique a try in Times Square. Would the Pole’s theory stand, in the most insanely rushed city ever?
He approached two men walking, and told them that he wanted to talk to each of them, one at a time. He took aside the first guy, McDonald, and asked him straight off to do something really embarrassing – no foot in the door. “Stand in the middle of Times Square and clap loudly over your head.” The man refused.
Then he went over and talked to McDonald’s partner, Scott. Vedantam tried a different tactic. He told Scott he hurt his back, and was having trouble bending over. Could he tie his shoelace for him? Scott complied, asking how he hurt his back, engaging in a little conversation. He then asked Scott to do the very same thing he had just asked McDonald to do.
“Could I ask you to stand over here and clap three times over your head?”
Scott: Clap over my head?
(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)
So, if someone gets you to stop and think – say, about polyester and what a lone teenage boy wants with a frilly baby doll top – you become much more likely to comply with their real request. The haze of anonymity clears. The pilot returns to the controls. You stop rushing for the thing you don’t have to rush to. You stop and think.
Hey, boy on the street, it worked! I hope your little cousin likes the Katy Perry CD we talked about. You proved Dariusz Dolinski right. I bet I would have even clapped over my head for you.
Deep in the woods of upstate New York, John Kuhner rubbed his hands together to stay warm as the morning light flooded into the window of his one-room cabin. Each morning for the past three and a half years, John has woken up much like this: completely solitary, eating food he has grown himself, and finding innovative ways to live on less.
John’s home has no electricity, no running water, and no companionship, for the most part. He lives this way because he holds a deep, almost religious belief that upper and middle-class lifestyles are unsatisfying and unsustainable, and that to be happy, we as a culture need to live more simply.
“When I have had the blues, there are three things I want to do,” said John. One, work more, as a relief from thought. Two, drive around looking at things. And three, buy stuff.”
His theory is that contemporary American culture is explained by the fact that most people are actually depressed. “That’s why they spend their lives on work, cars, and crap. This could be the motto of at least half of America.”
John didn’t always live this way, and his lifestyle would be incomprehensible to most of his former Princeton University classmates. But while most of his contemporaries were learning skills that would go on to reward them with big paychecks, John was discovering he valued something different. Then again, he was already different than many of the more privileged kids at the school from the get go.
John’s parents were squatters, and dirt poor. John’s father was a former priest who had left the church after getting John’s mother, who was a nun, pregnant. His father refused to work, leaving the family in abject poverty. John remembers scouring the neighborhood with his father in the dead of winter, searching for discarded wood pallets to burn in the fireplace for heat.
However, in spite of all this, John excelled at school, and was in a class for gifted children. One day, his mother bundled him up and took him on the subway to the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She had made an appointment at a prestigious Jesuit school known for giving scholarships to underprivileged Catholic boys.
When John walked into the dark, wooded chambers of the school’s foyer, he was awestruck. “Here was a place where everything was majestic, solid, beautiful,” said John. “It was the opposite of any environment I had ever known, and I fell in love.” John was accepted to the school, and this set him on his track to the Ivy League. He thrived under the tutelage of the Jesuit priests, learned Latin, and upon graduation was accepted to Princeton.
At Princeton, John was miserable. For a working-class boy from Queens it was hard to fit in. Neither he nor his parents could afford the money for tuition, so he had to work in the kitchen to get a subsidy.
“My fellow classmates would yell at me from their tables, ‘Hey, food person, get me some fries.’”
John reacted by trying not to fit in to an even greater degree. He walked around campus in a Revolutionary War cloak his brother had found in an army reserve unit warehouse. He let his hair grow long. His grades began to suffer.
Once he graduated from Princeton, John got his first job teaching, but he found it difficult to adapt to the lifestyle a regular job required. Restless, he quit and got on his bike and rode to Seattle. He wanted to track down a man in nearby Eugene, Oregon he had read about. The man lived on nothing – he hadn’t used money in years. He survived off of things other people threw away.
The meeting had a big impact on John. They spent an afternoon on the riverbank, where the man explained in detail that if waste were drastically reduced, there would be enough for many people to live comfortably at very little ecological cost. John stayed and talked with the man for a week, then left and took a boat to Alaska. He came back to Seattle, then biked to Tijuana. He moved back to New York, and into the woods.
Most of John’s days at the cabin are taken up by physical labor – hauling water up from the spring, tending the garden, cutting wood for the fire. At night he usually reads or writes – he is working on a novel about a terrorist, set in Paterson, New Jersey. Or, he uses the internet at the country store nearby.
“What I love about cabin life is that every day is different,” John said without irony after describing his daily routine, which doesn’t alter much.
It’s been three and a half years since John moved up to the cabin. He grows most of his own food in the summer months, subsisting on a diet of tomatoes, carrots, and lettuce and supplemented by a little pasta or bread. What is left over, he cans for the winter. He works odd jobs landscaping to make extra cash for essentials.
John doesn’t regret not having the typical things that come with an Ivy League education. “I moved to the cabin to be around nature and beauty and joy every day, waste less, and simplify my lifestyle.”
It works for him.
Not without drawbacks, though. “I certainly don’t get many dates out here. That’s been difficult.”
In a neighborhood of Brooklyn south of the Williamsburg Bridge, dressing up to go outside is nothing new for the majority the menfolk.
The cylindrical hats and black cloaks of the Hasidic Jews are as much a part of the scenery of this Williamsburg neighborhood as corner bodegas and kosher bakeries.
But once a year, these normally austere ultra-orthodox Jews and their children trade in their traditional religious garb for Curious George masks, scarecrows and princess costumes.
The holy day of Purim has a reputation amongst Jews as the wildest holiday of the year, and members of this ultra-orthodox enclave of Brooklyn celebrate it as a community-wide party. This past Wednesday, however, the Hasids weren’t the only ones partying.
“It’s the only night of the year our neighbors all get drunk and rowdy,” said local resident David Small, 32. “We would hate to be the odd ones out on this front.”
Small is somewhat of an anomaly in this Hasidic-dominated neighborhood, where he lives with six other 20 and 30-something males in a cavernous loft with no central heating, a functioning recording studio, and bedrooms built out of sheet rock.
Their unusual residence may appear to be yet another evidence of the sprawling hipster gentrification of Brooklyn, but Small says it’s quite the contrary. “When we moved into this loft eight years ago there were no Hasidic people here. This neighborhood was scary – the projects are down the street, we’d get mugged.”
All that changed over the past five years as members of the Hasid community moved in, built condos, and altered the face of the place. With the influx of the new families, the atmosphere of the neighborhood changed. One benefit was that crime went down.
Another effect, however, was not as welcome. The roommates had been fond of throwing large dance parties, and these became increasingly difficult to hold as the new neighbors would inevitably call the police and get the parties shut down.
As a result, the loft-dwellers started a tradition of their own. Each year, the non-Jew residents of Lorimer Street hold their own Purim party. It’s the one night no one minds the racket.
Two Parties, One Neighborhood
Purim celebrations begin at sundown for the Jews, with a feast. The meal is followed by determined drinking, with the general goal of getting drunk.
The imbibing has a religious significance for Hasidic men, who are encouraged to drink on Purim until they can no longer distinguish between two phrases that mean ‘Cursed is Haman’ and ‘Blessed is Mordecai.’ Haman and Mordecai are the villain and hero of the Purim story.
The party then moves out onto the streets; tour bus-sized party buses blast Hebrew pop music, criss-crossing the neighborhood. Children and young adults dress up in costumes, and underage drinking is rife. “All over the world every year rabbis will try to counsel Jews to not get so drunk, or to not permit underage drinking, but it doesn’t help,” said Zach Horowitz, a 23 year-old Hasidic man.
Surveying the street scene, another young Hasid named Getzy Rabin, 24, said, “It’s definitely crazy, especially since everybody is drunk. Some are rowdy drunks, but others, like my grandfather, are serious drunks who spend the whole time crying.”
Meanwhile in the hipster loft, drinking is a ritual of sorts, too, though not religious in nature. A cooler full of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer condensed on the concrete floor, ashtrays overflowed with cigarette butts. A throng of young men and women bumped into each other as they danced in the center of the room; a thin man in skinny jeans fiddled with a guitar in a corner.
The normally austere Hasidic members of the community do not have much interaction with their gentile neighbors. But the party atmosphere of Purim lends itself to a more laid-back attitude.
“Last night we walked around for a bit and I think the drinking helped put their guard down,” said Andy Wang, 29, a resident of the Lorimer Street loft. Wang noted that the only interaction he ever has with his Hasidic neighbors is when they request his assistance on Sabbath. “They never talk to me except when they need something turned on, and bribe me with oranges to come do it for them.”
Hasidic Jews are prohibited from doing any kind of work on the Sabbath, including turning on light switches or opening a fridge.
Another loft resident, Jesse Smythe, 33, chain-smoked over a DJ booth in one corner of the crowded dance floor. He dropped a track of Berlin techno-trance music, the bass thumping out of five-foot tall speakers worthy of a night club.
“Normally, if I had the music on this loud, the cops would be here in five minutes flat,” said Smythe, shouting. On this night, there wasn’t a cop or a complaint in site.
Meanwhile, outside the loft at street-level, Rabin glanced over at a passing party bus and said, “Purim is pretty much a free pass to do whatever you want for a day.”
An East Village restaurant said to be operating as an illegal nightclub is up for a liquor license renewal, but First Street residents are rallying against the application. The establishment, known as LaVie Lounge, originally applied for and was granted a liquor license to operate as a cafe/bar, but neighbors say it is now operating as a club.
Complaining about the constant barrage of noise, raucous drunken brawls and late-night dance parties originating from inside the establishment and pouring onto the street, incensed neighbors presented evidence at this Monday’s Community Board 3 Meeting that LaVie was in violation of the terms of its liquor license, and demanded that the license be revoked.
Resident Jason Weisfuse, 32, who lives next door to the establishment at 62 East 1st Street, produced recent screenshots of LaVie’s website advertising DJ dance parties and bottle service. He also presented photographs printed from the LaVie Facebook fan page showing overcrowded dance floors and live DJs spinning records. Handing out copies of the evidence to board members, Weisfuse asserted, “It’s a bona fide dance club.” He also presented a report that measured the decibel level within his apartment to be “2.3 times higher than the legal limits.”
Mercedes Santana, President of the Property Management Corporation at 62 East 1st Street echoed the neighbors’ assertions that LaVie does not belong in this residential neighborhood, noting, “Every Monday morning when I come to work I find vomit directly outside the entryway to the building.”
LaVie’s liquor license was originally granted in 2003 to operate as a café bar with a closing time of midnight and music limited to recorded cds and tapes. Dance parties and live music are limited to establishments in possession of a cabaret license, which LaVie does not hold.
Monday’s Board Meeting was not an official liquor board licensing hearing. LaVie’s new part-owner, Joseph Shenouda, 32, was required to appear to request his addition to the license before the formal hearing, which is scheduled for March. According to the State Liquor Authority, businesses with liquor licenses normally only have to appear before their local community board if ownership changes by 80 percent. Mr. Shenouda had only purchased a 50 percent stake, but was asked to appear before the board because of the history of complaints.
The history of incidents at LaVie include a Thanksgiving slashing, where two women and a man were attacked on the corner of First Avenue and First Street as they left the premises at around 4:00 a.m., an assault with a broken champagne bottle during an altercation between a customer and a bouncer, and fifteen violations for breaching the terms of their liquor license.
Shenouda said he has experience running other establishments in New Jersey, and bought the stake in Lavie “as an investment from the previous owner who wanted out.” He made attempts to reassure the board that he was going to make changes, and that he bought the fifty percent stake in the business with the idea of improving things. “The bad old days are gone,” he told the board, noting a recent open house he held for residents the previous week, offering an open bar and a chance to voice their concerns.
Shenouda’s lawyer, Terry Flynn, also attempted to reassure the board that the situation was different now that Shenouda had come on board. Flynn stated that his client “intends on making certain changes.” He went on to detail Shenouda’s plan: hiring three security guards, contracting a cleaning team to clean the entirety of First Street each night, and disconnecting sub-woofers that cause vibrations in neighboring apartments. When asked if the establishment intended on continuing to do business as a nightclub, Flynn asserted, “It’s not a club.”
Regardless of changes Shenouda plans to make, LaVie still seems to be in violation of its liquor license. First Street Block Association President, Robert Graf, 64, made this point as he passed out page 10 of the original license. The audience in the filled-to-capacity room broke out in applause as Graf read out the requirements of the original license, summing up, “LaVie never would have gotten this license if they had been upfront about wanting to operate as a restaurant-nightclub.”
After some confused discussion over what was within their rights to rule in the matter, the board passed a motion to not endorse the change in ownership. They moved to reaffirm the denial of the January 2011 renewal notice because “the method of operation remains that of a club.”