Many years ago, there was a bunch of hoopla about the massive glass behemoth that noted architect, Frank Gehry, had designed for the Atlantic Yards development. People brought back the “Fuck Frank Gehry” t-shirts that first became popular after his design for the museum in Bilbao was revealed and everyone hated that, too. According to an article I read about him, Frank was able to laugh about the shirts eventually because after people got over their fury over his monstrous designs, they just accepted the new buildings as part of the skylines of their respective cities. They couldn’t stop them being built.
I am also old enough to remember when the Gansevoort Hotel that stands on Ninth Avenue on the west side of Manhattan was an empty paved lot. The man I worked for at the time, beloved gay icon and restaurateur, Florent Morellet, was furious about what he deemed a blight on the landscape of the neighborhood he pioneered. Eventually, after the hotel went up and tourists started flocking to his restaurant, he also succumbed to begrudging acceptance and said, “You can’t stop progress in New York City.”
Florent was right. Progress in the city of New York is inevitable. But, not all change is progress.
Recently, I learned that Danny Meyer is opening another outpost of Shake Shack in the same neighborhood that Florent determined to be “over” when that first hotel went up on Gansevoort Street. In fact the fast food joint will be spitting distance from Florent’s much beloved restaurant that he opened in 1985. That neighborhood is commonly known to New Yorkers as the Meatpacking District and it is where I have lived and worked (and did a significant amount of my partying) for over two decades of my life.
(Read the next paragraphs in a shaky old lady voice.)
When I first started coming to the Meatpacking District in the late 1990’s, the streets were slick with the blood of hanging cow carcasses and most of the people mulling around were either part of the downtown art scene (read: gay), activists, trans hookers, or the butchers working in the meat processing plants that dominated most of the buildings. It was a grimy and cool place and, yes, dangerous. A lot of cabbies didn’t know how to get there. The area was dark from a lack of street lamps and it was never mentioned in guidebooks. My best friend, Gates, who got me the job at Florent, drew a map on the back of a bright pink Tibor Kalman postcard with a drawing of a pig on the front so I would know how to get there from the 14th Street subway station. He said, “Look for the string of colorful Christmas lights down a dark street.” He repeated the name of the street to me several times. I thought he was saying “gas foot.” It was Gansevoort.
When I first went to Florent, I got lost and a little afraid. At that time, cell phones were large bricks of plastic that you only used for phone calls and only if you had the minutes. Since I did not have that option, I could only reach Gates by calling him from a pay phone if I could find one. Eventually, I stumbled through the plastic curtain leading into a mostly pink 1950’s style diner with framed colorful maps on the walls. Gates got me a cup of coffee and a piece of pecan pie with a dollop of whipped cream and introduced me to Harry. Harry was a gentle but impatient man with a breathy New York accent and traces of pressed powder on his shiny cheeks. He said hello and peered at me plainly over his wire rimmed glasses.
“Can you work brunch this Saturday?”
“Do you have a colorful top you can wear?” Harry asked as he gestured to other staff all in various colorful button down shirts.
“Be here by 7:30 a.m.”
That was it. That was my interview.
That Saturday morning I returned to Florent at the scheduled time in a rayon button down shirt I found at a thrift store for five dollars that was black with a print of oranges and lemons on it. A thin butch dyke with a deep, gravelly voice and severe eyebrows came up to me. Her name, improbably, was Lisa and she was taking deep inhales off a Marlboro Light cigarette. Since smoking was permitted in bars and restaurants then, every place just had a section where it was okay to smoke. For Florent, everyone agreed that the smoking area was in the back half of the dining room even though there was no physical partition between the two halves of the tiny space. It was a different world back then.
Lisa ran through a list of opening sidework tasks quickly, “Coffee filters with a dash of cinnamon – a lot of them, butter balls, jam, ketchups, milk for coffee. We don’t have any of that skim shit. Just whole milk. Fill the dessert case.”
I followed her down the short length of the counter as she gestured. “Table one is there.” She pointed to the first tiny round formica topped table with worn red leather chairs dotting around it crammed closest to the entrance.
“Two through seven. Eight is the fourtop in the corner, nine, ten, etc. , and that’s nineteen.” She pointed to the only table large enough to seat six or so people. “Sometimes we add a table to the end if we need it for a bigger party, otherwise that last deuce is table twenty. Do you know Positouch?” Positouch is one of the original point of sale systems used in most bars and restaurants. They’re all pretty much the same, but it makes service much faster if you’re working with one that you’ve already used before.
“Yes,” I said. “I use Positouch at my other job.”
Lisa eyed me skeptically. I suspect she had trained a few people in her time and many of them didn’t work out. “You take the front, I’ll take the back,” she said almost as a challenge. We’ll see how you do. “When Nancy gets in, she’ll take the counter.” Nancy, I would learn, was a bodacious, tall Texan gal who wore fabulous vintage clothes and had large lips that she glossed frequently throughout the day.
I’ve been working in restaurants and bars since I was 15 years old and I know for a fact that I would have gone much farther in a different career path if I wasn’t so good at waiting tables. I know how to anticipate people’s needs, how to prioritize tasks, and how to communicate with every type of person. Some people just have it in their nature to be good at service and – for better or worse – I am one of those people. So, I wasn’t surprised when both Lisa and Nancy were impressed with how quickly I was able to fall into the natural rhythm of service. I asked only a few important questions throughout the day and handled my section with very little need for their assistance.
At the end of the shift, instead of making me work for free which is what most people do during training shifts, they told the manager/host, Joseph, to include me in the tip pool. Not only that, they invited me for post shift drinks at the Cubby Hole, a local lesbian bar. Unfortunately, I had to go to my second job waiting tables at a pan-Asian restaurant on the Lower East Side. But, there would be many post-shift drinks in our future because what I didn’t realize that day was that it would be the start of an eight year stint at Florent.
Eventually, after cutting my teeth on two brunch shifts a week, I was invited to join Gates working the late night shift (midnight to 8am) and that’s when the real experience of nightlife in the Meatpacking District started for me. From 2000 – 2008, the years that I worked the Butcher Shift as we called it (because originally the butchers were the only people frequenting Florent between midnight and eight in the morning), I got woven into the fabric of downtown NYC nightlife.
Because of its proximity to lots of great clubs and bars, Florent was the party to go to after last call at wherever you were before. People who didn’t want their night to end or who needed a burger with perfectly crisp fries or buttery escargot to sober them up before they poured themselves into cabs to take them home at dawn would gravitate to our tiny, dimly lit bistro. The bartenders and staff from other venues would also come to us when they finished their shifts and we’d pour them wine in coffee cups or vodka sodas that we called “Sprites” since New York’s blue laws technically forbade us from selling alcohol between 4 and 8 am. We only served alcohol to the people we knew and, many nights, that would be most of the restaurant, so on many nights the place would swell with raucous laughter and messiness.
Celebrities were a common sight because of the place’s high “cool factor” and I suspect as a result of how we treated them which was just the same as everyone else. Florent loved that his place was an equalizing force for humanity, where anyone could be part of the party as long as you weren’t an asshole. He encouraged us to be hospitable with a bit of attitude. Polite snarkiness. Some people received a bit more snark than others (looking at you, Lou Reed) but only if they deserved it.
And, yes, many drugs were consumed and a lot of sex was had, but this was well before smart phones and social media so you’d be hard pressed to prove anything now. Coupled with the fact that most of the details have grown hazy with time, any stories you may hear will probably be 75% true and difficult to corroborate.
Suffice it to say, fun was had.
I cried when Florent closed its doors. It was the end of a significant era of my life and I loved the family we had there. Three days after we served our last martini, I walked through the doors of a bar one block northwest of Florent and found another place to call home.
Brass Monkey started as a one level pub on the edge of the district directly across from the last of the meatpacking facilities. I had been there many times when I worked at Florent and loved how similar it felt with its dark corners and strong drinks. I would soon learn that Brass Monkey is also run by a stalwart European immigrant man who abides by a similar policy of loose adherence to rules and an affable dose of irascibleness towards others. The manager at the time hired me in the same succinct manner that Harry had brought me on at Florent.
“Can you start on Saturday?”
Sean, the owner of Brass, and I quickly became close friends and within a year of working as a server and a bartender, we grew to understand that we shared a similar vision and philosophy about many things. I naturally fell into a management position and have been growing and running the business with Sean for fourteen years as I write this. During that time, we expanded the bar to include a second level and a roof top terrace that doubled in size when we also took over the adjoining building next door and combined it with ours. As we continued growing, we kept a stronghold on the traditions of the Meatpacking District by staying unpretentious and a little wild.
Brass Monkey opened in 2004 and, between us, Sean and I have witnessed so many places in the neighborhood close while we still stand. We have even seen places that replace the closed venues also open and close. I’m talking Hogs and Heifers, The Hogpit, Pastis (the OG one not this Stephen Starr ripoff), APT, Cielo, Spice Market, 5 Ninth, One (which became Bagatelle), Tenjune, Son Cubano, Hell, Macelleria, Rio Mar, Rhone, Sea, Meet, Sacha . . . I could go on and on.
If you look at the names on the storefronts now it’s a gut-punch contrast to what the area used to be. Now, it’s: Rolex, Samsung, Tesla, Lucid, Restoration Hardware, Sephora, Warby Parker, Belstaff, and soon. . .Shake Shack. The space Florent inhabited was gutted and turned into a Madewell (a part of the J. Crew brand) and even that didn’t last a couple of years. Most recently, the space became a pop-up store selling Dipthyque candles that closed after Christmas.
I’ve watched the neighborhood I’ve lived in and loved for 22 years turn from a cool and edgy meeting place where fun people could reliably flock for drinks, good food, dancing and a little mayhem into a dull, soulless glass box with shiny objects for sale that most people cannot afford. There’s no buzz in the air or sense of possibility for what the night might bring. It’s just window shopping for overpriced clothes and posing for Instagram photos next to planter boxes full of rotating seasonal flowers.
And the nail in the coffin is a fancy fucking fast food joint. The Meatpacking District was already hobbling, but Danny Meyer is on his way to shoot it in the kneecaps while sucking on an overpriced milkshake.
You can’t stop progress in New York, sure. And certainly, we don’t want life to regress back to the worst parts of our past. But, surely, there is a happy medium. Certainly, there must be a way to maintain the legacy of the indomitable party people who staked their claim on these cobblestone streets decades ago. The soul of the Meatpacking District that I know is not some bloodless, bromidic chain store.
She is mischievous and rebellious and she makes bad decisions with sexy strangers. She drinks Veuve Clicquot out of a ceramic mug and maneuvers cobblestones effortlessly in high heels. I hope we can still revive her. I hope she’s still covered in glitter and ready to dance until dawn.