Monday, March 15, 2010

The Last Greek At 104 Bowery

an excerpt from the nytimes of 3/14/10
On the Bow’ry, By DAN BARRY
OPEN the door to a small hotel on the Bowery.
A small hotel, catering to Asian tourists, that used to be a flophouse that used to be a restaurant. That used to be a raucous music hall owned by a Tammany lackey called Alderman Fleck, whose come-hither dancers were known for their capacious thirsts. That used to be a Yiddish theater, and an Italian theater, and a theater where the melodramatic travails of blind girls and orphans played out. That used to be a beer hall where a man killed another man for walking in public beside his wife. That used to be a liquor store, and a clothing store, and a hosiery store, whose advertisements suggested that the best way to avoid dangerous colds was “to have undergarments that are really and truly protectors.”
Climb the faintly familiar stairs, sidestepping ghosts, and pay $138 for a room, plus a $20 cash deposit to dissuade guests from pocketing the television remote. Walk down a hushed hall that appears to be free of any other lodger, and enter Room 207. The desk’s broken drawer is tucked behind the bed. Two pairs of plastic slippers face the yellow wall. A curled tube of toothpaste rests on the sink.
Was someone just here? Was it George?
Six years had passed since I was last in this building at 104-106 Bowery. Back then it was a flophouse called the Stevenson Hotel, and I was there to write about its sole remaining tenant, a grizzled holdout named George; toothless, diabetic, not well. He lived in Cubicle 40, about the length and width of a coffin.
All the other tenants, who had paid $5 a night for their cubicles, had moved on or died off, including the man known as the Professor, and Juliano, who used to beat George. The landlord, eager to convert the building into a hotel, a real hotel, had paid some of them to leave. But George had refused, saying the last offer of $75,000 was not enough.
It was as though he belonged to the structure, a human brick, cemented by the mortar of time to the Professor and Alderman Fleck and all the others who gave life to an ancient, ordinary building on the Bowery.
Now the place is the U.S. Pacific Hotel, and George is nowhere to be seen. I dim the lights in my own glorified cubicle, and give in to musings about his whereabouts, and long-ago murders, and the Bowery, where, the old song said, they say such things and they do strange things.
On the Bow’ry. The Bow’ry.
THE building at 104-106 Bowery, between Grand and Hester Streets, has been renovated, reconfigured and all but turned upside down over the generations, always to meet the pecuniary aspirations of the owner of the moment. Planted like a mature oak along an old Indian footpath that became the Bowery, it stands in testament to the essential Gotham truth that change is the only constant.
Its footprint dates at least to the early 1850s, when the Bowery was a strutting commercial strip of butchers, clothiers and amusements, with territorial gangs that never tired of thumping one another. Back then the building included the hosiery shop, which promised “all goods shown cheerfully” — although an argument one night between two store clerks, Wiley and Pettigrew, ended only after Wiley “drew a dark knife and stabbed his antagonist sixteen times,” as The New York Times reported with italicized outrage.
Over the years the Bowery evolved into a raucous boulevard, shadowed by a cinder-showering elevated train track and peopled by swaggering sailors and hard-working mugs, fresh immigrants and lost veterans of the Civil War. The street was exciting, tawdry and more than a little predatory. The con was always on.
By 1879, 104-106 Bowery had become a theater and beer hall, with a bartender named Shaefer who was arrested twice in two weeks for selling beer on Sunday. The adjacent theater, meanwhile, sold sentiment.
During one Christmas Day performance of “Two Orphans,” precisely at the audience-pleasing moment when the blind girl resolves to beg no more, someone shouted “Fire!” A false alarm, it turned out, caused when a cook in the restaurant next door dumped hot ashes onto snow. The crowd returned to rejoice in the blind girl’s triumph.
The theater changed names almost as often as plays: the National, Adler’s, the Columbia, the Roumanian, the Nickelodeon, the Teatro Italiano. In 1896, when it was known as the Liberty, the police arrested two Italian actors for violating the “theatrical law.” He was dressed as a priest, she as a nun.
But the building’s dramas were not relegated solely to the stage. One of its theater proprietors skipped to Paris with $1,800 in receipts, leaving behind a destitute wife, six children and many unpaid actors. One of its upstairs lodgers drowned with about 40 others when an overloaded tugboat, chartered by the Herring Fishing Club, capsized off the Jersey coast.
In 1898, two men were laughing and drinking at a vaudeville performance when a third walked up, drew a revolver and shot one of them in the head. Hundreds scrambled for the exits to cries of “Murder!”
The shooter, Thompson, told the police that he had seen the victim, Morrison, on the street with his wife. “He has ruined my life; broken up my home,” Thompson said, as he gazed at the man groaning on the floor. “It’s a life for a wife.”
And the fires, the many fires. The one in 1898 gutted the building and displaced the families of Jennie Goldstein and Sigmund Figman, while the one in 1900 sent 500 theatergoers fleeing into the Christmas night, prompting a singular Times headline: “Audience Gets Out Without Trouble, but the Performers Were Frightened — Mrs. Fleck Wanted Her Poodle Saved.”
MRS. MABEL FLECK, whose poodle survived, was the wife of the proprietor, one Frederick F. Fleck: city alderman, bail bondsman and self-important member of the court to the Bowery king himself, Timothy D. Sullivan — “Big Tim” — a Tammany Hall leader said to control all votes and vice south of 14th Street.
Alderman Fleck was there whenever Big Tim staged another beery steamboat outing for thousands of loyal Democrats, or another Christmas bacchanal for Flim-Flam Flannigan, Rubber-Nose Dick, Tip-Top Moses and hundreds of other Bowery hangers-on. There to provide bail when some Tammany hacks were charged with enticing barflies at McGurk’s Suicide Hall to vote the Democratic ticket in exchange for a bed, some booze and five bucks.
When Alderman Fleck was not demonstrating his Tammany fealty, he was managing the Manhattan Music Hall, here at 104-106 Bowery, a preferred place for dose in de know.
But the city’s good-government types, the famous goo-goos, hated how the Bowery reveled in its debauchery. In 1901, a reform group called the Committee of Fifteen raided Alderman Fleck’s establishment and charged him with maintaining a disorderly house. He responded by calling the arresting officer “a dirty dog.”
Undercover agents testified to having witnessed immoral acts on stage and off. One reported seeing a woman lying on a table, moaning; when he asked what was wrong, he was told she had just consumed $60 worth of Champagne, and so was feeling bad.
But this was Big Tim’s Bowery. A jury quickly acquitted Fleck, prompting a night of revelry at the music hall. A Times reporter took note:

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