See Ya, East 64th St.! 17 Giddy Years In Dotty Squalor

For 17 years, since The New York Observer entered city life in 1987, it has existed within a red brick and white-marble-stepped townhouse on East 64th Street. When I entered for the first time, I had an enzymatic sensation I think was shared by many people who worked here-some to their pleasure, some to their horror: I’m home. I’d worked at plenty of publications in New York, but never in a house. As Polly Adler, the great Manhattan bordello madame of the 1920′s said of her own business, a house is not a home. Except in our case.

We worked in a home. Four floors, a giant alimentary center-hall staircase, caked moldings, brass chandeliers, glass-fronted oak cupboards, The New York Observer sometimes felt like a Henry James society home or a 70′s swinger pad, with reporters stacked and stuffed in its confines like Hong Kong tailors. Our legal reporter set up his computer in the fourth-floor closet, near the tuxedo that was used by whomever had to go out to a formal evening.

When I walked in, Mr. Charles Bagli and Mr. Terry Golway were stuffed back-to-back in the front living room, reporters were so close that one yammering diva could stop work for the entire room, turning the whole floor into an instant Eugene O’Neill parlor trauma. Later, a strange and occasionally brilliant agglomeration of writers and editors built up; pretty often, some were seduced to go off to slicker, better-paid indenturements. We lived together like vaudevillians at an actors’ boarding house.

At this very moment, there are around 20 former Observer employees at work at The New York Times , inmates at The Wall Street Journal , countless refugees in the Condé Nast Building, but does one of them relieve him or herself in a singing office toilet that gurgles 23 hours a day? For ambition’s sake, they cashed in their chance to shower midday in a claw-footed bathtub, or to spy with a vengeance at courtyard transgressions like Rear Window ‘s L.B. Jeffries: One night, one editor called the cops when he saw a new mother leave her baby on the fire escape. Another editor was almost tempted to sin with a writer when an ancient brass door fixture snapped, trapping them inside.

Visitors invariably had the same reaction on entering the house: It’s so cute! And it was. But the response of editors and writers, who trundled through, tromping on worn carpet, cursing the vents, wondering if the auditory carrying capabilities of the air-conditioning vents would carry conversations to other departments, was baleful. Phone books and files were occasionally hurled from the fourth-floor window out onto the 64th Street sidewalk like a faithless lover’s pajamas.

Visitors stopped by. The writer Veronica Geng lived down the street and used to offer advice, bartering it for a day with one editor who drove upstate to empty her country house. Down the block, the great luxury mastodon 32 East 64th, home to Mrs. Kitty Carlisle Hart, whose trim gams took her on their evening constitutional past the office every night; she would nod and ask, “How’s the paper?” Across the street, the vaguely decadent Plaza Athénée, with its leopard-skin benches and $12 martinis.

Movie shoots were common: Al Pacino shouting spittle into the afternoon air, Keanu Reeves grinning at our young reporters. The pavement on 64th Street was wide and clean, a province of billionaires strutting down the street-Ron Perelman and David Geffen. Chanel suits, Giorgio Armani and La Perla, the ritzy underwear store. Next-door to the newspaper itself, and down some steps, a ritzy veterinarian, where endless pet crates were carried, and slinky septuagenarian Lauren Bacall looking left, looking right, heading down.

While up into our building trooped writers: the cheeky, the depressed, the jolly, the mission-driven, the perky. On the first floor, in what had been a grand dining room, the production department: hot waxers reminiscent of-not reminiscent of, identical to!-your high-school paper’s.

One flight up, the mandarin office of the publisher, a huge Oriental frieze staring down at the participants below, black-and-white photographs of Thomas Mann and Einstein smiling down at the whole enterprise. Across the hall, ad salespeople: glamorous, dark and shiny ladies with a sheen, first single, then married, then single, with dangerous ebony hairdos like movie noir heroines.

Cranking up and down, a cage elevator, witness to God knows how many muttered or screaming conversations, creaking up and down among the four floors and the cool basement, where checks were cut that soothed tempers on the other floors.

Highest of all in this crazy little enterprise, the dotty fireworks of the fourth floor, where politics were dissected, plots hatched, sociology sprinkled, coffee guzzled and names thrown around: Mario, Harvey, Rudy, Jerry, Puff, Woody, Punch, Si, Liz, Rupert. Hidden calls from psychiatrists, occasional nervous breakdowns not-so- manqué , pranks of Homeric intricacy, involving a floating cast of characters that appeared to the in-house residents of the house like the offstage stock company in a sitcom during the Seinfeldian 90′s. Story subjects called and screamed; others showed up for some mischief: Bill Murray, Mike Wallace, the occasional Mayor. Norman Mailer, clanking in on a cane to bring draft after draft of his cartoon “Puffs.” Bill O’Reilly and Carol Channing were on the phone. Martinis were served in summer, and “Sex and the City” came and went. And then the giddiness came to a freeze-frame on Sept. 11, 2001. The smoke from the south of Manhattan hung acrid above 64th Street as editors slumped on their desks.

There was Leon the office-supplies guy, who gave out pencils one at a time, and Angie the switchboard operator, who shrieked the editors’ names up the stairwell like Stanley Kowalski, and the young intern who everyone was afraid might have explosives strapped under his shirt. But nobody brought out the curious empathy of the building like the librarian who sat in her cubby making small cooing noises like a pigeon and one day just fluttered away without notice, leaving behind the French-fairy-tale possibility that she had been a bird all along.

Now we’re moving downtown, to a classy old skyscraper two blocks south of the Flatiron Building, in the neighborhood of the Gramercy Tavern and Eisenberg’s, but not the magnificent coffee shops Gardenia and the Viand, where big Pete and smooth George respectively presided. The girls will be younger downtown and not as well dressed, but not as dressed. The billionaires will still be there, but their drivers will be waiting to take them back uptown.

Around the corner and up the street from us was a tall, distinctive luxury building with a Citibank, its first floor faced in blue bricks, an anomaly of bad taste in our chi-chi neighborhood. Its brazen cluelessness made it stand out like a structure in Munchkin Land, the sector of L. Frank Baum’s Oz that was all blue among the high-rises of the Emerald City. They could never fill the joint up, and the Europeans eating lunch at La Goulue used to stare up at its strange refusal to be tasteful as though it was the public-school girl in polyester at the Cotillion. Now the owners, finally wised-up, have caved, and they’re refacing it in mud-brown brick, another Madison Avenue makeover.

Goodbye, blue-brick poseur, goodbye, red-brick townhouse; we’re heading south, toward Broadway. There are fresh, grotesque and homely anomalies downtown.