At 2 a.m. last Sunday morning, as the Lower East Side nearly burst with button-downed dudes and skinny-jeaned ladies making their way from velvet-roped clubs to ripe-smelling bars, Grammy Award–winning record producer Dante Ross strolled up to the bench in front of the American Apparel store at the corner of East Houston and Orchard. Swimming in an oversize royal purple T-shirt, the former A&R rep, who signed De La Soul and Queen Latifah for Tommy Boy Records, giddily whipped out his digital camera. He scuttled around in his limited edition Iron Maiden Vans sneakers, snapping pictures of the pseudo-celebrities lounging on a bench that has recently become the epicenter of perhaps the hottest “anti-scene” scene on Saturday nights.
“The Bench has the best snaps in New York,” Mr. Ross told The Observer with a toothy grin. “I’m supposed to be promoting a party around here but I never showed up for it. This is the place to be.”
Yes, you read that right: The Bench, as in the bench, made of metal and wood. “The idea is to like to promote nothing as if it’s a corny nightlife night,” said marketing mogul and D.J. Big Black Matt Goias, one of The Bench’s “founders,” in a phone interview. Together with sneaker impresario Ari Forman; the misnomer-named Fancy, a D.J. and member (with Mr. Goias) of the sexually explicit dance-rap group Fannypack; and Max Glazer, also a D.J., who recently escaped from underneath Rihanna’s umbrella-eheheh after a two-year-long tour with the pop star, Mr. Goias has transformed a couple of planks of wood into a bona fide nightspot.
“It’s to, like, get back at all the stupid promoters who like send you a thousand e-mails each week, like, come see this fucking D.J. and open bar. So it’s kind of to steal their thunder away,” said Mr. Goias. “Come do nothing! The whole idea of, like, promoting nothing as if it’s something.”
The Bench has been going on for almost two months, attracting everyone from hip-hop D.J.’s (like A-Trak, Kanye West’s turntablist) to trash-talking graffiti artists to modelesque party girls to school teachers and, um, Mr. Goias’s twentysomething cousins from New Jersey and Pennsylvania. People start swinging by around 10 each Saturday, and the party usually lasts until 2 or 3 in the morning. There’s no dancing, though lap dances have occurred. Instead, there’s flirting, chatting and plain old, pre-Bloomberg mayhem. Last Saturday, graffiti artists Tim Artz and Jesse Geller, who are also members of the avant-garde band Bum Rush, were a tag team of hooliganism, with Mr. Artz twirling a 76ers hype towel over his head while Mr. Geller pulled down his pants to flash the traffic along East Houston Street.
“One night [earlier in the summer] we were sitting on that bench together and I said, ‘Yo, this is the best club in New York,’” Mr. Goias, 29, told The Observer. “You know, because you have to go to a stupid club party, like, ‘Oh, it’s Jessica’s birthday party tonight, I promised I would say hi,’ or ‘So-and-so is D.J.-ing, I told them I would swing by.’ But then it was like, sitting on this corner, we see all of the people that we would’ve seen if we went to those stupid places that we hate, and we could talk and smoke and fuck this, this is the shit right here. We were like, ‘Yo, wouldn’t it be funny if we made a flyer?’”
So they did. Then came a MySpace page. A blog with photos. E-mail blasts. In a fake press release (only in New York!) they had Rolling Stone calling The Bench “[a] nightlife revolution” and The New York Times proclaiming that “[t]his classically handsome quartet of New York City hipster royalty has changed the way we will think of nightlife fabulousness (and park benches) forever.”
“It’s almost like an art project/marketing thing,” said Mr. Goias. “Like, I can make nothing at all the hot shit. We can take nothing at all and look like, ‘Ah-ha, we made you come to a street corner!’ That’s the fun of it, for me at least.”
On Aug. 18, HOT 97 D.J. Cipha Sounds will bring MTV cameras to shoot a segment for the hip-hop video show Sucker Free. ALIFE, the hip downtown clothing and sneaker store for gearheads and street kids, will print a special edition T-shirt for The Bench, with a logo “ABENCH” emblazoned on it. Welcome to the new underground.
STILL, THE BENCH ISN'T AN ELABORATE inside joke for everyone who stops by. At a moment when the clubs seem particularly awful—absurd entrance fees, played-out party ideas (80’s jams? The MisShapes? Yawn), an ever-tiring rotation of the same three Beyoncé songs—The Bench seems like a pretty good idea.
Jay McCarroll, the boisterous first-season winner of Bravo’s Project Runway and regular Bench-goer, was there last week, sporting colossal sunglasses (yes, at night). “The weekends around here are really shitty and the people you meet [in the bars and clubs] are really bad,” he said, swaying his paper cup filled with a margarita concoction in the air. “Here, you don’t even have to move. I’ve been here for four hours and I’ve met so many people. And they brought me drinks [from a to-go margarita spot down the street].” (Earlier, he’d led a gaggle of teenage girls garbed in huge hoop earrings and neon-bright Air Jordan sneakers in heckling the Urban Outfitters–clad hordes parading on Houston: “Deep V-neck! Deep V-neck!” “Beards! Beards! Beards!” “Will-iams-burg!”)
Instead of waving down moody bartenders to order maddeningly overpriced drinks, Bench visitors can help themselves to Jones Soda, San Pellegrino mineral water, Snickers bars, DOTS jellied candies and lollipops provided by Mr. Goias from a homely cooler. (None of the four organizers drink alcohol, and The Bench is partially an attempt to provide an alternative Saturday night activity for the sober and underage.)
There’s no entry fee or dress code (although a crispy pair of sneakers might get you a prime spot on The Bench). There’s no velvet rope or boulder-sized bouncer guarding entry and assessing the rich guy/hot chick ratio. Even a homeless man sitting on the edge of The Bench was welcomed last weekend, despite the string of drool that spaghettied from his bottom lip. Bench visitors put a Snickers bar into his plastic cup with “God Bless America” scrawled onto it. He ate half of the candy, and then left around 11 p.m. to find a quieter place to snooze.
Although The Bench promotes a “come as you are” atmosphere, those who don’t D.J., write for small urban magazines or know about the latest sneaker designs would likely feel a little awkward trying to mingle with Bench regulars, especially if they’re being teased about their fashion choices by Mr. McCarroll. Those on the inside, however, can’t quite see it that way.
“It’s ill, that’s the thing about it. Nobody is excluded,” chirped Arkah Lacharles, a 16-year-old wearing a nose ring and a bright orange, tiger-striped knitted aNYthing cap. She called herself an “O.G.” (or Original Gangster) of The Bench.
Ms. Lacharles was grounded last week for staying out too late and her mother made her perform a PowerPoint presentation on why she should be allowed to come to The Bench. She included the fact that she got scouted for a modeling job while hanging out there. “This is what is going to get you a house in New Jersey with a front yard,” she told her mother on the phone, calling to confirm where she was.
“It’s totally a family affair,” D.J. Max Glazer told The Observer. “I mean, we have candy in the cooler for the kids. Not in a pervy way, not in an R. Kelly way.”
“You don’t have to be relegated to your own age group. How would kids learn anything?” added Mr. Forman, 38, while passing out Life Saver candies from a tin. “Depending on where you came from, everyone hung out at a corner, young and old guys. … We were learning from those guys the rules; the things that I took from them I take through life, with me today. This is sort of the same idea. We’ve had debates here about 80’s music.”
“Where would you be if you weren’t at The Bench?” he asked Ms. Lacharles, who was sitting on top of one of the newsstands across from The Bench.
“I would be in a project, drinking a 40, smoking weed and graffiti-ing something. I would be getting fucked up.”
“See what I’m saying?,” asked Mr. Forman.
JIM CHU, OWNER OF White Rabbit, a sleek lounge on Houston, even prefers The Bench to his own bar.
“Out of all of the places I went to, this was the most fun,” chimed in Jim Chu, . “I left my own bar, went to Revolver, and a few other places. Out of all that other nonsense, I was inexplicably drawn to this nonsense, because this is the best nonsense. This is conceptual nonsense.”
In the background, Mr. McCarroll was getting especially feisty, shouting, “Let me read your lips!” to a girl wearing especially tight, sparkling leggings, and singing, “I built this bench! I built this bench on rock and roll!”
Mr. Chu shook his head but admitted: “The world doesn’t need another bar. The world needs this.”