On the second floor, a man named Herve hunches over a 20-inch Dayton drill press, an object that resembles an oversize microscope, only with a frighteningly large drill bit in place of a lens. Herve wears a black sweatshirt, black pants and a ratty black baseball cap. Often, he alone occupies this floor.
The silent third floor hides a deep forest of ladders, ladders leaning against one another, stacked 10 feet deep along each wall and stretching high in the air. There are dozens upon dozens of ladders, so many that there should be a collective noun for such things: a timber of ladders, a bosque.
By the fourth floor, stillness begins to settle, a cold, uncanny hush. A hand dragged across the stairwell's plaster here comes up dirt-black. The floor is a sea of cardboard barrels filled with fixtures, some a half-century old: nuts, bolts, braces, casters. When struck by the little light that makes it through the filthy windows, the contents of the newest barrels shine gold, and mountains of brass-plated ladder bolts twinkle like the treasure of some mechanically bent pirate king.
The fifth floor remains most desolate. For a person left alone here, the stone-cold quiet becomes vaguely terrifying. An employee once confided that by the time he reaches the fifth floor, he sometimes feels he must stop at the top of the stairs and call out. He has never heard anyone answer; it's really just the comfort of his own voice.
This floor is an orphanage of broken ladders, the bleaker version of those below. Gregg still rescues ladders from closing businesses, and sometimes even buys them back for $25 or $50. Once, while having dinner in a downtown restaurant, he spied one through the window of a closing bookshop, and wrote a letter to the owner asking to reclaim it. His friends and family are mystified by this ability to pick out his ladders from a distance, as if responding to some low-frequency cry.
"I can tell from outside the store," he says, "I can tell just from the side. The steps are a little bit larger, and I know our competition." His face becomes grave. ";Do you recognize your children?"
Although Putnam has taken tenants before, none have had the financial capacity to overhaul and renovate to such an extent as Jil Sander.
Now complete, the company's new space is a marvel of juxtaposition. Where once there was dirt, there is plaster; where once was clutter, light. The sleek, subtle, minimalist design (the showroom is a stark white box) smoothed over every blemish, and from this point on, clean lines and form-fitting modernity will coexist beside the well-worn industry of another age.
Warren Monsees, born in 1922, is perplexed by the augmenting property values. He worked in the neighborhood when the address alone was enough to cause assistants to quit before even showing up. He believes that the SoHo Bloomingdale's, which opened on Broadway a half decade ago, is what started it all.
Nos. 30 and 32 Howard Street are about 25 feet and 20 feet wide, respectively, more than 100 feet deep, and collectively represent millions of dollars in Manhattan real estate. Warren Monsees estimates the square footage to be "whatever 25 times 120 is, times five for the number of floors, and then add on some more for the basement, and then times all that by two, since thats just the size of No. 30, and then take off just a little bit, since No. 32 is just a little bit narrower."
Jil Sander replaced an 1868 staircase with one of perfect marble veined in gray, and partly obscured by a wall of slim and silently rotating mirrors. Stock is moved in an elevator. To move their own wares, the Monseeses use a giant hook on a rope that hangs down five stories from the rafters to the floor, dangling like a gallows through a great open shaft.
On a Friday morning earlier this year, a cloud of plaster plumed gently from an open corner window on the second floor of No. 30 as workers hefted broken ladders, two at a time, into a Dumpster. On the fourth floor, several Putnam employees busily cleared out space for Jil Sander. They moved objects that had not been moved since the Empire State Building took in its first tenants: dusty barrels of metal, cardboard boxes, files of dog-eared carbons, an ancient standing scale built to bear 1,000 pounds.
"Dad, we should save these," Gregg said, holding up a fistful of 1950s handwritten customer cards.
Across the room, Herve hauled out a barrel of something and tossed it to the side.
"Dad!" Gregg cried, his voice reedy. Then he took off, pacing about the floor and tragically appraising everything in his path like an anguished child moving house.
"See these boxes?" Gregg said, standing over a moist pile of collapsed cardboard. "I want to keep these. And do you see these? Accounts receivables. By hand. From 1956." He held handfuls of things in front of his father's face.
"You want to take them home?" Warren Monsees asked gently.
"No," Gregg replied. Then he headed toward a barrel. "I"m keeping these brackets, Dad," he said, holding out a dusty L-shaped form. "What's wrong with this?"
Warren Monsees remained silent
"You're not interested, are you?" he said
"No," the father replied gently.
"But you're throwing history out!" cried Gregg.
"We're not in the history business," said Warren Monsees.
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