Tastemakers, cool kids, hipsters, the downtown set: Call them what you will, but every week, it seems, a new rumor surfaces about what they’re up to. We hear they’re moving to Brooklyn and riding around on bikes without brakes. They’re eating out of dumpsters, and, concurrently, they’re eating $18/lb bacon and breast-milk cheese. They’re selling their guitars for turntables. They’re trading their turntables for guitars. They’re knitting. As you’re no doubt aware, the veracity of these trend pieces tends to vary quite a bit.
So when I heard from an old friend that a group of detractors from the usual places— Le Bain, Max Fish, Le Montana— had taken up the curious hobby of ragtime, I was trepidatious. Still, I had to admit, my interest was piqued. The odds of this rumor being true were slim, but if it was true, I felt, it had the makings of being the most important downtown movement since the Great Speakeasy Boom of ’03. In between drinks at a wine bar I asked my friend for her source, but she only smiled.
“These kids are really doing something. I’m not going to let you ruin it,” she said, “for 5000 hits and an SEO baiting headline about hipsters, ragtime, and Morse code.”
“Morse code? You didn’t say anything about morse code.” I knew I had to get in. Two bottles of company expensed Pinot and three cab rides of varying length later I found myself with the phone number of someone who could maybe— maybe— “introduce me to some people,” along with their first initial. I wasn’t even sure of my lead’s gender.
I waited until after noon the next day to call the number. “Is this P.?” The voice of a 20 year old girl told me that it was P.‘s phone, but that it wasn’t P that I was speaking to. She always answered for P. I told her I had heard about the parties, about the ragtime and the Morse code. She asked how I heard, and when I told her my friend’s name, she paused and then said to meet her in the lobby of a certain iconic mall in upper Midtown that Wednesday.
I met P. (she insisted I stick with the initial) under the mall’s waterfall. She was a tall, thin, and wearing mostly loose black clothes. Her hair could be best described as enigmatic. With a voice that sounded suspiciously like that of the girl on the phone, she told me that I had the basic facts right. Every other Tuesday, a diverse group of NYU graduates, Pratt girls, DJs, New School boys (“no one from Parsons”), stylists, and middle-children-turned-artists held a ragtime revival night in the basement of a nondescript hotel in lower Turtle Bay.
“But how did this night— I mean, how did ragtime, of all things— become popular?”
P. wasn’t sure. "I’ve heard a few different rumors. Someone told me that a prominent Pratt student had subleased a room from an older black man in Bed-Stuy. The man’s father had been one of the last great ragtime pianists, and the student took an interest in the father’s mementos. He got other kids into it.
“I also heard it started when the Jane, which had replace the Beatrice, became overrun with suits on the weekend. As a joke, someone said, ‘We should just pick a random place in Midtown that no one would suspect and make it our own. Like a clubhouse.’ But then everyone realized this was actually a great idea. The place they picked just happened to have a piano, someone knew a few bars, and it evolved from there. But I don’t think either of these things are true.”
“So how do you think it started?”
“I think it’s always been around.”
As instructed, I showed up to an inconspicuous hotel in the East 40s, shortly before 11 the following Tuesday night. There was no one outside, save for an older woman with lapdog and a bellhop. Around 11:20, P. showed up. “Follow my lead,” she told me, so that’s what I did. She walked up to the bellhop, but, instead of entering the building (he had opened the door for her) tapped a pattern against the glass. I realized she was spelling something in Morse code. Although I had no idea what she wrote spelled, I did my best to repeat the pattern.
As we entered the hotel, P. explained: “The night before our get togethers, we get an anonymous text. It’s always a phrase; usually something Manhattan-y, like ‘Rowland H. Macy’ or ‘Summer of Sam’. Those who know the words— you have to tap them correctly, of course— are allowed into the party.”
Inside, the ragtime revival looked nothing like the costume party I had imagined. No one looked steam-punk; men weren’t wearing zoot-suits. There was no blackface. Men were dressed in slim, expertly-tailored suits. Women wore black dresses. Everyone was incredibly open— there was none of the standoffishness that usually comes with exclusivity (presumably it was assumed that if you could get in the room, you were already ‘in’).
I did my best to blend in to the background, sticking to minor conversations with P. and her friends. One of them— a familiar looking model/DJ/anthropology student— asked me about myself. I told her what I’d told P., and instantly she grew icy. “Look, it’d be one thing if you were from print. I mean, by the time your piece ran we’d probably have all moved on to something else. Plus no one who reads print would be interested in our nights anyways— they’d be dismissed like so many other way-too-late stories on things like urban farming or OFWGKTA. But online? If this gets on NYMag, or (and here she sighed) Gothamist, we’ll be ruined, filled with bankers and PR assistants. It’ll make Saturday nights at the Jane look like Thursday nights at the Beatrice.”
I tried to protest— I told her that I had pitched the piece to print but no one was interested, and that our online readership was actually quite small, but I knew she was right. I spent the rest of the night feeling like a parasite. What right did I have to overexpose their scene?
The next week my friend from the wine bar called me. She had heard from P. about my conversation with the model/DJ/student, and all three of them were worried about my forthcoming article. I told my friend that there was no cause for concern. My article would be discreet— I’d avoid revealing the hotel’s location or any of the people involved. I convinced her, with no small amount of reluctance on her part, to try to find out the following week’s password.
That Monday night, she forwarded me a text. “Asch Building”.
I waited in front of the hotel that Tuesday from 11 to midnight. I’d hoped to see P. and follow her into the basement. When she didn’t show after an hour, I walked up to the doorman— the same one from last time. Slowly, I tapped ".- … . …. .. .-.. . ". He looked at me blankly. I repeated the movements, this time with increasing force.
“Sir, please, don’t bang on the glass.”
“I don’t get it. Isn’t this the code? Aren’t I doing it right?”
He looked at me in such a way as to suggest that, not only was I doing it wrong, he had no idea what I was referencing.
I tried again: “.- … . …. .. .-.. . Isn’t that the code? For the ragtime party?”
“Look: I really don’t know what you’re talking about. Please, stop hitting the glass or I’m going to be forced to call security.”
I looked at him, confused, trying to explain.
“We’ve never had any kind of ragtime party here.” And then: “Leave. Don’t come back.”
Three weeks later I was eating lunch next to a window at Spring Street Natural. I looked up from my risotto to see a woman on the street staring at me. Quickly, realizing she had been seen, she turned her head and walked down Spring, towards Broadway. In that brief glimpse I was sure I recognized P. I ran to the door, but by the time I reached it she was gone.