I must have walked on 27th Street between Broadway and 6th Avenue a million times. But somehow never noticed Master Cutting Table. Maybe the shutters were always down when I went by. Maybe I was too distracted by the neon of the weird old Senton Hotel. In any case, recently, deep in the depths of a rather bad mood, I came upon the miracle that is Master Cutting Table.
It was the decapitated Charlie McCarthy doll heads that caught my eye. And the mannequin in the vest and Spartan helmet. I got closer and looked in through the plate-glass window.
It was like looking into one of those panoramic Easter eggs as a kid. A whole world opened up. And, seeing what I saw, my mood instantly lifted.
American flags. Antique clocks. JFK and RFK posters. A bigger than life-size bathing beauty cardboard cut-out. Pressed-tin ceiling above and wooden floorboards below. A long path leading to the back of the shop through dozens and dozens of old garment industry machines:
Gold Stampers, Wire Stitchers, Rossley Button Machines, Defiance Foot Presses, Schaefer Cementers, Clicker Blocks, Rubber Pads.
Had I tumbled back through time? How could something so pure, so untouched still be permitted in the homogenized, stultified Manhattan of today? What delightful madness was this?
The lights were on, but the door was locked.
"This is our flag, be proud of it!" reads a sign on the door, below a "Back In" notice that doesn't indicate how many minutes will pass before they'll be back in. I waited around a bit, not wanting to stop looking. Eventually, I had to go, but vowed to return.
When I went back a few weeks later, it was the same scene: lights on and no one in sight.
I pushed the door. It opened with the tinkling of a bell.
I walked inside, unsure that I should be there, and tried to commit as much as I could to memory. The place smelled of age, of sweetly rotting paper, like a library. I breathed it in.
A silver-haired man emerged from a back door and came directly towards me, dressed all in black, his spine stiffly upright, his shoes shuffling.
"The door was open?" he said, indicating that it was not meant to be. "What can I do for you?"
"I'm admiring your shop," I said.
"Why? It's a dirty stinkin' hole!"
"You shoulda seen it 60 years ago. It was a machine shop."
He ushered me to the door, adding, "Now we don't do nothin'."
"Nothin'! When you're old, you'll understand. When you're married, you'll understand. In the morning, you kiss the wife goodbye and say, 'Seeya later, Sweetie, I'm off to work!'"
"So you don't do anything here? You don't sell anything, fix anything? You just do nothing?"
"Come back when you're 60 and I'll tell you all about it!"
He closed to the door behind me, locked it, and shuffled back down the long path to the back room where he does nothing all day. A man who just wants to be left alone in his dirty, stinkin', beautiful museum of a machine shop.
The site 14to42 says Master Cutting Table has been here since the early 1960s. It is run by a man named Arnold. A writer at Manhattan Sideways ventured in to the place one time. She reported:
"Asked what he does here, Arnold replied: 'nothing.' Asked why he comes in, then: 'I don’t want to stay at home. I love my wife of over sixty years, but sometimes you just have to get away.' Having invested in property in New York when it was not as astronomically expensive, Arnold now owns this building and has the luxury of using it as a 'day home.' He is holding out against selling to developers bent on transforming the space. 'I’ll let my kids make that mistake,' he says. 'You can walk with a straight backbone knowing you own property in New York. It’s a marvelous feeling.'"