At Pun Competition, Bad Jokes but Good Company

Contestants on Wednesday night  at the monthly pun competition at Littlefield, a performance space and bar in Brooklyn.Katie Orlinsky for The New York Times Contestants on Wednesday night  at the monthly pun competition at Littlefield, a performance space and bar in Brooklyn.

By day, the jokes revered at Punderdome 3000 are more likely to earn a groan from the next cubicle than a standing ovation.

But for the contestants in a monthly pun competition at Littlefield, a performance space and bar in Brooklyn, forming puns is a spigot they can’t turn off. They are artists who never before had a stage. And in their everyday lives, not everyone appreciates their talent.

“It’s less like telling a joke and more like lancing a boil,” an actor and playwright calling himself Jerzy (Do Pun to Others) Gwiazdowski said of the typical response to his pun habit.

On Wednesday night at Littlefield, an audience of about 400 people shared their love of wordplay. At the beginning of each round, groups of four to six contestants were given a category and 90 seconds to conjure as many related puns as they could. They then performed them one by one, with the top finishers, as gauged by crowd response, advancing.

Jo Firestone, a Brooklyn-based comedian and producer, created the show two years ago and hosts it with her father, Fred Firestone, a Rodney Dangerfield impersonator who flies in from St. Louis for it every month. It’s one of several events she produces that involve the audience. “Most of my shows focus on highlighting different weirdos around the city,” Ms. Firestone said.

Here are a few examples of those weirdos. Fair warning: They may make you cringe.

In a round about poisonous things, Rekha (Punky Brewster) Shankar, a video editor for NBC, told this story about a man: “I noticed something was wrong with his eye. It was very black. I took him to the doctor and the doctor freaked out and was like, ‘Have you been hanging out around coal mines?’ And he was like, “Yeah, I have been.’ And then the doctor goes, ‘Eeeeee, coal eye!

Later she added: “I am a little out of my element, but I’m doing asbestos I can.”

Tim (Forest Wittyker) Donnelly, a reporter for The New York Post, said: “I hate people who don’t have all their digits. I am lack-toes intolerant.”

On pastries, Frederic Clark, a graduate student at Princeton University, said: “My name normally is Glutton for Punishment, but given this round I might have to change it to Gluten for Punishment. Did that Celiac the deal for you?”

On internal organs, Richy Salgado of the Punder Twins said to his cousin Joe Salgado: “Do you remember back in grade school — I can’t recall, it’s in my recent mammary — but the teacher yelled at us because one of us did it. So she got the both of us and she’s like, ‘Did you or your fellow pee in the tube?’”

On babies, Mr. Gwiazdowski said: “There’s a guy in the back there. He’s not really digging my puns tonight and he’s cold as well. So he’s sitting back there like, ‘Grrrrr. Brrrrr.’ ”

On rappers, David (Puntouchable) Pepose said: “I actually went to a hip-hop themed restaurant because I’m a notorious P.I.G.”

Noah (Noah Constrictor) Klinger, in a round about the New York mayoral race, said this after making a joke about “Dinkin Donuts”: “I don’t know if we can really afford to be blasé-o about this whole thing. It’s really important. We’re searching high and Liu for candidates.”

Ms. Shankar, the night’s winner, said: “The Punderdome is a really Quinn-tessential event for Brooklyn.”

Maybe you had to be there.

The contestants struggled most with the New York mayoral campaign, and few people in the audience caught the reference to former Mayor David Dinkins. But City Room readers are, we are certain, a different breed. So we ask you: What puns can you offer on the mayoral race? Please leave them in the comments field below.

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Another Summer Nears Without Chase Manhattan Plaza

It took “both imagination and a sense of citizenship to clear an open plaza on some of the city’s most valuable land and to throw it open to the light of the sun — and to the public.”

Those were the words of David Rockefeller, the president of Chase Manhattan Bank, when 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza opened in 1961. He was speaking about himself, but he happened to be right.

Building Blocks

How the city looks and feels — and why it got that way.

Among the shadows of Lower Manhattan, there are few oases as inviting as 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza, a landmark in every sense, including official. There is room to breathe, two and a half acres of it. There is reason to delight, in Jean Dubuffet’s monumental sculpture. There is opportunity to reflect, in the austere sunken sculpture court by Isamu Noguchi.

At least there was until September 2011, when JPMorgan Chase, successor to Chase Manhattan, barricaded the plaza. The bank offered no explanation, though the move seemed clearly intended to foreclose any attempted takeover by the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the protesters’ presence diminished downtown, however, the plaza stayed closed. Some construction work occurred, on and off. Chase maintained its silence. And its barricades.

Now, it seems almost certain that another summer will go by in which the public is deprived the use of the plaza. This would also mean the second cancellation of the popular Dine Around Downtown fair sponsored by the Downtown Alliance.

The plaza is “an important amenity downtown,” said Catherine McVay Hughes, the chairwoman of Community Board 1 and a resident of the financial district. “It was a place of beauty where you could pass through and have a sense of relief and calm.” She said the plaza provided a vital east-west pedestrian route along the former line of Cedar Street, which was closed in 1956 from Nassau to William Streets to accommodate the Chase development.

In 2012, after numerous approaches, bank officials sat down with community board members to explain the construction project. “We were told that the work would be completed this spring,” Ms. Hughes said. The board expects to get another update next month. “Hopefully, when Chase comes to the meeting, they’ll be telling us when the opening date is,” she said, “because we’re approaching the two-year closure point.”

A bank spokeswoman remained vague about when the public might again be able to use the space. “Once construction is complete, we intend to operate the building in a way that makes the plaza available to the public for passive use and enjoyment, in accordance with appropriate rules,” the spokeswoman, Melissa Shuffield, said.

JPMorgan Chase received approval in September 2010 from the Buildings Department for “waterproofing repairs to plaza areas.”

The project is not simple. The plaza is directly over a spacious Chase bank branch. As a rule, plazas atop interior spaces pose challenges. They’re not merely flat roofs, with inherent drainage problems, but roofs on which hundreds walk each day. They’re bound to develop leaks. Water infiltration can be hard to trace if the roof extends two and a half acres and the site is battered by storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Almost certainly complicating logistics and timetables is the facade repair project at the 20 Pine Street apartment tower, because it abuts and overlooks the plaza.

Construction hurdles aside, the question remains whether the bank is obliged to keep 1 Chase Manhattan Plaza open.

JPMorgan Chase & Company asserts that it is not. A memorandum of law filed by the bank last December in a related lawsuit stated: “Because 1CMP is private property, JPMC as its owner has the fundamental right, protected by the federal Constitution, to exclude the public from the plaza.” The plaza was built before the 1961 Zoning Resolution and the advent of privately owned public spaces, in which owners provide public access in return for benefits like being able to construct buildings larger than normally allowed.

However, a compelling historical wrinkle appears in the records of the Board of Standards and Appeals, which granted the zoning variance needed by the bank to construct an 806-foot tower without setbacks. In its June 12, 1956, resolution, the board noted that “the building will only occupy 27.3 percent of the entire plot, leaving 72.7 percent for a plaza, which will afford light and air and room for relaxation for the applicant’s employees and for others in the area.”

To Jerold S. Kayden, a professor of urban planning and design at Harvard and the author of “Privately Owned Public Space: The New York City Experience” (2000), that suggests the bank did make a pledge, even if it was not legally binding.

“The B.S.A. of the time may not have dotted every legal ‘i’ and crossed every legal ‘t,’” Mr. Kayden said, “but the intent of both bank and city is crystal clear. I hope JPMorgan Chase recognizes not only that it more or less promised a public plaza, but that it has provided a terrific, and now terribly missed, public space for more than 50 years. Your public is calling. My only request is, this summer, please.”

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Hailing a Taxi on a Rainy Night

Dear Diary:

I am a senior citizen, age 92.

While trying to hail a taxi on Second Avenue on a busy, rainy Saturday night, a well-dressed young couple came along behind me, also trying to hail a taxi. They seemed impatient, so they walked one block uptown to get the first cab.

A few minutes later I saw them get into the first oncoming cab — my loss.

As their cab approached me, it slowed down and came to a full stop. The door opened and, as they both got out, the young man said, “It’s your cab.”

I thanked them profusely, got in, and went on my way.

Read all recent entries and our updated submissions guidelines. Reach us via e-mail [email protected] and follow @NYTMetro on Twitter using the hashtag #MetDiary.

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An Old Staple of Black Culture Now Adds to a New Restaurant’s Décor

It started with Miss Susie. Miss Susie owns a brownstone a few doors from Dennis Decker on West 119th Street in Harlem, where over the years she rented out rooms and tenant after tenant left scraps of their lives behind. Last summer, Mr. Decker helped his 84-year-old neighbor, known to everyone simply as Miss Susie, by organizing a cleaning, and in the sifting came across a handful of vintage Jet magazines.

“They were so small, and so beautiful,” Mr. Decker said.

For decades Jet has been a staple in the black community, each compact issue a cultural chapter found at just about every barbershop, doctor’s office and grandmother’s coffee table. The copies in Miss Susie’s building. where she also lives, featured a black-and-white photograph on the cover, headlines like “How The Sit Down Strikes Hurt Southern Business” and articles about the boxer Joe Louis’s tax problems and the first black female dentists.

Around the same time Mr. Decker, a design and branding consultant, was helping Miss Susie, he was also working on a concept for Harlem Shake, a mom-and-pop-style burger joint on the corner of 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, which opened last month. Mr. Decker and the restaurant’s principal owner, Jelena Pasic, wanted something that suggested pride, but was yet humble and undeniably authentic.


“What’s a better representation,” Mr. Decker said. “I really wanted to honor the more recent past that many of our older neighbors have been through and still can remember.” He thought that as more and more businesses sprouted up in Harlem, “it’s the recent past we’re kind of losing.”

Now, 240 Jet magazine covers, ranging from 1952 to 2013, adorn two of the restaurant’s restroom walls in a giant collage of black history and culture through their images and headlines:

“Broadway Welcomes Negro Play’’ (1959);

“Negro Judge Fights For Court Reforms” (1965);

“Should A Black Politician Run For President?” (1971);

“Eddie Murphy: Race And Wit Make Cop Movie A Box Office Hit” (1986);

“Oprah Tells Why Blacks Who Bash Blacks Tick Her Off’’ (1990);

“Venus Williams Wins Wimbledon 2000 Tennis Championship’’ (2000);

“Is Your Child Next? Jordan Russell Davis, 1995-2012’’ (2013).

The display also serves as a kaleidoscope of famous black faces, like those of Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, Cicely Tyson, Adam Clayton Powell, Richard Pryor, Michael Jordan and MC Hammer.

Another wall is dedicated to the Jet “Beauty Of The Week,” with rows and rows of black-and-white, pinup photos of women in swimsuits and short biographies, from the mid-20th century.

“It makes you stay in there longer,” said Yusef McDougal, 31, a customer, sitting at a table one afternoon with a burger, fries and red-velvet milkshake. “It’s history, and a lot of Harlem is in there, too.”

Articles also touched on everyday life, through the celebration and struggles of black firefighters, postal workers and nurses.

“Jet showed our shining stars,” said Camille Z. Charles, a sociology professor and the chairwoman of the Africana Studies Department at the University of Pennsylvania, “but also blacks who are still struggling, for people to understand the importance of not forgetting those who are still struggling, and the responsibility that comes with black leadership.”

Critical benefit also came from the variety of positive images, Dr. Charles said. Growing up, “I used to read about Ben Carson in Jet magazine,” she said, referring to the neurosurgeon. “You learned about black people doing great things in science, doing great things in business.”

After Miss Susie told Mr. Decker that he could keep the eight magazines he pulled out of her place, he asked other neighbors and friends if they had any old Jet magazines lying around. Some did. However, the bulk of the Harlem Shake collection came from online purchases and auctions.

Vintage copies cost around $8. The most expensive issue featured Barack Obama winning the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. It cost about $27.

“I would sometimes set my alarm at 2 a.m. to be the last bidder,” said Ms. Pasic, the shop’s founder. Her thirst for the project reminded her of a Readers Digest-style magazine that her great-aunt collected in their native Croatia. Of her display of Jet magazines, she said, “everybody relates to it because their grandmothers, their mothers used to have it. Everybody feels it’s a part of their personal past.”

At its peak in the early 1990s, Jet sold an average of one million copies of each issue, said the editor in chief, Mitzi Miller. That does not include those who read it through passed around copies. Today, she said, Jet sells about 700,000 copies. It publishes every three weeks and has a newsstand price of $1.99.

“It helps to make sure we’re still a part of current conversation,” Ms Miller said. “It’s a new generation, some of whom haven’t seen those magazines.”

The oldest cover in the collage, from 1952, asks, “Are Negro Women Getting Sexier?”

Most of the images displayed from that time are of black women with fair skin and straight hair. Black men are almost nonexistent. A 1970 cover features a woman with an Afro and the headline: “Young, gifted and black lawyer …”

Entertainment and lifestyle covers started to dominate in the 1980s, yet news that both troubles and lifts black people remains constant. Placed in the collage next to the 1971 cover about a black politician running for president is a 2011 cover with an image of President Obama.

“It just gives me chills to see it,” Mr. Decker said of the two covers, “right there in the center.”

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Activists’ Stunt Livens Up a Routine Senate Session

ALBANY – There wasn’t much to see in the State Senate on Wednesday: the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, the honoring of a basketball player and a bunch of empty seats where elected representatives are paid to sit.

But there was something to grab the eye. Shortly after the beginning of proceedings, about 15 protesters who had posed as guests sitting in the upstairs gallery suddenly tossed hundreds of fake $100 bills onto the chamber’s floor below, a prank meant to call attention to the issue of campaign finance reform.

The protesters made it through a couple of rounds of chants –- “What do we want? Fair elections!” –- before being asked to leave by the chamber’s security guards.

Outside, one demonstrator, Josh Silver, said the protest was intended to show that the state’s people wanted “common-sense reform to clean up New York.”

“The point is to tell Albany that the world is watching,” Mr. Silver said.

And sure enough, on the Senate floor, several amused senators took photos of the activists and scooped up the funny money. Senator John A. DeFrancisco, a Republican from the Syracuse area, even thanked the protesters for spicing up another ho-hum day of lawmaking in front an otherwise sparse audience.

“We wanted to provide some entertainment for our guests,” Mr. DeFrancisco said, “and we asked those people to come out and throw some money on the floor and make absolute fools out of themselves.”

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