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Hector's Place is packed. It's four o'clock on a freezing March morning, but outside the restaurant, the corner of Washington and Little West 12th streets is a traffic jam of delivery vans and semis and 18-wheelers with license plates from heavy-hitting livestock statesIowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska. Cuts of meat, boxed or vacuum-sealed in plastic, are being loaded into trucks idling on the sidewalks. At this hour, the meat district's overhanging metal tracks are loaded with hundreds of pink carcasses. The moon is out. The street is lit like a sound stage.
The men and women who eat at Hector's work in the meat market. They wear white coats with layers of clothing piled underneath or jean jackets and hooded sweatshirts and gimme caps. Even at the height of summer, meat coolers are chilled to 40 degrees. Drivers sit at the restaurant's blue linoleum tables with calculators and piles of purchase orders. Pancakes are $3.25, a cup of coffee 65 cents. The restaurant opens at 2:30 in the morning for coffee and doughnuts. By 4 a.m., you can get a good steak.
In its predictions for 2001, the New York Post proclaimed that the meat market, once hot, is now out because it "still smells like meat." Meanwhile, most tourists, if they venture west of Ninth Avenue, tend to look at the district's roughly six blocks as a kind of theater, where actors dress up as meat packers to process cows and chickens in the dead of night. The reality is that meatpacking is grueling work.
"I hated this business," says Joe Nemecek, who bought Adolf Kusy Co., Fine Pork and Provisions from his father in 1985. "I came back from Vietnam and drove an 18-wheeler. I loved to cook and wanted to be a chef. I'd been accepted at the Culinary Institute, when a bunch of guys quit on my father. He was in trouble, but it took him a month to call me. Finally he talked to my mother, and she called my ex-wife. I got into it completely against my will. That was 25 years ago."
Adolf Kusy, who died in 1996 at the age of 105, started in the lamb business in 1934, and Nemecek's father joined him a number of years later. Maintaining the original wooden-floored cooler, Joe Nemecek branched out from lamb to include rabbits, suckling pigs, and seafood. The company's old signature wooden signs advertised over 50 types of cheese.
A morning in the market is everyone else's middle of the night. Steve Brooks, who owns Diamond Meats, opens his doors at 4 a.m. After 10 years on Ninth Avenue, Brooks's company was recently priced out of that space, and he moved the business around the corner to 843 Washington Street, a building he now shares with approximately seven other lamb and pork businesses. "I went to school to learn electrical work, but in 1975, I got a job in a veal house, Berliner & Marks," says Brooks. "The pay was great. I'd gone to butcher school in Toledo just for the hell of it, but when I got here, the guys in the market didn't care about my diploma, they just wanted to see if I could cut. I started my own business on Ninth Avenue, putting it together from scratch. It's good money, but it's very labor intensive. Older guys stayed in it forever, but the younger guys don't want to work that hard. I can't afford to take a day off. You have no idea how busy it gets."
When celebrity restaurateur Keith McNally opened Pastis, the Parisian brasserie, he dreamed that local meat packers would rub elbows with limousined patrons at lunchtime.
A hundred and fifty years ago, New York City was the country's largest center of beef production. At the turn of the century, the city maintained nearly 250 sites for slaughtering livestock, and as late as the 1930s, it was producing the nation's third largest volume of dressed meats. Gansevoort Market opened in 1882, originally a two-acre open-air market bounded by Little West 12th, Gansevoort, Washington, and West streets. Named for Revolutionary War hero Peter Gansevoort (Herman Melville's grandfather), the area later evolved into a produce market. By 1949 it had become a wholesale meat market, housing as many as 120 meat companies. Many of the meat houses have since closed or have been bought up by larger packers. Several others have moved to Hunts Point in the Bronx, joining that borough's lively 50-company cooperative. Still, according to John Calcagno, president of the Greater New York Meat Trade Institute, as many as 50 meat packers remain in and around the original Gansevoort Market site, operating their businesses out of the district's 19th-century buildings.
A single city block divides Hector's Place from Pastis, the Parisian brasserie at Little West 12th Street and Ninth Avenue. When celebrity restaurateur Keith McNally opened Pastis, he dreamed that local meat packers would rub elbows with limousined patrons at lunchtime, that his bistro would become a mythical piece of working-class Paris sandwiched between Chelsea and the West Village. Onoufrios Argyros, who with his brother, Costa, and brother-in-law, Denny, owns Hector's, is not as well known as McNally, but so far, his is the restaurant the meat packers prefer.