Gaming Wall Street

Written by Megan Finnegan Bungeroth on . Posted in News Our Town Downtown.


An atypical mix of people and classes congregate in a Wall Street atrium to get out of the cold

Financial District New York is full of its own microcosms – spaces where representatives of the 8 million converge and give the appearance of a true sampling of the city’s population. While the subways are packed with the elite and the downtrodden both, rarely do the various groups interact in any meaningful way. The atrium adjacent to 60 Wall Street provides an unusual exception to that rule.

Bob comes to the atrium almost every day to play a few rounds of chess. Photo by Lauren Naefe

Bob comes to the atrium almost every day to play a few rounds of chess. Photo by Lauren Naefe

The cavernous public space is a giant indoor recreation area, flanked incongruously by palm trees and dotted with tables (26) and chairs (104) and benches (532 linear feet!) available for use to all who enter between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. every day. It’s a privately owned public space, operated by Deutsche Bank, occupied – at times and to various degrees – by Occupy Wall Street stragglers, homeless New Yorkers, tourists, bankers on lunch breaks, and a cadre of men who meet almost every day to pass the time playing three-minute chess and backgammon.

“I was pretty surprised to see it myself,” said an NYPD officer stationed at the atrium for only the second time. “You see a lot of homeless people on one side and business people on the other.”

It’s the games that bring everyone together. Tourists dangling cameras and plastic I Heart NY bags stop before descending to the 2/3 subway line to watch as a man in shirtsleeves on his lunch break, Todd, sits down with another man, Nick, in a pulled-low ski cap and parka. The two have been meeting up for speedy matches for 15 years. They skim pieces off the board and slap the clock, barely registering anyone else around them, mumbling the occasional mild profanity. (“You’re a bum!” “I could mate you right now!”) Their win counts are roughly even, they say.

Bob, 77, ambles up to observe.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Bob says. “You get a lot of play in. You think you’re ahead and then you get beat by the clock!”

One of the chess boards in a rare moment of repose. Photo by Lauren Naefe

One of the chess boards in a rare moment of repose. Photo by Lauren Naefe

He, like many who come to the atrium frequently, is wary of giving out personal information, including his last name. He does share, however, the fact that almost every single weekday, his wife heads to their community center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and he hops on the train to meet with his buddies, usually about a dozen of them, in the Financial District. In the frigid winter, the men (all men) share the heated atrium space with those seeking shelter, sometimes planting their games in the midst of sleeping bags, garbage bags, and people making liberal use of the benches. In the summer, they move the whole operation to Zuccotti Park. Some are retired, some out of work, some just between shifts or on a break, some formerly homeless themselves, remembering when they used to sleep in the atrium to ward off the cold.

Bob won’t reveal his last name, but he wants to make sure a reporter is aware that he has an excellent memory, and can even remember the song he sang at school when he was 10 years old, “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,” and could even, right now, sing the entire song, all three verses. And he does.

The men keep track of who wins their games, though they swear there’s no betting – “that would be illegal,” one man says pointedly. They joke and tease each other and roll the dice and smile. It hardly seems to matter who wins.

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