# "This Is Not My Beautiful House! This Is Not My Beautiful Life!" printed in New York Magazine April 16th 2007
you can read the article with its nice photos here.
About five minutes from my paint-peeled, wood-warped brownstone apartment in Brooklyn stands one of those new luxury condos, all gray metal and glass. It’s called the Greene House, and it’s at 383 Carlton Avenue, at the corner of Greene Avenue. When I mentioned this to my fellow downwardly mobile friends, they said
“ ‘The Greene House’? Is that where they grow money?”
“That goddamn building looks like a dorm for storm troopers!”
“Ugh. Another skybox for the apocalypse.”
I jumped at the opportunity to spend a night there, in a penthouse duplex, to find out what it’s like to live in the high-rises that are sprouting up all over my neighborhood like stalks of white asparagus. But I guess I am also here to give you information, just in case you are reading this and in the market to buy the place—if you happen to have just won a network reality-show competition, own a hedge fund, or have a name like Linda Chase-Manhattan.
I packed up some toiletries and dirty laundry (duplexes have their own washer-dryers, right?) and said good-bye to my ramshackle pad—the walls stained with rust from a yearlong leak, the rotted floorboards, the toilet I flush with a bucket, the mouse skittering behind the oven, the pigeons nesting in my ceiling, and the squirrel who tries to chew the rotted wood of my window sash. (Yes, I have a negligent landlord, but the place is supercheap, and it’s the only way I have been able to stay in New York and be artsy.)
The tower, which is the highest building for a few blocks around, was designed by the architecture firm Meltzer/Mandl. It is metallic silver and looks cool to the touch. “This is the crown jewel of Fort Greene, the first luxury tower in the area,” Jerry Minsky, senior vice-president of the Corcoran Group’s local office, told me. “We think of it like an Airstream trailer. It has a retro, fifties feel.” The same developers are hard at work on another luxury tower a few blocks north.
When I reached the proper floor in my new home, a recorded voice pronounced “Eleven!” as sunny as a stewardess. Upon opening the door, all I saw were pale maple floors, white walls, and the assault of windows with breathtaking vistas.
I walked out on the balcony. Below were the tree-lined streets and Italianate brownstones built a century ago for out-priced Manhattanites seeking space. A bit further was the grassy hill of Fort Greene Park, and to my left were Red Hook’s tall shipping cranes and a miniature, cornflower-blue Statue of Liberty.
This wasn’t the only view. There are two more balconies upstairs—a narrow one off the bedroom, and another on the other side of the stairs that has a metal stairway that leads to—get this—a large private terrace. I watched the sunset from here, but I was busy texting friends, so I didn’t properly take it in.
On the narrow balcony off the master bedroom, one gets the southern view of Fort Greene and the future Atlantic Yards project, a wacky Frank Gehry–designed Toon Town that will probably look beautiful from here and not like the set of a Tim Burton film. I could also see the opposite direction down Flatbush toward where the Forté condominium, another stack of glassy luxury, is under construction. It dwarfs the Greene House by about twenty floors. Beyond that is the almost completed 40-story Oro, which has a lap pool, a gym, and a private screening room. The Website shows young people smiling in front of their windows in living rooms made of “exotic Brazilian hardwood floors from sustainable forests” and kitchens with “custom quarried Pietra Bedonia Italian stone countertops.” On the Website for the nearby J Condos in Dumbo, sleek serif-free words roll onto a blue sky painted with feathery cloud wisps: “The Joy of Living in Luxury … the Joy of Having It All.” They go for up to $3 million, with a $2,068 monthly maintenance fee.
At least for a night, I was a part of this proliferating luxury lifestyle. I wanted to smile holding a mojito, surrounded by multiracial models. I wanted to Have It All, too. Being up this high is intoxicating.
Finally it was dark enough that I could stop gawking and check out the inside, which had been easy to ignore with this omniscient vista. I noticed first that there are as many closets as there are balconies. One by the front door, two in the hallway, three in the upstairs space, and one (jackpot!) with a washer and dryer.
The owner turns out to be an architect and author of two books on design and architecture. She revised the floor plans and designed the inside herself. Downstairs, what was meant to be a master bedroom became a study, next to an open dining area. She then relocated her bed upstairs and installed a window overlooking the rest of the apartment.
The kitchen is a square of quiet and complicated appliances. A Miele Incognito dishwasher, a GE Advantium microwave, and, most notably, drawers that have some sort of contraption that keeps them from slamming. A mother’s window over the sink allows you to wash your dishes while looking at the Empire State Building.
There are three bathrooms, two on the main floor and one next to the bedroom. They all have sinks in that popular squared-basin style, which bothers me as a guest, because all your toothpaste munge spreads out and doesn’t go down easily. But I guess that is what housecleaners are for. In the upper bathroom, the owner has installed a whirlpool tub.
Except for some style choices, and the fact she probably doesn’t feel searing pain every time she receives her student-loan bill, the owner and I aren’t that different. She is a yoga devotee like me and has a vast collection of Tibetan chant music, yoga books, and yoga videotapes. She also has three yoga mats and two extras still in their wrappers. That’s more than $120 in yoga-mat yardage. But if I had the cash, I would probably do the same. I would also replace my cheap oatmeal breakfasts with wheat-free, gluten-free Erewhon cereal for $5.49 a box. And I would also really focus on cleansing my body and buy bottles of emulsified oil of oregano, Cytozyme-AD, and Amino-D-Tox.
On one of her many bookshelves are Light on Yoga, Deepak Chopra, and the I Ching, all of which I own. On the shelf above it are books on money and investing, all of which I don’t. One title stood out: Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, by T. Harv Eker, who urges the reader to “place your hand on your heart and say ‘my inner world creates my outer world’ … then touch your head and say ‘I have a Millionaire Mind!’ ” It also has handy “wealth principles” like “Practice thinking and creating ways of having ‘both.’ Whenever alternatives are presented to you, ask yourself, ‘how can I have both?’ ”
These are the truths I must learn to Have It All.
Her bedroom, surprisingly modest—if you don’t account for the spectacular view—is the room where Laura and Mary Ingalls would sleep if Ms. Ingalls Wilder wrote another book called Huge Deluxe Penthouse Near the A Train. I could imagine my owner, exhausted from creating breathtaking architectural spaces all day and wiped out from her private yoga class with Rodney Yee, coming home and flopping on her pillowy bed, looking up at her shelf, and knowing, inherently, how to make her inner world give her outer world money like it was spitting out of an ATM.
I put my iPod in her speaker station, and my playlist (Ray LaMontagne, the Go-Go’s, Broken Social Scene) sounded huge and symphonic as it reverberated over all the hard surfaces. I lay in bed, hovering like some figure in a painting by Chagall, floating over the colored bits of the city, in a gorgeous space of aspirations and light shafts and soft beds and slamless drawers, all my toxins and toxic thoughts flaking away and flushing down into sewers I didn’t see.
In the morning I was hungry and I snuck a bowl of Erewhon wheat-free, gluten-free cereal. (I’m sorry, owner! I’ll make you breakfast at my place sometime!) I wished I could have stayed another night. I wished that I will be able to stay in my neighborhood, after all this luxury happens. Of course, this town has been gentrifying since it was traded for a bunch of beads, and you can’t live here without embracing the changeable city, but there comes a point when you wonder if the changeable city is embracing you back.
I returned to my warm, dusty apartment and the animal friends that inhabit it. I didn’t feel as resentful as before. I left the place more sympathetic for this woman, and her attempts at self-work. There was a sense of generosity-gone-high-end about her. The people in those glass houses aren’t stormtroopers—but if they insist on floating above me, in their gorgeous homes, they should stop doing so much yoga and have more parties. I dumped all my freshly clean laundry on the floor and flopped down on my own bed. In quarter-hour intervals, I can see a plane out my bedroom window approaching La Guardia. I always imagine it full of people looking down at Brooklyn, getting a moment’s perspective, for $1,000 or less.
Oh, I almost forgot. The asking price of the duplex is $2.5 million.
# "Because a Logo is Not Enough" Critical Shopper, New York Times, April 12, 2007
you can read the article with its nice photos .
42 West 14th Street;
VIBE A sports authority without the stadium rage, welcoming all levels of fitness.
SERVICE No product pushing. Knowledgeable staff members are not secret mouthpieces for the Man, and they stick to the store philosophy: buy what you need.
FOCUS Personalized shoe consultations. (It gets crazy on the weekends; go on a weekday morning or after lunch to beat the crowd.)
THE EXTRA MILE The store offers programs and classes, including a spring triathlon training program starting in mid-May. For information and registration, go to jackrabbitsports.com.
IT takes a lot for me to walk into an athletics store because I suffer from severe P.E. Class Syndrome, or PECS. No matter how much I may exercise now, I have dark and partly repressed memories of being beaned with dodge balls or standing in different fields praying the ball would never come, wondering what in God’s name everyone was screaming about.
Many of today’s sports-gear stores don’t help. The prevailing aesthetic of warped American can-doism — “Just do it! Nothing is impossible! Win or die! Grrr!” — totally freaks me out.
Trying to find something to wear is not easy, either. Athletic companies are constantly unveiling whiz-bang gimcrackery constructed in nanotechnological polymers in dizzying stripes and colors. Moreover, the basic warm-up (tricked out with fur, rhinestones and attitude) has become the uniform of the modern-day boulevard trollop. One false move and I could look like Kimora Lee Simmons if she became a member of the Fantastic Four.
JackRabbit, the insistently back-to-basics and refreshingly steroid-free multisports store, is trying to strip away the layers of hype, Myoplex and filigree that weigh down the zillion-dollar-a-year industry. The store concentrates on providing functional clothes and equipment but still knows that its patrons want to look kind of cool. Being in a fashion capital, I guess you could say it is one of the first sports outfitters to “edit.”
The brightly lighted store is divided between women’s and men’s clothing, along with quadrants for basic fitness, yoga, triathlon, running, swimming, biking and a comprehensive shoe section in the rear. I went there last week for new swimming goggles and a suit, since my old cheap ones were leaking and disintegrating respectively.
At the wall of goggles, a salesman named Patrick Lago approached me in a nonconfrontational, almost sleepy way that put me at ease. Together we narrowed down the choices, then used the goggle testers to see which fit my face. (Alcohol wipes are available to prevent a pinkeye plague in the lap-swimmer community.) I settled on the Mako by Aqua Sphere ($15), a dependable brand with a soft silicone “skirt” around the eye so you don’t look like an aged owl when you get out of the water.
The men’s suits, hanging on a small island rack, cover the waterfront with skimpy Speedos (I don’t think so), square-cut boxers and the above-the-knee Durafast Jammer ($33.95), which, with a wool tank top, could have been worn in Coney Island around 1900. Mr. Lago, also an avid swimmer, preferred these. When I asked why, I expected some cocky insider speech, but he shrugged and said, “I just like them.” I went with black Speedo Endurance square-leg trunks ($39).
Mr. Lago’s zero-pitch assistance is intentional. Lee Silverman, the owner of the store, wants the staff to be honest and nonaggressive. Also a sufferer of PECS, Mr. Silverman used to be in computer technology and at one point weighed 210 pounds. But then he started working out, eventually participating in triathlons. He decided to apply his tech-geek focus to athletics and in 2003 opened a JackRabbit in Park Slope, Brooklyn, to serve the bikers and runners of Prospect Park. The 14th Street store opened in January 2006 with the same idealistic Park Slopey goal of creating a welcoming environment for skilled as well as latent athletes.
It was unsurprising to learn from Mr. Silverman that vendors commonly pay the staff of athletic stores to push their products on customers (sometimes known as the Sales Person Incentive Fund, or SPIF). Instead, he pays for his own advertising, eschews prominent logo displays and refuses to buy an entire line from a vendor just to receive a discount. “We’ve made it a little harder on ourselves,” he said, “but then again, people trust us.”
No one is more of a truth-teller than the store manager, Christopher Bergland, a triple Ironman champion and the author of “The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss” (St. Martin’s Press, June 2007). Spending time with Mr. Bergland made me feel like the Karate Kid, gaining wisdom from a master in a quick seven-minute montage scene. Among other things, I found out that there is no such thing as a perfect cross-training shoe (you are better off buying a running shoe with a “low profile”); that the classic “splice” running shorts are going out of style; and that Supplex, an unshiny cottony-feel synthetic, is the Lycra of the 21st century.
Mr. Bergland examined my instep and determined that I overpronate (roll my feet inward) and that I have V-shape feet: narrow at the ankle, wider at the forefoot. I went on the treadmill for video analysis. A camera installed at foot level captured my gait, frame by frame, as I jogged, so the staff could gauge my midstance — when all the weight is on one foot — and determine how much support I needed. Mr. Bergland suggested the Saucony Omni shoe ($100), which is designed for V-shaped feet. I bought a pair with a more stable inside arch to compensate for my pronating tendencies.
I was inspired to replace my running wardrobe, too, and bought a pair of Asics Metrocircuit shorts ($36), which are baggy and long, almost like basketball shorts. This, Mr. Bergland said, is the trend: “For men, the hemline on running shorts keeps going down.” I also got a Craft Trail vented tee ($45). After trying on Sugoi MidZero running tights, which made me look like a mime, I went for Adidas Astro Pants ($60). They’re stretchy but unrevealing and have pegged, zippered ankles so you don’t rub up against yourself when you huff and puff.
I’m not sure how much I’ll wear, though. No matter now selective JackRabbit may be, athletic wear still bums me out with all its stripes and blocky colors. Why do I have to look like a Nascar vehicle to work out?
Regardless, the store provided a moment of healing for my PECS. JackRabbit’s message is what our P.E. teachers should have told us from the very beginning: being athletic doesn’t mean you have to be an overcompetitive jerk. I wish I had come here for gym class.
# "Save a Face, Save the World," Critical Shopper March 15th 2007 New York Times
you can read the article with its nice photos here.
HOW I had forgotten the ’90s: that optimistic decade when I walked around
with my sticky mat and precious new cellphone, as obsessively yogic and
introspective as Madonna. I attended Ashtanga classes and imagined peace
while in pigeon pose, thinking it was an effective way to contribute to
Now firmly in the post-you-know-what age, I had only vague memories of that
serene decade until I walked into Origins, the quintessentially ’90s
organic body-care brand. Stepping into the narrow, embracing store at the
base of the Flatiron Building, I remembered how easy it was to feel good
More anxious now and disgusted with my own consumption, I didn’t know what
to do with myself there. So I decided to buy an exfoliating scrub for my
dumb American face, which, like my country, often seems to be greedily
I explained this to my Origins “guide” (that’s what they call salesclerks
here), and a stripe of concern passed over her pretty natural face. She
suggested I try Modern Friction ($36), which uses “skin refining rice
starch cushioned in cream to rub away dead skin cells.” Swept Clean
($18.50) seemed more my style, because it had that fine-grain granular
texture you look for in a scrub, and it was darkened with “activated
charcoal,” which apparently will “break through oil, purge pores and sweep
Charcoal suddenly seemed the answer to all my problems, so I went a little
coal-crazy at the Origins for Men section and bought the Skin Diver scrub
($17.50), Skin Diver body wash ($16.50) and a bar of Skin Diver body soap
I was given a little wooden apple basket to put my products in. While I
perused the well-lighted items on the blond wood shelves, a guide was
applying a cleanser to a woman sitting at one of the little islands
outfitted with a sink. I tried to settle into the Origins aura, but that
was hard for me now that I’ve replaced my Ray of Light-style inner life
with a constant fear of apocalypse and personal carbon emissions and a
concern that everything I do or buy is killing furry animals or enslaving
children in Africa in some blood-diamond capitalist way.
But that is what stores like Origins are for: to provide products that
purport to use environmentally friendly natural remedies and ancient
healing traditions so that Western consumers like me can feel they are
guiltlessly moisturizing without destroying the planet like a human SUV.
The arrival of Origins, one of the first botanical-based brands from a
major company, in the early ’90s was a turning point in the cosmetics
industry. The green spawn of Estée Lauder, it was committed to preservation
of earth, animals and environment a habitual mission for most beauty
products now, but more of a challenge 17 years ago, when recycling was not
mandatory and many brands were using animal collagen and placenta in their
But Origins pressed on, eschewing animal products and testing, using that
yellowy 20 percent recycled paper (now replaced with a better-looking 50
percent blend), creating an Origins Empties recycling program and finding a
manufacturer willing to turn its leftover plastic caps into lawn chairs and
a beekeeper who wouldn’t gas the insects at the end of the season.
The first Origins store opened in Cambridge, Mass., in 1991 with a shocking
200 products. Marking the end of the snooty ’80s and the onset of the
warmer ’90s, it was, it says, the first major brand to use an “open sell”
approach allowing customers to touch and test a product before buying it
including its signature product, Peace of Mind ($10), an aromatherapy
cream that delivers a lingering peppermint-patty zing when rubbed on the
temples or earlobes. (Big white Peace of Mind gumballs are also available
for 25 cents.)
WHILE its tie to a major corporation may breed suspicion among the
ecoconscious consumers it courts, being a rich daughter brand does give
Origins the financial advantage to stay committed to its mission to pay
for trips to far-flung countries to retrieve ingredients (like charred
bamboo from Japan) and research indigenous healing traditions with shamans
in Belize. It’s impressive that the brand still holds up in a time when
even Cameron Diaz is environmentally aware.
Over the next few months, the company will be redoing its stores in an
“eco-chic” design: more plants, terra-cotta accents, sustainable woods. But
its familiar tree silhouette logo and clean font, which looks both dynamic
and soothing, will remain.
And there is still satisfaction in reading the chummy product names and
arcane label descriptions, learning, for example, that the skin-firming
cream Youthtopia contains rhodiola, a “legendary” golden root that flowers
in Siberia’s polar mountains.
Sometimes the ingredient combos appear contrived, as in Calm to Your Senses
Lavender and Vanilla Body Souffle, which, upon opening, looked like a
dessert from Gramercy Tavern down the street and made me crave a spoon.
My guide tried to persuade me to get a tonic, explaining it would return my
face to a pH balance after I scrub it raw. But I just can’t get into
toners. In our shared fantasy of “healing traditions,” I can imagine a
wrinkle-free Japanese elder or Hopi medicine woman cleaning themselves with
charcoal, moisturizing with rice starch and exfoliating with jojoba beads,
but I can’t see them applying toner with a cotton ball.
Before leaving, I noticed green placards depicting another icon of the
’90s, the smiling bearded face of the cute, squeezable Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr.
Weil has collaborated with Origins to create a line of mushroom-based
products (which are supposed to reduce redness and inflammation), including
Plantidote Mega-Mushroom Face Serum ($65), face cream ($60) and
Nite-trition Restful Sleep Supplement, a liquid you squirt into your mouth
At home I scrubbed and serumed and moisturized, daubed some Peace of Mind
on my temples, took a dropper ful of Dr. Weil’s sleep supplement and lay in
my bed all smooth-faced and redolent in botanical clouds of fragrance. I
slept really well, too, but that may have been because of another healing
ingredient I use called shiraz.
# New York Times Critical Shopper: "Outfitters to Presidents, Preppies, Me" February 22nd 2007
you can read the article with its nice photos .
346 Madison Avenue (44th Street);
ATMOSPHERE Cigar Aficionado without the jerks.
SERVICE An abundance of salespeople eager to help, and they hide their on-commission
urgency well. Most seem knowledgeable and don’t make judgments, even if you’re a made-to-measure newbie.
HIGHLIGHTS Special offers and seasonal sales sometimes bring the prices into H&M range. (Next up: a spring-summer sale after Father’s Day and special offers in the made-to-measure departments until April 21.)
THE last time I was at Brooks Brothers, 23 years ago, my mom took me there to be fitted for a suit during her You Need Some Nice Clothes campaign. I remember her tugging at my cuffs while I stood there humming the Go-Go’s to myself. Not much has changed. I have “Vacation” on my iPod, and I still need nice clothes.
These days, with Club Monaco and Zara everywhere, Brooks Brothers is not the first place I think of shopping, and I am not alone. A good number of men like me have forsaken fine tailoring to rush to H&M right before a wedding or job interview to get our fitted shirts and ready-made suits without ever taking out our ear buds. (Guilty as charged.)
I wouldn’t mind getting out of my insta-blazer habits, but Brooks Brothers, I assumed, was for someone different — i.e., rugby-shirted fraternity guys buying ties for their internships at Skadden, Arps. Not exactly my scene, but I was willing to give it a try.
Brooks Brothers has seen much more than the Preppie Revolution. On its Web site there is a timeline describing its first store in 1818, and how it introduced American men to argyle socks and seersucker suits, and outfitted Abe Lincoln with the famous long coat for his 1865 inauguration (which, unfortunately, he also wore to Ford’s Theater a few months later, the site says).
The flagship, which has been in its Midtown location since 1915, is a five-floor emporium of mother-approved Nice Clothes. The first floor is grand as a bank, lined with dark wood shelving and tables of cascading cravats ($59 to $98) and button-fronts ($75 to 118) in hundreds of combinations. An overabundance of nattily dressed salespeople hover everywhere offering assistance.
This old-fashioned vibe is new, in a way. During the Age of Gap in the mid-1990s, the owners at the time, the British clothier Marks & Spencer, decided the store needed to modernize and ordered many of its fixtures thrown out. Luckily, much of the “old” Brooks Brothers was squirreled away, and when Retail Brand Alliance bought the brand in 2001, the original chandeliers returned along with other historical objects, including two large carved wood statuary lamps at the base of the stairs.
Simultaneously Brooks sought to update the brand, offering online custom shirts, for example, as well as hiring Thom Browne, the men’s designer with the serious dapper fetish, to create a line of suits that will be unveiled in September.
The renewed historical infusion sometimes backfires. At the back of the first floor, you will find a strange sleepwear section neatly hung with pajamas ($75), nightshirts ($69) and fluffy bathrobes ($148). The area was sparsely attended when I was there, but it will probably have more customers once we figure out a way to clone Spencer Tracy.
Then on the second floor there is the creepy boy’s section, which had little headless mannequins in premium polos ($39.50), rugby shirts ($49.50) and a precocious leather pilot jacket for $148. They seemed to whisper, “Nyah, nyah, you’ll never have a hedge fund.”
The rest of the floor is dedicated to sportswear and swings back to a preppie vibe of pink and blue argyle sweaters. Visiting during the fall sale, I found some nice $148 wool sweaters marked 50 percent off.
I felt calmer on the third floor, which is devoted to sport coats, blazers and dress trousers. A friendly salesman showed me what remained on sale in a 38. (He guessed my size correctly with one sideways glance.) Between blazers in a Christmasy tartan meant for drunk retirees named Bing, I found a great two-button blazer in an understated Harris tweed. At 40 percent off, it came to $298, plus $60 for fitting.
If I did have a hedge fund, or an index fund or even just a fund, I would have bought a beautifully soft dark-blue Loro Piana cashmere blazer for $998, on sale at the time for 25 percent off.
I WAS prepared to invest in a custom-made shirt, though, and approached the digital tailoring center, at the back of the third floor, to order the garment based on precise three-dimensional measurements taken by computer.
First I chose a muted blue and gold check pattern from books of fabric swatches provided by Sandra Macaya, who has been working in the department since its inception five years ago. I selected stitching, collar, cuff and placket styles. (I suggest bringing a friend with scrupulous fashion opinions to help.) Prices are based on the expense of the fabric, running from $150 to $350; my Egyptian cotton weave cost $180.
Ms. Macaya then led me to the digital measuring room, a shed-size chamber lined with dark carpeting and two hinged handles affixed on opposite walls. She handed me pair of gray stretch shorts and socks wrapped in cellophane (you get to keep them!) and closed the door.
Mostly nude in my little stretchy outfit, I held on to the handles as flashes of light striped down my body, casting a silhouette on the wall. I was told that the light emissions, which last about 12 seconds, create 200,000 data points that register every curve of your body as if on a giant photocopier. If something went horribly wrong and I emerged with superpowers, I could be fitted for my costume right away.
When I left the booth, Ms. Macaya was ready with a digital printout. (I looked more like a Botero figure than Wolverine.) The computer had calculated some 40 measurements, including bicep, inseam, outseam and wrist. Ms. Macaya double-checked the more pertinent ones to refine the fit. “The computer is exact but can’t decide human preference or taste,” she said. Her eye seems to have more data-point receivers than a machine in that respect.
I will pick up my shirt in three to four weeks, so I left the store empty-handed. That was O.K. with me because it played into the patient, fine tailoring aesthetic Brooks Brothers is striving to embody. You can’t just download a fine-fitting shirt from iTunes. Yet.
# Killing Cupid: How Advertisers are exploiting your hatred of valentines day, Radar Online February 14 2007
read the official article here
Or read the longer, more balanced article (you know how editors are) here:
If you are single like me, you have dealt with the onslaught of V-Day with commendable skill for years. You weather the foiled, doiled hearts in the windows of your neighborhood CVS, know how to ignore the white teddy bears that say “I Wuv U” in Hallmark stores. You arrange to cook at home so you won’t have to sit next to some irritating couple as they mewl over their dinner specials holding hands histrionically like they were Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. You may go out to a bar, or even, perhaps, some Love Stinks party, to bond with others who have to once again tolerate the corporate love parade of Hallmark emotions.
But in late January of this year, I started seeing wheatpasted posters and ads on the streets of New York City with the url: dumpcupid.com on a pink background, no explanation. From the clean graphics and sudden omnipresence, I knew it was some sort of mass market effort of some kind, I just wasn’t sure if it was to promote a dating website or a new emo band. Later when I typed in the url (why do I always fall for this stuff?), I was slapped in the face with a bright website for Herbal Essence shampoo that said, “When you’ve got luscious hair, who needs Cupid?” Even worse than what I feared – major advertisers have turned their sightlines onto a new demographic: people like me who hate Valentine’s Day.
Be prepared, oh oppressed Singletons of America, they are coming for us. This February 14th, our feelings of resentment and irritation are being used to sell product, a trend that will most assuredly escalate in the coming years. That’s right, your hatred for a holiday that has been shoved down your throat is now, also, about to be shoved down your throat.
Way back in the 90’s, rebellion against this holiday was underground. Anti-Valentines Day parties were small, ironic events held in tiny one bedrooms and dive bars. The Black Hearts Party in New York City, for example, started in co founder Marc Leonard’s New Brunswick house 17 years ago. Since its humble beginning, it has grown into an invite-only annual event at a large venue with over 300 revelers all wearing the required black attire.
Long ago in 2000, San Francisco-based writer Sasha Cagen invented a more upbeat angle in an essay in Utne Reader, called “Quirkyalone” -- single people like herself who don’t pine for relationships. The Quirkyalone is “a person who enjoys being single (but is not opposed to being in a relationship) and generally prefers to be alone rather than dating for the sake of being in a couple.” She started a website and created International Quirkyalone Day (IQD), which she stipulates isn’t an anti-Valentine’s party, though it does share the same day, February 14th. Now Cagen has published a book, “Quirkyalone, a Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics,” spoken in conferences all over the world, and offers “Quirkymerch” for sale on her website. IQD has become a huge event, which in the past has presented performers, a Quirkyalone dating game, an awards show (“the Quirkies”) as well as sister parties in other cities as far away as Sydney Australia. “”It’s like a wedding every year,” she says.
Similarly, The Black Hearts Party in New York now has liquor sponsors for the night and sells merchandise (including “herpes free boxers” and panties printed with the words “I need some space”) on their website, blackheartsparty.com. “People want to franchise, and send documentary crews, and all kinds of craziness,” says Leonard, “we mostly send them away with a polite thank you”. In the spirit of Black Hearts and Quirkyalone, a multitude of anti-valentine’s day parties have cropped up all over the country. Log onto MySpace, for example, and you will find a parade of events and forums geared to those fed-up with V-Day.
Since these once-original gestures of independence have become cottage industries, it wasn’t long before their tactics were put to more commercial use by advertisers eager for new angles.
The ball got rolling last June when Budweiser and Universal Pictures teamed up to create “National Breakup Day,” a cutesy tie-in effort to coincide with the release of the straight-to-Jet-Blue classic The Break-up, starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughan. The day is ostensibly organized to help couples break up while drinking beer and watching a hugely unimportant film. The site has interactive elements to help you turn the end of your relationship into a game, like a forum of favorite breakup lines, a program to help you digitally cut up your pictures, and a helpful breakup “E-Card,” so that you and your jilted one will get lots and lots of comforting spams.
It’s unclear if Budweiser and Universal Pictures believed that the holiday, (or the Earth, for that matter) would survive for years to come. Maybe they really believed that The Break-Up was a significant movie to be watched year after year like It’s a Wonderful Life, (Someone at Universal did go to the trouble recently to post “Now on DVD!” above the film’s ad on the website.) or maybe they were just practicing for February 14th, when a larger demographic of dateless despondent people could be exploited.
Universal has wasted no time by offering a “blokey range” of “Anti-Valentines DVDs” like Scarface, American Pie and 40 Year Old Virgin in a contest through Maxim Magazine’s website. The contest seems geared towards Lad mag Guy Ritchie types: “It's time to stick those red roses in the bin and enjoy this Valentines the proper way - by watching great 'blokey' DVDs on the sofa. You can even scratch your balls in peace!”
On the other end of the gender spectrum, Bust magazine is teaming up with Altoids to offer the event “Curiously Lonely: A DIY Valentines Day for One,” This Tuesday the 13th where participants can play Old Maid, “Make your own one-night-stand kit, and hopefully snag some products from Commandos, Sweetspot Labs, Altoids, Bableland and others. Its happy aestheticism of loneliness fits in well with our “I’m depressed, let’s buy shoes!” Post 9-11 mentality
But it’s Herbal Essence’s Dump Cupid campaign that truly heralds in the new era, where anti-Valentines sentiment will become a commonplace commercial alternative to the originally oppressive heart-shaped box traditions. The Dumpcupid.com site encourages you to turn your back on Cupid, who appears as a slobby, corpulent, longish haired man in a little comical Grecian outfit. You can help a friend “dump cupid” by dragging and pasting refrigerator magnet-style words like “never” “boyfriend” “Jerk” and “dump” into an E-card. Or you can watch vidcasts of Cupid poledancing in a strip club, chased around by a screaming, angry woman, and performing a rap: “I’m cupid, I’m not stupid!”
The campaign was created by the effective advertising agency Kaplan Thaler, the brainchild of Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, who have created memorable campaigns for Revlon, The Girl Scouts of America, and Continental Airlines among others, and recently co-authored the bestselling book, “The Power Of Nice: How To Conquer The Business World With Kindess,” which outlines their philosophy that it pays to be nice. The Herbal Essence promotion, suffused with positivity, is no different – unless you are a Cupid loyalist. According to its program summary, the campaign’s “nontraditional spin on the holiday allows the brand to poke fun at Valentine’s Day stereotypes in order to entertain and delight our consumers.”
The target audience is “Women in their 20s and 30s, particularly single women for whom Valentine's Day is typically a day more filled with stress than anything else because of the pressure for someone else (e.g. a man or Cupid bringing a man) to make it a good day.”
It’s a big effort too – one that includes Online Media (Programs with Youtube and Myspace), full page newspaper ads, TV and Radio spots, In-Store displays, and “Bar media (coasters, post cards, mirror clings)”. A giant 30’ arrow (with Dumpcupid.com written on the side) appeared in Times Square for a product giveaway event on Feb. 9 & 10. In an ironic twist, Cupid was present to protest the protest.
All this has left the originators like Cagen and Leonard a little burned-out. After creating huge parties and speaking all over the country about being Quirkyalone, Cagen is simplifying this year’s IQD to be a low-key get together at a dive bar in her hometown of San Francisco.
Leonard and Black Hearts co-founders Darryl Jefferson and Ian Mackenzie have decided this will be their last annual party. As they state on their website, “…when loathing and mocking Valentine's Day has become so mainstream that the very soulless, evil corporations for whom it was originally created produce their own pathetic attempts to cash in on it…we know our work is done.”
The magnitude of The Herbal Essence campaign promises more to come. In coming years, we may find ourselves not only exasperated with cutesy representations of love, but also tired of cutesy representatiosn of its opposite– just another cultural example of our consumer culture’s tendency to exploit anxieties it originally caused with more product (see: Pharmaceutical Industry).
Perhaps this could be considered a kind of bellweather of what is sure to happen with any popular event. If you have a fun countercultural idea, host a party, and eventually get a liquor sponsor, you should expect to see that idea on billboards and websites within exactly 17 years.
# Kiehls Critical Shopper printed in the New York Times January 18th 2007
Kiehls Since 1851
109 Third Avenue New York, NY 10003
Atmosphere: early 20th century New York apothecary decor, orderly, a cross between The Smithsonian and Duane Reade
Service: The funky sales associates in white lab coats are helpful without being oppressive and armed with free samples
Key Items: skin and hair care products and fragrances, including special sections for babies, pets and men.
Price: not CVS cheap, but worth it.
I AM a traumatized consumer. Like many Americans, I have spent my entire life so bombarded by salesmanship and advertising that I have become cautious and rattled from all of it. If someone offers me help when I walk into a store, I want to implode into a tiny dot and disappear. I usually say “No I’m just looking thank you so much!” even when I know exactly what I am looking for because I’m frightened that saying yes will mean I will be spritzed with a noxious tonic and forced to buy it along with a Mitch Albom book and a life insurance policy.
The skin and hair-care company Kiehl’s, on Third Avenue in the East Village, is one of the few nodes of commerce where I drop my guard. Visiting on a recent afternoon, I knew what I wanted (I have been swimming a lot lately and needed products to counteract the drying effects of chlorine), and as I perused its well-stocked and orderly shelves, a totally relaxed woman in a white lab coat approached me and said, “Hey, find what you’re looking for?”
I’ve heard this line before, but her voice contained no trace of sales desperation. Somehow I found it easy to talk to her, and she showed me the Olive Fruit Oil Nourishing Shampoo (8.4 ounces, $18) and Extra Strength Conditioning Rinse (8.4 ounces, $19), offered the Ultra Facial Moisturizer (8.4 ounces, $33) and suggested I try the All-Sport Swimmers Cleansing Rinse (8.4 ounces, $15), which is designed to cut through the chlorine smell. Instead of pressuring me, she put samples of the rinse in little bottles and threw everything in a bag along with a sample bottle of Crème with Silk Groom for hair, and a packet of Abyssine Eye Cream.
Of course I’ve been to Kiehl’s before. If you have lived in New York City anytime in the past 156 years, then you know it as the Katz’s deli of drug stores, a cherished institution where you bring your out-of-town friends because you can trick them into thinking they are in a museum while you do errands.
Occupying the same space since its founding in 1851 by a Polish family, the store displays druggist relics old anatomical charts, bottles of potassium chlorate and Epsom salt tins in its windows as if they were dioramas in the Smithsonian, which, it turns out, holds many old Kiehl’s formulas in its American pharmacological products collection. It’s really satisfying to imagine you are buying your basic skin and hair products in the same place where someone asked: “I am so stressed out from World War I. Do you have anything for slackened skin?”
Irving Morse purchased the store in 1910 and was involved in the development of many products still in circulation, including Blue Astringent Herbal Lotion, Ultra Facial Moisturizer and Kiehls’ signature product Crème de Corps, which promises on its label that “continued use for 10 days will provide a skin texture heretofore unattainable.” Much of the eccentric language that appears on the products’ generic-looking labels was written by Irving’s son, Aaron, a World War II pilot who took over the store in the ‘60s. After his death in 1996, his desk was prominently placed in the store, along with some of his vintage motorcycles and his “Easy Rider”-era quotes like “Love what you do, put your heart into it and it will be rewarded.”
Aaron Morse’s Harvard-educated daughter Jami stepped in to take over as boss in 1988, moving back home from Austria, where she had married ski legend Klaus Heidegger and had been teaching aerobics to the Austrian Olympic ski team. (Hey, it was the ‘80s.) A clever marketer, she eschewed pushy advertising and relied on word-of-mouth while supplying magazine editors with products and expensive gifts, which perhaps makes her the inventor of swag. The promotional budget was put back into development of new products and preserving key ingredients like squalane, a refined olive oil derivation used in many of its moisturizers, which has a similar chemical makeup to the body’s own sebum, making it highly absorbable.
Ms. Morse wanted Kiehl’s to be a place where avid patrons like the late Caroline Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie would both feel comfortable, and she trained her staff to be gentle and easy with customers, including high-strung patrons like myself, who could be considered a hybrid of Caroline Bessette Kennedy and an East Village junkie.
Most of the products are still made in their Piscataway New Jersey factory and delivered like fresh-baked bread every day. In 2000, Ms. Morse sold the company to L’Oréal, which has pledged to maintain the idiosyncratic environment and to stay as faithful as possible to the original formulas Kiehls has developed over its long history. But now that the brand has exploded onto an international level with more than 25 stores in cities all over the world, this can be a challenge and has caused grumbling among some of the Third Avenue store’s old-school fans. Dealing in a global market means that, yes, some ingredients have had to change but that’s the small price we all pay these days for thinking globally.
Keeping up apothecary authenticity is not cheap, and while this can seem justified when purchasing a finely concocted moisturizer or eye cream, you may hesitate before buying an 8.4-ounce bottle of Eucalyptus Body Cleanser for $14.50 when you can pick up a 32-ounce container of folksy Dr. Bronner’s liquid soap at Duane Reade for the same price.
But overall, Kiehl’s satisfies a lot of fantasies you didn’t really know you had about pharmacies those desires for old-fashioned liniments and salves you harbor from childhood, when you played store in the backyard or watched “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.” The historical apothecary vibe of Kiehl’s may be the closest we get to seeing a doctor actually use a mortar and pestle to mix medicines. And they don’t care if you are just looking. Funny that the one place that may have sold snake oil at some time is where you feel no pressure to buy.
# Paranoid in The City November 2006
PARANOID IN THE CITY
One morning recently, I woke up with my head feeling a little out of balance. A little tinge on my right side. It wasn’t quite a headache or migraine. Something very subtle. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I felt like something was “up.” I hoped it wasn’t an early sign of a cold.
My alarm clock was set to the BBC World News. A woman with that calm, more reliable BBC British accent was reporting from South Dakota where they were experiencing record-breaking ice storms that have caused major power outages. The reporter continued to say that some scientists believe this is an indication of global warming trend, and that this winter will be extraordinarily harsh. And it looked like the storm was coming this way.
After a brief interview with three very worried top meteorologists, there was a look at the radical effects of overfishing on the delicate food chain of marine life, and a report from the government-appointed 9-11 Commission, which released a statement that the nation is still woefully unprepared for a major terrorist attack. Most vulnerable, apparently, is the water supply.
After taking a nice, wasteful hot shower in terrorist contaminants, I put on my jeans and white button front shirt that I had picked up from the dry cleaners yesterday, (probably treated with Perc, also known as tetrachloroethylene, which is suspected of causing cancer and liver and kidney disease,) and walked out onto my busy Brooklyn street, breathing in the fresh morning auto emissions air.
I bought the paper and went to get a coffee and croissant at the bakery on the corner.
While swallowing carcinogenic java and globby gluten that would probably impact in my intestines and eventually lead to Crohn’s Disease, I read about melting permafrost of the Arctic Circle releasing carbon dioxide that has been trapped underground for eons, the severe drought in the Brazilian rainforest, and how there is definitely, definitely, definitely going to be an avian flu pandemic in March.
I got a call on my cellphone from my friend Cary. I told her how my head was feeling kind of funky. She felt a little weird too, but mostly because her boyfriend’s Buddist teacher said a prominent Hindi leader told his German meditation partner that there was going to be a serious terrorist attack somewhere in America sometime in the spring that was going to “affect the food supply.” The leader was worth listening to because she also predicted the Tsunami. Cary said she was going to try to get away and go to Europe, but she could only get away for a month and wanted to know what month I thought would be a popular one with people that hated us so she could go ahead and book her ticket online. I told her that April seemed like the time to go because April, to me, is the most Springy month, when crocuses peek out of the chilly earth, buds appear on the tips of trees, there is a sense of promise in the air, and terrorists scamper out of their sleeper cells with a renewed sense of purpose.
I walked out of the bakery and onto the street, and made tentative plans to have a liver-toxifying drink that night with Cary, chatting with her on my increasingly warm cellphone which was doubling my risk of acoustic neuroma while also being wiretapped by Homeland Security.
Passing by a 99 cent store, I saw that there was a sale on bottled water. Perhaps this unbalanced feeling was just simple dehydration. I said goodbye to Cary and bought a huge 24 bottle package of Aqua Fina for only 4.99. I carried the crate of bottles back home, thinking that even though the water was probably dubiously purified and full of estrogenic monimers that leach into the water from its plastic bottle, it’s always a good idea to drink more H2O. And with so much of it, I would be able to keep hydrated when the biblically terrible winter storm struck or the well-executed terrorist event that would affect the food supply, even though the tainted water would eventually toy with my hormones and turn me into a middlesexed creature with low sperm count and tumorous breasts. I put the bottles under the sink, next to the stack of duct tape and plastic tarps I had stocked up on during the Anthrax Scare of 2002.
I thought maybe I should take the train into the city and go to Whole Foods and try to stock my refrigerator with healthy organic goods in case Spirng came early this year and I would be immobilized terrorist attack, or whopping doom-combo of attack, blizzard, earthquake, and flu strain that may leave me homebound and without use of my legs.
At my subway stop, the police had set up a bag check station. I walked by and smiled to show that I was friendly and wasn’t carrying anything dangerous, (unless I was contaminated and didn’t know it, or the pawn in some complicated tandem bombing operation, unwittingly carrying a detonator that was slipped into my bag by the elusive and well-trained Al Qaeda operatives) and slid my Metrocard through the turnstile.
While on the platform, I avoided standing near the trash bins (bomb motels) and casually looked for suspicious packages in case I needed to see something and say something. I walked to the end of the platform so I could ride in the last car to lessen the impact of an underground catastophe because terrorists always hang out in crowded middle cars or the front of the train so that when they expose their taped up vests of dynamite and jumbly wires and explode themselves, the cars directly behind them will collapse in on the first car like a metal accordion.
I tried to hold onto the pole in the car up at the top, where it was colder and hadn’t been touched by a toxic, coughing Avian Flu patient zero. At Canal Street, a bunch of loud Terrorist Target Families got on board with their shopping bags and happy, unsuspecting eyes. Right before the doors closed, two officers peered into the subway car as if there was some sort of high security alert. I found this strange because I hadn’t heard about any heightened terror alert or bomb on the 10 print, TV, radio and internet news sources I monitor, but then I thought that maybe since the last three heightened Red Code security alerts were later found out to be hoaxes, those secret government leader-guys decided to just heighten the security and not make a public announcement, which, to me, meant it was actually true this time.
Maybe that’s why my head felt so weird. It was picking up some claivoyant frequency. I tried to recall if this is the way I felt in the early morning of September 11th. Or right before the Tsunami. Or maybe when Katrina happened.
Whole Foods was packed with people. I stocked up on canned water packed tuna, which my intense anarchist friend Guy advises me are a great post-apocalypse basic, but there was so much delicious, colorful yet perishable foods, couldn’t help but buy a pre-prepared overfished salmon burger replete with mercury. Sometimes you gotta splurge!
I wanted to make it a very quick trip so I could be back on the subway before Suicide Bomber Rush Hour and I swiftly got back on the train. Once home, I called Cary to tell her that I was feeling a little off and thought I should just stay in tonight and chill out. You know, read a little Noam Chomsky, take vitamin C, give myself a testicular exam.
I turned on the TV just to make sure nothing had detonated over the past couple of hours. It soothed me when I saw Anderson Cooper’s square face made up of stern, trustworthy, serious horizontal lines. Flipping through the channels, I saw that NBC was advertising its made-for-TV movie “Category 7” The End of the World,” a follow-up to last year’s “Category 6: Day of Destruction.” It was about a deadly series of hurricanes that destroy Florida, starring Gina Gershon as a FEMA director in a tight booby sweater, Randy Quaid as a Storm-chaser, and Shannen Dougherty as a misunderstood scientist. Also that night The History Channel was showing: “Tsunami 2004 Waves of Death,” “Modern marvels: The Cannon,” Parts One and Two of the documentary “The Antichrist,” and “Katrina: American Catastrophe.”
But before I curled up on the couch for a nice relaxing night of TV, I thought I should just try to unwind a little and go for a walk. I stepped outside plugged into my i-Pod listening to “Yoga Meditation, How to Architect Your Destiny and Change Your Life,” Part Four with Wan Qi which I downloaded from the Spirituality/New Age category in the i-tunes Podcast Directory. My goal in this walk was to lessen my stress levels, because it turns out you can give yourself cancer through stress and stressful thoughts. In fact, according to experts, worrying that you may have cancer may in fact cause the cancer you worry you may have. I walked around the neighborhood past everyone’s blue recycling bags propped up on the curbs, conscientiously full of bleach bottles and Snapple containers. Wan Qi explained the difference between living life and leading life. I tried to feel aware and an architect of my destiny, which I wanted to not involve a brain tumor, but if it did, I would be fine with that.
On the middle of my block, where two trees darkened the sidewalk, a young man in a hooded jacket came up behind me, clamped his arm around my neck from behind, and pushed me to the ground.
“See this? See this?” he said, showing me his silver handgun.
“Yes. Yes I do,” I said.
He asked for my wallet, which I gave to him. He took 60 dollars and gave it back to me. He also wanted my i-Pod, which I handed over while Wan Qi explained that life is like a river in the dangling earbuds.
“No hard feelings,” my mugger said politely, “Do you need help back up?”
“No. No thank you,” I said. He walked away, and I walked home. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. It was so real and actual, it sort of threw me for a loop. I guess I had to call the police.
In the station, while I waited for the nice, efficient detective to fill out a report, I caught up on the pile of periodicals I had brought with me just in case there was some down-time. I read about the risk of getting Hepatitis from sushi, how the earth is spinning slower and slower every year, adding a second to the world clock (which may throw off the electronic systems that keep nuclear weapons in check), and how the Mayan Calendar ends at the year 2012, which in their culture marked the end of the world. The adrenaline of the mugging experience curbed my slight head-thing, but it eventually returned. And I have it right now, actually. Should I go to the doctor?