July 8, 2007
For the uninitiated, Bugaboo is a Dutch company specializing in the production of ergonomic baby strollers with modern designs. Their strollers are modular, highly modifiable, made from quality materials, and come in a white lightning streak of fashionable colors (the “denim collection” being the latest addition to the coveted line). You know a Bugaboo when you see one. It screams high concept like no other stroller.
If you want to get your baby into one of these babies, however, it’s going to set you back somewhere between $700 and a cool grand. And then there are the accessories: parasol, foot muff, sun canopy, snow wheels, cup holder. Only the best for little so-and-so.
To spot Bugaboo parents, with their Bugaboo babies, bugabooing about, you need only frequent the gentrified enclaves of America’s cities. The Bugaboo parents are strolling around in Los Angeles and San Francisco, more than a few certainly could be found in Portland, Seattle, Chicago, Miami, and then one or two no doubt down there in Austin or around the Plaza, in Kansas City.
In New York, it all goes to another level, however. In New York the Bugaboo is not merely a stylish possession, to be spied in the hands of the lucky few. It is a status symbol like few others, with mothers clambering over each other, trying to establish their rank in the baby-fashion world order. This clambering was all supposedly started, years back, by the appearance of a Frog model Bugaboo on “Sex and the City.” Subsequent to the rise of the Bugaboo to bourgeois cultural icon, of course, there’s been a buga–backlash. Even buga-highway-robbery.
Still none of this is very surprising for a city awash in money and status like New York. What actually makes me stop and scratch my head is the number of Bugaboos I see coming out of the vast blocks of public housing that cast outward toward the east river from my apartment building. Certainly the desire for status is understandable from anyone, anywhere in the socio-economic hierarchy. But if you’re living off of public assistance where do you get the money for a Bugaboo? Or are these underground Bugaboos? Craigslist Bugaboos? Miracle knock-offs from lands far away? Perhaps, but I have yet to have anyone try to sell me a Bugaboo on the subway, like a pirated DVD.
Nonetheless in New York, you see it all the time. And not just the latest and greatest stroller, in the hands of someone who is not otherwise playing the part of yuppie, but the coolest phones, the newest and slickest laptops, outrageously fashionable clothes, and every other high concept commercial item you can think of. In New York, yuppie affectations are somehow not always a yuppie thing. Youthful flare is not always a youth thing. And gaudy extravagance is not always a wealth thing.
I myself have developed a taste for shoes that it would never have crossed my mind to purchase when I lived in California. For example, I recently bought a pair of Japanese tennis shoes that aren’t, you know, real tennis shoes, but shoes that just look like tennis shoes, for, you know, when you’re going out. When I got them, it seemed like the most mundane and normal of acquisitions. It was not an attempt to stand out from the crowd. If anything, it was more of a semi-conscious gesture of fitting in. Yet all I have to do is leave New York in these shoes and suddenly I feel like a disco freak dressed for a night on the town, but somehow ending up in church instead. Only in New York could shoes like these seem banal.
So in New York, status symbols and desirable consumer items aren’t really the exclusive domain of a narrow class of people. They flow around more freely and somehow more pervasively. In large part, I suppose this is because fashionable items are so readily available here and often surprisingly cheap.
It helps certainly that Manhattan is in many ways just a giant shopping mall. There is not one Kenneth Cole store, but one for every neighborhood. A “vintage” clothing store doesn’t sell clothing from the 40s or even 70s, it sells last year’s best Chanel dress. There are stores for labels you’ve never heard of, heralding local niche fashion at outrageous prices, and then unloading piles of leftovers for next to nothing in “sample sales”; and I mean hundreds of stores like this. And it’s not unheard of to find a practically new stereo or art deco leather chair, piled up on the sidewalk in the garbage. Indeed when the myth is perpetuated that Manhattan has “everything,” so demonstrably untrue when applied to food or culture, it is nonetheless never more true than when applied to consumer items.
I find myself wanting to conclude from all this that New York probably has the most branded population of any place in the country (if not the world). It is a commercial culture in a profound and exhaustive way. This makes living here both an eye-opening exercise in what really makes the world economy tick and a sort of collective logo-fied delusion. It also shows the capitalist promise of choice for what it is: an inexorable movement towards sameness and expense, casting all people inevitably into the dark maw of the generic, while simultaneously pickpocketing them on the way down.
But don’t get me wrong, I like my shoes.
June 29, 2007
One afternoon recently, I ducked into the Union Square Barnes and Nobel to kill half an hour while waiting for an appointment. I have a weakness for the Starbucks on the third floor, because, although it is a Starbucks in all its corporate ubiquity and dullness, this one occupies a choice space, in a historic building, with towering ceilings, old iron columns, and a string of windows overlooking Union Square.
A desire to visit this particular Starbucks, however, is often not a feasible one. As usual there were no free tables and many people trolling around hoping to catch a table as soon as somebody stood up. So I decided to go up to the fourth floor of the bookstore instead and see which Raymond Chandler novels I haven’t read yet. Answer: The Little Sister, Playback, and the incomplete Poodle Springs (if you count it).
The fourth floor of Barnes and Noble on Union Square also houses a large space where it hosts readings. As it turns out, on this humid mid-week day, Günter Grass would be reading from his new memoir. It was 2pm when I stumbled upon the rows of chairs readied for the event. The reading would be at 7pm. Already thirty-four people had taken up seats. And while I stood there more people arrived in groups. One can only imagine what it looked like at 7pm. I didn’t hang around the five hours to find out.
This is a classic New York event and a classic New York moment. Anything that’s cool is filled up or sold out before you even think of it. I mean, who stops to consider that they need to show up five hours early for a reading? Even Günter Grass? But that’s what it was like.
One time, a couple years after I moved to New York, I naively tried to go see David Sedaris read from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, at the same bookstore. I showed up maybe fifteen minutes early, at which point the fourth floor was completely full, the third floor, where you couldn’t actually see Sedaris, was filling up, and store employees were holding people back on the ground floor, while a line snaked up the escalators, advising us would be literate latecomers that it may not be worth our while trying to enter.
Why are these classic moments? Because New York likes to pride itself on having “everything” (whatever that is), but even if such a claim could be true, it doesn’t matter because you won’t get in. Bands that I thought of as small cool off the beaten track bands, when I lived in California, bands that you could see in a bar or a club, sell out shows in New York. Everybody knows about them. Or at least enough do, once The New Yorker, Time Out, New York, The Village Voice, and so on, tip people off.
There’s more to it though. Not only is everyone in New York in the know, one way or another, but also the currency of New York is exclusivity.
And so the dual force of a broad range of people being in the know, while simultaneously coveting exclusivity, pretty much guarantees that anything you want to do is sold out, roped off, and has got a list. Is your name on it? No. Even if your name should happen to appear on the list, once you go inside somehow imperceptibly the scene will lose the full sheen of its glamour. Perhaps this isn’t the right place? Is there an after party? A back room? Where is K when I need a guide to this city?
In contrast, not so long ago, in what I guess must be a complete backwater, Paris, I actually did manage to see David Sedaris read, to about twenty people, in a small bookstore, on the occasion of the translation of Naked into French. We chatted with him afterwards (how quaint!). And if a certain friend had not been uncharacteristically shy, it was pretty obvious we could have taken him out for a drink. He seemed eager and like he didn’t have any plans.
Likewise I’d venture that if Günter Grass had shown up, when I found myself studying a while back at a rather large university out West, careful stratagems would not have been required to see him. I might have gotten there half an hour early, but even if I had show up on time, I probably could have crammed in the back, standing, and heard the man, as well as seen him, along with everybody else. Someone would have chosen a large enough space and guessed how many people were going to show up. Someone would have thought it would be nice to accommodate everyone. It would have been like I was part of something, like something was actually happening. It would have been like I was together with other people who wanted to be there, and afterwards we would all go out into the sunshine, or the cool night air, and smile, and talk, and need nothing more.