Lourdes draws the faithful, and Mecca has the Hajj, while hot June brings masses of pilgrims to Jerusalem. But New York has the strangest shrine of all. Earlier this summer I sat in a vest-pocket park down on Perry and West 11th Streets. In ones and twos, earnest acolytes appeared out of nowhere, each clutching a tiny cardboard box. What is happening? I asked myself slowly, as a curious pattern emerged. Across the street they sauntered, bent on a mission, bakery boxes in hand.
Ten yards away I spotted one, already sitting when I arrived. Her lips barely parted, the young woman’s eyes focused on her prize, narrowing, greedy, almost trembling with desire, creek-side at Sutter’s mill. Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer came to mind as I watched slender hands with silk-tipped nails behold an obscure object like a delicate Faberge egg. The single-mindedness struck me the most. This was a moment that mattered.
Invested is the word, this 23-year old girl’s entire being subsumed in a baked good. Yes, she’s really taking a cell-phone picture of her coveted prize. What in God’s name could be so interesting, so precious, about a fecking cupcake?
I’ve been to the Wailing Wall many times this June and July during a 5-week long trip to Israel, watching the faithful kneel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, witnessing the faces on those answering the call to prayer at the Dome of the Rock, streaming through the Lions’ Gate. But nothing compares to this…
What is this girl doing, taking a carefully aimed cell-phone photo of her precious cupcake before she places the host, body and soul, on her pointy little tongue? Come down to Bleecker and West 11th any day of the week. Sit in the park, cater-corner from the Magnolia Bakery. In five minutes you’ll be reminded, way too much, of disturbing things about what I hesitate to call our American “culture.”.
There I sat a couple weeks ago, an innocent, a total naif, scarfing down two dogs with kraut and mustard from the vendor’s nearby cart, a can of Pepsi cooling my hot tonsils while the sparrows pecked at my heels and the local winos and dope-pushers filled the benches on the fringes of a filthy, brick-paved expanse that passes for a public park. A deal’s been struck here, though: I noticed that the benches directly across from me were all empty while those at the park’s edges were full. Up trundled a tourist threesome, Aussies I would guess, all tentative, clutching shopping bags. Down they plopped themselves, no business apparent and waited, chatting.
Suddenly the plaza began to fill; Young boyfriends in I LOVE NY T-shirts, gripping digital cameras, middle-aged women with fanny-packs and slightly shell-shocked faces, accompanying their young adult daughters, grouped around a bench near me, as a tiny, rail-thin fashionista trotted over from the nearby patisserie, a huge shopping bag in hand, and proceeded to unload…
“Gather round, peoples!” she squealed, the Five Towns timbre of her voice matching the shellacked look of the grown-up she essayed with all her 90 dripping-wet pounds. Maybe I need my glasses changed. Did that name tag of hers really read “Rachel Jappy?” Quick as lightning, the girl’s deft fingers extracted three outsize cardboard cake boxes from the shopping bag, their tops peeled back, their contents exposed to the fetid summer air. Her hair was plastered to her temples, upswept over her tiny pate, oversize costume jewelry hanging everywhere, her straight skirt, just above her knees betraying a bottom sorely in need of some nourishment. Viewed sideways, only her copious adornment prevented this smiley-faced shade from evaporation.
“Take a cupcake, they’re munch-a-scrumptious,” the girl yelped to her forty charges. Little round chocolate-glazed hand grenades gleamed at me from afar. Dreams of sugar plums danced in my head as I pondered the ironic juxtaposition of this waif-like guide and her all-too probable struggle with bulimia and anorexia against the present carpet of iced bombs. Then I looked leftwards, and suddently it all became clear. This was a tour. That white elephant parked over there on Bleecker Street is a tour bus. This is a holy shrine to gourmet chi-chi, and the glorious single life, and I am eating Sabrett. Carrie Bradshaw once sat here eating a cupcake. I am in a sacred space.
This is where it all comes together: Self-image. Selling yourself to the highest bidder. Who am I and what do I want? I just want to be just like her. Carrie made it. Why can’t I? This is a place of laughter and contemplation: The younger I remain, the happier, me. Close my eyes and dream much harder. This is where I’ll be what I can be.I see their faces, watch the parade pass. Yes, I understand what’s going on. Sarah Jessica Parker is a fine, fine actress, her character, Carrie Bradshaw, a glass of aqua vitae truth. But what have we come to when TV-show film sets take on such importance, provide meaning in life, deliver such a potent reward?
Why, this fascination with the remnants of verisimilitude? Why not visit where real NYC history was made? Fictional characters, vestiges of their realization: to value and be excited by a tour like this bespeaks such poverty of the soul. Compare, if you will Edna St. Vincent Millay and Margaret Wise Brown. Their home and writing studio in the Village are coherent destinations, places to touch the Blarney Stone. But cupcake heaven is one level closer to spiritual corruption: we’re talking about a place that has no true existence, belongs to no one, has an entirely different purpose and function in life. I hope the tour bus company is paying the winos to leave empty those certain benches, pole positions in the race for dreams never true. Karmic justice, I maintain, should be done: one flask of Mogen David 20/20 at a time.
Twenty minutes passed, the tourbus people standing around, munching and staring, conversation falling off, no movie-stars in sight. No comets appeared, no aurora borealis gleamed forth from the heavens above. What, in truth was the point? Here, things happened, life was lived large. But now not a trace remains, all glamour vanished, transient, evanescent. The tour guide busied herself urging useless calories into her charges, then quickly tidied up and called for all to re-board.
Slowly they turned, their disappointment evident: This was all there was to adore? Back on the bus and on to the next scene. Maybe someone famous would stroll by later on. Meanwhile broken dreams and quotidien reality intruded most unwelcomely, those $42-apiece fares paid long ago. Into the trash went chances for redemption, along with the empties not fit for the store.
Perhaps a lesson could be learned, maybe real life’s not worth living? So try having an inner one, try to keep score. The only alternative isn’t too tasty. Pick up that remote and turn on the show.