Downton Abbey Postmortem: American Wankers

Let’s be honest. Americans have had a love/hate relationship with the Brits from the very start. No matter what we do, we will always be that rebellious young colony that revolted from their sticky hasty pudding grip from across the pond; the prodigal sons and daughters of the U.K. It’s an unbreakable bond.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that America realized it had feelings for England, or at least BBC programming. Television shows such as The Avengers, Dr. Who, Benny Hill and the beloved Monty Python seduced a less than sophisticated American audience to the clever tastes of our lost relative.

By comparison American TV programming was, let’s be honest, rather simplistic. Just consider Green Acres, I Dream of Genie, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, Hee Haw, and you catch a foul breath of what passed for American cultural comedy. Newton N. Minow nailed it when he dubbed American television “a vast wasteland” in his famous 1961 speech. With today’s cable sprawl and internet bandwidth we’re now considerably more vast… and certainly more wasted.

The British produced Upstairs Downstairs, and decades later, the Harry Pottery empire of merchandised media. But the English soaps were always a better class of scum.

Which brings us to the cultural obsession that was Downton Abbey: What was it about this show that so enthralled American audiences? Setting Hogwort’s School for Wayward Warlocks aside, we’ve never gone castle-crazy before. Well, maybe Disneyland, but that’s it. Americans famously dislike any sort of class system, even though old money still trumps new, unless your name is Donald or Duck.

So what was it about this particular fairy tale? This sorta/kinda true story based on quasi-factual events from Highclere Castle and stately homes similar? For our wonderfully vulgar American tastes you must admit this British dish is rather on the bland side. During season after season not a single character was shot, stabbed, poisoned, switched at birth or married their cousin. You call this entertainment? Project Runway is more suspense-worthy, especially when Mood Fabrics is having a sale on cotton chintz.

Now with the show finally over, I think I’ve determined why we were so enthralled with the Crawleys and their devoted servants in the first place. And it certainly wasn’t their spontaneity!

My theories…

1. Americans Love To Bitch. Just imagine your daughter running off with the chauffeur. Impossible to imagine, you say? Alright, that’s understandable. Imagine then that all 50 of your children have run off to get Gay married. (Damn you, Delaware– Get back here and change your clothes for tonight’s 10 course dinner!) While the Earl and his lovely wife fretted over what the townspeople would say about their automotive scandal– (Was that chauffeur position ever refilled?)– The United States is in a similar pickle, if I may use the euphemism. America, you see, is terrible with grammar, especially personal pronouns. Yes, your daughter’s wife is your daughter-in-law; your son’s husband is your son-in-law. Deal with it Kansas. Now put on your tuxedo and let’s retire to the Smoking Room.

2. America is Living Cliff-To-Cliff. Just flashback to Downton’s beginnings. Do you remember when things were really bad? The Titanic had just hit an iceberg and the Crawleys now have an extra couple of chairs to fill at Christmas dinner. Now that’s a disaster! The Earl of Grantham is broker than broke; he can barely afford to keep his Footmen in socks. Lady Cora may start taking in laundry. The whole place could turn into an upscale AirB&B by next Summer. Does any of this sound familiar?  Think about it for a depleting minute.

3. America Loves A Good Queen… or Two. Julian Fellowes has said he based some of the series on classic American television, most notably shows like Dynasty. Not that Shirley McClain would ever push Maggie Smith into a carp pond, but that huge staircase looked mighty tempting. Dear Maggie with her near musical intonations of snarky comments was always just a slap away from one of her left-handed compliments. Poor Shirley could barely remember what lifetime/or lifetime movie she was in. At Downton there was always time for tea but little sympathy.

4. America IS Downton Abbey. From that long driveway exterior shot as you approached, the castle looked practically magical, a place beyond belief. But distance, as they say, did them well. Look closer and you’ll find some serious structural issues. Like dowager aunts, Downey Abbey and America are nearly the same age and neither one has held up over time. America’s top floor is nearly unlivable, the roof of dissension coming down all around us. Politically we’re as split as rotted roofing timber. We have water where we don’t want water– and no water where we need water. Same with “the heat” and the fight over global warming. And don’t even look at our plumbing. If America were having a home inspection, we’d be one of those house flipping reality shows where the contractor turns to the camera and mouths the word, “Sucker!”

So my friends, you aren’t looking at television– you’re looking into a mirror. You may have thought you were watching a British soap opera over-traumatizing the daily drama of 100 years ago, but in fact your flat screen is reflecting today. Be it in 3D, 4D or IMAXed out, it’s still right there in your living room. “Isis, bring me my slippers!”

“No offense,” as Archie Bunker would say, “but present company suspected.”

Whether you’re a cook, a ladies’ maid or the overworked/abused Daisy, you best get your head out of the domestic clouds.

Handsome Thomas is never going to give you a second look. He’ll soon be headed to America– Provincetown, specifically. And not just to get his tails pressed.

So to speak.

Cheers!

By Duane Scott Cerny. Copyright 2016.

Cupcake O.D., Magnolia Bakery & Me: Immediate Intervention Needed

Cake

The New York Times real estate listing read, “An enchanting Swiss Chalet Penthouse Studio. Imagine waking up to the sweet aroma of Magnolia Bakery…”

Oh, great! A constant smell. Who wouldn’t want that?

The bakery meant little to me. After having spent three years trying to buy an apartment in Manhattan, I had all but given up. What I didn’t purchase in the beginning of my search was now completely out of reach. It was 2005 and I had been outbid, outdone and outwitted by the city’s juggernaut real estate market. Could I possibly make one more run at the co-op windmill?

Did I ever think it might be nice to have real bakery across the street? Was I ever that young, that naive, that smell challenged? Yet Biography Bookstore was just two stores over from the apartment in question, a huge plus– so how bad could it be?

But being true to any long-winded story, it was in the middle of August, a 4th floor walk-up with a dead air conditioner the size of an Easy-Bake Oven, which may have also been used for heat in the winter. This “penthouse” unit was truly up-in-the-rafters small. One doll house size wall comprised the kitchen with ancient cabinets half hanging on, half heading down, gravity bound. Splinters from the original oak floor pulled completely up as I walked across it; they stuck into the cuffs of my jeans like toothpicks on steroids. Built in 1860, badly remodeled in 1960. And did I mention it was a small fortune? Other than these silly details, it was perfect.

Ready for the clincher? The real estate listing finished with the words, “Estate to be sold “as is” within 48 hours. Best and final offer. A fast, clean deal.” Oh, sure.

If the realtor hadn’t liked me– I was on full schmooze– I wouldn’t have had a chance. Three offers were on the table, two were very close. The Seller asked the realtor who wanted the apartment the most? Good question!

Short story: I scored the property. Within days of the closing I was perched 4 floors up and 50 yards away from what I would learn to be one of the most famous culinary sweet-tooth haunts in all of New York City. But I still didn’t have a clue. My only view from the tiny top floor attic windows was the endless line of people standing outside Magnolia Bakery. Every day from mid afternoon to late into the evening, the faithful would arrive in pre-diabetic waves to pay their respects at $1.75 (back then) for a high caloric cupcake blessing.

Our Lady of Lourdes may have pray-answered stacks of obsolete crutches, but they were sorrily outnumbered by the thousands of empty Magnolia cupcake boxes which littered the street, overflowing the garbage cans of Bleecker Park, kitty corner to that sugar fix. My appetite was quick to be spade and/or neutered.

“Never Before Has So Much Meant So Little To So Few…”

Was I the last person on the planet to discover that Magnolia Bakery was a national obsession? When I told friends in other cities (name a city/any city) that I lived across from M.B. they knew my residence immediately; some knew my exact address–and that’s scary. Some could even identify the building: they knew the doorway, the cobblestones on the corner, the smell of burnt sugar. Yes, of course, they also loved Marc Jacobs, Kate Spade, Biography Bookstore, Ralph Lauren, Cynthia Rowley, blah, blah, blah.

This was odd. It wasn’t the infamous Dakota, the iconic 740 Park or the faux glitz of Trump Tower. It wasn’t even architecture which put this vintage slice of the West Village on the map. It was those frickin’ cupcakes.

Magnolia Bakery touted weekly sales of 20,000 cupcakes plus untold other treats. Realize then that on any given weekend thousands of people would descend upon this quaint intersection of Bleecker and 11th: tour buses saddling up on the 9th Avenue side of Bleecker Park, dispensing tourists like a pregnant guppy. In every weather imaginable the line would extend from the door of the bakery in numbers seldom fewer than 50, more often 100+. And though that line moved smoothly, it could remain intact for hours on end, like a favored ride at Disneyland. Or the King Tut tour of tooth decay.

“Famous for Fifteen Thousand Calories…”

Magnolia has morphed into the stuff of legend, famous for being famous. It has been parodied on Saturday Night Live (5 million downloads claims NBC) cementing its cult status like a clogged artery. A Magnolia cupcake with a single birthday candle makes a cameo appearance in the film “The Devil Wears Prada,” just part of the story line which coincidentally includes a $1,900 Marc Jacobs handbag, Magnolia’s neighbor to the north. Of course it was “Sex & The City” which helped turn the bakery into legend. By the time the “Sex & The City” movie franchise was released, those aging ingenues would be using buttercream as facial wraps. Or wheel chair lubricant.

“Never Forget Your First Time, Unless It Was Totally Forgettable…”

On my first visit to Magnolia Bakery, I made a massive cupcake faux pas by allowing two couples to cut ahead of me. Once inside they promptly self-helped themselves to 48 cupcakes (Um, Hello– The sign says: “Limit 1 Dozen Per Person”), emptying all the trays in one swift swoop. For quite some time no more cupcakes materialized from the back of the shop.

I must have looked disappointed. “Where are you from?” asks one of the husbands. “Just moved here from Chicago,” I forlornly respond. “Oh, that explains it,” he chuckles.  “A New Yorker would never have let us cut in.” He pauses. “So what are you going to do now… Now that we’ve taken all the cupcakes?”

“Well”, I say slowly, “if we were in Chicago, I’d stuff your lifeless bodies into the trunk of your car and leave it at the airport. But since you’re true New Yorkers, lets use LaGuardia.”

They promptly put two cupcakes back on the tray.

“It’s Like Living Across the Street From Graceland… Without the Grace.”

The crowds that amass in the West Village are a respectable lot. The daytime throngs are well behaved, clean and happy to be making the scene. Often people stand across the street, cell phones in hand, forwarding digital pics of Magnolia Bakery’s Cracker Barrel-light exterior. Like the photo above depicts (taken from my tiny balcony, M.B.’s blue canopy to the right), there are often traffic jams from the constant parade of town cars and Uber-Lyfts. It is rather a forced destination. The upside, you can always get a cab.

“This is the place I told you about,” shouts a girl into a pink bejeweled phone shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head. “This is where I am.”

Clearly Carrie Bradshaw should have been a Stepford Wife instead of her husband, Matthew Broderick. Like a Stepford-Bradshaw army, thousands of these young women are drawn to Magnolia Bakery like moths to polyester.

Not unpleasant, the corner of Bleecker & 11th usually has a street carnival feel. On any given afternoon an architectural walking tour maneuvers thru the unloading of a bus of Italian tourists while a “Major Motion Picture” is being shot down the street. There are also movie location tours which make this a regular stop. (They were court ordered not to be serving any non M.D. cupcakes on the bus!) Add to this the thousands of cupcake starved patrons and you have all of the ingredients for a sticky city gridlock.

“The Only Thing Better Than Nightfall is Day Fall…”

When darkness descends on Fridays and Saturdays a different kind of sweet decay comes out to prey. It’s a younger, Generation “Y Should I Give Crap?” attitude, fresh from the bars, buzzed and hungry. Sure there are cupcake scuffles– no frosting spilled, but many an angry disagreement will arise among young men when they’ve been over-served, over-sugared and only allowed to buy that lame-ass dozen.

No, “Last Call” at Magnolia has an odd culinary desperation as the patrons roll out onto the sidewalk, laughing, cursing, tossing empty cupcake boxes to the curb. Yet it’s hard to appear bad ass when you’re sucking your fingers.

“This is a True Story. I’m Not Telling It Again.”

It’s 2:00 AM. A jet black town car pulls up to the now darkened Magnolia B. A young woman jumps out, clearly inebriated, and begins pounding on the bakery’s door. “I’ll give you $20.00 for a cupcake,” she yells.

Inside, a young maintenance man with a bucket waives her off. “Come on! $25.00 then…” The man turns away. She begins kicking at the door. “OK, $50.00!  I’ll give you $50.00 for one cupcake!” More unintelligible screaming. “OK, how ’bout I **** you for a cupcake (Insert carnal imagination here.)

The worker scampers to the back of the store and turns off all the lights. The hungry woman returns to her car, sobbing. To the driver she whines, “He won’t even sell me one cupcake…”

“Life Is Not About Frosting: It Only Covers Up What’s Underneath…”

The cupcake-crumb-eating pigeons in Bleecker Park are fat and rush about like public school children on a vending machine buzz. The poor park takes a regular beating from the crowds and their confection wrappers: the City barely keeps up. Still, nearby buildings routinely get ticketed for the trash that clutters the sidewalks, an unfair burden to the homeowners who try to keep this particular bedlam in order.

It’s as if your next door neighbor won the $100 Million Lotto… and you get to hose down his driveway. Not that M.B. doesn’t try to keep its corner tidy, it tries. But even they could not have predicted what fame would bring to this tiny intersection of 18th century streets and 21st century baked goods.

How many more years can this continue?  Limit 1 Dozen, please.

UPDATE: Biography Bookstore was priced out if its old home. It was replaced by Book Marc, Jacob’s foray into reading. Of course, it’s a hit. Lots of oversized books with big pictures and ephemera kitsch; clearly he knows his market. Jimmy Choo opened nearby and shortly closed thereafter with but a sneeze. Michael Kors opened… and Ralph Lauren closed. Coach closed two stores. Christofle Silver opened a dazzling little jewel box. Bleecker Street has evolved into the most expensive game of musical retail chairs ever played. Per square foot, the area has surpassed even the rental rates of Rodeo Drive. (see Wall Street Journal, then turn away.)

And Magnolia Bakery?  Their signature Bleecker store is as crazy/busy as ever. They now have countless locations across the city and throughout country.

“Can I **** you for a cupcake?”  I think you already have.

By Duane Scott Cerny.  Copyright 2016

 

Modern Vintage Market Morphs Odd Customer Requests Into Even Odder Holiday Greeting

Perhaps it began when a lonely man carved his message to the world on a cave wall. The first faceless Facebook post. The first Tweet. Or Vine sans the video. Six seconds (and degrees) of abbreviated commentary.

At Chicago’s Broadway Antique Market, a specialty store for mid century modern collectors, the comments have evolved into something, well… rather unique.

“We get dozens of bizarre requests every week,” says store manager and graphic designer, Eric Swanger “Its just part of the business. But then someone comes in and says something truly disturbing.”

Seeing a trend, the employees of this large vintage coop started to compare notes and an in-store contest was born: the Oddest Customer Request of the Week. The winning weird comment was rewarded with coffee from a nearby brew house.

Swanger laughs, “Let’s just say we drank a lot of coffee assembling this list. A lot!”

Eventually these odd requests filtered up to co-owner Jeff Nelson. Remembering one such inquiry, Nelson says, “The gentleman who came in asking for a clothing optional night of antiques shopping was completely serious. He said his group from California often shopped vintage stores after hours. Apparently they found it to be quite liberating, though I don’t know where anyone kept their wallet. When the customer first made this request, I was concerned about our huge display windows which face a busy street– People seeing other people shopping in the nude. Well, that and where people would sit; I was more concerned about our vintage upholstery.”

BAM manager Swanger continues, “You can’t make this stuff up. Over the years you think you’ve heard it all– and then you get verbally side swiped. Wow, I didn’t see that one coming! Now how do I answer that?”

After collecting comments for over a year, Nelson began editing out the offensive, inappropriate and politically incorrect requests. “Some things can be asked, but they should remain unfulfilled, unrepeatable, or at least unprintable.” he said. “To be clear, there’s eccentric and then there’s CRAZY!”

Swanger however thought there was something more to this. “I remember seeing a postcard from a Michelin rated Chicago gastropub that used a bad YELP review as part of their advertising. That was my Eureka design moment. What if I could turn these odd antiques requests into a Christmas card? Could I turn crazy into festive?”

Though skeptical at first, Nelson soon warmed to the idea when he saw the first draft of the greeting. “I immediately liked the Scrabble or Crossword puzzle element. It’s a completely non-traditional holiday card, but it also reflects the way we communicate today, the use of social media and the explosion of the mini message. More importantly, I thought the card was really honest. Every request is a true comment. Every phrase is a short story.”

“The response has been amazing!” says Swanger. “Curiously people see subliminal messages in the list which was never my intent. Some people joke that “YELP” is the sound a dog makes when you step on its tail. Maybe that’s how they got their name. It’s certainly become the online destination for whining!”

Duane Scott Cerny. Copyright 2016

Ethel Merman Or Mermaid? Dinosaurs To Dead Gunslingers: Unnatural Roadside Distractions

Long before the tabloid freak show of Jerry Springer or whatever trash washed up on that Jersey Shore, one had to actually “go out” to find the oddities of American life. You had to take to the highways and back roads of this sprawling country and be on the lookout for screamingly gaudy roadside billboards with their outrageous claims: SHOCKINGLY REAL! STRANGE, BUT TRUE! And my favorite: FOUND ALIVE! (So it’s dead now, right?)

Roadside Americana has always been a mixed bag of snakes, snake charmers and snake oil salesmen. We know that disappointment always looms around the corner, especially after we paid our admission with the loose change found beneath the cushions of our car seat. Yet Americans love to be disappointed because, well we love to complain. Seriously, if we were ever truly satisfied what would be the point of ever speaking again?

Is not the story about BAD service/food/weather told 10x more often than the GOOD? Just try to take one day complimenting the joys of life to your friends, family, co-workers… and by late evening they’ll have forced an intervention on your sappy-happy ass. Clearly, something’s wrong with you.

Regardless how contrived or preposterous, we love to be taken if for no other reason than to acquire a major gripe and grumble. Barnum discovered this and re-invented modern day advertising as we know it.

Was Coca-Cola ever “the real thing?” And “real” compared to what? The unreal, surreal? Not even an “Un-Cola” could explain that away.

No, the fake and the faux and the false fabrications are exactly what we’re all about. Whether we’ve dressed up a cemetery to milk the bones of old gunslingers, or recreated a drive-thru dinosaur diner, or discovered the long lost legacy of Mermaids, or better yet, a Merman… we’re never disappointed in being disappointed.

Now little is left of such places. Invariably the old-timers that ran these fabulous gaffs are gone… along with their decrepit exhibits. It’s tough to make a living these days working with the taxidermied or stuffed.

Unless, of course, it’s foie gras.

Photo Postcard: Merman on Exhibition at Alligator Farm, Hot Springs, Arkansas

 

Back From The Dead: Vintage Technology

So now we’ve all seen those JITTERBUG commercials, the cell phone with the oversized numbers and 24-hour support. Clearly marketed to your parents and/or grandparents, their ads are near camp infomercials for the elderly and/or technologically challenged. Every generation laughs at the generation before. Media gives us an even greater stage to make fun of that which we will all inevitably become.

But can a JITTERBUG IPAD be far behind? With a DEPENDS APP.

For the younger reader, the JITTERBUG was a dance popular in the 1930’s. For this lame tradename to resonate with it’s intended audience, one would need to be between 80 to 100 years of age. So if you’re waiting for old friends to call, don’t plan on buying any additional minutes.

I mention this example because it’s easy to laugh at the old—and old technology. Trust me, I am both. So the following is meant merely to reflect the humor of reverse ageism.

But I digress. There are no stupid questions, right? Yet many times I have been asked to demonstrate, for some a fresh-faced collector, the art of using a Rotary Telephone. Yes, you heard that correctly. Rotary.

Let’s be blunt: “You stick your finger in the hole.” Explanation explained.

ME: This is a rotary phone. You rotate the dial.

CUSTOMER: Dilate?

ME: No! Dial… Dial!

CUSTOMER: So how does it work?

ME: You dial the number and it makes your call.

CUSTOMER: But how does it work?

ME: How does your cell phone work?

CUSTOMER: I don’t know.

ME: It’s the same technology, except it’s on a landline and you can’t text.

CUSTOMER: You’re kidding! Why would anyone want that?

ME: When it was invented it was the Verizon Upgrade from Two Tin Cans and a String. And I still can’t get out of that plan.

Of course, dead technology is not limited to the rotary phone. Portable typewriters also seem to confound many a new collector. The QWERTY keyboard and the texting explosion of recent years would makes vintage typewriter a kissing cousin to today’s cell technology. Kiss, but no tongue.

Perhaps the sheer size and weight of old typewriters spooks youthful fingers. Certainly the earlier the typewriter, the larger and more unwieldy they seem. Most resemble some sort of painful torture and/or medical device that transcribes blood clots into ink spots. Rorschach, not the musical group.

Apparently our strong-fingered ancestors were better suited to kick QWERTY butt, as PC/MAC-era soft touch users so often seem shocked at the force required to strike key to ribbon to paper. I myself am exhausted by the effort of the thought. But even Generation X, Y & Z need to buy an occasional vowel.

JITTERBUG, anyone?

Vintage telephones and typewriters are more than just shelf-sitters. These undead pieces of technology scream out a certain retro charm even when silent. There is something comforting about gently pressing a vintage telephone handset to the side of your face and not having to raise your voice to be heard. (Unless arguing with a pesky telemarketer.)

“Can you hear me? Wow! You actually can?

Stop calling me!”

And the typewriter? The touch, feel and machine-gun clatter are irreplaceable. (And so are most of the ribbons.)

No, gone are the days of distant pen pals dashing madcap correspondence on some rickety, spider-like behemoth. No more trips to the post office. No more anxious moments as the postman climbs your stairs. No more “real” hate mail. No more. Now a terse email does the trick.

And I fear something greater than mere technology has somehow passed.

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