Mrs. Maisel and Mrs. Jacobs
I'm bad at watching TV. That is to say, I can watch basketball, and I'll watch kid shows with my daughter (often while I'm reading). But when it comes to sustaining interest in a TV show--during the Golden Age of Television, no less--I've avidly watched six shows in 10 years. I don't wear this as a badge of honor; I am not against the boob tube, as my dad used to call it (even though he watched every night). My smart friends all talk about interesting shows that I would like, that I should watch. When I say I'm bad at watching TV, I wish I weren't.
Number six has been The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I began watching at the recommendation of my girlfriend, who got tickets to a popup the first week in December, a week-long run of a temporary Carnegie Deli more than 60 blocks south of its former location in midtown. Remember 2016 and how many horrible things happened that year? One of them was the closing of the original 79-year-old Carnegie Deli, located near and getting its name from the venerable music venue, Carnegie Hall. I went on one of my first real New York dates at Carnegie Deli, 1999. I was used to women splitting the bill, being from California and all. At that point, the giant pastrami was already more than I was used to paying for a sandwich After I suggested we go dutch, and we paid the bill and said goodnight with a handshake, I never saw her again. I learned something about being a New Yorker at the time, they we may have been on the cutting edge of art, but cut with the dull butter knife of traditional dating and gender roles.
Carnegie Deli's pastrami sandwiches were serious as a heart attack. The author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli, wrote in the New York Post , “Since 1937, the Carnegie’s skyscraper sandwiches and obnoxious waiters encapsulated the very ethos of excess that characterized New York as a whole.” Three of the ways in which we define ourselves as New Yorkers: food, the built city, and the outsized New Yorker personality. But as the jejune whitewash of neoliberalism washes over us like the house Scotch with more water than whiskey--looking and eating and selling and acting like the suburbs, exurbs, car-bound cities, strip-malls, Red States, outlets, and Disney--we are losing the our physical appearance and our character. The Carnegie Deli is now on the Las Vegas Strip, in a New Jersey Six Flags Great Adventure amusement park, a Sands Resort Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and, of course, online. But it is not at 854 7th Avenue in Manhattan any longer. What does New York look like? Those signs. Those awnings. What do the burbs look like? Something different. Something else.
But Amazon Prime brought it back from the dead, the Carnegie Deli, for just one week, while bringing us 18 episodes of Mrs. Maisel, for two seasons. Before I get to the experience of the Carnegie Deli popup, let's discuss the show, briefly.
I love me some late 1950s, early 60s pop culture--while one of the most sublimely repressed periods in our nation's history, the waft of rebellious art, cultural mutiny, and political insurgence could be sighted around every corner, including and preceding Black Mountain College, Abstract Expressionism, Bebop and Cool Jazz, Civil Rights, Happenings, the Beats, The French New Wave, Grassroots Community Organizing, Women's Liberation, Black Power, Black Arts, Gay Rights, Young Lords, Pop Art, Hippies, Black Panthers, Free Speech, People Power, Free Jazz, Psychedelic Rock Music, Neo-expressionism, Nude Beaches, and LSD (I love this list, by the way, which may be misleading but comprises most of much of what was good in the world just before and after my birth).
This period, a near satori moment in American cultural history, is brought to you on TV and at the popup of Carnegie Deli, by Amazon Prime. You know Amazon, the same people who were handed about $1.5 billion to make themselves at home in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens, which will become the future launch site for the company's drones to drop same-day packages in front of the glass doors of luxury condos all over the Tri-State area.
The show, if you haven't seen it, stars Rachel Brosnahan, who was in the show House of Cards, which I've never seen, and some other stuff I have also never seen. She's plays the enigmatic eponymous character, an Upper West Side Upper Middle Class Jewish Wife, capital U, capital W, who finds out her husband is cheating on her with his shiksa secretary, gets pissed off, and walks on stage, drunk, at the replica Greenwich Village dive called The Gaslight (1958- 1971). On the show, it is the same club where her husband tries and fails to make it as a comedian, but once on stage, Mrs. Maisel promptly knocks 'em dead with jokes about her failed marriage and UWS Jewish family. The two seasons chronicle her attempts to make it in the boys club of comedians and her platonic relationship with her seemingly lesbian manager--there is only cisgender sex in the show (I mistook the show for family fare and watched the first episode with my daughter--who told me, when Mrs. Maisel bares her breasts on stage, that it was inappropriate for nine year olds, and so we quickly put on violent cartoons instead). In Season I, we see her family foibles, her ex-in-laws, her shocking j-o-b at fancy department store, and the beat Greenwich Village of folk singers, beat poets, jazz music, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Jane Jacobs.
Yes, that Jane Jacobs, played by Alison Smith, who appears in the fourth episode, which momentarily captures Jacobs' very real and successful protest against a highway that was to run through Washington Square Park. In that first season, Mrs. Maisel befriends Lenny Bruce, who performs at the still standing Village Vanguard. She takes a job at B. Altman, a real Luxury Department Store that closed up in 1990 after 125 years. Midge blithely strolls through the New York of her time--the reviewer in the New Yorker, who generally panned the show for being shallow, said that when The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel debuted last year, "It sent shivers of delight up the spines of vintage-shoppers everywhere." And so we experience, by reference and by replication, select parts of New York, 1958: Plastics, the Catskills, the Kingston Trio, the newness of the Holocaust, Red Skelton, the Copacabana Nightclub, the commonness of Yiddish, Howdy Doody, Jack Paar, Redd Foxx, Jew vs. Gentile...and the inside of the Carnegie Deli (what's not to like?).
In appreciation, four of us waited in a freezing cold line with our reservations to eat at the air-quotes Carnegie Deli at 201 Lafayette Street in Soho earlier this month. People posed outside in front of a 1950s Plymouth taxicab with 1950s prices on the door. Actors waited tables, performing as rude 1950s waitstaff. You had few choices, "The Maisel," which was a pastrami sandwich, and "The Susie," turkey, and they were much smaller than the originals, which can be taken several ways, but is also representative at the health consciousness of this time rather than 60 years ago. You could order one knish per table, and by the time we sat down, the black and white cookies were gone and the only vintage soda left was the Dr. Brown's Celery Soda (yuck). One gimmick was the 1950s prices, but no one charged us for the food. We donated copiously in the tip.
Since then, I've been asking myself: Are we partaking of counterfeit culture, and by counterfeit, I mean the reproduction of cultural production, an anesthetized anachronistic aesthetic? Certainly, we do that all the time. The various 20th Century styles come back up on us like an entire Carnegie pastrami sandwich would all afternoon. Nothing new in the old.
We are living in a time when the history of our built environment cannot afford to keep standing. The Carnegie Deli catered mostly to tourists at the end because prices became larger than the sandwiches; it's companion, the Stage Deli, closed in 2012; Reuben's Restaurant, which claims to have invented the Reuben sandwich, left us from its home at 622 Madison Avenue in 2001. The 2nd Avenue Deli, more Jewish, less Broadway, moved from the former home of Vaudeville in the East Village to a more midtown location on 32nd Street. The Cup and Saucer, an affordable and excellent diner on the Lower East Side; higher end restaurants like Le Cirqué and The Four Seasons; Elaine's on the UES--gone. One of the most beautiful Brooklyn restaurants, Gage & Tollner's, on the Fulton Mall, closed in 2004 after opening in 1879. I could ago on. But someone already has, the writer who goes by the pen name Jeremiah Moss, who has a book and a blog about the closing of New York's unique stores, restaurants, theaters, shops, etc. I have written about him in a previous essay here, and I will continue to write about him.
There is also the wonderful book Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York by James T. and Karla L. Murray, which I wrote about in an essay called "In the Paradox of Nostalgia." The book includes lovingly printed photographs of mostly disappeared storefronts all over the city. Below is another popup, a sculpture the Murrays created called "Mom and Pops of the Lower East Side" (2018), that makes us think about the signs and shops that are disappearing and vanishing from what we see every day (the sculpture--made of giant photographs--is up in the LES's Seward Park until next summer).
We are living in a time when the history of our built environment cannot afford to keep standing. Almost all of those restaurants above closed down because they could not afford to continue--declining business, rents too high, leases not renewed. It's not just the built environment, of course. It's the story of why Gage and Tollner, pictured above, had an all-black wait staff. It's the people of the Lower East Side who used to frequent the Cup and Saucer. It's the story of the employees at the original delis. And it is the experience of being in New York and eating at Carnegie Deli.
When the Murrays make a book of photographs or public art, it feels less crass then when, well, Amazon makes a TV show and a popup. I'm not sure whether The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is art or entertainment (we can discuss the difference some other time). But like Jeremiah Moss, and the Murrays, and many others I cannot name at this moment, Mrs. Maisel evokes things I love--Lenny Bruce, the Village Vanguard, Jane Jacobs, beat poetry, the Greenwich Village I honestly never knew--but it does so with plenty of visual integrity (although The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum catches several scripted "verbal anachronisms"
in the show that slipped by everyone). I enjoy looking at The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I also enjoy books about the past and documentaries, but I WORRY--yes, oy vey--about the present.
We had fun eating in the fake Carnegie Deli. There was a photo-booth where you could take pics for free. The food was not great, but good. I didn't experience the popup as the Carnegie Deli, no matter how many photos they put up to look like all the frame portraits in the original. Probably no one did. I felt lucky that my girlfriend scored the reservations because I think the experience--a restaurant about a restaurant--was unique, a Saturday night out in a different way (I am old). But that there was an exclusivity to the moment that the real thing probably didn't have until the prices rose beyond what many could afford. We didn't walk back in time, not to 1950s prices, not to 1950s food, not to 1950s anything. We ate in a replica built by the second largest company in the world, in order to advertise a TV show that showed a New York that doesn't exist anymore.
Amazon, with their delivered boxes, and ability to levitate real-estate prices in Long Island City, may change the physical environment and the population of New York more than any other single company. We have stopping going to local stores. When I asked on Facebook about shopping online to the small group of my FB Friends, most said yes. "It's easy and convenient," one friend said, I think, speaking for all of us who shop online and shop at Amazon. "With 2 kids in school and a [minimum] 30 min commute to work, time is sparse and costs money so I opt for 'easy cheap Amazon' and other online providers," wrote one friend who lives nearby. Another Brooklyn friend said, "Because I work full time and have a small child and a wife I want to spend time with and so I can’t go to stores all over to find what I want...and cause I can even get groceries online here." Clearly, online shopping fits solves some problems. "Modern stores carry no inventory," another friend from Manhattan said, speaking to the shrinking of our consumable city--which sounds like a good thing, for we consume so much, but I don't think it is.
Where do we interact with people? Online? I met that same girlfriend online. Jesus Christ. Where do we walk to? Work and school and home (and of course, most of the people I know outside of New York City drive, and many people in the city do too, including old me).
One stalwart friend from our lefty liberal arts college in the woods said, "No Amazon, only indies." Why? "Environmental, labor, Bezos is evil," she wrote.
And that sums it up for me. Greenpeace graded them an F in its annual 2017 report. "Amazon remains one of the least transparent companies in the world in terms of its environmental performance, as it still refuses to report the greenhouse gas footprint of its own operations. While Amazon is willing to talk about its recent renewable energy deals, the company provides few details on its sourcing of recycled materials that are going into its devices, nor does it publish any restrictions on hazardous chemicals in its devices or being used in its supply chain as other leading electronics brands provide." Their packing isn't efficient and we have millions of pounds of those materials to dump, recycle at best. Lumbering delivery trucks bringing boxes to our doors are not as energy efficient as Priuses and Honda going to the mall. Airplanes, for those who need their purchases right now, prove the most damaging to the environment.
And, as my friend implied, workers aren't treated well. This is not a breaking story, but one that some of us, like me, who subscribe to Amazon Prime to get our favorite shows, or even--packages!--are ignoring. But of course, as another Facebook friend would argue, you can't DO anything about it, so we should all just vote and elect people who will change things.
Except that isn't going to happen. Who is going to curtail Amazon? Amazon is becoming not only the behemoth that ate Long Island City and sent already rising rents rising further. It can become the privately controlled museum of New York City, our 1950s Upper West Side Jewish Woman museum and Our Greenwich Village beatnik museum and the lobby where we can see snapshots of Jane Jacobs. You think that can't happen?
When I grew up, in suburban LA, my parents rarely wanted to go anywhere. I would ask my dad, as a teenager, for some money to go to the movies, and he's say, half jokingly, why spend they money when we have a color TV. Times were different, right? My parents grew up in the Depression. They didn't believe in spending money.
But that's the thing with television--yes, there are some excellent shows, art in themselves. Why go anywhere? Netflix and takeout! The replication of the experience right in your own home. Watching basketball, which is what I do, is certainly not the same as being there at the game, or even playing. (Yes, that was an allusion to the book and the movie.)
We all choose our simulated poison, I suppose--books, recorded music, art museums, the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, TV shows, the internet, popups in Lower Manhattan of an important midtown landmarks, as interpreted by the second largest company in the world.
I'm a worrier. I worry about New York turning into dystopia (yes, and a few other things): Glass boxes, nothing to experience in the city, and culture curated by Amazon and Netflix. I worry that in my lifetime, I will have to experience the things that I enjoy--even a pastrami sandwich--mediated by forces I cannot control.