Slings Mud at Corner Stores, Talking to People, Carrying Things

by Lauren Pabst, Your Eye on the Street (you better pick it up)

New Yorkers can’t get their own toiletries either or they don’t have to anymore.

Several cars of the L train are now brought to you by – apparently for people who love Fresh Direct, but don’t love their selection of Neutrogena acne cleansers. The folks at will deliver your drug store needs (presumably not prescriptions, but perhaps) like, according to an advertised goodie box, toilet paper, makeup, laundry soap and you know, etc. This service is also for people who have a doorman or someone to receive these packages as it is probably a new level of indignity to have to chase down a missed-delivery box of toilet paper for your fifth floor walk-up apartment.

No word on whether they will have the seasonal candy selection, surprise inventory of $5.99 Ed Hardy-esque tank tops, linger-worthy slow jams (Luther Vandross? Brian McKnight, anyone? Is that Lisa Stansfield??) and impulse-bought Snickers bars of my local Walgreens in Brooklyn, but my guess would be not.

This reporter finds herself yet again reminiscing about an already devolved chain store experience, like when I wistfully recall my time working at Blockbuster Video during the VHS-DVD changeover (ca. 2001). In my old neighborhood of Morningside Heights, (which is in Manhattan and thus eligible for same-day delivery from I used to frequent Claremont Chemists, which is visible from the elevated 1 train on Broadway (the skeletal trestle of which serves as one of the establishing shots in Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls, or at least in Wayne Brady’s um, reinterpretation) and is an independent business. No, they didn’t have Tom’s of Maine natural $5.00 toothpaste, which my fluoride-Googling self was seeking, but they had plenty. I felt good ringing the tiny bell strapped to their door. And I bet that maybe if I brought up the whole Tom’s of Maine thing to them, they might have considered stocking it (but I didn’t want to be that person, as I eggshell-walked over there feeling like a gentrification, personified. All that fluoride-Googling had gotten me paranoid).

Of course, like the future customers of, convenience is what draws me away from patronizing the tiny drugstore located further down Union Ave – they’re usually closed by the time I am walking home from the train, and the comparatively massive Walgreen’s, open ‘til midnight, with its luxuriant parking lot is just there, looming, lit up like a giant bug zapper, only advertising fridge packs of Coca-Cola, 2 for $5.

Claremont Chemist, Broadway & Claremont, New York, NY

Looking down on Claremont Chemist, while looking out for #1

Maybe it’s dumb to miss consumer-culture interactions and it doesn’t matter how we get our soap, but this seems like a dangerous moment of cyber laziness. First we got our books online – sure, a big selection! – then, our music – ditto, as well as instant (often gratis) gratification – then in a bit of an only-in-New York leap, our groceries via the launch of the still-successful FreshDirect in 2002 – for those who have no time or no desire to feel their own grapefruits, prior to selection.

As Tom Robbins of the Village Voice reported in 2007, FreshDirect, the go-to fresh food delivery service for New Yorkers, whose lumbering trucks could be seen idling outside of posh neighborhoods all over the city, and whose witty ads stirred new layers of convenience and distance from the chores associated with food and eating, this happy green and orange company, may have been behind calling ICE on its workforce (undocumented workers from Mexico and other nations preparing and serving the food of Americans, immensely wealthy companies making cash off their labor and then turning their backs on them: surprise, surprise) when the employees began to talk of unionization with the Teamsters instead of the union that capped their salaries at $18/hour.

Anyway. could just be the savior of people who have embarrassing body fungi requiring over-the-counter ointment.  And lazy-ass people who don’t like the non-stop barrage of (usually earned) attitude that some Duane Reade employees are serving up, perhaps a side-effect of so many customers treating them with the same amount of human interaction as a vending machine.

But perhaps we need a little coaxing, still. According to a profile of the campaign in the Campaign Spotlight Advertising column of the New York Times, e-commerce company and helmer Quidsi, which also runs (okay, that one seems more intuitive), has dedicated half a million dollars to pushing in the New York City market alone. And the L train is just the first stop on their courting of the “hipster” public, or those who delight in wackiness:

“…there is a grass-roots element to the campaign, handled by an agency named Bandwidth, featuring 30 people dressed as a character, Box Boy, meant to represent the packages that delivers to customers.

“Box Boy is turning up in locations like Bryant Park and Times Square and can be glimpsed riding the subway.”

Indeed. With ads proclaiming “Less Schlep, More Shop,” and (my personal favorite) “The end of an errand,” as well as “We carry it all so you don’t have to,” and the literal-minded “Next stop: home (not the store). “Why rush to the store when you can rush to the door?” Whoa there. Not too fast in your socks on the hardwood floors – did you remember to add band-aids to that electronic basket? (wink)  But the most head-scratching and juvenile: “Life without stinks!”

They’re selling another drug: hard-core convenience for customers whose drug store needs (or wants) out-strip their upper arm strength:

“’The convenience of shopping from home means you don’t have to schlep heavy things,’ [ marketing director David] Zhang says, and the selection on gives a customer ‘the ability to have access to products you wouldn’t find at the corner drugstore,’ bodega or the kind of scaled-down grocery store in many city neighborhoods.”

The article continues:

“Christina Carbonell, vice president for marketing at Quidsi, notes the prevalence in New York of the “incredibly busy families” that are “among our core audience” for

“‘Versus spending hours in a store, they can spend time doing things that are fun,’ she says.”

Note that they’re targeting busy families, not people who for whatever reason can’t carry their own stuff who, presumably, that rincon-situated bodega can arrange delivery for in the event that it’s needed. These jet-set New York families, so incredible in their business, they don’t have time to stop at the store to get the most personal things they require to keep those bodies running smoothly. Ahem.

“Ms. Carbonell likens to a spate of businesses offering convenience, among them FreshDirect, Netflix and Zipcar.

“The message is that ‘it doesn’t have to be hard to get basic essentials,’ she says.”

Yikes. It’s already not hard for their target audience “to get the basic essentials,” strictly speaking. I mean, what kinds of images would that phrase call up in many, many other parts of the world, where boxes of medical and sanitary supplies are another matter entirely?

I, for one, am not going to be using But I don’t think that my life is going to “stink.” I have grown too accustomed to the charms of these  “corner drugstores” being derided by’s pushers (Claremont Chemist is literally on the corner. And it’s the best one) and also their bigger, convenience stakes-raising, national but still local job-providing mutant chain cousins. I’m not telling you what to do. But I, for one, need to see what a given hair color actually might look like via dozens of attractively looped locks glued to a sales shelf in an alluring hair rainbow. Okay? Can I do that? No offense to anyone dealing with fungus.

I’m Too Sexy for This City

The cast members of Sex and the City

Women in Black

How can there be a Sex and the City movie set in the Middle East?

No, I haven’t seen Sex and the City 2, so perhaps this is all stemming from ignorance. But it doesn’t seem like the most tasteful thing ever to plop Carrie et al down in the middle of glittery Abu Dhabi, a center of Saudi-Amero bling and excess, throwing the ladies on camels as a crass counterpoint to the wars raging in the Middle East and Central Asia right before Memorial Day weekend.

But really it makes perfect sense.

Ella Taylor breaks it down (hilariously) in the Village Voice: this whole thang is old, stale, moldy, musty, no-so-fresh ladies! And a full K-12 education cycle since Season 1 of these high heeled asphalt-clomping ponies, young women clad in cowboy boots and hotpants stumbling down the streets are a teeth-grindingly frequent sight, flung from all parts of the United States onto the chewing-gum speckled streets of NYC by the Nielsen-viewing group-sized handful.

I remember when the antics of Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were risque, fringe, decidedly for the cable set, what with all the sexing they did in the aforementioned city. Now they’re re-run on TBS with the graphic bits edited out to make room for the Special K with Chocolate commercials, anyway.

Now it’s mainstream embraced, at least not balked at anyway, the flagrant sex talk and upper class relationship problem-having, dress-wearing that costs the same as the per capita income of Haiti…-ness.

Maybe it was the fact that these sexy ladies’ city got vulnerable right before the show’s fourth season, so that their lily white urban adventures took on a faint tinge of patriotism in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks.

Maybe it was the charm of the equine-featured Sarah Jessica Parker, choosing an empowered and creative, but not really sincere, feminine, but not really feminist third way, and even sporting a dress-up tutu on the opening credits that appealed to a 21st century career woman running on empty.

Or maybe it’s just the clothes – like a series of living, talking, sexing Barbie and Friends for grown ups.

I guess what is underneath all the diamond-encrusted brunch plates is the simple tale of the value of friendship, which is a great thing and worth celebrating, most definitely. But this portrait of the four women at the center of the city at the center of this civilization is bleak at best.

(Yeah, I said it.)

Neo Soul Battles the Robots

You, you built a wall

A 20 foot wall

So I couldn’t see

But if I get off my knees

I might recall

I’m 20 feet tall

– Erykah Badu “20 Feet Tall”, New Amerykah Part 2: Return of the Ankh

Erykah Badu's controversal "Window Seat" video

Yes, Erykah Badu will walk through Daley Plaza in Dallas to the spot where JFK was shot, singing her floaty I-need-space anthem “Window Seat,” while disrobing in a one-take video inspired by Matt and Kim’s “Lesson Learned” video where the Brooklyn duo strips down to their pre-civilization birthday suits in the center of Times Square, looking around like stunned members a “lost tribe” from the Amazon at the neon blinkery, only to get [SPOILER ALERTS] beaten by NYPD and then smushed by a bus.  Badu looks deliberate and driven as she sheds article after article of clothing and glances skyward from time to time. Tattooed on her back: EVOLVING.

As if maybe we have to be willing to walk around nude – or, preliminarily, choose the side of the people who think people have a right to walk around nude, and at least understand why they would want to – at some point in the coming future as things progress in whatever direction they seem to be going.  Because if we remembered that we were 20 feet tall, we wouldn’t worry over walking around nude – Avatar showed me that. Now.

After Badu is naked, she gets shot in the head and blue blood leaks out spelling GROUPTHINK – the same stuff that didn’t get the Kennedy assassination investigated. Badu stated that the video is intended to jump-start a conversation on Groupthink.

What is Groupthink? It’s what keeps us moving in a human herd with the choices we make every day. It’s the control; and the control of the control. Thumb-scanning to clock in for a job. Phone bits hanging out our ears and uncomfortable iPod earphones digging in. Conditioned automatic behaviors and lack of imagination, maybe. Official story-swallowing. Stiff necked-ness. Flouridated, manipulated.

Well, on Erykah Badu’s new album, New Amerykah Pt 2: Return of the Ankh, the funked-out self-defense diva is back to deliver a set of thoughtful grooves designed to chip away at your groupthinking cap, at least it seems to me.

Neo Soul, termed in a splashing of 1990s media  is really just thinking – that is, non commercial R&B (Erykah even coos/woos the greenbacks, increasingly robotically, in “Turn Me Away (Get Munny),” a poppy song covering yes, Junior Mafia).

Like Maxwell coming back last summer with a fade, astral-projecting (in the video for “Pretty Wings”) wearing charcoal slacks, on this dispatch, Erykah is out of the skin as well (not just her clothes).

On the album cover, the hazel eyes/hypnotizing Ms. Badu personage that we think we know is rendered as a smooth but bolted-together robot with mysterious “prehistoric” or is that Biblical / Sophia Stewart’s Third Eye scenarios growing out of her retractable-roof metal dome…

(Despite my media-buying preferences, formerly stated, I downloaded the album from iTunes.  It definitely is nice to see the cover art enlarged on the screen.  Almost as good as seeing it on a record album cover.  Anyway.)

New Amerykah Pt 2: Return of the Ankh features ear-tweaking analog tweets,  mattress-creak samples and heart-on-sleeve-wearing.  As well as Lil’ Wayne – on a song called “Jump Up in the Air and Stay There,” he and Erykah get spiritual in one breath and and get on “silly shit” with the next.

Even broken down is the concept that there are only two emotions: fear and love.  Like the updated Howard Beale speech from Network on her previous album, New Amerykah: Fourth World War, she still seems mad as hell and not really about to take it anymore, basically, just methodically and prodding warbling baseline-wise, taking us through sonic caves featuring the darker sides of human/human and human/robot relationships but bear with the woman. The album is almost like watching her construct a metaphysical defense shield and strategize for what comes next, with an option to dance.  Yes, the return.

From the archives (2003!) Film Review: Phone Booth: Please hang up and try again later

Colin Farrell on phone, in booth, under seige

(Did anybody see Phone Booth? I did!)

by Lauren Pabst

originally printed in the BU Daily Free Press Muse Arts + Entertainment section

In the tradition of one-location suspense films that are inordinately proud of their one location (such as Speed), comes Phone Booth — a movie that manages to create a moderate climate of suspense while operating entirely within the confines of a gimmick.

Colin Farrell plays Stu Shepard, a slimey publicist who is targeted by a mad sniper (voiced by the smooth, threatening baritone of Kiefer Sutherland) from within Manhattan’s last free-standing phone booth, located in Times Square. The events escalate and Stu soon finds himself trapped by both the sniper and the police, as a murder suspect.

A premise like this one does not create a large amount of mystery about what’s likely to happen, and the surprise is that somehow the film does not feel quite as predictable as it should. If the concept is gimmicky, director Joel Schumacher milks it for all it’s worth, transforming the titular glass enclosure into a creepy aquarium-like setting for the main character’s emotional, sweat-drenched trial by long-range fire.

Phone Booth’s fast pace editing and variety of shots — methodical circling, zigzagging zooms and slow-mo’ swooping around the booth and its limited immediate area — keep things frenetic but snappy and holds the audience on a MTV/ Matrix/ Fight Club-style visual adrenaline rush.

The film’s pace reflects its 10-day shoot, Schumacher said in a recent interview with the Muse. “Everything about the film was chaotic,” he said, laughing. “The first day of shooting I was panicky. I thought people would walk out.” Despite his initial fears, Schumacher soon found relevance in the film’s attempted true-life voyeuristic aspect, he said.

“I wanted it to feel for you the way it does — when you turn on the news, what’s happening right then,” he said. “If you turned on the news and they were saying that there was a guy in a phone booth and they think he had killed somebody and he wouldn’t get off the phone, you would watch. We all would.”

For someone trapped in a phone booth, Stu certainly draws a crowd — including a trio of disgruntled prostitutes, led by an amusing Paula Jai Parker, and the more reserved women in his life, Kelly (Rhada Mitchell) and Pam (Katie Holmes), who take turns looking puzzled and distressed. Forrest Whitaker is rather levelheaded as the top cop assigned to defuse the booth debacle. Sutherland’s sniper sounds sinister and somewhat reminiscent of that other mystery caller from Scream, but with more creepy calm and unsolicited psychoanalysis to offer his captive.

Like his character, though, Farrell fittingly garners all the attention. He does right by the mediocre script, accepting the perplexing attempts at witticisms as vestiges of his loser character instead of leaving them as clichè moments for the hero/bad-guy banter highlight reel. Farrell’s emphatic performance out-paces the rest of the film, and, at times, it almost feels like a one-man acting exercise with creative editing.

“Colin Farrell was my first choice, but no one would let me do it with him because he was unknown.” (The filming took place in 2000). This casting problem was the reason for one of the film’s three postponements, Schumacher explained. “First the film was postponed because of Sept. 11th because it’s set in New York, then until after Minority Report came out because then Colin would have a bigger profile.”

The sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C. area pushed back the October 2002 release date another six months, he said. For Schumacher, there was no way the film could have disregarded the events of last fall. “You can’t put movies above humanity.”

Though Phone Booth impressively renders the basic scenario of its gimmick, it remains un-ambitious in developing the story’s other angles. The film begins cleverly, with a bass-boosted montage of the state of the phone usage of modern man. However, by the end, there exists a bit too much sketchy emotional candor from the characters and blatant disregard of most all of the intricacies of the situation that rob the film of its possible depth. For all its tension building, via cool split screen tricks, the film only succeeds in hammering home pulse-pounding, crash-zooming irrelevance.

Tactile Media Lament Part One: I, Pod

Where did you go? The iPod Shuffle

Doing the iPod Shuffle

This week, I went out to buy a CD. I wanted the little booklet, the brittle plastic case and the experience of skinning it from its thin cellophane wrapper. In short – I wanted a tactile media experience. I wanted to go into a store, look around at my fellow shoppers, get to meet – briefly – some people from around who were working there, and see what else is out there on the shelves in the way of music.

I quickly realized that the CD store (the highlight of my high school Saturdays, where during college I stood in line at midnight on Tuesday mornings to be among the first to buy a newly released album) like the video store (where I had worked during high school and college, decked out in khaki and royal blue, “Denzel Washington on a sub? You’re looking for Crimson Tide…”) was teetering on the verge of being bitch-slapped out of existence by something as undignified as a hundred million chewy white plastic cords or a shower of red and white envelopes.

What about people without computers who never stopped buying CDs?

I myself had all but forsaken it in recent years in favor of downloading. I was a senior when Napster hit; on the computers at my high school we downloaded jam after jam, experiencing unheard-of instant gratification. We would graduate that year, 2001, into a brave new world, and our “let-me-get-that-one-song” habit grew. With access to high speed internet at college, we soon got them all. Every ditty in our head. We could get Jon Secada’s “Just Another Day” without dropping $15 on his self-titled debut album. Or something.

Since 2007, New York City has seen the demise of the Kim’s Video (113th Street location), Harlem institution the Record Shack, all branches of Tower Records and recently all of the Circuit Cities. The massive, contradictory Virgin sign still slinks redly on and off over the spreading neon stain of Times Square, but the store underneath is a dark, empty shell. The Virgin Megastore in Union Square has announced that it will shutter May 31st.

I visited the now unplugged Circuit City on 80th & Broadway when it was in the process of being picked over of its merchandise by shrewd bargain hunters, like apparently myself. The shelves were for sale too, and hanging off the walls in some places. Merchandise was herded into small sections of the showroom. I picked up $4 CDs by the stack and felt a weird guilt. There were some I wanted, and would have paid full price for at one time. It was a whole record – like about 15 songs – by musicians I really liked. Their precious little plastic packages full of grooves and heart were being liquidated.

Though national chains like Circuit City are owned by mil- and billionaires, the closure of their outlets has still meant the loss of many local jobs.

But the loss of the Record Shack, forced out of business by the cutthroat gentrification of 125th Street is perhaps the saddest story of the download revolution. Sikulu Shange came from South Africa in the 1960s and opened up the Record Shack to serve the music needs of the Harlem community. This winter, after more than 30 years, Mr. Shange lost his lease in the storefront across from the Apollo Theater. He was not only evicted but saw his entire inventory confiscated by the landlord.

In the case of the Record Shack and Mr. Shange, multiple forces of the current market acted against them. But the winds of change are blowing: the CD store is practically over.

In the past 25 years, we have cycled through four fully distinct dominant music media platforms. There was first the record album, the cassette, the CD and now the ghostly MP3. Music went from analog to digital, then finally non-tactile. Record albums of a size that did justice to the works of art that graced the cover gave way to less dignified playing card-sized plastic cartridges. A generation simply squinted and moved on.

Along with these delivery format changes, the way we listen to music has trended towards the personal. With the popularization of the Sony Walkman in the early 1980s, music began its transition into an individual experience, as opposed to mainly a shared one.

Are those white slippery headphones sucking in more than they’re giving?

Let me offer a rough but probably fairly accurate observation. Thirty years ago, the music people heard over the course of the day was mostly in the presence of other people. Today, the music people hear over the course of the day is mostly heard by them alone, through headphones or in a car. The iPod and other MP3 players have not only made music more individualistic, they have made it more accessible and prevalent. We’re musically saturated.

Before downloading became dominant, I used to scramble to tape record songs off the radio. Hearing a favorite song was – in that case – thrilling and special; my chance. The technology of cassette tapes made possible this serendipitous music trapping; as free as downloading, but more exciting. When I was lucky enough to capture a song from the beginning to the end, it felt like a sign that the forces of the universe were aligning in my favor.

Do you have an MP3 player? Do you sometimes experience premature song fatigue? With thousands of songs at our fingertips, we sometimes become bored and restless halfway through even a favorite song and itch to see what is next. This is not to say that MP3-ers do not love music – indeed, it is the ardent music lovers that have cleaved most readily to the Pod and similar devices. “My own soundtrack? To this crazy life? I think so.”

But are those white slippery headphones sucking out more than they’re giving?

Apple’s advertising campaign around the iPod (launched in October of 2001) was jazzily original… and cryptic. The ads depicted a colorful background with a black silhouette of a slim, hip person, grooving to a gummy white iPod lodged around their ear area. Ostensibly going for funky, distinctive and accessible, this image of a blacked out (missing?) person plugged into a sharply visible iPod – came to haunt every bus shelter and magazine page over the past decade. This hip person is plugged into the iPod. But they’re GONE. Where did they go?

I got to thinking about pods. Two peas in a pod, pod people… Why were these things called iPods, anyway? What if, like the Isaac Asimov book and later the Will Smith/Steven Spielberg movie I, Robot, the “I” in iPod didn’t stand for internet (or whatever), but meant actually “I, Pod.” Interestingly, you could get a glimpse into a person’s life by shuffling through their iPod – so the colorful little robots could actually be seen as a repositories of a person’s musical and cultural tastes. And who’s to say how much other information they can store (at the risk of sounding paranoid, they could even undertake mini surveillance missions). After all, they can now squeeze 1,000 songs – (that’s the 12 tracks of Jon Secada 83 times over) into something the size of a Starburst.

But as a consumer society, the United States has pretty much made the switch to non-tactile music media. But this just means a critical mass of people have done so – not everybody. What about those people who never stopped buying CDs? The people without access to computers or the internet? They are being rapidly left behind as their tactile daily newspapers struggle to keep their non-digital presses rolling, as their neighborhood video rental stores peter out of existence. They’re like rabbit ear TV watchers, cajoled by friendly but forceful commercials announcing the switch to DTV in June. After all, we already slowed up their plans – the original switch was in February – because not enough of us got the converter boxes.

Maybe it’s just me, but I detect a hint of exasperation on the part of the local TV elite embedded in the helpful announcements they’ve been commissioned for:

Bubbly local TV personality: “Digital TV is coming June 12th! If you have cable or satellite, you’re ALL SET.

BUT: If you watch TV using rabbit ears, you’ll need a Digital Converter Box. Otherwise, your TV will go BLACK on the afternoon of June 12th.”

Under her breath: “Get it together, morons.”

We’ll see if the luddite lethargy of analog TV watchers will again cause this grand transition to stick in the mud, hampering the condensation of the TV signal and eventual sale of the saved airwave space to the private wireless companies.

In the meantime, I suggest you investigate for yourself how far the CD store meltdown has progressed in your area. Go out and buy a CD, preferably from a local store. Understand what we will soon be missing for the siren song of the download. Feel the woosh of the door, as you enter a space dedicated to the distribution of music. Make conversation – or at least eye contact – with your fellow shoppers, and the folks behind the counter. Buy a whole CD – risk the presence of dud tracks. They’re probably having a sale, anyway.

City and Western

American Artifacts Behind Glass

American Artifacts Behind Glass

The turquoise and silver Navajo squash blossom necklaces are draped artfully on the sun-bleached skull. Untrained in recognizing cattle, especially after not only the spirit but the flesh has departed, I class it as a steer. The empty eye sockets stare out onto a increasingly posh stretch of lower Broadway. The brilliance of the blankets glow behind the plate glass window. An 8 1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper taped lower on the window forbids smoking in the immediate vicinity.

How have these artifacts of the so-called American West made their way to Manhattan? Well, the same way that we all have. Bussed, flown, driven, steamed, freighted in – by truck, subway, car – most all of us, from the construction technicians shouldering up another sleek glass condo, to the convenience store clerk selling beer in his sleep, to the customer service representatives pushing endless stylish racks of sweatshop clothes and the office dwellers, absorbed by tiny computers in their hands. Not to speak of those of us trucked in in crates, shoved up next to our neighbors, bruised but still juicy – sold 8 for $1.99, to be dessicated into fresh squeezed orange juice in the back of bistros.

We all arrived recently, relatively, onto this slip of island rotted through with subway tunnels and sewage labyrinths. Even those born here are constantly arriving, leaving, commuting, increasingly being made to vacate.

International tourists can leave this store with authentic cowboy boots, a Navajo blanket, a turquoise cuff, and other mementos of their time in the states. Passersby attracted by the glow of the blankets can be transported for a moment by indigenous colors and irrefutable proof of ancient techniques of dying yarn still being practiced. The more original America – pre-Columbus, pre-conquest, pre-forgetting – a flicker of a reminder behind the glass. A carefully arranged diorama, part-sacred (just like us) in a city ruled by the profane rules of finance.