On the afternoon of Oct. 12, as journalists around the country braced themselves for anthrax mailings, Margaret Braun’s third-floor West Village walkup seemed like the safest possible place to be. The air was filled with a powdery substance that made one cough, but it was merely clouds of confectioners’ sugar. Ms. Braun is the city’s foremost cake decorator and perhaps its sole sugar sculptress. “In the world of cake decorating, I’m Elvis,” she said.
Western swing music was playing in the Thumbelina-sized kitchen. Ms. Braun hummed along as she applied yellow food coloring with a small brush to a gigantic, nine-layer Styrofoam cake bound for the window of Henri Bendel. Enveloped in a smudged apron, her hair screwed up in a blue bandanna, Ms. Braun is a brown-eyed, fine-boned brunette with freckles that look as if they’d been sprinkled from a nutmeg shaker. For her 39th birthday on Oct. 17, she said, she wants a country fiddle.
Ms. Braun’s work space is part apothecary’s shop, part curio museum: little green bottles filled with almond and rose oils, small paintings of Madonnas, a tub of Crisco-for molding purposes only-and perhaps two dozen models of the decorator’s signature and somewhat psychedelic cakes, which cost from $1,200 to $20,000. “God, I hate saying that,” she said.
A 10-year-old white-pawed tabby named Francis (after the saint) was winding its way underfoot. At that moment, Ms. Braun’s life seemed ideally suited to the post–Sept. 11 haze that has New Yorkers pausing to reconsider their Type A, fast-track ambitions. She has no storefront, no staff save for the occasional intern (“they basically just scrape chocolate off the walls,” she said), and no Web site. Her long but fairly humble résumé includes gigs at Veniero’s, the Italian bakery on 11th Street, and a Zen monastery in Yonkers. To finance stretches of art school, she slung eggs, balled melons and filled cannoli.
She met her husband, a psychologist and photographer originally from Texas, in the building. They were neighborly first, then friends. “I remember he told me a 45-minute joke,” she said. “It was an airplane joke. No racial overtones, but very inappropriate.” They share another apartment on the first floor-when they have fights, Ms. Braun just scampers up a few flights to her studio, which still has a bed-and plan to try for a pregnancy next year.
In the meantime, she has her other “baby”: an expensive, gilt-edged book called Cakewalk: Adventures in Sugar with Margaret Braun that purportedly reveals her sleight of hand to the kitchen commoner. But what it reveals more plainly is Ms. Braun’s fanciful, slightly loopy character. “When I see something beautiful, I want to eat it,” she begins. Later, somewhat Diana Vreeland–ishly: “When in doubt, use polka dots.” At one point, Ms. Braun goes on a narrative magic-carpet ride from a Chaucerian table in a brocaded frock, “reaching over steamy bowls of porpoise pye and turnypes, dipping my tassels in kettles of hot wine,” to the shores of Pylos, “eating tripe and gnawing on ham bones with Odysseus.”
Back in the West Village kitchen, Ms. Braun pried off her wedding ring with her mouth and was now kneading sugar paste and gaily daubing gold leaf. She was asked about Sylvia Weinstock, the other big brand name in New York City cakes. “It’s a very different thing,” she said. “Bless her heart, but I have such a different take on it. She’s really good, she put the cake designer on the map, she’s an amazing businesswoman. But it’s not the kind of business that I really want to have.”
Ms. Weinstock and her somewhat shabbier competitor, the Cupcake Cafe on West 39th Street, are known for their flowers. Ms. Braun isn’t really a flower girl. One of her cakes was inspired by the lurid rubber decals of her childhood bathroom in Levittown, N.Y.; another by a pink and orange Miu Miu shoe. She is partial to motifs of sacrifice and flagellation, like The Scarlet Letter and the legend of St. Ursula, which involves the slaughter of 11,000 virgins. Her next big gig is an astronomically themed sugar sculpture for a tribute to Arthur C. Clarke at the Playboy Mansion.
She doesn’t like it when clients ask her for replicas of their beloved objects. “My feeling is, about making things literally like another thing-unless it’s purely for the camp value, it’s not going to look that good,” she said. “I like to have things be not quite as literal; I like to make something that’s a little bit challenging to the eye. I don’t do vehicles, I don’t do computers, and I don’t do buildings.” She doesn’t do cupcakes, either.
A few years ago, Ms. Braun went on Oprah and people began calling in the middle of the night. “A little Oprah goes a long way,” she said. “Things can get wacky. If I think it’s a bad idea, I won’t do it. I kind of work alone, and I think it’s pretty much going to always be that way. It needs to be enjoyable, because it’s my life.”
Army of One
If you’re standing on the little island in the middle of 43rd and Broadway, there’s all kinds of stuff to do. You can watch the traffic go by on both sides, feel the subway rattling underneath and get off on the energy. You can go see Apocalypse Now Redux. You can buy tickets for the Butthole Surfers at the W.W.F. Cafe or get some makeup at Sephora. Or you can enlist in the military.
That’s what Jack Kasy was doing the other day when I met him coming out of the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station.
“I’m not afraid, you know,” Mr. Kasy said. “It’s a perfect time to go for me-I want the experience.”
Mr. Kasy, who is 18 years old, was dressed like a hip-hop performer, with an oversized white long-sleeved jersey and a Houston Astros baseball cap. He had blue eyes and his head was shaved, and he bore a passing resemblance to Timothy McVeigh.
What branch did he want to be in?
“I want to go to Marines,” Mr. Kasy said. “I want to be in there. I want to be right in the Middle East, man.”
We walked over to a Pizza Hut to talk some more. Mr. Kasy said he’d always been interested in the military, but after high school, he went to college instead-briefly. After Sept. 11, he decided he had to enlist.
“Part of it, I just wanted to get away from home, you know?” he said. “Maybe, you know, get my mind clear over there. It’ll be tough, but if you go through that, you can go through everything.”
He didn’t sound particularly bloodthirsty.
“I wouldn’t like to kill anyone,” he said. “I’d just want to see how it is over there, what people go through, how it is, how the families live. What kind of struggle they have over there. See both points of view-how’s it over here, and how’s it over there.”
He said he wasn’t terribly worried about getting killed.
“You can’t think about dying; you can die any minute,” Mr. Kasy said. “It doesn’t worry me, not at all. When I picture it, I see bullets going through my body and bombs. You never know-I might be the one who saves the world. Who knows?”
What was the worst thing he thought could happen over there in Afghanistan? “My whole unit getting blown up,” he said.
Mr. Kasy said he’d like to be a war hero. “I always dreamt of going into the Marines since I was a little kid,” he said. “With that gun and a uniform-on the Desert Storm, something like that. Dropping out of a helicopter. Something different! I don’t want to be walking around with a 9-to-5 job, on the train in New York City.”
Mr. Kasy sounded like he needed an adventure. He said he didn’t have much fun in high school, even when he was hanging out with his friends, or “boys,” as he called them.
Mr. Kasy’s boys apparently think he’s “bananas” for wanting to join the military.
Was he enlisting because of anger?
“Not at all, not at all,” Mr. Kasy said. “If I wanted to, I’d go crazy on the streets …. I want to actually see it over there. It’s like a free plane ticket over there.” He smiled, raised his eyebrows. “That’s another thing, you know what I mean?
“I want the training, too. I want to learn all those things, you know? Be prepared for everything,” Mr. Kasy said. “Once you come out of the Marines, it’s like you’re better than the other person-literally. Most people don’t know how to put a gun together, this or that, or whatever, save another life … you learn things over there that could be useful.”
Mr. Kasy said he had to take an entrance exam, but he’d taken it once before and passed, so he was pretty confident he’d do it a second time.
Where was he off to now?
“Nowhere, pretty much,” he said. “Walk around, head home, I guess. Gotta wait for a phone call from the Marines, then I’m going to take that exam …. I’ll pass it again. Then I sign the contract-and I’m off.”