Hosts and hostesses of New York! Want to save yourself time, money and effort while simultaneously sucking all the anticipation, serendipity and joy out of a party? Send an Evite-those electronic social summons which are clogging e-mail boxes all over town-in lieu of a paper or phone invitation.
Evite is-to borrow the company’s own odious, ungrammatical phrasing-“the web’s leading online invitation service making it easy to get people together and best of all, it’s FREE!” (It’s always nice to know up front that your host doesn’t want to spend any money on you, isn’t it?)
If you haven’t already, chances are good you will soon receive an Evite from a friend or acquaintance inviting you to a barbecue, a birthday, a Girls ( sic ) Night or any one of a number of social options. The initial Evite is then followed by nettlesome little reminders-“You still haven’t responded”-as the big event bears down. Sometimes these painstakingly semi-customized messages-with their crude, high-kilobyte, computer-memory-sapping clip art-automatically end up in the recipient’s junk-mail box. And deservedly so.
For Evite offers a truly e-vil option: Eviters can-and almost always do-display the entire guest list for all their Evitees to see. So you know not only who’s been invited, but you can also see who’s definitely coming, along with any pithy comments they choose to add to their replies. Real “party animals” like to respond with little rallying cries of enthusiasm-“with bells on,” etc., jingle, jingle! You also get to see who’s not coming, along with their feeble excuses: “Sorry, but I’m performing my one-woman show in Williamsburg that night-chin chin!”
Not only does this disrupt the entire purpose of going to a party-never knowing who exactly might show up-but it’s a crass and brutal disruption of the ancient, sacred, private (Greek?) relationship between a guest and her host.
The only proper R.S.V.P. to an Evite: dignified silence.
In the corner of a Williamsburg loft, in a small, makeshift room, Beth Lieberman, a short woman with dark eyes, thin lips and unruly large hair, sits across from a fellow named Blake, a shaggy dirty blond with 5 o’clock shadow making its midnight appearance. Blake looks at Beth intently as she, in turn, leers back. She then makes a fist and drags it diagonally across her face, never taking her eyes off him. Her tongue simultaneously pushes against her cheek (in what the evening’s host, Peter Neufeld, would later call “the international sign for a blowjob”). Blake’s lips, defying everything his body is telling them, curl up into a boyish grin. A bell sounds; Beth has won. The audience-strewn about the loft on futons, sipping beer and watching via a live video feed projected on two 15-foot screens-erupts in laughter and cat calls. In the digital age, the proverbial staring contest has found a new home.
The idea began when three Austin, Tex., natives-Paul Ahern, David Avery and Chris Deaner-were working together at a consulting firm, doing “multimedia corporate shit,” and had to take the long PATH ride from Jersey City to Brooklyn. To break up the monotony, they amused themselves by engaging in staring contests. As Mr. Ahern’s 30th birthday approached, “David expressed disgust at not having a more compelling reason to attend my birthday party than supplying snacks and beer,” Mr. Ahern said. And so the idea of staring contests-with an audience of friends participating-was born. The rules are simple: You cannot smile, you cannot break eye contact, you can only stand up to take off an article of clothing. After five minutes, the contest is sent into a sudden-death round of sorts, in which neither contestant is allowed to blink. Break one of the rules and you lose. The contest is judged by the people in the audience closest to the buzzer, a jerry-rigged contraption which signals that someone has lost their game of ocular chicken. Two cameras inside of the booth transmit the images to the big screens.
“It’s just like any other party-with a little goofy multimedia component,” said Mr. Ahern, a tall freelance production designer with rectangular glasses and emotive shoulders that swagger when he talks. “And now the goofy multimedia component has become the focus, and so we’re charging for it.”
The Texans have big plans. “I don’t know whether to expose too much,” said Mr. Ahern, “but we’re talking about starting a company and taking it into other realms.”
On a recent Saturday night, a $2 admission fee was charged to cover the cost of the electronic equipment, the keg and the nominal cost of the loft, a video-art space called Monkey Town. One woman, wearing high heels while scaling the narrow staircase leading from the loft, was overheard telling someone on a cell phone, “I don’t know about this party. It’s a little strange.”
Others, however, seemed more annoyed by the stringent nature of the judges and the crowd, recalling perhaps childhood games that ended-as parents often predicted-“in tears.”
“I was like, um, fake swimming?” said Shira Kronzon, a graphics designer who took a turn in the booth and lost. “And I think maybe I looked over or something, so I lost eye contact. Tough crowd. Very tough crowd.”
But she didn’t bolt for the door.
“I thought there was good chemistry between me and the other woman,” Ms. Kronzon said. “She kept showing me her underwear.”
Walk/Don’t Walk This Way
A subtle change has been sweeping through Manhattan, causing New Yorkers to take pause at street corners from midtown to downtown. Starting in May, the Department of Transportation began installing new electric crosswalk signs to replace the “Walk/Don’t Walk” units that have been a staple of New York street life since 1952, when the city installed the first illuminated signal on 44th and Broadway. If you haven’t already noticed, the spiffy new signs are wordless graphical wonders. In place of the commanding prose are shining friendly symbols of an androgynous figure in mid-stride (“Walk”) and a glowing orange hand (“Don’t Walk”). By January, all of the 2,700 intersections in Manhattan will get a signage makeover.
Tom Cocola, the spokesman for the D.O.T., said the new lights aren’t actually lights at all: They’re light-emitting diodes. “The L.E.D.’s have a projected life of 100,000 burning hours, which translates to 12 years by conventional light-bulb standards,” he said. “The symbols are also brighter and internationally recognized, which will better serve tourists and the immigrant population. And the L.E.D.’s consume significantly less energy than the old incandescent bulbs.”
At a total of $10.4 million, the new signals sure cost a pretty penny, and guess what? New Yorkers already have opinions about them.
On Park Avenue and 59th Street, the new crosswalk signals were flashing away on a recent morning and Amy Murawski, a personal assistant to a Manhattan mystery writer, wasn’t impressed. “I like the old signs so much better. It’s a ridiculous waste of money to replace all of these things,” she said as she dragged on a cigarette. The signal changed to the flashing orange hand. “You see? It doesn’t even look like a hand. Maybe a foot or something. Plus, when has someone stuck a hand in your face? It’s really kind of rude. I take offense to that.”
One block away, John Grant was walking through the rain on his way back from a job interview. “They’re installing the signs all over the city? Fuck that . If they were just replacing broken ones, I could see that. Christ, $10 million? That’s crazy,” he said. “The shining little man crossing the street is fine, but people can figure out when it’s clear to cross with the old ones that had words.”
Outside DKNY, William Harvey, a product designer from Brooklyn, didn’t see anything good with the change. “To me, I think it’s a whole waste of money. We don’t need more smiley faces in this city, we need more services. Why is Bloomberg spending money on witty signage?” he said.
Questions do remain: First off, is the little figure a guy or girl? Meredith Moss, who works at Reuters, said she appreciated the ambiguous shape. “I lived in Germany in 1992. They had the symbol lights there, but the little silhouette crossing the street was wearing a farmer’s hat or something. It was definitely a picture of a guy,” she said. “That pissed me off.”
“It’s a little man,” said Tom Kuo, a 26-year-old financial associate at General Atlantic Partners, who was drinking coffee on the corner of 58th Street and Madison. “He looks like he’s walking pretty aggressively. But the hand symbol? That’s a tough call. Is it the back of the hand or the front? If it’s the back of the hand, then it’s kind of like getting flipped off. I’m insulted by that.”
In front of Dean & DeLuca in Soho, Jenna Pignato, a 29-year-old massage therapist, didn’t take kindly to the new wordless signals. “With the old signs, there’s an inherent sense of intelligence,” she said. “If it says, ‘Walk,’ you go; ‘Don’t Walk,’ and you stay put. The new ones are just tourist hieroglyphics.”
For Marjorie Schwartz, a psychotherapist with an office in Soho, the signs sparked conflict in her love life. “I just had a big fight with my boyfriend about this whole ‘dumb factor’ thing last night,” she said. “He said the picture signs were making people stupid. He was like, ‘No one has to read anymore. Everything is just one big picture now.’ And I was like, ‘It’s no big deal, they’re for tourists. Who cares?'”
Ms. Schwartz then raised the question of what would happen if there were no signs-that maybe we need the signs to keep us from our own dark instincts. “There’s the whole Freudian notion about impulse control,” she said. “Without a blaring orange hand in our face telling us not to cross the street, what would we do?”
You Know You’re a New Yorker When …
… you’re serenaded by two middle-aged women playing the classical violin at an entrance to Central Park. One of the women wears a T-shirt that reads: “Berklee College of Music.” The other wears a conservative summer dress with stars on it. You can’t help but think: “I’d very much like to take them both back to my one-bedroom apartment in Queens and show off my pornographic Hummel collection.”
… seeing celebrities on a regular basis doesn’t faze you. Except when they refuse to mouth “let’s fall in love” back.
… you descend into a subway station and it’s very late and you just missed a train. And, as you sit on the platform waiting, you find yourself “prettying up” the face of the snoring roustabout next to you, using only your pocket-size bottle of Aloe Purell.
… you’re all-too-familiar with the very best spot in the Sheep Meadow to “air out your pink.”
… you cruise the West Village and you know exactly what color kerchief to hang from your back pocket to signify: “I am craving a delicious Brunswick stew from the Union Street Cafe.”
… stepping off the Brooklyn ferry and onto a dock in Manhattan, you come across a local character who goes by the name of Guppy. He is wearing a Brunhild costume, complete with two-horned helmet and blond ponytailed wig. His face is covered entirely with blue woad. He is holding an Irish boggle stick in one hand and, in the other, a tomato sandwich. His eyes have taken on a thousand-yard-stare, seeing nothing and yet seeing through everything. Tattooed on his forehead is a third eye, half-winking. On his feet are not shoes but rather discarded Kleenex tissue boxes. He is wearing green corduroy breeches that have been ripped at both knees. Hanging from each of his ear lobes are thin, moist strips of deer thong. An angry red welt can be seen on his left cheek. He hands you a plastic bag filled with what looks to be some sort of homemade mustard. You express your gratitude by taking the bag and stuffing it into your breast pocket. It fits perfectly! And then, to no one in particular, you proudly declare: “Only in New York, kids! Only in New York!”