The Media Lunch

There’s a lot of free lunch in this town, but I’m still not sure I’m brave enough to scarf it down.

On my way to Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse last Wednesday, my cabbie was viciously cut off by another taxi. My driver rolled his window down to shout, “You are needing to attend the training!” I too am needing to attend the training, the training that’ll teach me how to feed shame-free on the bloated offerings Manhattan extends to its media dollies.

At this particular free lunch, four well-dressed men are crammed on a tiny stage in Michael Jordan’s, Grand Central Station edition. A fifth man bounces between them as if in a pachinko machine: He’s The Week ‘s Harold Evans, and he engineers these frequent big-top spectacles for the edification of the members of the media profit centers. Mr. Evans looks as if he could sell snow to an Inuit. The men with the microphones and the will to use them are L.A.-based activist Tom Hayden, Barry Goldwater (the living one), journalist Ed Klein and Ron Reagan (the sentient, non-genocidal one).

The 200 or so media types in the audience have posed their way through a photographer-lined entrance to the private dining room. The toothy magazine editors now seated at the front-most table are close enough to reach out and, Egyptian-style, harvest Mr. Klein’s brain through his nose.

The 12 primo assigned seats at the front table are occupied by an odd smorgasbord: Week -ers, assistant editors, mysterious familiar white faces. At the 17 or so other tables, the media are eating salads of shrimp (four per editor), dried banana chips, mangoes, avocados. It’s very California-or, if you like, very Chiapas. Today’s talk’s topic: “Is California Crazy?” The audience itself looks neither Californian nor crazy-well, except for the wild-eyed older woman with a cap that says “FAME” in four-inch mirrored letters. She’ll be deported to the golden land soon, I’m sure. All around the edges of the room, unloved lunches congeal.

Why are we here? It can’t be that most people in this room give two shits about California, and really, why should they? California is the land of queerly generated wealth and unstable new trends: The state has a surfeit of brown English-free people, actors as politicians, crises both electrical and aquatic. With this stress being beamed at us from the other coast, New York these days has a distinct sense of being beleaguered by the West. The degrading world in which California exists can only mean bad things to come for us, and by “us,” I do mean the rich.

The men’s amplified voices echo across the vacuity of Grand Central, disembodied sound bites confusing common commuters below. Many quotable tidbits emerge from the panel of practiced yakkers. The one that sounds most honest concerns campaign-finance reform; a panelist feels that reform has been “hijacked by money and celebrity and celebrities with money.” A silent concern perhaps is that these particular celebrities with money are not ours, not New York’s, and we do not trust them.

“I’m not a junior,” says Ron Reagan. Reagonomics, someone says. Titters. Ron says he left California because of the “smog and the attitude.” “Smogitude,” I write down in my The Week notebook with my fat new TIAA-CREF pen. Someone offhandedly references The Day of the Locust . From my seat in the back, I cannot see any of the panelist’s lips move, and therefore I have no idea which man is speaking which lines. It’s pleasant to conflate their outfits and identities, all the while popping little balls of doughy mozzarella and slightly split cherry tomatoes.

But did you ever notice that Ron Reagan-sans Junior-always looked, even as a child, even as a ballet boy, to be the victim of an early and ill-advised plastic surgery to his face? He is growing into it fairly well, you may be relieved to learn.

Californian Republican and gubernatorial dropout Bill Simon is with us by telephone. He says California’s premiere actor/candidate “is a stand-up kind of guy.” Mr. Goldwater (I think!) asks, “What does he stand for?”

Bill Simon says, “I’m not sure that’s important.”

The hot venal air of a world run by celebrities with money. A gang of octopi coiled around their money. The Burning of Los Angeles. The rising brown tide of the world is mentioned again and again throughout the lunch. “My grandparents were illegal immigrants and I suspect so were yours,” bellows a man improbably-probably Mr. Goldwater again.

Celebrities with money and the writers who write about them, tossing unbuttered rolls from hand to hand.

In January of 1991, at the age of 19, I biked to downtown San Francisco to register for my second semester of college at the New School of California. It was a lovely California winter’s day. Down at the Embarcadero, I found an anti–Gulf War I riot in full swing. On Market Street to my right: looting, burning police cars (O.K., just one burning police car) and a march beginning to obstruct the Bay Bridge. And on my left: a quiet brick building that offered some (hideously expensive) college credits, and maybe after that a degree, something to improve my fairly diffy financial forecast.

Predictably, I joined the march, and I never went to a college class again. And my problem with the men in charge, and also with the men in this world with the microphones, is not that they did not also make my particular stupid self-defeating choice. My problem is that they ignorantly talk about the choices we make from their distant perch at the top of the American food chain, and then they go on without us. In short: They pay each other, endlessly.

Evidently for entertainment purposes only, we have one of California’s candidates with us in the audience, one Mary Carey, a busty porn starlet in a little black dress. The pretty Mary Carey makes a speech. Although there “ain’t nothing wrong with being a movie star,” she says, she is running for governor “because I’ve got a lot of new ideas.” Her platform inexplicably makes complete sense: legalize gay marriage to create a massive influx of affluent tourists, keep the bars open later, create a state tax on plastic surgery and install “live Web cams in the governor’s mansion” for public view at 20 bucks a pop. “Imagine if we’d had that for Bill Clinton,” she smirks. I think most of the audience is smirking at her, but she’s got my vote. I eat a third unclaimed dessert from the carnage of the room; tired little berries, bitter biscotti.

There is a question-and-answer session during which I am fairly certain I am abducted by aliens and returned with some of my mind’s functioning missing. The lunch show is a wrap. Editors scurry to closings. Newsmen swarm Mary Carey. Coffee was never served, the cups sit empty. “Rich! Rich! I need some ambience!” stage-whispers the lighting and sound guy.

The Day of the Locust ends with the would-be painter of the riotous Burning of Los Angeles in the back of a police car, screaming along to the car’s siren. If anyone back in California is screaming along, from over here the sound is completely absorbed into the state’s now-constant hysterical alarms. As for us, there never was any steak in the steakhouse. In the back of the room at the very back table, Linda Tripp’s former ghostwriter reaches across the table to spear some uneaten shrimp from the long shiny row of untouched salads.

-Choire Sicha

Madonna’s Da Vinci

Once upon a time Madonna wrote a children’s book and it kind of sucked. But the pictures were nice and everyone wanted a copy, because, well, it’s a children’s book written by Madonna.

The twee tome, The English Roses , has been released in 30 languages in 100 countries and is on top of The New York Times ‘ best-seller list of children’s books, even outselling Walter the Farting Dog . Even though the story of four English schoolgirls learning to conquer envy with the help of a fairy godmother is kind of blah, it’s been mostly well-reviewed.

The drawings, however, have raised a few eyebrows. The pictures are brightly colored and lithe and fanciful, but the young girls depicted are oddly homogeneous with no noses, Giacometti-like bodies and large, feed-me-I’m-hungry eyes.

The Plaza’s Eloise looks like she could have them all for lunch.

The books’ drawings are the creation of Jeffrey Fulvimari, 41, an illustrator who is “big in Japan,” as they say. His illustrations have long featured skinny women, but this is his first children’s book. The modest Mr. Fulvimari-who said he requested not to be credited on the book’s cover nor its back flap-insisted that he’s not trying to brainwash children into believing that only skinny people are beautiful. He was just drawing what he knew. He himself is skinny-six feet tall and 160 pounds-and is a former model. He was in Calvin Klein’s CK One ads with the bony waif Kate Moss.

“People are saying that the girls look anorexic, and it’s just so weird to me, because I based them on my nieces, and I guess they’re skinny,” said Mr. Fulvimari. He was on route from his home in Woodstock, N.Y., to Manhattan, where he was going to be at a signing for the book. “I’m not advocating starvation for beauty or anything like that, but I do think there are just naturally skinny people out there that get pointed at and called anorexic,” he said. “Like when I worked with Kate Moss, she was getting thrown on coals about the way she looked, and I think it’s just her body type. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Why are you all picking on her? It’s the way she is!'”

Originally, he said, he made one girl look extremely doll-like, but Madonna-she of the cone brassiere-told him that 7-year-olds don’t wear so much mascara. So he toned their glamour down, looking at the Madeline series for inspiration.

“And in Madeline , there’s not a plump one among them, and no one ever pointed a finger at those girls and called them anorexic!” he said. But aren’t the French always thin?

“In any case, my nieces love the book,” continued Mr. Fulvimari. “It’s my perception, and I’ve noticed that kids today-like at these book parties-they’re all hip and cool. There are no nerds. With the Gap and everything, there are no longer nerd clothes like when I was a kid. There used to be cute kids and ugly ones, but now they’re all cute.”

We’re going to be seeing more of Mr. Fulvimari’s noseless ectomorphs in America. His eponymous line of household products, decorated with his winsome females, are currently sold at high-end department stores in Japan, and in January he’s launching a more modestly priced sister line here called Bobbypin by Jeffrey Fulvimari.

Madonna’s next children’s book-which isn’t illustrated by Mr. Fulvimari-will be released in November. It’s about fruit.

-Anna Jane Grossman

Passionate Prayer

It was just past noon on a Saturday, on the first day of the year 5764-the Jewish Year-and the basement of the Jewish Theological Seminary on West 122nd Street and Broadway was a squall of young Upper West Siders who’d been praying with Biblical intensity for more than four hours. Nearly 250 of them were crammed into the room, swaying, clapping, spilling into the aisles. As they burst into spontaneous harmonies in Hebrew, the effect was somewhere between a 1960’s be-in and a Camp Ramah sing-along. A clean-cut young man with a Neil Diamond face closed his eyes and snaked his head in time with the music. Another, sporting an Israelites-in-the-desert look, extended his hands in supplication. Soon there would be dancing.

Kehilat Hadar, or Community of Praise, is an informal congregation of young, spiritual and often Ivy League Jews which has bloomed into a phenomenon in the last two and a half years. Services are rigorously traditional, but allow women to pray as equals with men. Its Shavuot retreat, which features an all-night study session at a camp in the Berkshires, sold out in three days last year. It has no paid staff, no permanent home and has never done a jot of recruitment, but has managed to tap into a generation that the gurus of “Jewish continuity” have spent millions trying to woo.

“We just wanted to put together a place that would be exciting for us to pray in,” said Elie Kaunfer, 30, a bespectacled white-collar fraud investigator turned rabbinic student who was one of Hadar’s three founders. “What we wanted was basically a place that was fully egalitarian and at the same time uses traditional liturgy and a spirited service. The focus wasn’t, ‘Let’s attract young people.'”

But attract them it has. Hadar began with an e-mail in April 2001 by Mr. Kaunfer and two pals announcing the creation of a new Shabbat morning service in a friend’s West 110th Street apartment. They invited a handful of acquaintances; 60 people showed up.

“That was pretty surprising and actually somewhat moving for us, because it showed us that we weren’t alone, that there were lots of people that were looking for something new, even on the Upper West Side,” said Mr. Kaunfer.

Today between 150 and 200 people attend Hadar’s Saturday-morning services, which outgrew the 110th Street apartment and now float between various church basements and community centers. Its weekly e-mail alerts go to more than 1,900 people.

“It’s pretty exciting-for Jewish,” said Aliza Mazor, an employee of Bikkurim, an agency that provides seed grants to Jewish start-ups like Hadar. “People see it and they’re inspired, and then they go and create their own, based on this whole notion of community-driven learning.”

“I just love Hadar,” said Rachel Siegel, a 23-year-old grad student in occupational therapy and public health. “I love that there’s a lot of ruach [soul] to it, and I love that it’s a community of people that are around the same age as me.”

There’s nothing particularly sexy about Hadar. It doesn’t offer much in the way of a pick-up scene, and you won’t find Madonna paging through a prayer book.

“I think people keep coming back for the service, whether it’s a Shabbat morning service or a Purim party,” said Debbie Kaufman, 27, a petite woman with bright red nails, who is one of the five gabbai’im , or leaders, of Hadar. “The constant theme that runs through Hadar is a respect for the authenticity of the tradition, while trying as hard as we possibly can to make it fun, spiritual, engaging, participatory and alive, not just token.”

“It gives us a sense of newness, of rebellion even, that we’re doing something slightly different from what we grew up with, and I think that everybody at Hadar is doing something slightly different from what they grew up with,” said Nora Simpson, 23, a jaunty New Orleans native with only a smattering of Hebrew and little religious training. “I would say what kept me coming was the service. Because the passion of the service and the fervor, even though I couldn’t join in with the prayers because they were just so foreign to me, that fervor was something that I wanted to be able to take part in.”

-Lizzy Ratner

Save Yourself Times

In case you haven’t read last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine , which was all about how New York in 2003 supposedly resembles New York in the 1970’s, here’s a synopsis. You’ll thank us for saving you a few hours:

O.K., well, the economy is down, so the 70’s are back, but not really, but art is back, but not really, but crime is up, well, it’s not …. Hey, here’s a picture of Fannypack!