The high–some would say exorbitant–cost of a Manhattan private school education is well known. But there’s a supplemental fee for parents whose children attend the Nightingale-Bamford School, the Spence School, the Convent of the Sacred Heart, the Trevor Day School, the Dalton School’s first program and the Horace Mann School for Nursery. It’s not for laptops or lacrosse sticks, violin or tennis lessons. Rather, it’s for their child’s almost obligatory after-school visit to the aptly named New Million Deli on the west side of Madison Avenue between 90th and 91st streets.
If a talented child–and whose isn’t–painted their vision of heaven, and a parent theirs of hell, it would probably look a lot like the New Million Deli. The store carries approximately 2,000 items, according to owner Joy Sung, the vast majority of them cavity-producing. Virtually every wall and all the aisles are lined with candy bars. The penny candy section alone boasts 140 cubbyholes, many of them filled with items so subtly different–Sweet Tarts versus Sour Melon Warheads, for example–that they require children, even those who scored in the 99th percentile on their Educational Records Bureau tests, to spend endless minutes in contemplation before they’re ready to make a purchase.
“I felt very concerned,” confided a mother whose daughter entered a trance in front of the sweets. “She had a very slow decision-making process. I started thinking, ‘What does that mean?'”
Probably not much. The bubble gum section alone is enough to propel the typical overprogrammed Upper East Side kid into therapy. There’s Double Bubble, Super Bubble, Big Chew, Bubble Champ, Mega Bubble, Spice Girls bubble gum, Tattoo (bubble gum that comes with body art), even Bubble Beepers–gum in a container that resembles a pager for kids who aspire to become drug dealers.
Adding to the misery of mothers, nannies and au pairs is the fact that while the store is virtually empty most of the day, when the aforementioned schools get out, between and 3 and 4 P.M., it becomes one of the most crowded and claustrophobic spots on the planet.
“I started dealing with the whole situation in advance–by talking to her as we were coming down the street and asking her what she was going to get,” said the mother of the unfocused daughter. “I was basically using learning techniques for my kid to go into a candy store.”
When I visited the deli on a recent rainy Tuesday afternoon, Mrs. Sung, who works with robotic efficiency behind the counter with her husband, Peter, and brother-in-law, Young, told me the crowds would probably be thinner than usual because of the inclement weather. She was wrong. Here’s what happened:
2:55 P.M. An adult, the last one who will visit the store unaccompanied by a child for the next 60 minutes, drops in. “I always avoid the hours when the little darlings are out,” she says brittly, then pays for her cappuccino and leaves in a hurry.
3 P.M. A couple of Spence first graders arrive with their baby sitter. I know their parents, who are off in Bermuda. I also know their mom thinks the New Million Deli is a rip-off and has a rule–one visit a week and only on Friday. When she returns from her vacation, I rat on her kids. “Probably that was their ‘Friday’ of the week,” she says sternly. “Then they’ll skip this Friday.”
3:07 P.M. Everybody who visits the store who’s old enough to understand the concept of money complains about the prices. “These lollipops,” says a Sacred Heart fourth grader holding up a 25-cent sucker, “cost 10 cents in Queens. A bag of pretzels you would pay 25 cents for elsewhere is 50 cents here.” Mrs. Sung denies her family engages in price-gouging. She says the store was already called the New Million Deli when she bought it seven years ago. “We hope to make a million dollars,” she explains graciously.
3:15 P.M. An unusually laid-back Horace Mann preschool mom dressed in the neighborhood uniform–expensive sneakers, running tights and a quilted forest green jacket–patiently follows her son around the store. “We’ve been coming here every day for three years straight,” she confesses, adding that what has become an important ritual in her child’s life started as a bribe. “The first week of school I told him, ‘If you go to school we’ll come here.'” As more and more children flood the aisles, I ask her how she plans to break his cycle of dependence. “We’re moving to Westchester,” she says.
3:21 P.M. The crowd has reached critical mass. Even though the store is about the size of a one-bedroom apartment, there are dozens of children and their caregivers filling the aisles and more waiting to get in. In the middle of the tumult, two Nightingale eighth graders are screaming at each other even though they’re just a couple of feet apart.
“Chips or Twix?” one shouts.
“Twix,” the other answers.
“Are you sure?”
3:30 P.M. A controversy breaks out over the abundance of Spice Girls paraphernalia. Besides Spice Girls lollipops and bubble gum, there are Spice Girls key chains, buttons, tote bags (which are going so fast that Mrs. Sung almost has to auction them off) and framed posters of the famed singing group lounging around in what appear to be their undies.
“It’s inappropriate,” complains the mother of a Dalton 5-year-old. “You have to explain things you shouldn’t have to explain.” As she leaves the store in a huff, her youngster stops dead in front of the risqué Spice Girls poster taped to the front door, blocking traffic in both directions. His mom throws up her hands. “See!” she says.
3:36 P.M. Either a mother or a very elegant au pair, it’s hard to tell which, tries a new technique to get her young charge to speed up the candy selection process–a Kennedy Space Center-type countdown. “Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven! Six!” she announces. “Five! Four! Three! Two! One!” I ask whether the ploy works. “No,” she says, less in anger than in despair. “They get so lost.”
3:45 P.M. The place is starting to empty out. A trio of jaded Nightingale fifth graders have the place almost to themselves. “I am so sick and tired of the Spice girls,” one of them growls.
“How convenient,” snorts her savvy friend, pointing at the poster of the scantily clad singing group. “They’re all in bikinis.”
“They just upped the price of sourpusses to 25 cents,” reports the third member of their party. (“I’m begging for money from my friends,” she tells me, “and that shouldn’t be happening.”)
The young ladies slowly make their way to the front of the store where Mrs. Sung awaits them. Ashley, the most loquacious of the three, points to all the Spice Girls impulse items decking the checkout counter. “Why do they want it anyway?” she wonders, referring to today’s youth. “They’re not even cool anymore.”
“They also say a lot of the Spice Girls are lesbians,” notes one of her classmates. “Especially Posh Spice.”
“I don’t believe it,” Ashley says.
“Neither do I,” seconds her friend.
Despite her reservations, Ashley purchases a piece of Spice Girls bubble gum and pulls out the enclosed mini-poster.
“It’s Posh,” she announces, careful to sound as blasé as possible.