On the bed of the Moldau, the stones are churning.
The days of our rulers are ending fast.
—“The Song of the Moldau”
This is a Christmas card from Midtown Manhattan. It wasn’t easy to get here from Brooklyn today. The F train wasn’t running. “Police action on Church Street,” the subway man in the red vest explained. At Prime Burger on 51st Street it was hard to get the attention of the old imperious waiters. They elbowed through the crowd, men of the Pullman Porters Union called back into service when they should have been collecting pensions at home. The crowd was thick, the toilet in the men’s room had overflowed. Maybe this was the last Christmas before a new Depression, but Prime Burger bustled and a throng moved outside.
Saks Fifth Avenue
What year is it? It’s 2008, almost over. In front of Saks a one-eyed man in a wheelchair pulls our coats, asking us for money. A lady from the Salvation Army sings “Joy to the World.” Things fall apart; Christmas stays the same.
The window displays at Saks upend meaning and history, shedding the past to tell the story of “a snowflake named Mike.” In the time of our parents, we learn in this tale based on a children’s book, hippies and dinosaurs lived side by side. It still snowed a lot back then, and the hippies (our parents) were all “weird” but they were also “all the same.” Snow fell on the dinosaurs and on our hippie parents in an undifferentiated clump of white obliteration.
Now, in the present, Mike comes along and teaches us how to be real individuals, unweird. He does this by exploding into lace rays that turn him into an ironed-flat Italian bride drawn by Murakami. Images of outmoded male heterosexuality—cavemen, sandwiches, pretzels—contrast with Mike, who floats, zig-zags, and flits, mincing and flouncing with pride.
According to Saks, Mike’s coming out is a form of salvation—specifically a form of economic salvation. Today, consumer credit is a vice, but being like Mike is a virtue. Be an individual, have a disposable income, pay in cash, says Saks.
Abercrombie & Fitch
The windows of Abercrombie & Fitch, a block away, don’t tell any story. That’s because they are filled with giant, dark-wood venetian blinds which are closed tight. They are not closed because the store is closed. Far from it. But because they are closed, they force us in. The show is playing inside the store, not in the windows.
We are here to look, not to spend. Abercrombie & Fitch must have guessed that for many of us, that would be the case this year. They’ve discouraged gawking at windows and effortlessly flowed us into a groping-dark cavern designed to sell tank tops and sweatpants to minors.
It’s a heavily scented environment that smells like a strip joint. Beautiful African-American shopgirls dressed in form-fitting gray sweaters with the top four buttons undone bounce happily at the counters as contemporary r&b plays loudly. Three of these teen hotties latch onto us as we enter. Do we need any help? they ask, leading us into a nighttime world at two in the afternoon. It’s hard to see in here, but spotlights pick out details of the clerks’ pulchritude.
Adult men lounge in leather club chairs as their sons and daughters shop. They look inward, trying to be inconspicuous, like they’re waiting for a lapdance. Behind them, Thomas Eakins-inspired murals of underwear-clad teenage boys exercising in barns fill the walls. The figures in these murals are multi-ethnic and beefy; Abercrombie & Fitch has corrected Eakins. Shotguns in racks behind glass lend adolescent retail a Columbine vibe. The staff acts excited, sexed-up, infected by the dance-club atmosphere. We want to stay at this Dionysian youth rally, but why? We have no business here. Modesty and good sense prevail, delivering us from temptation and back into Fifth Avenue.
In the windows of Bergdorf Goodman we discover a cuckoo-clock world set among stands of Russian birch. Steam punk dioramas, these 18th- and 19th-century conceptions of the four seasons (plus a few other seasons Bergdorf’s has invented for sales purposes) feature the exploded gears of the mechanisms that power traditional Christmas window displays. At Bergdorf’s, time runs out while it’s contemplated. A fairy tale quality suffuses these white-on-white grottoes filled with taxidermic roadkill: white ferrets, muskrats, voles and rats. Dalíesque white busts—is that Cicero?—look on eyelessly.
Set in mountain aeries and grottoes, the best places besides sewers from which to see the stars, the scenes are Germanic: Hegelian or Wagnerian. More artificial and stagy than the sincere curio cabinet displays we’ve grown tired of in stores, these windows pay tribute to an overstuffed and decadent era that believed in one thing and one thing only—but what was it? In one window, a mannequin on a wintry mountain ledge lies on her stomach playing chess with an owl. This is Hegel’s Owl of Minerva that spreads its wings only with the gathering of the dusk, reminding us we can understand world events only in retrospect.
Incessant bell-ringing from the Salvation Army Santa behind us accompanies a tableau of white ceramic monkeys who aid and steal from a Versailles bride. If, as Susan Sontag writes, grottoes are anthologies of “world spiritual wisdom,” Bergdorf’s has wed wisdom to consumption; to the need to replace worn-out luxury goods with mysterious objects that have been saved because they look indispensable, even if no one remembers what they’re for. Is that an astrolabe?
In another window the mannequin sits next to a man with a donkey’s head. She’s about to take a bite of a little red purse shaped like an apple. In the last window, she’s making music with a new man, this one with the head of a wolf. On squeezebox and sousaphone they make beautiful music together, the “Grande Polka,” our cue to move on.
What’s with all the hippies? Are they the new Christmas elves, Santa’s helpers? An improvised tag sale celebrating the 50th anniversary of the peace sign, Barney’s “Have a Hippie Holiday” windows look like they were slapped together by baked, lazy interns. They give the impression of underlings being yelled at: “Hurry up, we need a theme! Fill these windows with ’60s shit!” And then the interns bought a copy of Tom Brokaw’s book Boom! Talking About the Sixties and put it next to an Afro pick. And then they realized the peace sign was invented in 1958, not 1968, but it was too late to change.
The windows, a tacit admission of defeat and that no one is in charge, memorialize figures like Janis Joplin with all the invention of a Phish fan’s dorm room shrine. Coming from New York’s most glamorous, trendy department store, this anti-fashion non-statement reveals a caveat emptor approach designed to repel the very loitering shop windows once promoted. Barney’s looks backward to a grotty old world of patched denim and suede fringe, reminding us that in Brave New World Huxley wrote, “Old clothes are beastly. We always throw away old clothes. Ending is better than mending.” Only a Peggy Lipton could look good in these clothes; they turn anybody else into a Mama Cass.
Suddenly the Barneys windows stop, interrupted by windows filled with drab black-and-white photographs of a plain brick apartment building. This building’s windows are dusty and there are cheap lace curtains hanging in them. Air-conditioners stick out. It’s the kind of ordinary building that nobody plans on ending up in in today’s New York, but that was perfectly okay thirty years ago in the bankrupt town of Abe Beame. This is Sidney Lumet’s New York, the 1970s Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network city of “Ford to New York: Drop Dead.” Calvin Klein has cancelled Christmas this year. Even the potted plants in the showroom look stolen from another building’s lobby.
In Bloomingdale’s windows, people are cut-outs, Flat Daddies and Mommies like the life-size mounted photographs of soldiers the Army made for families back home earlier in the ongoing war. Bloomingdale’s exhibits these plywood families in nostalgic tableaux meant to evoke the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy era, a time of transition the store has identified as the time before everything sucked. One window even presents a soldier returning to his wife and kids from—where?
In the first window, a young black couple looks like a cross between Barack and Michelle Obama and John F. Kennedy and Doris Day. Strangely, the Barack-JFK places a hunk of snow on a stacked and defiant African-American snow-woman, a black goddess figure he’s turning white. Equally strange, if you cross Michelle Obama and Doris Day you get Stacey Dash from Clueless.
One meta-tableau, set in front of Bloomingdale’s itself, which we view from in front of the place it depicts, includes the nearby dive bar the Subway Inn, cleaned up and spiffy even as it teeters on the brink of nonexistence in real life. Bloomingdale’s washes these tableau in a purple-green-red pastel light more suited to an Italian horror film from the mid-‘60s than to a glowy evocation of Christmas with the family; this is a nuclear family irradiated by a department store.
The store pumps out Tony Bennett singing “My Favorite Things.” It’s not a Christmas carol, it’s even implicitly anti-consumerist, but they use it as a vague sales pitch anyway. It doesn’t work. “Remember your favorite things,” it seems to say. “They’re going away. Save your money.”
Soon enough real Christmas carols come back on. Is it the Wagnerian windows at Bergdorf Goodman that make us associate Christmas carols with Germany? Christmas music is very Nibelungenland. Christmas music is like The Marble Index by Nico. Play that constantly for a month and see how everybody feels. “Jingle Bells” is like the music from a Brecht play. It’s exactly that jolly, with a scary grin painted on its face.
Snows of yesteryear, rains of today
Night falls; it starts to rain. At Saks the windows informed us that snow is a thing of the past. The windows of the world are covered with rain, also not a Christmas carol. We don’t want to walk in the rain to look at the windows at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. Instead we make our way to a bar. We’ve seen a lot from ground level, so the Subway Inn won’t do. We want a place high above the city. We want a tableau like the one in the last window at Bloomingdale’s, where a young married couple, their kids and their friends opened presents at a penthouse cocktail party with a view of the Manhattan skyline. We are off to the revolving bar on the 48th floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
The View Lounge
Inside the hotel a happy family whooshes up in the Marriott’s see-through test-tube elevator. We notice a sign directing us to PriceWaterhouseCoopers’ Eighth Annual Alternative Investment Funds Seminar Cocktail Party on the 5th floor. Free drinks to warm us before our ascent!
When we show up at the entrance to the party a skeptical blonde asks if we’re registered and what our names are. The party has been going for a while but a few name tags are scattered on the table she guards. Although they’re upside-down from where we stand, we can read them. “Jon Campbell and Laura Strachey,” we say, picking the most literary names we find, visions of Astounding Science Fiction and Eminent Victorians dancing in our heads with the free wine and hors d’oeuvres.
We enter and are plunged into a sea of dour, mumbling people all dressed like TV newscasters, auditors of the world’s biggest corporations now taking a beating on Wall Street. Bartenders pour a large selection of wines, each in a special glass. Stations manned by immigrant workers offer fancy appetizers: salmon and crab cones, five kinds of shumai, braised short rib sliders.
We make our choices and settle in, wondering if tweed or leopard print will give us away, or if anyone here knows Campbell and Strachey. We turn our name tags around and stick our noses into fat snifters of Chianti. What are we worried about, who would crash a party of auditors? We cock an ear. What will we learn from these servants of the masters of the universe? Schemes that will rescue our meager savings? But no one is talking. It’s quiet, like snow is falling. Christmas carols tinkle in the background. The accountants give each other apologetic smiles. Someone coughs. After another glass of wine we head for the top floor.
The doors of the elevator open on the city at night as it slides by in the revolving bar. This is like a Viennese fairground contraption in an Ophuls film, a painted view going by outside the window of a fake train compartment. But it’s real! Here’s the Bertelsmann Building, and the new New York Times Building, with fog swirling around its antenna; here comes the monstrous Viacom Building to turn everything black, like we’re going through a tunnel.
Ah! Our drinks arrive. From our little table we see the red, white, and blue of the word “Pepsi” explode backwards in the reflection of an office window. We see the office workers, a life we didn’t choose, but they don’t see the colors on the windows like we do. They work at night like they’re underground. For a moment the huge “W” of the W Hotel blots out the scene, then disappears from view. Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America: one by one the great financial institutions sink out of frame. Below, a billboard featuring the Prudential Rock asks the question, “What is the median retirement age?” We wish we knew. Farther below, we can see the tiny Carter Hotel with the “A” burned out in its red neon sign.
We live in a brief moment of freedom, poised between discredited rulers on their way out and a new administration yet to take power. What a debilitating year, what a rollercoaster ride it’s been. It took a lot out of us, we lost weight, visited doctors, got gray hair. Could the times ahead be any tougher? We say goodbye knowing the world has changed. Goodbye, society that has become unglued; goodbye men and women we broke up with this year, got back together with, and broke up with again. Goodbye, money we made and spent; goodbye, trips to California that didn’t work out the way we planned but were okay anyway. Goodbye, George W. Bush, don’t worry, you and your family will be fine; goodbye unguided days and rotten times we have seen. Goodbye, 2008; we’re glad you’re done.
Oh, look! We made a complete revolution—there goes the Bertelsmann Building. Merry Christmas, Scott; Happy Hanukkah, Erika. Clink!