Gotham Blog Day 2: A Hard Working City (and How to Get a Job in the Arts)

One of the things we’ve always noticed about New York is how busy everyone is. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, and even at the edges of your vision when you’re looking, people are working. Trucks are being driven and unloaded, sidewalks are being swept, goods are being stacked on shelves, other goods are being pushed on carts through the streets and everywhere – everywhere – food is being sold.

It takes a lot of work to feed a city of some eight million, not to mention the daily surge of tourists like ourselves. We stop for a bagel or huge pretzel at a sidewalk cart and I start thinking about how much flour it took to make every bagel and pretzel that was going to be needed today in Manhattan alone, and how much wheat it took to make that flour, and how long ago the wheat had to have been planted, then harvested, then processed and everything else that was needed to put a soft, hot treat under our noses that we could either purchase or ignore. How many people had a hand in that process along the way, confident in seeing some reward for their labor – and how many people around the world would line up right now for the unused bagels being thrown away as I type this?

Today is overcast and raining steadily. That means the Empire State Building or a trip to the Statue of Liberty or the Botanical Gardens are pretty much lost causes. So what do you do on a rainy Saturday in Manhattan? Museums, of course. That answer is so obvious that the line to get into the Museum of Modern Art snakes back and forth across the lobby, out the door and nearly to the corner of the block where it then bends into an outdoor holding area laid out for more snaking back and forth. Did I mention it was raining? The street vendors selling umbrellas from carts appear to be doing brisk business. Fortunately we came to see the Museum of Art and Design across the street from the MoMA. Once inside we browse the galleries and I notice another important Manhattan job: every gallery has a guard in a coat and tie to make sure we don’t step over any lines – literally or figuratively.

After the museum we’re out on the street looking for our next destination. Suddenly my wife grabs my arm and Patience gasps audibly and freezes. What? Did some threat get past my radar? My wife directs my attention to the opposite corner of the intersection and I see that we may indeed be in line for a mugging. It’s American Girl Place.

A year ago I had no idea of the marketing volcano that was about to erupt under our feet. Then some black-hearted scoundrel slipped Daughter Two an American Girl catalog – the first one’s free, kid – and her life changed. American Girl dolls are a vertically integrated economic powerhouse. The dolls themselves go for nearly $100 a pop, but that’s just the threshold – the dolls represent different eras and ethnicities in American history and most are the stars of one or more books put out by the company and has full line of accessories, not to mention the magazine (catalog) that appears regularly at our house. My daughter and her friends now can recite model numbers, back stories and accessory details with each other the way my friends and I once were able to argue the finer points of a ’63 Impala or ’67 GTO.

When Patience picked her favorite from the catalog – an American Indian called Kaya – we said that if it was that important to her she would have to earn the money herself. A born entrepreneur she quickly grasped the profit and loss mechanics of a lemon-aid stand and the economic rewards of an untapped market – extra chores – to build liquidity. With a seed loan from Mom she bought lemons and sugar, and with marketing advice from me (“put ‘Fresh Squeezed’ in big letters on your sign”), along with her natural charm and location, location, location she quickly covered her start-up costs and had money to plow back into her business as well as show a profit. This was repeated a couple of more times, and along with the household moonlighting she soon had the necessary discretionary income to buy her doll.

And now we were unwittingly across the street from Mordor, I mean, American Girl Place. It was like setting out for Oz and finding Mecca along the way. I looked around and saw a definite flow of young girls, many with dolls in arms and all with parents bobbing in tow, converging on the store from all directions. We were swept up in the current – as if we ever had a choice – and into the store. The store is impressive in both detail and scope, with three floors of merchandise and a restaurant where you can have lunch with your American Girl doll for just $22 per person. If I’m going to spend that much for lunch with a doll, I want to see the doll cook the meal and then serve it and then give me a quote on painting my garage. Nevertheless the store is jammed on every floor and countless cashiers and floor associates are – like everyone else in New York – working hard. Fortunately there were no meltdowns to be observed such as those we’d witnessed at Toys R Us in Times Square the night before, but I did notice a lot of earnest young faces making a case point by point. After Patience parted with more of her profits she’d been saving for this trip we went elsewhere for lunch (Kaya would just die if she knew we’d eaten at American Girl Place without her) and then, since it had stopped raining, we went over to the Central Park Zoo.

We arrive just in time for the Polar Bear feeding and to see another New York career option – bear feeder. At this zoo they feed the Polar Bears by first luring them out of the habitat enclosure and into their dens where they can presumably be locked up. Once that is accomplished a zookeeper enters the habitat and hides buckets of food – fish, apples and some veggies frozen in a block and smeared with peanut butter – in the enclosure. While we’re watching this preparation we speculate that there’s probably some initiation for rookie keepers where, once they’re in the middle of the enclosure with bear chow and an open jar of peanut butter, someone plays a loud recording of a Polar Bear huffing and roaring.

Finally we find ourselves in Grand Central Station, which happens to be hosting an arts and crafts show. As we browse we come across a booth where an Oriental couple – Japanese, I think – are selling lovely printed scarves and pocket squares. Patience knows how to fold and tie pocket squares so that they look like a rose, and is demonstrating this to her mother when the woman in the booth notices her skill. She asks Patience to show her how she does that, and then shows Patience a couple of new techniques for doing other flower shapes with longer pieces of silk. They have a great time trying these out and then the woman asks Patience if she lives in New York, and would she like a job? When that proves impractical she asks if Patience wants to work there at the booth the rest of the evening, tying flowers for potential customers.

Patience turns to my wife and I, “Please, please, pleeease?” she begs. My wife and I look at each other and consider, then agree she can for as long as we’re at the show ourselves. The deal is closed and when we return later we stand off a little ways and watch as Patience ties a scarf into a flower for woman in front of the booth and shows her how it can be worn over the shoulder. We collect our daughter and she collects her “pay” – a scarf of her choice from the inventory. As we leave I think Patience could easily replace the light bulbs in the constellations inlayed into the arced ceiling of Grand Central Station’s main concourse.

Not bad, only in New York two days and she’s already had a job in the Arts.

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