The Wax Center

Years ago Jami Attenberg and I had lunch in Williamsburg at a restaurant that no longer exists and then I pointed out the place where I get my legs waxed, Serenity Beauty Spa. At first, she expressed incredulity that I indulged in waxing rather than shaving. I was really not doing well financially at the time, and if memory serves she had just bought me lunch. But she just shrugged and said something like “I guess we all have our thing.” Well, it’s maybe 8 or 9 years later and I still get my entire legs (and “bikini line” and, occasionally, underarms) waxed at that same place in Williamsburg. I always leave it til the last possible moment and when I am really short on time or cash I shave, but shaving feels like a setback when you’re committed to the long-term project of waxing half your body’s hair into finer, softer submission. Also, it’s not that expensive, though of course that’s relative. I certainly had no business doing it in 2011, but in 2019 I feel fine about spending don’t read this Keith $900 annually on hair removal.

Serenity is the final holdout in a group of businesses that used to comprise the stops of my Williamsburg errand day. Ideally this day went: I would make someone get lunch with me, ideally at Saltie (RIP) or Roebling Tea Room (RIP), I would get my legs waxed, I would go to Kings Pharmacy (RIP) on Bedford and restock whatever products I was out of, and maybe also go to the comic book shop on Metropolitan on my way home on the G or get an iced coffee at Oslo. Now that area has been rendered almost wholly joyless, with an Apple store where Kings Pharmacy used to be. I also rarely tack errands onto other errands anymore; every moment in my day is accounted for.

Sadly though I have been in DC so long now that I couldn’t hold out for a visit to Serenity, so yesterday I cheated on them with European Wax Center. The alternative would have been to go to a fancy pricey day spa or a questionable nail salon; I don’t have the depth of personal contacts in DC to figure out the in-between option that surely exists. (I’m sure someone will email me about what it is after I send this out.)

The EWC is a national chain with two male CEOs and an app and a branded line of post-wax products that the technicians are clearly required to attempt to sell you. The waxing rooms are like doctor’s offices, with papered beds and a hook for your clothes and fluorescent lighting, but instead of charts of the inner ear there are posters of models with gleamy thighs bearing slogans like “STRUT SMOOTHLY.” The technicians also wear scrubs and the piped-in music is violently upbeat young-person pop. It’s like if an urgent care clinic was trying to be a little bit sexy?? But it is reliable and that’s important in a realm when someone can burn you or leave you with inner-thigh ingrowns for a month.

More and more I try to spend money at independently owned businesses, not because I think I’m making a difference by voting with my dollars, but for the much more selfish reason that letting the algo optimize my consumer experiences has started to gross me out and make me sad. Buying and eating and using things that my phone doesn’t know about feels like something I should do while I still can. When Sweetgreen first opened I loved it. I love salad and I have celiac so there aren’t many safe reliable fast-food lunch options for me. But also when it first opened Sweetgreen was good. Now the smell is just as disgusting to me as the smell of a Subway. Pounding a salad served in a compostable yet landfill-bound bowl as quickly as possible while looking at a phone is bad for my body and brain, it’s now clear to me. It’s more expensive and awkward to sit in a restaurant where someone serves you a salad at a table, and also the salad might be bad, or inconsistent. But I still make myself do it when I can because afterwards I feel less like a cog in a machine.

“The companies’ proprietary apps track every click and decision and order their fans make, of course, and all sorts of cockeyed new analytics are being employed to optimize the salad experience for the ever-younger, tech-savvy consumer, including location (near a SoulCycle is good!), leaf preference (yes, kale has begun trending down), and even the best mix of bespoke dressings for that day’s weather (a specialty, apparently, at fresh&co),” wrote Adam Platt in this very fun and also very disheartening piece about saladworld. It’s easy to imagine a future where every remaining business is collecting data in order to give us the experience that data leads it to believe we think we want. Eating a pallid diner salad and then waiting a little too long for the check is better than drinking the Soylent of the soul because it’s convenient. I’m glad I will be back in NYC soon. I hope Serenity has been okay without me.

Sorrel soup

I reread Heartburn on the train back from a weekend in NYC. I’ve probably read it 20 or 30 times and it remains nearly perfect, perfect even in its imperfections, like how the recipes seem kind of tacked-on. The first time I read it I was 13 and I somehow still loved it even though I definitely didn’t understand divorce, the difference between Washington DC and New York City, pregnancy, what children do to marriage, cultural Judaism, or any of the other things it’s about. The description of how cool it is to have breasts that bounce when you walk down the street — because you’re pregnant — really resonated with me, at 13.

The part of the book that impressed me the most this time was how it’s so light and funny but also dark and sad, and how that balance somehow isn’t jarring. It’s full of lines so good that Nora Ephron couldn’t resist recycling them in the romantic comedies she would go on to write and to be best known for. Some of these lines are unapologetically corny, like the one about how New York City makes narrator Rachel Samstat’s heart “do a little dance.” There are plenty of moments that telegraph Ephron’s disinterest in being taken seriously as a novelist, like long digressions into about Rachel’s crazy family that serve no plot purpose and then end with a recipe for lima beans. But somehow by the final chapter we’ve gotten so attached to Rachel that, by the final page, Ephron can pull off a tonal shift that reliably leaves me in tears, even though I know it’s coming. The characters in this farce are suddenly real, and their actions have lasting, crushing consequences. What makes the end of Rachel and Mark’s marriage so piercing is that we’ve just flashed back to their love at its tenderest — the songs Mark sang to her during her first pregnancy, the jokes they made in their everyday life together. But now it’s over, even as their second child’s life is just beginning. “This man is a stranger. Don’t let this stranger see me eviscerated,” Rachel thinks, as she’s wheeled into the operating room for an emergency C-section. The freewheeling structure turns out to have been tighter than we thought. (Something about using pregnancy to structure a novel must have lodged deep in my subconscious the first time I read this book. Actually I just googled and it turns out I reread it as I was beginning to work on Friendship, so probably not that sub-consciously)

I’ve still never seen the movie, yes I know it has Meryl Streep! But the way I imagine the settings and characters is so detailed now and I don’t want to mess with it.

It's not the people doing something real

The house we rented in DC belongs to people who are less than a decade older than I am, but perhaps in part because my most recent experience with this kind of house took place 20 years ago, it feels to me like I’m a teenager staying in a grownup’s house. Our landlords really have their shit together. Marie Kondo would be impressed by their closets, their labels, the very legible systems they use to manage their lives and the lives of their kids. Everywhere my eye rests I see signs of their competence, and it makes me feel like an interloper and also like a fraud. This is so emphatically not my beautiful house.

The first week that we were here was airless and in the 90s, so humid that if you spent even a minute outside a film of mingled sweat and condensate would form on your skin as though your body was a glass of water. I felt feverish and clammy and my joints ached when I walked, but I still walked everywhere because I don’t know how to drive. I chalked my symptoms up to the weather, to some kind of full body inflammatory stress response brought on by the experience of moving twice in two months. Then the baby got a fever, and then Raffi got a fever, and by Tuesday I had a fever too. I was relieved that I was sick, because a virus is finite and self-limiting. I will feel better soon, I won’t feel this way for the rest of the summer, I told myself.

The houses are brick Colonials built in the 1920s and 30s surrounded by tall old trees and narrow sidewalks sometimes made impassable by overgrown hedges. Occasionally someone walks their dog, but I don’t see a lot of people like me, pushing a stroller over the bumps or walking just to get somewhere. About a ten minute walk away there’s a corner store that has an ice cream counter and prepared foods plus a tiny selection of meat, cheese and dry goods. It reminds me of the grocery store on Fire Island, with its $6 cans of beans. There’s a playground nearby too and I live in hope of striking up a conversation with someone there who will be my temporary neighborhood friend, but “underemployed freelancer temping as SAHM” is not as prevalent a demo in this neck of the woods as it is in my Brooklyn neighborhood, and so far I have only managed some “how old is he?” level chitchat with nannies and babysitters. After camp dropoff if I want to procrastinate or get some coffee I can walk to the best independent bookstore in DC, which is great! I’ve bought and read several books already since I’ve been here. But going to bookstores is kind of a mixed psychological bag for me; the mechanics of favor-trading evident in blurbs and shelf placement obscure the reassuring presence of books and people who like to read them.

One of my Politics and Prose purchases from last week was Is This How You See Me by Jaime Hernandez. It was shelved in new fiction right at the front of the store despite being a graphic novel, which I appreciated because otherwise I might not have seen it and bought it. I first started reading Love and Rockets twenty years ago, in the basement of a suburban-DC-area house not too dissimilar from the one where I’m currently living. The characters in Hernandez’s long-running series have aged twenty years too and are now in their early 50s; in this most recent installment, Maggie and Hopey are leaving their respective partners for a weekend to go to reunion show in Hoppers. Flashbacks of their teen years mingle with scenes at the mostly uneventful gig; not a lot of new ground is covered, but for people who’ve read the series for a long time it’s enough just to attend the reunion vicariously. I always think about how, when I was first introduced to these books, I thought: I will go to college and move to New York and find more people who like these books, and those people will automatically have something important in common with me. In pre-online life, liking the same obscure-seeming thing as someone else did loomed so large and was such a source of hope. It’s really hard to convey how that felt to people who never experienced it.

I went to college, I moved to New York. Now I’m back here, temporarily living a version of my future that some parallel-dimension Emily might have, though in that dimension I really hope she would have learned how to drive by now, it can’t be that hard (for me obviously it is psychologically impossible, perhaps a topic for another newsletter). It’s temporary, it’s temporary, it’s temporary. I won’t feel this way for the rest of the summer, or even probably the rest of today.

Recommendations for June

yer a wizard, Arry!

If you have to wake up and then go back to sleep multiple times a night for whatever reason, you might be interested in my latest discovery! Instead of spending 3:30- 4:55 A.M. listening to your own brain harangue you about your past failures, current to-do lists, and the futility of it all in the face of inevitable global climate catastrophe, you can listen to AUDIOBOOKS and be out cold in 5-15 minutes. Specifically, you can listen to the Harry Potter books, though I’m sure there are others which would work for this purpose. My hat is off to renowned British thespian Jim Dale, who does voices and accents for all the characters and somehow simultaneously is engaging enough to distract me from my ruminations about the apocalypse/the emails I never responded to AND ALSO soothing enough that I never get to hear enough of the book to understand what’s going on. Quidditch, usually, or getting told off by Professor McGonagall. It doesn’t matter. Zzzzz. Download one today, thank me later. I’m sorry that this recommendation requires you to put money in the pocket of global megacorporations Amazon and J.K. Rowling, but you can also probably figure out how to take them out of the library if you’re operating on more sleep than I am.

Another recommendation: The Evil Witches newsletter. Somehow Claire Zulkey knows exactly what I am going through parenting-wise and has some wisdom and humor and other people’s experiences and expertise to offer.

As you are probably assuming, there’s been a lot to Can’t Complain about lately. I’m a little bit bored of my own complaining; I’m in that place where I can’t respond normally to a “so what’s new?” from a semi-stranger. The amount of effort and skill required to say “Fine, like … busy! What’s new with you?” requires acting ability I don’t have. Everyone is alive and healthy and nothing is permanently fucked but for the past few weeks nothing has been baseline normal in any realm of my life. Every family member has acted up in some disruptive way — well, not Swizzle, but one of the items on my to-do list is to schedule an overdue vet visit so that asshole can get his prescription for Prozac refilled. All I can recommend to you, the reader who turns to me for recommendations (?!) is that you perhaps consider NOT moving apartments —for the first time in 8 years, with two little kids — and then, a month later, temporarily relocating the whole shebang for the summer for your spouse’s work. If there’s a way for you to avoid that, you probably should.

Some bright spots in the maelstrom: I got a cover for Perfect Tunes, which makes it feel a lot more real, and will show it off asap. Trisha’s book publicity is kicking into gear, and the book release is soon. My children … when they aren’t terrible … are good, and I like them. The baby has learned how to crawl and does an adorable shoulder shimmy when he hears music or singing. Raffi believes himself to be able to spell and will say a random combination of letters and announce, like, “‘R … Q … O … L,’ that spells ‘Emily!’” I read a book, Say Say Say, in part on the Amtrak train between New York and DC as both children slept. It’s a smooth and assured portrait of a character’s interior world as well as a meditation on our assumptions about care work and heterosexual relationships. Erykah Badu covered Squeeze. In general, and I hope for you too, things can only improve.

The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

a book recommendation post that got out of hand

My almost-four-year-old son is not yet able to reliably shit in a toilet, but he has cleared a developmental hurdle that I hadn’t even thought to hope for: he enjoys reading a book that I would read even if he wasn’t around.

The book is “The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo;” we have also enjoyed its sequel, and are relieved and thrilled that there is a third book in the works, which is available already as a work in progress on its creator’s Patreon! It’s a graphic novel for kids, which is a genre I am coming to appreciate so much right now, since Raffi is too old and I am too bored by picture books, but he’s not quite ready for books that aren’t heavily illustrated. By the time we encountered Margo we had already worked our way through almost every book that Dav “Captain Underpants” Pilkey has ever written and wow, there are a lot of them but also, somehow, not enough??

As the first Margo book begins, a white kid named Charles Thompson has just moved, with his cool-seeming parents, to Echo City. They’re going to live in an apartment in a old Art Deco apartment building, a former hotel called the Bellwether, that his dad is fixing up. The Bellwether is gorgeously creepy — an untouched old ballroom! dumbwaiters that function as secret passages! — and seems unlimited, a labyrinthine new world to explore. Charles hates it and wishes he’d never been uprooted, of course. But he’s a sociable, inquisitive guy, an amateur reporter with a notebook and a blog, and soon he’s meeting his new neighbors.

Charles soon realizes that Echo City is gentrifying, in one familiar way — black and brown families getting pushed out by white newcomers like Charles’s family — and also, simultaneously, in another way that’s more unexpected: rapid development is destroying the homes of the monsters who live in the derelict alleys and attics and closets and hidden warrens of Echo City. There are so many varieties of monsters, from trolls to goblins to imps to blobs to ordinary ghosts. This hidden sub-city is invisible to most adults, but kids can occasionally catch a glimpse. Charles’s initial encounter with a troll in his closet leads him to Margo Maloo, a kid who functions as sort of a reverse ghostbuster: she responds to calls about paranormal activity not in order to help people banish monsters, but to help monsters keep their existence under wraps.

She has a network of monster informants who hang out in a bunch of different Star Wars cantina scene-type locales: a monster dive bar, supermarket, and diner are rendered in vivid, specific detail. One of the most fun things about the series is that monsters are themselves, not a metaphor.

A lot of this goes way over Raffi’s head, of course, but enough of the storytelling is visual that he doesn’t mind. And some of the themes are starting to make sense to him a little bit, at least, as he becomes aware that he lives in a city. “Could [bad thing] happen in our city?” is one of his most frequent questions these days. We almost always tell him “no,” but of course sometimes we’re lying.

Cities change all the time, New York maybe more and faster than most, but recently too many changes are happening too fast. The gentrifier’s classic lament, of course, is that we always want to freeze time at the exact moment that we moved in, when we could afford our neighborhood and it still had the untenable charms that first attracted us — but our existence is what makes the rent go up and the charms get bulldozed. There was a moment when there was just enough tech, just enough convenience, to make life a little bit easier and all the industries and businesses that the app-conveniences were designed to disrupt were disrupted but still functioning. Then there must have been a day when the balance shifted.

Last night after a reading at the Soho McNally Jackson I got a text from Keith that we needed bread and milk, so I went to the Bowery Whole Foods. I’ve lived in New York since long before this Whole Foods and the building that houses it existed, and I remember when it opened, in 2007, it was widely derided but also kind of special. Remember how going to Whole Foods used to be like a treat? You certainly wouldn’t shop there all the time (“whole paycheck,”) but you might get a few special items, meat or fish or cheese or fancy junk food. When this store first opened, Curbed and Gothamist kind of lost their minds about it. There were all these things about it that were supposed to make the giant chain store specific to the neighborhood, like mini-versions of local purveyors of knishes, bagels, burgers, gelato. It was also kind of a scene; people packed into the top-floor café for lunch, eyeing each other as they searched for a seat like high schoolers in a cafeteria. Tao Lin wrote about shoplifting from it. It smelled good-bad, the way all fancy grocery stores should smell: the discordant but somehow pleasing combination of roasting coffee, cold fruit and vegetables, stinky cheese, mineral smell of meat.

In 2019, the walk from McNally to Whole Foods down Prince and up Bowery is full of empty storefronts. Commercial rents have risen precipitously at the same time that retail sales have fallen or stagnated, making what used to be bustling, living neighborhoods into ghost towns. And one of the major culprits, of course, now owns Whole Foods, which should just go ahead and rebrand itself as Amazon Foods. Blue signs advertising special discounts for Prime members line the aisles, which have lost any pretense to charm. This store is purely utilitarian now, just a warehouse you can push a cart around in. Everyone who works there seems miserable. It smells bad, both literally and figuratively. It smells like a wet cardboard box.

I bought bread and milk there anyway, and then I got on the subway, back to our home. Well, it’s our home for now. After eight years in our apartment, we’re moving out in a week. We’re not going far, but it’ll be far enough that we won’t feel like we’re in “our” neighborhood anymore. In the past few years, we’ve watched as longtime neighbors have been forced out of their buildings, which have then been gut-renovated by developers into a state of charmless “luxury” or just plain knocked down.

I guess what Raffi is going to learn is that “our” city is only ours insofar as we own our experience of it, our memories and our thoughts. Everything else belongs to someone else, and those people are not taking good care of what they own.

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