Let them Eat Celery

by

08/15/2002

4 Times Square plaza, ny, ny 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

“American Vogue, please!” screeched the group of blond, stick-figure 16-year olds teetering on platform espadrilles, each one clawing to get a grip on the gleaming steel reception desk in front of them.

“Who are you here to see?” said the straight-faced security guy, who was, clearly, over the model thing. From my vantage point behind them , these girls looked like a gaggle of gazelles from the nature channel, fresh out of their mama’s wombs and still unsteady on their stalky legs. Standing with their heels together, the space between their thighs formed an inverted pyramid.

“Ohmigod!” they shrieked. “They only told us what to wear, not who to ask for!!” After a few minutes of near-miss ridiculously high platform-induced ankle twists and lots of hair flipping later, the security guard figured out where they were supposed to be and furnished them with circle sticker passes.

Models, celebrated for their beauty, who get paid for simply breathing, always look a bit genetically altered when you see them in real life. They plodded their way safely through the tricky, teeth-gnashing turnstiles and were gone.

I attempted to dodge the lingering cloud of hair product smell and perfume as I made my way up to the counter. I had a lunch date with a woman I met 3 months ago at an art opening that my boyfriend had curated at the National Arts Club. I came into the gallery with flowers and the woman figured I must know the artist and struck up a conversation. Turns out she was there to give the artist the apologies of a mutual friend who was unable to make it, but she did not know who the artist was and hoped I could point her out.

In the pleasantries leading up to this information, we figured out that I was a writer and she was an editor (in transition, at the time) and agreed that we should have lunch some time. I couldn’t believe my luck when our lunch date was postponed because she had just landed a job at one of Conde Nast’s 59-Sexy-Things-He-Wants-You-To-Know-About-His-Body and Instant-Sex-Life-Upgrades-Every-Woman-Deserves publications. My palms immediately started sweating for the chance to eat with plastic utensils in the fabled Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria.

I called my mother to ask her what to wear (“Don’t wear black! You need more color in your wardrobe.” she offered). I went through eight outfits that morning before finding one I felt only mildly frumpy in (yes, it was black, but there was some yellow involved), the choices limited by the fact that it was a gritty New York City 98 degrees.

While the security guy called my lunch date, scrolling through the names of hundreds of enviable Conde Nast editors for her extension, I tried to imagine what the Frank Gehry cafeteria would look like in person. A few of the writers and editors I know have made it to the 4th floor before, but most were like me, wondering what a $40 million cafeteria made for people who eat celery sticks could look like. I had anticipated the privilege of being one of the select few to actually see the inside of the fabled Conde Nast cafeteria for months now, and today that chicken satay and herbed quinoa-laced laurel wreath would be placed on my head.

The woman I was waiting for appeared out of the cavernous elevator hall and I was struck by how normal looking she was. Over the past few weeks I must have glamorized my memory of her; rather than the Diane von Furstenburg-swathed and Miu Miu-heeled dame I had expected, the woman walking towards me was a confidently-striding (OK, she had heels on, but I don’t think they were Miu Miu), intelligent and successful looking woman in a conservative black and purple pant-suit. “Well, we’ve got a little problem,” she said smiling, waving me through the turnstiles. She looked a bit pained and said, “The cafeteria is under construction, but the eating side is open.”

Under construction! I pushed down a Nancy Kerrigan-like reaction, reminding myself that I was here for the editor and a chance at work, not the cafeteria. An acquaintance from the inside later told me that one too many Manolo’d Conde Nasty biddies took a spill as they high-heeled it across the ash veneer floor, splattering their dainty fruit cups and raw carrots against the blue titanium panels. It seemed that they were now ripping the entire floor up and replacing the slippery veneered wooden floor with baby seal skin or some such substance that will provide more traction.

Making our way past the mile-long funhouse mirror in the hallway of the eatery, we passed giraffe-like women in leather sash belts and micro-denim minis, but the majority of the people were strikingly older, gruffer, more matronly than I’d imagined. A popping sound grew louder, like frying bacon or the crunching of bugs underfoot. We turned into a room that looked like the inside of a stainless steel Sub-Zero fridge with fat industrial air shafts criss-crossing the ceiling and taped down Plexi across the floor. My steps smacked like gum as I assembly-lined around the salad bar, treading on the crackling Plexi with the others, none of us acknowledging this bizarre noise.

We finally made it into the eating section, all cut up and segmented by huge tarps and drop cloths. A hunk of blue titanium peeked out from behind a tarp and I spied the fawn-colored leather booths I had heard about. We made our way up the few stairs to the elevated seating section and sat facing the tarps. I had a vague sense of being in some warped version of dinner theater, the black of the curtained tarps like the abyss of an audience. Scrawny girls and old men in suits swished past the booth as I pulled out my portfolio and chewed my crab cakes.

Afterwards, in the lobby, I saw another gaggle of models talking to the security guard. I walked through the glass revolving doors into the pocket of smoke that seems to exist on the other side of the revolving doors of most New York City buildings. I realized that, although I was mildly disappointed at first, I was lucky to have lunched in the cafeteria during the construction. Just like the sight of the fashion models or the editor up close had shaken my original impressions, the Conde Nast cafeteria that Wednesday afternoon in mid-dilapidation was so much more unique than its perfect public facade.

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