ONE CENT IN MANHATTAN
Designed—I’m not sure why or how or even when—as a complimentary badge, you leave a single shiny penny face up on the table after you’ve received excellent restaurant service. In Chelsea,
good service is hard to come by, so seeing this penny left on the table next to yours made me grin in the promise of the experience you were about to have. I was a server for a while in college and would
have preferred a twenty-five-percent gratuity over the symbolism. I have a feeling that this server, probably an aspiring actor, would have preferred the same. The checks here are big: the penny could easily have been thirty-five bucks for the three people who had just left aswe were being “sat.” Maybe they left it on the credit card receipt. You can do that nowadays, have it both ways: symbol and substance.
“I am such a B-list celebrity…” he trailed off into a huff and a sigh, “So B list.”
You smiled, “B plus.”
Y’all sighed in a raspy C major.
Every detail derives its musical sense from the concrete totality of the piece which, in turn, consists of the life relationship of the details and never of a mere enforcement of a musical scheme—
Adorno, On Popular Music
Sitting outside on the patio of a Chelsea café across from a friend whose up-and-coming presence in - the New York acting scene has not yet peaked nor approached plateau, you preferred guiding the topic to the feta crumb sitting on his cheek. You had met each other through a mutual acquaintance (and this specific fact rather escapes you) sometime longer ago than thirty-six hours and shorter ago than two years. As you started to reach across the table to flick the crumb, a neighboring table of loud and preppy thirty-something pretty boys simultaneously leaned inward as if to build a teepee—perhaps a steeple—with their heads. “Don’t anybody dare look,” you imagined them saying as one coyly caught your eye and looked away self-consciously.
“Oh my God, it’s him,” you actually heard, not imagined.
You grinned, recapturing the glance of the same boy who could not bear the thought of not seeing what he was dared to not look at. The teepee—steeple—-was dismantled as each of the four boys leaned back and reached for something: a glass of merlot, an ultra-light beer, an ultra-light cigarette, the waiter’s ass. They school-girlishly giggled.
One one-hundredth of a dollar. Almost useless, it doesn’t even buy a gumball anymore. I usually throw pennies away when I receive them, something for the bums outside 7-11 to pick up instead of begging me to ignore them. I usually don’t even keep quarters. Change jingling in my pocket only weighs me down.
You were, after all, with a B-list celebrity. You were intrigued. From a supporting role on Broadway to a series of dandruff -shampoo commercials
the relations between the evil and the cure, between dirt and a given product, are very diff erent in each case—Barthes, Mythologies, “Soap-Powders and Detergents.”
in which his head was immortalized into two hemispheres (one of which was tingling while the other was poorly lathered and tingle-less), he was certainly best known for his recurring role on a trendy situation dramedy set in the City. He also had a bit role in a play-come-movie from which he said he still received royalties. The boys at the adjacent table cooed.
Your acquaintance ate his feta-and-spinach focaccia. You paid the check and suggested a walk to the park. Central Park would be “fine,” he interrupted, “but it’s sixty blocks away.” He rolled his eyes as you walked out to catch a cab.
Do you want to walk along? Or walk ahead? Or walk by yourself? One must know what one wants and that one wants –Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Fourth Question of Conscience.”
You smiled at the boys who smiled back. The one who had previously reached for the waiter’s ass made a move toward yours which you handsfreely blocked by unsmiling at him.
Lincoln’s head adorns the penny, the front of it, since 1909. Maybe that’s what good service means: he freed the slaves and saved the Union after all. Plus he was a Republican.
You know many famous people. You know many wealthy people. You know many beautiful, intelligent, and political people. You see them on TV, hear them on the radio, read their words in newspapers and magazines. You can call them when you feel like chatting, you can stop by their homes when you want face time.
The face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event—Barthes, Mythologies, “The Face of Garbo.”
You have long since been unimpressed by celebrity and even more unimpressed by people who are impressed by celebrity. This aversion to the idea of celebrity is probably not very different from a native New Yorker
being unimpressed by what is to you—whose personal transportation is as much a badge of freedom as the only way to get around—the gritty and foreign idea of sewer-routed mass transit.
I examined the back of a penny I found on the ground because I’d never really looked at one so closely; it says “E Pluribus Unum,” which means, “Out of many, one.” What a fantastic idea, rife with symbolism, that one penny becomes a badge of a whole people. Intrinsically, not so valuable, but the richness of meaning is overwhelming.
The image that is read, I mean the image at the moment of recognition, bears to the highest degree the stamp of the critical, dangerous impulse that lies at the source of all reading—Benjamin, The Arcades Project, “Theoretics of Knowledge, Theory of Progress.”
So, you walked through the park, past the softball fields, under the carved stone archways, through the well-trodden pathways. You talked about the impending Broadway actors’ strike which, though he wasn’t actually working at the time, he supported. You discussed a political albatross which was strangling the new mayor: the homeless. You talked about the fourth of July in Manhattan, his new SoHo apartment, the Brooklyn Bridge, and his new shoes. You talked about everything except Fossy, Chicago, Sex and the City, and dandruff . Finally ducking into an Upper East Side bar as the sky turned yellow with dusk, you noticed that people were looking at you as much as they were staring at him.
I met a seer,/Passing the hues and objects of the World,/The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,/To glean eidolons.—Whitman, “Eidolons.”
Though you didn’t have B-list celebrity in which to bask, you did have the mystery of anonymity on your side. Your celebrity by association was far richer. Indeed, you caught more glances, smiles, and embarrassed
looks than it seemed he did. “Oh there’s that guy from,” you imagined them trailing off . “Who’s he with? A writer? His agent? A model?”
His first glance found him—Mann, Death in Venice.
Lincoln died for the Union, martyred forever as the second father of our nation.
O powerful western fallen star!/ O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!/O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!/ O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O
helpless soul of me!/ O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.—Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
You ended your tour of the Upper East Side. You returned to your hotel and he to his new apartment. He had to meet the movers and prepare for an audition in the morning. You would see him soon, you knew.
With another friend, you stepped out onto Forty-Second Street in Midtown. You were totally and luxuriously dressed down: shorts, flip flops, a ballcap, and some shades which, in a moment of silliness, you
had paid five hundred thirteen dollars for. You were going to a cookout at one of his buddy’s midtown lofts.
Being a bit shy, you insist that you are not presented according to your vocation, but to your avocation. So you were introduced around with the air of usual vagueness that you insist upon (“ he is a student”
is how this friend introduces you; for other of your friends you are “a poet”). An especially catty member of the group winked at you as if you were in some special two-person fraternity: “You’re an actor,
The singularity of ‘vocation’ is never better displayed than when it is contradicted—but not denied, far from it—by a prosaic incarnation: this is an old trick of all hagiographies—Barthes,
Mythologies, “The Writer on Holiday.”
“You look awfully familiar.”
“Nope, just a student from Central Florida. I write a little.” You could sense tension beginning to build. You flashed your bright white teeth and blinked nervously—almost flutteringly. You breathed in deeply through your nose.
And all he gets is a penny?! Perhaps this is because there are so many of them. The U.S. Mint says that there are billions of pennies in circulation. Technically, the government calls them “cents.” They cost more to make than they are worth, about two-point-four cents worth of materials in each one.
As a circle began to form—you sensed an impending steeple—your friend intervened on your behalf: “Who him? Oh, he’s nobody!” Such a seeming insult never felt so good. The circle crumbled and one of them
whispered something about Abercrombie and Fitch to his friend. A faceless source was definitely heard: “Well, I know he’s somebody. I just don’t know why these people have to be so bitchy.”
Even the youngest child carries a shiny penny. It is not too much to have: one cent. And then, when there are more cents, sense. A sense of history caught up in the future with the hope of raising up a new American to carry on this mantle.
After a few Grey-Goose Cape Codders (don’t forget the lime, please), the tension from the previous whispers and nudges was released. The usual questions about your visit were piled high, much more densely than
you could answer. “Yes, I was at that party.” “No, I wouldn’t be going there this time up.” You finally excused yourself for a bit as you found a mostly empty couch being held down by an extravagantly handsome and broodingly quiet guy. You sat and basked in each others’ awkward snobbiness until your friend came and introduced you. You shook hands. Your friend raised his eyebrows as he turned his back to your sofa mate and mouthed with silent exaggerated words to you that the guy on the couch was the weekend anchor of a local TV news show. In Manhattan, that’s really something, you thought, grudgingly wallowing in your unmitigated bitchiness.
Productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life, and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities
with the products of men’s hands.—Marx and Engels, Capital.
“Great party, lots of nice folks. Can I get you a drink?” It was as if he were reading off the teleprompter.
“No thanks,” you answered. “We’re just getting ready to go. Nice to meet you though.” It is obvious, in retrospect, that your status as co-celebrities (even though yours wasn’t actually a celebrity—but that he considered you “somebody” also) warranted the comment and invitation. “Maybe we’ll see you out later.”
“I hope so.” You were the gracious recipient of the anchorman’s smile. He loosely and flirtingly bit his lower lip.
On the other side of the penny, opposite the head, on the side with the “E Pluribus Unum,” is an engraving of the Lincoln Memorial. So gracious in detail, the statue of Lincoln at the center of the building is visible. Odd that they would stamp a picture of a memorial on a memorial.
Knowing that a system which takes over the signs of another systemin order to make them its signifiers is a system of connotation, we may say immediately that the literal image is denoted
and the symbolic image is connoted.—Barthes, Image-Music-Text, “Rhetoric of the Image.”
You left with your friend after giving thankful nods and hurried handshakes to your host and his other acquaintances who re-encircled you at the exit. The doorman in the lobby tipped his hat to you as you sauntered into electrified Manhattan. In a city of ten million residents are twenty-million eyes, twenty-million ears, and ten-million each of noses and mouths. There are one-hundred million fingers with which to feel and touch. There are billions of lights and scents and tastes and sounds swirling from the gut of the island. The Manhattan gaze is hypersensual, and it is not difficult to confuse these sense perceptions. Seeing is not so different from hearing or smelling, or even saying—taste your words.
The Medium is the Massage—Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage.
Times Square’s lights obscured the black sky and the sidewalk bustle obscured the lights. The smells intoxicated you. You turned your ballcap around so the bill faced backwards and put on your happy-to-be-walking face. You became part of the bustle, the not-so-distant lights sparkled .
For a time, during World War II, the penny was made of lead. They weren’t actually lead, but a tin alloy that fundamentally changed the coloration of the coin from the familiar copper to a sheen more silver. Something about needing the copper for munitions to fight the Nazis. Lead pennies, they called them. Like the women who gave up nylon stockings by painting lines on the back of their legs, and the rationed butter exchanged for stuff called “oleo” that made all meals stateside taste “a little odd,” as my grandmother described it, there was a sense that sacrifice was necessary. We’ll save our cents in order to save our way of life. What are pennies, anyhow?
“What’s it like?” your friend asked. “Why does everybody stare at you?” Your engorged senses perceived the same. You embarrassedly feigned nonrecognition of the source of his inquiry. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, whoever ‘they’ are must be staring at you,” you deflected.
It is an important mechanism, for it automatizes and disindividualizes power. Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights,
gazes; in an arrangement whose internal mechanisms produce the relation in which individuals are caught up.—Foucault, Discipline and Punish.
New York is a voyeur’s paradise. Scopophilia reigns. People watch New York City and expect New York City to return the glance. Diners and cafes that line busy thoroughfares (every thoroughfare in Manhattan is busy) have huge plate-glass windows through which walkers and eaters alike can and are intended to be seen. Storefronts exclaim that it is as exciting to be a shopper as to be seen shopping, and finally to be shopping and see those that see you shopping. Aspiring actors, writers, scholars, restaurateurs, and clothing designers all make their way to this place in search of the gaze that was so instantaneously and indelicately turned on you. People go to museums and theatres and universities to be seen seeing the arts that the city has to offer. This city with twenty-million eyes looks out in order to be looked upon. This jealous and needy gazing framework pervades the city: power is disseminated not merely by conveying the gaze upon objects, but with the expectation that the gaze will be returned in a mutual sharing of celebrity, power, beauty: sublimity. You disrupted this equilibrium.
So with Lincoln looking on, presumably from every pocket, America defeated the Nazis and the Japanese and the Fascists. The slaves that we might have become to totalitarian hatred remained theory, speculative reason for thanksgiving and an emerging Military-Industrial complex.
This driving force of American imperialism has since been augmented by Media and Entertainment. We produce and consume for the entire world: food, software, ideas, Hollywood. Hundreds of trillions of pennies spread across the earth in the name of freedom and in the name of money itself: market, capitalist, economy. Because the Union was saved and our American Christ was slain, there is always hope.
According therefore, as this produce, or what is purchased with it, bears a greater or smaller proportion to the number of those who are to consume it, the nation will be better or worse supplied with all the necessaries and conveniencies for which it has occasion—Smith, Wealth of Nations.
You did not know the protocol. What your admirers wanted in return for their candid on-the-spot interviews and ultra-sensual stares was an acknowledgment that—by virtue of being in your presence—they had value despite their own existences in the mundane. You should have indulged them and empowered them by acknowledging that “Yes, I am somebody.”
If you could be somebody in a city with twenty-million eyes, then they could be somebody in a city of twenty-million eyes. If you could be an actor or a model or a writer or a politician, then they could be too—even if it was by mistake. By becoming the object of the gaze of this city, you allowed the
city—the home of your admirers—to be its own subject, to be empowered.
Society absorbs via the apparatus whatever it needs in order to reproduce itself.—Brecht, The Modern Theatre is the Epic Theatre.
The final day of your visit, you ambled down Fifth Avenue, again on the Upper East Side. Your friends circled and played, lagged behind and caught up. They jeered and cut up with each other. They would look and point in windows, up at the tops of buildings, down at homeless people mumbling to themselves in building entrance ways, at crazy New York City cabbies, and at you.
But flanerie itself had been more complicated, existing as a kind of deadpan parody of the scientific method, a reduction ad absurdum of disinterested observation, practices as an end in itself.—Jean, Surrealist Games.
You continued on intently, going wherever it was that you were going. You carried a Barney’s of New York bag, your hair was perfectly spiked, your pale-yellow Lacoste collar was turned up, your jeans sat just where you liked them on your hips. New York people continued to do their thing—to look and watch. You looked back as if to say “Yes, I can be famous if you want me to be.” You slapped a smart smile on your face and took off your shades: “I, too, can look.”
I don’t know which one of the two of us is writing this page.—Borges, “Borges y Yo.”
Perhaps, then, a penny isn’t just so bad for good service. Without the penny, and without what the penny represents, what would thirty five dollars be? Would it even matter how good the service was?
Without the penny and what the penny represents, what would any of us have? A bunch of Deutschmarks, I guess.
Manhattan blushed.— You, One Cent in Manhattan.