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23 September 2015

When did New York lose its sense of humour?

From astrology-based Tinder profiles to retail assistants masquerading as whimsical shop spirits, the city that never sleeps no longer has any self-awareness.

By Eleanor Margolis

“Hello,” says a berobed apparition in John Lennon glasses who has appeared, seemingly, out of thin air. “Have you been to My Other Factory Is An Orange before?”

My Other Factory Is An Orange is a shop. It sells artsy knickknacks. It probably isn’t called My Other Factory Is An Orange; I’m almost definitely misremembering that. But it’s something like that. Something so self-consciously quirky that when someone says it out loud it practically makes your ears bleed.

My heart starts pounding. I realise that I’m very slowly edging away from the whimsical shop spirit, or whatever she is. No matter how much time I spend in America, I never seem to get used to being approached by Shop People. Why, I wonder, does she need to know if I’ve been here before? This isn’t Nando’s. She doesn’t need to run through that spiel about how the sauce comes in different hottnesses and how you’re supposed to order at the counter.  Or does she?

Either way, I admit that, no, I have literally never set foot in My Other Factory Is An Orange until now.

“OK,” she says, clearly a bit excited that she now gets to talk at me about her shop, “Well, this is all work by local artists and craftspeople.” She gestures towards what looks like a load of hand woven toilet paper and jewellery made of bird skeletons and soot. We have yoga classes on Wednesdays and Fridays. It’s just a really great community space.”

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I smile and nod.

“It’s a SHOP,” I scream, internally.

I immediately zone out. The rest goes something like this…

Whimsical Shop Spirit: All of our parenthetical duck bidets are ethically sourced in Nicaragua. The lettering on our storefront was painted with sea foam scraped lovingly from the back of a nursing beluga whale combined with a special dye extracted from Welsh nuns. Extracting dye from nuns is, contrary to popular belief, completely painless.

Me, externally: Wow.

Me, internally: It’s a SHOP.

Whimsical Shop Spirit: Community. Art. Performance. Safe space. The moon. Ceramics inspired by grief. Yoga. Yoga. YOGA.

Me, externally: Cool.

Me, internally: STOP EXPLAINING YOUR SHOP TO ME.

Whimsical Shop Spirit: Just let me know if you have any questions.

Me, externally: Great, thanks.

Me, internally: IT’S OVER. SHE’S STOPPED LISTING WORDS. THIS IS THE BEST MOMENT OF MY LIFE.

I went into My Other Factory Is An Orange, a shop in an “up and coming” (gentrifying at the speed of light) Brooklyn neighbourhood looking for a friend’s birthday present. I soon remembered that none of my friends are into bird skeleton and soot jewellery and I would’ve been in and out of there in four seconds flat, if I’d had my way.

I leave, precious minutes later, wondering what became of the cynical, no bullshit New Yorker. For at least a decade, the Brooklyn hipster has been placed under the think piece microscope and inspected from every angle imaginable. So I want to make a few things clear before I continue this hallowed tradition: beards don’t offend me. I could “care less” (as Americans say, nonsensically) what people wear or what bikes they ride. I quite like artisanal jam. What bothers and slightly worries me is the inability of so many of these people to take the piss out of themselves. Something that, I’m absolutely convinced, isn’t shared by their London counterparts.  Don’t get me wrong – young Londoners, myself included, are terrible in our own ways. I’m not going to get into that now but, rest assured, I hate everyone equally.

Earlier this week, queen of NYC millenials, Lena Dunham, revealed via Twitter that she’s into astrology. No, not astronomy, actual astrology – the one where you are who you are not because of an intensely complex combination of genetics and life experiences, but because of shapes in the sky. Oh, and she’s not just a bit interested in it – she thinks it “rules her soul”. Say what you like about Dunham (I happen to think the first season of Girls was brilliant) the woman is not stupid. She is also someone quite clearly able to satirise not only herself, but her entire generation. How, I ask you, can someone with these skills also have such a propensity for brick-chewing, unflinching earnestness?

I’ve noticed a similar lack of self-awareness in, of all places, New Yorkers’ Tinder profiles. In one picture, a woman in her 20s is covering a canvas in little paintings of vaginas. She is not smiling. Another woman refers to herself in her profile, without a modicum of irony, trust me, as a “wood sprite”. “I’m a Virgo by nature and a Cancer by nurture, and there is evidence of both in my personality,” she continues.  The astrology thing is a running theme.  I’ve been using Tinder in London for… a while. Not once have I seen a profile containing any references to star signs.

When did New York become so LA? When were hardcore cynics replaced with wood sprites? All my examples so far have been women, so I should probably make clear that this vegan homeopathy bollocks transcends gender. Just ask the two Jesus lookalikes (that weirdly Aryan Jesus, with blonde hair and blue eyes) standing near me on the subway the other day. One says to the other, quoting Tolkien, “Not all who wander are lost.” Neither of them smiles. They stand contemplating (probably, come on) their own wanderlust and how fucking deep they are because they once took a train to the end of the line, got off in the predictably Bad Area and walked around a bit in search of, I dunno, authenticity.

It irks me, I suppose, that New York, practically the birthplace of (predominantly Jewish) misery comedy seems to have lost its dark sense of humour. Admittedly, one night at the Comedy Cellar – the old haunt of hilarious gloom merchant, Louis CK – is enough to restore your faith in the city’s cynicism. Perhaps all the New Yorkers who aren’t professional clowns were never funny in the first place.

Soon after my Whimsical Shop Spirit encounter, I drop into a Rite Aid to buy some antihistamine tablets (it turns out the people aren’t the only thing I’m allergic to in New York).

“Excuse me, where are the allergy meds?” I ask a Shop Person.

She stands, unblinking, unsmiling and chewing gum. She shrugs.

“Don’t look at me,” she says, her Brooklyn accent turning every word expletive.

The miserable, no-nonsense New Yorker: she lives.

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