Battle of the Bryant Park Bathrooms!
Plus! Anchorite or hermit?!! Strawberry Planks!!!
Welcome to Issue #62 of CAFÉ ANNE!
I’m very excited about this week’s issue. I’ve included a new poll so I can get to know you all better, and our Product of the Month is Strawberry Planks! We’ve also got the second installment of my hard-hitting investigation into the newly renovated NYC subway station bathrooms. This one features the restrooms at the Bryant Park-42nd Street stop, which have some very tough competition from the public restrooms in the nearby park. Please enjoy.
CAFÉ ANNE POLL
Hermit or Anchorite?
I have a few questions I enjoy asking folks I am getting to know, as the answers can be revealing. My new favorite: hermit or anchorite?
A hermit, as you know, is a person who lives in solitude, for religious reasons, typically in the woods or some other natural setting.
You may be less familiar with the anchorite, a figure found in Europe between 1000 and 1500 AD. Like their hermit cousins, anchorites adopted a religious life. But in this case, they lived in a little room built on the side of a church, in the middle of the city. And once they entered the room, they NEVER CAME OUT. Not until death. Still, they had plenty of society. The room typically had a small barred window through which the anchorite could chat with anyone passing by in the street—sort of a cross between a saint and a zoo animal. Folks would stop by all day long seeking prayers and advice. Some anchorites got quite famous!
If you had to pick, which life would you choose? I’m curious if the CAFÉ ANNE crowd leans more toward HERMIT or ANCHORITE. I’d choose anchorite, of course.
Please respond to the survey below. And if you care to explain your choice, leave a comment or drop me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PRODUCT OF THE MONTH
I was at the bodega on Montague Street the other day when I spotted a package of cookies I'd previously overlooked: Strawberry Planks! What a strange name.
Were they called Strawberry Planks because they were shaped like planks? I took a closer look. They were not shaped like planks. They were shaped, as a friend later observed, like something more organic—perhaps some sort of body part.
The package noted they were "PROUDLY Made in U.S.A." by Bud's Best Cookies in Birmingham, Alabama. "MAY BE PRODUCED WITH GENETIC ENGINEERING," it added.
Intrigued, I purchased the cookies—$2.50 for a 1.75 oz package. This works out to $22 a pound, which is a lot for a convenience store cookie. But worth it. When I brought the treat to a little gathering several days later, my friends were equally intrigued, and curious to sample the novel confection.
"My God, the smell!" I said, opening the package. The strawberry scent was intense.
"My God, the smell!" agreed Aharon. "That's the only reasonable reaction. It smells sort of good."
"Like strawberry ChapStick," added Nadia.
There were two pink cookies in the package, drizzled with icing. We sampled one. It was very crunchy! It tasted a bit like a strawberry graham cracker.
"It's very distinctive," said Aharon.
Curiosity satisfied! But the bigger mystery remained. Why are they called Planks?
I emailed Bud's Best Cookies. A few days later, I was on the phone with company President Al Cason and his father, founder Bud Cason, who 86. The older Mr. Cason has been in the cookie business for more than 60 years!
Bud Cason told me that the original version of the cookie was invented in the 1800s. "Stage Planks," flavored with ginger and molasses, were produced in New Orleans. When the manufacturer discontinued the cookie, Mr. Cason decided to reproduce it.
His son thought this was a terrible idea. "Dad, why do you want to bring back this old cookie?" he said.
"You won’t believe how many you'll sell," said Mr. Cason. "There is a real following for this cookie."
Due to technical issues I don't understand, their cookie cutting machines had problems producing the Planks. After a lot of futzing and retooling, however, the cookies started rolling off the line. Bud’s now sells several million packets of Planks every year.
While Planks are carried by many NYC bodegas, they are particularly popular in the Southeast and are the company's top selling cookie online. Planks are so popular that a decade ago, the company introduced strawberry, lemon and banana varieties.
"People love them!" said Mr. Cason.
"But why are they called Planks?" I asked.
"Why do you call a cookie a cookie?" said Mr. Cason. "We call it a Plank because it's flat. Because of the shape of it."
"But planks have straight edges," I said. "These cookies have wavy edges!"
"It does, it does," said Mr. Cason. "When we purchased them from the original people, they didn't have that edge. We added that so they would come out of the machine easier."
“So they don't really have a plank shape anymore,” I said, feeling triumphant, “but you kept the name.”
"Exactly," said Mr. Cason.
"The cookie is a very high-quality product," he added. "If you want to call it a cheap cookie, call it a cheap cookie. But there's not a lot of ingredients in there. No chocolate or coconut, which keeps the price down."
"They cost me $2.50," I said.
"What?" said Mr. Cason. "Are you serious? They charged you $2.50 for one package? I can't believe that. That's highway robbery! If they're selling many of them, they're making a ton of money."
I was going to ask another question, but Mr. Cason kept going: "$2.50 for one Stage Plank? That's unreal. They're not paying more than 40 cents wholesale, at the most!"
“How much should they cost?" I asked.
"I'd say the highest price I've seen is one dollar," said Mr. Cason. "Most of them sell for 69 cents.”
"Well," I said, "That's New York City for you."
He laughed: "You're right about that!"
INSIDE: NYC SUBWAY RESTROOMS
Battle of the Bryant Park Bathrooms!
Before I entered the famously fancy public restroom in Manhattan’s Bryant Park, I got to chatting with the mens’ room attendant. He told me his name is Djhn Williams—spelled the way I just wrote it.
"Is that what your parents named you?" I asked.
"No! That's what I named me." said Mr. Williams.
Our conversation continued:
I think this is the nicest public bathroom in NYC. Do you agree?
Yes, because I work here, and I keep it clean!
How did you get this job?
My original job was cleaning around the park. They asked me if I'd do this for a couple days, to replace somebody. And I ended up liking it. I like the people, they're nice, they're funny. I keep them laughing, they keep me laughing. I just don't like the mess they make. Sometimes it's weird.
What are some weird messes people made?
They have no aim, whether they sitting down or standing up. They don't have aim for some reason. They don't know where to go. I don't want to be too explicit, but, grown people! And the funny thing is, I complain out-loud and sometimes they hear me. I'm standing right next to them, trying to clean and I'm like, "Brother, really? Get it together!"
What do you think their problem is?
Terrible home training! That's all I can chalk it up to. Some just don't care. But I've always cared about the job I did. No matter what the job, I have fun.
Do people ever leave weird things behind?
One guy, he left a box of Frosted Flakes in the toilet.
Yes! I took pictures of it. Because it was so random and weird. I had to laugh. Let me see if I can bring it up. [Shows me a photo on his phone of a cereal box in the toilet].
More on Mr. Williams later. I was visiting the Bryant Park restroom, of course, as part a series I started several weeks ago looking at the newly renovated and reopened restrooms in nine NYC subway stations around the city.
The subway system's 69 restrooms have been closed for nearly three years thanks to Covid, and now the MTA is unlocking facilities in selected stations, including the restrooms in the 42nd St-Bryant Park Station—which I thought was a very bold choice! After all, the station restrooms compete directly with the park bathrooms overhead, which feature two full-time attendants, fresh flowers, classical music and cool robot toilets that automatically refresh the plastic seat cover with every use. Had the MTA cranked up its restroom game to compete with the park restrooms?
If so, there was a high bar to clear. The park restrooms, I noted when I went inside, are nicer than ever, featuring huge vases of Peruvian Lilies, imported tile, coffered ceilings, paintings by local artists and nickel sconce lamps, all housed in a lovely limestone Beaux Arts building.
The Bryant Park Corporation, which funds park operations from corporate sponsorships (New Yorkers have been skating all season at the park's Bank of America Winter Village, for example), says it spends $271,000 a year to staff and supply the restrooms. And they’re a popular destination serving 2500 persons a day with an average wait time of 5 to 25 minutes.
I met two sisters who used the restroom after spending the day in Midtown. They declared it is worth the wait.
"It's wonderful," said Annemiek Matte, who is 69 and lives in the Bronx. "When I come to the city I tell people, 'You have to see this bathroom!'"
"This is a special one, really special," agreed her sister, Mirjam Rademaker, who was visiting from Holland.
They had tried the restrooms at the library and in Central Park, "And you’re afraid to sit down," said Ms. Matte. "So my sister was like, 'I have to use this restroom.’ With beautiful fresh flowers all the time. And people attending, making sure it's clean. And fortunately, it’s not bisexual. I really appreciate that there's women and men's rooms. Unfortunately, I don't trust men to use the bathroom the way women use the bathroom."
"What's the difference?" I asked.
"Spitter spatter, spitter spatter! That's the thing. You go to a gender-neutral bathroom, I can see there were some guys here," she said.
"What's nicer," I asked. "Your bathroom at home, or the Bryant Park bathroom?"
"I think the Bryant Park bathroom," said Ms. Matte. "I never have fresh flowers in my bathroom."
Now it was time to check out the bathrooms in the Bryant Park-42nd St. subway station, directly under the park. Unlike the park bathrooms, which are free, you need to pay a $2.75 fare to use the subway facilities, because they are past the turnstile.
The station’s ladies room, I am pleased to report, was extremely clean, and smelled of almonds. While the look was utilitarian, someone, at some point, had made an effort to achieve a vaguely art deco effect with the addition of contrasting brown tile. The room was very spacious, large enough to host a small aerobics class. And it featured the amazing OPS vandal-proof toilet paper dispensing system I highlighted in a previous issue. Plus, the dryer was extremely powerful—I nearly lost a hand.
Alas, this restroom offered few of the fancy amenities seen in the park bathroom, as delineated by this extremely fantastic chart I made:
While I lingered in hopes of interviewing a customer, the subway restroom was utterly deserted. Clearly, if it was going to compete with the park bathrooms upstairs, the MTA needed a ploy to draw the crowds.
I did some mental math. You could stock them with small bouquets of bodega mums for about $10 a week, or $1000 a year. But to keep the flowers from being stolen, you'd need pay two attendants to staff the facility 12 hours a day, which would run at least $130,000. Hmm.
I later emailed the MTA's press office to ask why the agency had chosen the Bryant Park station for reopening, considering the tough competition upstairs. I also asked if it has considered doing anything to fancy up its restrooms.
The MTA said it had reopened bathrooms based on many factors including station ridership and whether they were in need of minimal repairs or upgrades. Unlike Bryant Park, it noted, its bathroom program enjoys no private funding.
“We are reviewing currently reopened bathroom locations to assess satisfaction, cleanliness and security as we evaluate how best to proceed going forward," said spokesperson Michael Cortez.
Could the MTA get sponsors for its bathrooms? We could have the Goldman Sachs restroom in the Wall Street station, for example, with an LED stock ticker over the urinals. Or if I got super rich myself, there could be a CAFÉ ANNE bathroom at Brooklyn Heights Clark Street subway station—featuring the OPS paper dispensing system!
Back at the park restroom, I asked Mr. Williams, the attendant, how long the line could get. He said 40 minutes on the worst days.
"There's restrooms at Grand Central [Terminal] two blocks away," he said. "You all could be in that bathroom and back here faster than you'd be standing here and waiting!"
Our conversation continued:
I think it's really wonderful there's such a nice restroom here. It gives people dignity.
Yeah. When I started working here, there used to be a lot of rude guys coming in. Because they're bigger, they'd skip the line, stuff like that. I work with them. "Brother, you got to wait on line!" They realize that I don't care how big you are, you still gotta wait on line. You're not skipping all those people.
I make adjustments though. If I see a kid who needs to go to the bathroom, I let him skip the line. If I see an elderly, he can go in first, pregnant lady, stuff like that.
It sounds a little like being a bouncer.
Yeah! Without the actual fighting. And I love it here.
What did you do before Bryant Park?
Graphic artist. I was doing animations and stuff, but the money wasn't coming fast enough. I said, "Let me ask these guys cleaning up. Maybe I can get a part-time job." They hired me full-time and it's been almost two years now.
So you're a visual guy—how would you describe the Bryant Park restroom?
Classic! Not just the music, but they do play a lot of opera type music. It's comforting, it's different to come into the bathroom, relax, you know, you have a good experience. The guys coming in, they turn their radio off. They playing hip hop, they playing heavy metal. They turn off their radio and say, "I like the music going on in here, man."
They just reopened the restrooms in the subway station downstairs, but they’re not this nice. Why can't every public bathroom be like the Bryant Park bathroom?
Because most people just do their job for the paycheck. I do my job not just for the paycheck but because I like the work. I've been doing service work for years, I've been drawn to people for years. I like people. This is a perfect job for me!
The best feature of the Bryant Park bathroom, by the way, was the lovely sound of birds chirping over the classical music. When I asked Mr. Williams where the bird sounds came from, he revealed that he was the one doing whistling. I made a 60-second recording and you can listen to it here:
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I love the story about the Planks and that you were able to speak to the owner. That's NYC price gouging for you. The wavy edge probably makes them look fancier than with a straight one. Thanks for this tidbit!