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Living NYC ARCHIVES Technology

Has Our Delivery Culture Gotten Out of Hand?

I’ve always maintained that a great thing about New York is that, theoretically, you can get anything you want whenever you want it. Need milk at 2 a.m.? Pad thai and BBQ on the same block? Weed brought to you by models? The city provides.

New York’s delivery culture is something the tech industry has been capitalizing on for some time now. Most recently and topically, it’s resulted in the British sex toy company MysteryVibe launching an “on-demand vibrator delivery service” in New York for Valentine’s Day. That’s right: Today and tomorrow, the company is delivering vibrators in under an hour, complete with chocolates and a “tech-savvy Kama Sutra,” whatever that means.

The service certainly raises more questions than it answers. Are the delivery people being trained in discretion, or will they be like your weed hookup who sort of lingers until you relent and offer him some of the product? Who has a vibrator emergency so bad that they need one brought by in less than an hour? Who can’t just use their hand for a day?

“These days in New York City you can pretty much get anything delivered same-day … except pleasure. Which is a real shame, as when you order pleasure products online you’re really excited to try them!” says Stephanie Alys, co-founder of MysteryVibe. Apparently, it’s a growing concern: “We know from customer feedback that while people do a lot of research before ordering, they often order when they need it the most.”

MysteryVibe is hoping to expand to other cities, as well as making this a more permanent option in New York. It’s a PR gimmick, for sure, another example of the tech industry’s incredible ability to solve problems nobody actually had. But by launching it in New York City, they’re also capitalizing on our culture of delivery. New Yorkers thrive on delivery. We define ourselves by it. But it’s turning into a classic horror tale: What if we had delivery, but too much?

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A friend who moved to Seattle from New York recently told me a horror story. She was home alone one night, and desired dinner. Not having many groceries, and not wanting to drive to the store after a long day at work, she tried to get delivery. But (shines flashlight under my face) nobody would come to her house. Instead, she could drive to a restaurant to pick up her order. The one place that would deliver was a pizzeria, which would charge her a $15 minimum and a $10 delivery fee.

A hallmark of my childhood was the folder of delivery menus by the phone. When my mom worked late, when my dad’s mini-fridge was too small for groceries, there was still dinner to be had. New Yorkers work hard, have small kitchens, and don’t own cars. Many of us also have a hard time carrying bags up and down stairs, or using stairs at all. That we can get full meals, groceries, and anything else you can get at the bodega delivered to our doors for little to no fee isn’t just a convenience. It’s a necessity.

Most New Yorkers tend to understand this, and act out of kindness accordingly. Certainly some of the kindness is out of self-preservation — there were longstanding myths of favorite takeout places that refused to deliver to demonstrated assholes — but also out of a sense of appreciation. What luck that we got to partake of this piece of New York, this thing that we couldn’t get elsewhere. I’m romanticizing a bit: New Yorkers have stiffed delivery guys and harassed service workers, too. But for a long time, you at least had to look them in the eye while you did it.

Apps like Seamless were originally the next logical step in delivery innovation. Instead of having to yell your credit card number over the phone, or make sure you had enough cash for delivery, you just fill out a form online and get the same service you’ve always gotten. New Yorkers were quick to adapt. After all, this is what we had always done.

But most New Yorkers also sensed the stakes had been raised, especially with the boom and bust of the first dot-com bubble. In 2011, Jon Stewart joked on The Daily Show about an early iteration of the delivery tech boom — UrbanFetch, a company that would bring you literally anything in about half an hour, with a T-shirt and free cookies. He told a hypothetical story of two stoned roommates ordering, separately, Scarface and two pints of cookie dough ice cream, and “Goodfellas, two pints of Cherry Garcia, and a dildo that glows in the dark.” UrbanFetch, as you may have guessed, was not a sustainable operation. “My point is this,” said Stewart. “I miss these fucking guys. But we all knew this thing was not going to last.”

But the bubble grew again, and now, among Amazon Prime, Seamless, Postmates, and now MysteryVibe, it’s hard to imagine anything you can’t get delivered. And that’s wreaking havoc on businesses. In a recent article for the New Yorker, Elizabeth Dunn outlined how delivery apps are killing restaurants, with one restaurateur describing them as “an income stream that his business had become dependent upon but that might ultimately be running them into the ground.” Amazon Prime deliveries are made possible by atrocious working conditions. It’s not sustainable, and if it is, it’s because we’re sacrificing too much and too many.

Alys argues that, instead of things like pints of ice cream, instant delivery is actually better suited for luxury products. “There are a lot of hidden fees, especially at the lower end of the market,” she says, “So the economics might not work for a pack of condoms or an energy bar, but they can for a luxury product like a Crescendo.” So sure, it might work. It doesn’t seem like mom-and-pop sex toy shops will be put out by this innovation, cajoled into providing a service they can’t maintain.

Unfortunately, most of New York relies on delivery of that small, nonluxury stuff, and it’s become a problem. It’s too easy to just blame greedy corporate overlords or lazy millennials who don’t like making phone calls. As with most significant cultural shifts, it’s everything’s fault. A desire for convenience based on existing cultural norms, plus an increasing acceptance of doing business through middleman-run apps, multiplied by how much harder it is for most restaurants and stores to build their own online order forms instead of just signing up for Seamless or Postmates, equals a current reality in which convenience is king, and can often be instantaneous. And once that dam has been broken, who wants to go back?

A New York without delivery would look completely alien to me. But I’m starting to see a future in which something has to give, and I’m not sure what to do about that. Maybe the only restaurants that’ll deliver will be the ones that already have the capital to pay Seamless fines, perpetuating the suburbanization of the city. Maybe we’ll all be paying $10 delivery fees like a bunch of Seattleites. Maybe that was what we should have been doing this whole time. But, you know, tip your delivery guy. And maybe remember that waiting two days for a vibrator isn’t the end of the world.

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Farewell to the Weirdos’ Lounge

Class trips are stressful for everyone involved. What begins with the promise of a day out of school quickly devolves into being lectured at but having to stand this time, boxed lunches even worse than a cafeteria offering. For a child in New York City, being stuck in the crosstown loop between the Met and the American Museum of Natural History can feel, when you’re nine, like an eternity. Every year the same dinosaur bones, the same Egyptian temple, the same whale. Everything big and impressive, with a hundred facts to memorize and forget.

That is, until we passed from the lights and tall ceilings of the rest of the natural history museum into the angular, carpeted darkness of the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals. My teachers never seemed to know what to do with it. Aside from pointing out the meteors, they mainly let us wander the room ourselves, because really, who cares about rocks?

From the collective mourn of anyone who ever sat on a musty stair staring at a cube of malachite, got lost in the specter of a star sapphire, or just made out next to the radioactive minerals while the teachers weren’t looking, it appears a lot of people cared.

Last week, AMNH announced that it would be closing the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals on October 26 — that’s the day after tomorrow — for extensive renovations. When it reopens in 2019, the newly named Allison and Roberto Mignone Halls will “reflect new science” with interactive displays and a white, minimalist space that looks more like an Apple Store than a museum. It will no longer be the weirdos’ lounge. And I fear it’ll be missing the element that so many loved about it — that it wasn’t a room for learning, but one for feeling.

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That was intentional. When the Morgan Memorial Hall first opened in 1922, it had a collection of gems “third in size and second in value to any in the world.” But when it was redesigned in 1976, it was specifically to allow people to experience emotions. “We want people to touch these specimens, put their arms around them, fall in love with them,” said Dr. Vincent Manson, who was in charge of the hall at the time. “We want minerals to come across not only as scientific documents but as art objects, as objects of esthetic value that anyone can look at and see the beauties of the earth.” The New York Times wrote, “In fact, esthetics is clearly the main consideration in the hall.”

I don’t know shit about where the gems were found or how they were made, but I know how the rooms they were in made me feel. It started with the petrified wood. I stood staring into its hardened whorls, trying to reckon with how a tree, a thing whose life I viscerally understood, became this. Why did no one talk about nature that glowed neon and grew in glittery crags? How could you possibly be entranced by leaves and skin and fur when the entire spectrum of color and beauty was lying cold and pulseless beneath your feet?

A rendering of the remodeled gem room as it will look in 2019

Last weekend, I revisited the gem room, both to say goodbye and in an attempt to quantify what felt so heartbreaking about a room in a 148-year-old museum getting remodeled. It was darker than even I remembered. There were endless corners in which to hide, and no screens blaring educational videos or bright facts. Descriptions of the gems and minerals were in small green boxes with white text, or sometimes gray text on beige walls, all the better to ignore that this was meant to be an endeavor in learning at all.

Instead, everything was color and shape, angles and lights. A corner of amethyst rubbed smooth by decades of small hands. Plexiglas scratched cloudy by rings and nails. In every dark corner where the musty carpet absorbed the echoes of the rest of the museum, the ghost of a thousand moments where someone looked at a crystal and thought “Wow.”

The Hall of Gems and Minerals wasn’t for everyone. Last Saturday, the carpet was threadbare and the wallpaper peeled off corners in brown sheets. One excited dad tried to explain to his kid that some rocks are full of electricity or glow in the dark, while the kid clearly wanted to get back to the dinosaurs. It was weird and static, and probably evoked a lot of claustrophobia compared to the high ceilings and wide halls of the rest of the museum.

In speaking to others who will miss the Hall of Gems and Minerals, we shared stories of staring at a particular cluster for what felt like hours, or running our hands over the petrified wood like an oracle, or sitting in the dark until a teacher had to come and get us. We who loved it formed a club run on fixation and solitude, the shared appreciation for looking at small, shiny things. In a museum designed for interaction and socializing, it was a literal crystal fortress of solitude.

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It’s easy to emote with an elephant. It was alive once, just like you. But the great secret of the Hall of Gems and Minerals is that it forced you to consider something that has never been alive, and yet grows and changes and shines just like you do. It was the most emo place in the museum, including the rooms with legit bones in them. It offered you nothing but the chance to sit in a dark corner and think about how you felt.

Walking around the rest of AMNH, I began to worry. What of the script font on wood paneling of the New York State Environment halls? What of the adorable vignettes of the Hall of Small Mammals? Would those eventually be doomed for sleeker upgrades?

I mean, probably. The Hall of Gems and Minerals’ other lesson was that worthwhile things are hidden and rare, not always found or recognized for what they are. A star sapphire looks like any other rock until you chip away at it from the right angle, and most people don’t have the eye or the patience for that. Beauty is all around us, and it’s okay, natural in fact, that most of it is overlooked.

The new hall will open, and maybe loners will fall in love with gems again. A girl will spot a geode and use her allowance to buy a tiger’s eye from the gift shop and become the school witch. Kids will find other dark corners in which to hide and think. We’ll find beauty elsewhere in the museum. It won’t be the same, but those of us who had the Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals will at least know what we had.